Ten seconds of chaos.
We just finished one of those games where the refs gave Collins, the league's pretty boy, the golden treatment, not calling holding and illegal hands to the face by his O-line. And to make it worse, the classless Pitt D cheap-shotted Fitzy two times for taking a knee before the game-winning field goal, and even though I looked and looked, all I could see was the Goodyear blimp floating along the skyline and no sight of any yellow laundry pitched high in the air. But coming out of our bye, heading into week ten, we were 5-3.
But what bothered me more was our second-string long snapper, Wisniewski, Whiz I called him, Nukes everyone else called him, chatting it up with Victor, my older brother, on the sidelines. The image of Whiz, his gut like huge clown's lips oozing over his waist, his wide thighs jiggling next to a fragile Victor, putzing along in his Jazzy power wheelchair, bony fingers pinching the black joystick, reminded me of a kite snatched by the wind.
I held my helmet by the faceguard with my pinky, wiggled my crooked nose, scraped my palm against the brown stubbles, down my face, stopping at the scar just left of my Adam's apple. I fingered the hardened skin.
Whiz massaged the spongy blond bristles atop Victor's head, handed my brother a nicked helmet. Then, Whiz ran his stringy fingers through his wavy red hair.
Victor used to play high school ball and liked to follow me around so he got in the habit of watching practices and games from his wheelchair. Once Coach Tritt had seen Victor chew me out for running the wrong route, for giving up on a play, for my lazy bump off the line, during the second week of two-a-days, he gave Victor a field pass. Not just home but away games. Said he wanted Victor to be seen on the sidelines, something about good PR, community outreach program bullshit, and set it up so Victor got travel and housing--his own fucking room--no player even got that--and a per diem although all Victor ever ate were strawberry shortcake ice cream bars, Braeburn apples, BBQ potato chips, and ketchup sandwiches.
It had been a car wreck that caused Victor's injury and killed Mom. I'd just turned fourteen, Victor, seventeen. We were with our parents, driving over three hours, just merging onto 1-74 from 1-57, coming from Kankakee, Illinois, headed to Columbia, Missouri. Victor had an offer from Mizzou, and Dad, who thought he was a sports agent, made a family trip out of it, getting the athletic department to comp our hotel room and reimburse our travel.
The long trip in our rattling Saturn SUV had made me antsy, not wanting to have gone in the first place. Twelve hours total on the road with my family was something no one should ever have to go through. Dad hadn't allowed Mom, who was driving, to stop so I could pee because he knew I didn't have to go. I just wanted out of the car. So as I sat behind Mom, thinking of how to kill time, I instigated a session of "hit hardest, hit last" with Victor, a game won just how the title implied. We used to play this since I can remember but Victor quit when he got all serious about football. He was listening to swing music on his Discman. But after a couple of hard swats, he paused the Discman and retaliated.
I never thought about playing football. But after the accident, I'd catch Dad staring at me with his deep-pitted brown eyes, sometimes during dinner, sometimes while watching TV. He'd fluff his graying brown hair, ruining his part, crinkle his chiseled nose. He never spoke but his look said: if it had to be someone, why not you? When the varsity team picked me, he perked up. The look vanished. But I lacked Victor's motivation.
After Dad died on the operating table during a lung transplant two years ago, I began looking after Victor. To say we were close would be a lie, but I was all he had. And, in a way, he was all I had. So seeing Victor getting all chummy with Whiz made me feel kinda funny, especially since I hadn't introduced Whiz to Victor. After the accident, Victor became shy. Being in a wheelchair, having to rely on someone else wiping your ass on occasion will that do that to you. So Victor's friends were my friends. He knew practically everyone on the team, but I never thought of introducing him to Whiz cause I figured Whiz would be gone in a few weeks when Miles, my roommate during road games, our regular long snapper, rehabbed his groin.
Buffalo had drafted me two and a half years ago, their compensatory pick for losing a player to free agency. I played college ball at Rice, their third best wide-out, gotten picked in the seventh round, one shy of being Mr. Irrelevant, who gets all those prizes, that Disney trip--all that shit. Last pick that year had been a punter from Troy who got interviewed on ESPN.
First two years in Buffalo, I had managed to stay on offense as the fifth wide receiver, posing as a deep threat, but I had to learn to break off routes, shake off defenders, and push off without getting flagged. I made progress until I let Victor tag along to practices, camps, which then evolved into games. Started slipping. My hands, the first to leave me. Sometimes my pinky would pop out of its joint and distract me, making me run the wrong routes, which led to two picks in the second half of a game, killing two drives when we were itching for a comeback. Hadn't been long before Fitzy lost confidence in me, and then I became the decoy that the other team's D found out about.
But Coach Tritt liked me so he converted me to cornerback, a transition that took time to adjust. Running backwards at full speed while twisting and turning was the toughest. I tried reading the eyes of the other teams' QBs hoping to snag a pick, impress Coach Tritt, but I'd gotten burned every time, kissing dirt, only to spring up, turn and see the cleats of the other team's wide-out kicking turf dust, running along the sidelines for a sweet six. So I was only used on dime packages, third and longs with a three-man front, two linebackers and six DBs. And Special Teams.
While driving, I could tell Mom had been getting agitated. She tussled her blond hair, making it smack against her long neck. Her nape turned pink, then red. She flicked her earrings like they were wind chimes. Dad, too busy studying the packet the Mizzou coaches sent him to notice. He told us to "quiet down," but said it as if asking a ditzy waitress for an extra side of butter for his baked potato he wasn't planning on eating.
Mom gritting her teeth, holding back. She, along with me, hated long car rides. We were a lot alike.
I noticed we were going faster. Dad, still scouring over paperwork. Victor this, Victor that. My last three punches had been warded off, and Victor blindsided me, a noogie to the ribs.
I keeled over. He had a goofy smile and a look that asked if I had enough. I grimaced the pain away as I straightened up, putting my index finger to my lips, looking towards Mom, signaling we better stop. Victor followed my glance and as he turned away, I pulled together all of my strength and courage and smacked his right cheek. There was the snap of stinging flesh and Victor's loud wail.
In the locker room, after Sunday's game, Coach Bly, our Special Teams coach, congratulated Whiz on filling in for Miles. "Solid technique," Bly said. He had to tilt his head back, look up at everyone since he was barely five-seven. "See how the ball arced, that spiral. It looked alive." Bly had talked Coach Tritt into giving Whiz a game ball. "For what?" I asked. "Poetry in football," Coach Bly said. He punched the ball into Whiz's gut and looked at me with his face cracked and weathered like a desert. "I got goose bumps down my legs watching."
During Tuesday's practice, Victor was on the sidelines with Whiz again. Whiz's fat ass was raised high in the air, stretching his royal blue tights. Victor yelling out "hike," and Whiz snapping the ball that landed square in Victor's gut. Then, Victor cradled the ball in his right arm and with his left hand, thumbed the joystick of his wheelchair--the one I bought for his 27th birthday last March--and serpentined blocking dummies, passing Miles who laid on a bench, pinching his Rollie Fingers mustache, while the Doc massaged his inner thigh. I noticed that earlier in the day, Miles had been jogging ... lightly.
Whiz trotted onto the field, and I headed over to Victor. He twirled the ball, throwing it a foot high over his head, letting it fall into his lap.
"Nice run, bro," I said.
"Been hanging around Whiz a lot."
I turned to the practice field. Victor's eyes followed my glance.
"You mean Nukes?"
"Whatever. What about it?"
"You know he'll be cut soon."
Victor backed up his wheelchair. "Not your problem." He zoomed away, lobbing the ball behind him. Hitting me between the three and the seven.
This was the second time I had confronted Victor. First time, he wanted to know why it was my concern. It's not, I told him. Then I don't have to answer you, he responded. But last week, before Sunday's road game, Whiz had dropped Victor home at two in the morning, drunk, pissing in his pants.
I waited until Whiz came to the sidelines and started in about that.
"Just having fun," he said. "He's a good kid."
"He ain't no kid," I said.
He huffed down two cups of Gatorade.
"OK, then. He's an adult. Which means he can do whatever he wants."
"I'm in charge of him. I'm responsible."
Victor zigzagged tiny orange pylons lined up on the twenty.
"Just trying to have some fun is all. You think you'd be grateful."
"You tell him what he can do and what he can't do."
"Someone has to look out for him."
"You know he's moving out?"
"And live with who? You?"
Whiz looked away.
"Have you seen Miles?"
"Looking healthier every day."
After the accident, Victor told me "If you can't make a difference then what's the point of being here? Just to survive, just to get by, is never enough." I could tell he was talking about how his life had changed, how he could no longer play ball, settle down, and follow through on the rest of his plans. I had no response. Whenever Victor got all whiny, all I could do was offer up silence, thinking deep down, "Better you than me." I had gotten used to being the little brother and didn't want to change that.
The first twenty-fours after Victor had moved in wasn't pretty. I didn't have the things he needed, no entrance ramp so I carried him through the front door like we were newlyweds. The food in the cabinets, bowls, plates, and glasses, were out of reach. No special handles or bars installed near the toilet, nor in the tub. I had to sponge bathe him for ten days straight.
The third night after he'd moved in, he woke me up with the runs. I hesitated, eventually yelled, telling him to get the fuck out of my room. By the time I got him to the bowl, he squirted green diarrhea on the floor, walls, my arms, and legs. I cursed him under my breath. Called him useless, said I was going to put him in diapers. He sniveled as I washed his ass, digging deep into his crack to get out all the shit, tugging on hair as I did. I assured him I'd go easy. He only cried harder.
I put him back to bed, stripped off my clothes, tossed them in the trash, showered, changed into new clothes, scrubbed the bathroom with bleach, changed, tossed out those clothes, showered, and went to bed at five but couldn't fall asleep. I cursed Victor over and over.
Things had gotten better until I started to bring home dates. At first, they wouldn't see Victor because I took them to my bedroom right away. But there had been one girl, May, petite redhead, curly shoulder-length hair, freckles on her shoulders and arms. She saw Victor and that ruined it. We sat in my bed, talking for four hours. I couldn't even finagle a hand job. She kept talking about fate, asking me how would I feel if it were me in the wheelchair? I told her: shut up, let's fuck, so I can roll over, catch some Zs, be sharp for Sunday's match against Tennessee so I wouldn't get blindsided and find out what she meant.
My retaliation against Victor's noogie had stirred up Dad who glanced up from his paperwork, curled around his chair, and looked towards Victor. Concerned. Victor holding his left cheek with his right hand, bent over. I could see his cheek flaring red. He had tears in his eyes. I had won.
Before I could say anything, I heard a click. Mom had clipped off her seat belt so she could turn around and face me, singling me out, not just because I was the one who caused the bruise to Victor's face, the one who created the temporary ruckus, but also because she knew I knew she didn't want to be on this trip either, cooped up in this car, and that she had no say in the matter, and, since she was doing all the driving, the least I could do was sit tight, keep quiet, and not cause trouble. But I couldn't help myself.
Sometimes I think I should have been one of those Ritalin kids.
We won a road game, beating St. Louis 34-6, making us 6-3. That day Fitzy was like a sniper, hitting our wide-outs on deep posts. Our D was like quicksand, only allowing short gains that eventually led to fourth downs. I only played two snaps on D. Half the time I was watching the Goodyear blimp float around the stadium like some fat heavenly cloud thinking what it would be like to ride it like a horse, like some astronaut cowboy. A couple of times I saw Coach Tritt next to Victor, chatting.
At the team meeting Tuesday afternoon, Coach Tritt talked about the strategy for our next game, a late-afternoon home game against New York. We had beaten them already, and if we won again we'd be one win from a playoff spot. "Low scoring, high D," coach said. He punched the air with his left fist, exposing his missing ring finger. He spat as he talked, jerking his head left and right. "Conservative offense." That explained why Jenkins, our blocking fullback, who'd been out because of a separated shoulder, had been on the practice field earlier that day. Jenkins was only five-nine, but weighed over two-fifty, not an ounce of fat. He was the boulder your running back wanted to get behind. Coach Tritt had brought up some scrawny guy from the practice squad who went by the nickname G-Spot to fill in. G-Spot had a few tats on his face to cover up deep acne scars. He was taller, thinner than Jenkins, swifter as well, and could take a hit. But G-Spot wasn't as good a blocker as Jenkins, who, even though not 100%, was at least 75%, meaning he could run-block. "No room for turnovers or mistakes," Coach continued. "Play tight and smart and we can pull this one out. Special Teams can make all the difference."
That comment reminded me about Victor's statement. I saw Sunday as my chance to prove myself, rise above, even though most people see Special Teams starters as one step away from being cut, unless you have a designated position like a kicker, long snapper, or a PP, personal protector for the returner. Me? I had a position. I was a gunner.
Gunners were usually fifth- or sixth-string wide-outs who lack a field compass, have piss-poor hands, but could shake off a DB. Sometimes gunners were fast DBs without much common sense. I had speed, knew how to time the snap, then launch myself down the field. My objective, after we scored or after a safety, was to make the returner afraid to catch the ball. If he did catch the ball, then I had to tackle him. When we got the ball back, I would line up as what I named the "plugger," the player blocking the gunner. I told Victor about my name for this position, and he laughed. When I told Coach Bly, he said "stop thinking and start playing like a well-coached athlete or I'll show you what I mean by 'plugger'." Coach was always like that with his crazy antics, like giving Whiz the game ball. Special Teams was his life. "It was like life," he always said. Every play was hectic. "Ten seconds of chaos" was what he called it. But what you can make out of that chaos determined your worth.
Trouble was there was no way to practice being a gunner or plugger. No set skills to work on other than running, blocking, and timing. Just needed to be tough, get up quick when blindsided, have sharp instincts. To be focused, in your own world, while twenty-one other players were on the field scrambling around.
First game of the season, when I caused a fumble, and then the next week when I recovered one, I knew I changed the outcome of the game. That was the first time I really thought about what Victor once told me.
At Wednesday's practice, Whiz and Miles were on the field. Fez, our bowlegged punter, who looked like that guy from That '70s Show, short, olive skin, jet black hair parted in the middle, lined up midway in the end zone. Fez stood the same way he always did--like a kangaroo without a care in the world. Looks alone, he was an embarrassment, but punters are a weird breed. As long as they got a solid leg, don't matter what they look like.
Miles went first and snapped three balls. The first Fez had to jump high for, the second missed Fez completely, and the third hit Fez straight in the chest. Then Whiz got his turn, three right to Fez's gut. All three huddled, then lined back up. But something was off. Fez looked different. Whiz's first snap went past the goal post, out of the end zone. It was like watching a pitcher miss the strike zone, the ball sailing around the batter's box into the netting. Second snap hit the crossbar. Third sailed over the crossbar, in between the uprights. Whiz snapped it two more times, same results. It was all I could do to keep from laughing as Whiz trotted over to Coach Bly who was eclipsed by a streaking Jenkins running sprints. Then, it was Miles' turn and Fez looked normal again, and I had a gut feeling. By the time Sunday rolled around, G-Spot and Whiz would be gone, deactivated, G-Spot to make room for Jenkins, Whiz for Miles. If they were lucky they'd be able to watch the game from the sidelines in street clothes.
But I had to be careful, too. I blew three tackles in our last game, forgetting to wrap my arms around the returner's body, holding on like glue. Coach Bly accused me of quitting on a play where I was knocked into the other team's sidelines. Two opposing players tripped me up as I tried to get back on the field. By the time I did, the play was over. Coach Bly didn't want to hear my excuses. I looked to Coach Tritt for help. He didn't see me.
I told myself the only way I was going to get my mind back in the game was if Coach got rid of Whiz, so I concentrated on that becoming reality, and I felt much better on Thursday after seeing Miles complete a full practice.
"See those snaps Whiz made the other day?" I said to anyone who'd listen. "Clear over the crossbar. Not bad if he was a kicker."
Then I stirred up shit with Victor. He told me I didn't know what I was talking about.
"Me? The game of football? We're like bees and honey," I said. "Gilligan and the Skipper. The Internet and porn."
Victor just shook his head and puttered away. The tiny engine of his wheelchair humming.
Eventually, I learned.
Before bringing a girl home, I would text Victor, tell him to make himself scarce. I could tell by the tone of his texts or in his voice the next morning, he didn't like my requests. That he didn't like being hidden in some dark closet like someone's dirty secret. Like the deformed child of normal-looking parents. I felt bad for telling him to do this, but I couldn't help myself. I just wanted to get laid, and if Victor interfered, I knew I would let it get between us.
One night, I brought home a girl, Heather, a dancer with a smoking body, taut curves, juicy hips, slate belly. She had short brown hair, reminding me of Courteney Cox from Friends.
I had just finished and wanted to go again. She excused herself to use the bathroom. I watched her get up, slip on her underwear and then my worn practice jersey, and stared as the number 37 wiggled out the door. The jersey fit her better than me.
I massaged my sore calf, an aggravating muscle strain I'd been dealing with for three weeks while I waited. Ten minutes later, she wasn't back. Just as I swung my legs off the bed, I heard music coming from the living room: swing dance. I thought: what the hell is she doing? Then I thought it was Victor ruining my time. A few nights ago, after I had gotten done with another girl, I caught him eavesdropping on me. He had those sad, puppy dog eyes. Then he spun around and zoomed back to his room. That girl, whatever her name was, I told her she had to leave, told her I had stomach cramps and would be shitting up a storm any minute.
I stopped before entering the living room. There was the music, and there was Heather, and she was dancing with Victor, slow at first, but then the pace quickened. She held her right arm out, holding Victor's right hand, fingers clasped together. She stepped forward as he pinched the joystick on the wheelchair and zoomed back. He zoomed forward and she stepped back. They repeated this until she twirled behind his wheelchair--my jersey floated up and I saw her underwear. They were facing away from each other. She bent back over so the sides of their heads touched. She stroked his cheek, then twirled back in front of him, her underwear exposed again. She fell into his lap as he crouched and wrapped his arms around her torso and flipped her. She landed on her feet. In one swift motion they repeated their steps. They were so caught up in dancing that they hadn't even noticed me.
At first, I was pissed. But watching Heather move the way she did, her body in that way. She was more beautiful than when I first saw her.
Heather kissed Victor on the cheek. He patted her butt. "You're cute," she said.
"How about another?" he asked.
"OK, but let's make it quick."
They danced for another ten or fifteen minutes.
"Thanks," Heather said. "That was something else."
"I should be thanking you."
She laughed, and I dashed back into my room, dove into bed, and slid under the covers, careful not to make too much noise. Even though she must have known I would have heard the music, I played dumb like I didn't know.
I asked her what kept her. She said she had to leave, took off my jersey, got dressed. I slipped on a robe and followed her out. The stereo and the lights in the living room were off. I turned on the lights. She left.
In one short moment, when my mother had taken her eyes off the road, when she didn't know to slow down, when she was unable to swerve towards the shoulder, we plowed into a seven-car pile-up. And even though the injuries that followed only happened in a flash, I can't help but think of those seconds before.
My mother, catapulted from her seat, crashing through the windshield, had been ground up in a scorching heap of crunching metal, screeching glass, and smoldering rubber. Like she was flung into a garbage disposal. Coroner told us she died on impact.
At least there's that.
The air bag saved Dad's life but since his body was twisted, he had broken three of his ribs, punctured a lung, while shattering his right arm. Victor, who was still holding his face and was twisting away, as if he wanted to escape being near me, had also been in a fragile position.
His lower spinal cord had snapped, ending his hopes of playing wide receiver at Mizzou, Notre Dame, Ohio State, or wherever else he dreamed of playing.
Me? I had gotten off easy. Broken nose, dislocated pinky, deep gash to my throat that if it was two inches to the right, would have been fatal.
I found out ninety minutes before kickoff, I had been deactivated to make room for Jenkins. Coach Tritt was calling mostly a run offense--that and short tosses in the flat to the ends and to G-Spot who took pops between the blades, shaking them off like bee stings.
Even though I understood the strategy, I questioned Coach Tritt who repeated his meeting rant: playing New York meant a tight game, a defensive matchup, no mistakes. That and Miles aggravated his groin playing an all-night game of "no limit" Texas Hold 'em.
So I had to watch Whiz, dressed, toying around with Victor.
Minutes before the half, we were up 10-7. Whiz came over, told me "no hard feelings." I spat, kicked the turf, and walked away.
Five minutes into the fourth quarter, same score, sun setting. We tried a long field goal. Missed. New York had the ball on their forty-one.
I can tell Coach Tritt second-guessed himself. New York had much better field positioning than they would have after a Fez coffin-kick.
Just over four minutes left, the New York D had our O pinned at the two, third and long. We ran a fullback sweep. Jenkins blocked but G-spot barely gained a yard. We had to punt. Fez pranced onto the field, pinned at the back of the end zone. Whiz hobbled to the line. Fez practice kicked, scissoring his legs. He didn't have his normal look ... like he had earlier in the game.
Everyone else lined up. Whiz got in his stance. I glanced at Victor. He spun his wheelchair in circles. He looked like he had just won the game for us. I wanted to smack him in the head.
Fez yelled "hike." New York charged to block the kick. But the ball sailed over the crossbars, into the stands. Two refs looked at one another. One put his hands together, held them over his head.
Safety, two points, free kick, 10-9.
New York celebrated.
Coach Tritt was huddled with our D. Victor included.
Our Special Teams squad huddled near the sidelines. Coach Bly slapped Whiz on the butt. I was jealous. I wanted to be slapped like that.
With the safety, New York got the ball, but Fez was able to kick from the twenty, not the back of the end zone. He wouldn't be rushed, pressured. There would be more hang time, better coverage.
He had his look back.
New York ran the ball back to their thirty-two.
Our D held them to a three-and-out. We ran the clock past the two-minute warning, punted. New York got the ball on their eighteen with only a minute-ten left, one time out. Coach Tritt got his prevent package on the field, allowing New York to dink and dunk while eating up precious clock. Our CBs knocked down New York's Hail Mary as the final seconds ticked away.
Coach Tritt smirked while trotting across the field to shake hands with the opposing coaches. Our players jumped and ran all over the turf, screamed at the top of their lungs. The crowd noise cut into my ears. Victor was out of his wheelchair, sitting on Whiz's shoulders. Whiz marched to the end zone, stopped by the crossbar. Victor ran his hands along it.
I stood alone, on the sidelines. I felt woozy, then chilly. I watched the Goodyear blimp eclipse a section of the field lights. A syrupy mass floating into a smoldering starless gunmetal sky. I closed my eyes, exhaled, counted--one, two, three--hoping that when I got to ten, I would be a part of it.
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|Author:||Viola, Anthony J.|
|Publication:||Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature|
|Article Type:||Correction notice|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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