Jamie stood over the splatter of gray liquid he’d left in the toilet of the Shallowater visitors’ locker room. He shuddered and flushed, holding his breath against the smell. Raw-bottomed thanks to one-ply, he pulled up his jockstrap, setting the elastic firm against the outsides of his bare cheeks. Over the jock, he slid up his tights, then grabbed his white pants by the thighpads and hoisted them into place, laced his fly shut and cinched his belt tight.
At the sink, he stood well back and leaned over, careful not to get his socks wet. His skin showed pale green in the mirror, shining with the day’s first sweat.
On the field, the team lined up in ranks on every five-yard line, five files across—one for each team captain. Jamie was just a junior, but he was the defensive captain. Today, he was leading stretches.
“Ready!” he hollered.
“Ready!” the team shouted back.
“I said, are you ready!”
The players spelled out R-A-I-D-E-R-S to jumping jacks. They stretched, broke out by positions, and ran drills at half-speed. Back in the locker room, they circled up, and Coach Moses said a few words. When he went quiet, their heads bowed automatically.
“Our Father,” Coach said.
“Who art in heaven,” the boys joined in.
After the prayer, Jamie went out for the coin toss. The Raiders won and elected to receive. The captains jogged over to an inflatable tunnel at the stadium’s mouth where the rest of the team bounced and roiled. They punched helmets, slapped shoulder pads, grunted and gibbered and hollered. To the tune of the Big Bopper’s “White Lightning,” they streamed out and tore through the cheerleaders’ sign. “Send the Mustangs to the Glue Factory,” it read.
“Regular Cover Two, Regular Cover Two—”
“Wait, you mean Nickel?”
Jamie looked over the shoulders of the linemen. Shallowater’s huddle was breaking up. “Shit—yes. Nickel Cover Three, ready, break!”
Jamie straggled to the left side of the offense’s spread formation and squatted on his toes over the B-gap. The linemen were still shifting when the ball was snapped. Jamie tensed and stepped to the right as the quarterback offered the ball to the running back, then cut left when he pulled it.
He ran smack into his own defensive tackle, blown off the ball by a Mustang lineman. The three of them went down in a tangle. Jamie threw out a hand and touched the quarterback’s shin as he danced past.
Coach Myles, the defensive coordinator, was yelling at him before he was even up off the ground.
“Wilson, I need you to get the dang call right, and get out of the gottdog huddle!”
People always looked at Jamie funny when he told them he played middle linebacker. He was tall and skinny, not squat and powerful like a linebacker should be. His jersey number was 86, a tight end’s number. Which he was, on offense.
Offense never gave Jamie any trouble because the offense had a plan. He had an assignment: push the defensive end off the ball or hunt a linebacker and roll into his legs. In the rare instance that Coach Moses called a pass play, Jamie ran his route and pulled the ball in with sure hands. But defense was different, reactive. You gave the offense a half-step’s head start on every play and strained to make it up with sheer aggression.
On defense, you plugged a hole, covered an area, stuck to a man. But you didn’t really know what you were doing until the ball was snapped. If Coach Myles called a stunt, of course, you brought havoc to the backfield. But Coach Myles didn’t call many stunts. His defenses ground down their opponents, giving up short gains and mobbing to the ball.
Offense was force under control, pointed and purposeful. But defense was scattered and savage.
Jamie played middle linebacker like a coach or a commentator. Watching, waiting, trying to understand. He had a head for football. In a notebook, he’d drawn up a whole offensive system, a running scheme based around a weird double-wing formation. But linebackers didn’t need a head. They needed a nose for the ball and a good hard shoulder.
At halftime, Jamie drank Gatorade and half-listened to Coach Myles chew him out. Sinai was down by a touchdown.
Shallowater received the kickoff. The first play from scrimmage, Jamie saw the tailback take the handoff, and he flung himself into the B-gap. The B-gap was Jamie’s responsibility. His shoulderpads banged off of blockers. He got close enough to the ballcarrier to hear the breath hissing around his mouthpiece. Jamie reached out and grabbed a handful of jersey, but the tailback bellied out and came free, tearing down the right hash and veering off towards the sideline. Leroy Acosta chased him down but couldn’t catch him.
Coach Moses put a hand on Jamie’s helmet. “Son, do you even want to make a tackle?”
Coach Myles had a whole Roget’s-worth of vocabulary for good hits. Some of his idioms named the collision’s quality of sound: laying the wood, bringing the hat, popping the leather. Some of them were visual: a de-cleater if both of your man’s feet left the ground, a crackback if you managed to blindside him without incurring a penalty, a pancake if you pushed him over and flopped on top of him. On Saturday mornings, after they watched the game film, Coach Myles handed out purple skull-and-crossbones stickers to reward the biggest hits. These—the hits, the boys, and the stickers—were called “Headhunters.”
The Raiders were deep into district play, and Jamie Wilson, middle linebacker and defensive captain, didn’t have a single Headhunter on his helmet.
Normally, Sinai ran a five-two cover two, a meaty defense built to stop the ground game. But against Shallowater’s freewheeling run-and-shoot, they put on a nickel package—three down linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs, with Leroy Acosta as the fifth, the nickelback. Leroy roved around the field with abandon, covering receivers or making tackles as the play demanded. A mohawk of Headhunter stickers bisected his helmet. He’d forced a fumble just before halftime that stopped the Mustangs’ drive cold.
Leroy and Jamie had spent Thursday night after the team meeting in the bedroom Leroy shared with two of his brothers. They banged out classic rock riffs on Leroy’s cheap knockoff Stratocaster and talked about girls into the night. They had devised a coded ranking system that matched up girls’ initials with college football mascots, so they could talk about their crushes publicly without fear of discovery. They called this system the BSG: Boys Scouting Girls. Even when everyone else was asleep, they kept using the code just for the pleasure of it.
For a few hours each Friday night, Jamie hated Leroy Acosta.
Grass stains smeared Jamie’s white pants. He figured that as long as he was on the ground, no one could accuse him of doing anything but his best.
In the second half, the Raiders put together three long scoring drives that ate up the clock and kept the Mustang offense off the field. Sinai was winning by a touchdown with under two minutes left, and Shallowater had the ball at their own 37.
The quarterback kept on a read option to the narrow side of the field, and Jamie got a piece of the tackle. Then the Mustangs hit a five-yard stop route to the wide side for a first down. The receiver fell out of bounds to stop the clock at 1:12. The offense went into a huddle, and Jamie called his men together.
“All right, fellas, you know the drill. Stop ‘em here, now or never. Same thing we’ve been doing all night, ok? Nickel Cover Three, Nickel Cover Three, ready, break!”
The quarterback took the shotgun snap and looked off to his left as the Sinai pass rush surged. Then he snapped his head to the right and dumped a short pass to the slot receiver behind the line of scrimmage. Screen play.
Jamie turned his shoulders and slipped past the offensive tackle bearing down on him. In a bubble of empty space, he squared up on the ballcarrier. They locked eyes for an instant.
But the receiver was already past him. Jamie spun, empty arms outstretched, and fell to the turf. Cheers erupted from the home stands. Jamie picked himself up and walked to the sideline, eyes on his cleats, waiting for overtime.
Coach Myles grabbed him by the facemask. “What the heck are you doing, Wilson? Get back on the field!” Spittle frothed inside the handlebars of the coach’s mustache. He spun Jamie’s head towards the field, where the Mustang offense huddled for a two-point conversion. Coach shoved him, and Jamie jogged forward. “Regular Cover One!” Coach shouted.
When Jamie got there, the defensive huddle had already formed without him. He shouted the call without emotion. Shallowater threw a fade route to a tall receiver in the back of the end zone.
The Mustangs went up by one point.
“Offense on me!” Coach Moses shouted after the kickoff. Jamie packed into the huddle, in the tight end’s designated slot. “Now here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go Twins Left Y—Jamie, you’re gonna sit this one out. Leroy, you line up at split end on the right. Twins Left Y, Waggle Left Throwback. James Allen, you roll out to the left a few steps, just enough to get the defense going with you. Then you set your feet—set your feet, now!—and throw it back to Leroy over the middle of the field. Leroy, you’re gonna run a post-corner-post. The triple move’ll give the play time to develop. Everybody clear? Twins Left Y, Waggle Left Throwback, on one, one one, ready, break!”
Jamie took his helmet off.
“Hat on, Wilson!” someone said. He set it halfway on his head and left the chinstrap unbuttoned.
The play went off almost perfectly. James Allen bombed a long throw to Leroy over the middle. But Leroy was tired after making tackles all night, and the Shallowater free safety tripped him up on the eight yard-line. The Raiders had no time-outs left. On first and goal, James Allen spiked the ball to stop the clock. Jamie went in on second down, carrying the play—Pro Right 22 Iso, and if we don’t score, spike it again. The Mustangs stuffed the run for no gain, and James Allen stopped the clock with three seconds left.
Hi-Fi Ames, the Sinai kicker, could hardly be trusted to make an extra point, but Coach Moses called for a field goal anyway. Jamie lined up at wingback on the right and shoved the Shallowater rusher to the ground. Hi-Fi put the twenty-three yard field goal through the uprights just as time expired. The Raiders won the game by two points.
In the dressing room, Jamie buckled his dirty clothes to the nylon ring that held them together in the team washing machine. He grinned and shouted with the rest of the guys, dodged their snapping towels in the shower and laughed at their jokes. But he felt no part of their celebration.
The coaches drove the buses through the dark cottonfields towards home. Jamie’s Dairy Queen hamburger and fries sat on the vinyl seat beside him, cold and half-eaten. He’d played a bad game. He hadn’t really played a good game all year.
Jamie felt the bus tip over the edge of the Caprock. Someone started singing. Jamie raised his finger with the rest, pointing vaguely towards home, and joined in the alma mater:
Sinai Raiders, riding o’er the plains,
Onward to the battlefield’s great gains,
In raiment white and purple royal,
In the noble contest they toil.
With faith undaunted, honor without stain,
Raiders wreaking vict’ry on the plains!
At the field house, Jamie dropped his sweaty clothes into the bucket and dodged the fans hanging around outside. He fired up his truck and drove to his house on the northwest edge of town.
Jamie’s parents were waiting for him in the kitchen. His mother left a sandwich on the table, kissed him, and went to bed.
“Congratulations, son,” his father said.
Jamie moved his sandwich around on the plate. “I didn’t play very well,” he said.
“But you won.”
Jamie searched for trouble behind his father’s eyes, but his face was unreadable. “That’s true,” he said. “We did win.” He pushed his chair back from the table. “Listen, Dad, I don’t feel too good. And I gotta get up for film in the morning.”
“All right, then,” his father said, a little hurt. He liked to stay up and watch the High School Football Recap and speculate with Jamie about the playoffs. “Good night, boy.”
He went to his room and sat on his bed and stared at his blue wall.
Jamie had always thought he was outside the whole inbred system of small-town nepotism. That Coach Moses was above it. That his father—a Sinai outsider who’d moved to town ten years ago to be the dentist at the prison and who, after getting elected president of the school board, had helped to oust Coach Moses’ slimy predecessor—was its enemy and scourge. For the second time that day, Jamie fouled a bathroom, this time his own.
In the morning, he’d show up to the field house with the rest of the team to lift weights and watch film. When the hatched metal bit into his palms and he pressed the heavy bar from his chest, he’d work out his shame along with his soreness.
The coaches came up to the field house in the early morning hours to watch the tape of the game, and for every play they put a mark beside each player’s name: plus or minus, pass or fail, buck-up or twist-off. The players graded out at the percentage of positive plays. After weights, Jamie would watch the undeceiving film himself, and then Coach Moses would hand him a grade lower than any he’d ever received in a classroom. Holding that piece of yellow legal paper in his hand, Jamie would make his reckoning, and he would know exactly what he was worth.
Later, he’d come to see it as a luxury to know where you stood in the world with such mathematical certainty. In life after football, there was no end to doubt, no relief to nausea, no sure manner of reckoning at all.
Photo by Josh Hallett