by MATT DENIS
Justin Wolfe is from Beaverdale, Iowa, and he’s the 32nd best high school quarterback in the country.
“It’s a tiny ass town, man,” he tells me as we’re stretching near midfield. “There’s only, like, five hot girls there. But I fuck ‘em all.”
It’s the first thing anyone says to me at Midwest QBElite.
Theoretically, Midwest QBElite is a three-day skills showcase for the top fifteen high school quarterback prospects in the Midwest. But a lot of the QBs who just wrapped up their junior seasons already have verbal commitments with colleges and no longer need to showcase shit. Hence, my presence. Armstrong.com, the website that ranks us, has me ranked fourth among quarterbacks in Pennsylvania, which apparently now counts as the Midwest. Lump all us Midwesterners together and I come in at 24th. Which is to say, my confidence is not exactly brimming; and given how much I need a scholarship, with Mom teaching at the high school and Dad fired from the mill a year now and still not even looking for something else, that’s unfortunate.
“Think about all the high schools there are, Brady,” my mother told me before I left Braddock. “Who’s included in the Midwest? 10 states or so? 24th!”
Mathematically, she’s got a point. But she wasn’t here for registration. Here, “24th” is synonymous with “lucky to be included,” or, “I know you said your shirt size was medium, but we ran out, so here’s extra large, just tuck it in or something.”
All of which is hard to forget when I’m stuck warming up with my early frontrunner for least favorite fellow camper, somehow physically feeling all the scouts on the bleachers not watching me, and inflating like the Michelin man when the wind whistles through my gigantic sleeve holes.
It’s a relief to be out of the house for a few days, though.
Justin Wolfe doesn’t appear to be dealing with any of that shit. He’s got a tan the color of a rotisserie chicken, just below the sleeve of his shirt, which fits perfectly. He’s tall—much taller than I am. There’s a tiny gap between his two front teeth. His throwing mechanics, I see when we start to air it out, are funky. The kind I just know he invented and perfected with his father over several years of twilight catch—the crickets roaring their approval, the sunset turning the tops of the corn purplish. He does something wrong at nearly every stage of the motion: hitch near the top, weight leaking out over his front foot early, putting all kinds of stress on his arm as he whips it through late, like a catapult. And the truly fucked up thing about this whole process is that that’s exactly why the scouts love him. For the scouts, it’s all about upside. They aren’t judging us by what we are; they’re judging us by what we have the capacity to become. “If he’s able to generate that kind of arm strength with those mechanics”, the scouts would say, just think what his ceiling could be if we fixed them! Talent trumps results, no matter how much everyone tells us otherwise.
Scouts are also like their own little fraternity. I imagine that at some point in the last year, an evaluator from Armstrong.com went to Iowa and watched a game of Justin’s. He liked what he saw, enough to call Justin the fourth best quarterback in the Midwest. So now that’s what’s printed on the little bio report that sits on all the scouts’ clipboards, and it’s attributed to the evaluator who wrote it, and undoubtedly that evaluator is someone that at least one of the scouts here now has run into at least once at a bar in some podunk town in Indiana, after spending yet another Friday night watching high-schoolers play football, and gotten drunk on Miller Lite with, and talked glory days, best pork tenderloin in the state, and ex-wives. Now, that guy is up there pointing to the name at the bottom of the scouting blurb and saying, “I know this guy. A real straight shooter,” to everyone in the vicinity, who will spend the entirety of this camp phrasing their observations to match the existing ranks. Justin’s comments about his sexual exploits, if they’d heard them, would probably become evidence that he’s, “Brash; has the kind of unflappable self-assuredness you need to succeed at the next level.”
After warm-ups we all gather around Bart Hanson, who, along with his many assistants, will be running the camp. Hanson coached college for fifteen years, he tells us, “right down the road there at Indiana University”. He’s paired blue jeans and cowboy boots with the traditional coaching attire of matching polo, visor, and croakies. This is metaphorically significant, apparently.
“You wanna know what kind of man I am, look no further than right here, gentleman,” he says, sticking a leg out in front of him and nodding at his boots solemnly. “I ain’t gonna blow sunshine up your butt just because you’re ranked high, and I won’t take it easy on you if you’re struggling. Everyone’s equal here. You’re only as good as the throw you just made and the throw you’re about to make.”
I look around the circle. No one else seems to find John Wayne Socialist amusing. They’re all buying it, or at least pretending to. Everyone, including me, is down on one knee; spine straight; helmet in hand; eyes turned expectantly, unblinkingly, up. On the off chance that exceedingly strong posture might be just as important as footwork on a three-step drop to some scout, I guess.
There are a couple exceptions. Across the way, Carter Patrick, Jr. is still standing, stretching his arm and looking only vaguely interested. He’s the best quarterback in the Midwest, Mr. Football award winner in Indiana, and 4.0 student at some exclusive all-boys private school called Tudor Heights. Point being, he doesn’t need to be here at all, let alone fake any more than vague interest. On the bus ride over this morning, I heard him telling his seatmate that it was ridiculous he wasn’t in L.A. right now. That’s where U.S. QBElite, aka Charlie Baker’s Dozen, is being held this year. There, the top thirteen quarterbacks in the country are staying on campus at USC, working with Hall-of-Famer Charlie Baker and current NFL quarterbacks, throwing for SEC scouts and ESPN cameras alike, and measuring the angles of each other’s jaws, most likely. Carter couldn’t have missed by much. “West Coast bias,” he scoffed to his disinterested seatmate earlier, by way of explanation.
And immediately to my left, a kid with shoulder-length blonde hair and the faint smell of weed about him is sitting on his helmet and plucking blades of grass from between his feet. I have no idea where he’s from, what he’s ranked, who he is.
The rest of the day is agility drills, strength tests, and the 40-yard dash. All the stuff I’m good at. It’s nice to feel like I belong on the same field with these guys, even if I know tomorrow will probably be a different story. We move from station to station that they’ve got set up around the field—40, broad jump, vertical, those rope ladders laid side-by-side that we high-step through. We’re separated into small groups, and we cluster into even smaller ones while we wait for our turn, scrutinizing whoever happens to be up at that moment and lying to one another about what schools have called to express interest.
“I don’t even talk to them,” Justin Wolfe is saying, because of course he’s in my group. “Straight to voicemail, every time. They need to know that they need me more than I need them.”
Someone laughs behind me. It’s the kid with the long hair, who tells me his name is Pin.
“I beat Justin Wolfe’s team 42-13 in the regional finals this year,” he says. “People who know him like that about me.”
“It’s an honor,” I say, shaking his hand.
Back at the hotel later, I call home. There’s a bunch of us doing the same, hunched in little window alcoves, talking low.
“How’d it go?” my mother asks, instead of saying hello.
“They said I’m the next Joe Montana.”
“Gee, thanks, Mom.”
“Oh, stop it. If anything, you’re the next Fran Tarkenton,” she says, “which is better.”
I hear a chair scrape on the floor in the background.
“How is he?” I ask her. Meaning my father.
“We just had some dinner. Steak and potatoes,” she says, meaning that everything is fine, no worries. Dad doesn’t like people checking in on him; the insinuation that he needs to be watched and treated gently, like a wounded animal, is insulting to the manhood he spent so long crafting. So before I left, Mom and I came up with a code. If instead of telling me what they had for dinner, she’d told me what their plans were for the rest of the night, I’d have known: self-loathing, borderline verbal abuse, whiskey out of a milk glass.
Things haven’t been like that for a few months now. Otherwise I’d never have accepted the invite for this camp. Still, it was fun, sitting at the kitchen table, leaning in and whispering about the form our code could take while Dad slept in, and fun had been in short supply for a long time now.
“Do you want to talk to him?” Mom asks now, and I can hear a loose thread of pleading in it.
“I feel bad,” she told me recently. “All that time you spent defending me. You two used to be close.”
“Can’t,” I lie to her now. “We’ve got dinner and then a film session.”
After we hang up, I walk to a fast food place up the road for a burger and sit there as it starts to rain, watching the smudged colors of interstate lights through the window, trying to imagine what it will be like to leave Braddock. Later, in bed, I can hear the smothered sounding voices of fellow campers all gathered in the room next door, and I miss home.
On the bus the next morning, I can hear Justin, two seats back, scrolling through pictures on his phone with his seatmate.
“In the river, bro,” he says. “At sunset. She was magical.”
“Relaxed, even in the face of imminent pressure. Keeps things light for himself and his teammates.”
Beside me, Pin has already fallen back asleep. My stomach is in knots. I feel like I’m on my way to the electric chair. Because the thing is, I can’t throw. Not the way you’d expect a Midwest QBElite participant to be able to, anyway. Woodland Hills High has been running the triple option since long before I became quarterback there. It’s old school football: limited passing, an emphasis on ball control, and a small playbook. We specialize in three yards and a cloud of dust. The few plays we run, we run to perfection, every time. And it works for us. I’ve got this year’s state championship ring in the left top drawer of my desk at home to prove it. But you can count the number of colleges that run the triple option on one hand that’s been involved in a horrific scroll saw accident. The couple that do get their absolute pick of the high school litter, and that’s not me, judging by the constantly empty mailbox and the unringing telephone at home. Which means Plan B: impress someone with my arm at one of these camps or showcases. Prove that I could adapt to a new system. Flash some upside.
From the interstate, there’s nothing between the horizon and me. Dawn is orange-blasting the windows, and I’ve got nowhere to hide.
Dad started building the emergency shelter a couple months after he got laid off. For a while, Mom and I were cool with it. It was a better hobby than getting shit-faced on the couch everyday. It was easier to move around the house without him in it. No more not being able to tell if he’d slept the night before when I came down for school, or if he’d been drinking, and afraid to ask either way. No more heavy, quiet dinners, where he’d lay his hands flat on the table and stare at everything—the yellowing cupboards, Mom and me, his congealing meatloaf—through red-rimmed eyes like he couldn’t believe it. How sad it all looked. How none of it was what he imagined.
“We’re fucked,” he’d say, and push his plate away. “You need to find some work over the summer,” he’d tell Mom, who would shoot him a quick look, like not here, but not say anything.
“Yeah, blame the one who’s working. Manly stuff, Dad.” At which point it was me that would get the not here look from her and the, you little shit, you even got chest hair yet? look from him.
Lately, he’s been making coffee for Mom every morning. Fixing a sandwich and putting it in a little plastic bag for her lunch. While we were rolling through the state tournament in November, he kept wanting to talk about who we played next, reading me passages from the newspaper write-ups of opponents’ games like they were scouting reports.
“Quarterback for Edgewood threw 4 TDs last week,” he’d say, and then refer to their offense as an “elite powerhouse” for the rest of the week to make sure I wasn’t taking them lightly.
The shelter’s been done a while now, but instead of looking for a job, he’s been waking up early to do pushups and jumping jacks in the noxious early morning air. He’s been buying 10-pound bags of rice on special at the Giant Eagle in East Liberty. Or sketching expansion ideas for the shelter on graph paper, like a 2’ x 2’ x 2’ cut out in one of the walls where canned good could be stored, “so they aren’t taking up valuable floor space.” To which I say, “Good; that leaves room enough for the high end signal scrambler and the wholesale-sized rolls of aluminum foil for hats,” to Mom as we watch him poring over his blueprints in the backyard at 11 p.m., two pen lights angled through each side of one of my old sweatbands to keep his hands free. We both laugh, but neither of our hearts are really in it anymore and when I look over I can see that she’s trying really hard not to cry.
The first line of the scouting report on me goes, “Hailing from the economically depressed Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock, Brady Klausing is a gritty, run-first quarterback whose best quality is that he wins.” My observations on this are as follows:
- You know that your hometown is in a world of trouble financially when even football scouts can see it.
- Being known as a winner isn’t as great as you think it is, at least in the context of a scouting report. Winning is a team result; the fact that they think it’s also my best individual skill means that maybe I don’t have any discernible individual skills. Other key words here suggest the same thing: run-first means can’t pass, and gritty means white, and not overly athletic. The general public loves grittiness; for scouts, it just means that they aren’t exactly sure what you bring to the table.
- Back to Braddock: no one else’s scouting report makes explicit reference to the player’s hometown, so why does mine have to? It doesn’t seem relevant at all; I worry that who I am will just get melted into what Braddock is. People will look at me and all they’ll be able to see is row after row of boarded up windows and crumbling bricks, the haunted empty streets, and the mill always looming over it all, hazy in the midst of all the smoke it creates, erasing itself.
“Braddock,” Hanson says, meaning me, because he doesn’t know my name.
“You’re up.” He leans in and claps his hands at me as I attempt to stride confidently to the line. Hanson calls this drill Prime Time: You come to the line when you’re called. Hanson relays the play in to you and the receivers at the line and tells you which receiver you’ll be throwing to. “These aren’t easy throws,” he said before the drill started. “These are saddle up kinda throws. Throws that these Big Ten scouts have to know you can make before they even think about talking to you.”
At the line, Hanson barks out the play and then, quieter, just to me, says, “Strong side 15-yard out. Drill that fucker in there.” He wasn’t kidding, I think. There isn’t a single easy thing about this throw. It has to travel about 30 yards when the route is all said and done, and has to be thrown hard enough that a cornerback, if one were there, couldn’t jump the route, pick it off, and waltz untouched into the end zone.
My footwork is perfect: three-step drop, planting my back foot as the receiver comes out of his break and swings his head back to find me. You’d need a PowerPoint presentation to adequately organize all the things wrong with the throw itself: Three yards short and four yards behind the receiver, who half-heartedly flails a hand at it. If a wobbly pass is a wounded duck, this one was born without wings, bouncing once and rolling to a slow-motion stop near midfield.
“Next,” is all Hanson says, after what seems like forever. I don’t dare look up at the scouts.
The rest of the day is more of the same. We keep rotating through that drill and I keep colossally fucking up. How it works when you’re going well is that you barely think—some reptilian part of your brain sees the target and then your arm is putting the ball there. You don’t question it. Today I can feel each fingernail scraping the ball as it leaves my hand. The processes of finding the target and pushing the ball toward it feel like flip sides of foreign currencies. I question everything: is my elbow too high? Am I pulling off on my follow-through? Is there any chance that God is real?
“Pull them boots on, Braddock,” Hanson yells from the sideline, and because this is nonsense, I just keep right on airmailing slants, burying screens, and underthrowing flies. On a wheel route up the near sideline, one of Hanson’s assistants, who has to weigh in at about 320, has time to see how poorly thrown the ball is, drop his clipboard, throw off his visor, and get 10 yards across the field to intercept me. He high-steps a la Deion Sanders up the sideline, gut undulating, to roaring applause.
During the merciful intervals between public embarrassments, I watch the other members of my group. I can see why Justin Wolfe is everyone’s favorite upside project. He doesn’t always know where the ball is going, but he’s lean and he’s snappy, and you can literally hear the ball knifing the air when it leaves his hand. Pin’s velocity could be measured with a sundial. But he knows exactly where it’s going. As in, if you gave him a palette to dip the nose of the football in, he could do paint by numbers from 20 yards away.
Near the end of the day, when I’m already fairly convinced that the camp has sent one of the assistants back to the hotel to pack my stuff for me, I drop a 30-yard post right into the outstretched hands of the receiver, in stride. The day’s been so bad it feels like an accident, or a dream. Still, I’ll take it. Pin is down on one knee as I jog off the field, proposing. To the throw. I don’t have it in me to smile.
“Lot of camp left,” he calls out over his shoulder at me.
Hanson paces with his hands clasped behind his back at the end of the day. We’re fanned out in a semi-circle around him.
“Gentlemen,” he says, “all but the very best and luckiest of you will reach a point in your careers where someone tells you that you’re no longer good enough to keep playing this game you love. My job is to help you delay that as long as I can—certainly for another four years, anyway. But I can’t do it for you. If you can’t stand up to the pressure, there’s nothing I can do for you.”
I can feel everyone in the circle thinking about me all at once. And I’m thinking about Dad—how eventually the mill had to make so many cuts that he became expendable. I want him to call me tonight and ask how things are going. He’d understand this large black something I feel out there, waiting invisibly for me. He must feel it, too. Or feel like he’s already inside of it. But I know he won’t call. Maybe it’s just as well; I don’t want to hear him tell me that the answer is to dig a hole somewhere and crawl inside of it. I can’t be better at dealing with all of this than he is. Because if that’s true, then I’m already as good as I’m ever going to be.
Playing cards in the room later, I ask Pin how he can throw like that.
“Like William fucking Tell.”
He laughs and goes to the window, where his bowl is packed and waiting. He’s been exhaling through a filter he rigged up from a toilet paper roll, rubber band, and sheet of fabric softener.
“This isn’t working, is it?” he asks now, noticing the face I’m making.
“Smells like your whites are getting loaded.”
“Here’s the best I can explain it,” Pin says, sitting down in the windowsill. He’s got his shirt off, and has the body of someone who knows the bottom of a Funyuns bag; someone who’s got cheat codes memorized to any number of video games. “I just don’t care,” he says.
When I roll my eyes, he says, “I mean it—but I don’t mean I don’t give a shit. I just love throwing the football, wherever it goes. The results don’t matter to me, so they’re free to be good.”
He takes another hit, not bothering with the filter.
“Thanks, Buddha,” I tell him. But part of me believes him; that there’s some easy thing that all them know that I don’t. That that’s success, and I just never had access to it and it’s left me in this hole.
Not long after, Justin knocks on our door.
“Whatcha playing?” he asks, flopping lengthwise across one of the beds.
“Speed,” Pin tells him.
“I got winner,” he says, fiddling with his phone. “Gonna dominate, too.”
He needs a “rule refresher” before he plays Pin. By which he means, we realize quickly, he needs us to teach him all the rules because he’s never played before. After he wins anyway, our room fills up with the rest of the campers. Justin texted a couple people who texted a couple people, and now there’s a tournament going on. I don’t have anyone’s number, and I wonder if there’s just some critical strand of DNA that I’m missing that it takes to thrive in this world. Someone’s drawn up a bracket and little clusters of excited onlookers gather around each game and pick sides. There’s been no mention of what the winner gets—they get to win and anything else is irrelevant. I beat Carter Patrick, Jr., Mr. Tudor Heights himself, who holds his cards against his chest the whole time, “so no one behind me can relay signals to you,” in the first round. When he chucks his cards and pushes away from the table, muttering, “fucking lucky motherfucker” (“indefatigable spirit, a fierce competitor”), I get happy in spite of myself.
I lose in the next round and duck out of the room to call home. My father’s voice on the other end is gravelly with disuse.
“Hey,” I say, now needing to examine every word before it leaves my mouth. “Where’s Mom?”
“She’s right here,” he says.
“Hi honey,” I hear her say in the background. “Just making dinner.” She sounds cheerful. There’s a long silence between Dad and I as we realize that she’s set this up and wonder, now what?
I can hear Dad go into the other room and turn the TV on. “Listen, if you got stuff you need to do there,” he starts.
“I got a couple minutes,” I tell him. “How’s things?”
“Back’s killing me,” he says. “I feel old.”
“You are old.”
There’s a pause on the other end while he figures out whether or not to find that funny. He settles for a slightly amused burst of air through his nostrils.
“Yeah,” he says.
Down the hall, I hear a cheer go up from my room. You’d think the Super Bowl was on. The sound of a group of people who just know, in their heart of hearts, that they’re one win away from all the doors unlocking.
“I think it’s almost done down there,” Dad says.
“Yeah?” I don’t tell him it’s been done for weeks; I don’t ask him the question I know he can’t answer: then what?
“Yeah. I mean, it’s not the Cadillac of shelters or anything, but it’ll do the job. I can’t complain.”
“Right,” I say. He’s not going to ask how things are going for me out here. Maybe Mom already told him. Instead, I try and think what question he’d want me to ask him.
“It’ll do the job. The emergency shelter. What’s the emergency?”
For a few seconds, all I can hear is his breathing and the commercial drone of the TV.
“Shit, I don’t know,” he says. “Something, though. I put a stove down there, you know? Modified a metal barrel and attached some aluminum pipe to the top for a chimney. And then I went up the ladder and watched the smoke making its way out. It looked nice—like it was coming right out of the earth. And then Mom called to me—dinner or something, needed to come in. I thought about maybe I could just leave the fire going down there forever. And eventually Mom would be at work, and I’d be going to job interviews, and you’d be somewhere off at college, playing ball, but back at home there would be this thing I built for us, and a fire. I mean I didn’t leave it burning. But I wanted to.”
It’s the most I’ve heard him say in a year, and I can’t think of anything to say back.
“I don’t know if that’s any kind of answer,” Dad says.
“It is,” I tell him. Down the hall, there’s an eruption of noise. Justin has apparently won the tournament and his celebration, which consists of him peeling his shirt off and helicoptering it around his head, has spilled through the door.
“I gotta go,” I say. “I wanna see that stove when I get back.”
The schedule for the last day of camp is this: stretch, warm up, SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST. Hanson’s got it in all caps on the schedule that someone slid under our doors last night. Survival of the fittest is essentially the Prime Time drill, only this time with defenders on the receivers and a group of judges scoring our efforts. The top four scores from the first round will move on, Hanson tells us as we stretch, to the finals.
“See y’all there,” Carter Patrick Jr. says, to no one in particular, as he stretches his arm out.
In the stands, it’s the same gaggle of scouts; all clustered together, bags over their shoulders, talking in their khaki shorts and polos. At the top corner of the bleachers, though, a guy I haven’t seen before leans against the rail in jeans, his gut pressing out against a sleeveless black shirt, a ratty hat pushed back on his head.
I’m walking past the bleachers on the other side of the field for a drink of water when I hear retching coming from beneath. Justin Wolfe is bent at the waist, his hand on one of the bleachers’ support beams, inching his feet away from the puddle he’s making.
“Jesus,” I say, and he flinches, surprised to notice me behind him. “Why so nervous? You already won the card tournament.”
He doesn’t laugh.
“It’s not that. My Dad’s here.”
Of course. Up in the bleachers.
“So he’s here,” I say. “So what?” I think maybe I’ll tell him about the dreams I’ve been having: Dad down in the shelter, wearing one of those old school gas masks—insect-eyed, waiting for something, a wall of repeating canned goods behind him. His boots are the same color as the mud he’s standing in. I want to tell Justin to try that on for size. But I didn’t have the dream last night, so I don’t.
“He’s a trucker. Long haul. He only ever made it to, like, five games of mine in high school. And every time he comes I chuck my fucking lunch.”
I should be happy—his loss is my gain. Justin would be if the tables were turned. Maybe that’s the biggest advantage he’s got over me.
“Good luck,” I tell him after a long silence.
It doesn’t help. Justin is one of the first to go and he’s all over the place—throwing to double-covered receivers most of the time, and overthrowing the open ones the couple times he does see them. I keep glancing up at his Dad in the stands, but he doesn’t look disappointed or pissed or anything. When his round ends, Justin walks right by the rest of us, unbuckles his chinstrap, and puts a helmet-sized dent in the aluminum bench. The sound crashes around us, and with nothing to stop it, the echo goes seems to go on forever. “HATES to lose. The type of tenacity that shows me he’s ready for the next level.”
My turn comes up.
“Show me something, Braddock,” Hanson says. “Earn some respect out there today.”
Fuck yourself with a cattle prod, I think.
I get ten plays from scrimmage in the first round. Hanson calls the plays. Everything is slower when you’re going right. Instead of waiting to see what happens next and reacting to it, you understand what will happen next and the ball’s there waiting when it does. I know before I’ve completed my drop that the slot receiver is going to beat the corner to the inside on the slant. By the time he plants and looks up for the ball, it’s already halfway to where his hands are going to be.
“That’s it, Braddock,” Hanson says. He sounds stunned.
Nine more throws of about the same and I can all but taste everyone’s surprise. I went 8-10 with a touchdown, and one of the incompletions was a straight up drop by the receiver—not my fault.
Pin just raises an eyebrow at me as I go by. The worst thing in the world you can do for someone on a hot streak is start talking about it. By the water coolers, a scout from Purdue leans over the rail.
“Hey,” he says to me. “Way to compete out there today.”
“Thank you,” I say. I’m not a total prisoner of the moment. At the end of the day, “way to compete” still means, “you’re undersized, unproven, and without much upside. But we respect that you could even get out of bed this morning after yesterday’s shit show, let alone make the finals.” But it feels good.
With me in the finals are Carter Patrick, Jr. and two guys whose names I never learned. The rules change a little. Ten plays again, but this time there’s no huddle and no play call from Hanson. You do it yourself, on the fly. Read the defense, adjust your receivers, call your play, and execute it, all while the clock’s running.
The two guys I don’t know are nothing special. They get hurried too easily. One of them gets his signals crossed with a receiver and throws a corner route to absolutely no one. The other is so rushed he never quite gets his feet under him and overthrows everything. Carter Patrick, Jr., on the other hand, looks born for this. He’s languid and authoritative, in complete control of everything. He never seems to be moving quicker than a brisk walk, and yet, there he is, throwing a touchdown on his ninth play from scrimmage, 30 seconds still left on the clock.
I get it. There are things on a football field that require you to be 6’4” with a cannon for an arm—things that I can’t do now, and won’t be able to do four years from now. Things you can’t teach. I know enough to know it’s beautiful; like reading poetry.
I try not to be bitter. I think of Carter crushed when he found out he didn’t make Charlie Baker’s Dozen. His mother telling him not to let it get him too down, hugging him tighter than need be.
Everything is speeding up during my turn, blurring at the edges. “This is big league speed, Braddock,” I hear Hanson say from somewhere behind me. If I focus on the hollow sound of my breath inside the helmet, I can start organizing things. I know that this is nowhere near as impressive as what Carter just did. This, so far, is more like tripping a little at full speed—you put your arms out, churn your legs faster, and stay up as long as you can. But however it looks, I think, we’re still moving the ball down the field. And I am going to score in eight plays.
After play seven, we’re 40 yards out, and I see the cornerbacks come in disrespectfully tight on the coverage when I bring us to the line. I signal to the receiver on my right that he should run a fly pattern—a beeline for the end zone.
After the state championship game this past fall, I couldn’t sleep. We’d won, 24-14. In the backyard, I pulled my sweatshirt on and stood as still as I could for a few seconds before lifting the door to the shelter. It was warm down there, out of the wind, but my breath looked icy in the bluish light of my phone. I sat down at the base of the ladder and turned the phone off. The walls instantly felt closer. The air was noxious with the smell of the mill. The sky didn’t have any stars in it.
“I’m a state champion,” I whispered. I said it several times, trying to convince myself.
Today, I look up at the bleachers right before taking my eighth snap. The scouts have their notebooks out still, but they aren’t watching anymore. Their minds are already made up. All that’s left to decide is where to go for drinks after. I take the snap and roll out right. My receiver is quick; he’s already got a step on the cornerback and is streaking, head down, up the sideline. I bring myself to a stop; plant my back foot hard, and let fly.
Matt Denis received his MFA from UMASS Boston in 2016, and currently lives in Iowa with his fiancé, cat, and two dogs. He is working on Something Worse, a collection of stories set in Braddock, PA and Detroit, MI. His work has appeared previously in Kenyon Review, Buffalo Almanack, and Breakwater Review.