Hart High was a football school. Every Friday night, the bleachers of the local community college stadium filled with fans. People took high school rivalries seriously. CIF victory banners hung proudly from the gymnasium rafters. It was like a little slice of West Texas nestled firmly in suburban Los Angeles.
At 15, I was confident I had the social pecking order figured out, and it boiled down to: football players and everyone else.
Football players all sat in the middle of the quad. They were the guys who could casually ask teachers about their weekend plans and not come across as weird. They had girlfriends.
My friends and I didn’t sit anywhere near the quad. The side entrance to the library was our turf, a safe haven where most of our little crew would play Magic The Gathering. We didn’t have girlfriends.
The closest one of my friends got to having a girlfriend was Jason Berra and that was just because he had gotten to second base with some girl. Jas was the type of dude who once stuck a paperclip in an electrical socket just to make us laugh. He was the guy kept a barbarian sword in his closet for no real reason. He was the dude with the slightly older, kinda-sorta hot sister who would sometimes wear a bikini around us.
“Man, I’m probably gonna get so ripped this summer,” Jas said as we waited outside the guidance counsellor’s office. “I’m gonna be like Vin Diesel big. I’m gonna wear, like, only wife-beaters next year.”
As a nerdy kid who would regularly spend 45 minutes at Blockbuster on a Friday night trying to decide which version of Blade Runner he wanted to rent, I didn’t know why I was going out for football, why I was having my guidance counsellor reorganize my schedule around 6th period practice. Sure, I wanted to lose weight and, yeah, my brother had played, but I think the real reason was Where the Red Fern Grows. The scene in that book that always stuck with me was when the main character is hellbent on chopping down this massive sycamore tree. I mean, he hacks at this thing for like two days until it falls. That’s what I wanted to do: surviving Hart High football was my own personal sycamore tree, a symbol that I could be just as manly as those jocks.
At Hart, it was an unspoken rule that football players deserved respect. After all they were the ones who gave up their entire summer in favor of 5 a.m. practices every day, except during Hell Week, during which they had two-a-days in 100-degree heat. Practices were legendarily difficult, purposefully modeled after boot camp. Most the severe injuries happened at practices–broken ankles, collarbones, heat exhaustion. If you survived, it said something to everyone, teen or adult, on campus.
Our first 5 a.m. practice confirmed the every painful rumor Jas and I had ever heard. It was excruciating painful. Muscles burned; skin tore, bled and scabbed; shirts dripped with dew and sweat. And then the puking. One quickly learned to never eat breakfast before a morning practice, because it would most likely find its way soaking into the roots of the trees on the farside of the field after you projected it from your mouth. Mine was orange and chunky from scrambled eggs. Jas’ was pink and milky from Froot Loops.
Coach Toca, a squat man with a booming voice, weirdly pudgy fingers, and an unacknowledged addiction to Slim Fast, laid down what we’d be wearing for every practice: red t-shirt, black shorts; he made sure we knew every drill, so he could reduce his speaking to a series of code words (“barrel rolls” “suicides” “iron men”); and while he didn’t say I needed a haircut, I found myself at the Fantastic Sam’s that afternoon, asking for the number 2 buzz across my scalp.
Around week 3, Jas stopped showing up. When I called him he said he was sick. I covered for him, said he had a stomach thing. Second day, I said he had a family thing. After three days of no-shows, Toca wanted answers and I was tired of making excuses.
I made a choice: let the kid ditch. He could suffer. He deserved it.
Because here’s the thing: when I first started, I thought it was jocks vs. nerd. Like I was proving something to them by being among their ranks. But they honestly didn’t care. Most of the guys on the team were actually incredibly nice dudes. Kind, supportive, always there with advice. Bizarrely and unexpectedly, the practice field was the library from The Breakfast Club. It was the most accepting place on campus, as long as you showed up, did the work, and gave the cliched 110 percent, you were allowed to be there. So really what it was was those who do a thing vs. those who don’t.
And, as far as I was concerned, Jas wasn’t doing a thing. So fuck that guy.
The day we got our pads, I stood in line outside of room T-7, an area that doubled as Toca’s office/math classroom.
I grabbed the bag, an awkward nylon sausage bursting with plastic protective gear, and went to the locker room. I’d never worn a football uniform before.
I looked at myself suited up: pants tighter than most Prince videos, cleats that made it impossible to walk on cement, and the oversized helmet that made me look Rick Moranis’ character in Spaceballs. But, I felt like I could take on the world in this thing. It felt like armor, like victory, like unfettered grab-you-by-the-balls manliness.
When I left the locker room, I saw Jas. He’d missed over a week of practices. Which meant he was now Toca’s whipping boy. His punishment: run as many laps as fast as he could for two hours.
Jason took to his sentence with vigor and started jogging. As he turned into a vaguely person-shaped dot crossing the 5-yard-line on the opposite end of the field, I felt disgusted at him. Sure, I’d been to his house, swam in his pool, raided his cabinets for Pop Tarts. But this was Hell Week. You didn’t miss a practice during Hell Week. I wanted him to fail.
Toca blew his whistle and practice began.
An hour in and burning hot sweat coated my forehead and stung my eyes, as every muscle in my body ached and screamed.
“Catch ‘em!” Toca yelled. “Run, lineman!” He was yelling at me. I was supposed to outrun–and intercept–and tackle–a receiver who helped the track team win almost every meet. I failed.
Toca threw a temper tantrum, yelling in the unintelligible jabber of all underpaid athletic coordinators. He turned to the small speck in the distance, and bellowed: “Jason! Ten more laps!” And my mouth slithered into entirely perverse smile. It was a strange sort of power, power foreign to me, to have someone else bear the brunt of your punishment. As much pain as I was in, I was happy–downright grateful–that someone felt worse. God help me, not only did I want Jas to suffer and I wanted to make Jas suffer.
Toca sent the linemen to the corner of the field for barrel rolls. Jason ran past us, exhausted, dehydrated, barely standing upright with a fresh puke stain down the front of his practice jersey. And for half a second, I remembered who he was: a dumb, fat kid, who once built a WWF website because he was bored. I felt guilty and wanted to say something, a word of encouragement, even throw him a subtle thumb’s up. But I didn’t. Because this was Hell Week. This was my sycamore tree. And I couldn’t stop for anyone.
My brief angst threw off the rhythm of the drill and I didn’t pop off the dirt fast enough. As a result, a lineman’s boot, weighted down by all the gravity and power of a 200+ pound frame, dug into the back of my bare hand. I heard a dull crack and I expected a stigmata-esque wound, but the plastic cleat hadn’t punctured the skin.
A loud guttural groan, the closest I could get to screaming through the thick plastic mouth guard, escaped my throat. The drill came to a stop.
“Line!” Toca screamed, his voice hoarse at this point, “the only reason you should stop–THE ONLY REASON–is that someone has bone sticking out of their body! Move it!”
Towards the end of practice, Toca called for suicide drills. We lined up, all of us, including Jas. Toca blew his whistle and we took off, sprinting towards the ten yard line and back, and then to the twenty and back, and the thirty and back. It was around the 40 yard line that I started to feel it–my stomach tightened, as if all intestinal muscle fibers seized about it, choking it. By the time I reached the start again, I collapsed to my knees as hot, vaguely purplish puke dribbled from my mouth and clung to my facemask in thick, gooey, pungent droplets. I hadn’t puked in weeks and felt betrayed by my own intestinal tract.
“On. Your. Feet. Lineman!” Toca barked at me. I willed myself to stand. My feet staggered towards the fifty yard line.
At the end of practice, Toca blew his whistle and we adjourned to locker rooms.
Everything hurt or burned or ached. My hand was starting to swell. And my mask smelled like fresh gastric juice. I sat on the bench in the locker room, chugging water. There were still 3 more days of Hell.
When most of the players cleared out, Jas approached me.
“Dude, Toca is such a dick, huh? I mean, he didn’t have to make me run like that, you know?”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t explain it. I didn’t want to explain it. Not that I was any sort of great athlete, but I had done something. And I didn’t want to go back to doing nothing.
I picked up my pads and walked away.
Jas’ mom wouldn’t let him come back to practice after that and Toca had to concede and let him be water boy. During the season, he was the annoying kid in khakis who would yell things like “Good hustle, good hustle.”
We weren’t really friends after that.
I still didn’t care about football. I only played one season and got on the field a handful of times.
But I had succeeded: I had chopped down my own personal sycamore. I respected the jocks, but was also keenly aware that any kinship started and stopped within 100-yards of the field. I still didn’t have a girlfriend, over the course of my sophomore year I gained back nearly all the weight I had lost, and I foundmy way back to the side entrance of the library.