I want these pads to fit. I want the foam and plastic to be part of me, like a shell. The pads hide my soft fat. Dad says that I look good in pads, that I look like a man. The pads make me hard. They are my armor. The foam between my tailbone and the bus seat keeps me propped up and off-balance, leaning toward the window. I don’t mind. These are my pads. If I want to be a football player, I must learn to live in them.
The whine of the bus resonates through my Walkman, blocking out the voices of my teammates. My teammates did not change out of their school clothes. They are not in uniform as the bus rolls down Highway 30 towards Lasalle-Peru, not fidgeting in their armor. They sit alongside blue equipment bags stuffed with pads. When I was released from sixth period driver’s education, instead of walking to Casey’s with the team for pregame Twinkies, I went to the locker room and changed into my game pants. Coach says junk food is bad before a game. Dad says it will make me fatter.
I am wearing a Sterling Football sweatshirt and my game pants, trying to get used to the scratchy blue elastic and inner pockets full of padding. The rigid plates on my thighs dig into my waist. The foam paddles on my hips creep out of their pockets. My hands rest on the rounded foam cups over my knees. My school clothes and this weekend’s homework are in a duffel bag on the floor between my black cleats.
I am a football player, Dad says. Football players can sleep in these pads. Football players have to be hard inside, just like their pads are outside. Football players wear pads like armored skin. I cannot tell Dad that my skin is too tight, that the extra-large pants are still not large enough. I cannot tell Dad that my seams are going to split.
On the seat next to me, my oversized plastic shoulders sit empty, wrapped in gold polyester mesh, the number fifty-four in blue facing front. There is no name printed on the back, just another fifty-four, so that is who I am: fifty-four. On the open neck hole, my blue helmet sits with its grey wire mask facing me. In the empty space where my head belongs, the gears of my Walkman turn. Van Halen pounds in my ears.
Music makes me feel more intense. We need to be intense, Coach says. We need to prepare for battle. Coach doesn’t allow any chatter on the bus. Chatter isn’t intense. Coach says study playbooks, but I am the center, and my job is simple. There will be a padded body in red and white in front of me when I get into my stance. The body will be wearing number seventy-one. If the play is a run to the right, I must make number seventy-one move left. If the play is a run to the left, I must make him move right. If the play is a pass, I must keep seventy-one in front of me until the whistle blows. No matter what the play, he will try to get the ball. I must stop him.
I have watched seventy-one on videotape. I know seventy-one’s patterns. I know that if he is going to try to go past me to my left, he drops his left foot back. If he is going right, his feet are straight. I know he likes the swat-and-swim, usually to my left. He will smack me on the side of my helmet with his right hand and swing his left arm over my shoulder when I flinch, swimming past me.
I know how to beat seventy-one’s swat-and-swim. Dad and I spent the week practicing in the back yard. When I get swatted, I must drop my head and drive my left shoulder between his numbers. I cannot flinch. I must drive in against the swat and ignore the instinct to duck. I must do exactly what my body doesn’t want to do. “That’s what helmets are for,” Dad said, as he rapped mine on the earhole with his knuckles, making a racket inside my plastic shell. When I tried to duck, he claimed I had a hundred-dollar helmet on a five-cent head. When I finally learned not to recoil from his swat, I knocked him over mid-swim. He rolled in the grass, wheezing. When he could speak again, he said “Nice hit, but not angry enough. Let’s do it some more.” I knocked him down again. I knocked him down until it was routine. He said he wanted me to be an angry machine. He wanted me to hate him. “The game is about hate,” he said. I kept knocking him down, trying to remember how it felt, trying to be angry enough. I knocked him down until it got dark and Mom made us stop.
The bus whine gets louder as we pull in alongside the stadium. I reach into my helmet to turn off the music, pull my headphones off, unzip the duffel bag, and drop the Walkman on top of my clothes. Even the mumbling that Coach allows during bus rides (because it is technically not chatter) has stopped. From his seat behind the driver, Coach rises and turns as the bus grinds to a stop. “Okay, you hamburgers. The tunnel to the visitors locker room is at the end of the field, under the scoreboard. I want everybody changed and on the field in ten minutes for pregame. Hustle up.”