We jostle down the narrow aisle, struggling with our equipment. When I reach the door of the bus, the dirty air of LaSalle-Peru’s factories fills my lungs. The team wanders around the gravel lot, lost outside the bus. Dad’s car sits empty across the street in the visitor lot. Dad, always early, squats in the far end zone, a small body in blue and gold staring at the field over the orange corner pylon.
Coach gets us moving. “Let’s go, goddammit! Ten minutes! Don’t stand around like a bunch of baby robins, all mouth and asshole!” His whistle chirps. Under his breath, whistle still in his teeth, he mutters “God, I hate this place.” We jog toward the north end of the field, where a tall digital scoreboard announces that we are in the “Home of the Lasalle-Peru Cavaliers.”
Lasalle and Peru are two different towns. If we could play them separately, the game would be an easy win. But Lasalle-Peru High School, the combination of the two, always gives us a good battle. We are only one town, Sterling, Illinois, home of the Sterling Golden Warriors, but we are not the Warriors. The Warriors are the varsity, who will arrive on another bus for a later game. We are the Braves. We will become Warriors someday. Coach, who teaches government during the day, was a Warrior in 1951. Dad was a Warrior in 1965, fifty-four just like me, starting middle linebacker, led the team in tackles, and has the yearbook to prove it. I will be a Warrior next year. Who would want to stay a Brave?
We are not facing the Cavaliers. Our opponents are the Incas. I don’t understand why an Inca would want to become a Cavalier. It doesn’t matter. Next year, I will still be fifty-four in gold, and I will still face seventy-one in red, Warrior or Brave, Cavalier or Inca.
Coach yells at our backs, “Keep off the track, goddammit! Don’t tear up their track! You’re guests in somebody else’s house!” I jog on the gravel shoulder, avoiding the cinder lanes. My cleats squirm on the hard surface. The rubber nubs are pressed back into my shoes by the gravel, jabbing my soles with each step. I tolerate the pain, trying to be a good guest. My teammates pass me in small groups, each with a matching equipment bag on his shoulder. I am too big and slow to run with them. They are talking and laughing quietly. I try to catch up, clutching my helmet in one hand and my pads in the other. They keep passing until there are none left. They have all disappeared into the locker room tunnel, and I am running alone.
The locker room stinks with the sweat of absent freshman Incas. I choose a section of the red bench, sit, and pull my Sterling Football sweatshirt over my head. Static jumps in front of my eyes. When the light reappears, I am sitting in my game pants and the grey cutoff t-shirt that keeps my skin from sticking to my shoulder pads. I feel the ragged, unhemmed edge against my stomach, proof that this is my game shirt, the shirt I cut myself, the shirt I have to wear under my pads during games. My game shirt is good luck. I have to wear it.
My elbow, forearm, and hand pads are collected in the shoulder pads resting at my feet. I pour them onto the concrete and reach into the gold mesh, crawling inside the giant torso. My jersey is gold, not yellow, because Sterling players are never yellow, Coach says. My head emerges from a rolled collar of foam. When I hit another player, the collar will keep my head from snapping back. It will keep my neck from breaking. When I lean back, the foam presses against the base of my skull, hard and reassuring. My armor will protect me in battle.
I pull the straps of my shoulder pads under my arms and buckle them to the front of the pads. The elastic digs into the rolled fat of my sides. When I draw up the laces, the plastic plates squeeze against my soft chest, forcing my body into another shape, flattening the top of my thick stomach. I tuck the jersey deep into my pants and snug up the webbed belt, because I am a football player, and football players cannot look like fat slobs, both Dad and Coach say.
When I have squeezed my arms through black elbow and forearm pads and forced my stubby fingers into black padded gloves, no skin is left exposed. Black makes me look tough, Dad says. He bought the pads for me because I am not very intimidating. I am big for my age, my doctor says, and I have great potential, Coach says, but I am lumped with baby rolls, a soft two-hundred pounds on bones that are still growing. I need to lift weights. I need to get strong. But when I pull the ear pads of my helmet over my protruding ears, when my soft face is behind the cage, when my chin is pressed up in a leather strap, and when my arms are wrapped in black, I feel intimidating. I feel gold, not yellow. Tonight, number seventy-one will see only hard black pads, a helmet, and eyes that are still trying to be angry.