We cross the plywood bridge over the track. The boards flex and rattle like wooden drums under the weight of the team. With the first sinking step off the bridge, my cleats drive through the grass into the wet dirt. Each step sticks in the moist sod as I run to the opposite end zone for the pregame pep talk. The gold jerseys and blue numbers of my team keep passing. Their helmets are covered in the small adhesive tomahawks that Braves earn for tackles, yards gained, or touchdowns. Each player, as trained, drops to one knee when he reaches the end zone. I am the last to arrive, struggling with a body that I want to grow into.
I have two tomahawks. If a running back gains over one-hundred yards in a game, each offensive lineman gets a tomahawk. I am too slow to play defensive line and make tackles, so I am only the center. Centers do not make tackles, gain yards, or score touchdowns. I cannot earn a tomahawk that is only mine.
Dad has moved from the end zone to the sideline, walking up and down like he belongs, wrapped in his blue and gold warmups, talking with the chain gang and the referees. I know that in the patch of visiting Brave fans that have collected while we were in the locker room, my mother is passing out egg salad sandwiches and my grandfather is polishing the lenses of his binoculars.
Coach hikes his nylon shorts up under his paunch and slides the Sterling Football Staff hat off his greasy comb-over. “Tonight, gentlemen, is going to be a test. On the field, you’re going to have a tough game. Off the field, you are going to have to show your very best sportsmanship. The home fans sit right behind our bench, not theirs. They’re going to have some things to say to you. You are to be gentlemen at all times. When you come off the field, leave your helmet on, face the game, and ignore everything behind you. You are representing Sterling High School, and, goddammit, you are going to behave yourselves. If those people piss you off, use it on the field. Get pissed out there. Use it to beat their team. Got it?”
There is a rumble of agreement. I nod.
“Okay, hats off, moment of silence.”
The sound of snaps breaking loose is like bugs chirping in the grass. I pull my helmet off and lean heavily on it. Head down, eyes closed, I picture the perfect hit. I see it from above, fifty-four versus seventy-one, two small bodies on a game film, a slow-motion replay. Seventy-one comes out of his stance too high, and my shoulder is in his stomach before he can put his hands on my pads. I take short, choppy steps, the same steps that knocked Dad over every time. The force of my legs churning, cleats digging sod, drives seventy-one backwards. He catches a heel. His weight shifts, body rotating around his hips (because if you control the center of gravity, you control the enemy, Dad says), and I drive his back into the dirt, hearing the wind knocked from his lungs on impact. In my mind, I am an angry machine. I hate seventy-one. My mask tears at the grass, my legs driving, keeping the enemy on his back, humiliating seventy-one until the whistle blows.
“Amen. Let’s play,” Coach says.
I look up. Dad is walking backwards across the track on his way to the bleachers. He catches my glance, smiles, gives a double thumbs-up, and turns his back on the field.