Monday, September 10, 2007

Muscle Memory (Part 4 of 4)

The first play is crucial, Coach says. The first play is where you decide who is a man and who is a boy. At the first snap of the ball, I must hit seventy-one as hard as I have ever hit anything. I must put the top of my helmet in his facemask. He must see nothing but my head coming at him like a blue missile, and hear nothing but the explosion of plastic shells meeting. I must make him afraid. This is called “putting paint on him.”

When the huddle breaks, I see seventy-one on his knees in front of the ball. I have never seen him from the ground. I only know him as a small body in red, captured from a distance by a wobbling camera. Face-to-face, he is as big as I am, maybe bigger. His uniform strains to hold him. I am not afraid. He is a fat boy. Quick feet will always beat a fat boy, Dad says. Short, choppy steps.

I crouch over the ball, wrapping my black gloves around it. Seventy-one has a foot back. I picture the path his helmet will take when he tries to go past me. I imagine the first step I must take to make my helmet meet his. I do not have quick feet, but I am smart. I know where fat boy seventy-one is going.

The count is called.

I snap the ball.

Seventy-one goes where I knew he would. Our heads bang together. The crash echoes in my ears. My neck flexes back. The edge of my helmet presses into my collar. I bite hard on my mouthpiece, feeling my teeth touch through the thick rubber. My vision goes yellow and white, but my feet keep moving, keep driving. For an instant, he wobbles, giving up one step. I want him to fall, but he does not. No one will ever see that one step I fought for. No one will know that I won the battle. The whistle blows.

As I get in my stance for the next play, I see a streak of blue on seventy-one’s facemask, a scrape from the top of my helmet. I imagine my own mask without a trace of red. I put paint on him. I am the man, he is the boy.

His foot is dropped again. I may be slow, but he is stupid. I picture his first step and plan my own. This time, fat boy, I will knock you down.
The count is called.

I snap the ball.

His hand rises. He is going to swat me. I brace my neck against the foam collar and drive towards his numbers, waiting for the slap on my helmet, imagining the hard ground under our bodies when I knock him down, the humiliation in his eyes when the whistle finally blows and I help him up like a gentleman.

The swat never lands. His hand goes under my mask, pulling at my chinstrap, scratching at my cheeks, gouging my eyes. I see nothing but his thick fingers, his hand inside my mask. My chinstrap breaks loose. My cage shakes and turns. The world outside my helmet rocks. I keep driving. My shoulder lands hard between the seven and the one. He topples back, pulling at my mask, taking me over with him.

I straddle his fallen body. My helmet, unstrapped by my enemy, comes off easily in my hands. My exposed face burns with sweat in the tracks left by his fingernails. I grip my mask with black-wrapped fingers, swinging my helmet over my head, bringing it down again and again on the enemy’s fat masked face. The helmets crack like rifle shots, echoing off the concrete stadium walls. Each impact leaves a dark, satisfying streak of blue paint.

I see his eyes and they are afraid.

I do not hear the whistle blow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, excellent writing! You make a lot happen with a few words. I started with Part 4 of 4 and am now relishing the prospect of reading more. Thank you!