His mother said No five years straight. No to pee-wee, No to youth club, No to 6th grade, No to 7th grade, and No to 8th grade. He played chess instead, ping-pong and driveway hoops, games without collision. Capture the flag, cops and robbers, laser tag. The drama unfolding in his head, in his imagination only.
And then, freshman year: his father put his foot down. The boy is a young man now. The boy needs to decide for himself. The boy is ready. The boy, the boy. The argument lasted for a summer.
On the first day of freshman tryouts, in the early August heat of a night-never-cool, his father snuck him to the truck at 5am, rolled out in neutral, the engine huffing to life halfway down the block, and drove him to practice. When he pushed him out of the cab, Good Luck didn’t follow, only a wink and a nod, father to son, reminder of a mild disobedience.
The pain was thrilling. His knees pulled and yanked and he marveled at how his body could move. How he could run, his weight nothing to muscles singing joyful motion. God had made him, surely. Made him for this. And even among those more practiced, more experienced with the oversized pads, the suffocating helmet, he excelled. The coaches watched and took notes. Made marks.
Two-a-days until school. Sprint all morning, vomit, hydrate, run again. Collapse into bed, wake up stiff. Return in the afternoon with suit of plastic armor. Formations, drills, scrimmage. The smack of polycarbonate. The snorts of exhaled air. Real-life dog piles, boy bodies cursed and crushed and peeled up from mud and chalk and reset. Go home. Study plays, memorize tactics. A binder spread out on the dinner table, people the shape of letters on a page, his father pointing, giddy, My boy.
All this, long before concussions, before players began kneeling, before Los Angeles had two teams, when football was still sacred to him, still Jesus Christ Our Savior at fourteen, boy of the Heartland, boy of corn and dairy.
All this, too, before he lined up on a balmy day mid-September outside the recruiting office. Before he waited, sweating with other boys pushed by burning towers to defend Nebraska, to defend rural America and Sundays and most of all, football. Certainly before war. Before he learned not everyone lived and died the same, before his skin meant something to him, meant whiteness. Blank palette, now full: redneck, hillbilly, cracker—and he was and for the rest of his life would be and god all that goes with that unburdened burden he should have died like the movies glory be to god in the muck face down the rest of his white life would be a battle just to understand that one thing. Before he lost both his knees, not to bombs or IEDs or a firefight, but to chance genetics—rheumatoid arthritis, strange on the tongue at such a young age. Before the doctor would tell him braces wouldn’t cut it, his body was consuming itself, and that he would be discharged and sent home, a tour-and-a-half in. Before it felt like a sad joke. Chronic inflammation. Hadn’t he just been on the field, pumping those joints as he sprinted across tall fescue and leapt over outstretched arms, perplexed fingers grabbing at air, his body forever in motion on Friday nights. He believed he had rubber bands in his legs, he must, and for four years of high school in the late 1990s, they snapped and cracked and set him mad under those beautiful fall stars and, Goddamn that boy can run.