"Someone call my grandmother and ask her if she can teach Tom here how to block. Get the hell up, Tom!"
The ringing in Tom's ears made it hard to tell, but he thought he heard Coach Underhill offering his usual brand of encouragement. Something the Coach referred to as "tough love". Tom, the intended recipient of this inspirational message, still lay on the ground though. His body felt like it had been hit by a truck rather than a 130-pound high-schooler. Tom lifted his head as the pain receded and he plucked a clump of sod out from between his face-mask and helmet.
"That was about the sorriest thing I've ever seen. You wanna explain to me how it is that this freaking sophomore -"
"Kevin," said a voice from nowhere.
"What?" Coach said after a second.
"My name is Kevin, sir," said the freaking sophomore from behind Tom somewhere.
Coach took off his sunglasses and flicked his eyes over to Kevin. "I don't recall requesting additional commentary. Did I?"
"I didn't hear any such request, Coach," said Coach Croll, the offensive coordinator, standing a few feet away from Coach Underhill.
Kevin's eyes opened fully, as if realizing his mouth might have let a few words loose minus his brain's permission.
"Shut the hell up and get in the huddle." Coach looked back at Tom as his player staggered back up to his feet. "As I was saying, how could a freaking sophomore could lay-out my starting fullback like that?"
Tom, now standing with hands on knees, catching his breath, looked around before replying. Ten feet away, he saw Coach's clipboard. This meant Coach had thrown it. That's bad. And both the starting offense and defense of the Deerbrook High School varsity football team stood there, many with hands on hips after a two hour practice in the hot Texas sun, awaiting his response. He had none.
Better think of something to say, Tom.
Just before Kevin's hit, all of his nerves had kicked themselves up several notches, if only for a second. Right then, he saw dark spots and colorful auras polluting his vision. He'd heard a noise like a truck horn, except it came from inside his own head. He tasted the pollen on the air he breathed and smelled perfume he knew from the last time he took out Lizzy Doyle, one of the cheerleaders practicing on the other side of the field. He was sure he'd experienced all of that in the instant just before Kevin hit him, not after. Tom didn't want to tell Coach that, though. Not all of it anyway.
"I felt kinda weird, all of the sudden, Coach. Like I was sick or something," said Tom, deciding on a balance between something mostly true and lame-sounding.
"Sick like you need the nurse or just itchy in places your bathing suit covers?" Coach asked as he accepted the clipboard offered to him by an unthanked fourth-string player. He had replaced his aviator-style sunglasses, but Tom could see his arched right eyebrow. Not a good sign.
Tom looked down for moment and felt a drop of sweat making its way down his spine. A hard-earned lesson of his father's sprang to mind about showing weakness. All of his focus went to that back-sweat and it taunted him, daring him to scratch at himself while under the coach's intense scrutiny. No son of Frank Clement would behave that way. "I'm good, Coach. Either way," said Tom, looking back up, making no move to address the back-sweat.
"You can't imagine my relief."
"You and half the cheerleaders," said Brock, the second-team fullback. In another setting, this would have gotten him some laughs.
"Time and place," said Coach Croll, under his breath.
The look Coach Underhill gave Brock nearly melted the lenses out of his sunglasses. "Now unless we need to call an ambulance for you, would it be alright if we ran the play again?" His eyes turned back to Tom. "I won't be able to sleep tonight if the last thing I saw today was my fullback getting his ass kicked. If that's ok by you?"
Tom ran back to his spot and lined up in response.
"Super," Coach called after him.
Tom had learned long ago that coaches asked many rhetorical questions and that doing whatever they were asking about would save both time and trouble. He crouched down into his stance and looked forward. He felt so pissed. Pissed about getting sick or whatever it was, pissed about getting flattened, and pissed that Coach had made a big deal out of it.
And he knew Kevin would try and take another shot.
He didn't want to be Kevin right then.
The play the team was about to run was one Tom and his teammates had run since pee-wee football. The ball gets snapped, the right guard creates a hole by blocking the left defensive tackle, Tom runs through the hole and blocks the oncoming linebacker, and the running back runs through until he's tackled.
Usually, Tom can block anybody without any issue, owing to his large frame and strong arms. This last time, as the entire team and likely the whole universe had been made fully aware, something went wrong. Unless Tom did something to make people forget the fact that he'd just gotten pasted by a kid that barely made the team, he'd probably hear a lot about it tomorrow.
Dad better not find out.
"Today, ladies!" Coach blared through his megaphone.
"Hut-HUT!" called Shane, the quarterback. The center snapped the ball and the play started. Tom sprung out of his stance and hit the hole created by the guard quicker than usual, reaching it in two steps instead of five. As Tom predicted, Kevin charged into the opening gap, knowing Tom would be coming through and hoping for a second go at him.
Tom would have tried the same thing in Kevin's shoes. Too bad for Kevin, Tom was no longer just pissed. Tom was so angry, he saw red.
When Tom and Kevin collided, the clacking of pads and helmets meeting rang out above the usual din of a play in motion. Tom pumped his legs, driving himself forward with what felt like no effort. Pushing his arms into Kevin, Tom meant to knock the precocious linebacker off-balance, making him unable to pursue Woody, the running back. Onlookers told Tom later that it looked like Kevin's body shot away from Tom, like a bullet from a gun. The freaking sophomore's body left the ground and smacked into Trey, the outside linebacker, causing them both to slump to the ground, opening a hole in the defense.
That settles that.
While Tom went looking for another target, Woody made the most of the huge defensive hole by cutting across the field through it. Billy, a fast but skinny junior playing free safety, ran toward Woody, giving Tom someone new to focus on.
Tom surged ahead again, leading Woody. Tom lowered his shoulder and plowed into Billy. When they made contact, a loud crunch rang out and Billy fell to the ground, screeching. He reached over with his left hand to grab his right shoulder, writhing and screaming as Tom and Woody ran by.
Oh, crap! That wasn't what I meant to do.
After Tom and Woody crossed into the endzone, they turned back to face their teammates. Instead of the usual compliments for a play well run, they saw trainers and coaches kneeling over the three fallen players left in their wake. They trotted back to the largest clump of players standing and watching.
The trainers decided to get a look at the howling Billy right there on the field. When they cut off his jersey, his nigh-unbreakable shoulder pads came apart into white plastic shards of random shapes and sizes. Billy's black and blue shoulder looked pulverized, with large hunks of broken football pad penetrating the wailing teen's skin. "Holy shit," said one of the skin-flushed student trainers working on him. "I think we need the nurse."
Simultaneously, coaches and trainers used smelling salts to revive Trey, asking him if he remembered his name and to count to ten. Nearby, Kevin was being helped off the field with his arms around the shoulders of a couple of student trainers. After surveying the scene, Tom noticed that most heads and eyes turned toward him. Coach Underhill's were the last to find him. He took his sunglasses off and said, "Office. Now."
"No way," said Coach Underhill after he followed Tom into his office and slammed the door behind them. The larger than average office doubled as a meeting space for the assistant coaches on one side and Coach Underhill's office on the other. The coach and his player stood between both sets of furniture.
"No way...? Sir?" Tom asked.
"That's right, Tom. No," said Coach. "As in, 'no way you aren't on drugs,' or maybe, 'no way you've been holding out on me all these years.'"
"I'm not on drugs, sir," said Tom. "I don't bother with that shi- stuff, Coach."
"I like to think one thing that sets me above other guys that want my job is my ability to look at a kid, see what he can do. What he's capable of. When you came here in '96 or so, I looked at you and thought, 'In a couple years, I'll have a starting fullback.' That's not much, but every team needs one, and there we were."
"Sounds like we're on the same page here, Coach."
"Not so fast, Tommyboy. Sure, you're my starting fullback. But, one second you go from getting your ass handed to you by some upstart sophomore and the next you run over the whole team like Larry freaking Csonka." Coach's voice picked up speed as he spoke. "Do you have anything you want to tell me, Tom? If there's something you need to say that could cost this team later on the down road, I need to know right here, right now."
"Well, that depends on who Larry Csonka is, first."
"Are you trying to get me to commit murder here, son?"
"Listen Coach. You know my Dad. Me, I'm indifferent to drugs one way or the other, but I'm fairly biased against getting my ass kicked," said Tom.
That's about as honest as I can be, Coach.
Coach looked at the younger man's face, appearing to consider it. Coach's shoulders let down, like he'd let go of a breath he'd been holding. "That doesn't feel like a lie."
"Thank you," said Tom.
"Then you've been holding out on me and the team? You've had that much more you could have given us this whole time, but you've been just giving us just enough to get by haven't you?"
Tom looked away, a blush rising.
This comment hit Tom harder than the Coach would have guessed. Although the circumstances of the afternoon's events magnified the effect, the Coach had nailed the root of the issue in one try. Tom knew that he reserved his best effort for games only, and even then he left some in reserve. It was a pattern he'd developed years ago, but as he devoted little time for introspection, that was about as much as he knew about it.
Coach must have seen the comment's truth wash across Tom's face. "That's it, isn't it? Some sort of fear of failure or success? Daddy issues?"
Tom's eyes had been trying to focus on anything in the office that wasn't Coach until that comment. They locked onto his eyes right then.
"Well, with your old man, I guess I see that making some sense," the Coach said, looking away as mental puzzle pieces fell into place. "You said you were feeling sick. Why don't you shower up and get home. We'll see you dressed out and ready for the game tomorrow. Now that I know what's inside you, Tom, that's what I'm going to expect."