August 1998: The Boys of Summer
I am seventeen. It’s football tryouts. And I’m about to become the first female football player in Truman High history.
Or so I tell myself as I walk onto the field. Condensation from the Pepsi-filled Big Gulp leaks onto my throwing hand. Sun-killed grass crunches under my cleats. Though I am shaking, I keep up my power pace to the sidelines.
They never see me coming.
I set the to-go cup on the aluminum bench crowded with gear and sidle up to Calvin. He’s got one leg up, foot resting on the bench, bent over, tying his cleat.
“Hey,” I say quietly, glancing around.
He looks up.
“Hey!” he smiles. “You finally showed up!” He’s been heckling me since freshman year to try out. We used to play together on the middle school team. That, and our assigned seats next to each other in sixth grade, cemented our friendship.
“Yeah, haha,” I titter, eyes still roving the competition. “Better late than never.” I force a wide, toothy smile that’s so fake it’s cartoonish. It makes him laugh, just like I’d hoped.
All the usual suspects are here. Some of them are play-wrestling. Some of them are stretching casually. One guy even takes his water bottle, aims it at some dude, and squeezes, firing a stream of water like a firehose. Almost all are laughing.
“Looks like some tough competition this year,” I say, dropping my voice to sound masculine. I puff up my chest and broaden my shoulders, flex my arms and clench my hands into fists. “The team’s shaping up to be a championship winner. We may even go to state.” I’m mocking the coach. He says this every year at the first week of school pep rally. It’s total bullshit.
“I’m shaking in my cleats,” Calvin chuckles. “Who knows if I’ll make the cut?”
Truman High sports teams - especially football - are all walk-ons. We’re too damn small to reject any players. And we suck at everything. Everyone knows “tryouts” are a joke; it’s really just a euphemistic label given to the first day of practice. No one gets cut. Ever.
“You know Beufort. Football capital of the world,” I say. “Don’t you realize how many NFL legends came from our town?”
The answer: none. Beufort is a farm-turned-industrial-turned-farm-again town in Northeastern Ohio. Nothing ever happens here. Most kids who are born here stay here until they die. No one ever leaves, and no one ever makes something of themselves. You just get stuck.
Thankfully, I wasn’t born here, and stuck is not a place I want to be. I’ll get out of here eventually. I just have to get through senior year. Somehow.
The coach blows his whistle.
“Line up at the end zone for relays!” he screams. Everyone lolligags over and forms five messy lines. I slink to the back of my line, hidden by tall, broad-shouldered blokes. They haven’t noticed me yet.
My palms are drenched. The late August heat drapes itself across my back. My neck sizzles; I can feel it burning. The B.O. is noxious. My heart’s racing. It’s difficult to swallow; my throat is thick.
Each guy at the front of each line races down the field to the endzone, tags the ground, and runs back down to high-five the next fella in line. By run, of course, I mean jog, prance, and hustle - no one really books it. They don’t put out full effort. They don’t care.
I watch Calvin’s back as he sprints to the opposite end zone, grass and dirt flying in his wake. The others cheer through cupped hands, unleashing guttural calls in languages only known to Neanderthals.
He sweeps the ground with his hand, pivots, and races back. My stomach clenches.
It’s go time.
Everyone will know I’m here now. I don’t want them to see me, but there’s no time to change my mind and no other option. Dread drops like lead in my gut, weighing me down, slowing me down.
Calvin tags my hand, and I accelerate down the field like a lemon of a car. My lungs burn. Heat rushes to my face. Shouts box my ears.
“What the hell?”
“Who is that?”
“Who let the girl on the field?!”
The brown, dead crust of field runs under my fingers, and I skid into the turn. Completely exposed.
Ponytail swinging, breasts belted in a too-tight sports bra, I face the scowling team. I run at them - maximum effort - and boos are my reception. I knew it would be this way. But preknowledge doesn’t stop the sting.
That’s when I catch a glimpse of him. A familiar face in the phalanx. My nose scrunches, lips grimace. Clammy hands are on my breasts. I shove the memory away.
Arriving at my line, I push past sweaty, onion-smelling boys in dark-stained sleeveless shirts. I throw elbows and hip-check to make it through, but it’s almost like they’re pushing back. Jeering.
“Hey. Rogers.” A familiar voice. But not Calvin’s. A shiver slides down my back. My stomach squirms.
Justin pushes his way through the lines to get to me. He stops a foot and a half away, in the parallel line next to mine. He crosses his arms and pops a hip, looks me up and down. From his frosted tips and solo hoop earring to his man tank and Roos, the boy radiates InSync babe-magnet cockiness.
“Step off,” I bristle, throwing him a dead-eyed, I-don’t-give-a-shit look. Some of the boys laugh and go “ooooh”.
“Salty,” Justin grins. It makes my cheek twitch.His stupid Mediterranean blue eyes are hypnotic. “I just wanted to wish you best of luck. With tryouts.”
“Mkay?” I narrow my eyes, but to no effect. I think they smell my fear.
He extends a hand to shake, smiling that greasy used-car-salesman smile. I stare at it, repulsed. There’s no way I’m touching that thing.
After a beat, he pulls it back and shrugs.
“Okay. Suit yourself.” Too casual.
He morphs back into line and attention turns away from me, at least until after push-ups.
Coach blows a whistle, and we all drop to give him twenty. I struggle but push through. Some of the guys can’t even make it to ten.
“Tractor! Butt down!” Coach barks at some poor soul.
“I’m tryin’, sir,” he drawls.
“Yeah, well, try harder!”
When I finish, I collapse on the grass, arms and abs burning. I roll over, bumping into Calvin. He’s laying on his stomach, propped up by elbows. I shield my eyes to block out the sun. His tan, freckled face is above mine. He’s got hazel eyes and shaggy, sandy blond hair parted down the middle. I’ve always liked his face shape. It’s diamond-shaped. He’s got nice cheekbones and a dimple on either side.
“Hey,” he murmurs.
“Hey,” I reply.
“Don’t let ’im get to you. He’s just trynna psyche you out.”
“I’m glad you came.” He smiles.
I grin in reply. At least one person is.
A shadow falls over us, a hulking darkness that blocks out the sun. I ab-crunch up, squinting.
“I don’t have your papers,” the silhouette of Coach Dodson growls. “No papers, no practice.”
I sit up all the way.
“What?” I continue to shade my eyes with my hand. I can’t see his face, I’m squinting so hard. I know I heard him right. I’m just not believing what I’m hearing.
“No papers. No. Practice.” Spit flies on every “p”. You can tell Coach used to be a drill sergeant. No joke. The guy was in the Gulf Wars.
He’s built like the Hulk: short legs, bulked arms, broad shoulders. Square head, constantly red, with a graying buzz cut.
I can’t take him seriously.
“I don’t understand,” I say. “To which papers are you referring?”
“Your sports physical. Your parental consent form. Your injury waiver. You’re a walking liability on this field! You get injured, you could cost the school a lawsuit!”
Wow. For a jarhead, you really know how to keep your cool. I wonder how well you did under fire.
A laugh bursts from my gullet.
“You’re kidding! Those freshmen are more of a liability than I am.” I glance at a couple of toothpicks attempting to wrestle one another. They’ve got no body hair, no body fat, and probably come up to my shoulder. “I mean, have they even hit puberty?”
Coach snorts. I’m the matador staring down the bull. All he needs is a nose ring.
"They have their paperwork in. You don’t. You can’t just show up here and expect us to cater to you.”
Cater to me?
I jump to my feet.
"Are you kidding me - ?”
“Coach, I don’t have my paperwork in yet. You always give us ’til one week after practice starts to get ’em in. Remember?” Calvin prompts. “But if you want, I’ll leave now, too. That way I’m not a liability either.” He looks at Coach earnestly. The kid’s blessed with an honest face. He could be bald-faced lying, and he’d look so damn truthful you’d believe him.
Coach’s eyes shift from Calvin to me and back. Calvin, me, back.
“But you’re not - that wouldn’t - ” he sputters. Calvin, me, back. “No,” he finally sighs, relenting. “You can both stay.” He turns to walk away, but then adds, as if on second thought. “But this year,” he enunciates, as if listening carefully to his own words, studying them as if they hung in midair, “we’re having cuts.” He nods slowly and roams away.
I look at Calvin, wonderstruck.
“Woah,” I breathe, a grin breaking across my face. “That was awesome. Thanks, man. I owe you one.”
He waves me off, tries not to smile.
“It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it. What are friends for?”
I owe way too much to that kid. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able pay him back. How do you pay back a saint? I don’t think you can. They’ll always have one up on you.