“Armstrong!” Head Coach Saban yelled at me across the field. “Quit daydreaming and get back to practice! We didn’t offer you a full ride just so you can dance around the field like a pixie!”
“Yes sir!” I immediately responded, returning my focus back to practice. I could’ve sworn I just saw her. I mean, she was in the band, right? Pretty sure at graduation she was offered a scholarship to join the Million Dollar Band. I quickly take another glance just to make sure I was actually seeing the Million Dollar Band walk past when I felt something slam right into my stomach.
“Fuck, Luke, when are going to pay attention to the damn game?” I heard my childhood best friend, Jacob Sykes, scowl.
I caught the football that slammed into my stomach and laughed, trying to act like it didn’t faze me. “I’m paying attention, trust me,” I lied.
“To hell with that,” Jacob turned and spit onto the field. “Not only have I been playing football with you since our peewee days, we’ve been best friends since then and throughout high school so I’m pretty sure I know when you’re not.”
I smirked and shook my head. “What can I say, apparently, I am a terrible liar,” I said sheepishly as I threw the football back to him.
“That you are, my brother,” Jacob laughed and caught the football with ease.
Except that I wasn’t as terrible as Jacob had thought. I had been keeping a secret for the past eight years, and not even my prying older sisters knew about it. Besides, the only person who had known must have long forgotten about it so there was nothing to worry about. The secret was still safe, for now at least. What was my secret?
My obsession with Chloe Claire.
Chloe Claire was this girl I practically grew up with. I met her in fifth grade, as lame as it sounded, but honestly it all started when our teacher, Mrs. Mayfield, kept pairing us up together. It didn’t sound odd until you realize Mrs. Mayfield kept assigning different partners to everyone but Chloe and me.
“Why does she keep pairing us together?” I asked Chloe. It wasn’t like I disliked Chloe at the time, but I was certainly confused as to why I wasn’t paired with anyone else.
Chloe shrugged, not saying a word. I could tell that she wasn’t comfortable around me yet, which unnerved me. I never wanted to make anyone uncomfortable, in fact, I just wanted to be friends with everyone.
The next day I came to school, everyone in the class was stunned to see that they had been moved to different assigned desks. I was put up front with Jacob Sykes and wondered who was going to sit on the other side of me. Jacob and I were goofing off at the time until I heard a certain voice.
“Wow,” I heard her say.
I instantly looked behind my shoulder to see Chloe Claire in full view. I smiled at her, as I did to everyone. “What?” I asked.
“I have to sit next to you,” she rolled her eyes as she sat down next to me.
For whatever reason I was not offended by this, but instead smiled and laughed. “And is that a problem?”
Chloe smirked, “I guess not,” and that was how our friendship started.
Fifth grade was probably one of the funniest years of school I ever had, including high school. It wasn’t like any of my other years sucked, it was just that someone made that particular year the best year of my life. There was just something about Chloe Claire that attracted me to her, even though I had no idea what it was at the time. I remembered coming home beaming, telling my mom about something Chloe said or did. She was the funniest girl I had ever met. Every day she seemed to crack a new joke or find some way to make me laugh so hard I almost peed my pants. Best of all, she was not afraid to tell a poop joke. Sure, call me immature or childish but that shit was the funniest.
I remembered telling Jacob that I wanted to ask her out, but his response ruined it all for me.
“You wanna ask who out?” Jacob scrunched his eyebrows.
I got quieter, starting to get a little embarrassed. “Chloe...”
“You mean the fat girl who sits beside us?” Jacob said with disgust.
“She’s not fat...” I mumbled.
“I couldn’t hear you, say that again for me,” Jacob’s light eyes bore into mine. “Were you talking about Chloe Marshall, who’s super hot?”
I could feel my face burn. It was embarrassing to have your best friend tell you that the girl you liked was ugly, especially when you did not think so. I guessed everyone had different tastes, but obviously he had the wrong kind, especially since he thought a girl the size of a toothpick was considered hot. “No...”
“Oh, you do? Okay I’ll ask her out for you,” Jacob replied and that was how I ended up dating the wrong Chloe.
The funny thing about it was, I never knew I was in a relationship with her until she broke up with me saying I didn’t pay enough attention to her‒right in front of Chloe Claire of all people. I didn’t even know Jacob had asked Chloe Marshall out for me until the relationship ended two weeks later.
I heard one of the coaches blow their whistle as Coach Saban yelled, “Okay guys, huddle up!”
Everyone stopped what they were doing and ran to huddle up around Coach Saban. Jacob and I soon followed, squeezing ourselves a spot near Coach Saban.
“Good practice everyone!” Coach Saban yelled as he held his clipboard, staring with intimidation into everyone’s eyes. “I expect the same exact thing tomorrow morning bright and early at 4:00 a.m.”
I could hear several guys groan.
“Shut your traps! That’ll earn y’all an extra mile to run in the morning, how about that?” Coach Saban snapped as he chewed his minty gum rapidly.
Everyone immediately fell silent.
“Alrighty then. Tomorrow, I want to try out second-string here as a quarterback,” Coach Saban said as he looked at Jacob.
I knew how much Jacob hated to be called second-string. He always complained to me afterwards about how he had a name and how he was irritated that Coach Saban didn’t bother to remember it.
“Okay, D’Marcus, let’s end this practice so we can all go shower,” Coach Saban said to our team captain of the practice.
D’Marcus was a polished senior and an amazing defensive end. I was sure he was going to be drafted to the NFL this year. In high school, I had watched him play on tv and he made everything look effortless, exactly how I wanted to look.
“1,2,3,” he started.
“Roll Tide!” everyone shouted.
Everyone took off their helmets and started to jog off the field.
“Let’s go, Luke,” Jacob said as he started jogging.
“Armstrong!” Coach Saban yelled as I began to pick up my pace.
This couldn’t be good, I thought as I stopped in my tracks. I slowly turned around and walked toward Coach Saban with heavy feet.
“What the hell were you doing this morning?” he asked as he looked up to me with his hands on his hips, his eyes squinted, and his dark eyebrows scrunched tightly together. “You were doing exactly as I wanted you to but all of the sudden you started looking around like some lost child looking for its parents in a strip mall. What’s the matter with you, son?”
“I’m sorry, Coach. It won’t happen again,” I said as I heard an instrument playing off in the distance.
“It better not or I won’t start you this season,” he studied me.
I heard another instrument start to play. Was that a saxophone? Was that Chloe playing?
Coach Saban put his arm on my shoulder, bringing my attention back to him. “Listen, Armstrong, you know why I offered you a full scholarship here to the University of Alabama?”
“Because I was the third best wide receiver in the country?” I asked, hoping to point out the obvious.
“Oh?” I raised my eyebrows with confusion.
He laughed. “I picked you because you’re actually the best wide receiver in the country right now. I know what the media says and how people rated you as third but in my eyes you are number one. I was there scouting you out for our team and when I watched you play I thought to myself, ‘Well damn, now that young man there is hands down one of the best wide receivers I have ever seen.’ All you have to do is focus a little more and you’re there. Not many players have the raw talent that you have, Armstrong, and don’t take that for granted. I could easily find another who would work harder than you do. In fact, second-string wide receiver is a harder worker than you are. He would love to be in your position and probably wants you to hurt yourself, so he could get a chance to play and strut his stuff, but I gave the position to you instead. Don’t disappoint me, Armstrong, you got that?”
I could smell his minty gum as he chewed. Jeez, did his gum ever go bad?
Coach Saban let his hand slide off my shoulder and turned to spit out his gum, opened a new packet, and popped it into his mouth and proceeded to chew again rapidly.
Guess that answers my question. “Yes sir,” I nodded and looked at the spat-out gum on the field with disgust. I hope I don’t step on that.
“Good, now get going,” Coach Saban said and placed his hands on his hips again.
I nodded, turned around, and ran straight for the locker rooms, looking over at the Million Dollar Band again as they were warming up. Stupid me thought that if I looked hard enough, I might be able to see Chloe out there warming up her instrument, but of course, I had no luck in finding her.
I went in the locker rooms, and my nostrils immediately wanted to shrivel up and die because of the odors that wafted through the room. I would never take Willowbrook’s locker rooms for granted ever again, not that I could ever use them again. I used to think that Willowbrook’s locker rooms were the worst smelling places on Earth, but these locker rooms showed me that it was nothing compared to these odors that crept in the college locker rooms. It wasn’t like the facilities were bad, it was just that hundreds of sweaty, disgusting guys were crammed in one place‒some a little more smelly than others.
After showering and putting on some fresh, clean clothes, Jacob and I headed back to our dorm. Our dorm was decorated in crimson and white, to show our sportsmanship and enthusiasm for our team. We weren’t quite done yet with furnishing, but we had until our first semester to figure everything out, since we had to stay during the summer to practice football.
“I can’t wait to see the cheerleaders,” Jacob said as he threw himself onto our sofa and turned the tv on.
“You already know one of them,” I said as I took off my shoes and placed them neatly in the small entry way.
“Oh yeah, Heather Bates. Damn, I forgot that she actually made their cheerleading squad. At least I can say I already fucked with one of them,” he laughed as he put on Netflix.
“Ha,” I said sarcastically.
All the sudden “You Can’t Hurry Love” by Phil Collins started playing.
“Dammit Luke, when are you going to change your phone’s ringtone?” Jacob said as he looked through the comedy section of Netflix.
I laughed and reached into my bag for my phone. “What? It’s a great song!” I said defensively as I looked to see who was calling me. I should have guessed: it was my mom. “Hey, I’ve got to take this. My mom’s calling,” I said quickly to Jacob and headed towards my room.
Jacob rolled his eyes and continued searching for a movie as I left.
I shut my bedroom door and answered the phone. “Hey, Mom,” I said as I shoved my free hand into my pocket.
“Hey sweetie!” Mom answered ecstatically. “How was practice?”
I regretted telling her the times when practice started and ended. I should’ve known she would be calling me constantly.
“Mom, please don’t do what you did to Ruth and Rachel when they went off to college. You can’t be calling me all the time,” I said as I stared at a Crimson Tide poster on my bedroom wall.
“But you are a completely different case, Luke!” she whined in her defense. “Ruth and Rachel left in August while you left during the summer. John and I didn’t get to spend the summer with you like we did with them.”
“I know you and Dad will be okay. Besides, you two are coming to all of the home games, right?”
“Of course! As many as your dad’s schedule allows! Here, let me get him on the phone. He’s currently in the living room at the moment. It’ll be just a second,” she said happily as I heard her shuffle from the kitchen and into the living room. “Honey… John… John, I have Luke on the phone.”
I could hear Dad reluctantly get up from the recliner. “Sorry, I couldn’t hear you, Esther. The tv was so damn loud,” I heard him say faintly. “How’s my football super star?!” he shouted into the phone, leaving a ringing sound in my ear.
“Jeez, Dad, could you just speak a little louder? I couldn’t hear you,” I said sarcastically.
“What? You want me to speak a little louder?” he raised his voice even more.
I couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. I could’ve sworn my dad needed hearing aids. “I was just kidding! You are shouting into the phone, Dad. It’s killing my ears,” I said as I rubbed my ear, somehow thinking it could stop the ringing.
“Oh, sorry about that,” he laughed. “Anyway, like I was saying before, how’s my football super star?” he said excitedly.
“Dad, I am not a super star now stop it,” I laughed. “I was doing great at practice until today when Coach Saban yelled my name like three times.”
“Ahh, my hero Nick Saban. I’m sure you deserved whatever he was yelling at you about.” My dad loved Nick Saban. To him, he was the most popular celebrity in the world, and it was my dad’s dream to meet him and take a picture with him.
“I did deserve it,” I said, staring down at my bedroom floor, shoving my free hand into my pocket.
“Now listen to me, Luke. Whatever Nick Saban says to you remember it and lock it down. Don’t you ever forget anything he says to you, because that man is like one of Jesus’s disciples, you got it?”
“Yes sir,” I said while grinning, but what Coach Saban said earlier loomed over me. The fact that he thought I was the number one wide receiver in the country was a feat in of itself, but having to deal with the pressure and rise above and beyond his expectations has suddenly become even harder to obtain.
I started to hear barking in the background and I rolled my eyes. “Is that Big Al in the background?” I asked as I opened the blinds.
“Al hush, I am on the phone with your brother,” I heard Dad say to the dog. Big Al was our family pet Cockapoo, considered more like a family member than I would have liked. Mom got him when I was in ninth grade when our other dog, Crimson, sadly passed away. Big Al didn’t even match his name. He was only like 24 pounds‒ most of it probably fluff. He might’ve been cute, but I learned to dislike him, as Big Al disliked me. When I couldn’t drive and Mom had to pick me up from school, she would bring Big Al with her, letting him sit in the front seat. So naturally, I always had to sit in the back, and the dog felt superior to me because of it.
I looked outside and scoped out the grounds. This place was a heck of a lot different from home. It was amazing yet unsettling at the same time.
“So, have you seen any pretty girls yet?” Dad asked.
Not the pretty girl I was looking for… “Daaaaad,” I complained.
“What? I’m only looking out for your best interests, son.”
“I know you are, and no, I haven’t seen any pretty girls yet. My school year hasn’t even started yet,” I folded my free arm underneath the other and heard the band begin to play. Damn, they sound really good. I bet Chloe loves being in a band of this caliber.
“Listen son, I’m only going to say this once, but you better enjoy that hair because in ten years it’ll be all gone.”
Yeah, he said he would only say it once, but he’s been telling me ever since I turned sixteen. I’ve seen pictures of my dad when he was younger. He had a lot of hair back then, even when he married my mom, but years after he started losing it all and he decided to shave his head saying he wanted all or nothing. I prayed I wasn’t going to be like Dad. I wanted to keep my hair.
“Don’t you listen to him,” I could hear Mom say in the background. “Luke you’ll keep your hair. My father still has hair so that means you will have hair. You get hair on your mother’s side of the family.”
“What? Are you saying being bald is bad?” I heard Dad ask argumentatively.
“Honey, you know I think you look good with hair or no hair.”
“Okay Mom and Dad, I think I should let y’all go,” I piped in before it got too serious.
“Alright, sweetie,” Mom said. I could even imagine the smile in her voice.
“If you say so, son,” Dad sighed.
“You know I love you Mom and Dad,” I tried to reassure them. I know they wanted to continue talking but if it were up to them I would never get off the phone.
“We love you,” Mom said into the phone. I heard Big Al bark once more.
“Big Al also says that he loves you,” Dad added.
“Yeah, right,” I laughed.
“Okay, we’ll let you go, sweetie. I wish we could’ve talked more.”
“I know, I know,” I grinned while shaking my head. I wonder what the band is playing for the halftime show this year… “Love you both, bye,” I said and hung up the phone. I put my phone in my pocket and walked out of my room and into the living room.
Jacob paused the movie he was watching and looked at me with annoyance. “Are we going to have to listen to this damn music all the time? I hate the band. If it were my choice I would get rid of it entirely. Nobody cares about listening to music anyway. No one comes to football games to hear the band, they come to watch some damn football.”
“They’re there for entertainment value, besides, they actually have competitions they go to. It’s not like they just show up for football games,” I defended them.
“Whatever. I don’t even know why I have to explain it to you of all people. You had even quit Willowbrook’s band because you actually had a brain,” Jacob put his arm behind his head and relaxed onto it like a pillow.
I remembered when I joined Willowbrook’s band. When I told Jacob I was interested in joining band, Jacob had laughed and said that band was the place where all the dorks and nerds of the school came to hang out. I didn’t listen to him of course, but it really didn’t matter to me. Since I had heard Chloe Claire had joined the band from one of her friends, I quickly joined band and became a drummer in an attempt to become closer to her.
Chloe became an alto saxophone player, which I slowly learned was probably the coolest instrument to play‒ other than the drums. Best of all, I finally got to see her more. I remembered how excited I was to speak to her. She was sitting in one of the chairs with her best friend, Hailee Macintyre, and was probably telling one of her funny stories again because I saw Hailee laugh really hard. I couldn’t help but smile stupidly as I approached her.
“Hey Chloe,” I grinned. I could feel my little heart pound loudly inside of my chest. “I haven’t seen you all summer, how have you been?”
Her reaction broke me in two. She stopped smiling and looked at me questioningly with her brown eyes. “Good.”
I knew this wasn’t how Chloe normally was. When she was thinking deeply about something or was surprised, her face naturally turned into a scowl.
“How was your summer, Luke?” Hailee asked with a sweet smile.
“It was great, thanks for asking,” I forced a smile, trying to play it off like I wasn’t hurt. I looked at Chloe to only see her nod and look around like she wanted me to go away.
That was how our friendship came to an abrupt end. Everything seemed to go by in a blink of an eye. Without her friendship, I no longer had a reason to be a part of band anymore. It wasn’t like I didn’t try to be friends with her afterwards because I did. I even tried talking to Hailee, trying to become friends with her in order to be closer to Chloe, but nothing worked. She hated me, and I had no idea why.