He sat on the end of the bench, not even bothering to take his helmet off. The bench was not steel, but rather of the old, wooden variety. It had steel legs covered in worn, chipped gray paint and was planted in the middle of the home side of the field, about thirty feet from the lowest level of the home stands with its center splitting the fifty yard line. His school could not afford to get the new brushed steel benches as they were too expensive, so the seating that had served so many other players and teams over the years had to do. The smell of grass, dirt, and stale popcorn filled his nostrils. For Dan, the game was over, but not in the way that so many games were as this time it was permanent. His career had come to an end and that reality was just hitting him now like a fastball to the chest. He hurt, but that hurt was not physical. He could deal with the physical pain much easier than what he was feeling now because it was centered, he knew where it emanated from, he knew it would heal. This was different. It was the pain of knowing it was over. This time, he was not sure it would heal. It would not be a stretch to say that Dan would have preferred the physical ache anytime.
He grew up playing the game with that version of pain. Every time the kids from the neighborhood would choose up sides for a pickup game, it was with the knowledge that someone would get hurt. They knew it and wore it like a badge of honor. Survival of the fittest. The field was usually a narrow slip of grass in front of some factory, no wider than thirty feet in width or ten yards, in football speak. The length of the makeshift gridiron varied by location but generally was no longer than ninety feet or thirty yards. The out of bounds area consisted of the factory wall on one side and the curb and street on the other. If they were lucky, the wall side had bushes or decorative shrubs along its length and a player would get shoved or tackled into those instead of trying to cushion a blow against brick, then having to deal with the bruises and scrapes when he got home. A player never complained of injury if he could help it. Never. Blood was something to be wiped against your pants or with the sleeve of your shirt. Even a leaf or random piece of dirty cloth found on the street would do. To complain of injury was to admit you were ‘soft’ and besides, Walter Payton would not come out of a game because of injury, so they could not. Dan was always Walter Payton, always, and everyone knew it. They also knew he would never come out of a game. Never. Every player chose their favorite pro to emulate, move like them, perform like them, be heroic like them. Action shots of their gridiron favorites that were torn from magazines hung in their rooms as the Mona Lisa hangs in the Louvre. Visiting a friends room was like gazing upon a shrine to the gods.
The pick up games ended when the street lights went on or it was too hard to see the ball or the worst of them all, someone’s Mom called them to come home because they had to go to school the next day. For the latter scenario, the teasing would last for a solid twenty four hours with occasional blurts of, “Your mom is calling you!” Everyone was subject to that fate at one time or another. Tales of the game were told and retold at the lunch table with each player embellishing just enough to impress any of the girls that happened to overhear. Sometimes, players were called on their exaggerations. It was easy to tell as the entire table would let out an “OHHHHH” if the offender went too far. As Dan sat on the bench, the memories of those times were as thick as summer leaves in a dense forest.
Dan looked up from the bench and out into the field. Most of the players had gone, and through the tears in his eyes, the field took on a misty haze. He was brought back to when he was seven. Each week on their way to church, Dan’s parents would drive past the high school field. For a seven year old Dan Patterson, the field looked larger than life. For as long as he could remember, he wanted to play on that field, but he never thought he would. Each Sunday he tried to will himself to grow up faster in order to be able to play there, but the gods were not listening and each day, each year seemed to drag by. He had to be content to play on the makeshift fields he and the other players found.
“Mom,” he said one day. “What if when I get old enough they close the field? What do we do then?” His mom craned her neck to see him out of the corner of her eye as she drove and said “I don’t think we have to worry about that Danny. I’m sure it will be there when you’re ready.”
Dan chimed in, “But what if? Will we move?” Dan’s mom was amused by this exchange. She replied, “If we have to move, we’ll move. I promise.”
“Good,” he said. Dan felt he won the battle and was content for now.
As Dan scanned the field through the mist in his eyes, he recalled his first day of high school practice. All of the players lined up, some forty in total. The freshman coach was someone he had never met, but was instantly impressed with. A loud, booming voice emanating from a barrel chested, bearded man who had SPARTAN FOOTBALL in block letters tattooed to his gray athletic t-shirt gave Dan the impression that this was truly professional football. Some of the guys on his team were from rival neighborhoods and the once rivals had to find a way to be teammates now. This did not sit well with Dan from the beginning, but over time, he would learn that the old neighborhood rivalries no longer mattered. His stomach was full of every butterfly in the state. Even though he was a 5’8 freshman, his helmet seemed to fit wrong as he had a slight headache, his shoulder pads were awkward and his pants were too long with the knee pad coming in just a bit too low over his knee. As he peered through the double barred face mask, he could smell the sweat from his own head. He felt safe behind that face mask, like he was shielded from any onslaught. It was not like this at the fields he was used to as they did not have equipment, so while he felt like a foreigner in a strange land as he wore his gear, there was a sense of safety and excitement that he had never felt before.
“Does your head hurt,” a kid next to him asked.
“Yeah,” the kid said. With a slight pain in his voice he continued, “I hope it goes away.”
“Me too,” Dan responded.
The pain did disappear over time as the helmet adjusted to their heads. Dan was jerked back to the present as the honk of some passing cars packed with teenagers passed the field. He looked at some teammates filing off the field and realized how many did not quite make it to their senior year as football players. The kid with the helmet question, Jason Lee, was not one of them. He and Dan became the best of friends, although neither knew each other prior to that encounter at that first practice. Dan thought instantly as he saw Jason walking the field one last time that if it were not for the common love of this game, they would never have met. One of the benefits of being a player. Their bond would forever be as teammates. The blood, injuries, fighting through the intensity of the contests won or lost would become a cement that could not be cracked. They both knew this and as Dan watched Jason taking his final tour of the field, he was grateful for their shared experience. They were a breed apart as football players, and they knew it. This was not a game for everyone, but what was forged among Dan and his teammates was something that only players of the game understood. Outsiders would not, or could not understand. Dan did not even try to explain it to them as it would be an exercise in futility. There is something about the physicality of sport that young men need. Instinctively, Dan knew this. he knew it the first time he strapped on his pads and donned his helmet for freshmen football. He knew it when he played pickup games with his friends. Primal in nature, but something that he had to do. Competition in its purist form. Boys exercising their demons, yet learning the responsibility of team, loyalty and achieving a shared goal through hardship. This must be what it’s all been about, he thought. His hands were still dirty from the game, with the two fingers he had taped together throbbing. He enjoyed that feeling now more than ever. He survived again, but this time, it was for good.
He knew that it was over. He knew that he would not don this uniform, or any other ever again. He knew that he would miss the game, the teammates, the early morning practices that he hated, but loved. He knew that the smell of sweat soaked shirts hanging in his locker would be gone for good, that the laughs, the practice fights, the scrapes and sprains would not be there, and he was already missing it. He looked down at his mud caked spikes, dirty socks, and thought of the iconic image of Y.A. Tittle in his last game at Wrigley Field, battered and bloody, on his knees in the end zone, helmet lying next to his bleeding head knowing that he gave his all for his entire career and now it was over. He was not Y.A., but that is how he felt. The picture, frozen in his mind.
Someone came up to him, after what seemed like hours, but was only a few minutes.
“Hey Danny, let’s go. We gotta get back to the locker room so that we can turn our stuff in.” It was Jason. Dan looked up.
“Hey Jas…remember that time freshmen year when we weren’t sure our heads would stop hurting from our helmets?”
“Yeah…so?”, he said.
“I was just thinking about that, that’s all.”
“Yeah” he responded, “I remember that day.” Jason laughed a little, then looked around for a minute. “I guess time really does fly, huh”
Dan said, “It does. I was just thinking about all of the times we had here and now it’s over. What’s next?” Jason looked at him, puzzled at first, but then, realizing what Dan was saying said,
“The rest of the school year, then summer, then college. Let’s go, coach wants to get this over with.”
Dan looked up at Jason, always the realist. He took one last look at the field, one last glance at Jason, eye black smeared across his face.
“Yeah, let’s go”