by JJ Tyson
Artwork by Alexa Gaffaney
“Not big enough” you say to the trainer. “Just not big enough.”
“Not ideal” she responds. “But since your dog got to your cleats, these’ll just have to do.”
You stare just a little bit hopelessly at monstrosities hanging off of your feet.
“You’d better get out there hun,” she says, now sounding legitimately concerned. “Practice is gonna start any minute”. You look over at the clock on the wall. 3:29 and 34 seconds. You now have less than half a minute to make it out onto the field, or you’re going to regret it, just like you did yesterday. With your awkwardly large shoulder pads, surprisingly tight girdle, and slightly dented helmet, you try to run to the practice field; the best you can manage is a quick toddle in these gargantuan shoes.
The coach has already started when you get out there. Five rows of uniformed football players are doing two-man quad stretches on the ground. The team plus you makes 51, so you try to do the stretch solo, making yourself look even more ridiculous than you already did. “Johnny” barks the head coach, looking up from his clipboard for the first time in several minutes, “You were late. Laps.” Of course by now everyone has cocked their head to stare at you as you take off your helmet. With a sigh, you swallow the tiny amount of pride you were saving for later and begin sprinting the perimeter of the practice field. As 102 eyes watch you in silent judgement, you keep repeating to yourself, in your head and under your breath “the second day is never as bad as the first, the second day is never as bad as the first”. Finally the coach blows a merciful whistle and calls the team together for a “quick talk”
When you get to the huddle, the coach has already started mumbling about something. The words you pick up are “problem”…murmururmur… “stop”…murmurrrm…“marijuana”. You see skilled but notoriously pot-headed linebacker Mark Aviccio trying not to let the coach’s aging pupils meet his arid red eyes. Mark’s one of the nicer guys on the team, and he always looks high at practice, but he’ll still knock you into next week during a tackle drill. Fortunately, there haven’t been any of those yet. You’re hoping your luck will hold out till at least the end of the week.
It hurts when your luck doesn’t hold out. It hurts even more when someone twice your size gets a running start and tackles you to the ground. And it’s hard to describe what it feels like when it happens 15 times in 10 minutes, but the linebacker coach seems to be enjoying it. The 16th or 17th time, one of the seniors really knocks the wind out of you. You can’t help but wonder why we didn’t use tackling dummies, but you keep your stupid mouth shut because you don’t know if you’re physically capable of taking a lap right now. The fact that you look exhausted seems to provoke the coach further, so you stand up and get ready to take another hit. But suddenly, the coach grins and changes the rotation; it’s your turn to tackle someone. Lined up across from you is none other than 6’4, 210 pound senior Mark Aviccio. “Alright Johnny” says the coach, choking on smoky laughter. “Let’s see you rock him.” You line up across from Mark, ready to humiliate yourself again. You launch at him with everything your little 9th grade body has. For a very brief moment it seems as though you’ve failed, but suddenly you feel his body give way under yours and somehow you bring him to the ground with the happiest thud you’ve ever heard. The coach looks mortified; the rest of the linebackers are joining him. “Good hit, bud” says Mark as calmly gets off the ground, completely unphased. Right about then, the coach says “I’ve seen enough” and blows his whistle for a water break.
You walk around slightly taller for the rest of practice, because being the freshman who took down Mark Aviccio comes with an inherent sense of stature. In your mind though, you’re replaying that scene over and over again. There’s no reason you should have put him on the ground, and it eats away at you just enough to make you uncomfortable. After practice ends, it takes you a long time to change out of uniform. Your shoulder-pads are difficult to remove and you can’t get past the events of the tackle drill. By the time you’re in street clothes the only people left are some seniors talking about NFL, and they’re about to leave. One them is Mark, so you work up some nerve and catch him as he’s walking out.
“Mark, can I ask you something?” you say, unsure of how the words sound.
“Shoot” he says nonchalantly.
“Why did you let me tackle you?”
He stops, takes a second, and says; “One thing you need to understand man, Football is all about being tough. But you can’t have toughness without confidence and if all people do is beat up on you, you’ll never have either one. So chin up. I’ll probably wail on you 50 times before the season’s over, but remember tiger; you got the first shot.” And the next 50 times you get tackled by Mark Aviccio, it doesn’t hurt quite as badly.