Headcase

I wasn’t too sure if I was going to post this, but I decided to grow a pair and do it anyways. It’s my first writing sample for grad school that I wrote last year. I guess I felt a little ashamed  of it (and still do) because I didn’t get into the MFA program. I don’t plan on submitting it to any literary journals, so I might as well post it here. Just so you guys know, it’s 25 pages double spaced. It’s a long read, but hopefully you guys will enjoy it for me.

 

Headcase

It’s a cold, November morning and frost blankets the practice field. The sun is just starting to rise, and from a distance, you can see the heat escaping from our bodies, making it look like smoke. The fire inside of us was ignited by our coach and now, it’s on us to learn how to channel the energy into a more productive practice. Move! Faster, harder! Hit’em harder! Pete! Aim with your head! Pop him right in the chest! Make him see stars! Keep moving forward!

“Coach really needs to learn how to calm the fuck down. When’s he going to realize this is just practice?”

“Afraid you can’t keep up, Pete?”

Johnny always has something stupid to say. He knows I can keep up. I’m stronger, faster, and far more talented than he’ll ever be, and he knows it too. He’s a good guy, but sometimes, he has to be reminded I’m the star.

“No, he just needs to chill out. Aim with our heads? Does he want to get us killed?”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you watch Sportscenter? Guys that aim with their heads always get hurt. That’s how my father got hurt when he used to play.”

“You think too much, man. Chill out and do what you’re told. TV always exaggerates their stories to get more viewers. Look at Skip Bayless; that guy has no idea what he’s talking about. It’s a known fact Tim Tebow cannot throw the ball, and yet, Skip constantly praises him. Why? Because it’s a good story. Anyways, Coach is a smart guy. He wouldn’t tell us to hit with our heads if he knew it was bad for us, right?”

“Yeah, you’re right. Maybe I’ll ask my dad about—”

“Pete and John! Stop fucking around and get back to work! Or would you like us to take a break so you can finish whatever the hell you two are talking about?”

“Sorry Coach,” yelled Pete and Johnny.

“Sorry? Up downs! Now! Everybody, join the fun! You can thank Pete and Johnny!”

“Coach, we just finished laps! How do you expect us to—”

“NOW! Up! Down! Up!

“Holy shit, Pete, he’s pissed! I’ve never seen him like this. You really pissed him off, man.”

I’m too tired to answer Johnny. I have blood running down my forearms, I’m soaked in sweat, and now I have to deliberately throw myself on the cold, hard ground. It feels like my arms might fall off, but if I don’t do what Coach says, I can’t imagine how harsh my punishment will be. Up! Down! Up! Down! Up! Down! No breaks, ladies, keep moving! Johnny’s right: I have to learn to keep my mouth shut.

Practice takes up a lot of our free time, but we always find a way to enjoy ourselves. We make friends with the cheerleaders, get invited to parties where everyone gets drunk and hooks up with each other, and next thing we know, we all have girlfriends. I’ve never been good with girls because I don’t have the time, unlike the other guys, to learn how. The only thing my father wants me to care about is football because that’s all he cares about. After practice is over, this girl Anna always comes over to talk to me. She has a reputation for being shy, but I don’t understand where it comes from. If she’s as shy as people say she is, why would she be a cheerleader? I’m willing to bet half the people in the stands come to the games, just to watch the cheerleaders. She’s not captain, but she’s just as talented and just as friendly as anyone else on the team.

A couple weeks later, some of her friends come up to me and say I should ask her out. I think they’re messing with me, but they tell me, “All she ever talks about is you. You’d be stupid not to ask her out. You guys look cute together,” stuff like that. Eventually, I caved and we’ve been boyfriend and girlfriend ever since. Now, when she cheers on the sideline, I like to pretend she’s cheering specifically for me, not the entire team. After a win, the first thing I do is run to her, hold her up in my arms, and let her kiss me and tell me how great I was. Luckily for me, our team went undefeated that season. The guys used to make fun of me at first, calling me “whipped” and stuff like that, but because football players are superstitious by nature, they see it now as a good luck charm and won’t allow me to not see Anna.

The first time I heard colleges were interested in me was after the second state finals game; our school won back to back championships for the first time in over thirty years. The last team to do that was the team Coach Brown played for. The win put the local media’s spotlight on our team and more specifically, on me. It was a close game up until the end. Both teams were going back and forth with the lead, scoring touchdown after touchdown. Our offense was doing its job, but I couldn’t get the defense to rally around me and stop the other guys from scoring. Coach was yelling at us, saying things like, “Hit them harder! Drive your heads into their chests! Knock out that goddamned ball! I don’t care if you’re hurt, keep going! They aren’t giving up and neither should you!” When you’re in the moment, you aren’t really listening to what the coach is saying, you hear the noise, the excitement in his voice. With the clock winding down, it’s no longer a battle between two teams; it’s a battle between mind and body, and the mind has to win.

During my little moment of victory, I recognize how the other team’s offense is set up, and know exactly what play to call. They want to do a play action, which tricks the other linebackers into believing they’re going to run, but in reality, pass the ball instead. I call for a safety to come up to the line of scrimmage and make them believe we’re going to blitz. Their quarterback audibles when he sees the safety come in, which means they bought the fake, but before they call hike, I have the safety drop back into coverage. At that point, it’s already too late for the other team. It’s third and long, so they need to pass if they want to stay in the game. I know the receiver is going to cut across the middle, so when I see him escape from the cornerback, I jump the route, intercept the ball, and run it back for a touchdown. We finally take the lead and demoralized them to the point where they can’t even run the ball past the line of scrimmage. It’s nice knowing my brain was the reason for winning, rather than our quarterback’s arm.

At the end of the game, still high on endorphins, not fully realizing we had just won another state championship, I go to Anna, do our routine, and introduce her to my father. He was polite to her, but we know he’s really not interested. He tells me he has a surprise for me, but we have to go now. I look at Anna, silently apologizing about my father, but she smiles, gives me a look of encouragement and tells me to text her later. In the parking lot, a man is waiting by our car. I ask my dad if he knows who this guy is and he says, “Pete, this is your surprise. This is the head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Go on and introduce yourself.” He knew this game was big, so he made sure someone important was there to see me play. The coach says I have a natural ability to read defenses, which will help to separate me from the average college player. He says he’ll keep in touch and regularly send scouts to games to keep track of my progression. The thought of going to the Ohio State University excites me and really gives me confidence in my abilities. For the first time, I can tell my father is truly proud of what I’ve accomplished. I hope the feeling never goes away.

After my father and I get home, and when the adrenaline wore off, I start feeling extremely tired and have the worst headache of my life. It’s like someone repeatedly smashing a hammer into the back of my head. I can’t see straight, I feel nauseas, and the pain only seems to get worse as time goes on. I ask my father to look at it and he noticed I had a pretty big bump on the side of my head. He touches it to see how sensitive it was and I throw up all over the floor. I tell my father I feel like I’m going to faint, so he brings me over to the couch and cleans up the mess I made. As soon as he finished, I ask what’s wrong and he says, “It’s just a bump. It’ll be gone in a day or two.”

“Maybe we should see a doctor. I’d feel a lot better if we went to see a doctor, Dad.”

“The doctor can’t do anything about the bump. All he’ll tell you is to ‘get some rest’ and will give you a prescription for stronger pain relievers.”

My father gives me a couple aspirin and an ice pack and tells me to go to sleep. I know the bump is much worse than how he’s describing it to me, but I guess he doesn’t want to scare me and make a big deal out of it. Why won’t he let me see a doctor? It’s my head, not his. I’m taking the beating, not him. It should be my call, but I can barely move. I have to do what he says. He knows best… I suppose this is the sacrifice he always talks about.

We go on to win one more state championship during my senior year, which sparks interest in multiple Division I colleges. I have offers from Michigan State, Florida, and Alabama, but I feel it’s my destiny to go to Ohio State and finish what my father started. During the interviews with these schools, scouts and coaches tell me I’m good at using my head and keeping my composure during key moments of games, which often lead to my team winning. It doesn’t matter what the situation is. Everyone around me knows I’ll come through for them and get the job done as long as everyone else is doing theirs. When everyone does what they’re supposed to, it gives me confidence in my teammates and allows me to take more risks. I know I can take these risks because my father constantly has me in the gym, increasing the odds of success. When you’re naturally smart and are more physically fit than everyone around you, the “high-risk” play becomes normal and people expect nothing less from you.

Sacrifice is a significant part of anyone’s life, whether you’re involved in football or not. Unfortunately, when you’re put in the spotlight, everyone around you feels like they somehow know you intimately and give their own input on why you choose to make certain decisions. My father tells me my dreams should come first before anything else in the world, but he forgets that all I wanted to be was a running back; linebacker was his dream, not mine. He isn’t a big fan of my girlfriend because he sees her mainly as a distraction. I enjoy spending time with Anna, but I hate getting yelled at for seeing her. I asked Anna to apply to Ohio State with me so we can spend more time with each other and possibly live together in an apartment off campus. She thinks it’s a good idea, so she applied, but was rejected because of her SAT scores.

This leaves both of us wondering what will happen with the remaining time we have together before starts school in August. We think we love each other, but we know there’s no way we could handle a long distance relationship. We’ve watched enough movies together to understand how difficult it is to keep the relationship going. It also doesn’t help that my father never approved of Anna in the first place. Why would he want to help me? My father can be annoying when it comes to anything that doesn’t involve football. I love him and I understand he only wants what’s best for me, but sometimes, I just wish he would remember we’re talking about my life, my dreams. He tells me to get my future set up before anything and when I’m finally in a stable situation, I can then, begin to let the other important things in my life fall into place, like settling down with a girl. I know what he’s going to say, but I ask him what I should do anyways. He says, “We both know, and even she probably knows, it’s not going to work about between the two of you. Do yourself a favor and her go. She’ll find someone who’ll spend more time with her. Do what’s good for you. She’s a big girl and can take care of herself. She has goals of her own. Don’t get in her way either.” It’s devastating to hear I’m also holding her back, so the next time I see her, I’ll tell her how I feel and break up with her.

“What do you mean it’s over? What did your dad tell you?”

“He didn’t say anything, Anna. This is me talking to you. It’s how I feel, not my father.”

“That’s bullshit, Pete. You don’t do anything unless you talk to your dad first. What did he say?”

“Nothing, Anna. Stop asking! We both know long distance won’t work.”

“That’s not true! It’ll work, you just have to believe it’ll work. Why won’t it work?”

“They never work! Who are you kidding?”

Anna constantly watches romantic chick-flicks where everything always works out in the end. I’ll admit I like the movies, but they’re just movies. Real life doesn’t work the way it’s portrayed in Hollywood. I don’t know how to tell her that. It’s hard talking to someone who believes in horoscopes, karma, and all that other bullshit.

“We have to give it a shot, Pete. Why, all of a sudden, are you so willing to throw in the towel?”

“I’m not! Just because I want to end something doesn’t mean I’m quitting. It means I’m done. You can’t blame me for marching to the beat of a different drummer.”

“Your dad’s behind this and I know it. I can see you’re hiding something. You were never able to lie to my face. It shouldn’t matter what I think anymore, right? Tell me, Pete! Tell me he—”

“Stop! Fucking stop! We’re done, Anna; get over it! We’re done! I’m telling you it’s over.”

 

We’re waiting in the dark tunnel and we can hear the crowd outside. They’re yelling, chanting, clapping, and stomping. The horns from the marching band are blasting and we can feel every beat of the drums and the stomping feet of from crowd above us. A security guard gives us the all clear and Coach leads the charge onto the field. The crowd erupts, making it impossible to even think to yourself. For a second, you get lost in the energy of the crowd and forget about everything. Nothing else is going on in the world and you are truly living in the moment. The feeling doesn’t go away either. The opening kickoff drives everyone in the stands crazy. The ref blows his whistle like the man who blows his horn, signaling for battle to begin; the band, the drummer boys, signaling our arrival onto the battlefield. Throughout the game, guys are getting hurt and questioning whether or not they’re man enough to keep going, but not me. I live for this game. It’s been drilled in my head to cancel out everything around me and focus entirely on the game. The only time I interact with the crowd is if I see my team starting to slack off. They’re great players, but they need motivation. I’ll wave my hands in the air to get the crowd going, which fires up my team and distracts the opposing quarterback. That is when I strike and turn the entire game around or put it out of reach. It’s like I’m always one step ahead of everyone around me.

What’s weird about my father though, and I wrote this in my journal, is when I look at him in the stands, he never smiles back at me. He tells me after the game he’s happy for me, but when I look in his eyes, there’s still something missing; there’s no sparkle or anything to make me believe he actually cares. Maybe I’m simply not living up to his standards or expectations of me. I’ll never call him out on it though. He does so much for me. My father handles money given to me through marketing agents, so incidents like the Reggie Bush scandal don’t happen. The media craves this because we all know a story about the good things people do never sells. It’s all about destroying lives and reputations. For whatever reason, watching our lives crumble is what many people desire. I’ll never understand why. I constantly try to make people happy. My whole life, I’ve done everything I possibly could to make my father happy. If I make it to the NFL, I’ll do whatever I can to show the world I will always put other people before myself. People need a good role model.

In order to be eligible to play in the NCAA, one has to declare a major, even though most players, including myself, don’t care about getting a degree. I chose English because it doesn’t involve any kind of math or science. People constantly tell me I’m capable of using my head on the football field; maybe it can transfer over into the classroom. It doesn’t matter what degree I get, as long as I’m eligible to play, I’m fine. My professors also understand how big a deal I am to the school, so they do what they can to make sure I pass. Most people can only skip class two or three times before they get kicked out, but I come and go as I please, as long as I have the major papers and occasional journal entry when I do show up. I have to admit it though, I like writing in the journal. As long as I’m not busy with practice, I try to write in it at least once a week. Being able to look back at what was on my mind can be very useful. I learn more about myself and I pick up on unusual patterns in my behavior. For example, when I recover from incredibly tough games, I’m more physically and mentally drained and I lose track of where my head’s at. I called my dad to talk to him about it, but he says it’s a part of the process and learning how to overcome it will one day, “make a man out of me.”

I consider myself lucky to have never had a serious injury keep me from playing football. There are guys getting hurt every week and some injuries are so bad, they’re forced to call it quits. The vast majority of people playing sports in college don’t make it to the big leagues, but it’s always sad to see the small opportunity one of the guys might have had, be taken away in a matter of seconds. I’ve had broken fingers and toes, my shoulder dislocated once, and I get a bad headache at least once a week, but these types of things are treatable within a short amount of time, making it easier to get on the field week after week. It’s simply a matter of popping a couple of pills or putting something back in its place.

Before big games, I look at my journal entries to see if I wrote anything about mistakes I’ve made in the past or if there’s anything in there to pump me up for game day. Being in the right place mentally is important because the violent nature of the game will break you down if you’re not prepared. Sometimes, I write about losses, and what the team could have done differently. Sometimes, I find funny stories, like the broken finger story, to tell to the team so we all have a good laugh together. We laugh together, fight together, win together, and lose together. That’s why we’re as good as we are. We don’t have the best team on paper, but we know our strengths and weaknesses, so it’s easier to have each other’s back. Understanding how people work always helps a relationship grow stronger.

One time during a game, the other team tried to run the ball, but I knew where the running back was going, so I filled in the gap and tackled him as hard as I could. When I went to tackle him, I missed the ball and dislocated my finger when I fell to the ground. I was seeing stars and my head was spinning so fast from the tackle and my adrenaline was pumping so much from the crowd cheering, I didn’t notice my pinky finger was bent backwards, almost to the point of touching the back of my hand. I walked over to the bench after the play and one of the offensive linemen came over and told me that “something was wrong with my finger.” I thought he was kidding around, but when I looked down, I saw it was out of place. Almost instantly, my stomach dropped and I started panicking. He calmed me down and told me he had an idea. As a joke, we both went up to one of the rookie wide receivers and showed him my finger. He tried to hide how disgusted he was, but deep down, we knew he was ready to puke. I looked at the lineman and gave him the sign. He grabbed my hand and popped my finger back into place and Johnny, the wide receiver, threw up and it was as blue as the Gatorade we were drinking. Everyone saw him puke and by the time Coach came over to see what was going on, I had my hand wrapped up and was back on the field.

The night before our game against Michigan, I was about to fall asleep when my phone went off. It’s a text from Anna. It must have been about three years since the last time we talked. She didn’t say much. She just said, “Hope ur doing well. Good luck tm.” I didn’t answer her back, but for the rest of the night, I was tossing and turning in my bed trying to figure out why she would text me. Why didn’t I get rid of her number? Did she do this on purpose to mess with me? Why, after three years would she text me? Does she go to Michigan? What if she’s dating Michigan’s quarterback? Why the quarterback? Did I scare her away from linebackers? What does it matter if she texted me or not? I don’t care—right? No, I don’t; I’d answer her if I cared. Does she want me to text her back? Maybe I should answer her. No, stop! I don’t care, I’m not answering…What time is it? Next thing I know, it’s six in the morning and I only have a couple hours to sleep and somehow get ready to play the biggest game of the year.

I enter the locker room and all the guys are giving me a hard time about how shitty I look. They asked if I was hung over or with a girl and when I told them no, they assumed I was lying and walked away laughing with each other. I still have Anna on my mind, which is starting to really make me angry. How could she do this to me? If she cared about me, she should know that I take this game more seriously than anyone. Next thing I know, everyone’s yelling and crowding around the coach. Did I just miss his speech? What happened? How could I miss the speech? I hope no one was paying attention to me. Coach would have said something, right? Whatever, I don’t need a speech. Over on the sideline, Anna and my father are sitting next to each other and it looks like they’re actually having a good time together. My father saw me staring, so he waves me over and asked me if I remember who the girl sitting next to him is. No, I totally forgot who the girl you made me brake up with is. “Yeah, I remember.” She looked exactly how I imagined after all these years: blonde hair, blue eyes, skinny, like in high school, but obviously more mature. I’m not sure what to say, so I stared at Anna, waiting for her to say something; not actually at her, but through her. Her face shows no signs of emotion. I know I’m dead to her. She’s not here as a friend. There’s a voice recorder in her hand. She better not interview me, I won’t do it. My father clapped and both of us snap back to reality. My father shook his head then says, “Anna came by the other day and told me she’s studying Journalism at Michigan. I figured since the two of you already know each other, you can do an interview with her after your big game.” Fuck! If I do well, the odds of me making it to the NFL will increase significantly. You can’t do this, Pete. Fuck the interview; focus on the game. Without saying anything, I walk back to the sideline, not caring how much of an asshole I made myself seem.

During the game, it’s business as usual. We’re up twenty points in the third quarter and our fans are going insane. I look at my father and Anna to get me angry before the play. It’s third and short, so I need to make this tackle to give the offense good field position and solidify our lead. Michigan’s trying to throw the ball to their tight end running across the middle of the field, my territory. Their tight end is well over six feet tall and probably weighs about two-fifty, solid muscle. That doesn’t matter to me though. As long as you know how to hit them the right way, they’ll go down, regardless of how big they are. I did exactly what Coach taught us: aim for the chest with my helmet and knock the ball out, but this time, he lowered his head as well and that’s the last thing I remember before waking up with wires attached to my head and the feeling of being high on painkillers.

I wake up and my head’s pounding, but oddly enough, I feel no pain. I try to sit up and the room starts spinning. Everything looks out of focus and the bright lights overhead make it harder to see what’s going on. As I lay back down, I feel wires attached to my head. What are all these wires? What’s going on? Where am I? What’s that beeping sound? The beeps are coming from the machines monitoring my brain activity and they began to beep faster as I became more and more anxious. I look over and see my father pacing back and forth, yelling—something. Why’s he yelling? What’s he saying? Why can’t I move? I try to tell him to calm down, but I can’t speak. My mind’s racing a mile a minute, but my ability to speak is lost in the chaos around me. All that’s coming out of my mouth are jumbled up words that do nothing but scare my father even more. Someone walks in the room with what looks like a white lab coat and finally, I realize I’m in a hospital. Fuck! What’s happening? Who are you people? Get that needle away from me! The nurses rush in and try to force my father out of the room and the doctor comes over and jabs a needle in my arm. What the fuck? That fucking hurt, man. Whoa, what just happened? Everything’s fading fast. Fight it, Pete! Don’t black out. Focus. Oh fuck, I can’t. The doctor sees me fighting it and tells me to stop. Then, almost instantly, everything turns black.

I’ve been hit hard a couple times in my life and hit people just as hard. There have been days where I could barely get out of bed because the pain in my head was so bad, but the pills from the med staff always do the trick. It doesn’t matter how many stars I see, as long as I have those pills, I’m capable of showing the team nothing can stop me. The headaches are becoming more intense and last longer than usual. The med staff tells me to only take two pills to relieve the pain within an hour, but I need at least, three or four. My team has a joke about taking the same amount of pills as there are stars flying around your eyes. It doesn’t matter how many I take because I get them through the school. My team depends on me, so I have to do whatever it takes to be there for them. A headache once a week is not worth worrying over. Scouts want to see toughness, an ability to overcome adversity when things look so bad, you’re not even sure you’ll make it out alive, but you know you have a job to do, so you dig your cleats in the turf and keep pushing forward, ignoring everything around you that’s trying to hold you back.

Today, I’m going through all my texts and Twitter account, responding to random fans, deleting messages, writing down dates and times for interviews with scouts, and catching up with old friends. Everything is business as usual until I see a text that says, “hope ur feeling better. we’ll meet up soon –Anna.” How did she get my number? What could she possibly want after all these years? How did she know I was hurt? Was she there? Why am I meeting up with her? Why can’t I remember anything? I ask my dad to see if he knows what’s going on and says she was at the game. “She saw you get hurt and didn’t take it lightly. She was there to interview you. You don’t remember? Check your phone. I told her to text you the day before.” After looking further through the list of messages, I couldn’t find her message anywhere. I probably deleted it without even realizing who it was. At this point, I start to piece together what happened, but everything’s still in a daze, frustrating me more than it should have.

I go to my room and look for my journal to see if I wrote anything down about an interview with Anna. Nothing, shit! Now’s probably a good time to write, so I don’t make the same mistake twice. I still feel a little anxious because I don’t remember speaking to Anna in the first place. It makes writing much more difficult than normal. I pop a couple muscle relaxers to calm myself down, wait until I’m calm, and try to write again. The thoughts are still jumbled and I can’t transfer the thoughts in my head into words on the paper. My professor says to free write if you’re stuck, so I start writing anything coming to mind. I have two pages full of notes, which looks impressive. I go back and reread them, but I can’t understand a single thing I wrote. I rip the pages out and try again. Three pages this time, but same thing as last time: nothing coherent or worth expanding upon. Frustrated beyond belief, I rip the three pages out and pop more pills because my head’s starting to hurt. Now that I can’t see or think straight, I lie down and take a nap to clear my head.

I wake up and go to the kitchen for a glass of water. My father’s sitting at the table, eating a sandwich and reading the newspaper.

“Dad, I tried doing one of my reading journals, but nothing I was writing made sense. I think something’s wrong with my head.”

“People get writer’s block all the time. It’s not that big of a deal.”

“Dad, this is different. My notes are literally illegible. I took a muscle relaxer to calm down, but it didn’t help either, so I got mad and started again, but the same thing happened.”

“You want a beer?”

“No, my head’s killing me right now. It started hurting as soon as I started getting mad.” I took a nap to calm down. I just woke up a second ago.”

“Did you try writing again?”

“No.”

“Give it a shot, Pete. You know, I don’t understand why you get so worked up over this stuff. You realize you’re going to your first bowl game, right?”

“Dad, I’m just nervous. I think I need to see another doctor about my head.”

“You’re not seeing another doctor, Pete. Your focus has to be on the bowl game. You want to get drafted, right? You have to do well. You have to win that game, which means you have to practice. You can’t waste time seeing doctors and writing in a journal. You should be in the gym, training.”

I realize I’m fighting a battle that can’t be won, so I pull back and say, “You’re right, but if something happens, it’s on you.” Before my father could say anything, I’m already out the door.

Our team was chosen to play in the BCS Championship, so we have about a month’s worth of preparation. We forgot about football the first week and did light workouts the second week to keep our bodies in shape. The third week, we watched hours and hours of film and on the fourth week, we started to practice. After practice I looked at an email from my professor asking me about why I missed class and that I had a journal entry due. She said I’m borderline failing the class because I’ve missed too many classes and haven’t handed in enough journal entries. I apologized and looked at an email from my coach saying I missed practice and I have to apologize to the team for not being a good leader. Anything else? Before I went to bed, I checked my journal to see if I wrote anything recently, but the last time I wrote in it was before the Michigan game. Why haven’t I been writing? How can I be so stupid?

I look at the clock to see what time I need to get up by and realize I’m already an hour late for practice. How could I be late? I barely got any sleep. How could I fall asleep without setting my alarm clock? I always set it. Now, I have to rush out of bed and get to the field as fast as possible because I know Coach is going to rip me a new one for being more than an hour late. Something’s going to go wrong, I know it. I throw on my workout clothes, hop in my car, and speed over to the practice facility.

I get to the field and of course, the first person to greet me is Coach. He didn’t say much, just, “twenty laps.” It sucks, but I know I should have remembered to set my alarm clock. It doesn’t matter who you are or how talented you are; if you fuck up, you’re going to pay for it. After I finish the laps, I go over to the defense and get everyone organized so we can work on our run-defense. We learned a lot from the film we were watching. Coach set up brand new plays for us to learn and use in our game plan. The offense is totally revamped as well and Coach has us scrimmage so we’ll have a better idea about how the plays work at game speed. Coach will yell out the play for the offense and the defense has to know what play to run in order to stop it. He calls for a run, so I stand a couple yards away from the line of scrimmage to see where the running back goes and make the tackle, all in a matter of less than three or four seconds. The quarterback calls hike and I see where the running back’s going, but while I’m bringing him down, I hit my head hard against the ground and supposedly black out. No one understood what happened because it seemed like such an innocent tackle. Coach says it reminded him of the crash that killed Dale Earnhardt. He asks me if I’m all right after the guys helped me up and I tell him I’m fine, but immediately after, I collapse again, and wake up in a hospital—again.

The doctor says that when he scanned my brain, the MRI showed my brain was aging faster than normal. He believes it’s from all the hits to the head throughout high school and college. I tell him I was prescribed pills by the team doctor, which are supposed to help treat the symptoms, but the doctor says treating the symptoms and treating the problem itself are two different things. He then tells me the one thing I never expect to hear: to call it quits. He thinks my condition will continue to worsen if I continue to play, but if I stop now, the odds of living a normal life will increase significantly. I don’t want to believe what I’m hearing. I asked the doctor to step out so I can talk to my father.

“Dad, I don’t get what’s going on. Why would I have to quit? I’ve never been hurt that badly, right?”

“No, you haven’t. I think you still got it in you. You’re doing well in school. You’re smart. You wouldn’t be getting the grades you have right now if your head was messed up.”

“You know, I’m really not doing as well as you think. The other day, I tried writing in my journal, but my head was hurting so I took some pills to calm me down and I still couldn’t write, so I ended up really pissed off and blew off the assignment. Now, my professor’s pissed and I don’t think I’m going to pass and I need to pass in order to keep the scholarship and—”

“Yeah, I remember. You told me this already; in the kitchen, remember? Wait, you’re failing? How could you fail English? We picked it because it’s easy. All you have to do is read and write! How difficult can that be?”

School’s not my top priority, but writing is important to me. It’s not football, so I understand why my father doesn’t get it, but he has to realize we’re talking about my future. I need my head more than my father needs me in the NFL. When my father asked, “How difficult can that be,” I lost it. My father’s staring at me with disgust, but he has nothing to say so I continue:

“It’s hard when you can’t concentrate, Dad. You’re using another side of the brain. Being creative is an art. It’s like going back to when you were really little and you believed whatever you wanted; you created all these impossible ideas of how the world works, but you believed them. Transferring those ideas to paper is harder than you think because as you grow up, you learn that the world is nothing like you imagined and those ideas you once had disappear. This doctor’s right about my head and for some reason, I don’t think you give a shit.”

“Why? Because I want you to have a future in football? I thought football makes you happy, does it not?”

“It does, but you only care about football. As long as I’m doing well on the field, you act like there’s nothing else to worry about.”

“Well, we’ve made it this far with no real issues.”

“What about the first time I blacked out? That wasn’t an issue?”

“Just rest up, we’ll go to another doctor. Don’t focus entirely on one man’s opinion. You have options.”

Do I?

After a couple days of rest, my father brings me to another head specialist. He says he knows the guy and he’s a smart man who wouldn’t put me in harm’s way. He does some tests and says my brain’s fine and I can play. He’s not even sure what the other doctor was thinking. This gives me enough confidence to get back into the football mindset. I’ll worry about my head later. Right now, football’s more important. I have to play well against the fast-paced, Miami offense. They strive on running as many plays as possible, so it’ll be the ultimate test of my abilities. My father looks at me and tells me he forgives me for yelling at him. He knows I was stressed out, so he doesn’t take it personally. I didn’t apologize to him, and I wasn’t planning on it, but because he’s taking the initiative to move past this, I hold my tongue and say, “Thank you.” I’m lucky to have a father that’s so understanding.

The month of preparation seems like it’s going to pay off because we scored a touchdown on the opening drive. I recognize their formations, but for some reason I’m having trouble remembering our own playbook. They manage to get down the field just as quickly and answer our touchdown with one of their own. Miami’s complex playbook is working for them because I can’t remember what plays to call to stop them. Every time they go on the field, they score and there’s nothing I can do anything about it. Next thing we know, we’re down two touchdowns late in the third quarter. Over on the sideline, Coach asks if I want to sit out a couple plays. I tell him, “The only way you’ll get me out is if I’m dead. Keep me in, Coach.”

Our team rallies back and pulls within one touchdown, meaning it’s up to me to stop their offense and give ours a chance. Our defense gave up a lot of touchdowns, so Coach isn’t too confident in me, but he understands I always come through when the team needs me the most. Before I go on the field, Coach says to me, “Pete, you live for this. We all know you’re getting drafted. Look at the where the cameras are pointed. The broadcasters are probably talking about how you’re the guy that’s going to save the game. I need you to go out there and stop them. I trust you and the defense trusts you. Get out there and end this game!” We force an incomplete pass on first down and I blitz on second down, sacking the quarterback for a loss of four or five yards. It’s third and very long and they come out in a formation I’ve never seen before. They must have gone deep in their playbook because they know just as well as we do, the game will ultimately be decided on this play. They call hike, the quarterback drops back, and waits until the last second to throw the ball to the running back, who runs it for a first down. A screen pass? A fucking screen pass? That was the play? The easiest play to recognize, and I couldn’t see it coming? The game’s over! I screwed up and half the nation watched it happen. Miami then runs down the clock and wins the game by taking a knee on the last possession.

I check my syllabus after the game and see I have a big paper due in a couple days for my writing class. Of course I forgot about it. Why would I remember something important? I’m fucked. I can’t write it now. How can I write it now? Maybe if I start writing, an idea will pop in my head and—. My phone starts ringing. I knew you’d call. Before I could apologize, my father cuts me off and says, “Pete, you know, you really fucked up tonight. This was your one shot at getting drafted and you blew it!”

“Yeah, dad, I get it.”

“What happened out there, Pete? You couldn’t keep up with Miami the entire game and you couldn’t recognize a screen pass? What’s wrong with you?”

“Why are you calling? To talk shit when I’m already down? What kind of father are you?”

“Was it the pills? Were you high? I know you have a problem; I’ve seen the empty containers.”

“You think I got high before the biggest game of my life? What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing’s wrong with me. You’d have to be high to not recognize a screen pass.”

“Fuck off, Dad. I wasn’t high. It’s my goddamned head. The first doctor was right about my head. Where’d you even find that other doctor? Was he a doctor or some guy off the street?”

Hearing this causes my father to finally reach his boiling point. He knows his dream has come to an end and yet, he continues to salvage whatever’s left of his ego. His plan is finally exposed, and he still refuses to admit he did anything wrong. He goes on to say he “only wants what’s best” and I’m being selfish and “purposefully ignorant” by questioning his morals. At this point, I’m just feeding the fire to get him angrier, hoping the truth comes out.

“You know, son, if you want to hear it so badly, I’ll tell you. All those times you hurt your head, I knew they serious. I also knew you’d quit and you would have to live with the regret for the rest of your life. I tried protecting you from yourself.”

“Oh, wow, thanks, Dad. Protect me from myself. Great. Just what I needed. You realize my life is fucked because of you, right? Because of you, my football career is over and you really think you saved me?”

“Alright, I get it. Look, Pete, it’s your junior year. You have one year left to get your act together.”

The thought never occurred to me. I still have my senior year to turn things around. If I do well, I’ll have all the money I need to get away from my idiot of a father. I have one last shot to make things count. I told my father what I’m thinking and he says he’ll set up an interview for me. I hang up the phone and go to bed resting easy, knowing I’ll finally be on my own.

I know I have my senior year to prove I’m still worth drafting, but during the offseason, I stopped working out and started taking more and more pills to ease the significantly stronger pain in my body that continues to worsen. I try going to practice, but it’s getting harder for me to remember I have practice in the first place. I still receive money from the school, but majority of it goes to paying rent and stronger medications. My headaches are worse I’m having trouble remembering basic things, like hygiene, studying for tests, and keeping in touch with my teammates. On the days I actually remember to show up, I focus entirely on myself instead of on the team and incoming freshman, who need me most.

There’s one week left before the season starts and it’s time for my interview. My father says Anna’s going to interview me at the practice facility on campus. On my way to the interview, I start feeling really nervous about talking to Anna. What’s she going to ask? Is she going to bring up the past? Does she still care? I hope, not; why would she? But how do I talk to her about the sport that broke us apart? It’s going to bring back awful memories, for both of us. Thoughts like these were racing through my head, so I go straight to the pills to calm me down. I enter the facility and Anna was already there, looking nervous, but eager to finally get the interview most reporters are dying for.

“Hi, Pete. I’m going to ask you questions about the BCS game. Are you comfortable with that?”

I stare at her blankly, and realize I have to answer her when she questions me. Fuck, those pills were a bad idea, Pete.

“Yeah, I’m ready,” I tell her, slurring my words and probably looking like an ass.

Anna looks worried, but she’s very professional and begins by asking, “What was going through your mind when you misread the screen pass, the play that won Miami the Championship?”

“Nothing. Nothing was going through my mind.”

“There must have been something, Pete.”

“Nope.”

“I thought you said you were okay. What’s wrong?”

“Why does something have to be wrong? I’m great. I’m making a comeback.”

“We’ll get to that in a second…Off the record, are you drunk?”

“No.”

“You’re slurring your words and I see it in your eyes. Why do you keep going in your pockets?”

I’m shaking the pills in my pocket to see how annoyed I can get her. She’ll break soon. I know it.

“What’s that noise? Pete, what the fuck? Are those pills? Are you high?”

I took out the container, smiling and shaking it like I was proud.

“What? This is a great story! Tell everyone about how I ruined my life. How I’m ruining yours right now. That’s what you people want, right?”

“Pete, we’re done. You’re done. I don’t know what happened to you, but thank you for breaking up with me in high school. I was ready to spend the rest of my life with you, but knowing now that this is what you’ve become, I can’t thank you enough. I’ll be sure to pay you back soon.”

Anna got up crying and left me in the facility by myself. I have no idea what just happened, but I know it can’t be good. Whatever.

Coach lets me start at first, but soon, he realizes I’m not putting in enough of an effort and benches me in hopes of inspiring me to work harder, but my mind isn’t working properly. I can’t remember the plays, I can’t recognize offensive schemes, and I can’t even remember my teammates names. I can’t do shit! I used to be able to lead my teams to championships and now I can barely remember to get up in time for the game. I’ve heard of guys in the NFL suffering from memory loss after their careers are over, but mine didn’t even start yet. Why were they lucky enough to get through ten, fifteen year careers, and I can barely get through college? It’s becoming more and more evident I’m going nowhere with football.

I have a feeling Coach knows what’s going on in my head. He’s starting to sit me more often because I’m becoming more of a liability to the team, rather than the man everyone can look up to. Coach says he’s still speaking to my father and my father told him to tell me I should call it quits and go to rehab, or at the very least, see a doctor. I guess that means he knows about the interview. I don’t understand why he wants me to quit. Is he afraid I’ll actually comeback stronger than before? I hope so. I deserve to be better than my father. In fact, I know I’m already better than him. He’s scared and won’t admit it. He tried to live his failure of a football career through me and now he’s going to just tell me to give up the only thing I’m good at? He wants me to see a doctor? Too bad. Rehab? Too bad. He forced this life upon me and now he has to deal with the consequences.

As the season progressed, I grew tired of sitting on the bench each game and Coach was getting angry about my lack of discipline. I quit the team to focus entirely on school. I felt relieved at first because it seemed like I was starting a new chapter in my life, but I soon realized chapters build off of one another. The second chapter is influenced greatly by the first. I can’t remember what days I have classes or what time I’m supposed to come in. If I have a class on a Wednesday, I go to school on Friday. I’m not playing football anymore, so I don’t get the special treatment from my professors. I expected myself to fail, and I got exactly what I wanted. At this point, the best thing for me right now, is to put my degree on hold and try to get a job. I know it’ll be tough because I don’t have a degree, but everyone around campus knows me and would love to have a college football star working for their companies. After applying to a couple places close by, I learned that everyone in the area heard about the interview. I didn’t get a job offer from a single place I applied to. Everyone sees me as a drugged up, washed up football player whose career is heading South, fast. I wouldn’t even hire myself if I were the managers.

Now, I have no way of paying rent, and it’s the end of the month. The notice on my door says I have by the end of the week to pay the rent and if I don’t, the landlord has the right to kick my ass out on the street. How long has this been up here? Why haven’t I noticed? Where’s the money gonna come from? I got no job, no father, no nothing. Now what?

While looking around my house for anything sellable, I fixate on the sixty-two inch, flat screen television in my room, realizing I watch most of my shows on my laptop. The TV alone should be enough to pay for the rent. I unplug everything and move it into the living room. I go back to my room and notice a notebook lying on the floor, covered in what looks to be, at least a year’s worth of dust. This is someone’s journal. I wonder who left this here. Maybe Johnny? Should I look inside to find out? No one has to know. There’s an entry about a girl Anna in regards to an interview. Who the fuck’s Anna? Shit, there’s a number here. Should I call it? I’m nervous and don’t know what to expect, so I pop a handful of pills and call the number. Her name and picture are on the screen making me wonder how long I’ve had her number for? Does that mean the journal’s mine? Guess so. The call goes straight to voicemail: “Hi, you’ve reached Anna. I can’t get to the phone right now. Please leave your—.” Looking aimlessly around the room, I stop when I see the full bottle of Vicodin on the kitchen counter, teasing me, no, daring me to down the rest of them. The memories came back, and for once, I really wish they hadn’t.

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