Mike Lee is a writer, labor journalist and photographer based in New York City and Managing Editor of Public Employee Press, the voice of District Council 37, AFSCME. Fiction and forthcoming publications include West Trade Review, The Ampersand Review, Paraphilia, Sensitive Skin, Reservoir, The Avenue, The Drunken Llama, Visions Libres, Glossolalia, Dime Show Review, The Scarlet Leaf Review, The Euonia Review, The Solidago Journal, The Flash Fiction Press, The Peacock Journal, Third Street Writers, The Corvus Review, Violet Windows and The Potomac. His stories are featured in several anthologies, including Forbidden Acts (Avon) and Pawn of Chaos (White Wolf). A story collection, titled All Your Ambition, is published in Germany by VL Editions.


Trigger Warning

Sunburned and short, Coach Auer had a way of expressing his oft-volatile frustration with his hands while talking, fingers spreading, wagging wildly like a horn player on sixteenth notes. It made one not pay attention to his words or how the hell such a short man could coach football, wasting effort faking intently listening.  Manny concluded by the end of his first year on varsity these efforts masked Coach Auer’s insecurities of size and four successive losing seasons.

Coach Auer’s measured West Texas drawl, when it slowed in cadence, masked his agitation as only a country boy’s could.  “Son,” he said, “you ain’t getting recruited because you were a third-string third down blocking back since the second game of last season.  Thank the Good Lord damnit that you’re a left-handed pull hitter, which is why Concordia, Trinity and San Fucking Angelo State are coming by here.  Football?  Maybe San Angelo can use you on special teams, but Maynard I put you in for mop-up when it became clear to me you couldn’t handle blocking schemes and short yardage plays against four-three defenses—all year you didn’t show enough to anyone, even to the NAIA Baptist school that’s scouting the team at spring practice—and from what I hear it’s because some parent put in a call to his uncle.  And we only won three games this year!  Hell, son, there ain’t one even looking at Greider or Horace forcryinoutloud, and they’re both honorable mention all-district.  We ain’t got a good team, this year and especially last—and you just ain’t that good a blocking fullback.  I mean, yeah, you sprang Greider for a few touchdowns, but you are not fast, and you cannot handle the big linemen.  Remember that game against Mojo in Odessa?  Mojo kicked your butt!  Left you flat on your back, son, and that was why I could not, for the life of me, ever start you after that.  You can’t protect a quarterback without holding or clipping the down linemen.  Blitz?  My dear Lord in Heaven you cannot handle the blitz.  Jeezus, Maynard, you practically had Horace killed against Crockett.  After that, I had to bench you except for in the fourth quarter when all was said and done.  Son,” Coach Auer concluded, “I am too damn old to scrape young men up off the turf with a spoon.”

“But son,” Coach Auer added, pausing for effect.  “Son, you can pull a liner right down to the pole without kicking up dust.”  When taking those steps through the tunnel out onto San Jacinto Street, Manny closed his eyes and remembered Auer, who was also his baseball batting coach at Austin, pointing at his wrists.

“You got not one, but two velvet gloves in your touch, son.  You may not make it past AA in the majors, but Concordia is a full ride and a college degree.  Take it, and forget the goddamn Longhorns.  I am certain they won’t even look at you.  They didn’t recruit you for baseball either, and that should tell you something.”  He sighed, staring at him.  The hands stopped their constant movement, fingertips pressing against his desk.

Manny was dead set on giving the Longhorns a shot, but for typically immature, arrogant reasons.  He didn’t listen because he hated being called Maynard.  Also, Manny never told his parents, or anyone except his girlfriend, Shannon, he even liked baseball.  He only signed up for Little League because there was nothing better to do at the time.  Manny never played a playoff game while on varsity in that sport either.

As for football, it wasn’t his fault he was penciled in deep in Auer’s chart, and that the coach instituted a spread office junior year, and he was believed too small and slow to be a third receiver.  Not his damn fault.  He could cut on his instep just like Gale Sayers.  However, he couldn’t do that as a blocker and playing with an undersized offensive line that was invariably pounded into gelatin by the second quarter.  What disappointed him, however, was Coach neglecting to mention the game junior year against MacGavin.  Rumor had it that game had saved Coach Auer’s career at least for a year, though, so much for that, since he would still be fired as coach before graduation.  Still, that chewed on Manny.

He started out, he believed, well.  Pop Warner was good because he was the fastest kid on the team.  Junior high, Manny did fine, but it was when he made the preseason practice squad for the Austin High School Maroons freshman team that the cracks in potential stardom and glory appeared.  He couldn’t catch very well.  He was mediocre at pass reads, tending to miss his cuts on routes.  Yes, he could run, though not as fast with district-wide competition, and was dropped to second-string tailback for the year.  He was good enough to play in every game, though coaches noted he wasn’t a very good blocker either, usually getting run over in corner blitzes and four man rushes.  Junior varsity grudgingly picked him, if for no other reason than they needed three running backs on the squad, and there was no fourth available.

Manny played baseball for two years, mainly as a late innings pinch hitter and left fielder in garbage time games when either way out in front or, as the Maroons were often, way behind.  He rarely hit for power, just knocking them in where they weren’t, and was able to beat left-handed shifts, and also pull opposite field line drives.  He bunted passably, better than his teammates, however struck out so often he only started one game in two years.

However, Auer’s intentions were changed when a fullback was declared ineligible, and another destroyed his knee in an off-season sandlot game.  Manny made the team as a second string fullback, though started once early in the season junior year and regulated to the sidelines for the rest of his varsity career after a missed block nearly put his quarterback in the hospital.  For both the frustrated Manny, and the alternately appalled and forgiving Auer, it was best described in the last words of every Texan faced with the onrush of sudden disaster—just damn.

The MacGavin game was when it was all supposed to change for Manny.  As the cliché goes, every dog has their day.  In football, particularly of the Texas Foot-BALL subgenre, that didn’t happen.  Small enrollment schools in major city school districts remained losing programs, usually forever.  Austin High, one-time football powerhouse when the city was nothing more than a stagnant state capitol with a thriving state university, was no exception to this brutal assessment after the mid 1960s.  They hadn’t won a state championship since 1944, a district championship by sheer luck in 1972, and had gone without a winning season since 1973.  Even under an expanded system, the Maroons missed making the regional playoffs.  By Manny’s junior year, the team was three and seven and, despite Coach Auer’s best efforts, there was no hope to get in.  To make matters worse, their final game that year was against a lower division, though very strong, suburban Austin team.  Losing to them big, Auer was warned, would finish his football career.  Boosters and alumni were a proud lot, particularly if there was faded glory involved and an unrealistic hope for the future.

As the team bus wound its way up Bee Caves Road through West Lake Hills on the way to MacGavin Heights, Coach Auer sat behind the driver with Dennis “Pay Me Later” Sprague, legendary criminal attorney and recently appointed circuit court judge.  “Dennis, the best I can promise is two touchdowns.”

“Make it ten points, and I guarantee you a year, but nothing more.  Everybody knows we can’t beat these assholes.  But, hmmmm, we will not be humiliated by a bunch of white trash with cash.”

“It’s going to be a tall order, I tell you.  I have a quarterback who’s still getting over that sprained wrist against Crockett.”

“Oh yes.  Kynard missed the block.”

“Shhh, he’s sitting behind us.”

“Anyway, it’s more than that.  MacGavin has a top five pass defense for any district in Texas.  They have that senior safety, you know.  May be the next Cliff Harris.”

“Yes.  Odell.  At least his family is from around here.  Good people.  Not like most of the rest of those jumped up assholes at MacGavin.  By the way, he signed a letter of intent with SMU.”

“Good Lord.  That may end up being a bad thing.”

“I know.  What they’re doing up there goes beyond a boundary.  I never thought it would ever get that bad, but it has.  It’s interesting times out there.”

“Yep.  Times have changed.  City doubled in population twice in the last twenty years.  First we lose the redneck offensive linemen when Lanier and Reagan opened, then lost nearly all of South Austin to Crockett and Travis while the retard peckerwoods fighting the desegregation order caused us to not get the Black players playing over at LBJ.  We can’t get the suburbs across the lake because of West Lake and MacGavin Heights.  Eligibility rules screw us because I cannot get a transfer without them losing a year and of course I’m stuck with the legacy players who, though do try, are not hungry for victory—they seem out for the letter jackets and pussy—it’s not like they are going to need an athletic scholarship anywhere since the parents are covering.  It is more like I’m running a barely behaved frat house.  I find myself saying: ‘Yes, I coached your Dad, son, but it was a different time and he made curfew, and jeezus boy you stink of weed.’”

“My boy wasn’t that bad.”

“Dennis, he is that bad.  I’m starting Kynard first half because of that incident last week with the Cuban refugee.  That crossed a line, and not even his teammates backed him up when those punk rockers beat his ass in the parking lot over it.   Shit, they remind me more of the men I knew in Airborne than that boy of yours ever could.  I’m telling you that if you can’t reel him in, I have to, and am by benching his ass until I feel otherwise.”

Manny perked up behind the seat.  I’m fucking starting.

“Well, thanks for not suspending him.”

“You know why I can’t.”  Manny sank back down.

“I will ream him out later.  Again,” Judge Sprague said, sighing.

“Don’t feel too bad.  At least I’m the only high school football coach in the state of Texas with an Ivy League degree, but a lot of good that does me now.  I told you boys all about Lou Gehrig visiting the team at a practice my freshman year, shortly after he was diagnosed, and I will never forget that.  You don’t ever forget things like that.”

“I never asked you Coach, but didn’t you play with Jack Kerouac?”

Coach Auer chuckled a little as the bus parked behind the MacGavin football field.  “Well, Dennis, we are at the home of the Fighting Scots.  I have to do my job now.”  He stood up, looking down at Manny.  “Be ready, Kynard.”  His voice dropped down a notch.  “Just do something, okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

It was windy and near-freezing when they got off the bus and the locker room wasn’t any better because the Fighting Scots playfully kept the heat off.  Coach Auer didn’t bother to complain, it would do no good, and the behavior was apropos for rival high schools needing the game to guarantee a higher seed going into the playoffs, which was precisely why the Maroons were scheduled, despite Coach Auer’s protestations.  He gave a commanding pep talk that he knew in his heart did no good, but afterward he saw Manny was wearing sleeves and a pair of gloves.  Normally, he would tell his players to take them off.  No crying in the cold in Texas Foot-BALL, but Manny needed all the help he could get.  However, he did pull him aside.

“Maynard,” he spoke quietly.  “Wear those gloves until the officials tell you to take them off.”

The field was crunching as the Maroons took the field for warm-ups.  Coach Auer told his quarterback, Tony Greider, to practice throwing to Kynard as well as his regular receivers.  “Just do it, son,” pointing to the leather baseball batting gloves Maynard had on.  Greider nodded and motioned Kynard over to the receivers lined up near the sideline.

Shortly before the national anthem, and after the MacGavin players stormed onto the field, they noticed a commotion on their sideline.  They found out later the MacGavin dog mascot had pulled up lame, and had to be carried off.  Some took it as a good omen, but most of the rest considered it a frightening opportunity for their opponents to be more motivated.  Manny didn’t care either way—all he could think of was that he was going to start again.

The Maroons won the toss and initially it seemed the Fighting Scots were distracted, particularly their vaunted pass defense.  Greider took advantage of the situation by throwing underneath the coverage, and in the drive Manny caught his very first pass, taking a screen for five yards out of bounds.  He looked up to see if Margencharles and Shannon were up in the stands.  They were, huddled under a blanket, screaming their hearts out.  He smiled, and vowed to call them mom and dad again after the game.

The Maroons drove down the field, though stalled at the ten, kicking a field goal.  MacGavin Heights punted on their next possession and on the ensuing Austin drive, Greider tossed two consecutive passes to Manny.  Because of the gloves, he held on and got the team to the Fighting Scots 40.  Several running plays threw their defense off-balance, but after a loss on a poorly executed end around and an incomplete pass to their halfback, Jimmy Horace, the Maroons were backed up to the 44.  Coach Auer called time out.

“Calling a Cowboy right, have Kynard run a flanker route and throw low.  Even the free safety is respecting him, by grace of God and whatever I have left in me, which ain’t much to take home and place by the fire to tell y’all the truth.”

Greider went into the huddle.  “Cowboy right on three.  Manny, you drew the short straw against Odell.  Flanker right and you’re going low shorty.  Catch the ball and take the hit.”

Wordlessly, Manny nodded and got into position first behind the offensive line after they broke huddle, which anyone with a brain on the defense would know was a giveaway that he was getting the ball.  Quarterback Greider sighed when he saw this, as did Auer and the coaching staff.

“You stupid fuck,” Auer muttered.

Greider snapped the ball as Manny burst off tackle through the rush running right, turning straight.  Odell, the free safety read the play and was coming straight at him from his left, swiftly covering the ground between them.  Manny took ten yards, knowing he had to turn now, and did as the ball came in a tight spiral straight at him.  In the meantime, Greider took the snap, knowing Manny was going to cut through the opening in the pass rush between the right tackles.  He rolled left to gain time from the pursuit, and prayed Manny would turn his route when he released.  He couldn’t set his feet on the grass, slick with frost, so he pushed off his right foot and threw nearly sidearm to where he hoped Manny would be.  As he released the ball, he knew it was at best ten yards, short of the first down.

The pass was quick, its trajectory low.  Manny needed to catch it at his knees and hope to hold on to it at the line marker after Odell’s hit, which he knew would be hard.  Odell was the top defensive player in his district and a possibility for all-state honors for his district classification.  Even before hearing about it on the bus Manny had heard Odell was heavily recruited by Southern Methodist, having signed his letter of intent earlier in the week, and was expected to be a starter.  Manny caught it but the ball bounced off his hands to his chin strap. Instead of going down, Manny had to rise up with his hands to grasp, and momentum had him turn to his left, just as Odell was closing in.  The free safety was coming in low but was still above him.  Instinctively, Manny raised his forearm in an attempt to cushion the inevitable, cradling the ball against his chest under his left arm.  As Odell roared in, Manny realized he was going into his throat, and in the last second began to turn his feet on his instep to spin away.  Odell went in arms spread to tackle, not seeing Manny’s right forearm going under his facemask and into his throat.  Manny felt the flesh when his arm collided, but didn’t see Odell’s head snap back as he went into him and spun around the free safety’s body, holding the ball, Odell’s arms drooping, and missing the tackle.  Manny ran, cleats slipping on the frigid field for five yards until tackled by a cornerback.

When Manny got up, he knew he hurt Odell bad.  He didn’t care that he got the first down, and was motioned by the field judge along with the other players to stay back as both the MacGavin Heights and Austin Maroons staff came running onto the field.  Odell was sprawled legs apart, out cold.  Manny learned later the hit he gave him caused the player to leave his feet and hit the turf helmet first.  In shock, he turned in the wrong direction, and found himself facing the home stands, silent in their tartan scarves and blankets; he momentarily focused his attention on two girls in berets huddled closely together on his left.  He blinked, got his bearings and moved to his team, standing around near midfield.

“Just wow,” Greider said.  “I may not have liked you much until now, but I have your back forever, my brother.”

Manny couldn’t respond, too busy wanting to burst into tears over what he had done.  He turned to see the medical team gently set Odell on a gurney and slowly roll him toward an EMS ambulance rolling slowly onto the field.  The crowd roared when Odell raised his arm and waved.

“Okay, so the cedar chopper ain’t dead.  Dude,” Greider pointed Manny toward Coach Auer.  “He’s calling you over.”

Coach Auer put his arm around him.  “It’s a precaution.  He’s going to be all right.  He has a concussion.  But I’m keeping you here for a while, all right son?”

Manny nodded, “Yes, sir.”  He kept his helmet on and strapped until halftime, taking a while to get focused on the game, feeling not quite the hero despite the occasional back slaps from his teammates over his good hit, clean hit, too bad you didn’t kill that cracker hit.  At halftime, Austin was down 21-6.  As they ran off the field to their respective locker rooms, Manny watched the coach for MacGavin Heights walk over to speak with Coach Auer.  When they were done, they shook hands and Auer passed him without looking.  Because of the hit he gave the MacGavin Heights player, Manny wasn’t surprised he did not get another down, for fear of possible retaliation.

After Coach Auer’s blistering halftime speech, Manny was called over by assistant coach Thompson, who handled the offense to meet with Greider and the halfback James Horace, along with the receiving corps.  “We’re putting you in on third downs alternating between flanker and fullback; and kickoff coverage, Kynard.  You may not get a lot of balls, but we need you as a decoy.  They know what you did was clean, but you remain to them a distraction that eats away at their soul for eternity.  So just run around like your pants are on fire to remind them you took out their ringer redneck as we try to win this game.”  Horace and Greider laughed at Thompson, who was always a hoot with his words.

“Don’t worry, boy, I got your back,” Greider said.

As promised, in the third quarter, Manny was mainly a decoy flanker on passing downs.  Greider threw him a pass on a hook for five yards, and the Fighting Scot who tackled him clearly eased up when he took him down.  Midway through the quarter, on Austin’s second drive, the officials finally noticed the batting gloves and warned Coach Auer who signaled him to take them off.  The cold didn’t bother him, Manny was too psyched up to be actually playing, making a contribution in a game that now really mattered to the Maroons.  Greider handed the ball off to him for short gains twice during an early fourth quarter touchdown drive that kept the game within reach, but the Fighting Scots kept scoring.

With 2:49 left on the clock, Austin remained behind 34-30.  However, the Austin High line held, forcing MacGavin Heights to punt.  The Maroons got the ball on their forty, with only fifty-eight seconds left on the clock.  When they got to the line, Greider yelled out to the defense: “You fuckers tired yet, because I sure as hell am.”  Players on both sides began cracking up at that.  Manny lined up at fullback, trying hard to stay in stance and not get flagged while laughing out loud.  Greider kept the one-sided dialogue up, “Hey, I will make it easier for you!  I’m throwing it to Kynard.  That’s number 30 over there.”  The ploy worked, the center snapped it to Greider on a one count, catching the defense by surprise.  Greider rolled to his right, handing the ball off to the receiver coming across in motion, who in turn pitched a shovel pass to Horace, who rumbled 35 yards to the Fighting Scots 25.  The first down stopped the clock momentarily at :40 as both teams regrouped.  Greider tastelessly yelled at the Fighting Scots, “Hey, so you think SMU will get its money back?  I’m throwing at Kynard again.”  On two Greider ran a quarterback draw to the twelve with :27 left.  The next play was a quick out to the sideline that fell incomplete.  Nineteen seconds left.

As they huddled, Sprague came running in with the play.  Manny began to run to the sideline, but Coach Thompson waved him off, pointing at Sheffield, the tight end, to come out of the game.  “Guess you’re the man,” Horace said.

“Yes, he is,” added Greider.  “Because it is Cowboy right again and this time, no cedar chopper to cover—and Sprague, just fucking block because I cannot roll out with those assholes coming at me five from the line. Full fucking out blitz.”

Manny went up to the line, silently taking his position as tight end.  This time, it really was going to go to him.  Greider glanced up at the sky, pausing for a moment before going behind center.  Manny thought it was rather obvious with Greider’s silence that the MacGavin Heights players knew it was him.  He expected a high block from defensive tackle, and being held at the line.  With nineteen seconds left, MacGavin could afford a penalty for holding.  Their priority was to bleed the time away.

He guessed wrong.  The tackle allowed Manny to blow past him, which meant they had decided to go out for a full blitz.  Manny ran his pattern and cut at the goal line, suddenly finding he was alone.  He faced the pile on the field, and realized from the roar of the crowd and the jumping MacGavin Heights players that it was all over.  Sprague missed the block.  Greider was hammered and fumbled the ball.  End of season.

On the bus ride back, Manny was invited to the rear to sit with Greider and Horace.  Sprague sat in front of them, silent.  Greider was measured in his angry tone.  “You just sit there boy, and when you get off this bus, walk to your car, get in, and drive away because otherwise I am going to kick your fucking ass.  I am in a Sid Vicious frame of mind.  Suffice it to say, you missed your blocking assignment.  I told you I couldn’t roll out on the play and I couldn’t get the ball up before your missed blocking assignment stripped it from my fingers.”

Horace added, “Suffice it to say, he had an open receiver.”

Manny paused momentarily, before speaking.  “Suffice it to say, I was that open receiver, you stupid fuck.”  He never liked Sprague, a spoiled son of Tarrytown, and had tipped the punks off as to when Sprague was going to be in the parking lot to light up a joint during lunch.  He considered doing it again, knowing Greider and Horace wouldn’t mind that at all.

Afterward, the three sat in silence until the bus arrived at House Park.  Margencharles was waiting for Manny, along with Shannon.  “Hey Kynard, you’re welcome to the funeral service,” said Greider with a friendly smirk.  “I’m preaching along with Horace.”  Manny had never been invited to these get-togethers.  He turned away to look at his parents, standing proudly, with his girlfriend.  Shannon stood with her hands clasped together, looking like she was waiting for her sailor at the pier.

He motioned with his hand in their direction.  “Sorry guys.  I’ve got a ride tonight.”

“That’s okay, Manny,” said Horace.  “Invitation is open.  You aren’t a stranger to us.”

“Thanks.”  He liked Horace a lot, even though they never spoke much either on the field or in the classes they had shared together since junior high school.

Greider shooed him off.  “Go be with your folks.”  Manny finally made the team.  He belonged.

In the car, Manny changed his mind about renaming his parents.  They were more excited about the hit he gave to Odell than he was about his playing and blew his own performance up out of its actual proportion, filling him with disgust as he listened to them ragging on Coach Auer’s play calling.

Manny still felt bad about Tommy Odell, the guy he took out of the game, and Coach Auer actually used him effectively, giving him an opportunity to play, and Manny rewarded him.  He was the open receiver.  He might have dropped the ball, as he was wont to do, just like Jackie Smith in the Super Bowl against the Steelers, but he just as well could have caught it, even without the batting gloves.  Soon, his parents’ voices faded to static in his mind.  They never cared about who he was, just what he did, and indifferent to his motivations, choosing instead to apply their own.

In the darkness of the back seat, Manny reached and held Shannon’s hand, holding it tightly until they dropped her off, kissless until tomorrow.

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