By Richard Moriarty
Mitch’s mother is driving him home. The ride is silent until they pull into the garage. She turns and asks, “How’s it going, honey?” Fine, he says. He heads to his room, throws his jersey in the laundry hamper, and climbs into bed. Sleep eludes him like a perfectly thrown pass that floats just beyond his reach. Eventually he slips into a waking dream: the blurred view of the field, the muffled sounds of the crowd, of helmets hitting pads. He’s running up the sideline with the ball until another helmet rattles his own. He’s on the turf, face up. He hears the whistle. He looks up toward the star-splattered sky and sees only milky gray light. Everything leading up to the hit starts coming back to him.
He’s trying to pretend it’s just another game, but he can’t hide the fact he’s so nervous his hands are shaking as he laces up his cleats in the locker room. He’s been looking forward to this night all year: a crosstown rivalry game and the first time Mitch would face off against his two closest friends, a pair of siblings named Patrick and Jordan. When they were kids, Mitch was almost like a third brother, but Patrick and Jordan went to the private school, Mitch went to the public school, and the three of them had spent little time together ever since.
On the field before kickoff, the players begin the usual warm-up: butt kicks, high knees, jumping jacks, short sprints. Mitch looks across the field at the opposing team. They’re running similar drills but shouting and growling like rabid animals while doing them. He sees Patrick, locks eyes with him, and waves, but Patrick doesn’t acknowledge him.
The game begins and it’s clear Patrick, Jordan, and their teammates are out for blood: lunging after ankles when they tackle and slamming pads into knees when they block. Still, Mitch is able to take a handoff and run up the sideline for a touchdown. Their kicker jogs out for the extra point and Mitch looks toward the other team’s sideline. Their coach is screaming at his players: “Tackle harder!” A web of thick blue veins bulges from his neck.
Throughout the first half, the other team keeps tackling harder, and in the final seconds before halftime, two defensive linemen knock Mitch down in the backfield, twisting his body in opposite directions before he falls to the ground in a heap. He’s writhing in pain until another player and an assistant coach help him walk to the bench.
From the sideline, Mitch watches the opposing team sprint toward the locker room at halftime, hollering and slapping each other’s shoulder pads as if Mitch’s team wasn’t up by ten.
Before they head back onto the field for the third quarter, Mitch’s coach pulls him aside and asks if he’s okay. “I’m good,” Mitch says, taking a deep breath, trying to clear his blurred vision with fresh oxygen.
“Protect the lead,” Coach tells him. “Got it?”
Mitch nods and heads out with the offense after his team receives the second half kick. From the backfield, he’s staring down eleven bloodthirsty hounds, half of them ready to sprint at him as soon as the snap is called. And they aren’t tackling just to tackle: they’re crashing in at full force, lowering shoulders into knees, and if one of them misses, there’s another one charging right behind him.
Mitch handles blow after blow unfazed, springing back to his feet after each tackle, ready to take the ball again. Despite his effort, they don’t score in the third quarter, and their lead is cut to three. Their offense heads back out to start the fourth quarter and on the first play, the quarterback fakes a handoff to Mitch and takes off toward the sideline. Mitch tries to run out ahead of him, preparing to cut down a defender with a block, but Patrick zips in front of him and plants his helmet directly onto Mitch’s. Mitch spins around and crashes to the ground, face up.
“Patrick,” Mitch coughs, reaching his hand up toward him. The hand doesn’t rise up as high as he wants it to, though it feels almost weightless.
Patrick hisses at him: “Mitch, get up!”
Patrick’s teammates swarm around Mitch. One of them shouts down at him: “That’s right, bitch!”
Mitch hears Coach say, “Are you alright?” He wants to respond, “My whole left side is tingling.” He can’t get the words out. Coach asks again. Mitch mumbles a “Yes, Coach,” and gets back up with some help. He heads toward the bench.
He feels lightheaded. He tries to stay focused on the game. He looks out toward the blurry bulbs on the scoreboard. Twelve minutes to go, he thinks it says. He hears the distant chatter between the players on the field. The quarterback calls for the snap, fakes a handoff to Mitch’s replacement, and runs out toward the sideline. A linebacker catches up with him and wrestles him to the ground. Two more plays for short gains. They punt.
The other team scores quickly. They kick off. Mitch’s teammate fumbles the return. Jordan picks it up and runs for a touchdown. Mitch’s team trails for the first time in the game. They turn it over again on the next drive. The other team runs the clock down to zero. Mitch’s team plods back toward the locker room. The fans slink toward the parking lot. Mitch remains on the bench. He thinks he can hear Patrick and Jordan as they head for their bus, howling and pounding their helmets together as they celebrate their victory.
When Mitch wakes from his half-slumber, gray light is creeping through the blinds, and he’s wearing his game jersey again. He must’ve retrieved it from the hamper sometime during the night. It’s still soaked in sweat. “Good game, Patrick,” he mumbles to himself. He wobbles down the hallway to the bathroom, gulps water from the faucet. “Gotta get to bed,” he says to the mirror. “Big game tomorrow.” He returns to his room, peels off the uniform, and throws it back in the hamper. He falls back into bed, where the sheets are nearly as sweaty as his jersey. Deep sleep is a perfect spiral that remains uncatchable. He drifts back into the waking dream. He’s on the field again. He’s on the ground after the tackle that sidelined him. Everything leading up to the hit starts coming back to him.
Richard Moriarty lives in Durham, North Carolina. He teaches writing and literature at Shaw University. His stories have appeared in The Under Review, Stymie Magazine, and The Twin Bill. https://www.richardcmoriarty.com/