Photographic image © 2017 Stuart Gelzer
If I could have played football, I would have been a deep snapper. I've tried to explain that to people, but they don't listen, not anymore. That's why I've got to do something.
I wasn't always like this. It wasn't always this bad.
When I was younger, the high school coach took me to the field after my dad died. He was a good man, strong with a thick, black goatee. He took me out there, and we ran around on the field right before the sun went down while the shadows were long, and I was short but could still kind of run, and he let me tackle the bag.
He'd drag the big, red tackle bag around and say, "Down, set, hut." When he said that last word, I'd run and tackle the bag. The coach said maybe one day I could be the deep snapper for the high school team, snap that ball, run down, and make the tackle. I liked that idea. It was reasonable, something I might have been able to do if we got way ahead, and he told the other team about me and my condition. I didn't care, I just wanted to tackle somebody. But that was before my body betrayed me.
I've tried to tell that story, the one about the coach taking me out and running me around when I was seven years old. I tell it when people ask me, "Hey Mikey, why you like football so much?" I try to tell them about the coach and the long shadows that fall afternoon, but it doesn't come out. I get stuck somewhere. My muscles catch and bite and fight against the words in my head. My mouth's gotten to where it just slides over to the side of my face and bunches up in a hard circle. My tongue clicks. I'm sure it looks like bullshit. I know it sounds like bullshit, and that's the worst part, how it sounds good in my head but comes out like bullshit.
People ask why I sit on the sidelines at every single Forrest City high school football practice, why I'm out there when it's 100 degrees in the summer, when it's ass-cold in the winter, when all I can do is sit in this damn wheel chair—people always want to know why—and I try to tell them about that one time a coach told me, even when he saw me like I was, like I was going to be, that I could be a deep snapper.
I try to tell them, but now even my hands and arms go wonkers. People smile and nod but look around for anything to save them from the sounds I'm making. So no one really knows why I love football.
Some years—the good years—there will be a kid on the team who will listen to or at least look at me. I think those kids see it in my eyes. They see my eyes are fine, that I'm not retarded. It is only my fucking body that's retarded.
This year there is a boy named Alex.
Alex put me on the bus three hours ago. That's how it works on game days. If there's a boy who'll be patient, who'll listen, he'll get me out of my chair, carry me to the bus, and sit me here right after school on Fridays. I try to get him to do it early, that way I don't bother the team. And it gives me time to think.
If there's not a boy on the team, Coach Fisher will help. He reminds me of the coach who took me to the field when I was seven. He's not the same kind of man, but he helps when no one else will. And the things he says to me, they're different, a good different that lets me know he doesn't think I'm different.
The boys are filing on the bus now. Every year I try to pick out one who might have been me, the one I would have looked like if my hands hadn't closed in on themselves, if my ass didn't have sores from sitting in this chair.
Alex's face is fat and round. He's round all over, no sharp edges. I would have had the crisp, straight lines of Marcus, our running back. I know I would have. That coach that day, he saw that in me. My dad had lines like that.
But Alex is good for the bus. He's good company. He talks a lot. Now he's telling me about his chemistry class, about balancing equations and the girl who sits behind him, or maybe in front. I don't know—I'm not really listening.
What I want is to tell him about my dad dying when I was seven. Tell him I'm 42 now. That I've been in a goddamn wheel chair for over 30 years. That right after my dad died, a coach told me I could do something. He gave that to me, that hope, but then my mom moved us to Forrest City, and I came out to the Mustangs' practice looking for the feeling I got on that day from that coach, but now I've lost it.
I try to interrupt him, try to tell him, but I'm caught on repeat—the same awful vowel coming out of my mouth again and again.
"Shut the fuck up, Mikey," barks Coach Fisher over the back of a bus seat.
That's all I can get out.
"Get 'em Mikey!" yells a boy from the back of the bus.
The head coach stands up, and all are silent. I try to smile.
This is why I like Coach Fisher. He treats me like one of the guys. No one else talks to me like that. No one else talks to me. But Fish talks to everyone like that, and that's how he talks to me.
We take the exit for the stadium, and Alex is still going on about the girl in chemistry class. I don't know what he's talking about. I do, but I don't. I see girls. I feel their electricity boil in my blood, but there is nothing I can do—to them or to myself—so I avoid girls, even the thought of them.
Alex pauses. He looks at me.
"Ya," I say again, short and hard the way people say it to me when I know they're not listening. This is my one good word, the only one I can get out without stuttering.
Alex stops talking about the girl.
The bus hisses to a stop, and the boys get off. Alex and I wait. We're always last. We have to be. He has to carry me like Coach Fisher does, over his shoulder, and put me in my electric wheel chair. But once I'm back in my wheels, I am free. Mom says I drive too fast. She even had a wheelie bar installed last summer because she was afraid I was going to flip over backwards. I won't. I know how to drive my wheels.
The boys get dressed, and I drive out on the field with Coach Fisher and the other coaches. Coach Fisher isn't the head coach, but he's important. He coaches the special teams: the kickers, punters, and deep snappers. He'll shoot the shit with me, or at least let me sit close while he shoots the shit.
Coach Fisher looks like what I would have looked like.
He's about my age, maybe a little younger. His sleeves are tight around his biceps. He has the straight, crisp lines of my father.
"Look at those fuckers," says Coach Fish. "We're about to beat that ass."
"I mean, fuck, they look soft."
"Ya," I say a little louder this time.
"Soft, soft, soft. We're about to beat that ass."
Coach Fisher turns back to me and smiles. He turns his hat around backward, flips it around with one hand like Sylvester Stallone in Over the Top when he's about to whoop someone's ass in arm wrestling. I try to move my clenched hands up to my hat, but then I remember.
The boys jog out on to the field, two-by-two, locked at the elbows.
I try again to speak, to tell him my plan, to tell him I could have been a deep snapper—maybe I could have snapped for one of his special teams—but Fish is already jogging toward the boys with his biceps and backward hat.
The other team jogs out. I see they have someone like me. Their guy is not even in a wheel chair. He's on fucking crutches—crutches. They're getting more common now, these guys, these wannabes, more common since ESPN keeps putting them on their little 30-minute segments. More common because anyone can video them smiling, cheering, crying—looking retarded. I hope someone is taping this game.
Our boys find their place on the neat, segmented lines of the field. Coach Fish walks among them. He slaps their asses and speaks things into their ears. He does this to every boy while they warm up. I've always wondered what he says to them as they stand in those nice, neat lines.
I like things neat. I've always been able to keep my goatee neat. I've always shaved my own face—until last Sunday.
I was sitting in my chair with the magnifying mirror, and my arms wouldn't come up any farther, not any more. I tried over and over again, tried working my neck and my head down to the blade, tried working the blade up to my face, tried working from both ways at the same time. I tried like the head coach is always talking about—just keep trying, keep working—hard work beats talent, hard work pays off—but with this, nothing would work. Muscular dystrophy kicks those cute little slogans's asses, whoops that ass every day. It sucks because shaving was my thing.
I've had a goatee since I was seventeen. I've shaved it by myself every morning. Cleaned the edges like my dad would have taught me to do, made it pop like a coach's goatee. It used to take me two hours to shave my face each morning. It was my thing, the thing I could do all myself. But last Sunday Mom had to come into the bathroom and do it for me.
That's when I knew I had to do something.
It was time for the kickoff, for the fireworks, the electricity. Alex talks about the girl from his chemistry class like she has the power of a kickoff on a Friday night. I don't know what power women hold, but if it's got anything on this, then fuck them—I don't want to know.
This is what I got.
Friday nights—shit fire, save a match, blood makes the grass grow, violence and fireworks—this is where I've come every Friday for the last 32 years to feel alive.
Their kicker kicked the ball, and the fireworks were timed with his foot. The ball flew, and the red and white and blue explosions offered a nice backdrop against the setting sun. It was as good a kickoff as I'd seen, but for some reason it just didn't do it for me this time.
I knew it was coming when I couldn't shave last Sunday. And then everything worked out so perfectly. It was still early in the season, so the shadows were long, and then our offense went three-and-out and the deep snapper ran out on the field for the punt. People like to tell me all things happen for a reason, like it's some sort of consolation. I've always wanted to call bullshit. But in that moment, I agreed—things were lining up.
The ball hung in the air forever. I watched it as it hung there at the apex like maybe it wouldn't come down, but then it did, and the boy caught it and headed toward our sideline. I knew it was meant to be.
The boy ran fast, faster than all the Forrest City boys, and broke free around the edge. He was headed right for me. Alex wasn't watching the game. He had walked over, put his hand on my neck, and was offering me water. I tried to be quick.
"Na," I said.
But it sounded like my one good word—"Ya."
He sprayed water in my face, and I fought it. I fought it like an oncoming blocker. I kept my eyes on the running boy from the other team.
He was close. I gassed it.
I pushed forward on the nob of my electric chair, and the timing was perfect. I hit him mid-stride, right in the knees. The force of him was more than I'd imagined, but Mom's wheelie bar saved me. My chair rocked back then forward, and the boy flipped and spun and landed out of bounds. He rose slowly from the ground and shook his head. I'd knocked the shit out of him.
The refs didn't know what to do.
They met at the middle of the field and talked about the play. They couldn't figure it out. I kept my head down. The play would have been a touchdown had I not tackled the boy, but they couldn't figure out where to spot the ball, or how to say that yes—yes—he would have definitely scored. So they spotted the ball right where I tackled him. They told our coach I had to get off the sideline. Coach said something about a defective chair. The refs didn't buy it.
The head coach told Coach Fish to take me back to the bus.
I followed Fish out the gates and into the parking lot.
He talked shit the whole way. Talked shit about having to miss the game, about having to take my sorry ass out to the bus, just talked shit.
His hat was turned straight now, pointed forward for game time, businesslike. We got to the bus, and he lifted me over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. He carried me up the bus steps. We made it to my seat, the one Alex had put me in earlier, that I'd sat and sweated in for three hours before the bus even left the parking lot. But before he set me back in the seat, he slapped my ass, slapped it hard, like he did the boys before the game, then put me down.
I looked up at him. The sun was setting now, and the shadows were as long as I could remember.
Coach Fish looked at me hard and square.
"You tackled that motherfucker, didn't you?"
I tried to smile, tried to answer, but could do neither. I couldn't even get my one good word out this time. I was caught in my endless cycle of bullshit, making some awful yipping sound. I even felt my eyes beginning to close, but before they did, Fish placed his hat on my head. My eyes opened.
"God, Mikey, shut the fuck up," said Fish and flipped the hat around backward.