Football is the smell of sweat and mowed grass. Football is going to school long before everyone else--running hard in 90-degree heat in a padded, phenolic plastic helmet that tears your ears when you try to take it off. A jersey hanging from shoulder pads like a table cloth at a french bistro.
Double sessions. Making a cut. Then another. Sweat saturated pants full of pads. The plastic-reinforced jock strap that turns any man into a warrior. Cleats full of mud that stop gripping in the rain.
Football is the meat mountain named Tom who makes up for his sub-protozoan IQ by using his body weight to maul the crap out of anyone who reminds him he's going to get two-hundred combined on the SAT, then cries when he gets bumped to second team. Football is getting light headed after twenty minutes of wind-sprints, being gang-tackled by a thousand combined pounds of adolescent sinew, then suffocating in your own salty sweat and panic when you land on the ball and your diaghaphram spasms so the air won't fill your lungs.
I remember the coach grabbing my face guard in his fist, using the leverage to give my head a chiropractic twist while he screamed in my face. Because we know that in football, the louder you scream, the harder you hit, the faster you run, the stronger you get. Finding cleat gashes in your calves you didn't know you got. Brown and green streaks that run from your thigh pads to your hip guards to the bloody skin on your chest.
Football is asking yourself over and over why you're doing it--and then decking 300 pounds of charging Mike Reynard in a tackle that makes everyone cringe with delight. Football is running toward the end of the known world, looking over your right shoulder, seeing the ball float into your arms, tucking, and watching the ground come up to close off the light in your helmet as you're tackled from behind after a fifty-yard gain. And it's all just practice.
By October the air turns cooler. The baby fat's been beaten off. Nothing but muscle and the will to use it. Practice is shorter and more focused. Each game is different. All the plays are memorized. No more yelling at each other on the field. You're a cog in a coherent unit. You know where you're strong and where you're weak. You're improvising. Thinking like each other.
Stuff comes out. Didn't know it was there, buried under years of reading and book study. Everyone thought you were a nerd. One sorta big nerd.
Lower your shoulder and bury it in the gut of the guy with Bob's jersey in his fist. Get up and watch Bob run. Take the guy down again when the referee's back is turned. Next play, bring your fists up under his chin strap and send him reeling backward over his ass.
Coach pulls you off to the side. Grabs your face mask and tells you to cut that shit out, grinning the whole time. It's that kind of testosterone-driven bravado that gets you penalized, gets you talked about next practice, makes everyone glad you're on their side.
Next time, double teamed, your face in the turf while one of the bastards in the pile jabs a punch between your pads nobody can see. Head spinning from the hit, the world turns and it takes a second to figure out which end of the earth to put the feet on.
When you come up smiling is when everyone worries. Then Zippy Lennis laughs. Then Rosie. Then Cuff. Then Joey. Then you've got the whole offensive line giggling like maniacs and the guys from St. Joseph's don't know what hit 'um when Regan's pass goes straight and bullet hard into the numbers. Button hook. Five steps out, turn, catch, get slammed. Get tough. They can hit all they want when you got girls screaming and everyone's father's cheering. They pound your sides where there's no pads. Dig their cleats into your legs when they get up.
Get up laughing, winning. Losing. I don't care. Oh, I'm bleeding? Little baby wanna see some blood? Come over here I'll show you what yours looks like.
I was never a jock. I did it because nobody thought I could, not even me. I did it because I got to wear the jersey to classes Friday before game day. I did it because when everything green was dying in the fall, I sat next to the girl in the sweater, long brown hair falling from under her knit hat, her silly white gloves and breath condensing in tiny white clouds, and for once saw someone's eyes sparkle looking at me.
The old man stands in the seats with his arms over his head screaming. Ma gasps and holds her fists to her chest every time I wind up at the bottom of a pile. People I don't know cheer at things I do, and there was no victory earned or loss suffered alone. Guys who'd never talk to me in school throw the block that makes the hole I run through.
Blood trickling down my arm, eyes sweat-blind, Cathy-whom-I-could-love smiling from the side when I get up and pull the dirt from my face mask, John throwing the pass where he knows I'll be instead of where the play says I should be.
It don't hurt, ma.