…read on and find out!
I’m a machine! I can’t stop writing! Gawd I love this story. Little sister Angelina has her arms crossed; she’s looking at the calendar (and the checking account balance) and insisting it’s time to get back to the heteromcom. But Roger and Brian are not letting go of my arms, they keep pulling me back into their story, so what’s a guy to do?
It was raining. Awesome, Roger thought, meaning it. He and the other guys had held their own private Mud Bowls more than once, knew how to compensate for the slippery surface. And Jayce had been a fast runner, so Roger’s plan to “be Jayce” would work even better with a focus on the running game. He’d get hit more – Jayce had been a bigger dude, better able to take a tackle, but Roger wasn’t scared.
The moment of silence for Jayce was recorded, TV cameras trying to get in everyone’s faces. Roger had already sent the message down the line. This wasn’t the national anthem at an NFL game, where part of the show was getting in the player’s faces, seeing their game faces. As the camera came up to the line of players, they all bowed their heads, their helmets shadowing their faces, nothing for the camera to use there. Some of that decision was for his own benefit, because his own face wasn’t somber, or reflective, or sad. It was blank, abstract as he ran one more time through the film in his head, the amateur video someone had slipped him of the Condors’ last two games. That guy, the fat boy, middle linebacker he’s big but slow. Damien can handle him while Ricardo runs up the middle.
Game time. Both teams were a little slow to get going, emotion running high on the Skyhawks. Still, it was three and out for the Condors on their first possession, pass after pass falling incomplete as their receivers struggled, just a second or two off the throw. Their coach wasn’t dumb, he’d switch to a running game on the next possession, even though their QB was a passer who had a hard time with his handoffs.
The rain, coming down harder now, made the outcome of long throws too hard to predict and neither team risked them. Slow and steady wouldn’t make a highlight reel, but a run for three, six, seven yards, then another, then another, got the Skyhawks down the field.
Second quarter, the Condors scored a TD, their QB risking the pass and connecting in the end zone, their receiver having slipped his coverage. The Skyhawks managed their own TD when a road opened in front of Roger. The play had called for him to throw a short pass, but quarterbacks are supercomputers, and the odds of completing the pass vs. the sure thing of a few yards’ gain in the run was calculated without any conscious thought. Roger was ready to slide, to avoid the hard hit, but it didn’t come, the blocks were there, and he ran the ball 20 yards to even the score.
In the end zone, another switch clicked, another instant decision was made, and Roger celebrated the way Jayce always had – with a “Lambeau Leap” into the stands, the fans catching him and holding him up for a moment. It reinforced the message to the team – Jayce is here, we’re playing his game. Roger got his first “unsportsmanlike conduct” penalty ever. It was worth it.
Third quarter passed, grind grind, both teams getting tired, wet, cold, miserable. Roger couldn’t get anything going, knew something had to change. He ran up to Coach Stefano after a three-and-out nine minutes into the fourth quarter, only twelve minutes long in high school football. “Coach, we need to throw. We need to do something big.”
Stefano nodded. “Okay. Let’s go with the I Fake.”
On their next possession, on second down and 7, they made the I Formation, a classic running formation. The rain had let up a moment, and Roger used the towel at his waist to dry the ball, nodding at Jeremy, the wideout, who slapped his hands together in acknowledgement.
Roger faked the handoff to Jacquan, at tailback. Then, Roger’s body language told everyone on the defense that he was faking his continued possession of the ball, a little half-ass step to the right that didn’t even try to convince, while Jacquan crooked his arm, hand wrapped around the ball that wasn’t there, and ran the play, hellbent for the hole in the line.
People see what they expect to see, and when any visual cue confirms it even a little, the brain fills in the gap. Much of what divides a good football player from a great one is the ability to sever what the brain wants to see from what the eye is actually seeing. The Condors saw a running back pouring on the speed, his arm and hand position doing justice to the great mimes.
The wave of white uniforms surged toward Jacquan, and Roger stood there, loose, relaxed, his role in the play over. Then there was his wide receiver, wide open, standing still, a perfect target. Roger pitched the ball fifteen yards to Jeremy, who ran it in for a touchdown before the Condors realized what had happened – though their coach had, already screaming at them before Jeremy crossed the line.
The commentator for the local station knew his high school football. “These guys have been playing Jayce Hartfield’s game all night, but that, ladies and gentlemen, that was a Roger Ehrens play through and through. There’s a reason they call him ‘the Decepticon’ around these parts.”
Three minutes later, it was over. The Condors flailed, the Skyhawks got the ball back, and Roger took a knee to run out the clock, and found he couldn’t get up again. The screams of his teammates, the cries of joy, were like birds circling a man stranded on a small desert island, envying them their flight, their freedom.
The tears came then, the tears he’d been holding back. And it was okay, because everyone was crying, nobody would know why he was crying, an image of Jayce before him after a win, helmet off, face up, perfect skin glowing in the bright lights, mouth open in a triumphant laugh, so full of life, so gorgeous, turning to Roger to wink and breaking his heart in the process.
I’ll never love anyone again like I loved you, he thought, incorrectly.
After the team’s celebratory pizza and soda, Jacob ferried home Roger and his friends Jeremy and Jacquan. When the two of them got home, Jacob asked his son into the study.
He poured him a very small glass of the Laphroaig, enough for the ritual of his son’s first drink with his dad.
They clinked glasses, two gentlemen in their wing chairs. “Congratulations, son.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Roger wasn’t and wouldn’t be a drinker, and hated the taste of the whiskey, but fulfilled the ritual by taking a sip.
“I know this was hard for you.” Jacob paused. “I know you loved that boy.”
Roger was silent. He decided to finish the drink so that the face he made would conceal his feelings.
“I’m sorry I didn’t see it before. And,” he swallowed, his voice breaking, “I’m sorry you didn’t think you could come to me with this.”
“Oh, Dad,” Roger said, shot through with regret. “Oh, shit, I’m sorry.” He went and hugged his father, who returned it with fervor. “I didn’t want…I didn’t want to burden you.” He paused, never one to hide from the truth of the matter. “I didn’t want it to be true. If it just went away, I didn’t have to say anything.”
“Well, ‘burdening’ me is what fatherhood is all about. And the only burden I’m carrying is seeing you in pain.”
Roger nodded. He was too old to hug his dad for long, and returned to his chair. “I’m gay.” Saying it out loud was a relief. It was over! The hiding, the worrying, at least here, at home.
“Well, you’re not the only one in the world.”
Roger laughed. “It feels like it right now.” He sobered. “I’m the only one who plays football, though.”
Jacob snorted. “I doubt that. All those men grabbing ass, snapping each other with towels, showering together, wrestling each other to the ground? You gonna tell me there’s nothing gay about that?”
“Ha. Yeah, but that’s why they’re so freaked out about the gayness, right? Because it’s all so…”
“Full of repressed homoeroticism.”
“Yeah, that. So homoerotic that if any of them broke the rules and really were homo, it would spoil the fun.”
“I’ve been doing some reading. I feel embarrassed, as a historian, that I’ve ignored a big slice of history this long. But when I read about gay culture, about what it’s been like for people to be in the closet, well, you already know, it’s corrosive to your soul, keeping a piece of yourself that big to yourself.”
Roger nodded. “Yeah. But…I want to play football. I mean, for a living. I’m good at it, you know? Really good.” It hit him only as he said it out loud that it was all true.
“Yeah, you are. And you can. But, you know, you’ll have to stay in the closet. I wish I could tell you that you’ll be the, I don’t know, gay Jackie Robinson, someone so talented they just can’t ignore you no matter how prejudiced they are. And maybe ten, twenty years from now, that’ll be possible. But in 2004? It’s not happening.”
Roger thought about it for a moment. “But football is about sacrifice. I’ve given up half my social life for it, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke pot, I don’t eat fast food, well, other than In-N-Out! And, God, it’s weird to say it to my Dad, but…I don’t have a sex life anyway.” He blushed. “I’m a virgin, gay and straight.”
Jacob smiled. “Your mother and I were virgins. Not out of prudery or religion, we just…were. We were…waiting. For someone to come along. The someone.”
“I know. And that’s what I want. I want it to be…magic.”
“I wish you’d known your mother.”
“I found your old tapes,” Roger admitted. “You guys’ wedding, your vacation movies. I watch them sometimes, when you’re not home.” Roger thought of his mother now, her Julia Roberts-like cackling laugh, her Cher impersonation, the crazy grin on her face, the sardonic sense of humor that Roger had inherited. And the look on his Dad’s face, when he didn’t know the camera was on it, a look of helplessness, like he’d been hit by a truck every time he looked at her, the unbelievable unbearable love he had for her.
Jacob sighed. “I should have showed you those, long ago. I just…it still hurts, even now.”
“I bet. I could see it, what you guys had. I want that. Nothing less. And if I have to wait till I’m 30 and my NFL career is over, well, that’s not so bad.”
“What are you going to do in college? When everyone else is…active?”
Roger grinned. “I’ll just have to date a nice lesbian.”