We’ll see! I’m so mad at Peyton Manning. Last night he did NOT throw the ball nearly enough to my boyfriend, Eric Decker. What? Wes who? Mmmm, Eric Decker…Think I’ll go to the web and find a picture of him and his…
WHAT? HOT FIANCEE! NNNNOOOOO!!!!!!!
I much prefer this picture. Yes, this one is much better. Oh Eric, how could you do this to me…
It was the last time Roger would have for schoolwork that week. The vagaries of college football scheduling often put a top 10 school against a, um, top 100 school in the first week. Such an exciting way to start the season, at least for one school, virtually guaranteed a big win. And this year, the Oregon Ducks were coming to open the season, bringing ESPN’s College GameDay in tow. There were two big stories in play that justified ESPN’s selection of the venue – Oregon, of course, since they had become so high-profile, and they had a new starter, Jeremiah Masoli. And Cal State Berkeley had a new starting quarterback, too, stepping into the giant shoes left behind when Antoine Phoenix went pro as the #1 draft pick. Was the Barbarians’ program solid, or had Phoenix carried the team? How would these two young men match up with all this pressure on them?
Roger was limited by NCAA rules as to how many hours he could spend on football. Officially. Nobody could stop a bunch of guys from going to a gym off campus, or a field in a park, or someone’s house to socialize (and watch film). You could work out in the football program’s gym, unless two or more strength coaches were watching (that’s coaching, time counts). Unless one walks out, and one stays to “monitor for safety” (not coaching, personal time), except on European bank holidays when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter is aligned with Mars. The program could serve a player a bagel with butter…but not with cream cheese. Or jelly. Yes! Someone gets paid to think of these rules! When it comes to absurd rules and regulations, the European Union has nothing on the NCAA.
The rules did the exact opposite of what they claimed to do – make better student-athletes. In reality, it forced even straight arrows like Roger to be if not literally dishonest, at least dishonest in spirit – either that, or just not have enough time to prepare for a day like this Saturday, or spend their time figuring out what did or didn’t violate some rule.
Coach Orson was the focus of the media coverage, the voice of the team, but it was dashingly handsome Roger who was on the magazine covers. They’d dug up the old photo of him outside Jayce’s memorial service, the look of fixed determination on his face, and it had gone viral on the Internet. The game film from Santa Vera High’s victory had been viewed on TV during one 24 hour news cycle in 2004, then tucked away…but then, YouTube had been invented in 2005, and in the run up to Saturday’s season opener, that game film got hundreds of thousands of views.
Finally it came. Game night! A 5:15 kickoff on a warm September afternoon, the marquee game of the week on ABC. CSB had a 50,000 seat stadium, smaller than its neighbor Cal’s 63,000 (a bone of contention among size-obsessed CSB alumni, who were always lobbying to make it bigger). And it was packed tonight.
His dad was up there in the stands, Roger knew, sitting with his friends in the end zone seats Roger was given to hand out to friends and family. And Brian. Right, your friends, what’s with the “and Brian,” he asked himself.
Roger smiled as they warmed up on the field, and the camera lit up with him as it always would, loving him. But as much as the camera revealed the man, it couldn’t guess what he was thinking.
Well, Lee, he imagined saying to Corso after the game, repressing my gayness has been a great skill builder for me. If I hadn’t learned so well how to put my feelings in a box and shut the lid, I don’t know if I could have withstood the pressure this week. Fortunately, I’m getting really good at that!
Brian nodded at his new teammates, who ‘sup’d’ him back warily as he approached their tailgate party. No wonder, he thought ruefully. He’d only just met the rest of the team, and rather than going to the game with them, here he was, odd man out in the strange cargo labeled ‘Marcel and Cherish at a football game.’ They stood behind him awkwardly, shifting nervously as if they were about to be the next entrée on one of the barbecues surrounding them.
“Hey man,” Jeremy said, eyes gluey with beer and maybe something else, Brian thought. Jeremy was who Brian used to be, he thought, who he wanted to used to be, if that makes sense – the raw talent who didn’t have to try so hard. The guy who could get wasted one night and come back the next in fine form. Jeremy had a feline grace that women couldn’t resist, the dark scowl of a romance hero. “About time you showed up, get yourself a beer.”
“Thanks,” Brian said, knowing a refusal would be rude and uncool. Easy enough to pound his first beer of the night. He swept the can towards his compatriots.
“These are my friends Marcel and Cherish, we’re all in the European History program with Roger Ehrens.” He felt a little ashamed of having to explain them, having to explain why he was with them, but Marcel stepped in.
“Roger asked Brian to chaperone us. We’re new here. In…sports…land.”
The team laughed. Everyone seemed relieved, Brian thought, at the explanation of this awkward matchup. He had to laugh a little himself. Whew! The natural college social order has been restored! And while of course everyone had to be too cool about it, the fact that the threesome sat in the same classroom with the starting quarterback, that Roger had requested their presence, had asked Brian to do this, was social cachet in itself.
All three of them were wearing CSB colors, red and gold, per Brian’s orders. The Cal State Berkeley Barbarians’ colors were “red for the blood we’ll shed, gold for the glorious life we’ve led.” The team’s name had even survived Berkeley’s radical 1960s, once someone pointed out half-jokingly that barbarians were indigenous people oppressed by Roman Imperialism.
This meant a sleeveless gold lamé top for Cherish, red hot pants, and a red beret. For Marcel, a hand-knit red-and-gold striped sweater was paired with a dashing red felt bowler. For Brian, it meant a red CSB t shirt with gold logo, a red CSB ball cap, and his perpetual hiking shorts.
They’d hunted him down on Friday when he’d shown up for the first meeting of the History Students’ Club. “So are you going to the game?” Marcel had asked.
“Uh, yeah, I’m going with the guys from the baseball team.”
“We’re going too,” Cherish said. “For Roger,” she noted.
“Will you hold our hands?” Marcel asked straight-faced. “We’re scared.”
“Roger said you’d hold our hands so we didn’t get lost.”
“He gave us tickets. Really, really good seats. And one for you.”
Brian chuckled. He knew the seats were in the end zone, and not that great. But he could see Roger’s grin as he suggested Brian as their escort. He liked that Roger hadn’t asked him, had just assumed that of course he would do this thing. “Yeah, sure. You’ve never been to a game? You guys are juniors, right?”
To their credit, they blushed. “Um, no,” Marcel admitted. “Juniors, yes, game, no. But! Roger was never the starter before.”
“We like football. Now.”
“But we’re scared.”
“You know you’ve got to wear red and gold, right?”
They looked at each other, already planning their wardrobes. “We can do that.”
Jacob sat in the stands, his loyalties to Lessing College set aside for a night for a red and gold Barbarians jacket. The three students who joined him in Roger’s seats surprised him with their diversity. The two flamboyant young people and the typical college dude were all Roger’s friends. Good for him, he thought with a flush of pride.
Then he realized he knew the dude. “Brian Rauch. Good to see you.”
Brian did a double take. “Professor Ehrens!” He shook his hand enthusiastically. “Hey, guys, this is Roger’s dad.”
Their eyes widened. “Omigod omigod,” Cherish said, and Brian laughed, thinking it was a joke. She reached over and took Jacob’s hand in both of hers. “Your book. Omigod.”
Marcel had lost his cool, too, groupie fever washing over him. “So great. It made me refocus on European studies. Medieval humanists, that was really pioneering work.”
Brian was embarrassed. Ehrens had been his best teacher, ever, had been his motivation to study history. And he hadn’t read this book, because…well, because it had never been assigned, Professor Ehrens not being the type to assign his own book, unlike some other teachers. I’m a slacker, he thought.
“Thank you, wonderful to hear it.” After a few more gracious comments, Jacob turned his attention to Brian. “How’s the CSB history program treating you?”
“So far so good. But then it’s only been a week.”
Jacob patted him on the back. “You’ll do fine.”
Brian was shocked when he realized he might cry. A comforting hand, an encouraging word, God, they were like water in the desert. He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed it over the summer, with no teachers, no coaches, to give him what his father never could. He had left Santa Vera right after the end of the spring semester, moved to Berkeley and worked a summer job doing construction. The boss had yelled at him and the customers had snarled at him and this was the first time since he’d left Lessing that someone had had a kind word for him. Thank God he had a big plastic cup of beer in which to hide his face, and drown his feelings.
“Thanks, sir, I won’t let you down.”
“I know you won’t,” Jacob said, as casually as if Brian had volunteered to drive him to the store, and not sworn to succeed at one of the most difficult and competitive schools in the country.
Roger was jacked up. They were all jacked up. They bounded back onto the field for the introductions, and the crowd went wild. Football! Finally! Summer was nice and all but there was no football, so yeah, not so much!
CSB got the ball first. Oregon was ready for “The Decepticon,” and Roger was having a hard time getting plays off. The team was nervous, intimidated by the bigger school, its winning record.
The first quarter flew by, no time outs called, Oregon running a hurry-up offense and scoring a TD and a field goal. After a couple of three and outs, Roger knew it was time. In the huddle, he said quickly, “Okay, these guys are Ducks, man. Ducks! Chasing us around the field! We’re fucking Barbarians! What is wrong with this picture?” A good laugh broke the tension, as he’d intended. “Okay. Now’s the time. Husky rules, ready? Let’s go.”
The team lined up and Roger started calling what sounded to Oregon like a classic play by their rivals, the Washington Huskies. Instinctively, they adjusted themselves to what Roger’s shouted play calls meant in Washington…
Which had nothing to do with what they meant in Berkeley. Roger had convinced Coach Orson to use the Huskies’ lingo to rename a few plays (not so many that the team couldn’t memorize the new information in time). As the defense concentrated on the center of the line, conditioned to expect a run up the middle, Roger rolled out and threw a perfect spiral to the open wide receiver.
Touchdown! The crowd went wild. “Now that’s why they call him the Decepticon, I see,” Brad Nessler said to the national audience, sealing Roger’s nickname for life.
But the Ducks were too much for the Barbarians after all, though dumb luck played a part. One of Roger’s passes was tipped by his own man right into a defenders’ hands, resulting in a touchdown two plays later. Then, incredibly, the Barbarians’ punt returner started sneezing as the ball arced towards him, causing him to fumble it at the 10, where it was picked up by the Ducks and run in easily.
By the end of the third quarter, the Barbarians were three touchdowns behind, and the fans were filing out, eager to beat the traffic. Roger silently cursed them. Three TD’s is nothing, it’s college football, you dummies! Get back in your seats!
But then it was four touchdowns behind, and Coach Orson took him out, no need to exhaust his starter in a losing battle the first week of the year. Roger clapped his hands and shouted encouragement from the sideline, refusing to let his enthusiasm flag.
In the locker room afterwards, he kept it up, shouting “Yeah!” earnestly as Coach gave them a pick-me-up-get-em-next-time speech before going out to face the press. He kept it up as he showered, dressed, said goodnight to the other guys (no group celebrations tonight, it was a Barbarians tradition that you went home quietly after a loss).
Only outside, alone, in the dark and the quiet of the empty campus, did he let out a huge sigh of relief. He’d acquitted himself reasonably well, in the face of the powerhouse team. He’d finished his first start. The questions and the criticism would start in the media now, and continue until they won, but the worst day was behind him. Of course being Roger, his mind was on the team, what the team needed to do to succeed, to improve, but like any young man, there was that enormous sense of relief, that little voice that whispered gratefully, thank God I didn’t totally fuck up in front of millions of people.
Attila’s Tavern was a “safe space” for a football player on the losing home team. It was the school’s Café de Flore, home to the artists and math geeks and theater queens, most of whom wouldn’t even recognize Roger.
The plan had been set up with his friends beforehand. “If we win, I’ll see my dad at Victory Square, where I’ll be with the team, so we can talk before the celebrations get too rowdy, and Brian will get you home safely before the riot breaks out. If we lose…”
“Attila’s,” Marcel said.
“Yeah, Attila’s. Where I can hide my shame.”
But the good thing about friends and family, Roger grinned as they applauded and screamed at his entry as if he’d won the game, was that they always treated you like a winner. His dad hugged him, Cherish and Marcel hugged him, and then Brian did, too.
God, the massiveness of him, Roger thought, touching Brian’s body for the first time, his face pressed only for a moment into the crook between the taller man’s huge shoulder and his clavicle. He had his hands around Brian’s big strong back, his fingers touching the deep channel of his spine, supporting all that power-hitter’s muscle. The bear hug Brian gave him was only a few seconds long, his big arms enfolding him, then letting go for some vigorous back slapping, but even those few seconds threatened to break all his resolve. Forcing himself to let go when Brian did was agony, his hands slipping across Brian’s lats for one last shred of tactile information he could feed to his fantasies.
“You did great, man,” Brian said. “That was a damn good show.”
“No, we lost, nobody’s done great when the team loses.”
Brian nodded, knowing the feeling, the spirit on display. “All the same. It’s a great start, given the circumstances.”
“Yeah, the circumstances being the Oregon Ducks,” his dad said. “I got them to make you something special.” He swept a hand to the table behind him.
“Oh, man! How’d you get them to make a root beer float in here?”
“I didn’t. I got it next door at the malt shop, and they let me bring it in.”
“Thanks, Dad, you remembered.” He turned to his friends to explain. “That was our thing, in high school. When I lost, my consolation was a root beer float.”
“I want one!” Cherish said.
“Me too!” Marcel echoed.
“Well, kids,” Jacob said, “shall we adjourn next door?”
Roger looked at Brian, who was ready to go with the flow, but was clearly not interested in a soft drink. “Brian just got that pitcher of beer, can we wait till he finishes?”
Brian flushed, embarrassed. Wow, he’d planned on drinking a whole pitcher himself. Which was normal for him, but usually that was because everyone around him wanted their own pitcher, too. “Oh, I don’t need to…”
Marcel and Cherish cut him off. “We’ll help you. Booze first, sugar later.”
They all chatted, partly about football, a little about baseball, but mostly about history. Brian started to feel a little at sea as they discussed historians he had maybe heard of in class but hadn’t read himself. God, I’m a dummy. These guys are all in the same year as me, why are they so much smarter, why have they read so much more? And Roger, he’s a star QB and he’s read all that too! What’s wrong with me?
His attention wandered across the bar, where he found a pretty girl making eye contact with him just a little longer than was ordinary. She looked away with a smile, and when she looked back, Brian was still watching. He nodded, she nodded back. His confidence returned, now he was on familiar ground…
Roger saw it, and a little knot started forming in his stomach, a panic at the thought that Brian would be detaching himself in a minute, cruising towards the bar. He could see it, that “man look” of unbridled lust that presumes any woman would be grateful to be the one to incite it. And that chick, he thought with a bitterness that surprised him, that chick is definitely grateful.
Brian saw Roger watching, but naturally misinterpreted it. He nodded, winked, and Roger smiled in return, unable to do otherwise at Brian’s eager, playful, happy look.
Taking it as his license to kill, Brian got up. “If you guys will excuse me,” he said, startling everyone but Roger. “Professor, great to see you again. Guys, later.”
“Oh, sure…oh,” Cherish said, tracking the course of Brian’s beeline to its object. “Well, hos before bros, I guess.”
They laughed indulgently, affectionately, all of them liking Brian and remembering that he was a sterling young buck with 240 pounds of horny manflesh that needed satisfaction and release from the pressures of college life.
Roger wished he drank, then. He’d given it up after high school, knowing that he wasn’t the natural, wasn’t a guy who could afford to shave off a bit of his edge with pollutants and still beat the competition. But he wished now that he had something to dull the pain, as he watched Brian’s face as he talked to the girl. Brian hovered over her, a cocked eyebrow, a knowing curl of the lips, the tilt of the head… Then he leaned on the bar, signaling the bartender for two more of what the lady was having, and Roger saw his t-shirt ride up, revealing a couple inches of firm waistline, the band of his UnderArmour boxers peeking out as his shorts sagged, his rump filling out the fabric as he bent over, the very top of his smooth, pale, round ass just peeking out, not quite the ass crack but just the division between back and buttocks… Roger was forced to remember that he was a sterling young buck too, with his own raging desires.
Jacob looked at his son, watched his face melt as Brian laughed and clinked glasses with the girl. It would have pleased him, to know that his son had found someone, but it killed him to see him like this, full of longing for someone he couldn’t have, someone he wouldn’t let himself have even if he could.
Damn football all to hell, he thought for the first time, but not for the last.