It’s two weeks until my first day at East Franklin High but today, I’m getting a preview of my new teammates. That word suggests we’ll be allies but it’s impossible for me to think of them in that light. We won’t be comrades because they’re going to see me for the outsider I am, not one from within their realm of money and privilege.
However, there is one positive note about being transferred from Collinsville to East Franklin. The football coach is serious when it comes to his team and winning the state championship. So am I—being the starting quarterback for the Tennessee state football champions will gain the attention I so desperately need from college scouts.
I’m the epitome of dire straits but I have a plan in place and it’s a good one. Make first-string quarterback, win the state championship, and earn a full scholarship to any college. It’s the only way I’ll get the hell out of this place.
This isn’t just football to me. It’s my life hanging by a thread.
I join a crowd of guys sitting on the stadium bleachers but keep to myself as I wait to hear what the man standing before us has to say. He introduces himself as Coach Osborne and the man next to him as his assistant, Coach Sheffield. He says everything one would anticipate––the inspiring stuff about this season being the best ever and ensures us we have the ability to take it all the way to the state championship.
“And last but not least … I’ll need a copy of your physical from your physician before I can put you on the field.”
Bad news. Seeing a doctor requires health insurance and funds I don’t have. Even if I can get the money for the exam, my worries are multiplied when I think of the recent injury to my shoulder. What will I do if a doc won’t release me to play? My arm isn’t a hundred percent. I still have a lot of pain. I just deal with it, though, rather than mess with narcotics.
I watch the other players form a line to turn in their paperwork. Some things never change for me. I’ve spent my entire life raising my hand to tell teachers and leaders that I don’t have the supplies I need. Here I am, eighteen years old, still doing the same thing. It’s humiliating.
I lift my hand and the head coach gives me a chin lift and points in my direction. “Yes?”
“I haven’t had a physical. I’m a transfer student and didn’t know I needed one since they weren’t required at my old school.” It’s true. I had no idea of the requirement but it wouldn’t have mattered even if I’d known.
“You can’t practice until you’re released by a doctor and I have the paperwork on file. What’s your name?”
He lifts his clipboard and begins writing. “Where have you transferred from?”
I sigh with disappointment. I already know it wouldn’t take long for my new classmates to figure me out, but I’d hoped I might get a fair shake before my true roots were exposed. I could forget that now. Everyone knows only poor kids go to Collinsville. “Collinsville.”
Coach Osborne doesn’t look up from his clipboard. “What position?”
“Starting quarterback for the last two years.”
A small crowd of guys erupt into laughter and playfully punch and shove a teammate. “Looks like you’ve got some competition, Henderson.”
Henderson, as in Forbes Henderson. I recognize the name from his fifteen minutes of fame during last season’s playoffs.
He sizes me up with narrowed eyes and I return the gaze. I can’t have him believing I’m afraid of a little competition, least of all from him since he choked and lost the trophy for EF.
Coach continues taking notes. “You throw right or left, Boone?”
He grins and his shoulders shake as he laughs under his breath. “Yeah, okay. Which is your better throwing arm?”
This is the moment I’ve waited for. “I’m ambidextrous. I can throw about sixty yards from both.”
I hear murmurs among the crowd before a voice yells out, “He’s full of it.”
“Only one way to find out.” Coach motions for me to follow him onto the field and then tosses me a football. The crowd of disbelievers gathers on the sideline. Their stances and laughter say it all––they think I’m a joke. But we’ll see who’s laughing when they see I’m telling the truth.
“Cooper, you can be his receiver.” A preppy guy in a polo and expensive jeans sprints to the end zone.
Coach Osborne is standing with his arms crossed, waiting. “Show us what you’ve got.”
I walk out to the center of the field and stretch both of my arms. My left shoulder feels a little tight and I pray it doesn’t let me down.
I signal the guy called Cooper to start running and I throw the ball with my left arm, spiraling a little more than sixty yards. The pass is completed perfectly when Cooper catches it. I breathe a sigh of relief.
Coach Osborne nods, his face giving away nothing, although I think I detect a lift of his brow behind his sunglasses. “Okay. Show me what you can do with your right arm.”
Cooper hurls the ball back and I rotate my right shoulder in preparation. When ready, I cue Cooper to start running and then I watch the football spiral toward him. The pass is perfect, beautiful even, and I give silent thanks to both arms for not failing me.
“Impressive. I think you just found a place on this team. I need you to get a physical as soon as possible so I can put you on the field to practice.”
Shit. How am I going to pull that off? “Yes, sir.”
“Until you’re cleared, I want you observing the team to see how they work together.”
I take a seat on the bench while the others dress out. I’m looking down at my worn Nikes as I wait, speculating about how I’ll buy new cleats. Mine are in bad shape.
I hear the players returning to the field and look up just in time to catch the football Henderson just threw at my head. “Hey, Collinsville. Better get used to sitting on the bench because that’s where your game time will be spent.”
I should keep my mouth shut and lie low, but I see his malicious grin and I can’t resist. “Am I confused or are you not the quarterback that got his ass handed to him in the state championship game last season?”
My retaliation earns some cackles from the team, but not Henderson. He’s about to retaliate but misses his chance when Coach walks onto the field behind him. I’m not stupid enough to think this is over––only postponed.
Practice begins and I immediately see that the team functions differently than the Collinsville team. It’s only the first practice, but I recognize how well they perform together. No wonder they went to the finals. Their familiarity with one another makes me nervous about finding my place among them, both on and off the field.
The kicker takes a water break and sits on the bench next to me. “Collinsville, huh? I hear things are pretty bad there. How’d you manage to not get shot?”
I’m shocked he’s speaking to me like a human being, rather than like the trash everyone assumes us to be, but he’s right. The kids at Collinsville are out of control. Drugs, knives, guns, you name it and it’s going on there. “Just lucky, I guess.”
He offers his hand. “I’m Dane Wickham.”
I shake his hand firmly. “Jesse Boone.”
“Yeah, I heard. You’ve got some mad skills. How’d you train yourself to throw with both arms so well?” He gulps water while waiting for my answer.
The truth is that being ambidextrous is the only genetic perk I got from my worthless parents, but there’s no way I’m going there with this guy. “I didn’t train myself to do it. I’ve always been able to use either of my hands equally.”
“Well, it’s really cool and we’re glad to have you on our team, even if Henderson is acting like a dick.”
I can’t help but be amused. “Thanks. I’m glad to be here. My old coach didn’t give a shit about the team or if we ever won a single game. He just showed up because it was a part of his job he couldn’t dodge.”
“Hey, water boy!” Henderson yells at me from across the field. “Bring me something to drink. I’m thirsty since I’m out here playing and not sitting on the bench.”
“What an asshole.” I lift my arm high into the air and flip him off.
Dane laughs. “That’s Forbes Henderson. He’s our quarterback from last year, but I’m guessing you’ve already figured that out.”
“Yeah, I know who he is.”
“He’s showing his ass because he knows you just bumped him from the starting position. Ignore him.”
Does this guy think I’m concerned about that jackoff? “I hope I don’t look like I’m worried, ’cause I’m not.”
The guy laughs. “Yeah, I might have gathered that.” He takes another gulp of water. “I can already tell that this is going to be an interesting season.”
Coach Sheffield is standing on the field with his hands on his waist. “Wickham, you kicking today or what?” he yells from the end zone.
“‘Or what’ means running extra laps after practice. I’ll catch you later.”
He talks like we’ll be hanging out or something. “Sure. Whatever.”
Practice lasts three hours, and watching Henderson throw makes me itch to get out there with the team––my team. I’m ready for them to see what I’m made of. More importantly, I need to show Henderson that it’s time for him to move over.
When practice ends, I walk toward the field house so I can speak privately with Coach Osborne about the required physical, but Henderson blocks the doorway. The whole team is watching us from within and I know this is it––the defining moment where everyone will form his opinion of me based on how I handle this situation.
“That’s a snazzy little trick you can pull but don’t be under the impression that you’re gonna walk into the starting quarterback position. I’m not giving it up.”
I can’t afford to be labeled a troublemaker by my coaches so I don’t respond. I attempt to step around him. It’s clearly not the response he’s looking for so he shoves his shoulder into mine, causing me to stumble backward. “Did you hear me, boy?”
His words and sneer trigger something in me––a reminder of the way my mom’s boyfriend, Wayne, would smirk in that brief moment before he raised his fist to hit me.
I grab Forbes by his practice jersey and yank him from the doorway, slamming his back against the wall of the concrete-block field house. “Never touch me again. Understood?”
“Do we have a problem already, guys?” Coach is standing in the doorway of his office, arms folded over his chest, waiting for an answer.
I straighten Forbes’s jersey and pat him on the arm. “No, Coach. I think there’s a crystal clear understanding between us. Don’t you agree, Henderson?”
He narrows his eyes more, his lip hinting at a snarl. “I believe Boone and I understand each other perfectly.”
“Glad to hear it. Now get out of here, Forbes.” He dismisses him with the wave of his hand. “Boone, I need to see you in my office.”
Perfect. I’m the one that will take the ass-chewing. It shouldn’t come as a surprise since it’s only natural that the rich kid gets away with everything.
I follow Coach and he tells me to have a seat before he shuts the door. That’s never a good sign.
I inhale deeply and swallow hard, my best poker face on, a mask for the fear I have of being told to get out because he doesn’t have a place on his team for Collinsville troublemakers.
“Do you realize the kind of exceptional talent you have?”
Wow. That’s not what I was expecting to hear. A sigh of relief escapes my chest.
“Colleges dream of getting their hands on someone like you. The gift you have is rare, even in the NFL.”
I’m not being thrown off the team. I can breathe again. “I really hope a college will want me because I have to get a full scholarship.” I hear the desperation in my voice. Shame rises to my face.
Coach looks me over while leaning back in his chair. He’s judging me. It’s a look I’ve seen all of my life. “Have you not gotten the physical because you didn’t know about it, or can you not afford it?”
Every important time in my life has always come to this––the part where I’m forced to admit I have nothing. “I didn’t know it was a requirement.” I consider leaving it at that but decide there’s no point in not telling the whole truth. “But even if I had, I can’t afford it right now.”
He brings his hand to his chin and rubs it, saying nothing. I’m afraid he’s about to ask about my parents and home life, so I attempt to redirect. “But I can talk to my boss about an advance on my paycheck.”
He grabs a scratchpad from the desk and begins writing. “My wife’s brother is a physician and this is the address for his office. I’ll let him know you’ll be coming this afternoon.”
There’s no way I can get the advance by then. “But I don’t have the money for a doctor’s visit today. I just need a little time.”
“Ronnie will see you at no charge.”
What? No one had ever cut me a break in my life––except for my boss, Earl––so what was the catch? “Why would a doctor I don’t know do that for me?”
“Because I want you on my team. The sooner I get you practicing, the quicker I can see exactly what I can do with you.”
I can’t recall a time in my life when anyone wanted me. “Thank you.”
I no longer have the burden of worrying about how to pay for a doctor’s visit but I’m plagued with a new stressor. I don’t enjoy feeling like a charity case and I worry the other guys will find out I got a free physical. They’ll rag me forever if that happens.
“No worries. The team will never know.” It’s as if Coach can read my mind.
I nod, too choked to speak.
I leave the field house and my new team members are hanging out in the parking lot with more than a dozen girls––beautiful girls in matching athletic shorts and T-shirts that read EFHS. They must be the cheerleading squad.
My new arch-rival is holding hands with the hottest girl in the group, a petite little thing with a tiny waist wearing a tight shirt that shows off her perfect tits. Her long, auburn hair is pulled into the classic cheerleader ponytail.
I walk to my truck, totally expecting a cheap shot from Henderson, and he doesn’t disappoint. “Hey, superstar. Are you still waiting for the NFL to send your first paycheck so you can buy a ride that doesn’t come from the junkyard?”
He laughs. The girl by his side jerks her hand from his and slaps him across the chest. I’m disappointed it isn’t his face but she has no reason to defend me. Frankly, I’m surprised she didn’t join him in humiliating me since they’re cut from the same cloth.
I open the squeaky door to my old, beat-up truck and curse myself for not lubing it. “Wow, Henderson. That’s a creative line for someone who just got bumped to second string.”
I slam the door before he has the opportunity to belittle me further in front of the cheerleaders. My hand on the key, I hesitate, praying the engine doesn’t stall as it often does. Luck is with me when it starts without a hiccup on the first try.
Forbes Henderson looks in my direction as I drive past. I leave knowing this rivalry between us is only beginning.