A novel excerpt by Michael Cunningham
I don’t think Stephanie should be a “relationship therapist.” After seven sessions with her, my relationship with my wife is still lousy. Today Stephanie wanted me to talk more about my youth, back when I wasn’t “afraid to show emotion," wasn't "afraid to cry.”
I told her the truth—I’ve never cried about anything. I guess I did when I was a baby.
Okay, maybe I had one bad day in my youth. I mean, maybe I did cry one time after I was a baby. I have to write something for Stephanie this week, so I guess I’ll write about that day. When I think about it, if I had only one shit day growing up, that’s pretty good, isn’t it? Most guys had a lot more than that, I bet.
Before I graduated from the eighth grade at Saint Martin’s Parish School, all us boys got a letter from Coach Bullard, the head football coach of the Valley View High School Football Bearcats. He invited us to try out for the freshman football team in the fall.
I wasn’t the biggest guy in my class—I was skinny—but I was fast and tough and could throw a football. In the eighth grade, playing football, I liked playing defense better than scoring touchdowns. In our touch football games, no one wanted to get around me if they had the ball. I didn’t touch anyone. I just ran them over. Sometimes, I made guys cry.
The letter from the football coach also outlined what we should do during the summer to get ready: run every day and lift weights and get football shoes early so we wouldn’t get blisters during “Hell Week.” It said that on the first day of practice we would be required to run a mile in six minutes.
We boys made a deal to meet at six in the morning daily at the high school field, to run and use the weight room and to chuck the ball around a little. For the first two weeks almost everyone showed up, but after a month I was the only one there every day. I had saved up money from my paper route to buy Rawlings football shoes and I ran in them. There would be no blisters for me.
On the first day of practice, I got up at four so I could finish my paper route early. I ate Wheaties for breakfast afterward, threw my football shoes over the handlebars of my bike, and was at the gym at 6:30 for the eight o’clock practice. Some other guys, big guys I didn’t know, showed up about seven, but I didn’t talk to them. I remember being scared and nervous and happy, all at the same time.
As I waited, I sat on a bench outside the gym and worked with my football shoes, lacing them and unlacing them and lacing them again. I was hoping Tony, my best friend from Saint Martin’s, would show up with his football so we could chuck it around a little. Tony didn’t glide up on his bike until almost eight, and he didn’t bring his football. I hadn’t seen much of Tony for a while. We did play on the same summer baseball team, but our last game had been three weeks earlier and I hadn’t seen him since then. Tony hadn’t come to the summer football workouts.
“I’m a little nervous, Tony,” I told him, when he stopped his bike in front of me. “You nervous?”
“No. Let’s just have fun.”
At eight there were more than a hundred kids on the field to try out for the three Valley View High teams—the varsity, the junior varsity, and my freshman team.
The coaches didn’t come on to the field until sometime after eight. They were about ten of them, all dressed in shorts and gray T-shirts with Bear Cat Football written across the front. Each one carried a clipboard and had a whistle around his neck. I thought my heart was going to pound out of my chest when the head varsity coach, Coach Bullard, told us about the proud tradition of Bear Cat Football. He introduced to us all the other coaches. Coach Dorken would be our head freshman coach. He was a real big guy, but he looked a little out of shape. He was the only coach who couldn’t make his shirt cover his gut.
Anyhow, the first thing we did was run the mile on the track, everyone at once. We freshman had to start in the back. After three quarters of a mile, I was ahead of all of them. I was even ahead of most of the varsity guys, and I wasn’t even tired.
On my final lap, I was getting ready to pass one of the big, varsity guys who looked pretty tired. As I moved to pass him on the inside, he threw his elbow out and hit me on the right side of my head. I stumbled over the inside border of the track and fell into a blocking sled that didn’t have pads on it yet. It was all steel. I got up and kept running. I didn’t know I was bleeding until I was almost to the finish line and felt the blood dripping off my nose.
Coach Dorken was at the finish line when I came in. He grabbed me by the arm and turned me around to face him. He looked at me and just shook his head. Then he yelled across the track to Coach Bullard. “This one can’t even run the mile without bleeding all over himself.”
“I’m okay, Coach,” I said, wiping blood from my face.
“No, kid. Go to the locker room and stop the bleeding. Then, go on home and gain some weight and try again next year.”
“Coach, I’m okay, man. I’m fine. I don’t mind a little blood.” My throat was getting tight.
“Go home, kid. And, my name’s not man, boy,” shouted Coach Dorkin, as he looked down the track at the other boys puffing toward the finish line. “You can’t even run the track without getting injured. What do you think would happen to you in a real game? And, who do you think would be liable. I can’t take that chance, kid. Gain some weight and try again next year.”
As I walked away, I heard Coach Dorkin say to one of the other coaches, “We’ve got to separate the quitters from the hitters.”
I don’t know if I have ever hated a person the way I hated Coach Dorkin at that moment. I wanted to go back and say something that would get me back into the try-outs, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to talk the way I wanted to.
I sat down on the ground next to my bike and took my football shoes off and put my tennis shoes back on. I tied the laces of my football shoes together, slung them over my handlebars, and started peddling home. That’s when I may have cried a little bit. No one saw me, though.
Getting cut on the first day of football practice actually was a good thing for me. When school started the week after I got cut, my PE teacher was the head varsity coach, Coach Bullard. On the first day of class, he called me to his office. He told me he thought I was a “spunky kid,” and asked me if I would like to be one of the football student-managers. Before I said yes, he gave me a T-shirt with Bear Cat Football printed across the front, just like the coaches wore.
I liked the shirt, so I did it. I became a football manager, but only for two days. I guess my attitude had taken a turn for the worse after I got cut. When the coaches started telling me to pick up balls, that wasn’t too bad. But when the players began telling me to bring them water, I said, “Get your own fucking water.”
That may have been the first time I used the “F” word.
Coach Dorkin got mad when he heard me say that. “You will not disgrace the Bear Cat Football Field with your filthy language,” he shouted. It was like the Bear Cat Football Field was a cathedral or something.
Coach Dorkin turned away from me and I shouted, “Fuck the Bear Cat Football Field, and fuck you.”
He jerked his head around to face me and told me to come “front and center,” but I just kept yelling, “Fuck you.” And I said you like yooouu, with not much emotion, like I was real comfortable saying it.
He started running at me like he was going to catch me and kick my ass, but he couldn't catch me. I ran backward away from him, and he still couldn’t catch me. He was just too fat.
None of that bothered me much. In fact, the whole deal made everything better for me. When the principal of Valley View called my mom and told her what I had done, she decided that the public school was a bad influence on me, so she enrolled me at Saint Ambrose Catholic High School for Boys. The Catholic school tuition was a burden on my family, and after my freshman year, my dad told me I would have to go back to Valley View, but I never did.
The Saint Ambrose coaches weren’t anything like Coach Dorkin. They liked the way I played football and baseball. Before I went back to Valley View, the head football coach at Saint Ambrose, Coach Carter, called my dad and told him that a group of Saint Ambrose alumni wanted to pay all my school fees.
I never found out who those guys were. I wish I knew. I’d like to thank them.
I wonder what Coach Dorkin is doing these days. I hope the fat sack of pus is dying.
Michael J. Cunningham is an old guy and a retired teacher and footbll coach, living in San Diego County with his wife, Linda. Most of his life, he has written for his own amusement, but during the past two years he has been sending pieces out for publication. His work has been published in Summerset Review and VerbSap. Cut is an excerpt from his novel-in-progress Junkyard Dog.
Photo "Anger" courtesy of Ivar van Bussel, Groningen, Netherlands.
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