He threw the football hard and long. My hands hurt at times when I caught it.
I was so busy most of the times he’d play by himself in our backyard until his cleats started tearing up the sods. He’d throw the ball and then run under its short flight to catch it. When he wanted to throw deep, he threw into the apple trees, the myrtle trees. He’d throw the ball across our yard so it landed nose down on the little hill that rose up on a deep incline. The impacts of the ball left many holes in the grass.
Four months after he turned 11, I enrolled him in one of the many youth football organizations in our Washington metropolitan areas. The Silver Spring Saints. The day we came in to get his uniform and equipment, he said to me, “Guess how old are the Saints, Dad?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Fifty-six years old.”
We arrived early. He wanted to. So he could pick a jersey that bore the number 12. Tom Brady’s number. The QB of the New England Patriots. His idol.
The equipment man said to him, “You want twelve?” and sorted through a pile of burgundy jerseys and then handed him one. His face beamed.
They weighed him and put him in the Pony 85lb team.
“You know what?” I said to him. “You may not play quarterback at all. So . . .”
He said nothing. Moments later as we were leaving he said, “I know.”
He’d practice three evenings after school, then play on Saturday. August heat and mosquitoes and flies. At eight, the two-hour practice ended. The sun was still bright and he’d stay back to throw the football with his friends. A wide receiver, a tight end. I wanted him to leave, go home, eat dinner, wash up and do his homework. But watching his teammates running routes, the spiraled ball arching in its flight that found the receiver on the spot, I decided to let him stay on.
The season began a week before the Labor Day. The coaches had him play corner, safety and backup quarterback. He was smaller than most of his teammates; yet he was agile in drills. Still his size put him at a disadvantage against bigger players. Twice I saw him tackle a running back and his head jerked and he was left clinging on to the kid’s shirttail.
His team opened the season with a win on the road. In one series he was sent in to relieve the QB, because every kid must play on both sides of the ball and they tired out quickly. Into September, losses mounted. Tough opponents exposed his team’s weaknesses. Teams ran sweeps late in the game and often scored touchdowns, when his entire defense was leg tired. Teams with big running backs punished them at the goal line. His team’s QB was rushed, sacked each time he stepped back to pass. His running back often got stuffed.
Late one afternoon after a game, I was walking across the field to meet him when the tight end’s father saw me and said, “They should’ve put your son in. He got a bazooka arm.”
“You think so?” I said. “Peter wasn’t that bad. His line couldn’t protect him.”
Peter, the QB, had played the previous season. I stood in the middle of a dirt trail when he was coming up. The air was thick with smoked meat and I could hear yells from the bleachers. His face was red and sweaty. His burgundy jersey was yellowed with dirt and clods, his hair matted on his brow, and his mouthpiece dangling on his helmet’s facemask.
“Drink this,” I said, handing him my iced tea bottle.
He shook his head, kept walking toward the parking lot.
“Not a bad game,” I said.
“You think you could do better?”
“He always looked for one receiver. Like he already made up his mind before the snap.”
“He wasn’t dumb.” I shook my head. “If you have no time, you’d better get that ball out quickly.”
“No. You want your teammates to badmouth you every time you make a QB mistake?”
“I know I’m better than him.”
“Be a team guy.”
“It’s true, Dad.”
“Because you haven’t been in the spotlight yet. Trust me.”
As his team was losing more than winning, I got used to seeing him standing on the sideline among the reserves, shirttail out, helmet in hand, mouthpiece hooked to facemask. A few times I thought he was on the field but then as I looked again toward the sideline, I saw number 12 on the back of his jersey.
I never questioned the coaches’ decisions. Those men volunteered their time, asked for nothing in return, and coached and mentored the youngsters the best they knew how. After a losing game, we walked out to the parking lot and I said to him, “Your friends looked dead tired when they scored that last touchdown on you.”
“Pete said he couldn’t move his legs.”
The kid played QB for several series and when his offense failed to gain a first down he didn’t leave the field but join the defense. He was knocked back to the ground at the goal line, and I was twenty feet behind the end zone watching the humiliation.
“It’d help,” I said, “if your coaches rotated players. Get fresh legs in. Put in the reserves, get them involved. That’s how you learn and gain experience.”
“My coaches are the worst.”
I let him stew. I decided not to side with the coaches and darken his mood even more.
“You’re killing the grass,” I said. “Go play on the street.”
He looked down at my work, turned and mumbled to himself, “I wish I were Mr. Li’s son.”
I paused from what I was doing. I looked at the ground. Then I watched him play by himself on the cul-de-sac. The black-topped road wasn’t made for playing football. I put away the bags of grass seeds and topsoil. Moments later he was back in our yard and we played catch.
The new season arrived. He joined his old friends and new players in the Midget 95lb team. He and two of his old friends—a tight end and a running back—wanted to play QB. They all could throw. After two practices, the coaches made him third-string QB.
During the first scrimmage against another crosstown team, he played in one series on defense as an outside linebacker. In that series the other team ran a sweep left away from him and scored a touchdown. The coaches shuffled players in and out and he remained on the sideline. Most reserves sat on one knee, helmet by their side; he stood, shirttail out, left hand in glove. I could tell it was him, for I couldn’t see the number 12 on his back from where I stood. For the first time, I felt his dark mood.
After the next evening practice, he told me on our way home that he might get cut.
“What?” I said.
“We have too many players. So they’ll cut six of us.”
“Cut? You mean you can’t play anymore?”
“I can play. But with a B team. With those kids who have no experience.”
“We’ll see. When, then?”
“I got cut,” he said as he climbed in.
“You mean they moved you to the B team.”
“Any of your friends got cut?”
“Just one. He quit.”
“He said he didn’t want to play for the losers.”
I pursed my lips. Drove in silence. The road through the wooded area was dark save the bright headlights of our lone car. He was a small shape slumping in the backseat.
“You still want to play?” I said, looking straight ahead.
“Good. Look at it as a blessing in disguise.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“Listen.” I glanced quickly at him in the rearview mirror. “Do you want to stand around as a reserve with your old team, or get to play every snap with your new team?”
“I want to play. But I want to be with my friends.”
“Well, you’d better change your thinking quick, ’cause it’s not gonna happen for you.”
He said nothing, then took a draw from his Powerade bottle. “My old coaches told the new coaches to make me the main QB of their new team.”
“Because you’re probably the only player with experience.”
“Just three of us. We played for the Pony last year.”
I chuckled. “This isn’t right. You have the first game of the season in a week. And they started putting this team together just now?”
“We had our first practice together today.”
“Is that so? Then you’d better get to know each other quick. Who backs you up at QB?”
“No one. And our center, he’s a small kid. I don’t know how he can block. The coaches call him Donut.”
I grinned. “Donut?”
“His name is Donnie. Kinda chubby. But he’s too small for a center.”
“You’re in it together. Win or lose. Hear?”
He said nothing. He wouldn’t talk back when he knew I was right.
The first game of the season was an away game. We drove 45 miles to an evening game, the last game of the day at 8 PM. When we got there an hour before game time, the coaches said the game would be delayed until 8:30. There were two games still going and the lights came on for the night games. Coaches yelled at the kids when they were romping in the staging area.
“Don’t run yourself out of gas. We have a game to play.”
Soon they walked single file into a practice field for the pre-game talk. The sky darkened. Droplets of rain wet my face. I went back to our car, opened my laptop and soon forgot time. Lightning came with occasional flashes. From the football field the screams and yells stopped. Then someone knocked on my car window. He was looking in. He didn’t wear his helmet.
“Why’re you here?” I opened the car door.
“Game cancelled. Lightning, Dad.”
It had been a long day for all the kids. First their game was rescheduled from 1:30 PM to 8 PM, then delayed to 8:30 PM, and then cancelled.
“Does that mean you’ll have a make-up game tomorrow?” I said as we drove out of the park.
“No. Coaches said nothing about it.”
Sunday was reserved for make-up games. That usually meant they would have it in the middle of the week to avoid back-to-back game came Saturday.
On Tuesday practice the team was told to play the make-up game on Wednesday. An evening game. Forty-five miles away back to the same park. Then return to their practice schedule on Thursday and Friday, and then play the next game on Saturday.
I was upset. I said to him, “You’ll need lots of rest this week. Or you won’t have legs on Saturday.”
On Wednesday he did his homework during our ride to the park. Then when I asked him a question, he didn’t answer. I glanced at the rearview mirror and saw him fast asleep. Dusk fell just before the game started. I saw him practice the snap exchange with his center. He fumbled the snap. Then the coach sent the team in. I ate a bar of chocolate to calm my stomach.
On the way home, he said, “The Terps are just average and we could barely beat them.”
“You did OK. You guys played hard. And that’s good to see.”
“Dad, they had only 14 kids. We have 22.”
So they ran out of gas. We got home late. While he ate a quick dinner I washed his briefs so he could have them back for the next day’s practice. He was sound asleep when I came in his room to kiss him goodnight.
After the Friday evening practice and during our ride home he said, “We had so many false starts today, Dad.”
“That’s the coaches’ job. Correct the mistakes on the spot.”
“They did. We kept doing it.”
“You play Maplewood on Saturday and you’d better play a mistake-free game. They’re very disciplined.”
“They’re our archrivals. We could never beat them.”
“Any team can be beat. OK? Play with discipline and let it be.”
Maplewood Midget team was to receive the kickoff. The coaches had him play special teams, and I watched him position himself on the left side of the ball. Maplewood kickoff returner fielded the ball and streaked down the right side untouched. The first touchdown came within 20 seconds into the game. From the sideline you could hear his coaches yell at the two players who sleepwalked in their assignments.
He moved his offense slowly. They only passed twice. He rolled out on both plays to avoid the rushes. Short completions. He drew the defense offside once; in return his O line false started several times and killed the drives. Third quarter saw Maplewood leading 21-0. Then his team woke up. The running back scooted out of the backfield on a toss and left the defense in the dirt. But on the extra point, he got stuffed near the goal line.
Maplewood came right back with a pass, caught a corner busy looking at the QB instead of the receiver. The easy touchdown got coaches fuming. With three minutes left, he and his offense were 30 yards from Maplewood’s end zone. Maplewood was all geared up to blitz. He could barely get the snap and got blasted. He fell facedown. Get up, I screamed in my head. He sat up on one knee. His coach yelled, “Zee, get back in! Huddle up!” He pushed himself up, his burgundy jersey, his black pants yellowed with dirt. He gingerly walked like he didn’t know where to go. “Zee, move!” His coach frantically slashed his arm in the air. They lined up. His running back fumbled, the ball squirted loose, everyone pounded on it and his tight end scooped it up and ran in for a touchdown. They regrouped quickly for the extra point. From the opposite end zone I could barely hear him call the signals. Then he took the snap, stepped back and ran through the O line into the end zone.
They lost, 13-27.
“You hurt?” I said, glancing down at him.
“Here.” He touched his crotch.
“I saw that you took a good lick.”
“I hate this stupid protecting cup.”
“What’d you mean? It’s there for a reason. That’s why the league makes you wear it this year.”
“I couldn’t move around. It hurt whenever I did that.”
“Better than getting a knee in there and likely you’d get hurt even worse.”
I opened the car door. He stood there, looking up at me. “I might get all this dirt on the backseat, Dad.”
I drove out of the park. I didn’t hear him crunching on his chips. He usually ate the snack right away.
“Eat something,” I said, glancing up at the rearview mirror.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Then drink. Drink much as you can. Don’t let yourself dehydrated.”
As I waited at a red light I looked at him in the rearview mirror. He sat, chin tucked in his chest.
“You sleeping?” I said.
As I pulled away through the intersection, he said, “Something wrong with my testicles.”
“Must be from the protecting cup. You got a bruise. Bumps and bruises.”
“They hurt, Dad.”
“I’ll look at it—when we get home.”
A silence. I drove without any thought. Then I heard him.
“I might quit football.”
I squinted at the sun glare. “If you can’t put up with little pains, don’t play football. But you don’t quit on anything you started. You just don’t.”
He said nothing as I drove on. When the road was quieter with no traffic I looked at the rearview mirror. His head was falling to the side and he was asleep. Sweaty, dirty. I held in my gaze his angelic face, like he were still a baby a good many years before.