Posted by user JERRY on November 2 at 9:00 p.m.
On game day, I usually wake very early and lie in bed thinking things over. I’ve got a small room with one window that faces east, so the first light filters through the curtains and hits my trophy shelves at about six a.m. Most of my trophies have miniature gold football players on top, and when the light strikes them, the figurines seem to come alive and play a little game. I lie in bed and watch them and think how dumb I was, and how lucky I am to get a second chance.
You all know what happened. Everybody knows what happened. Lots of people screw up and no one ever hears about it, but what I did was posted on the Internet and written about in newspapers, and it even made local TV. Some of the hardcore fans in town felt it was the worst thing to befall Kendall since the church burned down.
I’d like to say that what happened that night last October was a freak occurrence, that it was the first time I’d been to a keg party or the first time I drank too much and did something stupid. But that wouldn’t be telling it straight.
Okay, here’s some honesty. It’s very hard to be the quarterback of the high school football team in a town like Kendall and not have it turn you into an arrogant jerk. You’re anointed at age twelve. You are the star. Girls want to talk to you, even though deep down you know you’re not that brilliant or charming. Guys want to be your friend. Gradually, you start to think you can do no wrong—or at least that’s the idiotic conclusion I came to.
There are a lot of football towns like Kendall in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Texas, but not so many in New Jersey. When you push in through the doors of Kendall High, it’s not a coincidence that the first thing you see is the enormous trophy case. There must be five hundred trophies inside, some of them dating back nearly a century. When I lie in bed watching the morning light hit my own much smaller trophy collection, I can feel the weight of that forest of school trophies and the tradition behind them.
“Pride,” Coach Shea always says on the first day of a new season. “It’s all about pride.” I think he’s right. For our town it was always about pride. Years ago, when we had our amazing run and won three state championships, I used to sneak into the games with my friends, wriggling under the fence because we couldn’t afford the buck ticket. Those were hard times for a lot of people in our town, and it was thrilling to see the pride in people’s faces as they stood up to cheer, as if our town was going to war against another town, winner take all, with no quarter asked for or given.
On game day, I remember those faces as I get out of bed and pull on some sweats. My parents are still asleep, and our house is dark and quiet. I walk downstairs in my socks, holding my sneakers so as not to wake my dad, who works the late shift as a security guard at a warehouse. I slip out the door and stretch on our front lawn, and then I head up Sylvan Avenue at a fast jog.
Here’s the truth, the stinking truth, and nothing but the lousy truth. I had been to dozens of parties like that, and I had done worse things. I don’t want to write them down because they involve other people who are still my friends, but I had bullied kids. I broke a kid’s nose. I teased girls and sometimes it got out of hand. And I got away with it because when you’re the quarterback of the Kendall football team, who’s going to blow the whistle?
Two blocks away I stop at the house of my best buddy, Danny Rosewood, and rap gently on his back door. Danny is always dressed and ready, and he slips out the back and joins me. He puts on headphones and runs to music, but I like to hear the sounds of the world waking up. We don’t need to talk. Danny feels the same weight that I do on game day. I have to throw the touchdowns, and he has to catch them.
Danny is the fastest kid in our school—and possibly in the entire county—but he’s a sprinter, and when it comes to grinding out the miles, I can stay with him. We soon leave the town behind and run past the factory, with the chains on the gate and the busted windows. Then there are the fields—corn and alfalfa—and after that the first stubby trees and soon the pine forest takes hold.
Danny listens to Usher, but I listen to the wind in the pines and the birds and my own breathing. The run helps relax me, and even though we don’t talk, it gets Danny and me in the same space. I bet a lot of people don’t realize how close a quarterback and a wide receiver have to be to get it right. It’s not enough that we practice the routes endlessly, both with the team and on our own. We have to be able to anticipate each other’s actions and think almost with one brain.
Danny was there that night at the Sullivans’ party, but he never drinks because his dad’s a cop. He left early, but my other friends stayed late, standing around the keg in the backyard, cracking jokes and making small talk with a few girls.
I can’t remember who suggested we head to the reservoir for a late-night swim. I do remember a little argument about whether I was sober enough to drive, and me getting into my car and switching on the ignition and grabbing the wheel and saying, “Get in or get left behind.” And they got in, three buddies from my team and two girls I barely knew, one of them just a ninth grader.
Why did I get behind the wheel that night? Why didn’t I let someone else drive, or just stay at the party? I was the quarterback, the go-to guy, the leader of the pack, and things like alcohol that derailed other, lesser people had no effect on me. I was invulnerable, immune, all-powerful, and so when I said get in or get left behind, they piled in.
The road to the reservoir is narrow and winding. I remember driving out there in the moonlight, feeling totally in control, while my buddies were passing a bottle back and forth and fooling around. I didn’t drink on the way out, but I made up for it once we got there.
No doubt you’ve seen the photos that got posted and texted until they went platinum on local and even national news. I don’t know who took them, and I don’t care. Because yes, it happened. Yes, I was doing shots and, yes, I stripped and went for a swim and, yes, I was the one tilting the wine bottle while a fifteen-year-old girl in her underwear drank.
Danny veers off at his house, and I do a final sprint to my front door, and even on the coldest game days I’m sweating and loose. I jump in the shower and get dressed in jeans and my game shirt and go down to breakfast.
Dad is usually at the kitchen table when I get there, reading the paper and eating cereal. He always asks something silly on game day, like “Hey, beanhead, how’s the old chicken wing?”
“Loose as the caboose on a goose,” I tell him.
Mom ambles into the kitchen right about then and usually hands out some free diet advice. “Carbs,” she’ll urge. “Eat toast so you don’t get toasted.”
“No one’s gonna toast me today,” I assure her, and she gives me a look. I catch myself. “Yeah, carbs, thanks,” I say quickly, and fix myself some toast with strawberry jam, and maybe a banana or a protein bar.
I walk the half mile to school and stow my stuff in a locker, and soon I’m walking the halls in my game shirt. Part of the reason I wear it is for luck, and part of it is for team unity, but I admit that I still like to show off and strut a little bit. Last year, as a junior, I felt proud to saunter down the hall in my jersey with its captain’s stripe. They made Danny the captain when the school suspended me last season, so I no longer have the stripe, but I’m still the quarterback.
When it’s game day and you’re going to be running the team, everyone watches you. They don’t always ask the questions out loud ’cause they’re afraid they’re going to jinx you, but from class to class, from homeroom bell to dismissal, everyone’s excited and keying on you. “How’s the arm?” they’re wondering. “Are you feeling good?” “Are we going to win today?” The tension builds inside of me from hour to hour, till I can barely stand it.
After school we go suit up, and it’s like putting on your armor with the rest of your army. My locker’s right next to Danny’s, and we go over our routes one last time. I do some deep breathing and extra stretching that my mom taught me, and Coach Shea calls us in for a talk.
The Supreme Court has ruled that team prayers are illegal, but when Coach finishes, we stay down on one knee and have a silent minute. I can guarantee you that most of the guys are saying a prayer—not just for victory, but that they’ll play well and come through the game okay. We’re fired up and ready for action; at the same time, we all know the risks of going to war.
And it does feel like war when we stand up and enter the tunnel. You can hear the band playing our fight song and our fans screaming outside and stomping on the bleachers. We draw five thousand to home games, and let me tell you, they can be loud.
We run toward the field exit, and Coach Shea likes me to run out last. I wait and listen as the roar builds, and I take a second and remind myself of who I am and what I’ve been through and how lucky I am to get a second chance. Then I follow Danny out of the tunnel, into daylight, between the line of cheerleaders, and I raise my arms, and the crowd roars.
There’s always some kid watching me who probably crawled under the fence, and if he gets close enough he’ll ask for my autograph. I take the pen and I sign, and I know what he’s thinking. I see that look of hero worship in his eyes, and I remember driving back from the reservoir at forty, fifty, sixty miles per hour and a scared girl’s voice in the back begging me to slow down. But I didn’t slow down, I sped up, because I owned those turns, I owned that midnight highway, I owned the whole moonlit world, and nothing could touch me. And then I remember the horrible shriek of the tires, and wrestling with the wheel, and the sickening, exciting, electric jolt of certainty that it was really happening and we were all going to die a second before we veered off the road and crashed down a slope into the trees.
What I remember next is all the police and ambulances, and my first thought—what a surprise—was for myself. Surely I had busted myself up big-time and football was gone forever. But the weird thing was that everything felt okay. While they fished me out of the accordion of a car, I took inventory—I moved my arms and my legs—and then they tried to load me on a stretcher but I stood up. An EMT tried to push me back down, but I actually shoved him away. Because I sensed the truth then. I could hear someone moaning. The ambulance crew was focusing on one of us. I glanced over and saw just enough to realize it was the freshman girl whose name I didn’t even know.
I remember going to the hospital and getting checked out, and then the police started asking me questions.
I recall the expressions on my parents’ faces when they came and heard it from my own lips.
A stern lady judge with white hair gave me a speech I will never forget if I live to be a hundred and fifty. “You are getting a second chance that you probably don’t deserve,” she said, staring right into my eyes. “Look around this courtroom at all the family and friends who have come today to support you.” I obeyed her command and looked at them, and they didn’t know whether to meet my gaze or look away. “You have disappointed all of them,” she said. “But even worse, you have hurt someone very badly. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I’m going to give you a second chance, Jerry Downing. Find it in you to make them proud again. Don’t make me regret this.”
I remember my speech to the team, when I apologized to them and left them there in their armor and walked away from my army.
Then came a month of community service, picking up litter on Main Street, and everybody in Kendall who drove by knew who I was and why I was doing it. Some people honked. A few slowed and shouted insults. Most drove by in silence.
It’s game day. I’m the quarterback. We go into our pregame huddle. The excitement that has been building all day reaches a crescendo. My senses come alive in a way that’s almost freakish. I can see, hear, feel, taste this coming football game. It all revolves around me. If I want a towel to wipe my hands, a team assistant will bring it. If I want a drink of water, I have only to wave. It would be so very easy to get sucked in again. “Ready?” Coach Shea asks.
Am I ready? I take a second. Look around the football field at the fans in the bleachers and the goalposts and the American flag flapping high above.
And then I close my eyes and lower my head and say a prayer, very different from the ones my teammates whispered to themselves in our locker room. The crowd is roaring, and my heart is thumping, and I know how lucky I am to have this second chance.
I open my eyes and look at the coach and nod. “Ready.”
“Then let’s go,” he says. And the game is on.
View 4 reader comments:
Posted by user DanTheMAN at 10:13 p.m.
To clarify, JerJer, you can keep up with me on the long runs cause I let you. Oh, and nice blog. You’ll get the hang of it. Always a little slow on the uptake, if ya know what I mean …
Posted by user TIGERS4EVA at 10:42 p.m.
GOOOOOO KENDALL. WOLVERINES SUCK. WOLVERINES SUCKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK!!!
Posted by user CrustyAlum at 11:03 p.m.
When I played football for Kendall, there was a sense of real pride and accomplishment fostered among the teammates and young gentlemen who populated our once-great team. It is always distressing to hear about the further exploits and indiscretions of the near delinquents who now represent our fine institution on the playing field. Should the disgrace of this young man and his fellow ruffians really be receiving greater attention and publicity? It seems to me this was not the purpose to which an interactive media presence for the Kendall sports teams once aspired. I, for one, would like to see a return to the honor and purity that the young men of Kendall once exhibited on the playing fields and off.
Crusty McFirecracker, Class of 1975, New Jersey State Football Champions (cornerback)
Posted by user WOLVERINESSUCK at 11:58 p.m.
WOLVERINES SUCK WOLVERINES SUCK WOLVERINES SUCK. WOLVERINES GOIN DOWNNNNNNNNNNNNN.
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