It is only with great difficulty that one can look all pumped up to his peers while still successfully hiding from the coaches; this was the condition I found myself in on the sidelines of the Cheyenne East practice field. I was a junior, but I was playing on the Laramie High School sophomore football team because it was my first year. It was not that I was scared to take a hit or give one, far from it, I relished the impact of colliding helmets; it was missing a block, or setting a screen for a pass when I should have been pulling for a run that kept me voluntarily benched.
It was essentially a Saturday scrimmage, as sophomore games didn’t carry much fanfare, and during the bus ride over the head coach had assured us that the Laramie sophomore team regularly stomps Cheyenne every year. For most players that pregame speech served as a reassurance of their on-field prowess, but it was a stressor for me because I knew if anyone could screw up a win streak it was me. I was the reason my parents couldn’t have nice things, hell I couldn’t even make a glass of Ovaltine without making a mess. The best way I could contribute to the team was by not playing. Each series the line coach would check his clipboard, and count the number of players trotting on and off the field; all the while I would be shadowing a Gatorade cooler. When coach’s eyes were fixed on the game, I would be standing tall, swinging my arms back and forth across my chest, showing the other guys I was chomping at the bit to be put in.
This ruse worked until midway through the third quarter. By that time we were losing by 42 to 0. I had done everything I could to not contribute to a loss, and yet it had not been enough. It was quite an embarrassing shellacking we were taking. It would be one thing to lose 51 to 0 to the BYU scout team or something, but we were getting stomped by 16 year-olds. When taking such a beating everyone gets to play, no matter how much they suck. My linemen coach, an ex-NFL player, started to visually peel off the duds from the aluminum bench. East had just scored another touchdown and was getting ready to kick off. Laramie needed eleven guys for kick return and at this point any eleven would do. Coach had looked beyond me then quickly doubled back, his gaze locked on to me and my sheepish expression.
“Lilley, you been in yet?”
“Well get yer ass in there.”
I tugged on the rubber covered face shield, pulling the helmet snuggly down on my head, and jogged onto the field. Ten yards out I paused and turned.
“Coach, I don’t know the plays, I don’t know what to do.”
My coach responded without bothering to look up from his clip board.
“Just hit somebody,” he was obviously aggravated.
I turned and continued towards the 35 yard line, joining my peers. I was gonna hit somebody. This was my big chance to make Coach proud, make him feel like he made the right call by putting me in. Usually for a kick-off return all the blockers run back to about ten yards in front of the returner, and everyone runs forward. That was the conventional way to do it, but I had a better plan…
I scanned the row of thugs and degenerates in front of me. Once the ball got kicked away, I wasn’t running back to consolidate with the other blockers; I was going straight ahead, straight into the enemy. I was gonna knock one of those dudes flat on his ass. This might be the one play that we could brag about, the one positive memory to bring back to Laramie. It was just a matter of choosing my victim. Finding motivation to hit one of them wasn’t hard. After all, there were only two types of people that grew up in Cheyenne: Cheyenne East A-holes and Cheyenne Central A-holes.
I looked over each blue-jerseyed butthole one by one. I wasn’t going after a weakling; I was gonna bull-rush the biggest hombre they had. The fourth uniform from the right fit the description. He was huge: six feet four, 260-270 (at least that’s how I recall him)- the brawniest guy on either team, and as a bonus he was black, although a Samoan or an overly tall Swede would do. It’s not that I had any animosity toward blacks; it was just nice for my opponent to have distinguishing characteristics for the retellings of my battlefield prowess. It was kind of like hunting antelope, if you saw a regular looking antelope and an albino antelope, which one would you shoot?
The kicker paced out the proper number of steps, dropped his arm and sent the pigskin flying. Twenty-one guys went east as I went west. I was going to carry my low center of gravity right through him. How surprised was he gonna be when I splayed him out on the sparsely seeded lawn. We both reached max speed as we met at the 50 yard line. I thought he would be the surprised one when meeting my kamikaze attack, but he wasn’t worried about me in the least. Right before impact I saw into the darkness inside his helmet; I didn’t know if it was from his complexion or I was hallucinating the Reaper. Then out of this black hole my eyes gazed upon two rows of glowing white teeth, followed by the bottoms of his cleats, and my own pale legs flailing about in the air, and finally just clear blue sky. I didn’t feel the collision; maybe I was paralyzed. Both sidelines made the “oooohhhhhhh” sound you make when someone gets racked in the junk.
There I was: Charlie Browned at the 50 yard-line. I got up slowly, brushed myself off, and collected up what little dignity I had left. I didn’t even bother to see where our returner got tackled. I tried to keep my head up as I jogged off the field, but the strain of my coach’s eyes dropped my chin down. The firm pat he gave my ass said “good effort,” but his eyes said, “you’re a dumbass.”
Well, I guess there was always debate club, or Matheletes, or Grand Theft Auto, or something.