So I started playing football because I thought I was gay. I showed up at football practice all 5’6” 105 pounds of me. There were other guys there too—seniors who were really like grown men compared to all of us boys. I mean they had bushy beards and mustaches, and girlfriends they had sex with. And they talked about things like having sex with their girlfriends, or how they had sex with some girl who wasn’t even their girlfriend. And this is what they talked about as we walked up to the football field in the foggy morning mist.
Since we were younger, we got all the crappy equipment the older guys didn’t want. And since the coaches weren’t up to the field yet all the older guys lined up all of the younger guys in a row to play smear the queer.
O my god, I thought, they know about me. They know I’m not tough. They had us sit on our knees and put our hands behind us. Then one of the older guys, Eddie Harris, took off as fast as he could, screamed “OLD GLORY” and then launched himself into the air and smashed into the guy next to me, Randy Doogan, smearing the queer.
Then Harris whispered over crying Randy, “Quit crying faggot. Coach is coming.”
Coach was coming alright. Everybody just called him Coach. So I waited and imagined a giant man with an iron jaw or a guy who was built like a coal truck. All of the sudden here comes trotting up the path—the giant man, the bad ass, the drill sergeant.
It was this little sawed off five foot two guy, who had a baseball hat on and a whistle around his neck. He whistled from his whistle tweet tweet, which made his face turn red like a devil face, and we all gathered around him with the tweet still ringing in our ears.
“I’m as tall as he is,” I thought.
This was the sound men made?
Then he said: “Alright now. I know a lot of you boys want to be tough. But if you ask me you’ve been sucking on hind tit too long.”
I didn’t know what this meant, but I didn’t say anything because this was the guy who was going to teach me how to be tough. This was the guy who was going to teach me how to be a man.
He kept telling us we’d been around our mommies for too long. Then he told us we were a bunch of pussy’s.
Then he kicked a bag of footballs. His hat fell off and the veins busted out of the top of his skull.
Then he said, “I meant to call you pussy cats, so don’t dare tell your mommies I called you pussies. Don’t need a whole locker room full of mommies ready to jump my ass tomorrow.”
Then he asked us if we wanted to be men.
I wanted to be a man more than anything now. So we practiced all that summer, knocking each other down and puking.
We ran plays and got knocked on our ass and puked.
We ran gassers and did leg lifts and puked.
Then the coach yelled some more and shouted, “It’s the fundamentals boys. You gotta get your ass down like you’re taking a shit. You can’t be little boys all the time.”
Then we puked.
I mean I was younger than all the rest of the guys, but I ended up the quarterback on the varsity team. But the whole time I thought they could smell it on me. I thought they could tell what I’d done—gay stuff.
So the first game rolled around. I stood in the middle of the huddle, but I was so little I disappeared inside it. As I leaned over to call the play I heard laughter coming from the stands because I looked so small compared to all the other guys.
Look at him. He looks so small. Look at him.
I bent over and tried to call the play but there so many people watching, and I was so nervous my voice quivered and shook, all high pitched, as I called 29 crossbuck pass on two.
I heard groans from the older guys saying: “Shut up. Let’s run the ball. Let’s run 29 counter. You can’t fucking throw the ball, McClanahan.”
I told them: “But it’s what coach told me to call.”
I mean I didn’t even want to be quarterback anyway. I just repeated 29 crossbuck pass hoping that’s what they’d run.
“What the fuck did you say?” Eddie Harris said just being an asshole.
“29 crossbuck pass on two. Ready? Break.”
So I walked up to the line hoping the guys would do what I said. I was so small my pants didn’t fit me. My knee pads were down around my ankles but I pulled them up and kept going. I licked my fingers like I always did to make sure I could grip the ball.
I wiped the towel on my belt and then licked my fingers again standing across from the defense who were already shouting at me. “Hey you little pussy.”
The offensive line got down in their three point stance.
The defense kept going: “I’m going to make you suck my dick. I’m going to kick your ass you little faggot.”
I thought, “O god. Maybe they know what I’ve done.” The referee told them to shut up.
But they just said, “No you shut the fuck up ref.”
So I shook all nervous, squatted down behind center with my hands cupped beneath the center’s balls.
I said: “Seeeeeeuuuuuuttt.” in my long call. “Seeeeeuuuuttt. Hut.”
The ball was snapped. The lines crushed together full of pads smashing, voices shouting, curse words, motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker. I dropped back, faked the hand off to the 2 back going through the 9 hole, and then I looked down the field. I couldn’t really see anything because I wasn’t wearing my glasses. I knew tough guys didn’t wear glasses. But then I saw this red streak zipping down the field. It was Eddie Harris.
I couldn’t see it was Eddie Harris but I imagined that’s who it was, so I just heaved the ball down the field hoping he was one of ours and watched it go.
Then a linebacker on the other team came crashing through the line and knocked me on my ass.
I just sat on my back in the wet dewey grass and listened to him shout over top of me. “Stay down on the ground, you little faggot.”
So that’s just what I did, listening to the crowd like they were in slow motion grow quiet—-shhhh.
And then it was even more quiet.
But then there was a cheer---a cheer so fucking big I felt it bounce against the ground and then go jumping up my arms before gurgling around in my guts.
So I hopped up and heard an even bigger cheer---ahhh, a cheer so much bigger that even now if you’re quiet enough you can hear it echo. Ahhhh.
Do you hear it?
So I just ran down the field, tapped the big stupid linebacker on top of his helmet and giggled, watching Eddie Harris run the length of the field 25-20- 15-10-5-touchdown. I ran over to the sideline and everybody smacked my ass.
It felt good when people smacked my ass.
Coach D grabbed hold of my face mask and I knew I was on my way to being tough.
But then it changed the next week.
It was at halftime of the game with Alderson when the score was 0-0. Coach was spitting and cussing and telling us at halftime: “You gotta suck it up boys. You gotta suck it up even when you don’t think you can anymore, because a man puts up his fists and he fights.”
Then he screamed at Jason Hudson who was smiling now, who was just the kind of guy who was always smiling. “Wipe that smile off your face J.J. Wipe that fucking smile off your face.”
J.J. stopped smiling too.
Then Coach D punched a locker. “We’re all just too goddamn nice. We gotta toughen up. You gotta suck it up and ask yourself whether you wanna be one of them candy asses.”
“Now are you ready?”
We said: “We’re ready.”
He said: “What?”
We said: “We’re ready.”
He said: “What?”
I was confused by all this.
So we ran out onto the field after halftime screaming and punching each other and I didn’t think about anything else. I just played football and called the plays because I was the quarterback.
I called the play 40 sweep. And we picked up 8 yards. I called them back to the huddle and called 31 dive. We picked up 10 yards. I called them back to the huddle and giggled. A couple of the older guys were talking in the middle of the huddle. So I told them to shut the fuck up-—guys who could kick my ass. And you know what?
They shut the fuck up.
They listened to me.
I called another play and we gathered at the line.
The Alderson linebacker screamed at me, “Go ahead and throw it you little fuck.”
But I didn’t listen to them.
I just giggled and said, “Seeeuuut hutt.”
The ball snapped. I faked the sweep, threw the flare pass out into the flat and watched Chris Simmons go zipping up the sideline.
But then something happened. I guess the little Alderson nose guard must have been blocked to the ground, and as he rolled over, our legs became tangled together. I felt myself losing my balance. I felt myself falling. I felt myself flat on my stomach. So I pushed myself up a little on my stomach with my right arm and looked beneath me.
My arm was broken. My forearm looked like somebody had broken it into a letter L. It was like someone wanted to spell the word love with broken bones and my broken bone was the first letter. So that if you were to look at it—it would have looked something like an L. The bones were pushing out like the tips of broken toothpicks. The bones had jagged teeth cutting and grinding the arm meat.
The referee leaned over and gagged. Then he gagged again and vomit came out of his nose. Then Coach D ran out onto the field. Coach bent over on his knees and pointed at a piece of skin that was hanging off the bone like a piece of used dental floss.
“Hey Coach I think I broke my arm.” I said.
Then coach gagged too. He gagged and puked at the 48 yard line.
The crowd went “OOOOOOO.” I didn’t even say a word. I felt the paramedic cutting my jersey off of me. I guess the smell of the vomit was getting to him. So he puked too. Then they put me up on the stretcher and another paramedic gagged but didn’t puke. He kept looking away from so he wouldn’t have to look at my arm. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” Coach told me.
I though to myself, what a pussy. But I just grinned a grin beneath the groans of the crowd and held my arm up, hoping they would all puke. “Puke you bastards,” I shouted and held it higher. The lights of the ambulance started flashing. The crowd thought I was trying to tell them I was okay. So they started cheering.
They started cheering so loud I could feel it inside me. I wanted them all to puke and cheer. Puke and cheer you bastards. And then I heard them cheering loud. I heard them cheering so loud because at long last I was tough. At long last I was the toughest faggot alive.
Scott McClanahan is the author of Stories (published by Six Gallery Press). His other works include Stories II, Hillbilly, Stories 5!, The Nightmares and Crapalachia (all forthcoming). He is co-partner of the company Holler Presents (www.hollerpresents.com), which has produced such films as Preacher Man, Spring, 1386, The Education of Bertie Mae McClanahan, and Lil Audrey's Last Day at School.