© 1998 Robert M. (Bob) Leahy
2110 E. Crosby Road
Carrollton, TX 75006
(972) 416 - 6098
Approximate Word Count: 4,765
The groan from the crowd imitated the fall of Central’s quarterback; it was the second sack by the Manchester team in as many plays. Central might have to punt.
Tom, alone along the sidelines, stood propped up on his crutches. He looked blankly out at the field. He was attending his first game in three weeks, just returning to school the day before. He had lost weight, which could be clearly seen in his drawn face, his sallow cheeks. Tom’s shoulders sagged over the tops of the crutches, most of his weight planted on his right foot. His left foot was slightly forward, its toes exposed to the cool night air. His left pants leg was held together with safety pins at the top of the thigh because the rest of his left foot and leg were encased in white plaster. The cast covered stitches from surgery required in the rebuilding of the leg crushed in a game three weeks ago.
Coach Hubbard asked Tom to ride with his teammates to the stadium, to stand with them along the sidelines. Tom felt isolated on the bus, felt more so now. In the front of the bus, he hadn’t been able to get into any of the pre-game conversation. He turned as best he could to catch what his teammates were saying, but no one talked directly to him. Now, as the offense struggled, he knew why he was being ignored.
Third down. Tom’s replacement, Jimmy Woodson, was fading back to pass for the eighteen yards needed. Manchester, expecting a pass, blitzed and buried the sophomore quarterback behind the line for a third straight time. Tom tried to see what Jimmy saw, but he saw what he remembered of his last play three weeks ago:
Third and four, Central was driving down the field with 4:18 left in the fourth. All Central needed was another score to wrap up its fourth straight win and beat its only serious rival for the city championship.
Tom barked out the signals for a pass to the tight end over the middle. The ball was snapped on two. He faded back, rolled right. But as he turned back toward the line of scrimmage, the defense was breaking through. Number seventy-eight, the two hundred and twenty pound left end charged directly at him.
Tom, spinning left to avoid the inevitable tackle, fell in the diving grasp of a line backer who caught his left leg. He started to fall backward when the end pounced on him, whip-sawing him upright. The bone snapped. The sound echoed in Tom’s ear as he watched Jimmy Woodson go down. Tom didn’t remember his own fall forward over the line backer. He was unconscious before he hit the ground and had to be carried from the field.
Jimmy Woodson got up slowly. But he walked off the field under his own power.
After Tom was taken from the field, Central had punted. The defense failed to hold, and team lost its first game 21-20. The headline in the local paper proclaimed Central’s fate:
Central’s Title Hopes Fall with Quarterback.
Tom never saw that headline. But he did see the article in the school paper:
Delaney Down--Title Out
Tim Ross, one of Tom’s best friends and the sports editor for the paper, looked at the starting quarterback’s loss pessimistically: “With Delaney out,” he wrote, “the offense is impotent.” Tom had let the team down.
In the next two games, both losses, the offense scored only ten points. The team record stood at 3-3, and their fourth loss was only moments away.
Tom didn’t remember much of his first days in the hospital. He remembered the frequent intrusions of the nurse awakening him for another shot for pain, but if he had visitors, he didn’t remember them. He was fully conscious several days later, and clearly remembered the whiteness of the room, the glare from the window, the boredom. Tom spent long afternoons with nothing to do, no one to talk to.
Tom’s parents stopped by each evening, but Tom was exhausted by then. They didn’t say much; they didn’t stay long. Tom remembered awaking one evening to see his mother sitting in the chair beside the bed. She held his hand. Her eyes were closed. The neon light accentuated the lines drawn across her brow, the pull of worry at the corners of her mouth. Her hair seemed lank and dull in the bright light. His father’s hands rubbed against shoulder, squaring her, keeping her straight in the chair. He pretended to sleep.
The first of two roommates was an elderly, balding man whose wisps of hair shot around the crown of his age-spotted head. Tom imagined he could count each of the hairs, but he never tried to. The man’s face was waxy, wrinkled; his mouth pinched upward. The eyes, when opened, seemed vacant, dark against the neon-whitened skin. Tom tried talking to him once, right after the nurse had pushed both of them awake, but the man never even turned his head.
One day, after therapy, Tom found that roommate replaced with another man, attached to a web of tubes. Tom shivered when he saw him, asked the nurses to pull the curtains between the beds. He made no attempt to talk to his new roommate.
Lee Ann came by after school, but none of his other classmates dropped in. The only other person he saw was Coach Hubbard. He stopped by after the Bridgeport game, the first game Tom had ever missed. The coach asked how he was, told him all about the game, and told him how much his teammates missed their quarterback. The team hadn’t even scored. Tom reread Tim Ross’s article. Lee Ann had dropped the paper by before going to the game. Without me, Tom thought, the offense is impotent.
He thought about his last play again and again, trying to imagine what he might have done differently to avoid getting hit so hard. It was stupid to get caught that way, he scolded himself. If only, he thought, if only....
Lee Ann came by on Saturday to read him some of the assignments he was missing, but Tom kept falling asleep to her soft, soothing monotone. He smiled. It was enough to have her sit by him and hold his hand.
* * *
Tom looked at the scoreboard: Manchester 17, Central 0. He turned from the field and began to hobble down the sideline to the end zone gate. The Manchester crowd chanted, “Block that kick. Block that kick.” Central screamed for defense.
No one noticed his going.
He left the field and the glare of the stadium lights behind. Once in the darkness of the parking lot, Tom sighed with relief. Behind him, the crowd roared, trombones mimicked the flight of the ball down the field. Tom went on. He passed a red Torino, hobbled toward the street, cutting between cars.
Another roar from the stadium. Tom stopped and listened to the announced score: 23 - 0. He shook his head sadly before continuing on his way.
When he reached the bus stop, he leaned against the side of the bench, rested his chin on the tops of his crutches. He was surprised by the sound of the air brakes. He hopped up the steps of the bus, paid his fair, and used the seats to propel himself to the rear of the vehicle. He rested his head against the windows, closed his eyes, and gulped air into his tight chest.
Several bus stops later, Tom became aware of a hand resting on his good leg. He could feel a pair of eyes studying him. “Lee Ann,” he asked, without opening his eyes, “what are you doing here?”
“I thought you might like to talk--” she began.
“Or you might want someone with you.”
“I’m all right,” he answered slowly.
“Okay,” she said, turning her gaze to the floor. They rode in silence.
* * *
The next morning, Tom sat in the kitchen reading the sports section. He found the story of Central’s game on the second page--a two-column picture of him standing with his crutches along the sidelines caught his eyes before he even saw the one-column story or the headline:
Central Loses Again!
The caption said it all: “Central’s sidelined quarterback, Tom Delaney, watches team fall for fourth time.” He was angered by the picture. But he knew that last night’s loss--all the losses--were his fault. Next week, Central should have been playing for the city championship. But it wouldn’t happen this year. Not for Central. Not for Tom.
He fiddled with the food in front of him, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the picture. They must have taken it just before I left the game, he thought. Tom tried to picture that third down play again. Jimmy turned down the line toward the wide side of the field. It was supposed to look like an option play. Three steps down the line. A reverse spin. And then a pass fired over the middle to the tight end. That’s what the play called for. But it never made it as far as the reverse spin. Jimmy was tripped up by the strong safety on a blitz. Jimmy took too long to get in motion down the line. If I had been in there, Tom thought, it would have worked.
“Tommy?” his mother called from the living room.
“Yeah,” he yelled back.
“We’re going to the grocery store. We’ll be back in about an hour.”
“Okay,” he yelled back just as the front door slammed shut. “Okay,” he repeated softly before looking down at the food in front of him. The soft-centered eggs had grown cold. The broken, yellow yolks had hardened. He pushed the plate away, brought the paper closer.
The statistics at the bottom of the story caught his eye. Only two yards per carry. Only twenty-five percent passing. In his worst game, Tom had thrown fifty-seven percent, a hundred and twenty yards.
Tom replaced Jimmy Woodson in last night’s game and replayed it. Judging the pass rush, Tom thought he would have completed eighteen or nineteen passes against Manchester--at least sixty per cent. Tom kept replaying the game, tried to be objective, but it made no difference. Manchester’s pass rush wasn’t that good. There was plenty of time to throw the ball or throw it away and avoid the sacks.
Tom was thinking about completing another pass when the phone rang. After struggling to get his leg out from under the table, he hopped over to the phone. “Hello?”
“Hi, Tom,” Mark Sampson, Tom’s favorite wide receiver, said. “Did you see the paper?”
Tom smiled. Mark had just caught the last pass he threw before the phone rang. “Yeah, just finished it.”
“Some game, huh?”
“Yeah,” Tom replied.
“So, where did you go last night?” Mark asked.
“Got tired, I guess,” Tom said.
“Nothin’ else?” Mark asked.
There was an awkward silence between the two friends. Tom sensed Mark wanted to talk. He knew Mark wanted to know more about why he left the game. Mark wouldn’t believe he had gotten tired. But Tom didn’t want to talk about it.
“Got any plans?” Mark asked, changing the subject.
“Huh?” Tom asked.
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Nothin’--might see a movie with Lee Ann.”
“Bill and I were thinking about going over to Matt’s--just the guys,” Mark said. “Maybe you should come, too. You’ve been out of it for three weeks, you know.”
“Let me think about it.”
“Sure,” Mark replied. “Just give me a call before seven if you want to come. I’ll be over about eight.”
“Okay, later,” Tom said before hanging up.
He started across the room toward the back door, grabbing his crutches from the side of the table as he went by. A blast of cool, moist air hit him as he rounded the corner of the porch. He shivered, but in a moment he grew comfortable in the autumn breeze. He moved toward the back of the yard, crunching brown leaves underfoot, kicking up dust into the wind. He sneezed, sniffed hard to clear his nose, then sneezed again. He sat on the wooden bench under the leafless oak tree near the chain link fence. The bench was wet, but Tom didn’t notice. He looked up at the patchy, blue sky and the swirling gray clouds.
Lost thought were interrupted by the sound of his mother’s voice. She called through the bottom of the slightly opened kitchen window; he could see her peering over the top of the sill as he straightened his back and looked toward the house.
“Okay,” she said. “But at least come in and have something to drink with your father and me. We haven’t had much of a chance to talk to you.”
“Okay,” Tom sighed. He grabbed his crutches and headed slowly back to the house. When he entered the kitchen, he was surprised to see it was already past noon. Where did the morning go, he wondered.
“Want some milk or something, Tommy?” his mother asked as he came into the kitchen.
“Did you get any cider?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Then I’ll have that...thanks.” Tom moved to the kitchen sink and washed his hands. He left his crutches at the sing, and hobbled over to the table. He was just sitting down when his father came in.
“Doing anything important out back?” his father asked amiably.
His father studied him for a moment before asking, “Anything wrong?”
“You’re not letting last night’s loss bother you, Son?” his mother asked.
“No,” he replied. “I’m all right.”
“You’re sure?” his father asked, pushing his glasses back on the bridge of his nose.
Tom said nothing. His mother set a glass of cider in front of him.
After squaring his shoulders and planting his elbows on the table, Tom’s father folded his hands together and rested his chin on top of them. He studied his son for a moment, then looked at the ceiling. He sighed. “You know,” he began quietly, “you have been awfully quiet these past few weeks. At first, I thought it was just the hospital. But nothing’s changed since you’ve been home.”
“I’m all right, I told you,” Tom said, without looking at his father.
“Okay,” he said, looking to his wife for help.
“Do you have any plans?” his mother asked, carrying hamburgers to the table. “For tonight, I mean.”
“Not yet,” Tom said. “Might see a movie with Lee Ann. Might go to Matt’s--the guys are going over there. Might just stay home. I’m kind of tired right now.”
“Your father and I are going over to the Anderson’s,” his mother said. “Maybe you should go out. You probably shouldn’t stay home alone.”
Tom’s father gave her a warning glance. Tom just shrugged his shoulders. He wasn’t going to discuss it.
* * *
Tom decided to go to Matt’s. Lee Ann was always trying to make him talk about things she couldn’t possibly understand. She was making him feel uncomfortable--just like his parents. And even though Tom knew Mark wanted to find out what was wrong, he also knew Mark wouldn’t press him. Mark was a good friend.
Mark arrived at eight. His beat-up, badly rusted ‘57 Chevy creaked and sputtered to a stop in the driveway before he sounded the horn--three long blasts that dimmed the head lights.
Tom hobbled slowly out the door and down the steps.
“Hey, hurry up,” Mark called through the car window.
“”I’m comin’,” Tom yelled back. “Don’t forget I’m crippled.”
“It’s your own fault,” Mark said. “Don’t look for sympathy from me.”
Tom smiled at the crack. But it hurt. It was true, of course. Had he been more careful, he wouldn’t be on crutches right now.
After Tom got in and settled, Mark eased the wreck out into the street. “Talk to Matt?” Mark asked.
“Nah.” Tom replied. “Not today.”
“His dad got the table fixed with all new felt. It’s really slick.”
“Great,” Tom said without enthusiasm.
Mark turned on the radio to cover the silence which followed.
They were hailed with, “Hey, Gimpy. Good to see you,” as Mark parked the car in front of Matt’s. It was too dark to see who yelled at them, but it sounded like Bill Pyke. When the rounded the trees near Matt’s driveway, Mark got shoved to the ground. Bill Pyke stood behind them, laughing.
“Ass hole,” Mark said.
“Get over it,” Bill said. “You would have done the same thing if you had been here first.” He stretched out his hand and helped Mark up.
“You’re right,” Mark said, laughing. “But you’re still an ass hole.”
“Maybe,” Bill said, leading the three up to the door. On the porch, Tom reached out with his crutch to ring the bell, but missed right, then left.
“Man, your aim’s terrible,” Bill said, taking the crutch away from him. “Lucky you’re not the quarterback now.”
“Watch it, would you,” Tom complained.
“Let’s see you do better,” Mark challenged. “But you got to stand the way he was.”
“Okay,” Bill said. “Give me that other crutch and get out of the way.”
Just as Bill lined up to try and ring the bell, the door opened. Bill lost his concentration and nearly jabbed the tip of the crutch into Matt.
“Hey, watch it,” Matt said. “Who’s the cripple out here anyway?”
“I knew you couldn’t do it,” Mark laughed.
“But Matt opened the door,” Bill complained.
“You wouldn’t have hit it anyway,” Mark said.
“But I was distracted.”
“Admit it. You just got lousy aim.”
“I get another chance,” Bill said. “Tom had two tries.”
“But I’ve already got the door open,” Matt said.
Bill lined up for another shot anyway. Mark pretended to sneeze, and the stab went far to the right, sliding down the front of the house.
“Hey,” Matt said, cutting Bill off. “You know how my parents feel about swearing.”
“But,” Bill protested. “Oh, hell, all right,” he sighed, handing the crutches back to Tom.
The four boys stopped by the living room long enough to say hello to Matt’s parents, then they retreated to the privacy of the basement.
By ten thirty, Tom was ready to go. He had not played any pool, but he didn’t care. He was tired of playing cards and talking football. Matt asked how it felt to stand on the sidelines. The rest of the gang ribbed him about ruining the season.
“You were sure dumb to get blind-sided that way,” Bill said.
“Yeah,” someone else said. “And if you hadn’t gone out, we would be undefeated.”
“Woodson can’t throw worth a damn,” another said.
“And he sure as hell can’t run,” Mark added.
“He’s just a faggot,” Bill said. “Whose going to put it on the line for someone like that?”
Tom didn’t want to answer any questions. He didn’t want to talk about football or his leg. But he tried to joke along.
At eleven, Mark announced that he had to go. “You ready Tom?” he asked.
Tom wondered if Mark suspected how he felt. But he was happy to go. “Guess I am a little tired.”
“Where do you think you’re going?” Bill asked in false sternness.
“Promised my mom I’d be in early and go to church in the morning,” Mark said. “And I have to get some sleep if I am going to make it through a sermon.”
Most of the other boys nodded their heads knowingly. The pair left without further inquiry.
“Thanks,” Tom said once they got in the car.
“It’s okay,” Mark replied. He gunned the motor and the car lurched forward. The headed down the dimly lit street--the radio still blared from the trip over to Matt’s. AT the first stop sign, Marked leaned over and turned it down. “You can’t let those guys get to you.”
“I said, you can’t let those guys get to you. I’ve been watching you. The past few days, you been getting down. You’re blaming yourself for the whole thing--all the losses, I mean. But they ain’t your fault.”
“Come on,” Tom said heatedly. “If I didn’t get hurt, we would be winning.”
Mark didn’t say anything for a long time.
Tom felt the mercury-vapor light sweep over him as the car sputtered down the road at about twenty-five miles an hour. He was sure Mark was angling the car under each light to get a look at his face. He stared out the window, trying to hide the warm tears from his friend.
A few minutes later, Mark eased the car into the vacant, back lot of the high school. As he cut the engine, Mark sighed deeply. “Let’s get some air.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Tom said, without turning toward Mark.
“Okay, but let’s get some air. You need to calm down before I take you home,” Mark said, getting out of the car, not waiting for an answer. He headed toward the practice field.
Tom watched him go.
Mark never turned back, was soon swallowed by the dark shadows of the back wall of the gym. Even the white stripes of Mark’s jacket faded from view.
Why can’t they leave me alone, Tom wondered. Lee Ann was the worst. But mom and dad have been bugging me, too. And now Mark. Tom understood their concern, but the pressure got to him nonetheless. Mark should know me better, Tom thought. He should know enough to leave me alone. He was as meddlesome as Lee Ann. She hasn’t left me alone about this for two weeks. Every time I look in her eyes, there’s a don’t-you-have-something-to-say-to-me look. I hate that. That’s why I went to Matt’s. I knew the guys were going to rib me, but I didn’t think it would get to me that bad. And I didn’t think Mark or anyone would notice.
“But it’s my fault,” he said out loud; his words swallowed by the darkness. Tom didn’t notice how tightly he clamped one hand around the tops of the crutches. He didn’t notice how deeply his fingernails on the other hand dug into the palm of his tightening fist.
Tom wondered where Mark was. Probably leaning against the goal posts or walking around the track. Tom tried to picture him, leaning against the goal. He could feel Mark looking back at him with his arms crossed in front of his chest, hands buried in his arm pits--the way he always stood when he was waiting for someone to do something. The longer he stood that way, the deeper the furrows in his brow grew. While other thoughts raced through Tom’s mind, he couldn’t banish the image of his friend standing, waiting.
His tears finally stopped, but it was a while before Tom noticed. He began to focus on the question he was sure Mark would ask if--when--he joined him on the field. It was the same question Lee Ann asked with her eyes--a question he couldn’t explain to a girl. The same question that lay behind his parents’ concern, but they didn’t know how to ask the question. It was the same question he asked himself a hundred thousand times without an answer.
“I am to blame,” he yelled. The words evaporated into the stillness. Tome searched for Mark through the dirty windshield, but he could see nothing beyond the edge of the gym. Did he hear me? Tom wondered. What could Mark tell me that the I haven’t seen in the papers? That the other guys haven’t said. “I blew it for the whole team,” he said slowly. “That’s the truth. I just have to accept it. What else can I do?”
Slowly, Tom released the fingers in his fist and stretched them out, cracked his knuckles, and grabbed the door handle. The cold metal warmed instantly in his sweaty grip. He pulled it back, listened for the clunk of the of the lock as it released. It was loud, louder than he expected, and it startled him. He hesitated a second longer before he leaned into the door and pushed it open. It swung open, then creaked back toward the car, stopping half-way.
Tom brought the crutches across his body and set the tips down on the ground. Using his good leg, he pushed himself up and out of the seat, dragging the left leg behind. He eased around the door, giving it a shove with his crutch as he went by. He placed the crutches if front on him, swung his body forward. Slowly, he repeated the movement, keeping his head down. He was well beyond the edge of the gym before he first noticed Mark. He stood as Tom had imagined, arms crossed, staring. But he said nothing as Tom approached.
Tom continued to place the crutches deliberately in front of him, could feel the tips sink into the soft soil as he swung rhythmically forward. He went beyond Mark to the far goal post, dropped his crutches, then turned and slid his back down the cold metal girder. He heard Mark slide around the other girder to face him. But Tom refused to look up. He grabbed a few blades of grass, stuck the longer one in his mouth to such on, waiting for Mark to say something.
A car roared in the distance. All else was silent.
Tom’s throat tightened the longer he waited. He couldn’t take the quiet. He couldn’t take the feeling of Mark’s eyes boring into him. “It’s my fault,” he yelled. “My own stupid fault.”
Mark was silent for a moment. Then he quietly asked, “How do you figure?”
“I...I let myself get hurt. I didn’t think. We’re losing.”
“You let yourself get hurt?” Mark asked. “You mean you wanted to hurt yourself?”
“No, but I didn’t think about the guy behind me...,” Tom said, his voice trailing off.
Mark didn’t reply.
“If I were still in there.... I didn’t...,” Tom continued hopelessly. “I didn’t.”
Another long silence.
“We wouldn’t be losing,” Tom said emphatically.
“Well, that’s what the papers say, isn’t it. That’s what Tim Ross said, too. Everybody thinks so, don’t they.”
“You mean, we wouldn’t lose a game if you were quarterback?”
“That’s right,” Tom said, staring straight at Mark. The answer came quickly. But it hung in the air between the two friends. “I mean...,” Tom started to say. But he never finished the thought.
“What a jerk,” Mark said angrily. “You think you’re that damn important?”
The question fell across the space between them. Tom looked down.
“Do you really think you’re that good?” Mark asked more quietly.
“But...,” Tom said defensively. “That’s what the papers said. Everybody thinks so. Everyone’s blaming me.”
“Oh, like me?”
“No,” Tom said. “But you’re my best friend.
Tom said nothing.
“I would tell you if I thought it was your fault, wouldn’t I?”
It was a long time before Tom answered in a small voice, “I guess so.”
“Well,” Mark said. “I should if I am going to be a real friend.”
Tom looked up for a moment, then stared back down at the ground.
“Have I ever blamed you?”
“Have I ever said you should have seen the guy behind you?”
The word Mark emphasized brought Tom’s eyes back to stare at his friend. Tom began to realize how stupid he was. How could he have seen the guy behind him? How could he have thought he should have seen him?
“God,” Tom started to laugh. “I’ve been such an idiot.”
“Yeah,” Mark laughed, too. “You really have.”
They laughed even more loudly.
The laughter quieted, but the relief remained in the silence of the practice field. Mark moved toward the other goal post and offered Tom his hand. “Let’s go get a coke or something.”
Grabbing the hand, Tom said, “sure.” Then he pulled Mark to the ground.
“Ass hole!” Mark rolled over, picking up the crutches as he stood up. “Let’s see you get back to the car without these he laughed wickedly, darting toward the car.
“Okay, wise guy,” Tom said, struggling to get up. He half-hopped, skipped toward the car.
Mark stumbled at the edge of the track.
“You okay,” Tom said out of breath, standing over his laughing friend.
“Good as you.”