They have no names on their jerseys, only numbers. Names boost the ego, the former coach had said. Names separate the team. We all win. We all lose.
Anonymous in dark blue and off-white, the home team marches through tunnels toward the light of the day. Lauded by cheers straight from the gut, the squad sprints following a Planetary Science major in a lion suit. He backflips, navigating the field from one goal post toward the other. After the band plays the fight song and the fanatics bellow along, the die-hards close their eyes and lift their chins towards heaven when they get to the line, “We’re ever true to you/dear old white and blue.” And after the cameras focus at the mouth of the tunnel where their opposing team emerges, the lions launch into a direful roar.
The opponents’ last names are stitched across their backs, shoulder to shoulder, in block letters. Red stripes circle their jersey sleeves, stretching tight over shoulder pads.
In front row seats usually reserved for University personnel, a shirtless herd of men peacock their pride at the competition. Further exhilarated by the wind gusts of a sunny November day, “We are…” they chant. The rest of the army replies, “Penn State!” The men’s exposed pink torsos show off elephantine blue letters, painted over mounds of coarse hair. Their hands snake around each other’s waists, a makeshift team in the stands, assembled in order to spell out the phrase F-O-R-T-H-E-K-I-D-S. It’s in these children’s names—unreported so as to protect them—in which the shirtless guys would fight. Some of the men have heard names from friends of friends, but how accurate they are, the men can’t be sure. It could just be hearsay. Imprinted on the blank space above their heroes’ numbers, they imagine: Victim 1, Victim 2, Victim 3.
A Safety for the opponent, his jersey spelling out the name Allecto, is the first to kneel. Other players get down on their knees as a prayer circle forms around his Running Back Coach. It’s not just the visiting team joining in; it’s the Lions too. It appears spontaneous to the crowd, whose volume dwindles into silence, but officials have been briefed regarding the Running Back Coach’s intent. The game can wait, the invocation cannot.
The man in the center of the field in Beaver Stadium, which some say is the geographical center of Pennsylvania (it is in fact, just slightly west of that mark) is known to Allecto not just from his athletic career, which provides him an education otherwise unaffordable. That man, the Running Back Coach, #4 from his alma mater, an East Coast University which elected him to its sports hall of fame, is now the only one standing on his own two feet aside from the camera men who hover near the mass of players.
Answering what he has explained as a calling to come to the heartland, he runs a group for Nebraska’s Christian men and boys. Allecto—tall and fast and the firstborn of three, all brothers—attends meetings with his family, while his mother prepares the Sunday meal. Allecto has been witness to the Coach’s fervent sermons and if he had ever seen any of his brothers drifting off or tangling each other into some nonsense, Allecto would make sure their nodding father was made aware, so as not to embarrass themselves in front of the Coach. In the middle of the field, close to the home team’s forty-yard line, Allecto knows that God has chosen this moment, in this place, to be heard without any distractions.
The crowd is silent, the band puts down its instruments and removes its plumed hats, the lion takes off his suffocating headpiece, the concession stands pause the exchange of money and the customers instead look to the monitors bolted around the veins of the stadium. The Coach speaks as if the entire world is now his team. “We are all one that hear the trumpet to lead God’s charge.” Allecto, cushioned by his knee pads, hands clasped and resting on his shaved chin, understands that the coach, while hoping to unite all of his witnesses, has been instrumental in harnessing Nebraska’s most powerful force who will lead this country in change, the army of Nebraskan Christian men and boys. This would have never happened in Nebraska. Not to their boys. Not under their watch.
Allecto is flocked by all blue uniforms. The teams are randomly scattered together. Looking down from the stands, the hundred thousand people hushed by the prayer see a patriotic goulash, a red, white and blue collage. They start to cheer and the players have trouble hearing the prayer, but the Running Back Coach gets louder and they don’t need to hear it so much. They all feel it in their warrior bellies and it’s not just God’s trumpet, but the war cry of football itself that enters their bodies. The nameless boys in blue think, “We are Penn State. Let’s do this for Joe,” while the ones in white think, “Huskers forever. Make them bleed. Make them pay.” Allecto harnesses his noble motivation: These people don’t deserve the victory. Today, we win it for the boys. And the one united cluster of men on the field divide into two battling sides, the closer they get to kick off.
From a house on the other side of the valley, the Ex University President watches the game with his wife. She lists all the packed items on a yellow legal pad. The boxes are open and the clear packing tape is loaded into a primary-red gun. Stemware is wrapped in plain newsprint paper bought at the craft store. The newspapers are too hard to look at. They had stopped their home subscription so the girls wouldn’t have to see the headlines.
The Ex-President’s Wife’s works at the University too. The Hemingway letters she has been archiving have already been sent to her office at the English Department. She is allowed to keep those. The President has been let go, says the University. The President says he resigned. Either way, they have two months to vacate the house, nestled on the edge of the campus, owned by the University and in turn the rankled citizens of University Park.
Just a few days prior, that ruffled mob knocked over a news van. The Ex-President had watched from his office, saddened but pragmatically he knew that anger needs outlets. An easy thing to do is to get rid of a few people and hope it all goes away. The Ex-President thought himself and his tenure were untouchable. And Joe’s too. But they turned out to be the ones let go by the trustees.
The trucks will come soon to take the extra things that won’t fit into the new condo. The keys for their new home sit in a dish by the front door they got from a weekend in the Amish country. In the Dutch style, it’s blue and white, just like his team.
Watching the game progress, he adjusts his glasses as they slide down his slanted nose. The surgeries he’s had to correct damage done to his skull and cheekbones improved his face, but when you look too long, the dissymmetry becomes clear. His glasses get bogged down in the sunken cheeks and deviating cartilage of his nose. His father had beat him and his siblings everyday, like it was a chore. He always got the worst of it since he was the oldest and a boy. He would forget how it felt to be beaten. His mom would tell him when she snuck into his bedroom to give him crackers and a cool towel. “It’s just going to make you stronger.” She never told anyone or tried to stop her husband from slipping off his belt like it was a snake unburrowing from dark shelter. Even when he had slipped while running to cower in a crevasse behind the sofa and split open his lip on the hardwood floor. It wasn’t anything to complain about or report. Everything was taken care of in house. That’s how he always thought things were done.
On the field, as the clock runs down to a parade of zeros. The ball slips from the grip of Lions Wide Receiver, #38. In unison, fans grab the tops of their heads, look to the sky and then close their eyes to the sight of the scoreboard.
So close. The first game without the old coach, the institution—Joe. His son is on the sidelines, an Assistant Coach and the proxy of the makeshift father the team and the town had grown to rely on. He even has the same name, but has always gone by a nickname because there is only one “Joe.”
The Son radiates displeasure. #38, fresh from his fumble, looks at him with an apologetic gaze. Unlike his petite father, the Son is as thick and imposing as the biggest tackler on the team. He huffs like an ogre down the white chalked division lines towards the tunnel. For a brief moment, #38 sees the Son smile, even though it’s just at some miffed cursing spat out by another coach. #38 thinks maybe he smiled because the loss was some small win for his dad. His dad might have led the team to victory had he been allowed to be there. The Son fastens the gold button of his navy blazer. With microphones pointed, a hive of reporters follows him.
In the locker room, #38 shampoos his close-cropped hair and uses the same ivory cream to clean the quills of his underarm hair, which is so wet and tufted it looks like a pompadour. The other boys talk about what they screwed up and what the refs got wrong. Another player, #6, not the tallest or biggest, but the most imposing, slaps #38’s water-beaded back with a wet cloth. This is it, he thinks, retaliation. All he wants to do is sulk under the steam, but this isn’t a regular game, #38 thinks. We can’t continue the season doing what we do. What we do, we do under JoePa’s guidance. Now that it’s gone, things have to be shaken up. Heads are gonna roll.
He turns to #6, the Captain, and sees his eyes, the devilish upturn of only one side of his mouth. All the other players turn to look, the quarterback, the full back, the left tackle. With a move he learned in football camp, #38 hoses his hands around the nozzle of the shower head, adjusting the pressure and opening the space between his fingers, not as wide as when he clutches the ball, but just narrow enough for water to bullet out and sting the far-reaching skin it lands on. This is horseplay, he thinks.
On the benches after the showers, some players still in towels and some in white boxer briefs and t-shirts, suit up for the ride home. Drops from their wet hair dot their shoulders. The Quarterback surmised in the direction of #38, “Total fuckin’ tradgedy.” Their teammates feel the heat in their bellies, like a pot on the boil that’s just starting to form embryonic bubbles. #38 stands up to the Quarterback who leads with his chest. They both ram toward each other, not knowing who made the first move. Their stomachs slap together and the other players watch with a hushed roar, resounding through the locker room. #38 slumps to the floor from a push. He’s on his back, his head close to a bench and his clean pair of socks bundled together the way his dad taught him. The Quarterback ambles astern giving way to #6, who kicks #38 in the solar plexus. His nerves scramble. He lies there and takes another kick.
The Son hears the ruckus and galumphs into the back nook of lockers. “Break it up!” he shouts. He’s holding his blazer over his shoulder, a finger threaded through its tag. His sweat stains are enormous lakes and the humidity from the showers makes his brow dewy. The team disbands with a pitiful refrain of, “Yes, Coach.”
Joe has had trouble breathing tonight. His wife notices and clutches the floral applique on the neck of her velvet dressing gown. She is a thin woman, but hardy enough to have raised five kids. She dyes her hair as close to her natural sandy color as she can get it, but with all this kerfuffle she hasn’t had a chance to do her roots. He’s gonna want to go out and I’ll go with him, she thinks. The crowd outside their home has been consistent these past few weeks. But after the game it has spilled over onto the neighbor’s yard and into the quiet street where they have lived for forty years. All chanting to see Joe. To support Joe. She’s pleased to hear them call her husband’s name like a fervent platoon.
He sits on the edge of their living room couch next to the phone that keeps ringing. Its chord, a beige tangle, hangs at his knees. The television has been recently shut—a warm glow still surrounds it. On the floor, one of their grandchildren, a boy, plays with a plastic unicorn and a Lego castle. Joe asks his grandson for the toy. Once in his hand, he examines it through his thick glasses, bringing it close to the light. “It’s a pretty fancy horse, isn’t it?” Though he takes many breaths, he asks his grandson if his father has ever told him the story of The Aeneid, the epic tale of a Trojan hero.
His wife is proud of Joe. He’ll never stop teaching. No matter who tells him he can’t. He’ll never stop molding young boys to be the best they can be. She watches him and knows he’ll impart to this child what he has imparted to the teams of boys that have played for him and have grown into men. And not just men, but graduates! Men who write books and save lives and protect and raise strong families of their own. She dares any of those men to say the Former Coach hasn’t changed their lives for the better. If he knew they were hurting he would have stopped it. He always tells them: Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid. Do the right thing. And above all, no matter what, make sure your actions serve the greater good.
“Come on, your crowd awaits,” she helps him up as he hands the toy back to the child. They amble to the front of the house as their grandchild crashes through the gates of the castle with his unicorn. The phone rings again. They open the door to a fortress of lights, voices and people and the background of a darkening fall sky.
On the bus, Allecto sits toward the front, by himself, near the Running Back Coach. Allecto knows the Coach’s prayer has helped their team win and God is on the side of the righteous. Chugging from his water bottle, he looks out the window at the campus. It’s greener than his, he notices, but the leaves have mostly changed. There’s a mountain in the distance and he doesn’t get to see much of those in Nebraska.
The bus slows down. He looks up through the front window and sees the face of a colossal truck from a moving company. A stuffed turkey with a pilgrim’s hat is attached to the grill. The bus will have a hard time making it through the narrow campus street with the truck blocking it. The bus inches forward as the team celebrates. The Fullback runs up and down the aisle punching everyone’s raised opened hands. A few notice the mover load boxes into the truck.
Allecto sees the Ex-President standing by the front door of the brick house. A blue Lions pennant affixed to a top floor window peeks through a white-shutter. Allecto had seen the Ex-President as well as the former coach on television and has prayed for them. It had struck him as odd and he had talked to his father about it. His dad had answered, “Yes, son, sometimes the people in charge, the men you look up to, they need salvation too.”
Allecto notices a red deck of cards in the Ex-President’s grip. The Ex-President shows them off to one of the movers, a young man probably new to the job. The mover seems to be enjoying the attention. Allecto sees the mover looking at the fanned cards as the Ex-President briefly glances up at the sound of the bus.
Allecto knows the magic trick the Ex-President performs. It involves only some cards, not a whole deck. Someone takes a card out, and the magician, in the meantime, turns the deck around, so when the card is placed back in the deck, the magician can look through the cards and whatever card is facing the opposite direction of all the other ones, he pulls out and says, “Is this yours?” to a delighted and surprised reaction. The Safety knows it’s not magic. It’s just a trick.
The bus slowly labors by the truck. The house is in the bus’s back window now, too far to see the men clearly. Allecto wonders if the mover will react positively to the Ex-President’s minor deception. Will he be a good Samaritan with forgiveness in his heart, his nose crinkling over the magic? Or maybe he’ll shrug and dismiss the card. He knows it’s just a trick too.
Joe steps out of his home. The crowd collectively inhales. Mouths open, tongues flutter. His wife’s palm clams against his and with his other hand he shades the glare from flashes. The crowd’s clamoring clicks out to static and Joe can make out nothing. His other senses are under attack until his disoriented ears give up. He can only hear his labored breathing. The struggle subsides as he readies thoughts and wishes for the people gathered, his people. His boys. He holds his wife’s hand tighter, feeling the claws around the stones of her rings push into him until the touch becomes unpleasant. But she won’t allow him to let go. The lights get brighter. Joe sees nothing. He hears silence. He should say something, but what? He wants them all to know how much work still needs to be done and how he’ll be there to do it. He doesn’t want to dwell on the past, things that no one should even need to think about. What is the point of hindsight when there is still so much work to do? More should have been done, he thinks, but we can do something now. “I’m proud of you fellas. Let’s say a little prayer.” All of his people quietly close their eyes a fraction longer than a blink and Joe feels the good they possess.