Throbbing Heels

Creative Nonfiction Written By Christian J. Ashliman

Cleats pound the smooth cement that paves the floor of our musty, humid locker room. Vibrations from the repeating bombardment shakes the lockers and rattles the sealed doors leading outside. Football cleats are sturdy and forceful, sometimes having little metal pins shoved in each protruding spike on their bottoms, in order to add more durability and strength under the pivoting weight of the player. Metal or not, thousands of half-inch pikes slamming into the ground creates a thunderous boom that rails against my eardrums. The sound is familiar, yet still surprising, bounding through my head every Friday night, ricocheting and echoing off the cinder-block walls that encase our manly den.Rows of lockers line the walls of this lair, with several isles of alternating blue and yellow themed compartments thrown in the middle. Our horde of rambunctious players are huddled together at the end of the locker rows, tightening into a wad of excitement as we all bounced up and down, chanting and howling, amping each other up before the big moment of running onto the field. The energy in the room was electric, adrenaline racing through my veins as we squeezed together and mustered the most savage screams we possibly could. Several coaches stood around the outside of our ring, smiling and cheering under a more civil demeanor than our ravenous, thrashing shouts. My heartbeat sprinted, thumping in my head with each hop into the air; my legs could give out from the shaking exhilaration and my body would continue to leap in the same manner as before, purely due to how tightly crowded we were. But my legs were far from failing, filled with electricity from the Gatorade and pre-workout I had guzzled five minutes earlier.

The coach reached his broad arms in towards our huddle, yelling in a commanding voice, “Alright, alright, that’s enough, boys. Settle down. I want your focus on me now.” Our coach was shorter in stature, but made up for it in personality, projecting booming words that were impossible not to engage with. He hung his mouth open wide every time he spoke to the team, bellowing in a deep crackle that was unique to him, and could shake you to your core. He stood up straight, folding his arms across his chest, scanning the room quickly, searching across each players face, as if he was trying to find a particular one.

“We practice every day over the summer, don’t we? Even twice a day, sometimes, right?” coach calmly asked, with a normal, inside voice, surprising those who were distracted, as they now listened in.

“We spend every day before school lifting those giant metal slabs. Every day after school, sweating, practicing—rain, shine, heat, storm, snow, you name it. We are out there, in the grass and mud, practicing. Aren’t we?!” he reflected, raising his voice to a powerful level that dominated the room.

He was shouting now, “Every. Damn. Day. You get up, you could go do something else, go chase girls, or play video games—but you come here, you put on the pads, and you take the hits. Why? Why do you do it?” he roared, looking around the water-drop silence of the room.

“So that on Friday night, you can lace up those cleats, and you can march that field. So that you can stand across from another man, and face him down, in no more an honest and true way than humans know how.” The coach had a wild look in his eye, as if he were in the zone, saving his energy for lecture, and inspiration, all for this moment.

“The skills you know, the talent I have seen this team put out on that field—it’s tangible. It’s real, and it’s right here.” He knuckled a fist with his right hand, bumping it into his chest, above where his heart would be, several times.

“That football field is where you can take all the matter, all the stuff that it takes to be a man, and funnel it. Push it into your play, let it drive you to become the best you can be. The ‘best’ I know that each and every one of you have within yourselves.” Coach unfolded his arms, swinging them to his sides, as he stepped towards the wide-eyed group.

“This team has what it takes. Everyone single one of you are vital and important to the beating heart of this group, and what it means to be a championship football team.”

 

Football came crashing into my life on a whim, decided one day when I caught the ball and  juked a pair of family-defenders, diving for a touchdown. The game was nothing special, a traditional two-hand-touch run, involving both my immediate family and some friends of ours. “What a catch! Ya know, you ever thought about actually playing football?” they said to me, praising my ability to snag the ball out of thin air. That’s what I would be, a football player! Leaving the sportless charter school I had safely and comfortably known for seven years, and leaping my way into the public education system was terrifying—walking among hundreds of kids who had all known each other since they could waddle across a room. Football was my new faucet, my new skill to build, something to push towards, a way to make boat loads of friends, and get popular at the same time. It all seemed simple enough, to join the high school team as a freshman, and run the plays from there. Competing under the spotlights on Friday night, meeting the gorgeous cheerleaders, having people know my name, and most importantly, catching a game-winning touchdown pass—this was the stuff of my dreams, the checklist for my up-and-coming high school career.

I had never worn pads, or put a football helmet on in my life, but I was fast, flexible, and shifty. I showed up for the first day of practice, and the biggest kid on the team, a kid who I actually recognized from my charter school, probably back in 3rd grade, came sprinting down the cone-line, crushing my body, sending me soaring through the air, into the coarse, yellow grass of the freshman practice field. I stood up, I brushed off, and I got back in line. One hit down, nine-hundred-ninety-nine more to go. I took them all, every single shot. Punching the sliver of plastic that shuts my alarm clock off at 6am every morning, and climbing into the musty ‘Bobcat’ gym shorts that were dress code for our workouts. Sprinting out into the hallway while I still had sleep-goobers in my eyes, and hurling up a breakfast I shouldn’t have eaten, from running the extra set of gassers our coach so graciously demands. Providing solid cannon fodder for the varsity teams, taking jarring blows to my delicate, vertigo-ridden skull. Showing up on time for every single practice, sweating in the boiling sun of our two-a-day beatings in August. The sun came up, and I breathed football into my lungs—the sun went down, and I would exhale it back out

Game day would come, every single Friday, waking up and sliding the silk tie over my head, to show off at school; I am on the football team, how neat for me. We would all dress in our Sunday Best, waltzing around the halls with our chins cocked up—me, hobbit-sized compared to the group of barreling linemen I paraded around with, anticipating the nights smashing blows and hopeful victory. Team members would find their way into the commons of our high school, seating themselves around tables in wire-mesh chairs during our free hour dedicated to ‘football class’ on game day. They would trade stories of last week’s game; how the opposite cornerback was a racist, or how hard they were trying to crush the opposing receivers ribs. How that once-in-a-lifetime catch that Mitch made was so incredible and impossible, and how Nick was probably, if not definitely, the best, and youngest, high school quarterback in the state. The school bells would ring, and the boys would find their picture-perfect girlfriends—smiling, laughing, kissing, and always jabbering about that night’s football game. None of them could help it; the adrenaline drove them, inspired them, and gave them something to look forward too.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that football wasn’t the only game being played every Friday night. A popular, visceral, and challenging competition that gripped hold of both the team and the coaches was put on stage, unfailingly, each week. And each week, I stood, gaping before the impossibility of winning it’s ploy. Puppeteers who were masters of their craft, the coaches relied on the experience of players who were little football hellions back at the ripe age of 3—regardless of actual skill, effort, or fairness. The favorites game left me losing before I had even begun, damned to the cold hardness of the bench every Friday night, simply because I wasn’t a member of the ‘balling since birth’ club. I saw this, and I worked harder, I did an extra pull-up, repped more squats, and ran faster miles. I made efforts to get one-on-one time with the coach, and I made myself miserable showing up early for morning workouts and drills. I stood in the blizzarding snow in late November, shivering in my cleats that were frozen in place. I screamed hot with anger when our rivals sent our tight end to the hospital, and loud with joy when our special-ed kicker pinged a 38 yarder through the uprights. I never missed a practice— never missed a game. Each time, standing, waiting to hear my name be called, sent to catch a ball, or make a tackle. Each time, standing, heels throbbing—never hearing the words.

 

Metal latches slam open, as the thick doors from the locker room swing wide, pouring out whopping cheers and adrenaline-fueled cries. Cleats clatter on the pavement outside the school, as we empty our sanctuary and begin the pounding jog towards the glowing, thundering field. Other students, and some parents, stand on the sides of our runway, laying out their hands for a celebrity high-five, as we make our way closer to the turf. No one speaks during this short journey, taking in the waves of pressure washing over us as we internalize the size of the watching crowd of friends, cute girls, and of course, our parents. We grind into a stop as we arrive at our own sideline, glaring across the painted white lines at the enemy team. We sit in the turf, rubbing our hands into the microscopic, rubber pellets and plastic, green ribbons, stretching out hamstrings, calves, shoulders, necks, and backs. We pace up and down our side of the 50 yard line, lunging and warming our muscles for the nights competition. The ref saunters to mid-field, sharply slicing the air with his bright-orange whistle. The team turns, stepping slowly towards our side of the field, as our captains meet with the adversary and the ref, flipping a coin to see who kicks.

I pass the the grouped offense of our team, cheering and slapping each others helmets and butts, as they learn that they will be first on the field, per the coins result. I pass the water station, where a small team of girls fill a healthy stock of squirt bottles, tossing them into their dedicated carriers, while filling carts and tables with little cups of juice. Even they have a role to play here. They have stressed looks on their faces, as their hands shakily hurry to fill each container to the perfect degree. I pick my way passed our teams defense, who gathers together, howling like wolves and other nightly beasts, head-butting and hugging in apprehension of the game. Down the sideline, at the far northern end, opposite from where the team had entered, I find my little spot. My three-foot-square of spongy turf, where I stand, never kneeling or sitting, watching my friends—my brothers—and the coaches, playing the greatest game of football. The rips of a failed third-down-conversion, excitement behind a 40-yard Hail-Mary, and gusto in a quarterback-sack, all unfolding vicariously before my eyes. I turn, gazing down the white bevel that edges my side of the field—distantly wondering if I had continued pacing down the sideline, and never stopped, disappearing over the hill made of real, green-stained grass, would my coaches, or the players, even notice.

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