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Balls __The First Game

On the field, which was too green for August, our team stretched. Our Trojans looked just alike in helmets and blue jerseys, except for numbers on the back.

“I’m watching number 35,” said Don standing next to me at the fence. He was referring to my son, David.

When I asked, he told me his son's number, but I immediately forgot it. instead I thought, I should have brought a book.

The low sun forced me to turn to our side of the stadium where I saw Tammy perched on a low bench. immediately I felt lighter. I bid Don and his football talk good-bye.

Tammy wore shorts, as I did, and a sun visor shielded her eyes. It was Labor Day weekend for God’s sake; classes were in at the high school, but this was beach weather.

“Whoa, it’s like a tanning booth up here,” I said, looking around at the near empty bleachers. “I see the gang’s all here.”

Sixty boys took the field, but only twenty parents perched in the stands, twenty-one counting Don at the fence. Across the nation, one million boys play high school football, but unlike Tammy and I and a handful of other football moms, most spectators ignore the first two years; they favor the varsity team playing under the Friday night lights.

“Who’s he?” Tammy asked, meaning Don.

“Preston’s sports-nut father.”

I asked her for her son Chris's number. It was 23. She already knew David’s number. After we found the boys on the field, I scanned the other faces with us in the bleachers, waved to them.

Just then, Renee climbed the bleacher steps toward us. Each of her high-heeled steps clanged on the metal like pots and pans in a drawer.

“Hey D.” Renee stood over me for a moment as she studied the nearly empty stadium, then she lowered to sit on the bench.

Her Matt and my David had fidgeted beside each other in Sunday school since they were three years old. Like Don, Renee was still dressed for the office. She wore a tan skirt suit that set off her flaming red-hair.

I introduced Renee and Tammy feeling the promise of a fun time. There we were three babe moms of football players feeling pretty good in the fall sunshine, believing our softly tousled hair was bouncing, behaving, and whatever else the shampoo advertisements said, and then all that stopped because the visiting team lumbered onto the field.

A football field is three hundred feet long and everyone on a football field looks small, but not these guys. Remorse welled in my chest. Looking over my glasses, and turning my head between my two friends, I pointed my index finger to the field in amazement.

“Are you seeing what I am seeing?”

“I am,” Tammy said with a pang, “if you are seeing some big-ass ROCKFORD players.”

I was seeing them. It was no mirage. The danger the East Lansing coaches had warned about at the parents' meeting now had a name and it was spelled out on the back of our opponent’s white jerseys: ROCKFORD.

“Are they sure that’s the freshman team?” I said, squinting at the field. “They’re pretty big.”

“Very big,” Tammy said.

Rockford’s players wore stilts for legs and boulders for shoulders. They were so big it was like God had tilted our side of the field down six inches.

Can the danger the coaches spoke of be that God must forsake one of the teams and this week it was us? I turned to Renee. “Looks like they eat half a side of beef for lunch while we fed our boys salad.”

“We should not have done that,” Renee said, shaking her head.

ROCKFORD was our non-conference, pre-season game guest from – somewhere in Michigan. I wondered how rural ROCKFORD was? Was it a place like Iowa and other places where they grow the people big, like the Samoan Islands? My mother said farm kids were raised like grain-fed beef cattle or trough-loving hogs. She said this though her own sons were huge like that.

My mother had worried about my younger brother Andy playing football with the University of Iowa. In high school, he stood six foot five inches tall and weighed more than three hundred pounds. Mama was anxious about him suffering injury, which he had. He suffered two knee injuries, had two surgeries and then he quit.

Now I had my own football boy to worry about.

On the field, the players bent at every joint. They squatted and further crimped to get as low as they could to the ground.

David told me the low man on this flat totem pole becomes the most stable on the field. Stable means won’t be moved by the opponent; it means holding position, fending off the other man. Between ROCKFORD and our guys, our guys claimed the lowest ground because they were nearer to the grass to start.

I expected the ROCKFORD wooly mammoths to slaughter our boys, but I was not expecting Bobby to be a part of that. I didn’t know his number, but the boy under the helmet and pads hustling onto the field couldn’t be anybody but Bobby. He ran with a gimpy gait. He limped because his legs were uneven.

I didn’t know why his legs were uneven. It didn’t matter about his legs. He was taking full advantage of the football program’s no-quit, no-cut policy, because other than his uneven legs, Bobby was a normal fourteen-year-old boy who loved doing stupid boy stuff.

That meant that the hustling Bobby was happy because he was getting in the game. I didn’t know Bobby well, and, peering at the field through fingers spread over my face, I wondered if I ever would.

No sooner than the play started, half the ROCKFORD line fell on Bobby. He lay under a giant pile of bodies wearing white jerseys and purple pants when the referee whistled the end of the play and the purple and white behemoths dragged themselves up.

Like a bop bag Bobby popped up, tossed the ball to the ref and ran back to the bench. He ripped off his helmet to reveal a wicked Jack O’Lantern grin.

With David on the field, it proved quite easy for me to follow the plays. He played on the kick-off team and then behind the line. He was the full back.

On one play he ran half the field with the ball. He almost got into the end zone, but then he went down in a tackle. A monotone voice announced from the booth high above us, “David Barker, the ball carrier.”

I wondered, how do you get so far out there and not just give an extra spurt to finish the run with a touch down? On the next play David got the two yards and scored a touchdown. It looked pretty easy, just two yards –six feet -- but somebody screamed like David had performed brain surgery. It was me.

“That’s my son out there,” I yelled. “Number 35.” I jumped up and down and down and up and to both sides, arms waving like a windmill. I just couldn’t stop.

This was so different for me. As a gawky kid living in a house where the police-officer father had vented his frustration by hollering and cursing, I had been self-conscious about sound. I stalled at learning to speak a foreign language, and faltered in singing a solo in the church choir because I wouldn’t let the sound out.

Now, my boy was out on the field, and I was a Bose speaker cranked up. Anyone who has raised a boy knows you gotta catch ‘em doing good. And he was doing good. Better than good: he was being a star. Everyone could see it. David scored one of our two touchdowns.

It was too bad ROCKFORD scored six. East Lansing lost 42-14.

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