After thinking about it, I made my way into the athletics wing.
I went to the office of the head coach for our football team. He was a bit old school from what I remember. Stories were told about how he would make any person who messed up run laps. The year our team was about to make it to the playoffs, they let something really stupid happen and lost the game. Legend says he’s still running them now. Well, at least in my time.
Our team was never spectacular in my day, but then again, I never followed. Ariel assured me that applying myself to the mental side of the sport would help me find a purpose and keep myself physically fit. I had my reservations but figured I had nothing to lose.
Admittedly, I was a bit worried about the culture. I tried to tell myself that a lot of the bad things were just sensationalized in movies, but getting hazed as at the forefront of my mind.
“So, Erich, you want to play on my team?”
“Yes, sir. I think I can bring a level of competition that can help us win.”
A guttural chuckle escaped his mouth and filled the room. He leaned forward.
“The only thing I need you to bring to this team is god given talent, hard earned skill, or a god damned water bottle. If you can do one or more of those things, consider yourself eligible for try outs.”
I swallowed hard. Never in my life had I been considered fast, much less physically fit. Dreaming that I’d even start for this team was just a pipe dream of an ignorant child. Yet I’d pour my everything into this. For years in college I had always wondered how different life would have been if I was more physically fit in high school. It’s now or never, I suppose.
At lunch, Ariel could sense I was nervous.
“What’s wrong, Erich? You’ve literally braved college already. You don’t need to worry about impressive a few high school guys.”
“It’s all relative, babe. To me, these guys are huge. It doesn’t matter that I have a mind a few years older than them. The only thing that matters out there is speed and muscle. I have neither.”
“Yet. You’re overlooking the part about sports that involves split second decision making and leadership.”
I shook my head. Part of me deep down wanted to just admit I wasn’t really all in on this right now and just wanted to play my video games. The louder part of me challenged myself to leave my comfort zone and excel in a physical sport.
That day, I arrived at practice with the rest of the freshman. The season was well over halfway done, so I knew that the team at the very least was bonded. The starters were all extremely well built juniors and seniors. I suppose a part of me knew to expect this, but it was still a very daunting task. I wasn’t the shortest one there, but I was surely the most unfit. I suppose trying to blend in won’t work right away.
As practice started, it seemed like people knew where to go. It took me a few weeks of bumbling around to finally get into a rhythm. Thankfully the stories of hazing weren’t all too true. Most of the guys were just trying to improve themselves.
After awhile, I noticed that I was able to spiral the ball in a way most of the guys weren’t able to. It felt great and eventually I overtook the spot of backup quarterback. Most of the guys were really friendly to me and a few of them humored me by saying I’d be the started when our current guy graduated.
I found my time being split between Ariel and the football crew. John was reaching out to me less and less now. Unfortunately, with my time on the team being so invasive of the rest of my life, I didn’t have the free time I once did.
Ariel, one day after class, asked me to sit with her while she waited for her mom to pick her up. The wind was blowing in a frigid way that it does just before winter. The whip of the cold was nothing compared to the warm eyes that looked into mine. I could tell she was genuinely happy to be around me, even if that time was limited.
“So how are you enjoying the rush of football?”
“I won’t lie, it’s something I never could understand. It became so thrilling once I got started and now it’s truly something that’s a passion.”
“You’re really getting into this, aren’t you?”
“Thanks to a certain someone’s suggestion, I think I am.”
Ariel let her teeth shine against the protest of the icy air. I knew she was worried about me in ways I could only just begin to understand. It was a relationship that was challenging me to be the best version of me every day. I loved it.
Yet I longed for the days of sitting back and relaxing in my room. It felt like the only times I got to myself were when I slept, and that seemed to come and go. I was genuinely nervous about where things would lead if I wasn’t able to get any time to myself soon.
That said, there was a game coming up which would decide our season. Having only joined halfway through, I was not as involved in the journey as these guys, but I could tell the intensity was there. The guys really wanted this and it would define some of the senior’s entire high school career.
As the game started, we took an early lead. It was like clockwork and our guys were ecstatic over the first half. Then the unthinkable happened.
Our starting quarterback when down with a broken foot.
The sidelines scrambled to make sure that his future was not in jeopardy. He was already declared for a school, so there were lots of hushed murmurs in the audience on both sides. The only person in the entire stadium that was breathless for an entirely different reason was me. I was now going into the game.
Ariel started to cheer abundantly loud as I took the field. I scanned the audience and found my parents who decided to come to my last game, even if I wasn’t playing. Looks like they got their money’s worth. John and Lisa were sitting together in the student section. Everyone had their eyes on me, and I had to perform now.
Unfortunately, a freshman without years of experience is going to get completely dominated in a situation like this. The enemy team wanted to keep their season alive juts as much as we did. I was taking hard hits and making critical mistakes under pressure. The team didn’t need to say anything, I knew the blame was going to be solely on me if we lost.
Finally, it came down to the final play. One score would win it. I took the snap and instead of handing it off, I threw it. Unfortunately, the enemy team was predicting that I’d panic and throw it. They intercepted the pass and our team lost.
A lot of the seniors cried. Many of the other guys couldn’t muster words to console themselves or others. Even our coach seemed like he was heart broken.
Ariel came over to console me, but I didn’t need it. She was shocked to find me giggling a bit.
“Are you ok?” she questioned with a worried look, “I know people cope in different ways but…”
“This was fantastic. I never got to play in a big game like this, so doing it was really fun. I had a few good plays but by the time I was learning from the real pace of the game, the time ran out.”
As I was going to hug her, the senior quarterback shoulder checked me, knocking me to the ground.
“Way to lose the game, freshman. You let us all down.”
He limped away into the parking lot and I felt guilty. I knew logically I shouldn’t. I was a freshman, after all. I put in the same work as the other guys and earned my spot. Yet after this, I was sure everyone on the team started to resent me. A few guys probably felt like they could have done it better.
Ariel helped me to my feet. My parents were there to take me home, but I said I wanted to walk it out.
John and Lisa left before I could thank them for coming. It seemed like they weren’t very keen on hanging around me anymore. If there was one thing I was truly regretful of, it would be that I wasn’t able to talk to them.
Ariel and I walked to her house together. I tugged her hand and felt myself becoming weaker.
“I’m getting burned out, Ariel.”
“Do you want to rest a bit before we continue?”
“I mean I’m getting burned out from all the things we do. I kind of want to spend some time with alone every now and then.”
Ariel gave me a shocked look, as if I had just offended her to the core. I guess I was pretty careless with my words and let something come out that may have sounded bad. As I opened my mouth to clear the air, she let go of my hand.
“I don’t know what you mean, but if you need space then take it. I’ll see you later.”
She rushed off. Just like that I found myself all alone on a snowy winter night. There was no friend to come cheer me up. There wasn’t a girlfriend to comfort me. It was simply me. I looked down at my hands with melancholy reverberating in my soul.
In all my time here in the past, this was the hardest. It felt like I had screwed up my past to the point where I was not going to recover. Part of me wondered if things would restart again and I’d go back. Maybe it would take until my post college years again. Either way, the only way I was going to escape from this mess was to actually work on things one at a time.
The most important thing being my relationship with Ariel. It felt like I was insensitive with my words, but I needed her to understand that I was not like her in the sense that I needed time to recover after socializing.
I’ll explain it to her so that we can be on good terms over winter break. Ariel… I’ll make things right. I promise.