Authors: Alison Hendricks
- Derek -
Putting on that blue and black jersey for the first time feels like coming home.
Sure, it's just a flimsy mesh shirt that barely stretches over my pads. But to me, it represents a hell of a lot more: A long road full of struggle, and a way to move on with my life.
Mostly, it feels fucking amazing to get the chance to play football again.
As a recruited walk-on, I was offered the chance to attend the Tigers’ summer camp. While it’s technically voluntary, it’s pretty much expected for anyone who wants to start this season.
Honestly, I probably would've gone even if it wasn't mandatory. Lifting weights for hours a day and running sprints in the sweltering Florida heat isn't exactly my idea of fun, but it's helped me get my head back into the game. And it's given me a chance to meet some of my teammates. Considering I've been at Eastshore College for two years already and can only really count my roommates among my friends, it's probably a good thing.
But summer camp and fall practice are two totally different beasts. This is the first time we’re all together on the same field, and it’ll be the first time we run actual plays. Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't conditioning drills hammered into us from day one.
Weighed down by my practice equipment, I'm put through my paces with the most grueling drills imaginable. Up-downs that lead into bear crawls that lead right into suicides.
It's fucking brutal, and if I hadn't experienced something similar in high school, I'd probably be puking my guts out right now. As it is, I've seen at least four guys run off the field and start retching. Either they're not used to this level of heat and humidity, or the hard work required of them. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.
Either way, they're probably not going to make it to the first game. That's why coaches do these drills right at the start—to send the weaker guys home. There's nothing even remotely relaxing about college football, and I knew that going into it.
It's not like my thighs aren't jelly by the time we’re done, or that my chest doesn't burn from trying to wheeze in a few extra breaths during sprints. But compared to what I've gone through in the past, it's almost a privilege to be able to do all this shit.
And it honestly could be worse. The NCAA regulates the first few practices of the season, so Coach Garvey blows the whistle on us at regular intervals, switching out groups of guys and letting the rest of us take a much-needed break.
Some of the guys almost collapse, and I don't really blame them. Just an hour and a half into it, and I'm completely drenched in sweat. My pads are sticking to my shirt, and that’s practically plastered to my body. Even still, there's a flood of endorphins running through my veins right now as I jog over to the sidelines, desperate for a drink of water.
I find the tepid cooler and pour myself a cup, unsure where I left my actual bottle. One gulp downs it, and I fill up a few more times before I have competition.
"And I thought my coach was a hard-ass," a familiar voice says.
I look up to see Troy Sanders, a freshman walk-on, recruited the same way I was. Troy is one of the first guys I talked to here.
"Guess Garvey didn’t get his rep from letting his team slack off,” he continues. “I'm gonna end up icing my shoulder by the end of this, I know it."
“You won’t be the only one.”
I have a feeling the locker room is already stocked with a freezer full of ice packs to handle the demand. And probably a supply cabinet’s worth of athletic tape, too. It's always rough like this over the first few weeks. It has to be.
I clap Sanders on the back, his pads rattling underneath his practice jersey. None of us have names out here. Just numbers that have been used again and again. For the guys who don't start, this is all they’ll get for the entire season.
Guys like Sanders will get to stay at Eastshore whether he starts in every game or not. The chances of me earning funding for the rest of my time here are pretty fucking slim, but they'll be absolutely demolished if I never play a game.
"You looked good out there during pass drills, man."
His compliment makes me feel like an asshole, but I guess that's the world of college football.
"You did, too. Could tell when your shoulder started giving you trouble, though."
Sanders lets out a sigh, dragging his hand over his face. He swallows down a gulp of water, then finally responds. "Fuck. You think anybody else noticed?"
"Half the guys out here are nursing a strain. I wouldn't worry about it."
He looks out at the field, and I follow his gaze to a bigger linebacker who’s trying to cover up a limp. Probably got his ankle fucked up during suicides.
"Yeah, you're probably right."
Sanders and I fall quiet, and the only sound is the suffering of our teammates until a loud, feminine whistle from the bleachers draws our attention. A group of three women are on their feet, one of them holding up a sign that says “I Love Hawk,” with a picture of a hawk instead of the word. I think there’s a phone number at the bottom, too.
"Should’ve just written ‘I love cock’," Sanders says.
"Don't be an asshole." I punch his shoulder, but I doubt he even feels it through the pads.
"Hey, I speak from a place of jealousy, trust me. You know that guy probably gets more pussy than everybody on this team combined. And
shoulder’s probably loose as—”
“Don’t even finish that.”
My gaze moves to the object of their admiration. Jason "Hawk" Hawkins is an All-Star senior. I'm pretty sure he would've been a Heisman winner last year, if the Tigers had placed a little bit better.
I've never officially met the guy, but it’s impossible to play for the Tigers—and even attend Eastshore College—without knowing who he is, if only by reputation. I don't know how much of what they say is true, but he's definitely the golden boy of ESC.
As I watch him in the middle of his passing drills, I can see why. His form is fucking flawless. Ball after ball, he just drops right back and fires off a shot. Every one of them connects, and I'm not sure if it's just because he's that talented, or because he has enough confidence to force the ball to behave the way he wants it to.
He could be a total prick, and it would still be hard not to admire him. He's indisputably the best player on campus, and probably better than Eastshore deserves. His influence on the school will have a lasting effect; he's the reason the Tigers have been able to make a name for themselves in Division-I football.
And from everything I've heard, Hawk actually isn't a prick. Sure, he’s a little… distant. He seems like the type of guy who thinks about football nonstop. But it's hard not to wonder what it would be like to get to know him; to bask in his dedication.
I know how that sounds, but some athletes just bring everybody else up with them.
And it doesn't hurt that he's sexy as hell.
The first time I saw him take off his helmet, I was watching an ESC game in my dorm room. It's probably a good thing my roommates weren't around, because I spent a full five minutes just staring at the TV, rewinding the DVR.
Sanders may be jealous of Hawk for getting more pussy than anybody else on the team, but there's a part of me that sympathizes with those girls in the stands. My sexuality isn't something I intend to broadcast to my teammates, but if I hadn't known I was gay before this, Hawk is the type of guy who would've definitely made me question myself.
As it stands, I’ve pretty much done everything in my power to avoid him so far, just to keep from looking like a complete idiot. Even if Hawk and I do play for the same team—and it seems really fucking unlikely—he's way out of my league.
"—But I tell you what, man. You get in with Hawk, and you've got it made. No way you wouldn't start."
Shit. Sanders has been talking this whole time. I'm glad he's got a little bit of a narcissistic streak, otherwise he probably would've called me out on staring at one of our teammates and admiring the way his tight ass flexes when he throws the ball.
Fuck. So much for not acting gay around the team, but it's hard not to think about a guy like Hawk that way. He's the poster boy for confidence and raw masculinity.
"So you’re saying, what? Find out his favorite type of bran cereal and bribe the shit out of him?"
Or give him a full body massage. Though that would probably benefit me more than him.
Thankfully Sanders laughs at my suggestion. At least I haven't managed to make it noticeably weird on the first day of practice.
"Hey man, whatever you gotta do. Guy’s gotta stay regular. Don't think I won’t steal that idea, though."
"Every receiver for himself," I agree.
Before I can chug another cup full of water, Coach Garvey blows the whistle on the other guys, signaling us to endure more punishment.
But as I start to take the field, I see Coach walk out to the 50 yard line where he can be heard by most of us.
"All right, we've got a couple hours left, so here's what we’re going to do. If you’ve got a black patch in your jersey, you’re running scrimmage. Offense and defense. Two teams. Everybody else, you’re running 40s until the next whistle."
The other coaches repeat what Garvey said, and I can hear Sanders cuss up a storm beside me. "Trade you jerseys."
"Yeah, I'll pass. Don't bitch too much. I'll be right where you are pretty soon."
"Not soon enough.” He grins at me, though. And claps me on the shoulder pad. "Go make daddy proud."
I have no idea if he's talking about Garvey, Hawk, or himself. But as soon as I look downfield, I see Hawk gathering with a bunch of other guys. And all of them have black patches on their jerseys.
This is my shot. Either I’ll impress him, or make a complete ass of myself.
I figure there's about a 50/50 chance either way.
- Jason -
Feeling the laces beneath my fingers is like finally being able to breathe again; coming up for air after spending so long nearly drowning.
Yeah, maybe it's a little dramatic. But between academics, family, and relationships, I feel like the rest of my life is just some massive cinderblock tied to my ankle, not giving a single fuck as I sink to the bottom.
But football carries me up to the surface. It always has. No matter what's been going on in my life, as soon as I pick up that ball, I’m me again. Not Jason Hawkins, the senior who probably isn’t going to graduate. But Hawk, the cool, confident quarterback who knows how to get a ball down the field time and time again.
Out here, I'm in my element. I know there are a couple reporters in the stands, and maybe a recruiter or two from the NFL, but it doesn't faze me. If they're here for me, great. My dad would probably tell me I need to hustle my ass off just in case.
But if I think about that, I'm going to choke for sure. So instead, I assume they're here for somebody else.
As I jog up to the huddle, joining guys I never really feel bonded with until we’re all in uniform, I focus on what I need to do. A quarterback’s success is determined by how he reacts under pressure, and even if it's taken me a long time to get to where I am today, I'm determined to be the guy this team needs.