That Friday night we had a game under the lights on our home field, an occasion everyone at school salivated for. There was nothing like the atmosphere at a night game. The stands were packed with revelers, bundled up against the cold, bedecked in our school colors of red and black. The stadium was effulgent with the glow of hundreds of floodlights. As we raced out onto the field in a pack, jumping and shouting and cheering, the energy in the air was palpable. And unlike last week’s game, this time I couldn’t wait to get out on the field and kick a little ass. The insanity in the air perfectly complemented my own. I felt as if I were about to explode from the multifarious emotions that had been warring for my attention all week long. At turns I felt guilty, scared, sad, and disappointed, but most of all, angry. Angry with Ian for being such a jerk on Wednesday, yeah, but mostly angry with myself. That anger had been building up, day by day, to the point where I was going to have to take it out on someone or something. I pitied the guy who took the brunt of my kinetic energy.
We were playing the Westmont Bears, a team that was in our league but had never beaten us in the last four years. Normally we viewed this game as a gimme, but this season they were undefeated— indomitable—largely due to a wicked defense led by the stellar performance of their right nose tackle, Tony Odewale. He was a senior and was well on his way to a season record for sacks. He was going to be my primary antagonist tonight.
Bring it on, I thought, looking for him on the visitor’s sidelines as we gathered on our own side. The Westmont cheerleaders danced around in their garish silver and gold uniforms, blocking the team from view. But I knew Odewale was there somewhere, lusting for my blood, just like I was lusting for his. Anyone’s. My own would have probably sufficed at this point.
As we waited for the kickoff, I blew into my chapped hands, my breath making clouds in the arid air. I bounced up and down on the balls of my feet, primed for conflict. Behind me, the crowd started up a chant, and I turned around to scan the bleachers. I found Winter and her friends almost instantly and lifted a hand. She smiled and waved back. Her Goth troop held up a sign that said “Rip ’Em to Pieces.” I think this was the first game they had ever actually sat down for. But then, there was always an eclectic mix of people at Friday night games—many of whom never bothered to show up for Saturday games but came Friday night just for the social aspects.
One person who was not there, however, was my buddy Ian. No. He was back home hosting his regular Friday night game. A game that I would have been at, winning my money back, if not for this schedule conflict. And, oh yeah, if Ian hadn’t banned me from the premises.
Oh yeah. I was ready to beat someone down.
The ball was kicked off, and it seemed to hang in the air forever before Donnie Henderson, our kick-return specialist, finally caught it. He executed some sick moves, spinning out of one tackle and jumping over another guy who was going for his ankles before accelerating up field. Donnie was one of the more agile guys on the team, and he was thrilling to watch. The entire crowd went nuts as he made it out to the 48-yard line before getting slammed by a humongous defender.
“All right, team, let’s expunge these guys!” Coach shouted.
We cheered and slapped each other’s backs as we took the field. My heart pounded like crazy as we lined up behind the ball. There was Odewale, staring me down from the other side.
“I’m coming for you, Riley,” he growled, sounding feral and more than a little bit scary. A dark eye shield and blood-red mouth guard accentuated his threatening appearance. “You’re gonna be eating dirt in about five seconds.”
“Blue thirty-two! Blue thirty-two!” I shouted, looking up and down the line, checking the configuration of the defense. Looked like they were double-teaming Daryl, our number-one receiver. No matter. I had other options.
“Hike!” I shouted.
I dropped back to pass. My center and one of the guards took on Odewale, acting as a buffer for me. I scanned the field, but none of the receivers were open. I had about two seconds to make the play.
Oh, crap! Make that half a second. Odewale tossed Morris Johnson aside with serious brutality—and Morris weighs almost three hundred pounds—then ducked and let the guard fall right over him. Unencumbered now, he raced right at me, unbelievably fast for a guy his size. Watching him bear down on me was like watching a charging elephant coming my way. I tucked the ball and dodged. His helmet glanced off my thigh pad as he dove for me. For a split second he had hold of my foot, but I evaded him. I dodged another defender and ran right, taking a circuitous route toward the sideline around the battling linemen. Still no one was open downfield, and I was almost over the line of scrimmage.
There was nothing left to do now but run.
As I raced down the field, I pointed out a defender to one of my linemen, begging for the block. Rob Moore slammed into the guy, and I dodged their falling bodies. As I ran, I could feel the defenders breathing down my neck, and I turned it on. Screw these guys. Screw Ian. Screw Dominic and his stupid friends. Screw the bank and the poker website and my own stupid guilt. I ran as fast as I could and each passing yard mitigated my pent-up frustrations a bit more. I could hear the crowd screaming and the amplified voice of the announcer marking my progress.
“Riley to the fifteen. To the ten! He’s got one man to beat! Riley to the five and . . . TOUCHDOWN!”
I spiked the ball in the end zone, hard, expelling even more of my wild emotions. My team rushed me and we slammed chests and hugged. The feeling was comparable to nothing. I had scored a rushing touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. I could still do some things right.
I turned toward the crowd and leapt up and down, my fists in the air, egging them on. For the first time all week, I felt sheer joy and I wanted to hold on to it, immerse myself in it, wrap it all around me and never let it go. These Westmont kids had no idea what they were in for. Tonight I was going to be a one-man wrecking machine.