Halftime offered no respite. The negativity in the locker room was pervasive, and Coach went off on us in his best imitation of a sports movie coach—so over the top it could almost be considered a parody if he wasn’t so legitimately upset. His face was red, his veins throbbed, and he spat more than once as he ripped us all to shreds. I sat near the side of the room, slumped, as Dick applied an emollient to my cut. I kept waiting for Coach to ascribe all the blame to me, but he had words for everyone. Apparently my sorry play was making everyone look bad.
“Offensive line? Your play out there is putrid!” he shouted, more spittle showering from his lips. “No quarterback of mine is getting sacked four times in one half. Especially not against this team! Their defense isn’t even all that adroit, and you’re making them look like some divine line sent down from God above!”
“It’s like watching assault and battery out there!” he shouted, pacing back and forth. “You’re better than this, guys! We all know that you’re better than this!”
Guys shifted in their seats, looked at the floor, hung their heads. This was supposed to be the most triumphant moment of our high school careers, and it was nothing but a huge disappointment. Thanks to me. Why had I hidden those cards? Why had I ever agreed to play that game in the first place?
How could I sit here and let these guys who had backed me up time and time again take a beating for my mistakes? Because Gray and those guys are going to kill you otherwise, a little voice in my head reminded me. I saw vividly the tree branch swinging toward my knees and clenched my jaw in determination. There’s no other way to appease them. They made that abundantly clear.
God, I just wanted this to be over. All I needed was a little more forbearance and it would be. I just had to get through this lecture and one more half of crap football, and I could go home and never look back.
Except that I would. With regret. Every single day of my life.
“And Riley!” Coach shouted.
My heart squeezed painfully. “Yeah, Coach?”
He put his hands on his hips and walked toward me. “I don’t know how to make this any more pellucid. You do not call the plays out there, you got me? I call the plays,” he said.
I swallowed hard. “Yes, Coach.”
I had called plays before, and he never had a problem with it. Of course, nine times out of ten, those plays had been successful.
“I thought my game plan was fairly trenchant, but apparently I was wrong. Otherwise you wouldn’t be all over the place out there,” he said condescendingly. “Now, do I have to delineate the points for you again?”
“No, Coach,” I said, my face burning. It had been a long time since I had been so avidly denounced by anyone, let alone the guy who had taken me under his wing. For the first time in a long time, Coach Rinaldi’s belief in me was equivocal. I had never thought that could happen.
“Good. Now, if I see you get lackadaisical out there again, so help me God I’m gonna rip you a new one,” he snapped. “You keep your head up. You scramble. And you hold on to the G.D. ball! You look like a freakin’ amateur out there!”
I sunk a bit lower in my seat. It wasn’t as if I could challenge the veracity of any of these criticisms.
He took a deep breath and stood up straight, surveying the team. “Now, men, that field out there is our sovereign territory. Am I right?”
“Yeah!” Everyone shouted, relieved that the browbeating portion of the meeting was over and we were on to the pep talk part.
“So are we going to let these Dorchester losers come in here and crap all over our territory?” he shouted.
“When you’re dispatched from here, you’re going to go out there and make me proud! Am I right?”
As my teammates riled themselves up, jumping out of their seats and cheering, it was all I could do to keep from throwing up right there on my cleats. They had no idea that this game was only going to get worse. That I was about to lead them straight into the gutter.
I only wished there was something—anything—I could do.