Read to you by Renee Chambliss.
Art by DS Oswald
By Michael Bettendorf
It’s hard to see eye to eye with your parents when they’re always looking down on you. I cannot help that I am young. Or that I am small. Or that I don’t want to play football. It’s how I am—who I am—and it will never be good enough.
I don’t hate football. Honest. I like it, but I like numbers more. And if I had my way, I’d sit on the sidelines and worry about the numbers, but Mom and Dad say I won’t win a National Title by worrying about pass completions and yards per carry and I certainly won’t get a Super Bowl ring either.
“There’s no I in team,” my dad says. “The only numbers you should care about are on the scoreboard.”
Right now, though, the only thing I’m counting are the number of empty bottles next to the recliner in the basement. Dad is on his seventh, his average for a Saturday night when he pulls out the old grainy tapes to watch his knee injury over and over. You can see my mom cheering in the background until she sees his knee twisted, mangled. Her hopes of being married to a pro-baller gone. The ring already on her finger. So young.
There’s a seventy-five percent chance he’ll say, ‘…could have gone pro…’ before he starts to get weepy drunk. There’s a twenty-five percent chance he’ll talk about my dead brother Kyle to himself. And there’s a one-hundred percent chance Mom will yell at him if he does.
That won’t happen though because Mom is out tonight with the other pee wee football moms, talking about this new formula from Canada and picking up our new uniforms for the playoffs. Probably drinking wine, too.
I take a calculated risk and go into Kyle’s room. Holofoil football cards hang on the wall, glimmering in protective cases. Marshall Faulk’s rookie card when he was on the Colts. Kurt Warner. Jerry Rice. Urlacher. Wrinkled college ball cards sit in uneven piles on his dresser, dusty and untouched for a couple of years. Ahman Green. A torn Manning card wearing Tennessee gear.
A photo of my brother is taped to the vanity mirror. He’s wearing our pee wee team’s colors. Burgundy, silver, and black. He looks taller than I remember. His leg is propped up on his helmet and he’s smiling because they’d just won, despite the turnovers he allowed.
I can still hear Dad. There’s no I in team and that’s a goddamn good thing tonight. Kyle’s eyes are full of hate. You want to play varsity someday? You’ll have to learn how to throw a ball. They wouldn’t let me see him when he got sick. One day we tossed the ball around outside. The next, he was gone. Dad’s yells still echoing off the shed, bouncing around my ears. You call that a spiral? Keep throwing like that and the only spiral you’ll see is your football career. I was young, but I’ve always been sharp. I remember hearing a doctor say something about a statistical anomaly. Slim chance. The numbers don’t add up.
I peel the photo from the mirror and quietly shut the door behind me. I peek downstairs and see the bright blue glow of the TV. Dad’s tape is over. There are thirteen empty bottles and four crumpled cans. A personal best.
I roll out of bed the next morning and quietly shuffle past my parents’ room. Dad stumbled into bed late and will be moving slow until lunch. Mom is in the kitchen, scooping powder out of a large container into a shaker bottle. The label reads CreaTEEN and boasts about a new formula and being the Number One Brand of protein powders for children.
“Go run your drills before your father gets up. Drink this when you’re done,” Mom says.
“Yeah, okay,” I say. “Good morning.”
She doesn’t catch my tone, but instead twists the lid back onto the container of CreaTEEN and tousles my hair. She’s better at hiding her hangovers than Dad, but that isn’t hard. Hers have a sort of a cold, delicate silence to them opposed to Dad’s clumsy and overt rankling.
I put on my shoes and head outside, not bothering with a stopwatch today. I don’t record the times, but keep track of the numbers in my head. Neither of them will notice anyway, not until they see it on the field.
I run until my lungs burn.
Next door, I hear Miles, our wide receiver, doing high knee drills.
I take a quick cool-down walk to the fence.
“How’s it going, Miles?”
He jogs to the fence and says, “Fine. Coach is making me do extra sets because of the game.”
I don’t think I’ve ever heard him call our coach dad.
“You shouldn’t be hard on yourself. We won the game. You averaged nine yards per reception, dude. Zero fumbles and so many first downs, I lost count. I never lose count. Your dad…Coach…shouldn’t be freaking out.”
“Yeah, well. He says if we play like that during the pee wee playoffs, we may as well not show up. Says we weren’t hungry enough. Now he’s got me running extra drills and taking…”
He drifts off a bit like he’s out of breath.
“Anyway. How about you?”
I tell him fine and, “My dad got a personal best last night.”
“You can come hide out later if you need to.” The screen door slides open next door and Miles jogs away without another word. The white vinyl fence obscures him, but he looks taller than he did the other day. Miles is already above average height for pee wee football, but if he hits another growth spurt, he’ll be unstoppable. Coach might even move him to quarterback. We all know that’s what Coach wants—his son, the star quarterback.
I peer through the fence as he’s making excuses Coach doesn’t buy. He’ll be running all morning. Dad shuffles through the grass behind me, waving at Coach. I make excuses Dad doesn’t buy.
He hands me the shaker bottle Mom made.
“Is this pre- or post-workout?”
“Until we’re playoff champs, it’s both.”
I want to ask if I’m old enough. It’s CreaTEEN and I’m not a teenager yet, but neither was Kyle when he first started. Protein shakes were just part of the regimen. Protein bars. Supplements. Electrolytic, blue and yellow drinks. Always have been. But the statistics of tradition are not infallible and I am hesitant.
The wire ball breaks up clumps of powder as I give the bottle another quick shake. It’s chalky, apparently vanilla flavored. The consistency is thicker than I’m used to. A bit grainy.
“It’s the new formula,” Dad says.
Coach is standing at the fence now.
“You’ll see improvement in no time,” Coach says. “Isn’t that right, Miles? You’ve got to stay hungry if you want to win.”
Miles hunches over and throws up onto the grass while Dad and Coach laugh, saying things like now that’s the sign of a good workout and reminiscing of their times playing ball together.
Mom pokes her head out of the patio door and calls me inside.
“Come here and try on your playoff jersey.”
My uniform is set out on the kitchen table. The jersey is our team’s signature burgundy, the pants and helmet are matte black, save for the silver accents that outline my name and number—number ten. The face mask is striking in silver. Our mouth guards are black with a custom design—jagged, sharp teeth outlined in shining silver.
“Go ahead,” Mom says. “Try it on.”
My jersey drapes over me like an extra layer of skin and even without my shoulder pads, I know it’s too big, but I’m afraid to say anything.
Dad walks through the patio door and there the smallest glint of pride as his eyes finds me standing there, posed just like Kyle. He walks to the fridge and grabs a bottle of something electric blue. He glances at the clock on the microwave and grabs a beer too.
“Don’t worry about the size,” he says. “It’ll fit.”
He tosses me the bottle and tells me to drink up.
I walk next door after supper to see Miles under the guise that we’re going to go over plays and routes. Coach answers the door wearing neon running gear. He yanks out an earbud blaring 90s dad-rock.
“Hi. Miles and I are going to study routes.” I speak before he has a chance to ask if I’m here to play video games. He always does. The first couple of times, I thought it was a joke, but after he stomped an Xbox controller to pieces in front of us one time, I knew it was a threat. It always was.
Coach says, “Good, good. Glad to see you take this seriously,” and tells me Miles is in his room, icing his knees. I head toward the stairs that are lined with a runner resembling turf. It’s green and even has hash marks along each step. Twelve steps. Endzone to endzone.
“Before you head up, take a couple of these with you,” Coach says, handing me a handful of nutritional supplements pretending to be cookies. I don’t need to ask if they’re packed full of protein powder. I can smell it.
I reach the top of the stairs and hear Coach shut the front door, ready for his run.
“Your dad said to eat these,” I say, and nudge my way into Miles’ room. He’s lying shirtless, stretched out on his bed, eyes fixed toward the ceiling.
“You know it’s bad when you can only see routes in the patterns in the paint,” he says. “Not just the ceiling. I see them in the woodgrain on the windowsills. I can’t even do homework without seeing yard markers on the notebook paper.”
I toss him a cookie. It tumbles and leaves a trail of dusty-crumbs on his bedsheets. His gaming chair squeaks as I sit.
“How’s the knee?”
“Fine,” he says, but when he moves to adjust the ice pack, I see lines like reflections in a pool all over his legs and lower back. I stand and walk to the side of his bed to get a closer look. His thighs are covered with them. Deep and discolored.
“It’s nothing,” he says. “Just stretch marks from my growth spurt.”
Miles pulls his sheets up to his waist and takes a bite out the cookie.
“Eat up,” he says.
I take a bite and recognize the gritty, chalk-vanilla CreaTEEN. It has a grimy aftertaste. It coats my esophagus with a thin film when I swallow. It clings to my teeth. I set it down and toss our playbook on the bed. We study plays for a little while, but Miles isn’t focusing. He’s distracted, exhausted. He’s in the best shape of anyone on our team and I know he’s hurt. I see it in his eyes. The same hurt, hateful look Kyle had in his picture. Miles dozes off and I take the opportunity to crumble the rest of my cookie to dust into his trash can. There are wrappers upon wrappers in his can of CreaTEEN protein bars. An empty container of supplements. I pick up a plastic bottle that still has a thin blue ring of backwash at the bottom and read the label. All vitamins and minerals and a few multi-syllable words I can’t pronounce. The fine print mentions mild sedative qualities. Not for intended for long-term pain-relief. Not approved by the FDA.
I read the suggested serving sizes. Age requirements. There’s no way he’s taking the right dosage. The numbers just don’t add up.
There’s a high-pitched sound like a guitar string being tuned too tight.
What the hell?
Miles starts to twitch underneath the covers. His eyes are closed, but they squeeze tighter and he grinds his teeth as his arms stretch before my eyes. Plink-tnk. The strings—his tendons tightening.
Stretching, too fast for his bones. It’s a surreal, timeless moment like watching the minute hand move on an analog clock. His muscles pulse below his skin, a snake laying eggs. They grow in rapid, real time. It’s disorienting and choppy. A frame-by-frame replay.
Sweat slicks a bluish sheen across his face, like he’s watching movies in the dark. I hesitate to touch him, not wanting to hurt him. Not wanting to be hurt.
He doesn’t respond to me, but he’s breathing heavily. His chest heaves and he coughs up a phlegmy wad of goo onto his lips. I turn his head sideways and prop it onto his pillow so he doesn’t choke, just like Kyle taught me to do if I ever caught Dad like this.
I grab his legs to keep him from shaking, leaving the thin sheet between my hands and his clammy skin. His muscles expand, forcing his skin to bloom like it’s a bubble of chewing gum. It pops between my fingers, his blood staining the sheets a sickly deep red.
Burgundy, just like our uniforms. Just like the wine our mom’s drink.
I wipe his mouth with a T-shirt I find on the bedroom floor.
“I’ll be back,” I say. “I’ll get help.”
Coach is still out running and his mom left to deliver cookies to the rest of the team. I panic, run down the stairs and out the door, the sound of Miles’ tendons peeling and snapping at the joints trapped in my ears.
Mom catches me at the front door of our house.
“What’s the matter?”
“Miles. Something’s wrong…he’s…” I stop to catch my breath. “Call 9-1-1. His parents aren’t home and he’s…growing.”
“Whoa, whoa.” Dad walks out of the kitchen and into the foyer where I’ve frozen in place. My chest starts to hurt. Panic? Shock?
I’m sweating and I question every ache in my body. The tightness in my hands. The dull pain in my ankles. My aching knees. The warm tension in my back. My neck’s cold stiffness.
“It’s okay,” Mom says. “I’ll run over there.”
I’ve become hypersensitive of my body, and for the first time, I feel like I have no control over it. It’s when I notice Dad is holding one of the CreaTEEN cookies that I realize I never did.
Dad says, “Calm down. Come sit and have a snack.”
I remember going to bed, but not falling asleep. Dad, yelling at me about how my diet plays into strength and conditioning. Mom, trying to hold it together, compliant. And me? I wake up in the middle of the night and wonder if they’d come looking for me if I snuck out and ran away. Of course, I know they would. Not for me, but for the team. The pee wee playoffs are next weekend. The team needs me, no matter how small I am. I know the routes. The playbook. There’s no I in team.
My regimen is strict for the remaining days up to the playoffs. My meals and workouts, supervised. All autonomy is forgone for the sake of the team. I resist at first, but by the second day of controlled diet and even more rigorous workouts, I find myself coming around to it. It’s a whole new set of numbers to obsess over. More data to track. Weight gains. Strength gains. Increased endurance. Body fat percentages. A shift in perspective. A type of growth I’ve never seen before.
“Look at him go,” Dad says to Mom.
I’m doing squats in the backyard and I surpass my personal best.
Coach peers over the fence and gives a thumbs up to Dad. He yells at Miles, who is a head taller than the fence now and looks at Coach eye to eye. “Get a load of that.”
My knees nearly buckle, but I press on.
No pain, no gain. There is no I in team.
There is no I in me anymore, either. I’ve grown into something else.
Every joint in my body creaks as I drop the weights to the ground, my set complete. I chug the sedative blue drink and a cooling numbness washes through me, the pain and soreness gone. It’s temporary. I know that, but so is everything else. I think about Kyle.
I stick Kyle’s photo in my helmet the morning of the playoffs. The University hosts us to give the pee wee players a taste of their futures. The interior of the stadium’s walls is lined with photos of academic all Americans, national title banners, statues of Heisman trophy winners, glass trophy cases—tantalizing baubles of excellence.
In the locker room, we absentmindedly chug bottles of the blue sedative, numbing our minds and bodies for whatever brutality we’ll see on the field. The scars of our achievements cover our bodies. Foot-long stretch marks, our tiger stripes, ripple as we dress for the game.
“Remember, there’s no I in team,” Coach says. “The only way to ensure a win is to stay fierce. Stay hungry!”
Coach stands near the locker room door and slaps the tops of our helmets as we run by, ready to enter onto the field. A pep band plays our fight song. The pee wee cheer squad somersaults and chants along as we rush onto the field to meet our opponents.
We win the coin toss and choose to receive. Coach does this one-hundred percent of the time. Stay hungry. Stay aggressive from the start.
In the midst of the game, adrenaline coursing through me, I neglect the numbers. Instead, I listen to the groans of my joints and tug of my tendons stretching like taffy. I wait for the handoff over and over. The moment the ball touches my hands, I find my opening and run. I do this again and again, but despite my rapid growth and gains—I’m still overpowered. Too small.
And it’s not just me; the whole team is being outplayed. Too weak. Too slow.
Coach screams from the sidelines.
Stay hungry, goddammit!
Parents roar from the bleachers, but all I hear is a cacophony of muddled complaints and commands. Bench number ten! Don’t fuck this up!
On second down, our center snaps the ball high. Our quarterback scrambles as Miles is swarmed by double coverage. The ball is shoveled to me as the pocket collapses and our quarterback is flattened. I carry the ball forward, but take a hard hit for a loss.
The bleachers rumble with fuming parents. How could we get this far just to fuck it up this close to success? How could we fail our parents and coach this way?
I think about this while face down on the turf, countless defenders dogpiled on top of me. It was never about us, the players. It’s always been about Coach. His failures. My dad. His failures. My mom. The life she never had.
It’s third and long, due to the botched snap.
Coach calls a play-action pass to Miles, but I tell our quarterback to give it to me.
“Trust me. I have an idea,” I say. “You’ll feel it and you’ll know what to do. Remember. They did this to us. Our parents. Our coach. The protein shakes and supplements. They made us this way.”
The team is silent, but I know they understand. They’ve felt the shifts in their bodies too. I know they have. We all have Kyle’s eyes.
“Coach was right. There is no I in team, but he doesn’t understand what it truly means.”
We break and fall into place at the line of scrimmage.
Our center snaps the ball as he allows his body to give in—finally in control—his wrists snapping as our opponent’s middle linebacker makes contact. Time slows, in this moment, this fluid pocket of shared existence among the pee wee playoff teams. Our quarterback hands the ball to me and for a second, I think he didn’t catch onto the play. But as I push forward, I feel he did not let go of the ball. Instead, his hands have fused to it and his joints are yanked from their sockets. He is elastic and is being stretched as I run. The bodies of our guards and centers collide with the defensive line in a battering of pads. It makes no difference. Protective equipment is no help for our ailed bodies and our offensive line groans and molds into a wall of flesh.
I am now protected by an impenetrable force, trudging its way, yard after hard-fought yard, downfield.
Our opponent’s linebackers and safeties look on in abject revulsion.
A chorus of panic and repugnant cries resounds from the bleachers.
Our parents weeping into one another’s arms. Siblings shower the stands in vomit.
I feel my stretch marks widen underneath my jersey. I imagine them pulled paper thin and translucent at my ribs; a weak gum bubble about to pop. They rip in places and I bleed. I cradle the football and push onward. With my free hand, I plunge my fingers into the freshly torn holes to stop the bleeding. As I run, more holes form along my spine and I’m afraid I won’t make it.
“There’s no I in team,” Miles says, running beside me. He looks different now. Taller. Wider. A risen ball of dough. He runs his hands underneath my jersey and feels for the gashes, sticking his fingers inside of them until we, too, are fused.
We carry the ball down field, paying no attention to the referees or defense or Coach.
Words like abomination and disqualified are thrown around, but we don’t stop until we’ve gone all the way to the endzone.
My helmet has cracked in two. I feel the inky blotches of Kyle’s photo as it is absorbed by my scalp; my brother’s image tattooed onto my head. We shamble to the sidelines in dislocated movements. A singular team. Mom and Dad won’t look us in the eyes. We tilt until our neck pops and our flesh folds over itself so Kyle’s visage hangs over them. My brother’s face stares at them, hate in his eyes, a hunger in our hearts and a disappointment in theirs because when it comes to ruined children—they’re two for two.
Their personal best.