When I was a 4th-grader at Island View Elementary school in Anacortes, the big kids (i.e. the 5th and 6th graders, who were giants) played flag football during recess. I wanted to play; but I was scared.
Fast forward to sixth grade: I had just transferred to a new elementary school, Fidalgo, and I didn’t know many people. I found refuge inside the library with a cool bunch of girls; we were the librarian’s helpers, laminating new books, shelving misplaced ones.
But sometimes I’d peek outside and see the other sixth-grade boys play flag football. I can’t remember if I actually ever joined them.
But in this story, I did.
Alan Brownville stood outside the big south window of the school library. It felt strange, standing outside and looking in. Most days during his lunch break, he would be inside, helping shelve books. But today was different.
Today was the first game of flag football. Alan was finally in sixth grade, and the rule said that any sixth grader was allowed to play flag football. No tryouts needed. In all his years at Pinewood Elementary, Alan had never tried out before. He knew he’d never make the team.
Alan was clumsy, slow, and couldn’t seem to make his hands do what his mind wanted: In second grade his father made him play tee-ball. He never once hit the ball off the tee.
But ever since the end of last year’s season, when the boys dropped their flags in the box for the last time, and trudged off the field full of laughter and memories … ever since then, a wish had rooted in Alan’s brain.
I want to be one of them, whispered the wish.
All summer, at sudden times, when he read in his room or rode in the car to the beach with his brothers, Alan would summon the wish and wonder: could he do it? Next year, could he leave his cocoon in the library and stride onto the football field?
Now that the day was here, and he saw the other boys strut their way outside, Alan trembled. He feared the other boys, especially Brad Armstrong.
Brad was the strongest kid in the sixth grade, and he could get mean. He always threw a few insults Alan’s way, calling him “weenie”, “momma’s boy” and “book baby.” But mostly he left Alan alone because Alan didn’t get in his way.
So why did Alan want to play? If you asked him, he would probably say he just wanted to play the game once before going on to middle school. Just to say he had done it, that he was more than a library nerd. That he could do more than just read about adventures; he could live in them, too.
But the truth was worse. Deep down, Alan hoped that once he got on the field he would somehow blossom into a sports star; that somewhere inside him lurked instincts that would explode and Alan would snatch the football from the sky, sprint and dodge down the field like a bullet, and win the respect of the boys and the adulation of the girls.
Deep down Alan dreamed he could be a hero.
So, Alan took a deep breath and marched toward the field, straight to the keeper of the flags, Ms. Shirley. She had been volunteering at the school since Alan’s parents were little. She knelt by the box of flag belts and handed them out to the players. Alan got in line. Standing in line wasn’t that hard. No one had called him out, said you don’t belong here, geek. o far, so good. But then the person in front of Alan turned around.
Oh, no, thought Alan
It was Peter Dane, Brad’s chief henchman. He wasn’t as big as Brad, but he was meaner.
“Are you lost?” said Peter.
“No,” mumbled Alan, barely audible.
“Go back to the library with the rest of the girls,” said Peter. He turned his back on Alan, confident his command would be obeyed.
Alan looked back to the library. He was tempted to slink away, and flee to his nook in the library. But a little blossom of courage still remained in Alan’s chest, and he decided he wasn’t going to let that fire go out. He stood his ground.
“I’m going to play,” Alan said, still quietly, but more clearly this time.
Peter turned back to Alan, towering over him.
“Get out of here!” snarled Peter. “Before you regret it, turd. I mean it.”
A boy standing nearby was watching this little scene and shook his head. His name was George Alman. He was tall and lanky, too big to be a target of the bullies, but too decent to be part of their gang. George never picked on Alan, or anyone, but that didn’t make him Alan’s friend.
Alan was on his own, and he his heart thumped like a tribal drum.
There was no mistaking the look in Peter’s eyes. He wanted to hurt Alan, and he would too, just as soon as he got the chance. There was no bluster in those eyes, no empty boasts; just an iron-hard promise of blood and bruises.
By now they were near the front of the line, close enough that Ms. Shirley had overheard Peter’s threat. She looked the two boys over.
“Is there a problem?” she asked, nonchalantly.
“This twerp here is lost,” said Peter, unafraid of Ms. Shirley’s adult powers.
“I’m, I’m here to play,” stuttered Alan. He didn’t want to be in line any longer. He felt like he was in the middle of a bad dream, almost like he was floating outside his body. He was afraid to stay, and afraid to leave, to suffer the humiliation of tucking his tail and running. People would point and laugh.
“Every eighth grader has a right to play, Peter, no exceptions,” said Ms. Shirley in a bored voice as she continued to toss out flag belts.
“Once you’re out there, you’re dead,” Peter said.
Alan felt completely numb. He stood like a statue as Ms. Shirley held up two pairs of tattered flags: one pair yellow, the other red.
“Which is it?” asked Shirley.
“Huh?” said Alan.
“Red team or yellow team?”
“I get to choose?” said Alan.
“As long as there’re flags left for the team you want,” said Ms. Shirley.
Alan hadn’t known about this part of the game, this choosing. He had assumed Ms. Shirley was the one who picked the teams. He looked up and quickly searched the field for Peter. Peter stood at one end of the field. He wore red flags, as did the swarm of kids around him. Brad Armstrong towered over them all. Peter put on arm around Brad and pointed back toward Alan. He said something, and both boys laughed.
“Yellow,” said Alan. Better to be as far away from them as possible, Alan decided. Even if it did land him on the opposing team, fit to receive the full brunt of Brad’s rush.
Ms. Shirley handed Alan the flags and belt which velcroed together. The Velcro was so worn that the flags barely stuck.
Alan didn’t know what came next. He had watched parts of the game several times, but only at sporadic moments from the library. He didn’t know all the rules. Why didn’t I read up on it during summer? He saw a bunch of kids with yellow flags gather at the other end of the field, far from Peter and Brad. George Alman was one of the kids wearing yellow.
Alan ran toward George as fast as he could. Then he realized he was the only one running that fast. So he slowed down and jogged. But the brief sprint already left him huffing and puffing by the time he reached the end of the field where George stood waiting. Alan was out of shape.
“You gonna have a heart attack, Brownvilled?” laughed a kid named Billy Barsh.
“No,” mumbled Alan.
“Happy to hear it,” said Billy. “I guess all that heavy breathing is just your way of telling me you wanna go somewhere we can be alone together.” A bunch of kids nearby heard the crack and started to chuckle.
Billy Barsh had a loud mouth that often got him in trouble. It wasn’t uncommon to see him running laps in the parking lot, the typical punishment handed down by Mr. Sawyer, Billy’s fifth grade teacher. Ordinarily, Alan didn’t mind Billy’s wisecracks. Today it was different. Alan was scared and very self-conscious out on the field. He was stung by Billy’s remark.
So instead of his usual habit of not saying anything back, Alan shot back.
“Not all of us get the same practice running as you, Billy,” said Alan.
Now the boys nearby laughed at Billy. Billy did look kind of silly running around in the parking lot, getting red-faced and sweaty, panting as he came back to class. It wasn’t something to be proud of.
Billy turned red in the face and stalked off. Alan started to feel a little better. Maybe he could survive on the football field after all.
“That was dumb, man,” said George Alman quietly.
“What do you mean?” asked Alan.
“Turning on your teammates.”
George Alman was a bit of a loner, but he was too tall and strong to be messed with. Even Brad Armstrong never bothered him. He didn’t seem to have any friends, and he didn’t seem to care about that either. He didn’t talk much, in class or out, so when he did, you tended to pay attention.
“He did it first,” said Alan, even though he realized how childish it sounded.
“Billy is an idiot. Everybody knows that. Who cares what he says?”
“Are you saying I should just take it?” asked Alan.
“I’m saying it’s not a good idea to make enemies your first time on a team.”
With that, George walked away.
Alan really felt alone now. Nobody stood near him. Alan wasn’t sure what to do, and there wasn’t any one he could ask. Billy, like George said, was an idiot, but Alan had always got along with him. But Billy wouldn’t help him now. And George had made clear what he thought of Alan. Alan couldn’t expect any help from him either.
And Alan wasn’t friends with any of the other kids on the team. They were the kind of kids who played for after-school baseball and football teams for the Parks and Rec department. They didn’t hang out in the library.
So, not knowing what to do, he stood and stared.
The other end of the field was very far away. He was supposed to run all that way? Maybe he would have a heart attack. At least he couldn’t see Brad and Peter and the others very well. Maybe he could just wait at this end of the field, kind of hang back, and wait for the ball to come this way, and … block it?
That was one of the jobs in football, wasn’t it? It had a specific name Alan couldn’t remember – the guard? Gate keeper? No, that sounded too much like Dungeons and Dragons. It started with the letter “g”, though.
Goalie! That was it. Alan could be the goalie.
Alan approached the closest kid, a boy named Jerry who rode the same bus.
“Uh, did anyone else call goalie?” asked Alan.
Jerry glanced his way, annoyed. “What?”
“Goalie, uh, anyone call dibs? ‘Cause I … I mean if no one else want to … I could play goalie.”
“Are you serious?” asked Jerry, loo.
Alan felt stupid. Did the goalie have some kind of special marking on him already? Something Alan should have noticed? He quickly scanned the other players. They were all wearing the same tattered yellow flags. No special shirts, either. Maybe first timers weren’t allowed to play goalie? Maybe the goalie had to be really good.
“No big deal,” said Alan. “I haven’t played much, so I thought maybe I should just, you know, hang back and play goalie,” said Alan, the words tumbling out in a rush. “But, I mean, if someone else already has dibs, that’s okay –”
“Are you some kind of moron? This isn’t soccer, you idiot. There’s no goalie in football! Get off the field, loser!”
“I’m playing,” said Alan resolutely, though his face had gone a deep shade of scarlet.
“Then stay the hell away from the ball,” snapped Jerry.
Stay away from the ball. That seemed like a good plan. He should probably do like Jerry said and leave the field. It would be humiliating to leave now, but the game hadn’t started yet. Alan could pretend he was sick, maybe hold his stomach as he walked off. Sure, he’d look stupid, but better than getting creamed on the field. Right?
A whistle blew. Ms. Sherry picked up her bullhorn at the center of the field.
“Listen up. We play till one team leads by ten points, or, if that doesn’t happen, we put the ball down five minutes before lunch ends. Everyone make sure to put your belt and your flags in the box when we’re done. Make sure to pick up your flags! And no tackling. I’m talking to you, Peter Dane. Red won last time, so they throw first.”
Before Alan could escape, she blew her whistle again. There was some movement at the other end of the field. All the kids near Alan looked up at the sky. Alan looked up too. At first he didn’t see anything. Then he saw a little blur of brown that grew bigger very fast. The football. Falling.
Directly at Alan.
“Catch it!” someone yelled.
The football struck the ground right in front of Alan, bounced up, and hit him in the chest. Somehow, the ball ended up in Alan’s hands.
“What do I do?” he asked.
“Run!” thundered the voices.
A wave of boys from the other team rolled Alan’s way. Brad and Peter were at the crest. Alan couldn’t get his legs to work.
“Give it to me!” said Jerry. He made a grab for the ball. Alan pulled away and began to move. He ran. Ran as fast as he could, but it felt like he was hardly moving at all. He would remember the noise later: boys screaming, the wind rushing past his ears, the thud of feet on the grass, and the ragged breath wheezing in and out of his chest.
Alan realized he wasn’t alone. A group of his teammates, led by George, formed a wedge in front of him. Even Billy was up there. George looked back and made a pushing motion. Alan understood: his teammates would push the other team out of his path.
George led the way. He took them across the field diagonally, away from the screaming boys rushing towards them. George was fast, the fastest one on the field, and Alan did all he could to keep up.
For a brief moment, right about the middle of the field, it looked as though they might scrape past the other team. Alan could see their faces: Peter and his sneer, running a little out to the side; other boys behind, yelling, making angry faces.
And then there was Brad. Brad ran at the center of the pack, but he was the only one who didn’t yell or scream. He locked eyes with Alan, a dead-eyed stare. Alan’s fingers twitched and the ball slipped from his hands. It hit the ground and bounced.
Peter lunged for the ball. George blocked him with his chest and Peter fell sprawling into the grass. The ball rebounded off Alan’s chest and hit the ground again. Alan grabbed for the ball again and again, but it kept slipping out; and somehow the ball kept bouncing forward.
Brad was suddenly a few feet to his left. He zeroed in on the ball, ignoring Alan now. In a flash of realization, Alan knew he could just hang back and Brad would pass him by. It would be the easy thing to do. Just stop running and collapse on the field, suck in grateful gulps of oxygen, and, he would be safe.
He would be safe and comfortable. Just like inside the library, where it was warm and there were plenty of soft chairs to recline and read the lunch break away. There were no Brads or Peters in the library; just nice, pleasant people like Alan. And when the ball rang, and he had to leave the safety of the library and venture into the crammed hallways, he would just have to blend into the wall when Brad passed by. Keep his head down, look the other way.
Become utterly unnoticeable and forgettable.
A fire ignited in Alan’s chest. He refused to hide any more.
Alan put on a burst of speed. He reached the spinning ball seconds before Brad and snatched it with his right arm. He slammed his left arm into Brad’s chest. A “stiff arm” – that’s the name, Alan suddenly remembered. He had seen Brad drop several kids to the ground with the move. He had never seen anyone do it to Brad.
Brad didn’t fall to the ground, but he did stumble, whether from the blow or from surprise. It gave Alan a few seconds advantage. He spent his last ounces of energy and ran as hard as he could.
“Alan! Alan! Go, Alan, go!” Someone shouted.
He was almost there. Twenty more feet and victory would be his. Alan had never run this hard in his life, not in all the times he had run from kids like Brad and Peter. All those time he had run away, in fear. And always he was caught. Now he ran toward something he wanted, in hope.
Alan reached ten feet from the goal line when he felt someone behind him. Very close. A cheek pressed against his.
“Now you’re mine,” hissed Brad.
Even Alan knew that in flag football you don’t tackle, you just grab the other player’s flags to stop him. If you tackled, you were taken out of the game. Brad and his friends had ways of hitting without tackling, though. They would ram into you as they grabbed your flags, and from what Alan could see, it hurt. So Alan was prepared for bruises.
But it seemed Brad didn’t care about even pretending to obey the rules. He grabbed Alan’s neck and wrenched backward, violently halting Alan’s progress. Alan’s head snapped back. But he still held the ball in his right arm. Brad threw all of his weight into Alan, keeping hold of his neck. Alan’s knees buckled and he started to fall, with Brad on top of him.
This isn’t so bad, thought Alan almost giddily as he toppled. Sure, my neck feels like it’s broken and Brad’s going to squash me like a bug when we hit the ground in less than a second, but other than that, I’m doing all right.
One thing bothered him, though. He wasn’t going to reach the goal line. No touchdown.
Alan managed to lift his right leg in front of him just before he hit the ground. Brad’s weight slammed down on him, but Alan’s leg held. Brad’s momentum carried him forward, over Alan’s head and onto the ground. He landed face first into the dirt. Alan jumped over him and jogged the last few feet to the goal line.
A hundred voices exploded. George was the first to reach him, grinning, slapping him on the back. Jerry and Billy followed, and the rest of the team soon after. They were shaking his hand, slapping him high fives, telling him he was One Bad Dude. Billy puffed his chest out and grabbed at Alan, only to slip and hit the ground, face first, in parody of Brad. For this moment it was safe to mock even the gods. Alan burst out laughing and almost regretted it. He hurt all over.
Halfway down the field, Peter caught his eye. He drew a finger across his throat and stalked off.
Brad was still lying on the ground. Ms. Shirley ran up to him and crouched down.
“Bradley? Bradley, can you hear me?”
Brad didn’t move.
Ms. Shirley reached into her pocket and pulled out a white packet of smelling salts, which she opened and held under Brad’s nose. He scrunched up his face and groaned.
“Uh, now might be a good time to leave,” said Billy.
It seemed Ms. Shirley was thinking the same thing.
“All right everyone, clear out,” she said, looking at Alan. “Game’s over for today. Drop your belts into the box. And don’t leave any flags on the ground!”
Alan returned his belt to the box and limped off the field.
“Hurt?” asked George.
Alan nodded wearily. “Guess I’ll have to get used to it.”
George raised an eyebrow.
“You planning on making this a habit?”
“You think I could?”
George thought for a moment, shrugged. “Guess so.”
Alan nodded, slowly. He drank in the moment. He was one of them. “Thanks,” he said. He took one last look at his field of triumph, smiled, and limped back into the world.