I was never very good at sports as a kid. At the end of my freshman year I barely weighed one hundred twenty-five pounds. In the summer before my sophomore year, I worked at my uncle’s landscaping business. I carried bricks, I pushed wheelbarrows, and I dug holes six days a week for nine hours a day. By the first day of school of tenth grade, I weighed one hundred sixty pounds and my biology teacher took me aside after class to ask me if I was doing steroids. When I told him I was just filling out, he asked me if I had ever played football. When I told him no, he suggested I try it.
I spent my first few practices stumbling through the plays and learning the calls. I eventually overcame the awkward clumsiness that had kept me from succeeding at any sport besides Tecmo Bowl. By the end of my first season I was starting every game and the varsity coach pegged me for his team. I spent a second summer working for my uncle earning money for college and building another twenty-five pounds of muscle. By the first game of my junior year, I was knocking red-shirted seniors off of their feet. My team mates had taken to calling me by my last name and kids would congratulate me in the halls between classes, “Good game last night, Kinsey!”
The friends I grew up with didn’t know how to react to the change. I didn’t have time for drama club or computer club anymore. I missed the last two debate events due to away games. My old friends spent their after-school time playing Diablo and I would practice. When I wasn’t practicing, I was working out. When I wasn’t working out, I was memorizing play books and watching our game tapes with the coach and the quarterback. Football had become my life and I had left my old life and most of my old friends behind. The only friend that still hung out with me was Nicole.
For as long as I can remember, Nicole Miller lived with her mom and dad in the house next to mine. We attended the same daycare, went to kindergarten at the same time, and always went to each other’s birthday parties. Nicole was my closest friend. She was the only person who looked through my becoming a jock and realized that I was still the same nerd she grew up with.
One night in October of 1997, as we sat on my mother’s porch swing, Nicole listened to me talk about the new play I suggested and how well it has worked in practice.
“I can’t wait to try it in a game,” I said.
“Trev, you’re such a dork. You talk about football the way you used to talk about Magic: The Gathering. You’ve replaced one game for another, but you’re still just geeking out,” said Nicole. She pulled the dark gray hoodie up over her head to keep the wind off of her ears.
“Yeah, I was surprised at how much strategy is involved in football. I thought it was just about muscle-head jocks trying to knock each other down.”
“And now you’re one of the muscle-heads out there knocking people down,” said Nicole with a laugh.
“And getting invited to parties,” I said.
“Parties? What parties,” asked Nicole with a look of disbelief.
“Jerrad invited me to his pre-homecoming party,” I replied.
“Are you going to go?”
“I wasn’t going to, but after practice Jerrad was pretty insistent. He said that I have to party with them if I am really going to be a member of the team. I really want to see some of my plays get used in a game,” I said as I leaned back in the swing, tilting it so much with my weight that Nicole was forced to lean back as well.
Jerrad Griffith was the varsity quarterback and the most popular kid in school. He didn’t know my name before I started playing football and I got the feeling he still didn’t think of me as a part of his group.
“Then you should go,” suggested Nicole.
“The thing is, I’m as good of an athlete as any of those guys. Probably better. But when we’re not on the field, I don’t know how to talk to any of them. They all have cars and money, their houses are big and they wear Quicksilver. I’ll end up propped against a wall wishing I was sitting here with you.”
“Then take me with you.”
I hadn’t thought about asking Nicole if she wanted to come. I had assumed that any party involving the football team would be the last place she’d want to be seen.
“There’s going to be cheerleaders there,” I said with a wince.
“Ugh, I hate cheerleaders,” Nicole said, frowning. “If I go, you will have to run interference against the cheerleaders.”
“Nic, I’m not a fullback.”
“Again with the sports geek talk,” Nicole said as she threw her arms in the air and got up off the swing. After she descended the porch steps, she turned back to me and said, “I’ll go to the party with you, as long as you promise no cheerleaders will talk to me,” she pointed a stern finger at me. “Or touch me.”
“I can do that, I’ll pick you up tomorrow after dinner,” I said as Nicole began the short walk to her house.
I watched her as she pulled the sleeves of her hoodie down over her hands and crossed her arms for warmth. Nicole arrived at her front door and opened it. Just before she went inside, she looked at me through the glass and saw me watching her. The pattern cut into the glass broke her image into a hundred pieces. I smiled and waved at her shattered silhouette.
Why I Stayed by Joshua Kautzman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.