1 | prelude
August in the south is a trial run in hell. It was hot as a firecracker in the classroom and sweat rolled down Franklin’s back. He squirmed on the hard wooden seat. Mrs. McClellan was reviewing absence policies, PTA meetings, and such. Boring.
There was some new stuff now that he was in eighth grade and at a different school. All the eighth graders had been merged into a single school – something about a space crunch. Changing classes, having more than one teacher, having your own locker – this was all new. And scary.
Franklin looked around the room to see how many kids he knew. Maybe half of them. There were a bunch from his old school, but also a lot he had never met. It was like starting over.
He checked out the girls. Some of them had bosoms pushing at the front of their blouses. A few of them had been fooling around with make-up. Franklin’s friends were fascinated with bosoms. He didn’t get it. Maybe that was just him.
“Psst, listen up!” The whisper was loud and urgent. Franklin half-turned in his desk, and Kenneth caught his eye. “You need to hear this.” Kenneth whispered and nodded in the direction of Mrs. McClellan.
Franklin quickly realized why Kenneth was so persistent. The teacher was talking about sign-ups for the football team. He scrambled to pick up the thread of her announcement.
. . . the informational meeting will be this afternoon at four o’clock at the baseball field below Hillside Cemetery. The coaches will hand out release forms for parents to sign and a physical form for your doctor. Both forms must be completed before you can practice.
First practice – in shorts, t-shirts, and cleats – is next Monday. Coach McInnis invites anyone, experienced or not, to come out and join the team.
Mrs. McClellan shuffled her papers and went on to an announcement about cheerleading.
Kenneth had introduced Franklin to football. The second week of third grade Kenneth asked Franklin if he wanted to play. They rode their bikes to practice at the scrubby field in front of the Presbyterian Church. It was the beginning of Franklin’s football life. He was hooked from day one.
This was little league football, and there were only four teams. Franklin was a Blue Devil; Kenneth was a Golden Bear. Neither of them knew a damn thing about football, but Franklin owed Kenneth a debt for bringing him to the game. Kenneth quit football after fourth grade. He didn’t have whatever madness drove Franklin through the agony of practice. But Franklin was captivated.
He wasn’t even sure he chose football – it was more like football chose him. It was the only sport he had half a chance to be good at. He was too square and slow for basketball and lacked the hand-eye coordination for baseball. But football, at least on the offensive line, didn’t require much. You had to be able to count to three for the snap count. You had to be willing to knock the snot out of someone. And you had to be willing to get the snot knocked out of you. That was it.
Franklin met all three requirements, but his greatest asset was his brain. He flashed back to the first time he realized he could out-think an opponent – could use his brain as a weapon. It was five years ago.
He had never done this before, and he was scared. Sun baked the practice field, and sweat soaked his uniform. He felt the unfamiliar weight of shoulder pads drooping across his body and the heaviness of the helmet on his head. That all paled in comparison to his fear. Fear of being hit. Fear of being hurt. Fear of being embarrassed.
A line of six or so elementary-school-age boys snaked back from the site of what the coach called a “skills drill”. The objective was to learn how offensive linemen block. As a fat, slow, clumsy kid, Franklin had been consigned to the offensive line from day one. It was the least desirable of all positions.
Because he was fifth in line, he had time to get a handle on what was going on before his turn came up. At the head of the line, facing the first player, was the coach. Coach Cooper they called him, though his first name was Clyde, and he ran a barbecue restaurant not far from the bank where Franklin’s father worked.
Franklin studied what happened as the guys in front of him went forward. Each player would squat in his stance, then burst out of the stance when Coach blew the whistle. Each player tried to block Coach Cooper by slamming into the dummy positioned in front of them. And each was easily thwarted by the coach’s counter-moves. Franklin was next.
He considered his options. It was not going to work to hit the dummy head on – he had four examples to prove it. What could he do differently? He chewed on the problem, then trembled as he squatted in the unfamiliar stance. His stomach was pressing on his lungs, and it was hard to breathe. Coach blew the whistle.
Franklin’s squat legs exploded with all the power he could muster and he launched himself low and hard at Coach Cooper. It was an unexpected move and caught the coach completely off-guard. Franklin hit the coach just below the knees – flush on the shins – and the man grunted and toppled over. Franklin bulled on top of him in a damp pile, panting.
Waves of guilt swept over him. Had he hurt the coach? Franklin’s breath got tight. He began to panic.
"Way to go!" Coach roared and leapt out from under Franklin. "You see that, guys? Sometimes you have to out-think your opponent. Franklin did that. You see that? Way to go!" Coach slapped Franklin on the butt, and Franklin felt the adrenaline rush of redemption and approval.
There was nothing in his entire life that had ever felt like this. Franklin wanted to feel this way forever. He jogged back to the end of the line, grinning broadly, and determined to knock the next guy on his butt, too.
Five years later, Franklin remembered this moment clearly, as if it had just happened.
Since that time, Franklin had played in dozens of football games. He had hit others, and he had been hit. He had won and lost and once busted his nose so bad it looked like the thing was going to come loose from his face. There was nothing in life like knocking the snot out of someone on the football field. To annihilate someone and have other people applaud. That didn’t happen much in everyday life. At least not in Franklin’s life.
He glanced around the room and wondered who else would be on the team this year. Harvey was sitting behind him; he would play. Franklin had played with him for several years in little league, though never on the same team. He was a decent quarterback.
Danny, across the room at the head of the first row, was a defensive end and running back. He’d surely play. Franklin envied Danny’s athleticism. He was broad-shouldered and slim-waisted, with agility and speed and a feline quickness. Danny didn’t say much – just flew to the ball and flattened the ball carrier or knocked down a pass intended for a stunned receiver.
Franklin scanned the rest of the students. It looked like there were only three football players in the room. He couldn’t see the people directly behind him.
He swung his body slightly to the left and glanced over his shoulder. A girl with braces was sitting right behind him. He didn’t know her. At the back of the row, behind her, was a guy who looked like he might be a football player. Franklin had seen him somewhere.
Franklin turned to face the teacher. Who was that dude? He looked older than everyone else, more like a high school student. Thick shoulders. A face shed of baby fat. Franklin noticed his jaw line first thing. The guy had scowled, lowering his brow and tightening his lips. Franklin hoped the guy had not seen him stare. He’d have to sort it out later; it sounded like Mrs. McClellan was saying something important.
“All right, class, I know I have thrown a lot at you in the last half-hour. It is always boring trying to cover all the details at the beginning of the year; sometimes it bores me. Let’s take a break and get to know each other, since we’re going to be together for the whole year. Why don’t we start with this row?” Mrs. McClellan smiled and pointed at Franklin’s row.
She picked up a piece of chalk and wrote as she talked. “I’d like each of you to introduce yourself and tell us three things. First, tell us your name and what you’d like us to call you. So, if your name is Susan, but your friends call you Susie, let us know.”
“Second, I’d like you to tell us your favorite thing you did this summer.” This went up on the board as the class groaned. “Finally, please tell us what you most want to get out of being in eighth grade.” Mrs. McClellan wrote as the chalk squeaked, then she nodded at the girl sitting at the head of Franklin’s row.
Bingo, Franklin thought. I will get to figure out who they guy at the back of my row is, and if I am supposed to know him.
The girl at the head of the row went first. She was followed by some guy Franklin didn‘t know, wearing a damp and wrinkled blue shirt. When Franklin introduced himself, he gave his name and said something about scout camp in answer to the second question. He said he hoped to make lots of new friends in answer to Mrs. McClellan’s final question.
Franklin’s answers were sincere when he said them, but as they came out of his mouth he thought they sounded ridiculous. As he finished question three, he heard a half-stifled snort from the back of his row. It came from the guy whose name he couldn’t remember.
The girl with braces went next, and Franklin couldn’t wait for her to finish. Then a gravelly voice – it sounded like a man – came from the back of the row. Everyone turned to look, so Franklin felt free to turn around and look as well.
“My name is Bart Wagram and my friends, at least those who have any sense, call me ‘Mister.’ My favorite summer activity was lifting weights so I can kick some serious butt in football. I sure didn’t go to any summer scout camp. What I hope to get out of eighth grade this time around is to pass and go on to high school.” Bart smirked, and the class giggled.
“Thank you, Bart,” Mrs. McClellan said, ignoring the smirk. Then she added, “Class, please do not use words like ‘butt’ in my classroom. I’m sure you can find a word that serves you just as well, but is less offensive. I’d also ask you not to make fun of other people’s answers; just give your answer.”
She smiled at the class and continued, “Let’s move to this row.” She nodded toward the row where Danny was sitting, and Franklin turned to look at Danny. As he did, he again heard the half-stifled snort. It came from Bart Wagram.
That’s it. Franklin had heard about Bart Wagram – they went to the same elementary school for a while. Bart was in third grade when Franklin was in first, so their paths rarely crossed. But Franklin knew about Bart.
Bart was a terror in sports. And life, too. He played all three major sports: baseball, basketball, and football; it was clear football was his favorite. Now that Bart had flunked eighth grade, he and Franklin would be on the same team. Franklin thought about Bart – maybe football is this guy’s best subject in school. He chuckled to himself, careful not to laugh aloud.
The big clock on the wall ticked slowly toward three o’clock. Day one would soon be over. Only 179 days and Franklin would be in high school. The bell rang and there was a crush of folks trying to get out the door.
Franklin made a mental note to call his mother and let her know he’d be late because of football sign-ups. She would worry if he didn’t call.