3 | sign-ups
Franklin saw a knot of students at the front of the class, all trying to get out the door at once. Then Bart Wagram came busting through the group, pushing and shoving like it was fourth and goal. What was the hurry? There was an hour before sign-ups, and the field wasn’t fifteen minutes from school. Bart seemed mad at the world. Franklin would bet anything that Bart didn’t have to call home to report in.
But Franklin had to call his mother. She made him promise to do it, just like when he was a kid. Franklin read about mothers who practiced smotherhood, not motherhood. They hovered over their kids so much that the kids never got to make an independent decision, a mistake, or a choice of their own.
That’s my mom, Franklin thought. And if Bart had a mother like mine he wouldn’t be cussing and bullying people and flunking grades in school.
Franklin wondered what his mama would think about him playing football with eighth-graders, especially Bart Wagram. Franklin knew his mom didn’t get football. In fact, she didn’t get guys. Maybe it was because she didn’t have any brothers.
He had drawn the line when she wanted him to take an umbrella on a scout camping trip. Even though it had rained like crazy, and an umbrella would have been handy, he was not going to be the only guy with an umbrella on the camping trip. Next it would be fuzzy bunny slippers.
The knot of classmates was still hung up in the doorway. Franklin had plenty of time, so he walked over to chat with Mrs. McClellan. He reintroduced himself and asked her where she had taught the previous year. He told her how much he was looking forward to the year and how he had enjoyed the way she conducted class, especially the introductions. She seemed pleased and that made Franklin happy.
The room emptied. Franklin headed down the hall to the school office. There was no one else in line to use the phone – he couldn’t believe it – and the secretary said he was welcome to use it as long as he was quick about it.
He called home and told his mother he was going to football sign-ups and would be home by six. Franklin figured it would actually be five-thirty, but he had to give himself a cushion. If he was late, she’d be all spun-up and worried.
“Be careful, honey,” she said to him. And then, “Don’t get hurt.”
“Okay, Mom. See you in a little while.” What did she think he was going to do, fall off the bleachers? Stick himself with a pencil? It was hard to get hurt at football sign-ups.
He thanked the school secretary for letting him use the phone, and she asked his name. “I’m Franklin Gibson,” he said. Then he remembered his manners and added, “I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself when I first walked in.”
“Don’t worry about it. I thought I recognized you. We go to the same church as your family, and my husband Bob works with your father down at the bank. I’m Mrs. Robertson.”
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Robertson.” Franklin stuck out his hand. He couldn’t remember the rule about shaking hands with ladies.
“It’s nice to meet you, too, Franklin.” Mrs. Robertson took his hand. “You have excellent manners. I look forward to seeing you in school this year.”
“Yes ma’am. Me, too.”
Franklin left the office and stepped into the afternoon. The glare bouncing off the concrete driveway was so bright it hurt his eyes. He raised his hand to shield them. It was blazing hot.
Franklin had resolved not to be late for sign-ups, and so he headed to the field. It was only half a mile, and he wanted to get there early.
“Hey! Wait-up!” Someone shouted, and Franklin turned to see Harvey and Danny behind him. They jogged to catch up, then slowed to a walk. The three boys hugged the side of the road under the oak trees, walking from one puddle of shade to another.
“You guys excited about football?” Franklin asked.
“Yeah,” Harvey answered. “I’ve been waiting for this day since the end of football season last year. What kind of team do you guys think we’re gonna have?”
“Sounds like Bart Wagram is ready.” Danny added. “I wonder if we’re ready for him.”
Franklin remembered Bart’s snorts during introductions. And his sarcasm, I sure didn’t go to any summer scout camp. Bart made Franklin nervous. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Bart; he didn’t even really know the guy. It was just something in the wind. Like Bart wanted to bust Franklin’s mouth, or worse.
“You guys ever played with Bart before?” Franklin didn’t want to appear scared.
“I’ve never played with him, but I’ve heard about him.” It was Danny. “They say he’s a headhunter. Just as soon crack your head as look at you. He runs wide-open all the time, and he don’t take nothing from nobody. I heard he even attacked a custodian in elementary school.”
“My brother was there when it happened,” Harvey spoke up. “He was in Bart’s class when they were both in fifth grade. The janitor – I think it was Old Man Thomas – told Bart to do something. Bart kicked him square in the shin. It was a big deal. They suspended Bart for a week, but Bart said he didn’t care; said he stayed home all day, watching TV and eating popcorn.”
“What about that time when he was in seventh grade?” It was Danny again. “I thought they were going to toss him out for good after that fight.”
The stories about Bart were legion, but this was the most famous of them all. In seventh grade Bart had gotten into an epic fight on the playground. Bart was the strongest guy in the school, and his opponent was the biggest. As the fight unfolded, one teacher said, “I’m not going to risk my life to break it up; they’re both bigger than I am. Just let them work it out like two young stallions. Then we’ll patch ’em up once they’re finished.”
They worked it out, all right. Bart and the other guy rolled across the playground, flailing each other while grunting and swearing and sweating. They wound up knocking over two huge trash cans and a bunch of benches, spilling garbage over most of the schoolyard.
No one ever knew what the fight was about, but the end result was clear. Bart pounded the other guy, leaving is bloody nose and both eyes black and blue. Other than getting dirty, Bart didn’t seem any worse for the wear.
The maintenance man finally broke it up. He grabbed each of them by the collar and half-dragged them to the principal’s office. Bart gloated even as he was horse-collared – turning to some wide-eyed younger kids watching the fight. “I really packed his lunch, didn’t I?” The maintenance guy shut him up, and then hustled off both of them.
“I guess we should just be glad he’s on our side,” Harvey added. “Imagine having to play against the sumbitch.”
“Let’s hope he is on our side,” Franklin added. “That guy seems mad at everybody. Did you see how he pushed through everyone to get out of the classroom?” Franklin waited for a reply, but the incident hadn’t made much of an impression on Danny or Harvey.
“Someone told me Bart would have made the varsity team at the high school if he had passed eighth grade,” Danny said. “I know Murdock and Fairley made it, and they played with him last year. He’s better than either one of them. Think about that – we’re gonna be playing with a guy who could be playing varsity football. That guy’s a man, is what he is.”
“He ought to be a man. He’s flunked two grades. I bet he’s sixteen years old if he’s a day. Heck, maybe they’ll let him drive the team bus.” Harvey laughed at his joke and the others joined in.
They walked in silence for a bit, still trying to stay in the shade of the oak trees. The lone highway they had to cross was shimmering black asphalt with transfer trucks whizzing by. They waited a bit, then dashed across, cleared a small rise, and saw the field came into view.
Franklin had never set foot on this field. It was way across town from where he lived. But he knew where it was, just down the hill from the cemetery where they buried his Grandmama in September of last year.
He pushed that memory down and checked his watch. Three fifty-two. He was not going to be late. He didn’t have much control over how slow he was – bad genes and all. But he could be on time.
“Hey look, there’s Coach McInnis. Hey, Coach!” Danny spoke up and waved. Coach turned and threw up a hand, but Franklin wasn’t sure he knew who he was waving at.
Coach McInnis was standing in the middle of a crowd of twenty-five to thirty boys – all sweating and milling about. Franklin didn’t know half these guys. They must have come from the other elementary schools – the newer one on the west side of town, or some of the ones out in the county.
A whistle broke the nervous buzz of conversation, and the whole group stopped its chatter. “All right men, listen up. Let’s head over to the bleachers so we can all see and hear. I want to make some announcements and then pass around a sign-up sheet. We’ll use the first three rows over there, about ten guys to a row. Hustle up. We’ve got a lot to cover.” Coach McInnis turned and headed towards the bleachers.
The boys followed him, jogging, and Franklin took a seat in the middle of the second row. Danny and Harvey sat in front of him on the front row, scuffing their feet in the dirt and waiting. Some guys wore cleats; they made a tremendous racket when they clattered over the metal bleachers.
Coach McInnis thanked them for coming and introduced a short, muscular man as the assistant coach. He explained that Coach Wittenburg had been a small-college All American lineman at Lenoir Rhyne College.
Then he told them about the season: the number of games, some of their opponents, and so forth. They would play a few games at home, in the same stadium the high school team used. The balance of the games would be on the road. Franklin glanced around as the coach talked. He saw some familiar faces from his years playing little league football.
Coach began talking details and Franklin focused. “I need each of you to bring your release form and your proof-of-insurance on Monday. Show up at four o’clock sharp, in shorts, t-shirts, and football shoes. For those of you who don’t have a jock strap, get one and wear it to our first practice. Don’t forget to put it on right; the pouch goes in the front.” Coach’s eyes crinkled at the corners when he laughed.
“We’ll do a light conditioning work-out on Monday, and then fit you for your equipment. We’ve got a lot to cover, so we’re going to practice every week-day for the next three weeks. We’ll be hitting by the end of the first week.”
“When you’re ready, we’ll have our first game-type scrimmage with referees and the whole business. Then we head into the games and the season. That’s all I’ve got. Does anyone have questions?”
No one spoke.
“See you Monday, then. Four o’clock sharp.” Coach McInnis’s whistle shrilled loudly to dismiss them.