By the end of July, the practice field is burned a fragile yellow. A month from now, as cleats bite the earth, great clouds of dust will rise around us, turning our skin a beautiful shade of brown and leaving our airways coated, our snot a viscous black that shoots from our noses as we try to catch our breath between sprints.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

—James Wright, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”

Little ditty about Jack and Diane
Two American kids growin’ up in the heartland
Jackie gonna be a football star
Diane debutante backseat of Jackie’s car

—John Cougar Mellencamp, “Jack & Diane”

By the end of July, the practice field is burned a fragile yellow. A month from now, as cleats bite the earth, great clouds of dust will rise around us, turning our skin a beautiful shade of brown and leaving our airways coated, our snot a viscous black that shoots from our noses as we try to catch our breath between sprints.

Each evening, all summer long, we lift weights in the gym, staring at each other’s arms and chests, dancing the line of agility drills the coaches lay out for us in intricately taped patterns in the parking lot.

We’re still just boys, anywhere between 15 and 18—a span of years that seems to move at glacial rates as we sit in the classroom or pine over the girl we have a crush on. What we wish for most is to grow up as fast as we can, so we try to talk like the men we’ve heard playing pickup basketball or heading into the garage to drink beer with their buddies and tinker with a car. The words don’t feel right at first, but we get used to them, calling each other hateful names with a smile, pussy and faggot and shithead, laughing as we tell our best friend to try not to be such an asshole.

In this haze of profanity and grunts, we also dream of putting on pads and helmets, of running onto the game field showered by the cheers of the faceless fans who sit more than eighty feet in the air on broad planking, field lights burning a halo around the track that rings the emerald turf, which was watered and fertilized throughout the summer at great cost.

We’ve been taught that this is the arena where a boy might prove he’s one step closer to manhood. All that it takes is a willingness to hit another boy as hard as you can, or to get up after being hit, even if your bones hurt, even if your head spins.

To most of us it seems worth it. We fantasize about seeing our names on Saturday morning in the local papers; or hearing a coach call out to the team during the weekend film session that someone’s got real balls, that they know how to get low and deliver when the game’s on the line; or, better yet, that a father or uncle or grandfather will buy a round at the bar for the guys from the neighborhood who watch the Notre Dame-Michigan game and talk about how their boy did his job right last night, how their high school team won, and for the next six days how that will make a difference working the line at the factory.

The soundtrack that plays endlessly in the locker room is Nazareth’s “Hair of the Dog.” There we are, testosterone-fueled teenagers strumming air guitars with our shirts off or sleeves cut away at the shoulders to proudly display the biceps and triceps we’ve worked so hard to define in the weight room. The first hint of mustaches and beards ring our mouths and darken our chins as we crank the volume and sing along with the ragged refrain that’s all about meanness, all about feeling like no pain or fear can make us back down, make us cave in: “Now you’re messing with a, a son of a bitch, now you’re messing with a son of a bitch.”

Being tough, feeling tough, acting as if nothing can truly hurt you, is part of the game, part of growing up in a place where manhood includes the ability to hurt another man. In this time and place, the metaphors our coaches use are militant in their devotion to the idea that football is a battle, that violence is an inevitable part of living, that we need to learn how to mete it out, as well as to endure it when it visits us.

We’re told countless times we’re going to war on the football field. We must be loyal to one another. We must be disciplined. The boy next to us depends on our mastering the assigned task, and we take pride in on our ability to do the duty we’ve been ordered to do.

Our defensive secondary coach tells us, “It’s kill or be killed.” The offensive linemen battle “in the trenches,” and we have to be sharp as we “march down field,” conquering our enemy’s territory. We “blitz” on defense, commanded to “search and destroy.” Oddly enough, given the conservative nature of our town, even evolution makes a metaphoric appearance when our head coach lets us know “it’s survival of the fittest” on that chalk-lined pitch.

During the summer months, some of the guys work on farms, necks and arms tanned, torsos white as the clouds on the western horizon; others carry cinder blocks and wheel wheelbarrows full of cement or bricks over planks of wood that span ditches at construction sites—forearms aching, hands difficult to open at day’s end. The lucky ones, whose parents are divorced and work different shifts, get to fish most of the day, drinking grape Nehi and eating a bag of chips along the banks of the Elkhart River because there’s no one around to tell them any different. They don’t catch much, mostly carp or catfish, but every now and then they reel in a smallmouth bass and we have to hear about it for the next month.

The upperclassmen drive to practice. Usually their aunt’s or grandmother’s car. But some of them have their own cars, and we wonder where they get the money to buy them. A Chevy LeMans or a Pontiac Trans-Am, jacked up, with mufflers that make it sound like thunder from a long way off. Eight-track tapes blare from the open windows as they burn rubber across the parking lot. Most of the vehicles are beaters, though. Old pickups or sedans whose suspensions are shot. Still, a car is a car, and we envy the guys who don’t have to wait for their moms to pick them up.

The Midwest is a place of extremes: the very rich and the very poor, fertile farmland and industrial parks, fundamentalist Christians and pacifist Mennonites, all coexisting in some of the hottest summers and the coldest winters the lower 48 can serve up.

When we start two-a-day practices in August, the temperatures are in the 90s. Some days even get to 100. By the time the season ends in late October or early November—depending on how deep we go in the playoffs—we might be competing in snow, temperatures hovering around 25 and the ground frozen the color of cement.

At practice two lines form, with tackling dummies placed parallel on the ground, eight feet apart. We’re instructed to lie down on our backs, helmet to helmet, and when the whistle blows, to jump to our feet and tackle the boy across from us who has the ball. At the end of the drill, both players should be on the ground if the defender has done his job correctly.

From an early age we’ve been taught to bend our knees, to focus on the midsection of the runner and to drive our shoulder through that center point, wrapping our arms and lifting in one motion, pounding the opponent into the turf. When we do it right, we’re congratulated. When we do it wrong, the runner escaping, we’re punished with grassers, an exercise in which you run in place until the whistle blows, then throw yourself chest first to the ground, bouncing back to your running position as quickly as you can.

Throughout the season we hurl the husks of our bruised frames into each other—or as the poet James Wright describes it, we “gallop terribly against each other’s bodies”—again and again, as we rotate through the various drills. There’s an order to the barely controlled chaos, and we’re asked to channel the ferocity that wells up in our chests as we prepare to deliver yet another blow to our opponent, who, of course, is also our teammate.

Our coaches are craftsmen at these labors and we are apprentices. We put in our time at the blocking sled, or running routes, or exploding from our stance to have the football shoved into our cradled arms. My favorite is a special-teams drill that tries to simulate a punt or kick-off return. Two boys are stationed about 30 yards apart on what would be the 30-yard line and another is about 45 yards downfield, waiting for the ball to come sailing. The minute the ball is kicked the two defenders sprint toward the boy, who hopes to maintain enough concentration to catch the ball and then somehow elude the two would-be tacklers. Speed and blind courage are rewarded if you take the proper angle, if you don’t go for the runner’s fake. It’s the collision with the ball carrier that rocks both players with a force that overwhelms the structures of that civilized space we have to occupy most of the day as we sit in our desks and listen to our teachers talk about what is just and right.

I like this drill for many different reasons, none of them very good. I still want to hit some of the kids who in junior high called me and my friends every homophobic slur in the book. I want to teach some of the jerks on the team, who won’t hit anyone as big as they are, not to pick on little kids in practice. I want to embrace the myth that I can wield my body like a righteous weapon, taking care of the small business that God seems to overlook or ignore. My only rule: never make a dirty hit. And the punt drill provides me ample time to build up a good head of steam and level some folks who I believe need leveling.

In the heat, every 30 minutes we’re allowed to drink like cattle from a community watering hole: hoses connected to a basin with spigots that shoot beautiful fountains at the sky and make a mud trough below. This is before the age of Gatorade, and we drink as much water as our bellies will hold, hoping to stave off a cramp in our calf or quad, hoping we won’t get hit in the gut and throw up the precious fluid.

We jog back to our stations to begin what are called monkey rolls, once again throwing ourselves onto the grass, this time in a juggling pattern, wearing away the feeble roots with our bodies, hardening the earth beneath our feet. This exercise demands an odd precision, a degree of teamwork and playfulness, braiding our motions, one over the other, three players rolling, then popping back to their feet, only to roll over the body of another player in an endless loop, until the coach shows mercy and blows his whistle or one of the players pukes.

Football’s lessons are fairly easy to learn, mainly that the sport is about hitting something, hitting someone, over and over. Learning to take a hit requires that you accept pain, that you allow it to crawl up your nerve endings as you speak to it, telling it that you know with time it will disappear or become a dull ache that as the season progresses is more like a numbness. Learning to deliver a hit requires you to focus on the rules of the game, to believe that the game justifies brutality, that violence on the field is somehow different from violence off the field. Very early you learn that it is a disgrace not to be able to do both of these essential tasks—taking a hit and delivering a hit. Of course, for many of us these lessons are hard to keep straight, and that barely constrained violence floods our daily lives, manifested as fights in the bathroom at school, fights at parties on Friday and Saturday night, fights at home with our brothers and fathers.

A few weeks into the season, on a Monday when we need to go hard to prepare for the next team we play, our head coach calls us together before the start of practice. We can tell something’s wrong before he opens his mouth. His voice is hoarse and breaks every few words. One of our teammates, a boy who never gets to play and who we often make fun of, is dead. He was hanging out with some neighborhood kids on Saturday afternoon, digging holes in large mounds of sandy soil near a construction site, and the tunnel he crawled into collapsed, suffocating him before the kids could get help or dig him out by themselves. On Thursday, we’re let out of school to go to mass at the Catholic church uptown and then to the funeral parlor. Some of the players bring vodka and whiskey in their cars because they think they’re supposed to drown their sorrows, but really just want another excuse to drink. As we go by the open casket, our tears are mostly about guilt at our treatment of a boy who wasn’t as tough as the rest of us.

A few days later, on Friday night during a crucial point in the game, the defensive coach calls a stunt on third down. I’m supposed to dive for the hole between the guard and tackle, our middle linebacker coming around my right side to try to make it through the space between their tackle and tight-end. When the ball is snapped, I slice left and shed the tackle’s glancing block; the guard doesn’t even see me, which means I’m quickly into the backfield with only the fullback between me and the quarterback. It’s a passing play and I get low to shuck the fullback who’s trying to buy time for his team. The quarterback sees me coming and starts to scramble right, but I’ve left the fullback on the ground with a forearm blow and sprint toward the quarterback. He wants to get rid of the ball to a receiver downfield, but our secondary covers his targets. He pumps, hoping for a receiver to change his route and go long or curl back to the flat, but by this time it’s too late.

I’ve arrived, thrusting my arms back, driving my legs forward into the hit, putting my shoulder pad beneath his shoulder pad and surging into the blow. His head snaps back with a dull thud on the ground. The result is a sack and a quarterback who can’t get up. The crowd screams its approval and my teammates slap me on the back, on the butt, on the helmet. The band strikes up our fight song. The referees blow their whistles and signal the timekeeper to stop the clock. The training staff for the other team runs onto the field to attend to the quarterback. They open a leather box with handles and pull out smelling salts, waving them beneath the quarterback’s nose as if he’s a head chef and must approve of the seasoning. After a few moments, he’s helped to his feet, and we clap for him, showing we’re good sports. He doesn’t return to the game because he has a concussion. I continue to play, but I can’t help worrying about him. After the game, coaches, players, and fans congratulate me for “sticking it to him.” Everyone loves a good hit, the kind you can hear in the stands.

Not all violence is treated with equal respect. There’s a code. If you’re going to fight somebody, you let them know it, you call them out. A sucker punch is a coward’s path. You fight fairly if you’re going to fight. However, more than one dad offers this piece of advice: It’s best if you get the first punch in; it makes your opponent less likely to want the fight to last.

Before each game we take a knee in the locker room and pray. I try my best to believe in the prayer our coach mumbles, but mostly I feel hot, uncomfortable. What does God have to do with the way I hit the boy across from me, how I execute my pursuit angle so I can get to the ball carrier, place my shoulder in his gut, drive him to the ground, and maybe make him cough up the ball? I don’t want anyone to get hurt, but I want to hit the player across from me as hard as I can so he backs down the rest of the game. I want to cause a fumble. I want to do something to help us win.

I go to Bible study with a couple of brothers who are Mennonite. Their family owns a farm on County Road 13, and I help them when it’s haying time, tossing the square bales onto the wagon in the field, later stacking them in the mow. They’re in the high school band and march at halftime of the football games. At Bible study we talk about Jesus’s commandment to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies. We make fun of the ridiculous mascots for the area high schools—“Redskins” and “Pilgrims” and “Minutemen”—knowing these names say a lot about where we live. But I doubt if any of my Mennonite friends understand what it’s like to be on the field, and I’m embarrassed by what the game does to me, or, more likely, what I allow the game to do to me, what I crave most in the game. I’m trying to figure it out myself. It’s a sport, after all. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong with the fact that I like how anger wells up in me when I’m hit and how it helps me to hit harder the next play.

At homecoming coach invites a former player to give us a pep talk. This year it’s a guy who graduated a couple of years before and plays Division I football at Ball State. His first year at college he started on defense, but tonight he is using crutches to get around because he has a cast that starts at his hip and ends at his toes. He hobbles to the front of the room, shoulders and arms flexing with each step as he shoves the crutches forward. Nobody says a word. We’re not sure what to expect. This is the same guy we feared when we had to practice against him. He was strong and fast and could deliver a lick you felt a week later. His face is pinched, not like he’s tasted something sour but like he’s trying to solve a math problem, trying to figure out how he ended up here, in this condition. When he opens his mouth, his voice is too loud and he overcompensates so we can’t hear his next few words.

I try to concentrate on what he’s saying but I keep coming back to his eyes. They’re red-rimmed and go in and out of focus. He’s crying, wiping his nose with his shirtsleeve, shouting at us in fragments. The gist of it is that we never know when the next play will be our last. He swears at us. Well, not exactly at us, at the whole damn situation, the absurdity of it. He begs us to give it everything we have on every single play. The speech is full of clichés, the kind you hear in sports movies, in postgame interviews. But the veins in his forearms and one on the side of his neck rise against his skin as he squeezes the foam crutch handles and swings his head to glare at us. He finally breaks down, and coach puts his arms around his heaving shoulders, whispers something in his ear, then tells us to get out on the field and make this guy proud of us. We leave the locker room with screams and hoots and a range of expletives that hint at the anxiety we feel. None of us wants to end up in a cast, trying to walk with crutches.

The last game of the season ends in a blowout. We win and most of the starters spend the fourth quarter on the sidelines, watching the second and third team run-up the score. I keep looking at the sky. It’s dark and has been since long before the game began. This is early November and you can see your breath. A full moon hangs directly between the field-goal posts. You can’t see the stars because of the field lights, but I know they swirl in great numbers above our heads.

By the middle of the fourth quarter the seniors on the team are crying and hugging each other, saying how we’ll never forget this game, this season, these past four years. We’ve all listened to John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane” too many times, and we believe it when he tells us “life goes on long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.”

I’ve decided not to play football in college and hope this means I’ll be saying goodbye to the anger that stirs inside me, the good feeling violence sometimes provides. One of my classmates who is in choir with me—one of the guys I think I’m defending when I plow someone in a tackling drill in practice—will die of AIDS two years from now. Another will make it a few more years before stepping in front of a train, taking his own life. Most of us will drift into a job, not unlike the jobs our fathers have, and we’ll begin to embellish our days playing football, making them mean more than they do, trying to pretend we learned our lessons well.

About the Author

Todd Davis

Todd Davis is the author of four full-length collections of poetry—In the Kingdom of the Ditch, The Least of These, Some Heaven, and Ripe—as well as of a limited edition chapbook, Household of Water, Moon, and Snow: The Thoreau Poems. He edited the nonfiction collection, Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball,and co-edited Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets. He teaches environmental studies, creative writing, and American literature at Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona College and is a member of University Mennonite Church in State College, Pennsylvania.