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At the beginning of this school year you couldn’t have told me that I would be the starting quarterback at my high school, Harris Creek, without me slapping you. But here I am in my blue and orange jersey with a capital H C on my helmet ready to run onto Gary Starks Field with around 30 guys around my age behind me and Coach Gary Starks in front of me. Coach Starks is a legend in my hometown. Thirty-five division championships, somewhere around one hundred fifty college football players coached, and twenty-one state championships speaks for itself. Of course, that was over twenty years ago. His prime has passed but he still tries; you have to give the man credit. At 64 years old, He has coached my father, my uncle, my brother, and now me. But we’ll get to that story in a minute.
Best of all, Coach Starks is a community man. I have seen him mowing grass at churches in town, stopped on the side of the road helping some man who had a flat tire in the pouring down rain, and climbing trees to retrieve lost kittens. (Okay that last one might not be all that true but you know what I mean.) The point is that people in this community love him. He is a great coach and an even better friend. My daddy always says that Coach Starks is the true definition of a man.
Coach Starks has been married to his wife Julie since they were both 22 years old. So that makes this November 5 their 42nd anniversary. Mrs. Julie is a wonderful woman, too. She let Coach Starks turn their guest room into his own trophy room. She raised three boys and two girls pretty much on her own while Coach Starks was at games and practices and school events. That is, until the boys were old enough to play football. The oldest, Greg, was a four-time all-middle Georgia and two time all-state linebacker. He went on to play college football at Clemson and professionally for Kansas City. Jake, the second Starks boy, was a three-time all-middle Georgia and one time all-state running back at Harris Creek. He played college football at Central Florida but did not play in the NFL. Both Jake’s and Greg’s jerseys are retired. The third boy, fourth child, Robert, was also a three-time all-middle Georgia and one-time all-state player, but at a different position. His jersey number 82 is the only retired number at his position, wide receiver, at Starks Field. He played college football at Georgia Southern and is currently a back-up receiver/punt returner in Miami.
Along with his own boys, Coach Starks has coached many nephews. He has four brothers and three sisters. All of them live within 15 miles of Starks field; including his parents who live just next to the field so they can watch every game without having to buy a ticket even though Coach Starks can get them in for free. But they are too old anyway. It’s probably best for an 82 year old man and an 80 year old woman to stay on their front porch on football Friday nights.
Now, as I run out onto the field, I look over at Mr. and Mrs. Starks’ front porch to see them clapping and waving at the team. I wave back and I see Mrs. Greta blow a kiss to her grandson, Coach Stark’s nephew, Brent. I don’t think he wanted anyone to see as he blew a kiss back to his grandma but I did and I traced it all the way back to her very fragile hand as she pretended to catch it. Mr. Joe was yelling, “GO CRUSADERS” at the top of his impaired lungs. They never missed a home game that I can remember.
It is a cool night, great “football weather” as my father said in the van on the way to the gym. He had to drop me off at 5:30 because my car is in the shop, finally, and if a player is any later than 5:54 (don’t ask) then they will not start in the game, so I always come at 5:30. I walked into the gym, met with the team, went into the girl’s locker room by myself, of course, and changed into my football gear.
We are playing the Stanton Hill Blue Devils and as I look across the field I see a few players in a circle, kneeling as they were praying. I scanned the sidelines, searching for Matt Garner, the middle linebacker I was supposed to keep an eye out for on the field. He wears number 54 and has two armbands on one arm, none on the other. He has a dinged up looking helmet- not good for me, I guess- and he is talking to the coach. I try to read his lips. He looks as if he were saying, “I’m not gonna hit her!” and as he finishes this sentence he looks over at me with a snarl on his face. I smile back at him. I’ve been hit before, obviously.
Coach Starks comes over and lines me, Brent, Ty Morrison, and Jermaine Clark up for the coin toss and he sends us to midfield. The entire time we are walking, I am looking right at Matt Garner, what I think is a blank stare on my face. He is just staring at the giant crusader that was now under the both of us. He finally looks at me and I look at the referee as he wishes us both great, clean games. He tosses the coin up in the air and I look at Matt. He is still looking at me, even as he said, “Tails.”
I follow the coin back down to the ground. The referee bends down and says, “Tails is the call.”
He picks up the coin and says, “It’s heads up.”
Then, he turns to me and says, “Will you kick or receive?”
Matt looks at me and rolls his eyes. I say to him, “I’m not scared of getting hit.”
“Good.” He says and turns back to his sideline.
As we are walking back, Brent says, “Don’t worry about it. He’s all bark and no bite.”
“Well, I hope so.”
Ty Morrison, the left guard and back-up nose tackle, comes up to me and says, “I’ve got him. You won’t get touched by him tonight as long as I can help it.”
Ever since I joined the team, it has been as if my family has adopted thirty boys. The entire team is very protective of me, not only on the field, but off it as well.
But for me to tell the entire story, we have to go back to September 12.
It was a Monday morning. I had started my period the night before and was cramping really badly as I drove into the senior parking lot. I parked in my usual parking spot, between Hollie Meeks and Savannah Josey, my two best friends.
“Why are you always late?” Hollie said as I got out of my faded black 2003 Toyota Camry.
“Because I don’t wake up until 6:15, I get dressed in 30 minutes, and eat breakfast at about 7. Then, I leave the house at 7:15, drop off Gunner and Bailey at their schools and then I come here. I’m not even late yet.” Then I pointed to both Hollie and Savannah as she came around the back end of my car to prop up against it. “You two just happen to get here earlier than I do.”
“Well, let’s get going before we are all late.” Savannah said.
We walk in behind a mass of nerds as the debate team captain is telling everyone around him that there was a serious debate meeting regarding the coaching position and that they all had to do a poll on which teacher would fill in for Mr. Hechum because of his fractured fibula.
“Who cares about Mr. Hechum?” Savannah said from behind me. “He has always freaked me out.”
“I know, right. He is just a weird guy.” Hollie said as she empties all the metal stuff out of her pocketbook as we get ready to go through the metal detector.
“Yall stop being so mean.” I tell them as I take my belt off and put it into an empty Rubbermaid container. “God, I can’t wait ‘til May when we graduate then we will never have to see another metal detector again.”
“Hallelujah!” Hollie said.
Once we finally get through the metal detector we head for our table in the cafeteria while we wait for the first period bell to ring. I look around and see that the nerds are all huddled around one table talking, I assumed, about the coaching situation for debate team.
Behind them a group of basketball players, with their lettermen’s on, were eating cereal and talking about the new freshmen that had tried out and were really good.
On the other side of our table, the football players were all together but still separated among eight tables. Our football team was unlike any other “traditional” football team. They all have jobs at local restaurants, not many of their fathers played football around here, and (the big one) none of them dated cheerleaders. A good majority of them were straight-A students; one of Coach Starks’ rules: no one could have a C average on a progress report or report card. They were all very nice guys- I had at least 2 in each of my classes. They acted like brothers, they were always together, doing something or another.
The bell rings and I make my way to first period. Hollie and I have first hour and lunch together. We make a quick run to our locker before heading to Mrs. Foster’s classroom.
Brent Starks and Trevor Young were the only two football players in that class and Hollie has had a major crush on Trevor since I came to the school in eighth grade. He wasn’t a very attractive guy. He had curly black hair and pretty dark skin. Probably because he is one sixteenth Chippewa. She had never taken a second glance at any other guy because she was certain Trevor was going to ask her out one day.
We were learning about logarithms and things like that in class. No one really understood it but we just let Mrs. Foster teach herself and we talked amongst ourselves. Hollie turned to face me - I sat diagonally backwards from her – and we started talking about the football team and our predictions on how they were going to do this year. Brent sits two seats in front of me and Trevor sits on the other side of me- Mrs. Foster is very strict about her seating chart- and sometimes I think Hollie turns around to talk to me just so she can see Trevor.
“What do you think about the football team this year?” This, not surprisingly, caught the attention of both Brent and Trevor and they both turned to face me.
“I don’t know,” I started. “I mean, every year Harris Creek is supposed to be the ‘team to beat’ in the preseason, but, come November, they would have only won one game. I think, because of Coach Starks, they are always over-rated and don’t live up to expectations.” I don’t even think she was listening to me, because she was staring right past me at Trevor who was nodding his head behind me.
“Yeah,” he said, “I totally agree. People put us on too high of a pedestal and after we lose a game, we fall right off and no one even cares about us anymore. I would rather be an underdog and win games people thought we would lose than lose games people expected us to win just because Gary Starks is our coach. That man is getting old and his prime has past.”
“Yeah it has,” Brent admitted. “He’s my uncle and everything, but he is not as good as he once was, that’s for sure.”
“So, guys,” Hollie said, “what do you think of the team this year.”
“Well, after Friday’s loss to Mason Bluff, with it being a close game, I think the only thing we need now is a quarterback that can actually throw the ball. Someone like you, Stephanie.”
“Me?” I asked.
“Yeah, you.” Brent said. “That powder-puff game last year was amazing. You can throw the football better than I can.”
Trevor laughed. “Yeah she can.”
“Trevor Young,” Mrs. Foster said. “Turn around and stop talking.”
At lunch, my cramps were at an all-time high. I was not in the mood for games nor was I in the mood for what would happen next.
Mrs. Foster had called me into her room before lunch was over so that I could see my grades in her class. I had made a 96 on a recent test and an 83 on the quiz we had taken the Friday before. My average was 94. I walked out of the room and headed back to the cafeteria when the bell rang. My pocketbook and book bag were in the cafeteria so I had to go get them before I went to my next class. The halls were crowded and I didn’t get to my class on time. I was about 5 seconds late. Mr. Verner, the school discipline officer, was standing right outside of Mrs. Hartley’s classroom, my sixth hour teacher. I went to walk in the classroom-she always left her door open- and as I went to pass Mr. Verner he stopped me and said, “Do you have a tardy pass?”
“No, sir.” I said.
“Well would you like me to write you one?”
“Mr. Verner, I am not even ten seconds late.”
“Ten seconds or ten minutes, you are still late.”
“Just let me go to class, please.”
“Right after you take this from me.” He stuck his hand out and offered me the tiny post-it note that had my name, Mrs. Hartley’s name, and the time on it.
“I don’t want to take it.” As I said this I had one hand in my pocketbook digging for something and didn’t even realize it as I took out a tampon and threw it at Mr. Verner’s face. “You need to take one of these because I swear you are PMSing.”
He just stood there with a shocked look on his face. He finally took a deep breath and said, “Ms. Simpson, I am going to need you to come with me.” He stuck his head inside Mrs. Hartley’s door and said, “I have Stephanie.”
I had only been to the discipline office two times, and one time was because I was used as a witness for a fight and had to answer questions. This time, though, it was worse than the other two times. There was a picture of a black guy sitting with his back propped up against a building that said in big capitalized letters, “You make your own choices”. On the floor beside Mr. Verner’s desk was a box labeled “Lost and Found” that was full of jackets and gym shorts. Across from the picture on the other side of the room was a coat rack with some sets of keys dangling from it.
“Sit down.” Mr. Verner instructed me.
I sat down in the beat up red leather chair across his desk. I studied the top of his desk, which had two bobble-heads – one of Derek Jeter and one of Kobe Bryant, one of those desktop calendars with specific dates highlighted in red, and this years’ football schedule with an L and the numbers 17-13 beside the Harris Creek-Mason Bluff game written in red pen.
“I am not as mad as you think I would be. I understand you females have problems certain times of the month and I am taking that into consideration as I think of a punishment for you.” He said.
“Okay.” I sat there, waiting.
“Here is what I’m going to have you do-since you are not a bad student and you make good grades, you only have one day of in school suspension. But I also need you to do one more thing for me.”
“What’s that?” I asked, curious to see what he had in store for the rest of my punishment.
“Coach Starks has asked me to find him a quarterback. The team really needs one and we would win more games if we just had a passing quarterback. He told me to talk to you because he saw how good you were at last year’s powder puff game and asked me to talk to you. You know, see if you would consider at least trying it out for a few days?”
“But I’m a girl. Does he really want me to play on his football team?”
“Coach Starks is desperate. He doesn’t want to have another losing season. He is getting too old for this job and there is not a lot of quarterback talent around here. He needs someone like you on his team, to be a leader and a winner.”
“I don’t know if I can do all that, but I’ll give it a try. But only one day of ISS, right?”
“You can just go sit in there for the rest of today if you just try out the quarterback thing, okay?”
“Okay. When do I start?”
“After school today if it is at all possible for you.”
The day before I had worried about what I was going to do today after school, because Hollie has to baby-sit and Savannah’s brother is coming home this afternoon and she had to be home for that. “Yeah, today is fine.”
And I walked out of his office and headed to the ISS room.
That afternoon I went into the girl’s locker room and changed into the clothes I had used for weight training that day. It was the only time I had ever changed in the locker room entirely by myself. It felt kind of eerie. Once I had gotten on my t-shirt and basketball shorts (no short shorts were allowed in weight training), I went out to the practice field.
I could hear Coach Martin White, the offensive coordinator and my weight training coach, yelling already.
“You’re not supposed to throw it to the linemen, you throw it to the receiver. Mike is your receiver. Throw it to him. Or Chad, he can catch it too. Just don’t throw it to the big guys in front of you.”
I listened to him yell at Vince Garrett, the current quarterback, and, apparently, soon to be my backup, as I walked up to Coach Starks. I knew him pretty well from church but I almost never saw him at school unless he happened to walk into the weight training room (the field house) during third hour. Then, I’d only catch a glimpse of him. He never really talked that much, he usually said what he needed to and left it at that - nothing more, nothing less.
Now, he wasn’t saying anything at all, just watching. So, I decided to speak first.
“I heard you wanted me to come try out.”
He didn’t break his gaze as he said, “I don’t want you to try out-I know how good you are or how good you are capable of being- I want you to play.”
“I’ll try my best.”
“That’s all I want, is for you to try your best. Could you do that for me?”
Something in his voice told me that I was in good hands with him. He wasn’t going to push me to be great, he just wanted me to be good.
“Good.” He reached for something behind him and handed it to me. “Here’s the helmet and here’s the shoulder-pads. Go put them on and see how they fit and if they work I’m going to let you start stretching and warming up.”
“Okay.” I walked to the field house, changed into the helmet and shoulder pads, and walked to the mirror. I definitely didn’t look cute but they both fit and I walked back out to the field.
“Well look at you,” Coach Starks said. “ You know, I think that is the same set of shoulder pads your brother wore.”
“They might be but they are killing my….um…..chest.” My boobs weren’t huge but they weren’t tiny either. They were just big enough that the shoulder pads were squishing them into my ribcage.
“Oh, yeah.” He said. “You can get some shoulder pads for you online so that they don’t hurt you as bad. I can give you some time tomorrow to go in my office and buy some so they will be here by game time Friday. I think that would be best.”
“Yeah that would be good. I can’t wear these for too long.”
“Well, you have to wear them for now. Get out there and let me see what you know.”
As I trotted onto the field Trevor saw me and started clapping and saying, “Yeah! Here she comes.”
He wasn’t the only guy that commented on the fact that I was out here ready to practice with them and become their teammate. Most of the comments were good. Honestly, the only bad comment I heard came from Vince as I walked up to Coach White and told him I was ready to help.
Coach White smiled at me then looked at Vince and said, “Go take a break Garrett. It’s time to see what the estrogen can do.” “The Estrogen” would soon become Coach White’s nickname for me.
Since it was my first practice and I didn’t know too much football lingo and none of the plays, Coach White just told me what route the receivers were running and who my primary and secondary targets were.
We were in a three-wide set, Chad Peterson was the only receiver on my left and he was my primary receiver. He was going to run a slant route to the 30 and I was supposed to look to throw to him, or where he was going to end up, once he crossed the 25. To my right, Gerchavion Lewis was in the slot and Jesse Miller was to the far hash mark. Gerchavion was primarily used to get defenders covering him and getting them away from Jesse, who was my secondary receiver. Gerchavion was going to run a quick out and Jesse was going to run a deep in.
I walked up to the line of scrimmage and suddenly realized that I would have to put my hands under some guys butt. I hesitated as I bent down and wondered who’s huge behind I was having to get so close to. Blake Carter turned around from under me and smiled. I had no idea his butt was this big. I guess I never paid that much attention. I had two classes with him this year and three with him the year before, when he first came to Harris Creek. He wasn’t your typical football player when he first got here. He played tuba in the band at his old high school. He started playing football halfway through the season last year and loved it, to his parents despair. He claims he had never had a girlfriend before he and Shelly Green started dating this summer, but he has a lot of female Facebook friends who were “in a relationship” with him last year. He was a good football player and he loved playing center. He says that knocking other big guys down is too much fun to pass on.
Now, as I squat down behind him, I shout the play call.
“Down,” Blake was yelling something and pointing at Will Grimes, the middle linebacker, as he showed blitz.
“ Set,” Now Terrence Thomas, the free safety, was lining up, man-to-man, with Gerchavion.
“Hut,” The count was on two and nobody moved.
“Hike.” Blake stuck the ball in my hand with a force I had never felt before. It kind of jerked me back as I continued into the 5-step drop Coach White told me was so important. Will had dropped back into zone coverage so I knew that I had to throw the ball over him if I wanted to get it to Chad. I took a glance over to Gerchavion and Jesse. They were both covered too well for me to stick the ball through those defenders. So I turned my concentration back to Chad. He had just passed the 20 yard line and I watched as Will Grimes broke his zone coverage to blitz. He was about seven yards from me when Ty Morrison comes out of nowhere and wipes him out. I look back up to Chad, he is at the 25 now. I throw the football- not the best of spirals- and think, “Well, this is it. My first pass as a football player.”
I watch the ball as it descended down into Chad Peterson’s arms and as he turns and gains a couple more yards after the catch.
From behind me, I hear Brent, the full back, clapping. He is joined by the rest of the team who all clapped and started gathering around me. Coach Starks was pushing his way through two big defensive linemen, Ian Lattimore and Nathan Davis.
“You,” he said to me, “are amazing. I thought you were good, but you are great. Can you play for me? For this team? Can you be the leader I need you to be?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Fellas,” he said to all the boys around him, “we have ourselves a quarterback.”
I don’t know what made them happier, that I could play quarterback or that they now had someone to rely on, but they were happy either way and I wasn’t going to ask.
We ran a few more plays and then ran around the track a little bit. Coach Starks gave me a schedule and a playbook and told me to memorize it- front to back. When I got home, I placed the playbook and the schedule on top of my bedside table and put my helmet and shoulder pads in the closet.
I ran back downstairs and sat next to my daddy on the couch.
“Guess what!” I said enthusiastically.
“What?” He was watching some show on animal planet about cheetahs and jaguars. He didn’t seem as enthused as I was.
“I got in trouble at school today and guess what my punishment is?”
His eyes were locked on the television. “What?”
“I have to play football!”
This got his attention. “Wait, what?”
“Coach Starks wants me to be his new quarterback and leader.”
“Why you though?”
“Because he saw the powder puff game I won last year and wanted me to play for him. Vince, their current quarterback, sucks and he isn’t a good leader. He’s only sophomore.” We were making our way into the kitchen now. We could both smell the chicken Alfredo my mama had cooked from the living room.
“So you are going to play quarterback?”
“Not only am I going to play, but I’m going to start.”
Daddy turned to mama and said sarcastically, “You hear that, Jenny, we have a Harris Creek Crusader quarterback on our hands!”
“Well, isn’t that nice.”
Daddy turned to me and said, “Are you sure you want to do this? It takes a lot of time and practice to be a quarterback. And you will get hit and likely get hurt in every game.”
“Yes, daddy, I want to play football. I can play football. And now I’m being asked to play football. I just want to help Coach Starks out. He came to me and asked me; well, he didn’t but he got someone else to ask me.”
“Jenny, what do you think of this decision?”
My mother had always been open to suggestions. “Whatever Stephanie wants to do is fine with me, as long as she knows the consequences.”
“Okay, we’ll see.” My daddy said. “If you get through this Friday night alive, we will consider you playing for the rest of the season.”
“Thank you!” I exclaimed.
Once supper was done, the dishes were in the dishwasher, and Boomer, our boxer bulldog, had been fed, I went up to my room and sat on my bed thinking of how my life has changed in just one day.
While taking a shower, I thought of how bad I could get hurt and how many hospital visits I would have to make in the next few months. I thought of who we have to play and who we have to beat in order to get to the playoffs. I thought of how my Friday nights will change from sitting on the couch watching movies to suiting up in my blue and orange Harris Creek Crusader football uniform and playing for the legendary Coach Starks. I thought of how my family would be sitting in the stands cheering me on through the good plays and bad plays I make in games. I thought of how my friendship with the football players would change either for the good or for the bad. I thought of how I would have to get a lot of pickles and bananas and an ice tub.
When I got out of the shower, I put on my pajamas and got in bed and memorized the schedule. The first game, the game last Friday, was against Mason Bluff. The game this Friday, September 16, my first game, is against Charter County, last year’s division champions. They lost their starting quarterback, strong side linebacker, and left tackle to colleges around the southeast and their best wide receiver transferred to a school in Florida so I think this will be a good game.
I walk over to my computer and go to their school website. I find their athletics page and look for their football schedule. Last week, they played Druard, and lost 24-14 at home. With the game this Friday at our field, I feel that we have a really good chance of winning.
I climb back in the bed and go to sleep, now, as a member of the Harris Creek High School Crusaders football team.
Tuesdays had never been my favorite days. Most Tuesdays I had to do both mine and my little brothers chores because he has to go to Technology club. Some Tuesdays I have to go pick him up at Harris Creek Elementary School which is 5 miles from my school and 20 miles from my house.
But today was going to be different. I knew this when I awoke to my mama and daddy yelling about who was going to do the dishes and clean Gunner’s room this afternoon because I wouldn’t be there to do it, and who would have to take off work to get him from Technology club. I smiled at this as I crawled out of bed and headed to my closet to get my helmet and shoulder pads. I realized that I had to get something to put them in so I went into my older brother, Tyler’s, room and got his old Harris Creek duffle bag from the top of his closet and threw my football equipment in it.
Tyler was an all-middle Georgia linebacker two years ago, but a neck injury and a bad SAT score kept him from playing in college. He ended up at the local not-community-college-but-anyone-can-get-in-so-it-seems-like-a-community-college college. Now, he lives in a dorm with two other one-hit-wonder football players.
I hadn’t worried about the time all morning until my mother called down the hall, “Come on you guys. You’re going to be late.”
I glanced at the clock on my bedside table and gasped as I read the bright red 7:34. I had to drive at least 75 miles an hour if I was going to get to school on time. I ran into Bailey’s room to make sure she was awake and ready to go. She was awake but not completely dressed. Her “I love hugs” t-shirt was hung around her neck and she was trying to get one arm in while she was brushing her teeth with the other hand. Then, I ran into Gunner’s room and he was awake and dressed and brushing his teeth also.
I walked out to my car and started the engine. I sat in the driver’s seat while I waited for Gunner and Bailey to make an appearance on the front porch. I turned on the radio to the local radio station, WYGZ. I listened as Jimmy Garrett, radio personality and Vince Garrett’s father, talked about the football team.
“Well, after talking to Coach Starks on the telephone last night, it seems as though my boy, Vince, is not good enough for his starting quarterback job and he has acquired a female to take over the position. Stephanie Simpson, the senior that won the powder-puff game last year, is going to be suiting up in the blue and orange this Friday for the Crusaders. I hate to say it, but she has a very good arm and could help this team more than Vince did.”
This was the first time I had ever heard my name on the radio and I was in a daze as both Gunner and Bailey came running out of the house.
I put the car in reverse and we backed out of the driveway on our way to school.
When I first got to school, I didn’t think much of Brent smiling, parked across from me, behind the wheel of his Chevrolet Silverado. Ty was standing beside his truck on the other side of Brent smiling too. It wasn’t until I got into my first hour class, not tardy, when Trevor asked me what I thought of all of the attention that I realized I would be more popular now, more than I had ever been.
“I haven’t really gotten much attention, yet, other than a few of the football players waving at me when I walked in the school.” I told him.
“Oh, well, wait until you win a game.” He said. “You will be the most well-known person in this school.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah you will.” Brent said from in front of me. I didn’t even know he was listening.
“We’ll have to wait and see.” I told them as I got my Trigonometry notebook out of my book bag and started writing down the equations that we had to memorize for the quiz Friday.
Hollie was never late for school and was already writing down the fourth equation in her pink spiral notebook. Apparently, she hadn’t heard the boys or the radio this morning and was just oblivious to the fact that I was going to be playing football, because she didn’t turn around and ask or even look at me in a weird way. I hadn’t told neither her nor Savannah about my new hobby, so I decided now was a good time.
I reached over and tapped her on the shoulder. She threw up one finger, indicating I should wait a second, so I did. She turned toward me, put her pencil down, and said, “What?”
“Did you hear about the football team?” I asked.
“What about it?”
“They have a new quarterback now.” I was trying not to give too much away.
“Oooh. Is he cute?” She crinkled her nose as she said this.
“Um, no,” I said. “He is a she.” I told her. She obviously had no idea what I was talking about. “And she is me.”
“Wait,” she understood it now. “So you are going to play football?”
“Really? Are you even good?”
Brent decided to jump in. “Yeah she is. She is a very good player and I’m glad that she decided to join the team.”
“I am too.” Trevor said.
Hollie continued to look at me like I was a new kid she had just met. But I knew she would realize that this was not a bad thing, especially not for her. She could get to know Trevor, he could get to know her, and she wasn’t even the one who had to get hit.
Heading into weight training, I wasn’t expecting anything to be different, but as I walked in, I was surprised to see Coach White standing at the door of the squat room (we were supposed to be doing squats) waiting to talk to me. He led me into the hallway and told me, “You know, you don’t have to go so heavy on the weight today. You can just do 65 pounds or so. I just don’t want you to hurt yourself lifting weights when you have a bigger role playing football now.”
“Okay Coach White, but shouldn’t I be lifting more weights now that I’m playing football and not less?”
“If you were a guy, yes, you would be lifting more weight. But, since you are a girl, I don’t want you pushing yourself to get more weight than you are used to.”
“Well, then, shouldn’t I just keep squatting the weight I have been doing?”
“Yeah, I guess that would be okay. I just didn’t want you to try to do more weight. At least, not yet.”
“Okay Coach, I won’t try to do more weight.”
And that was it, but before now, Coach White would never pull me out of the room, one-on-one, to tell me how much weight I should do.
After school, on my way to the field, was when I realized, for the first time, that I would have to be like wonder woman to not only the players, but the coaches as well. I was unsure of how I would go about doing this, but the first thing I would do is perform to the standards that Coach Starks had set for me even before I knew I would be playing for him. I could say that I would be the best quarterback to ever walk through Harris Creek, but I would be lying. Before that can be truthful, I have to perform like a champion in practices, games, and even in the classroom. I have to show these guys that I can play like any other male player. They need to gain my trust. So, today at practice, I have to be extraordinary.
I already had half of the playbook memorized from staying up until midnight the night before; I knew what plays I would call in practice today. The only thing was the Coach White kept coming into the huddle, never giving me a chance to run a play on my own. So, after I made a comment about it to the guys in the huddle, the next time he popped his head into the huddle, Ty told him, “Coach White, Stephanie’s got this. She knows what she’s doing. Go get yourself a PowerAde and sit on the sidelines and watch what she can do. You don’t have to keep making sure she is okay on her play calls.”
“Okay.” Coach White said as he threw his hands up. “Just making sure.”
We all watch him walk to the sidelines, slumping, as he grabs a PowerAde and sits on the metal bench.
As I turn back to the huddle Ty says to me, “He’ll be okay. He just doesn’t take denial that well. He’ll be okay in a few minutes.”
“I don’t care how he feels as long as he doesn’t interrupt me anymore.”
“No, I don’t think he’ll be back over here. At least not until he still has some PowerAde left.”
“Okay, anyway, where were we?” I ask no one in particular. “Oh yeah, I-right Z 23 on two. Ready, break!”
We break the huddle. I stay behind as the linemen and receivers line up. Brent stays behind me and Ty, Blake, Bruce Miller, the left tackle, Brian Johnson, the right guard, and Antonio Grant, the right tackle, line up in front of me. Blake does his normal pointing and shouting, and I start the count, “Down. Set. Hut.”
Everyone was frozen for a split second. They knew what was coming next.
Blake pushes the ball into my hands. I turn around to my left. Brent is there waiting, I throw him the fake pitch. Monstavion Turley, the tailback, is also waiting behind me, waiting for the handoff. I give him the ball, trying not to make it look so obvious. I turn back around to face my offensive line. Two defenders were already on the ground. Ty had knocked both Ian Lattimore and Jeremy King to down by himself. Blake had Bentavious Martin, the defensive tackle, wrapped up in his arms as Monstavion ran behind him and into Will Grimes’ arms as he tackled him.
Coach Starks and Coach White both came over to me after the play was over while Monstavion was getting to his feet.
“I’m glad to see that you know not only some passing routes but also some running plays, too,” Coach Starks said to me, “but, I want to see how far you can throw. Do you know what a Hail Mary is?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“Good, because you are about to throw one, okay?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Alright. Let’s do this.” To the rest of the team he said, “Everyone gather ‘round.”
I was half-listening, because I was about to have a heat stroke, as he explained that the defense, running backs, and offensive line were going to take a “breather” and that this drill was just for me and the receivers. He said he wanted me to throw the ball to each receiver once. I wasn’t going to have any pressure from a defense, so I shouldn’t be forcing the ball to the receivers.
Coach White was on one knee on the twenty yard line with a football in one hand. Coach Starks tells me to throw it to whichever receiver I wanted to throw it to.
I walked up in front of Coach White, bent down as if I were under the center and just decided to yell “Hike!” instead of going through the “Down, Set” part. I mean, it’s not like I was trying to get the defense to jump off-sides or anything like that.
Coach White practically handed me the ball, a drastic change from the ball being forced into my hands by Blake. Chad took off first; he had a good jump off the ball I had noticed from my two days at practice. Gerchavion was running faster though, as he caught up with Chad at the 25 yard line. Jesse was slower than both of them just making his way to the 25 while Chad was passing the 20 and Gerch, as we call him, is at the 15. I heave the ball toward Chad. I didn’t want to even try to get it to Gerch and throwing the ball to Jesse would be too easy, so I threw it to the man in the middle.
The ball flies through the air in a perfect, tight spiral. It ends up a little to the right of Chad, but he reaches out, grabs it, and hauls it in for the touchdown. My first touchdown. I was so excited that I ran down into the end zone where Chad was and jumped on him. After I did it, I realized that maybe I was being a little too enthusiastic and as I turned around, everyone, even the old man cutting grass on the other side of the field, was staring at me. Chad was standing beside me now, also staring. “Good throw,” he said slowly, “but this isn’t a game; you don’t have to celebrate yet.”
I could feel my cheeks turning red under my helmet. “I know. I guess I just felt like celebrating my first touchdown.”
“Just don’t do it again.”
The next Hail Mary didn’t go as well - I overthrew Jesse by about five yards- and the next one was worse – I underthrew Gerch by ten yards.
Coach Starks let us go home fifteen minutes earlier than usual because his wife called him and said she needed him immediately.
On the way home, as I was singing along with the radio as it played “Photograph” by Def Leppard, I passed by Coach Starks’ house, just like any other day. But I could tell by the crying Mrs. Starks on the front porch that this was not any other day; something was wrong.
I decided to go home first and at least see if my parents had heard anything about the Starks’ that I hadn’t.
Once I got home, I was shocked to see my mother and father already talking about the Starks’ and everyone else associated with the Harris Creek Chalk Mine. It turns out that the mine is going out of business because of all of the other chalk mines coming to town. They will be completely shut down within the next year. Mrs. Starks is the secretary at the mine and has been for 22 years.
“With her unemployed,” my daddy says, “and with the Board telling Gary that if he doesn’t get at least 7 wins this season he could be fired as head coach, they could lose their house.”
“So she lost her job?” I asked him.
“Yes, but it’s nothing you have to worry about. Go upstairs and get ready for bed. You three are not going to be even close to late in the morning.”
I headed up the stairs and thought about Coach Starks and his wife. They were too nice to be unemployed. They were the best people anyone around here knew. Everyone in town, I knew, would be devastated, either for their family or for the Starks’ family. Tomorrow was not going to be a good day. That I was sure about.