Sunday November 15th, 2015

(The Cauldron cannot independently confirm the accuracy of this report, but the author’s name has been withheld to ensure his safety.)

“You wanna write about pee-wee football, huh?” Assistant Coach Buzz Burper says as he hands me a bulky draw-strung sack from the back of a Nissan Pathfinder. “Here’s pee-wee football: Call out the names on the jocks and make sure they get the right ones.”

We’re standing in a parking lot outside the locker room of Stonewall Jackson Middle School, where Coach Burper and his Sand Ranch Redskins (0–4) are set to conduct their final practice of the week ahead of Saturday’s showdown with their heated rivals, the Davycrockett Bowieknives (4–0). 

Burper shuts the trunk in a huff, and, with clipboard in hand and a duffel bag slung over each shoulder, leads us towards the building. 

“So why do you have the jock straps labeled?” I ask as we trudge atop the hot-soft Texas asphalt. “Seems like something the parents could — ” “You wanna know why?” 

Burper interrupts, eyes hard asquint behind his sunglasses. 

“Some of the beefier ones were stealin’ ’em from the weaklings. Asthmatics and such. Then they’d sell ’em right back to ’em for five bucks. One day, one of our D-linemen rolled up here in a car! A nine-year-old! That’s when I knew we had a problem. So now we collect ’em end of every day.” “I swear, some days it’s like I’m a prison warden to these f — — — monsters.” 

With a laugh only half-fake, I leave it at that. 

Following two life-shattering college-football assignments, I was determined to make my latest story about a central Texas youth football team out to do the town proud as low-impact as possible. There was also a very real medical imperative: Even the slightest emotional trauma, my doctor warned, could send me straight into permanent psychosis, doomed to a life of sponge baths and eating through my arms. Not a chance. Not here. Whatever my qualms with the state’s pomp and politics, the story — these children and their families, this game that binds their blood — was Americana-sunny as it got. 

For what I asked, I’d receive, and thank by giving in turn. Whitman’s America, in all its earnest reciprocity. And so, eager to endear myself, infused with a newfound sense of journalistic purpose, I carried that sack of freshly laundered juvenile jockstraps into Stonewall Jackson’s locker room. 

As we crossed the threshold, what’d been a drone deadened by the steam suddenly peaked to an ear-piercing din. Burper unbridled his bags and dropped them on the tiles. They did not make a sound. Amidst rows of red lockers teemed 40 or 50 boys in varying stages of dress confusion and/or limb entanglement. Two of them had one leg each in the same pair of pants. One boy wore his helmet backwards, groping along the lockers and pleading to know which direction the bathroom was. 

Still others were stuck in a strange, interlocking octagon — the result, I deduced, of all eight boys grabbing someone else’s mouth guard thinking it was their own. As they were either unwilling or unable to release it from their teeth, the result was a kind of prepubescent prisoner’s dilemma: “But if I let go, I will no longer have a mouth guard!” 

Just chalk it up to a post-school sugar binge, I thought. Surely Burper would get this under control. 

“How do you calm them down?” I do my best to bellow above the fray. “Do you blow a whistle?” 

“I’m too old for that whistle s — — now,” I half-hear him say. “We got a guy that handle’s that.” 

“A guy?” 

No sooner had I said this than, from the pitch-black locker-room office I’d only assumed was vacant, emerged a man clad in the staff’s requisite red shirt and cap. He looked like some unholy hybrid of Mick Foley, Dan Campbell, and a train-track hobo — an impossibly beef-bound, offputtingly grizzled picture of a local militia leader as fever-dreamed by Michelle Bachmann. The second his visage broached their periphery, all 50 children stopped, like a flock of terns at once aware of a fast-descending squall. For a second, maybe five, silent still. 

A perfect opportunity, I thought, to unload this burlap bounty of tiny-package protectors. To appraise them all of my presence as any good journalist might: kindly, wittily, without malice. 

“Howdy everyone,” I said as I fished into the mass of cloth and cups (Yes, I said “howdy”). “Coach Burper wanted me to give y’all your jockstraps (I also said ‘y’all’). Can … let’s see … Is Landry Troy here? Landry Troy?” 

Not an eye was on me. That’s because all of them had remained Gorilla Glued to their now vein-hemorrhaging coach — who, strangely, was staring at me, skull threatening to split clean in two. Either my interjection had enraged him even further, or his entire skeletal structure was about to burst from a flaming hole where his mouth used to be. 

Coach cast a gaze back to his terrified charges. Sweat now beading on his neck, the man didn’t so much “speak” as “scream loud enough to alter hemispheric weather patterns.” For reasons of both length and legality, I won’t recount the entire rant. It did, however, include the following, quite colorful barbs: 

  • You breastfed little garbage shi — — — rs!
    • Running fly patterns slower than my cremated gramma!
    • Like you got a pile of dead flies where your brain’s supposed to be!
    • If y’all are football players, I’m Brooke f — — — Shields!
    • I haven’t seen such gigantic p — — -s since that whale movie at the IMAX! 

Nine-year-olds. Shenanigan exorcism now complete, Coach turned, re-entered the office, and slammed the door hard enough to send a stiff breeze through the room. Without turning on the light, he stood at the window and stared outward, shadowed lips taut with rage. Now split of their spell, the players began dressing themselves in measured, orderly quiet. All the while their coach stood motionless in the window, watching, waiting. 

“Meet Coach Dale Conrad,” Burper whispered. “Once saw him drink a Dr. Pepper then eat the bottle.” 

“Plastic?” I asked assumingly. 

“Glass.” 

“Did he go to the hospital?” 

“That guy?” Burper snickered as he looked to the still-darkened window, Conrad’s teeth still clenched and quivering. “Not if you chucked a spear through his eye.” 

As Coach Burper began gathering his wares, one of the now-dressed players — No. 69 — approached me. He was a heavy child, as children go, with a mop of grease-matted brown hair draping near his eyes and what looked like two Tootsie Pop sticks stuck to his scalp. 

“I’m LT,” he announced. “Can I have my shield?” 

“Oh, Landry Troy,” I said as I fished the cup back out. “Nice to meet you.” 

“I said it’s LT,” the boy snapped, snatching the thing from my hands. “You got d — — in your years or somethin’?” With that, he pulled out his pants as far as they would go and, with his other hand, fidget-wrangled the jock until snug. Then he turned 180 degrees, farted, and walked away and out the door without another word.

------------

The first drill is called “Buckets.” Much like the rope-based systems used for decades by teams at all levels of football, Buckets is designed to enhance footwork and agility. Only instead of ropes, Coach Conrad sets up a series of 60 tightly compact buckets, the bottoms of which are no bigger than the players’s shoes. 

Thweeeeeeeeeet! The whistle shrieks, and the first child bolts up from a three-point stance. He jams his foot in the first bucket and falls instantly, sending another 15 or 20 crashing in all directions. He moans as he rolls off the pile. 

“Kutarsky! Is that all you got!” Conrad screams. “I oughta fill that bucket on your foot with dirt ‘n plant you in my garden! Maybe it’ll grow a dumbass tree!” 

While Burper works to rearrange the buckets, I decide to try to ingratiate myself to Conrad — to get a glimpse at the mind behind the clamp-jawed scowl and bloodshot eyes hiding a long-ago affront. 

“Hey, Coach. I never formally introduced myself. I’m — ” 

“You one of them lily-livers from Child Protective whatever?” Conrad interjects. “Ain’t nothing going on here but some good clean fun and discipline. Go on and tell your ol’ pal Ann Richards to sit on an iron.” 

“…No. I’m a writer for The Cauldron. I’m here doing a story on your team.” 

“Oh,” he says, somewhat placated. “Well, in that case, make me look good.” 

Thweeeeeeeeeet! It took another 15 minutes to finish Buckets, with no player landing more than two steps before falling face first into the rows of tin. From there Conrad and Burper moved on to a trio of subsequent drills: 

  1. “Smash”: After forming a pair of opposing lines, the two coaches each pick up the first child from their corresponding side and, at the sound of the whistle, proceed to smash them into one another like tiny battering rams. This lasts anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds.
    2)“Puke”: Basically, running in place until five children vomit.
    3)“Tears”: Players take turns running a football through two lines of teammates equipped with aluminum bats. The first kid to cry runs laps until he pukes. 

Drills complete, the team turns its attention to full-speed scrimmages. In a somewhat strange twist, it’s Burper who runs the offense, while Conrad — a former middle linebacker I later learned still holds the unofficial Texas state single-season record for most fingers bitten off in pileups — handles the D. 

From the first whistle, it becomes painfully, bracingly clear that this team might not gain a single first down, let alone best the undefeated Bowieknives. And despite the rose-colored confidence that compelled their parents to usher them forth, no amount of stout-earnest coaching or fetch-a-switch discipline could undo the painful, simple truth that these children — shoulder pads backwards and cleats perpetually untied — could barely stumble in a straight line, let alone execute blocking assignments. 

Not that the team’s defense was any better. At one point, apparently tired of watching every play stall a second after the snap, all four DBs just up and wandered off into a nearby backyard sandbox. Not even Coach Conrad noticed. One exchange in particular encapsulated Sand Ranch’s futility to a crooked T. About 20 minutes into the scrimmage, following four or five consecutive botched handoffs, a furious Conrad — clipboard spiked so hard it lodged in the dirt — stormed on the field to confront his frazzled quarterback. 

“McMurphy!” he screams. “You’re not handing a carton of eggs to a stroke victim! It’s a f — — — football! Stick it in his gut! I wanna see that football come out the back of Newman’s spine! You understand!?” 

McMurphy, head down and hand clutching his mouth guard, answered sheepishly. 

“Soccer’s more fun anyway.” 

I’ve witnessed anger. I’ve witnessed wild, throat-bleeding rage. What I’ve never seen is a 250-pound grown man — sober, lucid, ostensibly sane — clench his body so hard and with such galaxy-altering gravity that he actually s — — his pants. Granted, it was a small s — -, barely distinguishable from a hangover wind. Save, that is, for the sheer terror cascaded cross Conrad’s face. 

Not quite panic, but degrees removed from his normal staid-steely wax. He looked uncomfortably in both directions and quickly waddled off towards the locker room, using the clipboard to mask the resulting back-of-pants stain as he walked. Sensing the coming chaos, Burper did as any right-hand coach worth his smelling salts: He brought s — — to order. Thweeeeeeeeeet! 

“Buckets! Line ’em up, dumbass trees!” 

------------

I’m invited to a Friday night team dinner at the home of Grayson Gonzalez, one of the Sand Ranch players. Gonzalez’ father, Arturo Gonzalez, made his name as the first great Redskins star back in the early 1980s — an option quarterback — before blowing out his knee at 10 years old. He’s now a successful insurance salesman, specializing in death bonds. 

The home itself is rote suburban regal — circa Housing Bubble, with copper facades, a backyard pool, and trees just old enough to safely weather a Texas windstorm. By the time I arrive, no fewer than 50 parents, along with most of the players, have gathered for the ritual meet-up. The adults mingle over canned beer, shotgun shell jello shooters, Solo-cup cocktails, and one of the more unique finger-food buffets I've ever seen: "rib ticklers" (baby-back ribs doused in enough ghost-pepper sauce to cause internal bleeding); Atkins balls (bacon-wrapped blocks of butter rolled in melted Snickers bar which are then frozen, battered, and deep fried); and "rattlesnake eggs" (exactly as advertised). Meanwhile, players pass time wailing on one another with foam noodles in the pool sans even the most cursory supervision. The ideal arrangement, in short. 

It’s also a perfect opportunity to get to know the parents — these blue-blood football diehards us East Coast elitists only care to cringe and laugh about. The first six people I met were as follows: 

  • Jeff McCormack: Father of Bush McCormack; Tractor Supply Co. Regional Manager; greatest memory was watching Jay Novacek catch 50 consecutive canon-fired pig lungs at a county fair. 
  • Theresa McCormack: Mother of Bush McCormack; housewife; believes humans are descended from a rogue race of reptilian Venusians and that the End of Times cannot happen until man colonizes Mars. 
  • Bridgette Sawyer: Mother of Jackson and Jalen Sawyer; thrice divorced; receives enough alimony to pursue her dream of becoming Paule Deen’s makeup artist. 
  • Reggie Jenkins: Father of Reggie Jenkins, Jr.; physical education and history teacher at Sand Ranch Middle School; “I swear if Arturo puts that Florida-Georgia Border s — — on, I’m gonna piss straight on his bed.” 
  • Katie Flaherty: Mother of Grayson Flaherty; president of small public-relations firm; suit costs more than my condo; brought her own collapsible martini glass because Solo cups “are slumming it.” 
  • Matt Flaherty: Father of Grayson Flaherty; lazy eye; part-time exterminator who supplements the family’s income by taking prop bets at Redskins games. 

But there was one parent in particular I was determined to meet. Coors Light in hand, I introduce myself to the Arturo Gonzalez, the party’s host. 

“Mr. Gonzalez. I’m J — . I’m writing a story about the Redskins. This is a lovely home you have.” 

“Arturo Gonzalez,” he says through a rum-misted handshake. “She’s a beaut, isn’t she? Wouldn’t even know the walls are made of recycled egg cartons.” 

Gonzalez raps the wall for emphasis. On the third knock his hand disappears into the wall, a small cloud of dust-smoke wisping in wake. 

"Damn!” Gonzalez exclaims, using his Red Oxford shirt to fleck the powder. “It happens sometimes.” 

It’s then that I notice the dozens of barely discernable hand-sized spackle tufts peppering every wall in sight. 

“That’s what you get for hiring Mexicans, huh!?” he adds with a slap to my back. “I’m of Mexican origin myself, so I’m allowed to say that.” 

“So you’re Grayson’s dad, right?” I ask, shifting the subject. “He’s… a really good player.” 

“Grayson Gonzalez?” Arturo retorts. “There’s five other Graysons on this team. Three of them are backup kickers. I’d take any one of them over mine. Only reason he’s starting is I did some death-bond stuff for Conrad back in the day. Grayson wears dresses on the weekends. Tryin’ to man that s — — out of him.”

“…That’s, uh… I’m sorry.” 

“It’s not his fault,” Gonzalez offers through a solo-cup sip. “Boy was born with a coin purse. Hahahahahahaha!” 

He emphasizes this with a gregarious backslap, just as the stately blonde behind him — hitherto engaged in a satellite conversation — turned towards us in a huff. 

“You f — — — a — — — !” she yawps in a Texas drawl, striking Gonzalez so hard on the arm it sends a swell sloshing over his cup. “Stop talkin’ ‘bout your son like that!” 

Her attire — three-inch heels, diamonds abound, red cocktail dress so short it might as well be a tube top — seems absurdly out of place. As does, it turns out, pretty much everything that comes out of her mouth. 

"Tammy Gonzalez. And you are?” she asks with a straw stab to her ice. “I’m J — , with The Cauldron. I’m writing a story about Grayson’s team.” 

“A writer?” she gleams, eyes suddenly wide. “Have you read Michelle Malkin’s new book?” 

Now I’m terrified. 

“Um, no,” I say, unwittingly feigning further interest. “I can’t say that I have.” 

“Well, in it, she talks about how Obama has these secret sites with miles and miles of plastic coffins, and that he’s waiting until he gets everyone on Obamacare and then he’s gonna force everyone to get this vaccine that causes the plague. And so that’s what the coffins are for, and anyone who protests will be sent to these secret prisons he’s building and — ” 

“Okay, sweetie,” Arturo interjects. “I’m sure J — knows all about this already. He seems like a Ted Cruz guy, right?” This is followed by another backslap. “Enough politics, huh?” he adds. “Come check out the trophy room.” 

We leave Tammy to a now clamorous mass and head downstairs to the basement, where Arturo leads me into a kind of man-cave annex. Gonzalez flips on the light. On the opposite side of the oak-walled room sit scores of trophies and plaques — an impressive array by just about any measure. 

It’s only when we approach the wall that the idols themselves come into sharper focus: 

Most Valuable Player: Sand Ranch Redskins: 1988 
Most Valuable Injured Player: Sand Ranch Redskins: 1989 
Most Improved Equipment Manager: Sand Ranch Redskins: 1990 
Equipment Manager of the Decade: Sand Ranch Redskins: 1991–2000 
Farewell Award: Sand Ranch Redskins: 2001 
Farewell Award: Sand Ranch Redskins: 2002 
Moving on to Bigger Things Award: Sand Ranch Redskins: 2003 
Wow! You’re Still Hanging Around Award: Sand Ranch Redskins: 2004 
Non-Team-Related Job Placement Award: 2005 
Death Bond Salesman of the Year: Death Bonds Magazine: 2010
 

In addition to the more finely-hewed wares, there were countless newspaper clippings, paper diner-advert mats, and other fringe ephemera — all of them framed, and all of them with Gonzales’ named circled far too many times in thick red marker. 

“See, look at this one, from 1989,” Arturo says as he fingers the plaque in his hand. “’Three of the players became ill when Arturo Gonzales’ — that’s me — ‘accidentally forgot to rinse disinfectant out of the water jugs.’ That’s before I hit my prime.” 

“Does Grayson have any trophies?” I inquire, trying to shift the focus. 

“Yeah,” Gonzalez sneers, by now noticeably inebriated. “Most likely to take up soccer or baking or some s — -.” 

From beyond the door echoes the sound of descending footsteps. Within seconds, Dale Conrad stumbles into the threshold, five sheets to a wind only known in Greek myth. He shuffles towards us in a throaty grunt, stopping only when he gets to the trophy wall itself. He unzips his pants, leans against one of the shelves, and begins relieve himself on the lowermost slat, home to Arturo’s wedding photos. 

The aggressive splashback goes wholly unnoticed. Even Gonzalez is too shocked for words. After about 45 seconds, Conrad re-zips and turns around. It’s the first time he’s noticed us, and even then, I’m certain, only in splitting pixels. He widens his eyes, squints, and widens them again. 

“Is this Dave & Buster’s?” 

------------

It’s Saturday morning in Sand Ranch, and we’re back at Stonewall Jackson — this time inside the school’s 10,000-seat capacity stadium. This is not a typo. When I arrive at 11 a.m., roughly an hour before kickoff, the tailgate — the tailgate! — had long since overflowed into the neighboring police-station parking lot. It was bigger than any pregame party I’d seen in Tuscaloosa or Ann Arbor, by considerable measures, and just as Caligulan in its excesses. 

As I ambled through the haze of still-burning fog and pork smoke, I ventured an inquiry with one of the officers. 

“Is this…uh… normal?” I ask. 

“Aww, this?” the officer says, half-smoked stogie in his mouth and a tumbler of whiskey in his hand. “We get twice this for the varsity girls.” 

“What, soccer?” 

The cop glares at me incredulously. 

“The f — — you talkin’ about? The girls varsity football team. Though I’ll be honest, they could probably high-heel all over these buncha doormats.” 

Just then, his walkie-talkie cracks a dispatch. Officer closest to Prairie Oyster Lane, we got a call from a woman says her husband super-glued his head on his car radiator. Please confirm, over. 

“Ah, s — -. Again?” the officer snarls. 

He downs the five fingers of whiskey, smashes the glass on the blacktop in front of him, and grabs his gun, which he’d taken out and placed on a nearby lawn chair. “Duty calls.” 

After an hour of watching dead-grenade cornhole and Stetson-capped grandfathers drinking beer hosed out of repurposed pesticide trucks, it’s time to hit the field — to find out once and for all whether Dale Conrad’s Sand Ranch Redskins really are as profoundly f — — — up as their environment suggests. The game starts 25 minutes later than scheduled, owing to renditions of the “Star Spangled Banner” (all five verses), “America the Beautiful,” “Dixie,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and Toby Keith’s “American Soldier”. Coaches Conrad and Burper have allowed me to watch the proceedings from the sidelines — provided, the former says, that I “keep my man-pleasers shut “and “make ol’ Dale Conrad look like the slab of football-knowin’ man marble he is.” 

The first Redskins penalty comes during the coin toss, where, despite being captain of the home team, Landry Troy decides it would be in the service of intimidation to scream “Vaginas!” over the opposition’s mid-air call, forcing Sand Ranch to kick off from its own 25-yard line. The resulting squib kick — airborne for no more than 40 feet before rolling gently into the arms of a waiting Bowieknife player — is promptly returned for a 46-yard touchdown. The first person to touch the returner is a celebrating teammate. Davycrockett converts the two-point with ease. Bowieknives 8, Redskins 0 

“What the f — -!” Burper yells in a turn towards his charges. “Y’all better get the cats — — out of yer eyes, or we’re doin’ Buckets til one of you breaks a femur!” 

A bit further down the sidelines, a massively hungover Conrad says nothing, expressing his discontent instead by removing a helmet from the nearest player’s head, flipping it over, and vomiting in the cavity. After which he dumps the refuse in a garbage, rattles it against the sides like a Tupperware full of potato salad, and hands it back to the player. 

The Redskins manage to recover the ensuing kickoff, coaxing relieved sighs from the Sand Ranch faithful. Sadly, the guarded optimism is short-lived. What follows is an abridged blow-by-blow of what happened next. 

On first and 10, Grayson Gonzalez takes the snap, attempts to hand the ball off to the center by stuffing it in the back of his jersey. A Davycrockett defender returns the resulting fumble 35 yards for the score. Bowieknives 16, Redskins 0. Sand Ranch recovers the next kickoff, though only after one of the deep returners — rather than face the Bowieknife defenders head-on — kicks the ball out of bounds at the Redskins’ three-yard line. Gonzalez is quickly sacked in the end zone for a safety. Bowieknives 18, Redskins 0. Ensuing kickoff returned for a touchdown. Bowieknives 26, Redskins 0. 

The next play from scrimmage — a hand-off to running back Gauge Reilly — springs for a 65-yard touchdown. Which is immediately called back on an unbelievable nine penalties: four holds, two blocks in the back, two clippings, and one call for having 15 men on the field. Gonzalez then proceeds to throw a pick-six on second down. Bowieknives 34, Redskins 0. Conrad now elects to use all three of the team’s timeouts, during which the players are each given 20-pound free weights and told to run laps around the field. When they fail to return after the subsequent three minutes, the Redskins are charged with a delay of game. The ensuing two kickoffs are both fumbled and returned for touchdowns. Bowieknives 50, Redskins 0. 

With 8:55 remaining in the first quarter, the refs call a mercy. It’s the second-most lopsided loss of the season for Sand Ranch, next to a 68–10, two-quarter squeaker at the hands of the Mud River Assault Rifles the Saturday previous. 

Given what I’d witnessed, it seemed fair to assume the Redskins fans would take this gridiron pistol-whipping in stride. These were nine-year-olds, after all — helpless human beings who barely knew how to make a bowl of cereal, let alone know if football would be a life calling. 

Instead, as if foretold by some two-bit revival-tent barker, the crowd began bestowing unyielding hell upon the blasphemers below. Potatoes, shoes, full beer cans, fluorescent light bulbs, car stereos, picture frames, coffee mugs, mailboxes, typewriters, dead birds, candle-holders, frozen loaves of multigrain bread — anything remotely blunt or sharp was cast down in furious flurry. I quickly turned to Burper. 

“What are they doing?” I scream in a panic. 

“Aww, s — -. This?” Burper yells as he frantically gathers what wares he can. “This ain’t that bad! One time I took a toaster — ” 

Just like that, a f — — — toaster sledges him right in the forehead. Burper crumples to a heap. I instinctively look to where the thing might’ve come from. There, no more than 10 rows up, stands the police officer I’d seen earlier. Propped beside him, an enormous cardboard box brimming with used toasters. We lock eyes. “You better get 50 yards on me, ya little pecker-nosed q — — !” he bellows. 

By now, most of the children are safely across the field and within sight of the locker room, with no apparent casualties. Besides the now-unconscious Burper, the only one left on the sidelines is Conrad. For a man being bombarded with pound-plus projectiles, he seems unduly calm, content to stare stoically upon his vanquished field, back turned unflinching to the falling garage-sale maelstrom. I approach him cautiously, corner-eyeing the human rage-hail to my right. 

“Coach!” I yell. “You gotta get out of here! These people are crazy!” 

In the brief moment our gazes locked, I saw something in Dale Conrad previously unheeded: a steely, steadfast resolve borne not of some fetishized football manna, but of the only game plan he’d ever thought to heed: making football men of boys. Then he spoke, and immediately exploded that sentiment. 

“I’m gonna go get myself a porterhouse, a Bulgarian hooker, and enough tequila to float me to another dimension.” 

This is the last thing I remember hearing. 

------------

I woke up to a white-coated doctor looming dimly lit above me. The head pain came instantly — a near-constant, throbbing ache interspersed with sharper, more pronounced pangs. After a few cloudy seconds, I started putting the pieces back together. 

“Mr. C — — ,” the doctor said. “I’m Dr. Vincent. You’ve suffered a concussion.” 

“I was at a game?” I somehow intuit. “A pee-wee football game? The fans were throwing things?” 

“You remember more than I thought you might. Coach Conrad brought you in about an hour ago. I’d say you owe him a debt of gratitude.” 

“What hit me?” I ask. 

Dr. Vincent promptly reaches for something on the counter behind him. 

“It’s a framed painting of George Strait. Someone really must’ve cut this sucker loose like a Frisbee. Looks like the corner caught you right in the back of the head.” 

Vincent hands me the painting. Seeing the quality of work first hand — like a paint-party portrait from a wine-drunk spinster with cataracts — only deepened the throbbing. 

“Are you sure this is even George Strait?” I question. “It looks like Randy Quaid wearing a sombrero.” 

Vincent seems almost offended by the suggestion. 

“I know a portrait of George Strait when I see one. You should keep that as a souvenir.” 

“Yeah, that’s alright.” 

Pounding booms from the door. Vincent and I look at each other quizzically. 

“Come in.” 

The door clicks open to reveal Conrad, holding a bouquet of brown flowers. 

“You’re alive,” he says as he approaches the bed. “That’s good, cuz dead people can’t enjoy these.” 

He hands me the flowers, which appear to be made of some s — t-brown, vaguely synthetic material. 

“What are these?” 

“Jerky roses,” he says without hesitation. “It’s a Texas hospital tradition.” 

“Thanks,” I exclaim as sincerely as possible. “And thanks for saving me. That George Strait painting really cleaned my clock.” 

“They’ll do that,” Conrad concurred. “There’s an old saying about those. ‘The more they look like Randy Quaid, the longer you’re laid out.’ You’re lucky to be alive.” 

“I’m realizing that.” 

At that moment, the trauma of my last three assignments begins to flood my wiring — not with terror, but with questions. Questions about how this game, buoyed as it is by such cruel undercurrents, continues to hold such sacrosanct sway over our psyches. How our collective obsession with this supremely violent sport has changed us as a society, and not remotely for the better. How bestowing that brutality on our children — these tiny beings and tiny brains — says more than any platitude of teamwork or sacrifice about what we’ll want from them as people: aggressiveness in all things, without apology or care. 

Adrenaline now trumping better judgment, I ask my final question for the story. 

“Coach, let me ask you something.” 

“She was Mongolian, not Bulgarian. Always get them two mixed up.” 

“Given how violent and destructive it’s proven to be — how dangerous to long-term health and well-being. Why do we love football so much?” 

Conrad’s quickly conjured response rings, I think, as the sport itself: totally logical, and against all reason entirely. In other words, the perfect answer. 

“Son, this is football, and this is America. Love it or leave it.”

Done and done.

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(If you haven’t figure it out by now, you just read a truly glorious parody. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.)

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