Late November in North Texas. Tecumseh High School. 9-0. It’s frosty in the air and on the ground, a dry frost that crackles and crunches under the feet and feels like the breaking of a stale communion wafer, not quite brittle but not soft either. In the parking lot nearest the football field, closer to the practice field, there are a handful of cars—pickup trucks mostly, with decals of all sorts but all sharing one in particular: a blue bear paw with the letters THS in bold Times print. The sun is rising later, giving the practice field, the buildings and the boys all a misty blue tint that veils the morning in secrecy. The season has become exceptional for all of them. The chance to win.
An hour into practice Tim Goddard, the place kicker, shows up. He’s been given a reprieve from the first hour of practice as the boys will be spending most of their time reciting their playbook like Scripture. He’s a place kicker, his job is simple, kick it hard, kick it accurate, let success echo continuously through each game. Goddard, a lanky mess of a kid recruited off the soccer pitch, walks along the parking lot in his warm-ups: grey sweat pants and a blue THS hoody that says “Varsity” on the front and “Go Bears” on the back. As he makes his way to the field house, the heel of his sneakers scraping along the blacktop with each step, the sound of helmets and pads snapping into each other carries through the slight breeze only to be interrupted by the tumbling sound of pubescent grunts and indistinguishable shouts from coaches and teammates as each play unfolds like short bursts of gunfire.
Goddard, inside the field house, pauses for one last second of solitude. His hands tuck inside his hoody, holding each other like a pious monk, his palms sweaty. Noticing the heat of his damp hands he rubs them on his pants to dry them and makes his way to his locker. Street clothes are strewn on the ground as if someone has spent the past hour desperately looking for something lost and valuable. Goddard’s locker and the surrounding foot or so of space are immaculate. On the shelves he keeps very little, unlike his neighbors who have pictures of girlfriends and NFL stars and rappers or rockers, and one even has a motivational quote from Einstein, though slightly obscured by a picture of Kate Upton in a bikini, “Weakness of attitude becomes weakness of character.” Sitting on the bench he slips off his sneakers with his toes, pushing them into the base of his locker, and begins to undress. As he grabs his practice jersey he catches a whiff of every practice he’s had, it never seems to fully wash out. The smell is of the grass he’s cut with his foot and leather and only slight sweat, not like the other boys, he thinks. Theirs is of dirt and blood and a kind of perspiring reserved for those who martyr themselves in each practice and game, giving more than is asked of them, striving for that elusive one-hundred and ten percent.
As he walks across the practice field he catches the attention of one or two of the coaches who seem to bow their heads as he passes. The practice has halted for a moment as the head coach huddles with the first team. They are sixteen, seventeen and eighteen and most of them are less than six feet tall. There are a few who stand taller, but the coach’s head pops out of the huddle a good half foot or so, making the players around him look like a pack of wild beasts, held at bay by this alpha of greater size. The head coach is a monument of past football glory, at least in this town.
Goddard passes the huddle at a distance, keeping the rest of the team yards away. On the sideline an assistant coach, Keating, waves his arm for the kid to come over. Goddard quickens to a lazy jog and meets him. “Get enough sleep?” Not knowing if this is a question of concern or a slight dig at the fact that he’s been allowed an extra hour before practice, Goddard gives him a nod and faint smile. “Good.” Keating slaps his hand down on the boy’s pads and shouts out for another player, “Boyd! You’re up.”
Boyd is a quarterback, a backup to the backup, more of a baseball catcher than anything else. Three years he’s been on the team, same as Goddard. If anyone ever felt sorry for Boyd he knew it and was quick to correct them. Hey, I play in every game, I’ve been Varsity for three years, and shit, I’m on the football team. What I got to feel sorry for? He was right, too. All he had to do was hike the ball, catch it, spin it laces out and keep a finger pressed down on the top of the ball as Goddard swung his foot through. Most he ever felt was a slight breeze as Goddard’s leg passed his face.
“Give me five laps and then the two of you give me ten kicks up to fifty yards,” says Keating. They both nod, Goddard dutifully, Boyd gleefully. The first lap around the practice field is in silence. The second lap Boyd can’t help but talk. Not about anything; in fact it’s about absolutely nothing. Boyd with his “lady troubles,” Boyd and his math teacher he wants to screw, but not really, Boyd smoking a joint last weekend after the game—a reoccurring theme in Boyd’s life. Goddard likes Boyd’s stories, however embellished they are. It’s his genuine enthusiasm that attracts Goddard to Boyd’s way of life. Not that Boyd is aloof, no, in fact he cares deeply about everything. Most guys on the team talk about having sex with Ms. Beckett the math teacher as kind of a goof, but Boyd thinks about it deeply, almost philosophically. By the third lap, Boyd genuinely wants Goddard’s opinion on the situation. Will Boyd actually be able to sleep with her?
Goddard laughs it off and all Boyd can say is, “Right?” as if suddenly the two are joined in a mutual understanding of the rational and existential quandary in Boyd’s desire to fuck Ms. Beckett. They finish running and make their way towards the game day field where the two always practice alone before meeting up with the special teams unit. “Speaking of math, how’s that girl of yours? Maybe she can get me in with Beckett. What’s her name again?”
There is a chorus of sharp, percussive cries from the far end of the stadium. Goddard watches the cheerleading team run through some of their simple routines as a warm up, their hair in immaculate ponytails swinging back and forth as they punch the air victoriously, imagining the snaring response from a crowd of a few thousand at game time. “Sarah, yeah, she’s good.” He digs his heel into the grass. “Yeah, I don’t know.”
“You guys break up?”
“Yeah, I think.”
“Well, shit. Fuck that, man,” Boyd says. “Put it into the ball, right?” This is Boyd’s way of coaching, anything bad happens you just have to put it into something else, like kicking a football through the uprights. When they reach the ten-yard line Goddard looks back at the rest of the team on the practice field, there are triumphant shouts from coaches and players with each play. Keating, clipboard under arm, turns his head and gives Goddard a stiff thumbs up. Goddard nods, and then Keating claps his hands together three times, the sound swallowed up in the dense November air. When Goddard looks back at the goal posts standing there like two giant spears protecting the entrance to a castle, he sees Boyd hoisting up the net. As Boyd returns, lumbering with a sack of footballs slung over his shoulder, he asks if Goddard is ready. “Alright, let’s fucking do this.”
Boyd unloads the bag of footballs off to his side, sweeping the stray ones away from Goddard’s line of sight. As Boyd picks one up, placing it on its end, finding the right balance between pressure and a soft touch with his left hand, Goddard lines up half a yard down field of the ball and begins his pre-kick dance that he’d been taught more than three years ago—one large step back with his right foot then his left foot to meet it sharply, then another large step back and his left foot snapping to the right heel. Lining up his eyesight to the empty space between the posts for one brief moment, then straightening his hand and fingers, stretching out his arm towards the end of the field at the exact angle he wants to hit the ball, and taking a step directly to his left, bringing his heel in again and taking another step. This is his ritual, the ceremony before the kick.
As Boyd shouts a percussive “Hike!” Goddard takes three sharp steps that accelerate exponentially, cocks his right leg, and swings his foot forward with a sharp punch bringing his toe towards the ground and stretching his foot outward slightly, sweeping the football up, the soft sting of the cold ball connecting with his skin through the thin leather of his kicking boot. His gaze is towards the grass beneath him as his leg stretches up and across his belly. Looking up he catches sight of the ball tumbling end over end as it sails convincingly through the exact middle of the uprights. Goddard, focused, mutters, “Bulls eye.”
“Goddamn right,” Boyd confirms as he reaches behind him to grab another ball. Setting up, Goddard goes through his rite once more, kicking the ball in his precise manner time after time. They go through more kicks from the ten-yard line then back up to the twenty, the thirty, and the forty. He doesn’t miss a single one, not from twenty yards away, not from fifty yards away.
“Let’s try sixty yards,” says Boyd.
Goddard shrugs as they move back to the fifty-yard line. As he takes his steps backwards and looks up he barely notices how far away he is. His foot, his leg swinging, it is no more violent or punctilious than the shorter distances, though in his mind he knows that the technique is different for longer and shorter distances. The ball goes up and spins more rapidly than before, straighter too, like a low flying missile skidding above the ground before it explodes. With about ten feet to spare it makes its descent over the crossbar. Boyd jumps up and with a fist smacks Goddard’s shoulder pads.
“Hey coach! Get a load of this,” Boyd screams to the whole team. At a distance Goddard sees the assistant coach turn around on the sideline of the practice field and look with curiosity as he sees the two lined up on the fifty-yard line. Whistles blow, stopping the practice, and Goddard can see the team all looking on with marvel and excitement, hoping to see him kick a sixty-yard field goal as if it were some mysterious and fun magic trick. Goddard hears nothing. Even the cheerleaders have stopped to watch.
Going through the motions he lines up, runs up to the ball and kicks it, this time helping the ball go through with even more distance to spare above the cross bar. As it coasts through, the entire team erupts into a volcanic cheer. Even the cheerleaders, who know very little about the significance of an eighteen-year-old kid kicking sixty yards, jump with excitement. Boyd ruffles Goddard’s hair as the team continues to cheer for him, whooping and hollering. The coaches blow their whistles shrilly, bringing reality with them.
“Damn, Goddard, that was sick.” Boyd puts his arm around Goddard’s shoulder as they walk towards the end zone to pick up all the footballs that had been kicked through. “You didn’t miss a single fucking one, man. You got it!”
Goddard doesn’t say anything. This is no victorious day of practice. The past ten weeks he’s barely missed any. In each of the Bears’ nine wins this season, though, he’s missed at least one. Tomorrow is the last game of the season and more than anything Goddard doesn’t want to miss anything.
* * *
In the field house the boys do their best to turn themselves into the men they need to become for the season’s finale—eye paint, wrist and ankle tape, game day jerseys. In the air is the fresh scent of their jerseys mixing with the stagnant, rubbery tinge of locker room sweat that will be there years after these boys leave to live another life. In pockets around the room teammates gather, hollering at each other, instilling a bloodlust for the coming event, a few are even praying. For one night a week these boy-gladiators embody the hopes of parents, friends, girlfriends, classmates and townspeople. And when they leave the locker room, through the narrow halls where barely two players in pads can walk side by side, they go into the bristly air, hearing the cheers of a few thousand in the close distance under the lights of their very own football stadium.
In the middle of this pack Goddard stays close to Boyd, who is bouncing exuberantly even though he gets very little playing time. Keating finds Goddard and slaps him on the helmet, the echo of that slap reverberating sharply. As they get closer to the field the voice on the loudspeaker gets clearer. “Alright Bears fans! Get on your feet!” The pulse of the crowd stomping and clapping in unison shivers through their bones. Even the air seems to get warmer as they reach the adoring fans.
At the closest corner of the end zone the cheerleaders hold up a large banner temporarily hiding the team from everyone in the stands. On the fans’ side it reads “Go Bears, Beat Eagles.” For the players, it’s blank. “And here come the Bears!” the announcer shouts as the starting quarterback, halfback and star linebacker run through the banner, tearing it right down the middle. For a moment Goddard thinks how amusing it would be to see them try to tear through, rebound, and fall flat on their backs. Perhaps the embarrassment for the team would allow them to postpone or even forfeit tonight’s game. That would mean they’d forfeit their playoff spot as well and the season and Goddard’s career as a field goal kicker would end. But they went through and the team followed in jubilation, the rumbling of dozens of feet and bellowing cheers audible to only the players on the field, the hollering of certain cheers stinging the air. “Go Bears!” “Let’s go Jared!” “Come on now QB!”
On the sideline, Boyd and Goddard take warm-up kicks into a net that thrashes violently. After every kick Boyd gives an “’atta boy” or “fuck yeah” as encouragement. Understanding that Goddard is not only a good kicker, but potentially one that he’ll see on Saturdays on national TV, Boyd knows his job is not just to catch and hold the ball for Goddard—he is also his therapist and cheerleader.
The game is about to start and the team is in their final huddle as the head coach speaks in nothing but platitudes about winning and giving everything and wanting it all. Goddard doesn’t really listen to any of this and worries that is his problem. He has never desired anything, not the will to win or to hold on to Sarah. He knew they’d eventually move on to college and split up. Unlike those around him who said he’d have a future in football if he wanted it bad enough, Goddard found the idea mortifying. What if he was successful in college? What if that led to a professional career? His self-worth would only be quantifiable in dollars.
The huddle breaks and the cheer from Goddard is perfunctory. Keating makes a B-line towards him and grabs his helmet between his fingers. “Get it in your head now, boy.” He speaks almost threateningly. “This game is ending with a field goal, you got me?” Goddard nods. Once again Keating slaps the side of his helmet and points a finger inches away from Goddard’s nose. “You get that in your head right now.” Goddard gives another conciliatory nod, trying to force a fierce look across his mouth to no avail. Keating nods back and walks to his spot on the sideline. Turning around, Goddard gets a quick glimpse of his parents, who always sit towards the back on the fifty-yard line so they can get a good look at their boy’s kicks.
The jangling of keys begins as the Eagles kick off to the Bears to start the game. A quick throw down the field puts the Bears in scoring position, summoning Goddard to begin practicing into the net again. Every so often Boyd looks down field to help his kicker adjust for position, practice more left or right or straight, higher, chip shot, and so on. The constant string of adjustments is another ritual, one that cannot be practiced, a ceremony part improvised, part rehearsed in his head and entirely inconsequential. A colorless attempt for a touchdown leads the team to fourth down and the field goal unit. Boyd nearly sprints onto the field, leaving Goddard to trot like a show horse to about the twenty-yard line to attempt a thirty-two yard field goal.
While he lines up for the opportunity to put the Bears on the board, he thinks to himself for the first time about how the whole town seems to care more about his kicking than he does. He looks at the play clock, watching it tick down from fifteen seconds. He sees each bulb as it changes, flashing like the end of gun as the bullet leaves it, entrancing and deadly. Boyd looks up and sees Goddard hypnotized and shouts his name. Instantaneously Boyd shouts, “hike,” and Goddard sends the ball messily tumbling through the posts. The crowd exalts the effort and sends a wave of cheers and applause across the field. Boyd slaps his kicker’s helmet and jogs to the sideline. Goddard walks upright and cautiously towards Keating. “That’s the one ugly kick you get for today. You got it out of your system.” This time it was certainly a threat.
There is very little need for Goddard during this game and it seems the first field goal, however ugly it was, would be all. He doesn’t watch the game much, just the clock as it shifts from the first quarter to second, then to the half. With the team in the lead the coach speaks of not just holding on but “pummeling the crap out of those bastards” in the second half. The Bears take the field triumphantly with a victorious enthusiasm. The roaring from the crowd flares widely across the sky like a constant stream of fireworks exploding on top of each other. The elusive perfect season is within reach. Nervous anticipation is on the faces of former players in the stands. The cheerleaders slow their routines and spend more time watching the game with the crowd, leaping only inches off the ground with each first down or completed pass, as if weighed down by their own excitement.
The third quarter passes without incident, a back and forth more like a slow tennis match than a football game. But when the fourth quarter begins, a sea change takes place, something that Goddard instantly dreads. Defensive players come to the sideline more winded and less excited than immediately after the half. The second wind that the coach instilled in his players fades, not that the boys have become complacent, but rather they are not the men who can struggle onward until the final seconds of glory. Quickly, the Eagles score with a decisive air assault, bringing them within six points. On the kickoff a quick fumble by the returning player gives the Eagles field position for another quick touchdown.
With a little over three minutes left and the Bears down by one point they begin their slow assault towards a hopeful game-winning touchdown. Keating looks over at Goddard, catching a nervous glimpse from the kicker as he vibrates his legs up and down, and nods slowly. Goddard closes his eyes for a moment, hoping that his teammates will move quickly towards that final win. He watches the seconds speed up and slow down depending on the success or failure of each play. Boyd calls to Goddard, a yelp that shocks the boy into the reality of having to kick for the win. All Boyd can do is give a half-cocked smile and shrug his shoulders. Boyd should have been the kicker, Goddard thinks. He’d love this moment. And with less than a minute left and a blitz that drops the Bears seven yards further from the end zone, Goddard sprints over to the practice net, hands shaking as he sets up the ball, the laces slightly askew and the ball tilted upward. He feels the goose bumps of the pigskin as he tries to adjust the ball to the correct angle. Boyd stays away, barely even watches as Goddard kicks frantically into the net.
With four seconds left, the head coach calls a timeout. Nobody comes within five feet of Goddard. He is alone with his ritual. No prayers run through his head, no regrets or words of solace. In this moment, for the first time in what seems like forever, he begins to care deeply. It isn’t about winning, or proving that he is a hero, or the glory that will naturally swell through and around him if he kicks this forty-two yard field goal, it is perhaps about self-preservation and the recognition that he is somebody to himself at least. A “let’s go!” from Keating sends the kicking team on to the field. Boyd, in his enthusiastically earnest way, sprints to his position with Goddard at a slow trot behind him.
Taking position a toe’s length from Boyd’s hands, which rest comfortably in the grass like little mice trying to hide themselves, Goddard begins the rite of the kicker. Step back, heel to heel, step back heel to heel. Line up the kick with an outstretched hand, fingers pointing directly in the middle of the posts. Sidestep bringing the right foot in, sidestep bringing the right foot in. Like a revolver he cocks his right foot behind his left, ready to fire. Four seconds are left on the play clock, the crowd swelling with each second until he hikes the ball and things go silent. A clean snap brings the ball gingerly into Boyd’s hands, he spins the laces out and firmly places his middle finger on its tip as if to say “fuck you ball.” Goddard’s torso and arms are numb, seemingly disconnected from the action that carries them forward. The crunching and clacking of pads and helmets resound, the grunts, the swearing that squeezes out as linesmen try to move each other back and forth to protect or attack the kick. Goddard lifts the ball cleanly as it rips through the air on its way towards the end zone. He has to watch as it tumbles cleanly towards the end zone, turning slightly towards the left, seemingly on its way to go through.
He surrenders knowing that regardless of the outcome he’ll be defined by this moment. If it goes through he’ll let the victory carry him away, and if it doesn’t, at this moment, for the first time, no one can say that he doesn’t care.