By Gray Beall
The helmet is hot. It’s too tight.
Those two sentences repeat in Mark’s head like a mantra as he stands in the middle of the field. The sun beams upon him and the other athletes. Do they feel it too? Do they see how the sun is behaving? Or is the sun intentionally only harming Mark with its heat?
He doesn’t know and he doesn’t have the time to think about it. Coach blows the whistle, the high pitched sound grabbing his attention like he’s being tugged by a leash. That’s exactly what he feels like. A dog.
“Carpenter! Get off the field!” his coach hollers, putting the whistle back up to his lips as a warning.
Mark knows not to push his coach’s words. He’s smart. Smarter than the submissive dog he behaves as.
Mark runs off the field, the raging sun casting heat on to his sticky jersey. He tugs his helmet off as he runs, beads of sweat dripping from his forehead to the back of his neck. Mark never liked to sweat. Though he understands the benefits, he struggles to truly appreciate it as his gear sticks to him and his hair becomes brittle.
Hyperhidrosis runs in his family. On his mom’s side of course, dad would never understand. The first, and only, time Mark ever complained his dad slapped him on the shoulder, pulled him close and said, “you can handle it. Now, tomorrow, you’re gonna run out there and beat ‘em like we agreed.”
Mark’s dad said that a lot. You can handle it. Like he was fixing the issue in those four words. Gear too tight? You can handle it. Negative degree weather and you don’t have a coat? You can handle it. Mark used to find comfort in the words. When he was young his problems were fixable with them. Now, he needs actions, not words.
He slows as he reaches his coach, letting himself truly breath for the first time since he got to practice. His coach beckons him to go faster and he obliges slightly for just a few more seconds.
He finally gets to a stop and his coach slaps his shoulder and pulls him closer, “Mark, come on.”
The disappointment in his tone is unignorable but Mark tries regardless, looking up at him through thick lashes.
“We can’t have you playing like this in the game tomorrow. What’s going on in your head?”
Mark is silent. He doesn’t quite understand what he’s thinking either. He knows who he is. Or so he thinks. Sometimes, during one of his many sleepless nights, he doubts it for a moment. Sometimes, when he’s reading one of his science textbooks, he forgets he plays football. He’s never told anyone. Not any of his friends. They don’t have dads like he does.
“Just tired, that’s all, coach. I swear,” Mark mumbles, straightening his shoulders at his coach’s tight grip.
He can feel his coach’s disappointment through his tightening grip. “Alright, Mark, take 10.”
He nods, eager to get out of his coach’s sight.
The bench is everyone on the team’s least favorite place. It means one of two things: injured or bad. Useless. That’s what his dad says. Don’t be one of the benchwarmers. They’re no good for the team.
On the bench nobody looked at Mark. Nobody cared who he was. He really liked the bench. Other than the fact it disappointed his father. If he ever saw him on the bench he would shout down from the bleachers, “You can handle it, champ. Come on!”
There were two kids on this team that were a constant to the bench. Willy and Hunt. Willy was the youngest of the team and the worst, barely making it up from the JV team. He had a big, round face that shone like a tomato in the sun so the others nicknamed him Big Red. Mark didn’t know if he knew so he never called him that. At least not to his face.
Hunt was pretty good at football. He was the fastest on the team, no doubt, and the tallest by a few inches, standing at 6’10. He had unfortunate luck though, always tripping over his long legs. Mark heard he’s sometimes benched just because he may hurt himself. Mark never asked him though.
Willy and Hunt sit in silence on the bench, the two leaning back and soaking in the sun as they watch practice. Mark feels hesitant to sit, afraid of interrupting their focus but the two don’t seem to care about his presence. They hardly spared him a glance as he walked over.
Mark sits, his eyes shifting between the boys on the bench and the ones on the field. He can’t seem to relax, shifting his weight every few seconds.
“You okay?” Willy asks, startling Mark slightly.
He nods. He’s never spoken to Willy before. Even the few times he’s been on the bench he’s ignored him. Not intentionally. No. He just got caught up with other things. Like the game.
Willy doesn’t respond, instead sending a pointed look Hunt’s way and Hunt returns it, his eyes switching to mine for a moment before returning to the players.
Mark looks at his feet. “‘I’m just tired.”
“Yeah, sure,” Hunt snorts, “Coach’ll believe that.”
Mark bats his eyes, looking up at the two who are smirking. “Well, he did.”
The two finally take their attention off practice and on to him. Hunt looks more angry than surprised whilst Willy just looks defeated.
“For real?” Hunt kicks the ground, a light tsk coming from his mouth. “How’s it feel to be a favorite, Carpenter?”
Normally it sounded endearing and supportive when teammates called him by his last name but now it felt like a joke. One that both Hunt and Willy are in on.
“I’m not a favorite,” Mark replies blandly, his defensiveness masked by his uninterest in the conversation. He’s said the same thing to many teammates before, though none as strange as Hunt.
“Yeah you are,” Hunt leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “No one ever sits on the bench for being lazy.”
“I’m not being-”
“Then why are you tired?” Hunt’s voice is up an octave. “You hurt? Sick maybe?”
“Just a bad day, that’s all,” Mark grumbles, leaning against the back of the bench. Why did they care so much? It’s just a lousy day. Sure, one of many recently but why does that matter?
The whistle blows and the players run towards the coach. Mark debates on if he should get up or not but, when their circle starts to tighten,he ultimately decides against it. His coach didn’t look towards the bench.
“Why are you guys on the bench?” Mark asks, trying to fill the silence that has arisen. He’s pretty sure he already knows. Hunt for nearly tripping earlier this practice and Willy for… well there was an uneven number so he just had to sit this drill out.
Mark scrunches his eyebrows, turning towards Hunt. Hunt stares back, not at all fazed by Mark’s disbelief.
“It’s kind of bad. I guess,” Hunt shrugs, running a hand through his hair.
“I didn’t know,” Mark looks down, his chest tightening.
Hunt scoffs, “don’t feel bad. I mean I don’t have to play. I just love football.”
Mark looks at Willy, who is sitting there silently. His lower lip is pulled up between his teeth as he watches the circle talk.
“Hey, Willy,” Hunt elbows him. “Tell Carpenter why you’re on the bench.”
Willy’s eyes widen and he shakes his head, snapping out of his focus. “Oh, I’m not on the team.”
Mark’s face morphs back into the same confusion and shock that he had seconds ago. This time Hunt laughs. Willy gives an awkward smile.
“I’m on JV,” Willy says innocently.
Hunt laughs even harder, leaning forward and clutching his thighs.
Mark’s face gets hot. “I never meant- I mean- everyone on the team-”
“I know,” Willy says calmly, his eyes fluttering to the team, “One day they just assumed and I never corrected them.”
“But why are you here? And in uniform? That’s a little-” Weird. That’s what Mark was going to say.
Has he truly gone this entire season without knowing? Has everyone else on the team? A twinge of guilt pricks his gut.
Willy smiles, his yelllow-ish teeth shining in the sunlight. “JV practice is right before Varsity. It’s only an extra 2 hours.” He shrugs. “What can I say? I love football.”
Hunt laughs in agreement, ruffling his hair before leaning back against the bench. Mark feels a lump in his throat.
The whistle blows before Mark can ask anything else and Hunt and Willy turn their attention back to practice. Mark’s eyes drift to his coach, who’s slowly walking towards the bench. The lump in his throat grows and Mark pretends he never saw, quickly looking towards the scattering players.
“Carpenter,” his coach calls and Mark sighs reluctantly.
He stands, unsure of what his coach might tell him but sure that he would prefer if Willy and Hunt didn’t hear. He takes a few steps forwards.
His coach slaps his shoulder, his grip tight against the shoulder-pad. “How ya feeling?”
Fine.” Mark nods.
“Up to continue with practice?” His coach’s words may be a request but his tone is demanding.
“Um,” Mark pauses, his eyes threatening to look back at Hunt and Willy.
“Come on,” his coach laughs half-heartedly, “The team needs someone with your type of talent.”
“But I don’t care.” The words slip out before Mark can stop them, tugging his coach’s mouth down into a frown.
His coach’s eye twitches. “What did you just say to me?”
“That’s not what I meant-,” Mark starts but stops himself. He’s done this a billion times. Mess up, take it back, keep up to his star player image, or rather his dad’s image. That’s all Mark was. What his dad wanted to be. “No. I phrased it badly but I meant it. I don’t care about this sport. At all.”
His coach’s face falters, different emotions fluttering over his features in a loop. “Your teammates-”
“-will be happy to take my spot on the field. Especially if they know I made this decision and am happy,” Mark’s voice softens as he speaks. The confusion on his coach’s face is painfully evident in the sunlight.
“You’re gonna regret this,” his coach’s voice is the opposite of his face- certain. “You’re gonna wreck your dad.”
Mark shrugs. “This decision isn’t about him.”
“Say that to his face,” his coach’s words drip down Mark’s spine, his blood running cold.
The idea sounds easy but Mark knows his dad. Mark knows everything seems easy until he’s up in your face asking you to repeat. Asking you if he really meant it with a dark look in his eye. One Mark never dared to test.
“I’ll tell him when he gets here,” Mark nods at his coach, eyebrows bunched with determination. “Put me back in for this last drill. I’ll put my all in it, coach.”
His coach opens his mouth, words threatening to fall out of his lips but he just shakes his head, the confusion still riddled across his face. “Alright, Carpenter. Alright.”
He slaps Mark on the shoulder one last time before sending him out on the field.
Mark plays with his all as he promised. All his anger, fear, relief, and joy. With all his father’s dreams weighted on his back Mark still lifts himself high enough to catch the ball and run. And Mark sure does run. He probably beat records with the speed he ran at.
Mark didn’t love this sport enough to play like this everyday but he had enough in him to play like this today. For this last drill.
He felt Willy’s and Hunt’s eyes on him. So he put on a show for them. He played how he knew they would if they were put in. He played with love because he would soon be able to do so in something of his choosing.
Mark enjoys this last drill. He relishes in the heat of the sun and the burning of his helmet and the sweat that drips down his forehead. Mark puts his all, just as he promised and with no regrets.