game balls

The next morning everyone is in good spirits. The tension has left the building. The stress, for the moment, is non-existent. We can all keep our jobs for one more day. I’m dozing off during our team meeting, pen in hand pretending to take notes, as Marty hands out game balls.

Game balls are awards given to players who performed really well on game day. One quarter of the ball is beautifully hand painted with your name, jersey number, game that was played and your achievement during said game. There’s one for offense, defense, and special teams. To get one, though, you actually have to play.

Marty’s voice moves further and further away, like talking to someone in a wind tunnel, while announcing Ladanian as the offensive player of the game. Is almost a whisper when Donnie Edwards, veteran defensive end out of UCLA, is announced for the defense. I don’t hear the name called for special teams, balancing a slippery slope, about to slide right into sleep.

-Grant Mattos.

I’m violently sucked back into the room. My eyes flash open. Shit, I’m just taking notes. Look at me, I’m not sleeping just taking notes. I put a concerned look on my face, slowly look up. Marty has stopped talking. To my surprise he’s holding back tears. I flip quickly through the last week in my mind. Have I done something wrong? Am I being fired? What’s happening? After a few moments he proceeds.

-This is something I rarely do. Now I know this guy gets zero recognition during the week, let alone on game day. But he comes to practice every day and helps this team get better. He doesn’t complain. He does his job and he does it very well. I’m proud of this individual and am glad that he is part of our team. This next game ball goes to you, Grant. Thank you.

My entire body lights up. My face is flush. The entire team starts clapping. I’m getting pats on the back and shoulder. Kassim is sitting next to me giving me elbows to the side. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. Marty and I meet eyes. I nod and he smiles, wiping the tears away from his cheeks. Now, he says, let’s watch some fucking game film.

After the day is done and all the players have gone home I walk up to Marty’s office to thank him. His secretary tells me he’s in a meeting and would I like to leave him a note. I stand around the corner thinking of what to write. Finally, the pen starts moving:

Dear Coach Schottenheimer,

I can’t thank you enough for presenting me with a game ball this morning. Your words meant so much more than I think you realize. I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life. Thank you.

Best,

Grant Mattos

I leave it with his secretary, nervous she may read it. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that. Football players aren’t supposed to share emotions or personal feelings. That implies weakness. I am not weak. I am strong. Look at me! 220 pounds of twisted steel ready at the drop of a hat to rip somebodies dick off. But this is Marty. He’ll understand. He cried in the meeting for Christ sakes. But I’ve been trained to control my emotions. Lock them up inside an iron box. I assume this is what men are supposed to do. Speak when spoken to. Do as I’m told. Be a good boy. Run the play a-fucking-gain and this time get it right! Crack down on that safety, Grant. Smack! Again! Crunch! Again! Pow! AGAIN! Silence. Darkness.

When I see Marty in the hall the next day we exchange hellos. No mention of my note. Did he get it? Did it get lost in the pile of papers on his desk? But I don’t ask. Not because I don’t want to. I do. I want–no-no, I need–to make sure he understands the impact he’s had on my life. But that need slips through my fingers. The hours turn into days. The days into weeks. There are more important issues to deal with. Winning games.

New game balls come and go. I toss my feelings overboard. The winds of the NFL push on the sails of my false-self, guiding me out into a deep sea of illusion. The salt rips away my skin. A Teflon shell replaces it. The message pounded into my brain every practice, every session of film, every game: forget who I think I am, I’m better at being somebody else.

I put my game ball in a plastic bag. Stuff it in a box underneath my bed.