They’re all just kids, young and naïve, life having not had a chance to taint them with the darkness that hides in the shadows. They run and they play and they chase that brown ball, even after it hits the ground and the coach blows the whistle and yells, ‘stop, stop, stop’ over and over.
It’s like herding cats. That’s what it’s like getting those boys to pay attention, to keep their minds on what the coach is telling them. Anyone who has tried to herd cats knows it’s near impossible to do, even if you have a mouse on a string dangling out in front of them.
They’re all just kids. Hammond tells himself that as he sits on the metal bleachers, the cool wind blowing in across the open area divided up into four practice fields, each one occupied by one team or other. Four fields of five and six year olds learning the game of football—most of them without a clue what to do or even how to throw the pigskin around. They like the belts they wear, the flags dangling on either side of their legs. They like to grab those flags, even when they aren’t running a play or practicing a drill (as if you could really call them drills). It’s their fascination.
His boy doesn’t get it, not like his old man did at the same age. No, his boy doesn’t get football at all. But, he wanted to give it a try—something to do between baseball seasons, Hammond guessed. Why not? Hammond played football and played it well. Maybe that was the problem—Hammond knew how the game was supposed to be played, knew how to coach the kids out on that field, but thought it wouldn’t be a good idea to do so. They’re just kids, after all. And Hammond… well, he didn’t have the best temperament… Still, watching the coaches try to teach the kids was like watching a train wreck as it happened.
Instead, he sits on the bleacher, dark shades over the eyes, even as the sun drops from the sky and brings night with it. He watches as the three coaches who look like they never played a down in their lives, try to herd those cats into a huddle.
On the field to their right, a kid drops a thrown ball. His head is a mop of black hair, his skin as white as a crayon. He’s not much on size and slow of foot. Hammond hears the ‘oh man’ from the kid, then the ‘what’s the matter with you, boy?’ from his father walking along the sideline. At least he assumes it’s his father, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. He knows what assuming does—makes an ass out of… well, in this case, it would be just him if he were wrong. But, he didn’t think he was. The man’s hands were in the air over his head, then they were down by his side, slapping his thighs as they dropped. The man spins in a disgusted circle, wipes his mouth with one hand. He glares at the kid and the kid sees it. Hammond sees the fear in the boy’s eyes and he knows…
Hammond looks away. Looking away is a good thing for him.
On the field his son is on they run another play. His boy—not a junior like all of his brothers’ kids, but a kid given his own name: Jeromy—takes a hand off and runs around the side and right out of bounds. He keeps running even after the head coach blows his whistle several times. The other boys chase after him, all of them reaching for that flapping flag.
When Jeromy was born he thought he might have a little linebacker in the family, maybe a safety. He didn’t care at the time, as long as the kid liked football. But, he didn’t like football. Not at first. No, Jeromy liked baseball and he was pretty good at it.
Football came out of nowhere.
‘Sure, you can give it a try,’ Hammond had told him.
He did. With one game left, Hammond wasn’t about to let the boy give up now. One game and he never had to pick up another football. This tugs at Hammond’s heart, a touch of sadness that makes him wish Jeromy was a natural… like his dad was.
Another play is run and one of the boys drops the ball. Those coaches say ‘it’s okay’ and ‘you’ll get the next one, by golly.’ ‘It’s no big deal.’ Words of encouragement. If there was anything redeeming about the team and the coaches, even with their lack of know how, they were constantly encouraging the boys, telling them it’s just a game.
Hammond likes that.
In the grand scheme of things they’re right. It’s just a game, even if that game had consumed Hammond since he was four and not even ending when his college career was cut short early in his senior season, thanks to a cheap shot to the knee.
It’s just a game…
On the field to his right, the man is yelling at his son again. One of the coaches gives him a look, then walks over to him. The man yells at the coach and the coach stands and listens. Then he calmly speaks. As he’s doing so, the dad is clenching his hands into fists and the coach becomes uneasy. He puts his hands up and turns away, heading back onto the field.
Nothing like intimidation…
Hammond looks away, always looking away.
Stay out of it, old Hoss, he tells himself.
They run the same pass play several times. A couple of the boys catch it. Jeromy almost gets the ball cradled into his arms, but it slips away and hits the ground.
‘Good try,’ Hammond says and his boy looks up at him, gives him a smile. Hammond claps, waves and smiles back. Always try to be encouraging. That’s what he does. Football’s not the boy’s sport, but support… always show support. That’s one key to success for your children, supporting them no matter what they choose to do with their lives.
Practice wears on and the evening goes from slightly chilly to approaching cold. The next morning there will be frost on the ground and in two weeks the first bit of snow will fall from the sky. But now, sitting on that bleacher, Hammond watches. The lights come on, bathing the fields in a yellow glow that spotlights the sections each team practices on.
On the field to the right, the man—the bastard of a father—stalks the sideline. The coaches see him. Hammond sees him and he can tell that the coaches are worried. For several minutes Hammond watches the team on the other field. They don’t hand the ball to the mop haired kid with the alabaster skin. They don’t throw it to him either. When they switch him to defense, they try to steer the runners away from him. Don’t get him involved and the dad won’t have to yell.
‘Hey coach,’ the dad intervenes. He’s halfway on the field and gesturing to his boy. ‘Give my boy a chance to play. I didn’t pay all this money to watch him do nothing. Do your damn job and coach him.’
Hammond’s eyes narrow. His jaw tightens. ‘I love watching men who never played the game try to live through their kids.’
And it hits him a little. Hammond did play the game and his hopes for his boy had always been that he would follow in his footsteps. He had felt the sadness in watching his son and hearing him when he talked about football and how he didn’t like it and…
…and Hammond had been disappointed. He didn’t realize it until then, until watching the bastard dad yell at the other coaches, at his son—a kid who looked like he was trying his best to please a man it’s impossible to please.
He glances back at the field his boy is on, at the coaches and the smiles on their faces, the cheerful way they tell the kids it’s okay when they mess up, it’s okay if they didn’t catch that ball.
After all, their just kids…
Hammond looks back at the field to the right. The coaches are trying to talk to the dad, but the dad is a belligerent unhappy soul. He shoves one of the coaches and the kids see it. The mop headed boy starts to cry.
‘Don’t you cry, Cameron,’ the dad yells. ‘Or I’ll give you something to cry about.’
Stay out of it, old Hoss, Hammond thinks, but he knows he won’t. He knows that when that man gets his boy—Cameron’s his name, Hammond, don’t forget that—home then he’ll tear into him and that kid will cry himself to sleep. No, old Hoss won’t be staying out of this one.
He looks around at the other parents, at the way they avert their eyes, afraid the mad man may see them.
Hammond stands, takes the few steps to the edge of the bleacher and hops down. He reaches into his coat pocket, pulls out a cigarette. He has no real intentions of smoking it. For Hammond, it’s a habit. Pull out the smokes when he gets nervous. Calm down, old Hoss. Have a drag or two and ease those bad boy nerves a little.
The cigarette slips between his lips and the lighter comes out next. A flick flick and the blue/yellow flame rises. He sets it to the cigarette, puffs a few times until it catches. He inhales deeply and walks toward the field on the right.
The dad is still arguing with the coaches. The boy is still crying. The other kids are looking on in confusion and the night is growing colder. That soft breeze that blew in earlier now brings with it the northern cold that bites through skin and sinks down into bone.
‘Sir, you need to calm down.’
The dad turns to Hammond, his eyes wide, his jaw set tight.
‘What did you say?’
Hammond blows out the smoke he had held in his lungs. It goes into the dad’s face. ‘I said, you need to calm down.’
The man steps back a step, waves his hand in front of him, shooing away the smoke. ‘Who the hell are you and give me one reason why I shouldn’t kick your ass right here?’
Hammond puts the cigarette back between his lips, then speaks as straight forward as he can. ‘I’m a concerned parent and as for the second part of your question, I don’t think you can.’
Up close, Hammond sees the man’s face is red. The veins in his neck bulge.
Like all hotheads, the man doesn’t think before taking a wild swing at Hammond. A sidestep and Hammond brings his hard right fist across the man’s face. There is the sound of bone breaking, then the man is on the ground, holding his jaw.
It’s over that quickly.
No one on the field moves. The mop headed boy stops crying. The other kids stand with their jaws hanging open. The coaches say nothing.
Hammond kneels down, stares straight into the pained eyes of the dad. ‘If you lay one hand on your boy, I’ll finish the job. You got me?’
Dad nods. There is blood coming from his mouth. His jaw swells.
‘Good,’ Hammond says, puts the cigarette out on the ground and places it back in the box it came from. He stands. To the head coach, he whispers, ‘Look at the boy’s arms and back. See if there are any bruises. When you find them, contact child protection services.’
He walks away, leaving the angry dad lying on the ground holding his broken jaw. By then, his son’s team is looking on.
‘Everything okay over there?’ one of the coaches asks.
Hammond looks back. ‘It is, now.’
At the end of the practice, Hammond takes Jeromy’s hand and they walk toward their car.
‘Daddy, why did you hit that man?”
Hammond considers the question carefully. He looks up at the dark sky. ‘Son, sometimes in life you have to do hard things, even if those things may not be what others will do. That man is a bad man. I was just helping him become nicer.’
‘By hitting him?’
Jeromy has him there.
‘No, son—by showing him how it feels.’
They reach the car and crawl in. Hammond stares in the rearview mirror at his boy.
‘Jeromy, if you don’t want to play that last game, you don’t have to.’
His boy replies simply, ‘I want to, Dad.’
‘I want to make you proud.’
Hammond gives a soft chuckle. ‘I am proud of you, Jeromy. You always make me proud.’
‘Even though I don’t like football?’
‘Especially because you don’t like football.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Jeromy says.
‘You will one day,’ Hammond says, adds, ‘You want to go get a donut before we head home?’
‘Yeah,’ he all but yells in excitement.
‘Well, then, let’s go, my little baseball player.”