Hometown - YA Fiction - Work in Progress
*Here's what I'm working on. Well, one of the things I'm working on. Last year, my son and I caught a freshman football game while waiting of his soccer match to start. Things in the stands were heated. And so, being a writer, this is what my brain came up with... Hope you like it!
The cannons in the North endzone boomed as we stormed the field at Park Stadium. Our side of the stands got to their feet and cheered as we sprinted out to the forty yard line. There, we huddled, swaying in our tight circle, a collision of facemasks, flushed faces, wild eyes and rabid intensity.
Stonewall vs. Briggs. The battle for the city. Always the last game of regular season, our home and away schedules staggered accordingly because we shared the stadium. Everyone came ready, packed in together with a little something extra to get the juices flowing.
We were heavy favorites in the annual rivalry game, it was a down year for B.D. Briggs while we were undefeated and looking to stay that way. And all week long Coach had stayed on us. He’d told us to tune out the hype, to quit looking ahead to the playoffs. Ignore all that stuff in the news.
The last one was tough, at least for me. A few weeks ago, the Parkview Times published a story about how town council had voted in favor of removing (they used the term “relocating”), the General Jubal Early statue from downtown. The story went off like a bomb, with the protests and editorials and an ugly back and forth leading up to our clash with Briggs. It was clear the town was split in half—our differences cut and clear as the bands taking the field.
A slap on the helmet jolted me from my thoughts. Moose, our enormous defensive tackle, going down the line, barking orders, telling everyone what we were going to do tonight. We were seniors and co-captains, and the defense looked to us for leadership. Moose glared at me to make sure I understood what was on the line as he took his place beside me as everything went quiet for the National Anthem. Our marching band stood frozen in place, facing the flag, when the entire Briggs team, their marching band, and even the Briggs cheerleaders dropped down to one knee.
Everything turned at that point. The booing and jeering started, and things only got worse from there.
Our side was already looking for a fight, filling the stands—loud and brash and pissed off more than ever about the kneeling. Coach was a third quarter shade of maroon at that point, as he turned to us—yelling about how it was just one more reason to kick their asses. I didn’t have the heart to mention how booing during the National Anthem might’ve been more disrespectful than quietly kneeling.
None of that mattered. Things were bad. All of it. A wave of anger was making its way through both sides of the stands, something impossible not to notice. Everyone clapped louder, whistled harder, and put a little more voice in their words. Everyone in the stands took it personally.
We met at midfield for the coin toss. Seniors, team captains, arms locked, Jeff, Big Moose, and me, as we’d done all year. I’d been a captain since junior year, something my dad thought was a big deal. Like Moose’s old man, my dad had played on this very same field. You know the story. Small town, football traditions, expectations.
I nodded at our opponents, the steam from our breaths lingering like the tension between us. Moose rolled his massive neck, like he always did, only the Briggs guys didn’t seem all that intimidated by our neck rolls, our staring, or even our perfect record. Two of the guys stood straight, heads cocked and smirking, like they’d told a joke on the way out and couldn’t get it together. Fine, I was thinking, let them joke. I wanted them unfocused, undisciplined, unprepared. But mostly I was wondering how this 4-4 team was so confident.
The third captain wasn’t doing any of that. Devin Calloway was a guy I knew but didn’t know. We were connected at the hip as far as the local news was concerned, had been since we were both named all-conference our sophomore years. Since we led our respective teams in tackles. Since we both committed early, Devin to Virginia, me to Virginia Tech. Rivals.
Devin was as fast they came. Quick, strong, and always well prepared. He made a living in opposing teams’ backfields. And when he wasn’t there he was laying out any receiver dumb enough to come over the middle. Coach Campbell didn’t have to warn us about DC.
The ref went on about the toss as we stood facing off, glaring at each other, our families and neighbors and crazy aunts and uncles and cousins cheering like lunatics. It was like we were locked into some deal whether we wanted it or not.
We won the toss. Our side had the cowbells going, doing that rebel yell thing. The Rebels, our team colors were red and white, a dash of blue down the sides of the pants, but most of our fans wore hunting jackets and camouflage, bright orange stocking caps dotting the crowd. They usually arrived in a convoy of pickup trucks, some with hunting dog cages in blood stained beds from all the deer they’d skinned and let drip off the tailgate, the trucks plastered in mud around the fenders, confederate flags defiantly placed on windows or mounted to truck beds or worn proudly on shirts, just hoping someone would call them out on it.
And the Briggs side was calling them out. Like I said, they weren’t intimidated by us. Not with the kneeling, their marching band, the drumline corps with the snares ricocheting off the bricks, tapping its way into my bloodstream as they advanced towards us—a single, amoeba-like body, weaving and taunting our side of the bleachers before worming its back to the corner. It fired up both sides of the stadium, for different reasons entirely.
Even still I could hear this woman in the stands—on the Briggs side— screaming over it all, over the rat-a-tat drumming, the clapping, the whistles and clacks of the helmets during warmups. Her voice was like an air horn, cutting through the noise.
“Do the damn thing.”
She leaned nearly all the way over the railing, where a banner read GO 44! She kept repeating it, over and over again. Do the damn thing! Do the damn thing!
I couldn’t stop watching her as we lined up, hoping she’d stop—not because it bothered me but because our fans were having so much fun with it. Every time she screamed our side would whoop it up. They’d lean back then point and shake their heads. I didn’t have to guess what they were saying, before I sprinted over to the sidelines and heard exactly what they were saying.
They pointed to her, guts out and proud, talking about her like she was an animal. How she sounded like a stray dog.
Only the lines of a football field separated the two sides, and it felt like the field was shrinking.
Again I blocked it out, got my head in the game. I looked away from the policemen at the exits, guns on hips, heads on a swivel. I told myself it was just another game. But it didn’t stick. Not this time. It was all wrong. I was just relieved Mom was at work and Parker was at a friend’s house.
Coach went down the line, smacking helmets and clapping. He paused when he got to me, looked me in the eyes. I nodded a few times and he moved on.
I ran in place, blew some warmth into my hands. To my right, confederate flags waved against the night. Not the first time. I’d gone to Stonewall Middle School, then Stonewall High. Home of the Rebels. First, we’d been the Little Rebels, then we were the Raging Rebels. And until a few days ago I’d never given much thought to the name—where it came from and what it meant. It was just sort of what we’d grown up being.
Atop it all was Jeff’s dad, Gunny. I’d known Gunny for years (although, how well can you know someone who’s always been too drunk to see straight?). He was in full form, parading the stars and bars, waving it back and forth, under the night sky like it was his finest moment.
All of this was going on in my head. Devin Calloway, the screaming woman, the monuments. The flags. The kneeling. The machine gun drums. Gunny. The nervous laughter in the huddles. Can you believe this?
No. And I wasn’t laughing, I was kind of pissed. I mean, were they trying to get us killed down here? And when did our game became their game. The outcome some sort of verdict, some kind of grudge to settle for once and all.
It was like they’d stolen it from us.
We won the toss and elected to kick. The screams, the cheers, the throttle of anticipation, usually I put it away. All of us did. At nine wins and zero losses, we’d been killing it all season. We’d worked since summer, conditioning and camps, since last season’s overtime loss in the state semifinals. And we’d beaten Briggs two straight years, so yeah, we wouldn’t say it, but we were looking forward to our yearly showdown with Amherst before hitting the playoffs full stride. This was the year.
So the Briggs game shouldn’t have been that big. Rivalry? Yes. Packed stadium? Always. But the sides, the monuments, the town, the game. The coaches hadn’t come out and said say what it had become—a racial thing—but it was there all the same. B.D. Briggs, the black school, against Stonewall High, the white school. Yeah, we had four black guys on our squad, just like Briggs had a few white dudes, but as we stood there, facing off, everyone watching us saw it too. They’d made it that way.
They’d wanted it that way.
When Briggs took the opening kickoff to the house things went nuclear. It was all they needed to believe they could beat us. The Briggs side of the stadium ignited. A thousand people leaped into the air and came down with a crash. After he lit into us, Coach Campbell, his face like a strawberry, did his clapping thing he did when he was trying to keep us focused. We couldn’t even hear him. We couldn’t hear a thing.
On offense—on our opening possession—Devin Calloway shot through the gap and crushed Brantley, our quarterback. Brantley coughed up the ball and Briggs was in business. We’d been huddled up, the defensive guys, going over things with Coach T when we heard the explosion of noise. We strapped on our helmets and went to work.
We held Briggs to a field goal. But still, ten-zip, just like that. They kicked again. Our offense got their act together. At least until they crossed midfield and stalled. We punted, pinned them deep near their endzone. The Briggs band was playing some hip-hop beat and the entire Briggs side was moving like one big body of water. It was like their Super Bowl.
Our side let us have it, screaming down at the defense as we took the field again. Moose was pissed, talking trash, and lots of it. He started name calling the way he did when he was fired up. Moose liked to taunt, he’d say the most offensive stuff just to get a rise out of people. One time he spent an entire first half ribbing this chunky kid on the offensive line about how he’d slept with his mom—just kept on and on with the details about his romp with this kid’s mom until the kid snapped and ripped his helmet off and came charging after him. Moose held his hands up, Mr. Innocent. The kid got ejected. Moose had fun with that.
But against Briggs he was saying some out of bounds stuff. You can guess. And what made it worse was I could hear it in the stands, too, could hear the parents tearing into the ref. Worse than usual.
Being out on the field helped with the nerves some. The hitting tamed some of the jitters. But the quarterback for Briggs could move. He was tall but quick, and he liked to tuck it and take off and was hard to hit clean. When he came scooting around the end and I found myself ready to make the tackle, set a lick on him, when he shook me out of my cleats and scampered out of bounds. The Briggs side went crazy. The way they were playing, I had no idea how this team had lost four games.
The quarterback took it again for twelve more yards. Another first down. The celebration on the Briggs side continued, which got our side cranked up too. We’d always had rowdy fans, Dad’s cupping their mouths, getting on the refs, yelling at the defense. Like my dad, most of them played at Stonewall. But against Briggs it was worse. Way worse. They started chanting stuff, like, racial stuff. And when I looked up, when I made the mistake of looking up there, someone had brought a noose.
It went from bad to worse in a hurry.
On third down we needed a stop. And that was when the chants started. “Beat the Briggs…Beat the Briggs.”
Only they weren’t saying “Briggs.” I shouldn’t have to spell it out. The Briggs quarterback was under center when he heard it. He stood up and fiddled with his chin strapped as he looked around, like he was wondering if it was real. And from there it grew louder and louder and eventually the entire Briggs side went quiet, like they were shocked. Soon everyone was looking around like, “Are they for real saying that?”
The refs stopped the game. Some guy in a suit trotted out and took the PA system and asked that parents from both sides try to show some respect for each other, there were kids are out here and all that. Basically he was stating the obvious.
When he introduced himself as Mr. Ferguson, the B.D. Briggs principal, it wasn’t just boos coming down from our side, it was trash, food, cans, bottles, dog bones, anything they could get their hands on. Between the announcement and the noise and the debris hitting the field, it was clear this was no longer a football game.
The police moved in and helped the principal off the field, our fans still hurling bottles down to the track. I looked across the field, at #11, Devin Calloway and found him staring across the field at me and I couldn’t help wondering what it must look like to him, our side of the bleachers. With Gunny up there waving the flag, the noose, all that trash. I think he was seeing our side and I was seeing what was behind him and we knew at any moment it was all going to blow.
And it did. On the very next play.
The Briggs running back is about as small as my mom. But he’s shifty and surprisingly strong. Anyway, on fourth down they ran a draw to him, and he started to hit the outside then he bounced back inside. I was blocked but got a hand on him, he shook but I held on. Jeff came in like a missile and laid him out.
Helmet to helmet. The Briggs coaches were on the field, screaming for a personal foul. It didn’t like how Jeff stood over the kid like a pro wrestler. Anyway, it was fourth and eight and so they lined up to punt.
Chris, our wide receiver, fielded the punt, turned once, then got held up in a log jam. A Briggs player came in and snatched his face mask and nearly ripped his helmet off. It wasn’t an accident, either, but the refs missed it.
Moose didn’t. He ran to the guy and shoved him onto his ass. A few guys started with the pushing but nothing that hadn’t happened before.
That’s when our side lost their minds.
More trash came down again, rained onto the field. Plastic soda bottles, a few liquor bottles, some half empty drinks. A hot dog. The noose.
The refs whistled. The guy in the suit came out again. The cops. Threats were made. They should have called it right there, but everyone wanted this game. They wanted it more than we did.
Ten or fifteen minutes later the offense was out and we tried to line up, to play a high school football game, only by then it was too late. The next play was a gang fight. The ball was snapped and quickly forgotten. The guys in the trenches, offensive and defensive lines, started slugging each other. The running back skipped around the end and I went to make a tackle and got blindsided. The refs whistled, the benches cleared, a brawl ensued.
I was too stunned to do much. From my spot on the ground, it was all cleats and legs and bodies stampeding onto the field. When I got to my feet, Moose had two guys by the facemask, and coaches were rushing the field, some trying to break things up, others looking to get a lick in. Our coaches. Fans leaping over the rails. Everyone rushed the field.
Two Briggs guys hoisted a bench over their heads. The P.A. urged the good citizens of our town to please return to their seats. I turned for the track, looking for Olivia, my girlfriend, and the rest of the cheer squad when Coach Pillman shoved me out of the way and kicked a guy in the back. Jeff was on the ground grappling with one of the Briggs safeties. Others danced around, some with their helmets off, fists up like boxers.
But the fans. The moms and Dads, the uncles and cousins, they were the ones looking to hurt someone, wild eyed and ready for war.
And there was #11, hands down at his sides, like me, taking it all in.
We locked eyes, again. I was wondering if we were supposed to fight each other. He was taller than me, but I wasn’t afraid of him. I was afraid of what was happening.
Around us, our teammates were slinging helmets at heads. Throwing punches and grappling on the ground. Parents were rushing the field, hanging on to their pants by their belts and swinging fists with their other hands. The band had made it into the fray. The refs blew their whistles until they broke.
And Devin and I had no idea how to stop any of it.
I was on the edges of the fighting, caught between pulling guys off or getting the hell out of there when the police got control of the field. Our tiny force clad in black, with shields and helmets of their own. The batons came out and people started moving as the tear gas hung over the fifty-yard line. I thought it was coming to an end when a shriek brought everyone to a halt.
Bodies cleared out. Near the sidelines lay a crumpled figure, feet twitching, leaking blood onto the field. I stood frozen, staring at how the blood shined under the lights, like it was painted on the grass. Eventually I started towards the man as he wiggled around, side to side, his mouth an O but his scream muted. Drool and spit leaked from the corners of his cracked lips. I knelt to check on him when the police closed in and shoved me off as an ambulance arrived and medics huddled around him.
I stood motionless, still holding my breath when the ambulance drove onto the field.
It took a half hour to clear things completely. At some point a coach turned me away from the ambulance driving on the track, speaking into my ear. But I didn’t hear, I could only see the body on the ground, the blood, the guy’s eyes as he lay and grunt and moan.
The scoreboard still showed we were down 10-0, the second quarter stopped with 8:42 left to play. We still had all of our timeouts.
Coach Campbell rushed us to the locker rooms, his face flushed, his goatee turned with his frown. I’d never seen his eyes so wide, as he shoved us in, his voice breaking. “Now, get out of here, in the locker room, let’s moooove!”
It was chaos. Kids crying and parents out there, in the mix, the melee, confusion like a windstorm taking the field. Someone had been stabbed. Moose was punching lockers and ripping things out of the walls. I kept waiting for gun shots and Jeff was saying how the guy who got stabbed was in a gang and they were probably on the way over to retaliate. Coach Campbell must have thought the same thing, because he was talking about the buses, calling and yelling about having them ready and we didn’t know how we were going to make it out of there alive.
We stayed in the locker room, barricaded in, refusing to come out even when the Briggs principal came over to apologize, wiping his forehead and saying how he’d never seen anything like that, even in his Civil Rights days and all.
Olivia sent me a text. She was fine. They’d managed to escape in the van. Another hour. Two. Then came a text from my little sister, Parker. Apparently it was already on the news. I wiped my head. She’d been so upset with me because I didn’t want her to come tonight. Now I guess, she understood.
Sometime later we got the all-clear to leave. By then most of us had our stuff together but Moose was pacing around, fists clenched, still looking to fight. I kept looking around, waiting for something to happen. The stadium lights glowed, fog and tear gas settling over the field.
Then the news lady came rushing at us, asking Coach questions. Moose promptly blamed her for all that was going on, the news hyping up everything. He pushed her away, so did Chris. Swinging the mic from person to person, searching for a soundbite, it wound up in my face.
“What are you feeling right now? What are your thoughts about the game, the fight?
“What am I feeling? I’m ashamed.” Coached looked back, set his jaw and glared at me. But after everything, I was too shaken to care. “I’m ashamed of our town, our team, the fans. We just wanted to play football.”
Coach cut in. “Ben, come on, let’s move.”
The reporter hurried with a follow up question. “Are you scared, being caught up between the two sides?”
“There shouldn’t be sides. I mean, yeah, two teams, but not…” I motioned towards the field, where I’d seen the blood, the medics, a war. I fought to free myself of Coach’s clutches. “Not that. Where does it end? A war? What else has to happen?”
I said some more things. Things I don’t quite remember, before Coach hauled me off. I was kind of dizzy with all of it, caught up by the violence, the blood on the grass. Some of the guys, the younger guys who listened to me all year watched, wide eyed and gaping as Coach moved me away from the microphone. Moose, still flushed and ready to hit someone, only shook his head, like he was ashamed of what I’d said.
All I remember is getting to the parking lot, where nothing looked right at that hour. The quiet, only the hum of the buses, the sky, my mom rushing out to me. She nearly tackled me.
Parker shot out of a van when we pulled up to the house. She ran up and hugged me while Mom spoke to her friend’s mom. “Ben, what in the hell?”
I shot her a look, my eyes stinging from tear gas. “Um, language.” I looked around, still scanning for danger even as all was quiet on the street. “And what are you doing here?”
My sister was thirteen but thought she was Mom Jr. Parker was always on my case about grades and football and so we had our differences. But now, as she clutched onto me, I could tell she was no longer mad about me not wanting her to be at the game.
“It was all over the radio. Did someone really get stabbed on the field?”
I nodded. “Let’s go inside.”
Dad called before I got to the door. He didn’t hold back. He thought the black refs were in the bag for Briggs, the principal should have taken responsibility for what happened, not taking the field and blaming people. And yeah, I’m seventeen, I’ve heard him say things before, but not like that. Everything was the n-word this or that. He was throwing it around like gas on a fire. It was almost like he wanted me to say it back.
I wasn’t saying much at all. Because he didn’t want to hear it—that both sides were to blame. If Dad wanted to talk responsibility, well, our side had thrown the first punch, and what about that chant they had going, that Beat the Briggs stuff? And how about that confederate flag, and the noose? I mean, they had to know that was going to start shit. But I let it go. There was no talking to my dad when he was worked up like that.
He said we weren’t rescheduling. He wasn’t sure if that meant we’d won or lost. I knew Coach Campbell was all worked up about our record, but I only saw the blood. It was still on my cleats. I didn’t care if we won or lost. It no longer mattered to me.
I didn’t sleep. I was too worked up, from a quarter and a half of football and everything that happened on the field. Mom stayed nearby, biting her fingernails and refusing to let me tell her it was okay, to go to bed.
She’d been listening to the game at work and had thought I was going to die. She’d rushed out, she said, left work and drove straight to the stadium.
It was too much to think about. Was that guy dead? Who stabbed him? A parent, a fan, an uncle, maybe someone who’d been to our games all season. It was more than I could handle.
All week the town had been getting amped up about this game. We’d studied film, talked about being ready to hit someone. Briggs was our rival and everyone made it feel like the world was at stake.
And now someone had been stabbed on our football field.