As I’m headed out to my backyard to write this essay, I pass my wife on the sofa. She’s breastfeeding our month-old son and watching a football game on TV.
Georgia versus South Carolina. The Gamecocks are twenty-five-point underdogs, but somehow they’re still in the game. The score is tied, 17-17. It’s late into the second overtime, but I don’t stop to watch. I just keep going, right out the door and into my backyard.
I sit down in a red Adirondack chair, wondering why I didn’t stop and watch the end of the game. It’s the same chair I was sitting in when my daughter fell off the six-foot tall ladder and I got the idea for my first-ever “Hash Marks” essay. It’s the first truly cold day we’ve had this fall, nearly a year after I wrote that initial essay, and now, sadly, I’m writing the last.
Which is exactly why I didn’t stop to watch that overtime game. I have to write. My soon-to-be three-year-old daughter just went down for a nap. If I want to get any words in today, this is my only shot. The clock is ticking.
But then my wife texts me, saying the Gamecocks pulled it off. This text comes a few paragraphs into the essay (right about here, actually), and I pause to check my phone for the score.
She’s right. They really won.
And now I’m thinking maybe I can use their victory in the essay somehow. What I wanted to do was write some sort of all-encompassing football piece. I wanted to revisit each one of the “Hash Marks” and paint them a final time on the fields of my past. But the news of this game; I can’t shake it.
It’s not just because it was a massive upset. That’s part of it, sure. But there’s also the story of South Carolina’s freshman quarterback, Ryan Hilinski.
Twenty months ago, Ryan’s brother Tyler died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Tyler was the quarterback of the Washington State Cougars. An autopsy of Tyler’s brain revealed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to football and concussions.
After enduring the loss of his older brother, Ryan Hilinski still takes to the field on Saturdays in the fall, and I can’t help but wonder—
I check my phone for the time. Thirty minutes have passed already, which means I have about an hour left before my daughter wakes up.
I Google the name “Ryan Hilinski,” wanting to see if he performed any late-game heroics that might work well in this essay. Much to my surprise (and dismay), Ryan left the game in the third quarter after suffering a knee injury.
I scroll down and watch a video of Ryan, hobbling up and down the sideline after the game. He hugs the Gamecocks’ head coach, Will Muschamp. He huddles over a group of USC students and prays.
I wonder what he says?
Does he mention his brother or his knee? Is he thankful for the win? What are the other students thinking as they kneel there before him? The streets of Columbia, South Carolina, will be wild tonight.
I’ve been asking that question long before I ever sat down in my backyard to write this essay. I asked it as my cleats crunched through high school. I asked it the summer before my final year in college, a summer I spent mostly in a dark room watching film and dissecting coverages. I kept wondering why I wasn’t out seeing the world, or chasing girls, something—anything—other than holing myself up in that dark room for hours upon hours, trying to discern the difference between an even and an odd front.
And now I’m sitting in my backyard, scribbling on a yellow legal pad, doing the same damn thing—I’m trying to make sense of football.
That’s the question here. What’s the point of all this? Why is America so obsessed with this one particular sport? Why does a kid like Ryan Hilinski still take the field after losing so much? Why does his knee get busted in the third quarter of the biggest game of his life?
I’m not sitting in my backyard anymore. I couldn’t get comfortable in that Adirondack chair. I’m in my office now. It’s dark in here. A purple jersey hangs adjacent to my desk with a big white “8” stamped square in the center and the name CRANOR emblazoned across the back. If I’m lucky, I have twenty minutes left before my daughter wakes up. It’s the fourth quarter, I think. Then I remember I’m not playing football anymore.
It’s been ten years since I threw my last touchdown pass. Ten years since I went head to head with a linebacker on the goal line. Ten years and people still ask me, all the time, if I miss football. I’ll be standing in the checkout line at Walmart and some potbellied old man will saunter up with a basket full of prune juice and say, “Ya miss it?”
My answer is always the same. “No.”
“Aw,” he’ll grumble. “You got to miss it some. When you getting back into coaching?”
I don’t budge. I might force a smile, which sends the man on his way, waddling over to the next checkout lane, getting away from an answer he wasn’t looking for. Maybe he knows I lied. Maybe that’s why he waddles a little faster as he departs.
For twenty years, football was my purpose, my reason, white lines and rules for everything, the scoreboard keeping track of it all. Do I want it back? Do I pine for a helmet and a fourth-quarter drive?
I just miss the heat. I miss practicing in a hundred degrees, sweat running down my forearm and dripping off my pinky. I miss getting acclimated to it. Walking outside and watching civilians sweat, while I—a god of the gridiron—stand amidst the sticky heat and glisten.
These days, my shirts have sweat stains in the armpits. I had to buy some special kind of deodorant called “Certain Dri.” It only works half the time. I sit too much. I’m inside too much.
I miss practicing in the rain. I scored my first touchdown in the rain. If you’re involved in football, an athlete or a coach, you get to play in the rain. These days, when it rains, I’m running, or clutching tight to an umbrella, ducking under the blue awning at the Walmart where there’s always another potbellied man, tugging at my arm as we stand together, taking refuge from the storm.
“Ya miss it?”
I want to scream: “Do I miss it! I get out of bed in the morning and everything rattles. I’m dying, here, man. And despite all that, I still miss it. I miss it because there’s nothing like it. Period. It’s a drug, a high like you’ll never know . . . ”
I don’t ever say any of that, though. I just give the guy my same old spiel and rush back across the parking lot to my wife’s Honda Pilot, the steaming concrete smelling of childhood and summer, taking me right back to where this all began: that strip of athletic tape across my helmet with MADDOG written in my dad’s barbwire scrawl. But I’ve already told you the stories about my dad and what football meant to him, the same reason it ended up meaning so much to me.
I want to tell you about where it all goes, what happens after the scoreboard shuts off and the newspaper clippings curl and fade. I want to tell you about now.
How, when I close my eyes, I still dream of football. It’s always the same dream. I’m driving to the game. I’m late. I can see the stadium in the distance, a foggy scene like that steamy Walmart parking lot. I hear the crowd, and I know the game is in full swing. It’s going on without me. The cheers grow louder. I hit the gas, plunging ahead toward the stadium, the ticket booths, the front gate. I try to stomp the brakes, but it’s too late. I plow my way onto the field and then I wake up.
My neck hurts. My back hurts. My knees hurt. I didn’t play a single down.
Sundays come around, and it’s time to mow the grass. That’s when you do it, right? Sundays? After church and Walmart. After that prodding geezer has ribbed you with the same tired question—you mow the damn grass.
But not like you mowed it when it mattered. Not like Old Bull, the toughest ball coach you ever met, taught you how to do it. “Take your time, Hollywood. Whole town’s gonna notice if you don’t keep those rows straight,” Bull would say, already eaten up with cancer, but he didn’t even know it. Bull was so damn tough he thought the golf-ball-size tumor in his neck was all part of the game. He thought he could tough out cancer, like he’d tough out a steamy, late summer practice. But there is no toughing out time. The clock is undefeated, and it’s ticking.
So now you zip-tie your lawnmower deck to keep it from dragging the ground. You pulverize roots and fallen limbs. You bend the fucking blades. You just keep going.
Or at least that’s what I do. Because I know nobody is watching. Not anymore.
Do I miss it?
You can bet your candy ass I miss that part, the cheers, the mob hanging on my every move. There’s nothing like it. All those pregame speeches my coaches gave me, all the speeches I gave my players, telling those wide-eyed boys there would never be anything like this again. Never. I thought it was all bullshit then. Thought it was just something to get them hyped before the game, get them ready to go ram their heads into other boys, piss blood and blah, blah, blah—but it was all true.
I’ve tried for years now to fill the football-shaped hole in my heart. I’ve tried writing the pain away, writing my way back to glory. But writing is nothing like football. Writing is lonely, selfless work. There’s nobody in the stands. Hell, there are no stands. Writing burns you up from the inside out, like a heatstroke but slower. Writing is a marathon, a war of attrition, and just because you can still throw a football sixty yards and squat over four hundred pounds, that doesn’t mean jack shit when it comes to writing.
So maybe guys like Ryan Hilinski still play ball because they know their time is coming. Maybe Ryan plays for the same reasons I continue to write through the pain. I know I’ve just traded the film room for an office, a football for a pen, but it doesn’t matter. I just can’t help but go all in.
Maybe that’s why we love football the way we do. Despite the game’s intricacies, the final result is always that same. One team wins, the other loses, and whatever price is paid between the sidelines, the end zones, across all those tiny hash marks that nobody notices, it pales in comparison to knowing where you stand in the end.
It’s now 4:30 PM, which means two hours have passed since my daughter went down for her nap. I’m wearing noise-cancelling headphones. I’m listening to the same record I always listen to when I write. Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. I peel the headphones back and listen, trying to determine if I have any time left.
My wife’s still in the living room. There’s a different game on TV. The roar of the crowd flows into my office as a fresh crop of young men take my place on the field.
I start to pull the headphones over my ears again, thinking maybe there’s still time. Maybe a few more minutes and I’ll have it all figured out, but then my daughter’s cries erupt from the baby monitor on my desk. I think about Ryan Hilinski and Walmart and time running out. And then it hits me—I know how this all ends.
I’m writing furiously now, with my headphones off and my daughter still crying in her crib. That damn game in the living room grows louder. The crowd. The hits. The announcers in their thousand-dollar suits and makeup. I want to get up and slam the door, but there’s no time.
I have to tell you about how one day, my wife is going to ask me to run and grab a carton of milk. When I pull into the Walmart parking lot, it’ll probably be raining, a lukewarm bath of a day that feels like sweat. I’ll leave the umbrella in the car. I’ll run to the awning and a potbellied man will be standing there, waiting for me, prune juice in hand, wearing khakis and a blue sports coat, buttons dangling from his cuffs like golden cicada shells.
I’ll stand there, expecting the man to ask that same damn question. I’ll be ready to give him my real answer. This time I’ll tell him the truth about the pain and how bad I miss the heat. But the old man won’t even look up. He won’t say anything. And I’ll go inside to get the milk.
“Hash Marks” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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