Normalni High School has been the education site for the Town of Normalni for five generations. It’s a wide building which sits squat upon a hill in the center of town. Around seven thirty every weekday morning you can see students making their way to the whitewash brick walls. All of them carrying an assortment of bags and books and instruments. A wave of people marching to school, much too disorganized and mismatched to be a unified army. They all fly their own colors and cling to their own.
The season has been going on for a while now and we’re one game away from playoffs. Once playoffs start up the practices will ramp up and so will my school work. The last two years we didn’t get very far before a team of monsters clobbered us. Zloy Community High School always knocks us out of the playoffs. They have a massive team of at least sixty players and all of them must be at least six and a half feet tall. They look like a group of full-grown, heavily bearded lumberjacks all huddled onto three cold-steel benches. I’m the biggest guy on our team and I look like one of their sons. And I’m the QB! During games I can see clearly right over the top of our linemen. There’s always at least one receiver open and almost always enough time to get a pass off. Our defense is pretty strong, but our new left tackle, Sean Mattard, is nowhere near as good as Hank Quinton. He was our left tackle last year and I don’t think I ever got touched from the left. A senior; I heard he went to Notre Dame on a scholarship. I guess I can’t complain though. We haven’t lost a game yet, but it’s all gonna come down to the game against Zloy. Our next game is up against Malenka High School. We’ve beat them every year for at least six years and I’m not too worried about tomorrow.
The day’s almost over, just one more class to go. Ugh! Literature is the fucking worst. “Hey!” someone shouts to me in the hall. “Good luck at your game!” “Thanks.” A little bit of a dull response, but I have to suffer through literature before I can get psyched for the game. Too much reading. Too many fancy words to remember. It’s not like math where I can just get the answers; compare with friends or even cheat when time gets short. With literature you have to actually read. Either you know the story or not. Sure there’s SparkNotes and other summaries online. But teachers know when you haven’t read. They figure it out from our responses on stupid reading tests with super specific questions. I hate it so much. We read the oldest stories in the world, which have no use in real life. Plus the essays. How do they expect you to write so much about a stupid topic like how the American Dream is portrayed in The Great Gatsby or Shakespeare’s word use in Sonnet One Billion. Lately, we’ve been reading bible stories and other religious stuff in class. Each person takes turns reading paragraphs aloud and it might as well be another language. We stop every other word trying to figure out what we’re reading. “Are we all ready?” We’ve all shuffled into class now and sat down at our desks. I pick up the paper on my desk; 1 Samuel 17. “Today we’ll be reading David and Goliath. David, it seems appropriate that you start off our reading today.” Thank god it’s not me first. This is a fifty five minute long class and we’ve never finished a story earlier than twenty minutes into the class. That means a thirty minute discussion where the teachers tries to pry answers out of us about silly questions like, why was this word chosen over another? How does that qualify as teaching? She thinks we care?
“Thomas?” My focus immediately shifts. “Uhm…” I can hear students snickering and feel the blood rushing to my face. Where were we!? “As the Philistine…” The teacher starts, hinting me the location. Found it, the first paragraph on the second page.
“As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.” I can see that the teacher is satisfied even if she’s a little off-put by the monotone.
Raul starts the next paragraph and my face is starting to cool down. This is one of the reasons I hate literature.
Finally the day is over after the longest discussion ever held about a kid slinging rocks like some prankster. I head to the Junior lockers. Some more people wish me good luck as I put my stuff together. I put my books away and bring my backpack with me to the boy’s locker room. I’m the first one here and I start getting out of my clothes. The rest of the team is streaming in with their bags hanging from one strap off of their shoulders and a helmet or some pads in the other hand. As I switch into my pads I hear Sean ask if everyone’s ready for the game. “Are we ready to win or what!?” A collective “Hell Yeah!” rises up and echoes in the locker room. I can’t wait to play. Now all my gears on except for my helmet. The team colors are gray and a bluish purple just like our mascot, the Man O’ War. So, the helmets are gray and our home jerseys are mostly a light gray with two vertical purple stripes that line up with the shoulders. I don’t like the color combination that much, but no one else seems to mind. I like more colorful jerseys and a little bit of a difference between the helmets and jerseys. So, it’s pretty fortunate that I get a special helmet since I’m QB and all. Unlike all the others who have the plain gray helmets, I have a brownish gold colored helmet. It has a kind of brazen look to it, which is a nice contrast to the jerseys. Plus it helps my teammates pick me out in the heat of plays. I put my helmet on as we begin our pregame practice. I wear a mouth guard as well, but I save that for the actual game.
It’s getting dark out and the field lights have switched on. There’s four minutes left in the fourth quarter and the scoreboard reads; Home: 42, Away: 6. I’m on the bench waiting for Malenka to lose possession. To my left the cheerleaders are leading the crowd in a chant of “Dee Fense, Dee Fense, Dee Fense!” I look over my shoulder and I can see our mascot, Manny the Man O’ War, dancing along. Every move he makes causes the fat, purple tentacles to sway and jiggle. Good thing it’s a cold night I guess. I’d hate to have to wear that when it’s warm out. I wonder if that’s the same guy who fell over at the beginning of the season. I hear the referee’s shrill whistle and turn my head back to the game. “That’s a turnover for Normalni High!” says the announcer from up in the press box. The band starts up the fight song as I make my way to the field with our offensive line. Three minutes, seventeen seconds left on the clock. All I need to do is stall and waste away the clock. We’ve got a huge lead, this should be no problem. Can’t start celebrating yet though. I call hike and receive the snap. My left wide receiver is wide open and three quarters of the way down the field within seconds of the snap. An easy throw over the top and a well executed catch. He almost makes it all the way before he’s tackled. We’ve gone from the fifty all the way to five yards in just one down. “A wonderful throw by Thomas Jacobsen and a catch by Ryan Colton!” The announcer can just be heard above the cheer of parents and students in the stands and the lively, but slightly sour and flat, fanfare of the band. We should probably do a run play next, but I can see the Malenka line is being set up thick. Let’s go with another throw and catch them off guard. “HIKE” The ball is snapped my way, but it’s a little too high. I catch it right above my head. I try to regain some balance and scan the field. Ryan is making his way from right to left across the end zone. I need to hit him in his run. As my eyes follow Ryan I see a break in the line. Someone’s got past Sean on my left. He’s a short scrawny looking kid bolting straight for me. I quickly scoot to my right in order to gain some space to get off the throw. Ryan’s doubling back now; heading towards the right end of the field. I shift my right shoulder back to get the proper angle and put my full weight behind the ball as I send it into Ryan’s gut. As I turn my head left I catch the scrawny kid out of the corner of my eye. He’s airborne and before I can do anything I’m on the ground. My head bashes the dirt; forced down by all this kid’s weight. It hurts like the worst migraine ever. “Holy Shit!” I scream. I’m muffled by the kid’s jersey and the mouth guard. I try to get him off me, but I can’t mouth my arm to push him off. In fact, I can’t feel anything below the neck. “God Dammit! NO! Fuck!” My team rips the scrawny kid off me with ease and asks me if I’m okay. “I can’t feel my lower half!” I’m nearly in tears now. The coach is calling 911 with his cell phone and the school nurse is asking me if I can see how many fingers she’s holding up. Next thing I know I’m on a gurney. The ambulance siren is blaring in the distance and then closer. Then very close before being very muffled.
I wake up to a bright white ceiling. “Please be a dream” I think hopefully. I know it’s not. I try to look around but my head is braced in place. I manage to see in my peripherals that I’m definitely in a hospital room. A monitor is beeping next to me and I can hear an announcement over the speaker in the hallway. I bring my chin to my chest as close as it will get and I see a remote sitting there. I instinctively try to grab it. “Shit.” My arm doesn’t budge an inch. I sit there for a while, thirty minutes perhaps, before my parents and a doctor show up. My parents look sad; my mom much more than my dad. The doctor asks me what limbs I can and can’t feel. He pokes at my feet with a pin. Eventually he tells me that I probably won’t be able to walk for a while. “At least six months. Maybe longer.” He seems so nonchalant about it all. I absorb his apathy a little. The only part of my body I can feel, my face, is blank. After the doctor leaves my parents talk to me. “We were so worried. We were so scared you were dead. It’s our worst fear in the world. Be strong sweety, we’ll help you all along the way. At least it’s not worse.” My mom cries a little and my dad wraps his arm around hers. “Here’s a get well card the team made for you.” My dad says as he holds it up so I can read. It’s got all their names there. Ryan, Sean, and even the JV team. After I read the card my parents kiss me on the forehead. It’s still a little soar. “We’re going to lunch real quick. We’ll be back as soon as we’re done.” My parents leave to go eat lunch and I sit there thinking about the card. “Dammit Sean.” “God Dammit. I’ll never play football again.” I start to cry. Thick, salty tears that irritate my eyes. They collect on the edges of my eyes and roll down the side of my head, leaving warm trails on my temples. I don’t stop crying until just a few minutes before my parents get back. For the rest of the term I’m unable to work or really do anything. I mostly watch TV. I don’t return to Normalni High until midway through second semester.