His Helmet Off, Raising It High
My father had always wanted me to play football. I was much bigger than he’d been; four inches taller and probably fifty, sixty pounds heavier. But I was faster, too. I could be very good, he said. And he was right. Captain. Playoffs. Scholarship offers and trips to schools to meet teams and listen to reasons for why I should play.
One photo album at my parents’ house is nothing but newspaper clippings. See me there breaking through the cheerleaders’ painted Go Vikings! Banner. See us running out of the tunnel, screaming and covered in mud and blood. I look like a kid soldier in that one. I remember my father kept pointing me out to my wife in action shots. Number Seventy, see him? Right there.
My other football story is one I don’t tell often. This story is about Number One.
Number One died when we were both sixteen years old, the fall starting our junior year. He could have gone pro, maybe. I’ve lived almost an entire second lifetime since he died. Number One was a wide receiver. Varsity playing time before the rest of us. Fast, so fast. I drove him home after practice one day. We had the same favorite band and played their latest record so loud the speakers got weird. On some songs we screamed along, banged our heads. Later that night Number One shot himself.
This was the most important moment of my life. I know it because after Number One died I started to realize I could kill myself too.
It was like before he died I’d always been a lineman. I blocked and bled and did my job. I did what I was told. I never killed myself.
I never really wanted to play football.
Picture a parking lot full of muscled teenage boys in pajamas and weeping for a day and a night and another day. Some of our parents showed up and tried to get us to leave. When my parents came I went with them because I was still just a lineman. Some of the others told their parents to fuck off, leave them alone. I wanted to be like that. Able to say something.
Number One and I both went bald the same day at a party on a senior captain’s cow farm. We both made varsity without playing junior varsity. Head-shaving was a tradition on the team. Somewhere there’s a picture of Number One and me with our arms around each other, blood all over our bare chests, our heads being rinsed with a garden hose. We’re smiling like idiots. Our lips are blue.
The year after he died I was a senior captain and shaved a few heads myself. This was in my parents’ backyard; we had a big barbecue. I remember my father smiling at the grill, really happy to have the whole team in his backyard.
We never talked about Number One or being sad.
Number One’s parking spot became a memorial: melted wax everywhere, letters, posters. Someone went into the locker room and brought out his helmet and put that there, too. A fight broke out when one of the two black kids from the school said no one should be crying over “some sad sissy white boy.” Our school was about ninety-nine percent white. It must have been hard for the kid who said what he did. Two thousand white kids and maybe a dozen not. It was a terrible fight. A lot of police, news cameras. Maybe I’m remembering this all wrong.
I didn’t know a lot about Number One’s life until after he died. A few of the other players had known him a lot longer. And we talked about why Number One might have done it. Someone said the gun had been his brother’s. Someone else said they heard Number One had been holding a picture of his father in his hand. After that we all blamed the father.
Someone said too that Number One had shot himself twice. That his brother had found two shell casings on the floor. I liked learning that he’d fired twice.
I was jealous. It made me feel like Number One really knew what he wanted.
I held a rifle to my head once. I was a kid. Maybe eleven, twelve years old. Maybe thirteen. My father kept a gun under my parents’ brass bed. I slid it out and unzipped it from the canvas case. Lifted it, felt its weight, wrapped my hand around the grip. I knew enough about guns to see the empty chamber. I raised the barrel, aimed at myself in the mirror above my mother’s dresser. I pointed at my face in the reflection and pulled the trigger and nothing happened. Not even a click. I held the barrel under my chin and looked in the mirror at myself.
At the funeral the team sat together in purple home jerseys and khaki pants. We took up a whole side of the church pews. Even the black kid who started the fight in the parking lot came. News cameras were there, too, vans and reporters. Nobody fought. Everyone was sad. I remember wondering if I was sad enough.
I wonder if I was really that good of friends with Number One. I still think of him often. I don’t think about the others much.
After high school I never played football again. I could have, but I got as far away from being a lineman in Puyallup as I could. When I made new friends we talked about where we came from and it was only a matter of time before they found out I had been captain of the football team, senior class president, went to dances with cheerleaders. It was hard not to picture a certain kind of guy. But being a lineman was all I had ever been. I didn’t know how to make up a fiction for myself.
I guess I was still jealous of Number One.
I was nineteen, maybe twenty when my best friend in college saved my life. I think I’d tried to kill myself. I don’t remember it well. But I didn’t have a gun, just a bottle of the pills that were supposed to make me not want to kill myself. I guess I didn’t really know what I wanted.
We both live in Brooklyn now but we haven’t talked about that night in years. He was best man at my wedding and I thought he might speak about the time he saved my life. He didn’t.
A few days after Number One killed himself I spent my classes writing a really long letter to Number One’s mother. Somebody, maybe the counselor or my coach or my parents, had said I should tell her all the stories she didn’t know about her son. “Tell her about the Number One she didn’t know,” I remember them saying.
So I wrote about our favorite band. About the speakers in my car. About getting our heads shaved together. I found the picture of us bloody and smiling. I stapled it to the letter.
I met my wife a year after taking the pills.
I’m glad Number One killed himself. Grateful is the better word but I wrote glad first and I’m not going to edit it. Because I know I would be dead now if Number One weren’t dead already. Because remembering Number One has saved me so many times. After the pills I knew what I wanted.
I can’t speak for rest of the players on the team. If they are glad or grateful, too. But maybe they have decided not to kill themselves as many times as I have. Maybe this is normal.
On my football highlight reel the first play you see shows Number One with his bald head standing on the sidelines. He has his helmet off, and is raising it high in the air at a kickoff. A big “1” on his jersey, his bald head above it. Everyone else on the sideline has hair. To scouts, it probably looked like he had cancer.
A week after Number One died we had a game. We wrote his initials and number like a kind of logo on our wristbands and athletic tape. We did that all season. And the next season. New players would ask why and we’d tell them. Eventually all of us who knew Number One graduated. The team today is a bunch of kids who never knew Number One. Some other kid is probably wearing his number.
What we wrote looked something like this:
It occurs to me that I might have been the last one to see Number One alive. We had practice. We got in my car. We rolled down the windows. We listened to our favorite band so loud the speakers shook in the doors. We pulled into his driveway and he opened the door and got out of the car. He must have said something. I must have said something. His last words were probably something like, “Later man,” or “Thanks for the ride.” I wish I knew. Then he went inside and shot himself in the head.
My wife and I were back in Puyallup a couple weeks ago for a family wedding. I drove us past the stadium like I always do, made horns with my fingers to shout “Go Viks!” like I always do, and went by the school to point out where his parking spot had been. We saw they had turned the lot into classrooms, so I wasn’t able to park alongside like I always did.
Rumpus original art by Zea Barker.