Behind the crumbling Anderson Valley High School, Billy Lee held a scuffed football on a weedy field that resembled an over-grazed cow pasture. It wasn’t going to seed, so much as becoming a miniature desert. The ground was harder than the parking lot out front but not nearly as smooth, pocked with gopher holes and tufts of star thistle. Nobody would call this crap turf. When players went down in their worn pads, they felt it through and through. Deep into their bones. Lucky it was only the practice field. Home games were played at the fairgrounds in front of the grandstand, same as Billy Lee had done, where the grass was mowed by a herd of nibbling sheep and made soft by their turd heaps. He considered the smell a “home field advantage,” as some visiting players were known to puke from the stench. In college, Billy Lee had huddled up inside University Stadium for the UNM Lobos, a pristine cathedral that could hold half of Mendocino County. All of Ukiah. Boonville wouldn’t fill the shitters.
“Damn,” a player complained, collecting a stinger on his hip.
“You don’t like it?” Billy Lee advised, knowing in the locker room his players would all look like bruised fruit. “Don’t get tackled.”
Plain and simple.
He switched the drill.
It was the first week of practice and some of the freshman had never been hit before, except by their parents or older siblings and that was most likely with an open hand, not shoulders or a helmet. “Bull in the ring” was the best way to pop their cherries. The team made a rotating circle around a single ball carrier and Billy Lee called out the name of defenders who came from any direction to nail the lone offensive man. Most leagues, including Anderson Valley’s NCL 2 North, had banned the drill, along with another variation known as “Blood Alley,” because of the ballooning number of concussions. Billy Lee still favored it as a way to get players used to contact and the mental fortitude that came with knowing you could take a hit. It was a life lesson. If you couldn’t take a hit, how were you going bury your father, lose a job, raise your kids?
So instead of “bull in the ring,” he pretended it was something different by calling it “Metzger” in honor of a teammate who once-upon-a-time had ran out of the bull ring after which Billy Lee’s coach yelled not a single player’s name but “Team!” His whole squad chased the boy down who had ditched the ball and made a beeline for a far fence. Halfway up, one of his teammates, Terry Stenser, speared him in the back and he fell into what became a dog pile. Metzger quit. Later became a tweaker. Billy Lee felt bad about that, and whenever he saw him, wondered if that day had anything to do with his demise. Metzger was also the name of an old Giants shortstop that had cut off the ends of four fingers in a table saw accident. An ill-fated sports name that fit the drill.
Billy Lee flipped the ball to a boy, who nervously became the first bull.
One of his fundamentally sound seniors surged from the ring and laid out the freshman that tried ineffectually to dodge the tackle.
Billy Lee let the ball carriers shuck and jive a bit. Some coaches made their players take the contact full on. He wasn’t a sadist. As a running back, he knew the importance of learning how to slip a tackle. But he encouraged the bull in the ring to give out as good as he was supposed to take. Just because you had the ball didn’t mean you couldn’t lay a lick on someone.
Billy Lee blew his whistle.
“Bounce!” he told the newbie. “It ain’t over yet.”
The boy stood, nerves causing him to cling tighter to the ball.
The ring rotated.
Another player sprinted from the gyrating sphere. A grunt followed by a loud smack. Summit popped up, sprinting back into his place in the circle. The freshman got up slower.
“Come on, now,” Billy Lee encouraged. “You got this!”
He knew some players would quit after the first week, coming up with every excuse not to play except the truth. They were scared of getting hurt.
This tackler was smaller and this time the freshman leaned in with his shoulder just before contact. It could also have been some unspoken animosity between the white kids and the Mexicans. Whatever the case, Chavez’s angle was too upright. He lost his momentum, like a ram getting stood up on its hind, and grappled to take the ball carrier down. They struggled at each other, both boys giving it their best in a punchless fight. With a deft toss of his forearm, the freshman slipped the tackle.
Billy Lee praised the freshman, and then segued into a teachable moment. He made certain his players learned to tackle correctly. Heads up, eyes up, chin up! That’s where the bad injuries occurred, running in with your head down. C-spine ramming into your neck bone. You don’t hit with your helmet! Hit with your chest; step with the inside leg; shoot out with your hips like a thunder strike. Then grab some cloth. Wrap! Wrap! Wrap! Find that perfect fit. Get up in their stink. And if you can’t drive ‘em back, feel their momentum and use it against them.
Words to live by.
He could already pick the few players that craved contact, a bit bent and happy to have their inclination towards violence sanctioned. Despite the game’s local decline in popularity, due to the namby-pamby administrators and the influx of Mexicans that weren’t raised with it, and the fact that they had to play the insulting “9-Man” version now instead of the full eleven player game, for some kids, football was still their sport. It was a small school, and you could letter in three sports if you were athletic, but holding down first base or grabbing a rebound wasn’t near the same as the adrenaline rush and sweet release that came with making a solid tackle. For the ones that had the gridiron in their blood, and weren’t getting laid yet, this was sex. Way better than whacking off.
Another burst of speed and collision.
He added another tackler so the offensive man would get used to a second hit. No fumbles. Turnovers killed a team.
A skid mark blemished the side of the ball carrier’s helmet.
Billy Lee believed that someday soon there would be a league that banned all equipment. No helmets, mouth guards, rib vests. Just cleats and a jock strap. Like rugby. A bare knuckle game for true gladiators. It would cut back on some injuries caused by mayhem-bent behemoth’s flying in for tackles because they felt protected by their gear. Of course, other sorts of injuries would be increased. The new league would be like Ultimate Fighting compared to boxing. It wouldn’t be the same sport as classic football, but he’d watch. He predicted it would have its own cable channel inside a decade.
Until then, Billy Lee had come out of pocket for new helmets for his team this year; 5-star NOCSEA-sealed Riddells. Stripe down the middle, roaring panther decal on the side. Brown and gold, not the gangster black some snot-nosed student body voted in when he was on “sabbatical.” First chance he got, he nipped that in the bud. His money, his colors. Tradition. They didn’t like it, they could throw their lot in with another team, one in the league using ancient equipment, barely sanctioned 1-stars. Refurbished and re-refurbished. Hard to strap that shit on with pride. One team sported pathetic Adams - 2000s. Sounded like the make of a blender. That’s what it was gonna to do with your player’s brain too, liquefy it. At that point, coaches should get their athletic directors to lease helmets. But that became politics. Administrators. Billy Lee would like to throw them into the bullring with the gear their budgets permitted. Get Governor “Moonbeam” Brown into the deal too, with his law to limit “full-contact” in practice. What the fuck did that mean? Why did he give a shit? Shouldn’t he be concentrating on jobs, putting people to work instead of worrying about how folks played?
That reminded him, Whitman had called to have a meeting. The school year hadn’t even started and Billy Lee already had to go to the principal’s office.
That was becoming tradition too.
There were two Martinez’s on the team. Cousins. Tackler would be Pablo and the bull was Sergio, an agile, tough little guy. Mostly, they were all little. They’d get stocky as they aged, but they stayed low to the ground. Finding a six-foot Mexican was like coming across a pileated woodpecker out in the woods. They showed up only now and again.
“Sergio, get your horns out.”
The boy kicked back dust with his cleats, pantomiming a bull about to charge.
Billy Lee liked this kid.
He didn’t know Pablo’s parents, but the whole family lived out in Philo on a compound with a few other Mexican families. Maybe it was all the same Martinez clan? He had learned that most Mexicans in The Valley were from the same part of Mexico, and if they weren’t related, they were marrying into each other’s families pretty damn fast. Into some of the old Valley families too. It definitely couldn’t hurt that gene pool. But when he went to the high school, anglos and Mex didn’t mix much, although he’d played three sports with Sergio’s father, “Calaca,” who was skinny and could run. Great teammate. That was back when A.V.H.S. was fifteen percent Mexican. Now the tables were turned. White flight. Or at least a collective honky commute. Most anglos sent their kids over the hill to Ukiah or up the road to Mendocino, depending on their educational aspirations. Those that didn’t have any, stayed put. And the boys of that group all seemed to play football. One of the hippie teachers called it “prep for joining the military” and Billy Lee didn’t see how that was any kind of problem. Good thing something around here prepared you for a job and the real world.
Blood on blood.
No hesitation. Both kids had fire in their bellies.
Back in Billy Lee’s day, most of the Mexicans didn’t play sports or graduate. Often because of a language barrier they got stuck in Special Ed classes with the tards, as if being thrown into a country with a new language meant you were slow. Seemed to Billy Lee that it was the smart and shrewd ones that made the crossing, had the extra intelligence and adaptability. Maybe their Special Ed placement had meant more money for the school or they needed bodies to warrant their Inclusion Program. Anything was possible if it translated to less hassle for the administration. It wasn’t uncommon to have some of the migrants disappear after grape season, which must have been hard for the district to account for. Lots would go home for Christmas and not come back too, adding to the high Hispanic drop out rate and bleeding heart cries of racism. As a measure, they expended Winter break because so many families took an extra week visiting their homeland for the holidays and the school couldn’t afford to absorb all the absentees. ESL had become standard too. To give credit where credit was due, most of the Mexicans were graduating now. But Billy Lee wouldn’t call it an education.
Who was prepared for what jobs?
Sergio’s dad graduated same year as Billy Lee, but he was maybe two years older. One of those baby-faced and a born to bullshit. Billy Lee had actually dated Calaca’s wife, Marisol, when he was a senior and she was a sophomore. If the condom had broke, he could have been Sergio’s daddy. Billy Lee’s father had openly disapproved of Billy Lee’s choice for a girlfriend, as if there were a lot of choice in the Valley. Kissing cousins sounded fine come prom. At least you might get some. His mother told him, “Follow your heart.”
But it wasn’t his heart that Billy Lee had necessarily been following.
Marisol had been a cheerleader. She kept her figure to this day.
Billy Lee hushed that part of his past. Old friends would razz him if she walked by, but he didn’t think Ella knew anything about it.
As the two Martinez cousins untangled, Billy Lee racked his brain to remember if he had ever seen Calaca’s parents at a home game when they had played together, but his mind kept drifting to the flounce of Marisol’s polyester cheerleader skirt lifting as she kicked high on the sidelines. Boom chicka boom! He caught a fleeting memory that Calaca may have lived with a grape-picking uncle in one of the vineyard barns out near Navarro. Pickers were known for cobbling together living quarters from barns, storage spaces, abandoned cabins, transformed garages, trailers, calling what looked to be an expanded chicken coop home sweet home. But Anglos did too.
Times were hard.
Billy Lee’s grandfather had lived through the Great Depression and used to joke, “When I was young we didn’t call them ‘hard times.’ We didn’t know any different. We just called them times.”
He used to tell tale of FDR setting the Lumber Code and securing the Riley men, and all lumbermen, a minimum of forty-two and a half cents an hour, and how happy they were to get it instead of having the mills close. The Union got them a bit more, and some busted heads in the Great Lumber Strike of ’35. Police killed three loggers up in Humboldt.
“That’s how Big Money dealt with Labor, don’t you ever forget it. Cops, scabs, Pinkertons. I wouldn’t piss on any of them if they were on fire,” Grandpa would go on and on, handing down the oral history.
Riley’s knew what side of the picket line they were on. Pay your dues and go to work. Grandpa had been more proud of Billy Lee when he killed his first buck than when he collected his diploma from UNM.
“A degree doesn’t mean anything to a man trying to feed his family,” he warned. “Self-reliance is what you want to learn. A college degree just makes you think you deserve a job more than the guy actually willing to do the work.”
Billy Lee’s father held his tongue around Grandpa. Instead, he just looked at his gnarled hands. His arthritic knuckles openly disagreed.
“Where does the Farm Worker’s Union fit in?” Billy Lee had once asked.
“You know what a bracero is?” Grandpa asked back.
Billy Lee shook his head.
“And you got all that education?” Grandpa scoffed. “Go look it up. But let me tell you, the UFW isn’t a white man’s union.”
Sergio and Pablo’s parents didn’t pick grapes anymore. The may have come from braceros, “ones who worked using their arms,” and the defunct bracero program that exploited manual laborers from Mexico – Billy Lee did look it up – but rumor had it they’d moved on to the cash-and-carry self-employment of growing dope. Calaca was supposed to be some kind of a big time drug dealer. That’s how he fed his family. Hard to believe by where he lived and the truck he drove. Or that anything in Boonville could be big time.
Sergio got up from another tackle, legs pumping.
When he got home, Billy Lee would check his old yearbooks to see if Sergio’s uncle had graduated with him and Calaca. Or at least made it to school for a picture day. Maybe sneak a peak at Marisol and her pom poms too.
A speck of a kid skittered into Sergio, who easily straight-armed him to the ground. Billy Lee decided to give his almost might-abeen son a bigger challenge.
“Tooey” was short for Tuigamala, a Samoan from one of the group homes that took in juvenile delinquents for the state. There was a spate of them around the county, many with snake pit reputations and sordid pasts, including the infamous Jim Jones who his father met when he arrived with a slew of foster kids he called his “Rainbow Family” as he expanded his People’s Temple cult out in Redwood Valley. But Tooey’s place seemed fine and had a boot camp athletic approach that worked to organize the muddled teens’ lives. He was originally from San Francisco, a rough neighborhood called “Double Rock.” A junior who was easily six feet, weighed a solid two-ten, and was not done growing. He supposedly had a couple of “cousins” in the NFL. Billy Lee remembered when UNM played Hawaii and how the humidity and islanders clung to you. Huge boys. Fuck corn fed. Poi and spam. Big boned natural strength. Tooey was of that ilk and a godsend to Billy Lee’s football program – all he needed to win league, if he could keep Tooey’s grades up and he didn’t go on any “home visits.” He had coached another group home kid, Wendell Dupree, who had turned his life around through sports and staying away from his criminal past, but when he went back to the hood to tell his family and friends he was graduating, he was shot by a couple of gangbangers still holding a grudge. Instead of a diploma, he got a eulogy.
Things were complicated. Even in Boonville.
Sergio was rocked to the ground. There was some kind of crack. Billy Lee hoped it wasn’t an arm or a neck, but a piece of equipment giving way.
He blew the whistle.
Billy Lee hustled over and knelt down near him, hearing a couple players snickering from the ring.
“Cut that shit!’
Tooey took off his helmet, concerned.
“Don’t worry,” Billy Lee said to the overgrown kid. “Not your fault.”
Billy Lee would be the one listed in the lawsuit, explaining his sports philosophy and how players getting injured was part of the game. And how they definitely weren’t running Bull in the Ring.
Sergio shook his head.
“Anything feel broken?”
More head shaking.
“You know where you’re at?”
“In a world of pain,” a player behind Billy Lee answered, and it sounded like Durheim, the team’s Metzger-in-training.
“Next player pops off, he can take a lap,” Billy Lee said, angrily. “And keep running all the way home. This is your teammate!”
There was silence.
Sergio took three big breaths.
“Soy bien,” he said, trying to save face.
He tried to get up. Billy Lee put a hand to his chest.
“You’ll make it worse if you got a concussion.”
Billy Lee grabbed skin on Sergio’s wrist and pinched.
“Good,” Billy Lee said, then ran through the other cautionary questions to determine if he had a concussion. “What’s today?”
It took Billy Lee a moment to figure whether it was the right answer.
He moved on.
“What happened to you?”
“Tooey tackled me.”
English, even better. More coherency.
“What’s your name?”
“Sergio Juan Estrella Anabel Martinez.”
“That’s a mouth full.”
“Are you feeling all right?”
“I been better,” Sergio answered.
Wait until you’re my age, Billy Lee wanted to tell him. After your knee’s been blown up and you can’t count all the times you’ve been tackled.
“No aspirin or ibuprofen tonight, okay? You feel dizzy or like you’re gonna vomit, sit down. Call the doctor.” He looked into the boy’s eyes, and he hadn’t seen brown irises up close like that since he dated his mother. It spooked him. “Then call me.”
Billy Lee and Tooey began to pull him to his feet. He still had the football wedged into the cuff of his arm.
“Way to hold onto the ball,” Billy Lee told him.
A few players clapped.
Billy Lee almost threw him the ball and yelled “Team!” He wanted to throw that little prick in the back of his pick up and take him to Navarro to hunt for the real Metzger to show him where his sidebusting ratdog ways were gonna get him.
“Something funny?” he said, a full-grown man barking in that voice, ready to bite.
Durheim didn’t peep.
“Take a knee!” Billy Lee commanded his players. “Listen up!”
He looked at the rag tag group, barely enough players to field a squad, even for 9-man. Couple of injuries and they were in trouble. The ones with talent would have to play both ways, offense and defense. The bigger schools always tired them out in the fourth quarter having the luxury of substitutes. Boonville always relied on heart. No substitute for that.
“This is a team, God damn it!” he didn’t like to swear in front of the kids, but fuck it, they needed to know this was important. “You represent this school and this town! Understand?”
He looked sternly at his players, who nodded respectfully.
Billy Lee tried hard to run a tight practice. He kept his players moving, getting in their reps, constantly learning at stations where nobody stood around. That’s how you got better. That’s how you got in shape. Keep your mind on the game while your body gathered sense memory that you’d need later to react in any given situation.
It would help if his assistant coach showed up. Earl had coached him in high school and pop warner. He knew football, and discipline. He was the resident deputy in The Valley and, unfortunately, today had other duties to attend to. He said he was switching his schedule in September to be able to make all the practices.
“We win together!” Billy Lee shouted. “We lose together!”
“Mostly we lose,” somebody said, under their breath.
Billy Lee couldn’t tell who it was. Smart money was Durheim. Waggoner shouldered him, which was another indicator. But that could have been out of habit or to deflect guilt from someone else.
Let it pass, Billy Lee told himself. Pretend you didn’t hear it.
But instead of listening to his better instincts, Billy Lee marched three steps forward and grabbed the facemask on Durheim’s helmet, the one he had made considerable financial sacrifices to afford. Personal ones too, given the enemies he’d made with administration over his color choices and the argument he’d had with his wife about spending the dwindling funds in their savings account. He could have lifted Durheim off the ground, snapped his weasel neck. If the runt hadn’t made the comment, he’d made plenty like them before. Sometimes you built a team the same way you tended a garden – you pull the fuckin’ weeds!
“You got something to say?”
He could feel Durheim trying to shake his head “no,” but Billy Lee’s grip and arm strength prevented the movement.
Billy Lee stared at the frightened eyes inside the helmet. Then he turned to look at the rest of the team, who was rigid with fear and anticipation.
“Tell me something about pride!” he demanded.
“I will not be out-worked today or any other day!” the team yelled in unison.
Well beyond them he saw the soccer field, a rectangle of green. How they got water and an irrigation system, he’d never know. Only fertile patch between here and the vineyards. Eighth wonder of the world. Adults used it for a soccer league on weekends and crowds showed up, complete with umbrellas and shade tents and a taco stand and Mexican snacks, churros and ice cream. More people than used to come to the old softball league, even in its heyday. And right now almost twice as many players than were on his football team were running around on real grass in what seemed to be an orderly fashion. A couple years ago, the soccer team had won the Nor Cal state championship. The first time in the history of AVHS sports that any team had won any kind state championship. Soccer. Billy Lee could hardly say the word without spitting. They didn’t even offer it we he was in high school.
He looked back down at Durheim.
His poor Mom had three other older versions just like him. You’d think if that many snakes came out of a hole, you’d plug it up. Billy Lee had coached them all too, wondering the whole time if it was better to admit defeat, bounce them off the team and forfeit games for lack of bodies. Durheim’s dad was a shiftless piece of shit. Did a little of this, a little of that. Lots of nothing. Part of the perpetual horseshoe game outside the Navarro store. There’s something they could win state in. Get Durheim’s dad to coach.
He let go of the boy’s facemask.
“And when I say pride?” Billy Lee asked.
“Panther!” the whole team responded, including Durheim.
“Now everyone take a lap!” Billy Lee commanded.
The players jumped to their feet and took off at a steady pace around the outskirts of the field, taking a right angle toward the baseball diamond’s back stop at the far end of the school’s boundaries. Billy Lee watched them go. He’d give anything to run like that again, without pain. No doubt, he’d push it to the limit and end up injured all over again. He saw Waggoner shove Durheim again with his shoulder pad. The smaller boy bounced over towards Bloyd, who knocked him the other way. Then Sergio popped him with a two-handed arm shuck and Durheim spun to the ground. The bullied boy scrambled to his feet, stood for a confused moment, as if taking in his limited options that would become even more constrained as his life went on, then chased after the pack that was leaving him behind.