Honey, There’s A Lineman In The Kitchen
The first thing you want to do as a lineman is to get into a squat. If you’re on the right side of the line, left butt cheek tenderly kissing the right cheek of your friend Matt, you want to clamp down that right hand on your thigh. You might feel it trembling from the squat—probably shouldn’t have skipped the stretch. Stick your left hand up, ready to defend the quarterback behind you from anyone rushing towards them with malice in their heart. If you’re feeling dangerous, wriggle your fingers a bit. Now the enemy knows they’re in trouble.
With my makeshift drill finished, I straighten up from the squat and make my way across the kitchen to check on my mouthguard. The mouthguard is struggling to stay afloat amidst a turbulent sea of boiling water whose heat I feel with my hand above it. I fish it out, rinse it under cold water for a second, and shove it in my mouth. When it no longer feels like I’m biting down on a chew toy, I take the guard out and put it back into cold water to let it finish setting.
I move on to giving the rest of my body a fighting chance. The discomfort of the groin cup is preferable to having my genealogical tree prematurely trimmed, but only barely. I slip into my girdle, jumping a little to get it fully on. It’s a pair of long white underwear with built-in thigh pads. Once it’s on, I make a fist and slam against my thigh, pleased with the thud that it makes in response.
My shoulder pads are next, confusingly extending beyond their namesake’s jurisdiction to also cover my back and chest with dark gray plates. The pads dig into my chest as I reach over to pick up my helmet, and I make a mental note to loosen them up. I stand before the mirror as I don the matte blue helmet, anticipating the striking image of a warrior I will see before me once it’s on.
I look like a bobble head.
Stuyvesant High School isn’t particularly well-known for its athletics. It’s a public school with one extra step—all potential students have to take what’s known as the SHSAT to gain admission. Many of the 850 students in each grade get access to resources that they otherwise could never have afforded and an express ticket to colleges they could never have dreamed of.
In other words, we’re all small and nerdy, and our best sport is table tennis.
Every year a handful of Stuyvesant students get sucked into The Peglegs, trekking down the steps to the basement for the first time and coming back up with gear that’s either a half size too small or a half size too big. Our football team is named after Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch director general of the New Netherland colony, who had to part ways with one of his legs after it was blown off by a cannonball, but found new love with a wooden prosthetic.
During the regular season, the team makes the 15-minute walk over after class to Pier 40 for practice together. We step out of Stuyvesant and onto Tribeca bridge, a small gray pedestrian bridge plugged directly into our school that crosses over West Street, before making a sharp turn down a side exit and tumbling down a metal staircase.
For a number of years there’s also been a small statue of a white bicycle covered in flowers resting near the staircase. It’s a memorial dedicated to the victims of the terrorist attack that took place the Halloween of our junior year, in which a man drove his van into bicyclists and pedestrians along the bike path we walked beside daily to practice. The day of the attack, our practice had been canceled due to a coach’s wedding—it was the only day off we’d had in four years.
But none of that has happened yet. Today, we’re making our way down the path to the Pier, with the Hudson River to our left, a view of the New Jersey waterfront across the water, and a bike path to our right. The unreasonably large red Colgate Clock beckons to us from Jersey City, but we can tell the time just fine on our watches. We often joke about the Hudson River being radioactive, but this doesn’t dissuade Evan from jumping into it, proclaiming that his search for women on land has not been fruitful and that he must turn his sights to the sea.
I look past Evan and his radioactive merwomen to catch a glimpse of Pier 40 in the distance. A reflection of Manhattan’s limited wiggle room, Pier 40 pokes out from the city and into the Hudson River. Its side rises vertically, giving the pier the overall impression of a square donut placed atop a massive artificial turf field. The field is surrounded by a concrete perimeter with benches and walkways. Beneath certain parts where the concrete meets and hovers above the field, you can see the river through a small fence, waves ebbing and flowing in response to the Pier bobbing on top of it. Patrick mentioned once that, according to recent reports, the Pier is gradually sinking into the Hudson. We celebrated the news by jumping up and down in sync to see if we could speed up the process.
The homecoming game always has a special energy to it. For one, we get record turnouts, which for us means approximately fifty people in the audience. Another distinguishing point is that this is the only game that our cheerleading team performs at, and before the game we hold a joint pep rally in the school gymnasium. In a few weeks, the cheerleaders will be off to compete at Nationals, while we find out whether we’ve moved up from the lowest division in the city. For one night, we pretend to be worthy of their cheer. At the rally, the cheerleaders perform a well-choreographed routine while we cheer them on and try to find something to do with our hands.
After the rally, we make our way to the locker room, which is really just a small section of a parking lot within the Pier. Looking past Coach Tauber, who’s yelling at us to warm up and just yelling in general, I spot Hao squatted over and taking a bite out of a dragonfly’s wing that he found on the ground. Grinning, and with flecks of iridescent wings stuck in his teeth, he boasts that it’s high in protein.
Warmed up and, in Hao’s case, refueled, we continue our march to the field. I run into my mom and Jerry, who’s still wearing his hip-hop outfit from the practice he just came from. I thank them both for coming and blow kisses to my mom, but Jerry intercepts them and blows them back. We’re past the crowd now, and we take one final push to charge through a banner and onto the field. We’re immediately stung by rain—we had the foresight to schedule the game during the worst thunderstorm of the year.
The scream of a plastic whistle signals the start of the game, and time starts slipping away on a filmstrip. In one frame I get the jump on the lineman opposite me and drive him back, in another it’s him both jumping and driving. In a different scene I tackle the running back, wrapping my arms around his soaking legs and driving us both into one of the many puddles that’s formed on the ground, a tactic that leaves us both drowning. Another shot somewhere between those other ones shows me spraying Gatorade at my mouth and missing, and for a few minutes after that my world smells like orange.
Halfway through the second quarter, the referees call the game, and since we’ve managed to put up a solid lead on the enemy team we get to celebrate an early win. Ecstatic, with too much unspent adrenaline in our veins, and directly against the orders of the referees to take shelter, our whole team runs around a Pier transformed by a monsoon. Enormous chunks of the field have become equally massive puddles, and we alternate between pushing each other into them and jumping in ourselves.
I hear Jerry hollering in celebration, and see him pressed against the fence on the side opposite of us. He’s jumped onto the fence, sneakers and hands dug into its diamond pockets, shaking it alongside other faces I love. In a few years I’ll have an article about a car crash in Colorado bookmarked on my laptop. In a few years I will be shaking his sister’s hand at his funeral and telling her what an honor it was to be his friend. In a few years, yes, but right now I yell back at him.
Finding a suitable puddle to fall back onto, I let myself drop. I imagine that this is what it’ll look like when the Pier finally sinks into the bottom of the river, and I know that this too, like many things, will come to pass. But for this moment, I dig my fingers deep into the turf, I stretch my mouth wide, I taste the rain.