My father wouldn’t allow my siblings and me to watch football games on television. He disapproved of the sport; to him it seemed like combat, a display of brute force. He didn’t see any grace in the players’ moves—he saw no ballet in running, passing or catching.
My sister wasn’t interested in football, anyway, so it was no loss for her not to watch it on TV. But I understood the game and found it exciting. I liked seeing the attacking players move the ball forward, yard by yard.
I appreciated acrobatic tackles, where the ball carrier would be upended in a no-hands cartwheel in the air.
The no-football rule was hardest for my brother, who played football in our high school. He was good at running and jumping—he brought those skills to the game. Mainly, he was fast, so he trained as a defensive back. His task was to swat the ball away from opposing receivers, make tackles, and intercept passes.
To discourage my brother from playing, my father wouldn’t give him a ride to practice. My mother worked all day and couldn’t take him, either. So my brother rode his bicycle to the field. The ride was ten miles in one direction—“a workout in itself,” my brother explained.
One time, I asked him what he had done at practice.
“We learned how to tackle,” he said.
“Do you aim for the knees with your arms?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “We bring our fist down on the back of a guy’s helmet before he leaves the line of scrimmage.”
He made a motion to show how he would punch the back of someone’s head.
“Is that a tackle?” I asked.
“It flattens the guy before he starts to run.”
My brother was younger than I was, but he was bigger and stronger.
His fist-to-helmet move impressed me.
My father took me to a bookstore in the nearby college town. He showed me a display of coffee mugs, T-shirts and framed prints featuring the university’s trademark, a mountain lion. “I did the artwork for these,” he said.
I looked closely at the images. The edges and shading defined shape and volume, yet were not photographic. The drawings were works of art.
My father wandered around the store and found a large-format book that contained color plates of tropical butterflies. “I’ll buy this with my freelance money,” he said.
Out on the street, my father and I saw a poster that looked like an advertisement for the movie Jaws. But instead of the word “Jaws,” the headline read “Joe’s.” The first name of the university’s football coach was Joe. The players were Joe’s team. They were strong and fierce, like sharks, and they performed for Joe. On Joe’s orders, they would tear apart and swallow any opponent.
“I like that idea,” my father said.
I stole some tobacco from a can in my father’s “studio” and rolled a cigarette using a glue-strip paper. My cigarette was lumpy—fat in the middle but thin at the ends. It looked like a pregnant snake. I took it to my bedroom and smoked it. I thought no one would see me that way.
Presently, my brother said to me, “I know you’re smoking the old man’s tobacco.”
“I’d smoke stronger stuff,” I said, “but I don’t have any.”
“I’ll show you something,” he said.
He led me to the top of the nearby ridge. We rode our bicycles uphill, walked the last steep stretch, and parked on a gravel pull-off. We hiked into the woods, staying on the top of the hill line as we went. When we came to a clearing, my brother pointed out several plants with palmate leaves. “I dropped some seeds here,” he said. “They’re growing fast.”
“I didn’t know you had seeds,” I said.
“That’s all I had.”
The plants stood on a patch of cleared earth. They looked healthy—leafy and bright green. Who knew if they would be potent? In our area the soil was loamy, the days rainy. We didn’t have the sunny, dry climate that would support ten-foot stalks of marijuana.
At dinner, my father asked my mother for money. “I just need a few dollars,” he said.
“Why don’t you use your own money?” she asked. “You made prints for the university.”
“I bought a butterfly book,” he said. “It was expensive.”
“You know,” she said, “I support this family.”
“You don’t support me,” he said. “If I need money, I’ll get it.”
She handed him a bill, and he pocketed it. Later, I noticed he was gone. I didn’t have to ask where he was. No one had to ask. Everyone in my family knew he was at the local bar, probably sitting alone, drinking until he was ready to come home. All of us hoped he would be quiet when he arrived.
My brother gave me some leaves from his plants on the hill. “Smoke ’em if you got ’em,” he said.
I waited a couple of days, then rolled the leaves in a cigarette paper and lit the stick. The smoke was sharp, like a burning lawn, without much fragrance.
I turned on the television and saw a man threatened with death. I thought the man was a goner. A bad guy was pointing a machine gun at him. The hero happened to be the captain of a “starship.” I knew the show was a fantasy, but I saw no way out for the captain. Yet somehow I knew that, since he was a recurring character, he would not be killed. He would steal the clothes of a gangster and get his own machine gun. If that didn’t work, he would use his “phaser,” which was more powerful than a machine gun. Beyond that, his first officer could use the nerve pinch to subdue attackers. If all else failed, an engineer on the orbiting starship could “beam” him up.
I couldn’t believe any of it. Everyone should have died.
My father called me to his studio—a dimly lit room filled with books on shelves. He was sitting at his drafting table under a small fluorescent light. “You’re going to leave here soon,” he said. “What are you going to do?”
“I’ll apply to college,” I said.
“You need life experience, not college. You should get a van and live in it.”
“What kind of van?”
“A VW bus, painted like a hippie-mobile.”
“I want to apply,” I said.
“OK, but when you go to an interview, tell them what you think. If they ask what you’d do to improve your high school, say you’d get rid of football.”
“It’s anti-intellectual. If you want football, join the Army.”
I stayed after school to go to a football game—the rest of my family didn’t show up.
My brother was playing defense for the home team. The opposing players were from a larger, richer school, the one in the college town. They quickly took the lead and held it.
On one play, my brother chased a pass from the opposing team. He was on the far side of the field and running toward me. He caught the ball and ran with it for a number of yards. I called his name from the bleachers, and my voice carried across the stadium.
“Rutkowski!” I yelled.
He turned his head when he heard me, but he couldn’t find me in the bleachers. But I knew he’d heard my call. He knew I was there to support him.
After the game, my brother stayed with his team, and someone from the stands gave me a ride home. I was filled with the story of the intercepted pass. I wanted to tell the rest of my family about it. I was sure it would be in the local paper the next day. It was the game’s best play.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of six books, most recently Border Crossings, a poetry collection. His novelHaywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute, Medgar Evers College and the Writer's Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.