Authors: Geoff Herbach
The Blood of My Foes Makes Me Happy
The next weekend, we beat Cuba City by 40 points. It was a blast. I scored five touchdowns in the second quarter, which tied a state record. After the game, I got so many texts from coaches that I decided to turn my phone off for a couple of days (after texting Aleah that she should call our landline if she needed me). Then me, Abby Sauter, Cody, Karpinski, and a bunch of others did what we always did after games: hit Steve's Pizza, where I ate a whole large sausage and mushroom pizza by myself. I fell into bed in love with the world.
Saturday morning, I went over to Gus's because he had an idea for a series of videos about dudes in pajamas fighting each other with different kinds of small stuff (pipes, pencils, sewing needles, etc.). Tiny shit fighters.
I rode my bike to his place wearing my pajamas. On the way, Karpinski's dad sped by me on his scooter. He beeped, slowed down, and said, “Victory grows from hard work, am I right?”
“Hard work,” I nodded.
“Why are you wearing your pj's?” he asked. “You look fruity. Have a little pride, Reinstein.”
Then he buzzed off.
Mr. Karpinski wore short shorts, even though it was only like 60 degrees. Who was he to talk?
When I got to Gus's house, Gus said, “Look at your happy face. Killing kids on the field makes you happy?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It does.”
“Spoils of war.”
“I love the blood best of all.”
“Hmm. Questionable, morally speaking.”
We sat down at his kitchen table, which had become our meeting place (used to be the corduroy beanbag chairs in the basement).
“I agree,” I said. “I try not to think too much about my essential bloody nature.”
Gus lifted his wad and looked at me. “Maybe you should think,” he whispered.
“I was joking.”
“And I'm saying you should think,” Gus said.
“Jerri tells me not to think,” I said.
“Too bad you're not a regular person,” he said.
“So you'd have to write college essays because having written several of my own, I feel I understand myself better and will be a better person in the future.”
“Really?” I asked. I wondered if I should write an essay.
“Yes. No. Sort of. I'm half bullshitting.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Only half, man.”
I thought for a second.
Essay? I should write an essay?
I got confused.
“What are we talking about?” I asked.
“I don't know,” Gus said. “You want some cereal?”
After I ate, Gus and I made a hilarious movie of us dressed in pajamas, holding tobacco pipes. (His dad used to smoke a pipe.) Gus filmed me wielding the tiny pipe from all kinds of angles. I filmed him taking mighty pipe blows to the forehead, temple, and cheeks. He edited the crap out of it, and we looked like we were expert pajama kung fu pipe fighters. Most of it was sped way up or in slow motion. Awesome.
That night, though, I worried about my existence.
Ghost of a Great Athlete Past
The next weekend, we played an away game at the Richland Center. It was another beautiful slaughter, which, yes, made me happy. I woke up early on Saturday morning and packed my overnight bag. This wasn't the best time to go on a visit because Northwestern had a bye that week, so I couldn't see them play. Didn't matter because I wasn't really going to Northwestern to visit the school. Aleah would meet me at the hotel.
Right before I got in Jerri's car (no, she didn't actually visit a single school with me, which Coach Johnson told me was abnormal), my grandpa Stan called my cell, which was out of the ordinary. He said, “Northwestern today, right, Felton?”
“Yes. Weird, huh?”
“It's a fine school. I'm not sureâ¦I'm not sure it's the best place for you, of course. I don't know.”
“Well, I really want to see Aleah.”
“She'll be there?” he asked.
“Good. Good. I almost flew up to be with you there myself. But next week, you know?”
He and Andrew were coming up to Bluffton for the homecoming game.
“Don't worry,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “Make sure you have them tell you about their academic programs. Northwestern is a very good school.”
He should know. He sent my dead dad there.
“I will,” I said.
“Good. Good,” he said.
I appreciated someone in my family actually caring about my college career. Jerri drove me to Janesville, put me on a bus, and said, “Have fun.”
The bus trip was pretty short, just a couple of hours. Two college kids sitting next to me drank straight out of little vodka bottles, then started making out.
“Get a room!”
I didn't actually say that. I wished I was with someone making out.
Okay, there's a kind of older football coach who isn't like the big-head, slick-haired coaches. This older coach talks fast and mumbles and says weird stuff like, “Get me a bottle of that Gatorade, you boob. Who am I? Your old forgotten granny? Show a little class.” Totally incomprehensible but kind of funny. I tend to like these coaches better than the younger ones. My track coach, Coach Knautz, is sort of like this.
So was Northwestern's coach.
When I got to campus, the weird old dude flat out told me, mumbling fast, “You aren't going to come here, Mr. Fancy Pants Big League Reinstein. I appreciate you making a visit to our humble little backwater school though.” When he said that, I thought,
Oh yeah? Then I will come here!
I think he was using reverse psychology on me. When I was a kid, Jerri would get me to eat fish by serving it to Andrew and telling me I wasn't allowed to have any, which made me beg her for fish, even though I hate fish. Then I'd eat it, gagging and choking.
try, Northwestern coach. I will not eat your fish.
Recruiter people are tricky.
It's not because I didn't like him though. I did.
And I liked visiting Northwestern.
Within ten minutes of me being dropped off at the hotel, Aleah was in my room. She did stay overnight. Good times in the hotel.
The host football dude, Antwan Jackson (another Wisconsin product but a Northwestern player), invited us to a party. He walked Aleah and me there, talking about how cool the football players are at Northwestern, what good students most of them are. “It's a different kind of thing here. A different kind of culture.” That's what he said.
Aleah nodded and smiled. (Normal football culture confuses her.)
While he talked, I stared at Antwan's ear because it looked like it had been torn half off by a tiger or something.
Not so differentâ¦
We were at the party for like ten minutes when two large dudes who smelled like the body spray car wash started shoving each other, crushing into people, beer spilling, everybody screaming, and Aleah said, “Get me out.”
We walked back down this street across from the campus. Aleah said, “I thought Northwestern was a smart school.”
“Are football players everywhere just assholes?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Aleah said. “You're not really a football player though.”
I stopped. “No,” I said. “I really am. I play football.”
“Yes. But you're not the same as those boys, right?”
I didn't answer.
We walked to the hotel in silence. We ordered room service twice. We messed around in bed in between. There were some awesome french fries at this place.
At 7 a.m., she was gone because she had to play with some ensemble at a park downtown. “Bye, Felton. Bye. I love you. Okay? Bye,” she said. She put her hand on the side of my head and stared at me hard. “Remember I love you, okay? Remember this?”
I nodded. My heart sank. She got on a bus and was gone, and I was alone.
I didn't hate touring the campus. Not exactly.
Northwestern is nice. (College campuses are often nice, I guess.) Unfortunately, it hit me about halfway through the tour, while passing a set of dorms, that I'd seen a picture of that very place in a photo album at Grandpa's house, that Dad lived in those dorms, that Dad had friends who lived in those dorms, that Dad stayed up all night in those dorms talking or studying or eating pizzas or something.
don't know my dad at all.
I pictured him with his ghostly Jewfro head (like mine when my hair's not super short) walking on those sidewalks, laughing, carrying a backpack, thinking about poetry. (He was a “jock” and a poetry studentâ¦that's all I really knowâhe eventually got his PhD in modern poetry from Indiana University.)
He's deadâ¦He's deadâ¦He's gone foreverâ¦
Thoughts like that can still crush me like boulders.
At one point, we visited an athletic facility with this glass case at the front that contained a giant picture of my dadâgiant black hair bursting from his headâcrushing a tennis ball. He was a national champion in tennis. The big-knuckled running backs coach barked, “You're a legacy, Felton. Wouldn't it be excellent to grow the Reinstein legend right here where it started?”
I'm not going to Northwestern
, I thought. The Reinstein legend includes dangling from your neck in a garage.
My poor dad. My poor grandpa. Poor Jerri. My poor little brother.
Sad Felton too. That Sunday was the last time I saw Aleah for nine months.
University of Sexpot
Over the course of the next month, I barely thought about recruiting (although recruiters thought about meâI got dozens of texts a day and Jerri screamed and yanked the phone out of the wall once because the constant ringing apparently made studying accounting very difficult).
There was homecoming, which Grandpa Stan and Andrew came up for. I didn't go to the dance because Aleah had another damn recital that night in Chicago, plus she was acting weird, plus I'd never been to a school dance and I didn't feel like treading those waters, even though Cody said I might be named homecoming king (I wasn't even on homecoming court), plus Andrew wanted to go to Steve's Pizza with Bony Emily, his best friend, and I like pizza, so I went with them and they talked about stuff I didn't know anything about, but I ate a lot so I was happyâ¦plusâ¦whatever. We destroyed Prairie du Chien in the game. Killed. I killed them, which apparently made Grandpa Stan weird out.
Sunday morning, sitting at Country Kitchen, Grandpa Stan stared at me. “You doing okay, my friend?” he asked.
I stared back. Andrew stared at the side of my head. Lots of staring. “Sure. Pretty great.”
“You ever feel sad? Maybe it's hard that Andrew moved to live with me?”
I stared some more. Andrew's stare made my ear feel itchy. “Me?”
“You? Sad?” Grandpa said.
“Sad. Sure. Who doesn't feel sad?”
“I don't,” Andrew said.
A year and a half earlier, Andrew had refused to come into the house. He'd burned all his clothes and shaved his head. He lived like a caveman in the freaking garden. “I witnessed your total breakdown,” I said, turning to him. Staring at him.
“That was then. This is now,” Andrew said.
“Back to you, Felton. You all right?” Grandpa asked.
“Iâ¦I think so?” I said.
“You sure loved stomping on your opponents in the game the other night.”
“That's my job,” I said. “Destroy.”
“I'd like you to think about that some,” Grandpa said.
“Think?” I asked.
“Meditate on it,” he said.
“How do I do that?” I asked.
“Think. We'll talk some more when you come down for the holidays,” he said.
“Tovi's coming down for winter break too,” Andrew said.
At that moment, my Farmers Breakfast was delivered in a sizzling cast iron skillet! Delicious.
We had a nice weekend.
And then another conference game and then three playoff games in two weeks, which culminated in the state championship game against Ashwaubenon, which was a struggle into the third quarter before Cody, Karpinski, and Kirk Johnson blew it open with passing, so we won big.
For three days after the game, it felt like the whole school celebrated, the whole town really. There were banners on Main Street and we all rode on top of a fire truck and the marching band played and the city manager, Tim Krueger, gave a speech about Bluffton values. (We value winning apparently.) It was on fire! November heat, baby! So much fun.
And then, the Wednesday after our victory, I felt that hole in my stomach and I slept in my basement bedroom one door away from where Dad killed himself. The recruiters texted and Facebooked, and I didn't want to go to Wisconsin and I couldn't go to Northwestern because of my dead dad, and ESPN had me announcing my college choice live on TV in a couple months (seriously) and so I had better damn well pay attention to what the hell was going on and soâ¦Sexpot U.
That Shall Not Be Named
No ancient libraries and big books.
Talk about culture.
First, at this not-named school, I was offered pot by a linebacker. He said, “You smoke up, man?”
I said, “Cigarettes? My friend Gus used to.”
He said, “Herb, dude. Helps with the pain. You want to chill?”
I had only heard rumors of weed up in Bluffton. Burner rumors about one-hitters and Dumpsters, and I didn't know what the hell and I got real jumpy. Before I flew down there, Abby Sauter told me people in the South are polite, so I said, “Oh jeez! Heck! Wow! Jeez! No thank you, sir!”
Duh. I'm a dipshit.
I'm sure he wanted to punch my dumbass face.
Second, they had a girl (blond girl who said she was a former pole vaulter) give me the school tour. The first thing she said to me was, “Wow, you're bigger than I dreamed.”
How am I supposed to respond to that? I said, “Why, thank you, ma'am.”
Then she grabbed my hand like five times while we walked around, and she put her hand on my thigh while we sat on this bench next to the administration building. And finallyâI'm completely seriousâwhile we ate a damn cheeseburger in the student union, she laughed and leaned back, then leaned forward and reached her hand pretty much directly into my freaking groin, which I found way too exciting.
âI jumped like a monkey on a hot stoveâ“
Wow! Whoa! Heck!
” And then I thought about Aleah and asked to go back to the hotel.
The girl looked really hurt. “Are you sure?” she asked.
“I'm sorry. I'm sorry,” I said. And I felt bad. But, Aleah. She was on my mind because, as I mentioned, she'd been acting weird. And, really, what should I have done? Do players really end up
to random pole vaulters on recruiting visits?
I didn't sleep a wink.
The remote control worked very well in the hotel, which was nice.
Then Saturday, I got to be on the sideline for the big game!
Third problem, the Unnamed team lost by three points to its rival and the jerk players yelled at each other and a couple shoved each other and they spat on the ground and swore a lot and pointed fingers in each other's faces. (I don't respect players yelling at each other for messing up.)
I can't tell you how bad that sideline smelled. Southern heat. All that anger. All that steaming football gear. Disgusting.
Then I refused to go on the football facilities tour. The shit on the sideline got into my body and I worried I might fight someone because I can sort of lose my head and go nuts and I was especially jumpy back then.
The running backs coach was very confused by my decision. He actually said, “Are you kidding me?”
“No, sir. I'm tired,” I said. (I think I sounded like a robot.)
“Really? You're not messing around?”
“No,” I said.
“Suit yourself,” he said, giving me that
You know what? Of course people want to punch my face. What football recruit accepts a visit invitation, then refuses to visit the football facilities?
Fourth, the next day, Sunday, the head coach came over to the hotel and took me on a walk around campus (which I'd already seen with the groin-grabber girl) and talked to me about his beliefs in Jesus, which is fine, except my dad was Jewish and Jerri is like a weird mixed bag of hippie goddess accounting worship, and then he took me up to his office, which looks like a glass castle, and told me I could start in the backfield the next year.
I told him I didn't feel like I fit in. “It's the culture,” I told him.
He squinted at me. He ran his hand over his short-cropped, hair-gelled head. He asked me if I like music.
I said I did.
He put this slow-ass Motley Crue hair-band metal song on the sound system (“Home Sweet Home!”) and showed me slow-motion football highlights. And he looked kind of emotional, like he was going to cry. And I said, “Holy shit.” I felt like I was living a scene from a Will Farrell movie (“Home Sweet Home!”). I sort of laughed. (Along with being a dipshit, I can also be a pecker.)
At the end, I could tell the coach wanted to punch my face very badly. He didn't try to shake my hand or anything, which I didn't mind because shaking hands with these dudes was awkward for me. He barely looked at me as he handed me off to the groin-grabber girl, who took me to the airport. She barely talked to me either.
You know what? That coach is a pecker, not me. Why would I be interested in the crap he tried to sell?
Sex and drugs and God and 1980s music. That's me? I don't think so.
I'm not going to name that school. And I'm definitely not going to college there.
Here's what I maintain: that place is a shit sandwich.
After the School
That Shall Not Be Named
Even though the Not Named people seemed to hate me, I kept getting messages from the groin-grabber girl, calling me hot and from the coaches telling me we'd compete for a national championship together. Meanwhile, other schools called me and called Jerri on the landline (she would hang up) and Facebooked and tweeted and texted me, all trying to tell me how I fit in their program and that their culture was so good and I thought,
What am I going to do? I hate college football culture.
At that point, I really wanted to stay in high school.
But Gus was going away to Dartmouth, Swarthmore, or Amherst College. Cody and Reese, my football pals, had already decided to go to UW-La Crosse to play Division III football. Abby Sauter would be at Madison. Only Karpinski would be left (going to college in town), and as much as I like Karpinski, he's not home to me.
He's the dude who babbled about girls' asses and shot food out of his mouth while we ate at Taco Bell and drove around firing popcorn seeds out of straws at pedestrians. And this: I could never completely trust him. He bullied the shit out of me when I was a small, weak squirrel boy.
don't want to hang out with Karpinski every weekend!
The football season had been ecstasy. I got to kill people in a societally appropriate way. But high school football was done. I felt done. What was I supposed to do with myself?
In mid-November, Tommy Bode, my freshman mentee said, “Why did you stop being so happy? Do you miss your brother?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I do too. I miss Andrew,” Tommy said. “He's the only nice person I know.”
I squinted at Tommy. “Really?” I asked. Tommy had never mentioned that he and Andrew were friends. Andrew had never mentioned Tommy at all as far as I could remember.
“I don't want to talk about it,” Tommy said.
Depression filled our hearts.
And a few days later, I got the worst phone call ever.