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After he and a fellow player on the football field gang up on a Jewish member of the opposing team and cause him a serious neck injury, seventeen-year-old Ronny leaves his elite all-white private school for the integrated public high school, where he discovers that the practice of democracy takes courage and loyalty to one's principles.
Ronald stood waiting alone. He was the only player on the field you looked at, the only player you saw.
Feeling the tightness of the moment, the Academy stands rose together. Say, maybe this is it. Maybe this is the one we've been waiting for all afternoon. We can't let those meatballs hold us to a scoreless tie. That's terrible. That's the same as a licking. Maybe Ronny'll break through on this play. C'mon, Ronald old boy. Hey, hey, Ronny! Let's have a score.
On the field an official glanced at his watch. Only a few minutes left to go. Meanwhile across the gridiron the High School stands were in an uproar. Boy, have we bottled up that guy today! Sure, he's beaten us for two years; but he's stopped this afternoon all right. Only he's dangerous, he's still dangerous. Watch him, you birds; watch that Pretty Boy. Watch that fella, will ya? He's the one to watch. Watch him now, or he might break loose on this punt. One play and there goes the old ball game. Hey, Goldman! Hey, Stacey! Hey there, Fronzak! Watch that man! Watch that Pretty Boy, you guys!
Ronald stood waiting alone. While the High School went into their huddle, he balanced himself on one foot, clawed the dirt from his cleats, and then clawed at the other foot. Far up ahead the two lines leaned over the ball. The punt sailed up, up into the sky. A kind of expectant "Ah" came over the Academy stands as it settled into Ronald's arms.
Take out that end. Take out that end, someone. Shoot, why doesn't somebody take out Stacey. He's been in every play all afternoon. Oh ... see that. D'ja see Ronny give him that straight arm! He's off to town, he's off to town. Go on, Ronny ... Ronny ... Ronny ... Aw! They've got him by one foot. He's down.
From the stands you saw him; he was blotted out by a mass of tacklers, while some player on the ground held one shoe. He was almost down, he was stopped, he was through. Suddenly without warning, as if by magic, he shot from that mass of arms and legs and bodies and headguards and torn jerseys. He was free again.
Someone slapped at him and missed. Someone else grabbed out, caught his headguard and ripped it off. His blonde hair shone in the autumn sunshine. He picked up speed, outraced one open-mouthed, groping enemy at his elbow, and reversing his field cut across in a kind of sweeping S. The whole pattern on the grass dissolved into a number of units, all chasing one man. Hands pawed at him, reached for him, struck at his poised body, jumped at his head and shoulders. He whirled completely around, sidestepped a burly figure, slapped off another, when someone jarred his body and upset his stride.
The blonde head stumbled forward, the body tripped and almost fell. His face was close to the ground, yet his feet kept moving like pinwheels. Once again he appeared to be finished. But somehow he kept in motion, kept on running, stumbling, head down, until he managed to recover balance. His body control perfect, he swung back instinctively into open territory almost without raising his head.
From behind a huge shape came after him, fast, faster. Ronald glanced back, his mouth wide open in fatigue. Just ahead was the goal. He saw the pursuer gaining slowly. Now! Now then! The body came through the air and leaped for him. Ronald stepped deftly aside at the right moment. The tackler rolled over and over harmlessly on the turf.
Go on, Ronny! Go on, Ronny, go on, you Ronny-boy, only five yards, Ronald; go on, there he goes, he's over, oh, that Ronald, oh, that Ronny, that's for me.
On the scoreboard there was a 6 beside the word Academy. Visitors 0. An official on the sidelines glanced at his watch. He held up four fingers and Ronald saw them.
Time for them to score, the way Goldman was moving. Plenty time for them to score. Four minutes to go. This was the moment when football was no fun. When you were all in and trying to protect a flimsy lead. Sort of like a bad dream in which you were chased by gangsters and couldn't run. It was all right at first. Oh, sure, at first it was all right, in the first quarter. Then you were fresh and keen and plays worked and there was satisfaction in the game. That was when football was fun.
You got tired and breathless in the second quarter and maybe knocked about a bit, but the half was ahead. The dressing room, with old Mike swabbing your face off, and the Doc taping your aching shoulder and fixing the cut on your leg, and Baldy patting you on the back and telling you how swell your interference was on Steve's runback.
In a few minutes, however, the agony recommenced. You hurt where Goldman had smacked you down at the end of that dash off tackle, time you were almost in the clear. Darn that clunk! And your bruised hip got stiff and tightened up under the pounding of the scrimmages, and you were sore where Stacey had banged into your injured shoulder. Your throwing shoulder. On purpose, of course! That's the kind of football they played, and your ankle pained where you'd yanked it away from LeRoy, their Negro end. Yes, you were just plain finished.
Then came that awful fourth quarter, and the score, and finally trying to protect the lead. When you were all in and wanted only one thing: to lie flat on the grass, to stretch out on that soft, warm turf. Yet you had to keep going. You had to keep thinking even though your head was dizzy, and at times everything spun round, and you were far too exhausted to call signals, and whenever the whistle blew between plays you realized your aching body and the need to sink down on your knees. When your lungs hurt so badly the only moment you could manage to forget the pain was in the excitement of play, lugging the ball yourself or carrying out some assignment. When your legs hurt all the way up, when your feet felt as if you were running in mud to your ankles, as if you were being chased by gangsters. By meatballs like Stacey and Goldman and Fronzak. Goldman's father, they said, used to be a bootlegger. Or a gangster, or something, anyway. Now he ran a clothing store at the corner of Main and State.
C'mon, gang! Mustn't let 'em beat us now.
Now we got 'em, these birds who expected to run away with us. Who thought we were a bunch of softies even if they were trimmed last year and the year before. Only four minutes to go! Four years to go. This is when you wished you'd never seen a football, when you hated it, all of it.
"Look out, Tony! Watch out for a pass. Hey, stop that man, stop Stacey! See, Tony, whad' I tell ya? C'm here, you guys. We got to get in and rush that passer. Keith, you and Rog and Harold rush him, will ya? Every play. That's the only way to stop a passing attack."
Across the field came the shrill-pitched yowlings of the High School cheering section. A girl in a white skirt and white sweater did a kind of handspring as Stacey brought the ball down to the 17-yard line, fighting and twisting and carrying Keith and Harold and Tommy Gilmore on his back. You had to hand it to that guy. He was a football player! So was Goldman. The shriekings increased as the pile unraveled. The girl cheerleader jumped up and down, irritating Ronald. Imagine having a girl cheerleader! Imagine girls in a school, anyhow. Then came the soothing, compact, full-throated roar. Ray ... ray ... ray ... Acade may ... ray ... ray ... ray ...
"Ok, guys! They can't score if only we stop Goldman and Stacey. Watch Goldman, Tony. Watch him and rush him every play. C'mon, gang, third and four. Here's our chance.
"Look out, Keith! He'll run, he won't pass, he'll run this time. He'll run, watch out...."
The field dissolved again into a seemingly uncoordinated pattern. The big fellow with the cut on his face went back, his arm in the rear to pass. He drew in the two charging Academy ends, sidestepped one, dodged the other cleanly, and came toward an open space, picking up speed with every step. Ronald ran forward, the only player in his way. He feared he might miss the tackle through fatigue, so he threw himself at the burly figure and caught him on the hip. They went down together, on the 5-yard line.
"Nope. No, I'm ok. Wait a minute. Just my breath ... that's all. Don't call time ... we haven't more left. It's theirs? Ok." He sank to his knees. This was when you hated it, all of it. When you wished you'd never seen a football, ever.
The whistle blew. He raised himself slowly to his feet, while the others yanked on their helmets and leaned over in the huddle. Keith was talking. What's that? Keith never called signals, he was the captain. So you listened. "Let's take this bird Goldman. Let's get that clunk. Ronny, play up close. You hit him high, and I'll smack him low. Get me?" The High School team came out of their huddle. Ronald could see them plainly now; big Fronzak, their tackle, his face red and bloody, and Stacey with one eye half closed, and Mancini, the other tackle, and in the backfield Goldman. The man to stop. The guy to get.
He realized suddenly it wasn't football he hated after all. It was that bunch of mugs from town. No, it was Goldman.
There was the play. He found an opening and dashed in hard behind Keith. Goldman had the ball and was straightening up to feint. Ronny hurled himself at the extended chest and arm. Keith was diving for his feet at the same time. There was a crash, a snap, a cry of pain, and they all fell in a heap together. While a hobbling ball rolled on the grass beyond.
The autumn sun fell lower and lower until it dropped behind the chapel so that more than half the gridiron was in shadow. Beyond the crowded stands was the tower of the gymnasium, below on the side of the hill the line of red brick buildings which had stood there since before the Civil War. The Academy had tradition.
Faculty Row, with the white houses belonging to the Duke and the masters, was deserted. Spike, the Duke's airedale, who followed the boys from class to class, who was always waiting outside chapel for the Duke each morning, wandered alone and bored across the road. Main, which once had sheltered a member of Lincoln's cabinet as a student at the Academy, was empty. So was Belding, with its ancient iron cannon ball used in the old days to heat and curl up around for warmth in winter evenings. And Hargreaves where the Upper Formers all lived, and the old dining hall now used as a music department. Everything was a deserted village this afternoon.
You stood on Faculty Row looking off toward town and the smoking factories in the distance without seeing a single person. The scene, usually so alive with figures at that time, was a lonely one. For this was the day, the day when everyone woke up and said, "Looks like a good afternoon for the game, doesn't it?" The big day for the whole town. Big day for the Academy, too. The day of the High School game.
Shadows lengthened on the field. The Academy stands, yelling, standing, sitting, rising again, were noisy. The opposite side of the gridiron was silent. For once even the girl cheerleaders were quiet and motionless. Ronald went back to punt, wiping his hands on his trousers with that peculiar gesture of his. He extended his arms. A figure suddenly ran in front of his vision. The whistle blew.
The pattern of the field dissolved into a hundred, a thousand ants, vaguely running in all directions. The Academy band poured down and formed up behind the southern goalpost, while the boys invaded the grass, snatching each other's caps, pulling at coats, yelling, triumphant, shrieking the score. One-two-three-four-five-six! six! six! six! six! The players leaned over and gave a soundless cheer for each other, then stumbled across the tattered turf to the gymnasium. To the showers, to the voluptuous warmth and comfort of that healing spray, to the relief of the rubbing table. To rest at last.
In the gym the downstairs door opening on the field was open and bolted back. They poured through. Inside came the familiar sounds and smells: odors from the dressing rooms, the welcome hissing of the showers, the clack-clack, clackety-clack of cleats on concrete. To reach the stairs leading to their own lockers it was necessary for them to pass the quarters of the visiting team. These lockers were surrounded by steel netting rising up to the ceiling. There was a door in the netting kept locked when the team was on the field.
Now it was open, and the High School squad was wedging through. Funny what a difference victory made. You could tell by their attitude they'd been beaten. Just ahead of Ronny was Fronzak. He stumbled as he walked, and blood was oozing from a bad cut in the side of his head where he'd been kicked in scrimmage, and his head was slumped forward in fatigue. The headguard in his hand dropped to the floor but he didn't bother to pick it up. Back of Ronny was LeRoy. They always said if you kicked a Negro hard in the shins, he'd quit. Maybe. But that boy didn't, although his bare shins were all barked and raw. Ronny, despite his aches and pains, felt almost chipper compared to the High School team. Funny what a difference six points can make.
Then he lost his chipper feeling. Climbing the stairs, he glanced through the wire netting and saw on the concrete floor a recumbent figure in uniform. Half-naked bodies surrounded him, and two older men kneeled at his side. One man raised an arm of the figure on the floor. There was a sharp cry of anguish. Looking down, Ronald caught a glimpse of a face twisted in agony. Gosh! Goldman must be pretty bad. He must be hurt pretty bad. Why, we didn't mean to injure him. We only wanted to put him out of the play, that's all.
Their lockers were warm and smelly. Over everything were those welcome familiar smells, the smell of wet sweaty clothes tossed into a heap on the floor, of the ointments from the rubbing table, of the Iodex which Mike invariably used for sprains and bruises. Then there was the sound of running water from half a dozen showers going full blast simultaneously, and yells and shouts and noises from each one.
"Yee-ah, yee-ah, great going, guys...."
"Nice work, Ronny...."
"Ronny pulled us through all right."
"Oh, boy, I'll say! Yippee!"
"That last quarter, Ronald, when you ..."
"Nice work, Keith ..."
"Nice work yourself, Tony."
"I saw him set to pass so I ..."
"Hi there, Ronny; say, were you hot ..."
Only Ronald and Keith hardly spoke. They were both thinking the same thing. Why, we didn't intend to injure him. Honest we didn't. We only wanted to put him out of the play. That's football, isn't it? That's hard football, isn't it?
Funny how quickly you changed after a game. Ten minutes ago Ronald hated them all; the charging, rough Fronzak, the Negro boy who got hurt and kicked and wouldn't stay hurt, and Stacey at the other end who kept smacking him down whenever he tried to pass, and Goldman, that terror in their backfield all afternoon. Now he felt different. He didn't hate them anymore, especially since he'd noticed Fronzak's head droop and LeRoy's bloody ankles, and above all Goldman stretched out in agony on that concrete floor. Why, they hadn't even taken his uniform off yet. Nope, Ronald didn't hate them anymore. Not now. Football sure was a strange game. It did things to you.
He pulled off his soaking, stinking jersey, undid the straps to his shoulder pads, and yanked the cotton undershirt over his head. Through the steam covering the whole room he saw Baldy appear at the top of the stairs and stand there staring around. Usually Baldy was the first person Ronald wanted to talk to after a game. Baldwin Baldwin III, the old Princeton end, was a coach but he was more. He was the kind of man you liked to talk to even when you'd lost. Even when you'd pulled a bonehead play or fumbled a pass that meant the winning touchdown. What more could anyone say about a coach?
For Baldy had played football. He understood the agony of the last quarter. He always understood. Wonder, would he understand today? Somehow Ronny didn't want to talk to Baldy or anybody at that moment. He leaned over and yanked at the knots in his shoelaces. Why, we didn't mean to injure Goldman. Honest we didn't. We only tried to put him out of play. That's football, isn't it? That's hard football, isn't it?
In his deep heart Ronny knew this was untrue. All the time he kept saying the same thing over and over to himself. Gosh, I hope Goldman isn't hurt badly. If he's really hurt, I'll never play football again. Never.
Excerpted from All-American by John R. Tunis. Copyright © 1970 Lucy R. Tunis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted November 26, 2005