Toes On the Nose
The afternoon following my
birthday party at the Country Club, I was in the driveway shooting
hoops after church when I saw Cole's van pull up. I walked over and he
rolled down his window. "Hey, stud," he said, greeting me with a smile
high-five. "I guess you think you're the shit, now, huh?"
"It was awesome, Cole. Thanks
"No problem, freshman." He
opened his door, got out, and went to the back of his van. "Here. This
is how you can thank me." He reached in and grabbed a huge laundry bag
filled with his clothes and the sheets from the mattress in the van. He
stuck his face to the bag, took a whiff, then wrinkled his nose and
threw it at me. "And my mom says you better pre-treat the
blood stains on the sheets."
I caught the bag and stared at
him with horror. He grinned and said, "Chill, bro, I didn't
tell her where it came from. I told her I cut myself and got
blood on the sheets, and I asked her how to get it out."
As I recovered from that
little scare, my thoughts began to drift back to the previous night,
waking my dick up in the process.
"Hey, Andy," I heard Cole
say. "You're zoning out on me." I dragged my
attention back into the moment. "Sorry," I said; "I'll have this
stuff done by later tonight." I took the laundry and set it by
the garage door.
"I'll pick it up tomorrow
after school," he said, and then added, eyes narrowing, "Oh, and
another thing...You left your spunked-up condom in my van. Dude:
You're welcome to entertain your women in here from time to time, but
next time fuckin' pick up after yourself, okay? That was gross."
I looked for a crack in the
driveway to crawl down into. "Did you throw it away?"
"No, I licked it clean! Of
course I threw it away, asswipe."
I was dying of embarrassment,
and Cole wasn't finished: "I hope she was worth it. You owe me, dude. I
never touched somebody else's jizzed condom before."
I groaned and hung my head.
I'd have turned invisible if I'd known how. "Shit. I'm really sorry,
man. I didn't even realize I left it. I promise it won't happen again."
He scowled at me for a moment.
I just stood there, tongue-tied. As he stared me down, I could feel the
blood draining from my face. Say
something, idiot, I told
myself, and just at the point where I was about to stutter another
apology, his expression broke into a sadistic grin and he started
"It's okay, Phillips. I'm not
mad. Really. I just like messin' with your head a little bit. Dude, you
should see your face!"
I smiled back awkwardly,
trying to recover my dignity. "Yeah, well, anyway, thanks for
everything. The booze and the van and the condoms--and thanks for
coming to my party."
"Everybody had a great time.
Even the upperclassmen thought you did pretty good for a
freshman." He walked back toward his van and got in. "I gotta go; be
As he pulled out of the
driveway, I grimaced to myself and grabbed his laundry bag. Real
Stephanie and I dated for
two more months. The relationship was intense, physically, but
she started getting possessive of my time and crowding my space, and I
started getting resentful. On top of that, there were a lot of girls
out there, and I didn't want to be tied down. We broke up the week
Homecoming. It was an ugly scene, with tears and recriminations, but I
was determined to make the break, and when I did it, I was probably
something of a bastard about it.
The relationship with
set the pattern for my relationships with girls for the next couple of
years. I would set my mind on getting a girl to go out with me; after
we'd been out a couple of times I'd push to get physically intimate,
almost making a game out of seeing how soon I could get her to give it
up for me. We'd have an intensely sexual relationship, then I'd get
bored or annoyed and end up dumping her. In the back of my mind I
wondered if I'd ever find a girl I didn't get tired of. Once in a while
I considered the possibility that I was defective when it came to love,
but mostly I was horny and on the prowl, and didn't spend much time
philosophizing. I wrestled with some guilt about pursuing sex so
casually--I knew my parents and my pastor wouldn't approve--but the
urge was so strong, and my luck was pretty good. The combination was
irresistible. And in any case I excused myself by noting that a lot of
the jocks in my circle did exactly the same thing, and those who didn't
were working overtime to be able to. That kind of rationalization isn't
exactly taking the moral high road, but I never claimed to be a saint.
Throughout the fall, football
and soccer occupied a lot of my time and attention. Soccer season began
with the Dallas Classic League tournament in August. The Classic League
was the elite league in the metropolitan area, and on the basis of that
tournament, a limited number of teams were invited to participate in
the league for the season. The also-rans got slotted into lower-tiered
I was nervous about Classic
League tryouts because my soccer coach still had me playing forward.
the gunslinger position. It requires you to carry the weight of the
team's offensive burden on your shoulders. I never liked that spot; for
one thing, I never felt quite fast enough, and for another, midfield
was always home for me. I liked showing off the ball-handling skills a
good midfielder needs in order to move the ball from the backfield to
the waiting forwards. Not only that, midfielders get to take some
longer-range shots on goal, and when one of those makes it into the net
it's a high-drama moment, because the crowd isn't often expecting the
midfield to score.
But we'd lost a starting
the previous season. Four new players made our team over the summer,
and none of them seemed any more adept at filling the empty slot than I
was. So that season I ended up playing forward. We made it into the
Classic League, and I actually got to be a pretty decent forward,
although I'd have changed back in a heartbeat if Coach had offered.
I had to admit I was glad Matt
had twisted my arm into going out for football. I loved being on the
football team. I felt a little like a fraud, though. I was decent
enough, but my heart and my best moves really belonged out on the
soccer field. For sheer love of the game, Saturday mornings at soccer
put Friday night football in the shade, as far as I was concerned. But
my soccer teammates weren't the tight group that the football team was.
And only one of my soccer teammates
went to my high school. So although I loved soccer more than football,
I simply wasn't as close to the boys on that team as I was to my
football teammates. I dreamed soccer at night, but it was football that
set my social life.
As the time grew close for our
first football game of the season, the freshman Falcons were feeling
confident. We were fit, we knew our plays, and there seemed to be a lot
of skill across the roster. It's all academic, of course, until you
face that first opponent. Our coach continued to be tough as nails
on us, but we could tell that he was feeling optimistic about our
prospects for the season, and that inspired a cockiness that was
We had all the elements that
make any football team formidable. Ryan, our running back, seemed to
have radar for holes in the defensive line. Ruben, our fullback, was
near perfect in providing run-blocking for him and pass-blocking for
Matt. Matt, to no one's surprise, had a first-rate arm, and was
on-the-nose accurate. Justin, the wide receiver on the other end, was
quick like the wind; it would be tough for cornerbacks to stay with
him, making him a great threat for the long pass. Back on my end, what
I lacked in speed I made up with my ability to evade coverage,
especially in short-to-medium range passing situations. Part of that
came from my years of experience in soccer, where you had to keep a
constant eye out for the big picture, and where evading defenders in
heavy traffic was a responsibility almost every time you touched the
The other part was that Matt
and I had been playing with a football together since we were nine.
Over the years he'd thrown me passes of every imaginable kind, into
every imaginable kind of coverage. And almost as often, I'd played as
his opponent, trying to anticipate his moves, stop his receivers. I
knew his game.
And on top of that, Matt was
my best friend.
Sure. My best
friend. That's what it was.
I knew his game. But more to
the point, I knew his head. I knew his heart. And he knew mine.
I would soon discover new
depths to that knowledge, though.
By the end of September, it
was clear that what we saw in the preseason was no fluke. We were 5-0,
against some formidable opponents. Because of our success, we'd become
the team to watch
at school that fall; the varsity team was struggling. Our games were
starting to be as well attended as theirs.
The sixth game of the season
was an "away" game against the Hurricanes, our high school's perennial
rival. My dad and my brother Danny had driven up to watch us, and there
was a good-sized crowd of supporters in the visitors' stands,
considering that it wasn't a home game.
We started the game cocky as
usual, but it became clear early on that they'd been studying us and
had game-planned us really well. The run defense seemed to have an
answer for Ryan's every move. A hotshot Hurricane cornerback
Jason McWhorter was too fast for Justin, our long threat; he was on him
all night. On top of that, the 'Canes had obviously figured out that
the connection between me and Matt in crucial short- and mid-yardage
situations was trouble and had to be neutralized. Early in the game
they put two defenders on me, and Matt was afraid
to thread that needle. He was always hard on himself about
interceptions and was probably more cautious than he should have been
about throwing into coverage. The Hurricanes had apparently picked that
up in studying us, and that night from the very beginning they'd
doubled up on me. Then, since Matt wouldn't throw the ball
to me, they could concentrate on containing the
running back and the other receivers. As I watched Justin and Shane
Moser, our tight end, drop balls and miss passes, I got more and more
frustrated, and more and more angry at Matt for not having the guts to
send it my way. And by halftime, having neutralized our passing game,
the Hurricane defense pretty much gang-raped Ryan on run plays.
After the ass-reaming from
Coach in the locker-room at halftime, we came out determined but
uncertain how to meet the challenge. We went into the second half with
a 7-7 tie, but as the third quarter went on, they were wearing us
down with possession time. We couldn't get an offense going, and ended
up with three-and-out over and over again. Our bend-but-don't-break
defense was the only bright spot of the night up to that point. They'd
let the Hurricane offense march down the field with first downs a good
bit, but always got them stopped short of scoring. Still, with the
short possession time we were putting in at offense, it was only a
matter of time before our defense would tire out and the Hurricanes
would break open the score.
Midway through the third
quarter we were at our own 40-yardline on a third-and-six. One of the
Hurricanes' defensive linemen was injured, so a time-out was called. As
they were getting him off the field and sending in a substitute, Coach
signaled for us to pass, and we huddled up.
I couldn't handle the
frustration anymore. "Matt; throw me the fuckin' ball. I can break the
"I don't know, man," he said,
shaking his head. "We gotta convert on this one. They're on
you like flies on shit. I'm not throwin' into traffic."
Ruben cut in. "Goddammit,
Price, throw him the ball. They got answers for everything else! Dude,
if you get picked, you get picked. We won't let 'em take it for
yardage; anyway, the defense is gonna hold. They've been the only thing
us in it all night. We gotta open up the passing game again. I can't
keep their whole fuckin' defense off Ryan the whole goddam night."
Everybody else mumbled his agreement.
Matt shook his head again and
stared at the ground. Then he looked back up at me, scowled, and said,
"Okay. Phillips, you better be there and give me a target."
It never occurred to me to
doubt my ability to come through for Matt that night. "This is why you
talked me into it this season," I replied. "Hand and glove, remember?"
Matt looked me in the face,
grimly, and nodded. I nodded back and said, "Okay, then, let's fuckin'
do it." We broke huddle and lined up for the play.
I'd talked a good line, and I
was confident enough for both of us, but truthfully, I don't know how I
caught that pass. Double coverage was with me from the snap, and the
defense was fast and agile. Competing hands were everywhere. But my
was focused on two things: watching Matt's eyes, and squeezing out the
tiniest window of advantage over my coverage.
From the snap, everything felt
like it was moving in slow motion. My body seemed to
its moves in response to subtle signals Matt was sending.
I ran a short
route and focused on him.
As our eyes connected, it felt
as though he'd put me in radar lock. In that moment our bodies
minds began communicating at a level almost naked in its intimacy. I
became an extension of him; there was never any question
As I saw Matt's arm go back, I
noticed that one of the guys covering me was watching me instead
of Matt. Big mistake. Faking a move, I got him to commit
to the wrong direction, and ran past him. Matt's eyes were
fastened on me and as he
released the ball, I set my focus on getting in sync with his pass. I
could practically feel the remaining defender breathing on me, his
so tight. He was hanging with the play and was still in position to
snag it from me, but my connection to Matt was not to be denied. I saw
the ball coming, put on a quick burst, moving just past my opponent to
where Matt had aimed it, and grabbed the ball out of the air. The
cornerback fell, and I took off downfield. I made it
twenty yards, to their forty, before they brought me down.
The crowd on our side of the
stands went nuts. Matt came running up, and reaching out a hand, pulled
me off the ground. We hugged, high-fived, banged helmets
together. He backed off and looked at me for just a second, eyes
radiating wonder. I returned the look. Then we both broke out laughing
like crazy men.
We scored on that drive, and
for the remaining quarter-and-a-half, Matt and I made that difficult
throw-and-catch into double coverage four more times. The teamwork
between us was a thing of beauty to watch, observers said later.
To some extent, this was
standard operating procedure between us, a product of years of
experience playing football together.
But there was something else
going on between us that night, something that wasn't readily visible
to the observer.
As I struggled that night both
to clear out the defense and to read and respond to Matt, it felt as
though Matt was pouring
himself into me and I was letting him in. My whole being was reaching
out and connecting with him. At times, in the heat of battle, the rest
of the stadium faded out of my awareness. All that was left was the
reality of Matt's body and mine, whispering dimly-comprehended but
deeply personal, perfectly spoken, words to each other. I could see in
his eyes that we each heard those words, and felt them; what they meant
was a question for some other time.
In any case, the result on the
field was undeniable.
Given our success reactivating
that short-yardage pass between us, the
Hurricanes' coach made a fatal mistake in his game-calling. He
kept the double coverage on me, even after it was clear that Matt and
I had their number. Because the coverage on me only thinned their
defense at other key positions, we were able to start taking advantage
of that with a vengeance. Their run defense broke down, so they began
tightening up on Ryan. That left Matt free to go to Justin or Shane,
who had both suddenly developed hot hands. For the remainder of the
night, their defense had no answer for us. Everywhere we put it, we
came up with yardage. We ended up winning 34-14.
After showering and
changing, we all got on the bus. Matt chose a window seat in the back
and as I got on, I saw him motion to me to sit next to him. The whole
team was in a mood to celebrate, and it was a noisy ride home. Matt was
quiet, though, which was uncharacteristic; he was usually the
ringleader in the after-game celebrations.
I was a little nervous. I'd
have preferred to goof around and celebrate with my other teammates,
but Matt obviously wasn't having any of it; he wanted me in the seat
next to him.
I wasn't sure what was going on with him. We'd just won
the hardest-fought game of the season, and he and I by ourselves had
succeeded in opening up our offense. But the experience, as
exhilarating as it was, had unnerved me a little, and given my own
state of mind, I wondered what he could be thinking. I had an uneasy
feeling that it wasn't directly about football.
We rode in silence for a
while. Finally I couldn't stand it. "You're pretty deep in thought for
a dumb guy," I said, testing the waters.
Matt looked at me with that
same wondering expression I'd seen after our first completion of the
night, then stared out the window. Finally he looked me in the eye and
said, "Andy, did that seem kinda...I don't know, kinda weird to you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Dude, I don't know...it was
almost like we were one person or something out there. Five times we
"I told you we'd do it."
"I know," he said. "But I
felt...I felt..." He paused and looked out the window again, then
continued. "I don't know, man. It was like there was this thing between
us. It's almost like
I never really knew you before tonight. Or...shit, that's just stupid.
don't know what I mean. But something was happening out there, man.
What was it?"
"I don't know," I hedged, and
fell silent. Here it was again. Only this time it wasn't confined to
the space inside my head; Matt had gotten caught up in it too. What had
happened on the field between us was just another uncomfortable element
in the swirling mix of emotions and realities that characterized my
feelings about Matt over the last month or so, and I didn't want to
think about that right now. I didn't know how to think about it. And
there was no way in hell I was going to talk about it with him. So I
smiled a perfect lie of a smile, and suggested, "I guess all that
kamikaze football on the lawn finally paid off."
He looked at me with an
exasperated expression. He knew a deflection when it slugged him in the
face. I felt his eyes drill into mine again, and for some crazy reason
I thought of being caught on a railroad track as an oncoming train, off
in the distance, sped toward me. At one moment, as I stared back into
his eyes, I saw them grow suddenly wider, and I felt a flicker of
mutual recognition pass between us. Fear rose in me like the mercury in
a thermometer on a Dallas summer afternoon.
But almost before I could
register it mentally, his eyes lost that momentary look of shock and
understanding. He shook his head and laughed, a little dismissively,
and said, "Yeah, I guess. Anyway, I won't be afraid to throw at you in
coverage any more, that's for sure."
I closed my eyes and let the
relief wash over me.
"Well, let's not make it an
every-game thing, okay?"
"All depends on how the teams
defend us, right? We know we can do it."
"Yeah," I answered. "But it's
a fuckin' risky move. We can't get it right every time."
He looked at me without saying
anything for a minute. Then he replied, "I don't know about
that," and with that cryptic remark he turned his face toward the
He was silent the rest of the
way home. I laid my head against the back of the seat and closed my
eyes. It was pretty clear that neither of us was thinking about
football, and that neither of us had words for the topic
the conversation was really about.
Finally the bus pulled into
the parking lot outside our high school gym. I saw my brother Danny
waiting outside with my dad. Dan was grinning from ear to ear. Jesus,
I thought; I'm gonna have to give
him a play-by-play. That's all I
I stood up, looked at Matt,
and mumbled, "Later." He gave me a perfunctory slap on the shoulder and
a half-hearted thumbs-up, and remained silent.
On the way back to the house,
stretched out in the back seat of our car, I kept seeing Matt's eyes
lock onto mine as he fired a pass into my waiting hands. I replayed the
feeling of wonder that arose in both of us as we executed an impossible
pass play five times. I thought about the bewilderment that spilled out
between us on the bus when we should have been clowning it up and
celebrating with the rest of our team. And I felt trapped by the
unnamed feelings that clearly gripped us both.
Danny interrupted my brooding.
"Dude, y'all were so awesome!
What made y'all decide on passing in tight coverage? Did your coach
send that in? I wanna hear all about it."
In spite of my earlier
irritation thinking about just this scenario, I was grateful for the
distraction, so I began to break down the game for him. As I made my
way through the recap, I realized I was actually enjoying my post-game
analysis of our play, and Danny was obviously entertained.
At the same time, a piece of
my attention never quite let go of its sense of dread.
Something massive was bearing
down on me in the dark, and I couldn't get away from it, and it was
getting closer and more difficult to ignore.
I finished my commentary and
sat quietly. Gradually, steadily, my unease began to rise again.
In the distance a train
Copyright 2004 by Adam
Phillips. Emails are always welcome. You can reach me at