by Vincent Berg
Copyright 2016, Vincent Berg
Walking down the school's main hallway, Taylor was surprised. All of Jacob's friends, who were so welcoming Friday night, didn't seem to recognize him. Yeah, yeah, that's what he wanted, but when faced with the reality, it was a little … disconcerting.
It was a long weekend, and as promised, Taylor spent it mostly by himself, though Jacob and his parents were never far away. He understood what they were afraid of, but had no desire to hurt himself. But he still had decisions to make as he took his life in a new direction. Unlike others, he'd calculated the risks of professional injury for some time, but his current alternatives left that previous life in the shadows.
They'd removed the bandages from his nose. It was bruised, but that wasn't unusual for football players. There were looks, but most seemed to be curiosity about his black eye. Several of his sister's friends seemed to be particularly hostile, but they were the exception. More than anything else, there was silence. There weren't any hellos, no high-fives, no hallway teasing. A few teammates nodded, but no one addressed him. Taylor figured everyone still needed time to adjust, as Jacob suggested. He just had no clue which way they'd respond after they'd thought it through.
Try as he might, he just couldn't let it go. During each class, with every stray glance, he envisioned the internal dialogues of complete strangers, trying to guess what they were thinking. Attempting to divine what each felt about his unconscious desires. He wondered whether starting out fresh in college would wipe the slate clean. However, he suspected his belief he could safely remain in the closet was a childish fantasy.
It wasn't until sixth period that anyone approached him. Three of the senior members of the team stopped him in the middle of the hallway.
"Taylor, you need to stop by the lockers after school."
"Why? Did I forget something? I cleaned out my locker, so I should—"
"We can't tell you what it's about. We were told not to talk about it, but the coach wants you there."
"Come on. Can't you give me a clue what's going on? At least tell me what everyone's attitude is, so I'm aware of what I'm walking into?"
"Don't worry, it's nothing bad, just a few outstanding issues."
Classes were about to begin, so everyone hurried off. As the hallway cleared and Taylor rushed to his final class, he considered their request. He hadn't left any gear in the locker room, so it had to be paperwork, releases and other legal issues. That didn't worry him. What did was what he'd face once he returned. Although the coach couldn't be a part of it, if everyone was upset it wouldn't be unreasonable for him to stand aside and let whatever happened play out. He knew he was being paranoid, but gays had been assaulted for thousands of years. Times may have changed, but it didn't mean every Neanderthal evolved at the same pace.
As he sat through his class, listening to the teacher drone on, he considered his options. No longer on the team, he could always refuse Coach Peters' request. He could return later and meet him in his office. Chances are he was assuming the worst. They were, at least until recently, his friends. While there was a slight chance a few might cause trouble, it was unlikely. The problem was, if a couple homophobic renegades decided to act out, the others wouldn't likely intercede. While the risk of bodily injury was minimal, it wasn't unrealistic either.
He wasn't sure what might or wouldn't happen, but one thing was certain, his curiosity would drive him forward. He'd never been one to avoid a fight. He knew enough to evade them, but wanted to know who were still his friends, and who wanted nothing to do with him.
With a little trepidation, Taylor entered the locker room. He'd been afraid no one would be there, leaving an opportunity for someone to … act out, but the room was packed. The full team was there, however they were all dressed in their street clothes. Walking up, he examined everyone's expressions, but they were all wearing their poker faces.
"Hey guys. Where's the coach?"
Boomer turned, calling over his shoulder. "HEY COACH! Taylor's here."
"Hold on, I'm on my way."
"Come on, guys. What the hell is going on?"
"Not until the coach gets here," Boomer said, staring him in the eyes without showing any emotions.
Sighing, Taylor dropped his books on the wooden bench in front of the lockers and sat down. Everyone watched him, hardly glancing away. They seemed eager to tell him something, but no one was venturing anything.
Coach Fredric Peters entered the locker room, studying his notes. He was a large man, like most of those assembled. He'd been a minor professional player, but was a tremendous team builder and always motivated his players to deliver their best. He had short white hair, a bit of a waddle and wore a red track suit. Coming to a stop, he glanced up, seemingly noticing Taylor for the first time. Putting his notepad down, he waved Boomer forward.
Boomer stepped up, taking a deep breath before beginning what seemed like a prepared speech.
"Taylor, after you walked out on the team, we discussed your … situation. There were a lot of opinions, so we decided to avoid voting until everyone had a chance to consider their positions. That's why no one said anything. We debated it again during practice on Saturday, and held a final vote today.
"Even those who were upset admitted you'd always been a trusted leader, and never made anyone feel awkward about their positions on the team. There were a couple people who'd rather not hear details about your sexuality, but we've decided it won't impact us. We'd like to welcome you back to the team."
"Look, I appreciate the support, but it's not that simple. It's a matter of the scouts, the college teams, the various coaches and the fallout when it's announced."
"That's just it. We—"
"Let me finish, Robert, this is hard enough as it is. If there's little chance of my making it onto a college team, at least not under a cloud of notoriety, there's no sense putting myself through the trouble or exposing the team to criticism."
Everyone started to respond at once, but Boomer spread his arms, silencing them all. It seemed he was taking the lead. "That's the thing. The news won't get out. We won't say anything. Even if we're not all crazy about gays, we won't sacrifice you on a political altar. If we don't spread the news, there's no reason the scouts, coaches or other players will hear it. You can be open about it, but we'll watch your back. We always guard our top quarterback. If you get taken out, it hurts the entire team."
Taylor shook his head, even as his eyes began to tear. "It's not that simple. My sister has been talking trash about me to everyone. There are several people, at a minimum, who have it in for me."
Coach Peters spoke up, his gravely voice ringing out. "A few of the boys spoke to the girls. They let them know that, if they continued bad mouthing you, I'll drop them from the cheerleading squad."
"Uh, you don't manage them," Taylor said.
"No, but I carry a bit of weight, and their coach, Wanda Bates, is not about to stand for it either."
Taylor nodded. The students who took her class had long gossiped about whether Coach Bates was a lesbian. He put that under his cap, planning to thank her personally, and motioned for the coach to continue. "How'd they respond?"
"Quite well, considering. They were riled up, but like your teammates, once they had a chance to consider it, they still thought highly of you. They were mostly just gossiping. Once I talked to them, they all backed down."
Taylor cocked his head, watching Coach Peters' reactions. "What about my sister? We haven't spoken, but I can't picture my father or her backing down anytime soon."
Coach Peters laughed, a deep guttural bellow. "Once her friends backed off, she quieted down. Like your father, she realized that if she makes a big deal about it, it'll make them look like fools. Calling attention to you means they'll be attacked by their homophobic friends for supporting you and not recognizing you were gay."
"She hasn't said a word since," Roberts added, grinning with an evil glint in his eyes. "She won't say anything. She's been isolated by most of the school. Those who might support her aren't eager to expose themselves to public criticism. Faced with social isolation and being kicked off the team, she won't cause any more trouble. But, if I were you, I wouldn't go home anytime soon."
Taylor ran his hand through his hair, fighting off tears. "I don't know what to say, guys. This is more than I could have hoped for. I've had people supporting me, but nothing anywhere near this broad based. If we can keep a lid on this, you're right. There's no reason for me to quit."
"What's more, if anyone attacks you for being gay when you're applying for a team, the public is likely to respond. I doubt any team would risk losing support from such a wide swath of their fans."
"I'm not so sure. Most teams manage to say some rather hateful things and it doesn't hurt their standings."
"No, but they don't like bad press. While it might blow over, the internal pressure to shut the hell up is pretty intense."
Taylor nodded, wiping his eye. "So I guess I'm back on the team."
"Not so fast," Coach Peters said. "I'm going to have to penalize you for missing last weekend's practices and showing up today without your uniform. Since you can't play without padding or a helmet, you'll be running laps. Next time you quit, be sure to bring your equipment when you return."
Taylor laughed. "Sure thing, sir. I'll be glad to do the laps. That way no one will notice if I cry a little."
Everyone swarmed forward, enveloping him in hugs and shaking his hand. Whatever they might feel, they were glad to have him back. What's more, they were willing to step up when it counted. That's what makes a great team: knowing you can count on your teammates.
Practice was interesting. Taylor started running his laps, but the team was struggling. The backup quarterback was having trouble making his passes. He was a phenomenal runner, but didn't have the arm for long passes or much variety in his repertoire.
The coach flagged him down after his second lap. "Taylor, get your ass over here."
"I haven't finished my laps yet."
"You can finish your laps anytime. Your team needs you. You can't play, but you can help your backup perfect his game. Get in there and get this team working. If you ever strain your arm, they'll need to carry the ball for you. Let's see what a future you have in coaching."
Taylor grinned, saluting him. "I'll do my best, sir. I'll make up the laps after practice."
Peters waved his concern off. "I'll count your yardage from this week's game against it. Don't worry about it. Showing up and being willing to work counts for a lot, but assisting your teammates counts for more. Now get in there, and let's prepare this team for the rest of the season!"
Taylor took off, running across the field in his school clothes and penny loafers, grinning like he'd just won the lottery.
To Be Continued ...
And don't forget to support Nifty, it's what allows us to enjoy these stories!