Infected Gator

by Gracjan Kraszewski (October 2019)

 
Football Players, J.C. Leyendecker, 1909
 
 

The Nampa High football locker room—red, white, and blue everywhere and all over, and not so much of the patriotic hues but directly related to the school colors which, interestingly enough, may indeed have taken inspiration from the old Stars and Stripes and, yet, even so, that’s not the point here, in the locker room—smells like a confluence of sweaty post-workout socks, armpits that have never touched deodorant, and piping hot apple pie just pulled from the oven and set to cool on a wooden counter where root beer and lite beer routinely spill and so freely mix.

     Ben and Hans walk past the players changing and shooting the breeze and slapping one another with towels (peculiarly before practice, not pre/post post-practice shower, as would be expected, even appropriate) to get to the head coach’s cramped office. Herb Johnson—Nampa High Bulldogs football head coach, “Head Ball Coach” his self-fashioned moniker around here, BS Kinesiology, M.Ed.—sits behind his desk, his eyes scanning something on a computer screen. Johnson actually has a whistle drooped around his neck, one that looks like he’s a last minute actor flown in to look like he’s playing a coach and this is what they had in wardrobe. He has a thick neck. Johnson is a big guy and you can tell this even with him sitting down. He’s wearing a white visor. His skin is tan. It’s leathery, especially around his neck. He really has a tree trunk sized neck. He’s probably between 45 and 51 years old. His hands are thick and meaty. He has many rings on his fingers. One is a wedding band. It’s one of those industrial, larger sized, gray wedding bands. Johnson’s office doesn’t smell like the rest of the locker room. It smells like banana crème suntan lotion. He looks up from his computer at the sound of Hans’ knock on the door. He smiles and tells them to come in and sit down.

     “If you want someone who knows football inside out, someone who diagrams plays in his sleep, someone who makes the football mind of Idaho sports legend Kellen Moore look infantile,” Mikloff explains to Coach Johnson, “then Benjamin TyVole is not your man. You see, Coach, Ben knows nothing about football. I don’t even know if he understands the rules. But all this is beside the point, because there is no one, and I mean no one, on the face of the earth or throughout the course of history, who knows how to prepare a football team for game day better than Benjamin TyVole. In the field of sports training, he’s second to none.”

     “Hans,” Coach Johnson says. “I’m not looking for something revolutionary. I thought I made that pretty clear when we spoke over the phone. The lack of football knowledge doesn’t matter to me. I know football, my staff knows football, my guys know football. Shoot, even the trainer girls know football. I need an Ess’n’SEE (S&C).[1] I need someone who’ll get the guys bigger, faster, stronger. Nothin’ illegal, of course. Within all the boundaries of the rules, someone who’ll get the guys in incredible shape. Shoot, near elite even. Someone who’ll get ’em ready to play and someone that’ll help them recover for the next game. Are you that guy, Ben?”

     Johnson stares directly at Ben. Not looks. Not looks at. Stares.

     Ben opens his mouth to respond, but Mikloff beats him to the punch.

     “Coach Johnson,” Hans says, seguing into his rendition of a north New Jersey, South Orange-attended-at-least-three-semesters-at-Seton-Hall-University-accent, “Coach Johnny Appelseedyunderbelly, yeah. Dees-he the right g-eye for-thah job? Pleeee-ase’geta-boudit. (and then the accent is gone, like a summer sunny rainstorm arriving and leaving without warning) Let’s take a look at Mr. TyVole’s resume and allow his accomplishments to speak for themselves.”

     Mikloff pulls out a purple binder from his backpack. He removes a few yellow papers. “Ten years ago, Ben was on a safari expedition to Tanzania. He was supposed to stay a month but ended up remaining there for three times ten fortnights an—"

     “Excuse me,” Coach Johnson interjects, “what does this have to do with football? I’m all about football. If it’s not about football then I’m not really interested. I’m interested in football. Ask my wife if you don’t believe me. I read pulp novels about football in bubble baths. You can check with my wife. Our wedding? Not football themed. But basically everything else has been. Our honeymoon? Also not football themed. You think she woulda’ gone for that, huh?”

     “Allow me to explain,” Hans says. “During his extended Tanzanian excursion—he was like, it was like, like, if my nom de familie be Nyerere, my prenom betta be Julius; cause n’importe quoi d’autre and Ima look’a-fool-ius—Ben had a lot of down time on his hands. Everyday he would go outside and watch lions fight. He developed a real habit about this. I was like Kant’s daily strolls in Konigsberg, you could set your watch by it. That’s what it what was like for Ben watching lions fight. Time would pass, and he never worried about it, the time, never had to bring a watch to check, no, he’d just sit there and watch. Watch them ‘play fight’ I guess is the more accurate description. But look, Ben took notes. Oodles and old world ramen noodles of notes, sir.[2] And when he got back to the States, well, he incorporated some of the lions’ fighting techniques into his own methodological, pedagogical, philosophical meta-system personal training.”

     Johnson tries to interrupt. He fails.

     “One moment please,” Hans says, index finger raised then into a tap-tap-tap of the air in front of him. “I’m almost finished. Upon returning to the States, the United States of America that is, the USA, Ben opened his own gym. It was here that he pioneered his unconventional style of fitness: a little bit of the lion technique, some Olympic lifting, a pinch of plyometrics and, of course, lots and lots of bench press. He didn’t want to go all out and do the Bulgarian method. Not with the largely medicore athletes he had then. However—oh’wow—Ben did make them do a ton of max squatting on top of a medicine ball, well, huh, because if you can’t actually lift real weights the right way there’s no point in learning to do so, that’s Ben’s philosophy in a nutshell sometimes, approximately thirty-eight percent on a ninety-one percent scale, I’d say. But so again, for those who can’t learnt to do it right, well, make up asinine workouts that train nothing, high risk no reward ‘workouts’ that you think will make those watching you marvel but, in reality, they’re like: tool.[3] Then there were all the yeah-foreseeable injuries and so he scratched that from his program. He’s not going to make the guys do that, okay? Stretching? Never. Ben’ll ask you himself, ‘does a lion stretch before setting off in full sprint after a gazelle?’ Now, wow, oh wow, wow, I could go on all day about his program but I just think it’s best if you see it for yourself.”

     “Ben,” Coach Johnson says, “and I want to hear the answer from Ben. Is this true?”

     Hans had stuck to the script perfectly. So much so he had said all of Ben’s lines for him. But had Hans not said them, Ben wouldn’t have. He wasn’t going to lie, regardless if a job was on the line.

     Ben shakes his head, “No. None of that is true.”

     Mikloff glares at Ben. Johnson laughs. His laugh sounds like wet tennis shoes bouncing around inside a clothes dryer. “Could you guys step out of the office for a second? I have to make a call.”

     “Herb,” Johnson says, over the phone to his assistant. “I don’t even know where to begin. This guy, two guys actually, are here interviewing for the Ess’n’SEE job and I think they’re both crazy. Shoot, I know one of them is for sure. Anyways, they’re harmless. Our guys need a break from practice and I think this might be the perfect thing. Whatever they wanna to do, let ’em. Just so long as they respect the Football, The Game, Herb. Respect. The. Game. Always. Have one of the equipment managers film it, what they do, ‘cause I wanna see this later. But don’t tell the players a thing. Just that these guys are gonna demonstrate some of their training methods, nothing else. Whatever they wanna do, let’m at it. Just sit back and enjoy, ‘kay, partner?”

     Coach Johnson hangs up the phone. Later on he would wish he hadn’t given Hans free reign. But hindsight is, is what, again?

     Johnson calls the two back into his office. “Okay, guys. Well-shoot, I have to say that what you’ve brought in here is unorthodox, but I like that. I’ve always considered myself unconventional, kind of like the one rooster on the farm who reads the mornin’ papers with a cuppa joe, so I’m willing to give you a shot. I have a coaches’ conference in Moscow today so I won’t be at practice, but my assistant coach, Herb Snopek, knows you’re coming. He’ll have the guys ready for your demonstration. Get the boys chompin at the bit, they’ll get after it a bit, promise you that, they’ll circle the wagons, boy. I guarantee it.”

     Johnson looks at the digital clock on his desk and says, “Well, it’s almost time for practice so the guys should be out warming up already. It was a pleasure meeting you, Ben. I hope this is the start of a great relationship between you and Nampa High.”

     While Johnson had been calling his assistant, Ben and Mikloff had been fighting. Hans was angry that Ben had exposed him as a pathological liar.  Ben was angry Hans actually believed such an outlandish pitch would work.

     “Okay, let’s put it behind us,” Hans says, surprised to learn they were being given an audition of sorts, if not exactly being handed a contract or any sort of inclination that their services were to be retained long term. “It’s your time to shine. Obviously whatever we said in there worked. Just please stick to the Ben, script . . . the script, Ben. Trust me.”

     “Infected Gator,” Ben says.

     “Infected Gator,” Hans replies, smiling and giving him a fist bump.

****

     The Nampa Bulldogs had been eliminated from the postseason a little less than a week prior. Although their season was over, Nampa was allowed to hold “official football related activities” through the second week of December, right before the start of the winter holiday freetime once called “Christmas break” many years ago.

     With coaches allowed to be around the full team for the next two weeks, it was the perfect time to get an early read on next year’s squad. It was also a good time to hire a strength and conditioning coach. As Ben and Mikloff walked onto the practice field they saw the team assembled and stretching. They were wearing red shorts and blue practice jerseys. No pads or helmets today.

     Johnson’s assistant sees Ben and Mikloff from a distance and walks over to meet them. “Hi, I’m Herb Snopek,” he says, shaking Ben’s and then Mikloff’s hand, each very firmly. In the style of an ex but never really ex because semper fidelis ex-Marine, etc. “I’m the assistant coach here at Nampa.”

     “Nice to meet you,” Ben says, taking the initiative. “I’m Ben.”

     “I’m Hans,” Mikloff says. “Ben’s advisor.”

     “I’m sure Coach Johnson told you he won’t be at practice today. I’ll be running things. Why don’t you guys come over to meet the players and then we can begin the workout.”

Snopek blows his whistle and immediately the players stop what they are doing and huddle up at midfield. It’s all very Pavlovian.

     “Gentlemen,” he says, “as you know, we’re in the process of finding a strength and conditioning coach. The workout you will do today is designed by one of those candidates. Ben . . ."

     Snopek hadn’t asked for Ben’s last name and so pauses as he points at him.

     “TyVole,” Ben says, raising his hand. A couple of the players snicker. (Snicker because the name sounds stupid in an un-American dumb last name type of way thought funny by dumb young Americans. Or, perhaps, an alternate theory: the players laughing have knowledge of the Czech language, maybe even speak it fluently, speaking it in steady streams of clear, cold water lucidity at home and so know Ben’s last name has the double meaning [each indeed funny, very funny] of, literally, ‘you ox,’ and the colloquial catch-all word perhaps most close to ‘dude’ as used by Czechs for many years now. So they know his name is, depending on one’s preference, either “Ben YouOx”or “Ben Dude;” each, no doubt, warranting snickers, giggles and ridicule. And so if this alternate theory is true, these young men are anything but ‘dumb young Americans’).

     “Ben is a well known strength and fitness coach who has wanted to apply his methods to the football field for a long time. We are going to be evaluating him and his methods to see if they are a good fit for our program. But remember,” Snopek pauses and raises his hand, his eyes scanning the players, “you too are being evaluated. Last year is history. Next year is a mystery. Tear apart that gift-wrapping paper today, gentleman! Seize the diem, hombres! We need new leaders and new playmakers to step up. Every time we practice is an opportunity to show us what you’ve got. There are tons of eyes on every inch of your jockstraps at all times, gentlemen. Understood?”

     The players nod in unison.

     “Good. I want you guys to give Ben your full attention and respect. I want 100% effort. Ben,” Snopek says, stepping back and giving him the floor.

     Ben had studied Mikloff’s mission plan over and over again the past twelve hours. He was confident he could deliver. He walks up to the players and says, with an inauthentically fabricated booming voice and heavily affected false bravado (as the mission plan stipulated),

     “Do you guys know why I . . . am . . . here?!”

     No one from the team says anything. Ben is very pained at the moment; the false bravado. It really is so false. But they, the players, are used to many speeches beginning in this fashion. This is typical. Ben’s thinking they should be snickering at this, not his last name. All eyes are on Ben. One player, a Polynesian looking stocky young man, nods his head without the slightest attempt at subtlety. He’s getting zoned in; mouthfroth locked in.

     “Two reasons,” he says. “Number one is your performance. Number two is your talent. Both atrocious,” then he adds Hans’ phrase, the exact phrase spelled out in the script, which Ben thinks he must have audibly winced while saying it. “Like a piece of fish left out in the sun for three weeks or something.”

     Players exchange confused looks. Nampa had finished a few games from the state title on the heels of an undefeated regular season. Four players from their most recent graduating class had landed full athletic scholarships to Division I schools. Four! That’s a good number for a, for all intents and purposes, professional factory/farm system-type high school football program in California, Texas, Florida . . . but in Idaho? Wow, truly special. Ben pauses to let his words sink in. Mikloff demanded he do so each time he made a point.

     Ben continues, “If any of you think that last year, or the last few years, are acceptable, you’re mistaken. And not only mistaken but you need to leave. Get out, RIGHT NOW! Because not winning a game the last half millennium is downright embarrassing. I saw game tapes of you guys in action. You call that football? I wouldn’t even call it sports. Maybe intramurals, the kind where everyone makes the team and the teams are co-ed because the guys on the team just want to meet girls; they don’t even care about winning. Don’t even care about winning, let that sink in a bit, guys. You have no idea how much physical pain the thought of not being obsessed with neon numbers on a scoreboard indicating final results makes me. You have NO idea! It’s time to get real about life, about what’s important. No idea because you’re young and stupid and have no idea that life only goes downhill after this. You have no idea that those rare and brave middle aged men still basking in the long forgotten sunlight of glory days gone by, gone bye-bye, are beacons of light in the darkness of daily dogshitedness. And you know what else? You can’t tackle, can’t run, can’t throw, can’t think. I really think you don’t even think about not being able to think. Think about that. That’s why I’m here. To grab you guys by the abs and deadlift you into the winner’s circle.”

     Ben is almost out of breath. He looks over at Mikloff who flashes him a toothy smile. Ben had nailed the monologue.

     “Increase talent to amplify on-field performance,” Ben says, having regained his breath and ready to hammer home the final nails. “That’s why I’m here, men. To make you better so you can play better, fellas. The way I’m going to do this is through one simple drill that I’ve spent the last half-decade of my life designing, boys. It’s called Infected Gator, homies. Infected Gator has a little bit of everything you need to become an absolute football freak show, groovy brothas. It trains balance, strength, speed, toughness and desire. This one catchphrase should tell you all you need to know: ‘If you’re still Peter Pan, it’ll make you a man . . . not a lil’ bitch.’ ”

     “Hans,” Ben says, motioning to Mikloff, “hand me the whiteboard.”

     Mikloff reaches into his backpack and pulls it out along with an eraser and a few markers.

     “I’m going to diagram Infected Gator for you and then we’re going to give it a few test runs. Coach Snopek, can the guys get on their helmets and pads?”

     Snopek is caught off guard by the request. “Uh, just give me a second.”

     Snopek walks away from the group and calls Johnson.

     “Ted, the trainer guy wants to use pads. What should I do?”

     “What did I tell you, Herb?” Coach Johnson asks. Silence. The silence continues.

     “I told you to let the guy do whatever he wants,” Johnson says. “Whatever he wants. Stop being so uptight and enjoy yourself for a change. We’ll tell this clown and his idiot friend we’re not interested the moment they’re done.”

     “But what about injury? I’m concerned for-

     “Whatever he wants,” Johnson says with a distinct tone of finality. “Have you been videotaping this thing like I asked?”

     “Yes. One of the sports med students has a camera set up.”

     “Good, I want this on tape,” Johnson says. “Conference was cancelled last minute so I’ll see you soon. I didn’t even make it that far outta town. But buddy boy, I’m hightailing it home as we speak, you’re on speakerphone and I’m about to throw in the biggest dip in Idaho history, the biggest, Butch Otter style, so keep the camera rollin, brother.”

     By the time Coach Snopek returns to the huddle Ben has diagramed Infected Gator and is about to explain it.

 

     Before Ben can begin his explanation, Mikloff catches sight of Coach Snopek

and asks, “So’s what’s about the pads and helmets, Herbie?”

     Snopek presents an uncomfortable smile and gives a matching, wary, thumbs-up.

     “Great!” Hans exclaims. Some players stand up to get their gear but Ben asks that they sit down. “Wait, guys. Before we do anything I have to explain the workout to you. As you can see,” he holds up the whiteboard, “this is Infected Gator. The concept is straightforward and simple. This is the goal,” Ben points to the circle on the board. “I call it the bag.”

     “The bag is thirty yards away from the star of our show: the Gator. The Gator is the ball carrier. It’s his job to make it to the bag before being tackled and without fumbling. These guys,” Ben points at all fours ‘X’s’ on his diagram, “are called hitsticks. It’s up to them to stop the Gator before he can complete his objective.”

     “Everyone gets in their positions and waits, just like you see here. A coach blows the whistle and the Gator takes off for the bag, the hitsticks after him. If you want to make it fun you can keep score. The Gator gets a point, three points, six whatever, for getting to the bag, hitstick points can be rewarded individually or for a team stop, whatever you want to do. Sounds pretty simple, right?”

     The players nod.

     “There is, however, one final aspect to Infected Gator,” Ben says, holding his index finger in the air. “A twist not even the ancient filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan (Hans is a huge, huge fan. He considers The Village to be Shyamalan’s magnum opus) could have imagined in his wildest nightmares. The Gator is blindfolded.”

     Snopek looks furious—immediately, and almost the exact way that Ben’s brother Steve goes from placid to blowing his top—and tries to speak up but Mikloff holds him back by patting him gently on the shoulder before plunging a few fingers deep into Snopek’s trapezius which Snopek seems not only to not mind but even like. Snopek is tranquilized; just like Ben before his bouncer interview; just like Ben with Blanche Delilah (Blanche . . . Blanche . . . Blanche, Ben often thinks to himself, sweet female perfection, Blanche. Blanche, oh Blanche . . .). Maybe Snopek was somehow intrigued or mindful of Johnson’s words to give Ben and Mikloff a free hand. Maybe the massage was really that blissfully debilitating. Regardless, he didn’t say, or do, anything. He just continued to enjoy the extemporaneous and, reading his facial expressions, near sublime upper back massage.

     And so again, he says nothing.

     “I know what you’re all thinking,” Ben says, “this is crazy. But let me assure you that it’s not. Remember, I’ve spent years upon years designing this method and I’m confident that it’s foolproof. I was also in medical school for a week, in Brazil (obvious lie in a thick pack of them).” Ben drops his head a bit before delivering the next line of the Hans written monologue.  

     “What I’m saying is: trust me, I’m a doctor, okay?”

     Ben pauses, in the fashion aimed at drawing attention to the immediately forthcoming conclusion, then says, “In a few moments you’re going to get your pads on and have at it yourselves. Then you will see the genius of my system. But before that happens let me leave you with a final thought and take you, step by step, through the system. Let’s say that the Gator isn’t blindfolded. It’s still a good drill. The Gator has to use speed and strength to get to the bag, outrunning or overpowering the four defenders in his way. But he is blindfolded, hence the ‘infected’ part of Gator. Do the analysis: the simply uninfected Gator drill still requires speed, strength and football skill, but the added element is priceless. Because he can’t see a thing, the Infected Gator has to demonstrate what I term ‘wild-prairie-jackrabbit-abandon’. The point is that the Infected Gator has to run in a full sprint, in a straight line, and be ready to take a huge hit, or multiple hits, from defenders that he can’t see but can see him. Most Infected Gators won’t make it to the bag standing up, but if you are one of them that do, immediately come over to me after the completion of the drill and give me your autograph because that will be so amazing. Anyways, the whole point I’m trying to make, what I’m getting at, is this, in the true and ultimate bottom line: If a guy can run blindfolded at a target and take huge hits and does it with wild-prairie-jackrabbit-abandon well, gentlemen, I want that guy on my team. That guy is a winner, a 'we are the champions,' champion.”

     At the start of the speech, the players thought they were in for well-worn coachspeak tropes. By the end of Ben’s talk they didn’t know what to think. Was this for real? Snopek, reluctantly, breaks the silence. “You heard him, men. Get your pads and let’s do it. Jason,” he says to one of the smaller players, “you’ll be the ball carrier—"

     “Gator,” Mikloff says. “Infected Gator.”

     Snopek ignores Mikloff. “You four guys,” he says, picking players from the crowd, “be the defenders.”

     Moments later the players return in full dress. Ben and Mikloff arrange the players in the proper positions according to the diagram. Jason dons the blindfold. He seems jittery.

     “Everyone, ready?” Snopek asks. The five players in the drill confirm they are. The players watch with nervous anticipation. Most of them still can not believe the coaching staff was going through with this; that it had been concocted by a “trainer” wearing an oversized football jersey, especially of a CFL team. That might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back in the Nampa coaches’ minds that day: the CFL jersey. Nevertheless, the uniqueness of the drill got many of the players excited. It wasn’t everyday you got to see a true spectacle.

     “Okay, on my whistle,” Snopek says. The whistle sounds and the players spring into action. Jason only makes it about ten yards before he is tackled by one of the hitsticks.

     “No, no, no,” Ben yells, rushing onto the field and waving his arms. “Jason, you’ve got to go after it. At best you were jogging, you could have easily gotten five more yards. You might have even got to the bag. Let’s go, run it again-

     “No, I think we’ve seen enough,” Snopek says, he too rushing onto the field. “Pack it up boys, we’re done here. Thank you for your time, Mr. TyVole,” he says to Ben, extending his hand.

     “Hold on a second, Coach,” Mikloff says.  “You promised us a full workout and we’re not even close to being done.”

     “No, Mister, whatever your name is. You are done,” Snopek says forcefully. “The only reason I’ve put up with this crap is because I was told by the head coach you two were so absurd this might be funny. Look at you,” he says, pointing to Ben. “You look like a clown. And you,” to Hans, “you are one of the most ridiculous people I have ever met in my life.”

     Many players laugh. Snopek isn’t finished. “You honestly expected any of us to take you seriously? You’re comic relief, nothing else. Now get out before someone gets hurt and we’re forced to press charges.”

     Mikloff is speechless. Ben too. Coach Johnson shows up the exact moment Snopek has finished speaking.

     “What’s going on here?” he asks his assistant.

     “Practice is over, Ted. Someone’s going to get hurt.”

     “Is this true?” the head coach says to Ben.

     Hans answers for him. “Of course not, Coach Johnson. We are actually just at the beginning of the workout and your Lieutenant General here wants to shut it down.”

     “What’s the problem, Herb?” Johnson says to Snopek.

     “What’s the problem?” he replies, indignant, face red, flushed. “I just told you what the problem was! These guys are losers. They have no credentials, no knowledge, nothing. It’s all well when we laugh at them from a distance but when they are endangering our players that’s something else. They got their ‘tryout,' we had some fun, some laughs, but enough’s enough. Let’s end this before it gets out of hand.”

     Johnson isn’t convinced, it seems. He says nothing for a few seconds while keeping his arms crossed. His right hand cups his chin. He’s in thought, whether deep or not, only he knows. He doesn’t say anything. He spits tobacco juice like a summertime Kansas rainstorm spits rain. He is a good football coach, a good coach wins and losses, results/bottom line speaking, and one with a pretty substantial quirky side. He wants to see what is going on. He wants to judge for himself.

     “What’s the drill?” Johnson asks. “Have you guys done it yet? Show me what the workout is.”

     Mikloff immediately thrusts the diagram into the head coach’s hands. Johnson peruses it for a second, three seconds tops, then says, “Looks good to me, let’s run it.”

     Snopek has seen enough. “I quit, Ted. If you’re really going to go on with this, I’m done. But I’m telling you, someone will get hurt.”

     Snopek pauses and stares at Johnson to emphasize his point. They hold each other’s eyes for a few seconds but nothing is said between them. Snopek walks off the field.

     “Let’s do it, boys,” Johnson says to the players, eliciting a round of yells and cheers. Infected Gator is indeed perilous, senseless, and an insult to all real football training. Snopek is unquestionably in the right. But the players, in their youthful appetite for the odd and dangerous, are happy even to risk injury for the thrill of this once-in-a lifetime athletic experience. And it is indeed that: once in a lifetimeone of the few times ‘once in a lifetime’ is being accurately advertised and not to be understood as somewhere between kind of cool and maybe memorable, ah, whatever, you at least had some fun, something to look back on, right?

     The five players who ran Infected Gator the first time resume their positions. This time Johnson blows the whistle and the action commences. Jason, timid the first time, takes off in a full sprint. His teammates’ frenzied cheering fuels him. About seventeen yards into the drill the collision happens. The same hitstick who tackled him the first time crashes hard into his thighs while one of the hitsticks chasing from behind hits him across the back. Jason takes flight, flipping head over heels as the ball, and his helmet, pops loose.

     “Ball, ball, ball!” the players yell, as is the protocol when seeing a fumble. Jason lands on his butt and his blindfold slides off. In the fog of the ongoing action, even the blind frenzy one might say, he is not yet safe from contact. Another hitstick, continuing through the end of the play as taught by Johnson (go psycho to the last soundwaved reverberation of the echo of the whistle!) drives his helmet across Jason’s bare chin, rendering him prostrate. The helmet-chin connection makes a loud crunching noise—like a firm chomp into a bowl of fresh cornflakes bedazzled with almonds, or, better yet, a firm chomp-chomp into Hanna Mitri’s croquant milky crunchy almond brittle best in the world booza[4] sampled on a trip once upon a time in Beirut’s Achrafieh neighborhood—eliciting a few ooohs from the other players watching the action.   

*****

     The players are exuberant, high-fiving and slapping each other across the back. They’re fighting one another for the next turn to run the play themselves. Coach Johnson gets in on the action, too. The team runs Infected Gator again and again and again. After one especially huge hit Johnson sprints over to the player who made the tackle and screams at him, “That’s it, baby! Big money! Big money, atta baby! If I’d be one them D-1 boosters you’d be-hee’a gettin’ at least five figures and a new car under the table right now, boy! Headbutt me! Headbutt me in the face!”

     Johnson doesn’t get his wish. Everyone is having a good time and Infected Gator is being run over and over on a continuous loop. Infected Gator has now taken up nearly an hour of practice. The results are predicable considering a defenseless, blindfolded player is being chased by four non-blindfolded players and being lit into with all the force of good, strong high school athletes juiced on adrenaline and wanting to impress the young women watching from the bleachers; a few cheerleaders, some pep squad, the whole assembly ranging, in general attractiveness, from objectively good looking to everyone has their type to beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

     In between one of the plays Mikloff walks over to Johnson. He forgets Johnson’s first name is Ted not Herb. “So, Coach, Big C, the Big H-C, Captain Herb, Preparation H, what do you think? How would you like having this as part of your everyday practice program? Run by, drum roll please . . . Assistant Coach slash Head Coach in Waiting slash Offensive and Defensive Coordinator Benjamin Gert de Gopher-Bonk Saoirseson von TyVole!”

     Johnson laughs. “You guys have a great sense of humor. You don’t quit and I love that.”

     Hans laughs too. “Thanks a lot. So Ben’s a lock for the job, right?”

     This time Johnson doesn’t laugh. He gives Mikoff a puzzled look. “No, Ben has no shot at the job. Absolutely no shot. And he was never, ever being considered. The minute he walked into my office dressed in that CFL nightshirt,” he points at Ben and moves his finger up and down in the air, “he removed himself from the running. I don’t like Snopek at all. Shoot, the guy is way too serious and never knows when to relax. I can’t stand him. So high strung. Snopek’s like a bunny rabbit purposely electrocuting himself on the cow fence way out the back on Grandpa’s Dairy, that kinda stuff, you know? But his analysis of you two is spot on. Your client is a complete joke and if your representation of him is serious then so are you. I love you guys as performers, but that’s all this is. Comedy hour. And let me tell you, Hans, as comedians, you guys are worth every dime. Shoot, if I were you I’d hop the next train or flight to Las Vegas ASAP.”

     Mikloff’s face turns red. He gathers himself and prepares to unload a verbal assault upon Johnson when Snopek, having returned with some other people in tow, interrupts everything.

     “Coach Johnson,” a short, balding and bespectacled man with a visibly runny nose and phlegm too close to his bushy mustache to not be incredibly horrifying, the sight of it, says, “Coach Snopek told us that you have been endangering your players by authorizing outside, non school authorized personnel to conduct your unauthorized practice (incorrect because the practice itself is authorized and above board; Infected Gator is not) that, I may add, is not authorized by anyone within this School District. Myself, Coach Snopek, and Dr. Arguas have been watching practice for the past fifteen minutes and I am appalled. Sir, I am beset with a serious case of the willies watching this. My skin is crawling. I am simply appalled. Manipulating young men into participating in this, this certainly unauthorized spectacle, allowing blindfolded players to be cheapshotted, it is a disgrace. You are fired. Your relationship with Nampa High School is hereby over. I repeat, your employment is hereby automatically terminated, effective immediately. I have notified the superintendent and I have been instructed to inform you that legal action may be taken against you. And believe me, sir,” wiping his runny nose with the sleeve of his too-tight suit jacket, “believe me when I say that I am this close to reading you your Miranda Rights and making a citizen’s arrest on the spot. Sir, I am appalled. I am absolutely disgusted.”

     For Hans, this particular interview had been a true rollercoaster ride. Moments earlier he had been on top of the world. Everyone was having fun, the job search finish line seemed in sight. Then, Johnson told him what he really thought about Ben and himself. If legal action against Johnson was a possibility it would certainly be the same for those who had orchestrated the fiasco. Would it not? It seems to follow. Hans decides it is high time to make a run for it.

     “Benny!”  he yells, hoping Ben had read the last lines of the mission statement explaining the code words for scuttling the mission and leaving as fast as possible. “Papa we out!”

     Luckily, he had. He had read it all and had committed it to everlasting memory deep within the recesses of his heart and mind. Ben starts sprinting full speed towards the gate. Mikloff follows and soon the two are over the fence and across Lake Lowell Avenue. No one bothers to chase them.


[1] Strength and Conditioning Coach.

[2] “The best way to eat (quickpacket) Ramen? You put one pack of chicken and one pack of beef flavored noodles into a pot and once cooked you drain all the water out. The flavors have of course well soaked the noodles. You eat the waterless noodles with a fork while watching as many episodes of the long lost and found American TV series LOST as possible. Especially that episode where it becomes obvious that Jack likes Kate and Kate probably likes him but she probably likes Sawyer and who knows what he thinks but all this is really complicated because now the Others are involved and Juliet is involved and if you’ve seen all of LOST you know Sawyer eventually falls in love with Juliet but at this time you think yeah she probably is pretty into Jack and what will Kate think of that and what will Jack think and what are you, the viewer, supposed to think?” excerpt from Davis, Humanity’s Search, Vol III., Chpt. 2, “Hedonism and Pleasure Taking from the Celluloid Screen—Downsized i.e. within one’s own Domestic Sphere, Q.v. Television,” p.101.

[3] People always remember to train their chest, back, legs…few remember to train their injury muscles. 

[4] Arabic for ice cream

 
 

__________________________________
Gracjan Kraszewski is the author of two books: a novel entitled The Holdout (Adelaide Books, 2018) and a Civil War history entitled Catholic Confederates (forthcoming with The Kent State University Press). The first chapter of another novel (currently in progress), Job Search, was published in Eclectica Magazine. Short fiction has appeared in Wilderness House Literary Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Southern Distinctive, PILGRIM, Bull: Men's Fiction, Adelaide Literary Magazine, RumbleFish Press, Five on the Fifth, and on The Short Humour Site.

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast
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8 Oct 2019
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