I wonder if Mark is looking down at me. Or worse, looking up.
“Huddle up!” barked out Chris, our quarterback.
Does dying of a heroin overdose mean you go to hell? I mean, if that was a sin, and that was the last thing he ever did, is he in hell?
“Jason! Huddle up!” he yelled, trying to snap me back into reality as I wandered in the direction of the huddle.
Maybe he’s in heaven, looking down. Does he feel guilty? Can you feel guilt in heaven? Is he watching my game right now? Can he see me?
“Alright, green right flip 34 power pass Y-screen,” says Chris, he and I making eye contact. The ball is coming to me.
Is there a heaven? Or a hell? Or a God?
If there’s a God, why did he let this happen?
The huddle sets about eight yards behind the line of scrimmage, allowing a quick survey of the defense as we jogged forward and got set. I saw they were playing a cover-3 defense with the corners cheating up to stop the run. “Green right” normally meant that I, as the strong-side tight end, would line up to the right, but the “flip” meant exactly what it sounds like — that I’d be on the left.
At the varsity level, the defense would have picked up on this immediately. The strong-side tight end lining up weak side should be a dead giveaway, but being that this was a junior varsity game and their coaches probably had better things to do on a Saturday than watch game film, they didn’t suspect a thing.
In football, like poker, you play the eyes. That linebacker who has been keying an offensive lineman all game is suddenly looking in the backfield? He’s coming on a blitz. A corner who doesn’t make eye contact with me when I’m his key? I’m running right by him. Are they tired? Scared? Confused? Concussed?
It’s all in the eyes.
“DOWN… BLACK 13, BLACK 13,” hollered Chris.
This was just a decoy. “Black” meant we were running the play we called in the huddle.
Looking up, I watched the corner creep forward, ever so slightly. He was anticipating a run to the opposite side. His tells were minute — putting just a bit more weight on his left foot, placing his right foot just a bit further behind his right.
Come on, come on. That’s it… you’re gonna help backside protection. Creep forward, creep forward… that’s it… come on…
This corner and I had a brief history.
A quarter earlier, he got in my face after a cheap shot. I didn’t see him coming and he took me out from the side. It was a good hit that I probably would have let go if he would have just shut the fuck up.
But he didn’t do that.
“You like that?” he screamed, all amped up, jumping around. “That hurts, huh?” as I picked myself up off the ground.
Hurts? You want to talk about hurt motherfucker? I’m three weeks removed from giving mouth-to-mouth to my dying uncle, tasting him die. Every time I put my mouthpiece in I think about it.
That’s what hurt feels like.
I wanted him to hurt. I wanted him to hurt like I hurt. I wanted someone to share this feeling with.
The ball was snapped and I took an inside step, pass-blocking the defensive end who thought we were throwing the ball strong side. I’ve played defensive end, and when you see a right-handed quarterback set up to throw, your eyes get big. Your mouth waters. He’ll never see you coming.
Which was exactly what we wanted him to think.
With the play and all of its momentum going right, I stepped back and the QB tossed the ball in my direction. The whole defense took an “oh shit” step, completely out of position, leaving only my friend, the corner, to beat.
It would’ve been an easy touchdown. The corner was out of position and all I needed to do was hit the sideline. He’d never catch me. I’d run right by him.
But I didn’t want to run by him. I wanted to hurt him.
I angled to the inside, running toward him. A touchdown wouldn’t provide the relief I needed. I needed someone to share this pain with, and by mouthing off, this kid became an unwitting accomplice in my search for clarity and comprehension of the incomprehensible.
He put his head down, a no-no. You learn early on in football that if you don’t keep your head up, you get hurt. This kid decided he’d rather turn his body into an unguided missile, hoping someone from our team just happened across his path. I dropped my shoulder, trying to concentrate all of my speed and strength and pain and hurt into one point of contact — one collision.
I heard that sound and knew right away it was bad. It sounded like the cracking of a shoulder pad, but I knew it wasn’t my shoulder, and he led with his head, so it wasn’t his.
I got up off the ground and looked down. He just lay there. No motion. No movement. He was on his back, looking up at the sky, scared to death. A mind trapped in a body that wouldn’t respond. His eyes darted between the sky and me, sky and me, sky and me.
It was his neck. That sound I heard… it was his neck.
I wanted to motion to the sideline for a doctor, but I couldn’t move. I was frozen, looking down at him. And he, looking up at me.
The referee approached and immediately knew something was wrong. This kid, eyes wide, mouth closed, body still, wasn’t getting up. The blur of referees and coaches and paramedics and players — is just that. A blur.
I didn’t snap out of it until I saw his parents approach. Their son lie on the field, facemask cut off, strapped down to a stretcher to keep any movement from further destroying his mangled spine. An ambulance drove out to the 40-yard line where the medics lifted him into a vehicle that’s a heartbeat away from being a hearse, while Mom looked down and told him it would be okay. Dad stood off to the side of the ambulance, not saying a word, while a team doctor explained that a broken neck didn’t necessarily mean permanent paralysis.
But I was just watching him. He had weight on his left leg, right foot back. He was moving. I was trying to hurt him…
The fans and players clapped as the ambulance drove off the field, a strange gesture when you think about it. You know the kid can’t hear you, and you know the paramedics are busy in their attempt of stabilization, but you clap anyway. Truth is, you’re not really clapping for the kid or the doctors or the driver. You’re clapping for yourself, hoping that somehow, some way, you can wrap your mind around what you just saw happen — a 15-year-old kid break his neck while playing a game — and process it to the point of forgetting it and moving on. You clap at the end of a play, or a movie, or a concert. It’s finality, your way of moving on to whatever comes next.
And just like that, the referee blew the whistle to continue play.
You know that little place inside where things are stuffed deep down, safe from conscious thought, contemplation, and clear recollection? Well, it has a basement.
The good news: the door to that basement locks up nice and tight, taking years to pry open.
The bad news: the door to that basement locks up nice and tight, taking years to pry open.
Our team defeated Folsom High School that day, but I lost. Coming on the heels of Mark’s overdose, this kid’s broken neck pushed me to a point of feeling so much guilt that my brain’s only coping mechanism was to eliminate “guilt” completely.
The shame I felt was immense, stronger than anything I’d ever felt in my 14 years of life. The self-hatred was unhealthy, consuming my every thought.
I learned to live with that shit for three years. Three Years!
I’d look in the mirror and think, what would have happened if you’d called 911 the morning Mark died? He’d be here, wouldn’t he? Stomachache, look away.
I’d put my shoes on and think, it feels good to be able to move your legs, doesn’t it? I wonder who’s dressing that paraplegic this morning? Stomachache, think of something else.
I’d see an ambulance driving and have this twisted fantasy of Mark and the kid with the broken neck laying down, side-by-side. I bet they’re talking mad shit about you right now. Stomachache, close my eyes and just breathe.
It was fucked up.
Three. Long. Years.
Almost three years to the day of breaking a kid’s neck, I was sitting in a small Toyota Celica at a red light. I didn’t even see the car approaching in my rearview; it happened so fast.
I felt the pain shoot down my left leg, realizing immediately that something was wrong. I automatically assumed this was karma. This is how the universe works. That long, moral arc, so vast, but always fair.
But I could still move. I was alive. I wasn’t paralyzed. Those voices, that pain, the shame and self-hatred still active, the ability to feel guilt still amputated. Nothing was different.
At the hospital they told me they’d need to put a titanium cage in my spine to fuse a disc. “Jason,” the doctor told me, “we’re going to give you a shot of Demerol, something for the pain.”
“Demerol?” I asked, watching him shoot the clear liquid directly into the vein on top of my left hand. “What’s Demer… oh… oh wow… oh fu… that feels goo…” Closing my eyes with my head falling forward, I felt saturated in warmth and comfort, melting into my hospital bed while my eyes paid their respects by going half-mast.
That first hit. There’s nothing like it in the natural world. I was in love. This feeling? I didn’t want it to stop. I wanted to feel this way forever.
The shame. The self-hatred. The guilt. It disappeared.
My uncle? Didn’t care. Not my problem.
That kid who broke his neck? Should’ve kept his head up when he tackled me. Wish him the best, XOXO.
Gone. Poof, just like that. Nothing mattered. My insecurities, my fears, all gone.
People always wonder why drug addicts do drugs, even after our lives are destroyed by the inability to stop. You don’t understand why we do drugs?
We don’t understand why you don’t.
We do it for this. This feeling, right here. Nothing matters. Nothing hurts.
From that day forward, I’d spend the next sixteen years of my life chasing that feeling.
I was 17 years old.
“Jason,” asked the doctor, “is that enough or do you need a little bit more?”
I just looked at him, not a care in the world, all smiles, warm and cozy in my own skin for the first time in a long time.