The hazy rays of the intense sun targeted the lawn chair into which Tony Poda had wedged his fat ass. It parboiled his exposed flab but he didn’t seem to mind; he figured that a guy in his position must set an example of self-denial. He frequently gulped from the sweaty can of Schlitz that had overtaken his thoughts—that and strategies for terrorizing children under the pretense of building their character.
The Imps, St. Mort’s fifth and sixth grade football team, began practicing in July wearing helmets and pads encased in heavy uniforms. These grabass dress rehearsals were thrown in the treeless lot of patchy grass and packed dirt behind the one-story Catholic elementary school. The lot measured a half the size of a football field and baked while framed by the cyclone fences of subdivision backyards. Coach Poda referred to the ratty lot as a “compound” with the same Catholic hubris that Sr. Mary Eunice, principal of St. Mort’s, employed when she described the asphalt parking lot next to the school as a “campus.” Neither the parents of the Imps nor the faculty of St. Mort's objected to Coach Poda swilling Schlitz during practice; they reasoned that Jesus drank and look at Him.
Like his youthful minions, Coach Poda wore a uniform when he came to practice: floppy beach hat, sunglasses, no shirt, Bermuda shorts, and dimestore flip-flops. He drained the Schlitz and belched (“What? There aren’t any broads around . . .”) then slammed the empty aluminum can against his forehead and tossed the buckled lump over his shoulder. The stubby role model strained to reach into the Styrofoam cooler on the dirt beside his chair and grab a fresh beverage. The can made a beer commercial sound when he opened it. After a healthy swig he belched again while his bushy black mustache absorbed a dollop of foam.
The Imp’s assistant coach, Craig “Knobby” Keeler, did the actual work. Coach Poda had convinced himself that he was teaching Knobby a valuable life lesson by allowing, even encouraging the younger and less experienced man to browbeat those weaker than him. Knobby's slightly hunched back told of a child who had suddenly grown much taller than his grade school classmates. Their simple-minded jibes still stung, though he had recently endured his twenty-sixth birthday.
An Imp jogged up to Knobby while he called roll. Knobby recognized him as the kid whose mother had been battling cancer.
"I'm sorry I'm late, Mr. Keeler sir," the breathless fifth-grader managed. "See, mom died and I . . ."
"You just listen up mister, there's no 'I' in 'team'," Knobby interrupted. He tried to deliver a stern reprimand but his milquetoast personality prevailed. "The day my mother died last year, I was scheduled to man the drive-thru. Do you think I wanted to go? No! But I bucked up and went anyway because the other members of the team were depending on me." He briefly paused to let his wisdom take root. "Two laps around the compound. And think about what I said."
The boy stared up at Knobby with a knit brow and wide eyes tottering on the verge of tears. He quietly conceded, "Yes sir, Mr. Keeler," and started jogging.
As usual Frankie Poda, the Imp's quarterback and Coach Poda's son, hadn't bothered to make an appearance. When Knobby deferentially asked about Frankie's frequent absences, Coach Poda mumbled something about his son's nerves. Knobby regularly lauded the boy as a fine young man and exemplary athlete. If flirtations with pot, alcohol, and shoplifting characterized a "fine young man," then Knobby's praise fell on the mark. The "exemplary athlete" part proved tenuous; Frankie's awe-inspiring stupidity often caused him to forget plays and members of opposing teams routinely knocked him on his scrawny ass.
Watching the boys sweat and grunt as they struggled through calisthenics reminded Coach Poda of his days as the backup quarterback of his high school football team. He'd sat on the bench during most games; the coach, who happened to be his father, had never liked him. On the last rare occasion that the coach sent him to join his teammates on the field, he'd dropped the ball, causing his team to lose an important game. Coach Poda's father/coach had mercilessly beaten him when they'd gotten home. For the next several months, his fellow students, his teachers, and especially his teammates didn't let him forget that fateful faux pas—even his girlfriend dumped him. Coach Poda often relived those dark events as if they had taken place yesterday and seethed with anger and humiliation.
One of the drills pitted two Imps against one another in a fifteen-yard race. The kids would form two lines; the Imp at the head of one line raced against the Imp at the head of the other. Coach Poda sat in his lawnchair and guzzled Schlitz while he casually observed the competition. Knobby stood at the finish line and pointed to every loser as they passed. Then he gestured with his upturned index finger in a circular motion that meant one lap around the compound. Knobby loved to assign laps, though he preferred to hear himself use the word "compound" rather than pantomime his commands. Whenever Knobby's inferiority complex reared its head he would arbitrarily call unlucky children "pansies" and order them to take "one lap around the compound." Capricious demonstrations of authority always made him feel better. Coach Poda breathlessly chuckled and shook his head at the spectacle of Knobby shifting into dictator mode.
As soon as Knobby wordlessly ordered the loser of the fourth race to take a lap around the compound, the Imps at the head of each line sprang out of a crouch and began running. One of those Imps collapsed after he had sluggishly jogged a third of the course. His opponent didn't notice and kept running. When Knobby pointed to him and mutely assigned a lap as he whizzed past the finish line, the boy took for granted that he had lost. The Imps slated to run next straightened up. Most of the team murmured their disgust at the interruption and the more zealous members unabashedly spat loud vitriolic epithets at the fallen Imp. Coach Poda stirred like he was about to rise from his lawnchair and investigate but he was just groping for another Schlitz.
Knobby sprinted to the unconscious child, hovered over him and yelled, "Get up pansy!" Other members of the team echoed Knobby's demand but their collapsed teammate remained unconscious. Knobby repeated the directive while he kicked the prostrate body; it heaved slightly at the point of contact with the toe of Knobby's spikes. He glanced imploringly at Coach Poda who shrugged, guzzled his Schlitz, then spewed a world-class belch.
Knobby decided that that he wouldn't tolerate an unconscious boy disrupting practice. He bent over and grabbed the boy with a hand under each arm. He grunted while he rose and the boy's head fell back, his arms dangled behind him, and his limp legs seemed to scramble. The tall and skinny assistant coach displayed substantial strength when asserting his dominance. He threw the drooping body over his shoulder and carried it to a plot of dirt well beyond the area that the Imps took over for practice. Knobby unceremoniously dropped the boy as he would carelessly dump a bundle of dirty laundry and sprinted back to the finish line. Practice resumed.
* * *
A woman suggested to her husband that they step into their backyard to enjoy the early evening stars. He grudgingly joined her. Their backyard was one of many overlooking the compound.
The woman gazed skyward and marveled. "Aren't they beautiful tonight?"
He responded: "It sure is hot."
"But the stars . . ."
"Oh yeah. Clear night."
Her gaze fell to the Imp that lay fifty yards from the fence on the ground of the compound. She pointed her finger and her husband saw a member of the grade school football team that appeared to be sleeping in the distance.
Motherly concern begged her to ask, "I wonder how long he's been lying there. The poor thing must be tired."
Her husband expected such a reaction from a female. "Well, our Imps practice hard." They belonged to St. Mort's parish and he considered it only proper that she support the sports teams; he always emphasized that they were a "St. Mort's family."
She pictured their five-year-old son, turned to her husband and asked, "Do you think that we should encourage Joshua to play sports when he's old enough?"
He rolled his eyes. "Of course. Playing sports makes a boy into a man and teaches him all about life in the real world."