Hometown

*This is a longer piece, maybe the opening chapter to something I’m working on. Please excuse typo’s and errors. 

 

The crowd went nuts as we stormed the field at Park Stadium. It was a perfect night for football, clear and crisp with trails of smoke from the cannons in the north endzone. We were favored to win. It was a down year for B.D. Briggs while we were undefeated. But you know the old cliché, anything can happen in a rivalry game.

And this was a rival, make no mistake. This was our town split in half.

Our differences were as clear as our marching bands. Ours marched stiff and precisely, blasting through southern rock anthems and the national anthem. The Briggs’ marching band smiled as their rapid-fire snare drums cut through the cold like machine guns. They did more dancing than marching, but the drumming fit well with the smell of gunpowder as they advanced towards us, a single, amoeba-like body, weaving and taunting our side of the bleachers before worming its back to the corner, firing up both sides of the stadium, yet for different reasons entirely.

Stonewall High vs. Briggs High. The battle for the city. Always the last game of regular season, our home and away schedules staggered accordingly because we shared the stadium.

Our side was ready for battle, still pouring in, filling the stands, sitting, talking, standing, loud, brash and unafraid. But something in the cheers—from both sides, the entire stadium seemed to pulse with energy—was different that night. It was heavier, something extra on the words.

We met at midfield for the coin toss. Seniors, team captains, arms locked, Jeff, Big Moose, and me, as we’d done all year. I’d been a captain since junior year, something my dad thought was a big deal. Like Moose’s old man, my dad had played on this very same field. You know the story. Small town, football traditions, expectations.

Anyway, I nodded at our opponents, only the steam of our breaths lingering between us. Moose rolled his massive neck, like he always did. But the Briggs guys didn’t look at all intimidated by our neck rolls, our perfect record, our unflinching faces. Two of them stood straight, heads cocked and smirking, like they’d told a joke on the way out and couldn’t get it together. Fine, I was thinking, let them joke. I wanted them unfocused, undisciplined, unprepared. But mostly I was wondering how this 4-4 team was so confident.

Only one of them wasn’t laughing. Jaylen Calloway, a guy I knew but didn’t know.  Jaylen and I were connected at the hip as far as our local paper was concerned. Had been since we were both named all-conference our sophomore years. Had been since we led our respective teams in tackles. Had been since we both committed to Virginia Tech.

Jaylen was as fast they came, quick too. Coach Campbell didn’t have to warn us about JC.

The ref went on about the toss as we stood facing off, glaring at each other, our families and neighbors and crazy aunts and uncles and cousins cheering like lunatics behind our backs. It was like we were locked into some deal whether we wanted it or not.

We won the toss, I think. I mean, none of it matters now. I remember our side had the cowbells going, doing that rebel yell thing. Most of our fans wore hunting jackets and camouflage, bright orange stocking caps dotting the crowd. They’d arrived in a convoy of pickup trucks, some with hunting dog cages in blood stained beds from all the deer they’d skinned and let drip off the tailgate. All were plastered in mud around the fenders. TRUMP/PENCE stickers slapped on bumpers. Confederate flags stuck to rear windows with gun racks, hoisted on truck beds, worn proudly on shirts of those just hoping someone would call them out on it.

And the Briggs side was calling them out. Like I said, they weren’t scared of us. Not with their marching band, the drumline corps, the snares ricocheting off the bricks, tapping its way into my bloodstream. Even still I could hear this woman in the stands—on the Briggs side— screaming over it all, over the drumming and cheering and whistles and clacks of the helmets in warmups. Her voice like an air horn, cutting through the noise.

“Do the damn thing.”

She kept saying it, again and again. Do the damn thing! She was relentless, too, from the front row, hanging over the railing where a banner read GO 44! I watched her as we lined up, hoping she’d stop, not because it was bothering me but because our side was having so much fun with it. Every time she screamed our side would whoop it up. They’d lean back then point and shake their heads. I didn’t have to guess what they were saying, before I sprinted over to the sidelines and heard what exactly what they were saying, guts out and proud, talking about her like she was an animal, how she sounded like a stray dog.

The sinking feeling I’d had leading up to this, about the game, the night, everything, had started a few days before, when the Parkview Times published a story about how town council was considering removing (I think they used the term “relocating”) the confederate monuments outside the stadium. The story went off like a bomb in our city, with protests and editorials.

How can we sit there and cower to the liberals?

What about our heritage?

We can’t just turn our backs on history?

All of that.

#

 

Leading up to our clash with Briggs, the town had been on edge. Protests and marches. And being at the stadium it became Us against Them. Stonewall vs. Briggs. In the locker room, no one else seemed too worried about it. Not the coaches or anyone else. So I told myself it was nothing, a regular rivalry game. But now, on the field, that wasn’t true. It felt like we were caught in the middle of something bad.  

I’d gone to Stonewall Middle School, then Stonewall High. Home of the Rebels. First, we’d been the Little Rebels, until we became the Raging Rebels. And until a few days ago I’d never given much thought to the name—where it came from and what it meant. It was just sort of what we’d grown up being.  

But now, seeing the policemen at the exits, guns on hips, heads on a swivel, suddenly, it was all wrong. The monument thing made people on both sides angry. It made them lose all control of how they would normally act. Suddenly our game became their game. The outcome some sort of verdict, some kind of grudge to settle for once and all.

It was like they’d stolen it from us. 

I ran in place, blew some warmth into my hands. To my right, confederate flags waved against the night. Atop it all was Jeff’s dad, Gunny. I’d known Gunny for years (although, how well can you know someone who’s always been too drunk to see straight?) And up there that night he was in full form, parading the stars and bars, waving it back and forth, under the night sky like it was his finest moment.

All of this was going on in my head. Jaylen Calloway, the screaming woman, the monuments outside. The flags. The machine gun drums. Gunny. The laughter.

I wasn’t laughing, I was kind of pissed. I mean, were they trying to get us killed down here?

We won the toss and elected to kick. People screaming, coaches screaming. Usually, I could put it away. Zone out the crowd, the announcer, the cannons and hype and just play football. All of us could. At nine wins and zero losses, we’d been killing it all season. We’d worked since summer, since last season’s overtime loss in the state semifinals. And we’d beaten Briggs two straight years, so yeah, we wouldn’t say it, but we were looking forward to our yearly showdown with Amherst before hitting the playoffs full stride. This was the year.

So the Briggs game shouldn’t have been that big. Rivalry, sure, but it shouldn’t have meant that much. Yes, they had Jaylen Calloway. Yes they were athletic. But they’d lost as many games as they won. We were on our way to states.  

But the sides, the monuments, the town, the game. The coaches wouldn’t say what it had become—a racial thing. B.D. Briggs, the black school against Stonewall, the white school. Yeah, we had four black guys on our whole team, just like Briggs had a few white dudes, but as we stood there, facing off, everyone watching us saw it too. They’d made it that way. They’d wanted it that way.

When Briggs took the opening kickoff to the house things went nuclear. It was all they needed to believe they could beat us. The Briggs side of the stadium ignited. I mean, the entire side of the bleachers leaped into the air and came down with a crash. After he lit into everyone, Coach Campbell, his face like a strawberry, did his clapping thing he did when he was trying to keep us focused. We couldn’t even hear him. We couldn’t hear a thing.

On offense—on our opening possession—Jaylen Calloway shot through and crushed Brantley, our quarterback, and he coughed up the ball. Briggs was in business. We’d been huddled up, the defensive guys, going over things with Coach T when we heard the explosion of noise. We strapped on our helmets and went to work.

We held Briggs to a field goal. But still, ten zip, just like that. They kicked again. Our offense got their shit together. At least until they crossed midfield and stalled. We punted, pinned them deep near their endzone. The band was playing some hip hop beat and the crowd over on the Briggs side was moving like one big body of water. I’ll never forget that side of the field. The way they danced, cheered, hooted. It was like their Super Bowl.

When we took the field again, Moose was pissed, talking trash, lots of it. He started name calling the way he did when he was fired up. Moose was the kind of guy who said the most offensive shit to get a rise out of people. One time he spent an entire first half ribbing this chunky kid on the offensive line about how he’d slept with his mom—just kept on and on and on until the kid snapped and ripped his helmet off and came charging after him. Moose held his hands up, Mr. Innocent. The kid got ejected. Moose had fun with that.  

But against Briggs he was saying some out of bounds stuff. And what made it worse was I could hear it in the stands, too, could hear the parents tearing into the ref. Worse than usual.

Again, I tried to tune it out. But the quarterback for Briggs could move. He was quick, liked to run and was hard to hit. I’m not going to lie, he came around the end and I found myself ready to make the tackle, set a lick on him, when he juked me out of my cleats. The Briggs side went crazy. The way they were playing, I couldn’t tell you how this team had lost four games.

The Briggs QB scampered out of bounds for another first down. The Briggs side cheered and taunted, which got our side cranked up, too. We’d always had rowdy fans, Dad’s cupping their mouths, getting on the refs, yelling at the defense. Like my dad, most of them played at Stonewall, just like their Dad’s before them. But it worse that night. I could hear Moose’s parents up there, going at the refs, and that would have been fine, but that wasn’t it.

They started chanting stuff, like, racial stuff. And when I looked up, when I made the mistake of looking up there, someone had brought a noose.

Things went from bad to worse in a hurry.  

On fourth down the Briggs offense stayed on the field. And that was when the chants started. “Beat the Briggs…Beat the Briggs.”

Only they weren’t saying “Briggs.” I shouldn’t have to spell it out. The Briggs quarterback looked up when he heard it, like, wondering if it was real. And from there it grew louder and louder and eventually the entire Briggs side went quiet, like they were shocked. They were looking around like, “Are they for real saying that?”

The refs stopped the game. Some councilmember or town official in a suit trotted out and took the PA system and asked that parents from both sides try to show some respect for each other, there were kids are out here and all that. Basically he was stating the obvious.

When he introduced himself as Mr. Ferguson, the B.D. Briggs principal, boos and everything else rained down from our side. Trash, food, cans, bottles, everything. Between the lights and the noise and the debris hitting the field, it was clear this was no longer a football game.

As the police moved in, helped the principal off the field, people hurling bottles and down to the track, I looked across the field, at #11, Jaylen Calloway and found him staring across the field at me. And I know how this sounds, really, I do, but it was like looking at a mirror, like a reverse negative. I thought about what it must look like for him, our side of the bleachers, Gunny up there with the flag. A noose, all that trash. I think he was seeing our side and I was seeing what was behind him and we knew at any moment it was all going to blow.

And it did. On the very next play.

 

#

 

Here’s how it went down: Briggs has this shifty running back. Dude is about as small as my mom but he’s impossible to lay a clean hit on. Anyway, it was a draw to him, and he started to hit the outside but then he bounced it back inside. I was blocked but got a hand on him, he shook but I held on. Jeff came in like a missile and laid him out.

Helmet to helmet. The Briggs coaches were on the field, screaming for a personal foul. It didn’t like how Jeff stood over the kid like a pro wrestler. Anyway, it was fourth and eight and so they lined up to punt.

Chris, our wide receiver, fielded the punt, turned once, then got held up in a log jam. A Briggs player came in and snatched his face mask and nearly ripped his helmet off. It wasn’t an accident, either, but the refs missed it.

Moose didn’t. He shoved a kid onto his ass. A few guys started with the pushing but nothing that hadn’t happened before.

Then our side lost its collective minds.

The trash came down again. Plastic soda bottles, a few liquor bottles, some half empty drinks rained down on the field. A hot dog. Then the noose.

The refs whistled. The guy in the suit came out again. Threats were made. They should have called it right there, but everyone wanted this game. They wanted it more than we did.

We tried to line up, to continue with our big rivalry game. Only by then it was too late. The game was basically over.

On the next play was a gang fight. The ball was snapped and quickly forgotten. The guys in the trenches, offensive and defensive lines, started slugging each other. The running back skipped around the end and I went to make a tackle and got blindsided. The refs whistled, the benches cleared, a brawl ensued.

I was too stunned to do much. From my spot on the ground, it was all cleats and legs and bodies stampeding onto the field. When I got myself free, I backed away. Moose had two guys by the facemask, and coaches were hustling out, some trying to break things up, others looking to get a lick in. Our coaches. Fans. Everyone rushed the field.

Two Briggs guys hoisted a bench over their heads. The P.A. guy urged the nice citizens of our town to please return to their seats. I turned for the track, looking for Olivia, my girlfriend, and the rest of the cheer squad when Coach Pillman shoved me out of the way and kicked a guy in the back. Jeff was on the ground grappling with one of the Briggs safeties. Others danced around, some with their helmets off, fists up like boxers.

But the fans. The moms and Dads, the uncles and cousins, they were the ones looking to hurt someone, wild eyed and ready for war.  

And there was #11, arms at his sides, like me, taking it all in.

We locked eyes, again, both of us wondering if we were supposed to fight each other. He was taller than me, but I wasn’t afraid of him. I was afraid of what was happening.

Around us, our teammates were slinging helmets at heads. Throwing punches and grappling on the ground. Parents were rushing the field, hanging on to their pants by their belts and swinging fists with their other hands. The band had made it into the fray. The refs blew their whistles until they broke.

And Jaylen and I had no idea how to stop any of it.  

I was on the edges of the fighting, wondering whether I should pull guys off or get the hell out of there when the police rushed the field. More came in from the back, with shields and helmets of their own. Tear gas hung over the fifty-yard line. And then there was a shriek that brought everyone to a halt.  

Near the sidelines was a crumpled body, feet twitching, leaking blood onto the field. I tried but couldn’t look away, how the blood shined under the lights, like it was painted on the grass. I started towards him when he wiggled around, side to side, his mouth open but his scream muted, drool and spit leaking from the corners. I was close when the police closed in and the medics huddled around him. I was still staring at him when the ambulance drove onto the field.

It took a half hour to clear things completely. At some point a coach grabbed me, pulled me away. I turned away from the ambulance driving on the track, still seeing his eyes, hearing the guy grunt and moan. The scoreboard still showed we were down 10-0, the second quarter stopped with 8:42 left to play.

We still had all of our timeouts.

 

#

 

Coach Campbell rushed us to the locker rooms, his face flushed, his goatee turned with his frown. I’d never seen his eyes so wide, as he shoved us in, his voice breaking. “Now, get out of here, in the locker room, let’s moooove!”

It was chaos. Kids crying and parents out there, in the mix, the melee, confusion like a windstorm taking the field. Someone had been stabbed. Moose was punching lockers and ripping things out of the walls. I kept waiting for gun shots and Jeff was saying how the guy who got stabbed was in a gang and they were probably on the way over to retaliate. Coach Campbell must have thought the same thing, because he was talking about the buses, calling and yelling about having them ready and we didn’t know how we were going to make it out of there alive.

We stayed in the locker room, barricaded in, refusing to come out even when the Briggs principal came over to apologize, wiping his forehead and saying how he’d never seen anything like that, even in his civil rights days and all.

Olivia sent me a text. She was fine. They’d managed to escape in the van. Another hour. Two. Sometime later we got the all clear to leave. By then most of us had our stuff together but Moose was pacing around, fists clenched, still looking to fight. I kept looking around, waiting for something to happen. The stadium lights glowed, fog settling over the field.  

Then the news lady came rushing at us, asking Coach questions. Moose promptly blamed her for all that was going on, the news hyping up everything. He pushed her away, so did Chris. They swung the mic, here then there, then if wound up in my face.

“What are you feeling right now? What are your thoughts about the game, the fight?

“What am I feeling. I’m ashamed,” I said, just before I caught Coach looking back at me. But after everything, I was too shaken to care. “I’m ashamed of our town, our team, the fans. We only wanted to play football.”

Coach cut in. “Ben, come on, let’s move.”

“Are you scared, being caught up between the two sides?”

“There shouldn’t be sides. I mean, yeah, two teams, but not…” I motioned towards the field, where I’d seen the blood, the medics, a war. I fought to free myself of Coach’s clutches. “Not that. Where does it end? How? When? What else has to happen?”

I said some more things. Things I don’t quite remember. Coach dragged me off, and I was kind of dizzy with all of it. But Moose glared at me like he wasn’t done throwing punches.    

All I remember is getting to the parking lot, where nothing looked right at that hour. The monuments, the buses, the sky, my mom rushing out to me. She nearly tackled me.

Dad called me when we got home. He didn’t hold back. He thought the black refs were in the bag for Briggs, the principal should have taken responsibility for what happened, not taking the field and blaming people. And yeah, I’m seventeen, I’ve heard him say things before, but not like that. Everything was the n-word, he was throwing it around like gas on a fire. It was almost like he wanted me to say it back.

I wasn’t saying much at all. Because he didn’t want to hear it—that both sides were guilty. If Dad wanted to talk responsibility, well, our side had thrown the first punch, and what about that chant they had going, that Beat the Briggs stuff? And how about that confederate flag, and the noose? I mean, they had to know that was going to start shit. But I let it go. There was no talking to my dad when he was worked up like that. 

Dad said we weren’t rescheduling. He wasn’t sure if that meant we’d won or lost. I knew Coach Campbell was all worked up about our record, but I only saw the blood on the field. I didn’t care if we won or lost. It no longer mattered to me.   

I didn’t sleep. I was too worked up, from a quarter and a half of football and everything that happened on the field. Mom stayed nearby, biting her fingernails and refusing to let me tell her it was okay, to go to bed.

She’d been listening to the game at work and had thought I was going to die. She’d left without clocking out and drove straight to the stadium.

It was too much to think about. That someone—a parent, a fan, an uncle, maybe someone who’d been to our games all season—had done that.  

All week the town had been getting amped up about this game. We’d studied film, talked about being ready to hit someone. Briggs was our rivals and everyone made it feel like the world was at stake.

And now someone had been stabbed on our football field.

 

 

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