The flash of a camera blinds me as I take my seat at the front of the room. I scoot in my chair, and the scraping sound grates on my nerves. A second flash. Then a third. Then I lose count. Sweat gathers at the back of my neck, and I struggle to keep my breathing slow and steady.
Fuck this shit.
I don’t want to be here. I play football so I don’t have to think or talk. As a general rule, I prefer to do my talking with my body whenever possible.
Football. Fighting. Fucking.
That’s what I know how to do. Not this.
Coach has finally taken his seat, and I feel the tension in my spine lessen as he begins talking to the press. He’s in the middle with me, Carson McClain, Jake Carter, and Mateo Torres surrounding him, the team leaders. Coach covers the niceties and starts talking about his plan for preseason camp, while I survey our group. Everyone looks calm but me. McClain is a freaking choirboy. He probably lives for this kind of shit. Torres has never met an argument he can’t talk his way out of or a skirt he won’t try to talk his way into. And Carter is so full of bullshit, he has no trouble spewing it to others. And me? My hands are shaking beneath the table like an addict in need of a fix.
If Coach weren’t so strict and observant, I would have tried to calm my nerves with a little weed prior to this whole media day circus. But there’s no way I could have slid that past him. And I’ve been trying to cut that out since Levi was busted. Coach has become like one of those sadistic teachers that love to give pop quizzes . . . only with drug tests.
“We’ve got a young team. McClain and Moore both still have two years of eligibility,” Coach says, slamming me back into the present. “Torres has three. And though this is Carter’s last year with us, we’ve got a solid group of linemen coming up. We’ve got our foundation, and I think we’re going to surprise people with what we manage to build this season.”
Coach opens up for questions, and even though I know what’s coming, my body still locks up at the first one. “Coach Cole, your team was rocked by scandal last year with the arrest of starting quarterback Levi Abrams. The team snagged a few impressive wins despite that, but ultimately things fell apart in the latter half of the season. Mentally, where is your team at right now?”
“Last season, we had to do a lot of learning and discovery on the fly. And unfortunately, we had to do that while also trying to win games. But I’m proud of the season these boys put up.” His expression goes hard, and I’m glad I’m not the only one scowling. I resist the urge to pick up the bottle of water in front of me and lob it at the reporter. “I don’t think they fell apart at all actually. The last half of our schedule was certainly more demanding with bigger and better competition. But win or lose, the team never fell apart. They played through to the last second every time, and I feel confident that they gave it all they had. As for where their heads are at now, I can’t say for certain. I know where they better be, though.”
Laughter rolls through the room and the same reporter says, “Carson McClain, care to comment?”
McClain leans up to the microphone and says with perfect ease, “The team is focused. We’ve kept our heads down and worked hard this summer. We’re all ready for camp to start. As a whole, I think we’re pretty determined that any conversation about us this year happens because of what we’re doing on the field, not off it.”
A new journalist jumps in. “Silas Moore, you were close with Levi Abrams. You were redshirted together as freshmen. What’s it like playing without him?”
Better. Worse. Fucking terrible. I don’t know.
I can’t talk about Levi. It twists up my head to think about him. He had everything—a good family, money, scholarship, talent, brains—and he screwed it all up. I don’t have half those things. It’s a joke that I’m even sitting here. If he can’t get by without f**king things up, what hope do I have?
My hand shakes as I reposition the microphone, and I curl it into a hard fist. “McClain is a good QB.” The whole room pauses, and the reporter gives me this expectant look, and I realize they want me to say more. Shit. “He’s driven and focused, and the rest of the team works harder because of him.”
I leave it at that because I’m not talking about Levi. When the discussion moves on, my chest feels like a boulder has been rolled off it. I don’t have stage fright or some shit like that. I just . . . I don’t belong here. And whenever we have stuff like this, I feel like I’ve been shoved under a microscope, and if they ever get a really good look at me, they’re going to see just how different I am from these other guys and take it all away.
Another reporter asks me if I think our offense has come together well despite our last tumultuous year. (Who the f**k says “tumultuous”?)
“I think we have.”
Again, they wait for me to say more, but this time I don’t give in to their looks. If they want someone to chatter on and on, they should have asked Torres. The reporter prompts me, “How do you think that came about?”
“Hard work,” I say.
I only get asked one more question, and when I give another short answer, they begin ignoring me in favor of Coach and the other players, and I finally manage to relax a little. All I want to do is go home, and spend the weekend blowing off steam before preseason camp starts on Monday.
When the media session ends, I catch up with Torres, who took over the lease on Levi’s room this summer.
I ask, “You cool if people hang at our place tonight? I’ll text Brookes, and have him get out the word.”
“Like you even have to ask. I’m pretty sure party was my first word.”
“I don’t think I like where this is heading,” McClain says, stepping up beside us as we walk.
Torres groans. “Let us get our party on, man. Not all of us get to go home to the Coach’s daughter.”
McClain nails Torres hard in the shoulder, and I glance back to make sure Coach isn’t in hearing range. He’s not. He’s caught up talking to a few press people. When I look back, Torres is circling his arm like he’s trying to work out the pain.
“Damn, QB. If that’s how you react to me just mentioning her, how am I ever supposed to lay out all the dirty jokes I’ve been stockpiling?”
Torres is kidding. We all know it, but McClain doesn’t joke about Dallas. He’s easygoing about everything else, but not her. Maybe it was the weeks hearing Levi mouth off about dating her in high school (and yeah, me talking shit, too). Or maybe it was the mess of rumors that screwed things up for them a little while last year. Either way, the guy is intense about her. More intense even than when he’s on the field.