Another Round at the Say When: Bulldogs Yesterday and Tomorrow
A writer moves to a small Western town to figure out its inhabitants and learn why its high school football team never wins.
One in a series.
This is the story of Crazy Frank, yesterday’s Bulldog.
He’s bushy-bearded and wild-eyed, running on pure adrenaline.
On a warm late-August afternoon, he hustles his 5-year-old son, Landon, around the high school track as McDermitt’s football Little Leaguers practice.
Frank looks as out of place here as a streaker at the big game. He wears a farm cap, flannel shirt and old pair of blue jeans, while the players all dress in uniform.
Yet he still dashes back and forth across the field, doing sprints, kicking the football high in the air, as children in grades K-8 practice all around him.
He’s glad to back on this field of boyhood hijinks, this place where he lived out his best days ever, before all of life’s fumbles and dropped passes.
It’s the first time he’s been back in a decade.
“Been awhile,” he says.
Frank played Bulldogs football back in the day. In his last season, in 2011, the team went 5–3 which, for this small-town program, was like winning the Super Bowl, Preakness and NBA championship combined.
“We were good,” he says.
After that, as they often do in a boy’s life, the referee blew their final whistle. Fans headed for their cars. Frank graduated, struggled to find work. He tried jobs in the mines and as a diesel mechanic but lately settled for ranch work out near King’s River.
He also got married, got into trouble with the law, ended up in jail. Small stuff, he says, like smoking pot and walking into a store and trying to make off with a bottle of whisky.
But here he was on this night, just so happy to be back. You can see it in his posture, in that smile, the way he runs the grass.
Bulldogs Coach Richard Egan works his high school team on the far end of the field, away from the tykes. He looks over and sees Frank running and jumping and acting like a kid again, and he smiles.
Coaches don’t always remember their players. Some kids just don’t stand out. And then they get older, and fatter, and if you run into them off the field, like at some bar, wedding or restaurant, you’ve lost that frame of football reference.
Jack Smith, the team’s assistant coach, has a secret that helps him remember.
As a former player talks, Jacks studies his face, trying to place him, jarring loose a name and a memory.
But what usually works are the voices. The bodies age, the voices stay the same.
Back in the day, Frank was fast, and Richard designed a special play just for him.
On the call of “Turtle,” Frank took off from the right side of the line and shot out for the end zone, running hard like a train engine, not looking up until the ball was there.
Frank ate up turf, scored touchdowns, then tipped his head back and laughed.
At the end of the evening practice, as Richard’s varsity boys run their final laps around the field, Frank approaches his old coach.
“I saw you over there,” Richard says, with a laugh. “With that long beard, I thought you were Santa Claus.”
You can tell Frank is nervous. He spins a football on his fingertips, telling Egan that he and his present wife had seven children between them.
Frank says he still plays fast and loose.
“You have to be quick, Richard says, “to stay ahead of the cops.”
“I haven’t always done that.”
“I know,” the coach says. “I heard.”
Frank still seems off his game. He steals glances at the coach after walking up and slapping him hard on his broad shoulders. Like he wants to reconnect with the older man whose approval he had always sought.
He once sought out Richard’s advice on some of his boyhood blunders, like getting caught smoking weed or sneaking into his high school girlfriend’s motel room on a school outing.
But he’s not that kid anymore. He’s 27.
“You’e gotten fat, Egan,” he says. “Look at that gut, leading you around.”
“You, too,” the coach laughs, but both men know he’s lying.
“Remember that old drill we did?” Frank says.
Then he fires the football at Richard, who reaches out to grab it, dropping his water bottle onto the grass.
The ball sputters away.
Frank laughs, having gotten the upper hand.
Richard retrieves the ball and fires it back. Frank grabs it with one hand.
They go back and forth, until Frank finally drops one.
Then Richard’s players returned from their water break.
He has a new team now, new kids to mentor and teach new drills.
He walks away to organize the evening’s final huddle.
And suddenly, there’s Frank, standing alone on his field of memories.
Dogs on three! 1–2–3 Dogs!
And here’s a little tale about A.J., tomorrow’s Bulldog.
He’s shy and stocky, a Paiute-Shoshone boy who lives in town with his mother, just a few steps from the high school football field.
A.J. is 13-years-old and this is what he knows.
He knows he’s big for his age. Weighing 200 pounds-plus is an awful lot for a boy.
So he plays football, a game where he can hit kids he would otherwise help up if they tripped and stumbled before him in the school hallway.
Football brings out that other side, where’s he’s not always the nicest kid in the class.
A.J. knows that his initials roll of the tongue easier than his real name, Asylin Jabe.
He likes their brevity. They’re not too much, not overweight, like him.
A.J. knows that he wants to be a writer. At night, after dinner, he goes to his room and types out short stories on his laptop. Writing about other worlds, other places, inventing other people, he says, gives him a focus and calm.
He likes that, being alone with his words and his make-believe characters.
His present story is about a boy named Jamal, who’s not Native American like A.J., but African-American. A.J. has never met a totally African-American boy, but one kid in town is half black, he says.
A.J.’s character lives in the country, just like he does, “a small town with 489 residents.”
Jamal plays football, just like A.J. As a freshman, he talks his way into playing quarterback, even though tough old Coach Miller knows he lacks experience.
In the story, Jamal’s parents have been killed in a car crash, so he lives with his grandparents. He made that part up. In real life, A.J.’s father is a welder who travels a lot. His mother is a driver for the reservation clinic.
On his computer, A.J. writes:
“Jamal ran home to tell his grandmother the great news. As he told her she looked at him and said ‘Your parents would be proud.’
Jamal was thrilled because he wasn’t always the brightest bulb in the tanning bed.
He said ‘Thank you, grandma.’”
At school, after his team won its first game by 49 points, Jamal meets a girl named Maddie, who asks “why he isn’t in the dating pool yet.”
Jamal tells her that he doesn’t have time for girls. He wants to get a scholarship to play football in college.
Maddie tells him, “Well then this is your only time to have fun then.”
Jamal’s friend Nathan warns him that Maddie is a heartbreaker.
But, like A.J., Jamal knows things. He knows he likes that girl.
A.J. made all of that up, too. In real life, there’s no girl like Maddie, but he says he’s read about girls in books and seen them on TV.
Things go awry for Jamal when kids on the street ask him to deliver a package of drugs and weapons. A.J. made that up, too. His story doesn’t specify what kind of drugs, or what caliber weapons, but he says you can get anything up on the reservation.
At his grandmother’s advice, Jamal tells the police. The druggies threaten to hurt him.
Then the story takes a violent turn. Word is, two of the drug dealers are shot and killed. A.J. has never seen a real body, just when his uncle died. In the funeral home.
This is different. Jamal goes by the scene of the crime and sees a dark figure loading something heavy into the trunk of his car.
The figure, Jamal notices, is Coach Miller.
The boy A.J. arrived for football practice two hours early. He works alone with a blocking machine and then sits on the bleachers and talks about his characters.
He doesn’t know what he’s going to call his story.
Just then a few other players in uniform join him.
One, named Chasen, says he hopes the practice will start soon because he has a job to pull weeds over at the library. He has to be there at 5 p.m.
A.J. watches the boy, saying nothing, as though silently taking notes.
Chasen is white, also stocky, with Beaver Cleaver innocence.
“I love tackling people,” he says.
But his Little League team didn’t win any games last year.
“Not one game,” Chasen says.
Does that make him mad?
“I get mad at all of us for not winning,” he says, his voice softening. “This year is going to be totally different. I’m bigger now. This year I’m going to totally crush people.”
A.J. knows what it’s like to be bigger than the rest of of the boys.
Last year, the coaches made him wait five seconds after the play started before he could rush the quarterback, because he’d inflicted too many bruises.
As Chasen and the others walked away, A.J.’s thoughts were no longer on football, or hitting smaller kids or winning or losing.
He was thinking about Jamal and the murder mystery.
“You’re a writer, right?” he asks.
“Can you give me some tips on telling a story?”
John M. Glionna is a writer and freelance journalist based in Sin City.