He inspired me at a time in my life when little else was going my way. But now he’s gone.
But somehow I know that will never happen. I’m small and insignificant and probably meant to be so.
Pretty soon, the first semester is over and it’s official: I’m a solidly mediocre student. I got a “B” in religion though and my mom is harboring thoughts of my pending sainthood. My circle of friends is getting smaller. They’re becoming interested in other things. Interested in girls. Interested in beer. Interested in growing up.
But we’re four games into the season and undefeated. So life is good for me.
The school halls are filled with pictures of students that went on and did something with their lives. There are some politicians. Some priests. Some scholars. But the bulk of the hallway space is reserved for athletes. The pictures are old, black and white. They go back, too. Classes of forty-something and fifty-something.
As I look at them, I wonder if they’re going to tear everything down and build a shrine when Aaron graduates.
A special day comes. I stay late after school for some reason and I walk out to the football field and watch the team practice. They don’t do much. A lot of formations and drills. The coaches do their bit. And I sit there thinking how special it is to stay after school.
My mother and father had bought me a football jersey for Christmas the previous year. It had my name stitched into the back. I kept it in my locker for just such an occasion. So I’m wearing my football jersey, watching the team practice. I’m by myself and think that’s pretty cool. I get a few looks from a few different people wondering what the heck I’m hanging around for. And that makes me think I’m even cooler.
But then something happens. Something that’s the coolest of all. Aaron is walking towards me. He’s cutting out of practice early and he’s walking right towards me. Our eyes meet, sending me ear to ear in a smile. He approaches, bends, speaks.
ou ain’ no football player.”
He kind of smiles and walks away. And I look around to see if anyone saw.
We win the state championship that year. The game is played in a real stadium. I go to the game by myself and sit next to a pair of old guys that are really into high school football. I listen to them speak. They know of all the guys on the football team.
Aaron, they say, is the best. Perhaps the best in the country. He’s going to a big time program. No college with a Northern, Eastern, Southern, or Western prefix. He’s going to a big school. The kind that play nationally televised games. The kind that produces Heisman Trophy winners. The kind that would never even accept my application. Aaron’s going there, and he is going to be a star. Everybody knows it.
And I listen to these two schmucks talk about Aaron and I get a little sad. Because Aaron’s no secret. He has other admirers. Suddenly it doesn’t feel special to like him. But then Aaron rips off a long touchdown run and I burst. It was me he had talked to. Not these two old guys that don’t know anything about nothing.
Then Aaron goes on to his big time college, and I am left behind. The football team is not as good without him. And I’m becoming less interested.
But Aaron, they say, is having a hard time in college. He’s too small. Injury prone. Done growing. I disagree. Aaron’s young I say. He has three more years. Just wait and see. And I look for his name in the paper. But I can’t find it. On one fall Saturday, when I should be out playing or doing something with my young life I decide to watch Aaron’s team play on television. Aaron’s team buries their opponent. But he doesn’t play.
Finally, at the end of the game, a camera pans the victorious sideline of Aaron’s team. Players yuck it up in front of the camera, sending greetings to their mothers, girlfriends, whoever. And in the background, on the bench sits Aaron. A different number on his jersey. A pensive look on his face. And I begin to get sad.
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