You fail to pick up a roster sheet because you are as usual thirty minutes late and hungry. The first song you hear has a country twang, and the second a deep bass line and liberal use of lyric control, a see-saw that will continue throughout the afternoon. Beneath the thrum of the speakers, that noise of men breathing, running, sweating. Yes, you think. Finally.
Without a way to put a name to the number, you build small fantasies. That small third-string QB, the first and only time they say his name you think you hear “Saracen,” and you’re in Friday Night Lights again, and he does look like you think Matt Saracen might have looked, had he found himself there. The bruising halfback with long light-brown hair is Riggins—not as beautiful, you’re sure, but cradling the ball in his massive forearms and crashing down the defense. And number 4-0, who doesn’t stop dancing until he’s head-down waiting for the whistle, who slams into, slams into, slams into a wall of safeties and then adds a new hip twitch waiting his turn again—that’s Smash for sure.
You move off the bleachers to the far end of the field, in time for the giant men in blue jerseys to come to your sideline. Without a way to put a name to the number, you learn simple things: defense is in blue, offense in white. Blue slaps the ball out of white’s hands to derisive laugher. White flops down on top of blue until they tumble apart in the grass. Blue is wider than white. White is shorter than blue. Except for some, who are tall as palm trees. It seems very clear to you at the time.
You get distracted by the boys who might be training staff, except they look too young to be out of high school. Their work invites questions. Like, how many times did they spray a giant man in the face with water before getting the trick of squirting through the helmet into his mouth? And, how do they feel about being forced to wear a fanny pack and a robin’s egg-blue visor? And, how badly do those sweaty, ratty towels draped over their shoulders smell? You can see that they love these giants. They smile into the giants’ faces as they offer a Gatorade. They hold very steady as the wide receiver rubs his fingers into their shoulder. Into the towel on their shoulder. They know every name, you can see it in their faces. You wonder who knows their names.
The players touch each other constantly. The slap of hands on chest. The quick fix of a shoulder pad. The massive palm gripping a forearm, lifting a man to his feet. The camaraderie of a helmet smack, the shoulders-back posturing of a mouth running fast.
At moments you almost recognize someone. Like the staff guy in the angled visor, you think you met him at the bar last week—cute, but a dick, you remember him clearly. Later you see him standing with the quarterbacks and think, oh, obviously.
And you’ve lived here long enough, you know the franchise faces. Danny Woodhead, one of the only human-sized people in uniform, hustles his ass off on every play. He takes off his helmet to hair held back with a thin band and a face that could have been in Lord of the Rings. You see Eric Weddle and you think of that boy you once slept with and how he claimed the privilege of Weddle’s friendship and you think, how could anyone be friends with that beard? Wouldn’t it be distracting over a beer? Wouldn’t you sometimes just touch it helplessly, like an exotic animal, and wouldn’t that be an awkward thing for a friend to do? You watch Kellen Clemens, Oregon boy, throw a tight spiral and his receiver misses and he slaps his own shoulders in frustration and you think how grateful he must be to still be in the league. How precious every snap he takes in training camp. Midway through the third set you notice the big offensive linemen, on a knee, hands on helmets, resting like brothers and with them Philip Rivers, and you think this is how teams are made.
Then the real scrimmages begin. You’ve seen #7, thin as a track star, and now he streaks down the sidelines and hauls in a catch. The running backs disappear under the arms of the D line and reappear like lightning bugs halfway to the end zone. The corner slaps down Keenan Allen’s hands and the crowd goes wild. And finally, Rivers send up a spiral right at you on the sidelines, it hangs in the air, there are men flying down the grass towards you, a man as tall as the camera cranes or god leans up and takes it from its flight and runs out of bounds, an object in motion, in motion until all that acceleration drains out.
You don’t stay until the end of practice, when tiny children dressed as fans will be hoisted onto shoulders at the sidelines, when lovely young women in jerseys and lipstick will smile and fluff their hair, when the autograph hunters will shout and wave pens and football and flags. You’re thinking of the heat and your crated dogs, you’re thinking of the decade that gulfs between you and the stars, you’re thinking you better go before traffic on the freeway is at a standstill.
You consider quite seriously plucking a roster sheet from a trash can but don’t, and when the booth at the exit is empty, you smile at the ticket salesmen and walk out.