The following is excerpted from Corey Sobel's debut novel, The Redshirt, about the hypermasculine world of American football. Sobel is a graduate of Duke University, where he was a scholarship football player and received the Anne Flexner Award for Fiction and the Reynolds Price Award for Scriptwriting. He has written for numerous publications, including HuffPost, Esquire.com, and Chapel Hill News. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Athletes die twice. That’s the hoary, comforting, horrifying mantra that circulates among us ex-jocks, and its meaning should be obvious enough: The muscle and speed, the stamina and quickness you spend your best years building up, the discipline and the single-minded drive, all are bound together by the sport, are you, and as soon as the sport leaves your life, that which united you is gone, and so you are gone, too, unraveled like a scarecrow stripped of its stitching. The second you is left to take over, eke out whatever it can before the ultimate death comes. But what nobody has ever told me is what happens to that first self after it breathes its last, where the first you goes. Does your living body become a kind of mausoleum for the corpse and you have no choice but to feel it rot away inside? That would explain the terrible stink I’ve been carrying around the last ten years.
—Friend of Steven? a man asks.
It takes me a moment to realize I’m the one being addressed, and another moment to understand that I’ve been staring. The man is sitting a few stools down the bar. He’s twenty-five maybe, with round-rimmed glasses, close-cropped curly brown hair, and a red Arizona Cardinals jersey whose baggy short sleeves come down to his elbows. He smiles, hands placed expectantly on the bar in anticipation of moving closer; but I have no clue who Steven is, and zero desire to explain to this man that I hadn’t been staring at him so much as at his jersey. I shake my head apologetically and look past him toward the entrance.
I usually avoid blind dates, but a colleague in NYU’s English Department has been nagging me to go out with Horace for months, and this week I finally relented. We agreed to meet here at the Raven, a watering hole indistinguishable from all the others in this stratum of western Brooklyn: a bar top made of recovered timber, a ceiling of antique hammered tin, light fixtures that are clusters of pendant bulbs with custard-colored filaments, the kind of place where the bearded bartender moodily explains the difference between single barrel and blended while the television above him plays vintage music videos on loop—big hair, parachute pants, bold letters that leave a neon residue as they streak onto the screen.
Horace arrives. He’s about my age, petite and handsome, with a trim black mustache that stands starkly against his pale skin. We shake hands as he takes the stool next to mine, and there is something efficient about him that appeals to me immediately. We run through preliminaries—he’s a lawyer, corporate malfeasance, I’m an assistant professor, secularization in nineteenth-century American texts. We have an easy rapport, he’s drily funny and much more confident than I am, and within an hour we’re already reaching back into our pasts. He tells me about the disaster of his parents divorcing when he was eleven, the depression and alcoholism that forced him to raise his little brother on his own. As he talks, I sort through my own traumas, trying to decide which one to trade. I’m not precious about sharing this kind of stuff, except for one thing: I don’t tell anyone I used to play football or about the events that forced me out of the game. In fact, I’ve been so disciplined for so long that I’ve managed to cultivate a whole community here in the city that has no idea what I used to be.
Athletes die twice. That’s the hoary, comforting, horrifying mantra that circulates among us ex-jocks.
The date continues to go well. Our stools have scooted closer, Horace insists I try his pilsner. I feel happy, buzzed, and am in the middle of explaining the tenure process when a group of men pushes into the bar—khaki shorts, flip-flops, many of them dressed in Cardinals jerseys, one of them inevitably named Steven. They gruffly hug the man who tried talking to me, and after some cajoling they prevail on the bartender to pick up the remote and turn the TV to the Sunday night showdown, Arizona versus Green Bay.
—Want to go somewhere else? Horace asks, which tells me I’m not hiding my panic very well.
—No no. This is fine.
The fans are harmless, as football folks go. They aren’t pounding tequila shots or climbing onto the bar, and when one bumps into our stools, he sincerely apologizes rather than calling us faggots with his eyes. But I’m still having trouble concentrating on what Horace is saying, struggling to watch him rather than the game that’s flashing in my peripheral vision. Horace himself is growing agitated, and I worry this is my fault until Green Bay scores and the group erupts into boos. With that, Horace sets down his beer, raises his eyes toward the ceiling, and sings out:
—Enjoy it while it laaaaaaaasts.
He lifts the long a up an octave, his voice tight and tart. The fans don’t hear it over the broadcast. Horace sighs and says to me:
—That game is dying. Peewee enrollment, plummeting. Ratings, too. The bodies are going to run out, then the money. Nobody is going to even know how to play football in a hundred years. And good fucking riddance.
Defensiveness rises in me for the game I despise, but speaking out now would only force me to confess everything, so I fake a laugh and clink my glass with Horace’s. After taking a sip of his beer, Horace lays his hand on my thigh. He asks again if I want to go somewhere else—except the way he’s looking at me signals that “somewhere else” is no longer a different bar, it’s one of our apartments. I say yes and he smiles and hops off his seat, excusing him-self. I watch him walk to the back and join a long bathroom line of full-bladdered Arizona fans.
I am fine, I am better than fine—until I look up and see that Reshawn, my Reshawn, is on TV, or at least a photograph of him is. He’s wearing dreadlocks these days, designer dreads, short and tight and henna-tinted, forming a kind of starburst around his head. He’s gotten so muscular that he looks slightly unconvincing, like a sculpture by an also-ran Renaissance artist who mastered individual muscles but lacked the skill to make the muscles cohere into a living, breathing whole. But the eyes work, they’re just as I remember them, dark brown, smolderingly intelligent, and I can’t believe I’m seeing him, Reshawn.
The photograph occupies the top right corner of the screen while a halftime news announcer says:
—The legal saga continues between the Seattle Seahawks and Reshawn McCoy. McCoy, a six-year veteran tailback, was a lock for the starting spot this season when he unexpectedly announced his retirement from football during training camp. The Seahawks have initiated proceedings for breach of contract. McCoy was in the middle of a three-year, four-million-dollar deal.
The announcer moves on to the next item without giving more information. For years—for my health—I’ve abstained from reading anything about Reshawn, but I can’t help myself now and take my phone out to search for mentions. He must have been euphoric when he made the announcement. He must have waited until the worst possible moment to retire, just so he could throw his team into chaos. It’s over. He’s free.
But the eyes work, they’re just as I remember them, dark brown, smolderingly intelligent, and I can’t believe I’m seeing him, Reshawn.
The first articles I read focus on the legal battle, but then I land on a more in-depth write-up of what happened. And there, in the second paragraph, is a sentence that makes me feel as if some-one has plunged his dirty hands into my gut and roughly flipped my stomach inside out:
McCoy’s mother died of a treatment-related infection two days before the announcement.
Heat gathers fast in my eyes, the phone screen starts to blur. An insistent phrase—it was all for nothing—repeats over and over in my head, pairing with the image I have of Reshawn’s mother, an image that’s years out of date, an image I know doesn’t reflect all the ravages visited on her body since I last saw her. I try to keep the tears at bay by keeping myself perfectly still, like holding a cup filled right to the brim. That’s when a hand lands hard on my back.
—Have faith, brother!
It’s the man whose jersey I’d been staring at; he must have been keeping a curious eye on me all this time. Beads of sweat tremble on the top rims of his glasses, and he’s so soused that his other hand, the one not resting on my back, is holding on to the bar to steady his wobbly self.
—We’ve got a whole, a whoooooole other half to play! Those guys—
He lifts his chin scornfully at the television, which has re-turned to the game and is showing the Green Bay sideline.
—They’re a bunch of jokers. Jokers. We’ll pull through!
Something between a sob and a laugh escapes from me. How could I have expected this moment to go any differently?
Horace returns from the bathroom. He sees my eyes are red.—What—? he begins to ask.
—He’s glass-half-empty! the drunk exclaims, clapping my back again. I told him just wait, wait till we get going!
—I’m okay, I tell Horace, attempting a smile.
The drunk ambles back to his friends, leaving us to try and recover our momentum. But it’s no use. Horace gently hints that he knows I’m upset, and I play dumb. I can feel myself going cold, resenting Horace for his solicitude, hating myself for resenting him.
How could I have expected this moment to go any differently?
Soon we’re splitting the tab and stepping out into the warm, clear September night. The air is scented with the rich smoke of a nearby halal cart, and down the slope you can see a tiny Statue of Liberty glowing green in the harbor.
—Should we get you a cab? I ask.
—Cab? he says, mock-offended. That’s not what we agreed to.
I’m about to say I’m too tired, but before I can, Horace hooks his arm around mine and asks the way to my apartment. I give in and lead him up 9th Street, passing between brownstones and a line of sycamores where invisible insects make insistent clicking noises that put me in mind of a stove burner failing to catch.
Horace tries to lighten the mood by telling me why autumn is his favorite season, but I’m only half listening. Maybe my athletic self has not only been rotting away inside me, maybe it’s also be-come a ghost that’s going to haunt me for however much time I have remaining. The ghost is the voice that taunts me whenever I lose my wind during a morning jog around Prospect Park. The fingers that mockingly pinch the love handles that sit stubbornly on my hips. The saboteur who finds a way to ruin every single one of my dates.
We reach my stoop and climb two flights of stairs to my studio. I live in an old brick building that gets stuffy with the day’s leftover heat, and I crack the windows before retrieving two beers from the fridge. I hand Horace a bottle and join him on my little blue IKEA couch. We sit there in awkward silence, listening to traffic sounds filter into the room from 7th Avenue.
Finally, Horace finishes the question he’d started asking back at the bar:
Excerpted from The Redshirt by Corey Sobel. Reprinted here with permission of University Press of Kentucky. Copyright © 2020 by Corey Sobel.