Jake Munson huddles over a jagged section of a whiteboard found in a dumpster two blocks from campus. His full name is scribbled across the board. Then it’s erased. A few seconds later, the name is back again.

On his left side down by his hip a stopwatch is firing off. If he is fast enough with this he can go on to reading his playbook. Jake looks at the numbers on the face getting bigger. Maybe this morning will be different. This might be the fight he wins. Come back, Jake. Jake what? Teachers, coaches, first days of anything. What did they call you?

The playbook is somewhere in the apartment, nothing more than a lost memory. But the playbook was something he feels now. It was as much reading to him as looking at a binder of family pictures. His body remembered the failures of seeing a body dart through his assignment, feeling hot breath from a coach screaming through his helmet. He also felt success. A lineman didn’t account for his lean 5’8 frame slipping through a B-gap like water in a cracked pipe. He’d take his facemask at a full sprint and jam it into the quarterback’s spine, turning him into a 6’3 doormat. Jake could feel it miles from a field on the manila carpet in his apartment off Livingston. But seconds drop off the clock when his middle name gets further from him. It’s gone now.

Before this he was waking up from a dream. He was back in Anaconda, Montana getting lost on streets he lived on his whole life. Couples would stop and listen to words drip off the edge of his paralyzed mouth. Where’s the house? Where is home? They would shake their heads and walk away arm in arm. He dragged his mangled body down a coal mine and waited for the sun to come up. The town stayed in darkness. He stared at the black walls of rock that circled the mine. The deep gashes from hands, going halfway up the wall, but growing fainter as every claw out of nothingness became crushed by the overwhelming odds that would never change. The soot felt soft and his hands were sore. He could be nobody.

Jake came out from the dream fighting through the same headache, built with two violent hands that pull the muscles in his neck like stirrups. Reminders. You get to play the game.

Playing the game was nothing more than a brief resistance from the obligations of being born in Anaconda. The desperate town that used to be something to a whole lot of people. It had a calling that spoke to honest men. They took the shafts down to the coal mines and beat the hell out of their bodies for the small chance their sons wouldn’t join them. But sons love their fathers more than the world will ever love them; every generation came down the shafts to free the next, but it didn’t happen for most.

Some didn’t even get a chance. By ’83 the mines were out. Companies did some tests and found bad enough readings to call the entire town a liability. The fights were over. For Jake, he spent his life hearing his father try to free him from a suffocated couch cushion in their living room.

Buddy Munson worked down in the mines. Anaconda was out long before longwall mining was perfected; Buddy spent his youth swinging a pick at coal pillars for twelve hours, and married the first girl he talked to at a bar. When Jake was born, Buddy held him like Jim Brown down the sidelines, his lower back held up by next to nothing. Buddy was beat by his early 30s, when he couldn’t handle sitting in a chair long enough to make phone calls for his wife’s brother doing him a favor. With a freshly ironed shirt and red swollen eyes, Buddy applied for food stamps, and built a life for his small family.

Jake spent eighteen years in a terminally ill town, ten years mauling anything with a different color jersey on, hoping someone would notice. Schools did. Most schools noticed he was small and hurt. Coaches from around the region would come to his games like tourists to the walls of the Roman Coliseum. But their shoulders would hang when it became obvious their imaginations were larger and faster than the young man wearing 55. They’d watch 55 crack a running back trying to break it outside. The back would lower his head. 55 would lower his. Like jousters both would feel the impact, but the back would meet the ground, sending up grass and dirt like splinters from the pole. 55 would go down too, coming up slower as the games went on. By fourth quarters scouts would point out to each other the wide eyes of 55 on the sideline. The blinking. His teammates huddled around him as he doubled over a trashcan. Jake didn’t get any letters.

After graduation, he hopped a bus to Bozeman and met with the linebackers coach Ray Gardner, a man who had the appearance of being water-birthed in gasoline. He had flat knuckles from punching a rock two hours a day in his grandfather’s basement in Laramie, Wyoming. He didn’t give speeches because he didn’t want to coach kids who needed speeches.

Gardner saw Jake play. He was a kamikaze blue-collar kid. Small, but the league was small. And he didn’t play small. Gardner saw that Jake had the ability to make fear something tangible on the field. Opposing coaches’ faces would turn red at the sight of their receivers changing their routes to avoid the middle. 55 was a monster.

But in front of him that Saturday morning, he saw an 18-year-old who was forced to stare into space. During his physical, he pressed his temples. He answered questions slowly. The doctor checked a box and Jake got a spot on the team. No scholarship. At a family dinner two miles off campus Gardner told his wife that 55 wouldn’t last two falls.

Five falls later Jake jerks his body along a treadmill in the basement of his apartment complex. The landlord let Jake clear out some forgotten luggage of previous tenants and haul in a rusted gym set. Aside from the rubber belt hitting his shoes, he worked in silence. Silence was something to Jake. Something ancient and precious, constantly begging for his attention. It held his leathered hands by the finger and pulled him away into dark corners of the world.

Gardner now takes Jake at his word when he says he trains. The team will grunt and yell at one another for one more push, one more pull. Music pumps through new speakers and vibrates the inside of everyone in the weight room. Jake does it alone. Jake tells the coach it’s the noise. “I can’t lift with that music on. I’m not a rap guy, coach.”

“It’s fine,” Gardner will say. “Just be on time for practice.” Gardner puts a soft hand on Jake’s shoulder as he walks him out the door. Gardner leaves the conversation where it is. It’s safe there. What’s our quarterback’s name? Don’t give me numbers, Jake. I want names. Who do we play next week? What’s your daddy’s name? If he heard the answers it might break his heart. But the doctors know. It can’t get any worse, they say. Can he die? Sure he can die. All these kids can die.

Gardner comes back to his desk and asks himself if he is a terrible man. He sees his reflection in the faded silver of accolades. Older. Older than he should look. When he moved up to head coach he was told it would happen, and he and his wife would laugh. You’re giving the kid something people can only dream of, Ray.

The treadmill shakes from the four-mile run. Jake’s pained inhales fill the room. He runs with every muscle now. It used to be the legs that got him places. He could never cover large ground, but what he could he took in militant strides.

One day it stopped. His mind became a factory with a new ground plan. His left leg didn’t want to lift as high as his right during a practice his sophomore year. He could feel Buddy’s couch cushion inching closer to his thighs with every lame attempt. Mine shafts were clicking further down to the black.

Jake spent hours after practice wheeling his body around a little league baseball diamond a few miles off campus. Every turn around a base was a charcoal colored arm hoisting him out of darkness. It was validating, the pain. Pain meant something was happening. He was living. Jake worried about the days he felt nothing. There were days he felt he should say something. Doctors would ask him questions and he knew the right answers. His head was fine. I love my teammates. I am happy. But they would tell him what protocol is.

If you get hit in the head and you feel funny, you gotta tell us. It’s fine. It’s protocol. Are ya sad, Jake? Follow my finger. If you feel depressed, let us know. You’re following protocol.

Jake saw protocol. He saw teammates gripping their heads like basketballs in front of doctors. He watched them follow protocol. They sat on the bench and watched a kid go in for them. Hey, turns out the kid is pretty good. Protocol made school more expensive. Protocol would send Jake back to Anaconda on the bus he came in on. When he was holding a cardboard sign with a splitting headache, he’d be sure to write in ink, “Please help. I followed protocol.” Jake spat on the dirt around the second base. 55 was not following protocol.

Like his mother holding his tiny fingers above his head as she guided his first steps down the thin hallway, he whispered to his body, this is how you do it, Jake. Right, left, right, left. He stayed on the field until he felt the only way a person could run was in the shape of a diamond. It was the first time he felt the stirrups on his back. But he was moving. It wasn’t with the ardent strides he was used to. He felt like those bulls in Spain, trying to grip their hooves on the cobblestone alleys, chasing anything down that wore white. Past every tienda, every mangled body, the bull kicked his back legs away from the stable that he was locked in.

The treadmill stops before Jake does. He can feel the vibrations, the machine failing. Every day it becomes harder to kick back on. Finally the machine stops responding to Jake’s running shoe rapping against its side. When the belt stops, it’s done.

Jake sits on the back of the treadmill. He thinks about a wide receiver. Early. Wears 82. Wanted 84 like Randy Moss. They were freshmen at the time, in the equipment room with an ancient man people called Sticky. Early could fix the treadmill.

“Freshmen don’t get to choose,” Sticky said. He threw him 82. Jake was thrown 55, but didn’t care. It was only a number to Jake then.

“55…big number, man.” Early whistled like a cartoon character. “Where you from?” Jake told him. Early’s dark eyes flashed and cracked at the edges. He loved it. “55, from Anaconda.” Early smiled wide enough that a gold molar caught Jake’s attention. Early didn’t hear names of towns like that in San Diego. Early found one thing he liked about this part of America. People could be from places called Anaconda.

Early could fix the treadmill. Early could catch passes across the middle. He could tap two feet in on the sideline even though he only needed one. He made Jake feel more crippled than usual when he would break past his press, getting smaller and smaller as he went further down the field in practice. Early used big words when he spoke to Jake. He spoke another language when he would call home on road trips. Early liked to talk and Jake didn’t. On bus rides the team would sleep, or fake sleep to get out of talking to Early. But Jake would sit next to Early and stare out the window. Early would talk about girls on campus he liked, which places back home made the best burritos and Jake would nod and smile when it seemed right to.

Early now lives out in Rancho Bernardo, California with his fiancé. He works for a mortgage broker in Del Mar. He eats lunch at places that overlook the wave breaks at 15th Street. His football career comes up with clients but is brushed off with a learned modesty. Yeah I played for a bit. Wide receiver. I had a lot of fun. But Early bought the house in Rancho Bernardo because the realtor showed him an attic built above the garage that would be perfect to stash away his life. The jerseys, pictures, a towel covered in dirt and blood shoved behind some plastic awards. It was all nice, but it was finished. Early knew that.

Jake will call him tomorrow. “Are you in class? Can you come over? Thing’s busted again.” Early will hang up without saying a word.

Early can fix the treadmill.

After the call and between interruptions at work, Early will stare at the walls, and through his windows at life moving forward. Bozeman was another world now. The deep twang on the receiving end of his phone was a lonely reminder that he was a lucky one. 67 receptions over the middle. Early couldn’t recognize the unhinged version of himself, outstretched arms and a body that was taught to be destroyed. 82 was bred between the chalk markings on the field to defy his inclinations to retreat from danger. Move towards it, and faster than anyone that did it before you. 82 lived for the sound of chains moving forward. 82 lost sleep wondering if he could live without the screaming praise of total strangers. Early would close his eyes every so often. The screams were distant now. Nobody screams for a mortgage broker in a quiet beach town. But Early had an office and he didn’t share it. It was his. He didn’t have to run fast or lower his shoulder to keep it. He would stare at the walls. His walls.

Early would hang up on Jake every month or so. 55, from Anaconda. There were others. Teammates coaxed by whomever to call him. They would call for 82. 82 has money. 82 probably knows doctors. 82, how are the beaches? Anybody hiring out in California?

55 needed a treadmill fixed. 55 was always one of the good guys. Pretty good ball player, too. He made the middle of the field a terrifying place. Every play with him looked like a car wreck. He’d come out of the rubble, the lone survivor, stumbling around the broken glass of destroyed opponents, barely surviving his own assault. Everything 55 said could fit on a napkin. But he worked harder than anyone who preached the value of hard work. 82 would have never hung up on 55. Early had to.


“Send him home to his mother.”

Gardner married a woman who understood the sacrifice. Her father was a coach. Her mother was a coach’s wife. She understood the game, not for its dealings, but what it demanded. It demanded time. She watched wives become ex-wives over this. The game demanded discipline. It demanded violence. She knew her husband left the house every day to shape boys into monsters. Her lips would purse when mothers would call foul on Gardner for being too rough.

If they knew, she would day to herself. If they knew the dangers of being soft in this game. Her husband was building them. If their sons could withstand her husband they could handle anything after the game ends. But every year a mother would cry foul, and Coach Gardner and Mrs. Gardner would stand firm on the life they built.

But Jake was different. He didn’t need Gardner. Jake was the game. He was violence, discipline; there was nothing Gardner could pull out from Jake that wasn’t already present.

There would be times Mrs. Gardner hoped that someone would call for him. A mother somewhere in this world, begging for it to stop. She would watch games with a knotted stomach, furious at no one. Please get off the field, Jake. Get him off the field. Somehow he would pass the tests. She could see the doctors and coaches with constrained expressions as 55 would hobble back onto the field. He was the monster from Anaconda. Jake came off the bus to her husband the way he should have left. We’re giving him something, not many people get.

Five years after she heard this, today, she holds her crying husband at their kitchen table. Over the heaving barreled torso of the man she was bred to love, she whispers.

“You gave him everything, but it’s time, Ray. Send him home to his mother.”


It’s light now. Students put their books in their cars and speed off to somewhere. Gardner is in his office taking a name off a magnetic board. Jake is back in his unlit bedroom holding the piece of whiteboard in his hand. The marker in his hand moves fast. The stopwatch is tucked away in a drawer by his bed. Jake’s red eyes move slowly with his fingers wrapped around the marker. He follows the black shapes being created. His head pulses.



Keith James is an undergraduate at Idaho State University studying sports economics. He is a huge fan of the late Elmore Leonard, David Berri, the Celtics, and gas station coffee.