Muggy, late August air hangs heavy over the field as my teammates and I assemble for the first practice of the season. It’s only seven in the morning, but I’ve been awake for hours. I can never sleep the night before a new season kicks into gear. It’s been like that for as long as I can remember; since I was eight years old and playing pee wee football. More than Christmas, more than my birthday, more than getting my driver’s license or getting laid for the first time, the first practice back on the field is what I’ve always looked forward to more than anything else.
I suck a deep breath into my lungs as I stride across the Rayburn University football field. My home turf. I know this acre of land better than any other place on earth. Since freshman year, my entire life has revolved around this stretch of grass. Sure, I’ve technically been doing the whole “college” thing too, but let’s be honest. The real reason I got into Rayburn in the first place was the fact that I was the best goddamn high school running back on the East Coast. And this year, I’m gonna show the world that I’m the best college running back this conference has ever seen.
A loud yawn sounds out behind me, and I don’t even need to turn around to know who it is that’s still waking up.
“Sonofabitch,” Bryan “Buck” Wallace grumbles, “This coach’s early bird schedule is gonna be the death of me.”
I glance over my shoulder at Buck, my best friend and the top wide receiver on the team. He and I have been roommates, partners in crime, and each other’s wingmen since our freshman year here at Rayburn. We kept each other company while we bided our time during our first year on the team, waiting for the senior players to graduate already so we could get a shot at starting. Last year was a real breakout season for both of us. Buck finally got to start as the Rayburn Red Birds’ wide receiver, and I got to start as running back once the reigning running back graduated and was drafted to the NFL. The fact that my newly-pro predecessor happened to be my big brother Tom only gave me that much more to prove once I got to start. And this year, now that I’ve established myself as a force to be reckoned with on the field, I’m out to win. Big time.
“Wake up, Mary Sunshine,” I bark, pounding Buck on the back as we trudge across the field, “We’ve got a new coach to impress.”
Along with my big brother and a handful of other excellent football players, our school’s legendary head coach also moved on after last season. Us younger guys were bummed to lose out on playing for Coach Baker, but hopefully this new guy will bring some fresh ideas to the team. This is the first time we’re meeting the guy, Coach Nathan Cahill. He was an assistant coach down in South Carolina before coming up here to our New Jersey school, and from what I can tell he’s damn good at what he does. A bit of a hard ass, to hear some tell it, but I’ve got plenty of practice dealing with guys like that after growing up with my dad and Tom. No matter how much of a tough bastard Coach Cahill turns out to be, I’ll have dealt with worse.
“You boys ready for this?”
I glance up as a big, solid hand lands on my shoulder. Parker Royce, our quarterback, has appeared between me and Buck, flashing his pretty boy smile all over the damn place. I swallow a grumble of annoyance as he shows up at my shoulder, inserting himself into my conversation with Buck. Parker’s a senior here at Rayburn, the most established player on the team—and he’ll be the first to tell you. Royce may be a kickass quarterback, but he suffers from a bad case of RWBS. Rich White Boy Syndrome. With his Abercrombie model looks, hefty trust fund, and reeking sense of entitlement, Royce has always rubbed me the wrong way. I’ll work with the guy on the field, no question. But there’s no way we’re ever gonna be as chummy as he seems to think we already are.
“How was your summer, Royce?” Bryan asks, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, “Fuck your share of rich bitches on Daddy’s yacht?”
I turn away before I can laugh right in Royce’s WASPy face. Buck has never had any filter to speak of, and is far less willing or able to pretend he can stand Royce for a second. Bryan and I both come from working class towns; me from Trenton New Jersey, him from Western Massachusetts. And whereas I can mostly just ignore Parker’s obnoxious golden boy act, Bryan has much less of a tolerance for his bullshit. More than once last year our team suffered on the field because of the simmering ill will between Buck and Parker. I swear to god, I spend more time mending fences between them two of them than I do on my classwork. Though really, that’s not saying much.
“Maybe if you’re real nice to me this semester, I’ll bring you back home to the Cape with me over winter break,” Royce says, giving Bryan’s dark mop of hair a tousle, “I’m sure it’d beat hanging out with the meth heads over in your hometown.”
“Why don’t you show up to my hometown in your fucking Prius and see for yourself how much fun we can be?” Bryan shoots back.
“It’s a Tesla. Not a Prius,” Bryan says, strolling out ahead of us toward the coaching staff, “Not that you’d be able to tell the difference.”
“Do you think anyone would believe it was an accident if I broke his fucking arm off?” Buck growls as we approach the coaches.
“As much as I hate to admit it, we need that arm,” I reply, “If we want to win the championship this year, that is.”
“Ugh. I know,” Buck grunts, “Don’t remind me.”
“Relax,” I tell him, “Royce’ll graduate at the end of the year, and then it’ll just be you and me running this place. Unless you get arrested for attempting to murder our quarterback before then.”
“Eh. We’ll see what happens,” Buck shrugs, as we step up into the circle of our teammates to meet our new coach.
Coach Cahill stands at the center of the field, flanked by his staff. He’s a tall, ruddy, blonde guy. Built like a bull, if not in the fighting shape he must have been in during his own days as a college football player. His small blue eyes regard us all with unreadable focus, his mouth a straight, serious line above his thick jaw. Compared to Coach Baker—who was all earnest tough love—I can already tell that Coach Cahill is going to be a goddamn drill sergeant. But if he thinks this strong, silent act is going to intimidate me, he’s got another thing coming to him. I lift my chin as his eyes swing my way, letting him know in no uncertain terms that Dean “Crash” Carter doesn’t scare so easy.