You know why everyone called him Dog? Because he would do shit only a dog would do. One time Jimbo Kidd dared him to lick the back tire on his bike, and Dog did it, and you know Jimbo would ride his bike through mud and dog shit and all kinds of shit, and Dog Ryan licked his tire. Dog Ryan. So nobody hung out with him. He’d try to hang out with guys, and guys would ditch him. He had no friends.
Mick had lots of friends and he felt sorry for Dog Ryan, so one day he hung out with him.
Dog didn’t have any money, so Mick fronted him a quarter and they went to the store, to Molly’s, and bought a bunch of penny candy which was shoveled into a small white paper sack, and they walked through the alley and the secret hallway through the apartment buildings to the back of Ascension and then over to Fox Park to climb a tree and eat the candy and talk shit. It was then that Mick discovered something incredible.
“What time is it, Mick?”
Mick glanced at his Timex. Mick had a ring, his mother’s Trinity high school ring, he had a silver bracelet with “Mick” etched on it, he had the Timex, and he wore aftershave. If only he could shave he would be really cool.
It was a quarter after four, and Dog Ryan said he had to go to practice.
“For practice for what?”
“Get out of here.”
It wasn’t like Dog Ryan couldn’t play at all. All the guys could play. But Dog was the kind of player who would make plays by accident or luck.
“I got practice for St. Edmund’s.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“I’ll show you, Mick.”
And he did. They climbed down out of their tree, a white birch that overlooked the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Oak Park Avenue, up which they then headed north toward St. Edmund’s.
There was no reason not to believe him. He was after all wearing a football uniform. Where in the world could Dog Ryan get a football uniform except from a football team? But Mick hadn’t asked him anything about it because he was too cool. Maybe Dog Ryan thought he’d catch a pick-up game of football at Fox Park. Guys showed up there with their own pads and helmets once in a while. But a good game of tackle football with a bunch of guys required planning during school to get it organized, sometimes days in advance, and Mick hadn’t heard anything about a game. Dog Ryan probably stole the uni from somewhere or somebody.
Jimbo Kidd had a pair of real high-top black football spikes that he wore in pick-up games at Fox Park and South Park, which would later be named Rehm Park, where there was an Olympic-sized pool to rival Ridgeland-Commons, at which big-time national swimming meets were held before ABC cameras to be shown on the Wide World of Sports, but nobody asked Jimbo Kidd where he got the black high-tops and Mick wondered about that until one day he spotted the high-top black spikes in the Sears catalogue.
Baseball shoes had cleats, football shoes had spikes,
There were lots of things to learn if you were going to be cool.
“Why are we going to St. Edmund’s?”
“To show you where it is.”
“I know where it is.”
“You ever go in?”
“You ever go inside the church?”
If there was a church around, Mick would go inside it. Besides Ascension he had been inside St. Bernadine’s and St. Edmund’s and the Lutheran church near South Park and the cathedral downtown. If there was a church he would go into it and pray, dip his fingers in holy water and make the sign of the cross and bow his head and genuflect at the aisle and go into a pew and kneel down and say a few Our Fathers and Hail Marys and then he would snake around the aisles by the side altars and under the Stations of the Cross and into the baptismal fount and into the crying room and race up the aisle and into the nave and up the stairs to the choir loft with its organ at the top, beneath the Dome, which had once been shining gold and now was green, surmounted by green Jesus, arms outstretched, wondering why, why, why.
“Why do you want to know if I ever been in Edmund’s?”
“So you can say you go there.”
Dog Ryan was up to something. Dog Ryan was always up to something, stealing something, sneaking into places, spying on people, doing shit all on his own, in his raggedy clothes – even his football uni was white turned gray and black and green and red with dirt and mud and grass and blood.
“Where we going now?”
“That where you practice?”
It was. Dog Ryan wasn’t bullshitting Mick. There on the field were a couple dozen players uniformed like Dog Ryan, only cleaner. It was the Edmund’s football team. Edmund’s had a football team. Who knew there even was such a thing? And Dog Ryan of all people was on the team.
“How the Hell?”
“I’ll tell you after practice.” And Doggie ran off to practice. Mick watched from a distance. The coach wore a ball cap and a Vince Lombardi aspect. “Run back to the huddle – run!”
They had started by doing calisthenics – jumping jacks, push-ups, leg raisers, starting with bicycling, then lowering the legs and shouting “twelve inches,” then “six inches” and emitting war cries, and then they broke into groups – running backs over here, quarterbacks and receivers over there, linemen over here. Dog Ryan fit right in. He was an average player for these guys from Edmund’s, who seemed to Mick not quite on a par with the Ascension lads. Some bigger guys, but nobody as tall as Shock or anywhere near as athletic, and nobody as big as either Jimbo Kidd or Jimbo Wilkinson.
They ran a scrimmage, mostly running plays, not passing. Afterward Dog Ryan went up to the coach and started talking to him. The coach was listening to him and then Dog was pointing Mick out to the coach, and the coach gestured for Mick to come join them on the sideline.
“I hear you’re a football player,” the coach said. “I’m Coach Payne. Good to meet you.”
Mick introduced himself, and Dog Ryan stood there beaming like he wanted a pat on the head.
“How’d you like to play for St. Edmund’s?”
“But I go to Ascension,” Mick said.
“We’re not going to talk about that,” Coach Payne said. “You go to church at St. Edmund’s, don’t you?”
This was the question that Dog Ryan had been preparing him for.
“Yes,” Mick answered.
“Good enough,” Coach Payne said. “We’ll see you at practice tomorrow then. You got pads.
“Wear your own pads and we’ll suit you up afterward.”
It was almost dark and there was a cool fall breeze that sent the oak leaves cascading onto the sidewalk of East Avenue as they headed back toward Clarence alley.
It was just past Indian Summer and Mick was going to play football tomorrow, his first step toward maybe being one of the greatest football players of all time, like Paul Hornung or Jim Thorpe.
But he wouldn’t tell anybody about it because it might somehow get him in trouble. There was something about all this he wasn’t sure about. Dog Ryan would sneak into the movies, he’d steal candy from the drug store. You couldn’t trust him. But he had hooked Mick up with a football team he could play on, and Mick wasn’t going to pass it up. Besides, the players didn’t look that good, didn’t look that big or that fast. What the Hell!
“You know why he wants you to wear your own pads?”
“See if I’m any good before he gives me a uni.”
“You gotta earn it.”
“Well, you earned it, Doggie, how hard can it be?”
Mick would be like Jim Thorpe, All-American, as played by Burt Lancaster in a movie Mick would stay up late to watch and be inspired to tears and spend the night dreaming of football plays, of scoring touchdowns for Fenwick’s Fighting Friars, for Notre Dame, for the Chicago Bears, no, he would not play pro football, he would do something else, be a spy maybe, but why think that far ahead? For now it would be enough to score a touchdown. He could sleep on that.
The next day at Ascension was a time warp, stretching out interminably while he endured the interval before football practice.
He got dressed for school in his Ascension uni – the powder blue shirt and clip-on navy blue tie, the navy blue trousers, cuffless, that he tried to wear the way Paul Gearen wore his, above the shoe tops so his white socks showed, because Paul Gearen was cool. Paul Gearen was the coolest kid at Ascension. He was handsome and athletic and came from a big family of the best south Oak Park Irish-Catholic stock, his father was a lawyer and one of Fenwick’s most honored alums, and there were eight kids in the family. The DeCleene’s were pretty cool too. They had nine kids.
What was cool about having all those kids?
Because their house was like a playground, like Never Never Land, with kids popping up all over the place all the time.
The Gearen’s house was cool because everything was so well organized – there were lists of chores posted, assigning tasks to the various brothers and sisters, and the house was always clean and uncluttered and the two-car garage was beyond a paved backyard that had been turned into a basketball court.
The DeCleene’s house was cool because it was so unorganized, a towering three-story castle off Jackson Boulevard, overstuffed with kids and toys and games and sports equipment. They only had one more kid in the family that the Gearen’s, but it seemed like a dozen.
And all the kids went to Ascension, one or more to each grade level. Everybody Mick knew went to Ascension, all the Clarence alley boys. They all lived in the shadow of the dome atop Ascension.
At mass each Sunday beneath the dome was distributed the Dome, a publication listing the masses to be said for the souls of the dead, and Mick might see there at regular intervals the appearance of his own grandfather, James, listed there, masses to be said for Pop, and how was that done? Someone had made a donation to the church to have masses said? Was that how that was done? Pop, who left Derry, Ireland and found his way to America by joining up with the British Army and then deserting when they got to Canada and waltzing across the border into the US, easy as pie, and beguiling and charming his way through entrepreneurships, mostly failed, and the odd deal here and there, to a bungalow on the edge of American prosperity in south Oak Park just half a block from Roosevelt Avenue and the border between Oak Park and Berwyn, which was to say between civilization and Bohemia, Land of the Bohunks, whoever they were, something like Pollocks probably, Pop, who had ruefully turned down a get-rich scheme to put in with a barnstorming football team called the Decatur Staleys, unless this was just one of those yarns Pop liked to spin, in his fine brogue, and he favored drink and his general counsel was: “A kick in the arse is better than no fight at all,” Pop, who would die on the couch in the living room of that bungalow, no hospital nor doctors for him thank you, the Cubs’ game on tv, those bums, and finally he said softly but audibly, “Blessed Lady, take my hand,” and he was gone.
Johnny Lattner’s Steakhouse was dark and cool inside and smelled of wood and leather and steak and cigar smoke. In a glass case lit with a mysterious glow was the Heisman Trophy.
One kid’s name was Tomasetti, but Coach Payne always called him Tuffinetti because he liked the way he hit.
Jimbo Kidd was the good Jimbo. Jimbo Wilkinson was the bad. If you’re tough, you’re going to box in the Silver Gloves. They fought it out for the heavyweight championship of Ascension.
It was time for football practice at Ridegland-Commons, just off Lake Street in the middle of Oak Park, not far from St. Edmund’s but more than a mile away from Ascension, and far from Clarence alley, so none of the guys figured to chance by. There was a fall chill in the air, the sky was gray in the late afternoon and people had to rake the leaves in their yards, and the smell of autumn leaves was cleansing and the smell of the grass and earth when you rolled on it was fortifying.
The coach, Coach Payne, blew his whistle.
“Listen up. We’ve got a game coming up with St. Eulalia and we are going to be ready to play football, you understand me? We are going to block and we are going to tackle because that, gentlemen, is the game of football. You understand me? In its entirety. Blocking. Tackling. You understand?”
Mick could see that it was going to important to understand Coach Payne, but it didn’t sound like much fun.
“You take care of blocking and tackling and the rest will take care of itself.”
What could that even mean? Football was about dodging people, getting away from them, escaping, out-running, about throwing and catching, about tight spirals arcing through the sky. Football was a game of skill and coordination and speed and grace and athleticism. The NFL had that contest: Punt, Pass, and Kick. It was a skills test.
Now there they were, headed for the blocking sleds. Each was built for two players to put their shoulders to and give it a go. For the first time in his life, Mick plowed his shoulder into a blocking sled, imitating the guys who’d gone ahead of him. He was wearing cheapshit shoulder pads and it hurt and he was glad when they switched to something else. Then he found out it was tackling, by way of a tall canvas punching bag you could knock over. That was ok. That was fun. It wasn’t that Mick was afraid to tackle, but he didn’t much care for head-on collisions, and he didn’t want to be steamrolled. He was a pretty good tackler when he could take an angle on the ball carrier and especially when he ran somebody down from behind, which he discovered he could do just about every time the offense ran a sweep to the opposite side from where he was playing cornerback.
Cornerback was where Coach Payne put him as soon as the scrimmage began. He must have wanted to find out if Mick could play or not right away. They both found out at the same time.
If the play came at him, Mick could side-step the blockers and still manage to pull the ball carrier down on angle or from behind. If they decided to throw the ball, that was even better, because Mick was a ball hawk.
Of course he had been burned before. There was that game, hell, it had been at Ridgeland-Commons too, and so was that Little League game for the village championship, but the football game against Field Playground when he was playing safety and that long-legged receiver got behind him, which Mick had never minded before while playing touch football in the street because at the last moment he would always just outjump the receiver and intercept the pass. That was in the street with no one but the Clarence alley boys. Against Field the quarterback launched a pass so high over Mick’s head it was ridiculous, and the guy just reached up and caught it practically in stride.
And that Little League championship game, when they had the game won, and then he made the bonehead play, fielding a ground ball and stupidly running over to tag second, even though there was no one on first, before sailing the ball over the first baseman’s head and into the dugout. “Cleanest pick-up I’ve ever seen,” the manager had marveled afterward, before rolling his eyes and labeling it a bonehead play. Luckily that didn’t lose them the series, and they went on to win the championship in the next game, which Mick watched from the dugout.
Ridgeland-Commons had not worked so well as a sports venue.
Mick didn’t worry about that kind of shit. He wasn’t superstitious, although he was afraid of ghosts and the Devil, and he carried a rabbit’s foot, which was gruesome, but he didn’t think about that either. It was fall and that meant football and he was showing Coach Payne he could play and that was all that mattered, showing his speed, his smarts, his athleticism, every bit of talent and dedication that might compensate for his lack of size. And it worked. Coach Payne was going to try him on offense now.
On defense things have to remain fairly simple. Since the whole idea is to stop whatever the offense initiates, it doesn’t do much good to apply ironclad strategies that ignore what the offense does. Let the offense follow strategy, your job on defense is to mess that strategy up, to disrupt, and you can always just take the ball away from them if you get the chance.
Mick liked all of that, and on a team like this you could play both ways, play on both offense and defense. So now Coach Payne would see what Mick could do with the ball in his hands.
There were holes between each of the offensive linemen and the holes were numbered.
How hard could it be?
After all, they ran the same play over and over again. That’s why they called it “practice”.
They would run a sweep to the right, to the right, to the right, then to the left, to the left, to the left. The running back would get the ball in a direct snap from the center, a shotgun snap, then head for the sideline behind a wall of blockers.
The first time they ran the play with Mick as the running back it was like a dream. He followed his blockers patiently. He was so short that the defenders had a hard time spotting him back there. He hid behind his blockers and this caused the defenders to hesitate ever so slightly, and that’s when Mick got the jump on them. They were all running in one direction in pursuit and running hard because they knew the play, when suddenly Mick veered back against the grain and cut right through them. He did it again and again.
“We got ourselves a cutback runner,” exclaimed Coach Payne.
Dog Ryan was on the sideline in his dingy uni in the red glow of the September sunset, his helmet off and dangling from the facemask that Doggie gripped with one paw, and he was grinning. He had recruited a cutback runner for St. Edmund’s.
Coach Payne took Mick for a look at the game unis, even though he wouldn’t be getting one just yet.
“We’ll save that for the night before game day,” Coach Payne said. “But check them out.”
The jerseys were like those of the Cleveland Browns, white with brown numbers for the road, brown with white numbers for home. Then Mick saw the pants and his jaw dropped. They were gold. No stripes or piping just solid shiny sleek gold.
Coach and player were happy. Coach Payne had found himself a cutback runner and Mick had found himself a team. The only thing left to do was to fuck it all up, so Mick got to work on that right away.
“Just keep it to yourself, son,” Coach Payne had said.
And that was how Mick could fuck things up. He could tell somebody about it. He could tell everybody about it.
Why would he want to fuck it all up?
He wouldn’t, at least not consciously, but at heart he must have wanted to fuck it all up, to blow his chance, because he was the one who blew it all by telling everybody about it.
What about the coach?
The coach didn’t blow it. The coach was going to give Mick a chance. The coach was going to put him in the game.
The coach was going allow a player from another parish play for the parish football team. The coach was going to cheat.
He’d done it before. He was using Dog Ryan.
Blame it on Dog Ryan.
Still, they would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for Mick. He could have played. Coach Payne was ready to put him in the game on Saturday, on his birthday, his thirteenth birthday. He would be a teenager and a football player on the same day and maybe he would have to shave.
In reality Coach Payne probably just wanted Doggie and Mick to fill out the team. Mick was pretty good and Doggie was ok, but neither one of them was going to set the world on fire – probably.
But there was no way he would ever know for sure – because he sure felt like he could play then. He had done great things on the playground, catching passes, eluding tacklers, broken field running.
He had no way of knowing that it would be a blessing not to play football.
So maybe that was why he did it – a rational decision, not cowardice.
But he hadn’t done it yet. He had to wait to become a teenager first.
The rain fell in a steady shower and the rhythm and volume would rise and fall and you’d think it was going away and then it would come back harder than ever, and whole sky was a uniform gray, the rain all over it, no going away because there was nowhere to go, it was an all-day rain, on Mick’s thirteenth birthday. He turned on his record player and lay in bed listening to the Beatles.
“I Feel Fine” was also the song they played in the imaginary indoor stadium that Mick had created in the basement when the imaginary basketball team he played on and coached and broadcast went into their warm-up routine.
Mick got tired of going to practice after a couple of days. It was boring. He was never going to learn the numbering system for the plays – not because he couldn’t, but because he had decided he just never would, just like he had made up his mind early on when he took four years of piano lessons and came out at the other end without ever having learned to read music. He’d just fake it, just like he had faked learning the Latin of the Mass so he could be an altar boy.
But how could he just walk away from it. This was his life’s dream.
That was the problem, it was all a dream. And in the dream all the guys were there. Not just the Clarence alley boys but all the Ascension lads – Shock, Jimbo Wilkinson, Jimbo Kidd, Rug Olson, Gaffney, Lavery, all of them, the guys who put together the big pick-up games at Fox Park and you’d pray to get picked. Mick dreamed of playing with those guys.
What about Schweez?
They were better than the St. Edmund’s guys.
“You don’t think?” Mick said to Dog Ryan.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Dog, you gotta be kiddin me.”
“Much better. Shock? Come on. Shock? Just think about it: Shock against These Guys?”
“Shock’d kill these guys.”
What could Doggie say? He couldn’t say anything.
Shock was Craig Canovitz, also known as Niggerbits, but not to his face of course. He was a head taller than Jimbo Wilkinson, the next tallest kid, and he was built like Tarzan and he was swarthy, so maybe he was built like that and was a super athlete because he was part-nigger, you know? Plus, some guys said he had flunked a grade, and he was no scholar, so guys called him Niggerbits behind his back, and still everybody wanted to be his friend.
One day in seventh grade Mick came home wearing a pair of army combat boots.
“What in the world have you got on your feet?”
“Where did you get them?”
“Shock gave them to me.”
“They must be three sizes too big.”
Mick was going to use them to train as a fighter and do his road work wearing them. But it turned out they actually were too big. Shock didn’t want them back, so he gave them to the Keating twins, Tom and Jerry, and let them fight over them. They were both a little bit shorter than Mick, so go figure.
“What would be really cool,” Mick told Dog, “would be a pair of combat boots, you know, to do road work in.”
“To be a boxer.”
“Of course you’d get punched a lot.”
“You’d have to.”
“You’d have to maybe, but I wouldn’t.”
Not a word about practice, not a word about the team or Coach Payne, not a word about the game coming up on Saturday.
The equipment room, where the uniforms were kept was a scared place. Mick had tried to duplicate it in the storeroom in the basement of his house with a row of cardboard boxes labeled Home and Road with shorts and make-shift jerseys, and Mom had asked, “What’s all this?” and when he started to explain she just nodded her head and walked away. It was ok. Do what you want in the storeroom as long as you don’t wreck anything. Of course it would not be ok when he started hiding his Playboys down there in the storeroom in the basement and he went down there to beat off, but it would be a long time before she found out about that, months.
In the sacred place were stacks of jerseys that were brown – like Cleveland Browns brown – with golden numbers trimmed in black, and that were white with the numbers in brown and etched in gold, and there were stacks of sleek golden football pants that were shiny.
In the game against Eulalia, it had started raining early in the day and Coach Payne had the team wear the white pants they had been wearing in practice, to spare the gold pants from the mud bath, and they wore the white jerseys because they were the home team and the home team wore white.
“Coach Payne is saving the gold pants.”
“Field’s all mud.”
“What’s he saving them for? What’s the point of playing football in the rain if you’re not going to get your uni all muddy?”
“The beauty part is we get to wear the hood-capes.”
They stood on the sideline, Mick and Dog Ryan, in the pouring rain, wearing hooded capes over their helmets and shoulder pads.
On the previous day, Mick had fucked it all up by telling the Ascension lads about playing for St. Edmund’s and had invited them to come out to practice at Ridgeland-Commons and join the team, and when they all turned up in their make-shift unis, Jimbo Kidd in his high-topped black spikes, Coach Payne had taken Mick out of the line-up and moved him to the bench.
Shock, Jimbo Wilkinson, Rug Olsen, Dave DeCleene, and all the Clarence alley boys.
“What the Hell, Mick? What the Hell were you thinking?”
“I didn’t think they’d all show up like that.”
“What’d you think they’d do? You told em you were playing both ways for Edmund’s and they should come and see for themselves if they didn’t believe you, and when they asked if that meant they could play for Edmund’s too – ”
“I said I don’t know.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Pretty dumb, Mick.”
That was the lowest, being called dumb by Dog Ryan, but there was no denying it.
“He’s not going to put me in, is he?”
Dog Ryan was looking longingly out on the muddy field where Edmund’s was being pummeled by Eulalia in the pouring rain and then he was, and then he was buckling his chinstrap because Coach Payne was going to put him in the game, Dog Ryan, going into the game instead of Mick, Dog Ryan with his uni all mudded-up in one play, mud clogged in his face mask, not Mick, who was thirteen years old that day and it occurred to him that perhaps instead of being the greatest football player of all time like Jim Thorpe or Paul Hornung, he would just be an espionage agent like James Bond.
Mom threw him a birthday party. You had to love Mom, because she loved you so much, you were it, of course she’d throw you a birthday party, but she would never throw you another one, this was it.
At fourteen Mick would be too old to have birthday parties thrown for him by his mother or by anybody else, he was too cool, for one thing.
They were cooking burgers on the grill set up just inside the garage with the garage door open and the rain still pouring down. It had rained all day. Mom was letting Mick cook the burgers.
The Clarence alley boys were all there to celebrate his birthday, Gump, John Duff, Terry Joyce, Jack Lepper. They didn’t give a shit about the Edmund’s football team because they hadn’t taken the whole thing seriously from the beginning and they sure as shit didn’t give a shit after Coach Payne yelled at them all and told them to get the Hell off his field, which was Ridgeland-Commons field and they had as much right to be there as his sorry team, we could dog you, you even got Dog Ryan! And now they were all eating burgers and laughing and talking shit and having a good time at Mick’s birthday party, and Mick cooked himself another burger, cooked it just the way he liked it, medium rare, and ate it, hot and juicy, and it tasted good, and he had not invited Dog Ryan.