“Today I have some deeply unsettling news for fans of professional football.” The commissioner of the American Football Federation stood before an eager press core awaiting his next words. Lights beam off of his face and a consistent audible stream of camera shutters fill the room like a symphony of chaos. A bead of sweat ran down his neck on to his light blue collar. His fingers trembled and he was visibly nauseous. He strained for each of the following words.
“Because of Congress’ historic mandates in the recent class action chronic traumatic encephalopathy lawsuit, brought about by former players of our league, we no longer possess the ability to provide a safe working environment for the athletes that play our sport.” The commissioner paused for a moment, looked into the crowd, and the sound of cameras became louder and reporters shouted increasingly inaudible questions.
“These new, federally mandated, laws require a level of protection inside of a helmet that will not be available anywhere in the near future, if ever.” The commissioner sighs and continues to struggle to say the following words on his page. “Due to these implementations, effective immediately, all football-related activities on the league schedule have been canceled. I have no further comment on this story.”
The room erupted. The commissioner, with visible remorse, walked away from the podium and out of the room. An assistant took over and attempted to manage the now frenzied press core, screaming questions.
Six Years Later
The doors clicked behind him and his assistant peeked her head in to get a glimpse. A breeze ran through the modern cement conference room. It was small, yet noticeable, and almost distracted him from the man sitting at the table in the middle of the room. He looked gigantic to the average sized man. The man’s dark eyes matched the hue of his skin and they glared as the small man walked towards the table.
“Hi James, I’m Trevor.” The reporter held out his hand but James didn’t budge. Trevor stood for a moment but eventually pulled out the chair from his side of the table. He set his briefcase down beside the table and ordered his things. James worked for months trying to get this interview. He begged the District Attorney, the warden, and any congressman he could get on the phone. Finally he got in. Finally he could hear it for himself. He set his phone to airplane mode and pulled up the recorder. “I assume they’ve told you why I am here.”
They had. Trevor was writing about what had happened, what had landed James in the situation he was in – inside of this cage. All James could do was stare at the clock on the wall. If he could ignore him he wouldn’t have to acknowledge what happened. He wouldn’t have to relive it all again. But he had to. Trevor could feel his apprehension.
“I’m sure they’ve told you what I can do for your case.” Trevor’s gaze grew tighter and drew James’ attention. “I believe in your story.”
“Does it matter?” James finally spoke. “Will the league reform? Will the perception of football players change? Will…”
“I believe it does. I believe your story, your discovery, can change everything.”
James hesitated to continue, although he was intrigued. Did Trevor know what really happened? The way James was portrayed after everything went down was very clear – and very one-sided. They made him out to be the villain – all of those people that silently reaped benefits, those who destroyed the credibility of his name and the game. Maybe this was his chance. Maybe he could bring everything back to normal. This was the only way to set things right.
“What would you like to know?”
“Everything.” Trevor’s eyes grew with the concession. He picked up his pen and pulled his notepad a little closer.
James paused. He looked at the bars on the windows and the chain around his arms. The metal was cold and tight against his wrists. They were just another symbol of a structure he could not escape. Another faceless entity taking away all he knew to be good and real. He wanted them off. It was time to take them off.
“The world died a little when they took football away from us. There was the countless rounds of litigation regarding the decision but, without a helmet that would stop the concussions, the feds didn’t budge. People tried playing flag football in 7-on-7 leagues but it could never develop the same interest, the same intensity, the same passion we all once felt. Society mourned and lamented the sport everyway they could. Instead of traveling to Europe to see the vast ruins of forgotten societies, people began to make pilgrimages to old, decaying stadiums. The coliseum, in Rome, was said to hold between 50,000 and 80,000 men. With the death of football, every state in America had their own coliseum. 32 Professional teams and hundreds of collegiate stadiums became remnants of a not too distant past.”
James stopped. His throat was dry and he realized that he was going to be there for a while.
“Can I get a Pepsi? I haven’t had one in, well, a long time.”
Trevor shrugged. He would have granted James much more than a soft drink.
“Anything. I’ll have my assistant bring it in.” He picked up his phone, switched the settings, and messaged the woman who was peering into the window of the special containment conference room.
“Where did I leave off?”
“But, eventually, most people forgot about it. The others turned to different, socially acceptable, sports. Soccer, golf – baseball got really big. Some people, though, some people took to the darker corners of cities and formed underground football leagues full of greed, corruption and every other malfeasance imaginable. The game became something it never was. Even the people who played to keep a grasp on the one thing they loved eventually drowned in everything going on around them. Law enforcement initially tried to dismantle the leagues, but they lost themselves amidst the money, guns, drugs and sex.”
The doors clicked, the young woman raced in with the soda and promptly left.
“My story – excuse me – our story is about many things. Some people will point to the drugs, sex, violence and manipulation and argue that everything that happens to us was well deserved. Others will look at the course of events and say the world was better off had it not happened. What I hope they learn – What I hope you learn – is everything that could have happened. That’s the story I’ve never been able to tell. I could have reopened professional football.”
Trevor’s eyes arose from his paper and widened, seemingly confirming everything he thought he knew prior to walking into the room.
James stopped, assuming there might be a question. But the two of them blankly stared at each other, sharing a dumbfounded silence of disbelief.
“Where should I begin?” He asked.
Trevor flipped to his notes.
“Start with when you realized things were going down hill.”
One year earlier
It’s 10:00 p.m. in the middle of November and the parking lot is a ghost town. Dark cars line the dirt lot and are pushed tight to the building. Just like they are supposed to be. Dust flies up from my wheels as I make the turn in and, for a moment, everything I could see in the lightless lot was lost in the cloud. I pulled into the first spot I saw when the dust fell down and jumped out of my car as if I was back in D-1 and breaking out of my route. After a little bit of searching I found the right hole in the fence and made my way towards the storehouse. I was late. Really late.
There is a lone spotlight at the back entrance of the storehouse that quietly crept visible –you can only see it when you get past the trees – and music from a speaker inside began to get more apparent the closer I get to the building. The storehouse was in the middle of an old industrial district, the last business moved out two years ago and since then the only activity has come from what happens in the night time. The game started an hour ago. The odds are it was somewhere in the second or third quarter. I flashed my security badge to two new mammoth guards and made my way inside the entrance for personnel.
The security precautions taken by the club were military grade. Armed guards were positioned along the walls when you enter the initial checkpoint. I heard there were other defense capabilities in that area, but I had never seen them. After inspection there is a square that features a gate to get on the field or biometric scanners, to your right and left, to get into the offices. I placed my hand onto the platform and ran through the offices. There was an elevator up to crowd level that I took before games. I hated entering from the gate. It was on display. And people did not need to know I was late. Especially those in charge.
Some might think of the security measures to be excessive, but they didn’t want just anyone to be able to come in this way. Even though deals were cut with local police agencies and state personnel, the feds still wanted to crack down on the underground leagues. They had to after the rulings. But, three years into the illegal leagues, why hadn’t they yet?
The elevator bell rang and the doors parted to an explosion of activity. Spotlights scanned the room, the music blared and people are yelling – most, drunkenly – and screaming at the action on (and off) the field. I hopped out of the elevator and bumped into and bald old man with less teeth than hair and a bottle in his hand.
“Fuck you,” he slurred, “I’m a veteran!”
I did my best to hold my laughter and kept moving. People keep demanding respect on what they have done and nobody cares what happens next. When did we stop working for what we wanted?
The game was packed tonight. But only about half the people in the warehouse were giving all of their attention to the game on the field. Some hovered by the cages of “cheerleaders” who made out with their squad as currency and blow was thrown at their feet. They were spread out throughout the makeshift stadium, much in the way video boards used to be. The girls grinded and twerked and made the onlookers crave for more. The game, to them, was an afterthought. Nobody cares if your team is losing if you get to see tits.
Speaking of drugs, with every turn of the head people used and sold and resold anything that could be ingested. The real addicts lined the walls, strung out and barely functioning. Where old venues used to sell hot dogs and slices of pizza, the new world had makeshift stands with 40’s and dime bags of assorted narcotics. People from all walks of life: doctors, cops, business professionals, and even select elected officials lined up with everyone else – there was no discrimination in the search of the high. Whether it was to see the game or put stuff in your veins, it didn’t matter. It was built, so they came. Maybe not everything had changed post fall. The hunger was there and we kept consuming.
Eventually I got through the crowd and reached the border to the sunken field. When they decided to use an abandoned warehouse for an underground location they built a pit for the field, 90 feet below the surface. The top level, or the street level, featured the concourse. It was the way the public came in. Then there were multiple platforms that were used as stands, kind of like the way some old basketball stadiums used to be made, but on a much bigger scale. Some people called the field the ninth layer of hell as the platforms overlooked what went on. There were probably other ways that the stadium could have been built, other cities tried different plans and locations for games. Our team said it was made this way so they could pack in as many people as possible to watch the games. But what they didn’t tell people was that the field had a cover in the event the facility got raided by the good cops or even the feds. Each level could seal itself off, with a retractable floor, at the press of a button. In the case of a raid people would be escorted out of the team entrance. Every precaution to hide what this was had been taken.
Making the descent to the field always comes with a pit in my stomach. Fifty of what used to be the greatest athletes in the world were reduced to playing in a converted warehouse on poorly installed turf built by profits from drug money, extortion and prostitution. Every game was like watching the final scenes of a Greek tragedy. Old gladiators are forced to battle at the whims of a petty, unconcerned public. I climbed down to field level and entered the sideline area for the Ground House Ghosts – our team. Rachel, my assistant, rushed over to meet me.
“Where have you been?” She hurriedly asked.
“There was traffic.”
“There never is traffic.”
“Well, tonight there was.” I looked around my area on the sideline. No players were up on tables or getting any sort of treatment. “Have there been any injuries tonight?
“No, but their guys have been dropping like flies. I think they’ve lost like ten dudes. Aren’t you supposed to be here for kickoff? You are the head trainer, James.”
“I told you, there was traffic.”
“You were working on it, weren’t you?
I ignored her question and looked to the field. The team brought me on as a trainer shortly after I finished my Masters in Kinesiology. When the league fell I decided to stay in school and continue my education. I had been a wide receiver in the Big Ten and probably would have went in the fifth or sixth round had there been a draft to be drafted in. Like everyone, I was distraught when professional football died. But I figured if I went into athletic training I could stay around sports in general. Major baseball and soccer leagues offered me when I graduated, but when football came calling it was hard to ignore. Rachel nudged my shoulder and pointed to the scoreboard.
“Your brother is lighting it up tonight.”
My brother, Mike, is the quarterback for the Ghosts. He was the main draw in coming here for me. I wanted to watch him. We played together in college. He was a star on our team. Really, he was the star on our team. He got the national covers, he got the awards, and he was projected to go number one overall had the league not crumbled – well, that’s until the week before our bowl game. Mike missed bed check. No one knew where he was. Eventually he was found in a vacant building across the street. With a needle in his arm and a girl passed out on his lap. He was suspended for our last game and entered into rehab by the school. But that didn’t matter. When his draft stock fell and the league crumbled, the school stopped caring about him. He hit the H hard and moved to Canada, searching for a league that didn’t have to follow U.S. regulations. But, when Canada caved, he eventually came back to the states and found the league. And, after a little while, he became a star in it.
Sitting on the 35, going out, we hold a 14 point lead, beating the Scions from Second City 21-7. Second and Seven, they broke the huddle and came out in doubles from gun. Mike called for the snap and they ran a read play. He pulled, weaved his way through defenders – the crowd screamed more and more the further he progressed down the field, jumping over tacklers and diving into the end zone to get the score.. Ghosts 28-7. Mike sprang up from the tackle and started to show off to the fans. He danced and pointed to the glass box, situated at the lip of the field level, that overlooked the field. Rather, he was pointing to someone inside it. The owner of the underground Ground House Ghosts, area drug queen-pen and girlfriend to Mike, Brianna Claymore – a true embodiment of everything that ever was wrong with the game. Pre and post fall.
Brianna Claymore was a Scottish immigrant. Her father moved her to the states when she was a kid to escape some type of organized crime syndicate that was going to kill him and his family. When they eventually got iced, the wealth of the family – which was substantial – went to Brianna. At the age of sixteen she was the richest, and wildest, teenager in the Midwest. With a penchant for science, and an interest in reviving the family name in the states, she realized she had to create a way to sustain and income. So she, and her well-connected lackeys, developed a strain of designer drugs and flooded them into the underground market place. During the course of the next ten years her empire would become one of the most feared drug cartels that the United States would ever see. When the league fell she saw an opportunity. The public needed a new drug: football.
After celebrating with his teammates Mike rushed up to me and wrapped me in a hug.
“James!” He shouted in my ear. “You’re late!”
“There was traffic!” I tried to shout back but he was already flirting with women in the crowd. Everyone’s attention directed towards Mike when he was on the sideline. Women threw their underwear, guys threw drugs, and all of that was amid screams of loving declarations. He was a rock star. He knew it. “Mike, she’s watching.” I pointed to the box. Brianna stalked the glass window with the lethal intent of a jungle cat. But he didn’t seem to care.
“She likes to watch.” He didn’t even look at me in response. He ignored his coaches, clamoring for a moment of his time. His only concern was to appease his adoring, addicted, public.
“At least care about the game…”
Mike put his hand on my throat and pulled my face to meet his eyes.
“I always care about the game, Motherfucker. Don’t you fucking forget it.” His pupils were wide. He was high.
On the field, the defense lined up against Second City’s offense. The Scions came out in a basic I-formation – tight-end to the defensive right and receivers split on either side of the numbers. The defense pressed the line of scrimmage, their aggression was their hallmark. The ball was snapped and the quarterback dropped back, faked to the running back and looked down the field. He was down and needed to take a chance, so he threw it to the right split end, streaking down the sideline. Ball in the air, the wide receiver’s eyes looked at the incoming target. Seeing this, the cornerback on that side – I couldn’t see who – turned around and plucked the ball out of the air and ran out of bounds.
I pushed Mike off of me and pointed to the field.
“Go, you’re on offense.”
Mike sprang away and smiled with all the jubilant ferocity of a kid touching the ball for the first time. He grabbed his helmet and made his way towards the coaches, almost skipping. Even when his personal life was in decaying shambles, he did whatever he could to get back onto the field. The field let him be the person he knew he was, even if that person had long since passed him by off of it.
The scoreboard showed six minutes left in the fourth. I started cleaning up the sideline because it sucks being in the middle of everything once the game ends. It’s like being at the front of an arroyo when a hurricane starts. All the rain has to go somewhere. But in this case the rain are prostitutes, pimps, junkies, dealers, and a bunch of people who want to screw you any way they can. And they get as close as they can to the gate, wanting a piece of the players – or the people who could get them close to the lime light.
Cleaning the field wasn’t that much of an issue. It wasn’t like the old Federation days when coaches demanded new, innovative tech on the sidelines. We had a couple of bags, some carts, and one or two training tables. We brought out only what we needed in the event something went wrong on the field.
Three minutes left. Our offense still has the ball. Three yards, four yards. Second City wasn’t going to touch it again for the rest of the game. Racheal and I went back to the locker room before the clock ticked within one minute. We were going to have to give out treatment and it’s better to get there early, it allows a chance to get set up.
I’ve been in many locker rooms in my life. High school, college. I’ve seen the good and the bad ones. This one didn’t deserve to even be called one. It was a room, or a couple of rooms with the walls removed, back in the secure area where I came in. Wires hung from the rafters, little penetrations of light pierced through from the ceiling, and, if you didn’t turn the lights on before entering, you can hear mice scurry back towards their holes. For a place that had so much drug money running through it you’d think they’d clean the place up a little bit.
Yelling could be heard from down the hall. The game had finished. The players would be entering any second. I looked down at my cart to make sure everything was in place. Scissors, pills, needles and a bunch of little vials to feed the injuries and addictions of the gladiators. A de facto candy store for the needy masses. And I was about to be ready for business.
Within a moment the doors burst open. Groups of players made their way in, still reeling from the high of the field, at a steady pace. The win made us eligible for the playoffs – the Field of Eight, as they were called. Everyone was pretty happy about it.
The first of the players to render my services was Jimmy Patrick. Jimmy was a Four-Year All-American Running Back at Stanford, graduated with a 3.96 G.P.A in communications, and led the AFF in rushing his rookie year – until the last game of the regular season when he blew out his ACL. He was one of the few guys to have a legitimate job outside of this hobby we all share. He worked for some consulting firm downtown. Somehow he managed to keep what he did here away from everyone in his professional life. Not a lot of people took to hire ex-players when everything was said and done. By the way he was limping, it was obvious his knee was bugging him.
“Hey James, got any of that Oxy left?” Jimmy asked, hobbling over. He pulled himself up on to one of the trainer’s tables and began to take off his cleats.
“Of course,” I pulled a bottle from my collection and gave him a handful with a bottle of water. “How much did you run for tonight?”
“65 on 14. One score. They had the box stacked a big portion of the night. We threw the ball more to…”
“Me: The black truth. God’s chosen receiver. The man who catches everything except your girlfriend’s crabs. Sam Abbey dominated on that field tonight.” Sam came up from behind us and took a pair of scissors off my cart: he cut the tape wrapped on his ankles. Sam was in the league for six years before the ruling. He was a top ten pick as a redshirt sophomore, never caught less than 1,200 yards in a season, and had his face plastered everywhere. He was on sports talk shows, entertainment television, and dominated every damn social media site out there – at one time he was deemed “The hands of the people.” That moment never passed in the eyes of Sam.
“You only catch those balls because I do all the real work toting the rock, playboy.” Jimmy mocked, throwing a ball of tape at Sam. “I’m the real G out there.”
“Bshh, whatever hop-along. Talk to me when the genius here makes you bionic” Sam let out a laugh and threw the scissors back on the table before heading back to his makeshift locker.
“Is that possible?” Jimmy looked over to me.
“Not yet, dude.” I replied, handing him an icepack.
The more people that came in the room, the louder it got. Music blared. From early nineties rap to the electronic synth-crap that dominates today’s radio. The sound set the scene for the sort of actions that regularly take place: Kyle Lennox, a safety, doing blow off of some strippers he took out of the crowd. Every game new women lined up for him, hoping to get some of the party drug Obsidian that he synthesized regularly. It was this fine black powder that people snorted, or injected if they cooked it. He was the Club King. And he was also one of the people tightest with Mike. Craig-David Vaughn, known to most as CD, hung out with a group of guys towards the back of the room. CD served as petty muscle for the Downtown Gang – another one of Brianna’s many side ventures that everyone knew a little bit about. Rumor has it his body count recently crept into triple digits. On top of being a psychotic murderer, he also played linebacker.
As the pre-post game festivities continued their usual course, some of the notables, the people closest to Brianna, made way into the locker room. They were the people that ran the team and turned the sport into an underground Caligula. First in was the PR Director. That was just a nickname though, no one knew much about him aside from the fact that if Brianna has a problem he takes care of it – every time. His eyes were always moving. Like a chameleon. To his right was Strap Toi, otherwise known as The Slut. She was the bosses’ confidant. Her best friend. Their relationship wasn’t sunshine and kisses though, The Slut was valuable to Brianna because she knew everything about everyone. And she found out things by fucking it out of people. The players didn’t mind, so long as they didn’t wake up with bugs on their dicks. There was an old rumor that she and Brianna used to fool around when Brianna first came to the states. People say when Brianna ended it Strap was heart-broken. She started fucking every dude she could to hide it. And the last person to enter was Peter Jacobson, called The Bishop by some. He ran finances for the team. Prior to this he was a one of a group of priests that were excommunicated back at the start of the century for questionable activities with parishioners. Of the group, he was the only one that didn’t see any jail time. He’s connected to some very powerful people. Many believe he is the strings that pull Brianna.
“Alright everybody,” Coach had made his way into the center of the room and attempted to get everyone’s attention. Alexander Dunn, normally called Coach, played in the AFF for seventeen seasons. He spent most of his career with one of the California teams, Santa Clara I think. He was the type of guy the concussion law was designed to protect. A former All-Pro Linebacker, it’s rumored he had somewhere around twelve concussions over the course of his career. No one cared though – he was getting paid and he was making tackles. He often drooled, stammered, and stumbled in and out of rooms. It’s a shocker he isn’t dead. He probably should be.
“Tonight was a great win,” the room let out a quick cheer, “We don’t know if we are in the Field of Eight yet, but we should learn by later tonight. We are going to need everyone for that! Now, what does that mean?” No one answered his rhetorical question. “That means,” as he went around the room, “Don’t get your ass shot,” he pushed one of the newer players onto the ground, “Don’t get nicked,” he looked to the back wall and caught eyes with CD, “And don’t fucking OD.” Everyone looked back at Lennox.
“I can’t promise anything.” Lennox slapped the ass of one of the now relatively clothed women that was with him.
“I’ll take it.” Coach began to survey the room again. “The next practice is on Tuesday. I expect everyone to make it. If you don’t then you’re not playing. I am not going to fuck around with that! Now get out of here.”
The locker room started to disband after that. Players tend not to linger around much when they get the go ahead to leave. Most want to get to the club, Down Marker, which was owned by the team. There were a couple of guys who would go hang out with their girlfriend or their wife, but most of them wanted to party. Most of them didn’t want the high to stop. After a couple of minutes, only Kendrick was left.
“You alright Ken?” I called over to him. Kendrick Springs was more mountain than man. He was the strongest Nose Tackle I ever saw and he definitely played like it, regularly drawing triple teams. A 6’5” and 350 pounds, who wouldn’t try to triple team him?
“Yeah, man.” Kendrick adjusted his pants and walked over. “Do you have any more of that ointment?”
“You know the one, the stuff for the…” He motioned to his crotch.
“Ah, the crotch rot,” I must have smiled when I handed it to him.
“Yeah, mothafucker the crotch rot stuff.” He took the ointment from me and mumbled as he walked away, “Little skinny mothafuckers always have to have jokes.”
When Kendrick left I packed up my cart and closed the training room. Rachel met me as I walked out of the Locker Room. We usually use the walk out to catch up on stuff before a new week.
“Any new injuries?” Rachel asked as I walked out the door.
“Nothing, just the same old after game stuff: a couple of strains, some twists, migraines.”
We walked in silence for a moment as we considered the latter.
“Did anyone exhibit any other symptoms?” Rachel had the usual amount of worry and intrigue in her voice.
“No one outside of Coach, he got a little fired up in the post-game. Where were you by the way?”
“You know I don’t like being in there after the game. I slipped out just before they came in. I feel like everything is pointing at me when I’m in there.
We got to the end of the hallway and passed security. Barely anyone was around. The offices were a relative ghost town. Everyone clears out pretty quickly once the players leave. It was nothing like when the federation was still active. Back then people would still be in the offices and the stadium hours after the game was done. They’d be working on the last game, the next game, trying to figure out ways to reach out to the community. The only people that were there were the building’s security team. This situation just felt wrong, like a failed remnant of something reminiscent of the sport; a dark gluttonous entity that is never satisfied.
“What are you doing tonight?” I held the door open for Rachel as we made the way out of the building. The late November air had a certain chill that was unmistakable, causing us both to shutter as we walked on.
“Nothing special, probably go home and take a bath. Wait for you to call with a breakthrough.”
I purposefully ignored her question, again.
“Hey, Mike wasn’t in the locker room.”
Rachel rolled her eyes at my non-answer.
“He didn’t come in after the game?”
“No, I didn’t see him or hear him. He’s usually pretty loud.”
We slipped through the hole in the fence to the parking lot. Our cars were the only ones left.
“Wait, I did see him. He passed by the substation with one of Brianna’s guards. I thought it was just for security purposes. Maybe he went up to her suite?”
“I guess that makes sense.”
I opened the door to Rachel’s car and closed it as she got in and rolled down the window.
“Is he using again?” Rachel asked, plugging in her phone to her charger.
“I don’t know.” I paused and flashbacked to the field, the game, and the look he had in his eyes. “He has to be. I mean, you can see it, right?”
“It’s pretty obvious. I thought he stopped.”
A moment passed as we both remembered the past without speaking.
“Alright, I gotta go. My bed’s calling me.” Rachel said, starting her car.
“K, have a good night.” I stepped away from her car and watched her pull out of the parking lot. I turned and looked at mine, overtaken by rust, needing engine work and air in the tires. It wasn’t going to last much longer. Opening the driver’s door, the rail guard popped out of place.
“How appropriate.” I mumbled under my breath. I fixed the over-priced piece of plastic, closed the car door and got the hell out of there.