Audible

by John Bersin

At the end of an appropriate period of polite applause, Ryne Blades touched the knot of his tie, adjusted the microphone, and put on his reading glasses. He paused briefly to look out over the assembled freshmen in the campus theater. This was his biggest speech of the year. They were hopeful athletes at one of the most successful prep programs in Northern California. He was the athletic director, American History teacher, and bona fide football celebrity, called on for interviews by local media every year before Holy Bowl, the Big Game, and Signing Day. On this occasion, it was his job to talk the boys’ parents into enthusiastic support for the school and its athletic programs for the next four years—preferably in the form of donations. He had to accomplish this goal while tempering expectations: only a handful of these athletes had the physical talents to make it to the NCAA level, but he could not openly tell them that their best chance of being on the field on college game day was to join the band. He had to draw them out of position with his call. The glasses made him look smart, the tie made him look authoritative, the brown tweed coat, academic; but it was his six-foot three frame, broad across the chest, that gave him presence, even on his prematurely creaky knees.

His fame didn’t hurt his chances. Everyone knew who Ryne Blades was, but just in case, behind him on the screen was a black-and-white shot of his younger self and his teammates ten years ago with the trophy. Their faces were partially obscured by little rectangles of confetti in the foreground. The photographer had captured him mid-shout, eyes squinting closed but mouth wide open, back arched, arms spread wide apart, almost off the ground. Even in the still photograph, everyone could hear him screaming. He began to speak.

“Welcome men of the class of 2021. I call you ‘men’ because in the Jesuit tradition, when you walked through those doors, even those of you who are just thirteen years of age, you entered a transformative process that will take you to another stage of life. You are now part of a community, the goal of which, as the Jesuit General Pedro Arrupe said, is to become ‘Men for Others.’ From now on, whatever you might achieve on the athletic fields or in the gym, our ultimate goal as teachers, is to transform you into men for others. That’s why I and all the other teachers will from now on address you as ‘men.’”

People loved him for saying these things, taking this modest role, this vocation dedicated to the development of the next generation of leaders and public servants. He could have done anything after his football career: coach in the NFL, politics, movies, TV or even the corporate conference and public-speaking circuit. But he didn’t need the money, and he couldn’t stand the down time, so he took this modest job in his wife’s hometown, accepting only one dollar in salary.

“Baltimore Ninety-Two!

Baltimore Ninety-Two!

Set!

Dooooowwwwn!

Hut One!

Hut Two

Hut! Hut! Hu—”

The nose tackle jumped, drawn off by the long count. He was so angry at what he had done—taking a 5-yard penalty on Third and Three with 1:25 left in the eighth Grade D-1 City Championship game—that he continued on through the whistles, grabbed the quarterback and spun him to the frozen ground before crashing down on the signal caller. The nose tackle was big, at least two hundred pounds, and he kneed Ryne in the temple. All Ryne remembered afterward were the whistles, shrill noises that careened around his head as he knelt down on the next three snaps. He dared not tell his coach, or his dad.

There were blank faces staring back at Ryne when he looked up. He realized he had stopped speaking. He was not sure how far along he had gotten. His finger was still pointing at a bullet point on the page. He started on the next bullet point and hoped he hadn’t already discussed it.

“This is your opportunity to pursue your dream, but don’t be dismayed if you find out along the way that what you thought you are good at isn’t really what you’re good at. As you know, our soccer team has won 12 Sectional Championships in the last twenty-five years. You may think that because you’ve been the star player on your club team since first grade, that you’ll just walk on to the field and win a spot. I can tell you, however, that fifty-eight men have signed up to try out for freshmen soccer, and coach only selects twenty-two. But I can also tell you that Coach Millar from the track team will be standing right outside the soccer field gate on cut day, and he’ll hand every soccer player who’s been cut a track team shirt—and his track teams have won seventeen Section Championships during his time here.

“I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities that this program can offer. If you don’t make a team, there are several other no-cut sports that you may find rewarding. We have lacrosse, track and field, water polo, hockey and several other sports where we have experienced and capable coaches ready to help you find success. I myself have some familiarity with the sport of football, for example”—knowing chuckles from some of the parents—“and even though I’m not officially on the coaching staff, I do stop by the practices to impart a little advice to the players from time to time.”

On cue, the photo on the screen behind him changed to that day in Philadelphia, of Ryne Blades almost face down in the muddy turf, his mouth piece in mid-air flying out of his mouth, his eyes closed and his face contorted to absorb the pain of impact, a gigantic, helmeted leviathan enveloping him from behind, making Ryne seem cartoonishly small, as another opposing player scooped up the loose ball and eyed the end zone. Laughter swelled throughout the hall.

“Very funny, guys. Very funny.” He picked at the tip of his tongue with his fingers, looked at his index finger and deadpanned, “I think I still have a blade of grass caught in my teeth from that play.”

With that remark, he had won them over. The JV football players in their jerseys went up and down the aisles passing out surveys and envelopes for donations. The photo on the screen switched back to Ryne ingloriam. He told them why they needed to give.

“Life is long, but your opportunity to play sports at a highly competitive level is short, very short, and it’s already begun. Every day you don’t play now, you’re limiting your chance to play in the future. Sports tells you something about yourself. They give you an opportunity for glory. They teach you about the value of hard work. They give you a sense of belonging to a team, a comradeship that you can take with you for the rest of your lives. And they can be joyous and beautiful: I think anyone who has ever hit a home run or scored a touchdown or won a race or hit a long jumper can tell you that you have an opportunity with sports to achieve something sublime and beautiful. You young men should try to do something beautiful with sports because you have this opportunity now, and for the next few years. And I encourage those parents who have the wherewithal, to give generously to help those other young men, who are perhaps not so lucky as your sons, to achieve their sporting goals and dreams. God bless you, and God bless all the young men of this school.”

There was sincere, enthusiastic applause, and parents began to grope in blazers and purses for their checkbooks. Before the applause was over, however, a slight young man of thirteen, with freckles and orange hair and a bruise on his jaw, stood up and left for the door, almost at a run.

**********

“Mr. Blades! Mr. Blades!”

“Yes Andrew?”

“Can you upload the Power Point for next week on to Chalkboard before the end of the day. The debate team is leaving for a tournament in Fresno after sixth period and I want to download it before I get on the bus, because, you know . . . Fresno.”

“Absolutely, Andrew. Do you know what the topic is?”

Casey, one of the long-haired soccer players and a persistent agitator, shuffled by in plastic sandals and a warm-up suit. “Resolved: All the debaters are master debaters, especially Andrew Chang. Discuss. But keep your hands on the desk.”

“It’s free topic debating, Mr. Blades, so we don’t know the topics until it begins.”

Liam, a hulking blond boy with a gigantic head and florid blotches of acne across his nose and forehead, looked at Casey and Andrew. He had a dumb grin playing on his lips. “Resolved: Debaters and soccer players are all bitches and pussies.”

Casey responded to the taunt in a sing-song motherly voice. “That’s very good, Liam. Did you think of that all by yourself?”

“All right everyone, settle down, take your seats.” The Junior American History class slouched into their seats and took out their iPads. Ryne Blades worked the remote, forwarded through a few slides, and the screen at the front of the classroom displayed a picture of Teddy Roosevelt. It was the famous photograph of the grinning Rough Rider, with a broad open-mouthed squinting smile, his mustache spreading back into the folds of his cheeks, his eyes slightly obscured by the glass lenses he wore, the only man in history capable of making pince-nez look manly. “Theodore Roosevelt, 22nd President, hero of the Battle of San Juan, Secretary of the Navy, former New York City police commissioner, one of the principal authors of America’s expansionist foreign policy, one of the first conservationists, and later, founder of the Bull Moose party. Today we’re going to look at his administration, with a particular emphasis on the long-lasting impact of his domestic policies.”

The class fell into its predictable rhythm, slides of photos mixed with slides of bullet points. There was class participation from the GPA-obsessed, and even some questions from the back of the room. TR was an interesting topic for teenage boys of a certain socio-economic class, after all. He appealed to them on several levels: adventurer, imperialist, sportsman, hunter, conservationist, soldier, politician, diplomat, jingoist. Even the lefties and social justice warriors, which included an unhealthy pale vegan wearing a tiny hat and skinny jeans, had a word of praise for his egalitarian trust busting.

About halfway through class, Liam raised his hand—a rarity indeed. He did not wait to be called upon. “Mr. Blades, Casey’s watching soccer on his iPad.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Blades. It’s a Champions League semifinal. Mr. Blades, isn’t it true that Teddy Roosevelt wanted to ban American football because it caused so much brain damage?” He looked theatrically over at Liam. “Because hitting your head repeatedly against other human beings is kind of bad for the brain, right?”

“You hit a ball with your head in soccer, you idiot.”

“It hasn’t hurt my SAT scores, Liam. How’d you do?” Everyone in class had a pretty good idea of Liam’s scores. They laughed. Liam stood up. He positioned his huge frame over Casey’s desk. Casey, a striker and instigator, did not react. He stretched out his legs even farther and leaned back to smile up at Liam.

Mr. Blades stepped forward from behind the podium. He used his teacher voice, “Sit down, Liam.”

“Mr. Blades,” Casey offered, “you have to hit him with a rolled-up newspaper when you say that, or else he won’t understand.”

“Shut your hole, you dick!” Liam shouted.

Mr. Blades took another step forward. This time he used his quarterback-team-captain voice. “COLE!! Back in your seat NOW!!”

“Deacon Ninety-Six!

Forward Eight!

Down-Hut!”

It was a simple slant-and-go, or it should have been. But the middle linebacker backed away from the line at the last moment and occupied the space on the inside slot where the corner should have had to cover the slant, freeing the corner to stay outside and stride for stride with the receiver. When he saw this during the seven-step drop, he knew he could not risk throwing into coverage, so he rolled left out of the pocket, directly into the arms of the charging defensive end, who had just flung the tackle to the ground. The end was at least two hundred sixty pounds—big for high school—and he leapt into Ryne Blades just as he straightened up to attempt a dump-off to the running back. The ball dribbled backward from his hand, and the end wrapped his arms around Ryne’s waist and drove him into the ground head first.

When he realized where he was, three desks were turned over, and the contents of several backpacks were scattered around the classroom. He was standing over Casey, who was on his back trying to protect his face. Ryne was holding him by the front of his torn track suit. Casey had been in plenty of tussles with opposing defenders over the years, and he always maintained a smug and cocky expression. But here he was terrified, looking up at his teacher with wild eyes. Liam was standing mute and motionless. The Asian boys and the hipsters had backed away.

Ryne let go of Casey, straightened up, and he could feel the sweat on his forehead, and realized that his fists were still clenched.

He left the room without a word.

He was suspended for the remainder of the school year.

A week after the incident, Child Protective Services paid a surprise visit to his house. Brett lied, or maybe told the truth, it wasn’t clear to Ryne, and said that he had been hurt playing football. CPS said that they would be back; they did not say when. Their next-door neighbors had seen the social workers leave and asked Julie who they were. She ran into the house. But the whole neighborhood knew.

**********

A settlement was negotiated. Half the Board of Trustees were lawyers, so of course it was handled with a deft touch. Not a word leaked to the real media or even social media. Ryne Blades did not return to the faculty or the administration in the fall. His own website and Twitter account reported the carefully, laughably worded language that all parties chopped off on: “I want to thank Xavier High School of Alta Arden for the chance to work with their fine young men and student athletes. However, I have decided it is the right time for me to take some time off, and to pursue other opportunities. Go Big Red!”

Partly to get him out of the house, Julie suggested that Ryne go on the Card and Memorabilia Show circuit. The biggest show of the year was coming up in Ft. Worth, and Ryne could do no wrong in Texas, after all; even in Houston, he hardly ever had to pay for a meal himself. The promoters covered his airfare, rental car and two nights at a hotel, and he only had to sign autographs and pose for photographs for two hours each day.

On this particular trip, the accommodations were not what he was used to. The hotel was a Four Points Suite near a suburban office park. For a decade now, he had rarely stayed in anything other than Ritz Carlton or Starwood properties. The hotel was only accessible from a one-way surface road off the highway, and, even though he could see the hotel sign, three times his Ways app took Ryne and his rental car—a Hyundai— past the hotel and back on to the highway. He was screaming at the top of his lungs the fourth time he found himself about to get on an I-35 on-ramp. Instead, he veered off the ramp and made a right turn down a one-way street (devoid of traffic on a late Friday night), and directly into the hotel parking lot.

In the room, the TV did not work. He had already unpacked by the time he realized it, so he called up and got the front desk to give him an upgrade. He used his name to get it.

It was no better at the Card Show the next day. His time slot was 9:30-11:30 am. He was not the star: he was the warm-up act. Worse, his old rival Wes Tillman was the marquis appearance: he was booked for one hour: three to four, and only for one day. The flabby, pale autograph seekers in their silver and blue star jerseys actually started forming a line to see Tillman right in front of his table!

Still, he smiled through it all. He was never the sullen hillbilly hick that Tillman could be. He answered every dumb question seriously; he accepted every word of adulation self-deprecatingly. He smiled until his face hurt. Being Ryne Blades was his business now, after all.

At the airport on Sunday night, he ran into Tillman in the first-class lounge. Tillman was headed back to Potawatomy Corners, or whatever holler he was from. Tillman ignored the few admirers who were bold enough to approach him and he headed straight for the bar. He recognized Ryne and sat down next to him.

It was not a pleasant reunion of former foes; they were not yet reconciled by time and suffused by old age in shared, past glories. In the twenty minutes or so that they spent together, Tillman boasted that he had been paid nearly twice as much as Ryne for his appearance, and that his strategy in dealing with “these ass-licking scumbags” was to make it as difficult for them to deal with him as possible. “Really make ‘em hate you. Don’t lift a goddamn finger without making ‘em pay for it. That’s how you get paid, son.” He tossed back his bourbon and sauntered off, not even looking over his shoulder at Ryne.

Ryne was fuming over the encounter as he ordered drink after drink and watched the Departure board to see his flight get delayed in twenty-minute increments, until after two hours it was finally cancelled. He went to the desk in the lounge and told the attendant—he deliberately chose the only male at the counter—that he was “Ryne Blades the quarterback,” and that he needed to get re-routed. It turned out that Shont’e was not a football fan, to put it mildly, and that the only way Ryne could get back to Northern California was to fly into Oakland. “And I’m sorry, but the best I can do is Economy Plus.”

He took it. It was the first row past the bulkhead, but at least it was on the aisle. Happy to be on the plane, he put on his headphones and sunglasses in the hope that he could sleep. The middle seat was empty and he was looking forward to putting up the armrest and spreading out. Just before the door closed though, he saw a German Shepherd appear at the head of the aisle. It was wearing a bandana printed with an American flag, and a harness. Its owner, a broad shouldered, red-haired woman, carried a tan camouflage backpack, but she was dressed in civilian clothes. The dog was at least one hundred pounds.

She took the middle seat next to Ryne. The dog obediently lay down at her feet, but because it was so large, his front paws touched Ryne’s feet. He couldn’t tell if it was a military dog or just one of those ridiculous emotional support animals. It looked just enough like it might be a military service dog, so he asked the woman what branch of the service she was in.

“Oh, I’m not in the army anymore,” she answered, a response so ambiguous that it contributed greatly to the throbbing at Ryne’s temples. He closed his eyes and tried to rest.

“Brown Ninety-Eight!

Brown Ninety-Eight!”

He stood up over center and waved his hands to the receivers on the left side: he saw that the tight end and the receiver on his right side were in single coverage. A pick play would spring the tight end down the sideline.

“Kill! Kill! Kill!

Austin Red!

Austin Red!

Hut-go!”

He rolled to his right out of the pocket, to give the pick play a few more milliseconds to develop. Then he finessed a lob over the linebackers’ outstretched arms right into stride of the lumbering tight end, who had no defenders between him and goal. He saw the ham-handed ox drop the ball before Ryne collapsed under the weight of the defensive end. Ryne kicked wildly to escape from underneath the tackler. As he did so, he felt a sharp pain along his ankle.

This time, he was not lucky enough to avoid social media. Even with the cabin lights dimmed, the cell phone videos showed Ryne kicking the dog that was biting him, and swatting its owner into her seat with the back of his hand. The obscenity-strewn tirade was shot by several different passengers as they passed through turbulence. The shaky framing and the dimmed lights heightened the degree of deranged violence and random horror. His face could only be partially seen, but it was the voice that identified the perpetrator as Ryne. It was a cadence that had shouted instructions over sixty thousand screaming fans in Buffalo and Pittsburgh. Everyone recognized “Kill! Kill! Kill!”

**********

There was no comeback from this one. His next public appearance was in court. Screaming PETA protesters greeted him as he walked into the Alameda Superior Court on charges of animal cruelty. They did not let him wear a suit or comb his hair before the arraignment, a simple procedural hearing that his lawyer said could have been, and should have been done in chambers or a closed courtroom, without handcuffs and a dozen cameras. The judge, he explained, owned two German Shepherds.

Julie did not let him back into the house. His son stood behind her in the door frame, and Ryne thought he detected a smile toxic with hatred beneath his mop of uncombed orange hair. There was no wistful sadness or nostalgia about former times. She looked wounded. The door closed quietly.

He drove up to the Tahoe house. There was early snow that year, and Ryne had to turn around and go back down the hill to buy chains for the Suburban. He had a chain monkey put them on in an increasing blizzard. The beleaguered man looked at Ryne with a mixture of awe and amusement. Ryne gave him the $20 fee and a $100 tip.

It was blizzard conditions by the time he reached Donner, and the only radio reception—why had he not paid for Sirius?—was of a Christian station, of a particularly virulent Baptist strain, as far as he could tell. Peering through the wiper blades at the dappled illuminated snow, little fragments of crystal and wind, a voice filled the darkened interior of the car with calls for redemption, salvation, the purifying waters of baptism in Christ, or the burning torments of hell. Real retro stuff, that old time religion that his most felonious former teammates invoked any time a microphone was put in their faces following those afternoon orgies of orchestrated violence. He was perched forward on the seat, hands on the wheel, eyes straining for the feint depressions in the snow that distinguished where the road continued and the white oblivion of snow and forest and abyss began. The headlights cast an irradiated penumbra about ten yards ahead of him—ten yards, screen pass range, beyond which there could be impenetrable cliff faces or empty chasms just beyond the guard rail. At other times, he was within walls of white snow, a moving pocket that glided past him as he peered downfield.

“Houston Five!

Houston Five!

Kill! Kill! Kill!

On me! On me! On me!

Gunner! Gunner! Ninety-five!

Gunner Ninety-five!

Set!

Hut One!

Hut Two!

Hike!”

Quarterback draw. No one in the world expects it. A three-step drop back, then straight between the guards into empty space. No one could expect it! With my knees? All I need is ten yards. No one will expect it.

About the Author

John Bersin

John Bersin is a defense attorney currently living near Sacramento CA. In 2017, his story, "Slide 88," was nominated for the Pushcart Prize by the editors of The Remembered Arts Journal.