Wednesday, January 29, 2014


With the Seahawks facing off against the Broncos on Sunday in what will most definitely be an epic Super Bowl, I would be remiss to not share with you all a short story I wrote concerning football, of the American variety. In it, a man's dark, mysterious past replays before his eyes as he climbs the ranks of the Finnish football world. I enjoyed writing this story two years ago. I plan on publishing it some day in some form, but I have no idea where. Until then, enjoy. Consider it a thank you for tuning in and showing your support.

Some things to consider when reading this:
1. There is an American football league in Finland, and it's surprisingly extensive.
2. Tough dudes play in it.
3. I broke my pinky finger playing receiver for the Pori Bears. It reminded me that:
4. I am too old, slow, and unskilled to play receiver for the Pori Bears. Or any other team, for that matter. And I have no business being on a football field with young, fast, strong people.
5. It's really hard to write with a broken pinky finger.

Turf Ram Ventilator

“Never die easy. Why run out of bounds and die easy? Make the linebacker pay. It carries into all facets of your life. It's okay to lose, to die, but don't die without trying, without giving it your best.” -- Walter Payton, Chicago Bears Running Back

            The pads click on and I am ready for the hurt. Been a while. Been too long. I missed the smell of sweat and fear on grass and chalk. The crack of plastic on bone and the feel of pigskin all rough and light tucked inside my arm. Seeing the linebacker’s eyes get wide and scared knowing he’s getting burned or blasted or both.
            And I keep pumping, baby. Like Walter Payton, Sweetness, said: Just keep pumping. Thick head down and rumble them tank treads. Don’t stop until you at the bottom of the pile or dancing in the end zone. Back in the day, no one wanted to take me head on so I’d go looking for contact. Always looking for trouble. Cost me yards on every play. Cost me a career. Cost too much. I know better now.
            I came a long ways to step back on the field. My plane out of SeaTac punched through the clouds and chased that sun all the way to Helsinki. That’s in Europe, by way of the North Pole. Then I bussed three hours North and some big towhead named Petri with eyes like them thousand lakes and skin like them birch trees here throws me a ball and says, “Welcome to the Pori Bears, Ray Graziano.”
            Funny, because I was named after the best Bear my daddy said he ever saw. And I dig bears. Always have. Them big fellas rise from their caves all lean and hungry for the sun after long, dark winters hibernating. And good Lord, that Finnish midnight sun. A man can run forever in daylight that don’t quit. Even a man like me. A man who ain’t what he says. A man who needs to rise from one dark cave.
            Give me eighteen inches of daylight. That's all I need. Gayle Sayers said that. No doubt. The Kansas Comet found daylight no matter where he ran, Kansas or Chicago or otherwise.
            I’m from Tacoma, myself. By way of Chicago, by way of a whole mess of couches in neighborhoods no kid should have to endure. But I keep pumping, baby. Just keep pumping. My baby boy understands.
            A shark stops swimming and he stops breathing. He dies, because he’s a ram ventilator. My baby saw it on Shark Week. I like that. I’m a ram ventilator, too.   
            First game, first play from scrimmage. I get in my stance and flex them tattoos and scars on my arms. Dudes on defense look scared. It makes my belly boil, like lava. Snap comes, they come in hot, so I use quick feet. Slide and spin, patience baby, wait for the hole, wait . . . daylight. Explode! Stiff-arm the linebacker. Get off my jersey, son, cause I’m breaking free. Keep pumping . . . I’m loose.
            I still got it. That extra gear kicks in and I’m into the secondary. The safety’s got cocky eyes, and I’m lowering my shoulder to knock some respect into this dude’s world the way I always done.
            Time freezes. I see my baby brother, hands folded across his chest, first time he’s worn a suit since we was kids at Sunday church. He looks pale, but peaceful. I’m sorry Sugar Ray. Sorry baby brother. I didn’t know how else to take care of you. Am I my brother’s keeper? No doubt.
            I fake left, plant, juke right. Knee don’t give, and I’m gone. So is baby brother. Touchdown, 85 yards – or, my bad, meters. I don’t know what a touchdown’s called in Finland, but I score three more and roll up 260 meters by the final whistle. The 50 people in the stands clap politely.
            Keep pumping, baby. All season long. Keep pumping.
            I break a whole mess of records. We go unbeaten and jump to the top division. Nicer uniforms, better players, bigger crowds, even better pay. Team wants more from me this season. Maybe too much. But I got that fire and there ain’t no feeding it back home. Hell, what home? Home ain’t nothing but fire and ash and ghosts. I rose back up from the grave once already. I’m a lot of things, but a nine-life cat ain’t one of them. My ol’ lady, she used to call me a snake. No doubt.
            Everybody knows when a snake sheds its skin, it’s shed for good. That’s called ecdysis. People shed their skin every month too, just don’t nobody see it. My skin’s shed.
            I gotta keep pumping in Finland.
            Papers say I got a future in Europe. Owners and players are respecting me like a man. Like Uncle Sam never did. I just been letting my pads do the talking up to now. Came too far to let my mouth shoot my foot. I won’t beat myself this time. I won’t quit.
            I meet a nice educated girl named Kaisla at the gym. Thick black hair and icy blue eyes. She asks me out. I can’t say no. I know I shouldn’t kick it in liquored-up joints full of white women. But I like her so I hit my first club in Finland. Dudes up in that piece look like James Bond villains. Couple start jawing at me. I don’t pay no mind, but one dude drops a coin in my jukebox and talks nasty to Kaisla, pinches her, and I’m about to waste it all on this knucklehead, I’m about to get pushed back into the earth, when Kaisla lays into him so hard in that language of machine gun rrrr’s and hissing S’s that I feel kinda sorry for him the way he stumbles off, tail tucked between his legs.
            She traces my scars that night at her place. Asks me where they came from. Keeps asking all winter. Asks me again in the summer at her family’s little cottage on the lake. They call it a mooki, or something like that. A place where we just roast in the sauna, swim, and listen to the birds. We watch two swans gliding on the lake, and we’re naked, waist deep in that cold blue water, her skin’s pink and hot with steam coming off it still from the sauna. She tells me that when swans mate, they mate for life. They are monogamous. She traces my scars again. Asks me where they came from. Asks me if l like it in Finland. Asks me if I could stay here. Stay with her.
I don’t care for lying to her no more. I tell her my real name, Gayle Graziano, and who and what I really am. She cries and cries, and I think she is leaving me when she lets herself slip under the water. It’s so quiet when she’s under water, nothing but wind and birds, and for the first time I see that nature is beautiful, just like my baby boy always said it was, even though he only saw nature on the TV. Then Kaisla comes back up and wraps her arms around me, all cold and wet and clean. She tells me my scars are beautiful. Tells me I’m beautiful. Tells me she loves me. She makes me feel clean again.
            New season. First game. We get stuffed by the Helsinki Wolverines the first series. And the second. And the third. We’re down 14-0 at half. Dudes are getting down on Adam, our new star American quarterback.
            He thinks he’s too good for Finland. He be hittin’ the bars and duckin’ the gym. But kid’s got skills. I scouted his tape and told the Bears to pay him bookoo Benjamins to run the option. Meanwhile I said nuh-uh to the German and Canadian leagues and no thanks to the Helsinki Wolverines’ cash. Ain’t about the bling, no more. I missed my shot for D-I, I lost my dream for the NFL. That ain’t me no more. I represent them Bears. No doubt.
            Swing pass to me. Stutter step, cut, bounce to the outside, keep pumping -- how you say See Ya in Finnish, partner -- break loose . . . but I’m caught from behind after 35 meters. I’m the strongest I’ve been, rock hard, 100 kilos no fat. But I’m not 4.3 quick like Gayle Graziano was.
            First down. Pocket collapses and I see why Adam never went nowhere in college ball. He loses his swagger, gets jitterbug feet, tunnel vision. Adam gives up on his blockers, gives up on his talent, panics and overthrows his man. His fault, but he’s barking at our tight end, Petri. I grab that big Finnish boy’s facemask and tell him, “Head up partner, I got your back.” Fumbled snap and Adam gets sacked the next play. Next one he’s mad doggin’ his slot receiver, Nikko, for running a bad route. Adam’s body language oozes defeat. Head up, dawg. Got your whole life ahead of you. Keep pumping, baby. Just keep pumping.
            We go on fourth down. Screen pass to me. Bad play call. Them Wolverines pin back their ears. But my boy Petri crushes the linebacker’s skull with a real-man block. I spin, keep pumping, break through two big linemen trying to pull me down.
            I lower my shoulder and straight coldcock the safety and I hear the Helsinki crowd of a thousand say, “Oi!” But the cornerbacks surround me, the linebackers pile on, and they’re pulling me down, down into the earth. Petri and Nikko are holding me up, pushing me forward. One more meter. Just one meter for four more downs.
            Just keep pumping, baby. I been down in that hole and I ain’t going there now. Not just yet.
            I see the casket beside my brother’s. My baby’s sleeping. My little boy. Not so little no more, not much younger than his uncle, Sugar Ray, and they look like brothers sleeping in church in their black suits. I’m sorry little man, I’m so sorry sweet Baby Ray. I named you after my baby brother, who my daddy named after Sugar Ray Robinson, best fighter he ever saw and that’s what I tried to make you, fighters, when you was so much more.   
            My baby brother grew up trying to ball like me and when that misfired, he tried to be hard like me. I’m sorry Sugar Ray. I didn’t know how else to raise you when momma passed on. But you grew up so big and strong and bright, and I needed muscle, needed loyalty on my crew, and you represent, no doubt.
            I’m sorry Baby Ray. I shoulda took better care of you after your momma quit. Never give up, keep on pumping, don’t you quit on our boy. What’d you think was gon’ happen, throwin’ that lamb to the wolves? But Baby Ray looked up at the gray Tacoma sky like he was seeing jungles and Africa only he could see and he looked wise in his fresh-faced, bright-eyed way, and he said it’s alright daddy, momma ain’t got the maternal instinct, I seen it with lions, I seen it on Nat Geo with Uncle Ray.
            Them bullets were mine. My evils, my enemies. Keep breathing Baby Ray! Don’t you quit on me, just keep breathing! Keep breathing Sugar Ray! Just keep breathing! I kept pumping your chest, the blood pouring down my arms into the holes in your heart. Then I stopped pumping. You didn’t quit. I quit. I failed. And then I quit for real. My crew wanted blood for blood. Extermination. My baby would have called it the primal instinct. But I just wanted to sink down into the earth with you. No more ram ventilation. Just hibernation. So I sank. I died that day.
            Hard things crumble and burn. Even comets. My old man named me after Gayle Sayers, The Kansas Comet. They flash bright then burn up in the sky before they hit the ground. I needed a daddy, but daddy’s gone, too. I looked to God but he was quiet. Forget You, then.
            I thought about all them nature things my baby taught me. Like how when caterpillars go into their big, dark case, most of their old body dies. And they eat that old body so the new body can grow and punch through that chrysalis a butterfly. That’s called metamorphosis.
            And that’s the truth.
            Baby Ray, you were so smart, always watching them nature programs and teaching me about hibernation and ecdysis and ram ventilation and metamorphosis. And Sugar Ray, always waving that passport and watching that travel channel and saying it’s a big ol’ world, let’s go roll up on it. I never listened. I quit on you both like I quit on myself.
            I tattooed your names over the bullet holes on my biceps. I’m RayRay now. I’m what you would have been if I’d done things right.
            Some baby sharks eat their own brothers in their momma’s belly. That’s called adelphophagy. They’re born killers. My baby saw it on Shark Week. Told me about it all wide-eyed, like he’d just seen a monster movie. And he looked at me funny, like . . . I was the monster.
            I was. Now I’m a butterfly.
            I pulled my old tape and told them foreign teams it was last year’s. Told ‘em I’m Ray, not Gayle. I’m twenty-three again. Not thirty-three. Rejuvenation takes eight hours of sweat a day and bottled youth. It takes sacrifice. But I’ll do it Baby Ray, I’ll do it Sugar Ray. I’ll atone for my adelphophagy. I am my brother’s keeper. And I’ll be as beautiful as my baby was if I keep ram ventilating in this big new ocean. No doubt.
            The Pori Bears came knocking for Ray Graziano. But I had to be Gayle one more time. So I flashed Gayle’s passport in Helsinki. Then I gave the Pori Bears Ray’s passport. Metamorphosis complete.
            I’m down. But my legs are still spinning like the wheels on an overturned bus and I’m crying, roaring, screaming, “Keep pumping Ray, keep pumping, don’t you quit Ray, don’t you ever quit!”
            First down by a nose. I bounce off the grass and I’m slapping helmets, shaking shoulder pads, roaring and crying. My Bears look at me like the crazy man I am but I can tell Adam gets it, they all get it: You never quit. You just keep pumping. Four more downs. Two more quarters. Another season.
            Keep pumping, baby. Just keep pumping.

“I learned that if you want to make it bad enough, no matter how bad it is, you can make it.”  -- Gayle Sayers, Chicago Bears Running Back