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Playing with Toni

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We’d always played rough with Toni. I guess sometimes we forgot she was a girl. It wasn’t hard for a gang of boys to do when she was so game. She’d always played with us – soccer, sword fights, football, races, baseball, you name it – as she grew from a little tomboy into a spirited girl of seventeen. We never noticed, though. To us, Toni was always the spunky girl of ten we’d met that first day our three families got together.

I guess it was my fault, really. I should have noticed how we grew apart as the years passed by. We boys got into rock music, guns, video games…Toni never liked those things.

So we’d pushed her out of our society. We never asked her what she’d like to do. We never made a conscious effort to include her except when she was needed, like when we played football.

That’s where we’d gone all wrong. Toni didn’t really have a choice but to be around us. Her brothers were our friends, and her younger sisters were friends of our sisters. But there was no one for Toni. The oldest of the kids, she’d been forced into the older
“boy pack”. There was me, 16; John, 14; Andrew, 13; Luke, 13; Joe, 11; and James, 10.

So when we pushed her out of our society, we were essentially pushing her friendship away. I suppose she saw our football games as the only way to preserve our dying camaraderie. That’s why she kept playing.

One day in February we were playing out in the snow. It was Luke, Joe, James, and Toni against John, Andrew, and me. I was guarding Toni when she twisted away and got open for a second. I can see it all in slow motion now. John was rushing Luke as Luke snapped it off to Toni, twenty yards down the field. Toni jumped up to catch the ball as I dove at her in an attempt to intercept the pass. She was in the air as I sprang, slamming into her suspended body. Like so many times before, we both went down in a heap, me on top.

We’d had lots of collisions before. We’d had dog piles. We’d clothes lined players. And every time Toni had sprung right back up. That time, she didn’t.

I was laughing as I jumped to my feet, shaking snow from my hair. Next time I’d have to be a little more careful guarding her. Some times I forgot how quick and nimble she was. I didn’t know anything was wrong until I turned around and saw Luke kneeling at her side.

She was laying face-down in the snow, her long hair tumbling around her shoulders. Her arms were underneath her body, still clutching the ball to her chest. But her leg…the right one was bent at a crazy angle.

We rolled her over, not sure what to do. And that’s when I realized why we played football. Not because we wanted to play a rowdy, athletic sport. Not because we wanted an excuse to beat each other up. It was because we wanted to play with Toni, faithful Toni who always played sports with us. She’d tried to engage us in things besides music, video games and hunting, but we’d ignored her. And so she’d withdrawn from our company until the only thing we did together was football. That was our one tie with the childhood friendship we’d possessed. And that was why we still played.

That was one of the bitterest days of revelation for us boys. I guess we felt so bad we kind of went overboard. We bombarded Toni with cards, jokes, candy and – after our mothers informed us girls generally don’t like getting snakes, bugs and creepy-crawlies as get-well gifts – flowers while she was in the hospital for three days with a shattered femur.

And when she came back over to our house for the first time since her accident, we found a new game to play with her. We called it Wheel-the-Toni. Luke, Joe, and James paired up against John, Andrew and me. It was a time trial – a test to see which team could relay Toni the fastest.

We’d always played rough with Toni. That day as she clutched the sides of her wheelchair, we zoomed her back and forth across the snowy lawn, each team trying to outdo the other. I guess including her in our activities wasn’t so bad after all.





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