Burning the Boats This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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     The field seemed to open up like the gate to an amusement park. Come one, come all, it's your day. Ride the rides! And then a distraction, the realization that you're lying on your back and that illusion of glory is no longer running through your head.

I attempted to scramble to my feet but nausea and pressure in my head seemed to suck me right back down to the ground. A few seconds before I had been holding a football with confidence, skill and ease. It might have only been practice but I was proving that I was good enough to get the spot. No, I was great enough to get the spot.

"On your feet, Bartel, get in the game. You should be in the end zone! Next time, run more to the sideline!" Words of advice from the coach, but everything he said sounded like a foreign language. I felt like vomiting.

"Bartel, you alright?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine."

I was never one to admit to an injury, especially if it took me out of play. It seemed fairly obvious to me that I had a concussion but I tried to hide it. It was football, and if they saw that I was not looking or acting right, I'd be sent to the trainer. If that happened I'd miss the game, the reason why I played in the first place. All the running, receiving, hitting, dodging and jumping got my adrenaline pumping, a feeling that has to be experienced first-hand.

"Alright," I heard the coach yell. "Let's run it again!"

Get up, go to the front line. Repetition is the key to success, I knew, but for some reason my mind seemed to be flashing to a different place. The thought of sitting at home and taking a nap or going to work and giving guitar lessons seemed much more appealing than staying on the beaten-up practice field. The field was a mess, with dirt patches everywhere; the pain of getting slammed against it was horrible, especially in the cold. The cold had a tendency to make everything twice as painful.

It was late in the season and we'd been doing the same plays since June. No one cared about anything except maintaining their current position. Most of the non-starters had realized they wouldn't see much playing time no matter how hard they tried. Practice every day was dull, dreary and draining and while we watched the sky get grayer and grayer, we couldn't help but want to be somewhere else.

My head was pounding but I knew I had to ignore it if I wanted to play Saturday. As the quarterback snapped the ball, I bolted off the line but my feet seemed to drag, a new feeling for the fastest kid on the team. I watched the ball flow from the quarterback's right hand and sail into mine. As the ball gracefully landed in my gloves, the linebacker running toward me drilled me into the ground. That late in the season there was an unspoken understanding that we didn't knock the hell out of each other, but I didn't say anything. My head was throbbing so my frustration became uncontrollable. All I wanted to do was throw off my helmet and go inside and have a drink of water and go to sleep. However, I also wanted to play in the game.

As the final two weeks dragged on, my head really took a beating, and I was looking forward to doing a lot of nothing. Most of all, I was anxious to get back to working at the guitar store and giving lessons.

At the end of each season they bring up a few of the more essential players from the sophomore team to the varsity level to help the varsity stay competitive. In short, we become hitting bags for the older players.

When that first day of practice with the varsity started, we knew it was going to be rough. The juniors and seniors let us know that they were going to make us feel what it was like to get hit by a truck. The small hope that the coaches would notice us was dashed by the knowledge that other kids can get better and you could get worse if you get lazy.

Although the cold seemed to paralyze us and there were bruises all over our bodies from being hit by guys weighing 100 pounds more, I was bothered by something else. The varsity level seemed to be competing not for pride, or teamwork, or even fun. The whole team seemed to be driven by the desire to "win state."

"You've burned the boats, boys. We're in the playoffs now and only a few games away from our goal," the coach declared.

You could read the faces, the eyes that said "I don't want to be here" or "It's not my goal so why should I care." Nowhere in the coach's rambling of victory was anything said about enjoying the seniors' company during the past four years or missing them. There was no comment about being proud of the team and happy that they had a good time all season. It was just a group of guys wanting to win a game so they could be hotshots.

That realization hit me hard. All my years of football didn't mean anything. They were nothing more than training sessions to prepare me for varsity so I could help win state. Everything seemed to take on a different image in my head. The kids who stood around on the sidelines weren't trying to get in the game but rather to say they were a part of our football team. All the games we had won weren't accomplishments so much as expected in the first place. A wave of frustration ran through me and my injured head pounded.

And what about my head? The risk I was taking by being out on the field with an untreated concussion was overwhelming when I took the time to think about it. I was on one knee on a frigid football field when I decided that I had put up with enough and didn't want to come back the next year. Within seconds it seemed like something I had truly enjoyed meant nothing.

Looking back I know that the injury to my head caused a lot of frustration and caused me to quit, but I'm actually thankful for it. The season ended a week later and I started to live a football-free life. Without my time being consumed with lifting and practice, I was able to do a lot more things I wasn't able to before. Instead of having my body ground into the field at practice I was able to work more at the guitar shop. Being around the store has exposed me to many types of people and music, making me more open-minded.

After a while I realized my conception of the "evil" football team wasn't really accurate. The players and coaches are there for the love of the game, and who can blame them for wanting to be the best? Isn't that what competition is all about? The only true factor about my departure was the splitting headaches from my concussion that made it all too much for me. Although I experienced a lot of pain and discomfort, it is one of the best things to have happened to me. I quit football and became more active in other things. One window closed and another opened.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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