“Ma’am—I’m very sorry for delivering such awful news to you under these circumstances. But before I let you go—”
The phone fell from her hand and tumbled onto the bed. She stared at the closet door in front of her while her emotions ran so wild, her brain couldn’t decide which one to focus on.
Her body did the rest, producing a loud scream which protruded from her mouth followed by tears that fell down her face.
Her gaze which was focused still on the closet door, began to blur, but she preferred that. The sight of the new paint on the wood disgusted her; she had just finished painting it in hopes to impress him.
Instead of continuing to admire her worthless work, she dug her head into the darkness her legs provided and continued her scream.
The bedroom door swung open; she knew it was her young boy, but she didn’t want anything, not even him, to distract her sorrow. She needed to stay there, between her legs, hidden in the darkness, for just a moment.
The students of Netherfield Middle School, located just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, were sitting down in the cafeteria eating their lunches. The lunch tables were separated by cliques, which began forming as early as elementary school. As years passed, some of those friend-groups changed and each reason was always different from the next.
Sitting front and center, were the popular girls; notorious for adding and removing members to and from their group frequently. Whether it be because of a petty argument, the way one dressed, or which boy they were dating—It was always endless with them.
The one friend group that hadn’t changed however, was a small group of boys, united by their love for sports. They called themselves the Crazy Eights and it was unclear why, but the name somehow stuck. With it being the first day of the school year, this group of boys were recapping their summers to each other.
“Summer camp was sick this year dude!” Scott said.
“No bro, you should’ve gone to basketball camp with me. I’m telling you, I’m making the team this year!” Jayden said.
“The fish I caught out on Bordon were nuts! One broke my rod!” Travis said.
“I’m so glad you all had such a good summer! Instead, I worked every damn day,” Mitch said with misery.
His cursing rolled right off the tongue.
The rest of the small talk was brief but quickly shifted to what was all on their minds: the school football league.
It started a few years back by some boys looking for something to do on the weekends. In the beginning, they played casual pickup games but then the boys decided to add competition, forming four teams to compete against each other weekly to eventually crown a champion. The rules were slightly different compared to football seen on TV; a team would have four plays to score a touchdown on each drive. Penalties such as holding, pass interference, and intentional grounding were typically called. As for tackling, they knew they couldn’t hit someone without pads, so they invested in flags that buckled around their waists.
“What should we expect this year, Rory?” Justin asked.
Justin was a member of the school newspaper — which was called the Netherfield Times — and he always asked questions like a journalist. This year he landed the role as the lead reporter for the sports section and his main focus was the school football league.
“Well see,” Rory answered, “Having a recess may make it more popular.”
Rory, although not a member of the Crazy Eights, was the president of the school football league, taking on the role in seventh grade.
He was nominated by the players after they decided it would be easier to have leadership for the league to keep everything organized. Rory kept track of the wins and losses for each team so that each team could be ranked appropriately for a playoff bracket.
The recess Rory was referring to had been implemented that year, which was suggested by the school faculty and then decided by the town.
The argument that won the decision was that a recess block during each day would give students an opportunity to be more physically active to fight the rapid increase of obesity rates in the district.
The school was already working tirelessly trying to get the students to eat healthier, but the chicken patties and pizza slices for lunches were in high demand; a recess block suggested another solution to the problem.
“Hey James! Is this the year you’re finally going to get a spot on one of the teams? Or are you going to fail yet again,” Mitch chimed in with a snarky grin.
Zeke answered instead. “Based on my calculations,” looking up at the ceiling to do mental math, “He has absolutely no chance.”
The boys couldn’t hold in their laughter, and as they all chuckled, James looked at them, steaming with anger.
It was the third year in a row James was trying out for one of the teams, and he spent his summer days dropping back and firing footballs into a Skillz target net his parents had bought, hopeful the work he put in was going to finally pay off. He wanted so badly to be a part of the league, but more importantly, he wanted to be better appreciated by his friends, who were the only ones that watched the games.
Mitch felt compelled to poke fun at James because Mitch his entire life had never found a sport he was good at.
His dad, who pushed sports on him incredibly young, first tried Mitch at soccer when he was five, which failed miserably when his first touch with the soccer ball ended up in his own team’s net.
Then it was basketball, which had potential until Mitch’s adolescent anger got him thrown out of the town league for punching a kid in the face. So, his dad figured that maybe football would dwindle some of that frustration.
At the beginning, Mitch proved to be quite good, and quickly fell in love with the game, spending each Sunday screaming at the Patriots on the television like he was Bill Belichick himself.
As Mitch got older, however, his height never caught up to his age. He rode the bench for every football team he played on, and it ate at his ego. The pressure his dad put on him, and him failing to make his dad proud, led to the breaking point of Mitch quitting sports for good.
Mitch’s dad, Jim, had a tough time accepting that truth, and was brutally disappointed in his son. Sports were the one thing Jim knew well, but to say he enjoyed watching them was debatable. Jim was a sports gambler, and one with a problem.
Every game he watched, whatever sport it was, he had money on the line. It could be a professional corn hole game for all he cared, he was still picking somebody to win.
Jim claimed though that his gambling habits weren’t an issue as long as he didn’t go bankrupt. But he had no explanation as to why every game he watched resorted in him feeling the need to get drunk to get through it.
The worst part though, was that when he watched the game in front of his son, he’d let the liquor talk for him and lash out at the TV. Mitch just assumed this was a normal reaction, and so he mimicked his father.
“Jesus Christ! I could throw better than that!” or “Catch the football, oh my god!” were common phrases that bumped on and off the walls in their living room.
His gambling habits, oddly enough, were a big reason Mitch had become friends with some of the kids at the lunch table.
Every weekend when Saturday night rolled around, Mitch’s dad would barge into Mitch’s room and blare out “Ready to go have a night?”
The first time his dad forced him out of their house, and away from his Call of Duty, Mitch was dreading it, anxious towards the subtle details his dad provided about where or what they were doing. Mitch’s emotions were justified because of how unpredictable his father was.
It always depended on if he won money that night or not. It was a guarantee he’d reek of booze, but his emotions were much more inconsistent. There were nights his father would be in high spirits, jumping around the house screaming and yelling for joy.
Other nights, his dad would be so angry to the point that if someone tried to talk to him, he would take his rage out on them; nothing physically abusive, but that’s beside the point. The highs and lows of Mitch’s dad was something Mitch dealt with his entire life.
Mitch’s mom was good at defending her husband and assured Mitch that, “Daddy is just stressed right now. Just give him some time to calm down.”
Mitch eventually just got used to his father’s behavior, but their relationship took a hit because of it. Instead of being close like how a father should be with their son, each conversation was awkward and forced.
“How are you today?” one of them would ask.
“Good. How are you?” the other responded.
And that was usually it.
But that first Saturday when Mitch’s dad told him they were spending the night together, Mitch decided to give him a chance.
But as the two pulled into an unfamiliar driveway, Mitch realized that it wouldn’t be the father-son bonding experience he had hoped for.
Entering the house, Mitch was greeted by three boys the same age as him. They stopped in the middle of the air hockey game to introduce themselves.
“Hey, we need an extra, come join,” Justin said.
The four of them had this unspoken similarity with each other, and that first hangout sparked a fire in their long-standing relationship.
That night and every Saturday following, Mitch and his dad spent their time at that same house — which belonged to Justin’s parents.
The activities for each Saturday night were always the same. Mitch’s dad and the other four fathers would sit around a green felted table and play poker. The table was covered in beer, money, and poker chips, and when a hand was won, the loser would slam their cards on the table, and the winner would proudly reel their chips in.
The games would go on for hours and occasionally, one of them would stand up, stretch out, go to the bathroom, take a cigarette break, grab another beer, and then would sit back down. It was the same routine for each father every time.
The younger boys would spend their time finding anything that created competition. Between air hockey, the mini hoop, and the XBox, they had enough to occupy them for the night.
Saturdays became their thing for a while; they’d look forward to that night every week. It’s what motivated the kids to push through the daunting task of schoolwork and for the fathers, it was their escape from the misery of their everyday jobs.
But then, just before the summer started, Mitch’s dad told Mitch they would no longer be going to Justin’s house but gave him no explanation as to why.
The fathers stopped playing poker together and Mitch never saw Justin’s father ever again. Even Justin avoided the conversation and no matter how much the boys would try to pry, Justin made it clear that he didn’t want the other boys to bring it up.
The school bell rang, and all the students stormed outside onto the recess yard. The sun beaming down on their skin amid the September heat had reminded them of their most recent summer memories.
The humid air sunk down into their throats but was squandered by their overjoyed voices, which created a chatter that carried through each crowd of students.
The recess yard was laid out perfectly for each clique to coexist. Picnic tables stationed just outside the entrance were occupied by most of the girls, where they sat together discussing the latest drama.
In front of the picnic tables, were two full size basketball courts, which held pickup games established by boys trying their best to impress the girls.
Then, to the right of the basketball courts, was a baseball field located on top of a hill, caged in by a short chain link fence, which that day occupied a kickball game.
Along the side of the first baseline, were rows of galvanized steel bleachers, which is where the brainiacs could be found, either playing chess or catching up on homework.
As for the football league, they played their games on a small, grass field that could only be accessed through a dirt trail.
Leading up to the field, the trail was dimmed by the shade of the trees overhead. As the boys made their way through, the crunching sound of sand and rocks beneath their feet quickened as they glared at the opening where the field shined bright by the sun.
The field in previous years, was the location for the boys’ and girls’ soccer teams, however, with little participation for each program, the school was forced to remove them from the budget. Now neglected by maintenance, the league would use it as theirs, as the open field provided perfect dimensions for a tiny football field.
Some boys, as they stepped onto the field, couldn’t contain themselves any longer, setting their stride and calling for the ball to be thrown in their direction.
Milo, captain for the Leopards, glanced at each boy running, finally throwing a high-flying ball to the one farthest away.
Milo had been the quarterback for the Leopards in sixth and seventh grade, and starting his eighth-grade year, he was hoping to finally win the championship.
As the boy reeled in the pass, another ball went flying through the air, thrown by Bruno, quarterback for the Pirates.
Bruno had been a league champion in sixth grade but then suffered a heartbreaking defeat in the championship to Tate a year later.
This season, Bruno was hoping to get the trophy back, drafting a third threat to his already exceptional passing attack. The one flaw to the team however was their lack of communication on defense, which is what Tate and his Soldiers exploited to beat them the year prior.
Tate, who was sitting off to the side, tying his shoes, had thrown a record-breaking five touchdowns in that game. This year, he and the Soldiers had a promising roster to defend the title.
The last of the four teams was the Miners, which currently did not have a quarterback and made the decision to give James a chance.
The Miners last year finished last in the league, due to their offense not having the firepower to score. Their defense, however, was stellar along with their exceptional run game. Now with the addition of James, who looked good during tryouts, they were hoping he had what it took to avenge some of the team’s past failures.
Each team only had a few days before their first matchups of the season. There would be two games played a week and each game would last the duration of a recess block. Games would be played on Thursday and Friday, and the Friday game would be reserved for the more exciting matchup of the two that week. Rory referred to it as the primetime game.
As the week went on, Justin figured it was appropriate to post an article in the school newspapers regarding the Leopards - Soldiers primetime game and decided to center the article around the drama between the two teams’ quarterbacks.
Middle school drama was catastrophic for some of these kids; if anything, it was what fueled them to get to school in the mornings.
Both quarterbacks, Tate, and Milo, had solidified themselves into the popular crowd, and a big reason for it was because of their relationships they had with the queens of drama: Julie and Beth.
Tate and Julie had been together for as long as even they could remember. The two grew up across the street from each other, being introduced by their parents when they were only two years old. Tate tried everything to get her attention, and Julie pretended she didn’t like it. Eventually, the young boy worked up the courage to ask her to be his girlfriend. Rolling her eyes and hiding an innocent grin, she said yes.
As for Milo and Beth, they began dating in the summertime when Milo caught Beth’s attention at the country club down the street. Milo was caddying for a couple bigwigs who couldn’t break 100, while Beth lounged by the members-only pool.
When he walked off the 18th green, on the verge of collapsing from carrying two golf bags on his shoulders, Beth felt confident enough to wave at him.
Being both tired and shy, Milo ignored her and kept walking.
Eventually though, after countless interactions at the country club, Milo built up the courage and asked her on a date.
“Would it be okay if one day I could take you golfing?” he asked her.
She liked how respectful he was, a much different pace from her home life.
Her dad was a bitter, miserable, cold man. He was rich but hated his work, and successful, but unable to be happy.
Beth tried to look past his attitude; he always told her how stressful his work was, so she tried to understand. But Beth’s mother couldn’t tolerate it anymore and decided it was enough.
Meeting Milo was the best thing for Beth because it allowed her to escape from the technicalities of her parents’ divorce. They’d spend every day together that summer and Beth looked at Milo as her saving grace.
When school started again, the drama between Beth and Julie would return to full force and was bound to impact everyone involved. It all started the year before when Beth and Julie got into a fight at school. Like a literal fist fight.
The argument began with Julie accusing Beth of stealing from her. The item remains unclear in the story but when it was decided they were going to scrap, word spread through the school that at the end of the day, the two girls were going to fight each other.
Cameras from the students had captured the entire scene, and the debate of which girl won entertained the school for days. Because of the crowd outside the building, it was obvious the two girls would face consequences from Principal Oli.
The girls took their punishment but remained bitter towards each other. Their stalemate of who would apologize first went on for quite some time which meant Tate and Milo were forced to be a part of the standoff, creating the unspoken rivalry in the league.
Justin knew that the drama would create a lot of tension in that first matchup of the season. When he posted the article, he detailed the bragging rights at stake, but it was 2012, and everyone had become ill-consumed by their technology devices. Reading a school newspaper was unlikely to happen for these kids, so the only effective way to get more students to come watch the games was through word of mouth.
On that first Friday of the school year, the students were in high spirits, thinking about their plans for the long Labor Day weekend.
For the Crazy Eights however, they were a bit more focused on the matchup between the Soldiers and the Leopards. Boys like Scott and Andy — who randomly inserted themselves into that friend group — were busy insulting James for losing his first game of the season versus the Pirates.
“You really know how to choke a football game,” Scott said.
The game was close but in the final seconds, when James needed to step up, he overthrew his receiver, and the ball landed directly into the hands of a Pirates defender.
After the game, his teammates were uncertain if James had that ability to prevail in big moments, but he assured them he just needed to settle into his new role.
That ability to be clutch when it mattered was evident to be the key to success in the league, especially at the quarterback position.
Tate thrived when the pressure was on his shoulders and had a natural instinct to stay focused and make big plays when they were most needed. That first game of the season however, Tate’s mental toughness appeared to be absent.
The score was deadlock for most of the game.
The Soldiers offense was meticulous at marching down the field, but very good at slowing the game down while still being able to get first downs. It allowed them to push the ball down field at a slow pace to keep the football on the offensive side.
The Leopards were able to counteract how much time the Soldiers took off the clock by scoring very quickly. They knew that if they could just get the lead, then the Soldiers would be forced to abandon their slow-paced offense.
The game was tied 7-7 and it was the Soldiers ball. It was third down and Tate stepped back, scanning the field to find his receiver open on an out route, but Cooper, a star player for the Leopards, jumped in front and intercepted the pass.
“That was filthy,” Andy shouted.
The Eights were big advocates for underdogs and wanted to see the Soldiers get taken down.
With the Leopards back on offense, Milo knew they needed a score. He stepped back and looked for an open pass catcher, but nothing was there. In a panic to get the ball out, he scrambled out of the pocket and found Cooper down the left side.
The Crazy Eights jumped with excitement until they saw the penalty flag, thrown by Sam who was one of the referees. It was a holding penalty, which would take away a down for the Leopards, and lead to the end of the drive.
It was the first penalty of the game but a very good call. Sam had been a referee for the league for two seasons already, and entering his third, there was no doubt Rory could trust his judgment.
The other referee was Timmy, who volunteered for the position when he and Rory had met at a basketball camp over the summer. Rory gave him the position because of Timmy’s prior experience as a referee for his sister’s soccer games.
Now that the Soldiers had the ball, the Eights assumed the game would be over with how clutch Tate was in these moments.
Tate started the drive, and fired one, and then another pass to his receiver Julian. The Soldiers were now in striking distance to score.
Tate, on the next play, snapped the ball and immediately, a Leopard’s defender slipped through the offensive line and rushed at him. Feeling panicked, Tate scrambled out and released the ball from his hands to avoid being tackled, but the wobbly pass headed in the direction of Cooper, who secured the interception and darted to the endzone.
The Crazy Eights watched in disbelief as Cooper strutted in for the touchdown. As Cooper celebrated, the school bell rang to signal the end of recess.
Anger seeped through Tate’s body when he heard the loud scream of the bell, knowing that he had lost the season opener to Milo.
“Julie isn’t going to be so happy when she hears that you lost,” Milo said jokingly.
Tate turned to him and shoved Milo to the ground, which initiated an all-out brawl between the two teams. It was clear these boys cared about this league more than anything.