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Drive into West Lake, and you won’t see signs of grief. There are no crosses lined up on the side of any county route headed in or out of town. There isn’t an eternal flame burning anywhere. In truth, they appear to sell a wholesomeness that you won’t find outside of Whoville, this being a glossy take on any number of small towns in America. Main Street and Broad Street intersect at the gilded gazebo. A failing mom and pop movie theater struggles to fill their two screen duoplex. Crime is low. Homeless is practically unheard of. And generations of families take up the broad-porched homes that they were either raised within, or grew up admiring as children. But there can be no mistake; the people of this town are undergoing a reckoning. It’s a place where everybody is reliving the same moment from three years ago, and the only battle is between the people who feel they never get past it, and the ones who claim they already have. They’re still reeling from a tragedy.
I meet school superintendent Maggie Sleshinger at Oscar’s Island. The place is a local staple where Oscar mans the booth in a throwback white apron and shirt. His children and grandchildren are decked out in matching black shirts with the logo printed on the front and back while they take the orders. I hear a teenager order an egg cream without a shred of sarcasm.
Maggie greets me with a smile and a firm handshake. She wears a stiff green dress that almost crinkles as she sits. I can see the professional matte glow of her makeup as she settles herself and makes with small talk. She asks me about my drive into town and if I planned on taking in any of the local attractions. I get the sense that she knows I don’t have any interest in the Quilting Retrospective or the Farmer’s Market on the other side of town. She’s friendly but stiff, as if she’s bracing herself for the punch that she knows is coming. I ask her about the game against Jefferson, and watch her eyes fall to the floor.
“It still hurts.” She sips a coffee and I can see the creases in her makeup deepen into trenches. “Did you see the tape of the game?”
I tell her that I have. Seeing that we are getting nowhere, I ask her if she could describe what she felt in that moment.
“We’d figured out their defense. Had a few breaks early of course. I remember that we were down 24-20, but we were moving the ball for the first time in forever. There was time for one last play with only a second on the clock, and I figured they’d air it out to Mason or Junior Bennett, but as Colton dropped back, I could see it develop as clear as day. Logan was all by himself on the left hash. The way they drew it up, I could see that there was a halo of space around him, without a defender within 15 yards. And sure enough, Colton moves his head over at the last second and tosses him a perfect spiral that hits him right in the numbers. He catches the ball, and he’s all by himself, running toward the end zone. Everybody’s cheering…”
Maggie stops talking. She licks her quivering lips and raps her freshly manicured fingernail against the bar top.
“And then he takes a knee at the one-yard line.”
I give her a moment to collect herself. As I do, I begin to realize that everything in Oscar’s Island is sharing in the painful memory. Oscar himself looks over at me, while he dries a glass in his old fashioned white shirt and apron, and shakes his head. I hear the clink of a spoon hitting the edge of a glass somewhere, along with the cough and shuffle that plays in the movies whenever the film wants to paint an awkward scene where nobody feels comfortable in their own skin.
“I couldn’t get my damn head around what I’d just witnessed. The senselessness of it all. At first I thought he’d fallen down on the grass or something. But when he took his helmet off, I know that he’d done what he did intentionally. My hands went numb.”
Mention the name Logan Rodney Heyward around this town and you’ll quickly test the manners of the townsfolk. Soon you’ll be greeted with the wild eyed stare of a normally polite person who no longer wishes to speak with you anymore. They won’t cut you off, exactly. They’ll just suddenly become much more keenly aware of their surroundings. They’ll check their watch. They’ll gauge your motivations to see if they’re talking to a confidant or need to engage some primal fight/flight mechanism. Some slowly build into a sort of righteous anger that takes a second to fully mature. Others wilt. The varying levels of disgust for Logan Rodney Heyward has over the past few years become splintered off into several denominations of a shared religion. Behind closed doors fathers condemn the chances of their daughter’s suitors upon finding out that the boy came from a “We have to understand what made him tick” household as opposed to a “Run him out of town and never speak of this again” household. But that’s behind closed doors. The actual exchanges are handshakes and friendly smiles. Because West Lake is a new Eden, and their platonic ideal of Aldus Huxley’s dystopian nightmare is their destination.
I ask Maggie for a description of Logan the boy as opposed to Logan the act, and watch while she uploads the speech she’s delivered thousands of times before about how he was a quiet kid who didn’t seem capable of ever doing such a thing. Was he unpopular? Bullied?
“God no. He just…he wasn’t engaged. We didn’t reach him in time.”
I ask her if he was any good at football.
“He was shit. Why the hell do you think he was so wide open?”
West Lake versus Jefferson had always been known as The Game around these parts. Most of the time, The Game was something to be endured. Jefferson had maintained a one sided dominance over their opponents, and their old and tattered jerseys had always made them look more like a hardened prison team than just another high school opponent. Year in and year out, the season ended the same way; Jefferson going to the sectional playoffs, and West Lake waiting for basketball season.
However, against all odds, for one game West Lake had a chance. I’d watched the tape, but so much of high school football is destined to become a mystery to anybody who hadn’t experienced it live. I see a slightly undersized, but by no means diminutive #80 jog to the huddle. Logan Heyward. They tape provided can’t offer the window into the soul that your standard NFL Films production might. There are no shots of the backup standing along the sidelines, being refused his spot on the bench. You don’t have mic’d up footage, where choice cuts of sound bites are edited and offered to the viewer. All that exists is the tape with the crowd of the noise and the crunch of plastic pads colliding into each other. I don’t know that he’s a loner or disgruntled. All I know is that he hasn’t seen much action, and by my rushed viewing, has only been targeted three times for one catch to this point. He was an obvious decoy that any coach who had been paying attention to the past drive would have made sure to watch carefully. Unfortunately, they’d placed a defensive lineman in the backfield, and sent the running back in motion. The circus had gotten so loud and out of control that Jefferson simply didn’t know where to look, and just as he had by virtually everybody in the stands, Logan found himself not only wide open, but also targeted.
He slows down before he drops to a knee. Possibly for a second, everybody thinks that he’s simply showboating. Getting his money’s worth. But he carefully stops himself before accidentally breaking the plane of the goal line, and gives himself up. The game is over. Jefferson High is confused but reluctantly victorious. West Lake is devastated.
Maggie Schlesinger quickly considered her options. Surely there was a way to have this game annulled. The local sheriff’s department quickly assembled and threatened to blockade the visitors bus from leaving the stadium while they attempted to scramble the district’s committee to come up with a rule on the fly. There just had to be a way to replay the down. Everybody knew that it shouldn’t have counted, and West Lake swore they could accept a failed play, but not this way, with a player going rogue and sabotaging their year from the inside. They’d drowned themselves in denial, anger, bargaining and depression within moments from the sound of the final gun being popped into the air. Acceptance would be a long time coming.
“We couldn’t sit back and pretend it didn’t happen.” City mayor Kevin Rutherford needs to exhale when he thinks about the aftermath. “Never again. We had to brake everything down. And I had to suggest that we do something radical.”
That first radical change came in the form of the Unsportsmanlike Annulment. Three judges, sanctioned by the district, attend every game in the county. The idea is that in the event of sabotage, there will be a board ready to review the play on the spot and issue an annulment. The student in question would be barred from high school athletics within the district for life.
“You can imagine how much the purists got in our faces, telling us that we were rewriting the rules of the game. Which, I guess, duh, right? Anyway, I start getting these calls from traditionalists telling me that we were threatening to ruin the game they loved. There wasn’t what you’d call a groundswell of support at the time, because I don’t think a lot of people truly understood how one student could just devastate the entire community. So instead I called a ‘town hall,’ but I opened it up to beyond just West Lake. The invites went out across the district, but the event was open to anybody who loved football, regardless of their city of residence. I knew that we needed to have a discussion that went beyond West Lake and Jefferson. I wanted to have it with the football community.”
The invitation spread throughout the state like chum, attracting legions of old school football men. The rumor of the annulment idea was irresistible, so much so that the event had to be moved into the high school auditorium, just to accommodate the crowd size. The coach, mayor and superintendent all found themselves selling not only their idea, but the very worthiness of West Lake as a God loving football community in their own right.
“It wasn’t an easy sell,” Mayor Rutherford says, fidgeting with his tie. The nervous tic hadn’t been for any effect. This was not the slick, media trained, big city politician. He was a hair stylist, who’d managed a salon by the water for 30 years, well before coming out in a place as rural as West Lake was socially acceptable. But he isn’t flamboyant enough to be dramatic on command, and the way he looks out of the corner of his eye to nothing, seems to be his own shell shocked memory returning to haunt him in the present day.
I ask if he’d heard any slurs at the town hall, which prompts a belly laugh.
“More than a few, I can promise you that much.” He looks back, suddenly regaining his dignity, and leans forward as if to indicate that he still goes to the gym, and runs three miles a day.
“But we weren’t connecting. They wrote us off as mentally weak. It was all I could do to scream ‘Fuck you. We’re doing it anyway, you bitches.’ But that’s not the sort of unilateral decision that I, nor anybody in this town can make. No, instead we held our heads high, and talked about what the actions did to the town itself. How many days had been spent under the hot sun, training, and planning, and grinding toward? How many years we’d watched pass, with nothing to show for it. And how that was fine, because at the very least we’d earned those loses. But to be sabotaged by our own team? In a fit of rage, I openly asked to anybody who was listening, if there’s one kid on their team who feels like they don’t matter, and has a chance to do what Logan did, do it. That stopped the room. They looked at me as if I told the children to marry their pets or bathe in the blood of virgins, but I knew the media was there. They’d publish or broadcast my nutso statement.”
The nutso statement worked, as the amendment to the rulebook was ratified that spring.
“It’s a new day,” Coach Philbin tells me as he leads a walking tour of the stadium, while their boys practice. I ask him what kinds of safeguards and he breaths a sigh of relief. “The annulment was a…well I guess it was necessary.” He looks off into the distance. The coach chuckles, but I see the tension in his forehead. He’s keeping his teeth just far enough apart so that they aren’t biting down on themselves and grinding himself into a set of dentures. “But that’s not a fool proof method now, anyway.”
I ask him why.
“This is a mental health issue. Pure and simple. And I don’t mean that as lip service. Only a complete asshole would keep up the status quo while citing some mental health crisis, and then do nothing about the problem. So what we did was sit down and identify the problem. And to me there was a great segregation between the rest of the student body, and the kids who never quite felt as if they were part of something larger. In the past I would have assumed that everybody on the team would have been past this, but…well apparently that’s not the case.”
Indeed, to look at the town of West Lake, is to see a broad sociological experimentation. Sometime after what folks still refer to as “that game” in scare quotes, action was taken. Local property taxes were raised on the upper class lakeside community, and social scientists were flown in from around the world to understand what it was that made souls get lost in the first place. How had these kids been radicalized into not selling out for the good of the team? And what effect did it have upon the town and student body?
First came the grief counselors.
Ladya Connor still has to fight back tears when I talk to her from the empty bleachers.
“They just helped me out so dang much. For the longest time, I just felt like I was somehow responsible for what happened, you know. Why us, right? Why couldn’t this have happened to Jefferson? Which I realize is a totally fucked up thing to say to begin with. Nobody should really have to go through this, but seeing somebody who you grew up with do something like that? Could I have talked to him and made sure he didn’t do that? I don’t know.”
She’d find out that there were ways that they could have saved her classmate and consequently all of her classmates who felt the loss, but that she needed to forgive herself for her guilt.
“They taught me that it wasn’t my fault for not reforming the system as a high schooler. I know it sounds so stupid when I say it out loud, but at the time that’s what I felt. That deep down I let everybody down.”
Her guilt was not an isolated example. The regret had fallen on everybody in the town like a blanket.
“They taught me that everything that we do is either an act of love or a cry for love. The thing is that I don’t even like football that much. I just felt the misery that comes with somebody selfishly denying so many other people their moment of happiness.”
I ask if she likes football now.
“I love my town. And my town loves this team. And this team loves football. So I love football.”
This year of course represents the end of an era. The children who were freshmen during that fateful game, are now seniors. Next year they will be gone, and every highschooler from that day will have moved on to college. As much as they can move on.
Colby Adams lifts his hoodie and shows me a long tattoo of a goal line and a single one-yard hash mark, intersected by “Never Forget” written in calligraphy. I ask him if the town will forget.
“I don’t think they will, in a way. We’re a different community now. People care about one another in a way they didn’t when I was a freshman. We’re all like, ‘Yo, what’s that kid’s deal? I haven’t heard from him in a minute. Let’s see if he’s okay,’ you know? And it’s not just our class. The little freshman today are doing it, and from what I hear from my little brother in 7th grade, those kids in middle school are doing the exact same thing. It’s a part of who we are now.”
Not fully believing the rhetoric, I stick around until long after sun sets and the pep rally begins. The mood is unlike that of any other rally I have seen. In lieu of the quasi fascist heart pounding rhetoric, the students and faculty take on measured tones. I look for evidence of the freaks in attendance, and am soon approached by a girl who might have happily referred to herself as such.
“If you would have told me that I’d wear a West Lake jersey at a football rally, I would have called you a liar.”
She introduces herself as Triana, and happily identifies as a reformed goth chick.
“Everybody in this town seemed like they went over the deep end when the team lost that game, but getting paired up with a football player in their buddy program? That was when I wanted to kill myself.”
She says it with enough of a laugh that I know she wasn’t ever truly suicidal. She points to Tanner Wilcox, the team’s closet approximation of a shut down cornerback.
“I thought all football players were rapists and misogynists. But Tanner’s not like that at all. He’s just a pretty normal guy. I’ve met his parents. They’re a lot like mine, except that maybe they understand football than my parents understood me.”
She shows me a picture of what she’d looked like before with hair dyed black and a streak of bright violet running along the side. Contrast that to now, when the converted super fan has her hair dyed the team friendly green and white. It seems like the sort of thing that would have been received like a Judas heel turn among any legitimate counterculture movement.
“That’s what I thought as well. I think that’s the way they sort of chain you to their own ideology. That you can’t become a conformist. But what kind of nonconformists worry about hanging out with the wrong person. In some way, rooting for the football team is the biggest way that I could rebel. I’m still a non-conformist, and it feels great because I’m also part of a team.”
There are others who showed pictures of themselves in dark clothes. Boys with eyeliner and girls who had once upon a time shaved their heads. All of them trading memories of plays from years before, trying to one up each other with the most obscure knowledge that they could retrieve. Suddenly I’m in the company of of kids named Piercer and Trix and an androgynous type who simply went by the number 7.
“The Arabic numeral. Not S-E-V-E-N. Just…” she slashes the air with her finger. “7.”
“They let you keep your…nick names.”
Triana laughs with the ease of a middle aged white woman sipping on a glass of Chardonnay from a lakeside dock. “That’s just it. It’s not about denying who you are. It’s about embracing who everybody is.”
I make my way to my car, wondering if this town can be believed. Everybody grieves in their own way, but I can’t shake the idea that I’m watching a show. It’s all too real for me, and I’m getting away from the sticky tentacles of civic pride, and moving aimlessly through deer country with my eyes locked on the 30 feet in front of my car. The headlights illuminate a thin path against black space. Off in the distance I spot the break in the monotony of darkness. A small intersection seeming in the middle of nowhere, save for a small gathering of houses and a post office that might have trafficked eight parcels per day. The only lights on in the township belong to an all brick building with Bud and Coors neon signs lit up in the window. I pull over and walk inside the dimly lit establishment.
They still smoke in Bud’s Tavern. In fact, there’s an old fashioned cigarette vending machine next to the bathrooms, and the faux reminiscent façade of West Lake has been swapped for wood paneling. These are the backwoods that I can recognize. Men wearing confederate caps, and women driving down liquor with impunity. A bartender with tired eyes and frizzy hair, who doubtlessly fights off the advances of every regular in the place.
I order a rye and listen to a wretched Alan Jackson tune being played on the jukebox, but I feel that tapping in my fingertip. That journalistic itch to ask the question, even if I’m damn near positive that I already know the answer. I look to my left, at the man in the Carhartt jacket who went 250 lbs., and mention that I didn’t seen any of these people at the pep rally earlier. He starts to laugh.
“Fuck, man. I’m trying to have a fucking good time and you bring that up.”
I mention West Lake and how I’d been around the country and seen a lot of small, but remarked that there was something different about that place.
“Yeah they’re a bunch of assholes, alright.”
I wonder if they were always like this.
The bartender leans over and takes a shot of whisky, before talking about how they were always annoying.
“It’s a bunch of doctors and professors, and a couple of investment bankers, all settling down on a lake. They’ve always been a bit soft. You met that faggot mayor?”
I told her that I’d interviewed him earlier that day.
“Well there you go.”
A man who went by Earl walked up and gently laid his hand on my shoulder, as if he were softly explaining so that I’d stop embarrassing myself.
“You see, son. They’ve always been a bunch pussies, but now they’re trying to change the damn rules of football. And that…that’s just not right, you see? You see? Do you get it, because football was like this.” Earl held his hand level along his eye, and then slid it over. “But now, if they don’t like what a kid does, they just get a mulligan.” It’s tough to maintain eye contact through the breath of cheap pilsner, but I nod, wondering when he’s going to stop touching my shoulder. “They’ve made a new game. And that’s just not okay with anybody who cares about the game.”
From the back of the bar I hear the old growl of a man yelling, “Oh shut up.”
The general commotion dies down so that for a moment I can only hear the wretched Brooks & Dunn song playing from the jukebox. There is a gravity about the man, and the bar defers to his judgment.
As it happens, this man was Mac Jorgenson, the offensive line coach for West Lake who had resigned in disgust after the changes were made to the rules, and the new programs were instituted to create a more harmonious campus. Afterwards I will research him to discover that he had pulled a gun on the mayor, but through connections with the sheriff’s department was able to get by on a warning.
But that was learned after the fact, and in this moment I am left with a bar full of ‘working class folk’ finding themselves in the surprising position of having to appeal to one of their most fervent supporters.
Earl gently moves over with his palms in the air, stumbling and failing to walk in a straight line, while he slurs his speech.
“Mac. You of all people should understand. We drew a line in the sand and they crossed it.”
“That don’t change nothing.”
“All we were doing was trying to hold on to the game we loved.”
“And we were wrong, damn it.” Mac leans forward. “God damn it, I was wrong. I knew it then, but I wasn’t ready to quit pretending.”
The man who’d sat next to me yells back, “Mac, don’t do this to yourself. That’s just the pussification of football.”
“Glen, you didn’t see them boys. Not on the field like I did. You didn’t hear the sound in their voices when they talked about.” I see Mac pause, and I can practically feel him choke up on his words. “You didn’t hear what they sounded like when they talked about going to the playoffs. Or the confusion when they lost. I had to explain to Craig Boone- Jeremy’s boy- that it wasn’t a touch down celebration. He was on the bench, and didn’t know it could happen. We got to take this out of America, because it’s just madness what one disgruntled kid can do to an entire school. Imagine what our grandkids are going to say when they find out that we fought for the right for any individual to just kill an entire season.” Mac shakes his head. “No. They were right. Never again. And that’s all I’m going to say on the matter, so you might as well just change the subject right now.”
I pay for the drink, but don’t finish what’s left in the glass. I want to buy Mac one. I want to buy everybody one, but I’m not sure why. And because I’m sure that Mac wants to be left alone, I exit without saying another word.
I drive back to the motel and sleep off the past night. In the morning I try to cobble together what I can of the story, and try to kill the rest of the day that I have to spend in this quiet town before the big game. The game itself is fairly nondescript. There’s cheap pizza being sold for $3 a slice, and the cheerleaders lead the crowd with a typical enthusiasm. I see the reformed goths and punks filling the stands with the people who had been normies for much longer. And I see West Lake lose the game, yet again to Jefferson. I wonder if Jefferson even considered them a rival instead of just being the last scheduled win of the regular season, at this point. But it didn’t matter. Though damn near every person knew they hadn’t a chance in hell, I leave the stadium thinking that maybe they were right. Maybe they had gotten over the incident, and maybe they had grown as a community for the better.
I wanted this to be the end of the story. I suspect that a good number of West Lake residences would prefer that I give up my long winded story right now, and not go down a path that feels almost inevitable the more I think about it. But try as I might to not give him the attention, I decide that I have to at least try to speak with Logan. He’d moved far away, but I book a plane ticket and travel out to parts unlisted.
It’s a long walk up a lonesome and unpaved driveway, somewhere far away from the aesthetically satisfying haven that is West Lake. Once again, I’m in a nondescript town that would never make the national news, but one that falls on the other end of the spectrum. It’s a cold and distant place where locals interact with people of the same seven surnames 365 days a year. I double check the address as I pass the mailbox on the side of the rural route, and can see the red paint fleck off the old farm house, while the mustard colored porch sags and threatens to fall back into the ground. I see the bearded figure standing on the edge of that rotted landing, bracing himself against the flimsy railing. He watches my approach, and nods when I wave to him. I’d feel better if he’d say some greeting, but his steely eyes suggest that won’t happen until I get within striking distance.
As I step up to the porch, he extends his hand. His grip is tight, but hands are rough. Not the soft palms of a skilled receiver.
“Want a drink?”
Not knowing what to say, I accept and wait as he opens a cooler and pulls out a silver and orange can of energy drink. I can smell the overpowering fruity scent as he cracks the top.
“Why’d you do it?”
Logan remains quiet as I ask the question that he had to have heard hundreds of times. He’d never given an answer before, but to my knowledge, he’d never accepted an interview for an invitation.
“You probably wouldn’t believe me, but I don’t even remember anymore.”
He’s right. I don’t believe him. I don’t believe much about the way he keeps evading my eye contact and twisting his head and neck around like a crumpled can that had been stretched out once again. I tell him that he had to have a reason, and he shrugs. I tell him that from what I gather he wasn’t bullied by his class or teammates. He was given opportunities to play. I ask him if it was a protest or a statement.
“I don’t know,” he mumbles, before slurping up another sip of the energy, seemingly immune to the stimulant. “We had a pretty good team that year, but I just didn’t feel like I belonged. I figured when I made varsity I’d feel different. But I wasn’t. And we were going to go to the playoffs for the first time in forever, but they weren’t about to remember me. So I figured they’d remember that.”
I look at the reclusive 20-year-old, who doesn’t seem sad or angry. Just tired from thinking about a high school football game from three years ago. Logan didn’t finish out the year at West Lake. He’d dropped out and eventually earned his G.E.D. in another town, but never even applied to colleges.
“Didn’t figure it was worth the application fee.”
Logan invites me inside from off the porch. The house looks like a relic from the dustbowl era, with wallpaper that has fallen apart, and a brown couch that looks post apocalyptic. The light struggles to filter through the filthy windows, and I begin to have the sensation that I was standing in a ghost house. I can’t tell if the new place was a fitting punishment for Logan, or just the sort of off-putting setting that made him feel at home. And in that quiet, ominous setting, I ask him if he’d regrets what he did on the field that day.
“Yeah. I think it’s safe to say that I wish I hadn’t done that.”
He tells me that he hadn’t kept up with or considered returning to West Lake, and that he hadn’t had any idea that they’d created a new rule specifically allowing plays like his to be annulled.
“It won’t work. Somebody could just pretend it was an accident and get the same effect.” When I tell him that everybody might just think that kid was clumsy, he shrugs and says, “Either way, they’re not getting what they want. Maybe that’s enough for somebody. Suppose somebody’d rather take the beating so long as they get theirs as well.”
But there on the couch, I see the most wretchedly pathetic manifestation of regret: The transgressor who is too embarrassed to make amends, and feels too guilty to ever seek redemption. This house, an isolated tomb on the outskirts of nowhere, is his self imposed sentence, and his continued existence is his form of self flagellation. They’ll always remember him, that much is clear. But more than he understood when he’d committed the act, he realizes that he’ll remember them. I make a motion to head for the door and ask him if there is anything else that he had to say.
“What’d they name the rule?”
He nods slowly and snorts toward the ground when I tell him about the Unsportsmanlike Annulment.
“Oh. I kind of thought they might have named it after me.”