The Running Back Who Reads Emily Dickinson
10:46 AM EDT on October 13, 2020
The following is an excerpt from The Redshirt, a novel by Corey Sobel which is now available for purchase.
The Redshirt is the story of Miles Furling, a gay, but closeted football player who loves football more than anything. Smaller than other players because he skipped a grade, he needs an athletic scholarship to attend university. By some miracle he lands at King College, a school famous for its excellent academics and terrible football team. In this excerpt, Miles meets Reshawn McCoy, the country’s top recruit, who baffles Miles and his teammates with his evident distaste for football and his passion for literature.
Chase continued bullying me the rest of the day, right up to when we entered our Marriott room a little after nine-thirty. He acted like he had the place to himself, taking his sweet, smelly time in the bathroom, leaving his shoes and clothes strewn on the carpet. I knew he was trying to get a rise out of me, but I was too exhausted to take the bait. After brushing my teeth I slid between the soft, almost erotically cool bedsheets and fell asleep.
I was out only forty minutes before the sound of a closing door woke me. The room was black, and stars burned steadily in the window to my right. I looked left and saw light seeping from the space beneath our bathroom door—Chase had locked himself in there. He must have been talking to Sadie, and as I lay listening to him murmur, I wondered what kind of girl would want to be with Chase. I conjured a petite, peroxided blonde, dumb and kind, the type who doesn’t like contradicting her boyfriend in front of others. Did Jimbo say they lived in neighboring houses growing up, or was I just sleepily imagining that? I buried my head beneath my pillow and passed out again.
It seemed like I had just fallen asleep when I was startled awake, this time by the sound of the room’s phone ringing. Now the air was a watery blue and the moon was in the window, fading in the dawn sky. Not twenty seconds after the wake-up call, there were loud knocks on our door—graduate assistants trawling the hallways, making sure we didn’t fall back asleep. Chase and I got up. He was wearing only maroon mesh shorts with a faded high school mascot on the right leg. I found something tender about the thick clusters of freckles on his chest and shoulders.
—The fuck you looking at? he said.
—Were you on the phone last night?
We didn’t talk again as we took the elevator downstairs and walked to our respective cars, teammates who needed rides trailing each of us like zombies. Once my car was full I pulled out of the parking lot and joined a two-lane road that was slowly coming to life: day laborers gathering in strip mall parking lots, greengrocer deliverymen unloading wooden crates of vegetables from the backs of their trucks. At a stoplight, a father and his daughter passed in front of me at the crosswalk. The father was a morbidly obese man in a sagging tank top and baggy swim trunks, and the daughter was about ten years old, wearing a polka-dotted bikini and matching flip-flops. They were holding hands, and the girl had to skip-walk to keep pace with her big dad.
At breakfast I sat with Jimbo and some of the other vets I’d met during the afternoon break, the only players who’d been willing to talk to me without mocking me thus far. Training Table had been a zoo during yesterday’s lunch and dinner, but it was quiet now, the spirits of the players still snuggled comfily in their Marriott beds while their bodies grudgingly scarfed down rubbery eggs and gooey cheese grits.
—Least we got one day down, said a wide receiver named Pedro.
Jimbo shook his head.
—You have played here too damn long to be saying stupid shit like that. You know you can’t just multiply yesterday by twenty and be done with it. You gotta weight that shit. Gotta account for how sorer you’re gonna be every morning. The sleep you’ll lose every night. The names the coaches are gonna call you. Today’s gonna feel twice as long as yesterday. Tomorrow’ll feel three times as long as today. Extrapolate, motherfucker.
Everyone fell silent as they crunched the numbers. Devonté walked into Training Table, wearing a sunken expression that was different from the tired faces of the rest of the team.
—McCoy is looming over D’s ass, Jimbo whispered.
—He ran with the ones yesterday, I said.
—That was a courtesy, coaches thanking him for his service.
Dead man walking right there.
He was right. At practice that morning, Reshawn did continue running with the second-string offense while Devonté ran with the ones, but there was no mistaking that everything was being catered to Reshawn’s edification. If Devonté carried out an assignment correctly, Reshawn would be asked by several different coaches whether he understood what had been done right; when Devonté made a mistake, Reshawn was always told why. Devonté was clearly devastated by his impending demotion, and yet he didn’t slack off during his reps, didn’t mouth off to coaches, didn’t refuse to give Reshawn advice that guaranteed his own redundancy. Instead he helped Reshawn every chance he got, talking him through assignments during water breaks and helping him with his alignments after practice. I already liked Devonté for how kindly he’d treated me during my official visit, and now I admired him for his selfless desire to help our team.
But Devonté also couldn’t have failed to see just how continental the differences were between his talents and Reshawn’s. Devonté was a small, wily tailback, excellent speed, good instincts, decent strength, the kind of player whose greatest asset is understanding his shortcomings better than his opponents and finding a workaround to those flaws. But Reshawn had no need for back doors—he came dominating through the front one positively spoiled with options: he could use his size or his speed, strength or quickness; he could use the intelligence that was allowing him to pick up the offense at an alarming pace or rely on his preternatural instincts.
When Reshawn ran, his feet barely skirted the grass. When he spun, his planter foot didn’t plant so much as tap the ground; and yet that tap was decisive, perfectly timed and calibrated to redirect a body that, notwithstanding its 224 pounds, moved as lithely as a bantamweight’s. His mistakes could be miraculous. In one play during Team period he took a handoff for a dive and tripped over a defensive tackle’s foot at the line of scrimmage, sending him tumbling to the ground. For even an elite athlete like me that tumble would have been it, the whistle blowing and me looking up at the morning sky. But Reshawn somehow transformed his trip into a somersault in the midst of twenty-one hustling bodies, and half a moment later he was back on his feet and sprinting to the end zone, barely having lost a step.
Reshawn’s talent had an affirming, energizing quality. It inspired our teammates to elevate their own level of play, and after only a few practices I noticed how much harder everyone was working. And yet the rest of Reshawn had the opposite effect, to the point where the goodwill he generated during a rep could be undone totally by how he acted after that rep was over. Take the trip-and-sprint I just described. As he jogged back to the offensive huddle, he ignored the praise everyone shouted his way and then shrugged off the arm of Kendrick, the starting fullback, who tried hugging him.
His unpleasantness extended far past the practice fields. The few grudging words he’d given Coach Zeller in the first meeting were virtually the only ones I’d heard him speak so far in camp. He was a mute in the locker room; at meals he kept his head down and shoveled food into his mouth so he could get out of there quickly; and during the afternoon break he read his fat book of Dickinson, sighing if people in his cube dared disrupt his concentration by horsing around. Bighearted players like Devonté excused Reshawn’s prickliness by saying it was the inevitable result of being burdened with the fame this kid had already lived with for four straight years. Reshawn was painfully shy, they claimed, and was so modest he hated praise. But most people just thought he was an asshole. White players called him a prima donna, while black players mocked his voice—an Oregonian non-accent. Jealous rumors began to proliferate. He used steroids, was why he was so big; he was actually twenty-five and was lying about his age. But just as had happened with the commentators who tried guessing why he’d committed to King, I didn’t hear anyone here suggest corruption had played a part in why he’d come. Even at King, the players took great pride in their team, and nobody wanted to entertain the possibility that the only way someone like Reshawn would have joined our program was by receiving tens of thousands of illicit dollars. If anything, players made the opposite interpretation and took Reshawn’s presence as a sign that our program was more attractive than people thought, that it had a secret value detectable by the most discerning sensibilities.
There were also more quotidian reasons why people didn’t suspect Reshawn. A player receiving under-the-table money was expected to show that off in some flashy way, but Reshawn was ascetic, wearing faded T-shirts, walking-around shoes with soles worn down to the soft sub-rubber, no necklaces or rings or earrings that I ever saw. And wouldn’t a player who received bribes own a car? Reshawn decidedly did not, and it was his constant need for a ride that led to our first conversation during camp.
It was the third day, Wednesday, and I was walking to my Saturn to drive to lunch when I found Reshawn standing next to my passenger side door. For all the superiority I felt toward him, for how morally bankrupt I thought he was, he was still the best football player I’d ever been around, and it was exciting to see him silently ask to sit in my passenger seat.
We got in, along with four more players who piled into the back. Reshawn looked out the window at the forest that separated West Campus from Central as we started for Training Table.
—My parents brought us a mini fridge for the dorm, I told him. Pyle’s letting me stash it in the equipment room.
He nodded, still looking out the window.
—Are you in all English classes this semester? I tried again.
—And Math 103.
That was the highest math level a freshman could take.
—I’m in Computer Science, I said.
—Bet you are.
He didn’t respond, but I wouldn’t let him off so easily.
—What’s that supposed to mean?
—It means it’s a jock class, he said. It means you’re taking the same shit everyone else is.
Fuck him. I could have said I was sixteen because I’d skipped a grade. Fuck him. I could have said I’d been in the gifted and talented track since I was in elementary school. Fuck him. I could have taken Math 103, if I’d wanted to.
I parked in the Training Table lot, and before I’d undone my seatbelt Reshawn slammed out of the car—no “thanks for the ride,” nothing. I trailed him across the parking lot and marveled at how much extra effort it must take to be a prick every waking moment.
When I entered Training Table, the veterans were chanting. Reshawn sullenly climbed onto a chair.
—Say your name!
—Reshawn McCoy, he repeated, not raising his voice one bit.
—You got a song for us, McCoy?!
Reshawn looked down at his shoes.
—What you lookin’ there for?!
—Thought you was supposed to be a genius! Can’t memorize ten damn words?!
Reshawn sighed and raised his eyes to the ceiling.
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
Players squinted and tilted their heads, looking at one another to make sure their ears hadn’t malfunctioned. The room was so silent you could hear the cicadas outside.
—This motherfucker memorized the wrong thing!
—The fight song, McCoy. Not some fucking poem!
Reshawn had stopped. Maybe he’d gotten it out of his system, maybe now he would do what he was supposed to, what every veteran in that room had himself done freshman year. When he launched into the second line, there was an exasperated groan.
For—put them side by side—
As if the words weren’t odd enough, Reshawn was pausing at odd moments, sometimes at the end of a line, other times right in the middle. At first I thought he was struggling to remember the poem, but his voice was unhurried, his face still. Other players were sunk in their own puzzlement, and to look around the room was to see the collective momentarily reduced to its parts, each player trying to figure out by himself what Reshawn could mean by doing this, not to mention what the words themselves actually meant.
The one the other will contain.
It was enough. The parts cohered once again into sum, and before Reshawn could continue there rose up a
This was nowhere near the satisfied booing Scan and I had received. This booing had an irritated edge to it, and as soon as Reshawn climbed down from his chair the boos ended with a grumpy peremptoriness, as if the vets were eager to begin forgetting the whole unpleasant episode.
Reshawn and I got in line for the buffet behind J1 and J2, who’d ridden with us in my Saturn.
—McCoy, J1 turned to say. That was a poem?
—You write it?
—It’s by Dickinson.
—Man, I thought that shit sounded familiar, J2 said. We read Tale of Two Cities.
—Not Dickens, Reshawn said. Dickinson.
We returned to the Hay for the afternoon break. I decided to look up the rest of the poem, see whether the remaining stanzas clarified what he’d been trying to say. I went to the training room and used one of the desktop computers to search online using “brain” and “sky” and “Dickinson” as search terms. What I found was shorter than I’d expected, only three stanzas, but I still could not for the life of me understand why he’d chosen this particular poem. Or was I overthinking things and he had just randomly chosen it, knowing one Dickinson poem would be as jarring and strange as another? That was probably the answer. Probably the poem’s content wasn’t the point, probably the point was him showing us he was perfectly capable of memorizing the fight song and chose not to—the point was to remove himself another degree from the team, to keep extending the distance between us and him.
What made this so galling was that, while he was trying to get as far from us as possible off the field, he was becoming more integral to our offense with every practice. He continued to play superlatively, and by the next morning he was promoted to starting tailback.
The Redshirt by Corey Sobel is available now.
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