Evangelista approaches the line of scrimmage and bends over. His fingers throb in the mud. It’s soothing. If only he could stay down here, resting, the game over and Nonna bringing him something sweet.
“Lasagna!” yells Coach. “You hear me? Watch 43!”
A sfogliatelle. A zeppole. Oh God, her bombolone—
A 300lb boy plows into Evangelista, knocking him backwards. The boy’s cleats land on Evangelista’s stomach, driving the wind out of him like a pool toy. Evangelista rolls over, clutching his torso. His helmet is too tight, the face mask too close. He can’t breathe. He wants to vomit.
“Up, Lasagna!” yells Coach. “Get the hell up!”
The scoreboard reads 46-46 with ten seconds on the clock. The other team lines up for the next play. Evangelista stumbles to his feet. The other team snaps the ball and spikes it, stopping the clock at eight seconds.
Evangelista moans. He falls to the ground, gasping, and pops off his helmet.
“No!” shouts Coach. “Lasagna! Up! Up! Up! Don’t you quit on me now! Don’t you quit!”
Evangelista lays on his back, wondering what he ever did to deserve this.
He used to spend his Friday nights with a two liter of Mountain Dew and the TV. One night, his nonna decided to “clean his room” at the same time, vacuuming the tiny space over and over. She stretched the ten minute job into a half hour.
“You go out with friends!” she shouted.
“What friends?” mumbled Evangelista.
“What?” yelled Nonna. She turned off the vacuum.
“You’re blocking the TV,” said Evangelista.
“Go to a movie!” Nonna waved her arm as if the theater was outside the window. “Go to a restaurant! Go to a park!”
Evangelista only shrugged, leaning sideways to see the TV.
“What about sports?” asked Nonna. “You like sports.”
“No I don’t.”
“Football! American football! It make room for big guys. And you have friends that way, too, no more of this—” She searches for the word and gives up. “Conosco i miei polli,” she says. “Go, go, go. Football!”
The next days were a back and forth—Nonna goading, Evangelista obstinate—until Nonna found the right motivation.
“If you no do this thing then no more TV.” She made a snipping gesture with her fingers. “No more!”
Evangelista caved. His grandmother coordinated with the team’s coach and accompanied Evangelista to his first practice. She was proud of the boy and filled his water bottle with Mountain Dew.
Evangelista trudged to practice, Nonna five feet behind him. They came to the field and Evangelista took his eyes from the ground, glancing across the boys that were his “team.”
There was Jarrod Butler, a redhead with big teeth and little eyes. Evangelista remembered back to middle school, when Jarrod was the first to call him Lasagna. Evangelista didn’t correct him. The name caught on. Even teachers started saying it, assuming it was some sort of nickname.
There was Derek Papadillos, short and fat. Only two weeks ago he had handed Evangelista a dollar bill, face up, its underside smeared with shit.
Evangelista saw Danny Andrews, and Danny saw him back, Nonna in tow. Danny pointed, laughed, and said, “Check it out! Lasagna brought his grandma!”
Derek sneered. “I’d take her before I’d take that fat sack of shit.”
Evangelista looked back at the ground. Nonna swiped at the laughing boys and said, “Vaffanculo. Evangelista, you do great.” She patted his big shoulder. “They be your friends soon, very soon, you see.”
Evangelista did his best at practice. He jogged around the field, pushed the sled, did ridiculous footwork exercises that felt better suited for a ballerina than a lineman. He did his best, but was still at the back of the pack, taunted by his teammates.
Then the games started. He was deep in the roster and rode the bench, his Friday nights now a long stretch of sitting quietly. His team was good, but it didn’t make a difference to Evangelista. As far as he was concerned, it wasn’t his team. The only pleasure he experienced was when they lost.
The season dragged by, Friday after Friday wasted while Evangelista sat on the bench. Nonna came to every game, cheering for the thing that he hated.
The final game of the season arrived. Evangelista felt like his long jog was almost over. Next week he could return to his room—to his TV and his two liter.
But this game was different. It had rained, and the field was mostly mud. Their opponent was a rival, the bad blood pulsing. Everyone played rough; hard hits after the whistle, boys dragging one another into the mud, shoving each others’ face masks into it.
Still—Evangelista sat, removed from the violence. Then the starting nose tackle sprained his ankle. Even worse, his replacement broke his wrist at the start of the fourth quarter.
“Shit,” said Coach. “Shit, shit, shit.”
Evangelista stayed silent, pretending not to know what this meant.
“Lasagna,” said Coach. “Get your ass in there.”
“No buts, Lasagna. Make your granny proud.”
Evangelista rose. He didn’t have his own helmet—had always borrowed a ratty old one for practice—and another of the benchwarmers handed him one. Evangelista forced it on. It felt like an extra skull, squeezing Evangelista’s temples and cheeks. The helmet was newer than he was used to—“safer”—and he had no peripheral vision.
Nonna watched from the stands, rising out of her seat. Finally! After an entire season on the bench, it was her darling boy’s turn!
She was the only one cheering about it.
It’s the last play of the game. Evangelista lines up. There are eight seconds on the clock. The other team snaps the ball.
Evangelista pushes as hard as he can but is exhausted, shoved aside in the game’s final moments. He’s dazed as if shell shocked, watching the players around him wrestle. Everyone is covered in mud. He can’t tell who is who, who to hate, who to be afraid of.
Evangelista sees the other team’s quarterback, unchallenged, taking his time. He winds back his arm, twists his torso, and snaps back, throwing the ball as if he is marble made real. But the throw is bad. The ball strikes someone’s mud-covered helmet and bounces straight up.
Only Evangelista and the mortified quarterback have eyes on the ball. Everyone else is focused on their own small struggle. The ball arcs high, end over end. Evangelista stops thinking. The ball hovers. It falls. It comes his way and he catches it.
Evangelista looks to his sideline. Derek Papadillos yells, screams, flails his arms: “RUN! RUN! RUN!”
To call it a run is generous, but Evangelista is moving. He bumbles away from the carnage. Only the quarterback-himself pursues, but he pulls a real Lasagna and trips over nothing, landing face-mask first in the mud. Evangelista is oblivious, never knowing the shape of danger, his breath like a hundred little screams, his legs shutting down as his cleats press through the mud. Never before, and never again, would Evangelista cross 75 yards like this.
He reaches the end-zone and drops the ball. He pops off his helmet. The world opens. The crowd is out of their seats, screaming their love. Evangelista turns to see his teammates running at him; Derek, Danny, Jarrod, all of the rest, all of his tormentors upon him. They smack his pads, try to pick him up, and settle into a sort of circle dance. Through the sporadic shouts of “lasagna” comes his name, his real name, his team building into one giant voice that yells: Evang-elis-ta! Evang-elis-ta! Evang-elis-ta! The stands pick up the chorus, Nonna shouting louder than any of them.
“Playoffs, baby!” shouts Derek, smacking Evangelista in the back of the head.
The crowd cheers louder, but Evangelista only wants a minute to himself. He wants to lay down.
Yet another Friday sacrificed to football.
Evangelista cries. His team thinks it’s tears of joy and finally heft him above their heads.
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Hi, I got this in critique circle. It's a really good read, the only error I spotted was a point where Nonna is not capitalised, but it's such a minor point. It's a really nice take on the prompt, not just one night he wanted to stay home, but every Friday ruined. I like how the team dynamic changes so dramatically and how his own perception of that is so different from theirs. The switch from present tense to flashback and then back to present is really effective, the present tense sections give the action a feeling of urgency which really...