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Gerald took his time getting out of bed, his movements stiff and rigid and well rehearsed from years of habit. His joints cracked and ached, tethering his steps close to the floor as he shuffled past the framed pictures and smiling faces collecting dust in the hallway. At the kitchen, he clung to the doorway and waited for the first blast from his head.
The clock on the stove showed that it was almost noon. Gerald took a deep breath, carefully stretching as he waited for his body to catch up. The house clicked and echoed in the stillness. Midnight or noon, the only difference was the view from the windows. He brewed his coffee, black and rich, the more potent the better. Somewhere in the house he heard his phone ringing but made no attempt to hurry after it. He was through hurrying.
Sipping his coffee, Gerald sat back on the recliner and closed his eyes. The journey into the room, along with the concentration of holding the mug steady left him winded. The cobwebs were thick that day, they usually were until after it was dark, and then sleep would escape him until the pills caught up.
The phone rang again. There, on the coffee table. He leaned forward, ignoring the searing pain in his back as the headaches arrived.
“Hello,” he said, with one hand massaging his forehead.
“Gerald, hey, it’s Darren."
“Look,you haven’t forgotten about that thing tonight, right?"
“For the fund raiser at the school tonight.”
The conversation was moving too fast. Gerald remembered something, vaguely about a school, but tonight?
“Uh, yeah. What time?”
“We need you there at 6. I’ll come over and pick you up at 5, okay?”
“Sure, thanks Darren.”
Gerald hung up the phone, bemused and irritable. He wished he’d cancelled, but Darren hardly asked for much. Besides, he was one of the few people he could trust. He rose slowly, cursing under his breath as he spilled coffee on the rug.
He migrated to his office where he searched for his notebook, the one he used to jot down important dates. Sifting through the papers and envelopes strewn across the keyboard, he found the trusty notebook and flipped through the scribbled pages. There, within the walls adorned with framed pictures of smiling men—young and strong and fearless, Gerald “The Bull” Tinsdale tried to piece together his day.
The pictures--some black and white, others a tint of orange, the later ones glossy and colorful--all captured the great running back, number 33, shaking hands with governors, mayors, and Hollywood celebrities. It was a tribute to a hall of fame career that had spanned 12 years over 10,000 yards and two super bowls, neither of which he could remember. Just a blur of camera flashes and cheering.
The walls didn’t show the hundreds of collisions, the dozen concussions, the droopy, dazed star marching back onto the field after a head on collision with what felt like a train. Oh how the crowd roared when he returned! With his ears ringing, his vision narrowed. He could still hear the cheering. And every morning he heard the ringing.
The scrawling in his book revealed something about a charity for the local Boys and Girls Club. He nodded, Darren wouldn’t have asked otherwise. He limped out of the office, ignoring the trophies and footballs on the shelves, the piles of memorabilia on the floor.
Most of the doors to the rooms remained closed. His daughter’s room had hardly been used. Marie’s last visit had been a disaster. She was eleven and wanted to be with her friends. Dad was boring; he just sat there and stared at the wall. Lisa had called afterwards and suggested that visits be monitored. Maybe he could try counseling. He’d grunted and mumbled until she was through talking.
He fluffed the eggs in the pan and tended to the large strips of bacon. There was nothing like breakfast. Scrambled eggs, bacon, toast. Just like his playing days. He looked down at his gut as the bacon crackled on the pan.
His weight had ballooned in retirement, and he could still hear Lisa starting in on him.
“You can’t eat like a horse anymore Gerald.” She admonished, suggesting yogurt and whole grains that left him hungry well before lunch. But he missed her voice. He missed the warmth and the sounds of his family. Now he only heard his brain working. The ringing.
Of course the papers had covered every aspect of the divorce. There had been reporters and cameras and of course the fans. A tabloid did a story on the alleged abuse. Gerald had never hit Lisa, but after he retired he felt so useless and things just got so…quiet. Marie came along but he had no idea what to do with a baby. He was used to being on the road, in the locker room. One of the guys.
The phone rang again but Gerald ignored it. He thought about changing the number again. He liked the trac phones because there was no contract to remember. He didn’t’ make many calls anyway.
He gathered his breakfast and sat down in his recliner to eat, turning on the tv only to find a number flash across the screen. The cable had been cut off again. He’d eat and then figure out what to do next.
Darren pressed the doorbell again and again, looking back once again at the flat tire on Gerald’s truck. He was wearing a tux and holding a tux, covered in plastic and rustling in the wind. It been nearly 6 months since he’d been over—something he tried to do whenever he was in town. The house looked worse each time. He knocked on the door, the paint flaking off with each rap. Finally he heard the heavy steps and then saw the haggard face of the once great athlete.
“Gerald, hey, did you forget?"
“The fund raiser,” he looked at his watch,” it’s quarter of five.”
The door opened and Darren’s tone changed as he looked him over. “Have you been sleeping all day?"
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Can I come in, it’s freezing.”
They walked inside where it wasn’t much warmer. “Don’t you have the heat on?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay, well, why don’t you go take a shower and then get dressed? We’re going to have to hurry though,” he said, slow and clear.
Gerald nodded and shuffled towards the hall as Darren draped the suit on the recliner, his eyes following the man who once ran a 4.3 40 yard dash. He rubbed his arms and took in the room, remembering when it was warm and with family and friends. He’d been there for Christmas parties, birthdays, and even one Thanksgiving before he was married. Gerald used to be the light in the room, surrounded by Lisa and her parents, old friends from childhood--his mother, who always said how much he reminded her of his late father.
He was struck with guilt. He remembered the phone call from Lisa, her voice shaky and frightened as the spoke of how Gerald had changed. He told her he just needed to adjust to being home. She’d sounded scared and said she felt like she was living with a stranger. It was hard to believe that was only ten years ago.
Now, a television sat on the stand, its wires spilling out onto the stained rug on the floor. A leather recliner, wrinkled and worn, sat crooked on the floor along with a sagging coffee table as the only pieces of furniture. Dirty dishes and a few old newspapers revealed the life of a man trapped in solitude. He knew things had gotten bad, but it was worse than he’d expected. He wondered what bills had been paid, or if the house was still under water. At 46, Gerald may as well been 90.
He’d been contacted by ESPN for a story on the reclusive running back but had yet to talk to Gerald about the offer. Surveying the filthy walls and tilting pictures, not to mention the crumbling exterior of the house, he knew something had to be done. His friend was rotting away.
Darren had sided with the players in the growing debate only now starting to gain traction around the league. The tough guy culture that had sent a punch drunk and wobbly Gerald back on the field so many times had left him in the sad shape he was in today. Walk it off, No pain No gain were nothing more than harmful catch phrases. Now in middle age, Gerald's job opportunities were limited to say the least. Sometimes he didn’t even know what day it was.
Gerald was far from a millionaire, but Darren knew that it was nearly impossible to explain this to Joe Sixpack, who worked overtime at the plant to pay hundreds of dollars to come and watch the gladiators play, who cursed when his fantasy football quarterback got hurt and cost him a spot in his league championship.
It didn’t help that today’s league saw billions in revenues from exclusive tv contracts or the flashy culture of the modern game, endorsement deals, and the thirst for the big hit as announcers howled when an unsuspecting player got jacked up. Their had been rule changes, the sport was already becoming too soft, the critics argued. Going against the grain had made Darren the outspoken weakling who'd never played a man’s sport. An intellectual who was threatening to strangle the cash cow.
The water in the bathroom stopped and Darren looked up from his snooping. More than once he’d paid Darren’s utilities after finding a cut off notice. Gerald was Darren’s first client, and had remained unwavering in his loyalty. Darren, retired but still working the media circuit and booking speaking engagements, tried to look out for his former superstar who’d grown to be like family.
The house held an uncomfortable silence until the door opened and heavy footsteps slid down the hall. Then Gerald appeared, with only a dingy towel wrapped around his waist and his large belly exposed. He stood in the shadows, staring at the floor, his splotchy beard and graying hair framing his weathered face.
“I can’t Darren.”
Darren nodded, feeling ashamed for forcing his ailing friend this far. “Okay then, It’s okay, go change, I’ll make the call."
"Darren, I’m sorry.”
Darren shook his head, waving him off. “Don’t be. I’m going to make a call and then I’ll be right back, okay? You okay Ger?”
"I'm sorry," he mumbled once more, his eyes stuck to the floor.
Stepping into the cold, Darren punched a button on his phone and canceled his former client’s appearance due to illness. After several apologies, he promised to be there shortly.
He turned to the house, gray and stricken in the dusk. The leaves clogged the gutters and blanketed the overgrown bushes, a shutter was missing, the screen door hung cockeyed from the hinge. In the driveway, a trash can was piled high, overflowing with bags that had been picked through by raccoons and dogs.
Where would he end up?
Darren tapped his phone and made another call.
“Yes, Robert, hi. Look, remember what we talked about? About the documentary? Yeah, I think we need to go ahead with that. Okay….yes, I know….I’ll talk to him….yeah….alright…bye.”
Darren pocketed his phone and hopped up the step ready for a serious talk with his friend. He figured he could stay in town as long as his friend needed him, it was the least he could do. He pulled the screen door and then jumped at the boom of the shot that thundered inside the house and shook the door frame.
Later, sitting motionless in his blood stained tux, his voice was husky and low as he told the authorities of how he couldn’t recall how long he stood on the steps frozen--his phone glowing on the ground--not wanting to find what he already knew was inside.
Pale and numb, he didn't know how to answer their questions about signs of detachment or depression. The guilt that riddled his heart hung in his soul.
A few weeks after the funeral, ESPN interviewed Darren McCallister for the documentary. There, freshly prepped and powdered by the makeup team and under the blinding lights of the cameras, he choked up as he spoke about the beaming smile of his first client and great friend. He asked to take a break and then tried once more. Again, the tears fell. Finally, he waved off the camera, pulling off the microphone and escaping to the bathroom where he sobbed in the privacy of a stall.
After the documentary, Darren went back to work with a vengeance. He devoted his time to concussion research. He wrote a book about his friend and became an unabashed proponent for his cause in the raging debate on on the matter in the NFL. He started a charity on Gerald's behalf, and whenever he was asked about a recent game or big play, Darren shrugged and was no help at all.
Because he never watched another football game as long as he lived.
This story is a work of fiction and although it was inspired by real events, any names, characters, or incidents in the text are products of the author's imagination or used fictitiously. For more information: