By Red Lagoe
Hanna leans forward on the thirty yard line, waiting for her brother to snap the ball to Trevor. Her pink nose retracts some snot that tries to escape, while she warms her numbing fingers inside her sweatshirt before the play begins.
“Hike!” Trevor calls.
She sprints down the field, cutting across the worn grass. Icy needles prick at her toes, but it doesn’t slow her down. She waves to Trevor that she’s open.
“A girl is playing?” The new kid asked before the game started.
It’s not the first time a boy had asked that stupid question, but this time it was preceded by, “Who brought the cheerleader?”
Hanna puffed out her chest at the kid. “You got a problem with a girl playing?”
She wondered why she bothered puffing it out at all. It expanded all on its own over the summer—two enormous lumps on her chest. Two alien lumps that made boys think that she was not capable of participating in contact sports. Hanna had acquired the physical attributes of a female, and that does not bode well for the girl that plays football on weekends with her brother and his friends.
If wasn’t fair. She always had to work harder than the boys to prove that she was good enough to play. She catches the ball consistently. She can tackle. She can take a hit. However, every game, there’s always someone new playing, and she has to prove all over again that she’s worthy to touch the football. Like it’s some magical, pigskin idol that only testosterone-filled bodies are capable of handling without it exploding.
Every week, some new schmuck shows up to play and, because he has boy parts, the other boys just assume he’s endowed with athletic ability and the almighty gift of ball-handling.
This year is a little different. She’s not just a girl playing football anymore. She’s a girl with breasts playing football. That’s a thousand times worse. All the regulars stopped trying to tackle her this year. She assumes it’s because they are afraid of what will happen if they bump into one of her alien lumps. Do they think it’ll explode on impact?—Much like the football would if a girl handled it?
Hanna’s open. Trevor throws it to her. The ball spirals her way, slicing open the frozen blue sky, but he threw it too high. She leaps up, stopping it with the tips of her numb fingers, then scoops it back down to her chest. She takes off. Her feet carry her faster than she imagined her frozen toes could go.
The new kid sprints after her and closes in. She’s ten yards from the end zone and knows that she is about to go down. He flies at her. She tucks in, ready for impact. The new kid plows into her from the side, and she crashes to the ground onto her chest, holding tight to the ball as she rolls and he topples over her.
She can’t breathe. Stunned, she grabs her chest and fights to inhale, but her body doesn’t let her. The boys all run to her side as she looks to the sky, gasping for air that won’t come in. Finally, she pulls in a long wheezing breath.
“She got the wind knocked out of her,” her brother says.
She takes a few seconds to allow her lungs time to breathe normally again, while the boys look to the new kid like he’s a monster.
“She said she could take a hit!” He says, “I’m sorry.”
Hanna stands up, brushes off her knees, and gets back to the line of scrimmage for the next play. She wonders how that same tackle would have affected one of the boys. Would they have gotten the wind knocked out of them, or are her new body parts to blame?
They tell her to sit out the game, but she refuses. She thought she had proven that she could play just as well—if not better—than any of them. She proved she could take a hard hit and keep playing, but now they tiptoe around her like a porcelain doll—too fragile to play with.
Nobody throws the ball to her for the rest of the game, even when she’s wide open. Frustrated, she keeps playing anyway, knowing that if she gives up now, they’ll say it’s because she’s a girl. She’ll have to prove herself again next week.