“No, Coach!” we say in unison.
Our enthusiasm doesn’t convince him.
“I don’t know,” Dieter says. “The way some of you have been playing during practice, I’m not sure you want it.” He writes WINNERS on the white board in bold, black marker. “You don’t become winners by being lazy during practice. Don’t practice as if it’s homecoming, don’t practice as if it’s for the state championship. You should play like you’re a team in the damn NFL. Put in all your effort, energy, passion, and skill. Each and every one of you. Anything less means you’re not playing up to your potential. It means you might as well get off my field, because you don’t deserve to be on it. Now, when you go out there today, I want to be looking at winners. Because that’s what I think you are. The question is, do you have what it takes?” He holds a hand up. “I don’t want you to tell me, gentlemen. Show me. Your performance speaks louder than words.”
While Dieter’s message sinks in, he takes his clipboard and leaves the locker room. The assistant coaches follow him.
It’s quiet now.
“We have to win tomorrow,” Ashtyn says. “To show Fairfield and that traitor of a quarterback Landon McKnight that the team he abandoned is stronger without him.”
“We’re gonna win,” I assure her.
“Not the way you’ve been playing lately,” Trey says with a chuckle.
“Trey, I can tackle you with both my eyes closed,” I tell him, meeting the challenge.
“You’ve got to catch me first, man.” He pats me on the shoulder. “Not easy with those two left feet you got there.”
“You do fall down a lot,” Jet says with a big grin.
“The last time I fell down I was drunk, Jet,” I say.
“Yeah, well, drunk or not, Trey here is a beast.”
Trey flexes his muscles, then kisses each bicep. “Face the facts, Vic. I’m faster and stronger than you.”
My friends and I have perfected trash talking over the years. “Facts? Hell, the fact is that I’m gonna kill you on that field today, Matthews.”
Trey laughs. “Yeah, right. The only way you’ll kill me is with a gun, man, ’cause you can’t catch me with those slow feet of yours.” Trey brushes off fake lint from his shoulders before putting on his practice jersey and pads.
Slow? Nobody has ever called me slow. I can tackle someone and still bring down a QB without him knowing what hit him.
Derek, who’s usually just a spectator when it comes to me and Trey challenging each other, points to us. “As Dieter said, your performance will speak for itself.”
As I walk out of the locker room all dressed and ready for practice, all I can think about is proving to everyone that I’m worth something… on the field, at least. Nobody can outrun or outplay me.
Not even Trey Matthews.
Trey is walking next to me, but then says, “I’ll be right back, man. I forgot something.”
“Where you goin’?” I ask. “Runnin’ away already?”
“You wish,” he calls out over his shoulder. “I just forgot something in my locker.”
If he’s late for practice, Dieter will rip him a new one, then make him run laps and do push-ups just for fun.
By the time Trey rushes back, we’re all in line about to do warm-ups. As our captain, Ashtyn leads us in jumping jacks then stretching. I glance over at the cheerleaders, practicing in front of the bleachers. I should look away, because when Monika turns around and watches us, my adrenaline starts pumping hard through my veins and my groin twitches in response.
She ignites something in me that no girl has ever been able to do. Not even Cassidy. Not by a long shot.
“You checking out my girlfriend?” Trey says in a mocking tone. When I shake my head he laughs. “Dude, I was just jesting. I know you asked Cassidy to homecoming. I knew you still had the hots for her.”
I don’t, but whatever.
Trey and I stand in line for sprints.
When it’s our turn to face off, I look at him, ready to do my best to beat his ass.
He pats me on the back. “See you on the other side, bro.”
This feels like war.
Or at least a growing competition between me and Trey. In medieval times, I’d have wagered for Monika.
But these aren’t the medieval times.
And Monika isn’t a possession to be bartered for.
Once again, I glance over to where she’s standing by the cheerleaders. Her attention is focused our way.