The Helmet – Love

This is my first short story. Betty and I had stopped at an Applebee’s after some Christmas shopping. All the stories in the fruit series were based on some piece of memorabilia from the walls of that restaurant.  This one is prompted by a white and red football helmet that reminded me of triple practices in the summer heat. 

Zimmy was exactly normal in almost everything. He was right smack dab at the top of the infamous bell curve. Average grades, average smarts, average ambition, average strength, average ability, and average height  Zimmy had very short, rust-colored hair with matching freckles, an infectious laugh, and an easy going attitude. He lived in a two story white house with his parents, older brother and younger sister. There were, in fact, only 2 things in which Zimmy wasn’t average. one was that he only weighed 110 pounds soaking wet and the other is what this story is all about.

August 14th, 1978, 7:30 am sharp was the first day of football practice and also when the equipment was handed out for the season. Each player received a practice uniform consisting of padded pants, shoulder pads, a jersey, and a helmet. It was hot and heading towards boiling when Zimmy’s dad dropped him off at Smithfield High School that morning. The coaches handing out the equipment started with the seniors and worked their way down through the rest. The players had their own pecking order, the combination of which made Zimmy the last of the sophomores. After 12 seasons his helmet had seen its better days. It looked good on the outside with its new paint job of white with a red center stripe and red face guard, but the inside padding was worn out and flat.

“Suit up, full gear,” the head coach commanded. Coach Riley, after his usual welcome speech of have fun, behave, and toe the line, began by introducing the various assistant coaches and the practice schedule for the next week. They were called triples, 8:00 am a two and a half hour practice with full gear; 11:00 Chalk talk; 12:30 – 13:30 lunch (bring your own) and rest; 14:00 a one and half hour conditioning practice with shorts, T-shirt, and helmet; 17:30 a two hour full gear practice. Coach Riley expected his team to think, eat, sleep, and dream football.

Being average in most things is really pretty good. You’re better than 50 percent of the people and you have room to improve. No one harbors great expectations or great concerns for you, except that being average to the rest of the world put Zimmy dead last in comparison to the rest of his football teammates, except the freshman of course.

“Red, do ya see that skinny kid, number 96, what’s his name?” asked Snake.

“You talking about that Zimmerman kid?”

“Yeah that’s the kid, pass the word, he’s the target.”

“You sure about that? He’s an alright kid.”

“He may be alright but he’s not ‘alright’ enough to be on my team.”

It was an unspoken Cardinal tradition that the senior captains would pick out a sophomore and target him for harassment until he quit the team. Thus began hell week, and for Zimmy, it was doubly so. The practices were hard, with lots of running, blocking, and tackling drills. Added to that were the extra abuses seniors piled on Zimmy. He quietly suffered the extra hard hits, little jabs, and and other indignities from the seniors. Zimmy falsely thought that all the sophomores were getting the exact same treatment. It didn’t take long for Coach Riley to see that the seniors had targeted Zimmy. While he made sure that it didn’t go too far he didn’t do anything to stop it either.

To everyone’s surprise Zimmy managed to survive the week. He battered and bruised but not demoralized, even after he realized what was going on and what it meant. Zimmy intended to stick it out no matter what. During the last practice, the team was running a Hit and Run drill. Coach lined them up by two’s. A pair would stand facing each other arms up and feet churning. On the whistle, they would turn and run about 5 yards around a pylon and then back at each other helmets down. They would collide but not fall because they had to turn and repeat the same thing around a second and third set of pylons. The third hit was to be the biggest with each player giving it his all to knock the other guy down. While Snake waited for his turn, he saw an opportunity and maneuvered himself to pair up with Zimmy. Whistle, run, turn, helmet down, hit, ouch, turn, run, turn, helmet down, hit, ouch, Snake has a hard head, turn, run, turn, helmet down, hit, bright lights, puke. Zimmy was on his knees. Snake was dancing and laughing at the spectacle.

“Snake, that little stunt earns you a mile,” Coach Riley ordered.

“Oh coach, come on.”

“One more word, and it will be two.”

Snake slowly jogged off trying to keep his eye on the scene while he took his four laps, laughing all the way.

“Let me have a look at you son,” Coach Riley said. “The rest of you line up for wind sprints.” Coach Riley looked Zimmy over and told Coach O’Brien to call Zimmy’s folks and suggest they run him over to Doc Brown’s house. By now, Zimmy was feeling a little better, except for a massive headache. Grabbing his helmet, he noticed that it bore a new mark, a red smudge of paint.

Doc Brown diagnosed Zimmy with a slight concussion and prescribed him to take a week off from football.

“But I’ll miss the first game,” Zimmy whined.

“True, but from what I hear, you probably wouldn’t have played anyway. Just take the week off from practice. Come see me Friday after school. If everything looks good I’ll tell Coach that you can dress for the game if he wants you to.” That’s exactly what happened except, much to the Cardinal’s amazement, Zimmy made every practice in his street clothes. He helped where he could and even tried to give Coach Riley a few suggestions on what plays to run and how to position players. As could be expected, this did not go over very well with Coach Riley, but on game day, Zimmy got to dress for the game.

They won that game 21-17. Zimmy didn’t play in the game, but he did play a part. In the last quarter, the Cardinals were down 14-17 with 1:30 left. Coach sent in his play. “Not this play again,” Red the QB thought. “It’s been a no go all night.” But Red remembered something he had overheard Zimmy’s suggest to Coach about this play and decided to try it. “Iowa 14, but Smokey you line up about six more inches to your left, ready break.” The Coach saw the shift and began to pitch a fit until Snake ran the ball for 20 yards ending up 6 yards from the goal line. Next play touchdown, point after, and the win.

On Monday Red caught up with Zimmy and told him that with the exception of Snake he was no longer the target. It was the first time in 24 years that the seniors had failed.

Zimmy’s helmet gathered a green streak during the final moments of the third game. It was against the Madison Chargers whose colors were green and silver. Fourth quarter with ten seconds to go.

The Cardinals are up 56-6. The second string had already been in the game, and now it was the third string’s turn for one play. The Charger’s coach was doing the same thing. Not wanting to risk an interception, Coach Riley called in Power 47, halfback run off tackle. Plowboy was the quarterback, Rabbit at fullback, and Zimmy at halfback. “Blue 42 hut hut.” Beefy snaps the ball to Plowboy, the line charges, Plowboy spin fakes to Rabbit going right, and Plowboy hands the ball off to Zimmy going left. A hole briefly opens as Chowder makes his block and then loses his footing. By that time Zimmy is head down and running full steam into where the opening in the line was. Zimmy collided with the Charger’s tackle. Horn, end of game, gain of 6 inches, and a bright green smudge added to Zimmy’s helmet.

It was the Thursday before homecoming and Plowboy had just gotten his driver’s license. He and Zimmy were cruising around the town although that really didn’t take very long in Smithfield.

“Nothing much happening here. How bout we run over to Madison? Mom said it would be alright for a little bit,” asked plowboy. “Sure,” Zimmy’s replied. Madison was just 7 miles up the road and was at least three or four times the size of Smithfield. Once in Madison they turned up Main Street and around the park through Doug’s Grocery Store parking lot out the alley and cruised over to Tom’s General Store where they waved at a few other Smithfield students and turned down Second Avenue through the alley behind Frank’s Hardware.

“Hey isn’t that Snake?” Plowboy asked as he was slowing and pointed to a big blob of red letter jacket that was kneeling over a storm drain. “Hey Snake, did you lose your keys or something?” Plowboy hollered. Zimmy slunk down a little bit, he was still Snake’s target.

“Go away,” Snake slurred waving his arm. When Snake looked up, it was evident that he hadn’t lost his keys but his cookies and that the half gone bottle of Jack Daniels was probably the cause.

“Man Zimmy, what are we going to do?” asked Plowboy.

Plowboy had stopped the car just past where Snake sat on the curb. Zimmy sat and thought. A virtual dogpile of reasons flashed through his head as to why they should just do what Snake wanted and leave him alone. But one thought trumped them all, and a lifetime of faithfulness gave action to that one thought.

“Do unto others, I guess. If he keeps going, he won’t be any good for the team tomorrow night,” Zimmy replied. They hopped out of Plowboy’s car and walked over to Snake. “Come on Snake, we’ll take you home,” Zimmy said.

“Ain’t got no home, now go away,” slurred Snake

“You’d better not let Mrs. Eckert hear you say that or you’ll have to write a report on the misuse of contractions. Now come on. Let’s take you home. We have a game tomorrow night,” Zimmy replied.

“Ain’t, don’t, whatever, have a home. The old man kicked mom and me out,” said Snake.

“Why would your dad do that?” asked plowboy.

“He isn’t my dad, he’s just the current substitute. Dad left mom and me a long time ago,” was Snake’s reply.

“Man, sorry to hear that,” plowboy said.

“Last Tuesday Mom burned the pot roast. The old man was pissed. He hit her and kicked her out but he wouldn’t let me leave. I don’t know where she went.”

“So how come you got kicked out then?” asked Zimmy.

“The school sent the old man a letter saying that after Homecoming I was ineligabb, inledge, couldn’t play anymore because I was flunking chemistry. I hate chemistry except for the Jack Daniels kind of chemistry, want some?”

After they refused he took a big pull from the bottle. His stomach rebelled again and most of it went down the storm drain.

“Come on Jake, let’s go back to Smithfield,” Zimmy said grabbing his arm and pulling. Maybe it was using his real name or that Zimmy said Smithfield instead of home, but Snake complied. Plowboy whined about what would happen if Snake lost it in the back seat of the car. Zimmy promised to clean it up.

“Stop at a pay phone and I’ll call dad,” said Zimmy.

Dad was Pastor Franklin Zimmerman of New Grace Community Church. Yep Zimmy was a pastor’s kid otherwise know as a PK. Pastor Z got a hold of Coach Riley who got some of Jake’s clothes out of his house. They all met up at Zimmy’s house where they got Jake cleaned up and settled into Frank Jr.’s bed to sleep it off.

“I sure do thank you folks for helping out. I didn’t know that things were that bad with Snake,” Coach said. “I found out about his ineligibility today.” Turning to Zimmy, “What did he call that guy that was living with his mom?”

“The old man,” replied Zimmy

“I guess he only wanted him around if Snake could make it into the pros. I doubt that he could, a college scholarship maybe, who knows. I know that the scouts are going to be at the Riverside game. But I guess that’s out now.”

“Coach, couldn’t you talk to Mr. Henderson about the chemistry thing? What if Snake passed a makeup exam?” asked Zimmy.

“I’m sure that I could get Mr. Henderson to give Snake a makeup exam, but he’d still have to pass it,” the coach replied.

“Well I couldn’t help much with that, I haven’t had chemistry yet. What about Frankie, Dad?” asked Zimmy.  Frankie, or Frank Jr., graduated from Smithfield the year before 7th out of a class of 96. He was going to the local junior college with the goal of teaching high school although he wasn’t sure exactly which subject yet.

“Frankie could do it. If I recall he got an A minus in Mr. Henderson’s class,” Pastor Z answered.

“Well if you could pull that one off it would be an answer to prayer,” added Coach.

“That’s one thing there hasn’t been enough of,” added Pastor Z.

A basement room was fixed up for Jake. Frankie tutored him on chemistry. Pastor Z tutored him on life, and Zimmy made sure that he made it to practice on time. Jake barely passed the makeup exam. A few weeks after the Homecoming game they found Snake’s mom at a battered women’s shelter in Greenville. The church put down a deposit for a nice two bedroom apartment on Cedar Street for Jake and his mom to move into.

“Take a knee,” Coach hollered as he came out of the office. “This being the last game of the season, I’d like to thank all of you for a good year. A win tonight will give us a six and four season. Not a championship year but a good one. Starting lineup for tonight is…” He ran through the usual roster until he came to halfback. “Snake requested this next change. Congratulations on your scholarship Snake. I know that your mom’s mighty proud,” Coach Riley said with a huge smile. “Starting at halfback is Zimmy. Snake you go in after the first series of plays. Team, Zimmy has shown all of us what it means to be faithful, faithful to his team and to his beliefs. Pastor, will you lead us in a prayer?”

The team quieted. Pastor Zimmerman thanked the Lord for a good year and asked to keep the team free from injury and that they would play to the best of their ability. After the “amen,” the team stormed out onto the field as one man.

The first play was a hand off to the fullback for six yards. The second play was a pass attempt that failed, and the third was power 47. Red took the snap, faked to Cruncher, and handed off to Zimmy. The hole was big, especially so for him. One yard, two yards, four yards, four and a half yards, POW. Zimmy was laid flat with a shot by the linebacker, but it was enough for the first down. Zimmy got up and scampered off the field to the sidelines. After the game, Zimmy noticed a new battle scar on his helmet, a deep purple smudge from the linebacker’s tackle.

Dale Heinold
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Dale Heinold

Dale lives in central Illinois with Betty, his wife of 37+ years. He has a theology degree from Oral Roberts University. Dale works full time as an IT director for a local school district. He sees his writing as a ministry and hopes that you were blessed, challenged, and inspired by this article and lambchow.com.
Dale Heinold
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