The ball played around the corner of my eye. My main focus was positioned on the two players to the left. They were talking easily to each other, waiting for the moment when they would have to run to attention. Standing ready their mouths moves. Eyes attentive, ears attentive, I caught each word.
"Remember not to throw to Steve on the left, he's got that bad arm."
"He's hopeless on his right though. Why'd the coach put him in?"
"To scare the blokes."
I looked to Steve, the bulk of the team.
The ball moved. Everyone surged forward, one way or another. I lagged back, keeping behind them all. The ball was oblivious to me, my mind on the players. That one over there, breathing heaving, his sock falling down, what's that on his leg? A bandage.
The halftime buzzer sounded. We all lumbered off, spirits low as we needn't glance at the score.
Everyone wondered why I was on the team. When I rarely got the ball I'd run a metre before either passing or losing it. I was small, could barely flinch a guy, let alone catch up to begin with. The papers liked to feature my fumbles; another articles about the pass that just got away, again.
Yet the room went silent when the coach thundered over the din; "What you got Billy?"
All attention turned to me.
"Connoly's taken 3 painkillers today for that shoulder. Liamson's hurt his left arm, can't catch with his right. Atons could come back last week but wanted a week to be extra ready. Jamsen isn't here because his wife's having a baby. They think Josh is small and weak. Funwel has a bandage on his right leg, a sprain I'd say. Dirie broke his lucky boot so if he comes on he won't be confidant. Oh and Marty," I looked around, spying the man in the corner. "Ganwell's going to ask your sister out after the game."
Attention left me.
I knew each player on each time. I know what injuries were new, if they were breathing heavier than normal. I saw everything. I heard everything. I knew everything.
"Well Billy," the Coach came up and slapped me on the back. "You ain't good at football but you sure know how to give use those ears."
"I'm glad one part of me is useful then Coach."
He shook my puny arm before moving away to give his pep talk.
"Hey Clint!" I called. "I said left, not right." He pulled from the tackle after making a dodge on the right of Steve Connoly.
"Right Billy," he puffed.
"You sure you don't need to go off, you're a bit breathless."
"Nah, I'm right mate."
5 minutes later he was heading for the sidelines.
"Markson's still here." My ears perked up at my name. Not far from me two men spoke swiftly, oblivious to my notice.
"You wonder why he's still here. Never does a thing."
"Nice punching bag though."
"If you ever get the chance."
"Who do you think he slept with to get here?" They laughed, not hiding their chuckle.
I couldn't help it. I went up to them, as if passing, drawing from my knowledge what I knew. "Lucens. Congratulate Jameson for me will you, a real pickle though if the baby looks like you."
The shove came to the back of my head. I spun, coming to face a mound of steel. The next shove came to my stomach.
I didn't want to fight, my arm flailing out to catch balance. I couldn't tell who it was I hit. Soon a mess of flesh and bone erupted in a tangle of arms. The frantic whistle did nothing to our ears. A smack to the face, a blow to the leg. Whether it was me doing those, or those being done to me I could not tell.
Eventually the knuckles subsided, Lucens and I the two left glaring at each other.
"Billy, what got into ya?" But I was listening to the other team.
"Michael, why'd you hit him?"
"He insulted me."
"What was this insult aye?"
He paused. "Nothing."
I had more bruises, but I had won.
"Billy Markson, never in my days have I seen a fight that big."
I sat in the locker room, empty except for me and the coach.
"I'm sorry Coach."
"Sorry isn't good enough. You'll have to explain yourself you know. This team needs you, did you think about that before getting into the fight?"
"No." I hung my head as he paced before me.
"So why'd you do it then?"
My head hung farther. "I heard them."
"You heard them what?"
"They were speaking about me." I felt like a small boy, bowing before the principle.
"What did they say Billy?"
I paused, embarrassed over everything that had happened. "That I must've slept with someone to get here."
A longer pause, then a longer sigh from the coach. "Billy who cares what those bastards think. Everyone on this team knows how important you are. Before you came along we were struggling for last, and now we've got a chance at the grand final. We couldn't do it without you Billy. Next time someone says something about you send an angry letter to their wide, just don't say anything back at the time."
"Look at me Billy." He has put himself beside me on the bench.
I looked up at him, his face gentle.
"Your father was once the star of the team, he could aim a ball yonks away, and could thump a man with just a finger. You're the star of this team Billy, and even though it's for different reasons, he'd still be mighty proud of you."
The next time we came before them was in the grand final. Lucens was back, as was I, and I went in with a plan to avoid the man.
The game began.
"What you got Billy?"
I rattled off my information. "Oh and Marty," I looked around for him. "Ganwell's going to break up with your sister after the game."
The game began once more.
"You'd think I beat some sense into Markson, but I guess not." The voice was soft, but my ears stretched easily to it.
"You didn't really come out of it at the better end either mate."
"Yeah, but I didn't have to sleep with anyone to keep my place. I'm surprised anyone would want to sleep with him anyway." His chuckle came loud and clear.
As I stared at my winner's trophy that night, I drifted off to a satisfied sleep.
Three weeks later it was announced Lucen's wife was leaving him.