The hot rays of the sun targeted the lawn chair into which Coach Tony Poda had wedged his fat ass. They parboiled his enormous exposed gut. He frequently gulped from a sweaty can of Schlitz while mulling over strategies for terrorizing children under the guise of building their character.

         The Imps, St. Mort’s fifth and sixth grade football team, wore helmets and pads covered by heavy uniforms when they began practice in July. They practiced behind the one-story Catholic elementary school, on a treeless packed-dirt lot specked with patches of grass. The lot measured roughly half the size of a football field; the cyclone fence of subdivision backyards enclosed it on three sides. Coach Poda referred to the lot as a “compound” with the same hubris that Sr. Eunice, principal of St. Mort’s, used when she described the parking lot next to the school as a “campus.” Neither the parents of the Imps nor the faculty of St. Mort's objected to Coach Poda swilling Schlitz during practice. They reasoned that Jesus drank and look at Him.

         Like his youthful minions, the stubby, overweight coach wore a uniform to practice: Boonie hat, sunglasses, no shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. He loudly drained a can of Schlitz and belched, crumpled the empty can like an unwanted flyer and tossed it over his shoulder. He strained to rummage in the Styrofoam cooler beside his chair and grab a fresh beverage; he pulled the tab on top of the can back and took a healthy swig. Again he belched, a dollop of foam rested on his bushy black mustache.

         The Imps’ assistant coach, Craig “Knobby” Keeler, did the actual work. Coach Poda deluded himself that he taught Knobby a valuable life lesson by allowing, sometimes encouraging the younger and less experienced man to browbeat those weaker than him. His slightly hunched back told of a child who’d suddenly shot up taller than his grade school classmates. Their simple-minded jibes still stung though Knobby had recently endured his twenty-sixth birthday.

         Frankie Poda, the Imps' quarterback and Coach Poda's son, hadn't bothered to make an appearance. Whenever Knobby deferentially asked Coach Poda about Frankie's frequent absences, he mumbled something about his son's nerves. Knobby often lauded the boy as a fine young man and exemplary athlete. If flirtations with inhalants, shoplifting, and insect torture characterize a "fine young man," then Knobby's praise fell on the mark. The "exemplary athlete" part proved tenuous; Frankie's awe-inspiring stupidity often caused him to forget plays, and members of opposing teams routinely kicked his scrawny ass.

         The Imps fell into grid formation, Knobby called roll, and they began practice by doing calisthenics. While Knobby oversaw the boys bellow an ongoing tally of their completed jumping jacks, an Imp carrying his helmet by the faceguard jogged up to him. Knobby recognized him as the kid whose mother battled cancer.

         "I'm sorry I'm late, Mr. Keeler sir," the breathless fifth-grader managed. "See, my mom just died and I …"

         "You just listen up mister! There's no 'I' in 'team'!” Knobby made a comical effort to sound and appear intimidating. “The day my mother died last year, I was scheduled to man the drive-thru where I worked. Do you think I wanted to go? No! But I bucked up and went anyway--and on time--because the other members of the team were depending on me." He paused to let his wisdom take root. "Two laps around the compound. And think about what I said."

         The boy stared up at Knobby with wide eyes on the verge of tears. He hung his head, quietly conceded: "Yes sir, Mr. Keeler," and started jogging.

         Coach Poda watched the Imps while they struggled to do squat thrusts. Their grunting and sweating reminded him of his days as second-string wide receiver of his high school football team. The coach, who happened to be his father, had never liked him. Once, Coach Poda’s old man ordered him to join his teammates on the field because the starting wide receiver had sprained his knee. During a crucial play, he dropped the ball, causing his team to lose an important game. His coach-father mercilessly beat him when they got home. For the next several months his fellow students, his teachers, and especially his teammates didn't let him forget the fumble--even his dowdy girlfriend dumped him. Coach Poda often relived those dark events as if they’d taken place yesterday, and seethed with anger and humiliation.

         One drill pitted two Imps against each another in a fifteen-yard race. The boys formed two lines; the Imp at the head of one line raced against the Imp at the head of the other. Knobby stood at the finish line, pointed with a sweeping motion that followed every loser as they passed, then swirled his upturned index finger to assign a lap around the lot. Knobby loved to assign laps, though he preferred to hear himself bark commands rather than pantomime them.

         As soon as Knobby penalized the loser of the fourth race, the Imps at the head of each line sprang out of a crouch and began running. One of those Imps collapsed after sluggishly jogging two-thirds the distance. His opponent didn't notice and kept running. The Imps poised to run straightened up. Most of the team murmured their disgust at the interruption, the more zealous members spat loud vitriolic epithets at the fallen Imp. Coach Poda stirred like he intended to get up and investigate, but just groped for another Schlitz.

         Knobby needlessly sprinted the short distance to the unconscious boy, hovered over him and loudly growled, "Get up pansy!" Other team members echoed Knobby's demand but their collapsed teammate remained unconscious. Knobby repeated the directive while he kicked the prostrate body; it heaved when Knobby’s spikes made contact. He glanced at Coach Poda, who shrugged and guzzled beer.

         Knobby decided that he wouldn't tolerate an unconscious boy disrupting practice. He bent over and grunted as he lifted the facedown Imp by his underarms. The Imp’s heels created a dirt wake as Knobby, taking small stiff steps backward, dragged him to a plot of dirt beyond the practice area. He unceremoniously dropped the unconscious boy onto the plot and sprinted back to the finish line. Practice resumed.


        A woman suggested to her husband they step into their backyard to watch the evening stars twinkle. He grudgingly joined her. Their backyard overlooked the lot where the Imps gathered to practice.

         The woman gazed skyward and marveled: "Aren't they beautiful?"

         He deadpanned, "Yeah. Clear night … "

         Her gaze fell to the Imp that lay on the ground, fifty yards beyond the fence. She pointed, and her husband noticed him in the distance. Motherly concern compelled her to ask, "How long do you think he's been lying there? The poor thing must be exhausted."

         Her husband expected such a reaction from a female. "Well, our Imps practice hard." They belonged to St. Mort's parish, and he considered it only proper they support the sports teams, always emphasized they were a "St. Mort's family."

         Their five-year-old son entered her mind. She turned to her husband and asked, "Do you think that we should encourage Joshua to play sports when he's old enough?"

         He rolled his eyes and sighed: "Of course. Playing sports makes a boy into a man and teaches him about life in the real world."

Dave Riley is this guy that can be reached via contort at contortmedia.com.

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