He tied the rubber tube around his upper arm, holding one end with his teeth to pull it taut. He made a tight fist, took in a breath and jammed the needle into the bulging muscle. Breathing out and releasing the tourniquet, he stared at the reflection in his bedroom mirror. Not big enough.
Throwing on his jersey and grabbing his backpack he walked through the kitchen as his mother called out, “TJ! Don’t forget your lunch. It’s on the counter. I’ll see you tonite after practice.”
He didn’t answer and shut the front door before he could hear her say she loved him, as she always did when he left the house or wrapped up a phone conversation with her. He didn’t want to hear it. He was a disappointment to her and to everyone else.
Anthony Michael Lutzi was the best quarterback Seneca Falls had ever seen. He held every record at the city’s high school and went on to lead the state college team to victory for three straight years. He was drafted first round in the NFL and played eight years for the Eagles, earning two Super Bowl rings and the devotion of fans across the country. On his way home from a routine practice he was killed by a drunk driver.
Tony Junior was only five when his father died. He had no real memories of him, other than those created by the photographs and trophies that filled their home and the stories that he had heard a million times. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Tony Junior would be a star athlete just like Tony Senior. The only one with a doubt was TJ.
TJ enjoyed flag and touch football as a child and pre-teen, back when it wasn’t about winning but about being with friends. His skills were obvious from an early age and he didn’t have to work very hard at throwing or running to excel.
He made the varsity team as a freshman and led them to the semi-finals his junior year and with a zero loss record, they were the expected favorite to take it all the way to the championship this year. He’d broken and tied a few of his father’s records along the way. Scouts attended every game and the local newspapers ran weekly features speculating on which college he’d choose, with a full ride scholarship of course.
The thought of college made his stomach hurt. He didn’t want to play football beyond high school and definitely didn’t want to make it a career. But that is what he was expected to do, so he went along with it. He did want to earn a degree, but not in sports marketing as most student athletes did. What he hadn’t told anyone is that he intended to be a lawyer, not a professional football player. But he had four years to figure that out.
During the lunch break, TJ went to his car for another quick shot before heading to the locker room. The effects of the steroids didn’t last as long as they had in the beginning, about six months ago. He had had to find another provider to cover up the increase in his use. But his muscle mass had grown and with it, the ability to lift more weight and throw farther. He reasoned that he only had another two weeks and then he could give his body a break before restarting training over the spring to gear up for college.
“Hey, TJ!” a girl’s voice called across the parking lot.
“Hey, Wendy,” he called back, quickly shoving the still covered needle into his backpack as she approached the car, thinking, “That was close.”
“I thought that was you walking across the lot. Whatcha doing? Doesn’t practice start soon?” Wendy asked.
“I left my lifting gloves in the car,” he answered quickly.
TJ slammed the car door and slung his backpack onto his shoulder. A syringe fell out of the open front pocket and rolled across the cement, stopping at Wendy’s shoe. He froze. Wendy looked down, looked up at him, looked back down, and started to cry.
“So this is why you got so big this year? It wasn’t “more protein and more time in the gym” like you said. This is why you snapped at me when I went to get a pencil from your backpack last week. This is why you can’t look me in the eye anymore. You lied to me. You lied to ME. What the fuck?!” Wendy’s initial sadness turned into anger.
“It’s not what you think. It’s just a little energy juice to keep me in top shape until the season ends.” TJ answered, staring intently at his shoes.
“Liar. See? You didn’t even look at me when you said that. What are you thinking? That shit can kill you!” Wendy screamed.
“Athletes all over the world do it. It’s not a big deal. Keep your voice down,” TJ said.
“Really? So, Coach Peters and your mom know all about it then? And the guys on the team? They do it, too?” Wendy continued.
“Well, noooooo … It’s just that …” TJ trailed off.
“Then why? WHY?”
“Because everyone expects me to be this star quarterback like my father. And I’m not him. I can’t do it. I hate it,” TJ replied, this time looking directly into Wendy’s eyes, with tears forming in his own.
“Then don’t. What if you died before making it to state? What would it all be for? Nothing! TJ, this has to stop. Now. We’re going to Coach.”
“Wendy, no. I have to do this. I can’t let everyone down,” TJ insisted.
“You are letting your mother and me and all your friends, and especially your father, down. Worse, you are letting yourself down. Who gives a crap about a high school football game? It’s a freaking GAME! This is your LIFE!” Wendy’s voice rose.
She closed her eyes for a few seconds, then opened them and said quietly, “We go to Coach and get you help together or I go without you. Now. Your choice.”
TJ took a deep breath and let it out. He put his backpack on the ground and hugged Wendy. He wasn’t scared. He was relieved.
TJ was suspended and not allowed to play in the championship, but his team went on to win without the star quarterback. He had opened up about his use and the reasons he felt the need to use enhancement drugs and the entire school and his family showed nothing but love and support.
His proudest moment came when he opened up the acceptance letter from New York University with an offer for an academic scholarship for the pre-law program. He wasn’t going to make his mark on the field, but he was going to be himself for the very first time in his life. And that’s all the juice he needed for the future.
Written May 2017 and read June 2017 at To Live & Write in Alameda’s “Story Slam” at Books Inc.
This is a completely fictional story, not based on any living person or situation. But if you are interested in real-life stories about Alamedans on and off the gridiron, check out “The Football Odyssey,” “Alameda Legends,” and a series of other books by Alameda native, teacher and author, James McGee (AHS Class of 1982).
If you have a writer’s soul and live in Alameda, please join our group! No experience necessary … members range from those who dream of writing the Great American Novel to published authors. No dues … unless you choose to be a Cohort as I am … many free daily/weekly meet-ups, reasonably priced workshops and focus groups and retreats, and tons of encouragement and support.
Here’s the link: To Live and Write in Alameda.