By early August he was lithe and trim and had even managed to gain some hard-earned pounds in the endless days since school had finished, back on Memorial Day, which now seemed long ago. It would probably not be enough, though. When he looked at himself in the bathroom mirror he still saw a smallish boy, with some, but not enough real muscle bulked on his shoulders and arms and chest. The work-outs had helped, it was true; he no longer looked "skinny as a rail", as the phrase had it. His neck was bad, though; it looked like the fragile stalk of a long flower. His legs were certainly better than they had been back in early June. He had tried hard to build them up, especially the calf muscles. On real football players these bulged like biceps, heavy-veined, right below the cuff of the padded playing trousers. His were still too much like bony shanks - "chicken legs." They looked like they would snap easily.
What might save him would be speed. That, and agility. He was smart and felt he could easily learn the playbook given to players to study at night during the two-week Training Camp coming up in the last two weeks of August. But in the pit of his stomach he felt a churning uneasiness, fear. You could get hurt playing football, hurt badly - a broken arm or leg, or a head or neck injury, although the latter were rare.
His mother was puzzled by his set intention to try out for the team. She queried him increasingly on it as the day got nearer for reporting for the physical examination that preceded the two-week camp.
"Are you still thinking about trying out for football?" she had asked that morning, putting a bowl of cereal with freshly cut peaches in front of him.
"Sure," he said, nodding. "Couple a weeks, I'll be out there." He felt his stomach instantly knot up at the thought of it, and dug fiercely into his cereal.
"Larry...You know...you don't have to do it. You know that, don't you?" She eyed him closely.
It always surprised him how much his mother knew, understood. In this matter of going out for football, although she knew very little about the actual game itself, what she did know was that it was not simply about playing the game, or even making the team. It was somehow connected to proving that you were really a man, a guy, one of the real boys.
"I have to do it, Mom. You know what I mean." He spooned up the last of the fresh cut peaches, sweet and yet tart, and pushed back from the table.
She shook her head. "Just be careful. You mind what I say. You're a small boy. I wonder about those coaches even letting you boys try for the team at your size."
He grinned, and mimicked hauling in a pass, giving the stiff arm to a would-be snarling tackler at the same time. He had seen varsity players photographed in this pose, in the newspaper and in the school yearbook.
"We're small, but mighty. And fast. Fast!"
He had a set routine after finishing breakfast that was in a way his own training camp regime. After he left the old, rambling three-story red-shingled house, he walked over - it wasn't far - to the big green field where the sprinklers had been turned off, even though it was only 8:30. The sun was already a hot, heavy presence. It would be one of the "Dog Days" of August in Pennsylvania, when the humidity hung heavy in every particle of air but it stubbornly refused to rain. Sweat was already running down the middle of his back as he began his routine, sprinting up and down on the sideline of the big field, doing forty-yard sprints to improve his speed and breathing.
He did not go onto the field itself. It seemed to him some sort of sacred space, filled with an intensity and special light even when it was empty, and no one was there, as