SHORT STORY CORNER

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Special thanks to Connecticut legend Dr. Richard Diana, who inspired this story by treating me like his favorite SuperFan when I was just 10 years old. And congratulations on your new book, Rich!


FOOTBALL GIRL


    Dear Mr. Davis, I wrote. I looked at it for a second, then scratched it out. Dear Rich, I tried. Nope. Dear Number 33. That was just stupid. Dear Rich Davis. It looked a little weird, but it was my best option so far. I am a big fan. I come to all your home games. I can’t wait for the big game next weekend because I know you guys are going to win. You’re the best! I’d really like to ask you for your autograph in person, but my parents never let me on the field after the games. They say it’s too dangerous with all the people running around. Will you sign this picture for me? I cut it out of the newspaper. You can return it in the envelope that I addressed and stamped. Thank you very much. Very sincerely, Hannah Harper. I read it over. It was okay. It was missing something though, something important, something that would let him know how inspiring he was. PS – I’m going to dress as you for Halloween.


    I reached up to adjust my borrowed, blue football helmet. It was way too big, but I didn’t care. It was cool. I had transformed one of my dad’s old, white t-shirts into a jersey with a “33” on it. Thirty-three was my favorite number—it was Rich Davis’s number. He played football for Yale. For the past two months, my dad had been taking me to the Yale home games every other Saturday, and teaching me the rules of football. I was the only girl in my fifth-grade class who knew what a first down was.

    “You look great,” my mom said as she emptied a whole bag of candy into a bowl sitting on the table by the front door. Next to the bowl was a huge pumpkin she had carved with a candle burning inside it. “I like the way you did the numbers on your shirt.”

    “I used Dad’s blue tape. Do you think he’ll mind?” I said.

    “Not when he sees what you used it for. How are you going to carry your candy?”

    “Um, maybe in a football? I was hoping I could cut open the football in the garage and use that.”

    “Or we could make a football out of brown construction paper and tape it on a bag,” she suggested.

    “Rich Davis doesn’t carry a bag when he plays,” I scoffed.

    She thought for a moment. “You could cut up a Nerf ball, I suppose.”

    “Mom, I can’t carry a Nerf ball. Nerf balls aren’t real footballs.”

    “Well, you can’t cut up the football in the garage. Your dad gave it to me a long time ago.” She smiled at the surprised look on my face. “I suppose I could let you carry it, if you promise to bring it home with you.”

    “Really? That’d be great, Mom. Thanks.” I was running up the stairs to put on my soccer cleats when I heard her call after me.

    “Honey? Who are you going trick-or-treating with?”

    I pretended not to hear her.


    Earlier that day, we’d taken the last few minutes of language arts class to discuss our Halloween costumes. Most kids were going as movie stars or singers. A lot of girls were dressing as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One boy was going as a robot, and he’d brought his costume to show us. He’d made it himself out of cardboard, tin foil, coat hangers, and bike reflectors. It was beautiful. It even had lights that flashed on and off. I heard JB, who sat in the back of the room next to Kathy, say, “He’s a dork if he thinks he’s going to wear that tonight. I could get that away from him without even trying.” Kathy giggled. I hated them both sometimes. Except when JB was being nice to me. Sometimes he was nice, sometimes not. I never knew what I was going to get.

    I was planning on trick-or-treating with Jeannie, Kim, and Sue. We’d been going together for the past three years, and last year we were allowed to go around the neighborhood by ourselves. It was great. We had big plans for this year. Jeannie was going as Britney Spears, Kim as Queen Amidala from Star Wars, and Sue as a pig. She went as a pig every year.

    “Hannah, what are you going to be tonight?” Mrs. Doro loved to call on me when she thought I was zoning out.

    “I’m going as Rich Davis,” I said proudly, waiting to hear “cool” and “that’s a good idea.” Everyone was quiet for second. Then JB started laughing, and so did Kathy. I looked over at Jeannie, Kim, and Sue. Jeannie and Kim were looking at me like I was crazy, and Sue was staring at her shoes. She always did that when she was embarrassed.

    “He certainly is the town hero these days, isn’t he? You know,” said Mrs. Doro, “I taught Richard when he was in the 6th grade.  He was a wonderful student.”

    She must be crazy. Rich Davis was never a dumb sixth-grader. Never. She went on and on about what a great role model he is for kids, and then she said, “Maybe I should have him come to class and talk to you all. Would you like that?” I froze. She was talking to me. The thought of Rich Davis visiting my classroom was more than I could bear.

    “I guess,” I mumbled.

    “I think he’s cute,” I heard Kathy say. JB, who’d been leaning back in his chair, let it slam to the floor.

    “Why would we want him to talk to us? It’s not like he plays for the Dallas Cowboys. He’s not famous or anything. He’s only in college,” said JB.

    “Well, now, John,” began Mrs. Doro in her most teacherly tone, “I think you’re underestimating Richard. Playing for an Ivy League school is quite an accomplishment. Clearly Hannah understands that. That’s why she’s dressing up as him tonight.”

    “Why would a girl dress up like a football player? It’s stupid,” JB said. “You won’t be getting any candy tonight.” Jeannie laughed. Kim was looking at the ceiling. Sue was still staring at her shoes.


    After I got dressed, my parents made me wait while they took pictures of me. They thought my costume was great. My dad had bought me a big Yale sweatshirt to wear in case I got cold, and my mom had borrowed shoulder gear from a friend whose son played hockey. It wasn’t perfect, but it did the trick. I looked in the mirror, and saw a real football player staring back at me. I couldn’t help but smile.

    I got to Kim’s house right at 7, just like we’d agreed. I rang the doorbell, and Kim’s little sister answered. She looked like she’d been crying.

    “I – I – I wanted, I wanted to go with Kim,” Kara stuttered.

    “Go where? Trick-or-treating?”

    “Kimmy says I’m too young, but I’m NOT! I’m NOT! She went without me AGAIN!” wailed the first-grader.

    “She left already?” 

    Kim’s mother appeared behind Kara. “Hi, Hannah! Wow! You look great! What are you? A Martian?”

    “Um, no, I . . . yeah, I am.”

    “Well you look fantastic! What a clever costume! Why ‘33’?”

    “Is Kim here?”

    “No, honey, the girls left a few minutes ago. They said they were meeting up with you at Kathy’s.” Kathy’s. We didn’t make plans to go to Kathy’s. We didn’t even talk to Kathy. I realized what they’d done. They’d left early on purpose, so they wouldn’t have to walk around with me. I sort of thought they might do something like that, after the way they acted in school.

    “Oh, okay.  I guess I’ll meet them there.”

    “All right, little Martian girl! Happy Halloween!” And she shut the door. I stood on the steps, trying to decide what to do next. I couldn’t go home. Could I go trick-or-treating by myself? I guess I could, but what fun would that be? I started to walk up the street towards my house, hoping that I’d figure out what to do along the way. Groups of kids walked by, totally ignoring me, devouring candy from their bags. I didn’t even want candy. I felt sick to my stomach.

    I was about to cross the street when I saw JB. He was dressed as a railroad bum, with a bandana sack tied to a stick, and coal smudges all over his face. He had on striped overalls and big floppy boots. He was staring at me, trying to figure out if it was me or not. Kim, Jeannie, Sue, and Kathy were all with him. I turned away as fast as I could.  

    “Hey!” he yelled.

    My heart sank.

    “Hey, it’s the football girl! Oh! Sorry! I mean, it’s Rich Davis, everybody! Look! Here Rich, let’s see how good you are! Catch THIS!” I felt a dull thud as something hit my helmet and bounced off. I turned to look. An apple. JB had thrown an apple at me. He and Kathy were laughing so hard they could barely stand up. I thought about throwing my football at him, but I knew he’d probably just catch it and keep it, and then my mom would be mad. I started to cry, and I didn’t want any of them to know, so there was really only one thing to do. I ran.


    When I got home, Mom and Dad were at the door, handing out candy to little kids who were with their parents. They all looked happy. I thought, Maybe once you’re old enough to go trick-or-treating by yourself, you’re too old to go at all. I tried to slip by them and get to my room before they were done talking to the neighbors, but my timing was all wrong. They caught me on the stairs.

    “You’re back early,” said my mom.

    “Did you get a lot of candy?” asked Dad. “Anything for me?”

    “I didn’t want any candy this year.” I felt the tears building, and I hated myself for it.

    “Did you have fun? Did people like your costume?”

    I couldn’t hold it in any longer. “They HATED it! They called me stupid and Kim and Jeannie and Sue left without me and JB threw an apple at my head and everyone laughed!” I was sobbing, trying to wipe the tears away through the face guard on my helmet. It was hard to do.

    “Why would they do that to you?” my mom said, as she came over to give me a hug. I wouldn’t let her.

    “Because it’s dumb for a girl to dress up as a football player! Why did you both tell me it was a great costume when you knew it wasn’t?”

    “Honey, it is a great costume! You look fantastic! Just because your friends don’t understand that doesn’t mean it isn’t true,” she said.

    “I hate football! And I don’t want to go to the game tomorrow. I don’t care,” I cried, sitting down on the stairs and taking off my helmet.

    “Hannah, we’ve been looking forward to this game for months now. This is the big one, the last game of the season. We’ve got great seats! Are you sure you don’t want to go?” my dad asked.

    “I’m sure,” I said uncertainly.

    “That’s too bad, because your mom and I had something planned for you.” I knew this trick. This is what they did when they wanted me to do something I didn’t want to do. “Something you’ve wanted for a long time.”

    “Really?”

    “Really.”

    “Well, what was it?”

    “We decided to let you go see Rich Davis after the game.”

    I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You’re going to let me run out on the field?!”

    “No. But we’ll take you to the locker room door where the players come out, and we’ll do everything we can to get his attention. Okay?”

    It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, but it was the next best thing. I ran upstairs and got ready for bed as fast as I could.  I figured the sooner I was asleep, the sooner I’d be at the game.


    My mom, dad, and I jumped out of our seats and cheered even though we were hoarse. We’d been yelling for hours; my dad said it’s important to show your team support. There were only a few seconds left, and the score was really close. I was so nervous. They had to win. They just had to. It was Rich Davis’s last game at Yale, EVER. It would be horrible if he lost the last game of his college career. His teammate passed him the ball, and he caught it. He flew down the field, dodging players who were trying to tackle him. One of them got him by the shoulder and slowed him down for a second, but he twisted out of the guy’s grasp, and seemed to run even faster. Another guy dove at his ankles, but Rich jumped, and then was free and clear. He seemed to be flying. One last guy caught up with him and tackled him, knocking him to the ground; they both fell over the line and into the end zone. Touchdown! He did it! They won the game!   

    A huge cheer went up and sailed into the sky.  People were running down the stadium steps and out onto the field, surrounding the players, lifting them up, carrying them around. I was jealous of those people for a second, but then my dad said, “Come on, Hannah, we have to get to the locker room before everyone else does!”     

    My parents had to hold on to me very tightly; I could have easily gotten separated from them. The closer we got to the locker room, the more squished I got. My face was pushed up against the waistband of someone’s scratchy wool jacket. It was horrible. But I forgot about it when the locker room door opened, and people started chanting, “Rich, Rich, Rich!” I could barely see him through the crowd; he was surrounded by reporters and fans. My mother was steering me by the shoulders, trying to get me near him. We’d lost my dad somehow. It took a few minutes, but finally, I was so close I could reach out and touch him. There was only one problem.  I couldn’t make myself do it. I didn’t know what to do. The “33” on his shirt was so white it almost hurt my eyes. I could see the grass stains on his football pants. 

    “Hannah,” she said. “That’s him. Go on, say hello. Tap him on the arm. He’ll turn around.” I couldn’t do a thing. I tried to say his name, but it came out as a whisper that got swallowed up by the crowd. There were people trying to push in front of me, trying to get to him. My mother touched him gently on the arm for me, but he was talking to a reporter. There was an older woman standing next to him, looking very proud. Before I realized what was going on, my mom was saying something to her, and then the woman was interrupting the conversation with the reporter.              

    “Rich, honey, this little girl would like to meet you.”

    The next thing I knew, Rich Davis turned around. It seemed like he was ten feet tall, and all the light in the sky was focused on him. He was smiling at me. The whole world went silent for a moment.

    “Hi, I’m Rich.” He bent down a little. “My mom says you’re a big fan. How old are you?” I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. My mom had to tell me how old I was so I could tell him.   

    “I’m ten,” I whispered.

    “And what’s your name?”

    “Hannah.” He had to lean in closer to hear my answers.

    “Hannah? Wait a minute. That sounds familiar.”

    A reporter tried to ask him a question, but Rich didn’t even hear him. He knelt down on one knee so he could look right into my eyes.

    “Are you the Hannah that wrote me that nice letter?”

    I couldn’t even breathe. I nodded my head, afraid that if I opened my mouth, no sound would come out. 

    “Did you really dress up as me for Halloween?”

    Oh no. NO! Had I actually told him that in my letter? I couldn’t believe it. Why would I tell him something so incredibly stupid? He must think I’m an idiot. Maybe I should lie, and tell him that some other Hannah wrote him that letter, a silly Hannah who’d had an apple thrown at her head on Halloween night by a boy who thought girls shouldn’t dress up as football players.

    “Did you?” he asked, again.

    There was no escaping it now. It was too late to lie. I nodded, slowly, staring at the ground.

    “Wow. That’s never happened to me before. I’m very, very honored.”

    My heart came to a complete stop in my chest. I looked up at him.

    “Well, I think you should know something, Hannah. I read your letter to the team before the game, and they all found it really inspirational, and that’s why we won,” he said. “So thank you. It meant a lot to me to win my final game at Yale, and you helped us do it.” He smiled at me again, and took my hand. “I bet your Halloween costume was great. I’d like to see a picture, if you have any. Will you send me one? And make sure you sign it for me, okay?” He squeezed my hand, and then the crowd closed in on him again with their questions and their cameras.

    The sounds around me suddenly flooded my ears and my heart started up again. All I could think about was the fact that Rich Davis wanted my autograph on a picture. I guess my Halloween costume hadn’t been such a stupid idea after all. I heard my dad’s voice and I felt him take me by the arm, trying to get me out of the crowd. But I wasn’t ready to leave. I stayed rooted to the spot, not wanting the moment to end, ever.