We’d get his crew about twice a season and it was two times too many. I don’t know if he worked it that way. A special sicko request or something. Maybe he had a thing for me and maybe he didn’t. They don’t tell you a lot about how the refereeing works and who cares, anyway?
They’re invisible when they’re out there and that’s what makes them dangerous. No one notices the refs until someone bumps into them. One gets knocked over on the sidelines and we all laugh, because you hate them. Weaselly guys. They’re like insects living on the floor of the tiger cage. We used to joke at the hard-ons they’d get every time they got to turn on their microphone, hear their voice echo across the stadium. We weren’t sorry when we knocked one over, really. I don’t feel bad about what happened to him at all.
They touch you, all of them. They pull at you when you’re jawing at another player. They tell you to calm down like they’re your friend. They push you off the pile. They help you up sometimes. I would brush them off like flies. Like a mosquito buzzing around my ear.
This guy, he touched me a lot. A hand on my shoulder. Fingers that lingered too long on my thigh when I was in the pile. A squeeze against the flesh of my waist.
“What the fuck?” I’d say to J-Man. “You see that?”
He shrugged. He’s the inside linebacker. He can’t be watching what the refs are doing.
I started counting. My first season in New York, it’s four times in a game. Then six. It got hard to focus on the ball. My assignment. “Get your head in the game,” Coach said. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Lay off me, fucker,” I whispered to him at the Green Bay game.
He smiled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, son.” They liked to call you ‘son.’
I maybe had another season in me. I could’ve played another year. Hell, it’s all borrowed time. They all think we’re stupid, but I know every hit is six months off my life. Every injury gets me closer to that cane I’ll be using when I’m 40. If I’m lucky. We’re dogs. Dancing, fighting dogs, every one of us. What did I care?
There wasn’t a team that wanted to pick me up afterwards, so I got out early.
But in my last season, I got him. It was a Hail Mary at the end of the half. Everyone’s eyes followed the long arc of the ball. It was traveling across the big screen that hung from the roof of the dome when I made contact. I could hear his teeth bang together. He lay on the ground with blood coming out of his mouth and I stood over him long enough to make sure he knew it was me.
They replayed it over and over again. I still see it in highlights sometimes, when they talk about violence in sports. The image of me standing above the body of that frail old man.
I watch the games from the couch now, and he’s still there. He crews the biggest games. Monday Night and playoff games. I watch him close.
Robyn Ryle spends a lot of time watching and thinking about football. She teaches sociology to college students when she’s not writing and has stories in CALYX Journal, Bartleby Snopes, WhiskeyPaper, and Cease, Cows among others. You can find her on Twitter, @RobynRyle.