Dallas Tinker had always been big.

When he was a baby, his family called him healthy. Chubby, they said when he was a toddler. Grownups called him husky when he was in grade school, and by junior high, his classmates just called him fat. In high school, the nicknames got meaner. Fatass.

He wasn't tough; he didn't fight back. He just kept quiet and hoped they'd leave him alone. It wasn't easy for a boy his size to hide in the background, though.

Dallas did OK in school, and he had a few friends. He mostly stayed out of trouble, although he occasionally sold weed at Carroll Park when Grams needed help with the bills. There was more money in the harder stuff, but it meant working with harder people, so he never got involved in that.

Local gangs were always trying to recruit him to work as "protection," but he never took them up on it. Dallas didn't want to hurt anyone. So he just tried to keep his head down and stay out of people's way.

You're such a sweet boy, Grams would say, reaching up to pat him on the cheek. Don't let anyone change you, baby.

But someone did.

At the beginning of his junior year, Dallas was walking down the hall when he saw Coach Taylor coming from the other way. He stepped aside to let the Coach pass, when the older man put a hand on his shoulder and stopped him.

What's your name, son?

Tinker, sir. Dallas Tinker.

You gonna come play football for me, Dallas Tinker?

Dallas had never played football before, but something about this man's commanding manner and smiling eyes made him want to, and he heard himself agree.

Yeah, Coach. I'll play.

He surprised himself again when he realized he was pretty good at the game. Lighter on his feet than anyone would have imagined, Dallas was the player that all the offensive players wanted blocking for them. And he liked the idea of his position—when Luke and Vince and the other guys tried to move the ball, Dallas stopped the opposing players who were trying to tackle them. He protected them.

Once the team started learning their plays and working together better, Dallas found himself on the first string. Younger players looked up to him, and asked him for help and advice during practice.

They even started to win once in a while—but for Dallas, the best part was getting to know his teammates, many of whom he might never have met without football. They were a team, on and off the field. They protected each other.

Kids still called out to him in the halls.

Dallas! 'Sup?

You on the football team, right? That was a close game last week!

Yo, Tink! You comin' out with us after practice?

Dallas Tinker didn't need to stay in the background anymore. He thought he was still the same person, but maybe he had changed.

Lineman, they called him now.

Lion.