"How much further is it?" Landry asked with a sigh.
"Lemme check." Smash popped open the glove compartment and used the tiny light to inspect the map. "It looks like 47's comin' up, so I'm thinking, maybe 45 minutes? Definitely less than an hour—we're way past the halfway mark."
"Ugh." Landry tried to stretch his back and shoulders as much as he could without letting go of the steering wheel. "It feels like we've been driving for longer than that. If only some people hadn't decided to get drunk before we started a two-plus-hour road trip."
"I told you I could do it," came a drawl from the back seat. "I've driven way drunker than this."
"That's very reassuring, Riggs, but I think I'll take my chances with lower lumbar pain."
"I wasn't that drunk to start with—I'm totally sober now. I'll take a shift," Smash offered.
Landry looked at his watch. "Nah, it's late and we all have our respective practices in the morning. I don't want to lose any more time than we already have with all of Matt's bathroom breaks."
Smash turned around and peered over his seat at the QB. "Seriously, man, it's like road-trippin' with my sisters."
Tim cackled drunkenly.
"It's not my fault. Blame that shitty, watered-down beer that Riggins bought," Saracen replied.
"Seven!" Tim said sternly, pointing a finger at Matt. "Never complain about the quality of the beer that was paid for by someone else."
"You'll have to excuse my friend here," Smash said, directing his comments to Matt. "It seems that Miss Lyla Garrity actually let him take his balls with him instead of keepin' 'em in her purse like she usually does."
His friend? When did that happen? Smash hated Riggins on first sight, and the feeling had been mutual. They didn't really know each other when they were in peewee football or Pop Warner—they were on different teams, so as far as little Brian Williams was concerned, Tim Riggins was just that quiet kid who hung out with Jason Street. Street and Riggins' team was always unbeatable, so Brian couldn't wait to play with them as Dillon Panthers.
When he finally met Riggins at age 14, he was dumbfounded as to why Street, the golden boy of Dillon football, would ever hang around with this drunk, stupid, racist jackass. But it didn't take long for Smash to realize that Tim Riggins didn't hate black people—he hated almost everyone, and with good reason. If half the stories he'd heard about the Riggins parents were true…well, it made Smash realize that there was something worse than having a parent die.
Riggins had been destroyed when Street was injured, and Smash tried to lay off him a little. And while they weren't even close to being friends, when it came down to it, there was no one that Smash trusted more to protect him on the field. That fact was never more clear than that terrifying night in Dunston. The combination of shock and gratitude he felt when Riggins took down that racist Dunston player was almost overwhelming.
The following night, at Bradley's party, he made his way over to Riggins, who was getting a refill at the keg.
"Hey, Riggs, I just…um…"
Tim didn't even look up, but he smirked as he continued to fill his cup. "Hey, I'm the only one who's allowed to pick on you. Just doin' what I had to do."
He held up his cup and tapped it against Smash's. "No regrets, two-oh."
Smash shook his head and chuckled. "Yeah, man, no regrets."
From that point on, it had been different. Smash still enjoyed needling Riggins from time to time, but it was all in good fun.
"Y'all just wish you had someone who cared about where your balls are," Riggins groused. "None of you have seen a girl close up in forever."
"I dunno, I been seein' Julie Taylor tryin' to stake her claim on our little Matty again," Smash teased. "She been comin' around the Freeze every day, tryin' to get your attention with those little tank tops…"
Saracen grinned and blushed. "Shut up," he said, as the other three chuckled at his embarrassment.
"Taylor?" Riggins was confused. "What about the hot blonde who picked you up from practice the other day?" Tim's eyes went wide and he raised his hand to high-five Matt. "Have you got two goin' at once, Seven?"
"What hot blonde?"
"I dunno—Jackson said some hot blonde in a station wagon was waiting for you outside the field."
"That was my mom!" Saracen exclaimed. "You're disgusting."
Smash and Landry just laughed and listened to the conversation play out.
"How was I supposed to know? I figured you had an older babe on the side," Riggins said, doing a bad job of defending himself. "Jackson said she was only, like, 30."
Matt gave a put-upon sigh. "She was our age when she had me, you jackass."
So Matt's mom was only, what—32? 33? That made her at least 10 years younger than Smash's mom. He wasn't surprised that he didn't know about that; Matt didn't talk about his parents, only his grandmother who had raised him.
The second-string QB hadn't even been on Smash's radar until that fateful game when he suddenly had to step into Jason Street's enormous shoes. Smash saw the fear on the boy's face, and without thinking, took his hand to lead him and their co-captain back out onto the field. He ended up sort of mentoring Matt for a while, helping him call plays and reminding him about his new responsibilities until the QB1 got comfortable in his new position.
They'd had a few rough patches, but Matt could never stay mad at anyone for long. He was also the only reason that Alamo Freeze job was tolerable—especially late at night, while they were cleaning up. They'd argue over which music to listen to, talk football and girls, and go over their post-high school plans while they swept.
"I dunno, I don't think I'm gonna play college ball," Matt had said one night.
Smash couldn't fathom the idea of giving up football. "Are you serious? You're good enough, Matty. We got championship rings, baby! That counts for something. You could get a scholarship—"
"Yeah, maybe, but…I think I'm done, you know?" Matt said as he knelt down to hold the dustpan. "I don't want everything to be about football anymore."
"So you're just gonna give it up? Not gonna take your shot at the big time? Come on, the money alone…" Smash swept the stale fries and used napkins into the pan.
"I ain't sayin' the money wouldn't be nice," Matt agreed as he shook the dustpan over the trash can and hung it on the hook. "Y'know, and I really like playin' with you guys and all that, but I don't wanna keep it up for the next 15 years. I think I'm gonna apply to art school."
"Those places probably don't have football rides, huh?" Smash said with a chuckle. "Hey, I wanna see some of your drawings—or paintings or whatever. Bring some of 'em with you next time."
Whatever Saracen ended up doing, Smash really wanted life to work out well for him—almost as much as he wanted that for himself. He prayed that J.D. McCoy wouldn't screw things up for his friend.
"What about you, Smash?" Matt asked, changing the subject. "You ain't had a girlfriend in months."
"Whatever happened to that perky girl with the long, dark hair?" Landry asked. "The one who acted like she was your sports agent or something?"
"Yeah, she went everywhere with you, and then she was just gone. Why'd you cut her loose?"
Smash scoffed. "Pfft. She took off as soon as I hurt my knee—she broke up with me, like, the day I got home from the hospital. I had my leg up on pillows, and I was all doped up on Vicodin, and she dropped the hammer."
"Aw, jeez," Landry said. "That's cold. Really, just, unkind. She seemed really into you."
"I think she was just into all the attention, and the excitement of the negotiations and all that. When it looked like the scholarship was gone, she was gone," Smash said matter-of-factly. He'd been hurt at the time, but didn't really care anymore. "I guess she was just in love with the Smash more than Brian."
"Huh," Matt piped up. "Sounds like y'all had a lot in common. I'm surprised it didn't work out."
Smash burst out laughing. Matt was so quiet sometimes, Smash loved it when he got off a good one-liner, even if it was at his expense. Riggins and Landry liked that one too.
"It's all good, it's all good," Smash replied. "There are going to be plenty of new girls at A&M to heal my broken heart."
Landry suddenly grew serious. "Broken heart? I'm sorry, should we not be making light of your situation?…"
The physics whiz didn't have a mean or aggressive bone in his body, which is why no one who knew Landry Clarke could believe it when he'd joined the football team. Smash knew him through Matt, since Landry often hung around the Freeze waiting for his friend to get off of work.
Contrary to what others thought, Smash did like to talk about things other than football, and Landry had thoughts on everything. Sometimes they made sense, sometimes not so much, but he was always entertaining to talk to. There was certainly no one else on the football team willing to discuss Langston Hughes, even when they were covering him in English.
"I'm just sayin', you don't really understand," Smash had said, nudging Landry's elbow so he could wipe down the counter.
"What—so white people aren't allowed to like his work?" Landry replied. "That's ridiculous."
Smash tossed the washcloth in a nearby sink. "I ain't sayin' you can't like Hughes. I'm sayin' that you have to be black to relate. You need to know what it's like."
"Yeah, but your situation doesn't have to be exactly the same as an artist's for you to feel something from his work," Landry explained. "Do you have to be a white guy to appreciate Shakespeare or Lord Byron?"
Smash just raised an eyebrow.
"OK, maybe those are bad examples. But my point is, even if you're not black, you can relate to the struggle—going through a crappy situation and coming out on the other side."
Smash couldn't argue with that, because he knew what Landry was talking about. But when he'd heard the news about what really happened to that guy the cops found in the river, Smash knew immediately that Landry must have had a good reason for what he did. The rest of the team thought the same thing, and even though Landry was usually warming the bench, the other players rallied around him and made sure the rest of their classmates did too.
A few months after their poetry discussion, Smash found himself at the center of a new struggle, facing possible jail time for defending his little sister. Going to school was a trial—even though the team was standing by him, he still heard the whispers and saw the sidelong glances when he walked down the hall. Losing his scholarship to TMU felt like the end of the world.
He was sitting in study hall, staring at a page in his chemistry book but not really reading it, when Landry made his way down the aisle. They nodded to each other in greeting, but as he passed, Landry dropped a paperback book from the school library on Smash's desk. It was a collection of American poetry, and there was a Post-it note marking a page. Smash opened the book and read:
I been scared and battered.
My hopes the wind done scattered.
Snow has friz me,
Sun has baked me,
Looks like between 'em they done
Tried to make me
Stop laughin', stop lovin', stop livin'—
But I don't care!
I'm still here!
When he turned around, Landry gave him a little salute. Smash photocopied the poem and kept it in his wallet for weeks, pulling it out to read from time to time. Not only did the poem make him feel better, but it made a great theme for his college application essays.
"Nah, Landry, I'm just messin' with you. It's no big thing."
"Hey, Land-man," Riggins said, reaching up to smack their driver in the shoulder. "You gotta make a left up here. I just saw the sign—it's right up there."
"I see it." Landry shrugged his hand off. "The big sign with the arrow that said 'A&M main campus' was the giveaway."
"I'm just making sure you saw it," Riggins countered.
"Are we gonna stop for food at some point?" Matt asked. "I'm getting' hungry."
"As long as we don't lose too much time…"
Smash just listened while the other three continued. Most of their nights out included some good-natured bickering, and he realized that he was going to miss it.
Growing up as the only guy in the house, Smash always wished he'd had brothers. Without him realizing it, these guys who he didn't really even know until about two years ago had become his second family. Two hours ago, Smash had been anxious to get to A&M, but now he was hoping the last five minutes of the drive could go on a little longer.
"This should be it." Landry pulled up to the curb and threw the car in park, and all four boys tumbled out and stretched. Smash took Landry's keys and opened the trunk, taking out the three bags he'd packed at the last minute; he hoped he hadn't forgotten anything that couldn't wait until his mom and sisters drove up the following weekend.
"All right, where're we going?" Tim reached out for one of the bags.
Smash was afraid to let the goodbyes drag out any longer; his last talk with Coach had been hard enough and he didn't think he could handle another emotional exit.
"Y'know, it's late and my roommate is probably sleeping already. I should just go in myself," he said.
"All right, well, let us know when they start giving your ass some playin' time and we'll come up for a game."
"Then I'll be callin' you next week, Riggs," Smash boasted.
The boys all laughed, then exchanged see-you-soons and one-armed hugs before Matt, Landry, and Tim began piling back into the car.
"Trust me, I'm fine," Saracen said as he took the keys from Landry. "We should probably stop for coffee or something though. Maybe something to eat."
"Let's just go to a 7-11 or somethin'. At least they have beer," Riggins suggested.
"No beer in the car, Riggs," Landry scolded. "You know the rules."
"Fine. Anyway, I wouldn't want Seven to need another potty break."
Riggins leaned out the window and extended a fist. "Yo, Smash—clear eyes, full hearts…"
Smash knocked his fist into Tim's. "Can't lose," he responded quietly.
Tim grinned and reclined in the back seat. "All right! Later, Smash."
Matt and Landry yelled goodbye from the front, and Smash's friends headed back west toward Dillon. As the sound of the car's aging engine faded in the distance, the air suddenly became very quiet. Most of the buildings were taller than anything back home, and the campus seemed so vast.
Always a bigger-than-life star in Dillon, Smash felt small and alone standing on the sidewalk with his duffel bag and backpack. With a sigh, he reached into his back pocket to find the note with his dorm room number written on it.
"Hey!" A booming voice from far off on his right made him jump and he spun to face it.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle ya. You Smash?" An African-American student who was approximately twice Smash's height and weight approached, with a smaller, skinnier blonde kid trotting behind him to keep up.
"Yeah, that's me," Smash replied.
"Good to meet ya!" the first boy said, extending his hand. "I'm Charles Jarrett, linebacker."
"Tom McGuire, wide receiver," said the second boy.
Smash shook both of their hands. "Brian Williams, running back—I hope. Everyone calls me Smash, though."
"Coach sent us to wait for you," said Tom with a friendly smile. "Sorry we weren't here when you got here—Charles needed a snack."
Charles proffered a bag of Doritos. "Want some?"
Tom made a face at his teammate. "He doesn't want your nasty chips that you had your fingers all over. Jeez."
"You just jealous," Charles said with a boisterous laugh. "You gotta stay all lean and I can eat what I want. All that dry chicken and broccoli's makin' you cranky."
Smash smiled in amusement at their banter.
"Anyway," Tom said, rolling his eyes, "I'm your roommate, so I can show you to our room."
"OK, cool, thanks," Smash said. Charles and Tom each took one of his bags and they headed into the building.
"So you're from Dillon, huh?" Charles asked. "What's it like?"
Smash thought for a minute. "It's pretty great, most of the time. But I think I'm gonna like it here too."