I’m writing you from my History of the World class. I know you wish you could have been here for our last regular season match, but you had to work. I also know you must have caught the match on the official stream at www.youtube.com/seriousjest.
We are currently learning about the Battle of Thermopylae. 300 Spartans (along with about 6,000 soldiers from other Greek cities) defended a narrow pass between the mountains of central Greece and the sea against a Persian army of about 100,000 men. The Spartans used the narrow terrain of the pass to bottleneck the overwhelming Persian forces and to cause mass casualties with their longer spears. The Spartans also used clever tactics, such as pretending to retreat and then quickly turning on pursuing forces, to confuse, shock, and discourage their enemy. After 2 days of battle, the Persian army was bloodied and frustrated, until a Greek traitor told them about a secret alternate pass through the mountains. The Persians sent an elite unit in the darkness to sneak behind the Spartans and trap them. The Spartan king, Leonidas, discovered that his troops had been betrayed on the dawn of the third day of battle, and realized that his men could never win the impending battle. However, while Leonidas told the remaining Greek soldiers to flee, he and the rest of the Spartans vowed to fight until the end. Along with the few Greek soldiers who refused to leave, the Spartans withdrew to a hillock near the pass and fought the Persians with all of their remaining strength. When their weapons broke, they fought with their hands and teeth, until the Persians finally overwhelmed them with a volley of arrows. While the Spartans ultimately lost the Battle of Thermopylae, their great courage and superhuman tenacity inspired the morale of the other Greek troops fighting against the Persian invasion of 480-479 BC, and eventually the Persian forces were repelled.
In the last few days, I have personally witnessed great courage and superhuman tenacity in my own world, albeit on a much smaller scale. This school has a certain…sponsor…and it’s not our official sponsor, McMurty’s. It’s an “additional” sponsor…one that demands certain…sacrifices for its patronage. Except, this team never asked for its help. Hell, this team didn’t even know about the underground sponsorship until they came around making demands. And Coach Jest…well, let’s just say he can be pretty hardheaded…even when they literally tested how hard his head is.
In the locker room, right before our match against the Solus Savers, Coach was more somber than usual. He laid all the cards on the table. Told us about our mysterious sponsor; admitted that the cut on his head that he sported during our match against the Reptile Dysfunction was not just the result of a “random bar fight”; revealed that we were “supposed” to lose that match 2-1, and the extra brutality that had befallen our team for fighting until the end (at least, most of us had) was not just Nuffle’s will. Coach went on to say that the last 2 matches were in the past, although Ezell Ford would never be forgotten. That no matter what anyone felt that they were forced to do—or not do—in the past, we were going to look forward as a team.
But this time, he would not put our lives at risk without our consent. He expressed that he would take the guilt over Ezell’s death to his own grave, but that, this time, no one would put our lives at risk but ourselves…and everyone had to make that decision for themselves. Our “sponsor” felt that it had made its point in the Dysfunction match. It “expected” that we would lose the match against the Solus Savers, 2-0. It had a lot of money riding on that result…money that would make up for the discrepancy between our last game’s score and what was expected then. And if we came out and disappointed that sponsor…well, let’s just say that the price we would pay could make the price we paid last time look like chump change.
Up until that moment, I had been sitting there wallowing in self pity over my smashed knee, which will forevermore be a vulnerability. When Coach Jest laid out the situation, however, I briefly felt a moment of relief, as I would be sitting this match out due to my knee injury (as would Kajieme Powell, who was nursing his own temporary injury).
And then Freddie Gray stood up. Over the past couple of games, he had become noticeably less jovial. His comedic wit had become much more biting. The losses weren’t sitting well with him, and, worse yet, he had lost trust in some of his teammates. But Coach Jest’s words seemed to animate him. With a clenched jaw and a steel stare, he pronounced, “I’m with you, Coach. Let’s beat the crap out of these speedo-wearing snowflakes.”
Alton Sterling stood up beside Freddie. “I’m with you, too, Coach. Let’s kick their pasty asses.”
One by one, the rest of the locker room stood up and declared their commitment to win. Even the journeymen we had hired for the match, Gerhart Urquhart (whom I knew from my home economics class) and Barnabus Advar (who kept name-dropping Rein Advar, from Los Pumas, as a “distant cousin”) declared his loyalty. Urquhart had a pregnant wife, but he was willing to lay it all on the line for the small chance to do what Jorg Fentleberry had done: win a permanent spot on the team through an impressive performance as a JM.
The last person to stand up was the ogre, Akai Gurley. He had spent a great deal of the match against the Dysfunction picking his nose, looking around obliviously, and laying on the ground motionless. In short, most of us suspected that his conspicuously poor Week 6 was not just your usual ogre boneheaded antics. With an almost ashamed expression (although expressions are hard to gauge accurately on ogres), Gurley declared, “No worry about Akai, Coach.”
“You sure you know what y’all signing up for?” asked Coach Jest.
“Yeah,” responded Sandra Bland, who was holding one of her shoulder pads, which had come loose easily due to the obvious tampering with our team’s equipment, “We’re signing up for the take-money-out-of-Goblin-Gambling’s-pockets party. And I’m ready to dance.”
And at that moment, I was no longer relieved that I would be missing whatever consequences these ill-fated warriors would meet during the imminent match. Instead, I was ashamed. These players, my teammates, many of whom had children to feed, had never been given anything easily. They were poor, subject to the whims and wishes of those who had political and financial connections, and in order to try to get a (frankly, sub-par) education, they put their health, even their lives, on the line every day. They didn’t do it for glory, as I did, or even a profound love of the game. They did it because they didn’t have a choice. And, if anything, that brought them together closer than any team full of superstar divas could ever be.
I finally understood this team. Underestimated, underappreciated, overlooked…it was them against the world. And the damn shadow corporations could decide where they lived, what schools their kids attended, even how they were treated by “authorities” in the outside world…but the Blood Bowl pitch was their sacred ground…the one place where they could truly be free…where a genuine meritocracy existed…and no damn shadow company was going to take that away from them, too.
Yes, I was now ashamed and frustrated that I wouldn’t be able to take the field and fight shoulder-to-shoulder with my teammates in what may have been the most important battle of their lives. I finally understand these guys, Dad. Like Freddie told me on my first day, I was going to have to prove I belonged here; earn respect; and show my teammates that I had their back before I would be truly accepted as a member of the team. And, honestly, I want that now more than any other selfish Blood Bowl accolade that the old Ham Shank may have coveted. I wear my knee injury as a badge of honor now…it is my sacrifice for this team.
Not even 30 minutes later, we were lining up our defense on Bliss Field…and a submissive defense it appeared to be: a straight line down the middle of the pitch, splitting the wide zones. It looked like Greendale was ceding entry into their side of the pitch for an easy opening Norse score. I noticed Coach Jest looking across the field at a goblin in a pin-striped suit, who was giving him a thumbs up in approval of the formation. Just then, however, my teammates reverted to the usual sound Greendale setup, and Coach winked at the goblin as the latter’s grin faded. Sterling kicked the ball off, and the match that no one would soon forget began.
The Norse came out swinging, but not as aggressive as usual. In their first turn, even their Yhetee, Aracnis, didn’t break armour, and their ulf, Mad magnus ISIC, didn’t pile on after his first successful block! It was almost as if they knew they were supposed to win this match, and they didn’t have to try especially hard. Imagine their surprise when Fentleberry punched ISIC in the mouth, and Sterling ran from midfield with a vicious, armour-breaking mighty blow on Lôrund the Stout that left him stunned into the next turn!
I saw Coach Jest pull something out of his pocket to show to the goblin in the suit…it was his middle finger. The goblin did not look amused. He pulled out a scryphone and started angrily shouting something into it. The referee standing in his vicinity looked…troubled.
If the Savers were lackadaisical in their first turn, they had sure snapped out of it in their second. They surrounded Akai, Aracnis knocked him to the ground, and Reginkatla, the notorious Norse Dirty Player, dropped the full weight of his body through his bony elbow into the ogre’s hip. A loud crack echoed through the crisp air. The ref was already looking at the sky and pretending he hadn’t seen anything. The goblin in the suit was now smiling at Coach Jest with his arms crossed. Coach Jest looked at our apothecary, but Akai waived him off. Coach Jest met the ogre at the injury box and asked why he waived the apothecary off. “Akai fail Ezell against lizards,” Gurley explained, “Akai pay debt.”
Just then, the crowd erupted into a roar of angry boos (the Savers were home and they are significantly more popular than us, believe it or not). In their frenzy to foul Gurley, Solus had left its ball carrier, “Want a Cold One?,” open for Jonathan Ferrell to clobber. 1 turn later, David Kassick was picking up the fumble and running into the end zone. The goblin in the suit was now yelling at the ref, as Coach Jest was doing the “slow jerk” across the field in the goblin’s direction.
Our team was like sharks reacting to blood in the water. Sterling put the next kickoff right in the Savers’ end zone, and Cold One, probably still shook up from his recent beatdown, fumbled the pickup into the crowd, which threw the ball back into the Solus backfield, but not far enough to keep our players from surrounding it.
The goblin in the suit was now yelling directly at the Solus sideline. Whatever he said must have made an impact, because the Norse went full aggro. Down went Sterling, victim to the monstrous ulfwerener, Kelvin. Down went Bland, her hip smashed by the other Solus ulf, Mad magnus ISIC. Our apo was unable to repair her hip (she will always be slower) but he was able to clear Alton to go back in the match at the next kickoff (let’s just say there are ways around the league’s “concussion protocol”).
But while the Norse were busy trying to hurt our players, Ferrell was picking the ball up right from under Cold One’s feet, dodging away nimbly, and handing the ball off to John Crawford III, our leading scorer, who was standing in the end zone. Crawford spiked the ball directly at the Savers’ sideline and he and Ferrell held their middle fingers out behind them as they trotted triumphantly back to our sideline. The goblin in the suit threw his scryphone on the ground and stepped on it in frustration.
3 turns left in the 1st half, and the Norse continued the same pattern: feeble offense, and a desperation to vent their frustration through violence. This time, Kelvin was able to finish what he started, killing Sterling with a vicious frenzied blitz pile-on, even while Lôrund fumbled the handoff from Cold One that would have put him a dodge away from trimming the score to 2-1.
The goblin in the suit was waiting for us in our locker room at half time. He tried to remain cool and collected, but his desperation betrayed him. He started going on about how it wasn’t too late to get on board…how his employers wouldn’t suffer as much of a loss if we still lost this match…how it wasn’t too late for mitigation, if we got smart and showed remorse. Coach Jest leaned down to look him directly in his eye and quietly told him, “I think you better leave. Now.”
You could see the realization dawn on the goblin’s face that he wasn’t safe in this space. He started to back towards the door, nodding. “Okay, okay…you idiots want to play it this way…we warned you what would happen! We won’t warn you again!” He motioned toward Sandra, “You think a little smashed womb is bad?! You’ll all be lucky if you end up like your dead friend! Because those of you that are still alive when we’re through with you…will wish you weren’t!!!”
Coach Jest, still calm, quietly asked him, “Do you know I used to play soccer when I was younger? Before I was a Blood Bowl player.”
“What?” spit out the goblin, confused but interested enough to stop his exit.
“It’s an ancient human sport, continued Coach matter-of-factly, “We used to call it fútbol, where I’m from. Was the most popular sport in the world, at one point.”
“What the hell does that have to do with…” the goblin started to ask as he walked back a couple of paces toward Coach. But before he could finish the sentence, Coach delivered a running kick to his face that would have made the legendary Diego Maradona proud. The goblin flew into an open locker as Freddie yelled “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAL!”
Coach walked over to the locker, staring at the goblin in a way that made me realize I had never really seen Coach Jest get angry before. I couldn’t tell if the goblin, whose eyes were halfway rolled back into his head, was even conscious to hear Coach. “If you EVER come near my players again…EVER show up near my locker room in your pathetic life…I will end it! Now why don’t you hang around and think about where you went wrong…while my team and I go take some more money out of your employer’s pocket.” And with that, he picked the goblin up by his jacket, hung him on the hook in the locker, and slammed it shut. We all strutted out. We have never been more a team.
With the goblin in the suit no longer on the pitch to pull his marionette strings, things got worse for the Norse. They kept desperately trying to win a war of attrition (Kelvin did manage to kill Urquhart #RIP), while Ferrell beat up 2 of their players by himself and then threw a 26-yard pass to Kassick, which Kassick potatoed into his 2nd TD in the next turn, running along the end zone while holding the ball out towards the Norse before diving headfirst into the end zone like it was a Slip’N Slide. On the ensuing kickoff, Ferrell and Crawford stood on our goal line, with their #WienersOut while the Savers unsuccessfully attempted to cause T15 & T16 injuries. The ref even threw one of their players out for fouling! Better late than never, I guess.
In the days since that epic match, it’s been quiet. We haven’t seen any goblins in suits around campus. There haven’t been any ominous notes or emails. I’m not saying we’re safe, Dad. No, probably far from it. But at least we’re free to play in the McMurty’s Famous Bowl game on our own terms…win, lose, or draw…even if we’ll only be fielding a regular roster of 8.
I have never been prouder to be a part of this team. I will be donating a healthy portion of my salary this season to the families of Ezell, Gerhart, and Alton. I don’t really need that money.
Between us, I’m going to miss Alton the most. He had such a big heart. The night before a match, he would always cook us a hearty meal. Said he had to keep our carbs up. I always thought he couldn’t help taking care of us that way, like he took care of his 5 children.
I hope that you can make our Bowl game, Dad. Would be great for you to meet some of these guys. I guarantee you’ve never met anyone like them. But I understand if…you know…work.
Todd a.k.a. Ham Shank a.k.a. The Narc a.k.a. Proud2BHuman
*To learn about the real Alton Sterling, check out: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/13-painful-facts-about-alton-sterlings-life-and-death_us_577d1220e4b09b4c43c1b14e
**To see the Solus Savers v. Greendale Human Beings (S5 Wk7) match, visit: https://youtu.be/gajdoPEHof8