When Jess was in kindergarten, they made these books, All About Me. They were kind of stupid, the stuff you took home to your parents to show off that ended up crammed in a box in the closet, but Jess hadn't thought that back then. Back then it was kind of like magic, having a book about her, even if it was just a bunch of papers stapled together. She'd been so proud.
It was pretty simple--there were all these sentences, and you were supposed to fill in the end, like, My name is, My family is, My house is, and there was space over each one so you could draw a picture of yourself and your family and your house. And one of them was, When I grow up, and there it is, in the teacher's handwriting, because she was too little to know how to write all the letters: I'm going to play for the Dallas Cowboys.
Maybe the teacher told her she should come up with something else. Maybe the teacher told her girls couldn't play for the Cowboys. But the memory's gone now, and all she has is that she wrote it down, and that no one stopped her from it. That it was a dream they let her have.
Some days, it feels like the meanest thing anyone's ever done. But most days, it makes her smile.
Jess thought about being a cheerleader. One for the Panthers, even, with the short skirt and the bright colors. She saw Lyla Garrity do it and thought it was kind of nice, how involved she was. How she was still important.
She knew she could do it--she's pretty, she's flexible, she's strong. They probably would have taken her, and she could have been there, cheering on the team. Being a part of Dillon in the way girls were supposed to be.
But she thinks it would have been too close. Maybe from that near to the field she wouldn't have been able to stop herself from taking someone's helmet and running on there to catch the ball herself.
Even when she's in the bleachers, she has trouble with it.
Her daddy taught her to throw when she was so young she can't remember it for herself. It's one of those family stories, one she knows just from everyone else telling it so often. It's her life, but she sees it from another perspective. It was Thanksgiving, cold and wet and rainy, but the men in her family never could keep away from a good game of touch, not at Thanksgiving. It was as important as the turkey. She was three or four, and insisted on getting to play too. Her dad had a little football, Nerf or something, and he showed her the grip, took her through the motions a few times, and then told her to give it her best shot.
She screwed up her face, all concentration and focus, and threw it as hard as she could, right into Uncle Eli's crotch.
Uncle Ray laughed until he almost couldn't breathe, the way her dad tells it, and when he recovered he said, "Shame she's not a boy, she's got quite an arm on her."
She's heard the same thing over and over for years, but no one's ever made her feel it. Even if she can't play for the Panthers, or the Lions, or the Dallas Cowboys, she's never been sad she's a girl.
And she's never been sad she has such a good arm.
She met Vince in third grade, in a game of touch football for gym class. He was on the other team, and she was facing off against him, and he screwed up his face and told her girls weren't allowed to play football. The next time he got the ball, she tackled him right to the ground, a perfect hit her dad would have been proud of.
They ended up in the kind of fight she never got in, hitting and kicking and even a little biting, and they both got sent to the principal's office. It was the only time she'd ever gone, and not even close to the first or last time for him.
"You remember the first time I met you?" she asks him one summer day, when she's helping him with his throw.
"I remember you fought dirty," says Vince. His smile could charm anyone, she thinks.
"I remember you said you'd never play football again. Said it was stupid."
"Yeah, well, back then I was stupid," says Vince, laughing. She likes him so much better when they're alone. When she's the only one he's thinking of impressing.
"Don't sell yourself short," says Jess, with a big smile. "You're still stupid."
Vince shakes his head. "Now that's not a very nice thing to say."
"I don't have to be nice, not until you get this throw. Come on, try it again."
After high school, she thinks, it will get better. Some day, it will be attractive to boys that she loves football, that she can quote stats all night, that she's got opinions about Romo and Tom Brady and who the Cowboys should trade and which coaches are dumb.
Some day, it will be the kind of thing that someone likes about her, instead of just something she loves about herself.
She's looking forward to that.
She's lying on the field, soaking in the sun, when she hears Coach Taylor say, "I hope you're alive, we need to play here later."
She opens up one eye, can't really see him with the sun behind him. She closes it again. "Sorry, coach. You need me to move?"
"No, not especially," he says. "I just saw someone out here. I thought I'd come check everything was all right."
When Jess was a little girl, she used to lie on the grass in the yard and pretend she was in a stadium, that she'd just gotten tackled, but that she'd gotten rid of the ball first. That she'd just made a winning touchdown and fallen down in relief and joy. That she was somewhere, under bright lights, with a crowd cheering, because she'd just won everything for everyone.
When she got older, she stopped pretending that, but she didn't stop feeling at peace when she was lying on the grass. At home in a way she didn't anywhere else.
She pulls herself to her feet, looking at Coach Taylor. She doesn't know him too well. She doesn't know much about him. She wishes she was the kind of person he'd be loyal to, like he's loyal to Vince and Tinker and Cafferty.
A boy, she guesses.
He looks back at her, steady, eyes hidden behind his sunglasses, and she finally says, "Did you ever want to go pro?"
"Of course I did," says Coach Taylor. "Everybody does, for a while."
"I did too," says Jess. "I was gonna play for the Dallas Cowboys. QB1."
It feels a little like kindergarten, like this is the moment when Coach Taylor might laugh at her, tell her that she can't play football, not for the Cowboys, not for the Lions, not even in the park, for fun. It's a moment when he could crush everything she dreams about.
He nods, finally. "Well, that's a mighty fine team you were gonna play for." He doesn't smile, but he doesn't have to. "Same one I wanted to play for." He looks away from her. "Don't die on my field."
"I won't," she promises, and she's smiling when she leaves.
For a few years, when she was in middle school, she collected stories about girls who sued so they could join football teams, made a fuss, got to play with the boys. The ones who made a statement for equality and feminism and everything else. She thought about being that girl, the one who demanded, the one who said, I'm as good as the boys, I'm as fast, I can throw as hard, so why won't you take me on your team?
She almost did it once, almost marched down to the school and begged, and it was her dad who stopped her. Her dad who told her what it was like, being on the Panthers, being in Dillon, what is was like when you won. But more than that, what it was like when you didn't.
"You're on that team, and every victory is in spite of you," he told her. "And every loss, that's your fault. Even if you didn't play, even if you didn't do a damn thing, that Slammin' Sammy would be on the radio telling you how you weren't good enough because you're a girl. I don't want that for my baby."
"I want it to be different," she said.
"I know you do. And maybe it will be. Maybe you'll grow up, have a daughter, and she can play. But this ain't the place to start changing the world."
Jess hikes the bag of uniforms up on her shoulder, smiles to herself.
There's all kinds of ways to change the world, and all sorts of places to start.
And she's got time.