In 1974, Dodgers pitcher Tommy John underwent the kind of surgical procedure that could revolutionize sports medicine.
It was an experiment at best, an act of desperation at worst.
John debuted as a rookie for the Cleveland Indians in 1963. His sinker ball forced countless batters into double plays. He was a two-time all-star and a two-hundred-game-winner. And in 1974, in the middle of a winning season and on the way to a National League Championship, he suffered permanent damage to his throwing elbow. His left arm.
Dodger physician Dr. Frank Jobe devised a radical surgery to replace the ulnar collateral ligament with a healthy tendon harvested from another part of the body—ideally, a forearm or knee. Dr. Jobe and Tommy John agreed to the operation without any pretense. The damage to his elbow was extensive, and the chances of a success were slim.
Success meant Tommy John would return to baseball as normal. Success would entail a full recovery of the athlete he once was, at peak professional performance. Success would heal whatever wounds his body had endured and restore his full potential. Failure could mean any number of outcomes, from an end to his career, to permanent damage to the ulnar nerve, to the serious complications that always accompany anesthesia and a surgical table.
The operation was a success. Today, it is known as “Tommy John surgery.”
Since 1974, dozens of professional and aspiring athletes have undergone the same procedure. Through experience and practice, it has become one of the most reliable operations in sports medicine, though it requires a substantial recovery period.
Some athletes claim that they can execute at a higher level post-surgery; they claim that their arm feels stronger, and that they can throw harder. As a result, it is not uncommon for young athletes and their parents to approach orthopedic surgeons and request a preemptive graft procedure to an uninjured arm in an effort to improve the power and control.
The belief that Tommy John surgery actually enhances physical capability, however, is a myth.
Once an athlete has recovered from the operation, he or she regains full use of a normal, healthy arm. Those who report better performance post-surgery have often spent years beforehand playing through fatigue, overuse, and injury. They have become used to working against their damaged body. This skews their perception of health versus enhancement.
Bucky has a better arm than Steve.
They’re both fifteen years old, both sophomores in high school, both habitually eat their weight in bananas and barbecue potato chips, both live alone with their moms in Brooklyn, unless you count Bucky’s stepfather, which he doesn’t.
And when they play catch at the park or by the long jump pit at school, there’s never any question. Bucky has the better arm.
He shrugs when Steve points this out. “I don’t have the accuracy you have.”
“You always hit me right in the chest.”
“Yeah, but that’s with you.”
Steve doesn’t press the issue. He doesn’t mention that they only play well together because they’ve been doing it so long.
Bucky is the kind of guy people actually want on their football team. He is the joker in the deck. He doesn’t move like other people, like he has to consider his next action, like his brain has to tell his body what to do. He moves with confidence—not the confidence of pride, but of expectation. His motion belongs in the world.
Sometimes Steve catches himself staring at Bucky when he is in motion. The steady pattern of his footwork. The lazy, perfect arc of his throwing arm, the Pythagorean precision. The way he can make even the most brutal tackle look beautiful.
The thing is, that’s not even the most impressive thing about Bucky Barnes. Sure, he’s physically gifted. But Steve knows what made him that way. Steve knows how many reps it took in the weight room and how many miles on the treadmill. He was there for most of it—not keeping pace, exactly, but acting as a spotter on the benchpress or manning the stopwatch on the short track. He does all the weight and agility training. Just not at Bucky’s level. Yet.
As one only can in high school, Bucky plays both offense and defense. He’s not the star of the team, and won’t be as long as they have a running back like Gabe Jones, but he has the kind of hybrid utility that always puts him in the right place at the right time.
And he has a great arm. But he doesn’t want to play quarterback.
It bothers Steve. He brings it up with his mother, who says “it’s alright. I’m sure you’ll be as good as him someday,” missing the point as usual.
Steve shares his concern with Peggy, too. “He’s so fast. I’d hate to waste his speed at quarterback.”
Steve agrees, but it’s really not a satisfying answer. Hasn’t she seen the way Bucky can hit the corner of the end zone from fifty yards away?
“I have,” she says. “Maybe the coach will use him for some trick plays.”
The cold logic of it frustrates Steve. He’s been playing catch with Bucky for almost ten years and hasn't ever thought of him as a trick play.
Steve’s ear stings with the abrupt, intimate violence of his right earbud being ripped out of place. He whirls to face the perpetrator.
And wants both to sigh and to scream.
“Come on, Hodge,” he says. The pressure changes in the atmosphere of his circulatory system; the swift drop of oncoming storm clouds. “We’re all teammates, here.”
“‘We’re all teammates, here’,” Hodge mocks.
“What d’you want?”
Steve stands up. There are four rows of lockers lining the wall. His eyes reach up to the third. Gil Hodge can probably see the top of them.
“Just want to know what you’re listening to, Rogers.”
“You could have asked.”
“What’s it look like I’m doing?”
What do they call lightning when it only exists as a sharp breath between black clouds?
“…Looks like you still haven’t given my headphones back.”
Hodge ignores him, of course. He sticks it the earbud his own ear, and his face instantly contorts as if with acute gastric discomfort. “What is this?”
Steve casts an exasperated look around the locker room, but the only people who are paying attention are two of Hodge’s friends, who seem amused, but not amused enough to interfere one way or another. “It’s my pre-game playlist.”
“You listen to this before games?” Hodge prompts.
“What is it?” he repeats.
“Creedence Clearwater Revival.”
A beat of silence. A distantly satisfying beat of silence.
Hodge snorts. “Was that English.”
“Come on, Hodge, give it back—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he says quickly, gripping the wire. “We’re just having fun here, right? We’re all teammates, right?”
“What seems to be the matter here, kids?!”
Hodge’s eyes blossom, and Steve whirls around to find—
Steve isn’t sure whether to feel grateful or annoyed or something else, a deeply buried point of warmth. Bucky crosses his arms and squares his shoulders and grins a wild slow wicked smile, and Steve feels them all at once.
“Why don’t you go ahead and return Rogers’ property, now?” Bucky says, licking his top teeth.
“We were just having a nice conversation about music,” Hodge says, totally, blissfully, unabashedly at peace. “Weren’t we, Steve?”
“Yeah, but geez, man,” Steve adds, “I still haven’t had a chance to listen to your music.”
Hodge doesn’t seem to understand completely, but he does understand that he’s supposed to be angry.
“Better than yours, whatever this crap is.”
Bucky laughs, a little hysterical, a little this-is-the-only-thing-keeping-me-from-punching-you. “I think the guy who threw five touchdowns in his last game can listen to whatever the hell he wants.”
“Yeah,” Hodge says with a sinister smile. “Maybe someday he’ll get to do it for a varsity team.”
“Maybe someday I’ll be just like you.” Steve shows his teeth. “Sitting the bench on a varsity team.”
Hodge’s face turns crimson. “Better than your bodyguard, here,” he says, nodding at Bucky. “How many passes did you drop last week?”
Steve doesn’t realize he’s leapt forward, he didn’t mean to attack Hodge or anything, but he must have done so, because the next thing he knows, Bucky is holding him back, a tenuous grasp on Steve’s elbow and the back of his shirt.
Steve satisfies himself by grabbing the wire to his headphones and yanking it away from Hodge. He whips around and shoves past Bucky toward the locker room exit.
“Steve—damn—you okay, man?”
“Okay?” Steve stops in his tracks, chest heaving. “I can take care of myself, you know!”
“Yeah, ‘course I do, I was just—”
“I wasn’t gonna hit him or anything.”
Bucky wrinkles his nose.
Whirling around again, Steve stomps out of the locker room and only when he’s out in the cooler, fresher air does he regain his bearing. He pauses, takes a breath, regains his bearing, and sobers enough to be a little embarrassed about his outburst. The part where he yelled at his best friend, that is. Not the part where he threatened a senior fullback with just the medicine he deserved.
“You’re so cute when you’re mad.”
Steve glances up and catches Bucky’s teasing smile. He rolls his eyes. “I wasn’t gonna hit him.”
“You really were.”
Deep breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth. “Yeah. Maybe.”
“Steve Rogers, starting fights in the locker room.” And did Bucky really just “tsk” him?
“He’s got no business calling you out like that.”
Bucky laughs and slings an arm over Steve’s shoulders, steering them toward the wall of glass doors that lead outside. He tugs at Steve’s headphones and twists them around two fingers. “The 70s playlist?” he deftly changes the subject.
“I like rock music, Buck.”
“I’m not judging.”
“Really?” Steve smirks. “Because it sounds like you’re judging.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
"...Okay, maybe it's a little Remember the Titans. But—"
“Steve, trust me,” Bucky cuts in, uncharacteristically sober. “I meant what I said. If you keep throwing touchdowns like you did last week, I don’t care if you listen to Celine Dion before games.”
It’s the whole combination that makes Steve laugh; the five touchdowns from last weekend, the thought of Titanic pre-game rituals, the sudden jab of autumn air as they step outside, the way Bucky’s hip knocks against his. Whatever you call the opposite of lonely.
It takes some wheedling and some puppy-eyes (the only response Steve gets when he says “But I have so much homework!”), but fifteen minutes later, they are in line for subs at the Jimmy Johns two blocks away from school.
Bucky rattles off orders for the both of them.
“I can pay for my own food, you know,” Steve grumbles. As always, it does no good. Which is nonsense because Steve’s family could pay for Bucky’s education for the next decade without feeling it, but it’s not like Steve ever sees a cent—and Bucky knows that.
Steve also doesn’t mention how effortless it was the way his regular turkey club just rolled off Bucky’s tongue. It makes Steve think of his seat in the back row of AP psychology, in the corner, between Peggy and the wall of windows. They’ve been talking about the subconscious. The powerful awareness of thoughtlessness. It’s like storage, a treasure chest of the things you want to talk about but would rather not think about.
While Bucky waits for the order, Steve fills their drinks and stakes a claim on a corner booth for the two of them. He grabs a napkin to wipe the crumbs off the table. When they’re both settled on opposite bench seats, sandwiches spread between them, the conversation turns—inevitably—to football.
“Just glad we’re finally into the heart of the season, you know?” Steve says as he picks sprouts out of a glob of mayonnaise.
He always refers to the varsity team as “we” even though he plays JV. Maybe because it’s his school, after all—because they all wear the same colors; maybe because of that dormant conviction that one day he will be a part of them; maybe because Bucky is one of them. Steve could never extract himself from Bucky—he could never separate them into two identities. However, as always, his lack of personal involvement allows Steve to analyze the varsity schemes with a calculated efficiency.
“We need to prove ourselves against some better teams,” he says. “Burnside is doing well, but the line hasn’t been tested.”
“The teams we’ve been playing not good enough for you?” Bucky deadpans.
Steve’s cheeks grow hot. “I didn’t mean you guys weren’t any good, I just—the smaller schools aren’t as exciting, and …” he trails off when Bucky starts laughing. “—Sorry.”
“No, no, it’s fine.” His features stretch into an easy smile. “I’m messing with you. The newspapers have been way meaner than that, don’t worry.”
Steve thinks back to that morning, flipping through to the sports section, reading the headline about lethargic offenses. Words like young, inexperienced, unproven.
“Well?” Bucky prompts.
Steve looks up and knits his brow.
“We played someone good last night.” Bucky specifies. “How were we?”
Steve swallows down a stunned silence. “I mean, I think you guys look great this season. It’s kind of hard to judge, obviously, with the competition lacking so far. But the potential is there, especially on the offensive line, which is practically unheard of in high school ball.”
“This weekend I don’t want to see any cute tricky stuff. I want to line up in a pro-style offense and chip away. We’re a running team, after all.” Immediately, Steve wishes he could catch that last statement on a hook and reel it back in.
I literally just told our star receiver that the team needs to run more.
Letting out a shaky breath, he chances a glance at Bucky’s face—but he doesn’t look surprised or hurt or upset. There’s a gleam in his eyes; a softness in his crooked smile. The same look he gets on his face when he catches Steve’s old golden retriever sleeping under his feet.
Steve can feel his breathing accelerate. “What?” he asks.
“Nothing.” Bucky leans back in his chair, grinning now, toothy and sinful. “You’re right, that’s all.”
“… I am?”
“I’ve practiced so much blocking this week I’m starting to feel like a tight end.”
Steve’s lungs hitch and he nearly inhales his Coke, and tries not to make it too obvious that he’s choking to death.
Maybe he does it to show a little mercy, but Bucky just smiles and carries on the conversation. “Three weeks, though. That’s when we play Jefferson, and their defense sucks. I’m gonna tear them up.”
“Can’t wait,” Steve says hoarsely.
“Still wish you were the one throwing to me, though.” Bucky addresses his lap, fiddling with a seam on his jeans.
It’s something they haven’t talked about in weeks. It was better left ignored, honestly. The deep stabbing pain they had both felt when they read the try-out results. When they found “Barnes” right at the top of the varsity list, but scanned it three times before discovering “Rogers” buried on the second page of the JV roster.
Bucky had taken it much harder than Steve, at least visibly so. He’d kicked a chair across the locker room and cursed so loudly Steve tried frantically to shut him up before a coach or a P.E. teacher caught him anointing them with choice nicknames.
“It’s fine, really—I’m just a sophomore, it’s not—”
“It’s bullshit, is what it is!” Bucky had shouted. “Seriously? Will Burnside?! You could pass better than him blindfolded!”
“Come on Buck,” Steve had said with a half-hearted laugh, trying to calm him down, “I’m barely five-six, I wouldn’t even be able to see over the linemen.”
“And that’s my season down the drain. We’ll probably throw the ball like, twice.”
“There’s always next year.”
“It’s still bullshit.”
He’d cooled off eventually. Then they spent a couple weeks coming to grips with the fact that they’d be playing for different teams for the first time since fifth grade, but the mantra was always the same—next year.
Over the summer, they had gone their separate ways for two-a-days. Steve fought off the iron emptiness in his stomach. The heaviness, the cold knowledge that he still hadn’t proven himself, still couldn’t pull this off, still couldn’t translate the aching well of passion in his guts into hard statistics. Everything blooming against his sternum and nothing to show for it.
Here, now, entrenched in a corner of a chrome-trimmed sandwich shop, Bucky brings it up again. It’s not a sore spot, exactly. Just a sharp wistfulness. The space between them grows and shrinks all at once.
Praying that his voice won’t sound like it’s going through a cheese grater, Steve takes a breath before responding. “There’s always next year.”
Without looking up, Bucky’s lips crook into a little half-smile. “I’d have twice as many touchdowns if you were the one passing the ball.”
“Yeah, if a big linebacker from Queens didn’t snap me in half first.”
Bucky doesn’t answer. He takes a bite, chews, swallows, takes a drink. “Burnside fumbled twice last week.”
“Yeah.” Steve doesn’t know what else to say.
After another long pause, Bucky moves on. “I read a long thing online last night that said Monroe is going to take my spot and catch 1000 yards by the end of the season.”
“That’s just stupid.”
“You don’t have to flatter me,” Bucky grins. One of those bright-eyed shepherd dogs who brings the frisbee half way back just to taunt you with it.
Steve blushes, his thoughts temporarily fizzled out.
“I—I mean, a thousand yards? Stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Steve stammers. He thinks about zone blitzes and blocking ends and checkdowns. “Monroe will only have to catch half that to take your place.”
Bucky’s eyebrows shoot up before he bursts into laughter. “Oh, alright, alright, just like a quarterback, aren’t you? All talk.”
Steve would retaliate, but they both dissolve into undignified giggling.
“No one’s going to take your place,” Steve finally manages to say, his tone gentle. “You’re the best receiver in the state. People just like to stir up controversy. ”
“They do,” Bucky says, nodding. He cocks his head and plays with one earlobe. “I dunno about all that ‘best in the state’ business, but. Sure.”
“Maybe if you were a little taller …”
“Oh, yeah?” Bucky smirks. “You’re a punk.”
“You have pretty good hands, though.”
Bucky’s bark of laughter makes Steve jump, but that doesn’t take away the warm, purring satisfaction that curls in his stomach. It’s his favorite thing, probably. Making Bucky blush like that.
Fair is fair.