It was dark and cold and we were groggy when the bus pulled up to the hotel. “What time is it?” asked Big Tim, his red beard and cowboy boots.
“Four-thirty,” said Emory, brown eyes under a large hoody looking at his phone. ”In the fucking morning.”
The Manchester Wolves we were, an Arena Football team of 22 souls leaving New Hampshire bound for Wisconsin to take on the Green Bay Blizzard in a building right next to Lambeau Field—where Brett Favre had become a legend playing the game like a boy and Reggie White had reigned as the “Minister of Defense.”
No one knew our names like those guys; we were not famous yet. We traveled the road of minor league American football together, a group of ballplayers playing for room-and-board, $300 bucks a game, and a dream.
We boarded the bus in the silence of half-sleep and took our seats, white dudes from the Midwest and black guys from the south, our Polynesian fullback with his ukulele, and a kicker from Mexico who grew up on soccer fields.
Atnas, our receiver from Mozambeke who was raised by an adopted family in Vancouver (and was a citizen of our northern neighbor) sat next to me, the quarterback from California.
“You bring your speaker,” I asked him as I sipped coffee from the Radisson’s coffee shop, the hotel where we lived two to a room and hung out at the lobby bar where we’d sometimes get a drink or two for free.
“’Course, Jonny B,” said Atnas, though my name was Jonathan and my last name started with a G. ‘Jonny B Good’ he called me—and when we connected on a deep post or corner route for a touchdown the P.A. announcer called him ‘Air Canada.’
Coach Danton Barto—a good ol’ boy from Missouri who didn’t grow up in the projects, but “right across the tracks from the projects” as he’d told us in our first team meeting—climbed the stairs and boarded the bus, hot as my coffee. “Fuckin Gameday! We leave 2-3. We come back 3-3. Period.”
We’d lost our first game and it had been a struggle to get back to .500. Tough to even our record after initial defeat.
Coach Barto’s words hung in silence as the bus pulled out of the hotel parking lot, bound for the airport to arrive at the opponent’s stadium only a few hours before kickoff.
Atnas scrolled for a song on his IPOD, a process that took time as he searched for the just the right tune. The song began to play.
“Nickelback?” I asked, curious, as Atnas turned it up loud enough for the whole bus to hear.
“Oh, Jonny B,” Atnas said over the music. “This a good song.”
The beat drummed and the guitars joined in and the singer came on with lyrics about yearning to be a rockstar.
I’m through with standin’ in lines to clubs I’ll never get in / It’s like the bottom of the ninth and I’m never gonna win / This life hasn’t turned out quite the way I want it to be. . .
As the first hint of dawn showed to the east, a couple heads here and there began to bob to the words, shoulders beginning to sway.
A voice from the back began to sing along. It was Emory—our team barber who’d ‘line us up’ the night before the game but didn’t quite know what to do with my strange long hair.
“Cause we all just wanna be big rockstars. . .” belted Emory. “And live in hilltop houses drivin’ fifteen cars. . .”
“Give it a rest, Em’,” a voice shouted. “We tryin’ to sleep.”
But Emory didn’t care. He and his sweet voice kept on singing.
And, then, something magical happened.
Another voice joined in. Then another. And another.
Soon, the whole team was singing along—sopranos and altos, blacks and whites and browns—the whole bus alive with music.
“I need a credit card that’s got no limit / And a big black jet with a bedroom in it / Gonna join the mile-high club at thirty-seven thousand feet. . .”
Big Tim let out a big ol’ “Yeehaa” and things really got boomin’.
“’I’m gonna dress my ass with the latest fashion / Get a front door key to the Playboy mansion / Gonna date a centerfold that loves to blow my money for me. . .”
The bus was rockin’. We were alive as team—riding the minor league road together and singing about making the bigtime.
“Well, hey, hey I wanna be a Rockstar. . . hey, hey, I wanna be a rockstar. . . !”
The song ended with laughs and cheers, high fives and fist bumps. Coach Barto said we didn’t sound half-bad.
After the song, Atnas turned off his IPOD, and the rest of the drive to the airport was quiet. But a new energy filled the bus, something tangible and good, something cohesive and strong. Something we’d grasped at all year but hadn’t quite yet felt.
The bus pulled up to the terminal, the door opened, we stood from our seats and exited. In the cold air, our breath steamed as we stood around to pick up our duffel bags of pads and cleats and helmets from the storage compartment below the bus. Those who got their bags first waited for those who got their bags last.
The pre-dawn darkness had become the light of another day, gameday, the latest in the long list of gamedays that comprised the career of our lives.
Then each player boarded the plane—a single part of a whole that summed to something a lot greater than who he was—to compete together against whatever force materialized to oppose us.
We battled hard that night in Green Bay, bloodied and victorious. We returned to the hotel the next morning 3-3 on the season. And in the lobby bar that evening we were finally even—on every level.