The night of celebration had arrived, one oppressively hot and humid, but nobody seemed to mind. On the flat expanse of pasture they had built a bonfire, the massive cone rising like an active volcano out of fertile, farmland soil. It stood at the height of four or five men, the width of a school bus, and put off heat like the innards of a blast furnace. It was the center of their ceremony, this blazing symbol of power amid meek countryside; the farmhouses, feedlots, and green fields of corn. The sun had set to the west, and across the valley one could see the half-moon high above the dark arc of a humpbacked hill. Despite nightfall, the summer heat remained, and the rugged inhabitants came out in droves, sweat staining their shirts, their pants, sweat slathered over every pore. Being late August of 1999, they knew the last summer of the millennium would soon die. Winter usually dug in long and hard, so people kept the sweltering complaints to themselves, even the older folk. But the teenagers were operating on a different vibe, dancing roundabout the fire as if one with some divine transmission.
Their leader, who danced and yipped among his band like the incarnation of a young warrior king, was seventeen-year-old Brock Bowman. His movements were mostly clean and athletic, free and flowing, though when overcome with competitiveness, rigid and warlike. The breaths he drew were deep and hard, his powerfully built chest—bare and dripping sweat—heaved in rhythm with the nods of his head. Tattooed on one rounded pectoral was a large letter B, inked in Gothic font, while the other pec was duly decorated with the tat of a dragon, one spewing meteoric fire. A golden fuzz formed a light beard on his face, a focused face framed by long strands of sweaty hair. Set deep behind the high angle of his cheekbones and the protruding brow ridge were dark eyes with copper tones, difficult to see through his flailing hair as he spun around the flame. He was the chosen one, most thought, but within himself he knew it had been his choice to step forth and lead.
Then a flash of lightning sizzled in the distance, the dark sky shredded by the energetic bolt. He felt the current ramble across the ancient valley and spark his own inner electricity. It was ushered by a wave of thunder that moved through him and spooked much of the crowd. Promptly, a door opened in his heart, followed by the urge to speak. He quelled it for a minute, instead running a quick calculation of the crowd size. He was impressed by the staggering support. He figured half the student body was present and a horde from the community at large. The faces gathered near were of diverse forms, those nearest the fire awash in a flickering orange glow. He sensed most eyes radiating his way, most looking on him with supportive love, but a few with lust and a few with jealousy. Nevertheless, he unlatched the door and started to speak.
“To our friends from school and community, thank you for being here. Tomorrow night we kickoff our season with a game against our rivals, the Stackport High Braves. And since the end of last season, we've been reminded that this is the golden anniversary game, fifty years of head-to-head football between the two schools. We know both schools were built soon after World War II, and I know some of the players from those early teams are here tonight. They may be in their mid or late sixties, but I tell you, many look like they can still play. Again, thanks for being here. Now, most of us know the success in this rivalry has gone to Stackport. Last year’s game with them was close. We only lost by one point. But we still lost.”
On that fact he took a pause, hanging his head and shaking it. With a finger he traced the bulging dragon tattoo and flicked the sweat from fingertip to earth. He watched it disappear into the ground and thought about ruthlessly burying a Stackport rival in that same patch of soil.
“For the last year I’ve walked the hall past the empty trophy case. There’s a stand inside for the Oil County Cup, but I’ve never seen it there. During my three years of varsity football, we’ve never beaten the Braves. We’ve never earned the Cup. Every day it’s absent from Derrick High. And since that trophy case is empty, so am I; empty, but driven above all else to win. Tomorrow night on our home field, our beloved Pasture of Pain, we will do just that. We will hoist the Oil County Cup and return it to the halls of Derrick High!”
The crowd erupted in howls, screams, and roars, and Brock, the man-child of huge ambition, nodded his head in approval.
“Now let me say one more thing before we bring those wheelbarrows down. We’re thirty-six players strong this season: fourteen seniors, twelve juniors, and ten sophomores. We’ve spent the whole summer preparing for the grind. We lift weights before dawn, we work during daylight at summer jobs, and at night, we get together and hang out and bond. The players—all of us, all thirty-six—give our best to be a team, so damn much that we’ve become family. Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. A family was born. And together we seek recognition. But above all else, we seek a championship. Is there anything wrong with that? With wanting to be known? Wanting to stand apart? We are young men who embrace challenge, and so we answer by saying, “Hell No!”
Brock swung around and faced the fire, breathing in a hot mixture of manure and woodsmoke. The thick blue jugular throbbed in his neck and the adrenaline seemed to visibly pulse through his veins. He looked toward the apex, the flame tips snapping high into the night like bloody claws reaching out to the gridiron gods. The nearby pep band cracked into action, filling the night with thumping strikes of the drum. On cue, two Dragon players sprung from the crowd and ran to an oil jack pumping in the night like some strange alien mantis. They moved in place behind two wheelbarrows chock-full of flammables and pushed them across the pasture toward the hungry fire. One came quickly, while the other bogged in a chasm of mud. The player labored to set it free, finally doing so when a group of fans jumped in to assist. When both wheelbarrows made it to Brock, he clapped their drivers each on the shoulder and pulled a Stackport jersey from one of the trays. The two others followed his lead.
“We are the captains of your Derrick High Dragons! Brock Bowman, Rhett Ogden, and Paul Leonerro! Now let this be a symbol of the hate we have for Stackport! This is our territory, the land and sky of the Dragons! Whatever enemy dares enter this land, do so at your own risk.”
The drums rolled as Brock twirled the rival jersey overhead and launched it into the blaze. The crowd roared as the fiery beast swallowed it whole. Brock spun back to face his fans, most of them joyous and returning to pre-ceremony mingling. He felt fulfilled to spread happiness to his tribe. But toward the back of the mass, he saw two teens sporting Stackport colored shirts centered with the Stackport logo. He sternly stepped forth, his chest ballooning. Whether they saw this or not, he didn’t know, but soon they scurried off toward the road where the line of cars was parked. He let them go without fight, those inbred spies!
Brock began chatting with teammates as another flash of lightning and its thunderous companion surged across the sky. “If the rain falls, let it fall,” he told them. “It won’t temper our fire for victory.”
Soon it poured down with no regard for the unsheltered. The mass ran for their vehicles, driving off to house parties or pubs, to sincere little houses or threadbare trailers, to comfortable beds or third-shift at the refinery. Brock remained while the rain cooled off his fire-baked body. He prayed for the cloud-borne tears to drown away any lingering fears, because deep down he was frightened to death of failure.