Getting into the three point stance, feeling the coolness of the grass and earth through your glove, out of the huddle and into the line. Shifting slightly to adjust for the line in front of you. Knowing where you're going to go, and who you're going to hit.
Muscles tensed. Hamstrings stretched, weight distributed so if he goes for your arm you won't fall over. Entire body a tensed spring, waiting for the ball to move in your peripheral vision, signalling your time to spring into action.
One premature move, and you incur a penalty. You. Must. Not. Move.
The smell of sweat in your helmet, your breathing slightly ragged from fatigue, your mouth a metallic tang of anticipation and adrenalin. Breathing choked off by the mouthpiece that'll keep your teeth in place should your heads collide. Ignoring the trash talk from the man-mountain in front of you.
The ball moves. You don't register what's happened, you register THAT it happened.
Come in fast, hard and low, like a ram, all that tensed energy fired off in one shot. Fists right into the numbers, first man to get his hands into position wins. Everyone on the line moving. Impact. Collision. Sudden acknowledgment of gravity, of interia. Weight. Your strength versus his. Your eyes now follow the ball if you can, you feel the movement of the other player, your hands another set of eyes feeling for where he is and where he's going through your lineman's gloves, padded in the knuckles. He fights back, a sumo match in real time. You're trying to hold your ground to present a wall in case it's a run, while trying to figure out what to do next.
Thigh muscles strain, pushing against pushing, anaerobic riot - trying to make sense of all sorts of sudden movement around you. Someone further back sees what's happening better than you can, tied up as you are with someone bigger than you.
Your eyes only just spot the handoff, the ball's in the hands of the running back. You slam your right arm through two ham-hock like arms, just enough to break the hold and slip to his right, your left. You spin him slightly, his weight and strength halved as you surge through the hole and panic the runner as he sees you starting to intercept him before he can truly get into running stride. He alters course to avoid you and loses yardage, making it easier for another player to tackle him for a loss.
The whistle goes, and the adrenaline wears off, and you try to shake off the muscle fatigue as you walk back to the huddle.
Another game, another time. Blazing heat. Fatigue even worse from the temperatures.
You line up against a guy who's obviously been moved into the line from a linebacker position. He's more your size, but slightly smaller. This is going to be fun.
Dropping into the three point, back sore, knee joints complaining a bit, not enough sweat to cut through the heat of the day plus the insulation of shoulder pads and shirt, the sticky padding inside the helmet. But it doesn't matter right now. You see the slight fear in his eyes. This isn't the position he wants to play. He's asking the center for a clarification, sotto voce. You remind yourself if you get too greedy you'll draw a flag. You're tense, there's a slight vibration in your arm, a slight shaking in your legs, but it's gonna be go tim---
The ball moves. You come in lower, harder, stronger, and stand him up. What a beautiful, beautiful feeling as he goes up, and all you have to carry is his weight. He's totally lost, almost on tiptoe, under your control - as the fight goes on behind you you're now using him as a literal battering ram into his own quarterback. Quarterback drops back for a throw, then sees his own player coming at him at full speed backwards and loses his concentration, desperately looking where to sidestep. He tries to drop his weight back down, but you've done this move on a sled before, legs pounding, core strong, shoving through chest muscles and triceps, blocking the QB's vision, waiting to see which way to throw your opponent.
And then you feel the linebacker, running through the gap you've created, flying past you unopposed - and as the QB has his eyes on you the LB comes around you and hits him good and hard before he can react, before he can throw. Clean hit. Crunch of shoulder pad against chest pad, and the quarterback's body takes on strange angles as he falls, ragdoll-like, to the ground. The whistle blows. You relax your grip on the offensive tackle, who's now heading to the sideline hearing abuse from the coach, a torrent of barely audible abuse only recognizable as such from the tone and volume.
You see into the eyes of a player you've played before.
There's genuine enmity between the two of you. He went for your knees that one time in a dirty move, and slapped your helmet to try and distract you before the hike, a sudden disorienting bang - loud sound and flash of white in your brain.
You cannot wait for that ball to move. You're going to drive that son of a bitch onto his heels and not just make the play but pwn him in the process. Fatigue's forgotten, and you wiggle your toes to dig your cleats in that little bit more to get that little bit more traction in the initial push-off.
Ball gets hiked and you surge forward and grab NOTHING. He disappeared. There's a complete open hole and you can see the quarterback take a three step drop. Momentary confusion as your expected impact doesn't happen, something you trained for, and SHOULD HAVE KNOWN - but despite this have completely forgotten.
And you pay for it when you're blindsided by the opposite side offensive tackle slamming into your right side, running laterally past the guys to your right and straight into you - completely unprepared as you're braced against something coming to you from the front. You go down hard before you can even blink or register the impact, him on top of you, his shoulder pad slamming into your short ribs, winding you as you fly to your left and hit the ground with a palpable slam. God damn it. That was a good hit. There's no time for you to get up, as the play ends and you stand up, the guy who pinned you to the ground with his bodyweight grinning and offering you a hand up. Spitting out your rubber-and-grass tasting mouthpiece, you nod and say "nice one. Fuck you. But nice one."
You're sucking wind hard. It's been a long and gruelling game, and your team is on the losing end of things. You've got to get some pressure on the quarterback, and it's on you to try and juke or spin around the bigger guy in front of you. It's been a slightly uneven matchup and he's had more than enough time to throw all game. Not just you, but half your line.
There's a breeze and it's cool. You crouch down, trying to control your disinterest in getting into a combat where you might as well be trying to move or spin past a wall. It's do or die, and everyone's counting on you. You bite down into your mouth guard, shake your head slightly, and adjust your stance.
The ball hikes, and suddenly two men slam into you, a giant wall of green and white, with twin white helmets. In concert, the tackle and the center double team you, a perfect simultaneous hit. One man against one man was tough enough and tiring enough, but you're no match for the two of them. You realize in a panic they're going to knock you clean over and have the running back run through the gaping hole made by your absence, two men blocking any attempt to hit the ball carrier.
Only thing you can do is turn sideways in a Hail Mary attempt to get through, sink your weight, and nope, you're being driven backwards --- time to fall. You purposefully fall down and forward, tripping them up as they fall with you, having relied on you to keep them upright. The running back gets past you but not as far as they'd intended. They get the first down as the linebacker tackles him - but not the touchdown.
You're slow to stand up. Something slammed into your helmet in the exchange and you're seeing stars. The coach calls for you to get off the field - you're not in any trouble, but they need to move fresher legs into the fray. You start to run to the side and you notice you're suddenly favoring one leg, your foot just won't go down to the ground the way your other one will. By the time you get to the sideline, your left foot hurts. And every now and then from that day forward, occasionally it hurts.
It'll be a week before you're fully walking on it again, and two before you get back to practice, but you miss it.
And then one day, the game gets so fast, and so competitive. And so big, and so strong, that you go from on the team to not - displaced by other, bigger guys. Heavier guys. Stronger guys. Faster guys. High school is one thing, but college is another, and the NFL another still. You look at the guys who are playing the game - and meet one who played for a while in the NFL on the practice squad. He's six foot six, and with a frame you weren't blessed with by nature, almost four hundred pounds.
And your days are no longer centering on practices, games. Gatorade. Standing on a sideline watching plays. Seeing it through a visor, staring into eyes undelined in great patches of black smear. Trying to get a record in the weight room. Hitting a sled. Running back and forth. Tip drills. The delicious fatigue of a game hard fought, pulling off clothes that are stuck to you with sweat. You no longer stretch in an end zone or huddle up and shout with team mates.
And every time you put Madden into the Xbox and fire it up, you choose your favorite team and play through a game, quarterback on offense, choosing defensive lineman out of nostalgia on defense. Slight tang of loss, and regret.
You still miss it.