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THE HURT by Chris Dean

In the late 1980s, a child was born in Des Moines to Enid and Ralph Baker, and they named her Amanda Christine. A churlish baby, Amanda drove her parents to extremes of indulgence and discipline. Nothing seemed to be able to soften chubby little Amanda’s stubborn, round pout. Not candy or happy stories or patty cake, and certainly not frowns and time outs. Enid went crazy with worry for two years. Eventually she took the advice of her husband and accepted the irrevocable. Amanda was a beautiful healthy child who didn’t like laughing or smiling, and her staid brown eyes were hers, unique, and no one else’s. There was no changing the sun or the moon or the stars, or their sweet Amanda Christine.

She was bigger than most kids, so Amanda kept to herself growing up. The other children were simply too fragile to play with. Bloody noses and tall trees and creeks that you had to fly across to reach the far bank scared them silly. And those limestone cliffs that showed you a view of half the city? No normal twelve-year-old would ever be so brash as to try and climb those monsters. She liked to hang out there and watch the sunset while the other kids were scurrying to get home before dark.

Amanda grew from a girl to a lanky woman in her freshman year of high school. She was so clumsy that, though she could dunk a basketball, she could not dribble one. She hated looking silly in gym class, and she was determined to learn how to dribble that stupid ball. Long evenings of awkward slapping at that ugly orange ball until her wrists were like lead gave her some degree of skill. At least she didn’t embarrass herself on the court anymore.

She tried out for the basketball team on a dare. She played second string center behind an athletic black girl named Liza May. Amanda was in awe of Liza’s aggressive style of play. She mimicked the other girl’s moves the best that she could. She did all right, the team went 8-4, and it was the most fun she ever had. From that time on, Amanda was hooked on sports.

Showing up for baseball tryouts the next spring turned out to be embarrassing. Amanda had batted a few balls around and even practiced pitching against the garage, but she’d never really played the game. Her fielding was poor and she chopped at the ball when she batted. But Coach Myers was the same gray-haired pundit who she had been impressed with her hustle on the basketball court, and at the end of that long afternoon he dropped the thick brows around his intuitive brown eyes and asked simply, “You even know how to play this game, Baker?”

Her response was instantaneous. “I’m learning, Coach!”

Shaking his head, he mumbled, “At least you can throw the ball,” and penciled her in as a relief pitcher.

Baseball turned out to be harder than she ever could have imagined. Amanda refused to give up, and eventually she learned how to swing a bat. She played a very small part in a 12-6 season.

All through high school Amanda immersed herself in sports. Though she was never a star at baseball, she became an asset to the team. At basketball and track she received a certain notoriety for her skills. She dismissed the praise, but it was impossible not to be affected. People liked her because she was a jock, and Amanda enjoyed the attention.

In her senior year, Amanda went to Coach Myers with an unusual request. She wanted to try out for football at halfback position. The coach virtually guaranteed that Amanda wouldn’t be picked for the team but said he’d let her try out. Then the old man took off his ball cap and scratched his head, asking, “Why? You’ve got basketball, track, and baseball. Football too?”

Amanda grinned. “I couldn’t find anyone to play baseball with last summer. I started fooling around with Al Granger and Pike and those guys in the park, just for something to do. We played football every day in August almost. Coach, I like it. I like the contact.”

“Baker,” the coach moaned. “You are a girl in case you haven’t noticed. Girls aren’t supposed to like that kind of contact.”

“Coach. You can hit people and you don’t draw fouls. You can knock people on their butt and there is no whistle. No fouls, Coach.”

“I know the rules of football, Amanda.”

“I’ll be honest, Coach Myers. I think I was born to play football.”

“I said you can try out. That’s all.”

“All I want is a chance.”

“A chance to try out. But you won’t play. Even if you make the team, which you won’t, I can’t play you on the field. What if you got hurt?”

“Coach. They wear pads. You can’t really get hurt with those pads.”

“Get out of here before I come to my senses and change my mind.”

“Thanks, Coach.”

Amanda became the first student in the history of Longview High to play on all four teams in the same year. As the starting tight end on the football team she performed well, but Amanda knew she was just getting started. She knew she would improve as time went by. If she wanted to play in college and in the pros someday, she had to get a lot better. She was hooked, on football.

Her first year at Arkansas State she played second string center on the girls’ basketball team. She also sat on the bench through ten football games. In the last game of the football season she played five minutes in the fourth quarter. She caught two passes, recovered a fumble, and rushed for a twenty-yard touchdown. All in five minutes. She could not wait until next year.

Those five minutes were a portent. Amanda became the first woman to start in American collegiate division II football. In her senior year, she had more receptions and rushing yards than anyone on the team. But what amazed people was her style of running.

Amanda spent thousands of hours watching films of Barry Sanders, Erik Dickerson, Sweetness, and all the great running backs. Not quick or smart enough to duplicate what she saw, she incorporated what she could with her own talents. Amanda could run with the ball like a rocket and she could take the hits. She didn’t evade tacklers, she ran straight for them and dared them to put her down. With this aggressive style of play she hurt people on the football field, and grown men with seventy pounds on her were reluctant to tackle her. Nobody called her a girl on the gridiron. They called her Pain-In-A-Skirt, Amanda Pain, or her favorite: The Hurt.

It was unbelievable that she wasn’t drafted out of college to go pro. Despite the stats and all the publicity her college football prowess brought, Amanda had trouble getting NFL teams to even look at her. It was pure prejudice. Aggravated, she went north and joined the Quebec Grizzlies. It was a different type of football that did not highlight her skills, but she persevered and clawed out a place for herself on the team.

Playing with men on a professional team was hard. Amanda sometimes thought the real opposition was those catcalling Canucks in her own locker room. She was harassed for being a woman, a Yank, and show-boater with equal enthusiasm. On three occasions she was actually pulled into knock-down drag-out fights with members of her own team. She went two and one.

The Quebec Grizzlies went 10–8. Amanda rushed for over a thousand yards and had forty-two receptions and eight touchdowns. She missed being named rookie of the year by a hair. After the season ended, everyone was convinced that she was this amazing Wonder Woman who had changed the game forever. Amanda knew better. She was The Hurt. She had a new spin move she wanted to perfect in the off-season, and she needed to knock a couple of ticks off the hundred-yard dash; she needed more speed. Despite all the fanfare, she still had a long way to go before she would be satisfied.

She received three calls: from Chicago, Miami, and Arizona that summer. The NFL changed its mind, and they wanted The Hurt to come home. She was reluctant to make a change so early in her career, but the money they offered was too good to pass up. She went to the Arizona Cardinals.

Training camp was crazy. Those Canadians had been serious idiots, but the boys in Arizona were just ruthless. Her locker was trashed regularly, and she had two tires slashed in the first few weeks. It all came to a head one afternoon when three of those goofballs corralled her in her private shower stall. She lost it completely and beat the hell out of two of them. The third one got away. She received a black eye, two bruised fingers, a $1500 fine, and thousands of letters and telegrams from supporters. Her body healed, she paid the fine, and moved past it. The harassment trickled down to an occasional sneer. They all concentrated on playing football, the reason they were there.

Coach Anthony Janeski was an old fart who was himself adjusting to his first year with the Cardinals. He snapped at Amanda every time he opened his mouth. His favorite caveat was, “You won’t make it a year in this league. This is a man’s league, Baker.” And then there was, “The Hurt? It hurts my eyes just to watch you out there, Baker.” She thought this was absolutely hilarious.

The Cardinals went 8-8 that year. Although Amanda had done well, with a thousand yards rushing and fourteen TDs, she didn’t think they would renew her contract. The front office was going crazy making all these personnel changes, and Amanda was sure they were going to kick her to the curb.

Coach Janeski called her into his office right after she cleaned out her locker. There was hardly anyone in the locker room, and she was surprised that he was even there. She dragged herself across the shiny black floor. Amanda was certain that he was going to tell her she wouldn’t be coming back. She rapped on his office door, mumbling, “Coach?”

The coach had bright blue eyes that never strayed. He tossed a file on his desk, fixed those eyes right at her, and said in a tired voice, “Baker. How are you?”

She hesitated. “Fine.”

“Baker, we’re making some changes.”

She was sullen. “Yeah.”

“This team has potential, but we need to find the right combination of personnel. We’ll have a lot of new faces next year, and I need veterans on this team who can show these rookies how to play this game right.”

This was it. They were going to fill her spot with a more experienced player. “Coach, I’m packed. You don’t have to say anything. I think Miami. Or maybe Dallas. I’ll get another shot.”

“What?” The coach frowned and his face turned into a forest of wrinkles. “You are crazy if you think I am letting you go, Baker. Are you crazy?”

She was stunned, and delighted.

“What I need from you is next year: I need you to show some of these new kids how this game is played. How to rush the ball. You are The Hurt. And next season I want a whole bunch of little Hurts out there imitating you. You got that?”

She grinned. “Sure, Coach.”

“You thought I was cutting you? You are crazy. In forty years of football I have never seen anyone with more guts, Baker. You are not going anywhere. You had a tremendous year.”

“Yeah.” She looked at her shoes.

“What?” The coach was confused. He complained, “What now?”

“Maybe I had a good year. But Coach, we went 8-8. We didn’t even make playoffs.” A hot rush ran through her body. “I need to work on my cuts. I can do better, Coach. You’ll see. Next year we make the playoffs.”

Coach Janeski stared at her for a solid minute. He took a deep breath and said, “Get the hell out of here. And when you show up for training camp, you be ready to play.”

“Thanks, Coach.” She eased out the door and began drifting away.

The coach was still talking, “And you leave that skirt at home. I don’t want no skirts on my field, Baker. I want The Hurt. You got that?”

She reached the locker room doors and went through laughing.

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AUTHOR BIO:

There are a lot of places Chris Dean loves to visit, like Yosemite, the Klamath, and anywhere the redwoods touch the sky. This writer traveled western America as a delivery driver and then as an entertainment producer, and Chris liked the driving best. Chris’ work has appeared in Theme of Absence, Page & Spine, and other publications.

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Hurt”:

We’ve published several sports stories in our magazine. Chris Dean’s story caught our attention because it’s about someone fighting to belong where most others think she doesn’t belong. It’s about a dreamer and a great story on an age-old theme: Don’t let anyone or anything stop you from fulfilling your dreams. And reading it makes us feel good.