by Rich Hanes
A slice-of-life story from Sebastian's youth about being slammed down by the system.
OUT OF BOUNDS
A straining leap, an arching spine, pushing off another's shoulder, the very edge of gravity...
The gloved paw caught the very tip of the football and nimbly corralled it into the vulpine's waiting embrace. Leaping fox and lazy ball fell over the side-boards and landed with a crash, a second fox shoving the first's legs out from under him. He tumbled end over end onto his back outside the boards and skidded awkwardly on the plasturf, bull-dozing a cameraman in the process.
The fox stood up and held the ball over his head, and was met with a thunderous rain of boos.
Wopat University interception by number seventeen, Sebastian Valentino--
"Nice pick," one of the fox's teammates said, slapping the side of his helmet.
Sebastian Valentino vaulted over the end-boards and back onto the field of play. He tossed the ball to the referee and strutted alongside the home-team's bench. He held his hands up to either side of his helmet, as if imitating ears, and flicked them, like he couldn't hear the jeers from the homefield crowd.
Of course, Sebastian could hear every word the psykel-drenched audience spat at him. Showboater! Arrogant stray! Unplanned!
That last one got to him, and he hesitated, briefly glancing at the over-soused fox that had spouted the words. His eyes locked to the intoxicated fox, only for a moment, but it was more than enough to disgust Sebastian.
He trotted dutifully to the sidelines, where his coach was waiting.
"Hey, Valentino," Coach Irwin said, "try not to make us look undignified out there, huh?"
The older Irwin grabbed Sebastian by his orange uniform and pulled him to his chest. "You know what I mean. Don't go riling up the pedigrees, I stuck my neck out to give you a starting position."
Sebastian frowned. "I didn't mean to--"
Irwin cut him off. "Look, it doesn't matter what you mean to do, okay? Just don't go around showing off like that, it makes us all look bad."
Sebastian sighed and nodded, and dropped his helmet down. "Okay, fine. I dig."
Coach Irwin brought the rest of the team into the huddle. "All right team. Thanks to Valentino's interception, we've still got a chance to win this. We need to go downfield forty-three yards and score." Irwin rapped Sebastian's helmet. "This is your chance to prove yourself, now go!"
The roar of the crowd thundered in Sebastian's ears, pounding into his helmet. The rush of it all, this was what he lived for: the chance to show those stiff-ears what he could do. Forty-thousand screaming, shrieking vulpines crying for his blood, in the spirit of competition. The chanting, the taunting, the name-calling. It all faded away into a distant rumble beyond the quarterback's words.
"Red 16 Trips left fly on three. Ready?"
Sebastian settled into a runner's stance several yards behind the line of scrimmage, waiting for the signal to move. Focus. The savage symphony of the raucous fans melted away, becoming a quiet hum in his head. Sebastian dug his cleats into the plastic turf.
Time slowed down as Sebastian took it all in. All around him was a sea of red, the jerseys and shirts of the fans of the home-town team, the cacophonous din of noise. He glanced up at the scoreboard -- 57-52, 0:33 remaining in the game.
Then, just as suddenly, the quarterback shifted her leg. His cue. Sebastian was in motion, charging forward toward the line. As he breached it, the ball was snapped, and a collision of foxes and helmets rang out throughout the arena.
Sebastian angled just slightly away from his covering fox, maintaining a slim half-pace distance ahead, and Wopat University All-Star Sheila LaCrosse floated a delicate graceful swan of a pass through the air. The vixen had thrown a perfectly placed end-route, trusting that Sebastian's impressive vertical leap would corral the ball. At the very corner of the end-zone, Sebastian Valentino leapt nearly level with the goal-post, snagged the ball with the tips of his fingers, and then crashed down to the plasturf with the football securely wrapped up in his embrace.
Sebastian rolled to his feet, and was immediately intercepted by a linesman waving his arms frantically.
Sebastian stalked up to the linesman, a larger arctic fox, and growled. "What do you mean, incomplete pass? I had possession!"
"You didn't stay inbounds--"
It wasn't long before Coach Irwin entered the fray, spitting venom at the referee. Sebastian, incensed, waved his arms.
"How was that not a catch!"
"He didn't maintain control through the procedure!"
"He was inbounds long enough to--"
In frustration, Sebastian ripped his helmet off and snarled at the linesman. "This is a dogfood call and you know it! Who are you playing for?"
The referee had enough. "That's it, you're out of here!"
"I said you're ejected! Get off my field!"
Sebastian glowered at the uniformed authority figure. This was all so painfully familiar. His hackles could burst right out of his shoulder pads with the rage he was feeling. But he knew that, once again, this was their game, and he had to play it. They made the rules.
With a slump in his shoulders, he held his helmet in hand and trudged toward the player's entrance and off the field. Even in the locker-room, he could hear the reverberating crowd noise, an uproar that should have been for him, even if in antagonism.
Sebastian could hear the yelling and whooping of the crowd as the next play unfolded. The thunder of pounding helmets and the cheers of the crowd washed out into a nearly- indecipherable din. But Sebastian could tell by the sound. His team didn't score, and they took the loss.
They took the loss, rather than let the stray win the game for them. And Sebastian was acting undignified?
The echoing of the arena's fans rang through Sebastian's head as he wearily removed his jersey and pads. He sighed as he looked at his locker. Empty. It reminded him of how his own locker, back on Wopat, was also empty. No trophies or awards for the stray. All of his teammates' lockers here were empty, as well, but they didn't seem to mind. They were treated with respect and dignity. Worthy opponents. Somehow, Sebastian's locker seemed emptier than his teammates.
He hung up his number seventeen jersey and quietly slipped out of the opponent's locker room before anyone could find him. One of the vulpine news reporters passed by him without recognizing him. Such is the way of a stray.
Of course, the pedigreed Quarterback Sheila LaCrosse had more than enough sound bites to satisfy the VSPN talking heads. She knew all the right things to say. Sebastian didn't feel any ill will to her. How could he? They'd practiced that play so many times that it was almost instinctive, and he knew that she would be looking for him on the fade route. It was only natural. He was the fleet receiver, the one with enough speed to burn any defender, and a vertical leap that made him appear to be on springs.
But when they showed all the highlights across the galaxy, it looked better to have a proper pedigreed nameplate to display on the scrawling sports ticker. Sure, she was charismatic, and won last year's Lafayette Trophy as league's most valued player. But she didn't play a particularly good game today. Sebastian should be the one on all the highlight reels.
Exhausted, Sebastian leaned against his flashy red, twin-supercharged, turbine-powered Stargazer convertible. The 372 kW beast was something even the pedigrees couldn't take away. He was in control behind the wheel, the only time he felt such. At least the pedigrees recognized his value on the field. Arena football paid well.
Sometimes he lingered in the parking lot to sign autographs, and chat with fans. But this time, there was much more commotion, mobs of reporters all wanting to get a look at the prestigious pedigreed Quarterback. Get her thoughts on their elimination from the playoffs. Nothing important.
Nothing Sebastian could have helped change.
Sebastian sat on the hood of his car, trying to appear presentable. After some time, a child fox wandered up to him. He couldn't be more than six years old, just starting adolescence for his species. Smart enough to understand the world, but too young to take part of it. Ready for secondary school. His parents kept a watchful eye some distance away.
"Hey... hey, Mr. Valentino?"
"Would you... would you sign my program for me? You're the greatest."
Sebastian's ears perked up at that. Usual compliments from the youth. The kids sure loved football. He was probably another stray, though, trying to look up toward that unattainable goal of respect. Oh well, just another fox like Sebastian. Run through the mill, take your place, step aside, seen and not heard.
"Hey, what's your name, kid?"
"Rudy, Rudy Lafayette."
Sebastian froze momentarily and locked eyes with the kit's parents. A pedigreed child had just asked for his autograph. Maybe, just maybe, Sebastian could break down those barriers of prejudice and bigotry that held him back. Just one fan...
To Rudy, my biggest fan, Sebastian Valentino 17
The little kit seemed overwhelmed by it all, and Sebastian smiled. Maybe there was some hope for Sebastian to overcome the prejudices of the ingrained Pedigree system. Maybe just one little fan would be enough.
"You were snared on that last play, by the way," the kit said as he walked off. "Totally dirty hunting."
Sebastian just chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. "I play the game, and by their rules. It's just the way it is."
Sebastian watched the parents as they quickly ushered their child away, back to the safety of their world. Rudy would be gone from him, indoctrinated again, about how the pedigreed were always superior.
Sebastian could do something.
"Hey kit," Sebastian said, just as the parents were about to shepherd the child into their car. "Have a jersey." Sebastian reached into his duffle bag and grabbed one of the rolled-up jerseys he kept ready. He tossed it to the little kit, and he caught it as if it were the most precious thing in the world. A perfect reception. Rudy's tail wagged at near mach speed.
Sebastian could hear him talking about the encounter with his parents. The lift in his spirits was almost enough to make Sebastian forget about that incomplete pass, the lost game, the ejection. The indignity. He would just have to stand up, and take it as it goes. Somehow, he felt he made a difference, even if it wasn't reflected on the scoreboard.
"Didja see that dad? Dad! Valentino gave me his jersey!"
"That's great, son."
"Isn't he just the best?"
"Well, the best that can be expected of a stray."
The summer air was warm, but Sebastian still felt a cold chill down his spine. This would be such a long journey...