Turning twelve didn't matter to Ty. Birthdays, like Christmas and every other holiday, had lost their thrill. Most of the day had already passed without anything special happening and Ty didn't expect that to change. He knew the surprise his aunt and uncle had promised him wouldn't amount to much more than a pair of underwear or a new ax for splitting wood, maybe a blanket. Surprises had a place in his other life, the one before his parents died.
But when Ty grabbed the handrail and stepped up into the school bus, he was surprised when someone yanked him back to earth and spun him around.
"Why weren't you in gym class?"
Coach V had a voice like a growling Doberman, and he scowled down at Ty without easing the stranglehold on his upper arm. Ty's face overheated. He swallowed and looked around. The bus at the front of the line hissed and roared, grinding gears and filling the air with a cloud of diesel fumes.
"I was in Mrs. Brennan's office," Ty said, looking down at the broken line of the curb. Mrs. Brennan was the school psychologist.
The coach ran a hand over the bristles of his dark hair, and his face softened a bit.
"You're not in trouble?" he asked softly.
Ty looked at his blue no-name sneakers and shook his head. "For the accident."
"Does she help?" the coach asked, still soft.
Ty knew that when adults asked questions, they already had the answer they wanted in mind. The right answer wasn't that the death of his mom and dad had left a hole in his heart too big to be helped. The right answer was yes, and that's what he said.
Coach V nodded and turned his big, sharp nose in the direction of the bus, eyes hiding behind the kind of mirror sunglasses that cops usually wore, the kind that reminded Ty of a housefly.
"We got spring football today," the coach said, turning the insect eyes back at Ty so that he could see two dark-haired boys with glasses staring back in their mirrors. "You interested?"
"Spring football?" Ty asked, blinking and pushing his own glasses back up to the top of his nose.
"It's a club, just for one week," Coach V said. "It lets me get the team together to see where we're at. They didn't have spring football in your old school?"
"I went to Tully. There's no football until you get to high school."
"Small town, huh?"
Ty jumped when his bus driver blared her horn and bellowed out at him, "Let's go!"
"There's a sports bus at five," the coach said.
"You think I could play?" Ty asked.
The coach looked up at the bus driver with a twisted smile and pumped his thumb toward the exit.
"Go ahead, I got him," he said to the driver.
The door slammed shut, and the bus growled away, unleashing the long line of waiting buses to do the same. Ty couldn't hear the coach's words over their roar until they reached the top steps of the school.
"I'm sorry," Ty said. "I didn't hear you."
"Of course I want you to play," the coach said. "You're the fastest kid in sixth grade and I need some deep speed for my passing game."
"I'm not too skinny?" Ty said, glancing down at his thin legs.
"Deion Sanders was skinny, but if you're the fastest man on the planet it doesn't matter."
"Who's Deion Sanders?"
Coach V stopped and looked at him, then shook his head and said, "You're too young."
Ty swung the old pillowcase his aunt made him use for a book bag over his shoulder and hustled to keep up. "My older brother plays football."
"Great," the coach said. He swung open the locker room door and banged his palm on one of the old metal lockers. "Get your gym clothes on and get outside."
"At Syracuse," Ty said, setting his pillowcase full of books down on the scarred wooden bench.
Coach V froze and whipped off his sunglasses as he spun around.
"Not Tiger Lewis?"
"The Tiger Lewis? That's your brother?"
"His real name is Thane. They just call him Tiger."
"How come you never said?"
Ty shrugged and searched for the right answer.
In truth, he kept his older brother a secret because he already got picked on enough for being the new kid at school. Picked on for reading all the time, his glasses, the musty pillowcase he used to carry his books, his canvas grocery-store sneakers, and his skinny legs. He imagined that if he claimed Tiger Lewis for his brother, the kids would either refuse to believe him or they would point out how pitiful he was compared to his all-American brother, the football hero.
In truth, it sometimes seemed to Ty that he only imagined Tiger Lewis was his brother. The two of them were so far apart in age—ten years—that they really didn't know each other that well. Ty had been eight when Thane went off to college. Since then, he only got to see his older brother on holidays or family vacations. Two weeks every summer their mom and dad used to take them camping, once in July, once in August. The memory of those times flashed in his mind, like dreams—being out in a small boat, just him and Thane, or climbing a rocky mountain trail, Thane reaching down to help him, the veins protruding from his muscular forearms.
When they were together, Thane, or Tiger, as everyone called him now, would share his knowledge with Ty. He'd tell stories with lessons and say that he wanted Ty to learn from the mistakes he'd already made. Thane's nuggets of wisdom would come back to Ty at random moments, crashing through his consciousness like a loud commercial in the middle of a television program. When they did, Ty would lose himself for a moment as if in a trance. One of those memories came back to him now.
Excerpted from Football Hero by Tim Green Copyright © 2009 by Tim Green. Excerpted by permission.
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