HE WAS A MEEK MAN, my father, but constant in all things. He owned and operated World Press & Tobacco, a two-aisle indoor newsstand and smoke counter that had every newspaper worth reading and several that weren’t. There were also thousands of magazines catering to every obscure habit, hobby, predilection and desire, arcane eddies of the great flow of world culture. There was a single rack of postcards and a display counter of cigars and cigarillos, pipe tobacco and rolling papers. He spent his days on a stool behind the counter listening to jazz LPs, the likes of Wardell Gray, Sonny Stitt, Howard McGhee. Behind him was the rack of Player’s and duMauriers, Cravens and the Export ‘A’s. He opened at 7:00 AM to sell papers and cigarettes to the office workers, closed at 1:00, came home, had his supper and slept a couple of hours. At 4:00 in the afternoon he returned to the store and stayed open until midnight. Six days a week, closed on Sundays. He did that for better than thirty years.
I hated him for those midnights. I hated him for the comfort he took in small things, the quietness and sobriety of his life. Mostly I hated him for the vision he represented of the life that I might inherit. It both saddened and frightened me.
He was hopelessly out of step in all things, including fashion, politics, music, books, television (he never watched TV, and so knew nothing but what he gleaned from the covers of the entertainment magazines he sold). He was an unrepentant Liberal, galvanized in the most impressionable moment of his youth by Expo ‘67 and the wave of New Canadianism that rode in during the Trudeau years. He was a lifelong Trudeau apologist, could excuse the PM for his overreactions and his flamboyance.
Richard Hamelin’s loyalty and steadiness were obvious from his unchanging wardrobe of worn-kneed corduroy pants, an ancient peacoat with missing buttons and fraying cuffs, stained and nubbly polyester shirts, and always the same vest, gray with black satin back. On his feet he wore moccasin-style suede shoes. He had a thick mop of hair which sometimes made it as far south as to cover his eyes, and he had giant glasses, like stage props, black, with a strong prescription. He was a thin, mousy man, sharp-angled, awkward.
He didn’t get a CD player until his turntable gave up the ghost sometime in the late ’90s.
He opened the store in 1972, the year after he married Mom and three years after graduating with an English degree. A few years later I came along, and twelve years after that, my sister Amy. I have always assumed she was a mistake. Maybe we both were.
Mom turned our house into a daycare. She had three or four neighbourhood toddlers at any one time. It was insane. Screaming, banging, crying, things being thrown, shit everywhere. I blamed my father. I thought if he had a better job then she wouldn’t have to work, wouldn’t have to take care of those kids. She did it for the money, was my thinking.
I did everything I could to be of no help to her whatsoever. I moved into the basement, avoided daylight, read bodybuilding magazines, and watched football videos.
At first I thought the football was enough to distance me from my home life. Dad wasn’t a sports guy, if that’s not already obvious. Is there something more than opposite? Polar opposite? Playing football, I figured, made me the polar opposite of my father. People would look at him and then look at me and say: No way they’re related.
I had already defied my parents’ expectations by transferring to the technical High School. Tech was where you ended up once you had decided, or had had decided for you, that academic success was not in your future. Tech was like a geographical low point where all the bad pieces eventually settled, the leftovers. If the school board was a cup of coffee, Tech was the bottom, and we were the dregs. Dregs with bad intent. If you graduated from Tech, a big if, and if you still intended to make anything of yourself, an even bigger if, you went on to trade school. Tech is where your future mechanics and H/VAC guys went. If you didn’t graduate from Tech, you were probably headed to prison.
But the next logical step for me was football. In grade 9 I made the junior team and wound up a tight end, blocking on running plays and flaring out for short passes. I was pretty quick and I caught a few good balls. I was also introduced to special teams, which is like a crash course in brutality. To put it another way: there are few venues so perfect for the adolescent male to work out his bloodlust than on special teams.
By the time I was ready for the senior team, late in the summer before grade 11, I was known to be both “coachable” and “skilled.” I had a good feel for the game of football. My father hadn’t yet seen me play a single game.
I started at tight end that season. As a rookie on the senior team, that’s kind of a big deal.
One practice that September we were running some plays on offence, working on blocking schemes, lined up against the d-line and linebackers, with live hitting. We had this guy named Joel who played outside linebacker. He had a pencil-line beard and silly designs shaved into the sides of his head. Everyone hated him, but he was a decent linebacker, so we let it go. One play during this practice I was pulling a stunt, crossing paths with the guard on my right, and Joel came inside and didn’t see me coming over. He had his eyes fixed on the quarterback. I hit him three-quarters on and laid him out on his cocky ass. There was a terrific popping sound, the very thing you hope to achieve when you use your shoulder pads as weapons. He was starry-eyed, breathless, and best of all, speechless. It was a defining moment in my life to that point, and three coaches went out of their way to congratulate me afterword.
Later, upon my retelling, my father would ask, “Was that necessary?” But in the expansive moments that followed the hit, every part of me, physical and emotional, said: I want to do more of that.
Strength was the key, I decided, and so within a week I was on my first cycle. In a matter of days I felt that all the pieces of me had fallen into place; the effects were soon dramatic.
It wasn’t hard to find the stuff: half the O-line and just about all the defence were using. It wasn’t a secret among the players. There was a guy, a second-string running back, whose older brother worked in one of those health supplement stores, and he had some kind of connection to the real stuff. That was our supply chain: shadowy mystery man to guy’s older brother to back-up back to us.
When I started bulking up, but keeping my speed, Coach Doherty, who handled the defensive side of things, noticed me and said, “Let’s try this meathead at middle linebacker.” Doherty called everyone meathead because he couldn’t remember names. And that was how I went from O to D, which is kind of like switching tribes. It was immediately obvious to everyone that I had found my place. I began to walk differently.
Football became religion, and working out the rite, the observance. The cycles were like communion biscuits. On game days we augmented the communion with greenies, just to make sure we were extra alert and open to the grace of utter fucking domination. Before pre-game drills we would put on our shoulder pads and hit the school’s brick wall a few dozen times.
HAMMER, THEY CALLED me. There isn’t much choice when your name is Jason Hamelin; there’s little art in the practice of concocting nicknames for high school football teammates. Our quarterback, for example, was a quick and powerful kid named Anil Mukerji. I’ll let you guess what we nicknamed him. That we liked him and that he was a very good quarterback did not prevent us from having a lot of fun at his expense. One of our best receivers, a guy named Mike Dorn, dropped one pass all season, in our first game. One pass. Next practice someone called him Butterfingers. By the next week that had been shortened to Butter. So our best receiver was Butter.
Botterill was our left end, the captain of the defence. We called him Killbot. I think I came up with that. Skenks, centre, anchor of the O-line, we called the Skunk. Stefan Morneau was Moron; he went on to get a scholarship at Temple. “Swede” Sweeney was a walk-on at Syracuse, which is where I’d wanted to go. For most of us other guys, though – Bowser, Digger-Dog, Mother Jones, Shoes, Cowpoke, Goggles, The Towel – this was the end of the line.
But that fall the Hammer was playing middle linebacker, the lynchpin, the keystone, the quarterback of the defence. I was still doing special teams, too, kick coverage. Kick coverage is complete mayhem. You line up with the kicker, in our case a skinny Somalian kid who had an absolute hoof of a right foot, and as soon as he kicks that ball you’re basically supposed to run as fast as you can and hit anything that moves. Eventually, you hope, you get to hit the guy that caught the ball.
We were a gang of marauders set loose upon a village, a war party, a scourge. Unexploded ordnance, menacing beasts galloping at full speed toward another band of like-minded miscreants, boys with daddy issues to dwarf my own, the maladjusted and murderous, hormones firing like malicious pistons. It was on special teams that you could really work some things out, unleash pent-up aggression, engage in serious headhunting. You could line a guy up before the snap and be fairly certain you’d get a chance to hit him with a thirty-yard head of steam behind you. Guys would break teeth, noses, occasionally rupture soft things. It was a strange, sanctioned form of bloodletting, and when it was over we were patted on the back.
Some of those boys have gone on to do terrible things as men. I wonder if they might have skirted such ruin if they had been allowed to continue playing football.
THE TECH HIGH Senior Red Raiders had a reputation. As Tech students we weren’t going to amount to anything, so we had very little to lose. There was a terror in the eyes of our opponents which was based solely upon anecdotal accounts of the savagery of which we were capable. We were active in the creation of this myth; it served us well.
Opponents with their own fearsome reputations would face us only to find themselves shorn of courage.
We demanded fealty, determination, effort. I don’t think the coaches even knew how serious we were. The head coach was Robert Broussard. We called him Bobby Brushcut. He also taught math. I had him for finite calculus, and he always had on turf shoes and his Red Raiders windbreaker. Sometimes he’d even have a whistle dangling from his neck. Brushcut was a football coach first, and a math teacher only by necessity. But during class I would see that he was pretty serious about math, too. It disappointed me. Even on game days he’d be deep into the class material, whereas I was only thinking about football. That was my level of commitment.
Being applauded for knocking guys’ heads off contributed to a sense of self worth in a way that my family life did not. Home was all about humility, and as a 17 year-old, humility is not really in your wheelhouse. You kind of want to believe that you’re a deity. I felt like Thor on that field. I felt that I had licence to kill an opponent, if the situation called for it, and that I would not be punished as a result, but celebrated. I looked forward to one day overhearing the recitation of my exploits. This was my chance to become legend.
On the cycles I went from solid to ripply to huge, and people noticed. The goal was to change my own DNA, to will myself into another family tree, or even to become rootless, if possible. Because my father’s meekness so frightened me, caused me such shame, it made any gambit to eradicate its traces in me worthwhile.
We practised in the morning and again after school. The October mornings smelled metallic and earthy. The cold air cleaned out your nostrils. Some mornings the mud was still frozen in the shape of our cleat marks and prostrate bodies from the day before. Toward the end of practice it would thaw out and get good and runny.
Our uniforms were never clean. The light grey pants always bore the marks of previous games and practices. They were grass-stained, mud-smeared, often bloody, and poorly mended. The mud was good. It said that you went flat-out. But blood was better; blood was a badge.
In the locker room we listened to Metallica and N.W.A. at an ungodly volume. We hung rookies by their underwear on hooks in the showers and then urinated on them. We punched one another. Batiste, who was a DB, used to march around naked asking everyone, “Is it funny?!” Then he’d answer the question himself, “It ain’t funny.” He’d get into guys’ faces and yell, “Motherfucker, it is NOT FUNNY.” I don’t know what wasn’t funny, but I think we all got the general idea.
When not on the field I was in the weight room, watching myself in the mirror, noting how slight was the family resemblance. It was a lifestyle that left little room for extras. I never saw my parents.
We finished that year 9-1, the only blemish on our regular season record a squeaker against Confederation that we lost 7-6 when our kicker missed an extra point going against a crazy wind. Then we fell in the semis to St. Leo. That game was like a fight in a prison yard. The difference was a fourth quarter safety, which is two cheap points if you’re asking me. Their nose tackle fell on Anil in the endzone, the ball like a grenade beneath his stomach. Final: 9-7.
That was a bitter pill to swallow. It became the taste of the cycles that long off-season, the chalky little tablets. Pop-squat-lift-pop. I was a massive beast. I was going to eat your son. I was going to cause him serious head trauma, simply because he had the misfortune of suiting up in another team’s uniform. It could be anyone. That’s what I would tell the assembled mourners: It was nothing personal.
The next year was another matter. We rolled through that season like a thing sent to destroy young men, belongings, pride.
OKAY, ONE THING I feel it is important to mention here: you always hear that one of the side effects is impotence, but I didn’t see that then. I had no trouble, and no shortage of opportunity. Girls were impressed by the bulk, no question. There was a steady stream of admirers. If you can imagine the kind of girls who would attend a last-chance high school like Tech, well, I knew the company of a good many of those.
The cycles proved a tough habit to break, as did the greenies. I think they also left me kind of open to additional, let’s say, weaknesses: crosstops, oxycontin, and I’m not saying no to any drinks these days, either.
I don’t work out much anymore, so I’m much smaller, and certain parts of me are shrivelled and unsightly. My luck with women has more or less evaporated. But it’s important to recognize just how momentous a time in my life this was. For two years, especially from September through late November, I was feared, adored, talked about. Other teams watched videos that isolated me, concocted strategies to combat my skill and power.
They modified their gameplans.
Every single girl I passed in the hallway knew my name.
How many people can say all that?
As shitty as things have been since, and they have been extremely shitty, I’m still tempted to say that, on balance, it was worth it.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN 9-1 and 10-0 is astronomical. We were perfect, unbeaten, unchallenged. There were newspaper articles. Mom said she heard Brushcut interviewed on the radio. By rights, the championship would already be ours. We felt they should abandon the lengthy and unnecessary process of playoff games and simply award us the title. It would save many people a good deal of heartache and pain.
As a team we would be spoken of in reverent terms several generations hence.
But no special writ was drafted, of course, and so the playoffs proceeded as per usual. In the semis we had our revenge on St. Leo, 24-8, in a snowstorm. That was fun. That put us on a collision course with the City West champs, Brookside.
The championship game, I think they called it the Capitol Bowl, was always played on a Sunday, so here was dad’s chance to come watch me play. Once we beat St. Leo in the semis I said to him, “Think you’ll make it to the Final?” And he said, “Oh, now, I suppose that’s possible.” That’s possible. I wanted to say to him, I’m your son!
What I really said was, “Oh, well, I hope you can.”
“I think I’m fighting a cold, Jason. Might be better for me to rest.”
I did not sleep the night before the game. Not one wink.
THEY HELD THE game at a neutral field, an astroturf deal behind a sports and rec complex, metal bleachers, a digital scoreboard. No change rooms, so we got into our pads and uniforms at Tech and rode the bus that way. As we got off the bus and sprinted out onto the bright green surface to begin warming up I felt it under my feet: it was like a sheet of plastic laid down over a parking lot. I was looking forward to picking up some good citizen’s son and body-slamming him down onto it.
Mom came, and she brought Amy. They sat halfway up the bleachers and they looked like they were trying to hide from the noise. They got cold and left before the half.
During the pregames Boterill said to me, “Hammer, today I’m going to kill someone.” I said, “Yes you are, Killbot! My goal,” I countered, “is to make these guys shit out their own teeth.”
“Yes, guy!” shouted Killbot.
Brushcut called us in, had us all take a knee. After the usual niceties he began screaming at us, yelling, “Who are you going to hit?!” and we were shouting back, “Everyone!” And then he asked us again, and we screamed louder, “Everyone!” The third time he asked, every member of the Tech H.S. Red Raiders senior football team screamed louder than they had ever screamed before, barking “Everyone!” up into the clear November sky. But not me. I called, “Richard Hamelin!” It was one of those things you do without fully realizing that you’re doing it.
We kicked off to start the game. Our thundering hooves made the very earth tremble. We swept down the field like a gale, like a hurricane, knocking over everything. You could have parked a garbage truck at midfield, and we’d have knocked that over. A yacht.
The wind was at our back, which felt like the natural world affirming our dominance. Brookside’s kick returner was tiny, and though that usually means quick, I caught him splitting between two blockers and I plugged the hole with my head. I was a giant arrow with a helmet at its tip. Once airborne I was not to be denied my target, which was painted garishly on his chest, six inches below his chin. I was told later that I drove the poor boy back five yards, in the air. He did well to make it to the sidelines under his own power.
We call that “setting the tone.”
Brookside’s bread and butter was their running game. They had a battering ram of a fullback, a guy built like a truck, so the game promised plenty of hitting, lots of inside stuff, wham wham wham. It was going to be a good day. Our defence took the field boisterously. Beneath our pads we wore t-shirts that said TECH HS D-FENCE: YOU ONLY GET 2 CHANCES. This was Canadian football, remember: three downs. We were proud of that.
The Brookside offence tried to appear upbeat, but despite their efforts they seemed stoic, maybe resigned to their bloody fate.
Their first play of the game was a run off tackle, to my left. We swarmed like pack animals. There was a solid blanket of red over top him. He might have managed a yard before we buried him, a kid with hopes and dreams smothered beneath an avalanche of acned flesh.
They went two-and-out. I was fatherless. I was adrift in a sea of pain. A pirate. My consolation would come from spreading that pain to others.
THE CYCLES MADE rage seem like the natural response to just about anything. Later in the first half Brookside pounded down the field to within field goal range. Every small advance felt like an insult, a tiny wound inflicted. I looked around: what was wrong with us?
We staunched the bleeding, barely, and prevented them from getting in the end zone. Then their kicker put a wounded duck through the uprights: 3-0 Blues.
I did not take that well. I sprinted to the sideline, passing our kick return team on the way. I yelled at each of them, “Revenge! Revenge!” Once on the sideline, I took off my helmet, crouched and, gripping it by the facemask, slammed it against the ground in an S.O.S. rhythm, clustered beats of three, a pause, and then three more. My cadence had a basis: I was tapping out WHERE’S! MY! DAD!, though I was conscious that it could also be read as STOP! BROOK! SIDE!
On a play just before halftime their offensive line dropped back in pass protection. I hung back trying to eliminate any short little passes into the middle of the field. I watched Joel to my right give their tight end a nifty little swim move and race around on a clear path to their quarterback. But at the last possible second that fullback of theirs came over to give Joel a little shove, then fall, and add a highly illegal leg-whip that caught Joel in the thigh. At the same moment the QB moved up into the pocket a couple of steps and then launched a rocket down field. It was a beautiful, spiralling pass, a tight bullet, and it settled into their receiver’s arms like a sleeping baby. He never had to break stride. Our DB pushed him out of bounds, but it was a thirty-odd yard gain.
The Blues offence jogged by us on their way to the new line of scrimmage, high fives all around. “Nice pass, Matty,” they were all saying to their quarterback, a Jason Priestly-looking kid in white hightop cleats.
I was offended. I wanted to injure him. I wanted to humiliate him, to make him question his abilities, his choices. I wanted to hit him in such a way that he would quit football and one day open a small newsstand that sold old and stale cigars and his future son would not believe in him.
That drive wound up netting them another field goal, but the next time they had the ball I had my chance. A couple of penalties and a botched running play that we saw developing and then stuffed put them back on their own 11 yard-line. On a first and long they ran play-action, Matty feigned putting the ball in their big fullback’s arms, then pulled it back. I stood rooted to my spot in the middle, making him feel like he had frozen me with his fake, but when he moved his eyes toward the sideline, I broke right for him, finding a seam through the O-line. I made for him with frightening abandon. I was a ghost, an advancing fury.
The hit was concussive, meaning not only that it knocked Matty onto his back, but that I believe the earth buckled a bit beneath the force of it. But I was not done; the ball dribbled out, away from the human pile-up and toward Brookside’s end. I heard voices rise behind me. Scrambling on my hands and knees I chased the thing, grunting like a bush pig, soon galloping on all fours like a thoroughbred. I could feel bodies moving in behind me, but I got there first. I fell on the ball and I felt it like a stone beneath my gut. As I rolled and my eyes spun skyward I saw the zebra raise his arms, his pale hands stretching up into November’s chill to signal the touchdown. In the next moment I was at the bottom of a heap of Red Raiders, because that was how we celebrated: we attempted to drive one another into the ground.
Behind us, Matty writhed on the ground, gasping, unable to catch his wind. I looked back there and saw him experiencing his wordless pain, and I wished that to be the image I took forward into my life after all of this. Not the later sight of Butter hauling in two TD passes to give us the 21-6 victory, not Anil hoisting the trophy, not Brushcut with tears in his eyes. Just that. Brookside’s quarterback lying on his back on the shining green turf, twisting into and away from the pain, fighting for his breath. That’s what I wanted.
WHAT I GOT was something different. Now, the thing I remember most — the singular vivid moment that seems most real to me at this remove of years — came a few days before I was told I would not be eligible to play in my final year at Tech, and that I would therefore, in all likelihood, never play in university. It came before nine other guys heard the same news. It happened several days after the Capital Bowl, on a skyless afternoon when I came home to find a police car in the driveway and an officer named Hurley sitting at the kitchen table with my parents (my downfall apparently being the only thing that could make my father close the World Press in the middle of the afternoon), explaining that the head of our supply chain had been apprehended. That we had all been named. That was a tough conversation, but the moment I have carried forward like a cursed memento came late in the night after Officer Hurley’s visit, in the wan light of the 40 watt bulb in the range hood, as my dad sat slumping over the kitchen table.
“Jason,” he said, “I’m sorry.”
“Jason, you didn’t do this alone,” he said.
“Sure I did,” I jumped in. “I make my own decisions, thanks.”
“I know it may seem that way to you now,” my father said, “but really I think you’ve been driven to do certain things by factors that predate you…”
“You don’t know shit, Richard,” I said.
“Jason, please, listen,” he went on, “I’ve done what I can to keep this family together, but I see now that there are things I’ve neglected.”
“Nobody cares,” I said. “Nobody cares, Dick.”
I know now that when my dad looked at me that moment he saw a scared and broken boy, not a rippled man-beast overflowing with confidence and power and, in that moment, beset by injustice. That was how I’d sized up the situation. But though he’d been given every opportunity and excuse to revile me, it wasn’t revulsion in his eyes; it was pity and love, and probably regret. I couldn’t understand that at the time, of course. I was overflowing with rage and aggression and a desire to make meaty pulp of other boys my own age, surrogate victims in helmets and contrasting jerseys. Those things, those rages borne of circumstance, biology and chemistry, are what made me say next, “Just fuck off, Richard.”
And then I turned to leave the brown and orange kitchen, the curling linoleum and the scrawny put-upon bullseye of my hatred, but he stopped me. He stood and puffed himself up, though he was by then a good four or five inches shorter than me, and who knows how many pounds lighter. And then I recognized in his eyes the anger that I had made my own nature, my bedmate, my goal, and my consolation. He raised his right hand over his shoulder and he aimed to bring it across my face. But then he just stood there with his hand held aloft, shaking a bit. And he never brought it down, he never hit me, whether from fear or pity I did not then know.