The Back Pack hit the gym in the early afternoon, Matt in the lead, before the yuppies marched in from work, while the young moms were rushing out to pick up their kids from day camp. Matt liked the way their hot eyes roamed over him, wondered if they knew he was still in high school, wondered if they cared. He felt big and hard. Excited. Was it the moms or what was waiting for him upstairs, the iron and juice that would make him even bigger, harder.
Brody poked him from behind with the football he always carried. “Check the headlights on the one in red.”
“Someday I’m gonna stick that ball up your ass.”
“Ooooh, don’t tease me, big boy.”
Matt led them through the downstairs crowd of designer Spandex and sweats, up the metal steps into the stink and clang of the heavy-duty weight room. He was glad they had beaten the linemen to the gym today. Give us a chance to get our session going without Ramp’s crap.
The ironheads were there, they were always there, older guys screaming each other into one more pec busting rep. They wore tank tops and bandannas that looked like they were soaked in diesel fuel. One of them called out a sing-song, half-mocking , “Rai-derz.”
Tyrell raised two fists. “Raiders rule, niggaz!”
The ironheads, all white, liked that and banged metal plates. Some of them had gone to Nearmont High and played ball.
“Matt?” The gym owner, Monty, came out of his office and beckoned him over. “New shipment’s in.”
Matt nodded and felt the excitement rise. Perfect timing. Load up just before camp so the juice kicks in during the two-a-days when we really need it. He flashed the Back Pack a thumb’s up. Hope they all brought their wallets.
They dressed quickly. They were jittery, psyched for the last heavy work-out before camp. Tyrell, as usual, complained about the music on the loud speaker, a weird mix of disco and heavy metal. The ironheads controlled those CD’s. For now. See what happens if we win Conference this year.
Pete kept sneaking peeks at himself in the mirror. He didn’t like his bubble butt or his small biceps. He flexed when he thought no one was looking.
Matt was looking. “Quads and glutes win games,” he said. Am I taking this captain thing too seriously?
“Tyrell says, biceps win babes,” said Tyrell. He mimicked Pete’s flex.
Pete, embarrassed, snapped his shirt at Tyrell, who laughed and dance-stepped just out of range. They loved to watch Tyrell move. He had radar. He glided like a phantom. He was the best running back in the conference. If we stay healthy and tight, Matt thought, this could be our season. Maybe State. Senior year, what a way to go.
Out on the mats, stretching, Matt could tell Brody’s mind was heading to the same place.
“We got a shot.” Brody’s big freckly face had that dreamy look. Probably imagining himself winning the state title. With a quarterback sneak. Not a 40-yard bomb to me or a handoff to Tyrell, but a heroic scramble out of a collapsing pocket and a desperate lunge over the goal-line. Behind his back, some of the guys called him All-Brody. But he was all right. Best friend on the team.
“One day at a time,” said Matt.
“You’re like channeling Coach Mac,” said Brody.
“You ready to put the bar where your mouth is?” Matt held up the clipboard with their workout schedule.
“See what I mean?”
They started with squats, lunges and power cleans to build up their legs and lower backs for the explosive starts off the line of scrimmage. They were the most intense exercises in the program the strength coach had laid out in the spring. Matt had come to realize that if they left those exercises to the end of the session they would slack off, especially Pete and Brody. They preferred to work harder on the lat pull downs, the curls and flys to build up their upper bodies for the beach. But they listened to Matt. He was their leader. Tyrell had named them the Back Pack, the four starting backfield seniors. Brody, Pete and Matt had played together since Peewee. Tyrell joined them as a freshman.
The linemen stomped in, Ramp bellowing, “Yo, Rydek, your girls done yet?”
Before Matt could respond, Tyrell shouted, “Where you been? Stop off for blocking school?”
Ramp cursed, raised a finger and led the linemen into the locker-room. A sore spot we’ll have to get past, thought Matt. Tyrell’s broken collar bone and Brody’s concussion had come on missed blocks. The injuries had cost them the conference title last year. But Tyrell has to watch his mouth.
Matt waited until the linemen were out of earshot. “Chill.”
“Nobody cool says chill no more.”
“It’s a new season.” He glared at Tyrell until he nodded and started pulling dumb-bells off the rack.
“You always right, Cap’n Matt, sir.”
Matt and Brody moved to the benches. It took a few reps to clear his head, but once he felt the blood pumping again, all the good feelings came back. He concentrated on visualizing his muscles swell and harden as he lay on the bench and pushed the bar up toward Brody’s face. Familiar, comforting pains flooded his chest and shoulders as he fought his arms straight under 275 pounds.
“Up, c’mon, up, you pussy,” growled Brody, spotting him. “You can do it.”
Matt yelled as his elbows locked. Personal best.
“Good job,” shouted Brody. “It’s all you, man.”
“Nice start,” snickered Ramp, his big potato head looming above Matt. “Now put some weight on the bar.” He swaggered off. The linemen would be lifting at least 50 pounds more.
They worked out for two hours, tapering on the rowing machines, cooling down on the tread mill. They watched Ramp and the linemen scream their way through 50-pound flys while the ironheads nodded.
In the shower-room, they checked each other out. You never look so good as after a heavy workout, thought Matt. Everything looks bigger. Tyrell’s shoulders were black bowling balls, his butt was stone. Imagine if he juiced with us. He said he was afraid of losing speed. They’d argued over that. Olympic sprinters used steroids and growth hormone all the time. But Tyrell said they just blew ahead straight while he needed to cut and fade. Brody thought it might be about money. Tyrell lived with his grandmother or at least used her address so he could attend Nearmont. Tyrell left when they headed for Monty’s office behind the one-way glass mirrors. You couldn’t see in but Monty could see out. He opened the door before Matt knocked.
“You’re gonna love this stuff,” Monty said as they filed in. He closed the door. “I got a new supplier, Canadian. He puts together stacks for NFL players.”
“How much?” asked Brody.
“For you guys, the old price, $220.” Monty took a FedEx box out of a metal locker and began unpacking bottles. He spread a clean white towel across the top of his desk and laid out the bottles, syringes, needles and alcohol swabs. Monty was an old guy, at least 50. He still had the shape of a bodybuilder even if the muscles had shrunk and softened. As usual, Matt was fascinated by his precision. Monty stripped the paper wrappers off the syringes, screwed on the needles and pulled off their plastic guards with his teeth. He stabbed a needle through the rubber top of a bottle and slowly drew out the oily, yellow liquid.
Pete groaned softly. He always started sweating and swaying about now. He hadn’t actually fainted in more than a year.
Monty flicked a forefinger against a syringe and pushed a drop of liquid through the tip of the needle. “Who’s first?”
“Matt’s number one in my book,” said Pete, raising a middle finger. He was white as a ghost but trying to keep it together.
“Grab your ankles, Matt.” Monty always said that.
Matt loosed the drawstring on his shorts and let them drop to his flip-flops. No underwear in this weather. He bent over the desk. Monty slapped him high on the buttock to numb the skin and rubbed it with alcohol.
Matt felt a pinch and a sting as he drove in the needle, then the sensation of something cold sliding into the big muscle.
“This is the Decadurabolin,” said Monty. “Stack it with T. Gonna rip you big time, man. It’s the all-pro cocktail. I’ll give you some Danabol pills, too.”
Monty slipped out the needle and pressed the swab on the puncture site. Matt imagined the steroids rushing through his system, finding the muscles, building them, making them stronger.
Brody pushed Pete forward. He was shivering as he gripped the edge of the desk. Pete closed his eyes as Monty drilled him. Injections turned him to jelly, even though his big, soft backside swallowed the needle. Brody didn’t seem to notice the shot.
Watching them, Matt felt a surge of brotherhood. He felt even closer to them in here than in the weight room or on the field. Taking the shots proved their commitment to the team and to each other. We’ll do whatever it takes to get bigger, get better, to win.
There was a knock at the door, then Ramp’s voice. “Yo, Doctor Monty. Ready for the men?”
“Just a minute.” Monty grinned at Matt. “No excuses now. Gonna kick some this season, right?”
From the PUBLISHERS WEEKLY STARRED REVIEW
Robert Lipsyte. HarperTempest, $15.99 (240p) ISBN 0-06-059946-4
Lipsyte's (The Contender) latest sports drama is a riveting and chilling look inside contemporary high school football, starring captain and wide receiver Matt Rydek. Matt's intense focus on winning a scholarship is driven in equal measure by his love of the game and his desire to escape from his maniacal father. As the novel opens, the local gym owner injects a syringe of "all-pro cocktail" into Matt's buttocks. Steroids use, however, is not the most frightening aspect of the book. The real action begins during the last week of football camp, before the start of the season. Nearmont High's coaches are excited by the arrival of Chris Marin, a talented sophomore transfer student. Less thrilled is Matt's co-captain, Ramp, a brutish homophobe, whose starting position Chris could win. On the last night of camp, the traditional hazing turns into a sexual assault, which all the seniors witness. The adults, fearing scandal, hear rumors but adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, mirroring their stance on steroid use. As co-captain, Matt knows he would risk everything—his friends, his senior season, his future, if he goes to authorities. Lipsyte exposes the underbelly of high school sports—where racism, drug use, misogyny and bullying are shrugged off so long as the team wins. Matt has a soul-crushing choice to make and Lipsyte's careful rendering of the world in which Matt moves gives his story an awful and terrifying ring of truth. Ages 14-up.
I LOVE THIS FROM RICHIE'S PICKS
After staying up until 3 AM the night before last, totally caught up in reading Robert Lipsyte's RAIDERS NIGHT, I slept a few hours and then sat down at the laptop. My first inclination was to find more about anabolic steroids and Vicodin, the two drugs being used regularly by Matt Rydeck, the Nearmont high school senior around whom the story revolves. I then proceeded to dig up some information about California's recently enacted rules on training coaches who work in high school athletic programs -- rules enacted as the result of widespread use of anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing substances by high school athletes.
But where my information gathering ultimately led me was to an exploration of hazing and ritual and the necessity of devising bonding rituals that really create community.
Central to the plot of RAIDERS NIGHT, and to what the title refers, is the final night of Nearmont High's football training camp and the "bonding" ritual inflicted each year by the senior players upon the new guys. The ritual portrayed in the story is homophobic in nature. Sadly, so I've been told, this is not an unusual attitude or occurrence in the real world.
What is unusual is that the ritual in Lipsyte's story gets out of hand when Ramp, the team Neanderthal and co-captain, graphically abuses the young transfer hotshot whose substantial talent threatens to significantly reduce Ramp's own playing time during the coming season.
Matt Rydeck is the other co-captain and the real story here involves Captain Matt's relationships and behavior in regard to his chemical intake, his teammates, his girlfriends, his parents, his developmentally disabled older brother and, of course, his abused teammate.
In SPEAK, the Michael Printz Honor book with the vital message about looking out for the welfare of all the members of one's school community, readers at first don't know what has happened to Melinda to make her call the cops, but gradually they come to learn the facts when she finally begins to let herself remember. In RAIDERS NIGHT, we see what happens to Chris (the transfer student) but don't have any idea about Chris's subsequent thoughts and behavior during the extended period of time when Matt is too confused and too caught up in the rest of his drug, girl, and parent-crazed life to do or say anything about what has befallen the kid whom he, as co-captain, should have been protecting from the Neanderthal.
As a reader of RAIDERS NIGHT, one might be tempted to blame Matt's behavior on his father's being such an a-hole -- which he truly is. But, hey, I'm sure that I'm not the only one who could spend an hour or two spewing about how so many of my own bad habits are the result of my father's misparenting or setting a bad example. The bottom line, as Matt eventually figures out, is that you are dealt what you are dealt, and the measure of a young man is who he decides he is going to be and what he decides he is going to stand for, irrespective of the influence exerted by parents (or peers).
We do need to be talking about behavior and attitudes of adults is in terms of the rituals in the lives of adolescents. We don't want to do away with rituals. What is needed instead is for adults to ensure that bonding rituals and rites of passage are positive and inclusive to the benefit of the entire group, team, or community.
RAIDERS NIGHT is one hell of a story. I'd never before read any of Robert Lipsyte's YA fiction, but am now feeling lots of admiration for the members of the Margaret Edwards Award committee who were responsible for voting Lipsyte that honor a few years ago. You can bet I'll be reading more of his books. And, no doubt, people will be hearing me speak more about RAIDERS NIGHT, both in upcoming presentations, and when the time rolls around to debate the best books of 2006.