The blood felt warm on his hands.
It’s one of the first memories Vontaze has, the first bit of clarity breaking though the previous haze.
He’s thrown the boy to the ground, the one that called him a bitch, buried his knees in his chest and started in on the face.
The swarm of fists was wild in its adolescence but already punishing.
Wham. Wham. Wham. Wham. The crowd retreated; the birds that hung out on the telephone wire were silent. Blood pooled on the cracked concrete of the basketball court, spreading into the key.
Cries of protests had retreated into a shell of acceptance, and Vontaze knew that boy would never punk him again.
He felt it, growing in his belly, the power—something he could control, something that drew people’s attention, that earned a fearful flavor of respect.
Vontaze was the baddest dude on his street, in his school, in the neighborhood.
His fists became so honed that it only took one punch to take somebody down, then none at all once word spread.
He understood, early, that violence meant dominance. In the way he talked and walked, looked you dead in the eye, never smiled, Vontaze was a constant threat, equal parts swagger and menace.
There was no better feeling in the world than standing toe to toe and making a man accept your superiority, by force or not.
Football, then, was an obvious choice.
His blunt force was, if not given a meaning—it had always been used toward some end—made less of a public hazard. His classmates gave thanks, plenty of prayers answered around the schoolyard.
The straightforwardness of the sport appealed to him. There were other variables, yes, but none as important as violence. If you kicked the shit out of the other team for 60 minutes—kill the body and the head will die—you won. Power versus power, testosterone oozing out of the huddle.
The first time he ever stepped onto a field—wearing shoulder pads two sizes too big and a pair of white Nikes two sizes too small—he ended the starting varsity running back’s career, hit him so hard that his helmet landed 10 yards away and he had night terrors for months, would get the shakes if anybody so much as flipped to an SEC game on TV.
There was a feeling Vontaze grew to crave. In that split second after contact, everything froze. There was a moment of peace, of pure, unadulterated satisfaction. You lowered your shoulder, then all was right with the world.
Getting signed as an undrafted free agent by Cincinnati brought an identity crisis.
The Bengals, see, were that guy Vontaze had overpowered all his life.
Betraying weakness, forever cracking at the seams, he would have pounced immediately—still did every Sunday. The Steelers and Ravens, those were the teams he could identify with, that kept their Ohio brethren constantly reminded of where they stood.
Vontaze had underestimated his gift. The answer, as always, was in those fists of dynamite, in that unashamed bloodlust.
Through injuries and losing streaks and poorly thrown interceptions and incorrectly lobbed flags, just keep pounding away. Wham. Wham. Wham. Wham. Hammering the team’s psyche into a new shape.
Whether the team adopted his attitude or vice versa, it was real chicken or the egg stuff. All that matters is that something changed.
The defense was relentless—barking and howling and taunting, going high and clawing for the rock. Win or lose, you’d wake up the next morning sore from your toenails to the ends of your hair. Win or lose, you’d question who the bigger man was.
Vontaze was in his element, on the prowl, screaming at the offensive line, egging on the crowd. He was doing what he was made to do, and these men had become his brothers.
Come at me and see what happens. Keep those eyes low. You think your man enough? You think you can? What makes you? Try me, son.
San Diego? Man, they ain’t got nothin.