Five Years Later
The NFL was an entirely different beast than college football.
The crowd inside the Los Angeles Stadium was a constant, ear-piercing roar. Three levels of seats towered above the field in an omnipresent ring, filled to capacity with screaming fans. Most games were sold out and full of energy, but this one more than most. After all, it was a home-town rivalry: the Los Angeles Rams versus the Los Angeles Chargers.
From down on the field where I stood with the other Chargers trainers, the noise crashed over me in waves. It was intimidating, even for someone like me who had no control over what happened. I couldn’t imagine how it was for the players.
Danny Armstrong didn’t seem to be affected, though.
“Armstrong completes the pass to Richmond,” the announcer boomed through the speakers. “That’s another Chargers first down!”
Even though the two teams shared this stadium, this was technically a Chargers home game. Which meant the Chargers-friendly announcer got to call the game and music blared every time Danny threw a touchdown. Which, two plays later, is exactly what happened.
And after making the pass, Danny celebrated by pretending to ride around on an imaginary horse.
“Armstrong to Richmond for the Chargers touchdown! And he’s mocking Lance Overmire’s touchdown celebration around the field…”
“Oh shit,” one of the other trainers next to me said with a laugh. “The Rams aren’t going to be happy about that.”
“Danny and Lance were roommates in college,” I said. “Lance can handle some taunting.”
That’s exactly what happened on the next drive. The Rams marched down the field methodically, behind the strength of their powerful running back. But having such a strong running game meant that when their quarterback did pass it to Lance, he was wide open.
The crowd, which was half Rams fans, roared as he glided into the end zone. “Lance-a-lot, Lance-a-lot,” they chanted.
Instead of celebrating with this normal knight-gallop, Lance jogged out to the Chargers logo in the middle of the field and flexed both biceps. The crowd simultaneously booed and cheered.
“And now Lance Overmire is mocking Danny Armstrong’s celebration…”
I rolled my eyes, but I couldn’t help but smile. It was good to see Lance up close and personal rather than on television.
“Shit,” one of the other trainers said. “Pavlica is down.”
“Oh no,” I said. “If it’s his ankle again…”
We jogged out onto the field to tend to the injured lineman. He was 300 pounds of muscle rolling around on the ground, clutching his leg.
“My thigh,” he said through clenched teeth. “It’s fucking killing me.”
We helped him up and helped shoulder him to the sidelines. As the head trainer, I took over from there, poking and prodding his quad along the outside.
“Might be your hip flexor,” I said, pulling up on his calf to bend the knee. “How’s this feel?”
“Feels fine, Roberta. It’s just when I put weight on it…”
I helped him over to the exercise bike while the game went on. I would’ve loved to watch the rest of the duel between Danny and Lance, but keeping my players healthy was far more important. Sometimes I felt like a kindergarten teacher monitoring recess, but I went home every night feeling more fulfilled than at any other time in my life.
I loved my job. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world.
The Chargers ended up losing by two touchdowns. Although I hated seeing my team in a bad mood, part of me was glad the Rams won. The Chargers were guaranteed a playoff spot right now, whereas the Rams were fighting for one of the Wild Card spots. This win meant a lot more to Lance than it did to Danny.
The other trainers and I worked on the team after the game. Football was a rough sport on the human body, and there were dozens of minor injuries to tend to. A sprained index finger from Johnson, our running back. A tweaked I.T. band on our tight end’s left leg. Even Danny took a tough tackle in the third quarter which probably bruised a rib. When he took his shirt off, the entire left side of his torso was a motley purple-and-black.
“It looks worse than it feels,” he told me with a wry smile.
“Really? Because it looks like you have the plague.”
“The Rams blitz was a pain in the ass today. I never felt like I could relax in the pocket.”
I retrieved a long chemical ice-pack to strap around his waist. “You played great despite that.”
“Lot of good it did,” he grumbled.
“There’s more to a team than just the quarterback. You did your part.”
He frowned, but didn’t argue further. Danny took losses personally, even when they weren’t his fault. I knew he would be up late tonight studying game film and preparing for next week’s game against the Raiders.
When Danny was all taken care of, we left the locker room together arm-in-arm. Most of Danny’s teammates on the Chargers knew that we were a thing, but we generally tried not to flaunt it—especially around the Los Angeles media. But walking through the underground tunnel to the parking garage, we had a little privacy.
It was nice.
Lance was waiting for us at the car, leaning against it with his arms crossed over his chest. A big grin split his handsome face.
“Alright,” Danny said reluctantly. “Let me have it.”
Lance spread his arms. “What do you mean? Are you insinuating I would taunt you about the game you just lost?”
“I’m not insinuating it. I’m saying it outright.”
“Oh. Well, in that case…” Lance flexed his arms. “How do you like that game, baby? Double-digit win for the hottest team in Los Angeles!”
Danny rolled his eyes as we got into the car. “Let’s not get carried away. The Rams are still fighting for a playoff spot.”
“Don’t care. Tonight, we’re the best team in Hollywood.” Lance wrapped an arm around me and kissed my hair. “How’s it feel to be with a real winner, Babs?”
“It feels like you’re talking a lot of shit for someone who only had three catches tonight,” I teased.
Lance shrugged his massive shoulders. “Three was all I needed, baby! Quality over quantity!”
“Stop shit-talking and get in the car,” Danny said. “We’re going to be late.”
“I can do both. I’m good at multitasking.”
Even with the game having finished two hours ago, traffic was nuts in Inglewood. We made our way over to the 110 and took it north toward Pasadena, exiting at Dodgers Stadium. We valet parked in one of the lots typically reserved for players, then went inside the ballpark and down to our seats behind home plate. We sat down just as the first inning was starting.
“Now batting for the Dodgers, the first baseman, Cody Bellinger.”
“Good, we didn’t miss his start,” Danny said. He squinted. “Who are they playing?”
“The Cardinals,” Lance said. He elbowed me in the arm. “Can you believe this guy? Didn’t even know who they’re playing today…”
“I spent the last 48 hours preparing for my job,” Danny said dryly.
“Lot of good it did you!”
During the top half of the first inning, several fans came up to ask Danny and Lance for autographs. They handled their stardom with grace and enthusiasm, smiling at each fan who came up to them. Lance was especially great in the spotlight, just like he was back in college.
“Did you see the game today?” he asked as he signed one teenage boy’s game program.
“I sure did! You were great, Sir Lancelot!”
“Much better than this guy, right?” He jerked his thumb at Danny.
“Much better! The Chargers stink!”
Danny rolled his eyes, but took the teasing in stride.
Lance let out a cheerful laugh and smacked the kid on the arm. “You’re my new favorite fan. Definitely become a wide receiver instead of quarterback. We have way more fun.”
“Yes sir!” The kid ran back up the aisle clutching his autograph.
“Alright, quiet down,” Danny said.
“Don’t be a party pooper,” Lance complained. “It’s not my fault the fans love me more than you.”
Danny pointed. “Feña’s starting.”
“On the mound for the Dodgers. Feña Martinez.”
I cheered loudly as Feña strode onto the field. He looked striking in his Dodgers blue, with his mop of curly black hair poking out from underneath his cap. Despite Danny and Lance standing up and cheering loudly in the front row behind home plate, Feña’s face was a mask of seriousness. He looked like he was going to war.
That’s part of what made him such a great pitcher: he was intimidating.
The baseball made a loud pop noise when it struck the catcher’s mitt for the first pitch. Feña’s fastball was usually around 94-95 mph, but tonight it was already touching 97 on the gun. He made quick work of the Cardinals lineup: strikeout, a groundout to the second baseman, and then another strikeout.
“Atta boy!” Lance cheered as Feña walked off the mound. “Feña ain’t afraid of no birds!”
The environment at a baseball game was much more relaxing than at the football game earlier. It was a pleasant change to help me, Danny, and Lance unwind—especially with Feña on the mound to watch. The game was a pitcher’s duel, with no score going into the seventh inning before Bellinger hit a solo home run. The Dodgers ended up winning, with Feña pitching eight shutout innings with 12 strikeouts.
We made our way back to the car, delayed only slightly by Danny and Lance signing more autographs.
The drive up into the Pasadena foothills only took 20 minutes at this time of night. Compared to the hectic nature of Los Angeles proper, Pasadena was downright quaint and calm. Our three story house still had all the lights on when we pulled into the driveway.
“They should be in bed…” I grumbled as we got out.
Lance put an arm around me. “Don’t blame the babysitter. You know how the kids are.”
As soon as we came through the front door, there was an excited squeal from the living room. A little monster in the shape of a four year old boy came running down the hall and launched himself at Lance.
“Daddy! Daddy! I saw you on the TV today!” little Aaron said excitedly.
Lance lifted him into his arms and hugged him tight. “Did you see me beat Uncle Danny?”
Aaron turned to look at Danny. “I did. You lost, Uncle Danny!”
Lance put him down, and he rushed over to hug Danny. “That’s how games work, sport. Someone has to win, and someone has to lose.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I let your daddy win today, so he wouldn’t be sad.”
“Oh. Okay,” Aaron said seriously.
“Where’s my hug?” I asked.
Aaron’s eyes widened with guilt. “Hi, mommy,” he said as Danny handed him to me. He clutched onto me like a monkey, and I grunted from the weight. He was getting so big. I wouldn’t be able to carry him like this pretty soon. He was going to be big, just like Lance.
The babysitter, a girl who was studying at Cal Tech, came walking out of the living room with my daughter asleep in her arms. Roxy was only two, but had a full head of blonde hair just like her father. Danny smiled and took her into his arms, gently kissing her hair.
“I’m sorry, but Aaron insisted on staying up,” the babysitter said.
“I wanted to watch Uncle Feña!” he complained grumpily into my shoulder. He got cranky when he was tired. Just like his daddy, I thought with a smile.
“That’s okay,” I told the babysitter. “Thanks again for everything.”
She smiled and left, but someone else came through the front door before it could close.
“Look who it is,” I whispered to Aaron. His eyes widened when he realized who it was.
“Uncle Feña! Uncle Feña! I watched you on TV! You pitched so good.”
Feña laughed as Aaron ran over and hugged his leg. “I pitched well because I knew you were watching.”
“Of course.” Feña smiled at me and patted Aaron’s head. “I believe it is past your bedtime.”
“But I’m not tired…” he complained.
Feña kissed me on the cheek. “He is just like his father.”
“Hey!” Lance protested. “I’m not cranky when I’m tired.”
We all put the kids to bed—Roxy was easy since she was already fast asleep, but Aaron took longer. After, we all went downstairs and collapsed on the big couch together.
“Good day for all of us,” Feña said simply. “Unless you are the quarterback for the Chargers.”
Danny playfully punched him in the arm.
“Careful, that’s his throwing arm,” I said.
Feña nodded. “And my trainer on the Dodgers is not as good as Roberta.”
“I think Frank does a fine job,” I said.
“He does an adequate job,” Feña admitted. “But he is not nearly as pretty as you.”
I kissed him on the cheek. “That’s a low bar, but I’ll take it. Want a shoulder massage?”
“Mmm, yes please,” Feña said, sliding to the floor with his back between my legs. I started digging my fingers into his muscle.
We all hung out on the couch, just enjoying each other’s company. Our schedules were crazy this time of year, when the baseball season was almost over and the football season was just starting. We had to savor our time together when we could. Feña and the Dodgers were flying across the country to play the Mets next week, and Lance was headed to Miami to play the Dolphins. Danny and I were here for another home game next weekend, before flying to Kansas City the week after that.
But tomorrow, all of our schedules were clear. We had an entire day together with the kids.
“What about the park?” Feña said, as if he was reading my thoughts. “We could make a picnic. Throw the ball around.”
Lance jabbed a finger at him. “You’re just trying to convert Aaron into a baseball player.”
“Who better to learn from than the ace of the Dodgers?”
“Baseball’s a lot safer than football,” I chimed in. “Take it from the head trainer for the Chargers.”
“The park might be a bad idea,” Danny said. “Roxy has been begging for a dog, and the last time we went to the park it made things worse.”
“Then let’s get a dog,” Lance said. “A golden retriever would kick ass.”
“I would like a German Shepherd,” Feña announced. “A guard dog to watch the home while we are gone.”
“And who is going to watch the dog while we’re gone?” I asked. “Especially with our schedules.”
“The babysitter could…” Lance said.
“Better to wait until the off-season,” I suggested. “Then Aaron and Roxy can help raise it. That would be a good teaching moment for them about responsibility.”
“Okay, mom,” Lance grumbled.
“Damn right I am.”
Lance snuggled against me on the left, and Danny on the right. Feña’s back was still between my legs while I massaged his shoulders, but he was resting his head against my thigh and sighing contentedly.
I had my three men, and we had our little family. I couldn’t believe something so amazing was even possible, but here we were. And all because I needed some college work credits five years ago.
It was funny how life turned out.