“Hey, Frankie,” I greet my young friend and mentee, one of a dozen that I work with here. Going around to the back of the truck, I grab a big plastic cooler, wheeling it behind me. “How’re you looking for school next week?”

“You know how it is,” Frankie says. “I mean, I do okay, but what’s the point?” He shrugs dismissively, his eyes more haunted than any child’s should be.

“You know what the point is,” I reply, unzipping my bag and pulling out a football. “How’re you going to ever play for the Seahawks if you can’t get into college?”

Frankie grins, the old fantasy still having enough tread between us to at least let him hope for a moment. He’s barely a shade over four feet tall, and if he weighs fifty pounds, it’s because he’s soaking wet and someone’s put bricks in his pockets. But he’s a good kid, and he solidly catches the ball when I toss it to him.

After checking in with the orphanage staff using my fake ID, I follow Frankie out to the best part of the facility, a large grassy play area. It’s not big enough for all forty kids to play at once, but for the dozen who wander out to play some pickup football with me, it’s more than enough.

“Okay, guys, now who’s going to play QB?” I ask, waving my hands when everyone points at me. “Oh, no, I told you guys last time you’d have to work on your spirals. I want to catch once in a while too, you know.”

In the end, I actually end up not playing at all, which is what I want. Instead, I act as a ref, coach, and cheerleader as the kids strike up a spirited, sometimes rough, but still clean game of touch football.

Laughter, some smack talk, and joy fill the air as the ball flies back and forth. Frankie even catches a touchdown, which he celebrates with a half-respectable spike before all is said and done.

After the last pass, I open up my cooler, passing out Gatorades to everyone as they gather around.

“Okay, guys, good game today,” I tell them, closing the cooler and sitting down on the lid. “So listen, I heard what everyone was jaw jacking about during the game . . . seems you’re excited about Monday?” I’m trying to rename their emotions in a positive light, even though their chatter was full of nervousness and anxiety.

The groans around me are universal. Frankie’s not the only kid who’s not looking forward to school on Monday.

“Yo, Tom,” one of the guys says, “why should we be excited? Same bullshit, different year. Kids are gonna rag on us about our clothes, rag on us about being losers, all that shit.”

“Maybe they will,” I admit, and the guys nod. It’s probably what gives me a chance to connect with these kids better than a lot of the so-called volunteers who come down here. I give it to them straight, but at the same time, I encourage them.

So I’m going to be bluntly honest because that’s what they respect.

“I know most of you are going to say that I’m full of shit, but let me give it to you. A lot of kids, you know what happens to them? They sort themselves into some slot in their heads right about the same age you guys are, and they cruise in those slots. You see it now, the kids who just sort of know in their heads that they’re going to go to college, those who’re going to be blue collar, and then . . . well, you guys.”

“You mean the losers?” one of the boys says, copying his cohort’s word choice, and though they all laugh, I’m betting they’ve heard that and worse.

But I don’t laugh. “A lot of people probably already see you that way. Teachers who won’t give you that extra chance to fix mistakes that they’re giving Timmy Bank Account who comes from a ‘good family’. Other kids who have no idea what it’s like to wonder where your next meal is going to come from are going to bag on your PB&J lunch. You get a bit older, and you’re going to be pushed into a few categories. Those of you who have skills, folks will sometimes encourage you, especially if you’re good with a ball.”

There are cheers for Jeremy, who is a pretty sick point guard, and he flashes a thumbs-up. “Good . . . go for it, man. The rest of you, it’s not too late, and sports aren’t the only way out.”

A few of the boys look down, and I clear my throat. “Don’t let them write your future for you,” I tell them. “I come down here because I look around and I see possibilities. I see a ball player, a lawyer, a writer, a business owner.”

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