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Bill Konigsberg on high school football and his first novel

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Author shares insight into his first novel, 'Out of the Pocket,' about high school football

By Bill Konigsberg

When I asked the high school football players sitting around the table what they would do if they found out their best friend was gay, I got a lot of expected responses:

"I wouldn't have a problem with it."
"It would be weird at first, but I'd be cool with it."
"That would never, ever happen. No chance."

The one response I wasn't expecting came from a tall, wavy-haired kid from Texas with a deep voice.

"I'd kill him."

Once I shifted around uncomfortably in my seat for a few moments and pulled my jaw off the floor, I composed myself and tried for a follow-up question.

"You'd kill him? Why would you kill him?" I asked.

"We've done like everything together," he said. "We've been to football camp together. We've showered together. It would be this major betrayal."

I had set up the roundtable discussion with five senior football players at a New York high school to cull information for my first novel, Out of the Pocket, which was released Thursday, Sept. 18, from Penguin/Dutton. They will also release my second novel "Not Exactly Peyton Manning" in the summer of 2010.

Being 20 years removed from high school, I wanted to make sure that my early draft of the novel (called “Audibles” at the time) had been close in its depiction of my protagonist's teammates. I'd found it much easier to be inside the brain of a gay football player 20 years my junior than it had been to approximate his teammates interior voices. I was never a straight high school kid having to deal with this issue. I don't know what that's like.

It was an invaluable experience. Years of covering football games, high school and otherwise, had prepared me for the outer story, the ins and outs of the games and the practices. I had spoken at high schools, and that had given me a chance to observe teenagers in action and listen to them speak. But a close-up view of seemingly straight football players, speaking from the heart, that was new.

I did my best to put the kids at ease, telling them that this was anonymous, that I wasn't reporting, that I would honor what they told me and never take it lightly. This seemed to work. They were more than willing to tell me about what happened at parties these days, what hooking up means and how it's done via text message, and what their feelings were, both positive and negative, about gays. Perhaps there was something even aggressive about this, the freedom to tell a gay guy the truth for once, without fear of repercussions.

But this "I'd kill him" comment stayed with me. I tried to joke it away, but it lingered, took me quite a few days to recover from.

I was just imagining this make-believe best friend, scaring up the courage to be extremely vulnerable and tell his buddy that he's gay. And then I was picturing the crime, a blunt object swung wildly, blood dripping from hair.

It took me a few days to calm down and realize that the way I heard this wasn't necessarily the way it was said. I mean, I'd heard him correctly, but possibly didn't understand his meaning. Hopefully, anyway. This kid had measured responses, some quite thoughtful, to other questions I'd asked involving the possibility of a gay teammate. He wasn't your typical virulent homophobe who would simply kill a gay guy should one ever present himself.

He was trying to tell me something about trust, and teamwork, and his honest appraisal of how it would feel to hear that his closest friend had a secret from him. In the language of a crime of passion, he was giving voice to something important.

Or so I hoped.

I knew I was getting something for my novel that was elemental, but also something that needed translation. Another book with an evil, gay bashing football player wasn't what I was being called on to write; rather, I was going to have to dig deeper into the bonds of teammates, the wide range of reactions a close-knit group could have to some undeniably big news from a teammate.

Ironically, this roundtable session had an opposite effect on the novel than one might have expected, based on that scary comment.

The short story “Audibles,” written in 2003, had been my attempt to update the story of Ed Gallagher, the defensive tackle from University of Pittsburgh, who tried to kill himself in the 1980s because he couldn't handle being gay. Gallagher survived his jump from a cliff, and became paraplegic. He went on to become a very powerful advocate for gays and helped countless people survive coming out with his powerful story. Sadly, Ed passed away in 2003.

I had pictured a teenage quarterback walking into the ocean on a moonless night in Southern California, wanting to keep walking until he submerged. The weight of his sexuality was irreconcilable with his dreams of becoming an NFL star, I'd felt.

“Audibles” morphed into a novel, and soon was re-named “Out of the Pocket” to appeal to, as my editor quipped, a larger audience than football players who read.

But the bigger change was how a dark story about a suicidal kid became something else. I never planned to write an uplifting story, it was never my intention, in the same way it hadn't been my intention to write a dark story. I was just exploring.

My exploration helped me learn that my protagonist didn't need to perish. It truly is a different time for teens. Are things perfect? Clearly not, and my novel makes that quite clear. This is no madcap comedy by any means, and being a gay teen in 2008 is still no joke. But unlike 35 years ago, when Patricia Neil Warren's The Front Runner was published, the story no longer seems destined to end in tragedy. Even Peter Lefcourt's fantastic novel "The Dreyfus Affair" from the 1990s included flying bullets.

When I got into my final draft and my protagonist, Bobby Framingham, walks into the ocean on a moonless night, I found that no one needed to die, or even want to die. It was a revolutionary moment for me as a writer and a gay man, to recognize that.

We're getting closer to the day an openly gay man takes the field for a professional team in America. And when it happens, odds are it will be someone like Bobby Framingham, who will have had the courage to come out in high school. He'll go to college openly gay, steeled with the understanding that his sexuality is a normal part of who he is. And he'll be so good he'll make it to the pros.

It's coming.

_____

You can order Bill Konigsberg's new book 'Out of the Pocket' at Amazon.com.