I held my head in my hands, sitting at my locker.
The sound of my heart pounding in my chest below my tightly wrapped jersey and shoulder pads, nearly drowns out the pre-game quiet chatter in the locker room this early fall Saturday in Norfolk, Virginia.
I open my eyes and look down to my white taped cleats below gold pants, confident with feel, confident with my balance, sure with traction when I step on the unforgiving Foreman Field artificial turf. "Remember the soft spots at the sidelines, especially toward their bench."
"Offense, defense up!" yells the coach from across the room. The quiet chatter has now erupted into a full on roar as the team prepares to take the field. The adrenaline is like nothing else. The common purpose. Our goal to dominate the opponent. Practice all week has been flawless and we can't be any more ready, any more prepared, any more pumped. This is what we do!
OK, pause for the prayer... Heads down, but I can't keep still... My weight shifts back and forth with anticipation. Anticipating that first hit, that first pick. My freshman year was just a start, a glimpse of who I am on the field. I'm as good as Deion down at Florida State and the world will know.
Alright, prayer over... Headed out to the field! "Number 2! Get up front!"
As I make my way through my teammates to start the trot out to the field, I get my first view outside the locker room door to the gathering crowd. I recognize the girls from the yard on the left. The little boy and his Dad from the ODU neighborhood whose jersey I signed on the way in. I can hear the Spartan Legion Band warming up in the stands. Yeah... It's about to be game time.
This IS game day!
Looking back, I remember it like it was yesterday.
This is what I remember from the first game after I found out I tested positive for the antibody that causes AIDS (the term "HIV positive" wasn't used yet in 1986).
The sounds and thoughts of playing football were slowly choked out of me along with the rest of what I dreamed of becoming as a 19-year-old with rest of my life in front of me. Over the next two or three years, that heart beat — so animated and full of energy — almost stopped three or more times by my own hand and by my own fear.
I went from the end zone on Saturday afternoons to suicide watch at Norfolk General. I went from waiting for my number to called to just waiting to die.
It was not supposed to go this way.
Twenty five years later that fear and pain still sits in my chest like the tip of a blade broken off into my flesh during a furious fight in my youth. The scars and memories of stigma remain as well. As I reconnect with many of my friends and teammates from back in the day I am reminded of how I was unable to share this secret of mine. I also know that there are many that still choose their distance and only approach out of curiosity than concern.
I am stronger now than I have ever been. Suicide watches are long in my past. With the love of my family and friends over the years I have been more than buoyed through stormy seas of which I would have been overtaken without.
My dreams of end zone visits now comes through watching my son, Dominique, become a man.
This is what I do now.
Larry Bryant is the Director for National Organizing Housing Works in Washington D.C.
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