She wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her sleeve, not willing to chance getting her fingers wet with perspiration. Nevertheless, her right hand went to her thigh subconsciously as she dried her fingers on the absorbent fabric of her pants for the third time in as many minutes. The glove on her left hand felt loose so she adjusted her grip and pulled it a little tighter. In another minute the ritual would repeat itself.
The sun was high by now. It beat down like fire on the back of Samantha’s toned, muscular shoulders deepening her already disproportionate tan. The razor-back pattern of her uniform was burned into her skin: a tattoo of pride. While other girls her age were lying out at the pool or on the beach doing everything within their power to avoid such unwanted lines, a small group of dedicated young ladies, known as the Lethal Leopards, wore them with immodest honor.
The umpires and coaches were arguing over a recent play at the plate, so she took this small pause in the action to take inventory of her “faithful few”. The devoted girls that stood with her in this blistering arena were as dedicated and loyal as any team that had ever graced a ballpark. They stood patiently; fearless and undaunted by the harsh elements that scorched them on this hot and humid afternoon. She had known many of them for years and a select few for a lifetime. Through thick and thin, these young ladies counted on each other, anticipated each other’s moves and backed each other up, both on and off the field.
Nicole, standing nonchalantly in left field, pinned her gloved hand under one arm and brought her other hand to her chin as if contemplating the mysteries of life. Far from a passive philosopher, she had once stepped in front of Samantha, shielding her from a slovenly brute itching for a fight over some inconsequential little nothing that seemed to litter the days of every high school student. Where Samantha was fit and toned this behemoth coming after her was a corn-feed mutant: twice as tall and three times as wide. Nicole, who only had a few inches on Samantha, marched between the two and the glistening look in her bright, green eyes promised this monster a slow and painful death were she determined to threaten her teammate. The Leopards were comrades on the field, friends in the classroom but above all, family‐and no one messed with family!
Scanning right field, Samantha caught the eye of her best friend, Jessica, who could make the world smile with a glance. She was always grinning like the Cheshire Cat and today was no exception. She waved and even giggled a little as they shared a quick look. In unison, they both turned to consider the officials quarreling at home plate. Jessica had caused the current disagreement with an expertly thrown play at home where the Leopards notorious catcher, Amanda “The Wall” Turner, had stopped a runner cold as she tried to score after her teammate smoked a ball into deep right field. Jessica had tracked it expertly into her glove and fired it home so fast that, even though the runner on third had tagged-up and waited for the inevitable out before taking off for home, the play was so close the umpire had called her out on the blocked tag. The opposing coach had appealed to the field umpire, thus the current pause in the game. Performances like this were common for Jessica. She was an outstanding softball player and deserved to play for the college of her choice. Her grades were great and her attitude was outstanding. Continuously lifting the spirits of her partners on the ball-field no matter what the situation, everyone depended on Jessica to find the silver lining, no matter how gloomy the game appeared or what ill-fated turn the score may have taken. Today, however, thinking about Jessica started making Samantha angry. Her best friend had just found out she was going to have to work full-time for a couple years before she could afford even a few basic classes at the local community college after graduating in the spring and Samantha had heard the unsettling news just this morning. The boys were getting awarded scholarships left and right, even the unexceptional baseball players were being offered a piece of the pie but the girls softball team was only handed scraps, if anything at all.
Samantha, with an irritated frown twisting her usually pretty face, snuck another quick glance Jessica’s way only to notice, as if silently proving what a positive attitude she had, Jessica beaming almost more than normal as the umpires wound up their discussion at the plate. Samantha smiled. She couldn’t help it, that’s what Jessica did to people. Wiping her fingers across her dusty, grass-stained uniform the patient center-fielder tapped her glove hand on her knee and tightened the wrist strap a little more, ready to get on with the game.
This was fastpitch softball. Scorching, sizzling, sweltering tournaments several times a week; hotter practices in-between with batting practice filling the hours that separated them both. When you were serious about softball there was no such thing as the “off-season”. It was incessant and while the young ladies showed their dedication on the field, their families supported them ceaselessly, both financially and emotionally. The equipment and fees weren’t cheap nor was the cost of hotel rooms and food expenses necessary when running up and down the east-coast to play tournaments. Many families planned vacations around these softball schedules; in fact, some even relinquished their vacation plans altogether.
Amanda proved victorious at the plate. Her spectacular block and tag was determined to have contacted the base runner before those vicious, biting cleats had reached home plate. With two down it was time to get the last out and start batting. Amanda was one of the lucky ones. Her family was struggling like almost everyone else but she had been contacted by a college interested in her as a starting catcher. For an upcoming college freshman, this was almost unheard of; on the other hand, Amanda was an honor roll student and adding her impeccable grades to her nearly flawless softball career, it didn’t surprise anyone that she was getting offers so early. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t very much financial assistance available by way of women’s athletic scholarships to even dent her first year fees. Samantha shook her head in disgust as she thought about Jack, the lumbering football quarterback, who was just offered a full ride to an out-of-state college with an obese football program, even though his grades were less than impressive and his accomplishments on the field were average at best. The indisputable fact that male scholarships outnumbered their female counterparts two to one was blatantly obvious.
Batter up! Taylor, the Leopard’s star pitcher, led off with a fastball down the middle. Strike one! The batter should have at least gotten a piece of it, but no such luck. Not the way Taylor fired the ball! Amanda shot some fingers down and left, calling for a low inside pitch. Taylor obliged. The batter hopped back, expecting a ball. Strike two! The inside corner smoked with the heat Taylor scraped down the strike zone. There weren’t many pitchers like Taylor and with Amanda behind the plate this battery was nearly unbeatable.
Another pitch on the inside came next, but the batter wasn’t going down easy as she fouled it off the left side. Carrie, the third baseman, snagged it and tossed it back to Taylor. Going outside this time, the following pitch caught the end of the bat due to a late swing and the ball veered off to the right, again going foul. Morgan, the Leopards’ tall but sturdy first baseman, scooped it up and returned it nonchalantly to the pitcher. Another outside pitch earned Taylor her first ball; and attempting a drop that went much too low gained the Leopard’s a second ball that, fortunately, Amanda skillfully stopped. With the count at twenty-two, Taylor shot in a tricky rise ball but it went a little too high and the batter didn’t take the bait. Ball three ‐ full count. Firing it down the center, Taylor insouciantly trusted her defense to back her up if the batter happened to connect solidly. Of course, the batter did just that with a line drive to shortstop. Unfortunately for this batter, there camped Sarah with proverbial glue in her glove; for very few hits had ever gotten past her sticky fingers and Taylor was certain that this would be no exception! As the ball skimmed above the surface of the infield, it almost looked like it might catch the ground which would allow the batter a fighting chance if there was a bad hop or an error was committed by the fielder. Imagine! The batter was already sprinting to first base when Sarah dove toward the point of contact and stretched, sacrificing her body for the good of the team. She ignored the pain of crashing to the hard, dry earth to ensure the ball landed solidly in her glove. Out!
As they rushed off the field to grab their bats and helmets, Ashley, jogging in from second, greeted Sarah with a high five and a shout of congratulations. Not the first time but sadly, quite possibly one of the last. After graduation everyone would be headed down their own separate roads, setting off on new adventures that they must journey alone.
They won the game that day; in fact, they won most of their games that season. It wasn’t that it came easy or that there was no competition; on the contrary, the Lethal Leopards practiced hard and played harder! They were dedicated to each other, themselves, their grades and their community. The Leopards were known for volunteering and performing fund raisers for charities and improving the world around them a little bit at a time; as Ashley repeatedly pointed out: what they could do, they would do. Everything that could qualify you for a scholarship packed each of these young ladies resumés. Samantha was painfully aware of that fact when they gathered for the last time to wish each other good luck on their future successes and discuss upcoming plans for their continued education.
It was the end of their senior year, an “End of Season” that actually meant “The End” for this particular team. They laughed, they cried, shared pictures and videos of their past games and seasons. There was good food and great company; it was truly a celebration of what had been and for most, a look forward to what was yet to come. As the girls shared their dreams the revelry was bitter-sweet for Samantha. She watched Jessica, smiling and laughing louder than anyone. The only member of their group without the means to even try to go straight off to college, not even the local community college. She would have to work for each credit hour. Save and scrimp to even start what the rest of them would be halfway through. Jessica deserved a grant more than any of them. She had earned it with her scholastic excellence, her dedication to her sport and her community involvement. If only someone had stood up for women’s sports and demanded they receive the same funding as the men’s sports, maybe Jessica would be able to afford the college education she deserved. Samantha vowed to do something about gender inequality. She didn’t know it at the time but that last day with a handful of friends that she loved like a family changed her vocational pursuits for the rest of her life. She wished she could have helped Jessica, then and there, but she swore she’d change the world for Jessica’s daughters and her daughter’s daughters.
Years later, as an advocate for women’s rights and with a plethora of awards, certificates and accommodations under her belt, bestowed upon her for persistently and vigorously fighting for women’s scholarships, equality in sports and recognition of female athletics, Samantha recognized a familiar voice as she sat quietly in her unpretentious, cozy little office stationed, appropriately, in her home town.
“I love what you’ve done with the place.” The silky voice was unmistakable and Samantha’s head snapped around like the tail-end of a wet towel coiled into a whip, the way the boys used to torture the girls at the neighborhood pool with stinging “rat-tails”, as they named them.
Samantha jumped out of her chair, nearly spilling her coffee and practically tripping over her desk to greet her dearest friend. “Jessica! Oh my god, it’s been forever!” she exclaimed, wrapping her arms around her teammate and embracing her in an affectionate hug.
Jessica returned the embrace with as much, if not more, adoration. “I’ve missed you, girl.” She replied, understatedly and with more than a little effort dedicated to holding back tears of joy at reuniting with her best friend from so long ago. Unfortunately, their paths had separated after high school, not entirely unexpectedly, and although they stayed in touch for a while, sending emails and meeting each other for lunch now and then, life simply got hectic, as sometimes it does. College and families and kids and the mundane routines that pepper our daily existence just overran what was most important—actually living! The trap was far from unique and Jessica had returned to right that wrong, specifically for Samantha and herself, which meant traveling to their home town, where she knew Samantha, her most treasured high school friend, had settled down.
They convened to a nearby café and after some simple catching-up and “how is so-and-so” and “what have you been up to?” and “I’ve been busy, you know, the usual”, Jessica stopped and regarded her long lost friend with a determined look in her piercing, sapphire eyes. Noticing the pause, Samantha glanced up from the newly poured coffee cup she had begun to sip and returned a puzzled look of her own.
“What’s wrong?” Samantha asked, genuinely concerned.
Jessica took a deep breath and began to relate some previously unmentioned details, “You know about Jeff and I and how we were blessed with a sweet, smart, beautiful daughter? Well, Alice decided long ago to follow in her mother’s footsteps, in our footsteps. She started playing softball and was damn good! Natural talent—I’ll take credit, thank you very much.” She giggled her famous giggle at the last statement and Samantha couldn’t help but join her.
“Oh, I have no doubt!” Samantha added, before taking another sip of coffee.
Jessica continued, “Well, she’s a freshman now. Yes, in college and, yes, it’s been that long!” They laughed again until it faded off slowly and a look of nostalgia crossed both their faces simultaneously as they quickly but subconsciously recounted the events of the last couple decades. It was only a flash but it reflected noticeably on both of their faces at once.
Samantha regained her composure first, “That’s great, I’m glad to hear the legacy lives on! How’s she doing?”
“That’s what I wanted to tell you. I really couldn’t believe when I first found out myself. She was awarded a scholarship—and not just a few bucks, a full ride!” The excitement was building in the pitch of Jessica’s voice and she was racing. “She got into her first choice, she’s interested in psychology and they have a great program—one of the best in the country—so she was aiming for them to begin with, and then”, she had to take a breath; “they offered to pay for the whole thing! We couldn’t believe it!”
“I’m so happy for you!” Samantha exclaimed, “You must know that’s one of the things I’ve been working so hard to change all these years: scholarship gender inequality—regarding women’s sports, specifically.”
“That’s the real reason…”, Jessica’s voice cracked a little. Samantha could see tears welling up and clouding her usually bright, sunny eyes. “I needed to come see you, in person. When we were done jumping up and down for joy, I started questioning how it was possible for this wonderful, extraordinary thing to happen to us; so I took a closer look at the program that was offering the grant. I don’t even know if you know…” She looked questioningly at Samantha as tears streamed down her pink, flushed cheeks.
“Know what, Jess?” Samantha took Jessica’s hands in hers. “What’s wrong? Let me help you if I can.” She couldn’t understand why her dear friend had broken down so quickly. She felt herself start to choke up a bit and her eyes moistened, as well.
“It was you! The name at the very bottom, behind all the officials and representatives, a program YOU started is sending MY daughter to a college we could never afford! My god, Samantha, it was you! Thank you so much!” Words were now too difficult. She fell into Samantha’s outstretched arms and sobbed tears of overwhelming joy. Tears she had cried time and time again since realizing that her very best friend from so long ago had reached out, unknowingly and had given her daughter the gift she could not give, a gift no one had offered her all those years ago when she need it most.
Samantha couldn’t hold back any longer; she cried with her best friend freely and as she did they shared special, intimate, universal tears: tears of joy for Jessica’s daughter and for all of the girls around the country that she had a hand in helping over the years. Once again, Jessica shaped Samantha’s life as she realized, concretely, what she had always known: this was the fruition of all that hard work, this moment right here was what made her decision all those years ago worthwhile, and she vowed then and there to never stop fighting for those young ladies. It would never be enough, for the work would never be complete!
© Daniel E. Barndt ~2012