HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.

Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…

Cheap Trophies

Billy Malanga


A program infused with unfinished parents who benefit from recognition they never received, live through their progeny. “Wow, he’s really fast aye Joe, aren’t you proud of him this year?” I see this as a clever Machiavellian mixture of organized sport, human deception, and ability. But we don’t want to upset the apple cart of taxpayers in the coliseum. Level the playing field for little Johnnies and Jennies, everyone plays the same amount of time; play well with others regardless of accomplishment or talent level. Stuffing their faces with pizza and ice cream qualifies them for triumphant nobility, each participant considered equal.
The expected outcome measures: good sportsmanship, teamwork, and lots of hedonism. Eager parents and family members jump to their feet, yelling and clapping like they scored a touchdown themselves, like they own the joint. They smile at each other in the stands tugging at the front of their jersey, smiling, taking selfies with their son/daughter to show what remarkable natives they are. They have become clones at the weekly sporting event.
Do we overvalue our abilities? It turns into a breathtaking delusional clap-fuck party. The Todd Marinovich story illustrates the situation all too well. His obsessed father and he eventually crashed and burned in front of the sporting world. Recognition through offspring, young players acknowledged for being contestants, lied to, coerced into believing they are marvellous and worthy of the goods, worthy of hardware, when all are not. Something given not earned, someone they may never ever become, and the few talented enough to get things done, sit idle staring at cheap aluminium alloy trophies. The weakest link pulls up the rear like an anchor dangling at sea. I remember my Marine drill instructor screaming, “We are only as quick as our slowest rifleman in this Goddamn platoon. That piece of shit will drag the unit down into the depths of hell and get us all killed.”
We reward participants for being malfunctions, for showing up with nice grins. “Just tell me coach, please”, as my plastic mouthpiece dangles with blood and saliva. Tell me the truth; tell me now so I can quit wasting time and high-priced tape! Tell me so I can move on to Art History or Classic Philosophy, or English Literature, or something that I am passionate about spending my one precious life doing. Tell me I am nothing, tell my parents, tell the team I am too small, tell me I can’t tackle, tell me I have heavy ankles that no amount of training will develop without a complete reincarnation. Tell me I am not good enough, I am weak, or run-of-the-mill, or whatever, but don’t put me in the same bag with the whole team, with the same handling and credit when there are exceptional ones out there. Outstanding ones with bones and ligaments that strike the turf in perfect harmony, like piano keys hitting fine-tuned strings with hands that make love to the pigskin as it touches their fingers, with the speed and agility of Astylos of Croton. Exceptional ones that move like thoroughbreds with sinews and muscles intermingling with the gods, with eyes that respond as swift as an eagle, and the roughness of a proven warrior. Expose the obvious, for their future’s sake, not for the expectations of a group of whiners that only think about ice cream sandwiches. Listen carefully, coach; if you don’t, they will look back in twenty years with tears in their eyes because of the lies. The process misrepresents and interrupts mental development of young players. It creates an erroneous paradise, lost in translation, pointing towards a selfish empire where mythical idols are devoted and lifted up high on shoulders, high above the coliseum. Taking part in sacrifice does not equate to being an expert gunner. The true definition sits idle at the base of the mountain, waiting to be discovered by the few who are willing to pay the high price. A systemic sequence based on Sisyphean struggle. Character traits do not show up with fuzzy blankets and warm milk one sunny day.
My coach in college used to growl at the end of each practice: “Men, the top eleven athletes will be on my field at any given time and place. If you don’t like it, get the hell out.” The smell of fresh cut grass, sweaty durable young men panting like laboured quarter horses and gritty odours lingering behind the steel bars of my face mask reminded me of Dostoyevsky rotting in a Siberian prison. There was always someone at your door, starving and hungry like the wolf. Who in the hell ever said the process is emotionally and physically free of pain or disappointment. Developmental authority comes with a cost. Cognitive and physical anguish makes things come alive. Achievement in youth sports is not for everyone and there is no clear-cut path to pure enlightenment. The risks, wrecks, moans, losses, smiles and broken bones prove how powerful the playing field can be.
Each practice session or game is structurally designed to place a probe in the mind of the player, to find something out about his/her wiring, about the true level of character from the coach’s viewpoint, not the parents. For the most part, fathers and mothers act as though their Johnny or Jenny should be detached from all emotional shame and/or suffering. Under competitive pressure, some explode with glory and others fall on their sword. The glaring truth is that diamonds are made over long periods of time. Brilliant diamonds need pressure. A mixed stew of tough circumstances, defeats, conquests, scrap heaps, euphoria and fellowship is part of the package. Perhaps when they are fifty, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and that cheap aluminum trophy in the other, they will think about their own story like Gilgamesh. How it felt to be given something just for showing up, about all of those cheap gestures on the field. They will think about how mediocrity and weakness whirled around them, how it provoked them, how life will never be fair. Don’t tell them lies.     

BILLY MALANGA (M.S. in Criminal Justice) is a first generation college graduate, U.S. Marine Corps veteran, and the grandson of Italian immigrants. He played college football and worked for many years in a state prison system. All of these influences have undeniably shaped his way of thinking about his art. His poetry reveals his small victories and also his struggles in redefining masculinity in an effort to better understand the beauty and brutality of the world around him. His recent poetry has been published or is forthcoming in: The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature; The Creativity Webzine, The Write Launch; Ghostwoods Books, Picaroon Poetry; The New Thoreau Quarterly Review; Wraparound South Literary Journal; Adelaide Literary Magazine; The Ibis Head Review; Cold Creek Review; Dime Show Review; Rat’s Ass Review; Spindrift Art/Literary Journal; and The Naga.org. He currently lives in Urbana, Illinois and is relocating to Auburn, Alabama in August 2017.
Website: https://billymalangapoetry.wordpress.com/