I played college football on scholarship at a big school. My career was bittersweet. At the beginning I heard whispers that my free ride was a token nod to the in-state kid - an old tradition carried through the years to keep the developmental machine oiled for the can't-miss high school stars that cropped up every few years. I laughed at it. Every newspaper in the state named me defensive captain as a linebacker, and more than a few big schools sent letters, although most conceded they knew I wasn't going anywhere else.

But the whispers proved true. By the second week the coaches told me I was too slow to play linebacker. They moved me to safety, which took on a twisted meaning of dread. I waited and waited and waited for the plays to arrive to me. I didn't make the depth chart for two years. But I was a valuable scrub, and I found a spot on special teams. I was a full time backup for all but four games in my junior season, when the starter wrenched his ankle in a tackling drill and I stepped in. I played well but I didn't have any illusions. I noticed my first week as a starter that the defense had shaped itself to cover my inadequacies. I didn't mind it; football, if nothing else, lays it plain.

In five years, we won more than we lost, choked in a bowl game and staged an upset or two. Good shit. But in the end you don't take that along much, those games. You may carry with you a play or moment - for me it was my only career interception that went for a touchdown.

But when people ask for stories, they do not want to hear about check calls and double coverage. They either want the big hit or the good times.

None of it seems impressive to me anymore; sports surrounds me on television now to the point where nothing is significant. But in that short time on campus I got the point. Players get tutors. Players get slabs of prime rib. Players get shoes, oak lockers, wake-up calls, fan letters, rec rooms all for themselves. A free pass everywhere, all the time.

Players get sweatsuits. And until you wear them every day, and can wear a different one with a different design or insignia or color pattern or layer of warmth every day, you cannot understand the value of sweatsuits. I went months in sweatsuits.

The thing about privilege isn't that you miss out on what you know but that there are things you had no idea about. Twenty years of math tests, stored in a study bank. Drugs, any kind, synthetic or street, by request. And without much request at all there were women - most a little rough and unsophisticated, but still women. Doing things you'd imagine, yes. And things you didn't.

The house. The house was owned by the school. It stayed under a landlord's name as a cover, but its essence was as a party cave. Good time shack. Women, booze, smoke. It was four guys - three starters and me - with the fifth room in the basement as a suite. We entertained recruits, which meant one of us had to stick around for Christmas break, even after the bowl games.

I was the host. I liked it. I embraced it. My reputation in that house carried far beyond what I'd done on the field. At Friday lunch my table was a freeway. We booked the suite room - nothing more than an old double bed, cable television and a refrigerator stocked with cheap beer - for a price, sometimes hourly rates.

The coaches knew, and they didn't know. One told me I'd changed. The coach was a Christian, he ate buffets twice a week and he drove a giant, white Suburban. He lost a wife to cancer and had four kids. I'd changed in a way he couldn't fathom. It gave me a greater sense of power than he could ever understand.

Sheila Embry was small; bones jutted out all over, and she'd turn down anybody with more than an average endowment. She pulled her brown hair into a small ponytail, she smoked too much of everything, she wore spaghetti straps or tube tops, and she cried in your arms. One night we fucked and she told me her story. It touched me, until I realized she told everyone the story.

She wasn't from the Midwest; not our part, anyway. Her uncle got her in school. Parties got her out.

Sheila hung around. Part of the scenery. She knew how to do that. She was a troller, an ever-hardening girl looking for a pasty soul to take her in and buy her shit.

She was pretty enough to latch on to someone, one of those fat offensive linemen, most likely. Drugs did her in. Meth, crank, snort, speed - whatever you wanted to call it, the junk infused itself into our scene. The Interstate outside of town was the pipeline feeding a thousand tributaries. There was a house fire a week from a meth lab explosion.

I tried it once and my face went afire. I ran to the bathroom certain my pores were bleeding. I'm assured it was a shitty dose. Didn't matter.

Sheila preferred to smoke it from tinfoil, sucking the vapors through cheap glass tubes. She fucked better off it. Her eyes would roll and her back would arch and she would go. You closed your eyes to avoid looking at the corners of her mouth, which collected speed foam.

That one thing, the fuck, it wasn't a show. She felt it, even if the drugs pushed her to it. But it wasn't a fake.

And another thing: She had a laugh. High-pitched, knowing. I think of it now, how rare it is to come across an intelligent laugh, the mark of a genuine sense of humor. In the end I can't say I didn't like her. I did. After she wiped her mouth, still rabid, she would lay her head on my chest and lick my nipples, finding spots I hadn't known were there, before she'd settle down and I'd talk and she'd laugh. And in the minutes where we held each other against the outside and our roles in it, Sheila Embry was close to a love for me. Close, and then she begged for a twenty to get her home and high.