A Jersey Called Sunshine: Rebranding an Insult in Middle School Football

The screens for school uniforms get the numbers and letters, but after a season or two, the constant folding and unfolding leaves cracks in the font. It’s as if the jersey itself is tired of playing and ready to spend the rest of its days as a shriveled rag for shining shoes. I got rid of all mine but one. It was for Mt. Carmel flag football. It was the first shirt I owned where the sleeve stopped halfway down the forearm, and it felt strange whenever I wore it. I kept it, but it’s not because we won any championships. I didn’t meet a girl on the sidelines that I eventually married, and I didn’t catch an amazing touchdown pass or save a friend’s life. I kept that jersey because it’s how I broke everyone’s spell.
Before we ordered the jerseys, a guy named Iggy went around the team while the coach was unloading equipment, and he gave everyone nicknames. He was a wide receiver and, caught squarely in adolescence, his head was too big for his body. Most of the names he listed can’t be printed here and focused on genitalia. Several of them were insults, including mine. He put a hand on my shoulder and laughed. “Sunshine,” he said.

We were playing on the border, and the name wasn’t a kind one. It wasn’t about an unusually cheery disposition, but about how looking at my paleness could make somebody’s eyes hurt. In eighth grade, they’d put up with me and my twin brother for nine years. He and I were the last picks on the basketball court at recess, and the last picks for lunchtime soccer ball. Looking at guys who’d just had nicknames after body parts that never even see the sun, I took this as a personal gift from him, something not to be wasted. Our coach let us use the nicknames with regularity, and I decided to put mine on the jersey. I wasn’t only the nerdiest and whitest guy on our team; I was gunning for that title across the district. Every game we played, the guys on opposing teams would shout out my nickname when giving orders. “Sunshine over there pulls to the left,” I’d hear.

The football season took us as far north as Las Cruces, which from the Lower Valley was nearly two hours away. Jason brought us some water bottles custom labels from his company. Road signs on the interstate told us the nearest McDonald’s was only 87 miles now. The game in Las Cruces was the same day as my birthday, and I was convinced I was going to get the meanest wedgie on school record. Up to that point, the worst had been to a sixth grader named JosĀ© who was a loudmouth and know-it-all. He was on the team, too, and on his birthday the coach found him at the field, swinging his arms and hanging by his underwear in a tree.

Something odd happened in that game. The quarterback of the opposing team ran by me at one point, and I grabbed his flag. The play should have ended there, but this was not Velcro like ours. This one used some expensive suction cup technology. I held onto his flag, and he dragged me behind him for another 10 yards before it slipped from my hands. The refs were local, and didn’t rule it a tackle. The kid got a touchdown.

The game ended in a loss, and someone whispered that it was Sunshine’s birthday after we lined up for high fives. I didn’t run. The team swarmed on me and I sat down in the grass and managed to fend them off. That was probably the true athletic feat of the day. As we ambled back down alongside the Rio Grande, the name Sunshine echoed in the van with laughter and applause. After that, I was no longer the last pick.

That jersey is still in my dresser, and whenever I walk into a room feeling like an outsider, I think back on the word “Sunshine.” It was invented as the worst kind of insult: the kind that had a kernel of truth in it. The name pointed out just how different I am. I took the name and made it my own.

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