Before the Ever After

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National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson's stirring novel-in-verse explores how a family moves forward when their glory days have passed and the cost of professional sports on Black bodies.

For as long as ZJ can remember, his dad has been everyone's hero. As a charming, talented pro football star, he's as beloved to the neighborhood kids he plays with as he is to his millions of adoring sports fans. But lately life at ZJ's house is anything but charming. His dad is having trouble remembering things and seems to be angry all the time. ZJ's mom explains it's because of all the head injuries his dad sustained during his career. ZJ can understand that--but it doesn't make the sting any less real when his own father forgets his name. As ZJ contemplates his new reality, he has to figure out how to hold on tight to family traditions and recollections of the glory days, all the while wondering what their past amounts to if his father can't remember it. And most importantly, can those happy feelings ever be reclaimed when they are all so busy aching for the past?

Praise

* “Woodson's text may be spare, but it has the emotional wallop of an offensive tackle.”—Shelf Awareness, starred review

* “Woodson’s latest novel in verse conveys that not all success stories have a fairy-tale ending. Readers will feel an immediate connection to ZJ and his group of authentic, complex friends and family. The idea of showing the dark side of fame through the experiences of a young family member is a unique perspective that will resonate with readers of all ages. ZJ’s story will stay with the audience long after the last page is read. A first choice for all collections. A unique take on sports and fame told from an unexpected perspective, and another incredible read ­delivered by Woodson.”—School Library Journal, starred review

* “Using spare and lyrical language for ZJ’s present-tense narration, which moves back and forth through time, Woodson skillfully portrays the confusion, fear, and sadness when a family member suffers from brain injury and the personality changes it brings. . . . The well-rounded secondary characters complete a mosaic of a loving African American family and their community of friends. . . . A poignant and achingly beautiful narrative shedding light on the price of a violent sport.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

* “Woodson delivers a poignant new novel in verse that highlights an important topic within the sports world, especially football. . . . ZJ’s life quickly turns from charmed to tragic as he has to face that his father and family are forever changed. . . . Woodson again shows herself to be a masterful writer, and her meaningful exploration of concussions and head injuries in football, a subject rarely broached in middle-grade fiction, provides young athletes with necessary insights into sport's less glamorous side. In addition to this, it is a novel that explores family, mental illness, and the healing that a tight-knit, loving community can provide.”—Booklist, starred review

* “Woodson explores the impact of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) on football players and their families from the perspective of ZJ, son of tight end Zachariah ‘44’ Johnson. . . . In lyrical verse, Woodson conveys the confusion and loss that many families feel as they try to figure out what is wrong with their loved one. Each of the poems ably captures the voice of the story’s preteen boy protagonist; readers can feel the sense of love and loss that ZJ is experiencing as his dad slips away. Even though that loss is difficult, Woodson reminds readers that life’s challenges are more easily faced with the support of friends and famiy.”—Horn Book, starred review

* “A beautiful and heart-wrenching story. . . . Eloquent prose poetry creates a moving narrative that reveals the grief of a child trying to understand why his father has changed and why nothing can be done. An ardent account of the multitudes of losses experienced by those who suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy and its effects on their families, ZJ's doleful tale unveils the intense nostalgia and hope one can feel despite realizing that sometimes what is lost can never be regained."—Publishers Weekly, starred review 

“This is a heartbreaking tale brimming with sympathy, and it draws much of its impact from the characterization of Zachariah’s father; while the portrait is obviously burnished by ZJ’s hero worship, it’s also clear that Zachariah Senior is a man of deep kindness and generosity who loves his son greatly, and whose decline leaves a huge hole in his fiercely close African-American family. ZJ’s move toward music and his increasing reliance on his friends are age-appropriate shifts that have particular poignance given the situation. While the football and CTE elements give this resonance for young athletes, many readers will be sadly familiar with the painful waning of a family member, and they’ll be heartened by ZJ’s love and resilience.”—The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

Excerpt

Memory like a Movie
 
The memory goes like this:
 
Ollie’s got the ball and he’s running across my yard when 
Dad comes out of nowhere,
soft tackles him to the ground.
Then everyone is cheering and laughing because 
we didn’t even know my dad was home.
 
I thought you had a game, I say, grabbing him.
It’s a half hug, half tackle, but
the other guys—Darry and Daniel—hop on too 
and Ollie’s escaped, so he jumps
on top of all of us jumping on my dad.
 
Yeah, Mr. J., Darry says. I thought we’d be watching you 
on TV tonight.

 
Coach giving me a break, my daddy says. He climbs out 
from under,
shaking us off like we’re feathers, not boys.
 
Ah man! Darry says.
Yeah, we all say. Ah man!

Sometimes a player needs to rest, Daddy says. 
He looks at each of us for a long time.
A strange look. Like he’s just now seeing us.

Then he tosses the ball so far, we can’t even see it anymore. 

And my boys say Ah man, you threw it too far!
while I go back behind the garage where 
we have a whole bunch of footballs 
waiting and ready
for when my daddy sends one into the abyss.

Everybody’s Looking for a Hero  
 
Once, when I was a little kid, 
this newscaster guy asked me if 
my dad was my biggest hero.
No, 
I said. My dad’s just my dad.
 
There was a crowd of newscasters circling around me, 
all of them with their microphones aimed
at my face. Maybe I was nervous, I don’t remember now.
 
Maybe it was after his first Super Bowl win, his ring 
new and shining on his finger. Me just a little kid,
so the ring was this whole glittering world, 
gold and black and diamonds against
my daddy’s brown hand.
 
I remember hearing the reporter say 
Listen to those fans! Looks like everybody’s 
found their next great hero.

 
And now I’m thinking back to those times
when the cold wind whipped around me and Mom 
as we sat wrapped in blankets, yelling Dad’s name, 
so close to the game, we could see the angry spit 
spraying from the other team’s coach’s lips.
So close, we could see the sweat on my daddy’s neck.

And all the people around us cheering,
all the people going around calling out his number, 
calling out his name.
 
Zachariah 44! Zachariah 44!
 
Is your daddy your hero? the newscaster had asked me.
 
And all these years later, just like that day, I know 
he’s not my hero,
he’s my dad, which means 
he’s my every single thing.

Day after the Game  
 
Day after the game
and Daddy gets out of bed slow. 
His whole body, he says,
is 223 pounds of pain
from toes to knees, from knees to ribs, 
every single hit he took yesterday 
remembered in the morning.

Before the Ever After  
 
Before the ever after, there was Daddy driving 
to Village Ice Cream
on a Saturday night in July before preseason training.
 
Before the ever after, there was Mom in the back seat 
letting me ride up front, me and Daddy
having Man Time together 
waving to everyone
who pointed at our car and said That’s him!
 
Before the ever after, the way people said
That’s him! sounded like a cheer.
 
Before the ever after, the people pointing 
were always smiling.
 
Before the ever after, Daddy’s hands didn’t always tremble 
and his voice didn’t shake
and his head didn’t hurt all the time.
 
Before the ever after, there were picnics 
on Sunday afternoons in Central Park 
driving through the tunnel to get to the city 
me and Daddy making up songs.
 
Before the ever after, there were sandwiches 
on the grass near Strawberry Fields
chicken salad and barbecue beef 
and ham with apples and Brie
there were dark chocolates with almonds and 
milk chocolates with coconut
and fruit and us just laughing and laughing.
 
Before the ever after, there was the three of us 
and we lived happily
before the ever after.

Daniel  
 
In second grade, Daniel walked over to me, Ollie and Darry, 
said You guys want to race from here to the tree?
When he lost, he laughed and didn’t even care, 
just high-fived Darry, who always wins
every race every time and said
You got feet like wings, bruh.
 
Then he got on his bike and we knew 
he wasn’t regular. He was fearless.
 
Even back then, he could already
do things on a bike that a bike wasn’t made for doing— 
popping wheelies and spinning and standing up on the seat 
while holding on to the handlebars and speeding
down the steepest hills in town.
 
Me, Darry and Ollie used to call ourselves Tripod 
cuz the three us came together like that.
 
But when we met Daniel, we became the Fantastic Four.
 
And even after he broke his arm
when he jumped a skate park ramp right into a wall, 
he didn’t stop riding.
He said My cast is like a second helmet,
held it high in the air
with the unbroken arm holding the handlebars
and then not holding them and Daniel flying 
around the park like some kid
gravity couldn’t mess with.
While me and Darry and Ollie watched him amazed. 

And terrified.

ZJ  
 
I used to wonder who I’d be if “Zachariah 44” Johnson 
wasn’t my daddy.
First time people who know
even a little bit about football meet me, 
it’s like they know him, not me. To them, 
I’m Zachariah’s son.
The tight end guy’s kid.
I’m Zachariah Johnson Jr. ZJ. I’m the one 
whose daddy plays pro ball. I’m the tall kid
with my daddy’s same broad shoulders. I’m the one 
who doesn’t dream of going pro.
 
Music maybe.
But not football.
 
Still, even at school, feels like my dad’s in two places 
at once—dropping me off out front, saying
Learn lots, little man, then
walking into the classroom ahead of me.
I mean, not him but
his shadow. And me almost invisible 
inside it.
 
Except to my boys
who see me walking into the classroom and say

What’s up, ZJ?
Your mom throw any cookies in your lunch? 
Then all three of them open their hands 
beneath their desks so that when
the teacher’s back is turned 

I can sneak them one.

You Love a Thing?  
 
Ever since I was a little kid,
I’ve loved football, my daddy told me. 
Through every broken toe and cracked rib 
and jammed finger

and slam to the shoulder 
and slam to the head, I still loved it.

 
You got something you love, little man? 
Then you good.

You love food? You cook.
You love clothes? You design.
You love the wind and water? You sail.
 
Me, my daddy said,
I love everything about the game. 
Even the smell of the ball.

 
Then he laughed, said
Imagine loving something so much, you love 
the smell of it?

 
It smells like leather and dirt and sweat and new snow.
I love football with all
of my senses. Love the taste and feel 
of the air in my mouth

running with the ball on a cold day. Love the smell
of the ball when I press it to my face
and the smell of the field right after it rains.
 
I love the way the sky looks as we stare up at it
while some celebrity sings “The Star-Spangled Banner.” 
Love the sound of the crowd cheering us on.

 
When you love a thing, little man, my dad said,
you gotta love it with everything you got.
Till you can’t even tell where that thing you love begins 
and where you end.

Who We Are & What We Love  
 
Ollie divides fractions in his head,
can multiply them too—gives you the answer while 
you’re still trying to write down the problem, knows 
so much about so much but doesn’t show off
about knowing.
 
Darry—besides running fast, he can dance. Get the music 
going and my boy moves like water flowing.
All smooth like that.
 
Daniel’s super chill, says stuff like
You okay, my man? You need to talk?
And really means it. And really listens.
Calls his bike a Magic Broom, spins it in so many circles 
we all get dizzy, but not Daniel,
who bounces the front tire back to earth 
without even blinking,
says That was for all of y’all who are stuck on the ground.
 
Me, I play the guitar. Mostly songs 
that come into my head. Music
is always circling my brain. Hard to explain 
how songs do that.
But when I play them, everything 
makes some kind of strange sense like 
my guitar has all the answers.

When I sing, the songs feel 
as magic as Daniel’s bike
as brilliant as Ollie’s numbers 
as smooth as Darry’s moves
as good as the four of us hanging out 
on a bright cold Saturday afternoon.
 
It feels right 
and clear 
and always.

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