ZJ’s dad has always been a hero. As a beloved pro football star, he has been a source of pride and inspiration to his neighborhood and adoring fans — but now he is having trouble remembering it all. As old head injuries start to change the man and father he has always known, ZJ grapples to hold on to the past and what it means for the future. A heartfelt story of loss and longing, award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson’s captivating novel-in-verse explores the consequences and true cost of injury 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 thatbut 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?
About the Author
Read an 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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