Note: ES21 is the intellectual and publishing property of Inagaki Riichiro, Murata Yusuke and Shonen Jump.I just happened to wander onto their practice field…

"Every time a football player goes to ply his trade he's got to play from the ground up -- from the soles of his feet right up to his head. Every inch of him has to play. Some guys play with their heads. That's OK. You've got to be smart to be number one in any business. But more importantly, you've got to play with your heart, with every fiber of your body. If you're lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he's never going to come off the field second." - V. Lombardi

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Pregame

He stands on a football field and watches himself – he can't help it, it's unavoidable. He was loosening his neck and glanced up above the end-zone and there was the image, bigger than the uprights on the goal post: the ball is snapped, the quarterback turns his back on the defense and drifts diagonally, arm extended… and then the ball is gone in a flurry of motion, moving lateral to the straining linemen, and the linebacker is too slow, can't seal the edge, so that the hunched blur rips across the line of scrimmage, vaulting fallen bodies and swiveling into an open space in enemy territory. There is one man to beat, the weak-side safety closing with a good angle – but a micro-second stutter-step and pivot and the man is grasping at air, his eyes haunted in disbelief, and then the real speed, the break-away afterburner, punches in and the zebra arms go up… but, it's just the Jumbotron.

There is still a real game to play.

Light pours into the gigantic bowl of the stadium, tiny suns captured and anchored with struts and girders and glaring with such intensity at the field that every player moving through their warm up routines drags a menagerie of shadows with them across the grass. High quality speakers surrounding the stands pump out the latest top-forty chaff as the crowds filter in, but it is the kinetic bass that thuds across the hash-marks and yard markers and threatens to buckle adrenaline-stretched nerves on both teams. Beneath the music is the constant murmur of the fans filtering into their seats, a migration indistinct to the eye: if one were to attempt to peer through the thick moist air and the eye-filling illumination, up and out from the sunken center of the stadium, it would be to behold a dimly visible mosaic of colored shadows, interspersed with the bright novas of detonating camera flashes.

Most importantly, there is the smell – green, sweet and familiar. The fresh-mown grass of the playing field, standing fixed and constant in his memory like a torii gate anchored to his soul.

He closes his eyes and turns his face to the sky. The sound of his teammates fades away. It is raining, a cool, heavy winter rain so typical of the Florida coast in January. The downpour plasters the wild spikes of his hair to his skull, running down his neck and soaking the torn Devilbats t-shirt that he wears beneath the carapace of his pads and the blue, black and white of his Boston Saber's game jersey. The rain taps his forehead, his eyelids, and catches in the brown, black and gray hairs of his goatee. Water seeps between his lips, and the taste… the trickle touching his tongue is the same any of a hundred different rainy game days, a dozens of fields in Japan and Europe and in the States. He has a football in his hands, his gloves folded into his belt at his waist so that his bare fingers can feel the wet pebbled leather. The scent of the soaked football adds to his sense of the historical. His electric legs yearn to rip across the grass. Even with eyes shut, drifting with the charged atmosphere, he hops in place and his legs kick out and flex, restless as a race-horse at the gate.

His brown eyes open, and there is no indication in their serious depths that the monstrous spectacle enveloping him has caused the least apprehension. He tosses the football to a nearby ball boy and trots easily towards the locker room entrance, small splashes kicking up on the wet grass with every step, shadowy coterie trailing at his feet.

He jogs past a group of Saber fans, the cherished plastic rectangles of field-passes dangling from around their necks. They point at him with huge excitement. They call his name, they scream to him – one woman, yelling so loudly that saliva leaps from her mouth, pulls frantically at the shoulders of her shirt: it is a reproduction Saber game jersey that she is desperate to show off. It has his name across the shoulders, it has his number on the chest – number 21.