A Son’s Future, a Father’s Final Down

By Jacqueline Woodson

Zachariah Johnson Jr. (ZJ) is living a 12-year-old boy’s dream: His father is a star professional football player, he lives in a comfortable home in the suburbs with a half basketball court upstairs, he has a trio of friends who always show up at the right times and his budding songwriting talent seems destined to take him far.

He is also living a nightmare.

Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel, “Before the Ever After,” is not a work of horror (despite the haunting title), but a creeping, invisible force is upending ZJ’s world and slowly stealing away his father — known as “Zachariah 44,” for his jersey number — before his and his mother’s eyes.

The father’s hands have begun to tremble uncontrollably. He stares vacantly. He forgets basic things, most achingly the name of the son who bears, and at times is burdened by, his name. He’s prone to angry outbursts, to the point that ZJ’s friends no longer want to come by the house.

He is suffering the effects of a degenerative brain disease that, while not named, bears a strong resemblance to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., which has been found in scores of former N.F.L. players. Until 2016, the league for years denied any connection between brain trauma on the field and hundreds of players’ crippling neurological ailments and, in many cases, deaths.

This is largely a father-son tale, leaving ZJ’s mother in the background, revealed in the occasional tender scene — Zachariah 44 drapes his arms around her in a moment of clarity — but mostly in quiet anguish.

“I think they’re not telling the whole truth,” ZJ overhears his mother telling a friend. “Too many of them —”

ZJ is so disillusioned that he gives away one of his father’s coveted footballs to his friend Everett, in a scene that reminds us of the staying power of the sport: “Everett’s eyes get wide. This is Zachariah 44’s ball? I nod. For real?”

ZJ finds solace in the music, literal and symbolic, that he and his father have made together. “Until the doctors figure out what’s wrong, this is what I have for him,” ZJ says. “My music, our songs.”

Woodson has said she seeks to instill optimism and hope. ZJ’s patient and supportive mother and his group of friends who are always buoying him up serve that purpose here. Yet at times this striving for hope feels strained, given a condition that so often offers no Hail Mary. ZJ may not fully realize it, but we all know what’s coming. The nightmarish, seemingly irreversible decline of the once mighty and strong has broken the hearts and wills of football families. A lyrical portrayal of a player’s fade and a boy coming to terms with it doesn’t change that.

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