Night creeps in and they run, cleats on concrete, mop-top hair flowing through black ball caps. They're nervous. They're 14 years old. The hipper boys know the unwritten rule: Run to the front of the bus, strap yourself in and hold on. That is more important than batting averages. That, on a 30-minute bus ride, might get you safely home.

A harsh western New York winter has finally given way to warm spring evenings, but the mood on the Wilson High School baseball bus is far from relaxed. One boy wants to learn jujitsu to defend himself; others want the bus to zoom up Highway 425 a little faster.

If Erik has learned anything from a year on the junior varsity, it's to be on edge. He is smaller than just about everybody else on the bus, aside from the head coach's kindergartner son who serves as a sort of team mascot. If something goes down tonight, he's going to be on the wrong end of it. Before he was stuffed into a locker, before his prepubescent, straight-A's world tipped over, he dreamed of playing for the Yankees. But now Erik hates baseball, dreads the bus ride, and just wants to hunker down at home and play Guitar Hero.

Earlier, he asked if his father could pick him up, avoid the bus. But his dad was working. Did the boy know, then, what was about to happen? He sinks into an aisle seat a few rows behind the driver. Hands grip his shoulders; another covers his mouth. He can't hold on.

When the bus finally pulls into the school parking lot, one thing is clear.

The boys, and their town, will never be the same.

From Elizabeth Merrill's 2008 feature story for ESPN.

[Photo Credit: Adrian Kraus for ESPN.com]