The description will be updated when I've figured out what the story is.
|WE ALL OF US CAME OUT OF THE PRE-GAME HUDDLE with our game faces on, even those of us who then headed over to the benches. For Derek, with his round face and peaked eyebrows, it meant putting on the face of a demented (and not very bright) Christmas elf. For Cole, it meant putting on the scowl of a man who was looking forward to slowly ripping apart a tractor trailer with his bare hands.
We won the coin toss and elected to receive. Chris Fletcher caught the ball on our twenty and carried it to our thirty-five before being taken down. Then on the next play, one of our guys rushed the ball up the middle for a twenty-three yard gain. Menefee held our next push to the line of scrimmage, but we added six yards with the rush after that.
Then Cole carried it himself for an eleven-yard gain and first down.
It was a bright, October day—the sun warm, the air cool, the sky a pale blue painted with gauzy clouds. Perfect football weather, and all of Menefee, it seemed like, had come out to see their boys try to take us down, and a big chunk of Causey had followed our team bus up the highway to watch us take them down. The stands were speckled with both schools' colors, and hungry roars went up from one side when our plays went well, and from the other when they didn't. As I watched across the way, I saw a roll of toilet paper go arcing over the stands, unwinding as it flew, leaving a papery trail to flutter and settle softly over the crowd. I wondered who would bring a roll of toilet paper to a football game, then decided it was probably a Menefee fan, and that that would explain it.
I don't know how or why Causey High and Menefee High came to be arch-rivals. I suppose every school needs an arch-rival, and as we're each the one high school of its smallish-sized town, we each had to look outside to find one.
Of course, that didn't explain why it was Menefee and not Lattyville that we cheerfully hated and who cheerfully hated us back.
And come to think of it, who did that leave Lattyville to be arch-rivals with?
I blinked when what looked like another roll of toilet paper when sailing overhead, then realized it was the ball. Cole was mixing it up. He threw it to Marcos Quintana, who was instantly tackled after catching it for a seventeen-yard gain. But on the next play Cole had to scramble as Menefee clawed aside his defenders, and we lost yardage when he couldn't find either a receiver nor a hole to rush through.
I was just settling down as the first wave of excitement drained off me when we suffered a heart-breaker.
Again Menefee clawed its way into the pocket, and again Cole had to backpedal like he was riding an invisible unicycle. Then he stretched up to his full height—he's as tall as me, but with more muscles—and shot the ball in a low, fast line over the surprised defenders' heads.
The throw looked great, and every one of us on the sidelines went up on tiptoes in time to see Quintana, in the end zone, pop into the air. But as he closed his arms around the ball, but it squirted away out of bounds.
"G'yawd!" sighed Taylor Jackson as we fell onto the bench. Coach Qualls, his back to us, crossed his arms. I didn't have to see his face to know he would have a steely grin spread across it, because I felt my own face twisting up into the same kind of grimace. "If he can do it again," Taylor said.
"He can do it again," I said. "He can do it a dozen times if he wants to."
Because Cole is good. Madison liked to say that I was as good as him, and sometimes when I felt the rhythm I could pretend I was. But watching a pass like that, even when it's incomplete, it was hard to imagine myself inside Cole's place, in his uniform and cleats, showing the same speed, power, and presence of mind.
But though I knew he was good, even I didn't expect him to do it again so soon.
I was expecting us to punt at that point, but Cole had the bit in his teeth, because he tried another rush. At least, that's what it looked like the plan was, as our entire line, including him, tried climbing over the Menefee line. Then, somehow, Cole was out of scrum, sprinting backwards toward our sideline, his arm pumping as he sought out a receiver. I rose to my own feet as a Menefee player ran up at Cole, and Cole rose up into the air even as the Menefee player launched himself and caught him about the hips.
But the ball had already in the air, and it rose and flew and fell in a high, slow arc toward the opposite corner of the field.
It seemed to take hang there for hours. The defenders could have left the field, gotten themselves hot dogs and popcorn at the concession stand, checked their texts, and wandered back out to do some stretches, all during the time it took the ball to come back down.
Yet, somehow, Quintana was the only one standing where it fell, and that was in the end zone. Up he went and down he came, and this time he held onto it, and we scored our first touchdown.
Then we got the extra point.
That's when I started breathing again, and all the little black dots swarming in front of my eyes dissolved back into the air.
Was it going to be that kind of game? I let myself wonder. The kind where we march the ball up the field and score a touchdown every time we receive it?
Coach Qualls turned and squinted at me. "Watch Menefee next time we have the ball," he said. "They're gonna switch to a zone defense." He turned back around and put his hands on his hips to watch as play resumed.
He was right, and we spent the rest of the quarter trading possession of the ball with Menefee, but with neither of us making much of our time with it. We held them to their own thirty-yard line after kicking them the ball, and even drove them back to their twenty-two before they were forced to punt. We then got the ball to their fifteen before they stiffened into a steel wall that Cole couldn't puncture. Then they came to life, making a twenty-two yard gain on their second play, then losing five yards before capturing another twenty with a rush; they lost ten yards before making it up and then some with a pass; but finally they ground to a halt at our twenty-yard line. I felt like they and we were marching up and down inside my own gut as each side pushed and crested and broke short of the end zone.
Then Cole lost it at the top of the second quarter.
He started off well by trying to switch things up. He faked a hand-off, and when Menefee took the bait he himself rushed for a twelve-yard gain. On the next play he again faked a hand-off, and passed the ball to Derek for an eight-yard gain. Then he did hand the ball off, and caught most of the Menefee defensive line in his shoulders when he distracted them while Geoff Stone took the ball up the side-line for eighteen yards. Jackson and I started slapping each other in our excitement.
But the pocket collapsed around Cole on the next play, and he had to scramble before sending the ball whizzing through an opening in the curtain of defenders. I couldn't see what happened, but I heard a roar go up in the stands, then falter and fade into a rippling groan. I cast about, looking for the referee, for there was some confusion on the field about the outcome.
Coach called a time out when the ruling came: a fumble just outside Menefee's end zone, giving them possession instead of us another touchdown.
It was Derek who had fumbled, losing the ball as he was tackled almost instantly on catching it. I found that out during the half-time break, as Coach Qualls reviewed the first half with us and gave us a pep talk. Despite Derek's fumble, the mood was taut but optimistic. We and Menefee had each made a field goal by then, but at least we were still ahead.
"You should be out there with us!" Derek shouted in my ear as we jogged back out for the second half. He slapped me in the small of the back. "I shit you not, but we're having fun!"
I don't think he meant to rub it in—that I was stuck on the bench during our big game of the year—but I did feel a hard tickle of resentment when a great rumbling cheer went up from the Causey side as we came running out into the late afternoon light. Derek shot his hands up in acknowledgement. I ducked my head and made a face.
That grimace fell off, though, as we ran past the marching band. Georgina was standing out front, searching the team, and our eyes met and locked. For a frozen moment, we stared at each other.
Then she smiled and gave me two thumbs up.
I felt my mouth twist into a smile, and I saluted her back. Too late I wondered if Madison, up in the stands, had seen me make it. Not that she could recognize me under my helmet. But she would know me by my jersey number.
She would be in the stands behind me, so I made a point of stepping back toward the field to search her out. But there were too many faces, too much orange-and-green gear, too many fluttering hands for me to pick her out. But maybe she would have seen me looking, and known I made the effort to find her.
Because it didn't look like she was going to get to see me make an effort on the field.
With Madison and Georgina in the back of my mind, I felt distracted through most of the third and fourth quarters. I almost missed it when Menefee's quarterback, shaking off three of our defenders, carried the ball to a fifty-eight-yard gain, followed by a touchdown and extra point, tying things up. That stung Cole, and in seven brutal plays he got us another touchdown, and then a field goal when he got his hands on the ball after we intercepted them for a change.
All at once both teams seemed to rise like rockets. Menefee's quarterback used Cole's own mix of rushes and passes to roll us back the edge of our end zone, faltering only at the last minute and settling for a field goal. Then they stopped our own advances and even pushed us back before forcing Cole to punt.
We sacked their quarterback for a nine-yard loss, and on the next play Quintana intercepted the ball again and carried it to their five-yard-line. But four downs later, that's where we still were.
Coach had brought Derek back to the bench by then, and he gripped my arm so hard as he cussed and hollered and spat as we watched the field that I thought he was going to bruise me. And he almost clambered onto my shoulders when Menefee's quarterback made a thirty-yard pass that brought them within range of a field goal, which they tried and made when we wouldn't let them penetrate any further.
There were five minutes left in the game—more than enough time for anything to happen with a score at twenty to sixteen—when we received the ball. But I wasn't watching the field, I was looking over at the band for Georgina, when I heard the low gasp and groan from the crowd. "What happened?" I asked Derek when I looked around. He didn't answer, but strained forward and muttered intently at the action on the field.
Or the lack of it. Officials were gathering around a prone figure.
My heart went sideways in my chest, and ants began crawling up and down inside my skin.
A few minutes later, Coach Qualls crooked his finger at me. "Take us home, Tyler," he said.