Authors: John Feinstein
This is for the real Ed Brennan, who taught me how to compete as a teenager.
Once again I have to thank my editor at Knopf, Nancy Siscoe, who has a remarkable knack for making a writer feel good about being editedâa rare quality, I can assure you. Thanks also to Nancy's assistant editor, Michele Burke, and to all the marketing people at Knopf who have worked so hard to make people want to read more about Stevie and Susan Carol.
I'm not certain I would have written one book in my life, much less twenty-two, if not for my agent, Esther Newberg, who still has the enthusiasm of a teenager twenty-two years after we first began working together. Thanks also to Chris Bauch, who first thought writing kids' mysteries was something I should try and who reminds me more of Esther every day. Kari Stuart keeps both of them in line most of the time.
I also owe a debt of gratitude to all my friends with the Baltimore Ravens, who gave me the chance to see how an NFL team works from the inside. Many of them appear in cameo roles throughout the book. Thanks also to colleagues Mark Maske, Sally Jenkins, and Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, as well as Sean McManus, Jim Nantz, and Lesley Visser from CBS.
The best part of doing this series has been the involvement of Danny and BrigidâStevie and Susan Carol's real-life alter egos. What's most scary is that, as in the books, they are both smarter than the adults in their lives. Special thanks to all my friends who have provided encouragement and support during the past year.
CUT FROM THE TEAM
DAD, I THINK THEY'RE HERE
Stevie Thomas was staring out the front window of his house, which offered a view of the entire street. He had been sitting on the couch, ostensibly reading a book, but he had read exactly one page in an hour because he kept looking out the window. He was too nervous to focus on the descriptions of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks in the earth science book that was spread out on his lap.
Now, finally, he saw a black Town Car turn onto Pelphrey Lane and he was pretty certain it'd be stopping at his door.
“I'll be right down,” Bill Thomas called back from upstairs. “Offer them something to drink.”
His dad had left his law office early to be home for the six o'clock meeting. Stevie's mom and little sister, Katie, were at an ice-skating lesson.
Stevie knew something bad was about to happenâeven though his dad insisted he was jumping at shadows. The call had come from USTV on Monday.
“We'd like to get together with you and your dad before you leave for Indianapolis,” Tal Vincent, the producer of
had said to Stevie on the phone. “No need for you to come down here. We know you've got school. Mike and I will come to you.”
To Stevie, that was a sign something was very wrong. “Mike Shupe doesn't fly to Philadelphia to meet with the co-star of a show unless it's something really important,” he had told his dad. “I think they're canceling the show.”
Mike Shupe was the executive producer of USTV's original programming unit. He was the creative force that had made USTV a serious rival to ESPN in the world of all-sports cable television. It had been Shupe's idea to have two teenagers host a weekly show on USTV aimed at teenage viewers. And it was Shupe who had convinced both their parents that Susan Carol Anderson and Stevie were made to star on
Stevie and Susan Carol were both only fourteen. But they had stumbled into something resembling stardom by helping solve two mysteries: one at the Final Four in New Orleans when a star player had been blackmailed to throw the national championship game; the other in New York at the U.S. Open tennis tournament when a glamorous Russian teenage star had disappeared just before her first match.
Stevie and Susan Carol had earned the chance to cover the Final Four by winning a writing contest sponsored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. The aspiring young sportswriters had gotten off to a rocky start: he was an opinionated northern kid who liked the Big East and the Big Five. She was an equally opinionated Southern girl who worshipped at the altar of Mike Krzyzewski and Duke. She was also annoyingly tallâat least five foot eight to Stevie's five four.
But she had turned out to be very smart and, too tall or not, very pretty. By the time they met again at the U.S. Open, Stevie had a full-blown crush on her. Plus, they made a great team. Together they had proven that Nadia Symanova's kidnapping had been a well-planned hoax. And by the end of the week, Susan Carol admitted that she really liked Stevie too. Well, her goodbye kiss had said so anyway.
That adventure had taken its toll, though. Stevie had been beaten up by a couple of thugs. But Susan Carol had it worse. It turned out her uncle Brendan had been a part of the hoax and was likely to end up in jail.
That may have been why her father had declared future big-time sports events strictly off-limits. Stevie's parents hadn't been thrilled with the goings-on in New York either. Which was why all the parents had balked when Mike Shupe called to say he wanted to make their kids into TV stars.
Even Susan Carol hadn't been too excited about the idea: “We're writers, remember?” she had said to Stevie on the phone. “TV is for pretty people who read from a teleprompter.”
“Well,” Stevie said, “you're pretty and I know how to read.”
“Shut up, Stevie,” Susan Carol laughed.
But Shupe was persistent. He had visited both families in their homes. He had offered a
of money. “Even if the show only lasts a year,” he had said to Bill Thomas, “you will have paid for Stevie's college education.”
Stevie's dad had laughed at that one. “Obviously, you don't have kids, Mr. Shupe,” he'd answered. “If you triple what you're offering, you might be right about paying for college.”
Shupe hadn't tripled the offerâbut he
almost doubled it. And he arranged it so the half-hour show would be taped on Friday afternoonsâneither kid would miss any school. Stevie would go to a TV studio in Philadelphia, Susan Carol to a studio in Fayetteville, North Carolina. They would discuss the sports events of the week on a satellite hookup. They would respond to e-mails from other kids, and occasionally they would interview a guest.
Bill Thomas and Don Anderson had spent a lot of time talking on the phone. Finally they decided to let the kids try itâfor one year. If it affected their schoolwork at all, if the parents weren't comfortable with how it was affecting them or their lives, the show would be over.
Deal, said Stevie and Susan Carol.
Deal, said Shupe.
The show had debuted on the first Saturday in November. The reviews were very good: people marveled at how much Stevie andâespeciallyâSusan Carol knew about sports. Both of them became stars at their schools, and Susan Carol, who looked a lot more like eighteen than fourteen, was flooded with mail from love-struck teenage boys. Stevie even got some mail from love-struck teenage girls.
He loved every second of it. Susan Carol wasn't as sure. “What if you fall for some ninth-grade girl at school?” she asked him one night.
“Oh, come on, Scarlett,” he said, calling her by the
Gone with the Wind
nickname he'd put on her at the Final Four because of her Southern accent and ability to charm almost anyone into doing anything. “If anyone should be jealous, it's me. What boy in the
doesn't want to go out with you?”
She paused. “But I don't want to go out with any of them.”
“Well, neither do I,” he saidâalthough he had to admit Andrea Fassler was pretty hot. She was also a couple inches shorter than Stevie.
USTV had lived up to all its promisesânot asking the kids to do anything more than the show and an occasional promo for the showâuntil just before Christmas, when Tal Vincent had called to say that Shupe and “everyone at the network” thought it very important that the show be done on location for the entire week before the Super Bowl. All of USTV's personalities would be there for the huge pre-championship media blitz.
Both fathers had immediately said no. USTV had responded by offering the following week off, plus a financial bonus if the kids went. Naturally, they both wanted to do it. This was the Super Bowl! The biggest sporting event of the year. Ninety-five million people watching!
“Tell you what,” Bill Thomas said to Stevie. “If you get permission from all your teachersâI mean
of themâyou can do it. If one of them says no, it's no.”
“Can you get Reverend Anderson to make the same deal?” Stevie asked. He was certain Susan Carol would have no trouble getting out of four days of schoolâshe had never gotten less than an A in her life. Stevie's grades were okayâmostly B's.
teachers say, then I'll talk to Don,” his father said.
Much to Stevie's surprise, not only did every teacher say it was okay, but they all thought it was a
idea. When Stevie told his dad, he had shrugged and said, “All right then, it's fine with me.”
His mom wasn't quite so sure. “Do you remember what happened the last two times we let the kids go to an event like this?” she said.
“I know, I know,” his father answered. “But they're going to be surrounded by people constantly. What trouble can they possibly get into?”
Susan Carol's parents had also relented, and so it was all set for both kids to fly to Indianapolis the Monday before the game. The best part of the deal, as far as Stevie was concerned, was that he would get to spend most of a week hanging out with Susan Carolâwhom he hadn't seen except on a TV monitor since September.
“What I don't understand is why you have to be out there on Monday when the game isn't until Sunday,” his dad had said.
Stevie had laughed at that question. “Are you kidding?” he said. “First of all, the teams come in on Sunday. They practice every dayâ”
“The practices are open to the media?” his dad had said, interrupting.
“No, they're not. Except to a couple of pool reporters in case someone gets injured or there's a fight or something. But the players and coaches are available to the media Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday in the morning. Come on, Dad, you've seen TV tape of the media surrounding players during Super Bowl week. You don't live on Mars.”
“Okay, fine,” Bill Thomas said. “What else is such a big deal?”
in sports is there. Actually, everyone is thereâperiod. If someone is launching a movie, they show up to be interviewed because there's like a million media people there and they're all looking for something to talk about. If someone has a book outâthey're there. Running for office? Go to the Super Bowl. Then there are the partiesâevery night there are parties everywhereâ¦.”
“Just how do you know all this?”
“Dad, I do know how to read. It hasn't been that long since the Eagles were in the Super Bowl. I read every word in the
that week. I even read a story on the fashions the Eagles' wives were going to wear to the game.”
Bill Thomas had his hands in the air, waving them to make his son stop. “Okay, okay. I get it.” He smiled. “Just your luck the Super Bowl is in a place even colder than here.”
The NFL liked to take the Super Bowl to a cold-weather city about once every five years and had decided to go to Indianapolis instead of Detroit because of the new domed stadium the Colts had opened a year earlier.
“Dad, it's the Super Bowl,” he said. “If they held it in the Nome Dome, I'd be there.”
So it was all set. Then, out of the blue, came the call from Tal Vincent.
Stevie knew his fear that the show was being canceled was probably silly. The ratings had been very good right from the start. He had called Susan Carol to see if anyone had asked to meet with her. The only call she'd gotten was from USTV's PR guy, who wanted to set up interviews for her during the week in Indianapolis. Stevie had heard nothing about that.
“Either he's going to call you later or he's just figuring whatever I do, you'll do too,” she had said.
“Or it could be there's just a lot more demand for you than me,” Stevie said. “You're the glamorous one.”
“Stop it,” she said. “Call me as soon as the meeting's over.”
Now the doorbell was ringing, and as Stevie went to answer it, he was filled with dread.
“Stevie, how are you?” Mike Shupe said as he came in the door. It was snowing lightly, and both Shupe and Tal Vincent brushed flakes from their hair. Stevie, remembering his manners, offered to take their coats.
“Don't bother hanging them up,” Shupe said. “You can just toss them on a chair.” Stevie did as instructed, then led them into the living room, which was the neatest room in the house because it was the least used. Both men accepted his offer of a drink, saying that a Coke would be just fine.
While Stevie was in the kitchen pouring the sodas, he heard his father walk in and greetings being exchanged. He brought the drinks back in, then realized he should have poured one for himself. His mouth was dry.
“So,” Bill Thomas said, no doubt sensing that Stevie couldn't take much small talk, “what brings you two to Philadelphia on a snowy winter night?”
Vincent turned to Shupe, who crossed his legs, trying to look casual, Stevie thought. Shupe nodded and cleared his throat.
“The show has been great,” he said. “As you both know, the ratings are quite solid, especially for a once-a-week show we're still building in terms of promotion. Stevie, you've done everything we've asked.”
“I sense a âbut' coming,” Bill Thomas said, as if reading his son's thoughts.
Shupe leaned forward and took a long sip of his Coke. He put it back on the coaster in front of him and shook his head as if greatly pained by what he was about to say.
“This has been a really tough decision to come to,” he said finally. “But everyone agrees we have to make a change.”
“What kind of change?” Bill Thomas asked.
This time it was Shupe who looked at Vincent. The producer said nothing. Clearly, this was Shupe's show.
“As you guys both know, we do a lot of market research, a lot of viewer polling on all our showsâ¦.”