Authors: Steve Jason & Yohn Elam
Ricci managed a weak smile. “Thanks, Pach. I’ll give it a try.”
Riley saw a brief opening in the traffic and bolted down the aisle. About ten rows up, he glanced back at Ricci, who was still sitting there ignoring the iPod. Someday I’ll take him up in a Cessna and help him get over his fear. Not too many people are still scared of flying after they hold the yoke of a plane in their hands.
Finally arriving at the front of the plane, he poked his head into the cockpit. The captain slid his seat back and extended his hand. “Mr. Covington, I’m Mike Flores—Air Force Academy, class of ’76. It’s a real pleasure to meet you. I’ve been a fan for a long time.”
“Call me Riley. How long did you serve?”
“I put in twenty years, then began flying commercial.”
“Well then, it’s truly an honor to meet you.” He shot a quick glance at the first officer, who was awkwardly trying to stand from his seat.
“Steve Davis. Nice to meet you, Riley.”
“Likewise,” Riley said as he shook his hand. Then turning back to Captain Flores, he asked, “So, what’s up?”
“We were wondering if you’d like to sit in the jump seat for the flight. You’re more than welcome.”
This was what Riley had been hoping for. Any day he could fly in the cockpit of a big jet like this was a great day for him. “Sure, I’d love it. I do have to take a short position test for Coach Texeira, but I’m sure I can take it up here.”
Captian Flores gave him a quizzical look.
“The position test is nothing major, just going over a few Xs and Os. I’d be done in no time.”
“Excellent,” the captain said. “We have a few things to do, and then we’ll be on our way. I know your special ops training required you to pick up your FAA air traffic controller’s license. So, if you’d like, you’re welcome to handle the communications on the flight.”
“You sure about that?” Riley was almost giddy at the prospect.
“Absolutely,” the first officer threw in, knowing his workload had been dramatically reduced. Federal aviation regulations were much more lenient with charters. The whole atmosphere of a chartered flight was quite a bit more relaxed. In fact, during takeoff, it was not unusual to have players standing in the aisles or even talking on their cell phones.
The captain handed Riley the mic and said, “From now on, we’re United 1918.”
“Got it.” Riley stretched up to click the cabin communication button. “Ladies, gentlemen, and Mr. Gorkowski, this is Captain Covington. Welcome aboard flight 1918, with nonstop service to San Francisco. At this time, I would like to ask everyone to take their seats and ensure their tray tables and seat backs are in their full upright and locked positions.” By this time, some of the good-natured hoots and jeers of the players began reaching the cockpit. “Today we are expecting moderate to severe turbulence on takeoff. Gorkowski, this means Mr. Plane go bump-bump.” Riley heard Gorkowski make a reply, but thankfully he couldn’t make out the words. “I’ll try to keep her steady, but I’m not promising anything. Last time I flew one of these, I had to put her down on a highway outside of Kabul.”
Flores and Davis laughed when Riley winked at them. They had stopped their preflight checklist to listen to this little speech. Riley knew the media people in the back of the plane would be scrambling for their notepads to record what was going on up front.
“I’ll be back with you shortly,” Riley continued, “but for now please give your undivided attention to your flight attendants for our safety demonstration.” Then, “accidentally” leaving the mic keyed, he said, “Hey, Captain, now that the announcement is over with, can you remind me which of these pedals down here is the gas and which one’s the clutch?” This remark caused at least three players to spit out their drinks, which led to a series of colorful comments from the recipients of the spray.
Captain Flores and First Officer Davis were having a hard time completing their work through the tears in their eyes. “Tell you what,” Riley said to them. “I’m going to take my position test out in the cabin while you guys finish up your work.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” Flores agreed, wiping his eyes.
“I certainly don’t want to overstep my bounds, but there are a few guys I’d love to mess with back there once we get in the air.”
“As long as we aren’t breaking any FAA regs, I’d love to hear what you have planned next.”
Riley made his way back to the coaches and found Rex Texeira. “Hey, Tex-Rex, mind if I knock out that position test?”
Texeira handed over the test without even looking up. Both men knew the test was merely a formality. What made Riley such a great player was that he was not only physically blessed with strength and speed but was also one of the smartest players in the league. He had tremendous instincts, always knew his assignment—often better than the coaches—and never had wasted steps. He usually recognized where the play was going before the snap and routinely disrupted it immediately.
Riley began the examination as the plane took off and quickly breezed through the test; he drew lines to where he was responsible for filling various gaps, he identified the men he was to pick up on pass routes, and he showed the proper zone drops he had to cover. The plane was climbing past fourteen thousand feet when he finished. He walked back to the cockpit, taking a quick detour to look out the galley window and admire the snow-covered Rocky Mountains.
Riley entered the cockpit and leaned between the pilots. “How’s everything looking, fellas?”
“Good call on the turbulence,” Davis, the copilot, said. “The PIREPs are showing moderate to severe instability all the way to flight level 400.”
“All the way to forty thousand feet? Perfect! I think it’s about time I address the passengers again,” Riley announced with a mischievous smirk.
“Go for it,” Davis laughed as he handed Riley the mic.
Riley sat back in the jump seat and crossed his leg over his knee. “Ladies, gentlemen, and Mr. Gorkowski, this is Captain Covington from the flight deck. As you can tell, we are encountering significant chop, and from what the planes ahead of us are saying, it’s not going to stop. Give an extra tug on those seat belts—or for you offensive linemen, those seatbelt extensions—and remember the airsick bags are in the seat pockets in front of you. I’ll be right back.” Again keeping the mic keyed, he asked, “Hey, cool radio, Captain. Does it get FM?”
Riley released the button on the mic and looked to Captain Flores. “Would it be okay to push the Warning button the next time I’m talking to the guys?”
“Well, it’s not exactly authorized procedure, but . . . go ahead. I’m enjoying this.”
A voice came over the radio. “United 1918, climb—maintain flight level 340.”
Riley immediately keyed the mic. “Up to three-four-zero, United 1918.” As he released the mic, the plane made another shift right and dropped about a hundred feet, causing Gatorades throughout the plane to fall into laps and aisles. An angry protest came from some now-queasy players.
Switching back to cabin communications, the fake captain said, “Sorry, folks, sometimes I don’t know my rudder from my aileron. There’re just so many buttons up here.” Turning slightly from the mic, he continued, “Hey, Captain, do you have the owner’s manual up here? I can’t for the life of me remember what this little doohickey here does.” Just then, the plane hit more turbulence and took another sharp jolt. About this time, some guys were probably beginning to wonder if Riley was still playing or if they had a real situation on their hands.
Coach Burton screamed from his seat in 1A, “Knock it off, Covington!”
But Riley was on a roll. “Hey, Captain, when the elevation thingy says twelve thousand feet, is that from sea level or from the top of the mountains?” As he said that, he reached up and hit a button while keeping the mic on. A computerized voice came over the intercom: “WARNING; WARNING; TERRAIN; PULL UP. . . . WARNING; WARNING; TERRAIN; PULL UP!”
A collective gasp and a few screams could be heard throughout the cabin. With almost perfect timing, the plane hit another air pocket. It rolled a bit left and dropped. After a long, uncomfortable pause, Riley keyed the mic again. “This is Captain Covington. We are now leveling off at thirty-four thousand feet, and I am passing the controls back to Captain Flores. Please enjoy the remainder of your flight.”
As the plane began its descent, the aircraft’s FMS computer system printed out a message to the pilots. Captain Flores ripped the small white paper from the printer, scanned the message, and then read it again more slowly. “Take a look at this, Steve.”
Davis skimmed it and looked at Flores, speechless. He then handed the paper back to Riley, who read the message:
U.S. hit by terrorists at Mall of America
Casualties unknown at this time
All flights proceed as scheduled
Riley leaned back in the jump seat and stared at the words, hardly able to comprehend them. Another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. He knew from his air force intelligence briefings that another attack had been inevitable. But now that it had actually happened, reality just wouldn’t sink in.
“We’d better check with OPs to see how this is going to play out,” Flores told Davis.
Riley stood up, still clutching the paper. “Gentlemen, I know things may get busy up here, so I’m gonna head back to my seat. Thanks for letting me hang out with you.”
They both wished him well. As Riley exited the cockpit, Davis was already pecking away on the flight computer.
Riley walked back to his seat, getting a fairly even mixture of high fives and glares for his little prank. As he passed Gorkowski’s seat, he saw that the veteran had an enormous gravy stain down the front of his tailored yellow shirt and his Emilio Pucci silk tie. “A little baking soda might get that out,” Riley suggested with a smile.
“You’re a dead man, Covington,” the fuming offensive lineman replied.
Riley found his row and fell back into his seat. A few guys came up to him wanting to relive his little joke, but Riley was not in the mood anymore. The military man in him overshadowed the football player. It was times like these that he wondered if he had made the right choice giving up the air force for the PFL.
The Mustangs charter landed without incident at 3:16 p.m. PST in San Francisco. The plane taxied to the four luxury buses and stopped. The players, coaching staff, and guests transferred from their air transportation to their land transportation and were off.
On bus one, Riley was surprised no one had mentioned the attack yet. Several guys had their BlackBerries out and were checking the college football scores. Finally Robert Taylor, the PR man, shouted, “Unbelievable! The Mall of America was bombed!”
A few of the guys at the front of the bus spun around in their seats.
Taylor read the headline from his BlackBerry: “‘Suspected Terrorists Attack Crowded Mall of America.’ It doesn’t seem like they have a lot of information yet.”
Sal Ricci made his way to Taylor’s row and said, “That’s Minneapolis, isn’t it? My wife has some old friends there. Can you check a different Web site?”
“That’s all I’m seeing on these sites. We’ll be at the Hyatt in a few minutes; you can check the news there. In the meantime, let me call some of my network sources.” Taylor immediately started dialing numbers, while Ricci stood in the aisle leaning over his shoulder.
Ten minutes later, the buses angled into the roundabout of the hotel behind the blinking lights and sirens of the California Highway Patrol escort. Two hundred or so fans were already yelling and jockeying for position behind the roped-off barricade near the doors.
As the players bounded down the bus stairs one by one, the fans screamed even louder. The PR department surrounded Riley and Coach Burton and shielded them through the doors of the hotel. As they entered, Riley spotted a guy saying, “Oh, come on, Covington. I came all the way from El Paso. Will you . . . ?”
Riley thought, Nice try, bud, but I can spot a seller from a mile away. At first, Riley had found it tough to tell the true fans from the memorabilia peddlers. After a while they become easier to spot with their five footballs to sign or their stack of glossies and ready black Sharpie.
As Riley cruised through the lobby, Taylor caught up with him to let him know PFL Network and NBC wanted interviews. “Robert, give me some time. I want to go see what happened in Minneapolis and then relax for a while. Come get me at six.”
Riley turned, grabbed an envelope, and looked inside for his key. The fans’ well-wishing screams turned to creative curses as he rounded the corner and quickly headed for the elevator. Riley knew that many in the disgruntled crowd would stay several more hours before they dispersed, hoping they might still get a glimpse of one of their favorite players.
The players relaxed in their rooms until about 6:00, when they made their way down to the ballroom level and jumped into a private buffet line.
The talk in line and at the tables was split between the attack on the Mall of America and the day’s college football scores. Rather than showing news updates from Minnesota, the large TV in the room was tuned to ESPN, which was airing the end of the University of Hawaii’s surprise upset over Notre Dame.
While Riley ate, he fielded questions from Garrett Widnall and Travis Marshall, who both wanted a military perspective on what had happened at the mall and what America’s response should be.
After an excellent meal of filet mignon, fried chicken, various pastas, and a massive salad bar, the players began filtering out to their position meetings. The coaching staff used these smaller group times to make sure every man knew his assignment.
A special teams meeting followed. Special teams was the black sheep of the team. It was an unspoken but well-known fact that the special teams players’ primary responsibility was simply to not mess anything up.
Immediately after the special teams meeting, the offense and defense gathered separately to finalize the game plan. Finally, the entire team met for Coach Burton’s pep talk. Then it was off to their respective rooms—no shared rooms for the Colorado Mustangs—until pregame curfew at 11:15 p.m. There wasn’t a lot of fooling around or banter by this time. The pressure had already begun to mount in anticipation of a very important game against a bitter division rival.