Authors: Steve Jason & Yohn Elam
“No one can make you love anyone, Riley,” Pastor Tim countered. “But keep in mind that these people are caught up in one of the greatest lies ever perpetrated on mankind—the lie that it is worth killing others for your beliefs. These people need our prayers, they need our pity, and they need the power of our nation to try to stop them before they throw their lives away like this.”
“I’m with you on your last point,” Riley responded. “They need to feel a serious U.S. smackdown. But, Tim, you haven’t seen what I’ve seen. You haven’t seen your buddies lying in pieces in front of you. You haven’t seen the children mangled by the screws and ball bearings from some terrorist wacko’s bomb. I’m sorry, but pity’s something I really have a hard time with right now.”
“I understand,” Tim had said gently. “Maybe because I haven’t seen it, I can keep more of an objective viewpoint. I just know that the moment after these men—and women now—detonate their bombs, they’ve got a huge surprise waiting for them.”
Riley’s brain knew Tim was right. Convincing his heart was a different matter. I gotta mull this over a different time. I’ve got work to do.
He chugged the purple liquid right out of the blender—no use dirtying a glass—then moved back through the bedroom and into the bathroom, where he cranked the shower to full blast. Fifteen minutes steaming up the glass stall would work out the kinks in his body and leave him ready to start another day.
Riley felt great, especially for fourteen weeks into a PFL season as a starting linebacker. He had always taken care of himself physically—even as a cadet at the Academy—and it paid off this late in the season. While other guys’ bodies were starting to break down, he was still at the top of his game. He knew that he was living an American dream—a dream that could disappear with one good hit or one wrong step—so he did everything he could to make the best of it.
After his role in Operation Enduring Freedom, Riley had been unsure what would be next for him. He could have had a very promising career as an officer in AFSOC. He knew how to lead men and was able to garner their respect through his example. Besides that, the military was in his blood. His father had been a navy man in Vietnam, and his grandfather had flown an F-86 in Korea, chalking up seven MiGs to his credit. Riley’s choice to try for the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs rather than the Naval Academy in Annapolis had led to all sorts of good-natured ribbing of his dad by his grandpa. Holidays with the family had never been the same again.
Although he knew the military was an honorable profession, Riley still had that Pro Football League dream. He’d been on leave on draft day, and he could still feel the incredible tension he experienced while sitting in his parents’ living room. The talk on ESPN was whether any team would pick this year’s Butkus Award winner, since, like all Academy graduates, he had a five-year military commitment hanging over his head. As the picks progressed, it was hard for him not to get disheartened.
All the pundits said Riley had the skills to be a first rounder, but he’d begun to wonder if the specter of mandatory military service was just too much for most PFL teams. Riley’s dad kept feeding him words of encouragement, and his mom kept feeding him lemon pound cake. Half a day and three-quarters of a cake later, he finally heard his name called in the third round. The cheers in the Draft Central auditorium could only be matched by the screams in that little house. To be chosen in the PFL draft and to be chosen by the Colorado Mustangs—what could be better than that?
The selection had been a definite risk for the organization, but they felt it was worth it if they could bag someone with Riley’s playing potential. Of course, both Riley and the team would have to wait. Riley had no problem with serving out his commitment. He was more than willing to fight for his country—die for it if necessary.
And he had come fairly close to doing just that. The bullet he had taken during the firefight back in the Bagram Valley in Afghanistan had entered just above his hip. It had chipped a bone and caused a lot of bleeding, but thanks to the quick medical evacuation and the incredible medical team at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the only lingering issue he had was a dull ache when the weather turned.
After returning from Germany, Riley had been called to his commanding officer’s desk. The CO had looked up directly at Riley. “Covington, I brought you in here to make you an offer I hope you won’t take. The higher-ups want me to give you the ludicrous choice of opting out of the rest of your full-time service commitment to the United States Air Force so you can go play in the Pro Football League. You’d stay in the reserves, and we’d have you in the off-season until your time’s up. Now, I’ve seen you lead men, and I’ve seen you save lives. I think it would be a shame for you to give up the chance to make a lasting difference for this country so that you could go play some kids’ game. But, hey, that’s the choice I’m told I have to offer you. You’ve got twenty-four hours. Dismissed.”
Riley had struggled with the choice as he walked back down the willow-lined street to his quarters. A lot of what his CO had said was right. Would choosing the PFL be taking the easier and less meaningful way out? But he could still make a difference in many people’s lives playing football, right? And he certainly wouldn’t be the first guy to follow such a path.
The precedent for a professional athlete opting out of military obligations had been set after the first Gulf War. Chad Hennings had returned a war hero after having flown A-10 Warthogs during the liberation of Kuwait. Although he had a long commitment still awaiting him, the air force believed he would serve them better in a public-relations role. It turned out to be a great decision; Chad had taken the opportunity to help lead his football team to three championships during the nineties.
Once the door was opened, others had stepped through. Steve Russ and Chris Gizzi both served full-time for a couple of years after the Academy, then completed the bulk of their service in the reserves during the summers while spending most of the year playing professional ball.
Riley wrestled with the decision through the night. He had made a commitment to the air force, and he did not take that lightly. The guys of his squad depended on his leadership, yet to a man they told him he would be a complete idiot not to jump at this opportunity. Still, he held back.
Finally, early the next morning, a three-way call had come from his dad and grandpa.
“God has given you the abilities and the opportunity to do something that few people have a chance to do,” Grandpa Covington had said. “Obviously, He’s got something special in mind for you.”
“Riles,” his dad said, “you know that whatever decision you make, we’ll be proud of you. We’re much more concerned about who you are than what you do.”
By the time Riley hung up the phone, it was like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He finally felt free to pursue his dream. Why it was so important to get the go-ahead from these two men, he couldn’t say. Maybe he wanted their affirmation, maybe he wanted their wisdom, or maybe it was just plain old respect for their opinion. All he knew was that their words were the key that opened the door to his PFL career. Six months later, he said his final good-byes to full-time air force life.
Riley chuckled to himself as he thought about the final party his squad had thrown for him before he left AFSOC. He had never seen so much alcohol in his life. While he nursed his Diet Coke, his guys gave speeches that became more syrupy and less coherent as the night wore on. Skeeter Dawkins gave him a tribute that stretched out for a record eighteen words, and Kim Li actually cried during his fourth toast of the evening. The party had officially ended with last call at 2 a.m., but Riley had spent until four thirty driving his men home.
Two weeks after that, he was running onto the Mustangs’ practice field at the Inverness Training Center.
Riley shut off the water and climbed out of the shower.
As he got dressed, he glanced over at the Purple Heart and Silver Star his mom had framed for him and insisted he keep hanging in his home. This wall was the most out-of-the-way place that Riley could hang them while still honoring his mom’s request. Riley Covington had been called a hero, but he was uncomfortable with that label. He had simply carried out his mission the way he’d been trained—nothing more, nothing less. It was his duty as an officer in the United States Air Force. Riley had acted as the natural-born leader he was, and now he hoped to use that leadership to take his team into the play-offs.
He went out into the garage and hopped into the black Denali he had bought used from one of the defensive ends who didn’t make the cut last year. As he backed the truck out, the tires crunching through new snow, he thought about the next two weeks. The team had started out the season slowly, but they were charging hard at the end, winning seven out of the last eight games. If they could win these last two games, they were assured a wild card berth.
Riley was quickly becoming one of the key leaders of the defensive squad. The other guys were watching him, both on and off the field, and he knew he had to set the example for passion and hard work. He had no doubt that he was up for the challenge. Let them see your focus. Let them see your work ethic. Let them see your integrity. Be the first on the field and the last off.
Ultimately, it wasn’t that different from his role as a second lieutenant.
Friday, December 19
CTD Midwest Division Headquarters
St. Louis, Missouri
The Yoo-hoo and Diet Mountain Dew Code Red blended together as they were poured into the cup, forming a frothing concoction the color of moderately underdone roast beef. Cherry chocolate nectar of the gods, Scott Ross thought as he threw out the empties.
It had been ten months since Scott had made the transition from AFSOC to Homeland Security, but already he had created a name for himself as a top communications analyst. His ability to tie together seemingly random pieces of information was almost eerie. “It’s as simple as playing connect the dots,” he liked to say, “only without the numbers.”
Scott grabbed a handful of ice from the drawer and added the cubes to his concoction. Three weeks ago, he had stayed after hours to insulate the bottom drawer of his workstation at the counterterrorism division (CTD) of Homeland Security. He had dropped in some coils from a small refrigerator left over from a long-ago failed attempt at dorm life, then cranked the setting up to high and let it cool overnight. The next morning he’d stocked his new minibar with the ingredients needed to create his cherished brew, dropping ice in a specially designed rear compartment. This was just one of Scott’s ways of “sticking it to the man”—“the man” being the guy who refused to stock the vending machines with Yoo-hoo.
Even before the firefight in the Bagram Valley had left him bloodied and dazed, Scott had known that military life wasn’t for him. It was way too structured. The only reason he had joined the air force to begin with was that he had burned his bridges at two different colleges, and home was not a place anyone would want to go back to.
He had grown up as an unusual kid—odd, some might, and did, say—in central New York. He was extremely intelligent but had struggled with what one of his teachers had termed a “focus deficiency.” Unfortunately, his parents had been too wrapped up with their own addictions to get him the help he needed.
When he reached high school, his creative energies had started taking on a more destructive nature. That was when he met Mr. Pinkerton, the head librarian at the Fulton Public Library, where Scott spent much of his time devouring books like The Anarchist Cookbook and The Big Book of Mischief. Mr. Pinkerton had steered him to the classics—Milton, Dickens, Dostoyevsky—and to the sciences—Einstein, Hawking, National Geographic, and anything having to do with mathematics and statistics. Eventually, Mr. Pinkerton had become Scott’s mentor—a relationship that had lasted several years. But while the older man had greatly expanded Scott’s mind, he couldn’t do much with his authority issues, which expressed themselves by his barely graduating high school and later receiving invitations to leave both the University at Albany and Adirondack Community College.
Strangely enough, Scott had thrived in the air force. He seemed to do much better when there were no choices offered to him than when he had the option to do something stupid. He completed the Special Forces training with flying colors and quickly rose to the rank of staff sergeant. But even with all his success, he’d known his military career would not last long. The air force had taught him discipline and focus and how to live with purpose. But his need for independence, combined with the extreme difficulty of getting Yoo-hoo in Afghanistan, cemented his decision to accept the employment offer presented to him by the Department of Homeland Security.
“Hey, Scott, check this out,” fellow analyst Tara Walsh called.
Scott grabbed his drink and moved to her workstation. “What’s up?” he asked as he leaned over her shoulder.
“Oh, gag!” she cried, pushing the cup away from her face. “I asked you not to bring that stuff over here. It leaves a lingering odor like five-day-old birthday party.”
“Sorry,” he said as he quickly chugged the drink and set the cup on her desk.
“Oh, great. Now it’s five-day-old birthday party mixed with two-hour-old Egg McMuffin. Just keep your head turned when you breathe. So, anyway, I was sent up these strings of chatter, and they reminded me of what you were talking about in our briefing this morning. Check out these key phrases.” Tara laid summaries of two intercepted phone calls and one e-mail on her desk. She circled each phrase with a red felt-tip pen as she said it. “‘Hand of Allah’ here, here, and here; ‘heart of capitalism’ here and here; and ‘Allah controls the weather’ here, here, and here.”
Immediately Scott’s brain kicked into high gear. All animation disappeared from his face, and his eyes became vacant as words and phrases flashed into his mind and were either kept or discarded—an interview from last week, a report from yesterday morning, an intercepted satellite phone call from back in October—bits and pieces flowing in and being flushed out. Hypotheses and theories were built up and shot down, but out of the wreckage would emerge other possibilities. Tara, like Scott’s other coworkers, had learned that when he drifted to this mysterious place in his head, it was best to just stand there, shut up, and wait.