Authors: Steve Jason & Yohn Elam
The Colorado Mustangs were experiencing one of those situations. With all the pressure to make it into the postseason, it was as if the play-offs had come two weeks early. The Mustangs on the field all knew the importance of each play, and each was haunted by the “what have you done for me lately” mentality of the fans and the organization that signed their checks.
“Riley, Riley!” a voice called to him, interrupting his calm.
Turning toward his name, he realized too late that it was coming from the long row of reporters, photographers, and videographers who lined the pavement alongside the field.
Seeing him look over, the reporters erupted into calls of “Covington, over here!” and—from the ones who pretended to be buddies of the players—“Pach, my man, this way!”
Riley gave them a smile and a nod, then turned his face back up to the sun. Burton will run them off soon enough. Roy Burton, the head coach of the Mustangs, was known for keeping his practices closed to the media.
The final few guys ran out onto the practice field, making sure they weren’t late.
“Coach, just two more getting their ankles taped,” one of the trainers yelled across the field.
“It’s up to them,” Coach Burton called back, not looking up from his clipboard.
At the pro level, there was never any screaming or yelling if someone was late to practice. Instead, the next morning, latecomers found freshly printed $1,500 fine notifications on Colorado Mustang letterhead sitting in their lockers. The fines had a way of getting a guy’s attention quickly, and repeat offenders were rare.
“If you’re not early, you’re late,” defensive end Micah Pittman muttered to Riley, causing laughter from a few other players around them.
The horn signaling the beginning of practice echoed around the facility just before rookie wide receiver Jamal White darted from the building.
“Got him!” about half the team called out. White didn’t think it was funny as he finished tucking in his jersey. He glared at the veteran players whose tapings had caused him to be late.
The taping system in the PFL would certainly not pass ACLU muster. The taping order was purely based on seniority. Rookies had to make sure they got to practice and to games early, because it didn’t matter how long they had been waiting; when a veteran player came in, he moved right to the front of the line. A guy could be next in line for forty-five minutes and not make any progress. Many rookies, including Jamal White today, learned this $1,500 lesson the hard way.
“All right, guys, let’s get better today. We know what we have to get done, so let’s get it done,” Coach Burton bellowed.
The players slid into their routine quickly, beginning the warm-up phase of practice with a “pat-’n’-go” session. All running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends slowly jogged downfield, and each caught a lazy pass from one of the quarterbacks. No hits, no real exertion—this was just to limber up the body.
Looking over from the defensive drills at the south end of the practice field, Riley watched tight end Sal Ricci catch an easy toss from starting quarterback Randy Meyer. Ricci had really been feeling the pressure these past few weeks. Riley knew that in addition to wanting to do his best for his team, Ricci felt the eyes of all Italy on his back.
Joining the Mustangs had been the final step in a meteoric rise for Salvatore Ricci. Coming up through the Italian Football League—which Ricci had to constantly remind people was not called the “Italian Soccer League”—Ricci had been a big reason why A. C. Milan had taken the 2003–04 Serie A division championship. When Ricci was approached by the Hamburg Donnerkatzen of the International American Football League, he had been apprehensive. He knew how to use his body and his feet; hands were not something he was accustomed to using. But he was a natural athlete, and soon, scouts from PFL teams began showing up at his games. He knew then that it was only a matter of time before he “jumped the pond.” Two years ago the Colorado Mustangs had drafted him away from the IAFL.
Ricci seemed to be enjoying America, but it was clear to Riley that the Italian still didn’t feel like he fully fit into the culture. Everything here moved at such a faster pace than it did in Europe. But whenever Sal complained about the pace of life in America, Riley reminded him of his whirlwind romance with Megan Unruh. Sal had met Megan when she was doing a newspaper story on him for the Denver Post. Four weeks after they met, they were married. Then nine months to the day from their wedding night, Alessandra Bianca Ricci was born.
Since the Italian’s start with the Mustangs, PFL viewership in Italy had skyrocketed. To add to that pressure, Ricci had told his teammates he had been visited last week by a representative of the Italian president. The gentleman, in his exquisite black suit that probably had cost the equivalent of Ricci’s signing bonus, told him that after the “inevitable Mustang PFL Cup victory,” the president of Italy wanted to entertain him at his personal residence. On top of that, Riley had read that the Italian government planned to declare a national “Salvatore Ricci Day.”
After the pat-’n’-go came about ten minutes of stretches. Then the players transitioned to the installation period, reviewing their assignments for this week’s game plan. Riley listened closely as Rex Texeira, the linebackers coach, went over the play shifts that had been specifically designed for this Sunday’s game against the Bay Area Bandits.
The Bandits’ quarterback liked to drop a few steps back from the center, then roll out before throwing a pass. That meant that Riley and his right-side counterpart, Keith Simmons, were going to be doing a lot of blitzing.
“If the QB steps out of that pocket, I want him to see your faces,” Texeira said.
“You got it, Tex-Rex,” Riley replied. “Hey, Simmons, you feel like upping it to seventy-five-per for this week?” At the beginning of the season, Riley and Simmons had devised a little incentive program for keeping their game up. For each tackle that Simmons got, Riley would donate fifty dollars to the Denver Boys’ Home. Simmons would donate the same amount for each of Riley’s tackles.
“It’s your checkbook, big spender,” Simmons said. “Better start limbering up your writing hand, ’cause I’m feeling fast and mean.”
After ten minutes of focusing on the Xs and Os of the upcoming game, the team began a seven-on-seven session. During this drill, plays were run at full speed but with no offensive or defensive linemen involved. Everyone was going all out today. Randy Meyer was rocketing passes in, making it extremely difficult for the defensive backfield to get a hand on the ball.
Soon the offense started to get a little mouthy. After a particularly nice short pattern catch, Sal Ricci tossed the ball to Riley.
“Just wanted you to remember what the ball felt like,” Ricci taunted.
Sal may have been one of Riley’s closest friends, but this linebacker didn’t take that kind of trash talk from anyone. Time for this Euro to be welcomed back to reality, Riley thought as he forced a smile at his buddy.
As they lined up for the next play, Riley drew a bead on Ricci. The ball was snapped and Ricci came right toward Riley, who watched him intently, looking for anything that would tip off his direction. There it is! Riley had seen Ricci’s eyes take a quick glance to his left to see if his lane was clear. Riley shot to his right a step before Ricci, grabbing the ball just before it reached the tight end’s hands and running it back into the end zone.
As Riley jogged back to his huddle, he tossed the ball to Ricci. “How do you say payback in Italian?” he laughed.
Ricci shook his head, grinning. “What did I do wrong this time?”
“It’s your eyes, Reech. You’re going to follow your pattern whether the lane is open or not. By looking first, all you’re doing is making sure someone will be there waiting for you.”
“Got it. Thanks, Pach,” Ricci said.
A while later the coaches pulled the full squads to the main field for team drills. By this point in the practice session, the players were expected to be performing at “game-time speed” and to thoroughly know the game plan and their assignments. Every move was captured by the “eye in the sky,” a name used by the players for the multiangled film shot by the team’s video department from a crane over the practice field. After practice, every step would be analyzed by coaches during position meetings to ensure proper technique. Any mistakes would evoke the wrath of the coaching staff. Perfection was not only expected but demanded.
The team ran sixteen plays of full-team, full-speed, full-contact football. Then special teams came on to attempt some game-pace kicks and punts. This allowed the rest of the team time to strip off their pads. From here on out, the offense and defense would alternate every five to eight plays, working on everything from two-minute drills to nickel packages to short-yardage situations.
“Hey, Riley, you’ve made sure those rookie linebackers have the limo ready for you tonight, right?” Chris Gorkowski, one of the veteran offensive linemen, asked as he pulled his shoulder pads over his head.
“Yeah, I’ve got everything covered.”
“Well, you’ll have to drink something other than Diet Coke to get that tab up over five thousand dollars, choirboy,” Gorkowski joked. Everyone on the team knew Riley wasn’t a drinker.
It had become a tradition for the rookies to take all the veterans out on the town to the most expensive restaurant in the city once a year. The vets would run the bill up as high as they could and leave the rookies to pay the tab.
“Don’t worry about us linebackers. You just make sure you linemen leave some food for the rest of us.”
Riley really had no desire to go. He had agreed to the evening primarily to hang out with Ricci and to make sure nobody got too far out of line. As practice ended and Riley headed toward the pressroom, he knew that wading through the interviews that were waiting for him was only the beginning of what promised to be a very long night.
Friday, December 19
CTD North Central Division Headquarters
Jim Hicks sat straddling Mohsin Kurshumi. His forehead was pressed hard against the other man’s forehead, tilting the Yemeni’s head back at a seventy-five–degree angle and pushing it hard against the top corner of the chair.
Hicks’s right hand held the tie of the interpreter, who had vainly tried to remove himself from the interrogation when he saw the violent turn it was taking. The agent’s left hand held the MKIII combat knife he had kept from his days as a Navy SEAL. The tip of the blade was about a half inch through the skin behind the prisoner’s chin and was gradually making progress as Hicks slowly twisted the blade left, then right, then left, then right. Blood trickled down the cold metal and between Hicks’s fingers. Kurshumi had stopped screaming when he realized that each time he did, it just drove the blade in a little deeper.
When Hicks could finally see raw, animal fear in the man’s eyes, he knew he had him.
He gave the interpreter’s tie a hard yank, adding a third sweaty head to the private confab. “Mr. Mazari, please be so kind as to tell Mr. Kurshumi that the cameras in this room have unfortunately malfunctioned. That means there’s nobody who’s going to know exactly what happens in here.”
The interpreter gave a simultaneous translation to the prisoner, whose eyes grew bigger as he realized where this conversation was going.
The blade kept twisting. “Tell him that he will not be my first ‘accidental’ kill, but I’ve a good mind to make him my slowest. And if you would, Mr. Mazari, tell him that if he thinks I’m worried about you saying anything . . . well, after what’s gone on in here already this afternoon, I think there’s a good chance that I’m the only one who’s going to walk out of this room in one piece.” Hicks turned his head slightly toward the interpreter and gave a subtle wink that seemed to say, Don’t worry about it. However, the accompanying grin said, I haven’t quite made up my mind.
“I want to know the who, the what, the where, and the when,” Hicks continued. “And I want to know NOW!” Kurshumi’s eyes squinted in pain as the knife finally pushed through the bottom of his mouth. The point prodded his tongue into action like a spur to the flank of a horse.
Ten minutes later, Hicks left the interrogation room and hurried down the sterile white corridor. Driving open the door to the men’s room with his shoulder, he dropped to his knees in the first stall and vomited up lunch, breakfast, and last night’s dinner. This wasn’t the first act of “persuasion” he had been involved in. But he prayed it would be his last.
He slowly pushed himself to his feet and steadied himself as he wiped his bloody handprint off the white plastic toilet seat. At the sink, he tried to wash all traces of Mohsin Kurshumi off his hands—soaping, then resoaping, digging under his fingernails, and scouring the quicks. Hicks lifted water to his mouth to rinse out the aftertaste and splashed the cool wetness on his face to calm himself. Adjusting the knobs to hot, he picked his knife off the counter and began scrubbing it, starting with the handle and working his way down the blade, working at it long after he knew it was clean.
As he watched the water cascading off the metal and swirling down the drain, Hicks knew the hardest part still awaited him. Gathering up all his willpower, he slowly raised his head until he met his own eyes in the mirror.
The empty gaze registered deep down in his gut. Long ago he had resigned himself to the belief that the ends justified the means when hundreds, if not thousands, of lives were at stake. Yet acting on that belief had cost him countless sleepless nights and countless nightmares when he did sleep. He had lost two marriages, and now he felt he was gradually losing his soul. Don’t let the monster eat you alive, he told his reflection. You did what had to be done. Never forget that! You did what had to be done. The longer he looked in his eyes, however, the less convinced he became of his words.
The ring of his cell phone saved him from more soul searching and snapped him back to tough-guy mode. “Hicks,” he answered.
“Hicks, this is Scott Ross down in Midwest Division. You talked to my colleague Tara Walsh a couple of times earlier today. We heard you had some success with Mr. Yemen-guy, and I was hoping to get a heads-up on any information he may have given.”