Authors: Steve Jason & Yohn Elam
“And check out Watkins,” Ricci said, jabbing his thumb toward the opposite side of the limo by the bar. Jerrod Watkins, fifth-year tight end out of Central Michigan, was swaying back and forth while making some very strange noises with his mouth and hands. “He calls it operatic beat box.”
“I didn’t know that was possible.”
“It’s not. I do believe it’s going to be a long ride to Del Frisco’s.”
Laughing, Riley pulled himself back out of the window and made his way down to his position’s limo.
“What’s up, Jacks?” he said to Garrett Widnall as he stepped through the door. Widnall’s nickname was one of the team’s more obscure ones, finding its origin in the Humboldt State mascot.
The rookie climbed in after him. “Hey, Pach. Pretty sweet limo, huh?” Widnall shouted. Evidently Riley’s prayer about the blown speakers had gone unheeded.
“Yeah . . . uh, pretty sweet.” As Riley looked around, his impression was less of twenty-first-century luxury than of 1970s Huggy Bear.
“And check this out! I had them stock the fridge in the bar with Diet Pepsi for you.” Widnall swung the refrigerator door open, proudly displaying its contents.
“Thanks, man. That was very—”
“You stocked it with what?” Keith Simmons interrupted, getting right in Widnall’s face. “I didn’t just hear you say Diet Pepsi, did I? Boy, don’t you know that my man Pach drinks Diet Coke? What’s the matter with you?”
Widnall turned to Riley with big, pleading eyes.
“Simm . . . ,” Riley warned, trying to defuse the situation.
“When I want to talk to you, Pach, I’ll look at you. Now, Rook, get your little Humbone State backside in that building, and don’t come out until you find Mr. Covington some Diet Coke! Got it?”
“Sure thing, Simm,” Widnall muttered as he scrambled out of the limo.
Simmons stood up through the moon roof and called after him, “And you better hurry up, or I’m ordering three prime ribs tonight and giving two to my dog!” He fell back onto the leather seat laughing. “You see that boy run?”
Riley didn’t want to laugh but couldn’t help it. Everyone had been on the wrong end of rookie night before, and it was never a pleasant experience. “Just do me a favor tonight, okay? Go easy on Jacks.”
“Of course, Pach. I’ll treat him like he was my little brother. Man, I hated that punk.” Everyone in the Hummer burst out laughing.
I was right, Riley thought. It’s going to be a very long night.
Riley watched as Travis Marshall nervously folded and unfolded the thin brown straw that had come with his little four-dollar bottle of Coke. He could almost see the sixth-round offensive tackle out of William and Mary computing the tab in his head and dividing it by the dozen rookies on the team’s roster. He had received a $25,000 signing bonus back in July, but after a welcome to the wonderful world of taxes, agent fees, and a down payment on a condo in town, he was probably living paycheck to paycheck. He looked worried, as he should be. The vets were already doing some pretty heavy damage at the restaurant.
“Hey, Travis,” Riley said, tapping Marshall on the forehead. “You in there?” Riley, Ricci, and Marshall were sitting in a booth just off the main tables.
“Man, I think I better start filling some doggie bags here, because I don’t think I’ll be grocery shopping for a few weeks,” Marshall replied softly.
“Well, you know you can always raid my refrigerator anytime you need to,” Riley offered.
“I’d say the same thing,” Ricci said, “but Meg says we can’t afford you anymore. Every time you come over for an evening, she’s got to plan a trip back to Wild Oats the next day.”
Chris Gorkowski slid into the booth next to Riley, pinning him to the wall. “Hey, Marsh, you’re not going to finish that, are you?”
Before Marshall had a chance to reply, the veteran center reached over, picked up the younger man’s New York strip steak, and bit a chunk out of it the size of lower Manhattan.
“You see what happens, Sal? I warned them about letting Snap here off of his leash,” Riley said.
Gorkowski turned to Riley, gave him a full, meaty grin, and slid his enormous bulk even farther into the booth.
“Uncle!” Riley gasped.
“Marsh,” Gorkowski continued, the alcohol on his breath causing all three of the men to lean as far away as they could, “me and the boys have been missing you over at the O-line table. We think it’s time you came over and sang us a little William and Mary fight song, preferably in the voice of Mary rather than William.”
“You can’t be serious,” Marshall pleaded.
In response, Gorkowski bit off the borough of Brooklyn, dropped what little remained of the steak back onto Marshall’s plate, and said, “We’ll be waiting.”
When the center had gone, Marshall looked at the others with desperation in his eyes. “Riley, Sal, can’t you guys do something?” he begged.
Riley laughed. “Well, since the air force took away all my access to heavy artillery, I’m kind of at a loss.”
“Just go and get it over with,” Ricci said. “It’s all part of the game. You should have seen what I had to put up with. At least you came from an American university. I arrived from the Hamburg Donnerkatzen.”
“Yes, the mighty Thundercats, widely recognized as the worst club nickname in all of global sports,” Riley laughed. “You should have seen it—he’s getting all these Lion-O and Panthro and Cheetara references thrown at him, and he’s got no clue what anyone’s talking about.”
“Apparently, we Italians were not quite cultured enough to have the ThunderCats cartoon broadcast on canale cinque.”
But Riley was laughing so hard by now that he didn’t even hear Sal. “And then the singing! I think at different times throughout the evening Sal had to sing the Italian national anthem, the German national anthem, the A. C. Milan fight song, and the Hamburg Donnerkatzen theme song.”
“I didn’t realize the Donnerkatzen had a theme song,” Marshall said.
“They don’t,” Ricci responded. “I just made up a song in what the guys thought was German. It was actually mostly Italian with some ja, jas and an Ach, du lieber or two mixed in. It’s not like they would have known the difference.”
“Yeah, and it’s a good thing they didn’t have an Italian-to-English dictionary handy. From what I remember, most of the song had to do with the lineage of your fellow receivers and their various romantic attachments to barnyard animals.” Tears were streaming down Riley’s face as he fell sideways into the booth. When he finally caught his breath, he turned back to Marshall and said, “Just go and do it, Marsh. The night will be over soon enough. Besides, these guys are so smashed, they won’t remember a thing in the morning.”
The servers scurried around as fast as they could, knowing there would be an enormous tip awaiting them at the end of the night. Riley caught one girl’s attention and waved her over.
“Hey . . . uh . . . Anna,” he said, reading her name badge, “I was wondering if you could do me a favor. Could you get two New York strip steaks—how did Travis have his steak cooked, Sal? Medium well?—yeah, cooked medium well. Include sides of the chateau potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and angel hair pasta. Then I want you to box it all up, stick it in a bag, and bring it back here.” Riley slipped her two hundred-dollar bills. “You keep the difference. And keep this strictly between us, all right?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Covington.”
Riley saw Ricci grinning at him and shaking his head.
“What? This is probably cheaper than him coming over and raiding my pantry.”
“I don’t understand you sometimes. What are you hoping to get out of all this nicey-nice stuff you’re always doing?”
Riley leaned back in the booth. “I don’t do it to get anything out of it. I do it because it’s the right thing to do.” Seeing that Ricci was still smirking and shaking his head at him, Riley went on. “I don’t know how to explain it, Reech. . . . A couple of years back, there was a big fad here in the U.S.—I don’t know if you saw anything about it in Germany. Everyone had stuff with the letters WWJD on them—bumper stickers, shirts, key chains—anything anyone could make a buck off of, they stuck the letters on it.”
“Yeah, I saw some of that stuff. ‘What would Jesus do,’ right? In Germany, the letters were WWJT—‘Was würde Jesus tun.’”
“Exactly. For many people it was just a cool saying, something to make them feel spiritual. For me, it’s really how I try to live my life.”
Ricci scooped out another helping of the spinach supreme from the family-style dish. “I guess that makes sense. You see someone who has a problem, you give them what they need, and, bam! you’re one step closer to heaven.”
“Not quite, Sal. I don’t need to get any steps closer to heaven because of my belief in Jesus Christ. Doing all the good things only—”
Ricci’s cell phone interrupted the conversation. He looked at the caller ID, flushed, and then hurriedly said, “Sorry, I have to take this.”
Riley watched Ricci walk out of the room. He wondered what could have thrown him off like that. Sal probably received a few dozen phone calls every day. What was it about this one that had made him bolt from the table? Sal’s moods were often a little unpredictable, but Riley had always written that off to his friend’s being European. Probably just something going on at home.
His thoughts were interrupted by a frightening, high-pitched version of Travis Marshall’s voice carrying across the room.
“Oh, we will fight, fight, fight for the Indians
When the Big Green team appears. . . .”
Ricci slid back into the booth. He seemed a little more composed, but Riley noticed beads of sweat on his forehead.
“That was quick. Everything okay with Megan and Alessandra?”
“What? Oh, Meg? Yeah, no big deal. Alessandra hit her head on the corner of our coffee table. I think Meg just wanted someone to tell her she’s not a bad mother.”
Riley eyed his friend. The Italian’s mind was clearly a thousand miles away.
When Marshall finally finished his fight song and escaped back to Riley’s booth, Gorkowski made his way up on top of the linemen’s table, his left foot planted squarely in the middle of a mound of potatoes au gratin. “Can I have your attention, dear friends and teammates,” he slurred. “In honor of our beloved dozen rookies who are paying for this feast, I would like to propose a toast. I hold in my hand a bottle of Macallan 1964 single malt scotch, which I would like to pass around. It is a most exquisite beverage, as it should be for $2,500 a bottle. I would like to thank you boys for—whoops!”
A collective gasp sounded around the room as the bottle “accidentally” dropped to the table and shattered. “Oh my,” the All-Pro center teased. “Me and my butterfingers. Well, you know us linemen—we’re not supposed to hold anything.”
Everyone burst into laughter—everyone except the rookies. They were too busy doing mental mathematical gymnastics with the numbers 12 and 2,500. The conversation kicked up again as the dessert cart was brought around and each table ordered one of everything. Ricci remained subdued, so Riley and Marshall did most of the talking.
“You know, where I grew up they called this pudding,” the rookie offensive lineman said, looking down at the crème brûlée. “Here, they burn it, give it a French name, and charge $8.95 a pop.”
Riley laughed. “Well, when I was growing up, most of our cuisine came from the kitchen of a world-renowned culinary master—the great Chef Boyardee.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Anna, the waitress, trying to get his attention. She was holding up a large bag. Riley made an attempt at a meaningful look and a nod toward Marshall.
“Hey, what’s that all about, Riley?” Marshall asked, turning to look back. “You siccing Gorkowski on me again?”
“Way to blow the surprise,” Riley said to Marshall. He signaled for Anna to come to the table.
She presented the bag to the shocked lineman. Marshall rifled through the sack, opening everything up and devouring the smells. “I don’t believe this. Who does this kind of stuff, Pach?”
“Hey, anything to keep you out of my kitchen.”
Mercifully, the night was coming to an end. As everyone piled out of the restaurant, Riley caught up with Garrett Widnall. Together they worked out a deal for him to cover Widnall’s portion of the night’s expenses with payback coming out of the anticipated play-off bonuses.
“Thanks, Pach. You saved my skin tonight.”
“You just make sure you do your part to get us into the postseason, or else you’ll be working it off this spring mowing my lawn or painting my house or sanitizing my garbage cans or polishing my car or rubbing my feet or all of the above.”
“Rubbing your feet, huh? Maybe we need to rethink the terms of our arrangement,” Widnall laughed.
Driving home that night, Riley couldn’t get Ricci’s abrupt change of mood out of his mind. He knew that the man had some secrets. Asking him about his past was like asking Ebenezer Scrooge for the PIN to his checking account. He couldn’t count the number of times he had tried to delve into Ricci’s history, and within five minutes his friend would find a way to turn the conversation around so they were talking about Riley again. The news agencies had given the basics about his childhood in an Italian orphanage and his gradual rise to national attention, but as he thought about it, Riley realized he knew little more about his friend than anyone with Internet access might know.
Glancing down at the seat next to him, he saw the blue glow of his cell phone and debated whether he should give Ricci a call. He picked up the phone, tossed it a couple of times in his hand, then set it back down. There’s a fine line between trying to help and prying. I’ll catch up with him tomorrow on the plane.
Finally arriving home four hours past his usual bedtime, Riley tossed his keys, which went sliding across the granite countertop in his kitchen and into the sink. He punched a button on his phone that automatically dialed his voice mail, then put the receiver on speaker.
A call from his mom wanting to talk. Another call from his mom. A call from Robert Taylor asking if he’d come in a half hour early to do a video interview with ESPN. A call from his dad wanting to know if he knew his mom wanted to talk.
Riley hung up the phone, stretched, and moved toward the bedroom. He dropped his clothes onto the hardwood, set his alarm, and climbed under his comforter. Just before turning off his bedside lamp, he spotted the bag with the gloves on his dresser. He willed himself back out of bed, grabbed the gloves, retrieved his keys from the sink, and set them both by the garage door. As he slid back under the covers and closed his eyes, the last thing he heard in his head as he drifted off to sleep was a strange falsetto voice serenading him: