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Authors: Mike Lupica

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BOOK: QB 1
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19

BY MONDAY, PEOPLE WERE CALLING THE RADIO STATION, MORNING
host J. D. Frederick's show, J. D. having announced he was going to conduct a weeklong poll on which quarterback the listeners wanted to be the starter.

The town choosing up sides, even in a place where there was usually only one side: behind the Granger Cowboys.

On the way to school Friday morning, in Bear's truck, windows down, the air clean for a change, not like some kind of furnace, Bear had J. D.'s show on as people were calling to cast their votes.

“You think I could call in, if I gave a fake name?” Bear said.

“You're enjoying this, aren't you?”

“Enjoying it?” Bear said. “Dude, I love it!”

“They're not talking about
you
like you're a horse at an auction.”

“J. D., that old boy, hasn't given out the vote count all week,” Bear said. “Said he's going to announce the winner at the end of today's show, right before ten o'clock, but we'll be in class.”

“Shame.”

“But I got a strong feeling you're gonna be the people's choice.”

“You
think
?” Jake said. “I'm Wyatt Cullen's brother; I'm Big Troy's son. Like some of those boys say: I'm a Cullen in Cullenville. You act like it'll be some kind of upset.”

“You don't think it might have anything to do with people in town thinkin' you're the better football player?”

They listened as a caller, who said his name was LeRoy, started out by saying, “Now, I'm not here to tell you little Cullen is the player his brother was, or his daddy, but just off what I seen so far, he does seem to have some of that Cullen DN-of-A workin' for him when he finds himself in a big spot . . .”

Jake reached over, shut off the radio.

Bear said, “Hey, it was just gettin' good. I thought that guy was gonna talk about what kind of blood type you are.”

“More likely, people are trying to turn this into one of those blood feuds out of the Old West,” Jake said. “Over high school football.”

“You know what they say,” Bear said. “You've got your football, and then you've got your
Granger
football.”

“I feel like it's all people are talking about.”

“It's all people
ever
talk about,” Bear said.

Friday's practice was like all the others this week, which meant Jake and Casey didn't speak. Neither one of them made a big show out of that, and the fact was there were a lot of guys on the team Jake could go days without speaking to; that was just football. And when it was football coached by John McCoy, it wasn't like you had a lot of chances to chat, anyway.

Jake still felt like the other players could sense the tension between them. You always heard about healthy competition in sports, from the time you first started competing. Only this didn't feel all that healthy to Jake.

Every day at practice, every single one, seemed to produce the same kind of pressure games did. Only that was good pressure, if you really loved to compete. That was fun.

Nothing fun about this.

And the thing that Jake didn't want to happen, the thing that made him walk away at Stone's—guys choosing up sides—was happening anyway. You could just tell which ones were Jake guys and which ones were Casey guys.

Like the players on the team were just more callers to ol' J. D.'s radio show.

“You think Coach is gonna play us like this the whole season?” Jake said to Nate a few minutes from the end of practice, the two of them walking back to the huddle, Jake getting the last snaps of the day.

“Unclear,” Nate said. “For now I think Coach is just seeing what the rest of us are, that this all is bringing out the best in both of you, much as I hate to admit it about him.”

“I feel like all eyes are on us, every play.”

“Well,
yeah,
” Nate said, dragging out the last word like a piece of gum he was stretching out of his mouth. “Both of you boys are quarterback of the Cowboys, so you can't be surprised at people looking at you, because Granger High's no different than Granger when it comes to their quarterbacks: They're fascinated by where you
spit.

“I don't want it to be like this,” Jake said.

“Like what? Hard? Boo hoo.”

Jake's last throw of the day was to Spence Tolar, left sideline, Spence having snuck out of the backfield like a decoy. Jake led him perfectly, Spence gathering the ball in clean, running into the end zone.

Coach McCoy blew his whistle, motioned for everyone to come gather round him.

“Good work today,” he said. “In fact, good work all week. See y'all tomorrow.”

He started to walk away, came back, and said, “By the way, I think we'll change things around, let Jake start tomorrow.”

Then he walked away from them for real.

Two games into his freshman year, Jake was the starting quarterback for Granger High, at least for one game.

In a low voice, Bear said to Jake, “All those people callin' the radio all week, and in the end there was but only one vote that counted.”

Nate and Bear said they had to do something to celebrate. Jake said only a plain fool would celebrate the night
before
the game. Nate said he just meant they should all go out and get something to eat.

Jake said, “I sort of knew you meant eating,” but explained to both him and Bear that he'd promised to eat at home with his mom tonight; his dad was already in Austin for the UT-Baylor game tomorrow afternoon.

“If I rally after dinner,” Jake said, “you and Bear can come get me.”

The three of them were outside the locker room, Jake not even having bothered to shower, trying to do his level best to stay away from Casey Lindell. The last thing he wanted today was another scene.

“Dude,” Bear said, “you got the job. You're allowed to at least look happy.”

“I
am
happy,” Jake said. “But it doesn't mean squat if I can't
do
the job.”

They all went and piled into Bear's truck. Sometimes Jake thought that when he remembered high school, he'd remember the front seat of this pickup, squeezed in between Bear and Nate, as well as he'd remember school or sports.

His mom was in the kitchen, cooking up some of her mean Texas tacos, when Jake walked in. Soon as he did, she looked over at him and said, “Sweaty, dirty boy.”

“Had to make a fast getaway after practice.”

“And why is that?”

“Didn't want to get into it again with Casey.”

“Something new happen between you two?”

Jake couldn't help himself now, couldn't keep the smile down.

“Coach said I'm starting tomorrow.”

His mom was across the room in a blink, wiping her hands on her apron, smiling herself now, putting her arms around him.

“Well, look at
you,
” she said.

“We're still both gonna play,” he said.

“Jacob,” his mom said, “John McCoy didn't shuffle the deck this way because he thinks you're
not
up to the task.”

“I guess,” Jake said.

“I know,” she said. “Now go take a shower.”

He went upstairs, but before he got into the shower decided to do something he'd been thinking about doing since practice ended, really since Coach told him he was starting.

He decided to private-message Sarah on Facebook. But then lost his nerve.

Sometimes one victory a day was enough.

20

START OF THE FOURTH QUARTER AGAINST THE CHIRITA WILDCATS
, Granger up a touchdown, 28–21, ball on the Cowboys' forty after a Chirita punt, officials' time-out because a kid on the Chirita punt return had to be helped off after twisting an ankle.

Casey and Jake had each thrown a touchdown pass today and both had moved the ball. Both had felt pressure on every series, knowing that the next snap, next throw, next play, might be the one that either kept them out there or moved them to the sidelines. Maybe that was John McCoy's plan all along, make them challenge themselves and each other at the same time.

And Jake was okay with that. He was. Just kept reminding himself, even when he was watching Casey run the team, where he'd started out this season and where he was now.

On this day, Casey had even run for some big gainers, the first time all season he'd pulled the ball down, almost like he was trying to show the coaches Jake wasn't the only one who could scramble around when he had to.

Casey's biggest run was for twenty-five yards to the Wildcats' three—but it had also been his last. He'd fallen awkwardly, rolling his ankle when he tried to slide to avoid getting hit. Even though he said he could stay in there, Coach McCoy told him to go sit down for a bit, told him Jake could hand the ball off from there, which Jake did, Spence finally diving in from the one, putting the Cowboys ahead by the touchdown that now separated the two teams.

So here was a chance for the Cowboys to stretch their lead and maybe put this one away.

As the punt return team headed back to the sideline, Coach McCoy went over and spoke to Casey, who'd been sitting on the bench with his leg up since he'd come out of the game, holding ice to his ankle. Jake could see Casey trying to make his case to go back out there, but Coach finally shook his head, came back over to Jake and said, “Lindell says he's good to go, but Doc says we should let him sit.”

“Yes, sir,” Jake said.

“Wasn't looking for your approval, son,” Coach McCoy said. “Now
git.

Jake ran out, knelt down in the huddle, thinking it hadn't been all that long ago he'd been in this huddle as a varsity QB for the first time. But somehow, even under the gun every time he was in here, it felt natural to him now. He hadn't been great today, or even close—had even thrown an interception in the first half, his first turnover of the season. Still, he felt like he belonged. Like he was supposed to be here, even if the only reason he was here right this minute was because Coach was playing it safe with Casey.

Business at hand? First-and-ten at the Granger forty, all that green in front of him and the Cowboys, a chance to finish off Chirita in front of the home fans, including—as usual—Jake's mom, but not his dad.

Three straight completions moved the ball to the Chirita thirty-two. A short run by Spence and an incompletion to Justice made it third-and-eight. The call was a ten-yard curl route to Calvin on the right sideline, a throw that had been there for both Jake and Casey all game long.

The Wildcats, sensing a pass play coming and needing to force an incompletion, came on a blitz, the middle linebacker coming up the chute, the corner from Justice's side knowing he had the safety behind him, the outside linebacker charging from Calvin's side. Nate took care of the middle linebacker, and Mo Hanners, now the Cowboys' starting right guard, moved over and cleaned out the outside linebacker, no problem. But the cornerback, who hadn't been quick enough to cover the wideouts today, but was big enough to be a linebacker and could hit like one, made it through.

Maybe it was the pick Jake had thrown earlier. Maybe there was a part of him thinking he couldn't scramble every single time he was under pressure, that he could stand in there until the last second and make the kind of throw Casey could when
he
held on to the ball as long as he could.

So Jake stood in the pocket until the very last second before throwing the ball, the big cornerback just exploding on him. Jake took the hit from the side, flying through the air, feeling all the air come out of him at the same time.

He'd see later on film that somehow the throw had been a dart, Calvin catching it in stride, two yards past the first-down marker, exactly where he was supposed to be, money. Jake had suspected the play was good from the reaction of the crowd, even though the cheer sounded as if it was coming from the other side of town.

That was because the real noise, along with what his dad had always called brain hurt, was inside of Jake now, in the area of his ribs. Thinking to himself this was about the biggest lick he'd ever taken in football.

Nate was there first, of course, Jake still on his back.

“Talk to me, brother,” Nate said. “You all right?”

“Compared to what?” Jake said.

Nate grabbed Jake's left hand without asking, not knowing that was his hurt side right now, Jake turning his head so Nate couldn't see him wincing. He was pretty sure he hadn't broken anything. He knew what a broken rib felt like—oh man, did he ever—from the time when he was twelve and had been thrown from one of his dad's cutting horses.

This hurt wasn't
that
hurt.

But would do.

“I think you need to take a seat,” Nate said.

“I'm good,” Jake said.

Now it was Nate who said, “Compared to what?”

Other players gathered around as Coach McCoy and Coach J came toward them, along with Doc Mallozzi.

Coach McCoy said, “Where's it hurt, son?”

“He got me good, Coach,” Jake said. “But I think it looked worse than it was.” He forced a grin and said, “Once I got permission to land.”

Doc Mallozzi said, “Let's get you over to the sideline so I can check out your rib cage. That's where he got you, right?”

“Doc, I'm fine. If I was hurt bad, I'd say.”

More sure than ever that he wasn't. Hurt bad, that is. His breathing had started to come more easily.

The lead ref came over and said, “Gotta game to play.”

Coach McCoy studied him for what felt like a long time and then said, “I'm gonna trust you.”

Doc Mallozzi looked Jake in the eye and then nodded his head.

Jake's breath came even easier.

“Let's go put this baby away,” Coach said before leaving the field.

Jake knew it was going to take more than a hit to the ribs to send him to the bench.

They ran the ball twice for eight yards, down to the twelve. Spence brought in the third-and-two call, what was supposed to be a quick slant to Justice on the left. Supposed to be. But the Wildcats blitzed from that side again, and this time Jake saw it coming and got out of there.

He ran to his right, waving at Calvin as he did. Calvin let fly in the same direction and Jake led him perfectly on the run. Calvin caught the ball at the two and continued into the end zone.

Jake wanted to celebrate, but that scramble had brought back the pain. Much as he had wanted to, Jake couldn't hide it.

When he got to the sideline, Coach McCoy told him he was done for the day, that Casey was going back in. Jake saw Casey testing out his ankle behind the bench. He looked fine.

“Sir, you don't have to baby me,” Jake said.

“Go sit,” Coach said. “You did good today. Specially
after
you took that hit. That's when you showed ever'body somethin' about yourself.”

He went over and took a seat next to Nate, wishing his dad had been there to see it, too.

BOOK: QB 1
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