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Authors: Mike Lupica

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BOOK: QB 1
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04

JAKE DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO SAY TO THAT, JUST WATCHED CALVIN
walk away, shaking his head.

Coach blew his whistle and said he'd see everybody tomorrow, bright and early. Jake didn't even stop for a drink, just headed for the parking lot. Tim Mathers had said he'd give Jake and Nate a ride home.

Jake felt a hand on his shoulder, was about to turn and tell Nate he didn't need any more pep talks, not today. But then he saw it was Ray Jessup, the team's new offensive coordinator, a former Granger wide receiver, not even thirty years old yet, but already having gone into coaching. And you could see two things about Coach J already, in just a week. One was how much Coach McCoy trusted him to call plays.

The other was how enthusiastic he was.

Jake said, “Coach, I stopped watching after a while. My throw come down yet?”

Ray Jessup smiled. “I think you might have taken out one of the cheerleaders doing the pyramid.” Shrugged like it was no big deal, said, “You tried to make it too perfect, is all.”

“Ended up doing the opposite.”

“But you made two third-down plays when you had to, that's what I took away from today.” Giving Jake a little fist-pump.

“You, maybe. Not me.”

“You're gonna get better,” Coach said.

“Yeah,” Jake said. “One of these years.”

“No, I mean you're gonna get better
today,
” Coach said. “Stick around after the other guys are gone.”

“I was gonna catch a ride with Tim.”

“Let's you and me have a little game of catch,” Coach said. “I'll give you a ride home. Not like I don't know the way; I used to work summers at the ranch for your grandpa.”

“Coach, I'm a whupped dog.”

“You just think you are.” Smiled and said, “C'mon, dog. You gotta love it!”

Some days, Jake wasn't so sure.

How much he really loved it.

Jake was too tired to still be on the field after all his buddies were gone. The day was too hot even for Granger, a town Jake had always thought of as the brown-grass capital of Texas, which meant it was probably the brown-grass capital of the world. Plus they'd spent the first hour and a half of practice today doing conditioning drills in full pads, Coach telling them that the heat wasn't going anywhere even when the season started up for real.

And he still was kicking himself for missing Calvin the way he had, by a country mile.

But somehow, to Jake's surprise, Coach Jessup made their one-on-one workout fun, doing play-by-play even as he was running his pass routes, his voice booming in Cullen Field, telling Jake at one point he was ready to go all day and all night, put the lights on if he had to.

Coach J seemed to be having so much fun that Jake started to think that maybe the only reason they were still out here was because Coach needed someone to throw him the ball.

They had been going for about half an hour, Coach running his outs and slants and deep posts nonstop, when he finally announced they were stopping for a water break. Jake wondered why he was dying and Coach barely seemed to be out of breath.

Jake was gulping down his second bottle of water when Coach said, “You're not your brother.”

That got Jake's attention. Coach didn't say it in a mean way, just came out with it, like he was saying to Jake that it sure was a hot one today.

“Kind of figured that out for myself, Coach,” Jake said. “Like, practically since birth.”

“Oh, hell,” Coach Jessup said, the word sounding like “hale,” the way it usually did around here. “I
know
you know that. What I'm saying to you is that you're not your brother, so stop trying to
be
him.”

Jake waited.

“Man, you got to stop trying to throw the ball like him,” Coach said. “It's like you're trying to copy that straight-over-the-top motion of his.” Coach himself straightened up now, as if throwing an imaginary ball, mimicking Wyatt's form perfectly. “That might work for him, but off what I've seen already, it sure ain't you.”

“It's the only way I've ever known,” Jake said, “from the time my dad first showed me where to put my fingers on the laces.”

“And I'm not telling you he was wrong, don't get me
wrong. He pretty much used to chuck it the same way. But you're longer than Wyatt, and got way longer arms, and it looks to me like there are just too many moving parts before you're ready to lock and load. It's why you're as wild as you are sometimes. Little like Tebow, you ask me.” Coach drank some water, spit, and said, “I know what a man of faith he is, but I don't even think the Lord Himself ever thought much of that motion of his.”

Jake couldn't help it. He laughed. “You're saying I throw like Tim
Te
bow? That's it, I'm quitting football.”

“In your family, you're more likely to quit breathing first,” Coach said. “C'mon, let's get back to work, I'll show you what I mean. If you're ever gonna be the quarterback
you
need to be, you got to quicken up your release and stop worrying about setting the ball so high. Your brother has to, he doesn't have your height. Only time I see you releasing the ball the way I want you to is when you're on the run and not overthinking it.”

At first it felt to Jake as if he were almost throwing the ball sidearm, even as Coach J assured him he wasn't. And even as he got more comfortable, he started to think he wasn't going to throw another spiral today even if they did practice into the night.

Finally he said, “Coach, my arm's about to fall off.”

“Gimme five good minutes,” Coach said, “and then we'll call it a day.”

And somehow, as tired as Jake was, he did give him five good minutes, stopped thinking about what he was doing and just let it happen, throwing instead of aiming, the ball starting to come out of his hand more cleanly. Jake even managed some spirals.

He was already wondering what his dad was going to say the first time he saw him throwing the ball like this.

“Jake?” he heard Coach Jessup saying.

“Yes, sir.”

“Where'd you go?”

“Mind started to wander,” Jake said. “Been a long day.”

“Well,” Coach said, “let's end it with that pass you missed to ol' Calvin about an hour ago. Take your three-step drop, and then let 'er go. Like my golf coach tells me, don't think about anything except where you want the sucker to land.”

Coach J gave him a mild head-slap to the side of his helmet and said, “And remember something else about sports: Ever'body gets nervous. The trick is not letting 'em
see
you nervous.”

Ray Jessup, who'd been a decent wide receiver at Baylor after he'd left Granger High, ran an inside route, then broke toward the corner. This time Jake didn't airmail his receiver. Didn't try to be perfect. Or Wyatt. Just put the ball on the money, Coach J hauling it in three strides before he ran out of bounds, letting out a holler before doing about the mutt-ugliest touchdown dance Jake believed he'd ever seen in his life.

“Coach,” Jake called out to him, “is that your end-zone strut, or are you just having some sort of heatstroke?”

“You looked like a quarterback on that one,” Coach yelled back at him, “not somebody impersonating one.”

At last they were done. Coach said he had to go get some stuff in the locker room, make a quick phone call to his wife. Told Jake he'd meet him in the parking lot next to his F-150. Jake thought,
Maybe someday I'll live in a world where half the people I know don't drive some kind of truck.

Just not in Granger, where you heard a lot that the roads led everywhere except out of town.

Jake was too tired to even go get himself one more bottle of water. He just walked through the tunnel, feeling like he'd walked into an air-conditioned room just getting out from beneath the sun, helmet in one hand, towel in the other.

Then he was out Gate B and into the parking lot. Glad that Coach had made him stay. Had taken enough of an interest in him to
make
him stay. Feeling a little better about himself than if he'd left with everybody else when practice had ended.

“Hey, Jake. Hey, Jake Cullen, wait up.”

He didn't even have to turn around. He felt his heart turn over at least one time, knowing that the voice belonged to Sarah Rayburn.

Still the prettiest girl at Granger High.

Wanting to talk to him.

Jake stood there and waited for her, wishing he did have a bottle of water with him. His mouth felt as dry as dirt, Sarah's long legs eating up the distance between them in the parking lot. She must have showered since the end of cheerleading practice, and changed; Jake could see right away this was a different T-shirt and shorts than she'd been wearing before. Jake spent a lot of time stealing looks at her across the field every chance he got.

Before, she'd had her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. Now it was hanging soft to her shoulders.

“Hi,” he said when she got to him.

“Hi yourself.”

They had seen each other before and after Wyatt's games last season. Their parents knew each other, and Jake would see Sarah in town sometimes, at Spooner's Ice Cream or Mac's Diner or Mickey's, or at the old-fashioned movie theater whose marquee still dominated Granger's main street. But Jake hadn't officially started yet at high school, having spent eighth grade at Granger Middle.

So even though he and Sarah technically knew each other, they really didn't, had never really had a conversation that went past where they were now, both of them saying hi.

Now or never.

“I got kept after practice by Coach Jessup,” Jake said. “What's your excuse for still being here?”

Telling himself that sounded fine, he hadn't sounded like he was trying too hard to start a conversation, even though Sarah was the one who'd called out to him. Jake heard Coach J's words inside his head, telling himself not to let Sarah see him nervous.

Telling himself not to sound like some kind of moron.

“Was just hanging around with some of the other girls on our team,” she said, “and waiting for my mom, who's late, as usual.”

Jake gave a quick look over his shoulder, hoping Coach J was still inside talking to his wife, wasn't on his way to the truck. He was relieved to see he wasn't anywhere in sight.

He looked back at Sarah, and Jake thought she looked a little nervous herself.

“So,” she said, “how we looking?”


Our
team?”

“Only one that matters around here.”

“Coach'll figure it out,” Jake said. “Always has before.”

Sarah put one arm in the air, then the other, smiled, and said, “Go team!” And they both laughed, knowing the cheerleader girl was having some fun with herself.

Then came an awkward silence that didn't end until Jake said, “So what's up?”

“Well,” she said, like she was screwing up her courage, “I just wanted to ask you . . . how's Wyatt doing at college?”

And Jake felt like he'd been hit.

That blind-side hit in the pocket you didn't know was coming, all the wind coming out of him at once, hoping that Sarah couldn't see the disappointment he felt in that moment, knowing that she only wanted to talk to him about his brother.

“Doing fine,” Jake said. Forced up a smile and said, “He's Wyatt, after all.”

“I check him out on Facebook all the time,” Sarah said, “but it's not like you get a whole lot of intel there.”

“He's threatening to go on Twitter,” Jake said, “though knowing my brother, how careful he is, I'll believe that when I see it.”

“I'm on Twitter now!” Sarah said. “You gotta tell me if Wyatt does go on.”

“Absolutely,” Jake said.

Looked back over his shoulder again. Now he saw Coach Jessup making his way from Gate B, looking like one of the Cowboys players himself in the distance, T-shirt and shorts and sandals and a backpack.

Now Jake was happy to see him coming.

“Well,” Sarah said, “if you talk to the big college man, tell him Sarah said hi. Okay?”

“Will do.”

“Promise?” she said.

“Hey,” Jake said, faking his way through one more smile. “What's a brother for?”

They heard the brief sound of a car horn, saw Sarah's mom's SUV pulling into the lot.

“Gotta go,” she said.

“Go team,” Jake said in a quiet voice.

05

BARRETT “BEAR” LOGAN, ANOTHER FRIEND AND TEAMMATE
with a driver's license, slow in football pads but always prompt, came by about seven to pick up Jake. They swung by Nate's house to pick him up, then headed to Stone's Throw, the most popular restaurant and hangout in Granger. Best steaks, best burgers, best dessert.

Biggest TV screen.

Bobby Ray Stone had been a blocking back for Troy Cullen in high school. But in the league championship game their senior year against Morrow, in what Jake's dad said was still the worst rain he ever played in, somehow Bobby Ray Stone completed an option pass for a touchdown in a game the Cowboys won 6–0.

“Stone's Throw” was the front-page headline in the paper the next day, and later that became the name of Bobby Ray's restaurant and bar and gathering place, even if everybody by now just called it Stone's.

The way Jake looked at it, Bobby Ray Stone was another ex-player who'd not only never left Granger, it was as if he'd never left the team.

Jake was only going for dessert, but he knew Barrett and Nate well enough to know they would be having a second dinner, something they did a lot after practice, as if the supper they had at home was just some kind of big-boy appetizer.

“It's all about replacing the body weight you left out there on the field,” was the way Barrett liked to explain it.

“Imagine it like this,” Nate said, “like you were emptying out a glass of water and then filling the sucker back up.”

“Yeah,” Jake said, “with ribs and baked potatoes and onion rings.”

Barrett, a sophomore linebacker, wasn't as big as Nate, or nearly as good a football player. Mostly he was just a big, amiable, good old Granger boy whose father was a wrangler for the quarter horses on the Cullen ranch the way
his
father had been a wrangler for Jake's grandpa.

Barrett liked to say all the time that he'd been born in Granger and was going to die there, too; it's what men in his family had always done. Liked to tell Jake, when it was just the two of them, that when he thought about his world, in his mind's eye, it always fit inside the Granger city limits like a glove.

But as much as Barrett loved Granger, he loved Granger football more, loved the fact that he was a part of it now, a part of this team, even if it looked like he'd be lucky to do more than play on special teams this season. It would be enough for Barrett.

More than anything, his vision of his world had always been built around wearing Granger blue someday.

He loved football the way Nate did, and the way Jake
wanted
to. He had played on Granger's last JV team the season before. Now all he talked about, even though he wasn't much of a talker, certainly not when Nate was around, was what it was going to be like for him the first time he ran out of the tunnel at Cullen Field with his teammates as an honest-to-God Granger Cowboy.

His dad had always been a real cowboy, not a football player. So Barrett, his firstborn, was the first in the family to make the team. Sometimes Jake was more excited about Barrett making that run out of the tunnel and through the line of cheerleaders than he was about making the run for the first time himself.

If you were a Cullen, just wearing the blue, being on that field, wasn't enough.

Barrett was back to talking about the opener, against Shelby High, as they pulled into the crowded parking lot at Stone's, the three of them squeezed into the front seat of Barrett's daddy's pickup, an old F-250 with an extended cab, one that had been navy blue once, or so Barrett said, but was now the color of the Texas sky. Even though Barrett was just a sophomore, he'd been held back once in grade school, so he was closer to seventeen now than sixteen, and had had his license long enough that he could legally have his friends in a vehicle he was driving.

Barrett said, “Tell the truth: you guys think I talk about the start of the season too much, don't you?”

“Nah,” Nate said. “But I have noticed that when you start goin' on, like you do, it does make me hungry.”

“A wind out of the east makes you hungry,” Jake said.

Barrett said, “You're the only guy I know who starts to feel hungry while he's still workin' on the meal he's workin' on.”

“Lookee at who's talking,” Nate said. “Guess it musta been some
other
Barrett Logan won the rib-eating contest at the Sparksville rodeo last year. Ended up looking like he'd swam himself through barbecue sauce to get to the ribbon.”

Their waitress was a girl from school that Jake and Nate both knew Barrett liked, a junior named Emma Jean Duhon. It was why lately anytime they were kicking around places to eat—not that there were all that many in Granger—Barrett would immediately vote for Stone's, as great as the barbecue was at Mickey's. But only on nights when Emma Jean happened to be working.

Even though she was a grade higher than him in school, the way Sarah was with Jake, Barrett and Emma Jean were the same age, which would have been helpful to Barrett as a way of doing something about his feelings for her if he was able to form sentences in her presence.

This would have been a lot more amusing to Jake, Barrett rumbling and stumbling the way he did when he got around Emma Jean, if it didn't remind Jake so much of the way he acted when he got around Sarah.

Sarah.

There she was, back inside his brain. He was trying not to dwell on what had happened with her after practice, wanted to just kick it with his guys tonight, have some pie and ice cream, sit around Stone's the way they did a lot, the way so many other guys on the team did, the restaurant sometimes feeling like part of their locker room.

Before Jake could stop Emma Jean, she was taking them to a booth she must have assumed Jake wanted, one surrounded by so many pictures of Jake's dad and Wyatt, it was like the two of them had showed up and joined the damn party.

Wyatt posing with last year's state championship trophy. Troy Cullen, the first Cullen ever to wear number 10, helmet in hand, with Libby, back when Libby was still captain of the cheerleaders, the two of them posing under the goalposts in black-and-white, after some big game out of the past. A replica of Wyatt's road-blue number 10, mounted under glass. A team picture of Troy Cullen's state championship team right next to Wyatt's team.

And a blown-up picture from the newspaper, big brother getting carried off the field after the Fort Carson game.

To Jake it was like sitting in the middle of a family scrapbook.

Nate looked around as he sat down in the booth, taking up what looked like half of it, and said, “Every time we sit here, I feel like I should be ordering something for your brother and your daddy.”

“So you can eat their helpings, too?”

“Look at what I eat another way,” Nate said. “Like it's fuel for a big old train.”

Barrett said, “You mean one car? Or, like, the
whole
train?”

“Don't look to me like you're missin' many meals, there, Bear.”

“Hey,” Jake said. “Let's not forget why we're really here: to see if Bear can get somewhere with Emma Jean.”

“Just get a smile out of her,” Nate said.

“Both of you be quiet, I'm beggin' you,” Barrett said.

Nate smiled. “That would be my advice for you with Emma, now that I think of it.”

“Really, be quiet, here she comes!” Barrett said in a whisper, like he'd been caught doing something bad. Then Emma Jean was handing them their menus, and Nate was opening his like he was opening a birthday present, saying, “I want everything!”

Barrett managed to say to Emma Jean, “He's been fasting since, like, six o'clock.”

“Poor baby,” Emma Jean said.

Barrett and Nate did order second dinners, ribs for both of them, baked potatoes, and onion rings, as Jake had predicted. He went for apple pie and vanilla ice cream.

As Emma Jean headed back to the kitchen, they all heard Calvin Morton before they saw him. It usually happened that way. As talented as he was, as much as his amazing skills on a football field drew attention, somehow that wasn't enough for him. He acted like he wanted a spotlight on himself every time he walked into a room.

Melvin Braxton, his cousin, was with him. Melvin was a defensive back and kick returner who was more like a brother to Calvin than either a bud or a teammate, as quiet and nice as Calvin was loud.

The third member of the group—no shocker there, the way the two of them had been buddying up at practice—was Casey Lindell. Why not? Calvin had already made it clear, just one week into practice, just by some of the comments Jake had overheard, that Calvin thought Casey was the best quarterback on the team.

To Calvin, that just meant the quarterback with the best chance to get him the ball as often as possible, make him look as good as he possibly could to college recruiters.

Didn't mean Calvin didn't want to win. He did. Jake knew that he hated to lose as much as he hated it when the ball wasn't coming to him. But Calvin believed that Granger High was just the beginning of the process for him, that he was going from here to be a big star in college football and then the pros after that. A big, fast guy going places. Mostly out of Granger the first chance he got. The opposite of Barrett that way.

And now that Wyatt Cullen was gone, he was the star of the team, at last.

Long as somebody could get him the ball the way Wyatt had.

“Look out!” they heard Calvin say now, looked over and saw him point at their table with both hands. “Cullen in the house.”

He waved at Jake now, who gave him a quick wave back, trying not to do anything that would encourage him to come over. Jake liked Calvin, he did, thought he was a show. Just didn't want to be part of the show tonight. So he turned away, asked Barrett about a cutting horse his dad had been working, trying to act as if he were a lot more interested in that. Not ignoring Calvin—that was pretty much impossible—but making sure he did nothing to engage.

Too late.

Calvin was as fast getting across Stone's as he was in the open field, turned out.

“Man, look at you, the last Cullen in Cullenville,” he said, “sitting here like y'all are in the middle of a family photograph.”

“Yeah,” Jake said, “they like my dad and my brother here. I keep waiting for them to put their pictures on the menu.”

“I been askin' Mr. Stone,” Calvin said, “when he's gonna clear a wall for me.”

Nate grinned. “You sure one wall will be enough?”

Calvin seemed to notice Nate for the first time. “How you goin', big man?” Calvin said. “See Jake's got his number one with him.”

“We all know you're the only number one around here, C,” Jake said, trying to keep it light.

“Only way I stay that way is when I got somebody throwin' the ball
to
me,” Calvin said, “not
over
me.”

“That last throw was crap, no doubt,” Jake said. “But I think I found something on my mechanics after practice.”

“Yeah,” Calvin said, putting on a big smile. “I saw you out there, acting like teacher's pet with Coach Jessup.”

“Whoa,” Jake said. Honestly surprised. “
He
asked
me
to hang around.”

“Course he did, dude; like I said, you're the last Cullen in Cullenville.”

Nate said, “You seemed to do all right with a Cullen throwing to you last season.”

“Was a different Cullen.”

In a quiet voice, Barrett said, “You think Wyatt looked like an All-Pro after his first week of practice, back when he was a freshman? Maybe you could cut Jake a little slack.”

Barrett had no use for Calvin, didn't think he was a show, just a show-
off.
Oh, Barrett liked him fine as a teammate, knew Calvin would do as much as anybody to help Granger win games this season as the Cowboys tried to defend their title. But he stayed out of his way at practice, and rarely spoke to him.

There was no rule book for the way you were supposed to act when you were part of a team. But somehow everybody knew his role. Knew his
rank,
like they were in some kind of army.

“I'm sorry,” Calvin said, still smiling, “was I talkin' to you, Bear?”

Barrett stared at Calvin, not saying anything, keeping whatever he did want to say inside. Like he'd remembered his rank.

It was Nate who spoke next. “Now, you be nice to my boys, Calvin, you hear?” Nate was smiling, too, but there was something in his voice telling Calvin to stand down now, not asking.

Calvin must have heard it, too.

“C'mon, I was just playin',” he said.

“Yeah,” Nate said. “Me too.”

“You know I love you, big man,” Calvin said. To Jake he said, “You keep workin' on those mechanics, case I need you 'fore this season is over.”

“I'm third string,” Jake said.

“Right,” Calvin said, then turned and walked back across the room, Jake watching him go, wondering what all this had really been about, why Calvin had come over in the first place.

“Does he really think I
wanted
to stay out there on that field today one minute longer than the rest of y'all?” Jake said.

Nate was busy mixing up what looked like the whole butter plate and sour cream into one of his baked potatoes.

“You may not think you got a chance to play, but you sure seem to be on Calvin's radar,” Nate said.

“But I'm third string!”

When they had finally finished eating, Jake signaled for the check. Emma Jean came over and said to him, “On the house. Compliments of Bobby.”

Meaning Bobby Ray, the owner.

“Emma Jean,” Jake said, “he doesn't have to do that. I don't
want
him to do that.”

Emma Jean looked over to where Bobby was standing near the hostess stand, smiling and waving at him. “Yeah, Jake, but Bobby wants to. So please don't make a big deal of this, okay?”

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