Authors: Mike Lupica
“BEFORE YOU DO,” COACH JESSUP SAID, “YOU MIGHT WANT TO
fasten your helmet strap.”
“Hand it to Spence on first down, then go with a tight end slant to Roy on second. Then throw that little thing we call a step-back screen to Calvin after that.” Coach shrugged. “We'll worry about what comes next if it's still our ball at that point. We good?”
“Gonna try,” Jake said.
“I know you got the head for this,” Coach J said. “Now go show me you got the game. 'Cause once you get out there, you're not a freshman. Just a QB.”
Jake nodded and ran out on the field as the quarterback of the Granger Cowboys, if only for these few mop-up minutes at the end of a blowout game. But somehow the day had brought him here, like some crazy ride on a horse one of their wranglers was trying to break.
And Jake couldn't help it as he ran out there: He gave a quick look over his shoulder, like he was giving one last look to the sideline for instructions. But really looking past his coaches and teammates to where he knew his mom was, knowing the seat next to her, the one that always belonged to his dad, was empty this afternoon.
He found her easily enough. Everybody around her was sitting down, no reason to stand and cheer for the Cowboys right now. His mom, though, she was standing, staring right at him, nodding her head. Like she was telling him, from up there in the stands, that he could do this.
Now Jake was glad she had come, glad she was here to see this, not knowing how long this would last, not knowing if he'd be out here again anytime soon.
Glad that she was here, but wishing in that moment that his dad was with her.
Act like you belong.
If there was one thing his dad had drummed into his two boys' heads from the time they'd understood the things he was saying to them about life and footballâand ranching and horses and bulls and just about everything else under the sunâit was
Act like you belong.
Like it was the Eleventh Commandment.
Even if you weren't sure you belonged somewhere, act like you did.
He got into the huddle, everybody looking at him, Jake trying not to look scared. He told his teammates the three plays he'd brought with him from Coach J, clapped his hands, and told them all the snap count. Wanting to get on with it. Grabbed Nate on the way to the line and said, “Don't let me drop the snap.”
“Better chance of me droppin' my pants in front of everybody,” Nate said.
Jake managed to handle Nate's snap cleanly, but then nearly made a mess of the handoff to Spence, rushing it, wanting to get on with that, too, putting too much air between them. Spence saved him, though, collected the ball, gained four, running right behind Nate Collins's big ol' butt.
They lined up quickly. Jake straightened up, saw Roy Gilley open on a slant route, but threw the ball behind him, incomplete. Third-and-six. Calvin and Justice were switching sides. As Calvin ran past Jake he said, “Get me the rock, I'll do the rest.”
They went to a quick count this time, Jake took a one-step drop, ready to gun it over to Calvin in the left flat. Keep it simple. But the same cornerback who'd been giving Casey fits all day, who'd been reading him like he'd been in the huddle with Casey and the rest of the Cowboys, was just sitting there, ready to step in on Calvin the way he'd been doing all game long.
Jake managed to pull the ball down at the last second, making it look like the showiest pump fake anybody'd ever seen at Cullen Field. Then he just took off, the way those hotshot young quarterbacks in the pros did all the time now. Colin Kaepernick. Russell Wilson. RG III. Took off the way Johnny Football Manziel did on his way to winning the Heisman trophy as a freshman over at Texas A&M, ran down the sideline to the thirty-yard line. Even tightroped the last few yards the way Johnny Football did sometimes. Finally got bounced out of bounds.
Jake thought. He was in the game. Not with any chance to win it. Just trying to show he belonged. David Stevens, their other halfback, came running in to replace Spence, told Jake the next three plays, the first a curl route to Roy Gilley.
But Jake overthrew Roy, the ball nearly sailing all the way into the arms of a safety. He then missed Calvin on second down, the ball too low, Calvin giving Jake a look on his way back to the huddle.
This one was a crossing pattern with Calvin and Justice, Justice being the primary receiver. Jake led him perfectly, Justice gathered the ball in, and ran all the way to midfield before getting knocked out of bounds again, stopping the clock.
Jake was aware of the crowd then, louder than it had been since the first few minutes of the game, before everything had started to go wrong, starting with Tim Mathers's knee.
The crowd was cheering the completion to Justice.
But cheering Jake, too.
From there the Cowboys moved to the Shelby nineteen, finally out of time-outs. First down, twenty seconds left. Maybe three plays left if they were lucky. A chance to get one score and at least walk away from this game feeling like they had done
thing today besides just show up.
The coaches sent in a play for Calvin, a quick inside move and then a fade route to the right corner. Jake dropped back, surprised in this moment how calm he was, how comfortable he felt, ball in his hands.
Not trying to win a state title, maybe just some respect. Or maybe just trying to prove something to himself.
The line gave Jake plenty of time, the way they had been, but Calvin Morton was smothered. There was a cornerback in front of him and a safety behind him. Jake could try to force it, let Calvin go up and try to make one of his hero catches. But if he missed, short or long, and Calvin couldn't save him, then the day was going to end with one more interception from another Granger quarterback trying to squeeze one in to Calvin.
Jake saw Roy Gilley in the middle of the end zone. But he was covered, too, by the middle linebacker. So Jake just threw the ball over his head and through the goalposts, not wanting to risk a scramble, knowing if he didn't make the sideline, the game was over. At least this way, the team lived to see another play.
Ten seconds left.
In the huddle, Calvin said, “You did right, throwing it away.”
“You want to thank me?” Calvin said. “Throw me the rock on this one.”
But the coaches had seen what Jake and everybody else had seen, that Shelby was going to double-cover Calvin all the way to the locker room. When Spence brought in the second-down play, it wasn't for Jake to throw Calvin the rock; it was what they called tight cross, Roy running for the left corner, Justice coming in behind him, running into the area in front of the goalposts that Roy had just cleared out.
That was the way it was supposed to work, anyway.
As they broke the huddle, Nate said, “I feel like we're tryin' to win the game.”
“Way we're supposed to feel, big man,” Jake said. “We play all sixty around here.”
But Shelby was playing all sixty, too. So the Mustangs came with an all-out blitz now, both outside linebackers, the strong safety, blowing through the Cowboys' offensive line, on Jake almost as soon as he had the ball.
He felt the pocketâwhat there was of a pocket, anywayâcollapsing on him, felt somebody with a fistful of his jersey pulling him down. But the defenseman was finding out now that, as skinny as he was, Jake Cullen was a hard man to bring down, the “tough out” Coach Jessup was always telling him he was.
He stumbled slightly before escaping the pocket, like he'd somehow found a side door to get himself free. Knowing this was the last play of the game now, score or not. Saw Justice breaking his pattern, running toward the corner where Roy was, waving his arms.
Too much traffic over there now.
Jake kept running to his left, starting to run out of field.
But the quarterback in himâor maybe the Cullen in himârealized in that moment that if there was all that traffic in front of Roy and Justice,
all those guys blitzing him, Calvin Morton was somewhere to his right. With only one guy on him.
Like one of Coach J's orange cones waiting to be hit.
Jake, still being chased, almost to the sideline, had time to give one look over there, saw a white uniform that could only be number 1. He didn't even have time to plant his foot, didn't need to, before throwing on the dead run. He flung the ball across his body in Calvin's direction, right before getting buried by the Shelby defense.
Jake's helmet would end up sideways on his head; that was the picture that would be in the paper the next day, a big chunk of grass sticking out of his face mask.
His right shoulder pad was outside his jersey when he finally got up. By then the noise inside Cullen Field told him it was a touchdown. A lot had changed in this place since last fall, starting with the final score. But at least this was an ending people could understand and take away with them so they didn't think the day was a total loss.
Cullen to Morton for a touchdown.
CALVIN HAD THE GOOD SENSE NOT TO CELEBRATE AND TURN
the end zone into a dance floor, not at the end of a beatdown like this.
What he did instead was ran over to where Jake was still kneeling, extend a hand and help him up. “Maybe you got more rope to you than I thought.” Then walked away before Jake could say anything.
The players on both teams were milling around on the field now, even the big guys like Nate who'd been banging one another around all day hugging it out, some laughing, like they'd turned back into high school boys now that the game was over, no matter how much they looked like men. It was all a part of it, what happened on these fields, something you all had shared.
The Shelby quarterback, Cody Bretton, came over to Jake and said, “We're lucky they didn't put you in sooner.”
“You guys were better,” Jake said.
“You really Wyatt Cullen's brother?” Cody asked, making it sound like he wanted to know if Jake was related to the Lord himself. “Like Eli following Peyton?”
,” Jake said.
Finally it was time to leave the field, get back to the locker room, listen to what Coach McCoy had to say about the game, find out if there was any news about Tim's knee, then hustle back home with Bear and Nate to watch the Texas game that had already begun in Austin, watch the star freshman quarterback in the family do it up big in front of the whole country.
Jake looked around for Bear and Nate, saw them up ahead of him, nearly to the tunnel, at the front of a long parade of Granger Cowboys, a lot of them with their heads down, everything so much quieter now than it had been when they ran out of that tunnel a couple of hours before.
Some of them had their helmets in their hands, what Coach McCoy called their hats. Same hats that had just been handed to them, big-time, by the Shelby Mustangs.
It was then that Jake saw Casey Lindell, helmet in his own right hand, walking underneath the goalposts with Sarah.
The two of them walking close, Casey casually reaching around with his left hand and putting it around her shoulder.
Wyatt struggled for Texas in the first half, looked more nervous than Jake had ever seen him, throwing two early picks. One play he just flat missed a perfect snap when he was standing back in the shotgun. By halftime he had completed only five of his first seventeen passes, none for scores, Texas down 17â7 to Washington, the announcers talking about the high school hero from Granger acting his age.
It was 24â14 for Washington going into the fourth quarter. And that was when Wyatt Cullen turned into, well, Wyatt Cullen, starting the Longhorns comeback by going six-for-six on the eighty-yard drive that got his team back to 24â21.
The drive that won it started at the Texas forty with four minutes and change left and ended with ninety seconds left, Wyatt throwing a dead-solid perfect strike to his tight end over the middle, putting the 'Horns up 28â24. That's the way it ended after what looked like the whole defensive backfield knocked down the Hail Mary pass the Washington quarterback managed to launch into the end zone on the last play of the game.
A TV reporter interviewed Wyatt on the field when it was over, Wyatt as cool and calm as if he'd been practicing up for this moment the way he'd been practicing up to be a college quarterback.
When the great-looking reporterânot much older than Wyatt himselfâasked what it felt like to take the Longhorns down the field like that, bring them from behind to win his first college game, Wyatt grinned at her and said, “My daddy told me before the game he wanted to see if the boy could become the man today.” He gave her that aw-shucks look of his and added, “Guess I took that first step.”
The sideline girl looked in that moment like she wanted to kiss Jake's brother right there on TV.
It was just Jake and his mom watching now, Bear and Nate having left.
“Well,” Libby Cullen said, “quite a day for both my boys.”
“Mom, are you
?” Jake said. “You, like,
what Wyatt just did, right, winning his first game like that? On national TV?”
“You won something today, too, Jacob.”
“And what would that be?”
“The respect of your teammates. Making them see you belonged out there in a varsity game.”
“That game was over by the time I got in there.”
“If it was already over, why was Shelby still blitzing you?” she said, winking at him, letting him know she had been paying attention, delivering the knockout punch again.
She said she was going upstairs, saying she'd try to stay awake until Jake's dad got home from Austin.
Jake was watching the end of the Saturday night game on ESPN, LSU against Auburn, when his dad came through the front door. The trip from Austin, Jake knew, took three hours for a normal driver, which Troy Cullen was not. He liked to brag to his sons that he could make it in two if Jesus was willing and enough state troopers knew the plates on his Lincoln Navigator by now.
Jake thought that most troopers in this part of the state had a pretty solid chance of recognizing those plates, since they read “CULLENQB-1”.
It was the way Troy still thought of himself. As a dad, sure, went without saying. Husband. Rancher. Son.
But a QB most of all.
“Jake, where you at, boy?”
Filling the front hall and maybe the whole house with his big voice.
Jake came out of his dad's den, their game-watching room, a screen in there so huge that Troy Cullen joked that it belonged hanging from the roof in Cowboys Stadium. He gave his dad a hug, his dad already getting right to it, even before he had his arms around his youngest son.
“Did your big brother make the family proud today or what?” Troy Cullen said.
“Always does,” Jake said.
“All he did was take the damn Texas Longhorns down that field at the end like he was beatin' on a bunch of pissant
“Wyatt bein' Wyatt,” Jake said.
“Some boys get small as jockeys when the lights get turned up. Your brother, he plays bigger.”
“Must get that from his daddy,” Libby Cullen said on her way down the stairs.
“Oh, sweetie, did I wake you?”
“Me and Oklahoma and parts of Louisiana,” she said, getting to the bottom of the stairs, getting up on tiptoes to kiss her husband on the cheek. “By the way? Your other son had a pretty good day himself for Granger High.”
“And I want to hear all about it. But for now I got to get my boots off and start begging my beautiful wife to get me some of her special iced tea.”
She headed off to the kitchen, and Jake and his dad went into the den, Jake grabbing the remote and muting LSU-Auburn, seeing how full of Wyatt's day his dad was, like the game had just ended, knowing he was going to want to go over it, big play by big play, hoping he wasn't going to ask Jake to crank it up on TiVo.
He was about halfway through the winning drive when Libby Cullen came in with a pitcher of iced tea and the sandwiches she knew her husband wanted without his having to ask.
“Jacob ended his game with a touchdown pass,” she said. “Did he tell you that? Threw one to Calvin.”
“That so? What was the final score?” Troy said.
Jake told him, and Troy Cullen grinned and said, “You know what ol' Ricky Bobby says in
Jake knew this one the way he knew the way to school. “If you're not first, you're last.”
“Least you got on the field,” Jake's dad said.
“It was pretty cool, not gonna lie.”
Troy Cullen drank some iced tea, smacked his lips, and said, “You know what was
cool? That scramble your brother made before the touchdown pass won it for the 'Horns, starin' fourth down square in the eye if he doesn't get the first down, findin' a way to get to the sticks.”
What Jake wanted to say:
How 'bout breaking free somehow after somebody has a whole fistful of your jersey, not going down when most quarterbacksâmaybe even Wyattâwould have, getting loose, then throwing one across your body that felt like it traveled halfway 'cross the ranch and somehow hitting Calvin for a score?
But he didn't.
Because he knew his place on the Cullen family depth chart the way he did at Granger High.
“All about making plays,” Jake said. “Like you always tell us.”
Libby Cullen said, “Tell your dad about the one you made,” and gave her husband a look as she did that told him to hush now and listen.
Jake took him through it, fast as he could, feeling like he was reciting something in front of the class, saying he knew Calvin had to have single coverage somewhere over there, letting it go, getting his helmet knocked sideways on him, hearing from the crowd that he'd completed it.
“How about that. Ain't nothing better than hearing it from the crowd. Speaking of which, you haven't
a crowd till you hear it roar in Austin. Your brother had the whole stadium shaking today.”
Jake heard his mom sigh even though he knew his dad didn't, and grinned at his mom as he said, “I'm sure Wyatt's got 'em all eating out of the palm of his hand.”
Libby Cullen left them to football then, saying she'd had her share today.
“Yee boy!” his father said, slapping his forehead. “Speaking of which, guess what your brother's already gone and did at
U of T.”
“What's he gone and did?”
“Gone and got hisself fixed up with the prettiest cheerleader on the squad, is all,” Troy Cullen said. “And an
cheerleader at that. Last thing I saw before I went to the parking lot was Wyatt and Miss Mindy walkin' hand in hand away from the stadium.”
Troy Cullen nodded, smiling at the image, talking as much to himself as Jake as he said, “Wasn't a cheerleader born yet who doesn't want to date the quarterback of the football team.”
A few minutes later, he was
Jake left him there, left the television on, went upstairs to his room, thinking nobody on Shelby had hit him harder than his own dad just had.