Authors: Mike Lupica
“THIS IS AN OLD-FASHIONED QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY, IS
what it is,” Bear said on the way to school Monday. “Plain and simple. If you can't see that, you just don't want to.”
“Really,” Jake said.
“Just callin' it out for what it is,” Bear said.
“An old-fashioned quarterback controversy,” Jake said, making his voice announcer-deep. “You sound like you're practicing to sit around on one of those pregame shows where they all crack each other up.”
“I wouldn't last on those shows, I don't laugh at everything,” Bear said. “And you can treat this like it's funny all you want, but you didn't play like a backup when you got out there on Saturday.”
“Doesn't change the fact that I
a backup,” Jake said. “And that Casey, no matter how much you don't like his attitude sometimes, has the arm to back up his swag.”
“Yeah, he does. Takes more than swag to be a quarterback, though,” Bear said.
“I could work out with Coach J from now till the end of time and never have an arm like Casey's,” Jake said.
“Joe Montana didn't have the world's greatest arm,” Bear said. Bear knew his football and his football history. “Even Tom Brady doesn't have the arm a guy like Casey's hero, Brett Favre, did. But last time I checked, Brady had three Super Bowls and Favre had retired with but one. And even you know that Brady started out as a backup his rookie year with the Patriots, 'fore he ended up winning the Super Bowl.”
“Now I'm Tom Brady?” Jake said. “From one touchdown?”
“Didn't say that,” Bear said. “I just keep tellin' you: You didn't look like no backup to me.”
Coach McCoy didn't treat Jake like one at Monday's practice.
And he sure didn't treat Casey Lindell as his number one. What he did was divide the first-team snaps evenly between Casey and Jake. No announcement beforehand.
Halfway through practice, it was clear that he didn't
to say anything, about an official quarterback competition with the Granger Cowboys or anything else. There it was on the practice field, for all of them to see. He was treating his two quarterbacks like they were equals. They knew it, everybody on the team knew it.
During a water break, Jake kneeling with Bear and Nate, Bear said to him, “Yeah, you were right on the way to school, you're still a backup.”
As they were walking back to the field, Coach Jessup, acting casual, walked alongside Jake and said, “I'm just gonna say this to you one time, son. It ain't against the law for you to want this.”
Jake said in a low voice, “I just don't want this to work itself into something where it divides up our team.”
“Not your concern,” Coach Jessup said. “You either want to compete or you don't. And by the way, though I might be out of line for saying this, this ain't your family.”
“I don't know what you mean by that.”
” Coach J said, “you don't have to take a backseat on account of that's where you think you're supposed to be sitting.”
He left it at that, walked away, blew his whistle, told the first-team offense they were about to work in the red zone.
“Casey'll get the first set of snaps,” Coach J said, “then Jake. Like we've been doing.”
While Coach McCoy was setting his defense, Casey Lindell got next to Jake and said, “I don't know what's going on here today. But I'm not giving up this job.”
Loud enough for only Jake to hear.
Jake said, “I'm just doing what Coach tells me, is all.”
Jake started to walk away then, not wanting this to turn into something real stupid, real fast, in front of the whole team.
But Casey reached out, grabbed his arm. “I just want you to know where I'm coming from,” he said. “I wouldn't have been a backup if we hadn't moved, and I'm not gonna back up a freshman here.”
Maybe it was seeing him with Sarah, maybe it was Casey's tone of voice. Whatever it was, Jake decided in that moment he'd heard enough. He tipped back his helmet, looked Casey square in the eyes, and said, “It's yours if you earn it. Same as it's mine if
Jake made sure to smile, in case anybody was watching them. But before he tipped his helmet back down, he said, “And Casey? Don't ever put your hand on me again.”
Showing him some rope right there, surprising himself, almost as if the words had come out of somebody else's mouth.
Jake didn't wait for a response, just walked away for real this time, feeling good about himself, wondering if maybe this was some new Jake Cullen, one who didn't just automatically take a backseat, certainly not to this guy.
A Jake Cullen who did want the starting job.
It wasn't a game of one-on-one Jake and Casey played the rest of practice. This wasn't basketball. It was football, Granger High football, Casey showing what he could do with the first team, then Jake getting his chance to do the same.
There were no numbers on the scoreboard, but Jake knew everybody on this field, players and coaches, was keeping score.
It was on now between Jake and Casey, all the players on the field knowing that this quarterback competition wasn't happening if Coach John McCoy, the man, the legend, didn't want it to happen.
Jake had always heard, starting when he heard it from his own daddy, that in football if you had two number one quarterbacks, you had no number two quarterback. Jake had heard it from Troy Cullen all over again when the Jets went and traded for Tim Tebow and said they were guaranteeing him a bunch of snaps every single game, way before that idea blew up on the Jets.
“You know why that won't work?” Troy Cullen said to Jake and Wyatt at the time. “Because it ain't
worked, that's why.”
Jake wasn't sure why it was playing out this way. And it wasn't like he expected Coach McCoy to explain himself, because he hardly ever did, on the play he wanted you to run or the defense he wanted to be in or anything else. Bottom line, as far as Jake was concerned? If this was Coach McCoy's last season, if this was it for him after all he'd done and all he'd won at Granger High, he wasn't declaring the quarterback job wide open because he thought it was going to
his football team.
And for this one practice, it actually seemed to help everybody on the field, starting with Jake and Casey, who managed to raise their own games, along with everybody else's. Sometimes Coach McCoy or Coach Jessup would even call the exact same string of plays for both of them. Like this was a game of H-O-R-S-E on a football field.
Jake wasn't sure how many passes he completed compared to Casey. At the end of practice, he figured they'd both put the ball in the end zone the same number of times. And both had looked real good.
Two number ones, at least on this day.
As they were walking toward the tunnel, Jake saw Casey jog to catch up with Calvin and Justice and Roy, the three best receivers on the team, high-fiving each one of them, saying in a loud voice, “Was that fun today or what?”
Like he wasn't just competing for the job, like he was running for it, the way you did for class president.
Like he was ready to compete with Jake off the field as well as on it.
Jake just let him go, waiting until he was inside the locker room. Then instead of going to the locker room himself, he went looking for Coach Jessup, knowing he'd be in his small office next to the equipment room.
“You can't possibly want to go back out there today,” Coach J said when he looked up and saw Jake standing in his doorway, still in uniform, helmet in his hand.
“Nope,” Jake said. “I want to stay right here.”
“And do what?”
“Look at film,” he said.
Their next opponent.
“You haven't even showered yet,” Coach J said. “You're tellin' me you want to look at game film
“What I want to do,” Jake said, “is
AS BAD AS IT HAD BEEN SEEING CASEY AND SARAH WALK OFF
Cullen Field together, it was worse seeing them hang around at school. Every day now in the cafeteria at lunch. Walking away from practice together.
You didn't have to be some kind of rocket scientist to figure it out, even if Casey hadn't been in town all that long. He was a year older than she was, he was a quarterback, she was the prettiest girl in school. Why wouldn't they want to hang out together?
Jake would have lost respect for the guy if he
trying to be with Sarah Rayburn.
“I've got a better chance to beat him out at quarterback than beat him out with Sarah,” Jake was saying Friday at lunch.
“Didn't Wyatt always end up with the pretty girls?” Nate said.
“He was Wyatt,” Jake said. “I'm me.”
“Wasn't he a freshman once?” Bear said.
Jake smiled. “No, I don't think he ever actually was.”
“Don't worry,” Nate said. “Sarah's too smart not to see through this guy.”
“And way too cool,” Bear said.
Casey and Sarah were three tables away, Sarah with two of her cheerleader friends on her side of the table, Casey with Dicky Grider, the team's left guard, and Roy Gilley on the other side. Every few minutes, Casey would laugh at something so loudly that nobody in the room could miss where he was sitting, who he was sitting with.
“What she's not, though,” Nate said, “is that funny.”
Bear said, “Nobody is.”
“Maybe,” Jake said, “she just likes him. That ever occur to you two geniuses?”
They both looked at him, slowly shook their heads no.
Coach McCoy finally shared his thoughts about his quarterback situation with Jake before the start of Friday's practice, the day before they'd make the short bus ride to Benton for the second game of their season.
“I'm gonna tell you what I told Casey just a few minutes ago,” Coach said. “He's gonna start tomorrow, but I'm gonna get you out there in the first half, too. Then we'll just take it from there.”
“Yes, sir,” Jake said.
“You both have shown me enough, in different ways,” Coach said. “Now I want to see more. The rest is pretty much up to the two of you.”
Jake, heart beating pretty good, walked over to get himself a drink of water. He turned around and saw Calvin walking toward him.
“It true what Casey just told me?” Calvin said. “I got both of you throwin' me the ball in Benton?”
He tried to keep his voice low, hoping Calvin would take the hint and do the same.
“I know Coach thinks he'll be the one decides which one of you gets the job eventually,” Calvin said. “But if you think about it logically, it'll probably be me. Coach deciding which one of you can keep
Jake felt the smile coming, he couldn't help it; he just got a kick out of Calvin. He annoyed him sometimes, no lie, and you had to get through that act of his, and sometimes that was
hard. But Jake tried to take people as he got them, and what he got from Calvin was somebody who wanted to do well. Didn't always care whether you liked him or not, but in the end Calvin was all about winning the game.
Far as Jake could tell, nobody on their team wanted to win more.
“Calvin,” Jake said, “you know I'm not the one decides to call your number, right, that Coach McCoy and Coach J call the plays?”
Now Calvin smiled.
“Just make sure you do right when they
call my number tomorrow, cowboy.”
He started a slow, cool run toward where their teammates were collecting at midfield, then stopped and came back, the way he came back for an underthrown ball sometimes.
“Funny how stuff works out, though. Casey thinks he's the one ought to be the next Wyatt Cullen in Granger, not Wyatt's little brother.”