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Authors: Mike Lupica

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BOOK: QB 1
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14

COACH MCCOY SENT JAKE INTO THE BENTON GAME TWO MINUTES
into the second quarter, the score 7–7.

The Benton Panthers had scored on the first drive of the game, taking the opening kickoff and going seventy yards, mostly running the ball. But Casey and the Cowboys' offense had answered right back, a fast four-play drive of their own, all passes, the last for thirty yards, Casey to Justice for the score.

Casey ran as fast as Jake had ever seen him getting to the end zone to celebrate with Justice, even banging helmets with him.

“That's gotta hurt,” Jake had said to Bear on the sideline.

“I know everybody's worried about concussions and all in football these days,” Bear said, “but I'm thinkin' Casey's head is too daggone hard for him to have to worry.”

Both offenses came to a dead stop after that, though, neither one coming close to scoring. Casey had overthrown his receivers a few times and taken a sack that seemed to leave him rattled. He yelled at his offensive line to hold their blocks better and then forced a throw to Calvin into double coverage that was intercepted by the opposing team's safety. After watching Casey rip off his helmet in disgust, Coach McCoy said something to Coach J, who turned to Jake. “Start loosening up. You're going in next series.”

By the time Jake's arm was ready, the Panthers were lined up to punt the ball. Coach J grabbed him before he ran out with the offense and said, “You always hear the one about ‘let the game come to you.' I was never one for that. Go out there and take it.”

“Gonna try,” Jake said.

When Jake got to the huddle, Nate tipped back his helmet and said, “Let's get this party started.”

Jake told them the first play, a quick out to Justice. He thought he'd be more nervous, but he wasn't, maybe because he'd played last week, maybe because he had that good week of practice under his belt and had been told he was going to play.

Or maybe this
was
the Cullen in him, not being afraid once somebody turned up the lights, like his dad said. His dad who was here today, up in the stands with Jake's mom, the Texas Longhorns having the week off.

Jake dropped back, remembered to look to his left at Calvin, knowing that was a way to lure the safety over there, turned back to his right, and hit Justice one stride before he reached the sideline.

First down.

Jake heard a cheer from the Granger side of the field at Benton High, and while he waited for Spence Tolar to bring in the next play, Jake couldn't help himself from thinking that his dad had just seen him complete a varsity pass.

Jake didn't know how many other games Troy Cullen would see him play this season, knew Wyatt would win out every time there was a conflict. Obviously. But his dad was here today, watching Jake today, and that felt good.

The rest of the Cowboys seemed to be feeling good all of a sudden, too. After back-to-back runs produced a first down, Jake ran a play-action pass, faking the handoff to Spence before threading a dead spiral to Calvin, who sprinted for a twenty-two-yard gain.

Jake then scrambled for twelve more yards, a run that included him putting a stiff-arm on one of the Benton linebackers, putting the guy down, shocking him.

The Panthers defense suddenly looked off-balance, not knowing what to expect, and the Cowboys quickly took advantage. They ran a crossing pattern that left Calvin wide open. Jake slid from the pocket and hit Calvin in stride. Touchdown. It might not have been the prettiest spiral ever, but the ball was going where Jake wanted it to.

Jake waited for Calvin, not acting like a cheerleader the way Casey had after throwing for his score, just putting out his hand so Calvin could shake it.

Calvin said, “You're my favorite.”

“For now,” Jake said.

“Duh,” Calvin said.

When Jake got to the sideline, Bear said, “We havin' any fun yet?”

Coach Jessup was there, too.

“Next time we run that play, remember that you coulda had Justice, too. The defense'll be shading on Calvin all day,” he said.

“I know,” Jake said.

He got two more series before halftime. The first one, the Cowboys made three first downs and got to the Panthers' forty before even Calvin Morton, with those big hands, couldn't handle the dead spiral Jake threw him over the middle, a third-down pass that would have gotten them a first. The Cowboys punted instead, pinning the Panthers inside their ten.

The next time, Jake moved them down the field in a hurry-up offense, trying to beat the clock, the Cowboys out of time-outs. He worked the sideline with short passes, taking his team all the way to the Benton twenty-one with three seconds left. Jake wanted to take a shot at the end zone, but Coach McCoy sent out the field goal team instead. Bobby Torres, one of their backup tight ends, a big boy with a big leg on him, pushed a thirty-eight-yarder wide right. They went to the small visitors' locker room, not even half the size of their own at Cullen Field, still ahead 14–7, Jake feeling they'd left way too many points out there.

“Coach has to leave you in,” Nate said, the two of them squeezed on a bench, Nate's voice no more than a whisper. “You moved the ball every time.”

“Hush,” Jake said.

“This
is
hushing,” Nate said.

Jake took his own voice way down, said to Nate, “Casey moved us pretty good that first drive, if you care to recall.”

Coach McCoy came into the room then, told them about the defensive adjustments they were going to make, Jake thinking that Coach used so few words, just about everything he said could stay under the 140 characters for tweets on Twitter.

As if using too many words with him was like the penalty you got for too many players on the field.

At the end he said, “On offense we start the same eleven started the game.”

Walked out. The Cowboys followed. As they crossed the running track around the perimeter of the field, Bear said to Jake, “You okay with this?”

“Do I have a choice?” Jake said. “Or do you want me to hold my breath till Coach puts me back in?”

The Cowboys would end up with three possessions in the third quarter, scoring twice, Jake watching them do it from the sideline, seeing what everybody in the place could see, plain as day: how much talent Casey Lindell had for football. And how the only thing that seemed to get in his way sometimes, more than the defense, was his ego.

He'd never just throw the ball away, no matter how good the coverage was. And if he even felt like a sack was coming, saw a pocket about to swallow him up, he'd put the ball up for grabs, throwing it as far as he could sometimes, just hoping Calvin or Justice would find a way to run under it.

But the boy did have an arm on him, no doubt, and was using it today. He made some throws that Jake just
wished
he could make. One of those throws finished off the first scoring drive of the second half, an amazing pass to Roy Gilley, Casey about to go down, somehow seeing Roy behind a linebacker and hitting him with a dead spiral off his back foot. The ball traveled thirty yards in the air, and Roy caught it in stride at the ten and ran in from there.

He finished off the second scoring drive with a post route to Calvin, who Jake figured had ten catches already. Casey threw the ball so hard, Jake was surprised it didn't make a sound like some police siren.

That second score made it 28–21, Granger. The Panthers had made some halftime adjustments, as well, and had scored a couple of touchdowns of their own, including an eighty-yarder when Melvin flat fell down in coverage.

What had felt at halftime as a defensive contest had turned into a scoring fest.

On the sideline, Nate said to Jake, “I'm starting to feel like I'm watching a flag football game.”

“You joking?” Jake said. “They D up way more than this in flag.”

The Panthers finally D'ed themselves up good at the start of the fourth quarter, Casey still in there. He tried to stuff a throw into Calvin even though they were doubling Calvin on every play now. The throw was too hard and too high, and the ball went off Calvin's hands and into the hands of one of the Benton safeties.

It turned into a disaster after that. Calvin missed the tackle, the kid picked up a couple of blocks, got to the sideline, and was gone. Just like that the game was tied.

Coach left Casey in there for one more series, a three-and-out. Three incompletions, the last a bullet that bounced off a surprised linebacker's hands before falling harmlessly to the ground. After the punting team left the field, Coach McCoy walked down the sideline to Jake. “Cullen, you go back in next series.”

He turned and started to walk back to where he'd been standing. Stopped, like he'd remembered something. Came back to Jake.

“I hate turnovers,” he said.

When Coach was gone, Bear came back, stood next to Jake, slapped him on the back, and said, “Tie game? Fourth quarter? Stop it, son. Where else you want to be right now, home fixin' some fence?”

Nine minutes left when the Cowboys got the ball back on their own twenty-three. Jake knew Bear was right: He was exactly where he wanted to be. It was like his dad always talked about, the good parts in sports, the ones you played for, the ones you played through the hurt for, the ones that got you through the grunt work of practice and memorizing playbooks, the ones that kept you going when it was a hundred Texas degrees and you wanted to stop.

Only Jake didn't just want to be good with Troy Cullen up there in the stands watching today.

He wanted to be great.

Like his brother.

15

NOTHING PRETTY ABOUT THE FIRST DRIVE.

But then Jake was used to that by now. There had always been a part of him, even when he could barely see over the center, feeling like he was making things up as he went along, even as he tried to run the plays sent in from the sideline.

Even as he really wanted to run those plays just the way they'd been drawn up.

But he knew that wasn't football. It wasn't just Jake that Coach J had worked with; he'd hear him talking to Casey, too, at practice, telling him that it was all right to throw the ball away sometimes, even knowing that Casey Lindell only did that as some kind of last resort. He'd tell Jake the same thing, that firing the ball over everybody when you were in trouble wasn't against the law, that sometimes that was a better option than taking a sack or forcing a throw into coverage.

“There's all sorts of ways to be a quarterback,” Coach J would say. “And one of them is knowing when to fold.”

Bottom line? Jake ended up scrambling three times on the drive, twice on third downs, pulling the ball down when Calvin and Justice and every other available receiver were covered, under big pressure from the Benton pass rush. But he managed to get first downs all three times, taking a good lick as he got the last one, the safety popping him hard before Jake could get out of bounds.

“You're gonna end up like Tim, you don't watch yourself,” Nate said when he got back to the huddle, fixing the right shoulder pad that had come out of Jake's jersey.

“Well, let's see if we can get into the end zone before they cart me off,” Jake said.

They were at the Benton fifteen by then. Jake rolled to his right, throwing the sprint-out pass to Justice he'd called in the huddle. He thought he'd thrown high, but Justice went up and brought it down for a touchdown. Bobby Torres kicked the point after, and it was 35–28 Cowboys with four minutes left.

Benton came right back—no shocker, it was that kind of game. It wasn't that the defenses, both of them, weren't trying to lay it down. But they were tiring, and the offenses were just better today.

This time the Benton quarterback, Will, went for it all on third-and-one, ball-faked like a champ to his fullback, straightened up and found his tight end behind one of the Cowboys safeties, nothing but green ahead of the kid. Touchdown. Their kick made it 35-all, just under two minutes left.

Jake could see Coach McCoy and Coach J talking, wondered if they might put Casey back in. Let him finish the game the way he'd started it. Jake was smart enough to know that they'd both played well so far today, maybe the only thing separating them, really, being the ball Casey had sailed to Calvin, one the safety had turned into a touchdown for Benton.

They'd both moved the ball. They'd both made plays, Casey more with his arms, Jake with his legs.

Not much to choose from.

He waited, the way he could see Casey waiting on the other side of the coaches, to see which Granger quarterback would get the chance to get the Cowboys their first win of the season.

Coach J nodded, walked down to Jake, and said, “We're stickin' with you.”

Jake nodded.

They started at their thirty, Melvin nearly busting the kick return for more, getting tripped up from behind. So Jake had seventy yards in front of him, one time-out in his pocket, feeling like he always had in big moments, though never one as big as this.

Excited.

But not scared.

Busted play on first down, Spence Tolar looking for a pitch when Jake had called a handoff play. Jake had no choice but to keep the ball, lost five yards as the Benton nose tackle just flat crushed him, knocking the breath out of him. Jake stayed down, not wanting anybody to see him hurt or trying to breathe normally.

When he was able to do that, he sat up. Nate was standing over him.

“You okay?”

“Who are you?”

“Funny.”

“Not feeling
all
that funny, truth be told.”

Nate helped him up and they went back to the huddle. Jake shook off the hit and led Calvin down the left sideline with a perfect pass. By the time the safety knocked him out of bounds, Calvin had reached the Cowboys' forty-five-yard line.

A minute ten left.

Jake faked a quick out to Justice to hold the linebackers, then rolled right and found Calvin again. Calvin brushed off the corner covering him like a horsefly, passed up the chance to run out of bounds, and gained an extra five yards before getting sandwiched by two Panther defenders.

Cowboys' ball at the Benton twenty-two, thirty-eight seconds left, Coach McCoy running out at the ref closest to him to call their last time-out.

Bobby Torres had a nice, sure leg for extra points. But if they had to kick from here, it would be a thirty-nine-yard field goal. Out of his range. They had to get the ball a lot closer, or they had to put up six.

Jake jogged over to the sideline, tipped back his helmet, took a swig from the water bottle Bear handed him.

“Son, one thing you can't do is take a sack,” Coach McCoy said, it coming out as
cain't.
“Even if you could get our boys back to the line, by the time you spiked it, we'd probably have time for just one throw to the end zone.”

Jake said, “Yes, sir.”

“They're gonna be looking at Calvin, which is why I want you to look at him your own self and then turn and throw it to Justice on the other side.”

“Yes, sir.”

“That all you can say? ‘Yes, sir'?”

For some reason it made Jake laugh.

Coach McCoy said, “You think this is funny?”

Jake said, “
No,
sir.”

Coach John McCoy might have smiled then.
Might
have.

Jake went back to the huddle, told the guys the play. No chatter now. Nobody in the huddle thinking anything was funny. Lot of guys in the huddle getting after it, a moment like this, for the first time as varsity football players. Jake included. He came up to the line, checked the defense, saw the safety shading over to help the corner on Calvin. But when he looked to the other side, to his right, he saw the outside linebacker do that with Justice at the same time.

So they were doubling Justice, same as they were Calvin. And dropping one of their safeties back to the five-yard line, like he was playing center field for them, defending the end zone.

But opening up the middle of the field. Betting that a short pass couldn't beat them here, knowing the Cowboys were out of time-outs. Daring them to risk one of the last plays they had left, and a lot of spent clock, on a catch-and-run.

Jake changed the play.

Betting on Calvin.

Called a quick post to him, a one-step drop for Jake. Get Calvin the ball and see if Benton could stop him from winning the game.

Three seconds on the play clock.

Two.

Nate snapped Jake the ball, Jake took a step back, saw the nose tackle rise up and stick his big paw up in the air. Jake slide-stepped to his left, only about five yards separating him and Calvin, Jake throwing that five-yarder as hard as he'd ever thrown a short pass in his life. Could have sworn he heard the air come out of Calvin Morton this time as the ball hit him in the gut, like he'd been gut-
punched.

But Calvin caught it. As he did, the cornerback hit him. Calvin held on, stayed up. The corner went down and Calvin took off. Jake followed right behind. When one of the Panther linebackers came racing across the field, lining up the angle on Calvin perfectly, Jake launched himself at him, getting just enough of a block to give Calvin the room he needed to create. He faked a run outside, getting two Panthers to bite, then spun and raced to the other side, slicing past three more defenders before launching himself into the air as the last Panther tried to get in his way.

Calvin landed on his side when he hit, rolling over, never stopping. He handed the ball to the closest ref, whose arms were still raised, signaling a touchdown.

Ball game.

Jake stood at the ten-yard line, arms up in the air like the ref's.

Suddenly Nate was there, pounding Jake on his back, yelling. “Son, you just done graduated.”

“To what?”

“Unclear,” Nate Collins said. “But you sure ain't no freshman anymore.”

Troy Cullen hugged his boy at midfield, hugged him after Libby Cullen had done the same, his mom who kept smiling and saying “Jacob” over and over again.

Troy Cullen said, “Well, hell's bells, was that really my baby boy?” Telling Jake that his skinny butt was going to end up in a sling if he didn't stop running with the ball so much.

It wasn't until Jake and his parents started walking toward the parking lot, them to their car and Jake to the bus, that his dad asked him about his new throwing motion.

“When'd you start throwing it different?” his dad said.

Jake hoped he wasn't going to make a thing of it, so he just said, “Aw, I just tweaked her a little.”

“Didn't look like tweaks to me,” Troy Cullen said. “All of a sudden I see you flingin' in three-quarters the way Romo does. And send up a flare when
he
wins something.”

Libby Cullen said, “It was Jacob who won something today, I'm almost positive.” Poking her husband with an elbow to let him think she was joshing him, even though Jake was pretty sure she wasn't.

“Not saying he wasn't, Libby. I'm just trying to understand what I've been missin'.”

A lot,
Jake thought.

Like most of my life.

What he said: “It's no big deal, Dad. Coach J and I were just messin' around at practice one day, and he told me to try releasing it a little lower, as a way of getting it away quicker. He thought I might be taking a little too much time to lock and load. And it started working for me, is all.”

“Letting it go the way I taught you seemed to work pretty well for your brother.”

“I'm not Wyatt,” Jake said in a quiet voice.

“Didn't think Ray Jessup was your quarterback coach,” Jake's dad said. “Was under the impression I was.”

Jake nearly told him that if he was, it sure was a part-time job, but all he did was swallow his words—and maybe his pride—again, something he did a lot in front of his father.

“You are, Dad,” he said. “You know that. Heck, everybody does.”

“Maybe after I ride tomorrow, we'll do some work, you and me, on your mechanics.”

“His mechanics looked just fine to me,” Jake's mom said, some snap in her voice that Jake knew was never good for his dad. “I expect they looked pretty good to the Benton Panthers, as well.”

Troy Cullen said, “Now, hon, I know you know your football—”

“Hon?”
Libby Cullen said.

“Hold on, Libby,” Jake's dad said. “You know I didn't mean nothin' by that.”

“No,” she said, “now you've piqued my interest; go ahead and finish your thought. Because what I heard was that I know my football . . . but. But
what
?”

Jake knew he should get to the locker room and let them sort it out, like they always did. But he wanted to see this, hear it.

“I just want to help the boy get better,” Troy Cullen said. “He showed some potential today.”

“Potential? Really?” Then Libby Cullen began walking away from the field.

“See you at home,” Jake's dad said to him, slapped him on the back, and said, “You did good today.”

But it was too late. Sounded to Jake like some kind of afterthought, like he was throwing Jake a bone.

Like somehow, even though Jake
had
won the game today, he still hadn't measured up.

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