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Authors: John Feinstein

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BOOK: The Walk On
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As they walked off the practice field, Alex thanked Gordon but it was Bilney who responded.

“He did it because you need extra reps, Goldie,” he said. “If we struggle on offense and I come in, I’m Matt lite—same type of player, just not as talented. You come in, our offense is entirely different.”

Alex looked at Matt. “That true?” he asked.

Matt, who hadn’t broken stride, shrugged. “Jake knows his football,” he said. He put a hand on Alex’s shoulder. “I also like you.”

“Can we break up the lovefest?” Jake said. “Go in there and be a star one night, Goldie, and
then
see how much Matt likes you.”

“I’d still like him—in fact, if he wins a game for us, I’ll flat-out
love
him,” Matt said. “But he’s not taking my job. Not yet anyway.”

They were coming up on the locker room door. Jake smiled.

“If my last name was Gordon, I could say that too,” he said.

“If you were any good, you could say that,” Matt said. He was smiling, but for the first time since he had met him Alex heard a little bit of an edge in Matt Gordon’s tone.

“Yeah, that too,” Jake said, and the tension broke. They all laughed and Alex pulled the door open.

The only thing more frustrating than football practice was French class. Alex had no chance to even try to sit close to Christine Whitford because she seemed to arrive every
day with an entourage of four or five girls who would all sit together. One day he beat her to the door and pretended to be reaching into his backpack for something in the hallway. When she walked out the door, he looked up as if surprised to see her.

“Hey, I hear my coach is your editor,” he said, reaching for an opening.


Your
coach?” she said with a smile, not slowing her walk down the crowded hallway. “Doesn’t he coach everyone on the offense? Or is he personally assigned to you?”

Alex had managed to fall into step with her.

“He coaches all the quarterbacks,” he said, trying to sound as casual as possible.

“So he coaches Matt Gordon, Jake Bilney, and you.”

She clearly knew something about football.

“You follow the team closely?” he asked.

“I’m going to be one of the people covering the team, so I’ve been studying the depth chart.” She glanced at him. “I’d come and watch practice, but Coach Gordon won’t let anyone watch. He seems to think closing practice makes him more important.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the way he is,” Alex said.

“You don’t like him?” she said.

Uh-oh. If she was asking him on behalf of the
Weekly Roar
, he had better be careful.

“I didn’t say that,” he said.

She gave him an actual smile—which made him a little bit dizzy. “I’m not quoting you for the paper. I’m just curious.”

They had walked down one flight of steps to where the freshman lockers were. But she was continuing down while
Alex was heading to his locker. She stopped one step below him, which meant Alex was looking almost straight down at her.

He dropped his voice as he answered. “He seems to think Lombardi could have learned from him.”

She smiled. “As in Vince Lombardi?”

“Yeah, him.”

“You’re funny,” she said.

She turned and headed down the stairs.

The good news about Chester Heights High as far as Alex was concerned was that the academics weren’t all that challenging. He liked his teachers and he also liked the fact that they didn’t seem to believe in burying their students in homework.

The exception to this—naturally—was Mademoiselle Schiff. She hadn’t been kidding that first day about not speaking any English in class. She walked in every day and began speaking French so fast that Alex was often lost after
“Bonjour, mesdemoiselles et messieurs.”

Alex needed no more than an hour most nights to deal with his other subjects—unless he had reading in history and English, which he often enjoyed—but he usually needed another hour just for French. He lived in fear of getting behind, especially in vocabulary, because he didn’t want to look
foolish in class—or, more specifically, in front of Christine Whitford.

The only good news was that he was no worse than just about everyone else in the class when Mademoiselle Schiff called on him. He almost always had
some
understanding of what she was asking, and fortunately, whenever a student began to stumble, she would move on to someone else before it became embarrassing.

The one person who never seemed to get flustered was—naturally—Christine. She was Hermione Granger, except her expertise was in French, not magic. Her hand was always up, she was clearly a step ahead of everyone else, and of course, her accent was flawless—at least to Alex’s ear.

On the day before the opening football game, Christine shocked Alex by calling to him as he was walking out of class.

“Alex,” she said, surprising him for several reasons: One, that she was apparently speaking to him. Two, that anyone was speaking to him because, other than Jonas and a couple of the other football players, almost no one had spoken to him since his arrival. And three, that she called him by his first name. On the rare occasions when anyone other than Jonas spoke to him, he was Myers or, from Matt Gordon and Jake Bilney, Goldie.

Hearing her voice, Alex knew it was Christine instantly. He paused, then looked back and saw her approaching. The weather was still quite hot, so she was wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, pretty much like every other girl. Unlike a lot of the other girls, she wore no makeup. She didn’t need it.

“What’s up?” he asked, hoping he sounded calm—even though he wasn’t.

“So I’m one of the people covering the football game tomorrow night,” she said. “Mr. Hillier told me yesterday.”

She had fallen into step with him.

“How many people cover the game?” he asked.

“Four,” she said. “Plus two photographers. I’m the only freshman.”

“Congratulations,” he said, wondering if her starting a conversation with him meant he kind of had the upper hand. Should he go for funny or sincere?

“Thanks,” she said. Then she lowered her voice. “Is it true that Coach Hillier thinks you’re better than Matt Gordon?”

He stopped dead in his tracks and looked down at her. She wasn’t smiling.

“Have you asked Coach Hillier?” he said. “He could answer that better than I can.”

Too wiseguy? he wondered. Still, it was the
right
answer—regardless of how she took it.

She put her hands on her hips, which was, to Alex, a very striking pose, even though she was wearing a backpack.

“Of course I asked him. He said, ‘As editor of the newspaper, my answer is you should talk to people if you think there’s a story there. As a football coach, I’ll tell you that Matt Gordon is going to be an all-state quarterback this season and Alex Myers is a talented freshman.’ ”

Alex shrugged. “So there’s your answer.”

“I don’t think it’s that simple. I heard that Matt Gordon calls you Goldie because you have a golden arm.”

He liked the fact that she was hearing these things, but he couldn’t help but wonder
where
she was hearing them. Football practices were strictly closed to outsiders. He couldn’t imagine anyone on the team telling her any of this. Maybe Jonas—trying to help him out?

“Do you know Jonas Ellington?” he asked.

“He’s the wide receiver, right? Freshman? I hear he’s
really
good.”

“Where’d you hear that?”

She smiled. “From Coach Hillier.”

“Have you met Jonas?”

“No, but I hope I will tomorrow night.”

So. Not Jonas.

Her hands were back on her hips.

The bell rang, telling people that after-school meetings and clubs started in ten minutes. He had to get to practice. “So?” she said.

“So what?” he answered.

“Are you better than Matt Gordon?”

He smiled.

“On the record or off the record?”

“On,” she answered, sounding impatient.

“On the record, Matt Gordon’s going to be an all-state quarterback this season,” he answered. “I’m honored to be on the same team as him. He’s a great guy and a terrific leader.” He paused. “By the way, I mean every word of that.”

Now she looked really upset.

“Okay,” she said. “Off the record.”

“Am I better than Matt?”

“Yes.”

“Damn right I am,” he said.

Then he smiled and walked away.

The opponent on Friday night was Mercer Academy, a prep school from the western part of the state. Chester Heights would play three nonconference games, all against prep schools. Then they would begin conference play the last Friday in September.

There were seven other schools in the South Philadelphia Athletic Conference. Although Alex did most of his reading on the Internet, he had picked up his father’s habit of reading the sports section of the newspaper every morning. He had noticed that the
Philadelphia Inquirer
had made predictions for each of the local high school conferences in the area. Chester Heights was picked to win the SPAC—which people apparently referred to as the “S-pack.” Crosstown rival Chester High School was known more for producing top basketball players—NBA players Jameer Nelson and Tyreke Evans had graduated from there, as had Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan—but was picked second in the league. Apparently, the Chester Clippers had a senior quarterback named Todd Austin who was being pursued by quite a few Division I schools.

During the week, the coaches told the players constantly that Mercer was a “dangerous” team and that the game should not be taken lightly. After Coach Hillier had finished a quarterbacks meeting on Wednesday with a final warning about Mercer, Matt Gordon shot Alex and Jake a look but managed not to laugh until Coach Hillier had left the room.

“You might be in by halftime on Friday, Jake,” he said. “These guys are never any good. They don’t even recruit. The only prep schools that are good are the ones that recruit.”

“Isn’t it against the rules to recruit in high school?” Alex asked.

Gordon laughed again. “Ah, Goldie, still just a trusting freshman. Any prep team you see play on TV, anyone that’s any good, recruits. They don’t do it like colleges do; they just make sure good players are ‘aware’ of them. Might not be against the rules necessarily. My dad calls it coloring outside the lines a little bit.”

“So these guys don’t recruit.”

“Nope. Maybe for basketball. Not for football. Trust me, if we aren’t up 35–0 at halftime, my dad’s going to be pissed. Heck, we’ll win so easily,
you
might get in the game, Goldie.”

“Get me in by halftime,” Jake said, “and Goldie will get in the game.”

“It’s a plan,” Matt said.

BOOK: The Walk On
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ads

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