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Authors: John Feinstein

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BOOK: The Walk On
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A few minutes later, after they had been led through a series of stretching exercises by a strength coach whose name Alex didn’t hear, they were told to report to their position coaches.

“You may think you’re a two-way player, but chances are you won’t be—and definitely not for the next two days,” Coach Gordon said. “Decide what you think your
best
position is and report to that coach as I introduce him.”

When he introduced Coach Hillier, he said that quarterbacks and wide receivers should report to him under the south goalpost. Alex was relieved when Coach Hillier started walking.

“Did you have any clue which way was south?” Jonas said softly as they and about a dozen others followed Hillier.

Alex grinned. It was good to not be the only new kid. “I
figured it was the way the coach was walking,” he answered, and they both laughed quietly.

Once they were all assembled, Coach Hillier, who looked to be the youngest coach on the field, surprised Alex by not telling them all to take a knee. When he spoke, his voice was much less of a bark than that of either Coach Gordon or the strength coach.

“Okay, fellas, let’s start by getting to know each other a little bit. I’m Tom Hillier, and in real life I teach English literature and I also help out with the weekly student newspaper. I probably won’t be able to memorize all your names in the next couple days, but I’ll give it a shot. So let’s go around the circle here and each of you can tell us your name and what position you intend to play.”

There were fifteen of them in all: ten who said they were receivers, four who said they were quarterbacks, and one who introduced himself by saying, “I’m Tellus Jefferson and I’m a pretty good quarterback. But I know I’m not taking playing time from Matthew Gordon Junior, so I’ll catch passes from him if that will get me on the field.”

It was the first time Alex heard the star quarterback’s name. Matthew Gordon. Senior was the coach. Junior was the quarterback. And Alex was the new kid in town, with exactly one friend.

The good news was that his one friend could clearly play.

Coach Hillier had each quarterback throw eleven passes apiece—one to each receiver, since Tellus Jefferson opted to
catch rather than throw. First he had the receivers run simple down-and-in routes of no more than ten yards. Then there were out patterns to the sidelines—comeback routes where they ran straight downfield for about fifteen yards, stopped, and then came back toward the quarterback.

These throws were easy for Alex. Coach Hillier had told the four QBs to not put everything they had on their passes—he wanted them to get their arms loose before they threw anything with real zip. For a few minutes, Alex forgot about the snarling equipment man and the drillsergeant coach and lost himself in the pleasure of throwing the football.

He could still remember the first time he’d talked his father into playing catch with him with a baseball. He was six. His dad had stood a few yards away and said, “Okay, son, show me what you’ve got.”

Alex had unleashed a hard peg that his dad caught, but he staggered backward a little as it hit his glove. Alex could still see the surprised look on his face. His dad moved back and Alex whipped the ball to him again. By the time they found a comfortable spot, Alex’s dad was at least twice as far away as he had been starting out. He could still hear his father telling his mom, “Linda, I think we may have an athlete on our hands. Your son’s got a gun on him.”

He could also still see his mother putting her hands on her hips and saying, “A gun? I thought you were playing catch.”

“An arm, Linda, an arm. Alex has an amazing arm.”

Those were happier days, before his dad stopped coming home for dinner every night because he didn’t want to fight
traffic from downtown Boston to Billerica during rush hour. It was also before his parents started arguing about how much his dad was working and how little time he seemed to have for his family.

Not focusing on what he was doing, Alex put a little more on his next throw than he needed to and he could see the receiver shaking his hands in pain after he had dropped the ball.

“Easy, Alex,” Coach Hillier said softly. “No need to show off just yet.”

Throwing had always been easy for Alex, whether it was a baseball, a football, or even a basketball. Now, with Coach Hillier feeding him one ball after another, he felt completely comfortable and he knew, even not putting that much into it, that he was throwing the ball harder and more accurately than the other three quarterback hopefuls.

He could also tell that Jonas was the best of the receivers. His cuts were sharper, his long legs covered the ground easily, and the ball seemed to disappear into his hands when he caught it. When one of the other quarterbacks threw a ball high and wide on a stop-and-go pattern, Jonas simply reached above his head with his left hand, gathered the ball into his body, and made a virtually impossible catch look easy.

“Nice catch, Jonas!” Coach Hillier shouted.

The coach was catching on to the names quickly. At least, Alex hoped, the ones that mattered.

After they had gone through several rounds, Coach Hillier said, “Okay, QBs, I only want you to make three throws the next round—except for you, Winston.” He turned to the smallest of the four quarterbacks, who’d struggled to make
the simplest throws. “You just take the last two, okay? Since we’ve only got eleven receivers.” Winston nodded. No doubt he knew already that he would be lucky to make the JV list.

Coach Hillier told the receivers he wanted them to run straight fly patterns—running straight down the field as fast as they could. “When you get to the 35, check to see if the ball is in the air,” he said. “QBs, your target is between the 40 and the 45.”

Each receiver lined up on the goal line. Luke Mattson made the first three throws. All three of his passes wobbled in the air, and the receivers had to slow up to wait for them to come down at about the 38. Jake Bilney was next. He did better. His throws were accurate, but he had to kind of hoist them in the air to get them near the 45.

Alex stepped up. He noticed that Coach Hillier had Jonas ninth in line, meaning he would be Alex’s third and last receiver. Alex took the toss that Coach Hillier was making to start each play—sort of a standing snap—then dropped back a couple steps and easily targeted the 45-yard line, the ball dropping gently into the receiver’s hands. Coach Hillier looked at him and just said, “Nice,” in a voice so soft Alex was pretty sure he was the only one who could hear it.

It was the second compliment he’d given—the first being to Jonas for the one-handed catch.

Alex’s second throw was a copy of the first, except that the receiver dropped the ball.

“Good throw,” Coach Hillier said, as if to let him know that he had known the ball was where it was supposed to be.

Alex smiled as Jonas lined up to go out for his third throw.

“Okay if we send him a little deeper?” Alex said.

Coach Hillier smiled. “Sure.” He turned to Jonas. “Don’t look back until you get to the 45.” Turning back to Alex, he said, “That far enough for you, ace?”

Alex didn’t know if the ace reference was sarcastic or not, so he just nodded.

Jonas sprinted downfield as Alex took his three-step drop. When Jonas crossed the 40, Alex stepped up and released the ball. It left his hand in a tight spiral just as Jonas began to look over his shoulder for it. He ran under it and gathered it in as if the ball had been dangling at midfield, waiting for him.

Alex turned toward Coach Hillier, who had his arms crossed and was clearly trying to suppress a smile.

“How far you think you can throw it?” he asked.

“About sixty,” Alex said. “Maybe sixty-five if I had to.”

Coach Hillier raised an eyebrow just as a sharp whistle blew from midfield. The position drills were over.

“After the lists are posted on Wednesday,” he said, “come see me. We need to talk.”

The rest of the morning was pretty routine. Everyone ran the forty-yard dash twice. Alex was easily the fastest quarterback and the fourth fastest overall, behind one of the running backs, one of the defensive backs, and Jonas—who blew everyone away by running 4.53 twice. That time was fast for a
college
wide receiver, much less a high school freshman. Alex could tell by the way the coaches looked at their watches that they were impressed.

He was too. He had run 4.79, which he knew was a good time for a quarterback, but it didn’t seem to draw much attention. Which was fine—his legs weren’t his strength, his arm was.

After about ninety minutes, Coach Gordon called them all together again. “We’ll do a little hitting tomorrow,” he said. “And we’ll scrimmage some, now that we have an idea of what you guys can do. See you same time tomorrow.” He
paused. “Don’t be late—that’s one way to guarantee you don’t make either list.”

Clearly, the Marines frowned on tardiness.

In the locker room, Jake Bilney, whom Alex had judged to be the second best of the quarterbacks, introduced himself.

“You’re obviously new here,” Jake said after offering a handshake. “Where’d you come from?”

“Boston,” Alex said. “Just got to town a couple days ago.”

Jake smiled and looked around the room. “Well, let me be the first to welcome you,” he said. “But I gotta warn you, I might be the last.”

“What do you mean?” Alex said, a little bit puzzled.

Jake looked around the room again, then lowered his voice. He was leaning against a locker in a casual pose, but when he spoke his tone was anything but casual.

“Has anyone told you about Matt Gordon?”

“You mean Matthew Gordon Junior?”

Jake smiled. “Yeah, he goes by Matt because he
hates
being called Junior and everyone calls his dad Matthew.”

Jonas, who had just come out of the shower with a towel wrapped around his waist, couldn’t resist jumping in. “I thought his first name was Coach.”

Jake turned at the sound of his voice. “You’re the fast guy. What was your forty time, like four flat or something?”

“Four-five-three,” Jonas said. “I’m Jonas Ellington.”

“You’re new too, right?”

“Uh-huh. From New York,” Jonas answered.

Jake nodded. Other kids were buzzing past them, but no one seemed to be paying any attention.

“Around here, his first name
is
Coach. But in the newspapers and on the Internet his full name is ‘Coach Matthew Gordon.’ Or, more often, ‘Renowned Coach Matthew Gordon.’ ”

“Not a fan?” Alex said.

“Actually, I am,” Jake said. “He’s a very good coach. Check his record. Two state titles; the semis last year with a very young team. A lot of people think he’ll coach a college team sometime soon. He just turned forty last season—I remember because there was a big party for him. Matt and I are friends, so I got to go. I haven’t ever really played for him because I was on JV last season, but I’ve spent a lot of time at his house. He’s tough, but he knows football.”

“So you played JV last year?” Alex said.

“Last
two
years,” Jake said. “And I figured I’d be Matt Gordon’s backup this year because the two guys behind him both graduated. Then you showed up.”

BOOK: The Walk On
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