Authors: John Feinstein
Thirty minutes later, they were in the car with the directions to the state high school athletic association offices in Harrisburg punched into the GPS. Mr. White had promised to contact James Newsome, the director of the association, to let him know they were on their way. They had gotten Mr. Newsome’s phone number as backup. Mr. White had also given them the number for Mr. Turgeson, the very unpleasant man from the board of education who had informed Alex
of the positive test, so they could let him know they were officially filing an appeal.
“I don’t know what time the office opens,” Mr. White had said.
“Leave a voice mail,” his mom said. “I’ll do the same thing once we’re in the car.”
The office was apparently open early, because a cheery voice answered the phone on the second ring, saying, “Pennsylvania High School Athletic Association, good morning.”
“Good morning,” Alex’s mom said, talking on the car’s Bluetooth so that Alex could hear both sides of the conversation. “I’m calling for Mr. Newsome.”
Surprisingly, the receptionist didn’t even ask who was calling. A moment later, a voice said, “James Newsome.”
Alex’s mom explained the situation and told Mr. Newsome that she and her son were en route to Harrisburg. Perhaps Mr. Newsome had already spoken with Mr. White, because he didn’t seem surprised by the call.
“I understand completely,” he said. “As soon as I hang up I’m going to call Dr. Novitsky, who is the head of our drug-testing program. Either he or one of our other doctors will re-administer the test this morning. When you get here, I’ll have a name and the address of where you need to go. The only thing I have to tell you is that you will have to pay for the testing service, since this sort of thing isn’t in our budget. Of course, if there’s been a mistake made, your money will be refunded. And before you pay for the test, I’d like to talk to you face to face about what the chances are of finding the kind of error needed to overturn the initial finding.”
“That’s fine,” she said. “We’ll see you in about ninety minutes.”
“What do you think will happen when we get there?” Alex asked after she had hung up.
“I think we’ll show him the card validating your blood type and then the doctor will draw your blood,” she said. “Once they get the test back, you’ll be cleared.”
“The season may be over by the time they get the tests back,” Alex said, feeling glum at the thought.
His mother sighed. “We’ll get them to rush it as much as they can,” she said. “We’ll do our best.”
James Newsome looked like someone who had played football once upon a time. He appeared to be in his midforties and was a couple inches taller than Alex. He looked as if he could still jump into uniform and play that night. He offered them something to drink and ushered them into his small office, which confirmed what Alex had suspected: on the wall were photos of him in a University of Pittsburgh uniform.
“Did you play at Pitt?” Alex asked as they sat down, pointing at the photos.
Mr. Newsome nodded. “I played on the last Pitt team that was an independent,” he said. “The year after I graduated we joined the Big East.”
“When was that?” Alex’s mom asked, clearly being polite.
“I graduated in 1991,” he said.
They got down to business. Mr. Newsome had pulled
Alex’s file, and he asked his mom to go through everything that had happened even though he had been briefed.
When she got to the part about the blood types not matching, his eyes widened.
“Well, if that’s true, then a major injustice has been done,” Mr. Newsome said. “Unfortunately, even if we retest your blood today, the earliest we can get results back is Tuesday—I’ve already checked on that. That’s with a rush on it. If you’re cleared, Alex, you could play in the state championship game—if Chester Heights wins tonight.”
“That’s a big if,” Alex said.
“No doubt,” Mr. Newsome said. “And if a mistake has been made”—he sighed and tapped his pen on his desk—“there’s just nothing that can be done. I don’t have the authority to clear you to play without the blood confirmation.”
“How could this have happened?” Alex’s mom asked, her tone not unfriendly but not warm either.
Mr. Newsome dropped the pen and spread his hands, which Alex noticed were huge.
“I have no idea,” he said. “If Alex’s blood was somehow switched with someone else’s, our next step will be to figure that out.”
He stood up. “For now, let’s get you to Dr. Novitsky’s office and get this sample so we can get the results back as soon as possible. It’s probably easiest if I just drive you there, rather than having you navigate your way through Harrisburg.”
“That’s very nice of you,” Alex’s mom said. For the first time since the test results had come back, she smiled.
Dr. Novitsky was expecting them. He had a nurse make a copy of Alex’s medical forms, which showed his blood type, and ushered them into a small examining room.
As the doctor went through the ritual of drawing Alex’s blood, Alex’s mom quizzed him about how the mix-up could have happened.
Dr. Novitsky had clearly been thinking about it too. “If a mistake was made, it must have been in labeling whose blood was whose, though I don’t see how that could happen. It’s possible the lab mixed up the samples … but they have strict handling protocols to guard against that, so that seems even more unlikely. I’m afraid I just don’t know.
“I’ll call you myself as soon as we get a result back,” he added. “It should be before noon on Tuesday.”
They thanked him and headed for home. They were quiet for a while before Alex’s mom said, “Do you have any interest in going to the game tonight? I could take you if you want.” Alex shook his head. “No, thanks,” he said. “It would kill me to be there and watch from the stands. Plus, I’d have to deal with all the people asking me questions.”
He thought about that for a minute, staring out the window as the car pulled onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike, heading east. Thinking about his teammates running onto the field without him depressed him for a moment. Then he brightened.
“The good news is I can watch on television,” he said. “And it’s supposed to rain or maybe even snow tonight. At least we’ll be dry and warm.”
His mom reached over and patted him on the leg.
“I’m really proud of how you’ve handled this,” she said.
“And in case you don’t know it, your dad has been texting me constantly for updates.”
“Did you tell him about the blood type? And that we were coming here?” he said.
“Yes,” she said.
“What’d he say?”
In response, she picked up her cell—which was sitting in between the two of them—hit a button quickly, and handed it to him.
I knew he didn’t do it
, the text said.
We should sue the board of ed. Tell him I love him
“You should call him,” she said.
“I do,” Alex said. “He can never talk.”
“I know he cares. I’m just not sure how much.”
They rode in silence for a long while after that. The next thing he heard his mother say was, “McDonald’s in five miles. Hungry?”
“Starving,” Alex said. He thought for a moment and then added, “And tired. Really, really tired.”
Before the game started, Alex called his dad.
“Congratulations, Alex. Mom texted me the news,” his dad said.
“Nothing’s done yet, Dad,” he said. “And if we lose tonight, it won’t really matter that much.”
“Of course it matters. Even if you don’t get to play again this season, it means your name is cleared—which is the most important thing of all.”
Alex sighed. His dad was right. Life would be a lot easier at school once people knew he hadn’t taken any steroids. But if the team lost tonight because he couldn’t come off the bench and bail them out if needed, it was going to hurt.
He changed the subject.
“When are we going to see you, Dad?” he asked.
There was a pause. “Well, I have to be in California again this coming week,” he said. “Business.”
There was a pause. “I’m flying home on Thanksgiving.”
“So if we make the championship game on Friday and I’m cleared, you can come down?”
“Of course. I wouldn’t miss it.”
Alex sensed his dad was saying yes because he didn’t expect to have to make the trip, but he didn’t push it, and a minute later they hung up. Alex’s dad had never traveled much in the past. Now he seemed to be on the road all the time.
Alex decided not to think about it. The game was about to start.
As soon as Alex turned on the TV, any small, lingering doubts he might have had about not making the trip to Allentown disappeared. The opening on-camera shot was of something that looked like sleet or wet snow coming down steadily. The field already looked white.
“It’s going to be a cold, wet night in the Lehigh Valley,” Alex heard a voice say. “This mixture of snow and sleet is expected to continue until around midnight, but it will hardly
be noticed by the young men of Allentown North and Chester Heights who will be competing here for the right to play in next week’s state championship game.”
At that point the camera shifted from the field to a shot of the two announcers, both bundled up in ski jackets. Alex didn’t recognize either one of them, although the color commentator looked like he had once been a lineman. They welcomed the viewers to “Goodman Stadium, on the campus of Lehigh University,” and went through the usual ritual about how exciting the game was likely to be and the fact that the two teams had a combined record of 21–1 coming into the state semifinals.
Then they showed close-up shots on a split screen of the starting quarterbacks, Matthew Gordon and Ken Jackson, both prime candidates for state player of the year and as Division I prospects in the future.
“And we have to mention,” the play-by-play guy said, going from cheery to somber without missing a beat, “that both quarterbacks will be under a little extra pressure tonight because of some very unfortunate circumstances.”
“You’re right, Jeff,” the ex-lineman said as pictures of Alex and two other guys came up on the screen.