Authors: John Feinstein
The sheet on the left said
. The sheet on the right said
The list on the left was much shorter than the one on the right. Heart in his throat, Alex scanned it quickly. There were four names:
Alex was almost hyperventilating by the time he got to his name—which had probably taken about five seconds. There it was, though—last, but that didn’t matter. He wasn’t at all surprised to see Jake Bilney on the list because Jake said last year’s backup quarterbacks had graduated. Jonas was a lock—at least in Alex’s mind—just as Alex had
probably been a lock in Jonas’s mind. Stephen Harvey was a linebacker—Alex wasn’t even sure if he was a sophomore or a freshman—who had run a faster forty than any of the defensive backs, even though he was bigger than all of them. He made sense too.
There were twenty-seven names on the JV list—Alex counted—which meant that twenty of the fifty-one players who had tried out had been told not to even bother to come back when JV practice started.
Alex reached for his phone. He figured Jonas had already been there, but he wanted to be sure he knew. But before he could get the phone out, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up and saw Coach Hillier standing there with a smile on his face.
“Congratulations,” he said. “You’re a Lion.”
“Coach, thanks,” Alex said, letting the phone slip back into his pocket. “I was about to come in and see you.…”
“Right. I told you to come in after the lists went up, didn’t I?”
He looked around the hallway for a second and then waved a hand. “I’m the only one that’s in today,” he said and started walking. “Come on, let’s go back to my office.”
Coach Hillier pointed to a chair opposite his desk and said, “Have a seat. You want something to drink? Water? Coke? Gatorade?”
“Um, a Gatorade would be great.”
“Care about flavor?”
“No. Anything’s fine.”
Coach Hillier disappeared for a moment, then came back carrying two Gatorades. He flipped one to Alex as he walked
around the desk to sit down. He had been wearing a cap and sunglasses throughout the tryouts so this was the first time Alex was really seeing his face. He had what Alex’s mom called “the look”—dirty blond hair that was just a little bit on the long side, blue eyes, and an easy smile.
“You did well the last two days,” Coach Hillier said. Then he smiled. “That’s kind of obvious, though, isn’t it? Fifty-one kids try out and you’re one of four who make varsity.”
“I’m just glad I made the cut,” Alex said. He liked Coach Hillier and didn’t want to come off as cocky.
“There was no way to
put you on varsity,” Coach Hillier said. “Not with the way you throw.” He leaned forward in his chair. “Is your throwing motion natural? I mean, have you always thrown that way or have you gone to camps?”
“That’s the way I’ve always thrown,” Alex said.
“Good. If anyone ever says they want to change it, tell them no—this is the way you do it.”
He paused. Alex was nodding, not sure if he was supposed to say anything.
Coach Hillier leaned back again.
When he spoke, he dropped his voice a little and the friendly smile was gone.
“Alex, you’ve got the best arm I’ve seen here in ten years,” he said. “We’ve had three QBs who got D1 scholarships—one who may start at Pittsburgh this season. Matt Gordon is almost sure to make four. None of them has an arm like yours. Your throws look effortless; you move well. For a freshman, your footwork is terrific—though it’ll get better. You can be a star.”
Coach Hillier held up a hand. He wasn’t finished.
“But not here. Not the next two years. Unless Matt Gordon gets hurt, you’ll never see the field as a quarterback.” He stopped, clearly considering his next words. “You ever repeat that to anyone, I’ll deny saying it. I just think you deserve to know what’s going on. I read the questionnaire you guys all filled out with your permission forms. I know you just moved here, so moving is probably out of the question right now. But you might be able to get a waiver to play at Woodlynn or Brookhaven or another Philly suburb. I know the coaches there and I’m almost certain you’d start right away for any one of them.”
Alex was stunned, not sure what to say in response. The quarterbacks’ coach at Chester Heights was telling him he could be the best QB the coach had ever seen at the school—but he shouldn’t stay.
“What does that mean—a waiver?” he said.
“You could switch to another school nearby if you say you want to take a course that we don’t offer here,” Coach Hillier said. “Woodlynn has Latin—we don’t. Brookhaven has AP History and AP English—we don’t. Your grades are good. Latin would be an easier sell because you’d be taking it right away, but the other ones could work too.”
Clearly, he’d been thinking about this. Alex had a dark thought, and before he knew it, he was voicing it.
“Coach, did Coach Gordon put you up to this?”
Coach Hillier almost came out of his chair. He shook his head and laughed.
“Are you kidding?” he asked. “First, he’s not worried about you and whether you or Matt should be playing. Matt’s
good—especially in this offense. And, for the record, he’s a
good kid too. He’s worked really hard. He’s probably put on twenty pounds of muscle in the weight room in the last year and he’s going to be very tough to tackle.
“Second, when he looks at you, he sees plenty of talent. He also sees someone who can be good two years from now, when Matt’s in college. And if, God forbid, Matt got hurt, you’d be a very good stand-in for him.
“Although, when practice starts, you’re going to be third on the depth chart.”
Coach Hillier nodded. “Jake Bilney’s more experienced than you. He’s a junior.”
“I know, but …”
“But you’re better than he is? Of course you are. Doesn’t matter. Coach Gordon believes in seniority and, being honest, he probably doesn’t want you getting too many reps in practice. As it is, people are going to notice the first time you throw the ball.”
“But that isn’t fair.”
Alex was starting to get angry. Coach Hillier was very calm about all this. He didn’t feel the least bit calm.
“You’re right, it’s not. That’s why I called you in here. I think you deserve to know the situation. If you stay here, it’s not going to be a fair fight. Your time will certainly come, though I suspect you don’t want to wait two years.
“But you’re up against a quarterback who may be all-state this season.”
“And he’s the coach’s son.”
“His pride and joy,” Coach Hillier said.
There wasn’t a hint of a smile when he said it.
After his talk with Coach Hillier, Alex decided it was time to call his dad. His mom wouldn’t understand about depth charts, and not getting a chance to play, and the possibility of transferring in order to play more. In fact, she would be very much against that idea: change schools for football? No way.
He stopped at a McDonald’s on the way home and ordered a hamburger and French fries. After finishing them, he punched in his father’s direct dial number at work. He was actually a little surprised when his dad picked up right away.
“Did you make it?” his dad said.
“Who told you?” Alex asked.
“Your mom sent me a text this morning.”
“I made it.”
“I told her you would. No way would any coach cut you, Alex. You’ve got a great arm—always have. It’s a good start
for you down there. I know it hasn’t been easy making the move.”
It was the first time his father had acknowledged how tough it had been for Alex to leave his friends and his old school … and his father. Rather than go there, he dove into the story of the two Matthew Gordons, ending with Coach Hillier’s suggestion he might want to transfer.
“How good is the Gordon kid?” his dad asked.
“I haven’t seen him yet, Dad,” Alex said, slightly exasperated because he thought he’d made that clear. “And anyway, it doesn’t matter. He’s starting, no matter what.”
There was a pause. Alex thought his father was thinking. Then he heard another voice in the background.
“Dad, you still there?” Alex asked.
“Yes … sorry … Alex, I think this is a wait-and-watch thing right now. See how it goes when practice starts. Then let’s talk again.”
“You need to go, don’t you?”
“I do. I’ll … call you later.”
Alex hung up the phone feeling no better—maybe slightly worse—about the situation.
The guy in the equipment cage wasn’t a lot friendlier the next morning when Alex reported for the first varsity practice than he had been on the first day of tryouts.
The new kids had all been told to be there by nine o’clock so they could be properly fitted for pads, a helmet, a jersey, pants, and shoes. Everyone else had apparently already been
through that drill, so they didn’t have to arrive until nine-thirty. The entire team was due on the field at ten.
“Name,” the equipment guy said, looking down at a list and not at Alex.
The guy didn’t looked up, but Alex saw him put a check next to his name.
“What’s your height and weight? Don’t need it exact; they’ll get that later. In the ballpark.”
“I’m six one, 170,” Alex said.
The guy finally looked up and Alex decided to seize the moment.
“It’s Alex, by the way,” he said, putting out his hand. He was, after all, a member of the varsity team now.
The guy shook his hand—reluctantly. “Quarterback, right?” he said.
Alex could see on the list that next to each name was a position.
“Right,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Bill O’Connor,” he said. “You can call me Mr. O. That’s what all the kids call me.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. O.”
If Mr. O thought it was nice to meet Alex, he didn’t show it.
“What’s your shoe size?” he asked.
“Ten,” Alex said. “Ten wide.”
Mr. O disappeared for a couple of minutes, then returned with all sorts of equipment. “If the shoes don’t fit, bring ’em back and we’ll try another pair,” he said. The uniform was
number 16. It wasn’t 12—which Alex knew was taken—but it was an improvement from 23.
“Lockers are alphabetical by class,” Mr. O said as he handed over the gear. “Freshmen are in the last row.”
Alex thanked him and walked to the back of the locker room. Jonas was already there. The last “row” consisted of six lockers stuck behind the rest of the lockers. There were two other kids changing when Alex walked up carrying all his new clothing.
“Hey, QB,” Jonas said, clearly glad to see him. “I think you met Steve Harvey at the tryouts.”
Harvey looked up and nodded at Alex. “It’s Stephen,” he said, glancing coldly at Jonas. “No one calls me Steve.”
“Sorry,” Jonas said.
“No big,” Stephen said.
“And this is Marty Lunt,” Jonas said.
“Marty’s fine,” Lunt said, grinning in Harvey’s direction as he and Alex shook hands. “So’s Lunt or Hey you, for that matter.”
Marty Lunt was a stocky kid, no more than five nine but probably close to two hundred pounds. Alex guessed he had to be a fullback or a center.
“I don’t remember seeing you at tryouts,” he said.
“I wasn’t there,” Marty said. “I’m a repeat ninth grader. I actually practiced with the varsity but didn’t play last year. Coach and my dad decided I needed another year to put on some more weight so I could play center. I wanted to be a fullback, but my hands are brutal. I can snap a ball, but I can’t hold on to one. Right, Stephen?”
The two apparently knew one another.
“You never held it when I hit you, that’s for sure,” Stephen said.
“When did you guys play against one another?” Alex asked.
“Stephen’s a repeater too,” Marty said. “We played against each other in practice last year. He had to go to tryouts because we have a lot of linebackers. We only have two centers right now, so I was all set.”
Alex found the idea of repeating a year of high school for football interesting … in a bad way. He knew that “redshirting” was a common practice at the college level: players often sat out their freshman year to get bigger or to learn about the college game or to mature. If they didn’t play at all, they still had four years of eligibility remaining. He hadn’t realized anyone did the same thing—albeit under a different name—in high school.