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Authors: John Feinstein

The Walk On (40 page)

BOOK: The Walk On
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“Gotta be one of the big guys up front, right?” Alex said. “Every other positive test in the state was a lineman.”

“That makes sense,” Jonas said.

“It’s also not fair that he plays,” Christine said.

“He’s already been playing,” Alex said. “Whoever it is, whether by accident or not, has beaten the system. I’ll just be glad to put this behind me.”

“That,”
Christine said, “you’re entitled to.”

The next couple of days dragged for Alex. The school was electric on Monday as everyone geared up for Thanksgiving break—which started after school on Tuesday—and for the championship game, which would be played at Heinz Field, the home stadium of the Steelers, in Pittsburgh on Friday night. It would be televised on Comcast SportsNet–Philadelphia, which meant it would be broadcast statewide and up and down the Northeast Corridor.

Chester Heights was in its third state title game but its first in seven years. Their opponent, Beaver Falls High School, was not only the defending state champion but had also produced the great Joe Namath, among others. The Tigers probably weren’t ever going to have anyone as good as Namath play for them again, but they did have a senior quarterback named Johnny Washington who was being recruited by a lot of big-name schools. He had been nicknamed “Little Johnny Football” by the media covering the team in honor of “Johnny Football” Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner.

If anyone at Chester Heights was concerned about facing Little Johnny Football and the 12–0 Tigers, it didn’t show in the hallways, the classrooms, or the cafeteria on Monday.

Alex, Christine, and Jonas decided to tell no one about his retest—better to be cleared officially and
then
spread the news.

Alex moved around school on Monday almost as if he were in a bubble: people either pointedly looked the other way or barely nodded at him. The fact that Matt had been the savior on Friday while he had been in exile had returned him to the early days of the fall when he had felt like the invisible man.

During lunch, Matt came over and sat down with Alex, Jonas, and Christine. No one else had come anywhere close to the table.

“How you holding up, Goldie?” he asked.

Alex shrugged. “I’m doing okay.” He forced a smile. “I’m doing a lot better thanks to you making that play Friday night.”

“We could have used you,” Matt said. “On a field like that, your arm strength would have helped a lot. I just couldn’t grip the football well enough to get it where it needed to go. If we’d been able to throw—if
you’d
been there to throw—we’d have won easily.”

“Sorry.”

Matt leaned forward. “I didn’t mean it that way—you know that.”

“I know.”

Alex wondered if Coach Gordon had told Matt about the retest. He knew that Mr. Newsome had sent Mr. White an email informing him of the retest and the reason for it, because he had sent a copy to Alex’s mom with a note attached, saying, “I hope this turns out well. Alex seems like a very nice young man.”

Alex figured that Mr. White would have told Coach Gordon and that Coach Gordon would have told Matt. But if Matt knew anything, he wasn’t saying.

Matt stood up. “Hey, thanks for the text. It meant a lot.”

Alex had texted Matt late Friday to congratulate him. He had texted back a brief
Thanks … missed you
in response.

“You think he knows?” Christine asked as Matt walked away.

“Has to,” Jonas said. “The old man had to tell him.”

“If he does, it seems like he would have said something in his text,” Alex said.

“Something’s a little off here,” Jonas said.

Alex agreed. His gut told him that Matt’s father hadn’t told him. Coach Gordon was hard to figure out—in more ways than one.

A pep rally and assembly had been scheduled for last period on Tuesday since it was the last day of school before Thanksgiving—and the championship game. Alex had decided he was only going to go if he had been cleared to play by then. He was telling his mom about that decision when his phone rang late Monday night.

“We need to meet—six-thirty in the morning, at the bike rack.”

It was Christine. “Oh God, why? And why there and why so early?” Alex asked. “Can’t we do it somewhere indoors and closer to the start of school? I mean, what’s the big deal now?”

“We can’t meet that close to school starting,” she said. “People will see us. You’re a celebrity now, for better or worse. People will recognize you. At six-thirty at the bike rack we’ll be alone.”

“But—”

“Alex, just meet me. This is important.”

“How important?”

“That coach I talked to last week—remember him? He
knows the guy who runs the high school athletic association.…”

“Mr. Newsome?”

“Yeah, him. The coach apparently talked to him.” She paused for a moment and then said, “You’ve been cleared.”

Alex’s heart leaped. “Are you sure?” he said. “That’s just great … amazing!” He realized his heart was going about a thousand beats a minute. He had known this
had
to be the outcome, but now he
really
knew.

He paused for a moment, still catching his breath. Then he said, “Why haven’t they called me? Why do we have to meet so early …?”

“Because there’s more. I want to make a couple more calls to people to try to be absolutely sure this guy has it right before I fill you in. I need a little more time.”

“What in the world are you talking about?”

“Alex,
please
. Just trust me a few more hours and meet me tomorrow at six-thirty.”

Alex went from thrilled to baffled and back in about ten seconds. At this point, other than his mom there was no one in the world he trusted more than Christine.

“Okay,” he said finally. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Do
not
be late.”

He hung up and stared at the phone, then realized he had almost forgotten the most important thing. He was going to play Friday. He raced upstairs to tell his mom.

Even though Alex was on time—two minutes early, in fact—Christine was waiting for him when he rode up to the bike rack. She was holding two large cups in her hands.

“I thought you might want some hot chocolate,” she said, handing him a very hot cup after he had chained his bike.

Holding the hot chocolate in her left hand, she put out her right hand—which was gloved. “Congratulations,” she said. “I’m glad you were finally proven innocent.”

“Because of
you
,” Alex said. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

Still holding the cup of hot chocolate, he attempted an awkward one-armed hug. She returned it, smiling—even if they both almost lost their balance for a second.

“Listen to the rest of the story,” Christine said. “There’s still a lot more we have to do.”

They sat down on a very cold bench next to the rack. Alex put both hands on the hot chocolate and took a sip. It had cooled just enough that it was perfect.

“It’s a little bit dangerous, actually,” she said. “We could both get in big trouble.”

Alex laughed. “Trouble is my middle name,” he said.

“More like
in
trouble,” Christine said.

“I’ve been looking into how the blood samples get processed,” she continued. “The people at the lab have very strict rules about how samples are handled. I talked to one of the nurses who drew blood, and assuming he’s telling the truth, there’s only one way your blood could have been confused with somebody else’s.”

“How?” Alex asked.

“Someone had to switch the labels
before
the samples went to the lab.”

“You mean on purpose?” Alex asked.

“Had to be,” Christine said, sipping the hot chocolate. “You can’t peel a label off one vial of blood and put it on another by accident.”

Alex sat back on the bench, its coldness shooting through him as he did.

“So someone tried to frame me?” Alex said.

“Or was trying to get someone else off the hook and happened to pick your sample,” Christine said.

“Or both?” he said. “That’s possible too, isn’t it?”

They looked at one another.

“But who?” Alex asked.

“That’s where the danger comes in,” she said.

The plan was extremely dangerous—and potentially brilliant.

Christine was going to talk to Mr. Hillier and ask him if he could find out exactly who had been in charge of the blood samples once the nurses had taken them from the players. Apparently, once the samples had been taken and sealed, it was the responsibility of the school to deliver them to the lab.

“Doctors and nurses don’t do that sort of work,” Christine explained. “They’re not messengers. The labs have messengers who are paid to pick up blood samples and deliver them. We need him to find out who called for the pickup and who handed over the samples to the messenger.”

“That could be the guy who did it,” Alex said.

“Maybe,” she said. “One step at a time. Freshmen went last—isn’t that what you told me? Do you remember what time you were finished?”

Alex thought about it for a moment. “It was about six-thirty. We showered after practice and then waited to be called. I remember calling my mom when I was on my way home because I was later than normal for dinner.”

“Good,” Christine said. “I bet I can find out from LabCorp what time they picked up the blood.”

“Why would they tell you that?” Alex asked.

She smiled. “Because once the announcement is made that a blood test got screwed up, they’re going to want to be sure no one thinks
they’re
responsible. They’ll be happy to account for every second the blood was in their possession—I’m pretty sure of that. In fact, I’ll make it clear to them that I’m writing a story for the
Daily News
and the more specific information I have, the better it will look for them.”

“Okay, so far so good,” Alex said, checking his watch. People would be showing up very soon. It was almost seven.

“Right,” Christine said. “That’s actually the easy part. Here’s the hard part. We have to find out who the four guys on the team are who have O-negative blood.”

“Doesn’t the state know that?” Alex said.

BOOK: The Walk On
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