Authors: John Feinstein
Thanksgiving was going to be an early dinner with just Alex and his mom and Molly, because Alex had to be at school at 5:00 p.m. to get on a bus to Pittsburgh. The team would stay in a hotel Thursday night so they would be rested for the game on Friday.
His mom and Molly were both in the kitchen and Alex was just about to turn on the Lions–Packers game when the doorbell rang.
On the doorstep, all grinning broadly, stood Matt, Jonas, and Christine.
“What the …?”
“Alex, who’s there?” he heard his mom call.
“Friends,” Alex said, realizing the three of them were just that.
He waved them in. His mom was as surprised as he was to see them.
Matt explained, “It’s a Thanksgiving tradition in my family to play touch football before we eat. But to be honest, I’m not all that fired up about playing football with my dad right now.”
“Oh, yes, I can see that,” Alex’s mom said.
Matt shrugged. “I’m having dinner at Jonas’s house because his mom and dad invited me. Anyway, the three of us thought we’d come over and see if Alex wanted to play a little touch, start a new tradition with his new friends in Philly. Nothing too intense. We have to make sure he and Jonas are ready for tomorrow.”
Alex’s mom looked at him. “Think you can handle that, Alex?” she said.
“I’ll grab a ball from the garage and meet you guys outside,” he said.
As he walked to the garage, it occurred to him that for the first time since they had arrived in Philadelphia, he felt truly at home.
They played for about an hour and then went inside for hot chocolate. Christine left first because she had relatives coming over. Matt and Jonas lingered a bit longer, watching the game.
“Hey, Goldie, there are two things I have to tell you before you leave for Pittsburgh, since I won’t be allowed to be around the team before the game,” Matt said.
Alex turned to Matt. “Okay,” he said. “What’ve you got?”
“The second most important thing is this: just be yourself tomorrow and you’ll be fine. You’ve got a bunch of good receivers and”—he looked at Jonas—“one great one. You can make all the throws, and you know how to deal with pressure. I’ve seen you do it.”
Alex nodded. “Thanks. I wish you could be there on the sideline.…”
“I do too, Goldie. I do too.”
“What’s the most important thing?”
“You’re taking Christine to the holiday dance on Saturday, right?”
“Yeah,” Alex said. “How’d you know?”
“Because I asked her—too late.”
Jonas was smiling now too.
“So here’s the deal. You guys win tomorrow night, and I’ll be a good boy and settle for Hope Alexander this weekend and in the future. But if you lose …”
“What?” Alex said.
“I won’t coach you up on how to be a good boyfriend,” Matt said. “You’re on your own. And trust me, you
Matt and Jonas dissolved in laughter. And pretty soon Alex did too.
Even though they all slept late on Friday, the day crawled by.
Alex and Jonas were rooming together, and they killed time watching football games on TV for a while and then went for a walk around downtown. It was too cold to go very far, so they went back inside quickly. At three o’clock they all ate a pregame meal together in one of the hotel’s ballrooms. Everyone was quiet, thinking about what lay ahead that evening. Finally, at five o’clock, they got on the buses for the short ride to the stadium. It was dark and Alex could see the stadium lights from the bridge. He took a deep breath as the bus followed the police escort motorcycles into the parking lot and pulled into the tunnel underneath the stadium.
He wished he could just relax and enjoy the experience. But his stomach was tied in knots.
They had gotten lucky with the weather. It was cold—the forecast had been for thirty-three degrees at kickoff—but there was no snow and the wind was brisk but not biting. They all suited up, trying to make this pregame feel like any other.
Just before they left the locker room, Coach Hillier called them into the center of the massive room.
“Fellas, I know what a long and crazy week it’s been,” he
said. “But now you get to do what you love to do and what you all do best—play football. And you get to play in front of about thirty-five thousand people here and a whole lot more watching on television.
“You should be unbelievably proud of the fact that you’re here right now. Very few high school players get to do anything like this. Take a second to feel a chill when you run down that tunnel. We’re all going to remember tonight for the rest of our lives. So give every single bit of effort you have inside you once the game starts. Every last bit. If you do that, regardless of the score, you can walk out of here tonight feeling proud.”
He paused for a moment and grinned. “Of course I have no doubt we’re going to win the game. No doubt at all. How about you?”
He stepped into the middle of the room and put his arm in the air. They crowded around.
“On three,” he said.
Everyone put their arms in. “One, two, three—state champions!”
They were about to pull their arms down when Alex said, “Hey, one more thing: for Matt!”
Their arms pushed even closer to one another, as did their bodies.
“For Matt!” they repeated.
They turned and headed for the field.
Alex did feel a chill as they came down the tunnel and ran through a cordon of Chester Heights cheerleaders onto the
field. The band was playing, and he heard a roar from the near side of the stadium. A moment later, he heard a cheer from the far side and saw the Beaver Falls players racing from their tunnel to their sideline.
Then they were all standing at attention on the sideline for the playing of the national anthem. Alex thought he’d never heard it sound quite so sweet.
Beaver Falls won the coin toss and chose to defer, so Chester Heights would get the ball first.
They lined up for the kickoff, with everyone in the stadium—or so it appeared—on their feet. Alex looked around, wondering exactly where his parents were and where Matt was, and remembered to take it all in one more time.
A split second later, he heard Jonas’s voice.
“Let’s go, QB,” he said. “It’s time.”
The kickoff had been returned to the 28-yard line. Alex pulled on his helmet and trotted onto the field and into the huddle. Coach Hillier had already called the first play.
“Everybody ready?” he said.
Will Allison looked across the huddle and pointed a finger at him. “We’re golden, Goldie,” he said. “Long as we have you. Call the play.”
“Ninety-four pitch,” Alex said, his voice rising above the crowd. “On three.”
They broke the huddle and came to the line.
This is forever, Alex thought.
He called out three colors, took the snap, felt the ball in his hands, and set his sights on the goal line.