Authors: John Feinstein
“Are there a lot of repeaters on the team?” he asked.
“Maybe twenty to twenty-five guys across the four classes,” Marty said. “From what I hear about you, Coach might want you to be a repeater. That way you’d have three years to play after Gordon graduates.”
That thought set off alarm bells in Alex’s head.
“What did you hear about me?”
“That you’re really good,” Marty replied. He nodded at Jonas. “Your boy here’s been talking you up.”
good,” Stephen Harvey said, surprising Alex. “I bet they do try to get him to repeat. It’s not like he’s going to play this year.”
Alex started to say something but thought better of it. He needed to get dressed.
Mr. O had told Alex that he should try his pads on to make sure they fit but that the team wouldn’t be practicing in pads until Monday. Alex was the last one among the freshmen dressed, but Jonas lingered after Marty and Stephen had headed out.
“You think any more about what Coach Hillier said?” he asked quietly as Alex was pulling off his pads after determining that they fit. Alex had called Jonas after talking to his dad and told him everything.
“Yeah,” Alex said. “But I’m staying for now. I want to at least see how good Gordon is before I run away from competing with him. Plus, I went online and the changing to another school thing isn’t all that easy.”
Jonas nodded. “Yeah, I can see that. But will they
you compete? That’s the question. I haven’t seen Gordon yet, but he can’t be better than you.”
“Different than me,” Alex said. “He’s a runner, a bull. They were eleven and two last season. He must be pretty good.”
They heard a voice from the front of what was now a crowded locker room. “Everyone on the field in five minutes.”
Alex couldn’t see which coach the voice was attached to, but everyone began surging in the direction of the door.
“Ready?” Alex asked.
“Born ready,” Jonas said.
Alex laughed, picked up his helmet, and followed Jonas, ready—he hoped—for his first varsity practice.
He and Jonas had just made it outside into what was already a hot, sunny morning when Alex saw someone slowing in front of them. He was wearing, Alex noticed, number 12.
“Myers?” he said, turning to put out a hand as Alex and Jonas approached.
“Yeah,” Alex said, trying to sound casual as he returned the handshake. “Alex.”
“Matt Gordon,” the other kid said. “I heard you just transferred in. Where’d you come from?”
They were still walking in the direction of the field as they talked.
“Boston,” Alex said. “My parents split and my mom wanted to be closer to her family.”
“Sorry,” Gordon said.
He was bigger than Alex—a couple of inches taller and, as Coach Hillier had said, a good deal heavier. Even without pads on, he had broad shoulders and, in the short-sleeved jerseys they were all wearing, Alex could see his arms were cut.
“Stuff happens,” Alex said. “At least we didn’t move to Wyoming or something.”
Gordon looked at him and smiled. He was about to say something else when a whistle blew.
“Better hustle,” Matt said, breaking into a trot. “My dad takes no prisoners.”
At the sound of the whistle everyone who had been walking started to trot, run, or in some cases, sprint. It took Alex and Matt Gordon about seven or eight seconds to get from the goal line—where they’d been when the whistle blew—to midfield. They dropped to one knee along with everyone else.
Coach Gordon stood with his hands on his hips, waiting until everyone was in position and quiet.
“There are eight of you who are new to varsity this year,” Coach Gordon said.
For a moment, Alex thought he was going to ask each of them to stand and introduce himself to his new teammates. He was wrong.
“So all of you get one warning: when I say practice begins at ten o’clock, that means you are here, waiting for me and for your coaches, at ten o’clock. Not the other way around.
“The rest of you know that rule. I’m guessing about twenty of you were not here on a knee when I blew the whistle.”
He looked directly at his son. “Gordon, you’re the offensive captain of this team and you weren’t here. Would you please tell the newcomers what happens to players who aren’t on time for practice?”
Alex could see Matt Gordon visibly sag a little bit. “Steps, sir.”
“How many reps?”
“Up and down five times. That’s first offense. Second offense, we do it ten times and we do it at six o’clock the next morning. If it happens a third time—well then, we need to have a talk.”
“Okay, all of you returning players who weren’t here on a knee when the whistle blew, head for the steps. Gordon, Detwiler, you lead the way.”
A tall, husky African American kid stood up and said, “Um, Coach, I was here.”
“Are you the captain of the defense, Detwiler?”
“Were all the players you are supposed to lead here?”
“Then you can lead them to the steps.”
“Let’s go,” Coach Gordon said. “We’re wasting time.”
Matt Gordon stood and, along with Detwiler, led about half the team in the direction of the stands on the far side of the field. Alex had read online that Lions Field seated about eight thousand fans. He estimated there were about thirty-five rows of seats leading to the top of the stadium. In this heat, up and down once would be no fun. Five times would be exhausting.
As Alex and the lucky group that didn’t have to run watched, Alex heard Jonas, who had been just behind him in the circle around Coach Gordon, hissing in his ear.
“Your new best friend wasn’t joking,” he said.
“Gordon said his dad didn’t take any prisoners.”
“You’ve got that right,” Alex said, just as the whistle blew again.
The non-runners began to stretch under the supervision of the strength coach—who introduced himself as Coach Gentile—while the runners headed up and down the steps. Everyone stole looks as they stretched, and Alex could see the group slowing noticeably with each new trip back up.
He laughed as a thought crossed his mind: I could be the starter and transferring might
be a good idea.
Once the runners rejoined the group, they were given a little extra time to stretch and then everyone got a brief water break. It was very hot, but not as humid as it had been, and that provided a bit of relief.
Then they were all sent to work with their position coaches, going through drills like those from the first day of tryouts. Each drill lasted five minutes. The coaches called them periods. At the end of each period, a horn blew and everyone turned to their coach to find out what was next. Conditioning drills came first and were the same for everyone. Then each coach had position-specific drills for his group of players.
Alex watched Gordon closely. For all the talk about his ability as a runner, Gordon actually had a strong arm. But as the drills continued, Alex noticed it wasn’t that
an arm. His shorter throws had plenty of zip but were occasionally a little high or a little wide. His longer throws also had plenty on them, and he had no trouble throwing the ball past midfield, but they rarely found their target. Each quarterback made ten long throws during the drills: Alex completed nine of his, Bilney four, Gordon one.
If Coach Hillier took note of this, he certainly didn’t say anything. He was back in a cap and sunglasses, so it was impossible to detect any reaction to what they were doing. He kept up a steady stream of encouragement for everybody—as did the other coaches working around the field. Their chatter, along with players shouting the usual encouraging clichés, made for a steady stream of noise throughout the drills.
One thing that was apparent to Alex—and everyone else—was that Jonas was the best receiver in the group, even
with all the upperclassmen there. It wasn’t just his speed; it was his hands. On a couple of Gordon’s off-target short throws, Jonas simply reached out with one hand and gathered the ball in. He almost never made it look hard. Gordon’s only long-distance completion was to Jonas. It looked like Gordon had overthrown it, but Jonas found an extra gear and raced to the far side of the 50 and pulled the ball in.
Gordon turned to Bilney at that point and asked, “Where’d
kid come from?”
“Freshman,” Bilney said. “Just moved from New York.”
Gordon said nothing in return as Coach Hillier flipped the ball to Alex for his next throw. But as Jonas returned to the goal line, Alex heard Matt say, “Nice catch, dude. You made me look good.”
One hour into his first practice Alex had one thing figured out: the younger Gordon was a much nicer person than the older one. He almost wished it was the other way around.
Friday, the second day of practice, ended with the entire team lined up across the goal line to run a hundred-yard dash. Alex couldn’t see the point of the exercise—except maybe for those who would be returning kickoffs. For everyone else it was just an excuse to make them go all out in the torturous heat one more time.
“Anyone slows up or gives up will run some steps,” Coach Gordon said. “You’ve all got the weekend off, so I expect you to give me everything you’ve got left.” He almost seemed to smile. “First guy across the line is excused from next week’s run.”
Apparently, this was some kind of weekly ritual.
Alex found himself—coincidence?—between Matt Gordon and Jake Bilney. Glancing down the line, he could see that most guys had lined up by position. That was part of the ritual too, he guessed.
“Don’t beat us too bad,” Gordon said softly as they started to lean into a starting position.
“What makes you think I’m going to beat you?” Alex asked, although he expected to dust both of them.
“Gut feeling,” Gordon said just as his father said, “Take your mark.”
The whistle blew and they were off. Alex wasn’t going to let up no matter how nice a guy Gordon seemed to be. As he reached midfield, he could feel himself tiring. He could also see out of the corner of his eye that he was near the lead, although someone—he was guessing it was Jonas—was several yards in front of everyone else.