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Authors: John Feinstein

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BOOK: The Walk On
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And so Alex trudged into his last class of the day in room 407, wondering just how much French the other kids in the class spoke. The teacher was—according to the PowerPoint presentation she began the class with—Mademoiselle Schiff. The PowerPoint was fairly typical: there would be a vocabulary quiz every Friday, written assignments most nights, and a book to be read—in French—by the end of the year. It was the final line on the screen that terrified Alex the most: “These are the last words you will read in English in this class.”

“D’accord?”
Mademoiselle Schiff said when the lights came back on.

That much, Alex understood. Mademoiselle Schiff was easily the youngest teacher he had encountered all day—Alex guessed she was no more than twenty-five. She was petite and blond and, Alex saw pretty quickly, no-nonsense.

In French, she asked each student to introduce themselves to their classmates. Alex managed to get through
“Je m’appelle Alex Meyers”
without incident. In fact, Mademoiselle Schiff said, as he sat down,
“Monsieur Myers, votre accent est très bien.”

Alex had been told he had a good accent before. It was his vocabulary that he was worried about.

He was glancing at the clock, wondering why it was moving so slowly, when the final student stood up to introduce herself. As soon as she did, Alex forgot about the clock.

“Je m’appelle Christine Whitford,”
she said in an accent that, even in a few words, Alex could tell was better than his. But it was not her accent that got his attention.

She was about five six, he guessed, and she had long jetblack hair. He could see her eyes sparkling from across the room, and when she smiled in response to being complimented on her accent, Alex was convinced that the entire room got brighter. He had to meet Christine Whitford—if only to see if she was half as pretty up close.

When the bell sounded, Alex was out of his seat quickly. He gathered his books, stuck them in his backpack, and then timed his exit so that he would be a half step behind Christine Whitford.

“Votre accent est superbe!”
he said, pulling up alongside her in the hallway.

She gave him a sideways glance and the hint of a smile.

“Do you try to talk to all the girls in French?” she asked.

“Only the ones that speak French,” he said.

“You heard me speak three words,” she said.

“But you spoke them
so
well,” he said. “The teacher even said so.”

She shook her head and laughed.

“Let me guess,” she said. “You play football.”

That brought him up short. “Why do you say that?” he said.

“Only a football player would just walk up to a girl and be so obvious,” she said.

“Obvious?” Alex said. He thought he’d been doing pretty well.…

They were walking through the crowded hallway, slowing for people in front of them. Walking next to her, Alex realized that Christine wasn’t as tall as he had thought. She was probably closer to five four than five six, but man was she cute. Now she pushed her hair back from her shoulders and smiled her mesmerizing smile.

“I’m right, aren’t I?” she said. “At the very least you’re some kind of a jock. I’m guessing football.”

“Well,” he said, trying to sound modest as he bragged, “I’m on my way to practice right now, if you want to know the truth.”

If she was impressed, she didn’t show it. “Well, that explains it, then.”

“Explains what?”

“You’re a freshman, you made the varsity football team, you think you’re God’s gift.”

Wow, she was tough.

“How do you know I’m a freshman?”


Everyone
in that French class is a freshman,” she said. “Unless you flunked French One last year and you’re a sophomore.”

“I didn’t flunk anything,” he said defensively as she grinned.

They had reached the end of the hallway and someone was calling her name. Alex was relieved to see it was another girl.

“You better go,” she said. “You don’t want to be late for practice.”

Alex didn’t have a comeback for that. Christine’s friend walked up, didn’t so much as glance at Alex, and said, “Come on. Meeting starts in five minutes. Let’s go.”

“Meeting?” Alex said, not wanting her practice crack to be the end of the conversation.

“School newspaper,” Christine said. “If you aren’t a varsity athlete, last period is for study hall or student clubs and activities.”

She smiled and her eyes sparkled again. “Maybe if you ever get to play, I’ll write something about you.”

Okay, he figured,
now
who was flirting? He decided not to repeat that thought—he didn’t want to come across as a cocky football player—but still he couldn’t resist a comeback.

“Maybe you will,” he said. “
If
I decide to let you interview me.”

Her friend was tugging on her arm, but she clearly didn’t want to let him have the last word either.

“What position do you play?” she asked.

“Quarterback,” he said.

She laughed. “Quarterback? In that case, I guess I won’t be talking to you at
all
. Unless I do a story on what it’s like to sit on the bench all season.”

The look on Alex’s face must have given him away completely, because her gotcha grin faded. “Don’t feel bad,” she said. “You’re a freshman. Matt Gordon won’t be here forever.”

She and her friend turned and walked down the hall.
For a split second, Alex felt lost. Apparently, everyone in this school knew who Matt Gordon was and that he was
the
quarterback on the football team.

He watched Christine Whitford disappear into the crowds and the hallway got noticeably darker.…

When Alex walked into the locker room a few minutes later, it was already packed. The soccer team also used the locker room and this was the first day of soccer tryouts. Alex considered himself lucky to have an assigned locker, even if it was buried in the back of the room.

Jonas was already in his practice gear—everything but shoes and socks, since he still had to have his ankles taped—when Alex came around the corner.

“I was getting worried about you,” he said, looking up. “You get lost or something?”

Alex shook his head. “No,” he said. “I was trying to talk to a girl.”

That got Jonas’s attention. “Really?” he said. “How’d that go?”

Alex put his hands together as if he were gripping a baseball bat and made a swinging motion. “I whiffed,” he said, even though he wasn’t completely sure that was true.

“Really?” Jonas said again. “First day of school and you asked a girl on a date? You’re a lot braver than me.”

“Nah, I’m not
that
brave. I was just trying to talk to her.”

“So how do you know you struck out?”

Alex shrugged. “I could just tell.”

Jonas gave him a look. “Did she just walk away from you or did she talk to you?”

“She talked to me. She said she could tell by the way I came up to her that I was a football player.”

Jonas laughed. “Dude, you didn’t strike out. You just didn’t get up to bat yet.”

Someone was bellowing at the front of the room. “All football players, check the depth chart on the wall by the door on your way out. Know which group you are with—ones, twos, or threes—before you hit the field.”

Alex knew that ones were first-stringers, twos were second-stringers, and threes were third-stringers. Coach Hillier had said he’d be a three—behind Gordon and Bilney—but he harbored a small hope that he had shown enough the first couple days of practice to find himself second when he looked at the chart.

“I already looked,” Jonas said, apparently reading his mind. “You’re third.”

Alex opened his locker, hoping to make it harder for Jonas to read his disappointment.

“What about you?” he asked.

“Second at both wide receiver spots,” he said. “The starters are both seniors. I get it. I’m not worried.”

Alex knew he didn’t need to worry. He’d thrown to all the receivers the previous week, and while the two seniors in question were both good, they couldn’t come close to matching Jonas’s speed or his hands. His hands were what set Jonas apart.

Jonas would play from the first game and he would play a lot because the coaches would understand he gave them a
better chance to win. The same wouldn’t be true, he knew, at the quarterback position.

“You better hustle and get dressed,” Jonas said. “They’re taping the sophomores now.”

Dress now, sulk later, Alex told himself.

Being the third-string quarterback wasn’t too bad for Alex. During drills, he got as many reps as Gordon and Bilney. Practice was more intense than what he was used to from middle school. There were more coaches and everything was scripted: there was no fooling around going from one drill to the next. Even water breaks were managed closely: two minutes and they were done. No lingering.

Even so, it was football practice and Alex felt at home. It was a good way to end an awkward first day at a new school.

Day two was easier—or at least practice seemed to come sooner. Matt Gordon continued to be both friendly and encouraging. At one point, when Alex hit Jonas perfectly in stride on a deep fly pattern, he patted Alex on the shoulder and said, “Great throw, Goldie.”

Alex looked at him and said, “Goldie?”

Gordon grinned. “Yeah,” he said. “Goldie with the golden arm.”

It was tough not to like Gordon. He was clearly the team’s leader, and there was no doubt that the respect the other players had for him came from his ability and his personality and had nothing to do with the fact that he was the coach’s son. If anything, everyone liked him despite the fact that he was the coach’s son.

Alex’s comfort level took a nosedive when the team began scrimmaging. By his count, the team ran fifty plays during the last hour of Tuesday’s practice. The ones got about thirty plays, the twos around fifteen. Alex didn’t know the exact number. He did know the exact number of snaps he took: five. On three of them he was told to hand the ball off.

On one, Alex took the snap and started to run right. The slotback came from the right side of the formation, and Alex faked a handoff to him as he ran by. Keeping the ball on his hip, Alex got around the corner and ran about ten yards before pulling up.

Quarterbacks weren’t tackled during scrimmages so no one really bothered to chase him down.

“Good job,” Coach Hillier, who was calling the plays, said as Alex jogged back to the huddle. “Okay, let’s end on a high note: X left, Z right, and go.”

He looked at Alex. “You got that?” he asked.

Alex nodded. He’d taken his playbook home to study and they had spent time before practice going over the basic plays. The two wide receivers were designated as X and Z. In this case, they were Tim Cummings and Freddy Watts, the third-stringers at those positions. “Go” simply meant that both would run deep and Alex would try to hit one of them. In a game, the slotback would be the “check-down” receiver, meaning if no one could get open deep, the quarterback would look for him over the middle on a short route. In a scrimmage, Alex would throw the ball deep, no matter what—especially since this was his one chance to show the whole team what he could do.

What was apparent, as Alex dropped back, was that the
defensive coaches hadn’t expected Coach Hillier to call a go route for the third-team quarterback. The defensive backs were pinched in, clearly expecting another running play or perhaps a short pass. Both Cummings and Watts blew past the defenders and all Alex had to do was decide which one of them to throw to.

He finally decided on Watts—who was on the left—because throwing to the left, as a right-handed quarterback, was a little bit easier for him. The ball was in the air for more than fifty yards before it floated down into Watts’s waiting arms. The throw felt perfect coming out of Alex’s hand and he could almost hear a collective “Ooh” come from the ones and twos, who were assembled on the sidelines watching the last play of the afternoon.

Watts gathered the ball in and ran into the end zone, holding it in the air as if he had just scored a key touchdown.

“Nice throw,” Alex heard Coach Hillier say behind him.

BOOK: The Walk On
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