Authors: John Feinstein
Jonas jogged from the sideline to give him a high five. So did Matt Gordon.
“Good job, Goldie,” he said, just as a sharp whistle cut through the air.
It was Coach Gordon, standing at midfield. They circled him and took a knee. Coach Gordon looked at Watts, who had been accepting high fives of his own as he came back up the field.
“Eighty-four,” he said, calling Watts by his number. “You ever hear of Bear Bryant?”
It took Watts a second to realize the coach was talking to him. Someone nudged him, but it was too late.
“Eighty-four, are you listening?” Coach Gordon said. “I asked you if you knew who Bear Bryant was.”
Watts shook his head. “No sir.”
“Well, you better Google him tonight and be able to answer the question tomorrow. Bear Bryant once said, ‘When you get into the end zone, act like you’ve been there before.’
“We don’t celebrate touchdowns here, eighty-four. We
them. So, since all of you offensive players think a completed pass by the
string is such a big deal, you can all run those steps a couple of times. Just in case you forget the next time.”
He turned to his son. “Gordon, get ’em going.”
Matt Gordon was on his feet. “Let’s go, offense,” he said, sounding just a little weary. They’d been on the practice field for just under two hours. Everyone was craving a shower. But that would have to wait. As they jogged to the steps, Bilney fell in next to Alex.
“Damn you, Goldie,” he said, sounding serious. “If you weren’t so good, we’d be in the locker room by now.”
Alex didn’t really hear him because Coach Gordon was still talking behind them.
“Good job today, defense—except for you threes. See you tomorrow.”
And then he added one more thing. “Coach Hillier, a word.”
As they started up the steps, Alex couldn’t resist a glance over his shoulder. Coach Gordon was talking to Coach Hillier. He did not appear to be congratulating him on calling a good play.
Alex figured Coach Gordon had called Coach Hillier over as the offense went to run the steps because he hadn’t liked the last play call of the day. Jonas thought he was being paranoid.
“Nah, that wasn’t it,” he said as they walked out of the locker room. “It was about something else. He was mad at Watts for showboating.”
“That’s why we ran,” Alex said. “It’s not why he was getting on Coach Hillier.”
“You need to chill,” Jonas said. “It was one play. Good throw, but just one play.”
“You know what they say about being paranoid?” Alex said.
“You aren’t paranoid if someone’s out to get you.”
Jonas laughed. “Alex, no one
to get you. Fair or not, you’re the third-string quarterback.”
He was right. And that was considerably more upsetting than whether or not he was paranoid.
School began to get old for Alex pretty quickly. Homework started after the second day of classes, which meant his mom started her usual role as enforcer. He had to get it done before he could do anything else.
His dad called on Tuesday night just as Alex was finishing his reading for history.
“You’re two days in. What do you think?” his dad said as a conversation starter.
“Dad, football started last week,” Alex said.
“I know, Alex,” his dad said. “I was talking about school.”
Alex felt a slight wave of resentment. For years, his dad had driven him to practice whenever possible. He rarely missed one of his games and, much to Alex’s relief, had never been one of those parents who yelled at him or at his coach or at referees or umpires. After games, they would talk through what he had done well and what he had to work on, and he knew how proud his father was of his successes.
Now he felt like he had slipped out of sight, out of mind. Alex had called his father almost a week earlier to tell him about his frustrations. This was the first time he’d called back.
“Well, Coach Hillier was telling the truth,” Alex said. “I’m third-string, so I’m not getting too many reps when we scrimmage.”
“And the starter is the coach’s son, I know,” his dad said. “That’s going to be a tough one. For now, though, you’ve just
got to stick with it. I’ve talked to your mom and we agree that transferring isn’t the answer. Your time will come.”
Alex knew his parents talked about how he and Molly were doing on a regular basis, so he wasn’t surprised the transfer issue had come up. Still, maybe it was the phone or maybe he was being paranoid—again—but his father sounded almost disconnected. Alex changed the subject.
“When are you coming to see us?” he said.
“I’m hoping to make it down for your first game next week.”
“Well, that would be great. But be prepared to watch me watch the game.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m coming to see you and Molly, not a football game.”
That made Alex feel a little better.
“We miss you, Dad,” he said softly.
“I miss you guys too,” his dad said.
Although Coach Hillier didn’t say anything to him, Alex’s suspicions about the last play call on Tuesday were pretty much confirmed over the next few days. The scrimmages were all the same. The ones got about sixty percent of the snaps, the twos about thirty percent, and the last few plays were for the threes.
The play calls for the third offense were about as conservative as possible: a couple of straight handoffs, a counter to the left slot, a counter to the right slot, and then—maybe—a quick pass over the middle, or some version of a screen. Alex
could have been half-asleep and done what was needed on those plays.
On Wednesday, when Coach Hillier had called “X slant right”—a quick toss over the middle to Freddy Watts—Alex had said, “Coach, how about if we try loop 99,” a very deep curl pattern that he knew he could convert a lot more easily than either Gordon or Bilney.
Coach Hillier didn’t even look at him. He just said, “On two,” indicating the snap count for the play he had already called.
So on Thursday, when Coach Hillier lined them up for the last play of the day and called “Z slant left”—basically the same play they had run the day before, only with the other receiver coming from the left side instead of the right—Alex decided he’d had enough.
As they broke the huddle, he walked a couple steps out of his way so he could get into Jonas’s ear. Jonas was in with the threes because Watts had rolled an ankle during drills and the threes were a man short.
“Run loop 99,” he whispered.
Jonas glanced back at him as if he were crazy. “What?” he said.
“Just do it!” Alex hissed.
Coach Gutekunst, the defensive coordinator, was shouting at them. “Hey, fellas, how ’bout it? We’d like to get done here before dark.”
Alex jogged to the line, then stepped back into the shotgun formation that the Lions used about half the time. He called three numbers. They were meaningless—all that
mattered was that on the third number the ball was snapped to him.
He dropped back and saw Tim Cummings—the Z receiver—make a sharp cut about eight yards behind the line of scrimmage and then come open. He ignored him. Because his blockers had been expecting a short, quick pass, they had let up on their blocks early and Alex had to roll to his right to avoid a couple of rushers—who appeared to be surprised that he still had the ball.
Jonas was a true friend. He had to know that running loop 99 was going to get them both in trouble, but he was doing it anyway. He sprinted about thirty-five yards down the field, then looped back to the middle, coming back a couple of yards to meet the pass. Alex had pulled up and fired a bullet that stayed straight as a string until Jonas gathered it in. Jonas took a couple more steps and then rolled on the ground before popping up as whistles sounded all over the field.
Alex was still admiring his work when he heard Coach Hillier’s voice in his ear.
“What the hell was that, Myers?” he demanded angrily. “What do you think you’re trying to prove? You run what I call—do you understand?”
He was right in Alex’s face, his nose almost brushing against Alex’s face mask.
“Do you hear me?” he repeated.
“Yes sir,” Alex said, deciding this wasn’t the time or place to argue. As he finished his two-word answer, he heard Coach Gordon’s voice cutting through the late-afternoon humidity.
“Coach Hillier, did you call loop 99 on that play?” Coach Gordon was standing twenty yards away, hands on hips.
Coach Hillier looked at Alex for a moment, then back at his boss.
“Yes sir, I did,” he said. “I wanted to see Ellington run the route.”
Coach Gordon’s hands were still on his hips, as if he were deciding whether to question Coach Hillier’s honesty. He turned away, blew his whistle again, and said, “Everybody take a knee.”
Alex was about to thank Coach Hillier for covering for him, when Coach Hillier put his arm around him.
do that again, you won’t see a practice field for a week—if ever,” he said into his ear so it looked to everyone else as if he were giving him a coaching tip. “I didn’t do that for you; I did that so the entire offense wouldn’t have to run. They don’t deserve to be punished because you and your buddy are trying to show off.”
“It wasn’t Jonas’s fault.”
“He went along with it. He runs the play I called and there’s no problem. I want the two of you in my office at six tomorrow morning.”
“Six? But, Coach—”
“One more word and it’s five-thirty,” Coach Hillier said. “My daughter’s a swimmer. I’m up at four-thirty every day, so just try me if you think I’m kidding.”
“It’s not fair to Jonas,” Alex said, not ready to give up, even though Coach Gordon had started to talk.
“You’re right,” Coach Hillier said. “He can come at six. You be there at five-forty-five.”
With that, he turned and walked away.
Linda Myers wasn’t the least bit pleased when her son informed her he had to be at school at five-forty-five the next morning. She was even less happy when he told her why.
“Look, Alex, I know you’re frustrated with this Coach …”
“Gordon,” Alex said.