The morning of November 2nd dawned clear and cool, perfect football weather for the state semifinal playoff game between the Stockbridge Wolves and the Warlick Stallions. After a quick breakfast Ted drove to Stockbridge High and spent an hour on last-minute strategy review with his coaches. At ten the players arrived and began their position meetings. In a heartbeat it was noon, and time for the pregame warmups on the field.
The sun was high and bright as Ted greeted the Warlick head coach at midfield while the assistants put their teams through drills. Scott Wheeler was a bull of a man with shoulders two feet across and a body like a horse trailer. He’d been an all-state guard for Warlick some twenty years before, and played college ball at Ole Miss. He might have gone pro, had it not been for a back injury his senior year. Ted had never liked him.
“Good team this year, Ted,” the big man grunted. “It’ll be a shame to have to kick your ass.” Ted laughed and stared at Scott through his sunglasses. What an asshole.
“It won’t bother us at all when we beat you,” he replied with a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Good luck, Scott.”
Ted jogged over to where the defensive line was setting their shoulder pads by crashing into one another on their hands and knees. Paul Green was focused like a laser, and all Ted did was tap him on the helmet with his rolled-up game plan. Jake Hurlford with the linebackers, doing tip drills with batted balls, was just as serious. Good, Ted thought. He wandered to where Bobby Craig was firing ropes at his backup, skinny junior Chris Stanley. Crisp, accurate throws, every one.
“Don’t worry, Coach,” the handsome quarterback grinned, effortlessly releasing another twenty-yard strike. “We’ll win this one for you.”
“Thanks, but don’t do it for me,” Ted came back. “Do it for that jersey, and for yourselves.”
They’re ready, Ted thought as he ushered his players back into the locker room. Once inside, with mere minutes to go until kickoff, he stood in the middle of all eighty-five boys, helmets off, eyes trained on him. So young, he thought. He spread his hands and shrugged.
“Have fun today,” he began. “When you take that field, I want you to feel in your hearts the same joy you felt when you started to play this game. How good it feels to lay a clean stick on the other guy. The good block, the proud sensation of that jersey against your skin.” He paused. “It goes too fast, gentlemen. Seize hold of these forty-eight minutes today and play every single one as if you may never wear that helmet again. Forget the crowd, the situation, the stakes, whatever. Clear your heads. It’s just us now, together. Look at the guy next to you, the guy you’ve been with since August, sweating with, bleeding with. Eighty-five guys, eight coaches. Ninety-three men for forty-eight minutes, doing what we love. When we take that field together, and play like we’re capable of, the scoreboard will reward you when it’s over. Bring it in, guys.” The players huddled around in a giant scrum, hands on each others backs, many of them holding hands.
“Anybody beat the Wolves?” Ted asked quietly.
“Hell, no!” came the thunderous response.
“Anybody beat the Wolves?” he asked again.
“Hell, no!” Louder this time.
“Anybody beat the Wolves?” he repeated one final time, his voice low and urgent.
Despite Ted’s confidence, the game proved to be a much tighter affair than he had anticipated. The Warlick Stallions, led by punishing tailback Eric Osher and talented linebacker Gabe Nixon, matched scores with Stockbridge through the first three quarters. In the third quarter Bobby Craig threw a forty-two yard score, bringing him even with his coach at 45 career touchdown passes. The Stockbridge crowd went nuts at the accomplishment, but there was a clear undertone of anxiety at the close score.
Midway through the fourth quarter Warlick kicked a field goal to go ahead 24-21, and the stadium fell silent except for the delirious reaction from the Stallions’ section. The two teams traded subsequent possessions, and Stockbridge found themselves with a first down at their own thirty-one yard line with just over two minutes left in the game, still trailing by three.
Reveling in the pressure, Bobby Craig led the Wolves down the field with a series of perfectly thrown passes. With twelve seconds left on the clock and a second down from the seven, the senior captain overthrew a wide-open Ricky Pike in the end zone. The Stockbridge crowd exhaled a collective noise of shock, as the pass should have given the Wolves the win and Bobby the record. With a mere seven seconds left and no timeouts, Ted called for his field goal unit to tie the game and take his chances in overtime. He felt a hand on his arm, and turned to see Bobby Craig.
“Coach, let’s win it here. If the play’s not there, I’ll throw it away. But I can do it, Coach.”
Ted stared at his quarterback, seeing steely confidence almost eerie in a seventeen year old kid.
“Kickin’s the safe play,” observed Terry McAllister from a few feet away, and Bill Pope nodded in agreement. Noting that Warlick coach Scott Wheeler had called timeout, ostensibly to ice Stockbridge kicker Nick Merrill, Ted called his players over to the bench. He assembled his offensive unit around him.
“Double tight Ace formation. I want play action, boot right, tight end release. Bobby, your look is Mitchell in the corner of the end zone. If he doesn’t break clean right away, just chuck it in the stands and we’ll kick. Got it? Don’t force the damn thing.”
“Got it, Coach.”
“All right.” The whistle sounded. “Get it done.”
The eleven Wolves jogged out onto the field and there was a roar of mixed approval and disbelief from the Stockbridge faithful. The Warlick defense hurriedly adjusted into their goal line formation with a couple of quick substitutions, and the two teams faced each other across the narrow line of scrimmage. At the snap, Bobby Craig faked the handoff and rolled to his right. Senior tight end Brendan Mitchell roamed in the end zone, but Warlick safety Jim Vanek lurked, a half-step behind.
“Get rid of it!” shouted Bill Pope.
Bobby cocked his arm as if to throw, and the defense froze momentarily. The ball never left his hand, and instead he tucked it back into the crook of his elbow and headed for the goal line.
“Holy shit,” Ted whispered. Well, he’d damn well better make it.
With his long, loping strides Bobby covered the distance to the end zone. Stallions linebacker Gabe Nixon closed at an angle, swift and intent, meeting Bobby at the corner where the field of play met the sideline and the end zone. Players, bright orange pylon and the ball all met in a loud collision and then headed in different directions. As the scoreboard clock wound down to all zeroes, Bobby and Gabe landed in a multicolored heap off the field. The plastic pylon came loose and flew over them out of bounds. The ball, knocked loose from Bobby’s grip, popped straight up in the air, then bounced twice on the grass of the end zone between the spray-painted D and G of Stockbridge. The all-important brown football then disappeared under an urgent swarm of players from both teams, squirming and burrowing as officials surrounded the pile, pulling bodies aside and furiously blowing their whistles.
The entire stadium fell silent, awaiting the result of the referees’ excavation. Ted stood halfway to the scene, both hands on top of his head, waiting with his heart beating in his chest like a jackhammer. The seconds dragged by as the pile diminished, the only sound the shouting and arguing in the end zone. Then, in sudden unison, all four officials raised their hands above their heads to signal a touchdown, and a sound like approaching thunder exploded across the stadium as the Stockbridge fans voiced their full-throated delight. From out of the wreckage in the end zone limped backup tailback Matt Pakal, his helmet missing and blood streaming from his nose, an enormous grin on his face and the ball raised aloft in one hand. Al Morgan and Dan Foss, the two huge offensive tackles, raised Matt to their shoulders and carried him to the sideline where they were swallowed up by their teammates in a sea of adulation and joy.