The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Mark Twain

Friday, April 8, 2011

Shades of Gray: Chapter Thirteen

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            The next weeks were ones of simple joy for Ted Gray.  The Northport loss proved to be an aberration, as the aroused Stockbridge Wolves went on a punishing winning streak.  They rolled up victories over poor teams like Greenfield and Atwater, and good ones like Dunbar Academy, Tilford and Warlick.  Bobby Craig was on fire, with eight touchdown passes over the five games.  Including the TD he’d thrown in the loss to Northport, he found himself needing only three more scores to break Gray’s record.  With one game left in the regular season and at least one, maybe two playoff games, it seemed a safe bet he would rewrite the Stockbridge High record book.  More importantly, with a 6-1 record the Wolves were in second place in their Class L division behind undefeated Northport.  With a win this coming Saturday over hated rival New Cove, they would be assured a playoff spot.
            The five weeks had been a blur for Ted Gray and Jill Ward.  They spent as much time together as they could, moments carved out between practices and schoolwork.  They had dinners out with Mike and Lisa Heather, including a celebration of Ted’s twenty-ninth birthday at Charlie’s on October 12th, and Ted was a big hit in his first visit to the Wards’ house since high school.  Jill’s father John dredged up story after story from the 1991 Wolves season, when Nat Ward and Ted Gray were riding a wave similar to the one the current team was enjoying.  It was all Jill and her mother could do to keep him from loading old game tapes into the VCR. 
            Ted and Abby became fast friends.  When Ted visited her Brownie troop to talk about sports, he offhandedly revealed that one of his old Yale friends was Amanda Grant, author of the immensely popular The Penelope Rules early-reader books.  He managed to secure personalized signed books from the author to the girls, making him a hero to Abby and her friends forever.       
            The only source of tension in Ted’s life, other than the upcoming home game against New Cove, was the tenuous academic standing of his star quarterback.  He had squeaked past his midterms with barely passing marks, most worrisome of which was his D+ on Ted’s US History exam.  He was now carrying a C- average, and if his next set of exams in two weeks didn’t show some improvement, Ted would be forced to suspend him from the team.  That was a headache he didn’t even want to think about.  The good news was that Paul Green’s scores had steadily climbed since the Northport game, as if his motivation to make amends for that loss had spilled over from the field into the classroom.
            The last Saturday in October was a clear, bitter cold day that found the Stockbridge Wolves faithful bundled in hooded parkas and under stadium blankets as the New Cove Pirates came to town.  The rivalry between Stockbridge and New Cove went back a hundred years, an unbroken string of games that split evenly in the win column.  The two towns were a mere ten miles apart, separated by a short stretch of Route 27, but the cultures were vastly different.  Where Stockbridge fiercely retained its colonial heritage and character, and was peopled by commuters to Boston and old townies who cherished that staid lifestyle, New Cove was a beach town with a louder, less refined, more boisterous attitude. 
            On the opening drive of the game Bobby Craig served notice that he wasn’t about to let the visiting rivals spoil Senior Day, his last regular-season game at home.  Several college scouts were in the stands, as was his entire family including mother Amy, proudly wearing his white away #15 jersey over several sweatshirts.  Bobby threw six times on the drive, surprising the New Cove defense, which clearly had expected a brute-force running attack in the frigid temperatures.  He capped off the march with a fifteen yard strike to junior receiver Ricky Pike, and Stockbridge was on the board first.
            Ted paced the sideline more than usual, more to keep warm than from any feeling of unease.  His Wolves were dominating on both sides of the ball, and the scoreboard reflected it with a 21-0 lead by halftime.  The second half was no different, as the clock finally wound down to all zeroes showing an impressive 35-0 Stockbridge win.  Craig had thrown for two touchdowns, leaving him one short of tying his coach’s record.  After exchanging handshakes and hugs with his coaching staff and players, after fighting his way past the D-I college scouts wanting to talk about Bobby Craig, Ted searched the surging crowd until he found what he’d been looking for.  Jill Ward, somewhere under a hundred layers of jackets and sweaters, was peeking out at him from beneath a red knit stocking cap.  He closed the gap between them in seconds and picked her up into a bone-crushing hug.
            “Way to go, Coach,” she shouted, her voice muffled.  She pulled the scarf over her mouth and nose aside for a moment, just long enough to give him a quick kiss before covering back up again. 
            “Thanks babe!”  He looked around.  “Where’s Abby?”
            “Too cold,” Jill responded.  “Home with my parents.”  She was looking at him strangely, and Ted, accepting the congratulations of parents and other fans streaming past, cocked an eyebrow at her.
            “What is it?”  She unwrapped the scarf again, leaned into his neck, and kissed his ear.
            “I love you, Ted Gray.”  Her green eyes flashed at him as she grinned, breath steaming in the cold air.  Ted felt as though someone was kicking his legs out from underneath him.
            “Wow.  Jill, I…”  Ted disappeared in an avalanche of red and blue, the Craig family descending on him.  Bobby’s mother hugged him, while Robert Craig Sr. shook his hand vigorously.  Bobby’s older brother, Max, who had played for Ted two years ago, crowded near as well, hulking in his Boston College jacket.  The two younger Craig girls clung to their mother, hoping to get out of the cold soon.  Bobby was there too, sweat-soaked despite the low temperature, holding up two fingers.
            “Two more and you’re mine, Coach.”  Ted smiled.  Nothing would make him happier than for Bobby to break his record, especially if it meant a shot at that state title game.  He accepted the good wishes of the Craig clan, all the while trying to break free and back to Jill.  When he finally managed to disengage, she was gone.

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