Two short chapters...things heat up in Stockbridge!
Ted glanced up at the scoreboard one more time to make sure, then plunged into the pressing crowd of players and coaches on the sideline. It was a beautiful September night in Northport, and Ted was silently thankful they were playing here this early in the season. Under the lights in Northport in late October could be nasty. Ignoring that thought, Ted looked at his defensive coordinator, Terry McAllister, who nodded.
“Green’s fine. He’s in.” Terry’s unruffled drawl always calmed Ted down. Terry had played eight-man football a hundred years ago in
, and coached with a perpetually unsurprised demeanor. Almost nothing happened on a football field he hadn’t seen before. Locust Grove, Oklahoma
“Great,” Ted smiled at his players in the tight half-moon before him. “This is it, guys. Brass Nuts goal line package, overplay the strong side. They’re gonna try play action, so safeties don’t bite, stay with the tight ends.” He glared at Paul, helmet on, eyes aflame. God, he loved that kid. “Wolf Green.” Then the referee was there, asking for the Stockbridge defense. The eleven kids jogged on the field, and Ted had done all he could do.
The ball was scant yards from the Wolves’ end zone. Trailing 21-17, the Cougars had methodically driven down the field on a masterful six-minute march that had them second and goal from the four. One more play would decide the outcome, and Ted knew his guys were exhausted. The defense took up their positions in close formation, and as the Cougar offense broke their huddle the sound in the Northport stadium of thousands of voices built to a deafening din. Greg Croteau, the talented Cougar quarterback, began barking signals from under center. He had given the Stockbridge defense fits all night, scrambling for key first downs, making impossible throws under pressure.
“One way o’ anothah, Ah’ll be glad to see the end o’ that boy,” muttered Terry. Ted almost chuckled, his attention fixed on the line of scrimmage some fifty yards away from him. He was well outside the coaches’ box on the sideline, five yards out onto the field itself, bent over, hands on his knees.
One time. He thought to himself. One time. One time…
The ball was snapped and Greg Croteau turned to his right, the fullback seeming to take the handoff, but it was an illusion.
“Play action!” screamed the players on the Stockbridge sideline as the Cougar quarterback spun to his right and rolled out. Ted had suspected a possible designed rollout, and had turned Paul Green loose from the nose position to fire through the strong side gap between center and guard. Wolf Green. The mountainous lineman was now in Greg’s face, and the startled QB flipped the ball toward the end zone. The tight end in that area was covered well by Wolves safety Pete Hanson, who knocked the fluttering pass harmlessly to the turf. There was no time left on the clock.
Instead of the roar Ted expected from the bleachers behind him, there was a communal groan, and the cheers were coming from the wrong sideline. While his players celebrated in the end zone over the incomplete pass, Ted could see nothing but the bright yellow penalty flag at the ten yard line, where Greg Croteau was lying on the ground, Paul Green standing over him, hands wide apart as if to say, I never touched him! The referee conferred briefly with the umpire and line judge, who said little. He then jogged to the middle of the field, facing the press box, his back to Ted and the Stockbridge sideline.
“Personal foul. Roughing the passer.” He brought his right hand down sharply to his left wrist, then made a throwing motion with his right arm. “Half the distance to the goal line, first down.” He signaled the first down with an outward thrust of his right hand, and then twirled it over his head to indicate one untimed down would be played. The Northport sideline exploded in delirium, and Ted could feel more than hear the disbelief behind him in the Stockbridge stands. He called his final timeout and walked slowly out to the defensive huddle alone.
He rapped on Pete Hanson’s helmet with his knuckle. “Nice play, Petey.”
“Thanks Coach.” Ted looked for signs of despair or letdown, and didn’t see any.
“You stopped them at four yards, you’ll stop them at two. Pete, Nick, get up and jam those tight ends. I doubt they’ll try the play action again, but if they do it would have to be bang-bang, so don’t even let them off the line. Gum it up.” He turned to Paul, who had no apology in his eyes, just a smoldering rage. “Wolf the whole line. Flood those gaps. Go get ‘em, Greenie.” There was a whistle, and the ball was ready for play. Ted hustled off the field to the same spot he’d been in minutes before.
One more time…one more time…
At midnight Ted heard a knock on the door of his apartment. He paused the tape in his VCR and set down his beer. Who the hell could that be? He shuffled over to the door and opened it. Jill Ward was in the hallway.
“God, Ted…” Ted knew what that meant. He must look awful. Well, twelve beers and about a hundred replays of the last two plays of the game would do that to you, he thought. Jill came into the apartment, picking her way past thrown beer cans and a half-empty pizza box from Back Row. Ted closed the door and then flopped back down on the coach in his t-shirt and boxers, grabbed beer number thirteen, and pressed play for the hundred and first time.
“Ted…I was worried…I wanted to talk to you.”
“That’s why there are phones,” he belched. “Fuck, man, Green never even touched him. Croteau fell down, for chrissakes.”
“You didn’t answer,” Jill persisted.
“Ted, you can’t change what happened tonight.”
“There!” Ted pointed at the frozen image on the screen. “Their center tackled Paul! Dragged his ass down and Croteau just leans in for the score. No flag there? Bullshit.”
Jill moved to the TV and switched it off.
“Ted, I’m sorry.”
“Well, you can turn it back on,” he deadpanned.
“No,” Jill laughed nervously. “About last week. I had no right to…”
“Now?” Ted stood up, a little too quickly, and leaned a hand on the coffee table to steady himself. “You want to do this now? Jesus, no wonder the other guy left.” Jill stiffened, and her lip trembled for a moment.
“You don’t mean that, you’re drunk.” Her eyes glistened.
“You bet your ass, lady. And I earned it. I let those kids down today.” He threw the remote at the wall, where it broke apart. “There were plenty of times on that last drive the right call would have stopped them. It never should have come down to those two goddamn plays.” Jill stepped closer to him. He reeked of beer and sweat.
“Ted, it’s just a game.” He threw his head back and laughed. He looked at Jill, his eyes lidded and unfocused, and she could see tears on his face too.
“You don’t get it. You still don’t fucking get it. This is probably it for half these guys, maybe more. This is the best time for them. This is their lives, Jill. There are no Senators or CEOs or astronauts out there. Those guys are plumbers and Marines and bartenders. This was my chance to…”
“Your chance?” Jill interrupted. “Yours or theirs?”
“Don’t…I mean, why do you have to…fine, my chance!” He swayed dangerously. “I’m a failure, Jill! I’ve done nothing but let people down for five years! What’s so wrong that I wanted to be right again? That I wanted to be special again?” She looked at him and had no idea how to respond.
“You’re tired and you’re drunk and you’ll feel better tomorrow.” He shook his head.
“No, no, I won’t. This is what we are now. Me, them. You. We’re all just little pieces of crap floating around in the toilet. The really nasty part is that I could’ve done something with my life, you know? But no, I gave it up. I came back to fucking Stockbridge.” He kicked over the coffee table, sending beer cans clattering across the floor. Jill stepped nimbly aside, and Ted collapsed back on his coach. I shouldn’t have come, Jill thought to herself. But my God, he’s in so much pain…
A noise came from the couch. Ted Gray had passed out and was snoring. Jill shook out the crocheted afghan resting on the back of the couch and laid it over him. She picked up the beer cans and righted the table. Wiping one more tear from her own cheek she leaned over and kissed Ted on the forehead.
“Goodnight Coach.” And she slipped out.