“Be confident and determined!”
George Walczak needed to rally his football team. His players were beat up and tired. And they were losing. George’s defense was on the field. If the defense held, George would send the offense back out. It would have one last chance to win. But first, George needed to re-ignite its fire.
George’s voice was angry. His black eyes blazed above the thick mustache on his square face. He chopped the air violently with his right hand in cadence with his words. A scolding index finger jutted from his fist.
“This is your defining moment! You gotta be confident and determined if you’re gonna prevail. You gotta be confident in yourself. You gotta be confident in your teammates. You gotta be confident in the plays we run. But confidence will only get you halfway there. You gotta be determined to win. You gotta be determined to out-run, out-hit, out-think and out-play these guys!”
George glanced at the clock on the scoreboard.
“You got less than two minutes to turn this thing around! Get out there and give it everything you got left!”
George pulled the players together. He led them in a quick cheer. Then he turned them loose.
Emotion is contagious, even if the message is a cliché. Tom Jacobs was infected by his coach’s emotion. He felt revitalized and resolute. He snapped the chin strap to his helmet and took a few steps away from the group to the edge of the field. Out there, it was third down. The Coalcracker defense was in control. On the next down, the other team would have to punt. Tom was the return man.
Tom was startled by a powerful smack in the middle of his back.
“Is this great or what?!” George bellowed at him. “Where else can you have this kinda fun on a Saturday night?!”
George tilted his head back and surveyed the scene before him. Twenty-two players were arrayed on the chalk-gridded field in front of a crowded grandstand. Fog slithered onto the field, carrying the richly organic odor of the nearby river. The floodlights overhead cast a glowing orb over the field. Above the orb was the black night sky, and the even blacker silhouettes of the surrounding mountains. George shook his head approvingly.
“Man, I love this game!” he proclaimed.
George’s brother Joe appeared on the other side of Tom.
“Don’t worry about running it back, Tom,” Joe advised. “Just make sure you catch it. You catch it, we have one more shot. If something goes wrong and they get the ball back, game’s over.”
Tom nodded. Joe tightened his lips and thought for a moment.
“If you have to, let it bounce,” Joe said. He thought about it more. “That might not be good. If we get a bad roll, it’ll put us deeper in the hole. Best thing would be for you to catch it.”
Tom nodded again.
The defense did its job. The opponent’s punting unit came out. Tom started onto the field. He felt another smack on his back. He turned.
“Do it, baby!” George shouted with a grin.
Tom dashed onto the field. He positioned himself dead center at the twenty-five yard line. The opposing teams faced off thirty-five yards away at the line of scrimmage.
Barbara Adams sat next to Jack Whittaker. Her attention was drawn to commotion in the north end zone. She observed a policeman chase a group of boys off the field. As the other boys scattered, the tallest one stood his ground. With his hands on his hips and his chin thrust out, he waited until the policeman came within arm’s reach of him. Then he, too, ran. Barbara watched this group of boys throughout the game. They reminded her of a flock of crows - coming to roost in an area, creating a nuisance, getting run off, gathering again somewhere else.
“That Mitch Stankavich will be a troublemaker when he grows up,” Barbara said.
“Which one is Mitch Stankavich?” Jack asked.
“The biggest one,” Barbara answered. “the one with the blond hair. I see him in action at school everyday. He’s the ringleader. The other boys get a kick out of him because he likes to challenge authority.”
“There’s a Stankavich who works for me,” Jack noted. “They must be related.”
Jack’s game program laid on the bench next to him. It was open to the full page ad for his company. The bold-lettered title of the ad read, “The Waylon Compressor Company.” In the center was a picture of the plant. Under the picture was a caption: “Designing and manufacturing the world’s best air compressors in Waylon, Pennsylvania since 1973.”
Tom rubbed his sweaty palms against his thighs. He repeatedly clenched and opened his fists as he held his hands waist-high. His heart pumped wildly. Surges of uncontrollable nervousness made his knees feel weak and his muscles rubbery. He disliked fielding punts under any circumstances - standing alone in the center of the field, gazing skyward at an incoming football, the opposing players bearing down on him at full speed with fury in their eyes. Now his usual anxiety was amplified. Once the ball was kicked, everything depended on him. Dropping the ball would cost his team the game. If another player made a mistake, if he missed a block, for example, someone else might back him up. The mistake would probably go unnoticed amid the scrum of bodies. But for Tom, on this play there was no backup, and no anonymity. The lights high over the field glowed softly in the fog. They seemed to Tom to be focused directly on him as he stood waiting on the north end of the field. He could feel the eyes of a thousand spectators, and of the two teams, riveted on him. He felt strangely small and alone in the middle of the vast expanse of grass.
Tom’s team, the Waylon Coalcrackers, was losing to the Rhinos by five points. A minute and a half was left in this game, the 1977 championship of the Keystone Semi-Pro Football Association. Joe’s admonishment echoed in Tom’s mind: “You catch it, we have one more shot. If something goes wrong…game’s over.”
Tom was in position for only a few seconds. It seemed like an eternity as he waited for the teams to line up. He rubbed his hands together. They were still damp with nervous perspiration. He wiped them against his jersey and began to open and close his fists again. Suddenly he was aware of the noise. The thousand voices of the crowd, the yells of encouragement from his teammates on the sideline, the taunts from the Rhino bench, all blended into a torrent of sound that rushed through the ear openings of his helmet and battered his concentration. Another surge of nervousness rippled through him. His stomach felt like it was rolling over.
Tom quickly recalled the punt coverage he had faced tonight. What offered the best possibility of success, a return up the middle or to the sideline? He decided it was the sideline. For a moment he envisioned himself breaking free and scoring the winning touchdown. He abruptly stopped the thought.
“Concentrate on the catch,” he muttered to himself. “Forget about the return. Just catch the ball.”
The specter of dropping the ball flashed in his mind. He thought of the embarrassment of facing his teammates after the blunder, the outright humiliation of letting them down. Another surge of nervousness hit him like a blow to the stomach. He fought off a sudden feeling of nausea.
“Oh, God,” he heard himself say. “Don’t let me drop it.”
The “hut” cracked through the misty air like a rifle shot. The Coalcracker punt defense reacted in two waves. Tom saw the first wave of players crash into the Rhino line. The second wave leaped above the fray, their arms stretched skyward to block the punt. Then they tumbled into a pile of growling, struggling men. Tom heard a dull thump. He saw the football rocket upward.
Adrenaline raced through Tom’s veins, cleansing away the nervousness. The noise vanished, replaced by the gentle sound of rushing air. His awareness of the crowd disappeared. For a moment all that existed for Tom was his focus on a football streaking through the darkness. He lost sight of the ball in the fog as it reached the apex of its trajectory. Then he caught a glimpse of it as it hurtled toward him. He sidled to his left to position himself to catch it.
Suddenly he became aware of pounding footsteps. First the pounding seemed soft and distant, but with each passing millisecond it became louder. Now the ball wasn’t hurtling, it seemed to be floating. The pounding increased. Like a drum roll, it grew relentlessly in volume and speed. How many were bearing down on him? It sounded like the whole Rhino team. Tom felt the urge to take his eyes off the ball and assess the approaching danger. He resisted the instinct.
“Concentrate on the catch!”
The ground seemed to vibrate with the pounding. Tom braced himself for the cruel hit that was sure to come.
“You’re gonna get killed!” Tom’s mind screamed at him. “Signal a fair catch!”
Too late. The ball, which had seemed to tumble slowly through the air, now streaked earthward with surprising speed. Tom saw the glint of light on the ball and realized it was slick. The wetness of a million particles of fog had accumulated on the ball during its flight.
The pounding footsteps were deafening, like a savage avalanche bearing down on him.
The ball smacked him in the palms and slipped through his hands. An instant of panic seized him, but the ball wedged between his arms and his gut. Tom clamped it against his body with his elbows. He quickly slid his forearms down to wrap it up.
With the ball secured, Tom glanced up, straight into the blazing eyes of a diving Rhino defender. The avalanche hit him. First the diving Rhino slammed into him, then another, in rapid, bone-jarring succession. The air rushed out of him and through his face mask in a sudden burst. He saw the world flip over violently, like a scene recorded by a video camera that’s been dropped. He was knocked off his feet and carried backward by the momentum of the hit. Then he was driven onto the ground under the four hundred plus pounds of the two Rhino defenders.
Tom lay on his back. The ball was still in his clutches, pinned between him and the first Rhino who hit him. A referee ran up, tweeting his whistle and waving his arms over his head. As if cued by the whistle, the pain of the hit erupted in Tom’s body.
Tom pulled himself to his feet. He staggered to where the Coalcracker huddle would form. He stopped and bent over at the waist, bracing himself with his hands on his knees. Tom struggled to regain his breath. He waited for the rattling pain to subside. The rest of the Coalcracker offensive team gathered around him.
Tom looked at the sweat-streaked faces of his teammates. By vocation the Coalcrackers were steel workers, mechanics, construction workers, firemen, truck drivers, and factory technicians, even coal miners. By avocation they were football players. Since August they made tremendous sacrifices for their sport. They gave up weekday nights for practices and Saturdays for games. Hours that might have been spent with families or working overtime at their jobs became time for football. They endured long rides to away games on crowded, uncomfortable buses. They shared the tension of stomach-churning, pre-game jitters. They knew the elation of uncommon individual efforts, and of team victories. They shared the misery of defeat. On Mondays, they hobbled into work, nursing the bruises of Saturday night’s game. There, they reveled in the backslaps and handshakes of their co-workers when they won, and accepted their condolences when they lost. The cost of playing - the aches and pains, the time, the exertion - required a special degree of motivation. The drive to play at all, let alone well, had to be fueled by passion for the sport. The players’ compensation was nothing more than laundry money to clean their uniforms, yet they competed with as much commitment and enthusiasm as any big-time college or professional team. A few harbored dreams that semi-pro football would be a stepping-stone to the professional level. Those dreams almost certainly would be dashed. Very few semi-pro players ever broke into the professional ranks. Most semi-pros played simply because they loved the game; because playing made them feel more alive than anything else they knew.
The Coalcrackers felt the extra weight of tradition. For over seventy years, this team from an obscure town had been a semi-pro powerhouse. The years of success had deep meaning for Waylon. The Coalcracker players were sons of the town. Their victories on the football field were powerful affirmation of the stock and way of life of the townspeople. The players knew the expectation, felt the pressure, to win. Those who did joined that privileged club of previous champions who huddled in local bars on autumn nights and swapped tales of great football exploits. Nearby, other men who never played would listen politely. The wistful look in their eyes betrayed the realization that somehow their lives were less complete because they didn’t share in the experience of Coalcracker football.
Tonight, on this evening in late November, the current members of the Waylon Coalcrackers had a minute and twenty-seven seconds to secure their own legacy. To win, they had to put the ball into the end zone, seventy-seven yards away. Between them and the end zone stood the stubborn Rhino defense.
The black jerseys and tan pants of the Coalcrackers were sopping wet with sweat and smudged with dirt, grass stains and smears of blood. Their black helmets gleamed from the moisture of the fog. The “two-way players,” those who played both offense and defense, had steam-like vapor waft off their uniforms as their bodies cooled from the exertion of their defensive roles. Fatigue and tension were etched on their faces. The Rhinos outclassed them in speed and size. The Coalcrackers made up the difference with relentless determination. For fifty-eight and a half minutes they battled intensely with the Rhinos. Now they would have to muster every last bit of strength and emotion in their drained bodies for one final push.
Mike Rader trotted across the field and joined the huddle. He was dirty and battered like the other players. There were angry red marks on the right side of his neck where a defensive lineman had clawed him. The blood seeped into the collar of his number “15” jersey. Mike locked eyes with Tom.
“Way to hold onto the ball, Tom. You feelin’ all right after that hit?”
Rader’s voice was firm. His gaze was cool and steady. There was no hint of excitement or stress in his demeanor. Before Tom could answer, Mike grinned at him.
“Remind me to teach you how to signal a fair catch,” he said.
Tom felt the warm rush of confidence flow through him. The pain of the tackle vanished.
“All right guys, we’re gonna crack this defense wide open.”
Mike looked around the huddle into the eyes of each player. Tom could see the tension melt off their faces. He knew they felt the same confidence he felt. Mike could make that happen. The Coalcrackers won seven of ten games this season. Four of them were won on scoring drives led by Mike in the waning minutes of the ballgame. In two of those games, Mike himself scored the winning points. An opposing coach called Rader “The Most Dangerous Player in the League.” The Coalcrackers knew they were a good football team regardless of who played quarterback. Mike made them special. With his leadership and superb athleticism, they believed, truly believed, they could be champions.
Mike broke the huddle and brought the team to the line. On the other side the Rhino defense waited. They wore white jerseys and gray pants. Their blue helmets were stenciled on each side with a gray profile of a rhinoceros head. As Mike called the signals, the Rhino defenders assumed their positions.
Mike took the snap and dropped back seven steps. Tom sprinted off the line. The defensive back was playing him deep, willing to concede a short gain but protecting against a long pass. Tom planted his right foot and cut sharply toward the left sideline. Mike launched a tight spiraling pass in his direction. The ball came in chest high. Tom snared it and stepped out of bounds without breaking stride.
“Good throw, Mike!” Joe shouted from the sideline. “That’s the way to thread the needle! Good catch, Tom!”
If the Coalcrackers had a Most Valuable Player today, Joe thought, it had to be Tom Jacobs. The scrawny wide receiver had been on the same wavelength with Mike all season. Tonight, they were especially in tune. Slow-footed but sure-handed, Tom made eleven catches so far. He scored one touchdown. Tom also endured brutal hits from the Rhinos, just as he did on the punt a few moments ago. Yet somehow, he bounded back to his feet and stayed in. It was an amazing display of heart. It was the best game Joe ever saw Tom play.
Jack Whittaker and the rest of the spectators stood and cheered Tom’s catch. Jack remained standing, eager to see the final plays. The scenario the Coalcrackers faced - the need to score, the limited time, the distance to cover, the toughness of the Rhinos - filled him with nail-biting anxiety. The chances for a Coalcracker win were slim. Yet Mike Rader’s presence on the field gave Jack hope. For three years he marveled at the athletic gifts of the young quarterback - his accurate passing, elusive running, and competitive spirit. More importantly right now, Mike had an uncanny ability for finding and attacking weaknesses in the opponent’s defense. In the frenetic closing minutes of a game, Mike’s play calling had a cascade-like effect on the opponent. Successive small gains undermined the defense’s composure and knocked it off balance. Mike would move the Coalcrackers smoothly downfield. Then, when the situation was right, he would deliver the final blow.
Fifteen year-old Leah Marciniak sat by herself in the middle of the grandstand. A bulky, blue parka covered her slender figure. Her straight brown hair was parted down the middle. She wore a hint of make-up to conceal the flecks of acne on her cheeks. Leah had come to every Coalcracker home game this season for a specific reason - she had a crush on Mike Rader. Up to now, she admired him from afar. But she realized the finality of tonight’s game. It was her last opportunity for a long while to meet him. Tonight she had to give him a glimpse of her feelings. She had to see how he would respond. If she didn’t act tonight, she’d have to wait until next football season. Leah couldn’t bear the thought of a year of unexpressed longing.
How could she let him know how she felt without risking the heartbreak of indifference, or worse, outright rejection? How could she open the door of communication with this twenty-two year-old local hero? Leah thought about these questions for hours. She daydreamt about them in class and in the sanctuary of her bedroom. Finally, she arrived at a plan. Leah noticed Mike always left the field after a game alone or in the company of one or two other players. That was her opportunity. She would approach him as if seeking his autograph. She would say to him, with all the feminine charm she could muster, “I think you’re wonderful.”
The precise phrase was critical. Mike could interpret it as meaning she thought he was a wonderful football player. He would sign his autograph and move on. There was no risk of rejection in that response. But hopefully he would see the deeper meaning of the phrase. Hopefully he would realize Leah thought of him as more than just a great player. She thought he was wonderful in every way possible.
If her fondest daydream played out, Mike would look warmly into her eyes when she said, “I think you’re wonderful.” He would be touched by the depth of affection he sensed from her. He would sign his autograph, and then they would walk slowly toward the locker room, making awkward small talk. Before he went inside, he would say with a touch of shyness, “I’m going to the diner to get something to eat after I change. Maybe I’ll see you there.” Indeed he would. They would share a booth together. While he ate, she would sip a pop. They would get to know each other. And then…
Well, she wasn’t sure what would happen next. Her daydream had never progressed any further.
The pass completion gave the Coalcrackers a first down on their own thirty-four. The end zone was sixty-six yards away. One minute and twenty-three seconds were left in the game. The Coalcrackers had two time outs remaining. Conventional thinking called for another pass play, especially another one to the sideline. But Tom sensed Mike was about to do something unexpected. He noted the Rhino linebackers and defensive backs were widely dispersed, protecting against deep and sideline passes. Only three Rhino linemen opposed the five Coalcracker linemen. If a ball carrier could turn the corner with an entourage of blockers, the blockers could pick off the defenders piecemeal as they closed on the runner. The ball carrier could pick up ten or fifteen yards along the sideline and run out of bounds to stop the clock. From then on, the Rhinos would have to defend against the run as well as the pass, opening more opportunities for the Coalcrackers.
Sure enough, Mike called a power sweep to the right. Two pulling guards and running back Walt Jurasko would lead his brother Frank as he carried the ball.
“Stay on the sideline,” Mike admonished Frank. “When you get hit, go out of bounds.”
“Don’t worry about us, Mike,” Walt replied. “That’s why they call us the Delivery Men. When the going gets tough, we deliver…”
“Quiet in the huddle!” Mike ordered.
Where did he get that? Tom wondered. He never heard anyone call the Jurasko brothers the Delivery Men. Then again, that was Walt Jurasko, always running his mouth. Mike had to tell him at least ten times in every game to shut up in the huddle.
Mike took the snap and stuffed the ball into Frank’s gut. He stepped back to watch the play develop. The guards pulled out of the line in perfect synchronization. A Rhino lineman followed hard on the heels of one of the guards. The Rhinos’ outside linebacker rushed across the line and fended off a block, forcing the play inside. As Frank cut sharply to head upfield, the pursuing Rhino lineman dragged him down for a one yard loss.
Mike chose not to call a time-out. Clapping his hands, he ran to where the referees were spotting the ball.
“Line up!” he yelled through cupped hands. “No huddle! No huddle!”
The Coalcrackers and Rhinos shuffled into their positions on the line of scrimmage. Mike shouted the signals for a pass play. He took the ball from the center and dropped back. To his left front, a huge Rhino lineman shoved a Coalcracker blocker to the ground and barreled in. At the last instant, Mike stepped forward to elude the oncoming lineman. The lineman’s momentum carried him past Mike. The quarterback quickly scanned the secondary for an open receiver. A shout came from his right. Another Rhino bore down on him. The lineman tried to hit him high. Mike ducked and twisted away. The first lineman doubled back and dove at his legs, grabbing one. Pinned in place, Mike saw the second Rhino charge back toward him. Mike wrapped up the football with both arms and curled over to protect himself. The second Rhino slammed into him and sent him tumbling backward over the one who held him by the leg. Mike crawled out of the pile and gestured for a time-out.
On the sideline, Joe Walczak was getting edgy. After the pass completion to Tom, the Rhinos had countered with two aggressive defensive plays. They pushed the Coalcrackers back to the twenty-six yard line. The Rhinos had seized the momentum and presented the Coalcrackers with an immediate problem. It was third down. A gain of eighteen yards was needed for a first down. If the Coalcrackers failed to get a first down, the game would be over. The challenge to the Coalcracker offense had shifted from scoring quickly to win to simply staying on the field.
Twenty-eight year-old Nick Turner sat in the press box. He wore a gray baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes and a navy blue, nylon windbreaker. A pad of legal paper rested on the ledge in front of him. He held a cigarette between his lips. As the Coalcrackers’ statistician, Nick recorded the results of each play in the game. To his left was Sal Ronzani. Sal had pale skin, dark eyes and sunken cheeks. His jet black, wavy hair was combed back. He wore heavy, black-framed glasses.
“Where’d they spot the ball?” Nick asked Sal.
Sal raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes. He leaned forward, his elbows on the ledge, to scrutinize the field.
“I can barely see through this damn fog,” Ronzani said in a nasally voice.
Nick took a long drag on his cigarette and exhaled slowly. Ronzani studied the field.
“Looks like about an eight yard loss,” he said. “They put the ball down on the twenty-six.”
“Third down,” Nick read back his notes as he wrote them. “Sack. Seven yard loss. Ball at the twenty-six. Time out. How much time?”
“Thirty-six seconds,” Ronzani said.
“Thirty-six seconds left in the game,” Nick repeated.
Sal sat the binoculars down.
“This is gonna be exciting,” he said to Nick. “I gotta get down on the field.”
Joe joined the discussion between Mike and George. George was as intense as ever. A scowl was on his face. He talked rapidly while gesturing toward the teams on the field. Mike undid his chin-strap and squeezed water into his mouth from a squirt bottle.
“Mike, you ain’t gonna throw deep on these guys,” George said. “Their coverage is too tight. And they’re beatin’ us on the line. They’re just too damn big and fast.”
“I called that sweep to make ‘em think about the run,” Mike said. “I thought it might pull in the defensive backs and slow down the rush.”
“That mighta happened if the sweep woulda worked,” George replied. “That linebacker made a good read. So did the lineman who pursued the play.”
Suddenly George’s face brightened with inspiration. “Listen, let’s take advantage of their aggressive rush,” he said. “I want you to run a screen pass to the left. Now be careful. Those rushers are gonna come screaming in on you. But if you get the ball to the receiver and if he’s got some blockers in front of him, we can get a first down and we’ll be back in business. Got it?”
“Got it, coach.”
Mike snapped his chin strap and started back to the huddle.
“Mike!” George shouted.
Mike turned around.
“Use your head. You get into trouble, run it yourself.”
Mike rejoined the huddle. The Coalcrackers relished the brief respite the time-out gave them. Some had their helmets pushed back on their heads. With Mike’s return, they pulled their helmets down and snapped their chin straps. Mike’s voice remained firm and calm as he called the play. He broke the huddle. The team formed up on the line of scrimmage.
From the sideline, Joe saw it coming. The linebackers were closer to the defensive line than before. They rocked menacingly on the balls of their feet. Maybe Mike would call an audible to change the play. Then again, if the Rhinos did what they threatened to do, the screen pass could work big.
At the snap, the Coalcracker front line collapsed under the weight of an all-out Rhino blitz. Three linemen and four linebackers poured in, unimpeded by the efforts of the Coalcrackers to block them. Mike took three steps back, then realized the futility of the play. From his left, front, and right, growling, white-jerseyed rushers quickly tightened a gauntlet around him. There was nowhere to run. Mike tucked the ball in his gut, put his shoulder down and charged. A Rhino tripped him. Then another landed on his back and pummeled him into the turf.
Lying on the ground, Mike frantically gestured for the last time-out.
George stood on the sideline with Joe. The scowl was back on his face. His arms were crossed. He blurted out a play in a hard voice. George never looked at Mike. The game seemed lost. George’s disappointment already showed.
Joe watched Mike call the play, break the huddle, and walk to the line behind his offensive linemen. It was fourth down. There were thirty-two seconds left in the game. Worse yet, the immediate problem of the previous down was now an urgent one. The Coalcrackers had to gain twenty yards on one play or turn the ball, and the game, over to the Rhinos. One down, Joe thought. After three hours of struggle and over a hundred downs, after all the exertion and sweat and pain and exhilaration, one down would be the difference between defeat and a chance for victory.
The Rhinos had the upper hand. They had taken away all the Coalcrackers’ options except one. The Coalcrackers had to throw. The Rhinos knew it. They stacked their defense to counter the pass. The linebackers and defensive backs were positioned well back from the line and dispersed throughout the secondary. There wouldn’t be much of a rush on this play. The Rhinos only had three men on the line. But there were eight pass defenders. At most, the Coalcrackers could send five potential receivers into that crowd of defenders. One down, one possible play to be run, and the Rhinos were ready for it.
Mike took the snap. He scampered back and set up. The air around him was filled with thumps, smacks, grunts, and growls as the Coalcracker line battled the Rhino rushers. The receivers raced downfield and were absorbed in the Rhino coverage. Mike looked to his left and pumped. He recocked his arm and glanced to his right. Every Coalcracker receiver seemed to have two or three defenders within seven yards of him.
Mike seemed acutely aware that time was running out. The linemen were blocking extraordinarily well on this play, but they couldn’t hold the Rhinos out indefinitely. Directly in front of him the center and guard were locked in a struggle against a lone rusher. A similar contest was going on further to the left. To the right, the Rhino rusher tried to come in on Mike along an outside path. The Coalcracker tackle stubbornly hung with the rusher and forced him wide.
Then Joe saw it! Incredible! Between Mike and the first down marker on the sideline was nothing but open field. Mike saw it, too. In an instant, he was sprinting at top speed toward the marker.
With his seven yard drop back, Mike had to advance twenty-seven yards straight downfield for a first down. From his starting point, along the angular route to the first down marker on the sideline, he had to cover thirty-seven yards. Immediately, the eight Rhino defenders began to converge on the line Mike was running to intercept him and cut him down. Mike encountered the first one about halfway to the marker. The Rhino was coming on fast. Mike cut hard to his left, then back to his right. The Rhino dove at the fake, grazing Mike’s leg. Mike strained to get every bit of speed out of his body. The grass flew under his feet, but the marker remained elusively distant. Two more Rhinos approached from the left. He raced past the first, the other was in front of him.
The second Rhino reached the sideline next to the marker, stopped, and planted himself. Mike ran straight at him. The Rhino braced himself for the hit. Suddenly Mike swerved away from the sideline. The Rhino lunged, clipping Mike’s ankle. Mike stumbled three clumsy steps before regaining his stride. His speed was gone. Another Rhino bore down on him. Mike turned for the sideline. The Rhino nailed him at the edge of the field. Too late. Mike tumbled out of bounds for the first down.
The last five plays were a roller coaster of emotion for Leah Marciniak. It began with a thrill when she saw number 15 jog onto the field.
“Please,” she whispered fervently to herself, “let him do good.”
Her silent wish seemed to be answered when Mike completed the pass to Tom Jacobs. Tears of joy welled up in Leah’s eyes. She was happy, so very happy, to see him play well. The next play, the one yard loss on the sweep, was only a small disappointment since Mike wasn’t involved. Then came the two sacks. Each hit he absorbed seemed to reverberate within her own body. Her spirit sank every time he was dragged to the turf. She felt heartsick for him as he struggled against the Rhino defense. Then she felt an outpouring of affectionate sympathy for him. Seeing Mike in such a vulnerable state made her want to embrace him and comfort him and reassure him that everything was going to be okay.
As the fourth down play began, Leah was on the edge of her seat. Her hands were clasped in front of her mouth, as if in prayer. She watched Mike’s run, his dodging of would-be tacklers. Tension filled her face. Her hands were balled into two small fists that shook uncontrollably by her cheeks. When Mike made the first down, Leah felt a spontaneous release of emotion. Oblivious to the people around her, she sprang to her feet, flung her fists upward, and screamed in jubilation.
Charlie Rourke lifted the tripod by the camera mount. He hustled along the hillside on the west side of the field to set up his 8mm camera at the new line of scrimmage. Charlie was a perfectionist about his work. He always positioned the camera so it was oriented directly along the line of scrimmage. He always used a tripod to keep his camera steady. He was disdainful of the hectic, jerky camerawork produced by “amateurs” who filmed while holding their cameras. He followed the ball by smoothly traversing the camera mount. Normally, Charlie liked to film from the top of the hillside. From there, he could capture the entire width of the field in his viewfinder. Tonight’s fog reduced visibility. It forced him to move down the hillside, closer to the field.
The Rhino defenders now showed caution. They went back to a four man line. The linebackers and defensive backs were playing closer to the line than they were on the previous play. Their primary concern continued to be the pass, but the Rhinos were also protecting against another run. Mike accomplished what he set out to do four plays earlier when he called the power sweep. But with twenty seconds left in the game, he didn’t have the time to develop the situation, to push the defense off balance and rock it back on its heels as a prelude to the finishing stroke. Instead, the Coalcrackers had to score quickly.
Mike dropped back and set up. Again, the Rhino pass coverage was tight. He looked right, left, right. Nobody was open. A rusher hurled a Coalcracker blocker to the ground and stormed in on Mike. In the far distance a trio of players, one in black and tan surrounded by two in white and gray, raced toward the goal post. The rusher lowered his shoulder to make the hit. In desperation, Mike whipped his passing arm forward. Halfway through the motion, the rusher slammed into him. The padded shoulder hit him in the sternum. The rusher’s arms wrapped around him like a vise. Mike’s right arm followed through and slapped on his tackler’s back as he was driven onto the ground.
Mitch Stankavich and his small gang stood at the rear edge of the south end zone. The cops and athletic club officials were too absorbed in the last seconds of the game to be bothered to chase them. Despite their nearness to the playing field, the boys felt safe. A few times receivers ran routes toward the end zone, but they always pulled up or made cuts at the twenty yard line. Now a receiver and two Rhino defensive backs thundered toward them. Wide-eyed with a sense of impending danger, all but one of the boys scattered. Mitch stood in place, transfixed by the fury of the action developing in front of him. He saw the pass pop up in the distance from behind the entangled, battling linemen. The ball wobbled on its path through the mist. The three players reached the five yard line, a scant fifteen yards directly in front of him. They seemed awesomely huge. The drumming of footsteps and the loud panting and grunting quickened Mitch’s pulse. He could see their faces behind the bars of their protective masks. The eyes of the receiver and a defensive back were fixed on the ball with intense concentration. The other defensive back stared straight into the receiver’s face with equal intensity. The scene was fierce and threatening. Mitch was spellbound by it.
Mitch thought he heard a faint whistling sound from the rapidly spiraling ball when it reached the players. The Coalcracker receiver leaped up between the defenders to make the catch. He seemed to hover in the air for a moment in a fetal-like position. His arms were crossed, locking the ball against his chest. His knees were drawn up almost to his elbows. One defensive back’s momentum rolled him into the end zone as he fell. The other defensive back grabbed the receiver while he was in the air and pulled him onto the ground.
A referee arrived where Tom and the defensive back lay. He planted a foot to mark the spot of the ball and stretched his arms toward Tom, beckoning for it. Tom tossed the ball to him and pulled himself to his feet.
Looking back downfield, Tom saw the chaos of the aftermath of the play. Bulky linemen struggled to their feet to begin the long jog to the new line of scrimmage. Some extended hands to help teammates up. Other players were already running in his direction. With the thickening fog and diffused lighting, the field reminded Tom of a graveyard scene in a horror movie as shadowy, monster-like beings rose awkwardly from the ground and lumbered toward him.
At first, the only sound Tom heard was the crunch of footsteps of the approaching players. Then his attention was drawn by the low murmur of voices on the sidelines. The spectators were pushing out of the stands and crowding around the end zone to get a better view of the final plays. In a few moments, the spectators formed a solid wall of humanity along the back of the end zone and the sidelines.
Tom glanced at the scoreboard. The clock was running. The final seconds were vanishing. With no time-outs left, the Coalcrackers’ only hope was for Mike to “spike” the ball, to deliberately throw an incomplete pass to stop the clock. Fourteen seconds remained. Tom picked Mike out of the approaching players. He saw him pull the outstretched arm of a lineman to get him to his feet. Then Mike began running with a pack of players from both teams. He clapped his hands and turned his head left and right, apparently encouraging the Coalcrackers to get to the line. Twelve, eleven, ten seconds. The crowd became more anxious with each passing second. The murmur grew steadily in volume. The backs and ends arrived and took their places. But the linemen, huge men who were exhausted from their game-long battle in the trench, were moving at an agonizingly slow pace. Nine, eight, seven seconds remained. The crowd began screaming at the Coalcrackers. They implored them to get the play off. Finally the linemen arrived and shuffled into their positions. They were panting heavily, almost gasping for air. Their uniforms were drenched with sweat. Steam seemed to swirl around them as their sweat vaporized in the chilly air. Six seconds, five seconds. By now the crowd was shrieking for something to happen.
Charlie scooped up the tripod and scurried toward the new line of scrimmage. Running with the tripod was cumbersome. Charlie was afraid he wouldn’t be in position to film the next play, so he stopped and removed the camera. He dropped the tripod and continued on until he overlooked the two yard line. He got into place just as Mike started calling the signals. The run along the hillside winded Charlie. His fifty year-old body heaved from his hard breathing. He sat down on the hillside and rested his elbows on his knees to stabilize the camera. History was about to happen. Charlie wanted to record it as perfectly as possible.
From the wide receiver position near the left sideline, Tom saw Mike cup his hands around his face mask and shout something, first in his direction, then in the other. He knew Mike called the signal for the spike play, but the crowd noise kept him from hearing it. Four seconds. Three seconds. Mike crouched beneath the center and instantly took the snap. He raised the ball to his ear and whipped it into the ground. Referees ran in among the players, waving their arms over their heads and blowing their whistles. The clock stopped. One second remained.
Both teams slowly moved back from the line of scrimmage and assembled in their huddles. The pungent odor of perspiration quickly wrapped the cluster of Coalcrackers. The center tapped a guard on the back.
“Game’s over for you, man,” the center said, nodding his head toward another player running onto the field. The guard jumped back from the huddle and jogged to the Coalcracker bench.
Mike met the arriving player a few yards behind the huddle. Mike grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him so his back was to the opposing team. The new guard spoke quietly but urgently, face mask to face mask with Mike. Mike listened closely. He nodded. The new guard pulled away and found his place in the huddle. Mike stepped into the huddle and leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees. Tom looked into the faces in the huddle. The players’ eyes were wide, eager to hear the play that would settle the game. They were determined not to misunderstand a single detail. Mike’s eyes were hard. In a low, steady voice he called it - a play-action roll-out to the right - on the count of one.
Tom visualized the play. The tight end and flanker would line up on the right side of the line. Tom would split out to the left. The Jurasko brothers would line up side by side in the backfield in a pro-style formation. The key to the play would be the opponent’s left outside linebacker. At the snap, Mike would turn to his right and fake a hand-off to Walt Jurasko. Walt would charge forward into a hole created by a pulling tackle. The intent of the fake was to divert the linebacker to the inside momentarily and away from the direction of the play. The tight end would crack down on the defensive tackle, and Mike would follow the pulling tackle to the outside. The primary receiver was the flanker, who would run a button-hook route to the right corner of the end zone. Tom would cut across the back of the end zone as the secondary receiver. The option rested with Mike. If the cornerback covered the flanker, he could throw to Tom, or run the ball. If the cornerback came up to stop the run, the flanker would be open.
Mike repeated the play. He looked at his team to see if there was any confusion. He saw none.
“Ready! Break!” he commanded.
The Coalcrackers clapped their hands in unison and quickly dispersed from the huddle into the pro-style arrangement. The Rhinos, already waiting at the line of scrimmage, adjusted themselves to the Coalcracker formation. The wall of spectators framing the end of the field was completely silent, absorbed by the play that was about to occur.
Mike barked a quick “hut” and took the snap. Tom dashed at a diagonal from his wide receiver position to a point in the back of the end zone directly behind the center of the goal posts. The right cornerback picked him up and ran stride for stride with him, slightly to his right rear. Tom then altered his route to run along the end line toward the west sideline. Simultaneously, he looked to where Mike ought to be, to see how the play was developing.
Tom immediately saw the play was in trouble. The outside linebacker did not react to the fake and moved to his left to shut off Mike’s run. Mike appeared to have run past the pulling tackle, leaving him with no blocker against the linebacker. The flanker was perfectly covered by the cornerback. There was no one to throw to. The linebacker was drawing a bead on Mike. Mike tucked the ball into the crook of his arm and angled for the intersection of the goal line and the sideline. The linebacker raced along the goal line to cut him off before he got into the end zone. The foot race took only tenths of a second, but seemed to be occurring in slow motion to Tom. As the linebacker and Mike converged, the spectators on that part of the sideline sensed danger. They scrambled back in unison, like a wave rolling away from a beach, to avoid getting entangled in the on-coming collision. The cornerback charged forward to meet Mike head-on at the goal line.
Tom thrust a hand in the air and screamed. Mike’s head snapped toward him. His eyes locked on him. In an instant, he pulled the ball up to his ear and rifled it. The ball travelled with incredible velocity. Tom twisted his upper body to make the catch. An arm suddenly appeared, making a downward sweeping motion to deflect the pass. The arm missed the ball, but obscured Tom’s vision at the precise, crucial moment. Tom never saw the ball as it slammed into his right shoulder. He saw a blur carom upward. Tom frantically looked up to his right for the ball. He heard a huge scream from the crowd. There was motion to his left front. Tom saw Mike diving. His arms and hands were outstretched. His eyes were focused upward in fierce concentration. The ball dropped into Tom’s field of vision from above, flipping end over end. Mike’s hands slid under the ball. Mike pulled it against his body as he hit the ground in the end zone.
Suddenly chaos broke out. The spectators poured in from the sidelines and swallowed Mike in their humanity. They engulfed the Rhino players, who were trying to protest something about the play. They surged around Tom. Dozens of hands patted him on his back, his shoulder pads, and his helmet. The sound inside his helmet reminded Tom of hail falling on the roof of a car. Like quick-cut scenes in a movie, a succession of faces appeared outside his face mask. They were wild-eyed, deliriously smiling, and sputtering praises.
“You guys did it!”
Tom made his way to Mike. Mike struggled to his feet amid the celebrants who mobbed him. He extended his hand to Tom in congratulations. Tom took it, then embraced him with his left arm. Together they began to push through the crowd toward the locker room.
Leah never expected this. She stood forlornly at the edge of the crowd, a pen in one hand and a program in the other. Disappointment and frustration bubbled up inside her. Her carefully crafted plan was overwhelmed by the brawl of people surrounding Mike. She watched the mob move slowly toward the gate. Additional spectators continued to join it. The mob opened a path for a moment when a group of players, looking formidable in their helmets and pads, approached. Then the crowd closed in and engulfed their heroes.
The mob continued its way across the field. Spectators began peeling out of the mob. They milled about in its wake, creating the impression of a living debris field. They wandered around, still wide-eyed with euphoria, expressing their excitement to each other, or to no one in particular.
“Can you believe it!” someone shouted. The phrase was picked up and repeated over and over by other spectators until it seemed to become a greeting.
A young man near Leah re-enacted the last play for the entertainment of a small group of other young men.
“Did you see that play?” he exclaimed. He adopted the clipped, emotion-charged dialogue of a play-by-play announcer.
“He’s rolling out! He sees a man open! He passes!”
The young man took a few steps to his right and simulated a pass.
“It’s deflected! The ball’s in the air! He’s diving!”
The man leaned as far forward as he could, his arms outstretched.
“He’s got it! It’s a touchdown! The Coalcrackers win!”
The man leaped in the air and thrust his arms upward to signal a touchdown.
Then Leah overheard a whiny-sounding voice nearby.
“We did it.”
She turned to see a scrawny teenager addressing any passerby who paid him attention.
“Yup. We sure did it. We won the championship.”
The kid’s comments amused Leah. How could he say “we” won the championship? Did he block anyone? Catch a pass? Tackle anyone? Sure, he watched the game and cheered for the Coalcrackers, but so did she. Somehow that level of involvement didn’t justify identifying herself with the game-winning effort. Perhaps this was a powerful vicarious experience for him, she concluded. He was another young Waylonite male, filling his life with second-hand experiences.
In the distance, Leah watched the mob of revelers reach the locker room entrance. It disgorged a group of Coalcrackers, who trotted through the door. Somewhere in that group was Mike. The mob then began to disintegrate. The fans dispersed in all directions, continuing to celebrate. Soon they began to trickle out the gate. In an ever-quickening stream they left the hazily lit field and vanished into the surrounding darkness. Their faraway laughter and excited voices carried back to Leah as she stood alone by the south goal post.
Finally, the field, first the scene of a pitched contest, then a raucous celebration, became silent.
Thank you for previewing Chapter 1. As the team and the town celebrate, unseen forces are bearing down on them. The championship is to be the last for Waylon. The town experiences a long, slow descent of its economy and spirit. The once-mighty team becomes a perennial loser.
Chapter 2 fast-forwards ahead twenty years. The Coalcrackers and their home town face a fight for survival. Success, on the field and off, has become more important than ever. What roles do the characters introduced in Chapter 1 play as the fate of the team and the town unfolds?
For the answer, and more, read The Semi-Pros. Available at:
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