Chapter Six: Spring Glory
Coach Prescott paced along the row of players. He looked at the ground, silently practicing the words, which everyone seemed to listen for intently. He looked up at them, then back to the ground. He paced one last time and took a tremulous breath.
“I’ve been impressed with you this spring. I’m still making this transition to “Head” coach, I’ve wanted to say very little. I’ve wanted to watch you a lot. I’m fairly impressed. There is so much to being a football team - there is so much for us to learn before next fall. All you’ve done this spring is to learn a little about yourself. Yet, there is one major obstacle left. Tomorrow night some of you will play in your first high school game. It will be the most terrifying thing you have ever experienced. In my years, I’ve seen a lot of good men get so nervous they threw up three times before the kick-off. I’m watching you. How will you respond to pressure?”
The more he talked, the more David felt the squeeze of building pressure.
“How will you respond to your fear? If you’re human, you will feel nervousness. If you’re a football player, you will do what you’ve been coached to do. If you’re a winner, you’ll respond to the pressure by making something happen out there. The bus will leave at 5:30, make sure you have all your equipment in order.”
David was amazed at this man. Everyone remarked about how unusual he seemed. He said so little, yet he communicated so much. Some of the older players were down on him early in the spring, but now they all seemed to expect the coaching end of things to be in good hands. David was especially impressed with his attitude. He wasn’t the ‘rah – rah’ type, but there was something about him. There was something in his demeanor that made David want to win his approval. David felt he would do anything that coach asked.
The game was twenty- four hours away, and David knew he wouldn’t sleep a wink that night!
David had never felt this nervous before. His whole body quivered under the pressure of what was about to transpire. No one would ever be able to appreciate his feeling - no word could ever capture it. It was very exciting and terrifying.
The team in uniform had an awesome nature about it. They looked like warriors, and everyone felt the surge of pride that they were ready and needed to be feared. David felt so sure about the team, yet unsure about his involvement. Was he the only one like this? It was ironic that David’s teacher had been discussing The Red Badge of Courage again that day. David wondered how similar he and Henry felt. Would he fight with honor, or would he crumble under the pressure? It was everything everyone had said. David knew his manhood was about to be tested, and he dreaded the moment more than ever, but he couldn’t wait for the moment to begin.
The team gathered in the locker room while an assistant coach re-rehearsed the warm-up routine. Finally, the door opened and the team was herded toward the field. As he walked, David took in the air about him. There was no one in the stands; an obvious result of the early warm-up time. There were some students and parents standing near the concession stand and field house. David smiled just a moment as Dillinger gave a thumbs up to him. He quickly bit back down on his mouthpiece and resumed the killer look that he copied from all the older guys.
As his feet touched turf, he hit a 3/4 stride that carried him toward the opposite end of the field. He felt so fast and light! The adrenaline surge made him feel sleek and quick. Everyone huddled at the far goal post and grew very quiet.
A whistle blew and everything went wild! David joined the unison of a thunderous war scream that brought chills across his body. Everyone sprinted to their group and conducted the drills that started every practice, every day. There was an unbelievable difference though! Everyone was whooping and cracking. There was an intense excitement in the air. David ran a full speed route, cutting more quickly than he had in his whole life! The coaches were working them into frenzy with words of encouragement and praise. David felt he was too pumped up, however, when he dropped his first three passes. It shook his confidence until he caught a few before the break.
The rest of the warm-up was clean and efficient. It was also unbelievably tiring! David remembered the coaches mentioning that it was a normal feeling because of the adrenaline. He had no idea that he would be this tired though!
The team exited the field and returned to the locker room. The players all headed for the toilets to empty their nervous bladders. David had never noticed a line that long for the bathroom in his life. Soon though they re-gathered and sat. It was quiet again. Everyone sat with blank looks. Everyone just seemed to be waiting. Coach Press paced just a little, glancing at his watch every 25 seconds. He took a little breath.
“Okay guys, we’re about to go out. Good warm-up. You looked sharp.” He paused for a small eternity.
“ You remember what I said yesterday. This is a spring game. It doesn’t count for any standings. Because of that we will play everybody. I know we will make mistakes, That will not bother me. What will bother me is, if we aren't full speed. I’ll be upset if we don’t hit folks. I’m looking for some men who have no fear and want to knock lungs out. That’s what it takes to become winners. I’m looking for a few winners. If I find that, I know we will win some games.”
David was into it like nothing he had ever known. He wanted to prove to this man that he was that winner.
The barbaric war yell erupted again. A huge “senior” knocked David so hard on the head that it bounced off the side of his shoulder pad.
The atmosphere was completely different as David exited the door. There was a pretty good crowd in the stands. The air was electric! This was one of the most intense moments of David’s life, and he was eating it up!
The game began without a kick-off on the Spring Hill 35 yard line. David stood on the sideline directly across from the ball. Coach paced right in front of him and talked on a headphone set to an assistant in the press box.
A whistle blew.
The first play shocked David. The Spring Hill running back ran for two yards and was cracked by the opponent’s linebacker! David couldn’t quite believe the percussion of the hit. It sounded like every bone in both players broke upon contact! He wasn’t sure at that point if he really wanted to get into the game. Jason Rogers split out wide to his side for the next play. David watched him carefully, knowing he was to copy everything he did in the near future.
Jason was the senior who was right in front of David on the depth chart. David had been very intimidated by him early in the spring, but now seemed to have a little disdain for him. David felt like he did some things better than Jason did. Jason was not a hustler, and didn’t really seem to even enjoy the game. David had a secret dream to out- perform Jason Rogers, but the thought was miles away at the moment.
The ball snapped.
The Spring Hill quarterback dropped back and began to read the opponents coverage. His name was Alex Reynolds. Many coaches in the city had voted him most valuable offensive player the year before. David had come to revere him as sort of an idol. He was a quiet leader with quick feet and a cannon arm. He had blistered David’s hands a time or two that spring.
Alex scanned the field, moved to his right... and was crunched! An opposing linebacker had rushed from the outside and dropped him for a huge loss. David heard the war- chant from the other sideline, and felt a huge momentum loss on theirs.
“CHAD! LOOK FOR THE LINEBACKER YOU BLOCKHEAD!” Coach Wally Brakefield walked a few yards on the field and spewed at the dejected tackle. “YOU’VE GOT TO SEE THAT COMING! HAVE WE NOT WORKED ON THAT ALL WEEK?”
The player slapped himself on the side of the head in frustration. Poor offensive linemen - they play as hard as anyone, knock heads all day long, and have the distinction of getting reamed out more than anyone on the field.
The team broke the huddle, facing a long third and twelve. Jason Rogers split out to David’s side again. David studied his alignment and agreed that that is where he would line up if he were in. Alex Reynolds called the count and sprinted to Jason’s side. Jason made a quick outside move and then sprinted up the sideline.
It was a moment of beauty. Jason caused the opposing defensive back to make a false step and he blew right by him. Alex laid a looping toss down the sideline. It all happened right in front of David’s view. Jason tracked the toss, stretched out his hands, and dropped the pass.
“AAAARGGG!” The two sidelines, the stands, the entire universe all moaned at the same time. It was an unusual moment of universal unity. The opposing sideline moan was of sure relief, like “we were just set up for death and that boy was most gracious.” The Spring Hill moan was translated,” We were about to dance in glory until this idiot dropped a pass our grandmother could have caught.” The crowd was a mixed bag of both, even though the loudest seemed to come from David’s father who stood at the fence line and screamed a little longer than the rest.
“That’s okay,” Coach Shaw clapped in fake encouragement, “shake it off.” Jason jogged to the sideline with his head hanging awfully low. David followed him all the way to the bench. David watched in twisted, bittersweet horror. That was his biggest fear. He had nightmares about dropping a pass like that in front of everyone. The pressure of that moment approaching did not help him at all.
The quarter played out uneventful after that moment. Both teams exchanged heavy hits, good punts, and missed opportunities in playing to a scoreless 12 minutes.
“Stone, you’ll be in this series.”
David thought that he had peaked in nervousness; he was wrong. Josh came by and gave him a high-five. He had already tasted playing time on the punt team. His uniform bore marks of his playing time.
“How is it?” David asked.
“You’ll be fine after a play.” Josh ensured.
David snapped his chinstrap and stepped on the field. He was in the game! It was exhilaration like he had never known. He was shaking from fright, anxious for the world, and numbed to a daze.
David listened to the call.
“Rip, Slot 34 Base on One, Ready...”
David slapped his hands and bellowed “Break” in unison with the others.
He ran to the side of the formation and anxiously looked at the official for his alignment.
“I’m off, I’m off”
“Back up a little”, he motioned.
David looked up at the defensive corner who looked very far away. That was his target.
David looked in just as the ball snap and got a late break off the line. His man sprinted inside David’s block and cracked Spring Hill’s running back for only a 2-yard gain.
“SSSSTONNNNE !” The coaches all yelled at the same time. The anger shamed him to the core of his soul.
“Don’t worry about it, Stone”, David heard in the huddle.
Alex looked right through him. “You got this one. Rip,Zip, 84 flat on two.”
“Pass my way”, David mumbled.
David aligned again, went in a short motion, and bolted up field at the snap. Everything was like it was underwater. He took four steps, snapped his head, ripped his elbow, and snatched the well-thrown ball out of the air.
HE HAD IT! He didn’t think, stopped. and watched his defender stumble past him. HE HAD BROKEN FREE!
“RUN, STONE, GO - GO-....”
David heard various yelling and crazy whooping shooting him down the field. He could see the orange goal line cone moving closer.
CRRRACK. A mass of defenders slapped him out of bounds at the 20!
David was jerked off the ground by a few recognizable teammates.
“WOOOOOOOOOOO MAN, WHAT A PLAY!”
David was too stunned to know what happened. A 37-yard pass play.
The rest of the game was sort of a let down. After a missed pass and an ugly looking draw play, Spring Hill missed a 37-yard field goal attempt. From that point on, it became obvious to all this was just a spring game. After half time, David played in two more series, but with back-up quarterbacks who did not attempt a pass toward him. The game ended in a boring 0 - 0 tie. David felt he was about even as far as good plays to mistakes. He missed two blocks on the evening.
Coach Prescott was really positive after the game. He didn’t single out anyone in particular. David boarded the team bus for the short ride back to the school. It was very up beat. David rolled in laughter at some of the stories and recounts. As he looked around, he caught eyes with Jason Rogers. He wasn’t smiling. He glared at David.
“So what did you think, Stone?”
“It was pretty good.”
“Looks like we’ve got us a little competition.”
“I don’t think of it that way, Jason.”
“Well, you better.”
Another voice-jumped in. “Shut up Jason! What’s that crap? This is supposed to be the ‘all for one team’ thing, you know?” It was Alex.
“Can’t I give the freshman a hard time?”
“You weren’t joking, you were serious.”
“I was not.”
Several of the team jumped in and mocked him. “I was not.”
Nothing more was said. But David read the signal. He had an enemy, and it didn’t sit well with him at all.