Second and seven from the 34-yard line. I struggle to peer through the massive bodies that clog the sideline in random fashion. Everyone mashed together, relying on each other for body heat. I huddle on the bench, the hard pine providing little comfort in the single-digit temperatures. A sudden gust of dirty white snow flurries swirls violently in front of my face, landing harmlessly on top of the slush and snow-covered grass. I wonder how much longer I could survive in this hell.
I can’t feel my feet. Coach told us that layering was for girls, so my only protection against the frost bite-inducing conditions are my black cleats and white socks. This isn’t enough. What happened to the sunny and humid days in the swamp where I effortlessly led my team to victory time and time again? I never had to deal with sitting through an entire game baloney. I was the man – the man everyone relied on when it was 4th and goal from the 2 with 5 seconds left. Where have my glory days disappeared to?
It’s a simple halfback draw, capitalizing on the laziness of the quarterback and the receivers. Barely a yard is gained. No more fun-and-gun offense. Coach says injury is too great a risk. God forbid contract incentives aren’t met. It’s all about keeping the players injury-free so they can live up to what their contract dictates of them. No more playing because you’re passionate about the game; it’s treated as income-producing job. Players only smile when they pass a milestone or earn another incentive. Basking in the glory of the game itself is no longer commonplace. Basking in the glory of a 50-yard touchdown against a second-string defense is.
Third and six from the 35-yard line. I don’t even want to watch. I am grateful for the shield the massive wall of bodies provide from the wind. We have to be tough. It’s our tradition. The skin on my arms has hardened with coldness. Our opponents don’t have to suffer like this. All of their arms are covered in white neoprene. Ours are left exposed to whatever Mother Nature deems appropriate. I feel numb, both physically and mentally. How I miss the glory days at the Swamp.
Once again: nothing fancy. Just a simple tight end screen pass that doesn’t even cross the line of scrimmage. The sissy ran out of bounds: out of bounds on a third down play. What the hell is wrong with this team? We haven’t been to a Super Bowl since the ’80s, yet we play as though success doesn’t matter. Granted, w’’ve made the playoffs, only to stall once we got there. We aren’t a team: we are a bunch of overpaid self-absorbed lunatics who enjoy pummeling each other and chasing after a pigskin ball.
Fourth and seven from the 34-yard line. The skinny waif we call a kicker prances out onto the field to punt for the seventh time. If we didn’t turn the ball over, we’d punt. This game has certainly been our most pathetic to date. I am sick of playing backup and being confined to the bench. This is not where an All-American belongs.
The punt sails for a whopping 22 yards. 22 yards: my crippled uncle could punt farther than that. The lack of enthusiasm and drive in this team is slowly driving me mad. Instead of loving the game of football, I have come to loathe that over which I used to obsess. These guys didn’t deserve to be on any team. Our quarterback is a joke: nothing but a multi-millionaire womanizing boy who skated through college on a scholarship and tutor. He doesn’t even have a degree to show for the time. Someone this arrogant does not deserve the privilege to wear this historic uniform.
Our opponent falls on the ball 22 yards from where it started. I hear the pounding bass from the stadiums stereo system. I could swear that the stadium seats were being shaken loose. The crowd cheers proudly, unaware that they are cheering for a bunch of guys they think are out playing for them. These guys don’t care – these guys aren’t even men, they are boys. Their childish and selfish attitudes have destroyed what used to be such a magnificent and wonderful game.
A sudden gust of wind sends chills throughout my uniform. The longer I sit, the more anxious I become for this game to be over. I have been out of college for three years, and in that time I have yet to play in other than a preseason game. My head pounds in rhythm to the latest pop princess song which blasts throughout the stadium.
The wind is picking up now. I am afraid that if I try to lick my chapped lips, my tongue would get frostbite. My cheeks burn from the freezing air and my eyes lack even the slightest drop of moisture. This had to be hell.
The opposing team dances out on the field, their red and blue uniforms seeming quite gaudy in comparison to our relatively-neutral colors. Their unscathed helmets serve as a reminder as to what a pathetic game this has become. Gone are the mars and scratches which mark signs of fight and battle. Instead everyone’s helmets are pristine and shiny, just like the ink on their multi-million dollar contracts. No one cares.
First and ten on the 44 yard line. The quarterback drops back to pass, tiptoeing backwards like a klutzy ballerina. He manages to trip over his own feet and ends up on his back with one of our players of top of him. The coveted ball pops loose, and after much confusion, somehow one of our players scoops it up while falling to the ground. Amazing, we did something halfway right. Then again, he did trip over his own feet.
First and ten on the 39 yard line. 2 minutes to go, down by 7 points. I look down at my hands, now stiff and unable to move. I try to pick up the football next to me but it slips out of my grasp and lands with a thud on the pine. The ball is now a frozen leather ice cube. Our quarterback drops back and stumbles around, desperately looking for an open target. Just as he launches a pass, he is met by an opposing lineman, who slams him to the ground. As the lineman jumps up and starts pumping his fist in the air and dancing like some sort of rabid gorilla, our quarterback lies on the ground, pounding his fist onto the frozen tundra. My heart skips a couple of beats. He is hurt.
Coach finds his way through the mass of players until he reaches me at the bench. Asking if I’m ready, I nod without the slightest hint of smile on my face. From the look on the Coach’s face, I could see he didn’t have too much faith in me. Then again, how could he have faith in me? He kept Shark in every game so he could get his bonus. No matter that he had a 4-year starter All-American from one of the most prominent football programs in the country on his team. Shark wanted the money, so Shark got the money. I was nothing in their eyes except insurance. Insurance does pay.
Still unable to feel my hands, I race onto the field as quickly as I could given that both my legs were numb and asleep. The fans cheered wildly, figuring this game was theirs since the opposing backup was in. The red and blue players smirk with cockiness. In their minds, this game was over.
Second and twelve from the 37 yard line. 1:48 left in the game, down by 7. Exuding as much confidence as I could muster, I call the play in the huddle. From beneath the snow and ice covered helmets, I could see the blank stares on each of their faces. Where had the fire gone? Surely the cold hadn’t melted everything.
Standing under center, I feel like I am in control. We have no timeouts. We wasted them all at the beginning of the third quarter just so Shark and Bull could get some rest. It is up to me. 17, 88, blue 24, hike! All around me people move about, much like a choreographed number from a Broadway production. I find my receiver over the middle for a quick 8 yard completion. No big deal.
I run up to the new line of scrimmage calling out the play coming in my helmet from the coaches. Strike Down 82. This is nothing more then a quick out to the slot receiver along the out-of-bounds line. I know he is capable of making the grab. It is simply a matter of perfect execution.
Third and four from the 45 yard line. As the play broke, I suddenly realize that they are running a strong side blitz, their defensive backs headed straight towards me. I bait them for a split-second and then fire a pass to my receiver. I groan with the collision of the linemen’s helmet to my chest, knocking me to the turf. I am fine, I think as I pull myself up and straighten my pads. We get a first down and the clock has stopped.
First and ten from midfield. 1:22 left in the game, down by 7. I call a play-action pass, although the coaches tell me to give it to Bull for a run up the middle. He has 96 yards and needs another 100-yard game to earn $25,000. I don’t care. This is a team game, not an individual sport. I drop back and then realize all my receivers are covered downfield. Bull had been pounded into the ground by an overly-aggressive linebacker. Scrambling around, I finally find a hole on the weak side and run as fast as I can. I break a tackle, only to get wrapped up in another tackler’s arms. I knew this guy – he was one tackle from the single-season record for tackles. I am not going to be the guy who gives him that honor. I push him away and spin to the left, leaving him screaming vulgarities from the ground. Next I could see their All-Pro cornerback heading for me, helmet down and prepared to strike. Wrapping both hands firmly around the ball, I crouch and take the impact, sending my body flying out of bounds. Gasping on the ground, I look at the scoreboard. I had gained 28 yards. Unfortunately, the time read 0:51, and no timeouts.
First and ten from the 22. 0:51 to go, down by 7. The crowd has become eerily quiet; the only noise being the screaming from the coaches inside my helmet. You idiot, what the hell are you doing? Why didn’t you give the ball to Bull? No mention of how I had just gained 28 yards on my own. They don’t care. My contract wasn’t designed to give me money for any certain play. I hand the ball off to Ax, the tailback, who takes off to the strong side. He mauls his way through blockers for a gain of six. 0:46, 0:45, 0:44…
My heart isn’t racing, my legs feel steady, and my palms are as dry as they can be given the moist conditions. I hurry the players up to the line for a quick second down play. Magically, as I look around, the snow has subsided. In fact, the grass is as green as the emerald I’d given my girl last Christmas. Our team is wearing brilliant orange and blue with the opposing team wearing gold and crimson. Fans are screaming, the marching band is playing our fight song, and my coach is screaming to air it out and have fun. This is what football was and should be. Not some institution whose only accomplishment is to inflate the already enormous egos. The rhythm of snare drums accentuate my cadence. Fun and gun: no more of this running up the middle bull. This is my time.
I grab the ball from under center and sail back in a smooth motion. I shift to the right. 0:30…0:29…0:28…0:27… I quickly toss the ball to the streaking receiver down the right sideline. He catches it and is immediately shoved out of bounds at the 5. All that can be heard is the crackling of the now-silent stadium stereo system. It’s funny how the fans fail to stand behind their team when they are most desperate. At the Swamp, there was never a quiet moment.
First and goal from the 5. 0:19 to go, down by 7. I knew we didn’t have time for a run, so this was basically it, unless there is an incomplete. I shout the play to my teammates who halfheartedly respond to my commands. They have lost their fire. They don’t even care that we can win this game. The effort seems like too much of a strain for them. What a sickening reality.
I catch the ball from under center. Everyone is covered, with a massive pile at the goal line. Scrambling around, I desperately try to find anyone that is halfway open, but to no avail. 0:14…0:13…0:12…0:11… I run to the right only to be met by a cornerback. He flies off his feet in attempt to tackle me, but I duck to the left, sending him sailing by me. 0:09…0:08…0:07… My entire team has quit fighting. They watch me like I am some unbelievable circus sideshow. I make a beeline for the massive pile which is now 3-high. The only way to score is to go over them. Memories of gymnastics class come flooding back to me from when I was a child. My mom always thought gymnastics would be good for me. Maybe she was right. I planted my feet just long enough to spring into the air, catapulting myself in a somersault over the pile. I landed in the ice-covered end zone just in time to see the scoreboard read 0:00. I had done it! I jump up and instead of running around like a crazed person, I jog off the field, avoiding the mass of muscle and sweat surrounding me. I saw no point in celebrating. There is still an extra point to be attempted.
As all the guys around me are hooting and hollering, I keep my eyes on the field just long enough to see the kicker shank the kick to the left. We had lost. All because of a kicker who spent more time in jail and in off-the-field skirmishes. He acted like he was too good for practice. This ending is just too fitting. I had jump-started the heart which had failed so miserably for the team. And I am hearing that Shark only has a mild ankle sprain, meaning he’ll be back next week. And I’ll be back on the bench, once again. No one will remember that I even played. I am no one to this team. But I am somebody to myself. I have heart. That’s more than I can say for the rest of this group.