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A Pass and A Prayer
By Clair Bee
Broadman & Holman PublishersCopyright © 1999 Randall K. and Cynthia Bee Farley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe New Coach Makes a Hit
WILLIAM "CHIP" HILTON, Valley Falls High School's all-state quarterback, dug his cleats in short, driving steps toward the football resting on the tee and drove the toe of his kicking shoe squarely against the dirt mark he had placed on the ball a few seconds earlier. The tremendous power in the lanky athlete's vicious forward thrust exploded through the ball, and before the spectators in the stands heard the thud of shoe against pigskin, the ball arched swiftly out and up, end over end for Midwestern's goal line. A continuous roar erupted from the stands as the blue, and red-uniformed figures burst into action.
The tall kicker followed the ball's downfield flight with long strides that ate up the distance. He quickly edged yards ahead of his teammates. Chip Hilton could really move, and he knew how to speed past would-be blockers as if they weren't even there. With a joyous grunt of exultation, Hilton met the Prep ball carrier head-on at the twenty-yard line, and again, before they heard the crash of the two bodies, the fans saw the ball shoot out along the ground amid a wild scramble, which ended when the tackler's red-clad arms pulled the ball close to his body and his legs curled protectively around the prize. So, less than tenseconds after the scrimmage between Valley Falls High School and Midwestern Preparatory School had begun, the Big Reds had recovered the kickoff and the ball was on the Prep twenty-two-yard line, first down and ten to go.
Hilton was up and back behind the ball, waiting for his teammates to join him before half of them reached the huddle. "C'mon, guys!" he cried. "Let's go!"
The Big Reds needed no urging. While Midwestern was trying to get organized, Speed Morris, Valley Falls's elusive ball carrier, slashed inside the right tackle for six, Chris Badger hit the center for two, and Cody Collins drove to the eight-yard line on a cross buck for the first down. Before the linesmen could move the chain, the Big Reds were out of the huddle, into their T-formation, and Hilton was calling the signals.
A mass of bodies merged, forming a pileup in the center of the line, and then Hilton leaped into the air, rifling a bullet, pass to his left end just at the goal line for a touchdown. Seconds later, the blond quarterback booted the extra point and trotted back up the field. He felt good.
The Prep students had eagerly thronged to the stadium to see Midwestern slaughter Valley Falls. Now they were stunned.
"This isn't supposed to happen! Seven points in less than a minute! Seven points!"
"Who's that guy? That 44?"
"That's Hilton! All-state! Best quarterback in the country!"
"You can say that again! Kicks off, makes the tackle, recovers the fumble, and passes for a touchdown!"
"And kicks the extra point! What a player!"
"The whole team's like that!"
"They must have been practicin' a month!"
The last statement was an exaggeration. The Big Reds of Valley Falls had been practicing only four days. Coach Henry "Rock" Rockwell was fortunate to have his championship team intact from the previous year with the exception of one end and a guard. The squad knew Rockwell's T-formation plays by heart. More than that, every veteran had reported in top condition.
At that very moment, the veteran mentor was executing a slow-motion block for two reserves near the bench. Rockwell believed in keeping himself and all the Big Reds on their toes every possible second.
The other members of the coaching staff were busy too. Chet Stewart, one of Rock's former players and now his first assistant, was working with the reserve line. Tom Brasher, new to Valley Falls High School, was putting the novices through signals in front of the bleachers, where most of the Prep students were sitting. Brasher had been with the Big Reds only four days.
Under the goal, where the last bit of action had taken place, Bill Richards, the new Midwestern coach, was surrounded by the entire Prep squad. He was irate. The Big Reds regulars, grouped near the center of the field, couldn't hear what Richards was saying, but they could see his arms waving.
"Things will be different now," Biggie Cohen drawled, nodding toward the Prep team. "The party is over!"
Soapy Smith whistled ominously and, after a cautious glance toward the bench to make sure Rockwell wasn't watching, began limping around on the inside of the little circle. "Oh, my ankle," he moaned, "my poor ankle! Wonder why the Rockhead doesn't take me out? He knows I carry this team on my back!"
Red Schwartz snorted. "Hah! The only thing you carry on your back is number 88 and the Gatorade for the players!"
Soapy ignored Red and continued his limp, moaning and grumbling. "Bet the little Prepsidoodles are gonna be real mad now!"
"Looks like someone else is real mad," Speed Morris said softly, pointing cautiously toward the sidelines.
Tom Brasher, the new member of the Valley Falls coaching staff, wasn't a bit angry, but no one could tell that by his actions. He looked as if he was on a rampage, stamping back and forth in front of Josh Connors, Hilton's understudy, waving his arms, and bellowing at the unfortunate youngster who had apparently made some kind of mistake. It was a good act, but it had no effect upon the regulars out on the field.
"Seems to be excited about something," Red Schwartz remarked dryly.
"Maybe he studied electrocution," Soapy quipped.
Schwartz shook his head. "No, Soapy," he said soothingly, "you mean elocution. We got to get him that thesaurus, guys!"
"What's the difference?" Soapy asked aggressively. "Electrocution, elocution, execution hah! Depends on how they're used! Besides-"
"Look!" Morris interrupted. "What's all that about?"
The new coach had crouched in the defensive right-end position while the skeleton team was coming up to the ball in the T-formation. Connors was in the quarterback spot, his voice ringing out clearly and with much the same vibrant decisiveness Hilton employed.
With the snap of the ball, Connors turned left, pivoted, and followed his interference toward his right end on an in-and-out sweep. Brasher charged across the line at the same time and sprinted after Josh, catching up with the young quarterback and dropping him to the ground with a vicious tackle from the rear. The contact was so sudden and the weight of the tackler so overpowering that the little ball carrier doubled back over Brasher's shoulder. Then the driving momentum of the tackle lifted the boy and smashed him brutally to the ground.
"What's he trying to do?" Cohen cried.
Brasher scrambled to his feet and trotted back to the defensive end position, glancing quickly at the bleachers to make sure the spectators appreciated his performance. But he was disappointed. The Prep fans had quieted suddenly. They were anxiously looking at the little quarterback bravely trying to get to his feet. But Connors couldn't make it, and he fell back on the ground writhing in pain.
Chip Hilton's reaction was automatic. Without thinking, he dashed off the field and over to Connors's side. Biggie Cohen followed. Josh was again struggling to stand. "Stay down, Josh," Chip said softly. "Let Pop take a look at your leg."
"I'm all right, Chip," Josh insisted, trying to push himself upright. "I just didn't know he was going to tackle me."
Brasher came back just in time to hear the words. "Didn't know I was gonna tackle you!" he grated. "What did you think I was gonna do, kiss you?"
"Sorry, Coach," Josh tried to explain, "but we were running signals, and I just didn't expect anyone to tackle me."
"Well, expect it the next time," Brasher interrupted harshly, "and keep in mind that football's a game of speed. When you're carryin' the goods, you gotta move! If you don't move, you get tackled! Now, come on, get up on your feet. And this time, move when you carry the ball!"
But Connors was in no shape to move; he could hardly stand. So Chip and Biggie half-led, half-carried him to the bench where Pop Brown, the Big Reds trainer, took over. Chip and Biggie stood next to Pop for a second, worried about Josh's leg and disturbed by a growing resentment toward Tom Brasher. The Big Reds weren't used to that kind of coaching.
Rockwell's voice jarred the two players into action. "Let's go, Chip! Biggie! Step on it!"
Chip and Biggie swung around, surprised to find Midwestern lined up to receive and their teammates spread across the field behind the ball. They hurried toward their positions but, on the way, each glanced swiftly at Brasher. The new assistant coach was standing right where they'd left him, hands on hips, glaring in their direction.
"How come the Rock lets him get away with that stuff?" Biggie demanded angrily.
"He didn't see it, Biggie," Chip explained quietly. Cohen grunted with disgust.
"Well, he shoulda seen it!" he growled. "Lots of things he shoulda seen about that guy the last couple of days! If he starts any of that with me-"
Biggie didn't finish the sentence, but Chip knew exactly what he meant. Chip adjusted the ball on the tee and dropped back to his normal starting position, thinking the same thing. This wasn't the first time Brasher had smashed into an unsuspecting scrub in the past three days. Most of the reserves were willing but inexperienced, and not one of them carried enough weight to absorb the crushing jar of Brasher's solid 220 pounds. Chip couldn't help wishing the new coach would try a couple of his demonstrations on Biggie. He glanced at his friend's powerful back and grinned. The Rock had said Biggie was the strongest athlete he'd ever known. And the Rock had known a lot of them.
The referee's whistle shrilled, and Chip concentrated on a spot on the ball. He met it solidly, sending the kick high enough to give his teammates time to get well down the field. He knew from the feel of the impact that the ball would reach the goal line. Chip tore straight down the middle of the field toward the receiver, and once again he made the tackle. But the ball carrier didn't fumble this time; he wrapped both arms around the ball and squeezed it hard into his stomach.
Bill Richards, Midwestern's coach, didn't use the huddle. So the Prepsters lined up in regular T-formation first, ran or passed from it, or shifted to a single wing. But no matter what formation or play they used, the Big Reds stopped them cold.
Most quarterbacks like to test their opponents with an off-tackle slant, and the Prep field general was no exception. He ran his first scrimmage play right at Biggie Cohen, the Big Reds left tackle. That was a bad call. Cohen was the biggest player on the field, packing 220 pounds on his six-four frame. Midwestern's star running back stopped as if he had run into a force field. He took a long time getting up, even with Biggie's helping hand. A thrust into the line was smeared as efficiently by Lou Mazotta, the Big Reds quiet, serious-faced tackle known as "Mr. Four-by-Four."
The desperate quarterback gambled on a long, down-the-middle pass but lost. Chip had shifted the Big Reds defense into a five-three-two-one on third down and ten, with Nick Trullo, Soapy Smith, and Chris Badger backing up the line, Speed Morris and Cody Collins on the wings, and himself in the safety position.
The long toss was meant for the converging ends, but Chip kept behind them until the ball nosed downward. Then he flashed forward, leaped high in the air, and gathered in the spinning ball. It almost seemed as if the Big Reds had planned the interception, judging by the way they sprang up ahead of their racing captain and mowed down the frantic opponents. Chip crossed the goal line standing up.
Once again the stands buzzed. Midwestern fans were bewildered. The sudden sprint and the second tally came almost as unexpectedly and explosively as the first score had.
"This isn't supposed to be happening!"
"Ditto! We been practicin' two weeks! This is supposed to be our year! Those guys can't be that good!"
"That quarterback's that good! That Hilton!"
"He ought to be! He's been all-state for a couple of years."
"The whole team's back! All but a couple of linemen!"
"You never know what they're gonna do!"
"You mean you don't know what that quarterback's gonna do!"
"You haven't seen anything yet! Wait until Hilton uses their spread formation and starts throwing strikes to his receivers!"
"What's the name of the coach? The old guy?"
"That's Rockwell! They call him the Rock! He's won more championships than any high school coach in the country! He's been coaching thirty-six years."
"Thirty-six years? Must be seventy years old!"
Rockwell wasn't that old, but right at that moment he felt a lot older. All week he had been fighting a cold, fighting to stay on the job. This afternoon he had a fever, felt hot one minute, was shivering the next. He was also worried about the new assistant on his coaching staff. It wouldn't have been so bad if he had known something about Tom Brasher, something about his background and training.
Bill Thomas's sudden decision to move into the business world had caught Rockwell unaware, and before he could find a good replacement, Principal Zimmerman had told him that Mayor Condon and the school board had hired Brasher.
He discovered that Brasher was a close friend of Jerry Davis, an avowed enemy, but Rockwell had hoped for the best and welcomed the new coach with an open mind. But something about the man didn't seem quite right, and the veteran coach had sensed trouble. After four days of working together and cautious observation, Rockwell was sure he had identified his new assistant correctly. Tom Brasher was a know-it-all, a showoff, and a braggart.
The Big Reds' spirited play was the one thing that kept Rockwell going this afternoon. He shook off his cold, fever, and personal feelings, and forced himself to concentrate on his team.
After Chip converted the extra point following the second touchdown, Rockwell called for a time-out and sent Chip and his three backfield mates trotting to the sidelines.
"Tell Coach Brasher to send in the reserve backs, Chip," he said quietly. "You fellows better run through your signals. The timing wasn't too good on the cross buck!"
Soapy Smith waited until Rockwell was out of hearing, then protested. "That guy," he said deliberately, "wouldn't be satisfied if we scored a touchdown every play!" He snorted again. "Timing! Hah! Maybe each one of us oughta wear a stopwatch!" Jordan Taylor, Bill Carroll, Dan Harding, and Bob Blaine had just run onto the field when Brasher turned on Rockwell's first-string backfield.
"Now let's see if you fellows have any speed," he sneered, his penetrating black eyes focused full on Chip's face. "Let's see you go around right end on an in-and-out sweep, Hilton."
Chip took his place behind the center and checked the positions of his backs. But he had caught the hard glint in Brasher's menacing glance and, before starting the signals, noted that the new backfield coach had again assumed the defensive right-end position.
On "41," Spike Davis snapped the ball into Chip's hands. Chip pivoted sharply, drove back three steps, and then picked up his interference. There was no indecision in the footwork of this backfield; the timing was precise. Brasher knew the starting signal and cheated a little in his desperate desire to overtake his next target. He sliced as close behind the line as possible and dove headlong at the back of Chip's legs. But just as Brasher's feet left the ground, Chip turned on a burst of speed and raced away behind the wall of interference. Brasher shot forward in a full belly flop and sprawled awkwardly on the ground.
Laughter rolled from the stands, and the chagrined coach scrambled to his feet, blazing with anger. But he couldn't do anything, not even when he saw Chip's backfield mates smiling and exchanging glances as they came trotting back. He could only glare with hate-filled eyes when Chip innocently asked, "Shall we run it again, Coach?"
There was a brief, awkward pause. When he realized Brasher was so angry he couldn't speak, Chip called the signals and began working with the backfield on the cross-buck timing. Chip had forgotten the whole incident, but Chip's teammates didn't forget it. They'd seen the evil look in Brasher's eyes as the disgruntled man watched the Big Reds captain and all-state quarterback. Every member of that veteran backfield knew Chip Hilton had incurred the burning enmity of Valley Falls's new backfield coach.
Excerpted from A Pass and A Prayer by Clair Bee Copyright © 1999 by Randall K. and Cynthia Bee Farley
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.