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By Peter Gent
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Peter Gent
All rights reserved.
Taylor Jefferson Rusk moved into the hotel a week ahead of the team. He took the key to his assigned room on the ninth floor, dropped it into his back pocket, then checked into the penthouse suite as E. Fudd.
The huge twenty-fifth-floor suite had a 360-degree view of Park City, and access was limited by a special key to the private elevator. Taylor's plan was to stay hidden.
"You guys going to win the Super Bowl, Mr. Rusk?" The bellman unloaded Taylor's bags from the dolly. "We got it on pay TV here in the hotel. Every room'll be filled at triple the rate."
"My name is Fudd. E. Fudd." He handed the bellman a fifty-dollar bill. "Mr. Rusk is registered into a room on nine. Anybody wants him, send them there." He handed the bill to the uniformed man. "General Grant will arrive every day the identities of Mr. Fudd and Mr. Rusk stay separate."
The tall quarterback pulled back the curtain to view the city skyline; the sun was high, casting hard shadows through the light smog. The Pistol Dome was humped up far to the south, dark against the horizon.
"You gonna beat 'em by sixteen?" The bellman slid the fifty-dollar bill into his green jacket pocket. "That's the latest line outta Vegas."
"I don't gamble." Taylor stared at the giant growth on the horizon. "Too much like believing in God, banking on a miracle to keep the corn growing or the dice rolling.... Too much ritual, not enough substance, to show He has chosen you." The quarterback pointed at the Dome. "There's your cathedral, one hundred and sixty million dollars of veneration. The Opium of the Masses. OPM. Other People's Money."
The bellman's pointed face pulled into a wolfish smile. "I was just wondering if you heard talk? Sixteen points is a big spread."
Taylor turned to the pockmarked, nervous, rumpled man. Dirty gold braid decorated his dark-green outfit.
"Well, what do you think?" The man was looking for an edge on life. Any edge.
"What do you think?" Taylor tossed back.
"I think you can do it. If you got a reason."
Taylor hadn't expected that reply. "Winning is reason enough."
"Winning is one more, not sixteen more." The bellman stood his ground, probing, poking around. "Sixteen points is a big spread. Sports writers and handicappers on TV, they say you've made the Franchise a Super Bowl power. They say Denver really isn't as good as their record, what with computer scheduling, parity, the playoff system and the competition committee. But," the bellman waved away the media obfuscation, "in January everybody's a football expert. I want to know what you think."
"I can't tell you what I think. It's against the rules." Taylor returned his gaze to the outside, looking down at the University.
"You been around...." The bellman pressed. "Your opinion means something, Mr. Rusk."
The six-foot-five-inch, 225-pound quarterback of the Texas Pistols turned from the window and looked at the bellman. Taylor's voice was soft. "You insist on confusing me with that guy down on nine." He stuck his big hand out. "Gimme back the fifty dollars."
Reluctantly the man in the green jacket placed the bill in the huge palm. Taylor tore it in half and handed one piece back to the bellman. "You get the other half tomorrow if no one else confuses me with the guy down on nine."
"It won't happen again," the agitated little man said.
"Quarterbacks are either in the penthouse or the shithouse." Taylor tossed the remaining half bill on the dresser. "I want to be undisturbed in the penthouse."
The bellman disappeared out the door.
Taylor Rusk moved back to the glass, watching the course of the river as it slid brown beneath the ancient iron Red River Street Bridge. He didn't remember the water turning dirty this early.
Taylor looked back out to the giant hulking shape crouched fearsomely south of the city. The Pistol Dome was a sleeping dragon that he would have to fight soon.
"Gamble or die," Taylor said aloud with a slight resignation. "Or change games."
Turning away from the glass wall and the hazy skyline, Taylor wandered around the penthouse suite, ending his perambulation in the bedroom. He began unpacking.
Winning is one more, not sixteen more.
But Dick Conly promised that salvation was beating Denver by the purposely, insanely, high spread. Salvation from what was never quite clear; nevertheless Taylor and Red Kilroy had worked to preempt espionage and sabotage ordered by the Cobianco brothers, Suzy Chandler and A.D. Koster. Taylor hoped they had worked effectively.
It could be done. It had to be done. Beat Denver by one point more than the spread.
Taylor stripped naked, laid a bath towel on the soft thick beige carpet and did thirty minutes of Yoga poses, ending cross-legged, eyes closed, arms resting on his legs, thumbs and index fingers forming circles.
The circles. The power.
Next, stretched out flat, he ordered each muscle to relax, tum loose. He let the blood flow, breaking the dam of tension. Forgotten sore spots quivered, jerked, twitched. Breathing deeply through his nose, Taylor began concentrating on the red spot growing between his eyes.
Awakening at dusk, Taylor knew. They could deliver the Super Bowl. Whatever was necessary, he would create. The great joy of exceptional talent was knowing what was needed. Taylor Rusk needed not to beat himself. That he knew.
Sixteen points behind at the gate required a fast start, acceleration, high-speed thinking and looking far ahead, over hills, around corners.
It seemed impossible. Almost.
He would succeed, he decided then and there, using whatever it took from horseshoes to handgrenades, going fast and hard, craving the action, the adrenaline, the movement and the velocity of his life and the game. An athlete's life: destructive and creative, invincible and frangible; each day a battle, a race that must be run, always going faster and harder. Yet, Taylor Rusk also knew he was reaching the finish line, reaching the end without a way to slow down. Twenty years of acceleration just to hit the wall. And sooner or later everybody hit the wall. Taylor knew the finish was close, so the crash would be less startling—not any less destructive, just not quite the surprise.
Life as demolition derby. The athlete's life. Taylor wouldn't have it any other way. He couldn't.
Simon hadn't been ready to hit the wall. He didn't know about it.
A.D. crashed early. While others lost it in the curves, he picked up the pieces and the loose change. But he still crashed.
Red Kilroy skidded along the wall for years, tearing up his family and his insides.
Dick Conly built the Franchise for Cyrus Chandler, and they pushed each other to the wall, yoked together by a deathbed promise, a bond of hate and greed. Their poisonous feud raced through the economic and social fabric of Texas, putting lots of people into the wall. The crashing and burning boggled Taylor's mind.
During the Franchise's building years, even fans hit the wall. Too many times, Taylor Rusk had opened the Monday paper to face orphaned children and a fat widow. Father had hit the wall, leaving a note blaming his suicide on "the Pistols' constant turnovers and their inability to move the ball in sustained drives." In those days, Taylor's voice echoed through the ancient, nearly empty Colony Stadium as he called snap numbers and audibles.
"Four-three ... set."
Ghostlike, his voice would return from the empty seats around Lamar Jean Lukas, the First Fan. One of the few survivors.
"Four-three ... set."
The rats in the locker room used to eat the leather earpieces out of headgears, and scorpions joined the players in the showers. Now fans fought and killed to get possession of the ticket. Big-bucks fans. Five-thousand-dollar-bond fans. One-hundred-thousand-dollar luxury skybox fans. Now divorce settlements hinged, not on custody of the children, but on custody of the Pistols season tickets. One woman successfully pleaded, "What's the use of having the goddam kids if he's got the football tickets?"
The Pistol Dome and the Pay-Per-View TV were Dick Conly's parting brainstorm. The monument to his fiscal and creative genius. Commissioner Burden had wanted Dick to wait until the League got complete antitrust exemption through the Congress, but Dick Conly didn't wait on anybody, the League or the Congress.
Dick didn't make money, he created value—and he wanted to have his legacy in place before the rules changed and somebody got a hand in his pocket. For the ten Pistols home games the past season, Channel Thirty-three Pay-Per-View drew a hundred thousand households at forty dollars apiece, paid by Electronic Funds Transfer.
Four million dollars for every home game, collected at the speed of light.
Forty million dollars a season unshared. There was no League provision for the sharing of home-game pay-television revenues. And with their own pay-TV broadcast hardware and brand-name software, there was no limit to the Pistols' market. A truly national football team.
Beat the spread. That was Taylor Rusk's part in Dick Conly's last great scheme for the Franchise. It finally came down to that.
Taylor stood at the hotel window and watched the night overtake the city. The sun sank behind the ridgeline, lights twinkled, the sky glowed pink. The Pistol Dome turned darker as the daylight faded. Soon it was hidden in the growing shadow of the rock scarp, crouched out in the dark south of town. Waiting. It was waiting for him, waiting for the Franchise.
Taylor Jefferson Rusk had come a long way and traveled such a short distance. It seemed like yesterday.
Now the kingdom was in disarray.CHAPTER 2
It was the heat that awed Taylor Rusk as he played football in central Texas, watching the surf of hot air rising up off the baked earth, a gauze curtain rippling the blazing rising sun that greeted the morning workout. The hot waves distorting, wobbling the orange ball as it climbed, growing hotter.
The heat. Taylor Rusk would play football in Texas for twenty years and was continually amazed when it got so damn hot he could see it.
He first noticed it his freshman year, the first morning practice at Park City High School.
Taylor's parents didn't live in wealthy Park City. They lived in Two Oaks, a small hill-country town between San Antonio and Austin. The Park City coach flew in and recruited Taylor his eighth-grade year. His father told him it was an opportunity to "advance," and so Taylor Rusk advanced down out of the hills and moved in with his aunt and uncle in Park City.
Taylor spent the early morning of his first high school practice watching the waggling sun tottering up into the blue clear sky.
Later Taylor would be described in his Park City High senior yearbook. The Wildcat, as "a popular and friendly transfer who led the Cats to consecutive state championships. He plans to attend the University." He didn't remember being all that popular or friendly, but he did know it's what's on the paper that counts. The statistics.
"We exist only on paper," Simon D'Hanis, another transfer, said. "We are the stats."
D'Hanis came from Vidor, near Beaumont, in East Texas. Hard folks, swamp people from the Big Thicket. His father was a mean drunk; his mother, Silsbee trash, was kind and cowed and beaten. "It's a way out, Simon," she said, signing papers making the Park City coach Simon's legal guardian. He never saw his parents again.
Simon D'Hanis lived in the locker room.
Taylor also got to know A.D. Koster, a wise guy, whose house slipped into the Park City school district by one of those bureaucratic accidents that make life worth living. Abraham Dwight Koster had been in the streets since he was nine, when his mother married a merchant marine in Los Angeles and sent A.D. back to live with her mother in a tiny bungalow backed up against the toll road. All through high school Koster drank and dealt pills and weed. Abraham Dwight Koster also was kind and attentive to his senile old grandmother, forging her shaky signature so he could cash her personal and Social Security checks long after she had died.
Abraham Dwight Koster had great natural athletic ability, with good bone and muscle structure. He had a quick mind, always probing for weakness, looking for the edge. A.D. was a natural football player, drunk or sober, and by his senior year at Park City he had played both ways an equal number of times.
By then Simon D'Hanis was All-State guard. He worked every summer, changing tires at the truckstop on the traffic circle, and turned hard.
A.D. Koster discovered amphetamine sulfate and was an All-State back. Second team.
A.D., Simon and Taylor Rusk were friends by acts of omission. At preppy, sophisticated Park City they really didn't belong to any group and so became a group themselves.
Strangers in a strange land.
Taylor was an exceptional athlete as a freshman. Simon and A.D. became really great football players as juniors.
Taylor possessed great athletic ability and the willingness to work and develop his skills. He grew four inches, put on twenty pounds between his sophomore and junior years and at the same time increased his agility, playing basketball and drilling five hours a day. Every day. Taylor never drank or smoked and was beginning his athletic blooming at exactly the right time, in exactly the right dimensions. And at Park City he filled a very necessary slot in the Three-Deep charts.
He advanced. He looked good on paper and on the field, breaking school and state passing records the next two years. By Taylor's sophomore year the Park City coach had nothing left to teach, so the coach, a strict disciplinarian, became frightened of Taylor, spending most of Taylor's junior year trying to convince him he wasn't that good. It was the first lesson Taylor learned about coaches' mind games, and by then it was too late for the coach. Their relationship was never more than a business deal.
Park City, behind the quarterbacking of Taylor Rusk, won the state championship twice. A.D. and Simon were also stars, and with their support Taylor controlled the team.
"I was just testing you as a junior," the Park City coach told Taylor his senior year. "To see if you could take the pressure."
"I was testing you too," Taylor replied. "And you graded out prime asshole."
The Park City coach's face tightened and he stomped away yelling, "Jocks! Prima donna sons of bitches!"
"The man loves the game," Taylor told Simon. "Loves the game—hates the players."
Taylor, Simon and A.D. went to the University together. They were recruited by Lem Carleton, Jr., the University regents chairman. Lem took them to the Spur Club dining room, bought them steaks, got Simon and A.D. drunk, then pointed out that the most important people in the state, including himself, had gone to the University and the real important ones were tapped into the Spur Club.
"You guys are real blue chippers," Lem said. "You think I'd bring any football player up here? This is the Spur dining room. Right, Taylor?" Lem asked cannily, preempting Taylor's response. Taylor had forced Lem to invite A.D. and Simon.
"Yeah." The quarterback was not enthusiastic. "Real blue chippers."
"You said it, bubba," Lem junior gushed.
"I guess I did." Taylor watched Simon twist nervously in his ill-fitting suit while A.D.'s head swiveled, eagerly devouring the expensive wainscotting, the furniture, the lovely hostess, the elegance of quiet wealth and power.
Later, Regents Chairman Lem Carleton, Jr., took Taylor Rusk, Simon D'Hanis and A.D. Koster from the Spur Club over to a whorehouse in an apartment building just off campus. Simon, Lem and A.D. grabbed women and went upstairs.
Taylor Rusk stayed in the kitchen and talked to Madam Earlette.
She told him about the moonlighting wives and mothers picking up a few bucks with their bodies.
"We're all on scholarship here, sonny." Earlette gestured up with her head, making her heavy jowls wobble. "I ain't even got my first team here tonight." Her rheumy brown eyes narrowed. "They all spend one night home with the family in Park City."
Excerpted from The Franchise by Peter Gent. Copyright © 1983 Peter Gent. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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