Read an Excerpt
As usual, he was just running around looking for people to hit.
Not in a dirty way that might get somebody on the other team hurt, or get himself hurt. Tommy Gallagher wasn’t that type of football player. That wasn’t him. More importantly, that wasn’t how his dad had taught him to play the game.
“Always remember that cheap shots are called that for a reason,” Patrick Gallagher reminded Tommy before the season started, as if Tommy needed reminding. “You throw one of those, you’re the one who ends up looking cheap. You don’t lay out a guy who’s defenseless, you don’t take out a guy’s knees, and you never go looking to put your hat on the other guy’s.”
That was what Patrick Gallagher called helmets: hats.
“Lead with my shoulder,” Tommy said.
“And your great big oversized heart,” his dad said.
Tommy was leading with both today. His official position with the Brighton Bears was strong safety.
But his dad said that he was really what they used to call a “monster back” in his day, just like the retired Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu. The great defender known for his big plays and big head of hair. Tommy played like him, which meant he was a safety and linebacker and baseball center fielder all at once.
And a hitter.
Tommy’s coach, John Fisher, liked to tell people, “Tommy Gallagher’s real position is wherever the football happens to be at a given moment.”
Patrick Gallagher put it another way: He said Tommy found the fastest route to the ball the way the GPS in your car found you the fastest way home.
Tommy had been doing that all morning against the Allston Jaguars. Playing in the Bears’ second game of the season, he’d been racking up stats and hits. He’d already intercepted his first pass of the year. He’d forced two fumbles, recovering one himself. He’d broken up pass play after pass play and had absolutely shut down the Jaguars’ running game, even beating defensive linemen and linebackers to the ball all the way from the secondary. And that was no easy thing considering the Bears’ middle linebacker Rob Greco—known as “Greck,” the way the Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski was known as “Gronk”—was a heat-seeking missile on a football field.
But Tommy was having that kind of day, flying around the field from the moment the ball had been kicked off. Now it was third and ten from midfield and when he looked over at Coach John Fisher on the sideline, Tommy was happy to see him signal for a blitz. For Tommy, there was nothing more fun in football than getting to the quarterback.
He timed the snap count perfectly, blew past the Jags’ left offensive tackle, then shoved the running back trying to block him out of the way. Now he had a clear path to the Jags’ quarterback, Ryan Combs. Ryan was looking to his right as he started to set himself to throw, locked in on his receiver. He had no idea that Tommy, coming from his blind side, had a clear shot at him. But Tommy didn’t take the shot, because Ryan was defenseless in that moment. That would’ve been the definition of a cheap shot. Instead, Tommy wrapped Ryan up in a bear hug, then put him down on the ground.
It was a full sack. But only half a hit from Tommy Gallagher, though his teammates said that even half a hit from him was bad enough.
When the play was over, Tommy reached down and helped Ryan, a good guy he knew from summer camp, get back up on his feet.
“Are you sure you’re not lining up in our backfield?” Ryan said after he handed the ball to the ref.
“That would take all the fun out of it.”
“I’m sorry,” Ryan said. “This is fun?”
Tommy grinned. “For me it is.”
“Is there any chance you could dial down the fun factor a little bit?”
“Well, I could,” Tommy said. “But I’d have to find another sport.”
Ryan tipped his helmet back so Tommy could see he was grinning, too.
“I’m willing to help you with that!” he said.
The Jags’ punt team was coming onto the field. Ryan jogged toward his bench, while Greck and Tommy ran toward their own.
“Dude, I can’t believe you beat me to the quarterback again!” Greck said. “You are totally on fire today.”
As soon as he said it, Greck realized his mistake. Everybody on the team knew that Tommy didn’t like anybody using that word around him.
Patrick Gallagher, Tommy’s dad, was a Boston fireman. One of Boston’s bravest. Tommy knew that fire was part of his dad’s job—no, it was his job—but that didn’t mean he had to like it. He loved the idea that his dad sometimes saved lives. He understood the risks his dad had to take, even though Patrick Gallagher liked to joke he was in more danger turning on the grill in the backyard than he was on the job.
As much as his dad joked around, though, Tommy knew his dad put his life on the line every day on the job. So Tommy still didn’t want to be talking about fire when he was playing football. Or thinking about it.
“Sorry,” Greck said.
“Hey, no worries,” Tommy said, slapping Greck on the shoulder pads.
Even at twelve, Tommy understood that his dad put his life in danger for the job. He knew what a difference his dad made in people’s lives. As important as football was to Tommy—and his dad—though, he would never treat football like a life or death situation.
All I’m trying to do, Tommy thought, is make plays, win football games, and have fun doing it.
There was plenty of fun going around today. But the Bears were still only leading the Jags 12–7, midway through the third quarter. The Bears’ quarterback and one of Tommy’s best friends on the team, Nick Petty, had thrown two touchdown passes in the first quarter. But their offense had produced nothing since, and one of the Jags’ wide receivers had returned a punt for a touchdown right before halftime. And it didn’t help that the Bears had missed both extra-point attempts. So even though Tommy and Greck and the rest of the guys on defense were piling on the hits, the game was way too close with a lot of time left on the clock.
Tommy ran right up to Nick while the Jags’ punter was kicking the ball out of bounds.
“Get me some points,” Tommy said.
“Trying,” Nick said. Then he poked Tommy with an elbow as he said, “You’re saying we don’t have enough already to win?”
“We do,” Tommy said. “I just want you to be able to relax a little in the fourth.”
“With you around?” Nick said. “No shot. Coach goes easier on me than you do.”
“Get me more points.”
“You said that already,” Nick said. “And I told you I’m trying.”
Tommy gave Nick a little shove toward the field. “Like my dad always says, trying is good but doing is better.”
Speaking of his dad, Tommy looked into the stands, hoping to spot him. No luck.
Patrick Gallagher, filling in for a friend, was supposed to get off his overnight shift at eleven o’clock. Tommy never looked at his phone during a game, but he figured it had to be well past eleven by now because the game had started at ten. Tommy turned his head and took another look at the bleachers behind their bench. His dad wasn’t in his usual spot, alone in the corner of the last row, where he always was, wherever the game was being played, home or away. His mom usually sat with the other moms, which she was doing today, his sister Emily right beside her. But when his dad got here, Tommy knew he’d head right to the top corner. He liked to be able to concentrate, without any distractions, on every move Tommy made. Good or bad. Win or lose.
Tommy always heard about the highs and the lows when they got together after the game.
On the next drive, Nick and the offense didn’t get him more points, didn’t even get a first down, or give the defense much of a breather. So Tommy was back out there before he knew it. But after what felt like a minute later, he was batting away a third-down pass intended for the Jags’ tight end. He was off the field just as quickly as he’d gotten back on it. If the Bears weren’t going to score more points, neither were the Jags. If it meant that Tommy had to do whatever it took to make Brighton’s lead stand up, fine with him. In a close game like this, there was always a part of him, a big one, that made him feel as if the game were in his hands as much as Nick’s.
It was still 12–7 four minutes into the fourth quarter and the Jags were on their best drive of the game. Ryan was mixing up runs and passes, managing for these few minutes to run away from Tommy and make quick throws to the outside that negated Tommy’s speed, and instincts. Then Greck made a rare mistake, letting the Jags’ tight end get behind him on the left sideline. Tommy could only watch helplessly from the middle of the field as Ryan made a sweet throw, hitting his receiver in stride. As he did, Tommy was already at full speed, trying to get back into the play, finally catching the kid from behind and bringing him down at the Bears’ ten-yard line.
“I’m an idiot!” Greck said in the huddle, banging the sides of his helmet with his huge hands.
“Everyone makes mistakes,” Tommy said. “But you’re still a great football player.”
“Not on that play.”
“What play?” Tommy said. “I don’t remember that one.”
It was another thing Patrick Gallagher always talked about: Developing instant amnesia about a play that had already happened.
“I hear you,” Greck said, nodding. “I got this.”
“No,” Tommy said. “We got this.”
On the next play, the Jags’ running back ran up the middle for four yards, Tommy and Greck combining on the tackle. Ryan tried to fool them on second down, rolling to his right like he was planning to keep it himself and run. But Tommy read the play perfectly, read the blockers perfectly, and saw that they were running laterally without crossing the line of scrimmage.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw one of the Jags’ wide receivers coming from the other side of the field, running easily, as if he weren’t really in on the play. But Tommy knew better, and immediately revised what he’d just said to Greck in the huddle.
I got this, he told himself.
At the exact same moment Ryan pulled up to pass, eyes locked on his target, seeing him wide open in the middle of the field, but not seeing Tommy at all. Tommy was ready, breaking hard toward the wide receiver just as Ryan released the ball.
It all happened fast, like a video replay that’s been sped up ten times. It happened the way it had when the Patriots had beaten the Seahawks in the last seconds of Super Bowl XLIX, when Patriots’ defensive back Malcolm Butler had read Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson perfectly right before stepping in and making the most famous interception in Super Bowl history.
Tommy was the one reading the play now in Allston, running along the goal line, cutting in front of the receiver as Ryan’s pass arrived.
Finding the fastest route to the ball one more time.
It turned out to be a perfect throw. Only problem for the Jags was that it landed right in Tommy’s hands.
He heard the intended receiver yell “Hey!” as Tommy caught the ball, running toward the sideline, already picking up speed as the rest of the players seemed to be going in the other direction, not realizing that offense had suddenly become defense. Tommy tucked the ball under his right arm and had plenty of time and room to turn himself upfield, with all that open space ahead of him, all that green.
He gave a quick look over his left shoulder and saw some white Jaguar jerseys starting to give chase. The Allston players must’ve realized what happened, how quickly the play had turned around, maybe wondering how Tommy had gotten to midfield this fast. His quick, long strides brought him closer and closer to the end zone. Forty-yard line now.
Try and catch me.
Tommy could feel himself smiling. He thought about taking another look back to see if any defenders were close behind. But there was no need. He had kicked it up to high gear and he was only racing against himself now.
He was crossing into the end zone when he heard the siren.