Tony Lord stood in a bowl of light.
The night air was crisp and cold: it smelled faintly of burning leaves and Bermuda grass, popcorn oil wafting from the bleachers. Beneath the klieg lights, the football field was a fluorescent yellow green, surrounded by darkness. The cheers and the stomping of feet in the wooden stands carried the energies of a town of thirteen thousand, a place unto itself, thirty miles from the rust-belt city of Steelton, where fathers might work but their families seldom went.
Half the town was here—parents and grandparents and other adults and most of the kids in high school, as well as their younger brothers and sisters, in search of an excuse for milling and talking and finding each other. But for the rest, bundled in coats and wool caps and leather gloves, the Erie Conference Championship was about school pride and town history and bragging rights at Rotary meetings and on business calls and in Elks Club smokers. Their raucous screams were etched with anxiety: Lake City was losing ten to seven, and Riverwood had the ball on the fifty-yard line, with a minute forty left. It was third and five to go; the Lakers’ last chance was to stop this play.
Riverwood broke the huddle, seven kids in red jerseys and white pants coming toward the line, their shadows moving with them, the quarterback and fullback and two halfbacks settling in behind them. Their quarterback, Jack Parham, set his hands between the center’s legs as the seven bodies bent over the chalk that marked midfield. Opposing them were four bulky players in Lake City blue—the defensive line—with the linebackers behind them and then, protecting against the pass or the ball carrier who might break away from the pack, two defensive halfbacks and two safeties. One of the halfbacks was Tony Lord; the other was Sam Robb, his best friend.
Jack Parham barked his signals. At the corner of his eye, Tony saw Sam edging forward, catlike.
The center snapped the ball.
Parham stuffed it into his fullback’s stomach. As the fullback hit the line, Tony saw Parham pull the ball back and tuck it under his own right arm—a quarterback sweep, meant to gain the last five yards and run precious seconds off the game clock.
Sam was already headed toward Parham as Tony called out, “Sweep…”
Parham ran alone along the right side of his line. But Sam was sprinting all out; as Parham turned down the field, he spotted Sam coming for him from ten yards away.
Trailing Sam, Tony could see Parham hesitate, wondering whether to run out of bounds. But that would stop the time clock; in the moment of indecision, Parham slowed and stood up.
Tony knew Sam Robb far too well not to know that this was a mistake.
Three feet from Parham, Sam leaped. His body was a taut line, which ended in his helmet crashing beneath Parham’s face mask.
There was a sickening crack; Parham’s head snapped back, and the ball flew from his hands. The crowd screamed as it flopped spinning onto the grass, five feet in front of Tony.
Tony dived. As his face hit the grass, Tony swept the ball in both arms and cradled it beneath his chest, bracing himself as three red-clad bodies hurtled into him, jarring his spine and rib cage and clawing at his arms and hands to steal the ball. Tony could smell their sweat.
The whistle blew.
Slowly, Tony stood amidst the sound of near hysteria, feeling the raw scratches on his arms, handing the ball to the referee with a calm he did not feel but felt obliged to feign. But Sam stood facing the Lake City stands, arms raised in the air, helmet in one hand so that his straight blond hair shone in the klieg lights. He did not seem to know that Jack Parham had not moved.
The crowd appeared to stand for Sam as one, their noise rising into the darkness. Only when Parham remained still, and the Riverwood coach and trainer ran toward him, did the cries die down.
Tony looked at neither the stands nor Parham but at the clock. Reading a minute nineteen, he wondered how to channel his fullback’s aggression, what plays could win this game, how to keep Sam under control.
On offense, Tony was the quarterback. But the next minute, the last of their careers, belonged to them both.
They had been waiting for this moment since ninth grade, two weeks after Tony came to the public high from Holy Name—the parochial school where his Polish Catholic parents had sent him as long as they could—and the coaches had given Tony the job that Sam Robb thought was his.
At fourteen, Sam was already tall and fast, with a strong arm and an assertive manner that made most kids defer to him, a swift temper which made some a little fearful. It was clear that he expected no competition, least of all from this Catholic interloper.
For several days they drilled beside each other, barely speaking. Tony saw that Sam was the better athlete; what Tony had was quick reflexes and something he could not define but which the coach seemed to like. Among the team there was palpable tension; in the folkways of a small town with schoolboy sports at its center, everyone knew that Coach Ellis was picking not just the ninth-grade quarterback but the one who would be groomed to quarterback Lake City High.
At the last practice, George Jackson, who coached the varsity, watched from the sidelines.
Sam drove the team harder, favoring plays that showed his arm and running skills. At the end of the practice, Coach Ellis took Sam aside.
Tony was the quarterback.
In the locker room, he accepted the congratulations of some teammates but not Sam, who seemed to have vanished, and then Tony went to the stands and sat alone, puzzling over his good fortune. He heard heavy footsteps on the wooden planks; looking up, he saw Sam Robb, climbing toward him with the arrogant carriage that was all his own.
Silent, Sam sat next to him. Tony braced himself for the suggestion that he get out of Sam’s way.
“These coaches don’t know shit,” Sam said at last. “You’re still throwing off your back foot.”
Tony turned to him. “How’s that?”
Sam gave him a narrow look. “I’ve got a big backyard. I’ll show you.”
After a moment, Tony nodded. “Okay.”
Quiet, they walked the few blocks to Sam’s house, carrying their books and binders.
At first hand, Tony knew little about Sam’s life. But in Lake City it was impossible to know nothing at all: though the Robbs belonged to the country club, where Tony’s parents were never asked, Sam’s father’s hardware store was widely believed to be failing. So Tony was not surprised that Sam’s white frame house, set in a spacious, oak-lined yard, was large but a little dingy. Nor was he surprised that the Robbs’ living room mantel featured several trophies earned by Sam’s brother, Joe, Lake City High’s Athlete of the Year in 1962, a year before he went to Vietnam and died there. Tony knew that Sam’s tall but somewhat paunchy father, an athlete gone to seed, was past president of the Lake City Athletic Booster Club. What startled Tony was Sam’s mother.
Dottie Robb was a blonde whose smooth face, snub nose, and china-blue eyes were very like Sam’s, though the faint ravages of her own lost youth showed in the slight sag of her chin and upper arms. She lay on the couch in a bright, incongruous sundress, and her gaze seemed blurred. Ignoring Tony, she said to Sam, “You promised me you’d mow the lawn today.”
Her tone was funny, slurred and demanding and a little pouty. Sam’s body went stiff. “We were going out back, to practice.”
Dottie Robb raised her eyebrows. “Oh,” she answered in a somewhat derisive tone. “Football.”
Shifting from foot to foot, Tony noted the half-empty tumbler of what looked like whiskey on an end table near the couch. He stepped forward. “I’m Tony Lord.” Some cautionary instinct kept him from adding, “ma’am.”
She gave him a slow look, up and down. Then she rose from the couch quite smoothly and extended a graceful hand. Her skin was cool and dry, her blue eyes direct and somewhat mocking. “I’m Dottie. Sam’s mother.”
Dottie Robb inspected him for another instant and then went to Sam, giving him a kiss on the cheek, which he neither fled nor accepted. As she hugged her son, his eyes were expressionless.
Sam was quiet as he led Tony to the backyard.
The grass was thick, the flower beds untended. Hanging from the branch of a buckeye tree was an old truck tire on a rope.
Without preface, Sam said, “Watch my feet,” and backed twenty feet from the tire. Sam danced on the balls of his feet; when he threw, Tony saw that his weight was on the front foot. The ball sailed through the tire.
“Your arm’s not that bad,” Sam said. “But like Joe said—my brother—if you don’t have your weight right, you short-arm it. No zip, no distance.”
Knowing that the words were those not of a fourteen-year-old but of his now dead older brother, Tony was struck by how much stake Sam’s family must have placed in his success. For the first time, Tony sensed Sam’s generosity; losing the quarterback spot would cost much more in this family than in Tony’s.
“Your turn,” Sam told him.
Tony began throwing, Sam standing by him with hands on hips, offering terse pointers. Tony went seven for ten.
At the end, Sam nodded without comment, tossing the ball underhand to Tony. “Sideline,” he said, ran out a few feet, then sped toward a bed of roses along the left side of the yard.
The ball sailed lazily over Sam’s head. Sam picked up speed, trying to catch it, and then suddenly broke stride, leaping over the rosebushes as the ball thudded to the ground beyond him.
Behind them, a screen door squeaked open. Suddenly shrill, Dottie Robb’s voice called out, “Watch the roses—those are my babies.”
They turned. She faced them, leaning against the frame with both hands. Standing near the rose bed, Sam faced her, reddening in silent acknowledgment. Only Tony could hear him mumble, “Fuck you,” under his breath.
Satisfied, Dottie Robb closed the door. Tony wondered how long she had been watching. Or drinking.
“Do it again,” Sam said. “A little less arc on the ball, okay? And don’t ruin her stupid roses.”
With a mixture of solidarity and pride, Tony answered, “I’m at my best in the clutch.” The next four passes were close to perfect.
“All right,” Sam said abruptly. “We need a play. Someday in high school, some big game will be on the line and it’ll be up to me and you.” Sam paused, eyes on Tony, smiling for the first time. “I’m going to be the greatest pass-catching end in the history of Lake City High School. You’ll need one.”
Tony studied him to see if he was joking. Sam stopped smiling. “The other guys like you,” he said bluntly. “They’ll play for you. But you’re going to need me.”
Tony felt something poignant in Sam’s admission, and in his desire to cover it with braggadocio. “Run a sideline pattern,” Tony said at length. “Like we’ve been doing. Only hip fake the guy covering you and cut back over the middle, deep.”
Sam flipped the ball back to Tony.
Tony paused, trying to visualize what he wanted. The day—the soft light of late afternoon, the deepening green of the grass and trees—faded around him. What was vivid was the moment he wanted to create.
He sensed Sam waiting patiently, as if he understood. “Go,” Tony said.
Sam ran left toward the roses. Tony skittered back, light on his feet now, avoiding an imaginary tackier by running to his right.
Abruptly, Sam broke for the middle of the yard. Tony stopped at once, lofting the ball over Sam’s head and to his right. Sam followed its flight, running as hard as he could as the ball slowly fell. With a last burst, Sam grasped the football in his fingertips.
He glided to a stop and turned, holding the ball aloft. For a moment, it seemed to Tony that Sam was no longer there but hearing an imagined crowd, which called his name. His eyes were half shut.
They opened abruptly. “Touchdown,” Sam called out to Tony. “That’s the play.”
* * *
Their moment had come.
That Alison watched from the stands, or Tony’s parents, meant nothing to him; Jack Parham’s injury meant only the advantage of a time-out. As he ran to the sidelines, passing the cheerleaders, Tony was barely aware of Sue Cash’s wave of encouragement, her curly brown hair and bright smile, the faint smell of her perfume as the cheer she led sang out. We are the Lakers, the mighty, mighty Lakers …
On the sidelines, Coach Jackson was pacing and staring at the clock, plainly dying for a cigarette. At forty-five, he had already suffered a heart attack, and only smoking kept the pounds off his thick-chested body. His narrow snake eyes stared at Tony from a red, sclerotic face.
“What do you want to run?” he demanded.
Tony told him.
Jackson’s eyes widened, the look he used to intimidate. “Sam’s been covered all night.”
Tony shrugged. “So they won’t expect it.”
Something like amusement crossed Jackson’s face, a bone-deep liking for the boy in front of him, his own pride in judging character. These were the moments, Tony realized, that Coach Jackson lived for.
“Just win the goddamned game,” Jackson said.
As Tony led the offense onto the field, a Riverwood player and a trainer were helping Jack Parham to the sidelines. Trotting next to Tony, Sam said, “That felt good—a fumble and a time-out.”
There was a primal joy in Sam’s voice, adrenaline pumping. As the offense huddled, Tony paused to look at each of them—the offensive linemen; Sam; the muscular fullback, Johnny D’Abruzzi, Tony’s friend from Holy Name; Ernie Nixon, the halfback, the only black in high school. Their faces were taut, anxious. Tony kept his tone matter-of-fact.
“We’re gonna take this one play at a time. No fumbles, no penalties. No losing our head or trying to be heroes. We just do what we need to do, and the game belongs to us. I’ll worry about the clock.”
The team seemed to settle down. Tony called the play and they broke the huddle, taking their positions with an air of confidence. Standing behind them, Tony looked at the defense. The clock still read one-nineteen; it would not start until the center snapped the ball.
Tony stepped behind the center, aware of the screaming crowd only as a distant noise, feeling Johnny D’Abruzzi in back of him, Ernie Nixon to his right. He began barking signals.
The ball slipped into his hands. With the first pop of shoulder pads, the linemen’s grunts of pain and anger and aggression, Tony spun and handed the ball to Ernie Nixon.
Ernie hit the line slanting to the left, then burst through a hole for five more yards until a Riverwood linebacker stuck his helmet in Ernie’s chest and drove him to the ground.
The next play, a run by Johnny D’Abruzzi, gained almost nothing.
“Time,” Tony shouted at the referee. Only then did he look at the clock.
Forty-four seconds. He had just used their last time-out.
The team huddled around Tony, Johnny D’Abruzzi screaming, “Give me the ball again.…” Stepping between them, Sam clutched Tony’s jersey, his face contorted with panic and frustration. “I’m open. You’ve gotta start throwing—we’re running out of time.”
Tony gazed at Sam’s hands, stifling his own anger. “There’s plenty of time,” he said. His tone said something else: This isn’t our moment.
They stared at each other, and then Sam dropped his hands. Tony turned to the others as if nothing had happened. His heart pounded.
“All right.” He looked into Johnny D’Abruzzi’s fierce eyes and made his judgment. “We’re running Johnny again, this time through the left side. Then I’ll run an option.”
He saw Sam’s astonishment, Ernie Nixon’s disappointment; ignoring them both, he called the numbers for the next two plays. But when the huddle broke, he grasped Ernie’s sleeve. “I’m counting on you to cut down the left side linebacker.”
“I’ll do it.”
Turning, Tony ambled behind the center with deceptive casualness. Then he suddenly barked, “Hut three,” and the ball was in his hand, then in Johnny D’Abruzzi’s arms as he ran to the left behind Ernie Nixon. Ernie shot through the liner; with a fierceness that was almost beautiful, he coiled his body and slammed shoulder-first into Riverwood’s right linebacker, knocking him backward as Johnny ran past and then tripped, suddenly and completely, over the legs of the falling player.
“Shit,” Tony said under his breath. The clock read thirty-one, thirty, twenty-nine. Still twenty yards to go …
The blue bodies scurried up from the turf to re-form along the line of scrimmage. Twenty-two seconds …
The center snapped the ball to Tony.
He ran along the line, with Ernie Nixon trailing him. His option was to run himself or flip the ball to Ernie.
As the crowd began screaming, a wave of blockers formed in front of Tony.
Ernie was behind him to the outside, in good position for a pitchout. But Tony could see the play opening up for him; ten yards down the sideline and then out of bounds, stopping the clock again. The screams rose higher as he crossed the line of scrimmage.
From nowhere a red jersey appeared at the corner of Tony’s vision—Rex Stallworth, their quickest linebacker. Tony heard the crunch of Stallworth’s helmet into the side of his face before the shock shivered his body and dropped him into darkness.
The next sensation that came to him was the smell of dirt and grass. Tony rose to his knees, time lost to him.
“Tony!” Sam cried out.
By instinct, Tony looked up at the clock.
Sixteen seconds, fifteen, fourteen. Tony staggered to his feet and loped to the center of the field. “Spike,” he shouted. “On one.”
Raggedly, the line took its position. “Ten,” the Riverwood fans started chanting. “Nine…”
“One,” Tony screamed. The ball was only a second in his hands before he spiked it to the ground. An incomplete pass, stopping the clock.
Five seconds left.
Tony backed from the line of scrimmage, taking deep breaths. He was nauseous, dizzy. His head rang.
Sam was the first one to reach him. “You okay?”
“Gotta pass to me, Tony. Please.”
The team circled him again. Tony shook his head to clear it, then said to no one in particular, “Screwed that play up, didn’t I? Sonofabitch rang my bell for Parham.”
Tony felt their quiet relief. Only Sam seemed too tight.
“Okay,” Tony said. “We’ve got five seconds, twenty yards, no time-outs. Time to put this game away.” He paused, looking at everyone but Sam. “Thirty-five reverse pass.”
The huddle broke. Under his breath, Tony said to Sam, “It’s ours now, pal.”
Sam nodded, ready. For the last time, they walked to the line with their team.
Tony paused, taking it all in—the crowd, the light and darkness, the blue line of teammates, the red formation across from them shouting jeers and insults. And then he shut out everything but what he meant to do.
Time slowed for him. The cadence of his own voice seemed to come from somewhere else. But there was no other place that Tony wished to be.
The ball popped into his hand.
Tony slid the ball into Ernie Nixon’s stomach. Bent forward, Ernie plowed into the line in feigned determination as Tony pulled back the ball, spun, and slapped it into Johnny D’Abruzzi’s chest.
But only for an instant.
Johnny stood upright, crashing shoulder-first into a blitzing linebacker who was headed straight for Tony. And then Tony was alone, sprinting with the ball along the right side of the line.
In front of him, he saw bodies scrambling—two linebackers running parallel to block his path, believing he would run for the end zone, his own blockers forming in front of him.
Without seeming to look, Tony saw Sam break to the left sideline. Sam looked irrelevant, a decoy, so far was he from the sweep of the play.
Abruptly, Sam broke back across the center of the field, three feet ahead of the back who covered him.
Perfect, Tony thought.
All at once he stopped, cocking the ball to throw. The crowd cried out in warning.
From Tony’s blind side Stallworth charged for him, head down.
Tony jerked back the ball, scrambling forward. As Stallworth swept by, his outstretched arm grasped Tony’s ankle.
Tony stumbled, losing his balance. Then he caught his fall, left hand digging into the grass.
Ahead of him, two more linemen charged forward. Tony had nowhere to go. He could not see Sam; if he tried to pass, he would be defenseless against the onrushing tacklers.
Tony stood straight, cocked his arm, and threw, with his weight on his front foot, toward where he thought Sam’s speed would take him. The ball left his hand an instant before the first defender hit Tony’s unprotected ribs.
Tony felt his insides shift; the pain went through him as he hit the ground. By instinct he rolled on his side, sat up.
The ball arched above the players who turned to watch it, helpless. Its flight seemed to slow, a sphere sailing through light and shadow toward the rear of the end zone, accompanied by shrieks of hope and uncertainty.
I’ve overthrown it, Tony thought, and then he saw Sam Robb.
Seemingly without a chance, Sam sprinted for the ball as it fell to earth. Three feet from the ball, two feet from the back of the end zone, Sam timed his leap.
It took him parallel to the ground, feet leaving the grass as he stretched, arms extended, and clasped the ball in his fingertips. He fell beyond the end zone, feet trailing in a last effort to touch in-bounds. Tony could not see whether he had done so; he saw only, as Sam rose to his feet and turned to the referee, that the ball was in his hands.
Tony stood, pain forgotten as he gazed at the referee, a silent prayer forming in his head.
Slowly, the referee raised his hands aloft.
A lump blocked Tony’s throat.
Touchdown. Mother of God, a touchdown. He began to run toward Sam.
Sam stood in the end zone, arms aloft, clutching the ball in his hand. Above him, the scoreboard registered six more points for Lake City. Sam’s helmet was off; beneath the klieg lights, Tony could see the tears on his face.
Sam stood frozen. And then, suddenly, he saw Tony.
He turned, flipping away the ball, and ran toward him.
They met on the goal line. For an instant, they stopped there, then they threw their arms around each other.
Wordless, Sam held Tony close. In that moment there was no one Tony Lord loved as much as he loved Sam Robb.
“Touchdown,” Tony said in a thick voice. “That’s the play.”
Copyright © 1996 by Richard North Patterson