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In Backfield Boys, renowned sports journalist and New York Times–bestselling author John Feinstein tells a thrilling story of friendship, football, and a fight for justice.
Freshman footballers Jason Roddin and Tom Jefferson are a perfect pair: Jason is a blazing-fast wide-receiver, while his best friend Tom has all the skills a standout quarterback needs. After summer football camp at an elite sports-focused boarding school, the boys are thrilled to be invited back with full-ride scholarships.
But on day one of practice, they’re shocked when the team's coaching staff makes Tom, a black kid, a receiver and Jason, a white kid, a quarterback. Confronted with mounting evidence of deep-seated racial bias, the boys speak out, risking their scholarships and chances to play. As tensions ratchet up with coaches and other players, Tom and Jason must decide how much they're willing to lose in a conflict with powerful forces that has nothingand everythingto do with the game they love.
About the Author
John Feinstein is the author of more than thirty books, including the #1 New York Times bestsellers A Season on the Brink and A Good Walk Spoiled. He is also the author of numerous kids mysteries. His first young adult mystery, Last Shot, won the Edgar Allen Poe Award. John also works for The Washington Post, The Golf Channel, Sirius XM Radio, and Comcast Sportsnet.
Read an Excerpt
The fields just kept rolling past the car, mile after mile.
"Did it take this long the last time we came down here?" Jason asked.
He was sitting in the back of the Jeffersons' silver Honda Accord. Mr. Jefferson was behind the wheel, a smile on his face even though they were more than five hours into the six-hour drive.
Riding shotgun, Tom laughed at his best friend's latest complaint. "Last time, we flew to Washington, remember?" he said. "We rented a car in D.C., so the drive was two hours, not six. But I promise you we drove past every one of these fields."
"All these cows, too?" Jason asked.
"Yup. And the sheep and chicken farms."
Jason laughed. There was no way he would be in this car right now if not for Tom, who had convinced him that going to a jock boarding school in Middle-of-Nowhere, Virginia, was a good idea.
Jason and Tom had grown up five floors apart in an apartment building on West End Avenue near Seventy-Seventh Street. They had met in the first grade at PS 87 after Tom's father, Alan Jefferson, a salesman for an athletic gear company, had been transferred from Chicago to New York. Tom's mother, Elaine, an elementary school teacher, had found work as a substitute teacher at PS 87, just over a two-block walk from the apartment building.
Jason's family had lived in their apartment since before he was born. His dad, Robbie, was a New York City police detective. His mom, Julie, was also a teacher, working at a nearby private preschool.
The parents became friends through their sons. Almost from the beginning, Jason and Tom were the best athletes in the PS 87 schoolyard. They started out playing punchball — smacking an orange rubber ball with their fists, rather than a bat, but otherwise following the rules of baseball — and soon graduated to stickball, basketball, and touch football.
It wasn't until they crossed Seventy-Seventh Street as sixth graders to go to junior high school that the two boys were part of any organized teams. There was no football team at their school, but they were starters right away on both the basketball and softball teams. Both badly wanted to play football. Their mothers weren't in love with the idea, but their fathers were.
One night, when the two boys were in seventh grade, the Jeffersons rode the elevator from the eleventh to the sixth floor for what the parents called "cocktails," although the mothers drank wine, the fathers drank beer, and the boys drank soda. They all sat around the Roddins' living room and talked about a football summer camp that Mr. Jefferson had heard about from some of his coworkers.
"They're called seven-on-seven camps, because it's not real football but skills football," he explained. "You don't have linemen, except for a center to snap the ball. Everyone else is either a receiver or in the backfield at quarterback or running back. There's no real tackling either."
"How is it football if there's no tackling?" Mr. Roddin asked.
"First question I asked, Robbie," Mr. Jefferson said, smiling. "The camp is about helping kids develop their skills — running, throwing, catching, running pass patterns, defending pass patterns, reading offenses and defenses, things like that. There's almost no hitting at all."
Jason and Tom both loved the idea. They were determined to play for a real team when they got to high school, and this was a chance to enhance their skills.
The mothers weren't quite as enthusiastic.
"Okay, there's no tackling at this camp," Mrs. Roddin said. "But why aren't we sending them to a basketball camp somewhere, or a baseball camp? Aren't those the two sports we want them to focus on?"
"Maybe," Mr. Roddin said. "But I think that's ultimately up to the boys, isn't it?"
"Since when?" his wife said almost instantly.
Jason still winced at the memory of how sharp his mother's tone had been.
"Well, if Jason wants to play football or doesn't want to play football, I think that's up to him, Julie," Mr. Roddin said. "I think Alan feels the same way. I don't think we'd ever push either one of them to play football — or any other sport — but I don't think we should tell them they can't play a sport."
Mrs. Jefferson had said very little up until that moment. Now she jumped into the fray. "You don't think we could say no?" she said. She looked at Mrs. Roddin. "Julie, have you and Robbie ever had that conversation about football? Alan and I haven't." She then turned and looked directly at Mr. Roddin. "How can you possibly act as if playing football is the same as basketball or baseball or any other sport? Have you been living in a cave the last few years? Aren't you aware of how dangerous the sport is?"
"As a matter of fact, I've studied the stats pretty carefully," Mr. Roddin said. "And for all the panic going on, the fact remains that the odds one of the boys will get a concussion or suffer a severe head injury are pretty low. Even with all the new technology that makes it easier to identify a concussion, the rate for high school football players is, according to most studies, only about twenty percent."
"Twenty percent!" Mrs. Jefferson practically jumped out of her chair. "Robbie, I want you to think about this for a minute: If the boys were about to get on an airplane and the pilot told you there was a twenty percent chance it would crash, would you let them get on it?" There was a long pause. For a moment Jason thought that question would end the debate.
It was Mr. Jefferson who finally responded. "If that flight was the only way they could get where they wanted to go, yes, I would."
"Well, then you need to have your head examined," his wife answered.
And yet, here they were, on a Sunday evening eighteen months later, on their way to Thomas Gatch Prep School in central Virginia, just outside the tiny town of Scottsville and not far from the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
TGP had been started by a sports agent named Thomas Alan Gatch and several partners in 1999 — in fact, a twentieth-anniversary celebration for the school was already being planned for 2019. Mr. Gatch also now served as head-of-school, the equivalent of a public high school's principal.
The way Mr. Gatch had explained it to the boys and their fathers when they first arrived on campus for the seven-on-seven camp in the summer prior to their becoming eighth-graders, he'd gotten the idea to start TGP from his former employers at IMG, the giant sports-management agency that represented hundreds of athletes, ran professional sports events, and in the 1980s had purchased a tennis academy in Florida with the intention of turning it into a full-fledged high school — one where every student was an aspiring college athlete. The IMG Academy had been hugely successful, and Mr. Gatch believed he could not only copy it but better it.
"The difference between us and IMG is that we really do stress academics as much as sports," he had told the boys and their fathers on the day they arrived. "My background is in education. I was a history teacher once and then a high school principal. That's why we're smaller by design, so we have a better teacher-student ratio. We pay our teachers as well as we pay most of our coaches, so we get better teachers."
Jason had googled IMG Academy and was stunned to find that more than twelve thousand athletes passed through it every year — though only half of them attended full-time and lived on campus. The tuition was more than $70,000 per year — plus living expenses.
Gatch was considerably smaller — about fifteen hundred full-time students — and had only recently added golf and tennis to its curriculum. The focus was on team sports: football; boys' and girls' basketball, soccer, lacrosse, and swimming; plus baseball for boys and softball for girls, since softball was a scholarship sport for girls in college. The school website boasted that TGP fostered traditional values in its "student-athletes," on and off the playing field.
It wasn't quite as expensive — tuition was $55,000 plus expenses. But, like IMG Academy, it offered scholarships for especially gifted athletes whose families didn't have that kind of money. Jason could still remember the two fathers' eyebrows going up the first time Mr. Gatch mentioned that. He knew there was no way either his dad or Tom's could afford to spend that much money a year to send their sons to high school.
The deal the fathers and sons had made with the mothers was-simple: the boys would be allowed to attend the summer seven-on-seven camp, and once it was over they would all reconvene. The brochure for the camp explained that doctors and trainers were present on-field for every practice or game. If a boy had suffered any sort of prior injury, he needed a doctor's letter clearing him to play. That soothed the mothers — somewhat. Jason was pretty convinced they were hoping that one of two things would happen: their boys wouldn't like the camp or they wouldn't do well enough there to consider going on to play high school football.
But Tom and Jason had both loved the camp. Jason enjoyed playing wide receiver and especially enjoyed catching passes from Tom. Through their Friday touch football games in the park, and later in the JHS 44 schoolyard, they had figured out that Tom had the stronger arm — though Jason's wasn't bad either — and that Jason was considerably faster and was a little better at catching the ball.
During the camp, every kid played every position at some point. The goal was to learn the skills needed to play anywhere on the field and then figure out later exactly where you would end up playing.
"The more versatile you are, the better your chances are of playing on Sundays," the head coach, James "Bobo" Johnson, told the campers, using coach-speak for playing in the NFL. "And when you start playing real football, being able to play on special teams will also help you greatly as you go up the ladder."
There was no special-teams play — kickoffs, punts, field goals — at the camp. There were, Jason learned, camps that specialized in kicking. What's more, special-teams play was considered so dangerous that there had been talk in the NFL about abolishing kickoffs because so many injuries happened when twenty-two players ran full speed right at one another.
There was nothing Jason enjoyed more about the camp than the speed drills — or time trials. He won the time trials in the 100-yard dash, the 40-yard dash, and the 10-yard dash, beating everyone among the 150 campers on every timed occasion. His 4.58 forty drew oohs and aahs from the coaches and the other campers, and he enjoyed busting the stereotype that white boys couldn't run fast.
"Wait till they find out you're Jewish," Tom joked. "They'll want to drug-test you."
Tom's forty time was 4.77, which put him midpack among the other campers. But he had the most accurate arm in the camp — maybe not the strongest, though it was strong enough — but without doubt the most accurate.
By the end of the camp, they'd both made their mark and Coach Johnson had told them he'd be in touch with their parents.
"You boys belong here," he'd said to them. "You could be a great team, and you could help make us a great team."
He then made it clear to both boys that he wouldn't let money stand in the way of their enrolling at TGP for the ninth grade. A subsequent scholarship offer for each boy changed everything.
Of course it hadn't been that simple. Neither Elaine Jefferson nor Julie Roddin was at all happy with the idea of her son going to a jock school 350 miles from the West Side of Manhattan to be — worst of all — a football player.
But when Mr. Gatch personally offered full rides to both boys, and when the fathers supplied the mothers with a list of where the 350 graduates from TGP's class of 2017 were going to college, they gave in — grudgingly.
"It won't do Tom any good to go to an Ivy League school if he can't remember his name when he's forty," Mrs. Jefferson said when her husband pointed out that six of the thirty-four football-playing seniors were going to the Ivies.
That had set off another round of the fathers pointing out the percentages and the mothers saying that any risk was too much risk. For their part, the boys had pleaded and a compromise had been reached: Tom and Jason would be one-and-dones: not one year — as with college basketball players, who played for a year before leaving for the NBA — but one concussion and done.
"First time it happens, Jason," Mrs. Roddin said, "that's it. Football's done."
Only with that understanding did the mothers finally sign off on accepting the scholarships.
And so, as more and more cornfields and cow pastures raced past the window, Jason leaned back, closed his eyes, and imagined himself running under passes perfectly thrown to him by Tom.
He could see the headlines in the newspapers around the state of Virginia now — not to mention on ESPN's weekly high school highlight show: BULL'S-EYE TARGETS WHITE LIGHTNING IN TGP VICTORY.
This was going to be fun, he thought.
If they ever got there.
They stopped for dinner in Charlottesville. A friend of Mr. Jefferson's had recommended a steak place just off Route 29 called the Aberdeen Barn, down the road from the campus of the University of Virginia.
"So here I am, a couple miles from the school founded by old Mr. Jefferson, having dinner with two Mr. Jeffersons," Jason said, grinning, as they walked inside.
They were walking in the direction of the hostess's stand, where two young women were smiling at them.
"Do me a favor and shut up," Tom said.
"Reservation for Jefferson," his dad said to the two young women.
If the name carried any special meaning around here, the hostesses didn't show it.
"Yes, sir," the taller one said. "Table for three, right?"
As Mr. Jefferson was nodding, Jason said, "You realize, don't you, that you're about to seat Thomas Jefferson?" He pointed at Tom.
The shorter of the two, a pretty brunette, didn't miss a beat. "Thomas Jefferson, it's a pleasure," she said. "I'm Martha Washington."
That was funny.
"Let me guess," Mr. Jefferson said as they walked to their table. "We're not the first people to come in here with the last name Jefferson."
"Or the first name Tom or Thomas," Martha answered, handing them menus as they sat down.
"But do you get Sally Hemings in here a lot?" Jason said, trying to keep the banter going.
Martha smiled. "Absolutely. But she has to come in the back door," she said as she walked away.
"Girl's funny," Mr. Jefferson said.
Jason knew about Sally Hemings from the early American history section of his social studies class. She was the slave who became President Jefferson's mistress after his wife died; the two had had several children together.
"She's got guts saying that to a couple of black guys," Tom said.
"I think she figured we could handle it," Jason said.
"What do you mean we?" Tom said. "Did I miss the part where you became black?"
"You always say I run like I'm black," Jason answered.
"I'm sure she was aware of that," Mr. Jefferson said, just as a waitress arrived at the table to take drink orders.
"First round of drinks is on the house, gentlemen," she said. "Courtesy of Martha Washington. My name is Sally, and I'll be your server tonight."
Jason stared at her name tag. It actually said SALLY. Amazing, he thought. Just amazing.
They all ordered Cokes. The boys were a long way from being old enough to drink, and even though they were now only a short drive from the school, Mr. Jefferson wasn't taking any chances.
"Remember, after I drop you off, I'm coming back to Charlottesville to spend the night," he said.
"It's great of you to do this, Dad," Tom said.
"Well, there was no way that Robbie could change his schedule," Mr. Jefferson said. "And neither one of your mothers wanted to do the tearful-farewell thing down here after six hours in the car. So that left me."
"Somehow I don't think you'll be tearful," Tom said.
Mr. Jefferson smiled. "Probably not," he said. "But I will miss you both."
Tom's head had been buried in his menu. Now it snapped up and he looked at his father, clearly surprised.
"For real?" he said.
"Of course," Mr. Jefferson said. "Did you think I wouldn't miss you?"
Tom shook his head. "No, I figured you'd miss me — us — but I never thought you'd say it."
"Well, consider this a first," Mr. Jefferson said. "But not a last."
Excerpted from "Backfield Boys"
Copyright © 2017 John Feinstein.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fast-paced, thrilling, and unexpectedly funny, BACKFIELD BOYS paints a clear picture of the racism that still exists in competitive sports while establishing the importance of dismantling that racism piece by terrible piece. Although the story centers around football and the risks and rewards of the game, the friendship between Jason and Tom, a white kid and a black kid who refuse to bow to their coaches' prejudice even though it means risking their spots on the team, is its real beating heart. Their triumphs on and off the field will make you cheer and make you think. Readers who don't follow or understand football might be confused by the sport jargon that gets thrown around--I follow football, and I still had to re-read certain passages--but the boys' struggle to expose their school's inherent racism is more than intriguing enough to make up for it.