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a hail mary and a harem
the count? 21 days until my trip to alabama
I once read that football was invented so people wouldn't notice summer ending. But I couldn't wait for summer vacation to end. I couldn't wait for football. Football, dominator of fall-football, love of my life.
"Blue forty-two! Blue forty-two! Red seventeen!" I yell.
The cue is red seventeen. JJ hikes me the ball. The defense is blitzing. JJ slams into a freshman safety, knocking him to the ground. The rest of my offensive line destroys the defense. Nice. The field's wide open, but my wide receiver isn't where he's supposed to be.
"What the hell, Higgins?" I mutter to myself.
Dancing on my tiptoes, I scan the end zone and find Sam Henry instead and hurl the ball. It flies through the air, a perfect spiral, heading right where I wanted it to go. He catches the ball, spikes it, and does this really stupid dance. Henry looks like a freaking ballerina. With his thin frame and girly blond hair, he actually could be the star of the New York Ballet.
I'm gonna give him hell for his dance.
This is my senior year at Hundred Oaks High, and I'm captain, so I'm allowed to keep my players in line. Even though he's my best friend, Henry has always been a showoff. His antics get us penalties.
Through the speaker in my helmet, I hear Coach Miller say, "Nice throw. This is your year, Woods. You're going to lead us to the state championship. I can feel it...Hit the showers." What the coach actually means? I know you're not going to blow it in the final seconds of the championship game like you did last year.
And he's right. I can't.
The University of Alabama called last week-on the first day of school-to tell me a recruiter is coming to watch me play on Friday night. And then a very fancy-looking letter arrived, inviting me to visit campus in September. An official visit. If they like what they see, they'll sign me in February.
I can't screw this season up.
I pull my helmet off and grab a bottle of Gatorade and my playbook. Most of the guys are already goofing off and heading over to watch cheerleading practice across the field, but I ignore them and look up into the stands.
I spot Mom sitting with Carter's dad, a former NFL player. My dad isn't here, of course. Asshole.
Lots of parents come to watch our practices because football is the big thing to do around here. Here being Franklin, Tennessee, home of the Hundred Oaks Red Raiders, eight-time state champions.
Mom always comes to practice-she's been supporting me ever since Pop Warner youth football days, but sometimes she worries I'll get hurt, even though the worst thing that's ever happened was a concussion. Sophomore year, when JJ took a breather, the coach brought in this idiot to play center, the idiot didn't cover me, and I got slammed hard.
Otherwise, I'm a rock. No knee problems, no broken limbs.
Dad never comes to my practices and rarely comes to games. People think it's because he's busy, because he's Donovan Woods, the starting quarterback for the Tennessee Titans. But the truth is he doesn't want me playing football. Why wouldn't a famous quarterback want his kid to follow in the family footsteps? Well, he does. He loves that my brother, Mike, a junior in college, plays for the University of Tennessee and led his team to a win at the Sugar Bowl last year. So what the hell is Dad's problem with my playing ball?
I'm a girl.
After chugging a bunch of Gatorade, I go find Higgins, who's already attempting to flirt with Kristen Markum, the most idiotic of cheerleaders. I take Higgins aside, avoiding her Darth Vader stare, and say, "Next time try finishing your route instead of staring at Kristen, will you?"
His face goes all red before he nods. "Okay."
Then I go pull a sophomore cornerback aside to speak privately. Duckett's a couple inches shorter than me, so I put a hand on his shoulder and walk him down the sideline.
"On that last play, where I threw the long pass to Henry, you left him wide open. And I know how fast he is, but you can't let that happen in the game. You were totally out of position."
Duckett drops his head and nods at me. "Got it, Woods."
I pat his back with my playbook as I take another sip of Gatorade, and wipe the dribble from my mouth. "Good. We're counting on you Friday night. I'm sure Coach is going to start you."
Duckett smiles as he puts his helmet under an arm and heads toward the locker room.
"Awesome job today, guys," I say to a couple of my offensive linemen, then jog over to Henry and look up at him.
He says, "What's good, Woods?"
"Nice move faking out Duckett on that last play."
Henry laughs. "I know, right?"
"Would you quit it with the dancing?"
He grins at me, his green eyes lighting up as he drags a hand through his blond curls. "You know you love it."
Smiling, I shove his chest. "Whatever."
He shoves me back. "Want to come out to eat with us?"
"Me and JJ..."
"Oh, let's see...Samantha and Marie and Lacey and Kristen."
I stick my tongue out before saying, "Shit, no."
"We're going to Pete's Roadhouse," he says, wiggling his eyebrows.
Damn it. I love going there. It's one of those restaurants where they let you throw peanut shells all over the floor. Still, I reply, "Can't. My brother said he'd watch film with me tonight."
Henry gets this hurt look on his face. "Come on, Woods. You know I want to go to Michigan more than anything, and I'm working hard, but you've been holed up every night since you heard that Alabama is coming to opening game."
I suck in a breath. "Right-I've only got three days left to get perfect."
"You're already, like, one hundred times the quarterback your brother was in high school, you know."
I grin at Henry. "Thanks," I say, even though it's not true.
He wipes sweat off his forehead with his red and black jersey. "How about I come over and watch film with you instead?"
"What about Samantha and Marie and Lacey and Kristen?"
He glances over at the cheerleaders. "They'd wait a year for me."
I shove him again, and he laughs. "Nah, it's okay," I say. "I'm glad you're going out with girls again, even if Kristen is Satan's sister."
"I'd never fool around with Kristen-I have standards, you know."
"Bullshit," I say as JJ and Carter walk up.
With his helmet in hand, JJ drapes an arm around Henry's shoulders. I'm surprised Henry's skinny knees don't buckle under JJ's 275 pounds. "You in trouble again, man?" JJ asks in his deep voice.
"Woods doesn't appreciate my dancing skills."
"No one likes your dancing skills," JJ replies. He nods at me. "You in for the Roadhouse, Woods?"
"Can't. Gotta study," I say, holding up the playbook.
"Take a break," JJ says.
"I bet you'd go if they'd picked a place that makes real food, like Michel's Bistro or Julien L'Auberge in Nashville," Carter says in a ridiculous French accent, and JJ, Henry, and I burst out laughing at him.
"Hell no," I say. "All I need is a big slab of meat and a bunch of peanut shells to throw all over the floor."
"Blasphemy," Carter replies.
"You're not going either?" I ask Carter.
He focuses on his cleats before saying, "Can't-it's a practice night, remember?" He's, like, the only person I know whose parents never say anything about school nights-it's always about football practice and games in the Carter household.
"Come on, Woods," Henry whines. "Just for an hour or two."
I hate saying no to him. "If I get through four hours of Alabama film tonight, I'll come out tomorrow."
"Fine," Henry says, smiling.
"As long as you don't bring your harem." I jerk my head at the group of cheerleaders hovering ten yards away near a goal post, making googly eyes at the guys.
"But we're a package deal," he says with a laugh.
"That's 'cause all you ever think about is your package," JJ replies.
"And you don't?" I snap and JJ punches my shoulder, causing me to stumble backward. We all crack up again.
And then two cheerleaders come up and start fawning over Henry and JJ. What took them so long?
JJ and Lacey start kissing as if winning the state championship depends on it, and Samantha intertwines her fingers with Henry's and smiles up at him. Then Kristen and Marie come over, because cheerleaders travel in packs.
"Nice practice today, Jordan," Marie says, giving me a smile. "That quarterback sneak of yours is great."
"Did Henry tell you to say that?" I ask, staring down at her.
"No," she mutters, looking at her pompoms as she ruffles them.
JJ and Lacey break apart, much like unsnapping Velcro, as Kristen says, "Don't get Jordan started, Marie. We'll be here all night listening to stats and pointers on pitching footballs..."
"They're called passes, Kristen," I reply. "Don't think too hard. I hear it makes your hair frizzy."
"Ha, ha," Kristen replies, but she subconsciously smooths her brown hair with a hand. It takes everything I've got not to burst out laughing when I see Samantha and Lacey patting their hair too. I sneak a peek at Henry, JJ, and Carter, and they start snickering again. So does Marie.
"Call if you change your mind about getting food," Henry says to me and Carter, and we all knock fists before Henry and JJ trudge off with their fan club toward the locker rooms.
I clutch my playbook to my chest and for a moment, I feel a pang of loneliness and wish that I had asked Henry to come over. He's been sad since his girlfriend dumped him a couple months ago, so he'd probably appreciate the company. Especially since he's been spending time with girls who think a Hail Mary is a prayer to Jesus's mom.
But he'd just distract me-and I need to concentrate on performing well for Alabama.
"Carter, let's go home," I hear his dad call out from the first row of the metal bleachers. "Your mom's keeping dinner warm until we're done working out."
"Have fun watching film," Carter says. "I'll be wishing I'm you as I do sit-ups with Dad tonight."
Carter jogs over to his dad, who immediately starts talking and gesturing with his hands, probably giving a play-by-play critique of how practice went.
I wish Dad would talk with me like that.
Back at home, I take a seat at the kitchen table and open my playbook. I peel a banana as I study the formation for Red Rabbit, this crazy cool flea-flicker play Coach wants us to try tomorrow. It'll be hard, but Henry and I can pull it off.
Mom comes in, lays her pruning shears and gardening gloves on the counter, and then pours a glass of water. "Why didn't you go out with your friends tonight?"
"I'm not ready for opening game," I reply, training my eyes on the Xs and Os scrawled across the paper.
"From what I've seen at practice, you're definitely ready. I don't want you to burn out."
"Maybe you need a massage. A spa day...so you'll be all fresh and relaxed for Friday. We could go on Thursday after I'm done volunteering at the hospital."
I slowly lift my head to stare at Mom. Yeah, I'm sure the guys would take me seriously if I show up with pink fingernails on Friday night. "No, but thanks." I give her a smile so I won't hurt her feelings.
She smiles back. "What are you planning to wear on your trip to Alabama?"
I shrug. "I dunno. Cleats? And my Hundred Oaks sweats?"
Mom sips her water. "I was thinking maybe we could go shopping for a dress."
"Nah, but thanks."
God, if I wore a dress, the Alabama guys would laugh me right out of Tuscaloosa, right back to some pitiful Division II school. "The Alabama head coach is a big Baltimore fan. Maybe I'll wear a Ravens jersey."
Mom laughs. "Dad would kick you out of the house."
"Why am I kicking my daughter out of the house?" the great Donovan Woods asks as he comes into the kitchen and gives Mom a kiss and a hug.
"No reason," I mutter and flip a page in my playbook.
Dad grabs a bottle of Gatorade, the strawberry-plum shit he does advertising for, and takes a gulp. He's still buff as ever, but his black hair has started to turn salt-and-peppery. At forty-three years old, Dad has tried to retire after each of the five previous seasons, but he always comes back for some reason or another. Over the years, this has become a joke to sportscasters, so unless we want to get yelled at, we never ask when he's actually going to retire.
He stares down at my playbook and shakes his head.
"You coming to my game on Friday?" I ask Dad.
He looks at Mom when he replies, "Maybe. I'll think about it."
"How about I take you and Henry fishing on Saturday morning before we go to your brother's game?" Dad smiles at me expectantly.
What total bullshit. He'll go to Mike's game, but won't come to mine? And he tries to suck up by asking me to go fishing?
"No thanks," I say.
The grin dissolves from Dad's face. "Maybe next weekend then," he says softly.
"And maybe you could come to my game on Friday," I mumble to myself. "Mom, where's Mike?" I'm anxious to start watching more Alabama film. Even though I've watched hundreds of college and pro games, I love getting an expert opinion and, well, Dad's never willing to give it.
"Oh," Mom replies. "His coach called a team meeting. Mike said to tell you he's sorry."
"That's cool," I say quietly.
Mom starts telling Dad all about her roses and sunflowers, gesturing out the kitchen window toward the garden. "The sunflowers have almost reached a state of Zen, don't you think?"
Dad wraps his arms around Mom, and I swear I hear him murmur, "I'm in a state of Zen right now too."
Before I reach a state of upchuck, I grab my playbook and a package of chocolate-chip cookies and head downstairs to our basement, where I turn on the TV and put in a DVD of last year's national championship game-Alabama vs. Texas.
I flip off the lights, settle down on one of the leather sofas, and dig into the cookies as I push the play button on the remote.
So. My friends are off hooking up with cheerleaders.
My dad cares more about sunflowers reaching a state of Zen than my feelings.
At least I've got football.
It's been my life since I was seven, but sometimes Henry says I need to spend less time focusing and start "living life like I'm going to hell tomorrow."
But I feel like a normal teenager. Well, as normal as I can be. I mean, obviously I think Justin Timberlake is a mega-hunk, but I'm also over six feet tall and can launch a football fifty yards.
Other ways I'm not normal?
A girl who hangs with an entire football team must hook up all the time, right?
I've never had a boyfriend. Hell, I've never even kissed a guy. The closest I've ever come to a kiss happened just this past summer, but it was a joke. At a party, one of those cheerleaders suggested we all play a game of seven minutes in heaven, you know, the game where you go into a closet and kiss? Somehow Henry and I got sent into the closet together, and of course we didn't kiss, but we ended up in a mad thumb-wrestling match. Which turned into a shoving match. Which turned into everyone thinking we'd hooked up in the closet. Yeah, right. He's like my brother.
It's not that guys aren't interested in me, because they are, it's that most of the guys I know are either:
- Shorter than me;
- On my team;
- All of the above.
I would never let myself date guys on my team. And I'm not interested in any of them anyway. Riding buses to and from games for years has turned me off to all of them 'cause one bus ride with my team produces more gas than a landfill.
Besides, I don't have time for guys, and if I suddenly were to start acting like a girl, the team might not take me seriously. And I can't afford to lose my confidence-because I'm the star of the Hundred Oaks Red Raiders.
The star Alabama will love on Friday night.