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Grantland Rice (1880-1954) was America's best known and most beloved sportswriter. He was born in Tennessee and educated at Vanderbilt University, where he played varsity football. Rice covered all of the major sports and was the confidant of players from the "Golden Age, "like Ty Cobb (about whom he wrote his first story), Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, and footballers Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, Knute Rockne, and Pop Warner. His most remembered story was in the New York Herald-Tribune in 1924, about the Notre Dame-Army football game. The opening lines of the story brought immortality to the Fighting Irish backfield: "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction, and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden." Most of all, Rice loved poetry, and his most famous poem is presented below. Like baseball's "Casey at the Bat," it tells a great story.
ALUMNUS FOOTBALL (1923)
Bill Jones had been the shining star upon his college team. His tackling was ferocious and his bucking was a dream. When husky William took the ball beneath his brawny arm They had two extra men to ring the ambulance alarm.
Bill hit the line and ran the ends like some mad bull amuck. The other team would shiver when they saw him start to buck. And when some rival tackler tried to block his dashing pace, On waking up, he'd ask, "Who drove that truck across my face?"
Bill had thespeed--Bill had the weight--Bill never bucked in vain; From goal to goal he whizzed along while fragments strewed the plain, And there had been a standing bet, which no one tried to call, That he could make his distance through a ten-foot granite wall.
When he wound up his college course each student's heart was sore. They wept to think bull-throated Bill would sock the line no more. Not so with William--in his dreams he saw the Field of Fame, Where he would buck to glory in the swirl of Life's big game.
Sweet are the dreams of college life, before our faith is nicked-- The world is but a cherry tree that's waiting to be picked; The world is but an open road--until we find, one day, How far away the goal posts are that called us to the play.
So, with the sheepskin tucked beneath his arm in football style, Bill put on steam and dashed into the thickest of the pile; With eyes ablaze he sprinted where the laureled highway led-- When Bill woke up his scalp hung loose and knots adorned his head.
He tried to run the ends of life, but with rib-crashing toss A rent collector tackled him and threw him for a loss. And when he switched his course again and dashed into the line The massive Guard named Failure did a toddle on his spine.
Bill tried to punt out of the rut, but ere he turned the trick Right Tackle Competition scuttled through and blocked the kick. And when he tackled at Success in one long, vicious prod The Fullback Disappointment steered his features in the sod.
Bill was no quitter, so he tried a buck in higher gear, But Left Guard Envy broke it up and stood him on his ear. Whereat he aimed a forward pass, but in two vicious bounds Big Center Greed slipped through a hole and rammed him out of bounds.
But one day, when across the Field of Fame the goal seemed dim, The wise old coach, Experience, came up and spoke to him. "Old Boy, "he said, "the main point now before you win your bout Is keep on bucking Failure till you've worn that piker out!
"And, kid, cut out this fancy stuff--go in there, low and hard; Just keep your eye upon the ball and plug on, yard by yard, And more than all, when you are thrown or tumbled with a crack, Don't sit there whining--hustle up and keep on coming back;
"Keep coming back with all you've got, without an alibi, If Competition trips you up or lands upon your eye, Until at last above the din you hear this sentence spilled: 'We might as well let this bird through before we all get killed.'
"You'll find the road is long and rough, with soft spots far apart, Where only those can make the grade who have the Uphill Heart. And when they stop you with a thud or halt you with a crack, Let Courage call the signals as you keep on coming back.
"Keep coming back, and though the world may romp across your spine, Let every game's end find you still upon the battling line; For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes--not that you won or lost--but how you played the Game."
T. Coraghessan Boyle, one of today's most renowned writers, has eight novels and three collections of short stories to this credit. Among his books are Water Music (1980), World's End (1987), and Riven Rock (1998). His stories have appeared in Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Paris Review, Esquire, and Harper's. Boyle is the founder and director of the creative writing program in the English Department at the University of Southern California. "56-0" was originally published in Playboy, and appears in his book Without a Hero and Other Stories (1994). Like many great writers, Boyle's work often examines the underdog in society. This story, about small-college football, exemplifies the struggle of a losing team to overcome adversity.
T. Coraghessan Boyle
It wasn't the cast that bothered him--the thing was like rock, like a weapon, and that was just how he would use it--and it wasn't the hyperextended knee or the hip pointer or the yellowing contusions seeping into his thighs and hams and lower back or even the gouged eye that was swollen shut and drooling a thin pale liquid the color of dishwater; no, it was the humiliation. Fifty-six to nothing. That was no mere defeat; it was a drubbing, an ass-kicking, a rape, the kind of thing the statisticians and sports nerds would snigger over as long as there were records to keep. He'd always felt bigger than life in his pads and helmet, a hero, a titan, but you couldn't muster much heroism lying facedown in the mud at fifty-six to nothing and with the other team's third string in there. No, the cast didn't bother him, not really, though it itched like hell and his hand was a big stippled piece of meat sticking out of the end of it, or the eye either, though it was ugly, pure ugly. The trainer had sent him to the eye doctor and the doctor had put some kind of blue fluid in the eye and peered into it with a little conical flashlight and said there was no lasting damage, but still it was swollen shut and he couldn't study for his Physical Communications exam.
It was Sunday, the day after the game, and Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot, right guard for the Caledonia College Shuckers, slept till two, wrapped in his own private misery--and even then he couldn't get out of bed. Every fiber of his body, all six feet, four inches and two hundred sixty-eight pounds of it, shrieked with pain. He was twenty-two years old, a senior, his whole life ahead of him, and he felt like he was ready for the nursing home. There was a ringing in his ears, his eyelashes were welded together, his lower back throbbed and both his knees felt as if ice picks had been driven into them. He hobbled, splayfooted and naked, to the bathroom at the end of the hall, and there was blood in the toilet bowl when he was done.
All his life he'd been a slow fat pasty kid, beleaguered and tormented by his quick-footed classmates, until he found his niche on the football field, where his bulk, stubborn and immovable, had proved an advantage--or so he'd thought. He'd drunk the protein drink, pumped the iron, lumbered around the track like some geriatric buffalo, and what had it gotten him? Caledonia had gone 0-43 during his four years on the varsity squad, never coming closer than two touchdowns even to a tie--and the forty-third loss had been the hardest. Fifty-six to nothing. He'd donned a football helmet to feel good about himself, to develop pride and poise, to taste the sweet nectar of glory, but somehow he didn't feel all that glorious lying there flat on his back and squinting one-eyed at Puckett and Poplar's Principles of Physical Communications: A Text, until the lines shifted before him like the ranks of X's and O's in the Coach's eternal diagrams. He dozed. Woke again to see the evening shadows closing over the room. By nightfall, he felt good enough to get up and puke.
In the morning, a full forty hours after the game had ended, he felt even worse, if that was possible. He sat up, goaded by the first tumultuous stirrings of his gut, and winced as he pulled the sweats over each bruised and puckered calf. His right knee locked up on him as he angled his feet into the laceless high-tops (it had been three years at least since he'd last been able to bend down and tie his shoes), something cried out in his left shoulder as he pulled the Caledonia sweatshirt over his head, and then suddenly he was on his feet and ambulatory. He staggered down the hall like something out of Night of the Living Dead, registering a familiar face here and there, but the faces were a blur mostly, and he avoided the eyes attached to them. Someone was playing Killer Pussy at seismic volume, and someone else--some half-witted dweeb he'd gladly have murdered if only his back didn't hurt so much--had left a skateboard outside the door and Ray Arthur Larry-Pete damn near crushed it to powder and pitched right on through the concrete-block wall in the bargain, but if nothing else, he still had his reflexes. As he crossed the courtyard to the cafeteria in a lively blistering wind, he noted absently that he'd progressed from a hobble to a limp.
There was no sign of Suzie in the cafeteria, and he had a vague recollection of her calling to cancel their study date the previous evening, but as he loaded up his tray with desiccated bacon strips, mucilaginous eggs and waffles that looked, felt and tasted like roofing material, he spotted Kitwany, Moss and DuBoy skulking over their plates at one of the long tables in the back of the room. It would have been hard to miss them. Cut from the same exaggerated mold as he, his fellow linemen loomed over the general run of the student body like representatives of another species. Their heads were like prize pumpkins set on the pedestals of their neckless shoulders, their fingers were the size of the average person's forearm, their jaws were entities unto themselves and they sprouted casts like weird growths all over their bodies.
Ray Arthur Larry-Pete made the long limp across the room to join them, setting his tray down gingerly and using both his hands to brace himself as he lowered his bruised backside to the unforgiving hardwood slats of the bench. Then, still employing his hands, he lifted first one and then the other deadened leg over the bench and into the well beneath the table. He grunted, winced, cursed, broke wind. Then he nodded to his teammates, worked his spine into the swallowing position and addressed himself to his food.
After a moment, DuBoy spoke. He was wearing a neck brace in the place where his head was joined to his shoulders, and it squeezed the excess flesh of his jowls up into his face so that he looked like an enormous rodent. "How you feeling?"
You didn't speak of pain. You toughed it out--that was the code. Coach Tundra had been in the army in Vietnam at some place Ray Arthur Larry-Pete could never remember or pronounce, and he didn't tolerate whiners and slackers. Pain? he would yelp incredulously at the first hint that a player was even thinking of staying down. Tell it to the 101st Airborne, to the boys taking a mortar round in the Ia Drang Valley or the grunts in the field watching their buddies get blown away and then crawling six miles through a swamp so thick it would choke a snake with both their ears bleeding down their neck and their leg gone at the knee. Get up, soldier. Get out there and fight! And if that didn't work, he'd roll up his pantleg to show off the prosthesis.
Ray Arthur Larry-Pete glanced up at DuBoy. "I'll live. How about you?"
DuBoy tried to shrug as if to say it was nothing, but even the faintest lift of a shoulder made him gasp and slap a hand to the neck brace as if a hornet had stung him. "No ... big thing," he croaked finally.
There was no sound then but for the onomatopoeia of the alimentary Process--food going in, jaws seizing it, throats closing on the load and opening again for the next--and the light trilling mealtime chatter of their fellow students, the ones unencumbered by casts and groin pulls and bloody toilets. Ray Arthur Larry-Pete was depressed. Over the loss, sure--but it went deeper than that. He was brooding about his college career, his job prospects, life after football. There was a whole winter, spring and summer coming up in which, for the first time in as long as he could remember, he wouldn't have to worry about training for football season, and he couldn't imagine what that would be like. No locker room, no sweat, no pads, no stink of shower drains or the mentholated reek of ointment, no jock itch or aching muscles, no training table, no trainer--no chance, however slim, for glory....
And more immediately, he was fretting about his coursework. There was the Phys. Comm. exam he hadn't been able to study for, and the quiz the professor would almost certainly spring in Phys. Ed., and there were the three-paragraph papers required for both Phys. Training and Phys. Phys., and he was starting to get a little paranoid about Suzie, one of the quintessentially desirable girls on campus, with all her assets on public view, and what did he have to offer her but the glamour of football? Why had she backed out on their date? Did this mean their engagement was off, that she wanted a winner, that this was the beginning of the end?
He was so absorbed in his thoughts he didn't register what Moss was saying when he dropped his bomb into the little silence at the table. Moss was wearing a knee brace and his left arm was in a sling. He was using his right to alternately take a bite of his own food and to lift a heaping forkful from Kitwany's plate to Kitwany's waiting lips. Kitwany was in a full-shoulder harness, both arms frozen in front of him as if he were a sleepwalker cast in plaster of Paris. Ray Arthur Larry-Pete saw Moss's mouth working, but the words flew right by him. "What did you say, Moss?" he murmured, looking up from his food.
"I said Coach says we're probably going to have to forfeit to State."
Ray Arthur Larry-Pete was struck dumb. "Forfeit?" he finally gasped, and the blood was thundering in his temples. "What the hell do you mean, forfeit?"
A swirl of snow flurries scoured his unprotected ears as he limped grimly across the quad to the Phys. Ed. building, muttering under his breath. What was the Coach thinking? Didn't he realize this was the seniors' last game, their last and only chance to assuage the sting of 56-0, the final time they'd ever pull on their cleats against State, Caledonia's bitterest rival, a team they hadn't beaten in modern historical times? Was he crazy?
It was cold, wintry, the last week in November, and Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot had to reach up with his good hand to pull his collar tight against his throat as he mounted the big concrete steps brushed with snow. The shooting hot-wire pains that accompanied this simple gesture were nothing, nothing at all, and he barely grimaced, reaching down automatically for the push-bar on the big heavy eight-foot-tall double doors. He nodded at a pair of wrestlers running the stairs in gym shorts, made his way past the woefully barren trophy case (Caledonia College, Third Place Divisional Finish, 1938 read the inscription on the lone trophy, which featured a bronzed figurine in antiquated leather headgear atop a pedestal engraved with the scores of that lustrous long-ago 6-and-5 season, the only winning season Caledonia could boast of in any of its athletic divisions, except for women's field hockey and who counted that?), tested his knees on the third grueling flight of stairs, and approached the Coach's office by the side door. Coach Tundra almost never inhabited his official office on the main corridor, a place of tidy desks, secretaries and seasonal decorations; of telephones, copiers and the new lone fax machine he could use to instantaneously trade X's and O's with his colleagues at other colleges, if he so chose. No, he preferred the back room, a tiny unheated poorly lit cubicle cluttered with the detritus of nineteen unprofitable seasons. Ray Arthur Larry-Pete peered through the open doorway to find the Coach slumped over his desk, face buried in his hands. "Coach?" he said softly.
From the nest of his hands, the Coach's rucked and gouged face gradually emerged and the glittering wicked raptor's eyes that had struck such bowel-wringing terror into red-shirt freshman and senior alike stared up blankly. There was nothing in those eyes now but a worn and defeated look, and it was a shock. So too the wrinkles in the shirt that was always pressed and pleated with military precision, the scuffed shoes and suddenly vulnerable-looking hands--even the Coach's brush cut, ordinarily as stiff and imperturbable as a falcon's crest, seemed to lie limp against his scalp. "Fontinot?" the Coach said finally, and his voice was dead.
"I, uh, just wanted to check--I mean, practice is at the regular time, right?"
Coach Tundra said nothing. He looked shrunken, lost, older in that moment than the oldest man in the oldest village in the mountains of Tibet. "There won't be any practice today," he said, rubbing his temple over the spot where the military surgeons had inserted the steel plate.
"No practice? But Coach, shouldn't we--I mean, don't we have to--"
"We can't field a team, Fontinot. I count sixteen guys out of forty-two that can go out there on the field and maybe come out of their comas for four consecutive quarters--and I'm counting you among them. And you're so banged up you can barely stand, let alone block." He heaved a sigh, plucked a torn battered shoe from the pile of relics on the floor and turned it over meditatively in his hands. "We're done, Fontinot. Finished. It's all she wrote. Like at Saigon when the gooks overran the place--it's time to cut our losses and run."
Ray Arthur Larry-Pete was stunned. He'd given his life for this, he'd sweated and fought and struggled, filled the bloated vessel of himself with the dregs of defeat, week after week, year after year. He was flunking all four of his Phys. Ed. courses, Suzie thought he was a clown, his mother was dying of uterine cancer and his father--the man who'd named him after the three greatest offensive linemen in college-football history--was driving in from Cincinnati for the game, his last game, the ultimate and final contest that stood between him and the world of pay stubs and mortgages. "You don't mean," he stammered, "you don't mean we're going to forfeit, do you?"
For a long moment the Coach held him with his eyes. Faint sounds echoed in the corridors--the slap of sneakers, a door heaving closed, the far-off piping of the basketball coach's whistle. Coach Tundra made an unconscious gesture toward his pant leg and for a moment Ray Arthur Larry-Pete thought he was going to expose the prosthesis again. "What do you want me to do," he said finally, "go out there and play myself?"
Back in his room, Ray Arthur Larry-Pete brooded over the perfidy of it all. A few hours ago he'd been sick to death of the game--what had it gotten him but obloquy and bruises?--but now he wanted to go out there and play so badly he could kill for it. His roommate--Malmo Malmstein, the team's kicker--was still in the hospital, and he had the room to himself through the long morning and the interminable afternoon that followed it. He lay there prostrate on the bed like something shot out in the open that had crawled back to its cave to die, skipping classes, blowing off tests and steeping himself in misery. At three he called Suzie--he had to talk to someone, anyone, or he'd go crazy--but one of her sorority sisters told him she was having her nails done and wasn't expected back before six. Her nails. Christ, that rubbed him raw: where was she when he needed her? A sick sinking feeling settled into his stomach--she was cutting him loose, he knew it.
And then, just as it was getting dark, at the very nadir of his despair, something snapped in him. What was wrong with him? Was he a quitter? A whiner and slacker? The kind of guy that gives up before he puts his cleats on? No way. Not Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot. He came up off the bed like some sort of volcanic eruption and lurched across the room to the phone. Sweating, ponderous, his very heart, lungs and liver trembling with emotion, he forced all his concentration on the big pale block of his index finger as he dialed Gary Gedney, the chicken-neck who handled the equipment and kept the Gatorade bucket full. "Phone up all the guys," he roared into the receiver.
Gedney's voice came back at him in the thin whistling whine of a balloon sputtering round a room: "Who is this?"
"It's Fontinot. I want you to phone up all the guys."
"What for?" Gedney whined.
"We're calling a team meeting."
Ray Arthur Larry-Pete considered the question a moment, and when finally he spoke it was with a conviction and authority he never thought he could command: "I am."
At seven that night, twenty-six members of the Caledonia Shuckers varsity football squad showed up in the lounge at Bloethal Hall. They filled the place with their presence, their sheer protoplasmic mass, and the chairs and couches groaned under the weight of them. They wore Band-Aids, gauze and tape--miles of it--and the lamplight caught the livid craters of their scars and glanced off the railway stitches running up and down their arms. There were casts, crutches, braces, slings. And there was the smell of them, a familiar, communal, lingering smell--the smell of a team.
Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot was ready for them, pacing back and forth in front of the sliding glass doors like a bear at the zoo, waiting patiently until each of them had gimped into the room and found a seat. Moss, DuBoy and Kitwany were there with him for emotional support, as was the fifth interior lineman, center Brian McCornish. When they were all gathered, Ray Arthur Larry-Pete lifted his eyes and scanned the familiar faces of his teammates. "I don't know if any of you happened to notice," he said, "but here it is Monday night and we didn't have practice this afternoon."
"Amen," someone said, and a couple of the guys started hooting.
But Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot wasn't having any of it. He was a rock. His face hardened. He clenched his fists. "It's no joke," he bellowed, and the thunder of his voice set up sympathetic vibrations in the pole lamps with their stained and battered shades. "We've got five days to the biggest game of our lives, and I'm not just talking about us seniors, but everybody, and I want to know what we're going to do about it."
"Forfeit, that's what." It was Diderot, the third-string quarterback and the only one at that vital position who could stand without the aid of crutches. He was lounging against the wall in the back of the room, and all heads now turned to him. "I talked to Coach, and that's what he said."
In that moment, Ray Arthur Larry-Pete lost control of himself. "Forfeit, my ass!" he roared, slamming his forearm, cast and all, down on the nearest coffee table, which fell to splinters under the force of the blow. "Get up, guys," he hissed in an intense aside to his fellow linemen, and Moss, DuBoy, Kitwany and McCornish rose beside him in a human wall. "We're willing to play sixty minutes of football," he boomed, and he had the attention of the room now, that was for sure. "Burt, Reggie, Steve, Brian and me, and we'll play both ways, offense and defense, to fill in for guys with broken legs and concussions and whatnot--"
A murmur went up. This was crazy, insane, practically sacrificial. State gave out scholarships--and under-the-table payoffs too--and they got the really topflight players, the true behemoths and crackerjacks, the ones who attracted pro scouts and big money. To go up against them in their present condition would be like replaying the Gulf War, with Caledonia cast in the role of the Iraqis.
"What are you, a bunch of pussies?" Ray Arthur Larry-Pete cried. "Afraid to get your uniforms dirty? Afraid of a little contact? What do you want--to have to live with fifty-six-to-nothing for the rest of your life? Huh? I don't hear you!"
But they heard him. He pleaded, threatened, blustered, cajoled, took them aside one by one, jabbered into the phone half the night till his voice was hoarse and his ear felt like a piece of rubber grafted to the side of his head. In the end, they turned out for practice the following day--twenty-three of them, even Kitwany, who could barely move from the waist up and couldn't get a jersey on over his cast--and Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot ascended the three flights to the Coach's office and handed Coach Tundra the brand-new silver-plated whistle they'd chipped in to buy him. "Coach," he said, as the startled man looked up at him from the crucible of his memories, "we're ready to go out there and kick some butt."
The day of the game dawned cold and forbidding, with close skies, a biting wind and the threat of snow on the air. Ray Arthur Larry-Pete had lain awake half the night, his brain tumbling through all the permutations of victory and disaster like a slot machine gone amok. Would he shine? Would he rise to the occasion and fight off the devastating pass rush of State's gargantuan front four? And what about the defense? He hadn't played defense since junior high, and now, because they were short-handed and because he'd opened his big mouth, he'd have to go both ways. Would he have the stamina? Or would he stagger round the field on rubber legs, thrust aside by State's steroid-swollen evolutionary freaks like the poor pathetic bumbling fat man he was destined to become? But no. Enough of that. If you thought like a loser--if you doubted for even a minute--then you were doomed, and you deserved 56-0 and worse.
At quarter to seven he got out of bed and stood in the center of the room in his undershorts, cutting the air savagely with the battering ram of his cast, pumping himself up. He felt unconquerable suddenly, felt blessed, felt as if he could do anything. The bruises, the swollen eye, the hip pointer and rickety knees were nothing but fading memories now. By Tuesday he'd been able to lift both his arms to shoulder level without pain, and by Wednesday he was trotting round the field on a pair of legs that felt like bridge abutments. Thursday's scrimmage left him wanting more, and he flew like a sprinter through yesterday's light workout. He was as ready as he'd ever be.
At seven-fifteen he strode through the weather to the dining hall to load up on carbohydrates, and by eight he was standing like a colossus in the foyer of Suzie's sorority house. The whole campus had heard about his speech in the Bloethal lounge, and by Wednesday night Suzie had come back round again. They spent the night in his room--his private room, for the duration of Malmstein's stay at the Sisters of Mercy Hospital--and Suzie had traced his bruises with her lips and hugged the tractor tire of flesh he wore round his midsection to her own slim and naked self. Now she greeted him with wet hair and a face bereft of makeup. "Wish me luck, Suze," he said, and she clung to him briefly before going off to transform herself for the game.
Coach Tundra gathered his team in the locker room at twelve-thirty and spoke to them from his heart, employing the military conceits that always seemed to confuse the players as much as inspire them, and then they were thundering out onto the field like some crazed herd of hoofed and horned things with the scent of blood in their nostrils. The crowd roared. Caledonia's colors, chartreuse and orange, flew in the breeze. The band played. Warming up, Ray Arthur Larry-Pete could see Suzie sitting in the stands with her sorority sisters, her hair the color of vanilla ice cream, her mouth fallen open in a cry of savagery and bloodlust. And there, just to the rear of her--no, it couldn't be, it couldn't--but it was: his mom. Sitting there beside the hulking mass of his father, wrapped up in her windbreaker like a leaf pressed in an album, her scalp glinting bald through the dyed pouf of her hair, there she was, holding a feeble fist aloft. His mom! She'd been too sick to attend any of his games this year, but this was his last one, his last game ever, and she'd fought down her pain and all the unimaginable stress and suffering of the oncology ward just to see him play. He felt the tears come to his eyes as he raised his fist in harmony: this game was for her.
Unfortunately, within fifteen seconds of the kickoff, Caledonia was already in the hole, 7-0, and Ray Arthur Larry-Pete hadn't even got out onto the field yet. State's return man had fielded the kick at his own thirty after Malmstein's replacement, Hassan Farouk, had shanked the ball off the tee, and then he'd dodged past the entire special teams unit and on into the end zone as if the Caledonia players were molded of wax. On the ensuing kickoff, Bobby Bibby, a jittery, butterfingered guy Ray Arthur Larry-Pete had never liked, fumbled the ball, and State picked it up and ran it in for the score. They were less than a minute into the game, and already it was 14-0.
Ray Arthur Larry-Pete felt his heart sink, but he leapt up off the bench with a roar and butted heads so hard with Moss and DuBoy he almost knocked himself unconscious. "Come on, guys," he bellowed, "it's only fourteen points, it's nothing, bear down!" And then Bibby held on to the ball and Ray Arthur Larry-Pete was out on the field, going down in his three-point stance across from a guy who looked like a walking mountain. The guy had a handlebar mustache, little black eyes like hornets pinned to his head and a long wicked annealed scar that plunged into his right eye socket and back out again. He looked to be about thirty, and he wore Number 95 stretched tight across the expanse of his chest. "You sorry sack of shit," he growled over Diderot's erratic snap-count. "I'm going to lay you flat out on your ass."
And that's exactly what he did. McCornish snapped the ball, Ray Arthur Larry-Pete felt something like a tactical nuclear explosion in the region of his sternum, and Number 95 was all over Diderot while Ray Arthur Larry-Pete stared up into the sky. In the next moment the trainer was out there, along with the Coach--already starting in on his Ia Drang Valley speech--and Ray Arthur Larry-Pete felt the first few snowflakes drift down into the whites of his wide-open and staring eyes. "Get up and walk it off," the trainer barked, and then half a dozen hands were pulling him to his feet, and Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot was back in his crouch, directly across from Number 95. And even then, though he hated to admit it to himself, though he was playing for Suzie and his mother and his own rapidly dissolving identity, he knew it was going to be a very long afternoon indeed.
It was 35-0 at the half, and Coach Tundra already had his pant leg rolled up by the time the team hobbled into the locker room. Frozen, pulverized, every cord, ligament, muscle and fiber stretched to the breaking point, they listened numbly as the Coach went on about ordnance, landing zones and fields of fire, while the trainer and his assistant scurried round plying tape, bandages and the ever-present aerosol cans of Numzit. Kitwany's replacement, a huge amorphous red-faced freshman, sat in the corner, quietly weeping, and Bobby Bibby, who'd fumbled twice more in the second quarter, tore off his uniform, pulled on his street clothes without showering and walked on out the door. As for Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot, he lay supine on the cold hard tiles of the floor, every twinge, pull, ache and contusion from the previous week's game reactivated, and a host of new ones cropping up to overload his nervous system. Along with Moss and DuBoy, he'd done double duty through the first thirty minutes-playing offense and defense both--and his legs were paralyzed. When the Coach blew his whistle and shouted, "On the attack, men!" Ray Arthur Larry-Pete had to be helped up off the floor.
The third quarter was a delirium of blowing snow, shouts, curses and cries in the wilderness. Shadowy forms clashed and fell to the crunch of helmet and the clatter of shoulder pads. Ray Arthur Larry-Pete staggered around the field as if gutshot, so disoriented he was never quite certain which way his team was driving--or rather, being driven. But mercifully, the weather conditions slowed down the big blue barreling machine of State's offense, and by the time the gun sounded, they'd only been able to score once more.
And so the fourth quarter began, and while the stands emptied and even the most fanatical supporters sank glumly into their parkas, Caledonia limped out onto the field with their heads down and their jaws set in grim determination. They were no longer playing for pride, for the memories, for team spirit or their alma mater or to impress their girlfriends; they were playing for one thing only: to avoid at all cost the humiliation of 56-0. And they held on, grudging State every inch of the field, Ray Arthur Larry-Pete coming to life in sporadic flashes during which he was nearly lucid and more often than not moving in the right direction, Moss, DuBoy and McCornish picking themselves up off the ground at regular intervals and the Coach hollering obscure instructions from the sidelines. With just under a minute left to play, they'd managed (with the help of what would turn out to be the worst blizzard to hit the area in twenty years) to hold State to only one touchdown more, making it 49-0 with the ball in their possession and the clock running down.
The snow blew in their teeth. State dug in. A feeble distant cheer went up from the invisible stands. And then, with Number 95 falling on him like an avalanche, Diderot fumbled, and State recovered. Two plays later, and with eight seconds left on the clock, they took the ball into the end zone to make it 55-0, and only the point-after attempt stood between Caledonia and the unforgivable, unutterable debasement of a second straight 56-0 drubbing. Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot extricated himself from the snowbank where Number 95 had left him and crept stiff-legged back to the line of scrimmage, where he would now assume the defensive role.
There was one hope, and one hope only, in that blasted naked dead cinder of a world that Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot and his hapless teammates unwillingly inhabited, and that was for one man among them to reach deep down inside himself and distill all his essence--all his wits, all his heart and the full power of his honed young musculature--into a single last-ditch attempt to block that kick. Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot looked into the frightened faces of his teammates as they heaved for breath in the defensive huddle and knew he was that man. "I'm going to block the kick," he said, and his voice sounded strange in his own ears. "I'm coming in from the right side and I'm going to block the kick." Moss's eyes were glazed. DuBoy was on the sidelines, vomiting in his helmet. No one said a word.
State lined up. Ray Arthur Larry-Pete took a deep breath. The ball was snapped, the lines crashed with a grunt and moan, and Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot launched himself at the kicker like the space shuttle coming in for a landing, and suddenly--miracle of miracles!--he felt the hard cold pellet of the ball glancing off the bandaged nubs of his fingers. A shout went up, and as he fell, as he slammed rib-first into the frozen ground, he watched the ball squirt up in the air and fall back into the arms of the kicker as if it were attached to a string, and then, unbelieving, he watched the kicker tuck the ball and sprint unmolested across the goal line for the two-point conversion.
If it weren't for Moss, they might never have found him. Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot just lay there where he'd fallen, the snow drifting silently round him, and he lay there long after the teams had left the field and the stands stood empty under a canopy of snow. There, in the dirt, the steady drift of snow gleaming against the exposed skin of his calves and slowly obliterating the number on the back of his jersey, he had a vision of the future. He saw himself working at some tedious, spirit-crushing job for which his Phys. Ed. training could never have prepared him, saw himself sunk in fat like his father, a pale plain wife and two grublike children at his side, no eighty-yard runs or blocked points to look back on through a false scrim of nostalgia, no glory and no defeat.
No defeat. It was a concept that seemed all at once to congeal in his tired brain, and as Moss called out his name and the snow beat down, he tried hard, with all his concentration, to hold it there.