After losing his starting position as a college quarterback to a shoulder injury, Nick Gallow has remade himself as a punter. Now in his fifth year in the pros with the Philadelphia Sentinels, Nick spends most of his time on the sidelines. He no longer makes winning plays, and when the team visits a hospital, the sick kids would rather talk to the players they've actually heard of. But Nick is unexpectedly thrust back into the spotlight when he witnesses the murder of the new all-star draft pick on the eve of the team's summer minicamp.
Nick has no plans to get involved. Despite the murder, his focus is squarely on an uppity rookie player eyeing his roster spot. But after a second attack hits closer to home and the police go after the wrong man, Nick finds himself driven by the chance to be a hero again.
In Hangman's Game, Syken offers a seasoned sportswriter's take on the contemporary culture of football and the will to play on despite the game's toll on the body and mind.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||8.40(w) x 5.80(h) x 1.20(d)|
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By Bill Syken
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Bill Syken
All rights reserved.
I figured it out once. I calculated the time I spend actually performing the task that gives my job its title, and it came out to fifty-one minutes per year. Not even an hour. And that calculation is generous, believe me. The total grows if I include practices, but still, that leaves me with a lot of anticipation to chew through.
Tonight — it is early June, and warm — I am wearing my one and only suit, which is black and made to measure, and I stand outside of the Jefferson, a short-term residential apartment building that's been my home for the last five years. My dinner companions are running a couple of minutes late, but I am handling the wait like the pro that I am.
Soon enough, the Jefferson's doors hiss open, and out shuffles a towering black man in a red clinging workout shirt, baggy jeans, and sneakers. Though we have never met, I have seen enough news footage to recognize him as one of the men I am dining with tonight, Samuel Sault. The newest, richest member of my team, the Philadelphia Sentinels, has short-cropped hair and a neatly trimmed goatee, a wide mouth that is slightly downturned, and eyes set far enough apart that I wonder if he has more peripheral vision than your average human. He is as tall as advertised, at six foot seven, though he looks so thin that I immediately assume his listed weight of 301 pounds is a media-guide fiction. I wonder if this skinny pass rusher isn't a waste of the second-overall pick, the latest mistake of our foundering franchise.
Samuel is also staying at the Jefferson, directed here by our mutual agent and the third member of our dinner party, Cecil Wilson. Although I imagine Samuel's tenancy will end as soon as he finds a mansion that he deems worthy of slicing off a chunk of his $12 million signing bonus. I've stayed at the Jefferson entirely out of superstition — I took a fully furnished room here when I surprised everyone, including myself, by making the Sentinels as a rookie free agent, and I continue to stay here because I am absolutely sure that the moment I buy a home or sign a long-term lease, the Sentinels will cut me.
I raise a hand, which Samuel ignores as he goes to a spot a few yards down from me on the Jefferson's semicircle driveway and stands, eyes down and arms folded. I study him for a moment and see that he's more sleek than skinny, really. Most players his weight have a certain puff to their musculature, but Samuel's torso is flat as a fashion model's. He is broad in the upper body, with bulk packed into his shoulders and upper arms — it looks like he has ham hocks stuffed into his sleeves. Maybe that listed weight of 301 is more honest than I thought. The jeans he is wearing are of a loose cut, and could be concealing a disproportionately large butt and thighs. In football, it's all about the butt. I have never once looked around the locker room and seen a narrow ass.
"Samuel?" I say, walking over to him. He looks up and briefly meets my eyes and then looks down again, without answering. Perhaps he is assuming that I am an autograph seeker.
"I'm Nick Gallow," I say. "We're having dinner together." He turns toward me, surprised. "I'm a client of Cecil's, too," I add. "I'm the Sentinels' punter."
"Hey," he says, with a slim smile and brief raise of the eyebrows. He then goes back to staring at the ground, except now he is bobbing his head nervously.
From news stories I know the basics of Samuel's background: that he grew up in rural Alabama and lived with his parents through college, shunning offers from bigger schools to live at home and attend the nearby Western Alabama A&M, which is a historically black college. In these stories, all encomiums to country humility, Samuel's quotes had been sparing and few.
Samuel's head-bobbing is so odd that I wonder for a moment if he is not just shy, but autistic. Or maybe he has Asperger's. Or something. It is all too easy to imagine how a "slow learner" with Samuel's physical gifts might glide through college, especially at a small school that would have believed itself blessed to host such a rare talent.
Or it may just be that Samuel is feeling overwhelmed. Yesterday he signed his contract, and this morning he was hailed as a team savior on the front pages of both the Inquirer and Daily News. And he would have seen the Inquirer, at least, because the Jefferson slides the paper under the door of its guests every morning.
"I'm glad you're here," I say to Samuel. "I'm looking forward to playing with you."
Samuel nods, eyes still trained on the pavement, showing no interest in grabbing on to the simplest of conversational lifelines. He looks so cowered that it is hard to believe that he is the same person the press has dubbed "Samuel Assault" for his ability to inflict pain. During his three years in college, he injured eleven quarterbacks, knocking them out of games with broken arms and collarbones, torn knee ligaments, ruptured spleens, and concussions.
As the two of us stand there waiting, residents flow into the Jefferson, almost all of them turning to gawk at this colossal young man as they pass.
At last, Cecil pulls into the driveway, driving a rented black Escalade. Usually I see him in a Ford Focus.
A portly man with shaggy black hair, moony dark eyes, and a not-quite-walrus mustache, Cecil managed a hardware store before switching careers and becoming a football agent six years ago. I was his first client, and for a few years his only one.
Cecil shakes hands with Samuel — which I note because Cecil and I have always hugged. "How you doing, buddy?" he says to Samuel. "Have you met Nick?"
"Yeah," says Samuel quietly. Even in familiar company, Samuel shows an unusual amount of diffidence, especially considering he is a twenty-one-year-old multimillionaire.
Cecil shakes my hand, too. "Love the suit, Nick!" he says.
"Love the car," I answer. "What are you listening to in there? 50 Cent? Cee Lo?"
"Trisha Yearwood," he says, scratching the back of his neck. As he scratches, the sleeve of his suit jacket pulls back to reveal a gold watch with a black leather band. That is new.
"So how obsessed are you with Woodward Tolley right now?" Cecil asks me with a grin. Woodward Tolley is a rookie free agent punter that the Sentinels signed last week to compete with me for a roster spot. Cecil's smile is meant to show he's not concerned with this threat to my job. Of course now that he has Samuel, my revenue stream is something he can afford to joke about.
"Trying not to think about him too much," I say.
"And how's that going?" Cecil laughs. When I don't join in, he pats me on the elbow and adds "C'mon, you can handle that kid in your sleep." Cecil then turns to Samuel and asks, "So where would you guys like to eat?"
Samuel shrugs with indifference.
"Nick, you choose," Cecil says. "You're the local."
"Let me think," I say. Rittenhouse Square, on which the Jefferson stands, has a high-end restaurant that serves hundred-dollar Kobe beef cheesesteaks, but I don't want to endorse that sort of absurdity. We could head toward Northern Liberties, a neighborhood where new and interesting restaurants are popping up all the time. But then Cecil isn't a guy who likes his food interesting, and Samuel probably isn't, either. We also need a place where my suit and Samuel's workout shirt will be equally appropriate.
"Let's go to Stark's," I say. Stark's feels like a safe choice for an evening that already seems like it could use some help. Stark's is a steakhouse, and a popular players' hangout. I almost never go there, but it is staffed by young and agreeable waitresses who reportedly do everything they can to make Sentinel players feel welcome.
* * *
I am riding in the backseat when an e-mail pops up on my phone. It is from someone I've never met, and whose acquaintance I have no interest in making. It is my girlfriend Jessica's husband.
Hello, Nick. This is Dan Steagall, Jessica's husband. I would like to invite you to our house for dinner. Jessica has told me wonderful things about you, and I would appreciate the chance to get to know you. I am away this week and part of next, but just name a date after that, and we'll make it happen. Do you like lamb? I cook a mean lamb. Thanks.
I feel caught. The e-mail's benign language suggests that he believes Jessica and I are merely friends, but I can't help but be concerned. Dan works at the Philadelphia branch of the Federal Reserve, and he has a hand in the managing of our nation's economy. I have seen photos of him, and he is physically slight, certainly not the sort to challenge me to a duel. But I imagine he would seek revenge in some form if he learned exactly how Jessica and I spend our time together. Yesterday afternoon, for instance, she and I had engaged in yet another one of our role-playing games. These games had many variations, except that my character was always named Troy. Yesterday I was Troy the organic turnip farmer, who valiantly peddled his produce door-to-door because Big Grocery wouldn't give him a break. Troy was so weary, so misunderstood, and so in need of love ...
"Hey, Samuel," says Cecil. "Did you have a chance to get to the Franklin Institute and walk through their big human heart?"
"Nah," Samuel says. "Didn't feel like it."
Dan's invitation has come at a time when I really don't need the distraction. The Sentinels have a minicamp in a few days, and I will be going against my new competition, this Woodward Tolley. I need to focus on him, not Jessica's husband.
Without replying, I forward Dan's message to Jessica with the comment WTF?
Jessica must have slipped up somehow, is all I can figure. Jessica is intelligent, but also restless. She is a painter, but not the kind that tries to sell her work. I have always seen her ennui as our primary vulnerability to being caught. The third or fourth time we were together I actually said to her, as we lay in bed, "You should try to keep yourself a little more busy. I don't want you to let your husband catch us just because it's Wednesday and you're bored."
"But if I weren't so bored, my darling," she answered me, stroking my neck, "what would I be doing with you?"
* * *
Stark's Steakhouse is situated not far from the Delaware River, in an area where the urban grid opens up. The building is a low-slung gray rectangle with the restaurant's name written on its upper left corner in neon red script. Stark's is upscale, but it is not intimate. They do a volume business. The place has an expansive parking lot, which is nearly full when we arrive. We park off to the left, and we have a good forty-yard walk to the entrance.
The Stark's lobby is defined by its wall of fame, featuring autographed eight-by-tens of the players who have eaten here over the decades. The photos tilt heavily toward stars of the sixties and seventies, and many of the photos are in the goofy style of the old football publicity stills — men in buzz cuts leaping or charging in front of empty bleachers. The pictures aren't just of Sentinels, either; the wall features players from around the league who visited when they were in town for a road game.
The restaurant is busy, with the tables full in the lower tier and many well-dressed men, mostly in their thirties and forties, hovering near the bar.
It is then that I notice Jai Carson, the Sentinels' star linebacker, in the restaurant's upper tier, which is reserved for VIPs — which, here, usually means athletes. Jai is wearing an electric-blue tracksuit, and he seems to be in typically high spirits. He is on his feet with a cocktail in his hand, entertaining friends with a bawdy story. Though I can't actually hear what he is saying, I feel confident that Jai's story is bawdy because he appears to be pantomiming a sex act, thrusting his crotch as he holds on to an imaginary pair of hips.
Perhaps anticipating such antics, the maître d' has seated Jai and his crew in a deep corner of the upper tier.
Jai's dining companions include only one Sentinel that I can see — his best friend on the team, Orlando Byrd, the 342-pound defensive tackle who goes by the nickname Too Big to Fail. The other guys at the table come from Jai's private stock of friends, buddies from his hometown of Memphis that I have often seen milling around the locker room.
Jai concludes his story with a broad slapping gesture that is greeted with whoops of laughter — the loudest being his own. He spins in a 360, a giddy pirouette, and as he settles down, he notices us. And by us, I mean Samuel. His eyes light up, and his arms open wide.
"Fuck me!" Jai shouts across the dining room. "There's a beast in the house!"
Jai hops down the couple of steps and charges across the main dining floor and throws his arms around Samuel, who has watched Jai's approach with something other than anticipation. On contact with Jai, he flinches.
"Shit, rookie," Jai says, stepping back, taking in Samuel's size. "You stacked up!"
Samuel does loom over Jai, his chin level with the linebacker's tapered eyebrows. Even though Samuel is maybe fifty pounds heavier than Jai, he is the leaner of the two. Throw in a couple other physical details — like Samuel's straight and firm hairline compared to Jai's shiny dome, shaved to mask male pattern baldness — and it is hard not to look at the two defensive players and see Jai as the old model and Samuel as the new and improved version.
"Hi, I'm Cecil Wilson, Samuel's agent," Cecil says, hand extended to Jai.
"Cecil Wilson, congratulations!" says Jai, shaking his hand energetically. "You got your boy signed quick, didn't you? I bet the bosses love you."
The last line, though delivered in a friendly enough tone, is not a compliment. Cecil has in fact been getting ripped on football message boards for having Samuel agree to a contract in June, at least a month earlier than is typical for top rookies. The critics argue that Samuel could have received more money if he waited until August, when full training camps convene. The agent for the player chosen third overall publicly proclaimed that he was going to be seeking more money for his client than Samuel received, because "he was not going to let the market be set by a neophyte."
If Cecil notices the backhandedness of Jai's compliment, he betrays no sign of offense, and Jai now turns to me with blank expectation. He seems to be waiting for an introduction.
He doesn't know who I am.
Unbelievable. As a punter, I am used to slights to my ego — casual insinuations that I am not a real player, not actually part of the team. But if Jai doesn't recognize me, after five years in the same locker room, this will top them all. Times ten.
"Hello, Jai," I say evenly.
"Hey, man," he says, extending his hand to me as if he is doing a corporate appearance, and I am the salesman of the month. "Good to see you." With no indication whatsoever that he knows we are teammates, Jai turns his attention back to silent Samuel, who still has not said a word.
"I can't wait to see you and Samuel on the field together," Cecil says, rubbing his hands together with pronounced eagerness. "Who are they going to double-team? They won't know what to do!"
"You know it," Jai says. "Samuel and JC are going to fuck some major ass together. I bet there's quarterbacks at home right now clinching their buttholes up tight just thinking about it!"
This is Jai as he ever is, continuously and joyously profane. Samuel's jaw clenches and his posture rises — I am guessing this is different from the dinnertime chatter back home with his parents — and his eyes zero in on Jai's necklace, which asks in shimmering rhinestone lettering: WANT TO?
Samuel's silence is making Jai uneasy. His eyes dart, searching for signs of appreciation. No showman likes a mute audience.
Jai then asks Samuel a question he shouldn't ask, one that a more cautious person might have swallowed, understanding that the wrong answer would create unspeakable discomfort:
"You do know who JC is, right?"
Jai Carson's personal mission over the last decade has been to get his face on as many television programs, talk shows, magazine covers, video game boxes, and roadside billboards as he could. He recorded his own CD, Sack Dance, starred in a reality dating show, and he also has a line of JC earrings. Hell, he has even been on The View. There could be no bigger insult for Jai from anyone, let alone a rookie on his own defense, than to say: I don't recognize you.
Excerpted from Hangman's Game by Bill Syken. Copyright © 2015 Bill Syken. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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