Thursday, April 10, 2008

Damned If You Do (pt. 3)

"Marissa, I don't want to have that fight now. I'm having THIS fight now." The frustration of trying to convince her wasn't helped by the traffic that was already accumulating around town for the big game in a few hours time.

She sounded unconvinced.

"Look, I don't know what he's up to, but somehow Bill sent me a message, dated tomorrow, telling me to bet on this long shot underdog. I think he's got some inside information or something, and rich older brother finally decided to throw me a bone here. This isn't coming from me, it's coming from the one who always said you were too good for me. Don't think of it as wiring me $1000, think of it as investing in Bill's insight."

Somehow he had achieved a rare small victory. Either from persuasion or frustration, or equal parts of both, she agreed to add to his savings, all of which was now going to be placed on the underdog CF State, and he was for the first time in a while cautiously optimistic because he thought this mysterious message from his brother might be his way out.

As game time drew near, Coach Cunningham sat in the office next to the locker room and gathered his thoughts on what he might say to rally his team. Though he'd seen quite a bit of challenge in his 19 years calling the shots, when not in front of the boys he admitted to himself that this might have been the most mismatched, most pressure-filled scenario he'd ever had to gameplan for. As he went over a few potential words to the boys in his head, he had one inescapable whim of a thought. He picked up his phone and called an old friend from childhood who had the less than reputable hobby of making sports book.

"Mark, am I still looking at taking lambs to the slaughter here?"

"Funny thing you should ask that now," said the entrepreneur, "no one believed in you until a couple of hours ago. Now we've seen a little money come in from someone out there who really thinks you've got some talent hidden there somewhere."

"Guess I have to tear up my 'It's us against the world' speech now", said Cunningham.

"What's that, #3? Just give them #4, 'people out there are counting on you.' Just promise me no one is going to give 110 percent. That's my job."

Jack settled into his seat in the stadium. Twice during the early part of the game he'd tried to phone his brother to get some explanation as to the cryptic message dated tomorrow, but he was told Bill was busy with some damned new equipment they thought might be malfunctioning.

The game looked dismal early, yet just as UCA would seem to get their feet on their rival's throats, the slightest misstep or lack of concentration proved to keep the game close and Jack's anxiety high. CF State was down by 5 but with scant time left and UCA controlling the ball, it seemed nearly done. The only complication being that UCA wasn't controlling the ball, and CF State recovered with enough time perhaps for one last push. One shot to pull off the seemingly impossible --- maybe even to buck Jack Jenkins's fate.

Dontrell sprung off the line, and within three paces had already shifted into a higher gear and left the young man tasked with covering him hopelessly lost. The end of this play would also be the end of the game, the end of the season, and if he could catch it the end of rival UCA's storied winning streak. Thoughts flashed through Dontrell's mind as he charged towards the end zone with short huffs and long strides.

He thought about his two years of running track in high school, before the coaches explained to him that his frame was filling out to a point where the 100 yards of football held more promise for college scholarship than the 100 meter dash. Still, the training of launching out of the blocks served him well here. He thought of how the play was drawn up to depend on him, and how with the final seconds ticking off the clock, the glory and the pressure that would come with this catch. Finally, his mind rested on the words of his coach.

"People out there are counting on you." Yeah, right. People were probably about to make tons of money off his talent. The college, the boosters, the coach, the networks... they were all counting on him alright, counting their dollars. The reason why football was a better career path for him than track was because they could bleed more green blood out of him as a football player. He was sticking his neck out here for some gambler to make a buck. Dontrell brushed away the negativity, he had a task at hand and had better get to concentrating.

The ball was too damned high, he thought as he saw it spin in the air. He leapt, aiming with one last chance to somehow extend his body and pull it down while still landing in bounds in the back of the end zone. With the defender far enough behind to be an afterthought, he reached out, the ball touched the tips of his fingers, and somehow rolled away as he crashed to earth in the corner of the end zone watching the winning touchdown roll off the plams of his outstretched hands. He was a quarter of a step too slow, and the replay confirmed it, CF State had lost.

Most of the entire stadium's 86,000 temporary residents fell silent, stunned and immobile. It was good camouflage for Jack Jenkins. Jack was dejected. "Just my damned luck," he said. He was out $120,000.

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