"Hut!" Greg called out twenty minutes before the first bell at
Dixon High School. He stood in Coach Marconi's office in the gym. A
smile decorated his smooth, copper face. A blue sweater and gray
corduroy slacks hung loosely on his tall frame. Greg's right hand
gripped a football. He pretended to fire perfect spirals to receivers
as fans chanted his name.
Greg stopped when the short, chunky
coach walked into the room. He wore a blue sports shirt, khakis, and a
black cap with the school's nickname, "Chargers," in white letters. His
left hand waved a videocassette.
"This is Howard High's last
game," the coach said in a raspy voice. He bent down and shoved the
tape into a VCR. "Nobody there thought I'd get it, but I did. Pays to
stay the course."
"Thanks," Greg said. He put the football on the desk and sat in a padded chair.
"No problem," Coach Marconi said as he started the tape. "You have to see Howard's defense." He left.
leaned toward the screen while gripping the remote. A beefy defensive
end named Brock Striker caught his eye. Striker's black helmet and dark
blue jersey blurred as he pushed past two opponents and rushed the
quarterback's left side. Striker made contact, knocking the
quarterback's helmet off his head. The quarterback laid on the field
while grabbing his right shoulder.
Greg's right hand shook. He
turned off the tape and put down the remote. After grabbing his purple
backpack, he fled the gym and bolted up a flight of stairs to the
second floor. He reached his homeroom and sat without making a sound.
He did the same in English class. Ditto for music.
stayed on his mind during Mrs. Mojeska's Spanish class, his only A. As
the rest of the juniors recited sentences or took notes, Greg slumped
backward at his second-row desk. His eyes were aimed at the poster of a
matador waving a red cape in front of a bull. Gradually his eyes
drooped lower and lower. In his mind, the bull turned into Striker.
The sound of Greg's name woke him. A grim Mrs. Mojeska with folded arms stood next to him. "What are you doing?" she asked.
Greg sat straight up. A few classmates chuckled.
"Pay attention please," she said and stalked to the front of the room.
managed to keep his eyes open for the final sixteen minutes. After the
bell, Greg jogged down three flights of stairs toward the lunchroom.
The cooks had made chicken wings the day's special. Greg crooked his
head and scanned them until his right shoulder twitched. Feeling some
kinship with the dead chickens, he took a pass. Sausage pizza, fries,
and a Coke got on his tray instead. After paying, he spotted two
teammates sitting opposite each other: Bob, a barrel-chested running
back, and Scooter, a lanky receiver.
"What's up?" Scooter asked as Greg sat to his right.
"Did you see the Sun-Times yet?" Bob asked.
"No," Greg said. "What's in it?"
"A preview of tonight's game. Striker says you'll meet your match."
"We beat those fools by 20 last year," Scooter said. "They were mad!"
"Yeah," Bob said. "Howard's Mustangs had no kick."
He and Scooter laughed and high-fived.
"Greg threw for 250 yards in that game," Scooter said. "Right, Greg?"
"That's right," Greg said. He stared at his plate without eating.
"Are you okay?"
Greg looked up. "I'm cool," he said with a weak smile. "Just thinking about the game."
Scooter nodded and said, "You'll show them who's the best quarterback in town."
hours later, Greg remembered those words as the team's bus stopped at
Mack Stadium's rear lot on 103rd Street. Everyone strolled toward the
locker room. Inside the musty space, teammates took turns sitting on a
table while Coach Marconi taped their ankles. Then they slipped on each
layer of equipment. Long sleeve shirts. Pads. White jerseys. Gold
pants. Blue helmets. And cleats that added a half inch in height.
players walked on the field's hard artificial turf for warm ups. Greg
threw to the receivers. The stadium's lights bounced off the ball as it
flew under the dark sky.
Meanwhile, spectators packed the metal bleachers. Most wore sweaters and jackets to combat the crisp late-October air.
Just before kickoff, the team jogged back inside for Coach Marconi's pep talk.
"Brock Striker talked some trash," he said. "Let's shut him up!"
and his teammates jumped up and yelled, "Yes!" Some high-fived. The
chant, "Chargers! Chargers! Chargers!" echoed in the room.
team stormed to their sideline. The band saluted them with a fast
version of "Wade in the Water." Cheerleaders waved pompoms and yelled
"Let's go Chargers!" The fans clapped and cheered.
Howard kicked off. Bob returned the ball to the Chargers' 29-yard-line before a pack of opponents tackled him.
led the team on the field. He snickered while thinking about his
favorite play, nicknamed "The Special." It starts when receivers
Scooter, Matt, and Terrance line up at the quarterback's left. They
cross each other to confuse defenders. One guy gets open. Greg finds
him for an easy touchdown.
The team huddled. "We'll soften up these boys real quick," Greg said. "Let's run ‘The Special.'"
his teammates yelled. They clapped once in unison and jogged to the
line of scrimmage. Greg took his place behind Melvin, the bulky center.
The quarterback's eyes strayed toward the left at Striker. He stood a
head over Donnie and John, the Dixon players assigned to block him.
Greg yelled: "Move! Set! Hut!" Melvin snapped the ball.
lunged at each other while grunting. Bodies hit pads, sounding like
muffled firecrackers. Receivers sprinted downfield. Greg dropped back
and spotted Scooter streaking to the right sideline. But a sight caught
his eye. It was Striker at full speed. Greg ran right and threw off
balance. The ball sailed over Scooter's head.
"Punk!" Striker said to Greg while running back to his teammates.
temporarily halted Dixon's passing game. Greg handed off to Bob.
Howard's players yielded only a few yards before piling on him. On
third down, the quarterback gave the ball to Bob again. This time,
Howard stopped him for a two-yard loss.
The Chargers faced fourth down. They punted.
Coach Marconi met Greg on the sideline and said, "That's OK. It's early."
"Thanks," Greg replied. "We'll beat 'em just like last year."
Greg rushed passes while keeping an eye out for Striker. Some
connected. Most did not. One toss in Terrance's direction hit a fence.
A man sitting among Howard's fans yelled, "That's not a receiver,
Even halftime chats with Scooter and Coach Marconi did
not help. With 4:41 left in the game, Greg overthrew Matt on third
down. The score board read Howard 24, Dixon 13. Only Bob's two rushing
touchdowns had kept the Chargers close.
Dixon's offense ran off the field as the fans booed. Some chanted, "Greg sucks! Greg sucks!"
quarterback stood by himself along the sideline. He took off his helmet
and dropped it. His eyes were closed, and his throat ached. Greg wiped
his runny nose with the right sleeve. Then he leaned against a fence
and hung his head.
A cheer rose from Dixon's fans. Greg saw Ron, a teammate, racing down the field with an interception.
Ron, go!" Greg shouted. Ron reached the endzone and the scoreboard
changed to Howard 24, Dixon 19. After the extra point kick, Dixon had
Greg checked the clock. It read 2:17. Just enough time to
win if Dixon's defense forced Howard to punt. Greg grabbed his helmet
as his team kicked off. He retrieved a ball and spotted Scooter. "Let's
hook up!" he yelled. The two jogged to the end of the field and played
Meanwhile, Dixon's defense stopped a run up the middle
on first down. On second down, a Charger blocked a pass. Another sacked
the quarterback on third. Howard punted on fourth down. After a short
return, Dixon's offense ran on the field and huddled.
Melvin looked at Greg with narrowed, blood-shot eyes and asked, "Are you all right?"
stared back and replied, "I'm cool." He made eye contact with the rest
of the players. "Let's do this," he said. "Receivers look sharp. Balls
are coming your way."
The team started on its 24-yard line
with 1:05 left to play and no time-outs. As Greg walked to his
position, shouts of encouragement and abuse pelted his ears.
"Your turn, Greg!"
"Get off the field, loser!"
"Show them what you've got!"
His heart pumped faster and his chest heaved. He set up behind Melvin.
Greg wiped his right hand on a leg, took a final deep breath, and
yelled "Hut!" Melvin snapped the ball. Greg dropped back a few steps.
Scooter faked left and cut right toward Dixon's sideline. Greg threw.
ball drifted behind Scooter. Greg's eyes widened. "Oh no!" shouted
Dixon's fans. But Scooter stopped, reached back, and grabbed the ball
with his fingertips. He turned and chugged down the field. A Howard
defender knocked him out of bounds. That ended a 15-yard play and
stopped the clock.
Greg exhaled and took the next snap. He ran
right. Matt streaked down the middle. Greg flung the ball. That netted
another 11 yards. The quarterback tossed a short sideline pass to
Terrance. Terrance shook off the hand of one defender, bounced off
another, and spun around before a group tackled him. The seven-yard
play put Dixon firmly inside Howard's part of the field.
The clock continued to move. 51 seconds. 50. 49. 48.
fans yelled "Defense!" and stomped on the bleachers. The Mustangs'
coaches barked instructions. "Watch your left!" "Tackle with two
hands!" Two Howard defenders crept closer to the line of scrimmage.
Greg dropped back, but the defenders stayed close to his players.
Striker broke free from Donnie and John and rushed the quarterback.
Greg ran right for three yards and slid to avoid a hit.
Time kept slipping away. 41 seconds. 40. 39. 38.
Chargers ran back to their side of the ball and lined up. Greg took the
snap. Two Mustangs covered Scooter. Terrance fell down. But Matt popped
open near Howard's sideline.
Greg could have starred in a
training video. He spread his third and fourth fingers over the ball's
white lace. His shoulders pointed at the target. He held the ball near
his ear and cocked his arm. Greg stepped forward and threw, snapping
the elbow and wrist.
The ball started a foot over the
quarterback's head and spiraled through the air. The lace blurred. The
ball gradually descended. After 19 yards, it hit Matt's midsection. He
held on and ran out of bounds. A referee put it on Howard's 21.
"First down!" the announcer shrieked over loudspeakers. "The Chargers are on the move!"
As if on cue, Dixon's band sprang to life. Drums and trumpets competed for loudest honors.
The clock showed 34 seconds left to play.
called "Hut!" Howard's players smothered Dixon's. Greg opted for a
short pass to Terrance. He gained three yards before a defender grabbed
the back of his jersey and dragged him down. Scooter dropped the next
ball and smacked his helmet.
Dixon's players huddled. Several
teammates panted. Greg patted Scooter on the back, then announced the
next play—Apache. That meant Bob would get the next pass.
snapped the ball. Bob sprinted left around Greg. The quarterback
drifted backward and spotted him. No Howard player covered Bob. Greg
zipped the ball.
Striker shot forward. Greg watched with his
mouth agape. The ball bounced off Striker's chest. He leaned forward
and reached with his fingertips. But the ball landed on the field.
"Aww!" screamed Howard's fans.
"Whew," Greg said under his breath.
Thirteen seconds remained on the clock. The Chargers faced fourth down.
Greg took the snap and dropped back. The clock started. 12 seconds. 11. 10. 9.
looked downfield, but his players were covered. Striker broke free and
charged. Greg rolled right and stood. Striker got to within five feet
of him. Greg waited for someone to get open. Striker's shadow covered
the quarterback's feet. Finally, Scooter cut left. Greg fired.
microsecond later, Striker hit him. Greg's back and head slammed on the
turf. The mouthpiece shot from his helmet. Striker landed on top of
him, then stood and pumped his fists.
Greg laid face up. His
eyes stayed shut. Red and white splotches swam inside his brain. His
ears picked up a slight ring. Then instinct took over. Greg shook his
head. Images of football players materialized before him. Cheers grew
He mumbled, "Get up." He slowly turned over. His arms pushed up his chest. Then he lifted the right knee and began to rise.
Marconi ran on the field and grabbed the quarterback's right arm,
helping him on his feet. "Are you okay?" the coach asked.
Greg staggered before patting himself. He inhaled deeply and took his time releasing the air. Finally he announced, "I'm fine."
"Thank God," Coach Marconi said. "Son, throw the ball away next time. We don't have to win that badly."
"Win?" Greg asked. He twisted toward the endzone and saw his teammates mobbing Scooter.
"Yes!" he yelled. He broke his coach's grip and trotted downfield.
and Scooter hugged. Dixon's players ran to their sideline and watched
as the extra point kick gave them a 27-24 lead. The cheerleaders shook
as the band played MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This."
Dixon's fans yelled "Go Chargers!"
The team kicked off with five seconds left. Dixon's defenders stopped the returner as time ran out.
teams walked along midfield in separate lines and exchanged handshakes.
Greg flashed a toothy grin when he saw Striker. "Nice game, Brock," he
said and held out his hand.
Striker smirked and stomped away without a shake.
players had gathered at the south end of the field for Coach Marconi's
post game chat. Greg jogged midway, then stopped. He doubled back to
the sideline and looked up. Close to thirty fans lingered at the top of
the bleachers. Some wore white jerseys that glowed under the lights.
The crowd waved and chanted, "Greg! Greg! Greg!" The quarterback lifted his helmet with the right hand and smiled.