The football was slung high into the night sky. The bright stadium lights, those clusters of illuminated eyes, cast relief on the ball. He could see every detail of the rotation. The laces, stretched of tight white plastic, flashing. The embossed red “W”, which upon closer inspection would represent Wilson Sporting Goods. The brown dimples that covered the face of the ball. He recalled earlier in his childhood trying to count them by putting a black dot on each dimple with a felt tip marker. He had counted to over 100 before realizing it would take hours to complete, and given up. The boy had given up on a great many ventures that proved too difficult or time-consuming, his interest waning until he shrugged, said “Oh well”, and went on his way. To date, no one had noticed that he was a quitter, and he supposed that was for the best. The activities he did succeed at were done so well that most people would have forgiven him for being a little lazy, anyway. He recalled fondly the feeling of empowerment washing over him the previous year when his coach had managed to secure an A in English, just by pressuring the teacher. He used that feeling now, secure in his knowledge that as long as he succeeded at football, he would succeed in life. The ball wasn’t rotating on a lone axis, it was tilted and rotating upon a second, a sure sign that the ball was fluttering and would be under-thrown. The boy adjusted his stride to compensate, planted one foot in the ground and cut sharply under the flight of the ball. He knew he would catch it. Catching was one of the things he did excel at. The ball settled into his hands, or what his coach liked to call his “bread basket”, a term the boy never understood but accepted as old sports lingo. There was separation between the boy and the defensive back trying desperately to cover him. Running fast was another thing the boy did well, but he knew he needed to get moving so as not to be tackled. He didn’t mind getting tackled, it was only mildly uncomfortable and he had accepted it as part of the game. He even grew to like the clicking sounds made by plastic helmets hitting plastic pads, and the exerted grunts from his body that let him know he was alive. He had once heard someone refer to football as “Spartan”. He wasn’t sure what it meant but knew it equated to “violent”. The boy excelled in violence and fancied himself a “Spartan”(having no idea that he would actually become a Spartan). His desire to not get tackled stemmed from the tongue-lashing he was sure to receive if an inferior athlete, like the defensive back covering him, were to catch him from behind.
A year earlier, he had been nearly brought to tears after being laid into by his coach for “hot-dogging” (another old school sports phrase the boy simply accepted) toward the endzone and had gotten tackled prior to scoring. He righted himself, found the endzone through his visor, and started pumping his legs. He squeezed his eyes shut while he ran. He had done this since childhood, not wanting to look back to the pursuing party, not wanting to feel like he was absconding with the football, not wanting to feel hot shame creep into his face for so soundly defeating his opponent. He knew it wasn’t their fault, at age 17 he was mildly aware that his physical gifts were abundant, and that few people could compete on his level. His green uniform flashed across the turf, light flaring off his helmet, the one the boy found amusing with the Stallion sticker on it. He was a Green Run Stallion, which he presumed was better than most of the alliterative high school team names. In his mind, he had always conjured a room with several old men, crusty men, WHITE men, who had suggested absurdities like the Green Run Gophers or the Green Run Gazelles. His mind silently thanked the voice of reason in that room who had suggested the name “Stallions”. The boy knew that the team name really didn’t matter, and he also was fairly certain that the name, jersey color and crowd size would be changing as he grew. It was a Friday night, and the stadium was crowded with a few thousand people, whose voices rose to a crescendo as he broke into the open field, with no defenders between him and “pay-dirt” (“Where do they get these silly phrases from”?). He knew that in a year or two he would be playing on Saturdays. He knew the college recruiters were among those thousands in attendance and had seen his ability. The boy listened to the crowd for a landmark sound, which came across like a pop, an increase in volume as he broke the plane. This was how he gauged when to open his eyes. He heard the loudspeaker crackle and that tinny voice speak. He liked hearing his name. He strained through the cheering to hear it. “Green Run Touchdown, Plaxico Burress on a 60 yard pass from …”
“Eli Manning.” Burress’ eyes shot open. He could hear the crowd booing. He was in Dallas, and it was Sunday. That little seventeen year old punk had been right, he would play on Sundays. Seventeen, he thought, my jersey number. He looked down, appearing as though he were bowing in deference to the whims of the crowd, and inspected his jersey. He found the upside down “17” in white, contrasting the deep blue. He preferred blue to green. It was more soothing, less striking, and best of all, was a money paying job. He had chosen the number 17 because he had signed with the New York Giants on March 17th , or so he had told the media. He had let the media know the rationale behind it, figuring it would make him look like a model player, one who WANTED to play and one who held the game in a revered state. Whether he actually believed his own rationale, he wasn’t sure yet. He had read Lawrence Taylor’s book and remembered an anecdote he had found interesting. Taylor’s debut press conference had given the media a quote about liking to “eat quarterbacks up in the backfield”. Taylor had mentioned the great Giants before him like Sam Huff. The reporters couldn’t get enough, they loved the rough and tumble Taylor and his knowledge of Giants football. Huff and Puff – the Giants PR man had fed Taylor the lines so as to seem more affable. Burress figured he had little in common with Taylor. Taylor had been a coke fueled maniac that transcended the game. Burress knew that he could play, but not at the level Taylor had. He was comfortable in the knowledge that he was a Pro-Bowl caliber receiver, if he wasn’t revolutionizing the game. Burress turned to look at the field and saw his teammates running to him to join the celebration. He paid no mind, he had been letting others celebrate his successes for years, letters of intent, Bowl games, draftings, signing bonuses, free agency, endorsements. Chris Snee patted him on the head, Kareem McKenzie, his butt, Jeremy Shockey, his back. He still loved football, in spite of his occasional feeling of malaise regarding his life. He knew that football was his golden ticket, and was the only thing affording him the lifestyle to which he’d become accustomed. Damned if that teenage punk wasn’t right about football too. He had succeeded at football his whole life, and he knew that success was masking deficiencies in his personality. Burress gazed into the crowd. From a couple thousand in high school to almost a hundred thousand in the NFL, he thought. His eyes settled upon his wife and daughter, the dual impetus which spurred him to greatness. He flashed a quick smile, knowing they couldn’t see it but doing it all the same. The last player to come around was his quarterback. If Burress still loved football, he was only lukewarm regarding Eli Manning. He had heard the hype surrounding the younger Manning, the pomp and circumstance before he was drafted. He had seen the arrogance displayed by the young man, demanding the San Diego Chargers not draft him. He had seen his awkwardness as an athlete for 3 years now, the inexplicable interceptions and questionable accuracy, the fumbles and look of a deer in headlights. Burress had taken Manning in stride, assuming, correctly, that most of the league suffered from quarterback play that was worse than Manning’s. While Manning’s warts were noticeable, Plaxico knew that he was one of a handful of people who had seen streaks of brilliance mixed in. He recalled a game two seasons prior in which Manning had tossed four touchdowns against a dejected Rams team. Or a 4th quarter against an undefeated Broncos team where two TDs sealed a win. Those glimpses of greatness had motivated him to stay focused on football, as if he were a master of his craft, waiting for an apprentice to hone his skills so the two could make magic together. The magic would have to wait. It was Week 1 and only a few seconds of the clock had ticked off on the Giants season. A good start, he thought, and began walking to the sideline with Manning. There was admiration in his eyes, thankfully hidden by the visage of his helmet. For all his faults, he knew Manning was the right man for the job. When his former running back, Tiki Barber, had labeled him “comical”, Manning had put a shot across Barber’s bow. When questioned about his inefficiency, Manning took responsibility. When fans questioned his lack of emotion, Manning shrugged, said “Oh well”, and moved on. A championship was in that goofy little smile somewhere, and Burress just hoped it occured before football was done with him or he was done with football. There was nothing to do but …
WAIT. WAIT until you see the holder signal you for the ball. Waiting was the easy part. He didn’t mind the wait. He’d been waiting his whole life for this. He was playing in his first of many NFL games. He had earned a slot in the defensive tackle rotation as a rookie, but knew he would see little of the field as a defender. Riding the pine came with the territory associated with that word, “rookie”. But he was going to be a star. Just WAIT and see. Being a long snapper may be the loneliest job in football, thought Jay Alford. I only exist in these quiet few seconds before I start one of the more complicated mechanical processes in modern football. Blood rushed to his head as he held it in place, upside-down. Bats roosted like this, and in much the same manner they live in a cave. He peered through inverted cave that was his legs and focused on Jeff Feagles, who was a punter by trade but also the holder on kicks. Alford found Feagles easy to get along with, and even easier to snap to. In what was now a pre-snap ritual for Alford, he whispered to himself. Pray you don’t end up like Trey. Feagles had taught him this after one of the first practices of training camp. Pray you don’t end up like Trey. Alford had been baffled by this but had not asked for explanation. He didn’t want Feagles to know he was clueless as to its meaning. It echoed in his head, like a joke you hear and laugh at, despite missing the punchline. It was a refrain he began to hear often from several team-mates, sometimes derisively before Alford privately asked defensive line coach Mike Waufle what they were referring to. Trey, Waufle explained, was Trey Junkin. Trey Junkin was a nearly flawless long-snapper for almost 20 years in the NFL. Alford innocently asked why, if Junkin was so good, would he not want to “end up like him”, which had sent Waufle into gales of laughter. Junkin was synonymous, especially amongst the Giants and their fans, with a long-snapping failure in the playoffs in 2002. Waufle coaxed Alford into the film room, and managed to have footage of the epic failure within minutes. With a game winning field goal on the line, Junkin had botched the snap. Junkin was placed squarely within the fans’ cross-hairs for the loss. Forget the fact that the Giants blew a 16 point lead in the 4th quarter. Toss out reasoning that the defense was gassed and couldn’t stop an energized Terrell Owens. Ignore the missed pass interference call that should have given the Giants a second chance. It was Trey and Trey alone. A career spanning 3 decades marred in an instant by a singular bad snap. Pray you don’t end up like Trey. Reality snapped back into focus as Feagles’ hand shot out, signaling for the snap. Pray you don’t end up like Trey. Alford thrust his hands backward, aiming for Feagles’ face, like he had been taught since Pop-Warner. Pray you don’t end up like Trey. Alford squeezed his eyes shut, which he had done since childhood. He didn’t want to see the outcome of the play, he preferred to hear it. The final facet of long-snapping was coming into play as he felt his legs go out from under him and he waited for the ground to break his fall. “Spiking” the long-snapper was considered a penalty in the NFL, but rarely enforced. All long snappers had the disadvantage of being the key stone of the offensive line which formed a V shape to protect the kick. This put their legs squarely in front of the two guards, meaning there was nowhere to go with his feet but forwards, which wasn’t a direction the nose-tackle was inclined to let him go. If a long-snapper didn’t end up on his ass after the play, the nose tackle hadn’t done his job. Alford landed and felt the air rush out of him. He WAITED for the comforting sound of foot meeting leather in the backfield. He WAITED for Lawrence Tynes, the team’s place-kicker, to drill the point after touchdown. The shrill siren of the whistle confirmed his fear. The snap had been bad, and the conversion unsuccessful. All that prayer, to not end up like Trey, had culminated in an ignominious first snap. Alford gathered himself off the turf and began the long trot to the sideline, where a furious Tom Coughlin lurked. Walking back to the sideline after a failure made Alford reminisce on a rite of passage amongst collegiate women referred to as the Walk of Shame. Alford, being an elite athlete, had “shamed” many women. They smelled of sex and sweat, and looked foolish in the morning light in the attire they had chosen for an outing at the bar. Their hair was messy and unkempt. Mascara streamed from the eyes and the remaining make-up was caked on their face. The walk home was humiliating, every passer-by seemingly knowing the woman’s business. Alford had thought it an amusing past-time, but nothing was amusing about the shame that lit his face as Coughlin berated him on the sideline. So much for being a star, Alford thought. While Alford coped, Tony Romo ran roughshod over the Giants defense. 14 plays in 6:59, 3-6. 5 plays in 2:21, 10-6. 5 plays in 3:45, 17-6. Eli Manning tossed a late TD to Plaxico Burress to narrow the gap. Alford trotted onto the field with redemption in mind. Pray you don’t end up like Trey. Head down, ass up, snap, spike, fall. This time when Alford opened his eyes he saw the ball split the uprights. He sighed in relief. Moments later a recovered fumble meant a late field goal try. Pray you don’t end up like Trey. Head down, ass up, snap, spike, fall. Again the ball split the uprights. The half-time score was 17-16. Alford made his way towards the locker-room for half time. Tom Coughlin was deep in conversation with Kevin Gilbride, the offensive coordinator as they filed inside. “Down by one point at the half. Wonder how that happened.” Coughlin said audibly enough to bring blood to Alford’s face. Alford reached his locker and took a cool drink of water. It extinguished his panting, his sweating, his embarrassment. The air in Texas Stadium was humid and stifling. Jerry Jones could boast that he had a hole put in the ceiling of the stadium “so God could watch”, but the feat of engineering provided little relief from the desert night. Alford was grateful to be out of the half. He was grateful to be out of the
HEAT. Sweltering, disgusting Miami heat. The kind of heat that gave a shimmer off asphault. The kind of heat that penetrated even the deepest shade. The man had experienced it before, in the depths of Southern California. From Long Beach Poly to a dream run at USC, heat was just another part of football. He’d grown up in that heat. He’d grown up in football. He thought he had grown beyond crying, but he was wrong. Warm tears stung the man’s face as they coursed and streamed down to his chin. It could have been passed off for sweat, if his lip wasn’t trembling with fervor. He could feel snot collecting in the back of his throat. He wasn’t bawling, but he wasn’t far off. Nick Saban stood feet away. Nick Saban, the collegiate legend who was now the head coach of a reclamation project named the Miami Dolphins. Michael Lewis’ book, the Blindside, had depicted Saban as a southern gentleman when recruiting Michael Oher. This man was anything but a gentleman, thought Manny Wright. Spittle flew from the Saban’s lips, and Wright thought he could make out the words “keep your head in the game”. That’s a pretty original sentiment, coach. Never heard that phrase as a motivator before! Wright could handle the screaming, demeaning little man in front of him. Much like the heat, he’d grown up being yelled at, and not simply within the realm of football. What Wright couldn’t handle, was the rapid self-awareness that he was not capable of playing in the NFL. Wright wasn’t stupid, only naïve. Being drafted in the 5th round after having a productive college career, one that should have propelled him into the NFL in style, had been a rude awakening. Then he set foot on the field and found the speed of the game was beyond him, the athleticism was beyond him, and if he was going to last in this league it was going to be as a backup. Saban’s tirade was just the culminating factor in a shattered dream. There would be no Pro-Bowls, no accolades, no bust in Canton. Journeyman, was the word that rattled around in Wright’s head. He never thought the label would be applied to him, but he was certain the Dolphins would not be the last stop on a tour through the NFL. The rookie symposium had explained to Wright and his fellow rookies that the average career spanned only a few years. Average, that was another word Wright hadn’t often heard in reference to himself, especially with the “below” qualifier tucked neatly in front of it. Sub, Scrub, waiver-wire, stop-gap, filler, platoon. Wright squeezed his eyes shut and waited for it to be over. He squeezed his eyes shut and…
Braced himself for the impact. Marion Barber was a load to bring down, especially without aid. Barber wasn’t particularly big, or fast for that matter, he simply fought for every last inch of real-estate on the grid iron. Wright opened his stance and arms and felt Barber’s helmet strike his chest like a sledgehammer. He wrapped his arms around him and fell backwards. Let gravity do the work, thought Wright. Barber peered at Wright though his ultra skinny facemask and grinned. His dreadlocks swirled out from under the helmet. He helped Wright up and galloped back to the Dallas huddle. Wright hated those dreadlocks. A rather recent NFL ruling had declared any hair to be an extension of a player’s uniform, meaning you could grab a fistful of locks and yank all you wanted. Wright knew he wouldn’t be afforded the opportunity. Since the rules inception he had only seen one occurrence of a player being tackled by his hair, and ironically it was a defender, Troy Polamalu, the Steelers’ tough as shit safety, who had a handful unceremoniously ripped out after an interception. There was only one reason why Wright was in the game, and it was obvious with a glance at the scoreboard. 45-35. A ten point differential was rather difficult to overcome when there’s only a minute left and you don’t have possession. The starting defensive tackles, Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield, shouldn’t get hurt in the meaningless seconds at the end of a losing effort. Wright was expendable. The Cowboys were running out the clock. The clock was running out on Wright’s career, too. He knew the Giants were his last shot at redemption. This was his fourth team in three years and without a stellar effort he would be on the street at the end of the year, if not sooner. Wright would do what he could to prove he belonged; tackle, hit, run. It wouldn’t matter and he knew it. Failure comes hand in hand with American manhood. Tony Romo took a quick snap and kneeled. The Giants had lost, and would start the season 0-1. With the knowledge that every game could be his last, Wright walked to the iconic star at the fifty yard-line and savored the sights and sounds. The mood of the locker-room was somber; an opening season loss was not a positive omen. Worrying about winning was a luxury Wright could not afford. Worrying about his roster spot consumed all the worry Wright had to give. He was tired of the worry, he was tired of the drain, he was tired from the game. He sat down, propped his head up against the front of his locker, and squeezed his eyes shut.