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From the beginning I was supposed to play football at Kent Abbey. Nobody in my family ever said anything about it—not even my odious half-brother Tom. He lettered three times as a center and nose guard at The Abbey, and he was good enough (and mean enough) to make the Housatonic Valley All-Conference team twice at both positions—and to be recruited by Yale. Tom never played in New Haven, but Angus Wright, the head football coach at The Abbey, said he was a lock for All-Ivy if he had. If Kent Abbey retired numbers then his number would have been retired with no questions asked.
“Your brother was a beast,” Mr. Wright said to me on the first day of freshman history class.
Much as I hated him, people were still talking about Tom O’Kell’s pancake blocks when I got there—teachers mostly but some parents too.
Even so I had no expectation of being the next O’Kell to dominate the line of scrimmage. I knew less about football than about girls when I arrived at The Abbey—I had never played—and I knew nothing about girls whatsoever.
My best friend and roommate Bo Dotson was going to be a star football player there for sure so long as he did not get hurt. Everyone said so. At first Bo and I were just throwing and catching in front of the freshman dorm, but then Bo started lining up to run pass patterns like he was Raymond Berry, his hero on the Colts.
“This is a buttonhook,” Bo said.
Bo walked me through it, counting out five steps before immediately turning or “hooking” in anticipation of the ball I was supposed to throw on the button. He carved out routes called ins and outs and posts and corners.
“Throw it before I turn around,” Bo said. “I’ll be ready.”
By the end of the first weekend I was letting it rip right on the money before Bo could turn around. Throwing the football just came naturally to me.
“Jesus, Wilbur,” Bo said. “Wait until Stoney sees what you can do. You’re God’s gift.”
Stoney Stonington, the Junior Varsity coach, said Bo and me were the future of football at The Abbey, but Stoney was not exactly the Oracle at Delphi. He was hands-down the worst teacher in the school, and no one else came even close. He barely had enough French to teach first-year courses to freshmen. (A year with Stoney and you could forget about passable French in your lifetime.) Even so everyone loved Stoney because of what they called his “school spirit”— clapping his players on the back, telling them God had brought them to The Abbey for wrestling and football, in that order.
Stoney, needless to say, was also the head wrestling coach.
He was not only the worst teacher and the most stupidly religious coach—Stoney was reliably dumb as a rock on all subjects under the sun. When I showed up in the locker room the first day as a freshman, all he could see was a smaller version of the great Tom O’Kell.
“You’re 69,” Stoney said. “Your brother’s number. No one’s worn it since he graduated. You know what that means.”
“I don’t, actually,” I said.
Stoney handed me a helmet and shoulder pads and all the other pads you needed to play football—knee, thigh, and hip.
“You’re a starting tackle on the jayvee.” Stoney handed me a pair of high-topped cleats. “Congratulations. No Thirds Football for the brother of Tom O’Kell. You’ll make your brother proud.”
“I don’t think my brother cares if I live or die,” I said.
Stoney’s forehead rippled past another complex notion that would never find terra firma in his brain. Then his forehead wrinkled again, his sign a second thought was coming and then going. No matter the evidence to the contrary, to Stoney I was the Second Coming of Tom O’Kell.
“For God’s sake, 69,” he said. “Get your butt out there. What are you waiting for?”
In history class Mr. Wright never stopped trying to yank the best out of Sunny Dridge. The Dridges had been going to The Abbey since The Twenties, and they became linemen the day God invented football. Sunny was the younger brother of Billy Dridge, but he was no smarter: he was repeating his junior year, but he had yet to get through Mr. Wright’s freshman history class with a passing grade. His third try was not going well.
“Mr. Dridge?” Mr. Wright said. “Tell me why The Maginot Line could not hold the Germans back after World War I.”
“Because it wasn’t high enough?” Sunny Dridge said.
I laughed so loud I thought Sunny Dridge might kill me then and there. Mr. Wright put up his hands to spare him any further humiliation.
“Think of it like football,” Mr. Wright said. “Everyone’s always fighting the last season instead of getting ready for the next one. Can anyone give me an example?”
Benton Castor, as smart as Sunny Dridge was dumb, was a massive kid from New Orleans, a scion with a blonde brush-cut and a syrupy Southern accent. He was already playing tackle on the jayvees as a freshman, and he was much closer to being the next Tom O’Kell than I would ever get.
“Simple,” Benton Castor said. “Princeton is still playing the single wing but it’s like they’re driving an antique car. The T formation is passing them by. How stupid can you get?”
“Sometimes failure in the past can be your worst enemy in the present,” Mr. Wright said.
I put my hand up.
“Things were changing fast after World War I,” I said. “The Germans rolled right around The Maginot Line with their Panzers and invaded France through Belgium.”
Sunny Dridge looked like he wanted to kill me. His time would come.
“What the hell, Wilbur!” Bo yelled at me before our first jayvee practice. “Putting you on the line is a crime and a sin. I’m going to talk to Stoney.”
Bo was not the kind of kid to let stupidity fester—but when he came back defeat was all over his face.
“Stoney’s a numbskull,” Bo said.
“What did he say?”
“He said O’Kells play line at the Abbey. Like the Dridges. He said it’s a fact of life that positions run in families.”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Did you ask him why?”
“I didn’t want to confuse him,” Bo said.
“I guess that’s the end of it.”
“Not even close,” Bo said.
Bo immediately fell into the passing drills, catching everything in sight, but I was stuck bum-rushing a thousand-pound blocking sled and getting smacked by the biggest kids on the jayvee, Benton Castor included.
“You’re dropping down to Thirds football tomorrow,” Bo told me that night. “You can’t waste another minute here. Not with your arm. You’ve got a rocket there, Wilbur. It would be a sin not to use it.”
“Just like that?”
“Your days as a lineman are over,” Bo said. “Kaputski. No more Stoney. No more blocking sleds. No more stupid. I already talked to Mr. Reardon. It’s a done deal.”
Bo had gone to Mr. Reardon, the coach of Thirds Football, and convinced him I was the second coming of Johnny Unitas, the great Colts quarterback who delivered the rock to Raymond Berry. Bo even told Mr. Reardon I wore the same black high-top cleats as Johnny U.
“What’s Stoney going to say?”
“Something stupid,” Bo said.
Mr. Reardon gave me number 19, just like Johnny Unitas. The first words out of his mouth: You’re my quarterback.
The Thirds went undefeated with me throwing touchdown passes all over the field, and Bo was the biggest star on the jayvee, easily better than all the sophomores and juniors. Even Stoney forgot about the next great O’Kell lineman after Benton Castor took over at left tackle.
Bo and I kept practicing with him zipping in and out of his routes and me slinging the ball before he turned around. We worked on the fly pattern. He showed me how to pump fake at the same time he stopped in the stop-and go he read about in Sports Illustrated.
We talked every day about what it would be like to play football together as sophomores on the varsity. Mr. Wright was already starting to play around with the plays he would put in place for Bo—not only a throwback, but the first screen pass ever seen in the Housatonic Valley Conference. Bo’s plan was for me to skip Stoney and the jayvees altogether to go right to varsity the next fall.
When we played touch after dinner we were killing it. No one could stay with Bo, and it turns out the good Lord had given me a quick release to go with my rocket arm, meaning three Mississippi was more than enough time for me to let it fly downfield.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy.
“You need seasoning,” Mr. Wright said to me after the first varsity practice our sophomore year. “But stay on your toes, Will. Learn the option. It’s a way of life.”
Mr. Wright was in no hurry when it came to getting me in the lineup. He had Mark Mazetti, a senior day student from down the road in Washington, Connecticut, at quarterback. With Mazetti behind center, The Abbey had gone undefeated the year before until the last game against Valley Lutheran, our very Protestant archrival.
I never got up off the bench in the first six games, not even for mop-up duty, and that was fine with me. I spent every extra moments before and after practice throwing to the human flypaper know as Bo Dotson. Mr. Wright was already talking about dropping the option offense after Mark Mazetti graduated to take advantage of what Bo and I could do. He said change was in the air whether we liked it or not.
All of that was in the future. In the present we zipped through the season with a perfect 6-0 record, just like the year before. To go undefeated all we had to do was to win our last game. Our perfect record was on the line for the second year in a row against Valley Lutheran.
Mr. Wright started off his pregame speech like he always did, talking about respecting The Abbey traditions and living up to our own standards of excellence on the field.
To be honest, I was only half-listening, because the backup QB in the #19 jersey and the Johnny U high-tops was not going to get into the game with our perfect record on the line. While I was half-listening he was saying any defeat by The Abbey football team was a threat to our Catholic way of life. Valley Lutheran were godless heretics and needed to be destroyed.
Mr. Wright was breathing much harder than usual—almost panting.
“What the hell?” I whispered to Bo as we took the field. “What does any of that have to do with football?”
“He doesn’t mean anything by it, Wilbur,” Bo said. “They’re just words.”
Mark Mazetti was great—running the option, pitching the ball to Bo or keeping it himself—and Valley Lutheran had no idea how to stop our one-two punch. Bo had three catches and ran for almost 50 yards in the first half, including a 22-yard sprint for our first touchdown. Mark Mazetti faked to Bo on the option and scored two more touchdowns himself by darting inside on keepers. Benton Castor was making so much space for our running game Valley Lutheran could have been playing with only ten men instead of eleven.
We were rolling and we knew it, with a 21-0 halftime lead. All we had to do was keep running the option against Valley Lutheran and our perfect season—a Housatonic Valley Conference record—would be in the books.
No water was allowed at halftime but we sucked on oranges cut into quarters and waited for what Mr. Wright had to say before the last half left in our perfect season.
“Our country has never been beaten in a war,” Mr. Wright said. “And I promise you we are not going to lose in Vietnam. Are the Protestants going to beat us now, on our own home field?”
We all shouted No like it was a reflex. I had no idea what Mr. Wright talking about. Neither did Bo: he put his head in his hands.
“The Communists are winning all over the world,” Mr. Wright said. “Especially in outer space. They think they’re the future but they’re not. But we hold the future in our hands right here at The Abbey.”
Mr. Wright was crossing a line I had not even known was there.
“Football is our way of life.,” Mr. Wright said. “The American way of life. It’s our game—a game we pioneered—and now it’s part of our national identity. This game against Valley Lutheran is a game we have to win!”
Everyone cheered except me and Bo. Bo said no don’t Wilbur to me without opening his mouth.
“Rugby,” I said out loud.
“What?” Mr. Wright stopped dead.
“Football is based on rugby,” I said. “It’s not original to America. We didn’t pioneer it.”
Mr. Wright’s mouth fell open and stayed there.
“The scrum is like the line of scrimmage,” I said, “and the line of scrimmage is like a scrum in rugby. Plus there’s punting and kicking and passing in rugby. They pitch the ball just like we do in the option. Football is based on rugby. That’s a fact.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sunny Dridge said.
I guess no one had ever interrupted one of his pregame speeches before, because Mr. Wright had nothing more to say about Valley Lutheran or the Communists or even the battle for outer space. He wandered out of our locker room without saying another word—or telling us what to do next.
“When the season is over,” Sunny Driggs said to me. “I am going to knock your ass into next year.”
The Protestants or Communists—or whoever they were—had figured something out at halftime while we were hearing about the space race and sundry threats to our American way of life. It wasn’t rocket science. The option offense made one defender choose between tackling the quarterback or playing the pitch out to someone going wide. That was the option in the option offense. Valley Lutheran had figured out it if they crushed Mark Mazetti every time he pitched the ball to Bo Dotson, we would run out of options.
The first time Mark Mazetti pitched to Bo in the second half our QB was flattened by two of their biggest linemen. On the very next play they sandwiched him before he could pitch it, and this time Mark Mazetti fumbled and lay on the ground like a teenage corpse. I thought he might be dead.
“Warm up,” Mr. Wright shouted at me over his shoulder.
Mr. Wright walked out onto the field with his head down, like he was heading to a funeral. I put on my helmet, picked up a football, and started playing catch as fast as I could with Gordian Eddy, our long snapper. When poor Mark Mazetti finally woke up, he had no idea what day it was or how many fingers Mr. Wright was holding up in the air. It took two scrubs to drag him off the field with his feet sloughing side-to-side as if they belonged to somebody else.
So now I was going to be the quarterback for the Kent Abbey varsity for the first time all season, for the first time in my life, with a perfect season on the line against our Protestant arch-enemy. To that point playing catch with Bo represented about 90 percent of my experience in football—maybe 95 percent. He was my security blanket.
“Listen up, Will,” Mr. Wright said when he came back to the sideline. “We should have never stuck with the option as long as we did.”
“Sorry?” I said.
“Valley Lutheran has our number. There’s nothing we can do about it now. They’re going to destroy us.”
Mr. Wright was now mixing up football with the real world. He had never talked like that before, like he was sending me to my doom and there was nothing he could do about it.
“Option right,” I said in the huddle.
No one touched me before I pitched; instead the defender buffaloed Bo full-speed, throwing him up in the air like a rag doll until he fell end-over-end onto the turf. Bo of course fumbled when he hit the ground, and the Protestants of course recovered the ball. Unlike Mark Mazetti, Bo was out cold. They had to carry my best friend off on a stretcher.
Mr. Wright completely lost his mind, screaming at the Valley Lutheran head coach, accusing the refs of a massive conspiracy against The Abbey, stomping his feet and waving his arms until the refs threw a flag and tossed him out of the game.
“This is pure anarchy!” Mr. Wright screamed. “This is against everything we stand for in this country!”
The refs penalized us 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct and Valley Lutheran immediately scored on a power sweep to make it 21-7.
Mr. Wright went berserk, stripping off his coat, stomping on his hat, kicking every football he could at the ref—and swearing like a sailor with some words I had never even heard before.
The chemistry of a team can be thrown off by the least whisper, and on the field that day—after Mark Mazetti and Bo Dotson were clobbered and carried off—we were no longer a great team. Our two best players had been knocked out and that showed malicious aforethought on the part of Valley Lutheran. And our head coach had told me our offense was a death wish before he was kicked out of the game for blowing his stack.
That left Stoney as our head coach. The moment was way too big for him—his rah-rah came out desperate and blubbery—and I was scared to death. Still we were ahead by two touchdowns. I looked at the sideline in time to see Bo finally sitting up on the stretcher. At least he was still alive. We were not dead yet.
I threw my first interception on my first throw as a varsity quarterback—on a buttonhook. I had only thrown them to Bo, and he was faster than anyone else on the team, so I threw this one too soon, before my receiver turned around. I was already halfway off the field before I realized Valley Lutheran had lined up offsides on the play and we still had the ball, first down now with only five yards to go.
I called an out pattern and that was picked off by an all-state safety who ran it all the way down the sidelines for a touchdown.
Our lead was going to be 21-14 with the extra point. But not so fast—because of another penalty against Valley Lutheran for too many men on the field.
In the huddle Sunny Dridge was staring pure hate my way. After two straight interceptions, the upperclassmen had followed him past hatred to blame. Benton Castor might still have my blind side, but I could see from the other faces they wanted to see me killed. This was one of the great Kent Abbey teams in the final moments of the season—a team that had destroyed all the competition, except Valley Lutheran, for two years in a row—and now we would be remembered as the team that fell on its face again when it really counted.
Someone had to be to blame, and I could feel the team blaming me for confusing Coach Wright during his halftime speech.
Sunny Dridge and the other upperclassmen had my life in his hands as I got behind center. The option was dead to me, so I called a fly pattern—a bomb—but without Bo I was completely without hope and everyone in the huddle knew it.
“Get your helmet, get your helmet, get your helmet,” Stoney Stonington was shouting at Bo on the sideline—and now Bo was carrying his helmet onto the field.
“Stop and go,” I said to Bo. “We’re going for this.”
Bo flinched and flanked out wide to the left. He looked like he had no idea where he was or what was happening.
“Bo!” I shouted. “Put on your helmet!”
Bo and me were working with nothing but football muscle memory now. If I just had enough time, I knew I could get it to him and I knew Bo would catch it and go all the way. We would beat Valley Lutheran and complete our undefeated season. Our way of life would be safe.
I got the ball and backtracked into the pocket. Bo ran down the field and suddenly stopped; I pump-faked the same way I had a thousand times before. The defensive back bit on the stop, and Bo ran by him like he was standing still.
He was wide open but out of the corner of my eye I saw Sunny Dridge stepping aside like a matador to give the Valley Lutheran nose guard a clear shot at me. As the nose guard planted me on my back, the pass went straight up into the air like a punt. I was flat on my back when a Valley Lutheran linebacker intercepted and ran by me holding the ball overhead, making it 21-14. The Protestants scored three more times to win 35-21 and ruin our perfect season for the second season in a row.
I had thrown three interceptions on three consecutive plays. That has to be some kind of a record.
Sunny Dridge flunked out after football season and so missed his chance to knock me into orbit. Mark Mazetti played safety at Colgate for four years. Benton Castor made Housatonic Valley All-Conference team four years in a row. His number 70 was the first jersey ever retired at Kent Abbey.
Mr. Wright became the full-time athletic director at The Abbey and never coached history or football again. Those who knew him best said he would not go through that kind of pain because he cared too much about his players.
Bo and I grew our hair and said we would go to Canada if we were drafted. Neither one of us ever played football again—not even touch—though we did kick Valley Lutheran’s ass in soccer two years in a row.