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From the beginning playing football at Kent Abbey was supposed to be a higher calling for someone with my O’Kell pedigree. My odious half-brother Tom lettered three times as a center and nose guard at The Abbey: 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. “A real killer.”
Much as I hated my older brother, 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 girls when I arrived at The Abbey—and I knew nothing about girls whatsoever.
My best friend and roommate Bo Dotson was going to be a star football player for sure. Everyone said so. At first Bo and I were just throwing and catching in front of the freshman dorm, with Bo running pass patterns like he was Raymond Berry, his hero on the Baltimore Colts.
“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. Then he carved out ins and outs and posts and corners.
“Throw it before I turn around,” Bo said. “I’ll be ready, Wilbur.”
In no time I was letting it rip right on the money even before Bo could see it coming. 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.”
When I showed up in the locker room my first day as a freshman, Stoney Stonington, the theology teacher and Junior Varsity coach, could see nothing but a smaller version of the great Tom O’Kell.
“I’ve been saving 69 for you,” 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 need to play football—knee, thigh, hip.
“You’re a starting tackle on the Jayvees.” Stoney handed me a pair of black high-topped cleats. “You and Benton Castor. 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 quickly rippled past doubt to religious certainty about the Second Coming of Tom O’Kell.
“For God’s sake, 69,” he said. “Get your butt out there. What are you waiting for?”
I was ready to quit football right there, before our first practice, after I told Bo what had happened.
“What the hell, Wilbur!” Bo yelled at me in the locker room. “Putting you on the line is a sin against nature. 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. He said positions run in families. Like the Dridges.”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard?”
“Stoney said there’s a natural order to everything—and it’s our job to follow it without complaining. He said it’s a fact of life.”
“I guess that’s the end of it,” I said.
“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 Jayvees.
In freshman 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 day it began, 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 American History class with a passing grade. His third try was not going well.
“Mr. Dridge?” Mr. Wright said. “Can you tell me the last time America lost a war.”
“We never lost,” Sunny Dridge said. “We never do.”
“That’s right, Mr. Dridge. We never do. Very good.”
I put my hand up.
“Korea,” I said.
“I beg your pardon, Mr. O’Kell?”
“Nobody won. We signed an armistice. Split the difference at the 38th parallel. In a way we lost.”
“Did we stop the spread of communism?” Mr. Wright said.
“We did!” Sunny Dridge said.
“We’re losing in Vietnam, too,” I said.
“That’s a guerrilla war,” Mr. Wright said. “We can win in Vietnam any time we want to. My son is there. In the Green Berets. He updates me every week! We’re fighting with one hand tied between our back!”
Sunny Dridge looked like he wanted to kill me. His time would come.
Stoney considered himself God Almighty at The Abbey because he taught theology to kids who knew next to nothing about God or sex. Theology class was supposed to be about God and religion, but Stoney ripped through papal infallibility and the Council of Trent so he could get right to sins related to fornication out of wedlock.
“When was your last hard-on?” Stoney asked the class.
No one said anything. This was in the fall, months before Lonnie Orndorff got a monster hard-on in the locker room shower after wrestling practice.
“Will O’Kell? How about you? You think about Miss Scully, don’t you? She gets everyone hard. Am I right?”
Miss Scully, on crutches because of polio in her twenties, had the most beautiful breasts within twenty square miles of our all-boys, all-Catholic school.
“What about it, O’Kell?” Stoney said.
I went to sleep thinking about Miss Scully’s breasts.
“What was the question?” I said.
“Blue balls,” Benton Castor said.
Benton Castor was a massive kid from New Orleans, a scion to a luxury hotel chain with a blonde brush-cut and a syrupy Southern accent. He was going to play tackle on the Jayvees as a freshman, and he was much closer to being the next Tom O’Kell than I would ever get.
“Tell us about blue balls, O’Kell,” Stoney said to me.
“I’ve never seen them,” I said.
“When you get hard as a bull and you can’t pop off,” he said, “so you get blue balls.”
“Don’t you know anything, O’Kell?” Stoney said.
“No, sir. Not about blue balls.”
“I can’t stop you jerk-offs from jacking off,” Stoney said. “But this is theology class. So I’m required according to Church doctrine to tell you that you will pay a price if you pop off outside of marriage because it is a sin. There will be retribution. ‘If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.’ That goes for lefties too. It’s in the goddamn Bible, for Chrissakes.”
Bo and I were in our room staring at the ceiling before lights out, a heartbeat before I started to imagine Miss Scully taking her shirt off and placing my face between her breasts. I needed my right hand to throw the football but I was willing to take the risk. Maybe the devil made me do it.
“You’re dropping down to Thirds football tomorrow,” Bo told me in the dark. “You can’t waste another minute at tackle. 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 brute force. I already talked to Mr. Reardon. It’s a done deal.”
Bo had convinced Mr. Reardon, the coach of Thirds Football, that 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 about that?”
“He’s going to say it’s not natural for an O’Kell to play anything but line,” Bo said. “Because he’s a world-class dick.”
Mr. Reardon gave me number 19, just like Johnny Unitas. The Thirds went undefeated with me throwing halfback option touchdown passes all over the field, and Bo was the biggest star on the Jayvees, 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 with the Jayvees and crushed everyone in his path.
Mr. Wright was already starting to play around with the plays he would put in 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 entirely to go right to Varsity football with him in the fall of our sophomore year.
Bo and me, we talked every night about what it would be like to play football together as sophomores on the varsity. I don’t think I have ever been so happy.
“Stay on your toes, Will,” Mr. Wright said to me after the first varsity practice our sophomore year. “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 Episcopal, our hated 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 minute before and after practice throwing to the human flypaper know as Bo Dotson—with Bo 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. It turns out the good Lord had given me a quick release to go with my rocket arm, meaning three Mississippi was one Mississippi more than I needed to let it fly downfield.
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 installing the screen pass in our offense was only the beginning—that change was in the air whether we liked it or not. He said that was just the nature of the beast in football and in life.
All of that was in the future. In the present varsity football zipped through the season with a perfect record, just like the year before. To go undefeated all we had to do was to win our last game. For the second year in a row, The Abbey’s perfect record was on the line against the bluebloods of Valley Episcopal.
With Stoney standing beside him in the locker room, Mr. Wright started off his pregame speech like he always did, talking about why football was one of the most important things in life. 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.
“My son would have loved this team.”
Mr. Wright took a letter from his inside jacket pocket. The letter looked unopened, brand-new, except for the slit at the top. Mr. Wright took out the letter from the envelope but choked up before he could go any further. He was breathing much harder than usual—like he was choking.
“Friendly fire,” he said in a whisper.
Mr. Wright wandered out of the locker room without another word.
“Let’s go cocksuckers,” Stoney said. “Time to get even.”
Mark Mazetti was great—running the option, pitching the ball to Bo or keeping it himself—and Episcopal 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 by darting inside on keepers. Benton Castor was making so much space for our running game on the left side the Protestants 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 and our perfect season in the Housatonic Valley Conference 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.
“You’re in a war,” Mr. Wright said. “A brutal unforgiving war. It’s kill or be killed. Are you willing to do what it takes to win?”
Of course we all shouted Yes like a reflex. For a minute I thought he might say we had to win this one for his son. But that went unsaid.
Bo put his head in his hands. Mr. Wright was crossing a line I had not even known was there before. Football was war and revenge was in sight.
Valley Episcopal had figured something out at halftime while we were getting ready to kill the enemy. It wasn’t rocket science. The option offense made one defender choose between tackling the quarterback or playing the pitch out to someone—usually Bo—going wide around the end. That was the option in the option offense. Episcopal had figured if they crushed Mark Mazetti every time he pitched the ball to Bo Dotson, then 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 Mark Mazetti fumbled and lay on the ground like a teenage corpse. I thought they might have killed him.
“Warm up,” Mr. Wright shouted at me over his shoulder.
Mr. Wright walked out onto the field with his head down, like he was going 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 came over to me on the sideline. “We should never have stuck with the option as long as we did. We were trying to win the last war instead of the next one—and that never works.”
“Sir?” I said.
“Valley Episcopal has our number. Now they’re going to destroy us. I’m sorry. We waited too long to change. We’re fighting the last war. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
Maybe because of his son, Mr. Wright was mixing up football with the real world. He talked like he was sending me to die, like his son, and there was nothing he could do about it. But football was a game and not a war.
Or so I thought.
“Option right,” I said in the huddle.
No one touched me before I pitched; instead the defender buffaloed Bo full-speed, throwing him up into the air like a rag doll until he fell end-over-end onto the turf. Bo fumbled when he hit the ground, and the Protestants recovered the ball.
Unlike Mark Mazetti, Bo was out cold. They had to carry my best friend off the field on a stretcher.
“This is America!” Mr. Wright shouted at the refs from the sidelines. “This is against everything we stand for in this country!”
Valley Episcopal immediately scored on a power sweep to make it 21-7.
Mr. Wright completely lost his mind, accusing their head coach of war crimes, fire-bombing the refs for a massive conspiracy against The Abbey going back years, stomping his feet until the refs tossed him out of the game for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Then Mr. Wright really went berserk, stripping off his coat, hat-dancing on his hat, kicking every football he could find—and swearing like a sailor with some words I had never even heard before.
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 into orbit with malicious aforethought. Our head coach had told me our offense was a death wish before he fell on his sword.
That left Stoney Stonington as our head coach. The moment was way too big for him but we were still 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.
“Get your dick hard, O’Kell,” Stoney said.
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 Lonnie Orndorff had turned around. I was already halfway off the field before I realized Episcopal had lined up offsides on the play. We still had the ball, first down again with only five yards to go.
No way was I going to run the option that almost killed both Bo and Mark Mazetti. Instead I called an out pattern and that was picked off by an all-state safety who ran it all the way down the sideline for a touchdown.
Our lead was going to be 21-14 with the extra point. But not so fast—because of another. Episcopal had too many men on the field.
In the huddle Sunny Dridge was staring pure hate my way. After two straight interceptions, the upperclassmen had slid past hatred to blame. Benton Castor might still have my blind side, but I could see from the other faces they wanted me carved up and spat out. This was one of the great Kent Abbey teams in the final moments of the season—a team that had destroyed all the competition, save one, for two years in a row—and now we would be remembered for falling on our face again when it really counted.
Sunny Dridge and the other upperclassmen had my life in their hands as I got behind center.
“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 muscle memory now. If I just had enough time, I knew I could get the ball to him and I knew Bo would catch it and go all the way because he could do it in his sleep. We would beat Valley Episcopal and complete our undefeated season.
We would win the war.
I got the snap 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.
Bo was open by at least ten yards—but out of the corner of my eye I saw Sunny Dridge stepping aside like a matador to give the stampeding Episcopal nose guard a clear shot at me in the backfield. Before I could plant my foot he planted me on my back. The pass went straight up into the air like a punt, and an Episcopal linebacker intercepted and ran by me all the way to the end zone, holding the ball overhead, making it 21-14. Valley Episcopal scored three more times to win 35-21 and ruin our perfect season for the second year in a row.
I had thrown three interceptions on three consecutive plays. That has to be some kind of a record. Most football fans don’t even know it’s humanly possible. A miracle, you might call it, and not a good one. It has to be some kind of a record.
Sunny Dridge flunked out after football season. Mark Mazetti missed hockey season with broken ribs but played safety at Colgate for four years. Benton Castor made Housatonic Valley All-Conference team three times before starting for four years in a row at Cornell. His number 70 was the first jersey ever retired at Kent Abbey. He was that good.
The life had gone out of Mr. Wright after his son came home wrapped up in a flag. The next year he became the first full-time athletic director at The Abbey and never taught American History or coached football again. Stoney gave me a D-minus in theology in the spring, in retribution for the sin of quitting football. Stoney became the head coach for ten years and never had a winning season.
Neither Bo nor I ever played football again—not even touch.
The draft lottery for the Vietnam War was gone by the time we graduated, so both Bo and I had dodged a bullet. Maybe there was a God, after all, with a hard-on for peace in our time.