St. Nick's Outlaws
By Jim Colombo
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Copyright 2001 Jim Colombo
It was Thursday morning, game day, and the team walked to their locker room at
Kezar Stadium. It was dark and damp, and it reminded Jim and Augie of the Coliseum in
Rome. Jim teased Augie saying, "I can hear the lions roaring. Soon the Christian will
arrive." They would laugh, but today there was no laughter. It was game day against
S.I. The last battle in a war that had lasted four years. Few of them had gone this far.
They had hoped to be here some day. Now they were. Some wondered if they were
ready for the challenge. Most were eager to find out. Jim was nervous as he prepared to
engage the enemy. The players taped pairs of fingers and wiped black grease under their
eyes. Then the ritual began. The ground began to shake and the level of noise intensified.
Jim's heart was about to explode. He couldn’t breathe or swallow. His hands were wet,
but my mouth was dry. His teammates started yelling. The volume became louder. They
began hitting each other. They no longer had blood in their veins, only adrenaline. The
chanting became rhythmic and the locker room began to compress. They huddled around
Coach Kepen. He removed his baseball cap, rubbed his blonde crew-cut hair and said,
“Listen up. Gather ’round. It has taken us four years to get here. This is the
biggest day in your lives. Few have the chance to be champions. This is about character,
winners, being the best. For most of you it will be the last game you will play for St. Nick’s.
This is what we have played for and sacrificed for. You will carry this day with you for the
rest of your lives. It’s there, out on the field (he pointed). GO OUT THERE and dedicate
yourselves to being the best. GO OUT THERE and come back champions.
GO OUT THERE and BEAT S.I. BEAT S.I. BEAT S.I. BEAT S.I.”
The team ran out of the locker room and hit a wall of noise from the screaming fans
and school bands. There was a sea of red and white on one side of the stadium, and blue
and white on the other side. This was the city championship trying to revenge the ghost of
the past five years. Jim looked for Lupe in the stands. She sat between his parents and
wore his blue varsity sweater for good luck. The team paced back and forth like caged
animals. S.I. won the coin toss and would receive the ball. St. Nick's would kick off and
defend the west goal. They were on the press box side in the shade.
Last year Jim had sat with Lupe and watched the game. This year he was the
starting fullback. He had never experienced emotion like this. He wanted to go on the
field and hit someone, something, anything. His guts were twisting in knots. He wished
the headhunters good luck. Elu smiled as he passed Jim. Dias kicked a high floater that
was caught on the five-yard line. The running back advanced the ball to the nineteen-yard
line. Elu hit the wedge and bodies flew like bowling pins. Harp and Nunez finished tackling
the runner. Elu got up slowly, then trotted off the field. “Way to go, man. Good hit,” said
the guys on the bench.
Jim yelled, “Yeah, good hit!” and slapped Elu’s ass as he ran passed the sidelines.
The defense dug in and held S.I. to four yards and a cloud of dust. It was fourth down and
S.I. had to punt. Jim gave Elu and Desmond a pat on their helmets as they passed him.
Elu turned and yelled, “Odin!”
Jim yelled back, “Odin!” They had watched a Viking movie with Kirk Douglas. A
dying Viking held his sword, and called out, “Odin!” a Viking god, before entering Valhalla.
St. Nick's received the ball and advanced to the thirty-yard line. Jim passed Elu as he ran
out to the huddle. Elu's forehead was bleeding and he was smiling. He yelled, “Go get
‘em!” and slapped Jim's helmet.
In the huddle Augie called, “21 cross-buck on two.” Jim lined up behind the strong
side tackle and Rensom lined up behind the weak side tackle. Rensom ran to the hole
created by the strong side. It was a crossing pattern designed to confuse the defense.
Jim sealed the hole by leveling the middle linebacker, and Rensom ran for twenty yards.
The feeling of getting the first hit and seeing the hole open is joy traveling like electricity
from your feet through your body, and exploding out of your head. When Rensom came
back to the huddle, he and Jim slapped helmets. They were charged up. The offensive
line was surging, and sticking the defense on their asses. They methodically ran down the
field and scored after ten minutes and twelve running plays. It was tank warfare and
Coach Kepen enjoyed it. On second and goal Augie handed the ball to Rensom, who
could have run to the sidelines and scored untouched. Instead he chose to cut left running
over the cornerback into the endzone. Dias kicked the extra point. It was 7-0. St. Nick's
had made a statement and S.I. had to reply.
They kicked off and Saint Ignatius ran the ball back to the forty–three yard line.
S.I. came roaring back, and three plays later they scored on a pass to their flanker. It
was a new ball game tied at seven when the first quarter ended. St. Nick's didn’t have
the emotion that they began with, so Augie gave the team an emotional pep talk in the
huddle and called 87 fly on set. St. Nick's wide receiver would run down the sideline,
veer inside, then streak to the corner of the endzone. Augie would hit him with a pass
at the flag. The team ran up to the line of scrimmage with emotion. Jensen snapped
the ball to Augie. He faded back to throw the ball. Woods put a bull rush on the strong
side tackle. Then he spun around the tackle and tipped the ball as Augie threw it. The ball
went straight up, and tumbled into Woods' hands. He began to run and was tackled by
Augie and Jim.
“God damn you, Woods,” said Augie.
“Tough shit, asshole,” said Woods.
Jim stepped on Woods’ hand by accident as he got up from the tackle.
“Hey, asshole,” said Woods.
“Sorry, asshole,” said Jim.
The defense ran onto the field, and Jim and Augie ran off. Augie slammed his
helmet to the ground, and the players avoided him. S.I. had the ball on St. Nick's thirty-
seven yard line. The defense got stiff and held S.I. to two yards in three plays. S.I. lined
up for a field goal. They had a good kicker, but he shanked it to the right. Coach Kepen
once said that a cat has nine lives, but a defense can only dodge two bullets. The
missed field goal was the first bullet. The offense ran out to the twenty-yard line and
Augie looked at each player in the huddle and said, “We ain’t givin’ it away, God damn
it.” St. Nick’s settled down and began a drive with sweeps and screen passes to
Rensom and Jim. Augie faked a sweep and threw a screen to the other side to Rensom.
The S.I. defense was confused. Augie faked a screen to Jim, then threw to Teague in the
back of the end zone. Dias kicked the extra point. It was 14-7.
The players walked back to the bench like business as usual, no yelling. St. Nick's
kicked off to S.I. Saint Ignatius moved the ball to the middle of the field, and the first half
ended 14-7. The teams ran off the field to their respective lockers. The Saint Ignatius
Band marched onto the field and began to play a song made popular by Barbara Striesand
Coach Kepen gave the team one of his better halftime speeches. “You’re thirty
minutes away from a journey that began four years ago. What separates the men from
the boys is will. How badly do you want it? I said, how badly do you want it?” he
“We want it, Coach!” yelled Augie. The team could see the championship dancing in
front of them.
“It’s there if you want it. Do you want it?”
“Hell yes, ” yelled the team.
The third quarter began and it was trench warfare in the middle of the field. S.I
charged on offense. St. Nick's held them back. St. Nick's charged on offense and S.I.
held them back. Each team exchanged punts, and the third quarter ended 14-7. The
fourth quarter began and Augie called a 31 blast on set. He handed off the ball to Jim
and he ran for three yards. Woods stepped on Jim’s hand and broke his right index
finger. “We’re even asshole,” he said, and showed Jim his index and middle finger taped
Jim ran off the field to the trainer to set and tape his two fingers. A splint was
attached for support. “If the bone brakes the skin, you’ll have to leave the game," he said.
Jim nodded and sat out that offensive series. St. Nick's punted the ball on fourth
and six. Saint Ignatius received the ball. They made a first down, then S.I. stalled, and
had to punt. St. Nick's received the ball on their thirty-yard line. Jim ran out to the huddle.
Augie said, “I gotta know if you can catch the ball, Jim.” He called trips right, flood right
on set. The flanker went in motion to the right side. Rensom and Jim went out into the
flat on the right side, the area between the linebacker and the defensive backs. The
flanker was the primary receiver. Jim was Augie's third option. Augie threw the ball to
Jim. He caught it by cradling it and tucking it in. He got tackled, and almost lost the ball,
but held on. Augie saw him cradle the ball, and said, “Good catch.” Jim heard what Augie
didn’t say. He didn’t catch the ball with his hands, and understood that Augie wouldn’t
throw to him again. St. Nick's was on the S.I. thirty-nine yard line with Jim's catch. Augie
called 21 blast on set. The offensive line charged at the snap of the ball and opened a big
hole in the middle for Rensom. He ran with power and broke two tackles until he was
tackled on the eight-yard line. Augie called a 31 trap on two. Jim followed Bautista to the
goal line and was tripped and fell. . The line judge placed the ball on the one-yard line. Jim
was kicked in the mouth while on the ground, and rolled over on his side and spit out two
teeth. He stood in the huddle spitting blood. “Give me the ball, Augie,” Jim said. Augie
looked at Rensom, and Rensom nodded.
“Same play on set,” said Augie.
”Follow me, man.” said Bautista
Jensen snapped the ball to Augie, who handed Jim the ball, and Jim ran over the
middle linebacker and into the endzone. He jumped up and yelled, “Yeah!” His white
pants were spotted with blood on both thighs. He ran off the field knowing that that was
his last play as a fullback for St. Nick’s. Jim was happy that they were winning, but sad
that the ride was over. There were seven minutes left in the game. It was 21-7. They
were so close. St. Nick's was enjoying the euphoria of possible victory. They kicked off
Saint Ignatius ran the ball back for a touchdown. The players were in shock.
Coach Kepen threw his cap on the ground and said, “ Shit! God damn it.” That quickly
it was 21-14. Now there were five minutes left. S.I. kicked off. St. Nick's ran the ball to
the thirty-five yard line. Four minutes and ten seconds left. In the huddle Augie said, “
We’re gonna run the ball down their God damn throats.” It wasn’t fancy just zone blocking,
with your head in your opponent's gut. Rensom ran for five yards, three minutes twenty
seconds left. Rensom ran a swept to the right and gained six yards, first down, two
minutes forty seconds left. The next play Rensom ran for ten yards. First down! The two-
minute warning was given. Both teams were exhausted. It was now a matter of pride.
S. I. knew that they were losing, and played valiantly. Last year St. Nick's was losing, and
knew all too well that felling from three years of defeat. St. Nick's never gave up last year,
and now S. I. was playing on honor, pride, and heart. Rensom ran a weep to the left and
gained seven yards. The S.I. Coach called, “Time out.” It was their last one with one
minute thirty-two seconds. Augie called another sweep. Rensom ran for six yards. Fifty-
five seconds left. Augie called a sweep to the right side where Woods lined up. Jim
blocked Woods and Rensom ran for five yards. Jim, Rensom and Woods lay on the
ground on the twenty-five yard line for a moment, exhausted and in pain. Then the crowd
began to count down the last thirty seconds. The last thirty seconds for warriors who
battled for four years. The war was ending. The days of gridiron glory for players from
both teams were ending. S.I. stood and helplessly watched the clock count down. St.
Nick’s went back to their huddle and chanted with the crowd. Finally they count down ten,
nine, eight, then they yelled, Zero!”
Jim and Rensom hugged each other. The crowd was cheering, the band was
playing. Jim was looking for Lupe. She was waving her arms and standing with Jim’s
parents. He looked at his teammates standing on the sideline, and the Alumni by the
bench. Portello had a big smile. Elu and the headhunters were running towards Augie,
Rensom, and Jim. The linemen were hugging one another. Augie spun Jim around and
said, “Great game, man.” Augie turned to Rensom and said the same to him. Both
players hugged each other. Elu ran up to Jim and yelled, ”Odin!” and tackled him. Jim
was in pain from getting battered by S.I. and now his own guys were bashing him. The
team walked to the sidelines and sang their school song. Jim turned, and looked to the
other side of the field, and saw Russell staring at the team from the other side. Jim waved.
Russell turned and walked away. It was cold and the fog was blowing in, but Jim could
have stayed out there forever. The team ran off the field to the locker room. As they
entered Garcia was there shaking everyone’s hand, and patting them on the helmet.
When Jim came in and saw Garcia he got emotional.
“You played a great game, Jim,” said Garcia.
“I wish you could have run through some of those holes.”
“I did, man. I was out there with you.”
Rensom came over and said to Jim, “Not bad for a walk-on. You‘re as good as
Garcia. If I make all-city it’s because of your blocking. Thanks. It was great having you in
“It was great being there and blocking for the best white halfback I ever saw.”
Coach Kepen stood on a chair and made a speech. “Four years ago I had
serious doubts, but each year you improved because of hard work and dedication. I
am very proud to have been your coach. Enjoy the feeling. Try and stay in touch with
each other after you graduate. You guys had something very special this year, and I hope
you realize what you accomplished. You will have this moment with you for the rest of
your life. One last time, who are we?”
“What kind of Irish?”
They began to sing, ”I’m an Irishman, I’m an Irishman, I’m an Irishman ‘till I die,
and I’d rather be an Irishman, than a CHERRY from S.I.” They cheered and hugged
each other and savored the moment. After thirty minutes they showered and dressed.
Lupe and Jim's parents waited for an hour for Jim, the last one out, because his finger had
to be set and wrapped with a splint. The dentist gave Jim a mouthpiece packed with a
God-awful tasting medicine in the gauze that filled the void of two missing teeth. Jim
walked out slowly. His back, knees, and hips sore. The left side of his face was swollen.
The journey was over. The outlaws had prevailed. Jim looked back at the tunnel for the
last time. He would never hear the lions roar again. Lupe and his mother looked horrified
when they saw him. Jim's father said, “ When you get your trophy, all of the pain will be
worth it.” Jim nodded. He wanted to go home and rest. The last thing he wanted was one
of Lupe’s bone crushing hugs, or to eat a turkey dinner. Now Jim knew what old felt like.
That night Jim's parents, Rosa, and Lupe enjoyed a great Thanksgiving dinner.
Jim had snacked on the stuffing made earlier in the morning, and It was one of his
mother’s better attempts cooking stuffing using her Spanish recipe with spinach, onions,
garlic, and hamburger. Jim lost the upper left eyetooth and the tooth between the upper
left eyetooth and his front left tooth. The void was packed with gauze dipped in an awful
tasting medication. His check was fractured, and His right index finger was broken and in
a splint taped to his right middle finger. Jim couldn’t eat or handle a fork. He was starved,
and could only sip on chicken broth with a straw for three days. He felt like he had been in
a street fight for three hours. He had never hurt so much as today. He sneezed, and the
gauze became lose and he began to bleed. He excused myself, and replaced the gauze.
Jim watch them eat cake and ice cream.
After dinner Jim sat with Lupe in the living room. Rosa and his parents joined
later. Jim's father was proud of him. His mother felt bad that he lost two teeth. They
talked about making Christmas plans. Rosa and Lupe invited Jim and his parents to
their apartment for Christmas Eve dinner and mass at St. James. They accepted. It
hurt when Lupe hugged Jim tight and kissed him good night. His ribs were sore from
the pounding he suffered during the game. Rosa and Lupe left and drove home. Jim
said good night to his parents and went to his bedroom. His finger throbbed all night
and he couldn’t sleep. He was happy that St. Nick's had won the city championship.
They beat S.I. twice. Augie, Rensom, the defense, and he had a great game. It was the
perfect ending to a storybook year. Jim wouldn’t be able to write very well during exams
next week with his index and middle fingers taped in a splint. Next week he would make
an appointment with the team dentist to have a bridge made for his missing two teeth. He
tried to block out the pain with the joy of today’s victory. He remembered each play, and
like a movie he saw the game again in his mind. Jim lay awake for an hour and relived the
emotion and energy of the game. He felt the pain again when his finger broke, and when
he was kicked in the mouth. Then a voice announced, “Number twenty-two,” and he was
greeted on the fifty-yard line at Kezar Stadium by all of the ghosts for the past forty-six
years. Jim saw himself joining Augie, Garcia, Portello, and Mahoney with all of the other
player. Their spirits would replay the games again in the other world. It was time to walk
away from football and go on to the next challenge in life. Four years of glory and friends
slowly vanished, like a lazy orange sunset sliding down the far side of the horizon. His
eyes started to water, and it was hard to swallow. It was hard to say farewell.
Farewell, number twenty-two. Farewell to four years of glory.
More next week...