Written by Erik Olson
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Ronnie listened to the echoing roar of the stadium with his stomach slightly churning. Twenty thousand people had packed themselves into the double-decker football stadium on the unusually cool Texas night. Not one of them sat and all made noise. Ronnie watched as his opponents, Mayville High, screamed loudly as the announcer bellowed each starter's name. Soon every starter had run through the tunnel of pads and flesh to the center of the field. The rest of the team followed them madly, whooping and hollering like savages entering battle. They reached their comrades and piled onto them like ants on a chocolate chip cookie. The roar from the Mayville rooters leaped in volume.
Ronnie's team, the Cook City Falcons, watched the pile-up, their intensity growing stronger with each Mayville player's cry. Several of the more vocal team members began priming the rest of the Falcons for the game at hand by yelling and screaming at them, trying to raise the fire within each player to a temperature previously unreached for any other game.
"And now, the starting offense for the Cook City Falcons!" the announcer bellowed. The Falcon rooters exploded. Nearly three quarters of the entire town of Cook City, population 12,765, managed to make the trip to the game. Everyone brought along some representation of their team. Red and black shirts dotted the stadium. Fans painted their faces and bodies red and black. Zealous students flapped their arms ominously, taunting the opposing team's fans and players with the motion of a falcon searching for its prey.
Ronnie felt wild excitement well up inside him, but he kept a steady face on the outside. He was entering what could be his final game in the red and black uniform of Cook City. He didn't want his emotions to cloud his mind, or disturb his already overly frenzied teammates. Ronnie watched as each starter blasted through the tunnel to the sound of wild cheering. His eyes naturally closed as his ears listened for the next name.
"Starting at wide receiver, a six foot, one hundred eighty-five pound senior, number eighty-three, Ronald Jacobs!"
Ronnie raced through the tunnel, hands slapping at him and voices hurling encouragement at him. He burst through the tunnel and greeted his fellow starters with the fierce yell of a warrior ready for battle.
The radio alarm clock blared the morning DJ's annoying voice. Ron half-opened his crusted eyes to face the digital 6:00 staring back at him. He groaned as he stumbled out of bed to shut off the alarm
He went in the bathroom and pressed a cold washcloth to his face. He vaguely remembered the night before, downing shots of whiskey one after another, hunched over on a stool in a lonely bar on the edge of town. His head still ached from the alcohol. He felt dizzy when he moved and gripped the sink tightly as a sudden wave of nausea struck him. He threw open the lid of the toilet and vomited the contents of his stomach. He kneeled over the toilet and caught his breath, his face white with the effort. He struggled back to his feet and stared at his own bloodshot eyes in the mirror. His eyes flicked across his reflection, gazing over the early wrinkles forming on his forehead to the sagging skin along his jawbone. He rubbed his face with the washcloth one last time, reached for a bottle of Jack Daniels conveniently stored in a cupboard, took a swig, and staggered into the shower.
He showered, dressed, and left for work. He spent the drive trying to straighten his crooked tie, and trying not to drive off the side of the road. Ron worked at a plastic manufacturing company where he did all the unwanted and boring paperwork his bosses shoveled down to him. He had begun working at the company after a year of college because the starting pay beat all other options, especially the classroom. He had worked his way up from mailboy to a much higher position with a desk and responsibility.
Ron arrived at the large plant on the outskirts of town. He sighed as he looked up at the tall structure. People moved around him like bees returning to the hive, some taking honey home with them and others bringing it in to be synthesized. Ron took out his breakfast, a Bit O' Honey Bar, and ate it while walking into the building.
"Hey Jacobs! Big day today, huh?" Williams, Ron's co-worker, yelled out. "The head honchos have been holed up in their nice big office for an hour now. The time of my final triumph over you is near. You sure you can take the news?"
"The only thing I'm worried about is where I'll put the big plant in my new office. I hope that it doesn't block the window view from your cubicle." Several people giggled softly to themselves at their desks.
Williams also laughed. "Big talk, Jacobs. Let's see how big you talk at four o'clock this afternoon."
"I'll be there." Ron headed over to his desk and sat down. He took some papers out from his desk and pretended to busy himself with them. He shifted his eyes back and forth among the people in the room, whose eyes all focused on the papers in front of them. When Ron determined no one was watching him, he reached into the bottom drawer of his desk, pulled out a flask of bourbon, and took another quiet drink. He quickly concealed the flask again, and concentrated on his work in front of him.
The game started out as any other. Cook City received the kickoff, and proceeded to march straight down the field. Their early plays centered around Ronnie, their primary weapon. Although Ronnie had run these routes and caught these passes in practice after practice and game after game, he felt a special new twinge in his stomach after every play, a twinge of tension mixed with relief that the tension was over, at least until the next play.
As Ronnie ran each play, his intensity grew and finally stabilized as he found his rhythm. Each play ran in perfect harmony with Ronnie's motions. The football gods had written a theatrical play, staged it on the field, and Ronnie was playing the lead role, expressing his character just as the gods had written the part. He ran each route by instinct, stepping each time just where the defender would not, and turning just in time to cradle the football in mid-air like a doctor grasping a newborn baby. When the Falcons began dusting their feet off on the welcome mat in front of Mayville's goal, their coach sent in their bread-and-butter play. As Ronnie heard the call leave the quarterback's lips, his mind began focusing on where his feet should go, how to get past his opponent, and the perfect spot to ready his hands for the incoming pass.
The center snapped the ball back to the quarterback. Ronnie set his feet in motion. He watched his defender's eyes, and saw them widen slightly as the quarterback faked a hand-off to the running back. Ronnie sensed the weakness in his defender's stance and cut across his face, getting behind him by a step. Ronnie knew his quarterback had also recognized the opportunity and seen the perfect place to throw the ball. Ronnie turned to the spot where he felt the connection.
The throw floated unusually high, but Ronnie's focus moved from Ronnie and the quarterback to Ronnie and the ball. He felt a radar click in his brain, adjusting his body to the position of the ball. He leaped, aiming his hands at the center of the radar screen. As he extended his arms out, he felt the ecstasy of the football securely in his hands, never to touch the ground without Ronnie's express permission. He landed in the end zone, and the Falcons had their first points.
The words on the paper seemed to try to run off the page. Ron blinked his bleary eyes a few times to try to get the words in focus. He had poured over the tiny print of the twenty page company budget for three hours now. Ron got up to get some coffee. As he got out of his chair, fiery pain shot through his right knee which made him grimace and grab his desk for support. He had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in that knee while playing playground basketball shortly before he graduated from high school. The knee never healed properly and caused him pain from time to time, even from simple walking.
Ron remembered his life before the sporadic pain in that knee. His senior year of high school neared a close, and college football recruiters fought for his promise to play for their school. Ron had many things going for him back then. He enjoyed his freedom before the rigors of college football and he possible full-time job as an NFL wide receiver, a career many felt he would possess in the near future.
He was playing a friendly game of basketball with a few of his friends when it happened. He went going up for a simple lay-up when he felt a fiery pain shoot through his knee. He crumpled to the ground like a deer cut down rs gradually quit calling him until all his scholarship offers slowly faded away. This loss of interest only served to depress Ron more, until he finally gave up on the rehab altogether. Now he walked with a slight limp and endured random bouts with pain.
Ron took five minutes to drain his cup of coffee and hobbled back to his desk. He began busying himself with the unending flow of numbers again. He sighed as he took his pocket calculator from his desk and began the tedious job of adding up the budget for employee health insurance.
The phone on Ron's desk rang. "Hello?" he answered, grateful for an interruption.
"You son of a bitch," a harsh female voice hissed from the other end of the line. Ron's pleasure for distraction changed to dismay at the sound of the voice of his future ex-wife, Carol. "What do you want?" he said, massaging his temple.
"You know damn well what I want. I got a call from you lawyer today, and he demanded I let you have the Honda. How could you do something like this? You know very well I had that car long before I ever met you, and I'll be damned if I give it up!"
Ron began to get angry. "You only own that piece of junk because I gave you the money to make the final payments. If it wasn't for me, the repo man would've hauled it thing off a long time ago!" he whispered harshly into the telephone.
"That's a bunch of bull! I was pulling double shifts at that crummy hole-in-the-wall joint and I earned that money to make those payments myself!"
Ron could feel himself being pulled into the same old argument. If it wasn't about who owned the car, it was about who owned the furniture, who owned the TV, or even who owned the dog. "Look, Carol, I can't discuss this right now. I told you never to call me at work. Good-bye."
"Don't you dare--" Ron cut off her voice by slamming down the phone.
Ron stared down at his desk, frustrated, as he always felt after talking with Carol. His eyes floated upward, and fell upon an open window colored light blue from the clear sky outside. Ron felt his attention flutter to the freedom of the outdoors, and shook his head violently in an attempt to focus on the work in front of him. He stared at the never-ending flow of numbers, then felt a sudden sense of claustrophobia. He glanced nervously at the walls around him, certain they had moved in a few inches closer than a few seconds before. He tried to take a deep breath to calm himself down, but the air he brought in his lungs tasted pungent; wisps of cigarette smoke mixed with the manufactured new smell of plaster. Ron tried to find a clean pocket of air, but his cubicle seemed to suffocate him. He hurried to the bathroom, where he took a long drink of water and pressed a cold, damp paper towel to his face. The cool water relieved some of the pressure he felt
As Ron walked out of the bathroom, he encountered one of his bosses.
"Jacobs," his boss said.
"Yes, sir?" Ron replied.
"This promotion sure could mean a lot for your career here at this company, isn't that right, Jacobs?"
"Certainly, sir. It's a huge deal for me."
Ron's boss leaned over as if to whisper to him. "I'm not in charge of hiring at that position," his boss said in a low tone. "But I don't think taking two breaks in less than ten minutes in the mark of a future vice-president, do you, Jacobs?"
"No sir. I'm sorry, sir."
Ron's boss walked away, his eyebrows raised condescendingly at Ron. Ron returned to his desk and found the air breathable, at least for the time being.
The tension crackled through the stadium like lightning on a stormy summer night. Although Cook City had scored the first touchdown, Mayville High roared back to push the ball over their opponent's goal line twice. Cook City added a field goal into the mix, and trailed by a mere four points with time running out in the fourth quarter.
Mayville had pulled ahead by capitalizing on key errors by the Falcons, intercepting two passes which led to their two touchdowns. Yet they had still not discovered an answer for Ronnie. He caught long passes, short passes, and even ran the ball on reverses. Mayville tried man-to-man coverage, switched to zone, and finally sent two defenders to cover Ronnie on certain plays. But Ronnie continued to control the game from his wide receiver position.
The Falcons began their drive as they had begun all others. They aimed their primary weapon directly at Mayville's defense. Ronnie now drew two defenders at almost all times, yet he always found the open spot on the field, and his quarterback continually hit him there on the mark.
Ronnie lined up on the far right, noticing only one defender across from him. Despite the darkness of the Texas sky, Ronnie's eyes lit up like the twin headlights of a sports car preparing for a nighttime speed run. The quarterback hollered his cadence and received the snap, and Ronnie exploded from the line. The lonely defender, realizing he had no help covering Ronnie, desperately tried to hold up Ronnie at the line of scrimmage. Ronnie merely brushed past him, using the hapless defender's momentum to sprint a full two steps past him. Ronnie looked over his shoulder for the ball and saw it there, a spiraling brown and white star illuminated by the bright stadium light. Ronnie reached out his hands and picked the ball out of the air. He raced down the sideline, yards past his unlucky defender but wary of another opponent sprinting madly to angle Ronnie off. The Cook City cheering section rose like a sleeping lion awoken prematurely from a deep sleep. Ronnie ran as fast as he could, but the Mayville defender had taken the proper angle and pushed Ronnie out-of-bounds at the ten yard line.
Ronnie's teammates raced down the field screaming his name and yelling in frenzied hope. Ronnie accepted their praise, but with reserve, for only three seconds remained in the game, and Cook City still needed ten yards for the win. They had time for only one more play.
The quarterback quickly quieted his team, and called their bread-and-butter play, the play that had brought them their first score and countless others before. Ronnie broke from the huddle with a powerful sense of confidence ebbing through his veins. This time, he lined up on the far left and saw two defenders madly run over to line up across from him. The center snapped the ball, and Ronnie watched his opponents' eyes. As the quarterback faked the dive up the middle, the defender furthest from Ronnie bit at the lure and took two steps forward. He quickly realized his mistake, and hurriedly tried to reverse his movement. His right foot hit a patch of slick grass, and he fell to the ground. The defender nearest Ronnie continued back-pedaling and couldn't see his fallen teammate on the ground behind him. One Mayville defender tripped over the other, and now both lay on the ground.
Ronnie found himself entering the end zone with no one covering him. His eyes widened at this unexpected fortune. He looked over his shoulder and saw the perfectly placed ball floating lazily in the air. Ronnie stuck his hands out, waiting for the ball to nestle into them and seal the victory.
Ronnie felt the ball touch his palms, but reeled in shock as he felt it bounce out of his grasp. He tried to clutch the ball off the rebound, but couldn't anticipate its crazy movement. Ronnie watched the ball bounce to the turf and rest there, unfeeling and remorseless. In a blur, Ronnie saw the referee swipe his arms in and out, signaling an incomplete pass. He saw the digital numbers of the clock read :00, and the score read Mayville 14, Cook City 10. He saw the Mayville players wildly hugging each other and cheering, and his own teammates staring at him and the score in utter shock. He saw his high school football career come to a close.
"Jacobs! Williams! Get in here!" the senior executive barked.
Ron looked up to see the senior executive's board room door open, and the executive waiting inside, stern-faced and impatient. Ron slowly rose from his chair, a twinge of nervousness within his stomach mixing with a dull pounding inside his head. Williams quickly got up from his desk and walked into the room without even glancing in Ron's direction. Ron watched Williams go through the door and followed him in.
"Williams, Jacobs," the silver-haired, smartly dressed company president said gruffly in welcoming. "Sit down." Both men sat.
"We thank you both for your hard work and dedication to the this company. Unfortunately, we can only hire one vice-president." Ron blinked his eyes wearily at the president, afraid to move yet wanting to relax and let his body go completely loose.
"Williams, you have proven yourself worthy of this position. You are very reliable, you get fast results, and you have a real feel for this job. Congratulations."
Ron glanced at the digital clock across the room. The bright sunshine shielded the first number on the clock, so all Ron could see was the :00 contrasted by the shadow. He cringed as he realized the ghosts of the past had cut him down again with a flying tackle. All the time he spent trying to advance to the next level was wasted. Another phase of Ron's life slipped through his fingers.
Williams smiled and shook hands with the other executives around him. The president turned to Ron and shrugged. "As for you Jacobs, I'm sorry. Your portfolio was good, but just not quite good enough. Better luck next time."
Ron took a deep breath, swallowed his pride, shook hands with Williams, and hobbled out the door. His knee began to act up again. He looked down at his digital watch. It read 4:15. He bought a Bit O' Honey bar from the company vending machine and left work for the day.
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