[Here is the second (and final) part of the fictional short looking at Texas high school football. I appreciate all of the positive feedback and glad to know that folks have enjoyed reading these pieces this summer. We will see what the coming year holds in terms of sports writing. There certainly are a bunch of storylines (to attempt) to explore.]
As the single-elimination playoffs progress, the road to Houston and the state finals goes through Carter High School in Dallas. The Morning News headlined that Carter “had a straightforward route to the championship game.” They even took at shot at God himself, saying that I “was unproven.” As I read the story, it barely registered. It was little more than the mindless musing of non-believers.
As we sat at lunch on the eve of the Carter game, the offensive line had assembled a set of tables together so that the team could eat as one. It was like da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper. I sat at the head of the table and, as the meal came to a close, my lineman pass by my chair and place a hand on my shoulder.
And now, I am in the locker room and the head coach is holding forth. His words are as barren as a White Oak oil field. He attempts a collection of cliches pulled from watching too many episodes of Friday Night Lights. Slowly, the team turns to me. I rise, look around the locker room and say, “Gentleman, they call it football. ‘It starts with a whistle and it ends with a gun.’”
As the first half draws to a close, my legs have turned to Jello and my cleats are cement blocks. Breathing is tough. Amid the tightness in my lungs and the lost mobility, the spirals are still tight and the arm is still D I-caliber strength. Brandon Belt has found the end zone twice, but it will take more than fourteen points to beat Carter.
The second half is a blur, filled with hard hits. The clocks is winding down with just a minute remaining in the game. It is third and long. I touch my helmet for an audible and Brandon nods back. The ball is snapped. The pocket collapses. The silents masses are on cusp of a wailing cry with their hands locked in solemn prayer.
Brandon has a step. The ball fires from my hand and cuts effortlessly through the evening air. His hands are pure. The goal line is crossed. The scoreboard changes. Time expires.
But even the omnipotence of a God can be challenged. On the next Monday afternoon, a mostly quiet practice is coming to a close. The QB’s are practicing deep balls. My backup is throwing a deep ball to Brandon and suddenly he is down. “My knee,” he wails. “My knee.” Some of the worst injuries in football are non-contact injuries. He is done for the year. And the non-believer begin their ascent as we make our way to the weekend and the Texas state finals.
The championship game is played at NRG Stadium in Houston. Memorial High School and its booster would fill the papers in the days leading up to the game with the talk of home field advantage. My advantage is one far greater that preaching in one’s home parish. And no matter the loss of Brandon to injury, it is soon to be claimed. I will, as the Psalms preached, “trample down the enemies” and “gain the victory” at hand.
Memorial was led by a linebacker called Dan Dax. He was a runaway train, leveling the unsuspecting in his path. He also was a master of trash talk. During my sophomore campaign, we had fared badly against Memorial and it became the pre-championship talk track of “The Dax.” On my chances, he would say, “I am going to live in his jersey.” On our team, he opined, “They are ripe for ridicule.” And on White Oak the town, he offered some oil from his truck. “I heard,” The Dax said, “they ran out.”
But The Dax is not a preacher to the mass. I am. And when “the clock is down to its final ticks, I rise up” and deliver the miracles that reaffirm the believers and convert the non-believer to my flock. White Oak has seen the miracles. They have witnessed the triumph. NRG Stadium will see them tonight.
It is the first series of the game. I drop back. The Dax is coming toward me. I try to check down to my running back. I never get the chance. In the next moment, The Dax is dancing in the end zone and I am being gingerly helped to my feet.
On the sidelines, I ask Brandon what happened. “When the left tackle whiffs a block, it doesn’t matter if the quarterback is God or not.” We both kneel down, and watch as the defense gives up a collection of first downs on the way to the collection of touchdowns and then a field foal for Memorial.
And yet, I am as calm as a quiet sea. Memorial and The Dax were little more than “obstacles between me and the Lord’s light.” My followers were looking for another miracle. Without Brandon, it would require it.
We fought our way back. And despite a missed extra point, we trailed 20-24. With timing running down in the fourth and final quarter, my Grandfather would later recall that the announcers bemoaned that “the clock was striking midnight on White Oak.” It was little more than “darkness before the dawn.”
I called a run-pass option to the right. Dax read it perfectly, containing the play for just three yards and forcing me to use my final timeout. It was second down, but that matter little as there were only three ticks left on the clock.
There was one last play to be called. In the huddle, I said calmly, “Power 7 Dive.” It was a quarterback sneak.
Years later, they would stop me as I walked down Main Street. Some of them were from White Oak. Others were visiting from out of town. All of them would swear they “witnessed a miracle” that Saturday afternoon in Houston.
“Yes, Jesus walked on water.” I went to the big city. I called my own number. “I let faith” fuel my leap. And the prayers of the forgotten in a small town in God’s Country were answered.