Authors: Tim Tharp
MANY THANKS TO
: my agent, Emily Sylvan Kim, and my editor, Michele Burke; everyone at Knopf who worked on this book; Nick, Katie, Clint, Charlene, and Bill for long-term support; literary consultants Paden, Abby, Cindy, and David Treadway; and advisors Keith Hunter, James Aquino, Cynthia Weiner, Stacey Richter, Maryellen Linnehan, Brad Hughes, John Cooper (for last time), and Dennis Huggins, former coach of the Class 6A state football champions, the Midwest City Bombers.
I done it. I stopped time.
Every single player on that football field locked up stiff as them wax figures they got over in the Pawtuska Wild West Wax Museum. Made quite a picture, the stadium lights blazing overhead like fractured stars and the football froze slick and hard as a rocket against the night sky, our outside line-backer's fingers stretching just an inch too short to do a thing but let it fly over. I had to admit it was a thing of pure beauty, that pass, even if it was the enemy quarterback that thrown it. Tight spiral. Perfect arc. That boy had talent. But, sorry to say, it wasn't going to be enough. Not with me freezing time like I could.
Course, time didn't really stop. I didn't wave no magic wand or poof out a cloud of fairy dust or crank up some
science-fiction machine with spinning gears and flashing lights on it. Thing was, I'd focus so hard that I'd squinch everything down so it
like time froze just long enough for me to look and see what I'd have to do next. That was my talent, the one and only thing I knew how to do better than anyone else around.
I had me this math teacher one time back in junior high, Mr. Moon, told me it was too bad they'd passed them child labor laws 'cause I'd do a lot more good hauling coal up out of a mine twelve hours a day than I done wasting desk space in his classroom. Big, redheaded dumb jock, that's all he seen, and he wasn't the only one probably neither. But none of them folks knew what went on in my head. Not one had the least idea who the real me was.
The scene whirled back up to full speed, and over by the sideline, the ball snapped right into the Wynette receiver's hands. Our little old Vietnamese cornerback, Tommy Nguyen, grabbed at the receiver's jersey, but he couldn't get ahold of it firm and spilled off to the side. Poor Tommy. That was bound to earn him a good chunk of grief at practice on Monday. After that, number eighty-eight tucked the ball under his arm, juked, and zigzagged into the open. Had him twenty-five yards of open pasture clean to the end zone, and I knew he was thinking surefire touchdown. He was thinking,
I'm the hero now, buddy boy. Nothing left but to figure out which way I'm gonna spike the ball and dance around the goalpost.
One problem. Old eighty-eight had no way of guessing I'd done predicted every one of them moves before he even seen he was going to make them his own bad self. I aimed at just the right angle to cut him off and charted my route so perfect, all your math geniuses with every protractor and compass in
the world couldn't have mapped it out better. His reputation as an all-state sprinter didn't make an ounce of difference and neither did the fact that he'd scored him something like a sixty-yard touchdown in the game before this one. I had me the perfect angle and just enough speed so that at the exact right moment, I launched through the air, a high-powered torpedo straight on target, and—
—I slammed into him broadside, both of us crashing hard into the ground, dirt flying up in my face and chalk dust stinging my nostrils.
Getting up to my feet, I had just about every teammate of mine on the sideline slapping my back, telling me, “Good tackle. Attaboy, Hamp, you killed that sucker—attaboy, attaboy, Hamp.” The stands flat-out boomed with cheers. But eighty-eight, he was still laying on his back, this kind of stunned look glazing over his eyes behind his face mask. He looked about like a lost little first grader down there. I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. He come so close to being the hero. It was like he'd tried on a new outfit and seen how good it looked and everything, and then someone come along and told him he had to put it back on the rack. Poor guy. I reached my hand down and he took it, and after helping him pull hisself up, I slapped him on the butt and sent him back off across the field.
“Hampton!” It was my buddy Blaine Keller barking at me. He strictly plays offense, so he had his helmet off and his black hair was pasted to his forehead, the black slashes of war paint under his eyes starting to run some from the sweat. “Don't give your hand to the enemy like that. This is a battle, son. Don't ever give your hand to the enemy during a battle.”
He meant business too. You could tell by the way the
sparks flared up in his brown eyes. He wasn't faking. He was mad. I jogged back to the defensive huddle, feeling like I'd had the air half let out of me. Tell you what, Coach Huff and his assistants was some of the best coaches in Oklahoma— and I figured you might as well throw Texas in there too. Everything about them was polished and sharp as a new pair of scissors—their clothes, their hair, and their orders most of all. But they was always distant, up on another level looking down. Blaine was my best friend, my brother almost, and his words cut deeper than anyone else's.
He was right,
I thought. That always was my shortcoming right there. Too much sympathy. It was like Blaine used to tell me, “Feeling sorry for folks never won no football games.”
This wasn't any time to go weak neither. This was a time a guy needed insides about as tough and gnarled and hard as one of them old blackjack oaks on the hills outside of town. Me and the rest of the Kennisaw Knights had us eighteen yards and twenty-seven inches of battleground to defend. Three minutes and thirty-four seconds left in the game. First and ten. Kennisaw 20 and the Wynette Titans 17.
Every game this season, the pressure weighed down more and more. It was like carrying around a sack full of rocks, only every time you got to thinking you could lay it down, someone would throw another sack full of bigger rocks up on top of you. If we could keep it going, this would be Kennisaw's fifth undefeated season in a row. For thirty-some years, no Knights team had strung together that many wins, and them old-time players from back then was still heroes around the hill country of eastern Oklahoma. More than just heroes, they was flat-out legends.
Now, people love their legends in the hill country. I don't
just mean the ones that run up and down the green fields there in Biggins Stadium with its crown of golden lights neither. I'm talking about the old-timey Wild West legends like the Doolins and the Daltons and Belle Starr, the queen of the outlaws. All them famous characters in the wax museum. And then you got your bull riders and bronc busters, your Five Civilized Tribes and your wildcat oil strikers. Pretty Boy Floyd and Woody Guthrie, Will Rogers, Mickey Mantle, and the original great football player Jim Thorpe hisself. Kennisaw's a dusty little old town, but even the smallest scrawny kid can feel big if he's got hisself a legend to hold on to.
And believe you me, not a player on our team didn't think about what kind of legends we could end up being our own selves if we finished off this fifth straight season undefeated. Boy howdy. The Kennisaw Knights was the best damn football team in all the hill country, where Friday-night high school football ranked next to God and country, and, truth be known, sometimes come in first. It'd be one hell of a big sack of rocks to carry around if you let the Knights down.
Every mouth on the Kennisaw side of the stadium let loose a roar of “Defense! Defense! Defense!” Taking my position there at middle linebacker, I could feel it rumbling through my chest and stomach, all the way out into my arms and legs. It was almost like that crowd was creating me out of thin air right on the spot. Outside the stands, the rest of the town would be as bare as a soup bone 'cause everyone was right here at the game, chanting up their spell. Bankers and mechanics, dental hygienists, the glass-plant gang, farmers, store clerks, and doctors. Even Miss Nikomos, the dance-school teacher. Everyone.
I knew my folks wasn't up there chanting. Not a chance. No telling where my dad was these days. No telling who my mom was with tonight. And Sara Reynolds—girls like her didn't give a day-old donut about football.
For a second, my concentration flickered out on me. Gone, just like that.
A quick snap jarred me back into the game. The quarterback was already wheeling to his left, shoving the ball into the tailback's belly, the tailback plunging towards the gap off tackle. Only he didn't really have the ball. The handoff was a fake, and I fell for it hook, line, and sinker, charging the gap, leaving the middle of the field wide open for their split end. Too late to stop time now. My instincts took over instead. I rolled off the block and cut back left, keeping my eye on nothing but the quarterback's throwing hand. No doubt the end had made it to the opening I'd left for him by now, but I still had one chance.
As soon as that quarterback's arm sprung forward, I took flight—up and sideways, stretching out my arm so far I thought it might pop right out of its socket. Then I felt it— the hard leather against my fingertips. A second later, I skidded across the ground, my face mask plowing up grass, the ball bouncing end over end a few yards away. Incomplete pass.
Man alive, did them stands explode in cheers then. But they wasn't yelling “Defense, defense, defense” anymore. Now it was “Hampton! Hampton! Hampton!”
Now, if what I'm telling you about the things I done in football this season sounds like bragging, I don't mean it to. Sure, I ate them cheers up like a starving orphan with a hunk of bread, but I never thought for a second they made me better than anyone else. I probably felt more like the opposite most of the time.
Fact was, whatever I accomplished in the sport of football, I owed all to Blaine Keller and his dad. They was the ones that started me in it back in grade school, and they taught me the fundamentals and coached me every step of the way and even tried to hammer the right attitude into me, though I guess that part never did take too good.
If it hadn't been for Blaine and football, who knows what would've become of me. Lord knows, I sure didn't get any
looking-after at home. Probably would've ended up one of them big meaty sullen types like old Casey Guyman. Wearing the plaid shirts with the sleeves cut out and smoking cigarettes off on the outskirts of the school grounds, waiting for after-school detention to start. Walking down the railroad tracks alone 'cause everyone's scared to be friends with him. It ain't far-fetched at all to think that might've been me.
So when the fans started chanting my name like they done in that game against the Titans, I felt good, all right, but I didn't get the big head or nothing like that. I knew durn well I was lucky to get away with batting that ball down instead of having a touchdown scored on me, and Blaine didn't let me forget it neither.
After we held the Titans off on fourth down, I jogged off the field and hadn't no more than hit the sideline when Blaine started in yelling, “Hampton, get over here, dammit!” He grabbed my jersey and jerked me up next to him. “You was out of position on that pass play.”
“I got adjusted all right, though,” I said.
“You do something like that again, and I'll adjust your ass!” He slammed his palm against the side of my helmet and stared me down hard. The old Blaine stare. Before I could get out another word, he popped his mouthpiece into his mouth, whipped around, and jogged off for the huddle, checking out the scoreboard on his way.
I knew what he was thinking, the real thing that was eating at him. Too much time left. It was up to him and the offense to run the time out now, and that wouldn't be easy with the way Wynette was playing, biting and yapping like a pack of little terriers that thought they was bigger than they really was.
Last season, I wouldn't have worried. Last season, Blaine
was The Man. Leading rusher and leading scorer in the division. So fast and tough and quick, trying to tackle him was like running into a tornado full of barbwire. Nothing could've stopped him from banging out a first down or two, maybe even a touchdown in a game like this. Making big plays was his stock-in-trade. But that was before the thing with his knee.