(This is the second part of the story. The first part was posted on Tuesday, April 8, 2008. If you haven’t read the first part, click here to start at the beginning.)
The ball was loose and sliding across the ground. When the ball had been snapped, it went right through Pat’s hands and hit him in the chest. As he was moving his arms in an attempt to recover the fumble, the football bounced off his knee and shot forward toward the line. I saw the ball in front of me just gliding across the ground when I dove for it. Everyone dove into the pile and grabbed for the ball; the fight was on! I was jabbed, poked, punched and grabbed and yet, I fought as hard as I could to get my hands on the football. I didn’t care if we had to punt the ball away but if we gave it back to the other team at midfield, our ship might finally be sunk!
Somehow, Mark came out of the scrum with the ball securely tucked away under him. We had retained possession but we were looking at fourth and five. We had to make a decision about what to do next.
“I don’t want to punt,” I said as I took a knee in our huddle.
“They have the wind at their back. If we don’t make it, we give them a short field,” Mike said as he looked around at all of us. I took a deep breath as I contemplated our options.
“Go for it, Doug,” Dave said. I was stunned, Dave never said anything. He just waited for the play and did his job. “We’ll give them nothing, go for it.”
I looked Dave dead in the eye and saw his determination. It was the moment of truth and I thought about everything I had ever been taught; “when the game is on the line, winners want the ball.” We had the ball. Dave was right; this wasn’t a time to play it safe, it was a time for action. A moment ago we were about to run the ball down their throats and break their will in order to win this game, why were we going to let one little miscue stop the momentum we had created?
“John and Mike, run fly patterns. Dave run a crossing pattern ten yards up; Pat and Mark block. If they don’t blitz, Pat run a six yard button hook. Mark, get the ball into my hands on two,” I barked at them and we broke the huddle.
I lined up again in the shotgun formation and looked around the field in order to read the defense. They had two men on the line, a man on each receiver and a safety rolled to the left side. John and Dave were lined up to my left and Mike was on the right. I raised my hands to my chest, “Blue twenty-seven, blue twenty-seven, set, hut, hut!”
Mark snapped the ball as he and Pat tied up the rush at the line. John broke deep on the left and Dave started his route as his corner broke the coverage and was blitzing. The safety picked up Dave and as Dave made his cut inside, he slipped on the ice and went face first into the ground. Mike was wide open down field but a strong gust of wind was in my face. As much as I contemplated the “interception is as good as a punt” scenario in the split second it took me to realize that no one was open, I pulled the ball down, tucked it under my arm and took off to my right where I had a lot of open space in front of me to run.
I cleared the midfield marker for the first down and kept on going. Mike had his corner blocked in front of me and as I turned the ball inside so I could take the rock to the house, Carl came out of nowhere and dove at me. I saw him at the last second and I tried to leap over him but he caught my leg with his hand and pushed it as hard as he could. I lost my center of gravity and my balance as I tried to recover from his tackle but I went down like a ton of bricks on my right arm. The momentum of the tackle rolled me onto my back and I slid for fifteen feet across a jagged patch of ice.
I felt each shard of ice sticking up as my body slid over the icy ground. Each one was a reminder of the small rain drops that had pelted the field for three days and froze solidly into place when the temperature had dipped. Each one was a reminder that this game was as physical as it was mental and that you had to have the mental toughness to recover instantly. As I rolled over and stood up to return to our huddle, I could feel the blood running out of the cuts in my back and sticking to my shirt, but that was the least of my problems.
“That was awesome,” John said as he patted my right shoulder and as his hand made contact with my arm, everyone in the huddle knew what I knew; this game just got a lot tougher.
“What’s wrong?” Mike asked.
“I took a stinger on the last hit,” I said. “Don’t make a big deal about it and they won’t know.”
We were eighteen yards from a touchdown and I was telling my team not to make a big deal about the fact that I couldn’t lift my arm high enough above my shoulder to throw the ball; it was heart-wrenching. The team was quiet for a moment when Pat suggested we run the ball out of the wish bone. Desperate times called for desperate measures and the wishbone seemed like a good call.
We gained about two yards on first down. We ran the ball out of the I-Formation on second down and pushed the pile ahead for about seven yards. We were facing third down and we had nine yards left to go but I could tell the other team knew something was up. They were chattering like elementary school children on the playground; pointing at me and snickering.
‘It was about time they figured it out,’ I thought to myself. We had been throwing the football all game long and on two successive plays in their red zone, we ran the ball. I looked at them wildly and excitedly babbling away and I knew what was coming.
“They’re coming on a sellout blitz,” I said as I took a knee in the center of our huddle. “Two stack split on two and John and Mike, get open!”
I stood up and broke the huddle before anyone could say a word. We had just marched the ball down the field with the wind gusting unrelentingly in our faces and I wasn’t going to let anything stop us now. If we had to beg, claw and fight our way for twenty-seven more feet, we were going to do it. My arm was not going to be the reason we lost this game. Pain was all relative and right now, the pain could wait.
As I stood back in the shotgun formation, I could see the fire in the eyes of the defense. They were coming and there wasn’t anything we could do to stop them, I could only hope that we would be able to slow them down enough for me to get the pass off before I got demolished because no matter how good my line was, someone was going to come through the melee unblocked. I raised my hands slowly and took a deep breath, “Blue seventeen, blue seventeen, hut, hut!”
Mark hit me smack in the chest with the ball and as I set my hands on the seams, Carl and two other guys on his team were steps away from me. They had blown through our line like a run away freight train and I was standing there alone facing them as they streaked at me with wild abandon. I saw Mike get open and my arm started forward as the first guy on their team hit me. The ball sailed toward the end zone as all three defenders slammed me into the frozen ground. I never felt the ball leave my hand and I never saw it sail through the outstretched fingertips of their corner but as I struggled to my feet, I was thankful that we had one last shot at the end zone.
“They swallowed me whole,” I joked as I stood in the huddle. The steam was coming fast and furious as my teammates struggled to catch a breath. Their hands were on their knees and I could see the fatigue that was starting to take a toll on all of us.
“Guys, I want to go home, drink a lot of ice cold beer and put some ice on my shoulder right now. For three hours we have fought mercilessly to prove something; that we aren’t old! Well, you know what, I am old! And right now, I am damn proud of it! Now let’s go kick their asses and win this game!” I don’t know why I said it; it just seemed like the right thing to say at the moment.
As I came to the line in the shotgun formation, I had lined up John, Mike and Dave to the left. Pat was lined up to the right and Mark was huddled over the ball waiting for the cadence. I barked out the signals and Mark delivered the ball to my hands and then he proceeded to bury his guy on the line.
As I rolled to my right, Pat had stood up and contained his corner. Dave and Mike made a bee line for the left corner and took their defenders with them as John came across the back of the end zone like a lightning bolt. I set my feet, cocked my arm and as Carl came diving into me, I fired the ball on a frozen rope into the end zone where I expected my receiver to be and then I forcefully hit the ground. The wind came rushing out of me as Carl landed on my chest. I closed my eyes and clenched my teeth as the pain radiated throughout my body and when I opened my eyes again, all I saw was a dark sky and a few wayward stars above; and once again, I noticed the silence.
Then all I heard was “YEAH!!!!” as my teammates piled on top of John in the end zone because he had caught the winning touchdown! Pat told me later that the ball seemed like it was about to sail aimlessly into the dark of night when John just ripped it out of the air for the score. He said that John had come out of nowhere like a rocket and just hauled it into his body. I never saw the catch but I knew it was going to be made because I had never thrown a better pass in my life.
As I sat on the bench changing my shoes after the game, I looked back over that frozen field and I took a moment to think about the game I had just played in. There wasn’t a title to be won, there weren’t any fans cheering wildly in the stands as our team celebrated and when we all woke up the next morning, the only twelve people who really knew about the game were the twelve people who had spent their Friday night playing in it. But this game was special. As I stood in the huddle that night with five friends who fought with every ounce of themselves for each other, I realized that we had taken the field because of our love for the game of football.
We would play Carl’s team many times over the next year; we won some and we lost some but that night, we had something to prove to ourselves. It was the purity of the game that brought us to that field, it was the love of the game that brought out the best in each of us that night, but it was the bond of friendship that forged an improbable win in intolerable conditions. I have played in a lot of games, in a lot of different sports in my life but that game we played on an ordinary Friday night, on a dimly lit frozen field, will rank as the best game I ever had the privilege to play in.