“Ah, who am I kidding, you’re not listening anyway.” David Cross swung back the brown bag and felt some more cool courage flow down his throat. “Y’know,” he continued regardless, you always said you knew the best for me… what do you say now?”
You’ve done well, replied a voice, somewhat distant amongst the wind which whistled through the hibernating winter branches.
David scoffed. “Well, yeah… Well enough to be sitting here on my ass, wondering how you are.”
The bottle was done, this one at least. David put it gently into the grass, noting the sun was setting behind a sheath of silver clouds He reached into his backpack and pulled out another one, feeling the knobby grass underneath his left hand as he leaned back, staring into the blank sky. “Y’know,” he said after a stifled burp, “I never thought I’d make the league. I never saw it in myself.”
Yes you did, said that same, detached voice. You saw it in yourself all through high school, all through college. You remember what you told me when you first came into my office freshman year?
David smiled at the recollection. “I told you I was tired of watching the NFL from the sidelines. I told you I wanted to throw a touchdown in Foxboro in the snow. I told you I wanted to run it in for the game winning score, a walk off, and I wanted to do it in the playoffs at home. I wanted to be on my teammates shoulders, the ball still in my hand, maybe some blood on my face or my fingers, showing that toughness they all said I had.”
You did that in college, didn’t you? The Orange Bowl?
“Yeah… but it’s not the same,” muttered David.
There was a silence in which David flexed his right knee, bringing a couple acorns towards him. He grabbed them with his right hand after setting down his drink carefully in the grass. Picking them up, he threw them with a casual flick of the wrist and they landed twenty yards away, glancing off of an oak tree. A woman in the distance raised her eyebrow and began walking over with a small child in tow. Surprisingly, David smirked at their approach.
“Honey, you ready to go?” she asked.
“Whaddya say, coach?” asked David.
We can talk a little longer. Let’s finish these beers.
He looked apologetically back at her. “Sorry babe, you heard coach.”
She understood and picked up the child, who was fussing to try and connect two broken pieces of grass together. Several other blades were already in his mouth. The hood of his silver puffer jacket kept moving back, exposing curly blond hair fluttering in the breeze. It matched his mother’s hair, which flew about her face as she said, “Alright, David. I’ll be over there when you two are done.”
As she walked away, David turned to the coach and said, “God, isn’t she beautiful?”
Don’t ask me that, kid… If I say yes, I sound like a creep; you know how old I am? If I say no, I sound like a jerk.
Chuckling, David said, “Fair enough.” He paused and took a long draught of this second beer and continued, “remember that throw against Penn State in sophomore year? The one to Coolidge?”
The post route over the middle? Of course I remember it. You were like Houdini, kid. Coming out of pressure two, three times, flushed out, then back up the pocket… then finding Drew Coolidge out on the post route for a sixty-yard touchdown. I’ll never forget it.
“Yeah, pretty cool,” said David. A cold wind stirred up some of the fallen leaves which had been spared the leaf blower. It sent a flash of annoyance across David’s mind, unbidden. “You know, coach. You could’ve been nicer to me in those days.”
David grunted. “How? How about giving me a compliment every once in a while. Instead of saying-”
That I want the best for you?
“Yes,” said David emphatically. “God, I hated that. I could’ve made ten, fifteen straight completions in practice; I could’ve ripped a seventy yard bomb into a tight window, and what would you say? ‘Take the open man, Cross’, ‘Don’t throw that ball off your back feet, Cross.’”
Was I wrong?
Spluttering, David replied, “It’s not about being wrong! I was just a kid! A little encouragement wouldn’t have killed you, would it?”
Silence on the other end.
David slapped the ground angrily. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that.”
You know what I’m gonna say to it, though. Same thing I’ve said the last three years you’ve come to see me. I’m getting a little tired of saying it.
“Well say it again,” said David, his blue eyes somber. “Maybe I need to hear it.”
Silence again, but this time only for a few swirls of the wind. Then, a reply: You never needed encouragement, Cross. You know that. The fire that burned inside you was so bright it almost blinded me when I first saw you. Ain’t nothing on this heaven or hell or earth alive that could’ve stopped you. I was trying to make you a weapon. I was trying to… give you the best shot I could to be great.
“Whole lotta good it did,” said David bitterly.
No one could’ve accounted for bum knees, Cross. You should know that. You still got a chance.
David smirked, his gaze vindictive as a fresh gale ran through his own handsome blond crew cut. Dimples formed effortless in his cheeks, and his lips were of the perfect size. Add in the chiseled jawline, and you could see how young David Cross had featured on the covers of so many magazines as early as his freshman year, before he’d even started a game. His career came back in flashes, the way it always did when he got a buzz going, whether he wanted it to or not. Now, he couldn’t help it. Whenever he was with his coach, he thought back to the past.
Freshman year, where he started only three games at the tail end of a disappointing season for their Big Ten team. They had talent, the papers said, but no one to use it.
Sophomore year, earning the starting job, keeping his nose clean, studying his butt off, and making all his dreams come true in a Rose Bowl game, not in the playoff, but as a matchup between conference champions who hadn’t made that final cut. They’d lost, but only by three and only because his wideout Julian Young had decided to cough up the ball with a minute left on the clock.
Junior year. Sky high expectations, a solid season. He was building a case for himself to be an NFL quarterback. He was flashy, he was strong, he was attractive, and his team made the Orange Bowl. They faced off against a tough defense, one of the best in the league, and David picked them apart. It was a shootout; his own defense was apparently deciding to mimic Swiss cheese that day, and so the score with 90 seconds left in the game was 45-42, in their favor. David exercised such cold precision that he couldn’t hear the crowd at all; it just sounded like a numb rush in his ears. With twenty seconds left and no timeouts, he was looking at a third down at the fifteen yard line. He made a mental error on that play, his first of the game, nearly throwing an interception after holding the ball way too long. Only ten seconds remained, and it was fourth down. Last chance.
David remembered getting the snap, but what happened after he would only recall after seeing the film seven times. He had looked to his first read. Covered. His second, tangled up. His third, not looking. Checking it down? Not an option. They had considered just kicking the field goal, but both David and his coach were worried about their porous defense. So coach had said, Lay it out there, Cross, and if you screw this up by God I’m gonna fillet you and send you back to Nebraska in an ice box. Warm words, but not out of the ordinary.
So there David stood, a collapsing pocket and out of options. They were playing man coverage though, and he saw the linebacker they were using to guard against his running slowly turning to bail into coverage. David pump-faked, and then took off.
He juked the first guy easily at the ten; he already had his hips turned. David took the move to the right, and felt corners converging on him. But he was too fast. He slipped through one of their tackles and then had just the safety to beat at the five. David, an imposing figure at nearly six and a half feet tall and 250 pounds, saw the safety square up to make the tackle and realized he had no option other than brute force. He hit the guy dead on, the first contact crunching his helmet and making him bite down hard on his mouth guard. He kept his legs churning. He felt hands on him. He couldn’t tell whose. He put both arms on the ball to protect it. He was being pushed forward. He kept those legs churning. He heard the crowd roar for the first time, and it nearly deafened him. He kept those legs churning. All of a sudden, the hands fell away, and David opened his eyes to see that he was in the end zone, his teammates rushed around him, screaming with their helmets off. He heard fireworks, he saw fans charge the field as he was hoisted up on his teammates shoulders, his hands bleeding, and he raised the football, screaming something profane, and tears fell down his face. They won.
Thinking about that Orange Bowl?
David sighed, the reverie broken. “You know me so well, coach.”
Shame what happened next.
Scowling, David was forced to remember the next season. Now, it was playoffs or bust, and three weeks in, they were undefeated and looking as sharp as ever. But then week four hit, and David’s knee went one way while his body went another.
“A clean tear,” several doctors had told him in the coming weeks. “Reconstructive surgery on that ACL and the proper rehab should mean you see the field again, if you want to.”
Of course David had wanted to, but his parents weren’t so sure. He had played this season against their wishes. They wanted him to declare for the draft; cut his college career short to begin it in the pros. Even his friends on the team said it would be a good idea. Only one man opposed it. Coach had said that his résumé wasn’t airtight yet. He only had about two good seasons worth of play, given that he hadn’t done much his freshman year. He said that David needed one more solid year; one more great year, in fact, to become a true NFL draft prospect.
“Y’know, I only played that last season because of you,” said David edgily.
I never made you do anything, Cross. That was all on you.
He’d said this to coach before, and gotten much the same response, but David swiped his eyes angrily and said, “I… You know why I came back?”
“I knew my résumé was good enough for the pros. Maybe not to start right away, but good enough. I came back because… I thought this might be the year…”
The year to win a championship?
“Screw the championship!” said David, louder than he intended. His wife looked over from near the oak tree and raised an eyebrow. He calmed her with a hand and then turned back to the coach. “I thought… it might be the year I earned your respect.” His voice broke, and he began crying in earnest, and he hated himself for doing so, as he knew the response already.
Crying? Again? C’mon kid, are you that soft?
“I’m not soft, dammit. You’re just a jerk.”
The jerk that got you to the NFL.
And it was true, and David couldn’t deny it. The following year, David’s draft stock had dropped considerably. A second day talent, maybe third. Maybe likely to make it to a training camp, maybe not. He was in the midst of despair, wondering if he should try for a redshirt year, even if that was a long shot. Then coach called him into his office, saying he’d made some calls to old friends of his. David declared for the draft and ended up going in the first round to Cleveland. When he got there, he learned from coach Kevin Delhomme that the only reason he’d gotten the pick was an emphatic boost by his college coach.
“Y’know, I swore if I ever got to the NFL, if I ever saw the field, I’d never turn back. I’d make it my home. I wouldn’t let anyone else come near it.”
Shame, was all his coach could say.
That very first season, in his first NFL game, David had taken off running and felt his other knee give out like it had been shot. He lay on the ground, weeping, slobbering, shouting and punching the turf, but none of it made the pain go away, and none of it would make the rehab any easier. In spite of the team of trained doctors and physical therapists he had access to now, the progress was slow, grinding, and humiliating. It was only two months ago, in his second season in the league, that he had gotten another shot. And promptly re-tore his first ACL, requiring complete reconstruction.
He felt the long, immobilizing cast on his left leg now. He’d been through surgery two weeks ago, but the doctors were a lot more grim now than they had been. Instead of suggest a return, they suggested he try for a career in football analysis, either at the college or the professional level, and above all to make sure his money was invested properly. It was, but there wasn’t a whole lot of it given that he hadn’t played much of anything. Over the last couple of months he had seriously been contemplating his life. His son had been born at the beginning of his tragic NFL career. He had married his high school sweetheart, and there she stood, as beautiful as a model herself. He knew she’d stick with him, but he saw the pain in her eyes when he had been in the hospital, and when he talked about going back for a third season. Could he put her through all of that again? Could he afford not to?
How long did he have before his knee gave way entirely? David took another drink and said, “I don’t know if it’s worth it, coach. I really don’t.”
I can’t do much to help you anymore, kid. You’ve had a hell of a journey already. I just didn’t think you’d quit, that’s all.
“Quit?” repeated David. “Quit? How dare you, you…” He couldn’t finish the sentence without gritting his teeth.
A long silence passed between them. Finally, the coach broke it. Listen, kid, I’m sorry. Guess I just feel sorta helpless looking at you now. I thought you were gonna be so much, I hate to see that potential wasted.
“I just… I don’t know if I can do it anymore. What if I get hurt again?”
Then you get hurt again. Maybe you’ll have to learn a new way to play. Stay in the pocket, bounce around. Go to the ground instead of taking hits. You’re gonna have to sense pressure coming the way you always did, but instead of taking off, you’re gonna have to sit your butt down and live to fight another play. It sucks, but it just means you have to throw it better.
“On Cleveland?” scoffed David. “We’re about as bottom of the barrel as it gets, coach.”
You’re not always gonna play in Cleveland, Cross. When you do move teams, you’ll need skills that work in multiple systems. Being a pocket passer… that’s deadly if you can do it right.
“So you think I should go back?” asked David, taking a deep breath and staring up at the sky. “God… I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
Then don’t go back. I don’t care.
“Yeah right,” said David, glaring at the coach. “You’ll hate me. You’ll… You’ll never be proud of me.”
Kid, if you’re waiting for my approval, don’t waste your breath. I’m not gonna hold your hand like your daddy. You’re the best player I ever coached. If you never play another down in the pros, that won’t change. I… I’ll always be proud of you. Do whatever you want to do.
Hearing the coach that vulnerable shook David. He collected himself for several moments, noting his wife’s curious gaze and the darkened sky. He beckoned her over. She came and helped him to his feet. He used the crutches to stabilize himself while she grabbed the empty beer on the ground. Looking down at the coach, he said, “I’m gonna play one more season. One more. And if it… If I get hurt, I’ll stop. How’s that?”
Silence, but David smiled this time. He turned to his wife and son. “It’s gonna be okay.”
He poured the rest of the beer on the ground, and it slurped a little as the earth accepted his offering. Then he gave the bottle to his wife and placed the cap upon the large rectangular stone which read, “Ernie ‘Coach’ Williams. Father, friend, mentor.”
“See ya next year, coach,” said David, turning and crutching his way across the dirt, away from the grave, away from that distant voice.