Archive for the ‘Fiction by Matt Rouge’ Category

CENTER by Matt Rouge (a short story about college football in 1948)

A short story by Matt Rouge serialized in Touchdown Illustrated magazine in October to December, 2008.

Read the press release.



Wes Trump screwed the cap back on the bottle and pulled the tumbler heavy with ice and whisky across the table. Dale pressed his hands onto the smooth tabletop in anticipation, watching his father’s eyes dart downward toward the rising glass. Sunlight and a warm July breeze came in through the windows.

“You got a place to park it? I don’t think they let freshman park on campus,” said Wes after a large sip.

“Aunt Judy said I could park it at her place. I’m going to let her use it when they need more than one car,” said Dale.

“I don’t know. I guess it was a promise.”

Dale was silent. Clean snap. Prepare for impact.

Both ball and play were now in the hands of the quarterback. Letting the QB work was a job Dale had done well enough for Williams State University to grant him a full scholarship. His work on defense and special teams had also been noted in the recruiter’s report.

“I guess Mom, uh, you know…” said Wes, taking a thoughtful sip in lieu of finishing his sentence.

Dale maintained his neutral facial expression. Block. Block! Hold the line until the QB gets the pass off.

“Would something used but decent be acceptable?” asked Wes after a long pause. “The money is only going to go so far.”

Dale smiled in a knowing way without speaking; this was a technique he had learned from his mother, and it had served him well in a variety of situations. Pass complete! Wide receiver going for the TD.

“I guess not,” said Wes. “We’ll go with what we talked about.”

“Thanks, Dad,” said Dale, making his smile wide and rewarding. Touchdown.

Later that evening, father and son experienced the pageantry of the car dealership. Wes was a good participant, slapping his son on the back and congratulating him when he took the keys to the big, resplendent, chrome-rich convertible. The car was by no means an understated choice, but it was Jenny’s recommendation, and Jenny and his mother had always agreed. Plus, it had more than enough room for the 6’2″, 250 lb., 18-year-old graduate. Just one week earlier, the class of 1948 had thrown its mortarboards high into the air, but to Dale the summer was bittersweet in mood.

The new car crunched the gravel of the Grahams’ driveway. Dale got out of the convertible, wearing jeans and a grass-stained white t-shirt. With a big smile, Jenny crunched out to greet her boyfriend and buried her face in his wide chest.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, her voice muffled.

“I thought you’d like it,” said Dale. He kissed her on the part in her hair, feeling the warmth of her scalp on his lips. “I guess I’ll be driving a lot from now on.”

“You’ve got to come see me every week,” said Jenny. “It’s not so far.”

The two gave the car a good looking over, then walked hand in hand to the house.

“Any word from Vince?” said Dale, grabbing a cola from the icebox. “He’s been too busy to write his best friend.”

“Yeah, we haven’t heard much from him. Just a post card.”

“Doesn’t surprise me somehow.”

“What do you mean?”

Dale looked off into space for a moment. Their mothers had been best friends, and he and Vince had been close since early boyhood. Both rabid football fans, they had played ball together, gone to every local game they could together, listened to games on the radio together, and talked without end together about players and stats, pro and college alike. Only in their last year of high school had things begun to seem different.

“He always thinks he’s better, no matter what. Better college, better football team. I guess his old car is better than my new one just because it’s his.”

“Wow,” said Jenny. “That’s how a best friend talks?”

“I don’t know,” said Dale. “He’s cocky as all get-out. In his mind, I’m sure he’s already beaten our team.”

“Sure he’s cocky; everybody knows that. You are too.”

“Not in the same way. Our playing styles are totally different, too.”

“I noticed. He’s more of a lone wolf; you’re more of a leader.”

“You think?”

“I know it. I’ve seen all your games this year. The whole offensive line just totally tunes into you.”

“That’s what a center needs to do.”

“Well, you do it. That’s why you’re a star. That’s why you’re going to State on a full ride. Vince is great too, but you’ve got nothing to be insecure about.”

“Nielsen’s a pretty big rival. We’ll be squaring off in September.” Dale paused and looked away from Jenny.

“Are you going to be rooting for me or Vince in that game?” Dale’s expression looked sad and doubtful.

“You!” said Jenny, poking him in his thick ribs.

Dale looked at her eyes and smile; for a moment, the wide and high wall of campus, practice, coaches, and classes left Dale’s mind, and all was Jenny.

That night when he dreamed, the wall did not come to him with its visual algebra of what he knew and did not know about college and his future. Instead, he was leaving the wet grass of early morning practice and trying to find, without success, his locker in the locker room, then his locker in the school halls. In waking life he often used Jenny’s locker, and she his; he found hers in the dream but was unable to turn the combination. Jenny appeared from the motion of the hallway and touched his arm in a loving way.

“I’m sorry, Dale,” she said. “I can’t any more.”

“You can’t?” he said.

“I’m not in high school any more. I don’t have a locker here.”

Dale woke up with an urgency to visit the bathroom. The house was dark and silent, and the floor of the hallway creaked beneath his feet.

The emotions of the dream washed over him; the look in Jenny’s eyes seemed to him one of the saddest things he had ever seen. She’s not leaving—I am, he thought as he returned to bed. He was asleep again within seconds. Tomorrow he would stand on campus for the first time as a college student and athlete.


Dale left for Williams State University on a hot Friday morning. Jenny talked with her steady boyfriend about the future as they brought items out to the car. “Just one more year,” she said, “and I’ll be out too and can get a job while you finish school.”

“I don’t think I could have my wife supporting me like that,” said the big football player, handing a box of books to his father.

“You want to wait until you’re twenty-two to get married?”

“No. I don’t know.”

“I know I don’t.” Jenny looked away with a hurt and disappointed expression.

“Hey,” said Dale, pulling her back toward him, “you know we’re going to get married. I’m just—you know there’s a lot of stuff for me to do right now. Let me get my head in the game a bit and see what happens.”

His smile brought Jenny back to life. “Okay,” she said, turning her attention to the gray-haired mailman, who was emerging from the July glare and poking around in his bag.

“Hey, Mr. Kurowski,” said Dale.

“You got a post card—from Vince,” said the mailman, handing the thin piece of mail to Dale and walking off with a small wave.

The front of the card was a bright color photograph of the Nielsen University Student Union, proud and tall and made of limestone. On the back, Vince had written in purple indelible pencil, “School and football are great. Take care of Jenny. Yours, Vince.”

“That’s sweet,” said Jenny, looking at the card with Dale.

“Yeah,” said Dale, “That’s the Vince we know and love.”

Dale’s father Wes had eschewed drink all morning and taken on with gusto the job of packing the car. “I’ve moved so much myself,” he said. “Changed colleges three times, changed dorms during the school year—all that kind of thing.” The new convertible was a completed 3D puzzle of stuff, piled high, squared off, covered tightly with a big wool blanket, and secured with straps. The top would need to remain down throughout the trip, but the sky was blue and bright.

The three stood and admired the packed car for a moment. The teenagers drank orange soda from glistening bottles, and by now a cold whiskey and soda had found its way into Wes’s hand. Then it was time to go. Jenny poured her need for Dale into his shoulders and neck with strength that surprised him. He found himself choking back tears, but several sailed down his cheeks anyway. He hugged his father for a moment and felt Jenny’s hand on his back, rubbing him. “Everything’s going to be alright,” she said. With some additional hugs and reassurances, Dale was off to college with hands waving behind him.

He drove west along the back roads of the county he knew so well, then along state roads that curved through hills and forests. In time, he found himself alone at a four-way stop; he parked the car on the shoulder and got out. This is where it had happened, not quite six months ago. A driver had fallen asleep at the wheel and poured the weight of his truck and cargo into the old sedan returning from Aunt Judy’s, killing Dale’s mother instantly. There was no cross of remembrance, no debris on the road, no skid mark, no oil stain. All was as neat and peaceful as the stalks of corn in the fields around him, pushed a little by the breeze.

After driving a little further, Dale went over the crest of a hill, and State’s red brick buildings were scattered below him. His campus map proved useful, and he checked into his dorm with a lack of difficulty that gave him some relief.

He expected to see a sunny, empty room when he turned the key and opened the door, but instead the room was full and dark, and someone was sleeping on the bed to the left.

“Oh. Oh hi! I’m Tex Teague, your new roommate,” said the startled teen, who jumped up and opened the blinds, allowing the afternoon sun to illumine chaos and himself. Blue-eyed and blond with a crew cut and pale freckles, Tex was a little over six feet in height and bore significant weight, but very little fat, on his frame.

The first resident had not left much room for Dale: foodstuffs filled the shelves, and clothes, sporting gear, and various other belongings were scattered everywhere except on the unused bed. Dale was upset to a degree by this condition but showed only a small smile of bemused reflection. He had learned this calm manner from his mother, and the gridiron had proven its worth time and time again.

“I’m Dale Trump. I hope you have room in here for a roommate,” said the newcomer, shaking hands with Tex.

“Oh yeah, sorry,” said Tex. “I didn’t know when you were arriving. I’m from Abilene.”

“Is that so?” said Dale, pondering the non-sequitur.

“Oh yes. That’s why they call me Tex.”

“Well, what do they call you back home?”



“I’m here on a football scholarship: quarterback and linebacker. I guess you are, too, from what I heard downstairs.”

“That’s right. I play center and middle guard, usually. Long-snapper on special teams.”

“Great. Sounds like we’ll be working together a lot, then.”

“I guess—if Coach puts us freshman on the field.”

“Coach Rodzinski likes to win. His team sent two players to the All-Stars last year—you know, the ones that beat the NFL.”

“You’re right. That’s two wins in a row.”

“And don’t forget ’43. Anyhow, one of those players was a freshman, Bret Kimmel.”

“The kicker.”

“You got it.”

“Hey, do you mind helping me get my stuff from my car? I have to drop my car off at my aunt’s, and then I have an ROTC orientation this evening.”

“Sure, I’ve got to go to that too.”

There was knock on the open door. “Is Dale Trump here?” said an older-looking teen.

“That’s me,” said Dale.

“You’ve got a call on the line. Vince Graham.”


“Oh good. My best pal,” said Dale, giving Tex a slap on the shoulder as he left the cluttered dorm room to take the call.In July, 1948, Dale’s arrival on campus has been bittersweet. Despite his scholarship to an excellent football school, the star center mourns his mother’s recent death and finds his best friend Vince—also his girlfriend’s older brother—growing more and more distant.

Dale Trump grabbed the receiver of the sole pay phone on floor three of Fanning Hall. He smiled, eager to talk to his best friend, Vince Graham.

“Hey there, fancy you shelling out the nickels,” he said.

“Heh heh, I figured it was time to catch up!” said Vince in a voice that was somewhat faint but still clear and audible.

“Thanks for the post card. I appreciate those words about me and Jenny,” said Dale.

“Right. Well, I figured we’d talk about important things like football before we talked about that, but—”

“There’s something to talk about?”

“Not much, really. I just thought that it was time for you to move on. You’re a college man now. You’ll have lots of options on campus and in town,” said Vince.

Dale’s heart was beating fast in surprise and rising anger. Still, he managed to continue the conversation with a cool, level tone of voice: “Are you saying so for my sake or Jenny’s?”

“It’s both,” said Vince. “Her grades haven’t been so great, and she really needs to concentrate on school. And you need to focus on the gridiron—we’ve got a big game coming up!”

Dale could not tell whether the levity in Vince’s tone was authentic or not, but his own manner remained calm: “I’ve got my priorities straight, I think.”

“Yeah, well, maybe you could consider it a personal favor,” said Vince.

“There’s no reason for this,” said Dale. “If you’ve got a problem with me, why don’t we deal with it on the field in September?”

“Why would I have a problem with you? We’re best friends,” said Vince.

“It hasn’t seemed so for a while,” said Dale.

“Maybe someone’s jealous,” said Vince in a sharp tone.

“If I was, I still wouldn’t try to take anything away from you because of it,” said Dale, starting to lose some of his composure.

“Listen, Dale. You’ve got a good school and a good team, but Nielsen is—well, we’re just a cut above. I feel for you. We’re still pals, okay? But I need you to break it off with Jenny.”

“You just told me in your post card to take care of her!” said Dale, at last raising his voice.

“I know. Practice up. I’ll see you in September.”

Dale heard a click; his hands were shaking with rage. He returned to his dorm room.

“How did it go?” asked his quarterback roommate Tex with a wide smile. “Great to get a call from a friend, isn’t it? I just bet a call from Abilene would cost a fortune.”

“Some best friend,” said Dale, sitting down on his bed. “I’m going steady with his sister, and he asked me to break it off.”

“Oh my. I don’t suppose he told you his reason?” said Tex.

“It sounds like he just doesn’t want her dating a college man,” said Dale.

“Or a football player?”

“No, he’s a football player too. Just starting JV, like us, at Nielsen.”

“A Texas-sized rivalry if there ever was one,” said Tex.

“You can say that again,” said Dale. “You and I’ve got to beat this guy and his team in September, you hear?”

“Loud and clear. You just snap it clean and block hard and let me do what I do good.”

“You’ve got a deal,” said Dale, shaking hands with Tex. “Well, let’s get my stuff up here and get my car over to my Aunt Judy’s. She lives right near campus, so I’m going to park it there. I can try to call my girlfriend while we’re there, too.”

“Sure,” said Tex. “I hope your aunt’s got some food.”

The two teenagers took little time or care in getting Dale’s things from the car to the room. Aunt Judy’s house was just a few minutes away. The sixty-two-year-old great aunt welcomed Dale with a hug and kiss and Tex with a friendly caress of the arm.

“Oh Dale, I just love your car. And your friend. I love your friend more, of course—he’s a person. And you’re both football players, too, aren’t you?”

“That’s right, ma’am,” said Tex, hesitating somewhat to take a seat on the crushed red velvet living room couch. Two old longhaired cats lounged on the back of the couch, and two old Labrador retrievers also appeared, showing their affection with wet tongues. Dog and cat hair covered the rug and the furniture and seemed to float like a vapor in the air.

“I see you’ve met my lovelies, Tex. They adore college men.—Dale, why the long face? You look horrible.”

“I’m not feeling so great, Aunt Judy,” said Dale. “Vince has been acting funny.”

“I love Vince—such a nice young man. Whatever could be wrong?” said Aunt Judy, bringing out a try of lemonade and cookies.

“It’s a long story. Could I use your phone? I’ll pay for the call.”

“Certainly,” said Aunt Judy, waving him toward the phone. The operator connected Dale to Jenny’s house, but there was no answer. The football players visited with Aunt Judy a little longer, but Dale was not talkative.

“You are silent this evening, Dale,” said Aunt Judy. “You say you have R, O—what’s it called?”

“Reserve Officers’ Training Corps,” said Tex, “or ROTC for short. The school requires it. Tonight we have an orientation.”

“I think that’s good for young men; it builds character. Just like football. Wouldn’t you say so, Dale?”
Dale didn’t reply; he was staring off into space. He was just as quiet on the walk back to campus.

“I guess this romantic problem is really eating at you,” said Tex.

“Good guess,” said Dale.

“I bet our ROTC training will get your blood pumping and help you forget a bit.”

“Yeah,” said Dale.

“My brother’s in Japan. He was there fighting, then went back to help build a base there. You got anybody in the service?”

“My brother Jim should be getting out soon. He never saw combat, though. Sounds like he’s going to marry an Austrian girl.”

“Is that so?”

The Army ROTC sergeant did indeed give the two men, along with many others, a workout. Nearly everyone in attendance was involved in sports, so the orientation also served to gather together the freshman members of the junior varsity football team for a post-training exchange of facts, rumors, and opinions.

“Looks like our two stars got here safely,” said a chunky lineman. “Our big ol’ scholarship boys.” Dale was surprised to find himself named a “star” along with Tex.

“We’re roommates, too,” said Tex. “How do you like that?”

“Well, don’t let it get to your head,” said a tall and somewhat thin player in a dour tone. “The workout Coach is going to put us through will make this Army stuff look like a cakewalk.”

“He’s tough, I hear,” said Dale.

“Tough?” said the lineman. “He eats freshmen for breakfast. No team in the conference has more washouts. And tomorrow some of us are going to start washing out.”

Dale and Tex exchanged a quick, knowing glance. The others had already decided that they were different, and they had decided not to object. As roommates, as friends, and as a two-man team of quarterback and center within the football team, they would not let each other wash out.


Al Rodzinski, head coach of Williams State University’s football program, was 5’11″ tall, his frame was spare of fat and muscle, and his face had a pale complexion that did not look entirely healthy; but he also looked young for his fifty-six years, his voice was big, and his eyes were expressive. The assembled members of his junior varsity team, many of them like freshman center Dale Trump hearing him speak for the first time, sat on the grass of the football field and gave the coach their full attention. Dale was sitting next to Tex Teague, his roommate and fellow scholarship athlete.

“It looks like we have a good team together this year,” said Coach Rodzinski. “But are we good enough to beat Nielsen? That’s going to depend on you guys and how much fight you bring to the gridiron. If you don’t have fight, you won’t make it on this team.

“Remember that you’re a team—and that means teamwork! Everyone knows it but everyone forgets it. The new rules this year allow for unlimited substitutions. That’s right. I can take you out as quarterback and stick someone in, then put you back on defense and take you out again—as many times as I like. But can I substitute the entire team? No. Is there a substitution for teamwork? No.

“I know we have some new star talent—like these two fellas,” said Coach, motioning toward Dale and Tex.

“We don’t like to see the big high school football stars wash out here, but often they do. Suddenly you’re around better players than you, and you’ve got tough new classes, and I’m pretty tough myself,” said Coach, chuckling. “Today, when we run laps around the field, these two tough guys can run double and show us what they’re made of!” The team, except for the freshmen, erupted in cheers and applause.

“I can handle it, Coach,” said Tex with a wide grin.

“Oh, can you?” said Coach with a bemused look. “Then maybe you’d like to run triple? Thirty laps around the field for you?”

“I’m from Texas; we do everything big there,” said Tex, not losing his smile.

“Thirty isn’t so big then, is it? How about forty?”

“Coach, that’s nearly eight miles!” said a sophomore who was quick with numbers.

“Less than an hour’s worth of running,” said Coach. “He can handle it—can’t you, freshman?”

“Yes, sir,” said Tex, at last losing his smirk, or at least most of it.

“With all due respect, Coach,” said Dale. “I’m going to run the whole forty with him.”

“What?” said Coach. “I only gave you twenty. Are you crazy?”

“Not crazy, sir. But, like you said, we’re a team. He’s a quarterback and I’m a center, if you choose to play us that way. We’ve got to work together on every play. Plus, we’re roommates.”

The team looked at Dale with silent surprise.

“Very noble,” said Coach Rodzinski, “but the next time you want to run extra laps, just run ’em and keep it to yourself.”

“Yes, sir,” said Dale.

Dale insisted that he and Tex run their laps ahead of the rest of the team. “We’re going to look like idiots if we lag behind everyone else, so we’ve got to make this the run of our lives, at least until everyone else goes away.”

“Then we can just leave, right?” said Tex.

“No, we said we’d run the laps, so that’s what we’ll do,” said Dale, barely able to get the words out between the breaths he was taking.

Later, when it was just the two of them running around the big rectangle still warm and bright in the midday July sun, Dale and Tex slowed down their pace and were able to talk with somewhat greater ease.

“This whole thing with Jenny and Vince is eating me alive,” said Dale. “I don’t know what to do.”

“You’ve got a car—just drive over there,” said Tex.

“But it’s over two hours away.”

Tex chuckled. “Abilene is over 180 miles from Dallas, and we consider it a short little jaunt. Anywhere else, we expect to add a few quarts of oil, bust a tire or two, tune up the engine, and it’s all in a day’s work. If she’s everything you say she is, and you sure say it a lot, you need to get home pronto and see what’s going on.”

“You’re right,” said Dale.

A little later, Dale got in his car, exhausted but wide awake from two cups of drugstore coffee, and started off for his hometown.

The fields of corn and wheat and patches of forest seemed to greet him with joy and validate his journey. In time, he came to the intersection where his mother had died just a handful of months before. As he had done on his recent journey to school, Dale stopped and got out of the car for a moment. The place affected him more this time, and his eyes filled with tears as he looked at and contemplated the empty intersection.

Dale was not nervous as he pulled up to the Graham residence; the familiar house seemed to welcome him as much as had the fields and forests. Vince heard the sound of the car and walked out to greet Dale with a smile and a handshake.

“I can’t believe it!” said Vince. “You’re looking hale and hearty.”

“Thanks,” said Dale. “I thought I’d stop by and see Jenny. I figured you’d be at school, though.”

“We, uh—we had a family conference,” said Vince with a grave look on his face.

“Oh? What’s going on? It sounds serious.”

“I, uh, it’s all related to what we talked about recently, Dale. You know, you and I are best friends, always will be, but it’s best that you and Jenny part ways.”

“So, your family conference is about me? I can’t believe that.”

“No, no it’s not,” said Vince with pain in his eyes that appeared genuine. “We don’t want to make it about you at all. It’s not about you. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Let me just talk to Jenny.”

“It’s a bad idea.”

Jenny appeared at the doorway, pulling away from her mother’s grasp. As she ran toward Dale, her mother gave Dale an embarrassed wave.

Jenny hugged Dale. Vince looked at the gravel of the driveway.

“I missed you so much,” said Dale.

“I missed you too,” said Jenny.

“Vince says we can’t be together. That isn’t true, is it?”

When Jenny lifted her face up to look Dale in the eye, his shoulder was wet with tears. “It is,” she said, choking back a sob.

“Well, it can’t be true!” said Dale, pulling away from Jenny but keeping his big hands on her shoulders.

Vince patted Dale on the back. “Dale, there are things you don’t understand.” As he said this, Jenny pulled away from Dale and ran back toward the house.

“Wait a second!” said Dale.

“There are things you don’t—”

“I heard you the first time. My mother died. What else do I need to understand?”

“I know. And this—this is soon after that, and it’s not right.”

“Not right? It doesn’t make any sense. Why is your family ganging up on me?”

“We’re not—”

“Yes you are! And you were really a jerk in our phone call recently. What was that all about?”

“Dale, you don’t—I can’t explain it all. Things have been tough on our family lately; it’s not just about you, you know? I didn’t handle that call the right way at all, and I apologize.”

“I don’t believe you!” said Dale, getting red with rage. “This is all a bunch of lies! I’d like to put your lights out right now, but I’ll save it for the gridiron in September. That’s when I’ll hit you harder than you’ve ever been hit before.”

“Okay,” said Vince, “if that’s what you have to do.”

Dale walked to his car and drove away without saying another word. When he got home, his father was snoring on the couch with beer cans scattered on the floor beneath his drooping hand. Slipping into his old familiar bed felt good to Dale. He slept well and left early in the morning to arrive at practice on time.


The parking lot was overflowing with cars, and the size of the crowd in the stands suggested a bowl game, not a junior varsity match; but such was the rivalry of State and Nielsen that no one was surprised. In the first quarter of the game, Dale Trump waited for the signal. “Hut one, hut two, hut three!” called out his roommate Tex. Dale delivered a good snap, then looked up at the big lineman that he needed to stop. He knew that Tex would be running right up the middle.

Dale did not want to think he was saving his strength for when he faced off against Vince, but he did not hit the lineman with as much force as he could muster. Still, he stopped him, even causing him to slip and fall down in the mud caused by yesterday’s rainstorm. Dale felt a rush of air as Tex ran close by him on his right and saw him run twenty yards before getting tackled just before Nielsen’s twenty yard line.

Dale’s eyes scanned the home team stands for Jenny, his former girlfriend and Vince’s sister; the crowd, however, revealed no particular person. Dale also could not locate his father, who had promised to be at the game tonight, but such a promise could never be accepted as a sure thing.

As Dale took his spot above the ball, he saw Vince rush onto the field. Now was Dale’s opportunity to give Vince the hard hit he deserved.

“Here’s where it happens,” shouted Dale at Vince as the two teams got in formation.

“I’ve got no bone to pick with you,” shouted Vince in reply. “Let’s play the game!”

“I hope Jenny’s watching,” said Dale, as he got into position over the ball. Vince was in the opposing defensive line, but his position was not such that he and Dale were likely to clash on the play.

Tex, who knew the history of the two and Dale’s current intentions, came up to Dale and shouted in his ear:

“Don’t do anything stupid! You’ll have your chance.”

Dale nodded.

“Pyramid! Pyramid!” shouted Tex, but it was a fake audible; as planned, he would pass to a receiver running toward the left of the field. Dale snapped and blocked his man. Tex got the pass off so quickly that the Nielsen defense failed to understand what had happened until the quick receiver was across the goal line. The State fans, nearly as numerous as the home crowd, roared and applauded.

A chance to block or tackle Vince eluded Dale well into the second quarter, when the score was State 10, Nielsen 3. Playing defensive tackle, Dale saw his chance when the receiver, about to be tackled after a pass, himself in an ill-conceived manner passed the ball laterally to Vince.

By the time Vince caught the ball, Dale was running toward him with crushing momentum. Dale could feel the anger rising in him; he had never felt so swift or so strong. Just two months before, Jenny had looked into his eyes with love and approval; just two months before, Jenny and he had been planning their future together. Now Dale would avenge himself on the one who had taken all that away from him.

Dale tackled Vince with 255 pounds of pure rage; he hit him harder than he had ever hit anyone before in a practice or game, crushing the right side of Vince’s body into the ground. The visiting State fans cheered, and Dale thrust his fist high in the air.

Dale looked over and down at Vince, prepared to give him the look of scorn as he rose, but Vince was sitting and holding the right side of ribcage in pain. Two of Vince’s teammates were talking to him, and the Nielsen trainer was rushing over to him with his kit. At length, Vince got to his feet and, propped up by the trainer and his teammates, headed toward the locker room for treatment.

The loss of a key player, temporary or not, seemed to dampen the spirits of Nielsen and energize those of State. Tex’s arm was good, Dale and the offensive line did their job well, and State scored a touchdown from passing plays and an extra point while preventing Nielsen from doing anything more spectacular than kicking an eighteen-yard field goal. At halftime the score was State 17, Nielsen 6.

Dale and his team were further energized by Coach Rodzinski’s locker room talk. Coach praised Tex andDale—and Dale especially for his scoring the safety—but emphasized that an eleven-point lead was no lead at all, and the team would have to fight even harder in the second half.

As Dale walked back to the sidelines, a Nielsen player approached him. “Vince wanted to talk with you behind the candy shack,” he said.

“Oh yeah?” said Dale. “Are you guys going to jump me?”

“No,” said the player. “He said he just wanted to clear the air.”

“Okay,” said Dale.

The line in front of the snack bar was long and full of chatter. Several State fans slapped Dale on the back as he slipped around the side. Behind the shack, Vince was sitting on a bench, clearly still in pain.

“Hey,” said Vince, extending his hand with a wince.

“Hey,” said Dale, carefully shaking Vince’s hand after a moment of hesitation.

“That was a good hit. A good, clean hit. Nothing wrong with that.”

“Yeah,” said Dale. “You had the ball.”

“Sure,” said Vince. “Trainer said I probably broke a rib or two. Or just a bad bruise. I fell on the ball, so—”

“It’s football,” said Dale without compassion.

“I know,” said Vince, “but we both know that this is about more than football.”

“It’s not a secret,” said Dale.

“Look,” said Vince. “I haven’t handled the whole situation well, and I wanted to tell you what’s what.”

“What’s to tell?” said Dale. “You and your family decided I wasn’t good enough for Jenny and pretty much made her break up with me.”

“No,” said Vince, “that’s not how it happened.”

“Then, what did happen?” said Dale, his face showing even less sympathy than before.

“It happened really quickly,” said Vince, the pain in his eyes coming not from his injury. “My dad got caught cheating on both our family taxes and his business taxes. There was also—he was also accused of embezzling clients’ money, although I believe he didn’t. But he’d been cheating on the taxes for over ten years. For a CPA, that’s a bad thing.”

“How bad?”

“He’s already pled guilty and is serving six months in the federal pen. The fines and interest and everything we’ve got to pay is going to bankrupt us. The house is already gone, and my mom and Jenny are moving to

Wheeling to stay with my aunt. The car is packed, and they’re leaving straight from the game tonight. This is the last bit of fun they’ll be having in a while, I guess.”

“Wow, I can’t believe it,” said Dale.

“Yeah. We managed not to tell anybody in town, kind of covered it up. I didn’t even want to tell you, so that’s why the whole breakup thing—I’m sorry, Dale. I should have just trusted you and told you.”

“So that didn’t have anything to do with Jenny’s feelings for me?” said Dale.

“No,” said Vince. “I was ashamed, she was ashamed of the whole situation. Plus, she was moving away anyway.”

“I see,” said Dale, extending a hand to help Vince get up from the bench. “Thanks. I really am sorry to hear all that. I always thought—I still think your dad is a great guy.”

“Thanks,” said Vince, getting to his feet. “Well, back to the game.”

“You’re playing?” said Dale.

“Absolutely,” said Vince.

“But—you’re injured,” said Dale.

“I know, but my team needs me,” said Vince. “Besides, it’s probably just a bruise.”

“I’m not angry anymore, but we’ve still got to win,” said Dale.

“Do your best,” said Vince, cracking a smile.

The third quarter saw few changes in possession, and both teams played strong defense. Twice State ground its way down to the Nielsen 20 yard line, scoring two field goals. Nielsen scored a touchdown from running plays and also made a thirty-yard field goal; they missed, however, their last field goal attempt of the quarter, a twenty-yarder. The score was State 23, Nielsen 16.

This war of attrition continued in the fourth quarter with both teams scoring a touchdown apiece, and it was obvious to the crowd that both teams were losing their pep. With three minutes on the clock, Nielsen was on State’s 35 yard line, and the score was 30—23. In the current play, State was using a 4-3 defensive scheme with Dale playing nose tackle and Tex playing end. Vince was playing tight end, as he had several times throughout the game, and it looked from their formation as though Nielsen was going to pass. Dale scanned his own team’s defensive formation and hoped that the man covering Vince was up to the task: Vince was fast.

The snap was made and Dale broke through the line and rushed the quarterback, but the pass was already off—to Vince, as expected. The cornerback, as Dale had feared, failed to block or intercept the pass but managed to get a slight hold on Vince after he caught it, slowing him down a bit. The defense turned around and ran toward Vince, and Dale ran a good deal faster than the rest. By now, Vince had a clear shot at a touchdown.  All would come down to speed. and tackling skill. Several defenders were still chasing Only Dale had a chance to take him down, and it did not appear to be a good chance at all.

It would be easy for Dale to let Vince get the touchdown and be the hero of the game; no one in the crowd expected Dale to catch him. The thought ran through Dale’s head that Vince truly deserved this triumph after all he had been through; he deserved to be the victor with his mother and sister in the stands, looking on in pride.

But that was not the thought that won out in Dale’s mind. This time the emotion in him was not dark and angry, but bright and full of purpose. Dale felt even stronger and more powerful than when he had tackled

Vince the first time. Every cell in every muscle of his body seemed to harmonize with the goal of stopping the touchdown and winning the game, and Dale ran faster than he had ever run before.
It happened. Dale overtook Vince and took him down with neat, clean tackle.

The crowd went crazy. Nielsen failed to score on the fourth down, and State was able to run down the clock and win.

Dale was the hero of the game, and his teammates tried to raise him on their shoulders and carry him, but

Dale was too busy scanning the stands for Jenny to comply. He did not find her or her mother there, so he went out to the parking lot to look for their station wagon before they could take off for West Virginia. Now that he knew that the breakup had occurred for reasons other than a lack of love, Dale would tell her how he felt, she would tell him, and all, he believed, would be well.

Dale found the station wagon after a short search; Vince was sitting on the tailgate with his mother, drinking a bottle of cola. Tex and a few other teammates had accompanied Dale to the lot but remained somewhat behind as he approached the wagon.

“Hi, Mrs. Graham,” said Dale.

“Hi, Dale. Nice job today,” said Mrs. Graham in a tone that did not sound  celebratory.

“Thank you. Good game,” said Dale to Vince, extending his hand.

“Good game—congrats,” said Vince with genuine warmth; his grip was strong.

“Where’s Jenny?” said Dale. Vince pointed with his eyes, and Dale turned around to see Jenny arriving with three hot dogs from the snack bar.

Dale walked toward her. He was now close enough to Tex and the others that they would be able to hear the conversation, but it was now or never for him to tell Jenny how he felt.

“Jenny,” he said, “hi.”

“Hi,” said Jenny, slowing her pace only somewhat.

“I know what happened,” said Dale. “It know it wasn’t about us.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Jenny, slowing to a halt.

“I mean, I know about your dad. I know about why you had to break up with me,” said Dale, putting his hand on Jenny’s shoulder. “It’s okay, I understand.”

“I—I’m worried about Vince,” said Jenny. “He took quite a hit in the game. Twice, actually.”

“It’s just a game,” said Dale, searching Jenny’s eyes for a glimmer of their former connection.

“It didn’t look that way. I need to get them their food,” said Jenny, pulling away.

Dale watched her walk the fifteen feet or so back to the fully loaded station wagon and give the hotdogs to Vince and her mother.

By now, Tex was at Dale’s side, resting a hand on his back. “As we say down in Texas, there are plenty of fish in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

Dale could not laugh, but he did smile. “Maybe there are,” he said, “but this fisherman has a lot to learn. About a lot of things.”

Dale made eye contact with Vince, who gave him a sympathetic look and a short, purposeful wave that confirmed that best friends would remain best friends. Dale turned around with his teammates and headed back to the field, to football, and to college life.

  • Share/Bookmark