“Heads!” the visiting quarterback called before the referee tossed the gold commemorative coin high in the air.
I watched the coin flip over itself while the lights from the stadium made the metal sparkle; it was hypnotic and exhilarating at the same time. The biggest day of my life had finally arrived.
“It’s heads,” the referee held it out for the cameraman to verify. I held my breath. Would I be receiving the first snap in the most important game of my young career?
“We’ll receive,” the Nevada Bison captain threw down the gauntlet.
I’d have to wait my turn. The ref looked at me. “We’ll defend the South,” I said.
I jogged back to the bench in the chilly February air as the defense took the field. That was okay. It would give me a little time to breathe and recite the affirmation I’d been saying since I was in high school: I am just as worthy of winning the big game as any other player before me.
Of course, the games didn’t get any bigger than the one I was facing. I, Clark Inman, a rookie, was my team’s starting quarterback in the biggest game in the National Football League. The Super Bowl.
My head still reeled when I thought about it. Was I ready to lead my team in such an important game?
When I was passed over in the first round of the NFL draft the previous spring, I’ll admit my spirits sank a little. While I wasn’t a natural passer like my older brother Chip had been, I’d worked harder than anyone I knew to make myself one of the top college players in the country, and I was confident I’d be chosen early. I walked, ate, talked, practiced, and slept football ever since I was old enough to toss a ball to my dad and Chip in the backyard, and I was a solid player. Surely I’d get chosen in the next round.
Then the second round came and went, then the third, then the fourth. Thank goodness Dad was there to keep me calm because I was about to jump out of my skin. What if no one wanted me?
Then, in the fifth round, it finally happened. The Carolina Cougars picked me. The Cougars didn’t have the best record, and they wouldn’t have been my first choice of teams to play for, but they had made it to the wildcard playoff games twice over the past six years. They got eliminated both times, but the Cougars had a big shakeup in their coaches department during the off season, so I kept my hopes up that my rookie season could still be a success.
And what a success it had been! Thanks to Coach Freeman and an awesome front line, I smashed about a dozen rookie quarterback records my first season, sailed through the playoffs, and made it all the way to the most coveted game in the sport. And to make things sweeter, the Cougars had been slated to host that year’s Super Bowl, so we had home field advantage. It was like a fairy tale.
I imagined Mom and Dad and Pop Pop and Memaw somewhere in a box looking down on the field waiting for me to lead my team. And Chip and Greta were there, too, as well as Calvin and Cooper. And Granny Franny, Dak, and Aunt Bella. I wouldn’t be where I was without my family’s support and I knew they were proud of me, but I was glad I couldn’t see them. I mean, I was happy they were there, but I didn’t need any distractions. Intense focus was one of the things I was known for, and I wasn’t going to let my team down on the biggest day of our lives.
Several plays into the game, the Nevada Bison team took advantage of their star running back and made it into the red zone. On third down I heard an “Omaha, Omaha, hut HUT!” and the quarterback lunged forward for a sneak. But it didn’t fool the alert Cougar defense, and the Bison had to settle for a field goal. Then it was my turn to shine.
Except I didn’t. The whole first quarter was a blur to me. I missed a couple of throws, and my offensive line was sluggish, which kept me scrambling. We finally made a few scores, but the Bison offense kept scoring, too, and stayed in the lead. Then, at the end of the second quarter, we had a chance to tie the game at twenty-four all with a touchdown. There was only enough time for a couple more plays before the half, and I knew if we didn’t get the touchdown on the next play, Coach would send out the kicking team. I didn’t want that to happen.
I visualized the play like I usually did during big game moments and positioned myself behind the center. “Blue, blue, forty, hut HUT!”
The handoff was smooth, but the left side of the pocket immediately broke down, and I had to head out of bounds or lose yardage. Trouble was, the performers for the halftime show were already crowding the sidelines, and there was nowhere for me to go. I tried to avoid colliding with a group of women holding a bunch of multi-colored flags, but my foot got wrapped up in a cameraman’s cord, and I slammed right into a woman holding a microphone. We both tumbled to the ground with a heavy clunk.
What had I done? I had to make sure she was okay.
I jumped up and held out my hand to help her up. As her hand clasped mine, I noticed her long, delicate fingers. My eyes traced her arm up to her shoulder, then her face. And that’s when something weird happened. It’s like I suddenly saw her through some kind of, I don’t know, tunnel vision. Everything in my periphery went blank, and all I could see was her ivory skin, her shiny raven hair, her deep black eyes…
It was almost halftime, and I was confirming with John, my cameraman, that we had a live feed established when all of a sudden my feet flew out from under me and everything went sideways. Things happened so quickly; I could barely figure out why I was on the ground. Had I just gotten tackled by a football player?
The guy sprawled out beside me jumped up and reached his hand out to take mine, but then he just stood there, holding my hand and staring at me. I gasped when I registered who he was through his helmet cage. The guy who plowed into me and knocked me to the ground was none other than the star rookie quarterback of the Carolina Cougars. Why was he looking at me as if I had tentacles coming out of my ears? And why didn’t he say anything?
“Um, are you going to help me up?” I asked after another few awkward moments.
“Oh, yeah. Sorry.” He tugged on my hand and pulled me up. “I’m Clark Inman.”
I knew he was Clark Inman. Everybody in Victoria, North Carolina did, too. In one season he had revitalized the entire Cougar organization and had taken the team further than it had ever gotten. What I didn’t know was that his eyelashes were so long and curly. Or that the dimple in his chin was cuter in person than on TV. Or that his grip was so virile…
I pried my hand from his big mitts, but he continued staring at me. Little ole me, a meager sports reporter from the small local TV station. A reporter with so little clout the only person I had hopes of interviewing after the game was the water boy.
Why did he just stand there? Didn’t he have a game to play? I hoped John was getting this. I hadn’t been able to land an interview with the great Clark Inman, or any of the Cougars for that matter, but maybe John could make the encounter look good on an audition reel, make it look like I could land the big fish.
Finally, Clark shook his head like he was trying to shake some cobwebs loose. “I…I’m really sorry about that.” Then he looked at the sidelines where a couple of coaches were waving furiously for him to return.
“Look, I gotta go. But I’ll come back and give you the first interview after the game. To make it up to you.”
Was he serious? Clark Inman was going to give me the first interview after the Super Bowl?
“Win or lose?” I asked.
“Win or lose. But we’re going to win,” he said with a wink before he ran back to the sidelines.
For a brief moment my stomach flipped. Wow. The day was not turning out like I thought it would when I got up that morning. I mean, sure, I knew I’d be seeing Clark Inman that afternoon, but it never even crossed my mind that I’d be talking to him, let alone interviewing him.
“Are you all right?” John asked as I smoothed my hair down.
“I’m fine.” I was better than fine. I was about to interview the hottest rookie quarterback ever.
In the locker room at halftime, Coach Freeman’s face pinched up and turned as red as pizza sauce. After chewing out the offensive line with words that would make a sailor uncomfortable, he pulled me aside.
“Clark, I know you’re a rookie, but you’ve proved yourself all season. I’m gonna need you to hold this team together.”
“Yes, sir.” I knew I had to hold the team together because I owed a lovely reporter a victory interview.
“Buzz’ll be making some adjustments in the second half, so be ready for them.”
“I will, sir.” I liked Buzz Trembly, the offensive coordinator, and knew he’d come up with some way to neutralize the Nevada defense. But we’d need our guys to do their part. At least we’d get the ball first for the second half and have a chance to pull ahead.
When we ran back on the field, the acrid smell of pyrotechnics hung in the air. When I was a kid, one of the fun things about the Super Bowl was watching the bright lights and popular singers perform during the halftime show. But once I got to high school, Chip and I would spend that time out in the backyard re-creating plays from the first half of the game we’d just watched. Sometimes Dad would draw the plays for us in the dirt and make us tell him why the play had been successful or not. Ever since then, I hadn’t cared much about halftime shows.
I resisted the urge to look for the reporter I’d knocked down before halftime. If I truly wanted to win the game and be able to talk to her as a winner in an after-game interview, I had to put my focus skills to the test and not get distracted by the memory of her eyes that were the color of…what was the name of that cool black stone? Obsidian?
Just then I felt a slap on my shoulder. “You got this, man!” Craig, my center, yelled at me as we watched the Bison team kick off to our special teams. Travon Washington, who had played with my brother at Kent University and was enjoying a good season, caught the ball and broke a few tackles to get the ball to mid-field. We started the second half with great field position.
I snapped my chin strap in place and ran onto the field with the offense. As soon as I dropped to my knee in the huddle, I got a call adjustment from Buzz over the speaker in my helmet. I updated the guys, “Brown left slot, sixty trap, on three, on three, ready, break!”
At the line, I called, “Set! Blue orca, blue orca, hut HUT!”
I stepped back, pivoted, and handed the ball off to Kevin, my most reliable running back. The offensive line must have taken Coach’s words to heart because it was as if they parted the Red Sea. Kevin saw his opportunity and ran straight for the end zone. Score! We were up by three.
We scored another touchdown in the third quarter and were up by ten at the start of the fourth, but the Bison team wasn’t dead yet. They scored a quick touchdown, then recovered a fumble and ran it back for another touchdown right before the two-minute warning. Two minutes left, and we were down four points. A field goal wouldn’t cut it. We had to score a touchdown or go home with our tails between our legs.
And that wasn’t happening.
But it would be an uphill battle. Travon caught the ball at the two-yard line, but his foot slid and the Bison players swarmed and took him down. We had ninety-eight yards to go in less than two minutes.
Buzz called a ground play to try to get us more distance from our end zone. Fine in theory, but Kevin got creamed after gaining only one yard. We had three more opportunities to get the ball down the field, but the clock was still running and we only had one more time out.
I went with Kevin again for second down and this time he got us another set of downs and some breathing room. But we still had seventy-five yards to go, and I wasn’t consistently accurate in passing past sixty-five. I called our final time out and ran to the sidelines.
Coach Freeman’s plan was to do a short, quick pass to the sideline to get me within my range and to stop the clock. We were down to seventeen seconds.
I ran back out on the field and called the play. “Blue, blue, hut HUT!”
Gill, a second-year wide receiver, caught the ball at our forty-five, but three Nevada players prevented him from stepping out of bounds, so the clock kept ticking. I yelled for everybody to line up fast so I could spike the ball and stop the clock.
The red game clock blinked three seconds. Everything I’d worked so hard for my entire life came down to the next three seconds. Down to a Hail Mary.
I am just as worthy of winning the big game as any other player before me.
I am just as worthy of winning the big game as any other player before me.
I am just as worthy of winning the big game as any other player before me.
As soon as Craig snapped the ball, I felt like I was moving in slow motion. The sound of the crowd receded, my vision sharpened, and my color sense heightened. I stepped back as four players sprinted down the field. My first and second targets were covered, but Gill was wide open. I slung the ball to the back left corner and waited as the ball dropped.
When Gill came down with the ball and both of his feet in the end zone, time sped up again and the noise in the stadium became deafening. We did it! The Carolina Cougars had just won the Super Bowl.
Black and silver confetti clouded my vision as I searched the crowd for my parents, but the crowd was morphing too fast for me to make anyone out. Someone ran up to me and put a ball cap on my head. I took the hat off and looked at the insignia. It said I was a Super Bowl champion. Me. A Champion.
Then, for the briefest moment, I wondered what was next for me. How could anything in life ever top that moment? What could I aim for now that I’d reached the zenith of my sport?
A reporter from ESPN approached me, and I knew I had to talk to him. But I had promised my first interview to someone else.
I ran down the chaotic sidelines looking for her, people slapping me on the back as I went along. Where did she go?
And then I saw her. Our eyes locked, and the tunnel vision reappeared.
“I thought you’d forgotten me,” I said as he neared.
I willed my knees to remain strong when his musty scent reached me. His face glistened with sweat and he looked like a mischievous boy in his Super Bowl Champion hat. Which led me to my first question. I took a deep breath and went into reporter mode.
“So, Clark,” I yelled into my mic over the noise of the crowd. “How does it feel beating out Ben Roethlisberger as the youngest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl?”
I tilted the mic toward him. He leaned down and instead of answering my question he stared at me as if I were the only person in the stadium and asked, “What’s your name?”
His eyes were so close I could see the flecks of gold mixed in with the light blue.
“Makayla.” My temperature suddenly rose under his intense gaze. “I’m with the local channel WVFF.”
“First of all, Makayla, I’m really sorry I knocked you down. It was an accident. Second, I’m only a month younger than Big Ben was when he won Super Bowl XL. He’ll still go down as one of the youngest to achieve this milestone.”
“But you’re the first rookie to lead their team to a win a Super Bowl. Roethlisberger wasn’t a rookie.”
A sly smile flashed across Clark’s face, and he rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I guess you’re right about that.”
“What gives you such confidence on the field at twenty-three years old?”
“My guys. One hundred percent my teammates. They kept my back all season and never once treated me like a rookie. They trusted me, and I trusted them.”
“What made you believe your abilities would carry you this far so early in your career?”
“My family’s a big part of that. I’m from a football family, and I learned how to throw a ball before I could even walk. My dad is a great coach and always believed in me.”
“After a shaky first quarter, you seemed to settle down and become more comfortable in the pocket. What changed?”
“The front line. We don’t play the Bison during the regular season, so the guys needed a little time to adjust. But ultimately, they protected me and gave me time to do my job.”
My time with Clark was running short. I knew he had other interviews to give.
“One final question,” I said. “How are you going to celebrate your win here today?”
I could feel the warmth radiate off his body as he inched his face closer to mine. “By taking you to dinner.”
My mouth went dry, and I stumbled on my next words. “Oh, um, well…I don’t know…I mean, it’s probably against company policy…” Did Clark Inman just ask me out? On national television?
“Well then, you’ll just have to come up with something we can do that isn’t against company policy. You name it. Anything you want. I owe you.”
His eyes locked with mine, and I couldn’t find my voice. Why did it feel like it was just Clark and me in the stadium?
Then several of the Cougar players ran by and swooped Clark up and carted him off on their shoulders. He hollered over his shoulder, “Think about it!”
I cleared my throat and looked at the camera. “That was Clark Inman, the youngest quarterback, and a rookie at that, to ever lead their team to Super Bowl victory. I’m Makayla Brown reporting from the Bank of Victoria stadium.”
John lowered the camera and looked at me. Why did he look so smug?
He shrugged. “Looks like you’ve got an admirer.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I snipped as I started packing up my gear. Clark Inman had just won the Super Bowl and was high on adrenaline or testosterone or whatever it was athletes got high on after a big game. I knew I’d never hear from him again.
But I had a special interview to go on my audition reel, so I counted that as a win. Getting pummeled to the ground by Clark Inman was a bonus.
After the Pass is the second book in a new series by Savannah Adams, author of the Love Stories from Magnolia Grove series. Each book in this clean sports series is a complete story with overlapping characters and can be read in any order. A swoon-worthy ending guaranteed!
Order your copy of After the Pass today!