“Cal!” Coach Barrister yelled to me over the noise in the stadium. “You’re up!”
I put my helmet on and took two quick warmup passes on the sidelines. I was sorry Chet got creamed on the first down of the third quarter and had to come out of the game, but I’d been in the league for five long years and was happy to finally get off the bench and play.
I never set out to be a second-string quarterback. But, hey. Life happens. Not everybody had the charmed professional life of my two-time Super Bowl winning brother. Now don’t get me wrong, Clark was a great player and deserved his success. But I was just as good as he was, some said even better, and I was stuck all those years on the sidelines watching lesser quarterbacks break records and scoop up the big wins.
I’d been traded every year since I’d been in the league, so it was as if I didn’t have a “home.” And probably some of that was my fault. Maybe I was the life of the party too many times in the early days. Maybe I lost it a time or two when people unfairly compared me to my brother. Maybe I didn’t give it my all at every practice. Sometimes it was hard to get motivated when year after year I never got to take a snap on game day.
But that early Sunday afternoon in November, I finally had a chance to prove I wasn’t an anomaly in the Inman family football dynasty. I went in on second down, so I only had three shots to move the ball eight yards for another set of downs.
I ran onto the field and motioned for the guys to huddle up. I rarely practiced with the starters, but they were professionals and gave me their rapt attention.
“Zebra right at forty-two, nine eighty-nine, on two on two on two. Break!” I called my first play in my first real game with the NFL with all the confidence I could muster.
As I positioned myself behind Roy Stedman, the Virginia Reelers center, I thought about Mom and Dad watching the game back home in Kent. After all I’d put them through, I wanted to make them proud.
I summoned my football voice and called, “Blue orca, blue orca, hut-HUT!”
Roy snapped the ball, and I stepped back into the pocket. The Bison defense swarmed around my two receivers so I had nowhere to throw the ball. It wasn’t long before the front line broke down, and I scrambled toward the sideline. But it was too late. Dirk Deacon, a linebacker from the Nevada Bison team, caught up to me and pummeled me to the ground.
Now I’d played football since I was knee-high to a grasshopper as my Pop Pop used to say, and I’d been tackled plenty of times. It’s part of the game. But after the play was whistled dead, Dirk rammed my shoulder into the ground and said, “I got your number, you stinkin’ good for nothin’ loser.”
What got up his craw? It’d been so long since I’d played in a real game I forgot how much trash talking went on. Usually it was in fun, but Dirk’s gritty voice couldn’t hide his disdain for me. What had I ever done to him?
I shook it off and returned to the huddle. Coach Barrister called in a play through my headset, and I relayed it to the guys in the huddle. “Charleston roundabout and tweety bird at thirty-five on one on one on one. Break!”
The second play fell apart quicker than the first. Jakeem got open, but the front line collapsed, and I got sacked again by Dirk before I had a chance to release the ball. Once again he tacked on a little extra-curricular activity when the play was over. He shoved his helmet against mine while I was still on the ground and growled, “You’re goin’ down, Inman. I’m gonna chew you up and spit you out like the rancid piece of meat you are.” Then he pushed my shoulder into the ground for the second time that afternoon.
I should have kept my mouth shut, but as I stood and brushed myself off I couldn’t resist calling after him, “What’s your problem, man? Gotta crush on me or something?”
Dirk swirled around with fire in his eyes. He started to charge, but one of the Bison cornerbacks grabbed him by his jersey and pulled him back. I couldn’t read his lips through his face guard, but I’d bet my last nickel what he spat at me was something I couldn’t repeat in mixed company.
Two failed plays. Not the impression I’d hoped to make on my first rodeo. But I was determined to make fourth down a memorable play.
I got another play call from Coach Barrister and barked to the guys, “Red eye to Sacramento at fifteen, eight fifty-four on two on two on two. Break!”
After I positioned myself behind Roy, I glanced at Dirk across the line of scrimmage. He caught my gaze and pounded his hand in his fist. Guess he wasn’t finished with me yet. But I couldn’t worry about that. I had a first down to make.
“Omaha, Omaha, hut-HUT!”
Roy snapped the ball, and I stepped back looking for Jakeem. A Bison player was all over him, but as the front line disintegrated, I saw an opening. I wasn’t the fastest runner, but I knew I could cover enough ground to pick up the first down. As I ran through the hole, I felt pressure coming from the left, but I only had two more yards to go so I pushed on.
Just as I crossed the first-down line, someone slammed into my side then picked me up and body-slammed me to the ground WWE SmackDown style. Seriously?
Dirk pinned me down and growled through gritted teeth, “Wait till you see what I do to your high-and-mighty precious brother next week.”
Something inside me snapped. Threatening me was one thing, but threatening my brother was something else. Clark and I didn’t have the best relationship, but he was family. And nobody threatened my family without paying the consequences.
I pushed Dirk off, then jumped to my feet. I must have looked ready to rumble because a couple of players quickly stepped between Dirk and me.
Then things went south. Dirk shoved Roy to the ground, all the while with his sights on me. He tossed Jakeem to the side like a paper doll and lunged at me, but I bowed up and met him head on. I’m not proud to have to say it, but it got ugly.
The situation deteriorated and became an out-and-out melee with arms and legs flying everywhere. The referees threw so many flags they ran out, and it wasn’t long before I was escorted off the field.
And as if things couldn’t get any worse, I had to throw my helmet as I stomped off the field. Not my finest moment, I’ll admit. But looking back and knowing what I know now, I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
“Oh no. That didn’t look good,” Daddy said as he leaned forward in his seat and kept his eyes glued to the field.
All of us in the owner’s box held our collective breath as we waited for Chet Franklin, the Virginia Reelers starting quarterback, to show some sign of life out there on the field. He’d just taken a hard hit and wasn’t moving. A couple of the Reelers offensive players dropped to their knees beside Chet, but a full twenty seconds passed and there was no discernible movement.
The team doctor and a trainer rushed onto the field to assess the problem. Daddy stood and began pacing, unlit cigar clenched between his fingers. I gnawed on my thumbnail, a nasty habit my mother used to always scold me for. What would this mean for the team going forward?
We waited for what seemed like a week before the doctor motioned for a stretcher. Not good. But as they carted Chet off the field, he lifted his hand and gave the crowd a thumbs up. The fans went wild.
“Guess we’ll get to see your boy in action after all,” Daddy said as he took his seat.
“My” boy was Cal Inman, who we’d picked up in a trade over the summer. As general manager of the Reelers, I had pushed for Cal even though Daddy and most on the board objected. It was true that Cal came with a little baggage, but I’d followed his career since his days at Kent University where he broke a couple of his oldest brother’s records, and I knew he was a solid, natural player. I’d watched film after film of him swoop in and save the day for his Kent Eagles team, and I felt if he was given the right opportunity he could be one of the greats. He just hadn’t had his chance to shine yet.
As Cal took the field, I began to hiccup.
“Not nervous, are you, Princess?” Daddy asked through a half grin.
Busted. Ever since I was a little girl, I hiccuped whenever I was nervous or upset. Sometimes I wished Daddy didn’t know me so well.
Truth was, Cal needed to play well so I could prove to Daddy and the board I knew what I was doing when I traded a perfectly good kicker for him. Not only was I the first female general manager for an NFL team, I was the owner’s daughter, so I always felt like I was under a microscope.
The sun glistened off Cal’s purple helmet as he stepped into the huddle. At six feet six inches he dwarfed everyone on the field. And his wingspan was huge. He’d been warming NFL benches for years, but if he played like he did in college, I knew some jaws would drop that afternoon.
Cal looked confident in the huddle, and I was glad to see the offense responding to him.
Roy’s snap was clean, but the front line had been struggling all afternoon and still hadn’t gotten their act together. It wasn’t long before Dirk Deacon from the Bison team broke through and took Cal down. I thought Dirk might have extended the play a bit after the whistle, but Cal seemed okay and trotted back to the huddle.
I waited for a smart aleck comment from Daddy about Cal getting sacked on his first play, but he just propped his elbows on his knees and leaned forward, intent on the action on the field.
The next play was a repeat of the previous play but happened in half the time. Once again Dirk pummeled Cal to the ground. The whistle blew, but Dirk held Cal down longer than he should have. Where was the ref? Didn’t he see that?
I don’t know what prompted it, but at one point after they finally got up Deacon swirled around and looked like he was going to go after Cal. One of his players held him back.
“That wasn’t Cal’s fault,” I said, preempting an “I told you so” from Daddy.
“Maybe. This will be the real test. He’s got to convert here, or we’ll have to punt.” Daddy slipped the cigar between his teeth and looked forward.
The players took their positions, and I held my breath again. The snap was good, but my stomach sank as the front line collapsed again. I watched helplessly as Cal scrambled. The play was as good as dead.
But Cal faked left, then miraculously took advantage of a fissure that had somehow materialized to the right. He plowed ahead, and after running several more yards made the first down!
Daddy and I jumped up at the same time and whooped and hollered with our guests in the box. Our new backup quarterback, the one I’d taken a huge gamble with, had just turned an impossible play into four more downs. I didn’t want to gloat, but I knew Cal was special. My hiccups vanished on the spot.
Then my cousin Bobby said, “What’s going on down there?”
We turned our attention back to the field where a couple of players had stepped between Dirk and Cal, trying to keep them apart. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
Please, Cal, just walk away, I pleaded in my mind.
But he didn’t.
My hand flew to my mouth as I watched a full-blown brawl develop on the field, Cal slap dab in the middle of it. The refs kept blowing their whistles and throwing flags and trying to pull the players apart from each other, but it was a free for all. Things finally calmed down, but after the refs sorted everything out, it was “my” boy, Cal Inman, who was escorted off the field. I cringed when I saw him take off his helmet and slam it to the ground because I knew it would be the clip all the sports networks would show over and over and over again.
Daddy picked up the phone and called Coach Barrister. “Is Chet available?”
I heard a muffled “no” on the other end of the line.
Daddy sighed and hung the phone up. “Chet’s out.”
Which meant we had to go to our third quarterback, Sy Harris, who was scheduled to retire at the end of the season. He’d been a decent quarterback in his day, but he didn’t have much of an arm left.
The atmosphere in the box deflated faster than a popped balloon. I started chewing my thumbnail again.
“What are you going to do about that disgraceful display?” Daddy asked.
I swallowed. “I’ll call him in tomorrow morning.”
“You know what you need to do?”
I did know. But I had a couple of favors to call in, so I was confident I could work something out. Question was, would Cal agree to his punishment?
As Sy took the field, Daddy got a notification on his phone. Was that a smile I saw creep across his lips? How could he smile when the Reelers were about to lose?
He slipped his phone back in his pocket and cleared his throat. “I, um, I’m going to step outside.”
Something was up. He never left in the middle of a game.
“Where are you going?”
“Just, uh, just going to talk to an old friend.”
I was about to ask who, but the groans of the crowd turned my attention back to the field where Sy had just thrown an interception.
So much for Cal Inman swooping in to save the day.
Monday morning I pulled my Shelby Mustang into lot B at The Hut, the Reelers state-of-the-art training facility. The Hut was one of the reasons I didn’t mind getting traded to Virginia. I wasn’t guaranteed field time, but at least I got to enjoy the perks of the most exclusive training center and office complex of any NFL team in history.
Bill Pike, the team’s owner, had spared no expense in building the ninety-acre campus, and every other team in the league had “Hut” envy. It had an ultramodern weight room and training center, leather stadium seats in every film review theatre, three heated pools, a yoga studio, world-renowned chefs who whipped up whatever you wanted at a moment’s notice, a research and recovery center, not to mention the pristine offices and inspiring quotes that greeted you on every hall by the greatest football players and coaches of all time. It was a football player’s nirvana.
Usually, I looked forward to going to The Hut on Mondays. But I’d never had to face the music after having been ejected from a game before, and I had no idea what to expect.
A few hours after I got kicked out of the game, the general manager’s secretary called and said Audrey Pike wanted to see me first thing Monday. A meeting with the GM was to be expected after what had happened the day before but brought to mind all those times in high school I’d been summoned to the principal’s office. Just like in high school, every time I thought about what my punishment would be my stomach soured.
I got out of the car, found my reflection in the window, and adjusted my tie. Normally, I wouldn’t have worn a tie because Mondays were casual rest days where we studied film and discussed strategies for the upcoming week. But I was about to meet with Audrey Pike, the general manager and owner’s daughter. I figured if I could sweet talk her, maybe she’d see fit to reduce my fine for the ejection. And I’d been told on more than one occasion that my boyish charm could move Mount Everest.
Besides, I was really lucky to be a part of the Reelers organization, and I didn’t want to blow it. Least I could do was dress up a little, you know, show some respect.
I practiced one last lady-killer smile in the car window, then I grabbed my duffle bag out of the trunk and headed toward the shuttle pickup.
Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long.
“Kent Eagle!” Tyrone Greene said as he opened the door to the shuttle.
“So, Tyrone. What do you call a pig that does karate?” I asked. Since my first day with the Reelers, I always greeted Tyrone with a corny joke.
He scratched the hair on his chin and scrunched up his nose before he finally said, “Ya got me.”
“A pork chop.”
Tyrone laughed. “I’ll have to tell that one to Zion tonight when I get home.”
I climbed into the shuttle and plopped down in the first seat behind Tyrone. “How’s Zion doing?”
“He’s in the crusty stage according to the doc. Still itchy, though. I’d forgotten how bad the chickenpox can itch.” Tyrone pulled away from the stop and turned the shuttle toward The Hut.
Tyrone Greene had been a student and big football fan at Kent University during the years I was the quarterback for the Eagles team. Somehow he’d ended up in Virginia driving shuttle buses for the Reelers. I didn’t know him personally back in college, but he recognized me right after I was traded to the Reelers. We had a lot in common, both being from the same area in South Carolina and going to the same university, so we hit it off right away. He obviously knew my name, but from the first time we met at The Hut, he’d always called me “Kent Eagle.” Which I didn’t mind because it reminded me that at least at one point in my life I’d been a winning quarterback.
“Where do you want me to drop you?” Tyrone asked.
The sour feeling tugged at my stomach. “GM’s office.”
I thought Tyrone might say something about where I was going, but all he said was, “That was one heck of a game yesterday.”
“Not exactly how I wanted my first few snaps for an NFL team to go,” I said, staring out the window as the early morning sun crept up over the main practice field.
“Naw, you got you a bad break, that’s all. A real bad break on that series, yes, sir,” Tyrone said as he turned the shuttle toward the complex. “Refs gotta be blind not to see what happened to you. Everybody could see it was that dirty Dirk Deacon that started that mess. A man can only stand so much, yes Lawd.”
I hoped Audrey Pike would agree.
Tyrone pulled the shuttle bus up to the office headquarters and opened the door for me. When I got out, Tyrone began to close the door.
“Wait!” I called.
I dug around in my duffle bag and pulled out a football and tossed it to Tyrone. “Give this to Zion for me.”
Tyrone turned the football over and smiled. “Aw, Kent Eagle, you done gone and signed it for my boy. This gonna make his day for sure. Yes, sir!”
I watched him drive off, putting off the inevitable. But eventually the shuttle’s diminishing image disappeared, and I had no choice but to enter the building and face the dragon lady.
Yeah, you heard me right. That’s what the guys called Audrey Pike. The dragon lady. When I asked Chet about it at quarterback practice one day, he just shook his head and said, “She’s a force to be reckoned with, man.”
I’d only ever spoken to her over the phone, and that was after she’d negotiated the trade with my agent. Her voice was low and gravelly, and she was very business like and to the point, almost curt.
I’d seen her on television, of course. She was a big woman, much taller than her father, and her auburn hair was always pulled back in a tight bun. Was she as uptight as she looked?
But dragon lady or no dragon lady, Audrey Pike would be on my side, right? Word on the street was that Chet would be out for at least three weeks. They needed me, especially since Sy had such a bad showing after I got ejected. I’d probably get by with a slap on the wrist and a fine. No big deal.
As I approached the building, a young man in a pencil-legged suit opened the door for me and ushered me in. “Mr. Inman,” he said as he consulted his clipboard. “Ms. Pike is expecting you.”
He gestured toward an elevator. As soon as the mirrored doors closed behind me, the sour feeling in my stomach rose to my throat.
No. Everything would be fine. I’d take whatever the dragon lady dished out, then start redeeming myself on the field the following Sunday.
The elevator stopped on the seventh floor. As I walked down the hall, I couldn’t help but read a quote on the wall: The only place that success comes before work is in the dictionary. I looked at the name beside the quote and saw none other than Vince Lombardi.
Vince Lombardi was my dad’s hero. Dad coached high school football after he left the NFL and said he returned time and time again to the teachings of Coach Lombardi to help him guide his student athletes. Come to think of it, my dad talked about Lombardi so much that my brother, Clark, named a pet fish after the legendary coach one time.
I stood in front of the general manager’s closed office door, and the gnawing in my gut intensified. A staffer brushed past me, and I knew I couldn’t keep standing in the hall staring at the door. I needed to get it over with, like ripping a bandage off. I knocked.
“Come in,” a rich, throaty voice answered from the other side of the door.
I let my breath out and entered Audrey Pike’s office.
I glanced at the clock on my desk as soon as I heard the knock on the door. At least he was punctual.
“Come in,” I called out and braced myself for what I knew would be an uncomfortable meeting.
Cal Inman entered my office looking like he’d just stepped out of a GQ magazine. He cocked his head to the side and flashed me a smile that would melt most women’s hearts. I had to remind myself I was not most women.
“Thanks for coming in this morning, Cal,” I said as I interlaced my fingers and placed them on my lap. I sat as tall as I could and tried not to get distracted by his strong jaw and piercing blue eyes…
“So, Ms. Pike. What do you call a pig that does karate?”
Was he really telling me a joke? When I’d called him in to give him a good talking to?
When I didn’t answer, he blurted out, “A pork chop.”
He obviously expected more of a reaction from me because he stepped closer to my desk and turned his palms up to the ceiling. “Get it? A pork chop?”
A cool woodsy scent radiated off him and momentarily blurred my thoughts. I cleared my throat.
“Cal, I asked you here this morning to discuss your behavior on the field yesterday.”
“Well, you know how heated things can get on the field,” he said as he casually sat on the corner of my desk and picked up the only picture frame I had on my desk. I snatched the picture back and replaced it face down.
“Things can get heated, yes, but they usually don’t boil over and burn the entire organization. You’ve put Bill in a very awkward position.”
“The refs weren’t doing their job,” Cal said with a nonchalant shrug.
He was right. The refs should have called a personal foul on Dirk Deacon before things had a chance to get out of control.
“That may be the case, but your actions reflect badly on this team.”
He leaned toward me and flashed me that swoon-worthy smile again. “Let’s cut to the chase, Ms. Pike. What’s it going to cost me?”
“Cost you? What do you mean, cost you?”
“You know, my fine. What’s it going to cost to put all this behind me?”
“You will pay the standard league fine.”
“What about the team fine?”
“Bill has decided not to fine you on the team level.”
Cal hopped off my desk. “That’s great. Thanks for the little chat, Ms. Pike,” he said before he turned to leave.
“But there will be another form of punishment.” My words stopped him at the door.
He spun and faced me. “What kind of…punishment?”
“You will be suspended for the next two games…”
“Two games?” he interrupted and rushed back to my desk. “You’ve got to be kidding me…”
I held up my hand. “Let me finish. You will be suspended for the next two games, and in that time you will attend a group therapy class for anger management.”
“A what?! For Pete’s sake, what for?” His voice rose in protest. “For sticking up for myself? Anybody with eyes in their head could see what happened wasn’t my fault. I don’t know what Dirk has against me, but he taunted me every play! I didn’t start that fight.”
I kept my voice calm. “We know that.”
“Then why? Why punish me like this?”
“Because Bill didn’t like the way you threw your helmet to the ground on your way off the field. He feels it was disrespectful to him and the team.”
“I was angry!”
“Which is why you need an anger management class.” I stood and picked a card up from my desk. “I found a program you can complete before you’re eligible to play again…”
Cal raised his hand to his forehead. “I can’t believe this.”
I walked to the other side of the desk and handed the card out to him. “Call this number and ask for Mike. He runs a thirteen day program that, once completed, will satisfy the organization.”
He snatched the card from me and glanced at it. “You can’t be serious about this.”
“I’m always serious.”
“But Chet is out, and Sy is washed up.” He stepped closer to me, so close I could feel the heat radiate off his body. “You know I’m your best bet right now, not three weeks from now.”
The exasperation in his voice was not lost on me. With Sy at the helm, the Reelers would most certainly lose. But Daddy had made up his mind. Cal would have to comply or lose his spot on the team.
“Save your breath, Cal. Bill is adamant that his players act like gentlemen, and he will not be happy until you finish the program. You have no other option, unless you want to look for another team. And that would be a shame.”
He inched even closer and leaned in so that our eyes were inches apart. “And why would that be a shame?”
The back of my throat went dry, but I managed to whisper, “Because you are one of the best players I’ve ever seen.”
He opened his mouth, then closed it before he stepped back and ran his fingers through his hair.
I hurried back to the other side of my desk. “That will be all.”
I sat and shuffled some papers around. Why did he just stand there?
He shifted his weight from foot to foot, then glanced at the card again before he stuffed it in his pants pocket. “I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t think too long. Call that number. Ask for Mike. The class starts Wednesday morning.”
Cal slowly nodded, then turned and left, closing the door softly behind him.
I hoped he would make the right decision. I would have hated for the team to lose him.
As I rode away from The Hut, I rehashed the conversation I’d just had with Audrey Pike. I finally understood why the guys called her the dragon lady. She was brusque, no nonsense, and straight to the point. And her office was shockingly stark; the white furniture gave it an impersonal, sterile feel, like what you’d expect to see in some mental institution set from an old fifties movie. The only thing personal in her office was a photo on her desk of a woman and a teenage boy. Why had she snatched the picture away from me so fast?
One thing I found odd was she didn’t smile, not once the whole time I was there. I couldn’t even get her to laugh at my corny joke. Tyrone loved my joke. What was wrong with her?
My stomach felt a little queasy as I took the ramp to the highway, but it was a different sensation from the sour feeling I’d felt before the meeting with Audrey Pike. Sour meant I was nervous, but queasy meant…
No, it couldn’t be that. Queasy usually meant I was attracted to someone. But I couldn’t be attracted to Audrey Pike. Could I?
Ridiculous. Especially since one, she was the dragon lady, two, she was my boss, and three, she was Bill Pike’s daughter.
Still. When we faced each other eye to eye something in me clicked. With her heels on she was just as tall as I was, which gave me a strange sensation, because all the girls I ever dated were on the petite side. Her height made her…I don’t know, exotic somehow. Her face was angular, made even more so with her hair in that tight bun she wore, but it suited her. She was strong and confident, maybe too confident, but it was appealing just the same.
And when she said I was one of the best players she’d ever seen in that deep, sexy whisper of hers, well, something in me wanted to reach out and pull her closer…
An incoming call broke my chain of thought.
“Call from Charlie Inman,” the car blue tooth announced.
He’d left two messages the night before, but I just couldn’t talk to him then. I didn’t want to risk hearing the disappointment in his voice. But I couldn’t put him off forever.
“Glad to hear your voice, son. How are you holding up?”
I tightened my grip on the steering wheel. “As well as can be expected I guess.”
“Your mother was worried last night when you didn’t call us back.”
“Sorry, Dad. I wasn’t in the best frame of mind.”
“We saw the game, and we both agreed that the officials really dropped the ball. Things should have never gotten to that point.”
“But they did, and I should have had the strength to walk away. You always told us to just walk away.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Calvin. No one but you knows what really happened out there.”
Why was he being so understanding? As my high school football coach he’d been a lot like Bill Pike, a real stickler for going by the rules and being a good example and all that.
“I know, Dad, but you taught me better. Sorry if I disappointed you.”
There was a slight pause on the other end of the line, then Dad blurted out, “I never told you or your brothers this, but I got ejected from a game once, so I know how you feel.”
Dad got ejected from a game? I didn’t believe it.
“Dad, you don’t have to lie to make me feel better.”
“I’m not lying, son.”
“But you were a back up when you were in the NFL. Like me. You told us you never even took a snap.”
“I didn’t. It was the next-to-last game in the regular season against Tennessee. Roaten, the starter that season, went down in the fourth quarter with a pulled hamstring. Coach called me in. Now you know how supportive your Pop Pop and Memaw have been with you boys, always attending your home games. Well, they were supportive of me when I was playing pro ball, and even went to a few away games. They were younger then and didn’t mind traveling some. I’d arranged for them to have seats close to the action that day even though I didn’t expect to play. As I ran onto the field, I was so excited they’d be able to see me play for once I waved to them. Your Memaw signed good luck to me, and one of the defensive players saw her. When I got close to the huddle, he ran up beside me and said, ‘You know that retard up there?’ Well, I lost it and punched him. I got thrown out of the game before I even made it to the huddle.”
My blood got hot. My Memaw was deaf, not intellectually disabled, and she was the best grandmother anyone could ask for. I’d have punched the jerk out, too.
“Why did you never tell us?” I asked.
“I wanted to be as positive a role model as I could for you boys. But I know there are times when you just gotta fight. Don’t tell your mother I said that.”
I had to laugh. “I won’t.”
“Do you have enough money to cover your fine?”
Dad was always asking me if I had enough money. I’ll admit my first couple of years in the NFL I was a bit reckless, financially speaking. I hosted elaborate parties with big-name rock stars and traded cars every other month. I had to ask Dad for money more times than I wanted to.
But as the years went by and I inched closer to thirty, that life didn’t appeal to me anymore. I wanted to find someone to share my life with, like Chip and Clark had done. Every time I was around my nieces and nephews I yearned for a family of my own. I wanted a stable family unit like my brothers had.
“I’ve got it covered, Dad. But I’m out two games, and I have to go to a thirteen-day anger management class. And get this. It wasn’t even because I fought on the field. They’re suspending me and sending me to that bogus class because I threw my helmet on the ground. Can you believe it?”
“Yeah, I can. The sports shows are all calling you a brat. You should be thankful they only suspended you two games. Bill Pike is from a different era, from a time when players were expected to be gentlemen.”
“That’s what the dragon lady said.”
“The dragon lady?”
“Calvin, this will all blow over soon,” Dad said, as I pulled up to my apartment complex. “You’ll see. The class will fly by and you’ll be back into action before you know it. Now do me a favor and call your mother soon so she’ll stop buggin’ me about you all the time.”
“I will, Dad.”
“Take care, son.”
I drove around the complex to my building. After I cut the engine, I sat in the car and stared absentmindedly at the breezeway while fragmented thoughts from the morning competed for dominance in my mind. I could almost accept the two game suspension, but group therapy?
I didn’t want to sit around while people talked about their problems, and I certainly didn’t want to talk about mine in front of a bunch of strangers. I got out of the car and took the card Audrey Pike gave me out of my pocket. It had four words on it, Mike Sellers, Keystone Institute, and then a number. I slipped it back in my pocket and headed toward the apartment.
I was tired of thinking about ejections and suspensions and anger management. The dragon lady said the class didn’t start until Wednesday, so I had plenty of time to decide if I was going to go through with it.
Once I entered the apartment, I headed straight to my Xbox and pulled up Call of Duty. It was time to chill.
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