“They think they’re coming into our house and taking us down?!” Curtis Springer shouted, pacing up and down the locker room in his shoulder pads and football pants. “Naw, man! No way do they come in to our house and take us down. You feel me?!”
The team roared its approval, and we all cheered and hollered. Springer’s pregame rile-ups were a long-honored tradition. Nothing got the adrenaline pumping better. I yanked my jersey over my head and was about to join in an impromptu huddle when Coach Rinaldi called my name from his office.
“Riley! Riley! Hey! Get in here!”
My heart dropped, and I caught Curtis’s eye as the crowd around him grew more and more frenetic. He shrugged and got back to his ritual. I grabbed my helmet and followed after Coach. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. Anyone who knows me will tell you I am the epitome of the goody-goody—that it’s next to impossible for Mike Riley to do anything wrong. But that didn’t mean that being called out by authority figures didn’t still freak me out.
“What’s up, Coach?” I asked, stepping into his small, square office.
“Have a seat,” he said, easing onto his rickety chair.
He pulled the red baseball cap from his head and scratched at the bald spot in the center of the ring of blond hair. Uh-oh. This was serious. I sat on the edge of the vinyl seat, my heart pounding. I guess this was another way to kick-start the adrenaline.
“Mike, I called you in here to let you know that there are scouts in the bleachers today,” he said. “A couple of the SUNYs are coming out to have a look and assess your performance.”
I felt like someone had just handed me a ticket to the Super Bowl. “They’re here for me?” I asked.
“Of course they are. Who else?” Coach Rinaldi asked. “As far as I recall, you’re the only one here who broke two of the longest-standing New York State high school passing records last year.”
I beamed with pride. Scouts. Here for me. This was it. This was my chance at a scholarship. I had been hoping for a boon like this my entire life but had never allowed myself to believe it would actually happen. Ever since I was fourteen years old I had been working odd and part-time jobs, trying to save up for college. My parents are both teachers, and they love their jobs, but we’ve all known for a long time that we were going to fall into that financial catch-22—that we wouldn’t have enough money for college tuition but would appear too “well off” for financial aid.
“Now, it’s just the state schools this afternoon, not that that’s anything to shake a stick at,” Coach said, leaning his beefy arms on his desk. “But you do well out there today, get some buzz going, next week we could be hosting some Division One schools. Like Penn State, perhaps.”
My throat went completely dry. Penn State. My dream school. The school that everyone who had ever so much as met me knew that I wanted to attend. Pride and excitement were now crowded out by nerves. This had to be the game of my life.
Coach stood up and offered his hand. “This is it, son. Your big break.”
I pushed my chair back, almost knocking it over in my manic state, and shook his hand. “Thanks, Coach,” I said.
He grinned as the locker room exploded with raucous cheers. “Make me proud.”