Saturday morning was our away game against Washington High. I was so exhausted as I boarded the bus with my teammates, I contemplated abdicating my quarterback position to the backup, Charlie Warner. He would clearly do a much better job than I would. I might have done it if I didn’t know for sure that Coach would hunt me down and skin me alive. This was an important game against one of the most redoubtable opponents on our schedule. I had to be there, as much as my brain was somewhere else—on my computer, to be exact.
I had been up half the night playing at PokerParty.com. With each game I started I told myself it was the last one, but then I would be up a bit and my adrenaline would take over, wanting to win more. If I was suddenly down, I knew I couldn’t log off because I had to win my money back. Neither winning nor losing could induce me to turn off the damn computer. And now I was paying the price. I was yawning like mad, my head was all muddled, and all I could think about was getting through the damn game so I could get home and start betting again.
I was an execrable human being.
As Coach gathered us together in Washington High’s visitor locker room for his weekly pre-game oration, I sat at the back of the crowd, sucking down my second Red Bull of the morning. I ducked behind some of the bigger linemen, trying to elude the coach’s attention. He wasn’t big on caffeine, always telling us it was deleterious to our training and would stunt our growth. Unfortunately, today I would be useless without it.
“All right everyone, let’s remember the game plan,” Coach said. “Their run game is for crap and they know it, so what are they gonna do?”
“They’re gonna throw, Coach,” Tim shouted.
“Damn right. That’s all they’re gonna do,” Coach said. “So what’re we gonna do?”
“Blitz!” the team shouted.
“That’s right! We’re gonna pressure them! Bronson! I expect to see at least two sacks out of you today, you got me?”
“Yes, Coach!” Bronson replied.
I yawned hugely, hiding my gaping mouth behind my hand. Out on the field I could hear Washington High’s marching band start up their pre-game show, and the cadence of the drums lulled me toward sleep.
“I want no mercy on the defense!” Coach shouted, earning some cheers in reply. “I want to keep our offense on the field. And when our offense is on the field, what are we gonna do?”
“Keep ’em guessing!” someone shouted, causing me to blink my eyes open. I yawned again.
“That’s right!” Coach cheered. “Now, Riley! Where are you?!”
Everyone turned around to look at me at the exact moment my mouth stretched wide in another tremendous yawn. Silence permeated the room. Coach shot me a look of tacit disgust, as if I had just committed the most heinous effrontery known to man. Which, I suppose, I had. Here he was, trying to catalyze the team for what was sure to be a combative, unrelenting game, and his captain and quarterback was yawning right in his face.
Abort ! Abort! My brain cried, long before my lungs took notice.
I snapped my mouth shut. “Right here, coach,” I said. My eyes watered from exhaustion.
A bunch of the guys laughed, and Coach narrowed his eyes at me. “We bothering you, Riley?” he asked.
“No, Coach,” I replied, my face burning.
“Because we can all leave you alone if you need to take a nap,” he said, crossing his beefy arms over his chest. More chuckles.
“No, Coach. I’m fine. Sorry,” I replied.
“Good. Because today, of all days, I need your head in the game,” he said.
“I know, Coach,” I replied.
“All right then. Hands in.”
A couple of the guys jostled and mocked me as we all huddled up and placed our hands in the center of the circle. Normally I cherished these insular moments, alone with the team, getting ready for battle. Today I just wanted to be home. Still, I had to play along. I had to make everyone think that I was as psyched up as the rest of them.
“Cardinals on three,” Coach said. “Ready? One, two, three—Cardinals!”
We all shouted together, then cheered and clapped as the circle broke up and we headed for the doors. I walked up to Coach on the way out, looking for a way to expiate my misdeed. Outside, the guys were already making ribald jokes about the Washington High cheerleaders, who were also on their way to the field.
“I’m sorry about that, Coach,” I told him. “Just had a hard time sleeping last night.”
“You all right, Riley? You look a little wan,” he told me, clearly concerned.
“Yeah. I’m good, Coach. Ready to play,” I told him, even as my exhausted body protested. This was ridiculous. I was a hardy, young guy. Couldn’t I have a couple sleepless nights and still function?
“Good. Because you know you’re the linchpin of this offense,” he said, slapping my shoulder pad. “If I gotta send Warner out there, we’re through.”
“I know, Coach.”
“All right. Let’s get out there and give ’em hell,” Coach said.
“You got it,” I told him.
I pulled my helmet on over my head and jogged after the team, hoping my adrenaline rush would kick in soon and be enough to sustain me through four quarters.