“And that’s the end of the game! The Hillside Cardinals beat the Westmont Bears, forty-two to seven!” the announcer cried. “Let’s hear it for Mike Riley and the entire Cardinals team!”
The crowd went crazy, exalting us with cheers and rushing the field. I was crowded by hundreds of people, adults and kids, guys and girls, everyone according their adulation to me. I took it all in, ecstatic over the win. We had just run all over the most dominant defense in the league. This was a huge triumph. If someone had told me yesterday that the score would be forty-two to seven in our favor, that Odewale would not have recorded a single sack, I would never have thought it conceivable.
“Mike! Mike Riley!” a slightly older guy cried, waving a tape-recorder at me as he tried to navigate the crowd. “I’m Seth Meisel from the Hillside Gazette! Can I get a quote?”
“Guys! Guys! Let him through!” I said, dispersing the fans who fettered the reporter. He shot me a thankful smile as he finally broke through the masses and hit the record button on his recorder.
“Hey, man,” I said as people screamed and cheered all around me.
“So, Mike Riley, how does it feel to be the paragon of New York state football?” he asked, shoving the little microphone at me.
I laughed, for some reason, as the guilt started to creep back over my shoulders. “I don’t feel like a paragon of anything,” I told him. “It was a team effort tonight, and I’m just really proud of my guys.”
“And he’s even modest,” Seth said, amused. “The consensus in the stands and at the paper is that you’ll be going to a top-ten school next year. Division One. What do you think about that?”
“I think it’d be great,” I said. “But right now I just want to concentrate on a winning season for the Cardinals.”
The team started to head for the locker room, and I made to follow. “Thanks, man. I gotta go.”
“Thanks, Mike! Good luck with the rest of the season!” he called after me.
On the way toward the school, I tried to keep the smile plastered to my face, but already the feeling of victory was waning. I could hear the guys’ cheers echoing off the locker room walls up ahead and wished I could bypass the usual post-win celebration and the coach’s laudatory remarks, but I knew I had no choice. If I skipped out, it would mean days of explaining to my teammates, and I wouldn’t even have a plausible excuse. I just had to try to stay composed and get through it.
Inside, everyone cheered my arrival and slapped my shoulder pads and back. I smiled genuinely as Daryl ruffled my sweaty hair and someone popped a fizzed-up Sprite, spraying it all over the room like champagne. Finally Coach came in and settled everyone down. As much as they could be settled, anyway.
“Well guys, I think you silenced any detractors you had after last week’s loss,” he began.
“Yeah!” everyone shouted, slapping hands and getting riled up all over again. Coach waited for us to quiet down, grinning all the while.
“You guys played sixty minutes of perfect football out there tonight, and I’m proud of you,” he said to the tune of more cheers. He picked up the game ball from behind him and held it up. “But I think we all know who’s going home with this.”
“Mikey!” one of the linemen shouted, earning laughter and more cheers.
“Mike Riley, get up here!” Coach said.
I contemplated bolting. I wasn’t feeling all that meritorious at the moment, but my teammates basically shoved me out of my seat and up to the front of the room.
“Mike, you passed for two-hundred thirteen yards, three touchdowns, and one rushing touchdown,” Coach said. “I think we can all agree that you are the incontrovertible MVP of this game. Congratulations.”
My teammates gave me a standing ovation as I humbly accepted the game ball. I tried to take my seat, but Coach clasped my shoulder pad in his strong grip and kept me where I was.
“All right, all of you. Get out there and celebrate!” Coach shouted. “Safely, of course,” he added. Then he turned to me and lowered his voice. “You. Come with me.”
Confused, I followed Coach to his office. He let me in first, then he closed the door behind him.
“Son, that was one of the most unbelievable performances I have ever seen at a high school level,” he said with a grin as he stepped behind his desk. “If you keep playing like that, schools are going to be throwing scholarship money at you.”
I swallowed hard. Money. It was all about money. Too bad I couldn’t have them throwing cash at me right now instead of at the end of the year. That would have solved all of my problems.
“Tomorrow I am going to spend my day making phone calls, inviting scouts to come out and appraise your performance next week,” he told me. “It’s the big rivalry game against Dorchester, and we both know it’s gonna be out of control. You go out there and do what you did tonight, it’s going to be seriously advantageous to your prospects.”
He took a deep breath and looked at me wistfully. “You’re going places, kid.”
I nodded. “Thanks, Coach.”
Somehow the images of my bright future, juxtaposed against the images of my awful present, were just bringing me down more.
He blinked, clearly bewildered. “What’s the matter? You think this is all a fabrication? Some fairy tale I concocted to amuse you? I’m telling you, you’re going to get a scholarship to a top school. I’m thinking about the NFL draft in a few years. This is no time to conserve your energy, kid. You’re allowed to get a little excited.”
“I know, Coach,” I said, quickly. “Sorry, I’m just . . . I guess I’m coming down a little.”
“Well, that much is patent,” he said. “But don’t let yourself. This was a huge game, kid. Get out there and enjoy it with the men.”
He came around his desk and put his hand on my shoulder. “And I know you’re generally a modest kid, but tonight you could probably even boast a little and no one would hold it against you.”
I smirked and nodded again. “Thanks, Coach. Really.”
“Thank you, son,” he said.
He opened the door and slapped me on the back, pushing me toward the locker room. As soon as the door was closed behind me, I turned and walked the other way, leaving the joyous sounds of my team and their cheers behind.