“Come on, Riley! You’re killing me!” Coach shouted from the sidelines. “Watch the damn blitz!”
Joe Trung, Dorchester’s lead linebacker, shoved me a little farther into the ground as he pushed himself up. This guy, who would have been totally nondescript if you saw him on the street, was a menace on the football field, and all I had done all day was hover in his path and let him take me down.
Curtis came over and offered me his hand, but I shook my head. The offer was nothing if not kind and only augmented my guilt. The last thing I wanted right now was to let my teammates help me out. Not when I was, unbeknownst to them, stabbing them in the back.
I pulled myself up out of the mud and muck and shook my hands, flinging grime everywhere. It was the second quarter and the crowd had grown vociferous, but not in a good way. I had a feeling that as soon as the ref blew the whistle to signal halftime, the stands were going to empty out and the fans were going to bring their wrath down on me. And why not? Anyone who was keeping a vigilant eye on my game could impute the blame to no one other than the quarterback. We were losing 17 to 3 and were now moving backward thanks to penalties and sacks. I was engineering the perfect loss, and with each passing moment, more and more maledictions rained down on me from our diehard fans.
I groaned as I joined the guys in the huddle. Trung had slammed me pretty hard on that last play. There was a laceration on my arm that was throbbing with pain and bleeding pretty profusely, even though it was matted with mud and grass. Daryl checked it out as he stepped next to me.
“Maybe you should have Dick clean that up,” he said. “Looks pretty bad.”
Dick Carerri, our trainer, was watching me with concern from the sideline.
“I’m fine,” I said. In fact, the injury sort of felt like penance for how I was desecrating this team, our stadium, our entire season. Let it bleed until I dropped. I deserved it.
“All right, guys. We’re gonna go to the sidelines on this one. Twenty-two sweep,” I said, feeling like evil incarnate. I knew there was no way running wide would be efficacious in this game. These guys had studied our tape and were expecting us to run this play, which was clear considering they had moved their most lithe tackle to the strong side. All the better to stop our running back, Tommy Jasper, if he decided to go wide.
I saw a couple of guys in the huddle exchange a look. They knew the play had no chance as well, but they were too deferential to me to say anything. I didn’t know how they could abide my total ineptness today. I almost wished someone would call me out. I would have thought more of them if they did. On top of which, the guilt was becoming overwhelming.
“Okay. Ready? Break!”
We moved out of the huddle to the line. As I dropped down behind my center, I wondered if anyone had figured out that I was deliberately driving us into the ground—if they knew that their star quarterback was just allowing Dorchester to usurp our position at the top of the league. I felt like it was so obvious it may as well have been written across the back of my jersey: “Traitor, #3.” The quality of my play was that much of an anomaly. But no one seemed suspicious. They just seemed confused. Apparently, they all trusted me. Which only made me feel worse.
“Blue eighty! Blue eighty!” I shouted.
Dorchester’s dynamic defense shifted, picking up on our formation. A cursory look at their new line would have told any competent quarterback to change the play with an audible—to call a pass. But I didn’t.
The ball hit my hands, and I handed it off to Tommy Jasper. About two seconds later he was crushed by the tremendous defensive tackle. The helmet-against-helmet crack was loud enough to draw a groan from both crowds.
As Dorchester’s lineman stood up with his fists raised to the air, Curtis ran over and shoved him, slamming him back into the ground. Suddenly both teams were on top of each other in a brawl, going at each other insatiably. For a split second I just stood there, stunned. I guess my team got a little bellicose when they were being thrashed by our archrivals.
I saw Daryl get smashed across the facemask and snapped into action, running for the melee. But one of the refs jumped in and held me back while the others threw flags and blew their whistles, struggling to untangle the mess of flailing arms and legs. The crowd, of course, went wild until the whole thing was sorted out. Finally the refs called a game timeout while they decided on penalties and ejections. Coach beckoned us over to the sidelines.
“What the hell was that? You ran the sweep?” he shouted at me. “Who in God’s name told you to run the sweep? Have you totally lost your mind?”
I bowed my head and took his reproaches as I waited for the game to resume. Little did he know his harangue was falling on deaf ears. Little did he know his go-to guy was basically playing for the other side.