LINK TO PART ONE: HERE
CONTEST LINK: HERE
The Autumn of 1998, continued. . .
The loss of players mounted. At first when someone went down, someone else stepped up to fill the void. But little by little the team was being tested to its limits. At the same time, you sensed they would be successful as long as Brandon didn’t get hurt.
And successful they were, winning their conference for the first time in two decades, earning a well-deserved berth at the state championships.
Brandon had managed to stay healthy. But that ended during the traditional Thanksgiving game against their perennial cross-town rivals. A non-conference battle, it didn’t count except in the top 25 rankings, player stats, and bragging rights. Someone missed a block and Brandon, scrambling to his left, was caught from behind, landing hard on his shoulder. His throwing arm was so painful he couldn’t lift it for the first two days after the injury.
Finally he got a cortisone shot. In hindsight, he probably should have had the shot right away. In little more than a week the state championships were coming up. Would his arm be ready?
There was another, perhaps more important, question – even if Brandon were ready, would the team be ready? Initially the answer was, yes. After playing together since grade school, the team knew each other like brothers. Now everything they had hoped, planned and dreamed about for all those years together was finally coming true.
But I saw a major problem looming. Their championship game was scheduled for 10:00 in the morning. Teenage boys in general are night owls. Brandon and his team, more than most, liked to stay out and sleep in. 10:00 AM was the middle of the night for them. Especially when their bodies were used to playing in the afternoon. But there were other games scheduled that day and this was the hand they were dealt.
Still, I had a bad feeling. I was sure the players would have trouble sleeping the night before, which wouldn’t be a problem under ordinary circumstances. But no sleep and an early game made a bad combination. I was afraid that no amount of adrenaline would be enough to lift them over that hump.
And finally, there was Brandon's shoulder.. Despite extra days of rest and the cortisone shot, he couldn’t throw the long ball. His unerring, pinpoint throws deep into his opponent’s territory had been instrumental in getting his team to the championship game, but now his most effective weapon had been taken away.
He was hurt pretty bad, probably a partial tear, but he didn’t tell his teammates.
The showdown at the Meadowlands seemed like it happened very fast. It turned out I was right about the team needing a wake up call. By the beginning of the second quarter they had spotted their opponents 22 points already. Finally, they showed up to play. And began the long climb back.
As the game went on, a visiting coach standing on the sidelines commented that any other team would have just given up after being so far down, but he’d never seen a quarterback so convinced he could bring his team back. Brandon nearly succeeded. But the clock ran out. And the state championship was gone.
But he had kept his promise. On a warm summer day many weeks before, Brandon had stunned me with his bold, brash, and unapologetic prediction. Then he went out and made it happen.
The football banquet was more than a dinner. It was a huge celebration, notable for all the awards handed out and the excellent catering by Outback Steakhouse. The cafeteria looked like it had been decorated for the prom. The walls were covered with all the posters I’d made during the season. Along with new, individual posters for the boys who had received post-season accolades. Everybody got something to take home. The players surprised me with a polar fleece vest, embroidered with my name and “FOOTBALL” underneath. I had officially become part of the team.
I take out the vest and look at it every so often. I can't bring myself to wear it. It’s a special reminder of an autumn I will never forget. And the start of a great friendship with a young man who is going to lose $10 tonight when the Red Sox beat the Yankees.
[Brandon graduated Phi Beta Kappa in three years from Johns Hopkins University, a Division III school. His college coach tried to switch him to defensive back, but he preferred to play third string quarterback. He never started again.]
LINK TO PICTURE: HERE