Each of the Vandy players watched their own DVD of “highlights”, plays that were good, those that could be improved, and of course some that were missed assignments or mismatches. Each player had been graded on yesterday’s performance already. There would be few mismatches in Vandy’s favor this week playing Ole Miss.
After signing four five-star players two years ago and two last year, this team had talent. Considering how much the Rebels had developed their four stars, beating them would be a real task. And now, the lights in the major film room dimmed, and Michaels began to break down what made the Ole Miss offense tick. He mentioned their best players by number, and then he explained several of their alignments. Most of the players, including Willy and Joey, took notes.
Then Michaels went to the defensive side of the ball. The Rebels front four, and their subs as well, not only did their assignments but also overwhelmed their opponents. They were quick, and they were big.
When the units dispersed, Michaels retained Joey and the team’s two captains.
“I wanted to discuss some things with you guys. Ronnie, you in particular. First, we’re getting beat, and I mean beat bad, at tackle. We’ve got guys as slow as the ones we played this week, running by those guys. We don’t have more speed and size to insert in those spots, so we’re going to have to get their big, fast tackles to over-commit and get out of position.
“And, this is why I wanted to talk with all three of you, we’re going to have to try and get Joey the ball. I see him as being capable of doing things with the ball. Ronnie, we’re going to put him in the backfield, sometimes getting the snap directly. We’ll flank you out wide sometimes. Sometimes you may come out. You are our captain, and you’ve done well. We have to do what we can though to score points.”
The senior quarterback nodded and rolled the idea around before he said, “I want to win, coach. Let’s do it.”
“Mark,” the coach continued, “we’re also going to put Joey back deep on kickoffs, with you. We may even have him return some punts.”
Dennison agreed as well.
They would begin working tomorrow. Joey would have to be ready if Vandy had any hope of beating Ole Miss.
As Joey and Willy left the long meeting and walked through the campus, the weight of the conversations settled over them. The planning had been serious, but more playing time had come their way. Finally, Willy said what was on both of their minds, and it revealed what they really thought.
“We’re starting!” Willy yelled and immediately looked around to make certain none of the other players were close.
Joey smiled, but it was a hollow feeling in one sense. He knew this would eventually be his destiny. Would Vandy win every game, or would he simply be the shining star? That was where he wasn’t as certain. Joey wondered if Willy might have met Al, or someone like him, at some point. He didn’t think so, but then again it was easy to imagine while watching Willy play. But the uneasy feeling, the feeling that he was doing something wrong – something so very fundamentally wrong that it was a sin in itself- gnawed at his gut.
Joey saw Al, sitting on the steps of Fowler Hall, leaning back enjoying the evening.
“Willy, I need to go speak to this gentleman.”
Willy stopped walking, looked across to the steps where Al sat, and then turned back to his friend.
“Okay. Alright, man, I’ll see you back.”
Al stood and stepped down to greet Joey. They shook hands.
“Are you getting taller, Joey?”
He hadn’t considered the prospect that at 19 years old he might still be growing, but it was fine by him. Joey had always wanted to be six feet tall. For a moment, a fleeting second, he returned to his youth and what it was like to grow and look forward to what he might become as an adult. It was the first time in years he had felt this way, and in the same instant he became young again. He didn’t just look young and feel a more youthful body. He actually had returned to his youth with an altogether different outlook on the way things were inside his earthly body.
“I might be, Al.”
“How is college life?” Al asked.
“Easier than I imagined. My former degree is helping me write all these assignments and papers. I guess I still have it.”
“That you do, my boy. I’ve not helped you there in the least.”
“You were right. I can play. I don’t even think about it, and it happens.”
“It’s great isn’t it? You don’t have to wait all one-hundred days, you know.”
Somehow, Joey did know that. But there was more. He had rehearsed this time, now, and he decided it was time to play the game. His confidence, along with his youthful body, had begun to mature as well.
“There’s more. I know it.” Joey stopped short. He still wondered if Al could possibly read his thoughts. He thought not and had considered that even though there was much Al could do it was possible he was shrewd and cunning, a keen observer of facial expressions and body language. Knowing much about someone made guessing all that much easier. Maybe that’s how Al had known to push his buttons about Michelle.
“There’s almost anything you want,” Al said. He smiled again and rocked back on his feet.
“If I had almost everything I wanted, there’s almost no end to what I might do.”
“You say it, Joey. I’d venture to say most anything is possible.”
“Let’s leave it at that then for now,” Joey said. He suddenly felt as though some of the cards had shifted in his favor. He might have a bit of the upper hand.
“One hundred days, Joey. Have you counted it up?”
He had considered it, yes. Near the end of the season and the SEC Championship game. He had to buy some time after that, and he thought he might know how to do that. But was it possible to beat the devil at his own game?
“I might have,” Joey said. “I’ll see you around.”
“One hundred days,” Al said to Joey’s back as the young man walked away. “One hundred days. And not a second more.”
Joey entered the dorm and bounded up the stairs and into the hallway of the second floor.
“Wa-wa-wa-wa-wait!” someone screamed.
Guys stood in each of the doorways, their heads peering out into the hall. Near the midway point of the hall, a band of toilet paper stretched across and on the other end several students stood behind Downtown Kevin Brown and another student, Dante Stillworth, a stout and muscular sophomore who looked like a professional boxer. Dante acted like one as well.
“We’re going to race,” Downtown said from the other end about thirty yards away.
Willy stood in one of the open doors. He still had not made it to his room. The amusing sight made him smile.
“Downtown said he was pretty fast for a fat man. He’s racing Dante,” Willy said.
“Why didn’t they go run in the field?” Joey asked. The participants had begun to set up their start once more.
“Downtown said he couldn’t run that far. He said he was quick, not fast at the top end.”
“SET!” the starter yelled behind them.
There was a rumbling. Downtown almost got out in front of Dante, and he would have never let the other racer pass if that had happened. As it was they ran stride for stride. Ten yards, then twenty, roaring down the hall. As they passed each door, heads went inside and then back out at once to watch the race. The cheers were deafening. It seemed as though the floor would collapse.
Dante nipped him at the finish.
Downtown crumpled in a gargantuan heap in the floor.
“He IS fast for fat man!” Dante roared, laughing hard and catching his breath.
Downtown finally arose and strolled back into his room. Joey and Willy stood amazed. He was fast, and so big.
“You know what I’m thinking,” Joey said to Willy.
Downtown’s roommate walked by on his way to check on Downtown.
“Greer,” Willy said as one of the students passed, “did he ever play football?”
“No, man,” Greer answered. “His brother said he went out his sophomore year and he thought he hurt a guy. He only played about three days.”
“He’s so big,” Joey said. They were walking toward Downtown’s room.
“He set Marion County’s lifting records too in the off-season. He only worked out about two weeks. He’s a big teddy bear.”
Downtown was sprawled on the bed, his arms and legs hanging off each side, a scene that looked like someone had shot a grizzly bear.
“I was telling them what your brother told me,” Greer said.
Downtown didn’t move. If his chest had not been rising and falling it might have been easy to mistake him for being dead.
Willy grabbed Downtown’s leg and shook him. “You’re big and fast.”
“My brother’s bigger than I am,” Downtown said still motionless. “Funny. He was about five-ten his freshman year, and he ate nothing but peanut butter. He was six-five by the start of his sophomore year.”
“When you catch your breath, come to my room,” Willy told him. He and Joey walked out and down the hall. “We’ve got to get that guy to come out.”
Joey and Willy sat in the room and waited for Downtown. Willy leaned back, apparently tired from the day’s classroom work and sore from yesterday’s game. Joey felt surprisingly energetic. He had found that he needed little sleep and his recovery time was off the charts. In all fairness though, he had played little in the Austin Peay game.
“Who was that guy?” Willy asked, his eyes still closed as he leaned back.
“The guy you were talking to.”
“That guy? Oh, my uncle. He stops by. He makes sure I’m doing okay. He kind of started looking after me after dad died.” Joey wondered if the lying would ever come more easily, even though this fib hadn’t been too difficult.
“Okay. Just worried about you, you know. There’s boosters and agents. So many ways to get into trouble, you know?”
“I know. Thanks Willy.”
The conversation was unproductive with Downtown, but he promised to consider going to speak to Michaels. Downtown was having altogether too much fun to be bogged down with practice. He did have an adventuresome soul though, or so it seemed. Willy was persuasive as well. He seemed to have a way of making others feel almost bad if they didn’t come around to his way of thinking no matter what the topic. His intentions seemed honorable and worthy.
Workouts the week of the Ole Miss game were hard up until Wednesday. Every player seemed to be lifting the intensity. Drills were vigorous as well. But most of the work on the field seemed to be mental. By the end of practice Wednesday, the coaching staff had other concerns as well. The weather was turning nasty. A hurricane had bounced up through the gulf and looked as though it would crash through Biloxi and take a path through Mississippi. Saturday would be, at best, wet and blustery.
On Thursday Downtown accompanied Willy and Joey to see Michaels. Kevin would begin working with the team the following week. But for now, the team would leave on Friday morning and travel to Oxford for their first SEC game where the chase for a title would begin. The game would likely make or break one of the teams.