Vandy was home again, this week against Northwestern, billed as a battle of brains. And, of course, ESPN was even carrying the game because of Joey Goodman. Excitement was building to a fever pitch with the prospect of the Commodores having a 4-0 record, which would be only the fourth time that had happened since 1950.
On Monday Vandy had also discovered that practices would have to be restricted somehow. The news media was everywhere, in the stands, on the sidelines, one reporter even walked out behind the huddle and tried to take a picture over Joey’s shoulder.
The usually mild mannered Michaels erupted in a string of profanity that was so out of character several players laughed. After practice Michaels even chuckled at the outburst himself, causing his neck and face to glow in a soft pink hue and his eyes to water.
But the most pleasurable outcome of the winning streak was a positive difference in the attitude of the team. At Vanderbilt there is no shortage of players who believe in teamwork and who work hard in attempting to make that happen. That is the nature of a school with high academic standards and rigor. But the attitude of the team had begun to morph into intensity, accountability, and a level of play that could only be credited to having won. It was the chemistry and the intangible that those who watch games recognize and witness in champion teams.
If Northwestern was indeed as inferior as most pundits believed, no one would have surmised Vandy’s players thought so after witnessing practices.
During the week, Joey thought about Luan several times a day. He tried to remember each of her features and pondered on the matter much more than he probably should have. Unlike a flower, plucked from its stem and more beautiful than an imitation because of its almost imperceptible and yet somehow known flaws and still exquisitely wonderful, Luan seemed to be unblemished and without defect. How she could have honed her seductive talents when her reward and prizes were to be had so easily was a mystery for Joey.
But when he didn’t locate Luan on campus by Wednesday, he accepted the satisfaction that he would see her cheering on the sidelines Saturday.
In one sense the game was anticlimactic. In another, the game was incredible. If he wasn’t a superstar already, Joey cemented that notion against Northwestern. He returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. He got a pick-six his first series on defense. He returned a punt for a touchdown on the next. Willy caught a screen pass, got a devastating pancake block from Joey and went the distance for a score. Joey ran a play from the shotgun eighty yards for an offensive score, then scored on a screen pass himself. Five more touchdowns. The game got out of hand so quickly, Joey didn’t even play in the second half.
It appeared for a while that Downtown might get into the game, but the coaches weren’t certain he was ready. His brother did play defense on the last series and even made a tackle.
During the second half, Joey finally spotted Luan. Several times he looked her way but she never gave him a glance, at least he didn’t see it if she did. He decided to go to The Club again tonight in the hope she would make an appearance.
Sports Center ran the highlights throughout the evening and late into the night on the recap show. Joey now led the nation in scoring and all-purpose yards. Vandy was almost a lock to enter the top 25 in the polls. And, if Vandy could possibly beat their next opponent, on the road in Columbia at #15 South Carolina, there was no telling how high the Commodores might rank. Vandy had not been 5-0 since 1943.
Joey returned from the late game well after midnight, managed to elude his entourage of dorm mates, and raced inside so as to shower and go out. Tyler had gone home for the weekend, and it didn’t matter tonight if he went out alone. In fact, he planned to do just that. An unknown force, if Luan could be called that, beckoned, calling him to The Club. Joe, the old man, was gone. In his place was Joey Goodman, and that man had no time to waste.
As he picked one last time at his hair, he heard three solid raps on his door. Willy.
“Can I come in?” Willy asked.
“Sure,” Joey said. He turned around and went back for one last look in the mirror and then began brushing his teeth once more.
Willy, in sweats and a t-shirt, sat on the couch and leaned back, watching Joey. He said nothing for a moment.
“Where you headed?” he asked finally.
“I’m going to The Club, Willy. You ought to come with me.”
“No, no I shouldn’t. I told you I’m not going down that path again.”
“Willy. It’s practically on campus,” Joey said. He sat down on the couch near Willy and turned to face him. “It’s safe. No drinking either.”
“Who is she?”
“Who is who?”
“You know what I’m asking. Who is she?”
Joey stood and walked into the kitchen, got a bottle of water, and with it motioned at Willy to ask if he wanted one as well. Willy shook his head as he stared at his friend.
“Her name is Luan. She’s gorgeous.” Joey walked back and sat beside Willy once more.
“It’s almost two, Joey.”
“Willy, she has this vein in her forearm,” Joey said. “Her skin is tan, but you can actually see her heartbeat in that little vein. She smells wonderful as well.” Joey smiled and sipped as he continued smiling.
“You’re going to The Club to see a woman’s pulse.”
“You put it that way, I sound like a vampire. I think I want to get out there again, you know, meet the girls. Willy, the girls watch the games. They see us on TV. I know they saw you today. You had two scores. They flock around like a bunch of hungry pigeons.”
“Man, this isn’t you.”
“What do you mean this isn’t me? I’m me. I like the ladies. And I know you like them too.”
“And it got me in trouble.”
“This isn’t Beale Street. The odds of that happening again have to be astronomical.”
“If I don’t go out the odds are zero. You’re a marked man and you don’t even know it.”
Something in the statement rocked Joey, but instead of even considering the point he shook his head, as if to clear the idea from his mind, and then stood once more and stepped toward the door.
“You can’t live your life running away. You can’t keep doing it, Willy. It’s not healthy. Life’s short. We don’t have long. I mean, we’re not going to be young forever.”
Willy looked down, breaking eye contact. He rubbed his hands together and took a deep breath. For a moment Joey thought Willy was having a change of heart and considering accompanying him. Then Willy looked up once more.
“Can I tell you something and you not think I’m crazy?” Willy asked.
“I guess you can.”
“I came in and went to bed. I get so keyed up and go so hard on game day, I’m exhausted. I can’t keep going like you. But I woke up, having this dream, and it was as if something told me to find you.”
Joey stood motionless before repositioning and sitting in one of the tall chairs at the table.
“I couldn’t even make out the details, but you were in darkness,” Willy continued. “It was like, like you were being stalked.” Willy shivered. “Please don’t go.”
“Please. It’s so late. We have meetings tomorrow. Don’t you see? You’re having a once in a lifetime season.”
Willy stood then and walked to the door. He looked back at Joey.
“Why did you come to Vanderbilt?” Willy asked.
“I came to play football. To be the best college football player ever.”
“Then why is this so important? Why is she so important that you’re going to risk everything to go see her in the middle of the night?”
Joey rolled the idea around, and for the first time he did see Willy’s point. The old Joe barged in and tried to reason with Joey’s tormented soul.
“You think she won’t be here after the season?”
“No, but I might not be. You don’t know. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“And neither do you,” Willy said. “None of us does.”
Willy’s persuasion was becoming all too common. His reasoning was impeccable.
Joey walked back into the living room and sat heavily on the couch. He said nothing, but now Willy began to smile.
“Order a pizza… mom!” Joey said. He wasn’t angry, but he was disappointed. Maybe Willy had a point. He would have to consider the dream some other day. “The least you can do is order a pizza.”
“That’s my boy,” Willy said. “At least you’ll smell good for the team meeting tomorrow.”
Who would call themselves the Gamecocks? South Carolina that was who. And the ol’ ball coach would have them ready for Vandy.