For Joey there was nothing quite like the feel of a football in his hands. The dimples, the lumpy laces on his fingers, and the sureness of his grip around the pointy end as he put it under his arm and shoulder all gave him the urge to put his head down and run. He relished everything about the game, and for him it was easy to consider that every carry might be his last. The ride would end. The question was when.
Practices for week five were largely normal for the Vandy team, even though every week had become more and more abnormal. But one thing remained the same and that was the grind of games and the toll they took on the players. All but Joey, who seemed to only get stronger. Playing for five weeks in a row had taken a bit of the spring out of every player’s step. Bumps and bruises had begun to hang around. Players who had continued to play through injuries were forced to continue nursing those dings week after week. But after the South Carolina game, they would finally have an off week.
On Wednesday Joey and several of his teammates got the chance to watch the Ol’ Ball Coach’s weekly show, highlights from last week’s game where South Carolina dismantled Arkansas and comments for adoring fans from the legendary head man himself. They watched the Gamecocks’ All-American defensive end Ed Tinker wreak havoc with an unprecedented six sacks and twelve tackles. “Looks like he’s tossin’ a feed sack into the back of a pickup,” Coach said. Tinker was 6’7”, 260 pounds, and could run a 4.5 in the 40, but watching the game film his speed looked more like 4.4. What was worse, he had a mean streak. He tackled like an alligator procuring its lunch, grabbing ball carriers and then launching his body in the air while spinning them to the ground in a twisted heap. He was solely responsible for ending the season for two quarterbacks already this year.
But the unnerving aspect of the program was the coach himself. A former Heisman Trophy winner, Sean Whittaker had become one of the game’s premier offensive gurus. Everything he touched turned to gold. He had coached two national champion teams. He was a scratch golfer. He was wealthy beyond belief after making several shrewd investments with his king’s ransom salary. It seemed anything he wanted to do he did.
“They’ve got a boy who can play. That’s for sure,” he drawled in his characteristic nasal tone. “He can run and make something out of nothin’. We gotta to contain ’im and we gottta to handle ’im when he plays defense. They’ve got ‘im playin’ everywhere on the field. I hope he’s plenty tired already.”
The coach laughed and curled his nose as he always did when he wanted to be pithy.
“I’ve been around this game a long time. Special things happen when you have a season like he’s havin’. He’s gotta stay healthy though.”
Joey kept looking at the screen even though the other players glanced at him. Whittaker continued on about how Vandy had not been 5-0 since World War II, and the coach quipped that Saturday might be World War III. He was in fine form.
“They’ve got some other talent too,” Whittaker’s sidekick said. “Willy Jackson is tall and fast. He poses matchup problems with everyone’s defensive backfield.”
“He’s good,” Whittaker said. “I remember him when he was with Memphis and all the mischief he caused. He’s trouble, that’s for sure.”
“Turn this crap off,” Willy said as he stormed away. “I can’t stand him.”
Joey followed Willy out of the room and the field house then into the parking lot.
“Willy,” Joey said walking behind him, but Willy continued walking toward the dorm. “Willy!”
Willy turned around, his eyes red, his face carrying the weight of his past. He said nothing.
“It’s over. This is new. There’s nothing that man can do to you. There’s nothing anyone can do to you.”
He and Joey walked back to the dormitory, a silent trek. Neither wanted to speak everything on their minds, and that was probably good.
They flew to Columbia Friday morning. Kickoff was at noon on Saturday, nationally televised. As the teams warmed up, the fans filed in filling the stadium to capacity. Joey scanned the sidelines looking for Luan and the cheerleaders each chance he got. But instead of spotting her, he saw something altogether more upsetting. Something that made him worry and gave him doubts. Something he never expected to see.
Al stood on the sideline beside none other than the Ol’ Ball Coach himself, animated and laughing with not a care in the world. Joey wasn’t sure what the association meant. Was Whittaker involved with Al? Had he been involved with Al for all these years? After all, he had won the Heisman, and everything he touched turned to gold. But he was old. Joey thought that somehow after this year ended, he would… and then he stopped. What did happen after it was all over and the cheering stopped and he was forced to be just another student and another NFL hopeful? Al had never mentioned it, at least Joey didn’t think he had.
Now his head was spinning, thinking of all the times he had spoken to Al, the conversations rattling through his head like echoes in a dream.
It was his turn to catch a pass or run a play; he wasn’t certain which. He looked again to the side line. Al was still talking to Whittaker, only this time they motioned his way and both laughed at the joke. Joey began to worry, this time for real. If Al could give it, he could take it away.
Joey began the game by kicking the ball through the end zone, and Carolina’s quarterback , a junior that would most certainly go into the NFL after this season, took over. He looked older than his years, sporting a beard and deep lines around his eyes. He was a big man who preferred to try and run over defenders than around them. And while he wasn’t the best passer, he could certainly get the job done. He often threw on the run, and he had won games in the Gamecocks’ last possession nine times already in his career.
He ran the option on the first play, and Joey found himself one on one. The players collided sending the quarterback backward onto his back.
“Nice hit, freshman,” he said, tossing the ball to the official. “I’ll be all over it before it’s over.”
Joey wasn’t sure what that meant, but two more plays followed before Carolina was forced to punt. They did so out of bounds on Vandy’s 36. Time to see what the Gamecock defense was all about.
Vandy surprised Carolina on the first two plays, both passes to their possession receiver Reynolds that picked up 8 and 12 yards. Inside Carolina territory, Vandy threw a quick out to Willy for 15 more. Now they were at least in field goal range and could take the early lead. But on the next play, Joey took a pitch to the left out of the backfield, and the big defensive tackle Ed Tinker came through untouched. Joey never saw him. The defender exploded through him, sending a bolt of pain from Joey’s head down to his toes. His world went black for a moment, and when he rose it sounded as though everyone’s words were garbled and slowed down. He tapped his helmet and left the game.
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
Joey could see now. His head had cleared on the way to the sideline. He answered four. Where are you? Columbia.
“I’m okay,” Joey said.
“We have to make sure,” the trainer said. “Rules.”
“I had the wind knocked out of me.”
Now the game was real. Joey had never been hit like that, and it shook his confidence. Had Ed made some sort of deal with Al too? Joey was full of suspicion. How could he compete if they were all like that?
As Joey waited to return, Couch through an interception. Without Joey in the game, Whittaker would certainly throw deep, probably where Joey would have been. He tried to tell the coaches he could go back into the game, but it was too late. And on the first play, Carolina threw long to a wide open receiver who took the pass to the house.
“I can go back in,” Joey told Michaels.
“Stay out one more offensive series,” the coach said. “Go back in when we go back on defense.”
Vandy went quietly on offense once more, and the second string punter shanked the ball out of bounds on their own 45 as the first quarter ended.
With Joey in the game, Carolina managed only one first down but it put them close enough to kick a field goal for a 10-0 lead. Then they kicked the ball through the end zone for a touchback. Joey went in at tailback once more. Coming out of the huddle he eyed Ed Tinker, menacing from the defensive line and smiling.
“Freshman is back for more,” he said. “Come and get it.”
Joey took the counter play and juked back right. But the defense, sensing the play would be run away from Ed guessed right. Joey stopped and dodged, then cut inside, but before he could go any further he felt arms engulf him from behind and Tinker’s big head driving him into the ground.
Vandy got two first downs but had to punt once more. Joey kicked the ball out of bounds at the two.
Carolina drove the ball down the field, added a field goal, and went to the half leading 13-0.
No one in the Vandy camp was panicking yet, but things didn’t look good. Their line was being slaughtered, especially by Tinker. The Carolina quarterback had carried the ball more than anyone and already had more than a hundred yards rushing. Joey had not been able to get into the game in any real way.
Vandy began the second half hitting Willy on slants every play. He caught passes of 9, 13, 8, 10, and 15. Then on the 25, Couch misread coverage, and Carolina got the interception.
The teams slugged it out through the third, and Carolina started to march at their own ten in the fourth. In a slow drive designed to eat up clock and yardage, they began to chip away. The clock ran, and with only five minutes left in the game Carolina had the ball first and goal on the five. Leading by thirteen, the game appeared to be history.
Vandy took their first time out.
“Man coverage outside. Cheat up. Joey, you’re up all the way. You are going to penetrate wherever you see an opening and you are going to hit the ball carrier. Make the tackle. Better yet. We need the ball. We can’t give them another score.”
The crowd came to its feet as Carolina came to the line. The quarterback waved his hands indicating to the fans he wanted them to quiet and proceeded to go under center. Joey cheated up, further still, behind the nose man whom he patted on the right side. The center noticed. The signal was opposite, and as the nose went left, the center went right. Joey hit him and the quarterback was down right there, a two yard loss.
Carolina took their time, now the clock winding below 4:30. This time Joey cheated up and stuttered on the snap. In a blur he went through the line and collided with the quarterback as he tried to hand off. He held on to the ball though. Loss of three; third and goal from the ten. Under 3:45.
On the next play, Joey saw an opening between the right guard and tackle, hurdled the running back coming up to block and slammed into the quarterback. The ball came free and rolled to the seven where Vandy recovered. Vandy had the ball, but the play was being reviewed.
Michaels was elated, and he had a chance to work.
“Joey, you’re in the shot gun. You will run every play. Immediately over the ball. Run it again, but then go back. If they beat us, it will be by beating our best player.”
“I’ll do it, Coach.”
Vandy did have the ball, and they came to the line. Tinker dug in growling.
Joey began to call the snap. He looked at Tinker. And for reasons he didn’t even know, he decided that would be a good place to run the play. Anger welled inside him. Something he wanted was being taken away, and Joey became a different man. Never had he felt hatred as he did at that moment.
Joey took the snap, studied the line, saw Tinker swim over the lineman, and as he raged into the backfield, Joey turned and ran at him.
“Aaaaaar,” Joey screamed. He tucked the ball under his left arm, and as Tinker began to lower his head and extend his long arms, Joey reached out his right hand in one ninja-like movement and first hit Tinker in the throat then, as he did, wrapped his hand around the man’s neck and pushed.
Tinker went sprawling backward, as Joey sidestepped another defender and then began his trek toward the other end. He ran around another defender, did a stop-and-go for another, then ran over the top of the safety who had gotten the angle on him from the right. Tinker finally managed to breathe again, and as the team led him from the field it was obvious his night was over.
After the kick and with 3:25 remaining, the score was 13-7.
Vandy tried the onside kick, but Carolina’s front line of good hands receivers recovered. They had to run the clock out. One play up the middle. 3:10 remaining. Another play, this time off tackle, no gain, timeout Vandy. 2:55 remaining and now Carolina was out of timeouts. Carolina pitched to the outside, fell on the ball in bounds for no gain, and when they punted out of bounds 1 minute and 55 seconds remained with Vandy possession on their own 15.
One last meeting on the sideline and Michaels wouldn’t see Joey again until after the game.
“Joey, you’re in the shot gun. You will run the draw the first play. Immediately over the ball. Run it again, but then fade back instead of running. Willy you post. How far can you throw Joey?”
“I can hit him, Coach.”
Joey did as he was told, and the first play went for almost twenty yards. He might have gotten more, but as three defenders bore down on him he stepped out of bounds to stop the clock at 1:15. Then the play.
It seemed to Joey that time went in slow motion. It would have been more dramatic if time had been about to expire, but it was a certainty that Carolina would not be able to move the ball on Vandy at this point if they got the ball back. The Commodores had owned the second half. But as he took the snap, then stepped forward, he could see the entire field at once. Every player read him, every player bit, every player moved forward. And Willy streaked by them, made his cut, and put his hand up. Wide open. Joey stepped back and threw. Touchdown. The extra point.
Vandy held and their record was 5-0.