Sunday team meetings were almost always the same. Some of the players entered dressed in nice clothes, straight from church services and lunch. A few of the players wore sweats after sleeping in and having a late breakfast. The remaining players wore jeans and Vandy Polo shirts, a comfortable change from how they dressed to attend classes. And, at Vanderbilt during most any quiet moment, many players attempted to isolate themselves for a few minutes and sat away from the group to study. Ten minutes here and ten minutes there, in a tiny cubicle with their backs to the team or in a corner with knees drawn to their chest, the moments became a sizable portion of time as players waited for meetings.
Michaels’ meeting changed the tone and feel of the team’s entire remaining season.
The coach had something on his mind, and even though he began their meeting with bad news, it seemed to Joey that even worse news lurked somewhere in the back of his mind.
“Last night, Lenny and Dale were arrested at a bar. They’re legal age to be at a bar. They were intoxicated and were involved in an altercation. They are suspended indefinitely,” Michaels said. He was standing still as he spoke, but after taking several steps and collecting his thoughts, he stopped once more and resumed his talk.
“I can’t tell you what to do, nor do I want to. You chose to come to Vanderbilt and play for me and I chose to allow it. I care about each of you. But there’s something I need to say, and this concerns all of us.
“I’m not old, but it’s safe to say I’m no spring chicken. When you look back on your life, you’d be amazed at how fast time goes by. Things that seemed as though they would never happen, appear and pass in the blink of the eye. You realize when you’re my age that you don’t have to rush things; things come at you fast enough. By your nature, evidenced in your attendance at Vandy, most of you delay gratification. There’s more I want to say, men. I’m having difficulty putting it into words.” Michaels stopped and seemed to be suppressing great emotion. Finally he continued. “There’s something greater than each of us at play here today.”
The choice of words caused Joey’s pulse to skip a beat. He looked over to Willy who was staring at the floor and may have been lost in thought. Either way, Willy never reacted. The meeting and Michael’s rambling made Joey even more certain that something else was going on that the coach was withholding. Maybe that was a good thing, but it didn’t make things any easier.
“Guys, we’re 9-0. We, the Vanderbilt Commodores, are nine-and-freakin’-ohhhhh!” Michaels said. He was smiling now, but his expression said something good was happening but something bad was coming along behind this event, as if he couldn’t even enjoy his happiness. “You have a chance to do something that few players and teams have ever done. You have a chance to do something that NO Vanderbilt team has ever done. EVER. Do you understand me?”
Heads nodded around the room, and Joey noticed that even Willy was looking up now. He had no expression though. He might as well have been playing poker.
“Three weeks, twenty days from now, our regular season will be complete. Seven more days after that and we’ll be in the SEC Championship game if we do what we’re supposed to do between now and then. At that point we can worry about all the rest. I’m going to ask you to do something for me,” Michaels said and resumed his pacing, looking down to the floor. “And for you.”
In the moment of silence someone cleared his throat. There was a rustling of clothing as players readjusted themselves.
“I’m going to ask you to do nothing.”
Michaels looked into the sea of expectant faces. The players looked at each other as if there might be some code to decipher what the coach was saying.
“That’s right, nothing. I’m going to ask you, for twenty-seven days, to go to practice, to go to classes, to study, to eat, to sleep, to go to games, and in addition do nothing else. I’m going to request that you not go to any social gatherings. I’m going to ask you not to go to the movies. Be boring.
“We have the chance to do something special. The two young men who have been suspended were our teammates. But let’s be honest. Those guys have not played all year. They are fine young men and good students, but their roles were limited on this team. One player doesn’t make a team. We can do without any one person on this team. I don’t want to though. Winning would be more difficult. We are a team. All of us have to continue to buy into the grand scheme if we want to succeed on a broader scale than anyone thinks possible.”
It was Willy, standing now and looking across the room, his brow pulled tight on his high-held head, his countenance angelic.
“I’m speaking for all of us. We’re in.” Willy looked around the room at the sea of nodding faces. “I want this more than anything I’ve ever wanted in my life.”
Willy stepped around players in front of him and soon was in a position to address everyone.
“I want to win every game. I’ll give a month or two of my life to have something that no one can ever take away from us. I want us all in. If you’ve got a problem with it, figure it out now. If you don’t want to buy in, you need to let everyone know now. I want it all.”
Willy looked to Joey.
After satisfying himself that no one had anything else to add Michaels said. “We’ve looked at the big picture. Let’s go small. Do what you’re supposed to do every day. Don’t worry about two weeks from now. Don’t worry about two days from now. Worry about today. And today, we need to talk about the Mississippi State Bulldogs.”
Joey looked out among the players, so young and in many ways so naïve. Of all the souls in this room, Joey could empathize more than anyone with Coach Michaels. Michaels was right; the players had lots of time to have fun. Yet, they had only one chance to accomplish what they sought. But how much time did he have? Joey wondered. He had begun to enjoy his youth and his fame and now his scope had narrowed.
Low hanging clouds raced overhead as Joey and Willy trudged back to the dorm. The world had grown cold as if it too waited for the onslaught of a terrible battle.
“They’re not good,” Joey said.
“It doesn’t matter. One game at a time. One day at a time. One moment. Everyone has to make the right decisions for a little while longer.”
“Willy, is there more you’re not telling me?”
“I want to win. That’s all.”
“I mean, we’re okay, right?”
“Of course. Why would you ask that?”
Joey didn’t know. It was an intuition. Just as he had felt as though Michaels had more on his mind, so he did with Willy. It was a gut instinct. They continued walking without speaking until they turned onto the quad where Joey often spotted Al.
As they approached Al’s frequent hangout spot, instead of the tall man with his long legs and silver-toed boots pointing off the round, cement bench they spotted Luan. She smiled a quick, curt, melting grin and then said, “Hi boys.”
“Hi Luan,” Willy said. Joey nodded.
“Can I speak with Joey?”
“Sure,” Willy said. He took a deep breath and looked to Joey. “See you later.”
So here she was, on cue, as if Joey had been prepped for this moment throughout the afternoon.
“Tell me you have to go study, and I’ll scream.”
“Don’t scream,” Joey said, smiling as he looked around the deserted quad. “How ya’ been?”
“Joey, I’m good, but I can’t understand why you’re so scared of me?”
“I’d call it focus, Luan.”
“Then let’s live a little. All work and no play…”
“Luan, is that what you want?” Joey asked.
“To be truthful, Joey, I want you.”
Joey had no response, and when he said nothing Luan stood and hooked one arm in his and pulled him closer.
“It’s time to quit being coy,” Luan said her face looking directly into Joey’s eyes. “I knew it the first time I laid eyes on you. I want you.”
“Luan, I’m nowhere close to as naïve as you take me to be. There’s no future in us, at least not now. I’m a conquest.”
Now Luan was the one who grew quiet. Joey continued.
“Isn’t that it? We want something we maybe can’t have. The chase is-“
“Stop,” she said and put her head into his chest. She might have been crying or it might have been an act, but Joey couldn’t tell which. She pulled back a little to look up at him again. “Just stop. You won’t even give me a chance. Let me prove it to you. I can fix you.”
“You have this hole… in your heart… I can feel it. Let me be there, inside you, fix that emptiness, Joey. It’s written all over you.”
“I can say not now, Luan, and it doesn’t mean this thing is over. That’s all. I mean not now.”
“Boys and their games,” Luan puffed. She pulled away and turned around to face away from Joey. “You boys and your games. It’s all games. That’s all life is, isn’t it. This is nothing more than a game to you. I pour out my heart to you and you think this is some game to play with my feelings.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever led you on.”
Luan turned back to Joey.
“You lead me on by being you.”
Luan came back to him and moved dangerously close. Her lower body touched his. Suddenly the afternoon did not seem so cold.
“Take me home,” she said and wrapped her arms around him.
“In time,” Joey said pushing her away. He wondered for a moment, as he did every time he encountered Luan, how he had the strength and the courage or possibly the stupidity to deny this woman’s wishes. “The season ends in January. If we’re lucky. Then, let’s see where we stand.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it.”
“In that you are probably correct.”
“I won’t stop pursuing you,” Luan said as if realizing this battle was lost and the war still loomed in front of them.
“I won’t stop being interested,” Joey said. “I need time.”
Luan seemed to consider the comment and then spoke with deliberateness.
“We don’t have unlimited time, Joey. You of all people should know that,” she said and in the same moment turned to walk away. “Snooze you lose. Don’t snooze.” She smiled over her shoulder as she strolled away and out of sight.
Joey shivered and walked to the dorm.