By the time Mississippi State kicked off, Joey was pretty sure he would hear cowbells in his sleep. The noise had become a constant sound hovering around all else like the omnipresent sound of a beehive, the cascade of a waterfall, or traffic on a busy street. Never mind that the bells were against the rules. Their prohibition was never enforced.
Joey collected the end-over-end kick and began his return from the end zone. After nine games, and even though he was operating with Al’s help, the game had slowed for him. Joey had always heard about the game slowing down for quarterbacks, and now he understood completely. Accustomed to the speed of the players and able to anticipate movements, Joey had the ability by now to see blocking lanes and walls visibly opening for him. And now, he saw that very thing. To his left, an open avenue where a player had over-pursued to his right. A wall formed behind that where two players blocked in front of a wedge of three defenders. The kicker floundered, slow of foot, behind those groups. This play was a touchdown, and Joey could see it already before it even happened. This play was all over but the celebration. Ring your cowbell for that Joey thought.
Then on defense, the same sensation overtook him, as if he could see the play unfold before it even happened. What was more, he could see Downtown’s brother Marcus displaying the ability to do the same thing. So, it wasn’t only him! Everyone on the team was improving and gaining experience. At the plant, when workers learned how to clean and pack parts they had never done before, Joe often witnessed how they automatically learned shortcuts and what to look for in cleaning, inspecting, and preparing parts for shipment. Now, as Joey, he was doing the same thing on the football field.
On Vandy’s first defensive play, Marcus sniffed out a draw and flew into the open hole in the line, collided with the ball carrier, and when the ball popped into the air Joey caught it in stride and flew into the end zone again.
At the end of the day, Joey tallied six touchdowns and the final score was 63-7. Not only was he leading the nation in scoring, but the Vandy defense was now ranked number one as well.
“You were the highlight of the day on Sports Center again,” Willy told Joey Sunday morning.
“I get all the credit for our success,” Joey said. “The team could do this without me.”
“No, that’s where you’re wrong. They have confidence that you would bail them out if a game comes to that. They don’t have to worry.”
Joey considered the comment and wondered if it was true. What if he went back to being Joe Daily? Could the team still win? Vanderbilt would face Tennessee next week. The Vols were 9-2 and mathematically still in the hunt for the SEC East title and a berth in the conference championship game. They were a dangerous team that had improved every week. They had confidence. They never feared Vandy nor thought they would lose to the Commodores. The following week, Vandy would play lowly Middle Tennessee State. The real danger would come in the championship game against, most certainly, Alabama, the number one team in the land.
Even though Vandy had risen to number five overall, the Crimson Tide would be double digit favorites, and rightly so. They had no weakness. Even more problematic for Vandy than Bama’s talent and history was their coach, possibly the greatest to ever walk a sideline, Nick Sadan. The coach’s name in itself had spawned comparisons to the devil himself. The comments arose from jealousy, but his foes had to shake their heads and wonder if some other-worldly power wasn’t somehow helping him. Joey believed it to be the case, and he had every right to know it was possible.
Practice for Tennessee week was spirited, and if Vandy needed any help getting mentally focused that bonus came in a Vols practice report from Wednesday. According to the reports, several of the Volunteer players let it be known that they thought Joey would have difficulty not only doing well against them but escaping from the game unharmed. “If we hurt him, so be it,” they reasoned.
Vanderbilt was faced with a conundrum. If they complained to the SEC offices, they ran the risk of appearing afraid of the Vols physical play, thereby giving UT a psychological advantage. If they didn’t report it, it might seem like open season to harm Joey.
“We’ve discussed it,” Michaels told Joey. “Do you want us to make a statement and file a grievance knowing full well they will deny it? Or should we handle this in some other fashion?”
“I’m not afraid of them,” Joey replied, and that was the truth. This would not be the first game another team had tried to grind him into submission. “We could let it be known that we won’t back down. You know, early in the game.”
And that was the tactic they decided to use.
Knoxville would be rowdy and loud, but the Vanderbilt players decided that Neyland Stadium would witness a game they would not likely ever forget. Joey thought about Glenn and all the other Tennessee fans at the plastic plant. That was where all this had begun. It was too bad Glenn wouldn’t be there to witness their disappointment, especially if everything went according to plan.