Coach Michaels introduced the new SI reporter, a smallish, younger man who looked like the stereotypical fan of every team in the nation, assigned to do the story on Joey. The reporter pushed his thick black glasses into position on his nose and eyed Joey with a star struck gaze and a smile. Joey shook his soft hand.
“Nice to meet you,” the reporter said. “Really nice. I’m a big fan.”
“That’s good. I’m a fan of SI.”
“I threw away Donner’s notes,” the little man said as he began rummaging in his bag and producing a camera and a notepad. “To be honest, they were unintelligible. The ramblings of a madman. Maybe he was being affected by his, uh, condition.”
Joey nodded in apparent agreement.
“What do you like to do on game day? You know, do you have any rituals or superstitions?”
And that’s the way the interview progressed. What was his training routine? Did he think about the moves he made before they happened? Softballs for an hour. Joey was relieved.
Sunday film study and Monday practice was routine. Life was a steady ship, like the calm before a storm. If that was the case, thunder should have rumbled as Joey bounded up the steps to the second floor and his dorm room where upon entering he saw Al leaning back in a recliner, grinning with satisfaction.
“Joey, my lad, how was practice?” Al asked.
“Fine, Al. What have we here?”
Joey’s roommate, Tyler, sat in the middle of the couch, almost in what appeared to be a state of shock, like a shy high school boy sitting in the parlor of a brothel. Two lovely, blonde co-eds sat on either side of him, one with her right leg draped over Tyler’s right leg and her hand on his small right bicep. His glasses had slid out to the end of his nose.
“These two young ladies wanted to meet the star player, and of course his roommate. Let’s hope your trend of being a day late comes to an abrupt end.”
“Tyler, you okay?”
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine,” Tyler said looking left and then right. “This is Veronica. This is Jessica. I told them I’m a history major.”
“I’m sure they like that,” Joey said smiling as he tried to reason Al’s motives. “Are you staying long, Al? I need to study.”
“I’ll more than likely leave my guests behind. Had any time to consider what we discussed earlier?”
“Still under advisement, Uncle Al.”
“Very well, lad. Very well. You know I’m around when you need to talk.” Al stood and walked across the room to the door where he stopped as he grasped the door handle. “The Alabama game is right around the corner.”
When Joey said nothing Al continued.
“They’re big and fast. Not enough to derail a Heisman contender, but they would seem almost invincible. Don’t be upset if that should happen. At any rate, I would imagine the committee would select Vandy to play in the series anyway. I mean, if that were to happen.”
“We’ll see how we stack up,” Joey said, feeling his confidence well up in his chest in a manner he hadn’t felt before.
“That you will,” Al said. He smiled once more and walked through the door shutting it behind him.
Joey dozed and when he heard the girls giggling and leaving his clock read 2:30.
The next morning it seemed as though life had righted itself once more on the last day of classes before the Thanksgiving break. That appearance was a mirage. Willy, walking away from the practice field, met Joey who was on the way in. Willy’s eyes, red and puffy, told Joey trouble had arrived.
“I’m out for this week’s game,” Willy said, his eyes downcast as if he was ashamed.
“Michaels says they are investigating rumors. Someone brought up the Memphis situation. There’s a story coming out. They want to make certain I’m going to even stay on the team.”
“That’s old history,” Joey said. He made a fist with his right hand. “They can’t do this.”
“They can do anything they want. I’m sorry, man. Maybe this is going to follow me from now on.”
“Not if I can help it,” Joey said as he strode away from Willy at a faster clip.
“Joey, don’t say anything you’ll regret. You have a future.”
“Not as much as you might think,” Joey said. “I won’t leave you hanging.”
Joey walked through the locker room directly to Michaels’ office and walked in without knocking.
“Joey?” Michaels commented looking up from a desk full of papers.
“Why is Willy suspended?”
“The official line is that he’s being held out for precautionary reasons. Like during a slight injury.”
“Willy is the heart of this team. He hasn’t done anything. That old business is just that, old business. He didn’t do anything.”
“We want this story to disappear, and it will. Maybe not if Willy plays this week. We can win this game without him.” Michaels stood and walked from behind his desk to close the door behind Joey. “I believe him, Joey. He’s one of, if not the, finest students on this campus and on this team.”
“I won’t play after this week without Willy.”
Michaels sat on the edge of the desk and looked Joey squarely in the eye.
“Do you believe I have Willy’s back?”
“I don’t know what to believe. I’ve seen so much in the last few months, I’m having trouble trusting anyone.”
Michaels let the comment float out and linger in the cluttered office before continuing.
“I’ll take care of him. You may not believe it, but I’m behind you guys, all of you, one hundred percent. You don’t need to get worked up about this. You need to tell him everything’s okay. Be his friend. Get ready to beat Alabama.”
Joey said nothing else and went to practice. Preparations for Middle Tennessee State wouldn’t be the same without Willy, but Michaels was probably right. The Blue Raiders were not in the same league as Vandy this year. In fact, not the same planet. The situation would have to clear by the end of the weekend though. Alabama loomed on the horizon.
The dorm was deserted after practice as everyone made their way home for the holiday. Tyler had departed without Joey fleshing out the situation between his roommate and his new found harem. As Joey pondered over whether Willy had gone home for the holiday himself, Willy poked his head through the door of the room.
“Willy, come in. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I talked with Michaels again. I’m good. I get a week off. He told me you stopped by.”
“Yeah, I did. I’m not playing without you.”
“You’re my friend. But you don’t have to go that far. I’ll be back next week.”
They talked about MTSU and even discussed Tyler’s new friends. The television was silent. Even Willy didn’t want to watch Sports Center. He had no desire to find out if ESPN had caught wind of the true nature of his “injury”. He hoped they hadn’t. For once, he was following Michaels’ advice.
“Are you going home for Thanksgiving?”
“Nah,” Joey said, “I’m gonna whip something up here. I don’t have anyone to visit, really. It’s just me, myself, and I now.”
“Then, you’re having dinner with me and my grandma,” Willy said and before Joey could object he stood and held up his hand. “We’ll pick you up at six. We’ll go out and have dinner. I’m riding to grandma’s house tonight, but we can celebrate Thanksgiving a day early.”
Joey struggled to find some way to object, but in his heart that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted to be with Willy and Willy’s grandmother.
“She’s a bit eccentric, though, so just take what she says with a grain of salt. She’s a sweet woman.”
Joey asked Willy what he considered eccentric and what he should expect.
“Before she had my mother, she lived in New Orleans. She was a palm reader. It got around the neighborhood in Jackson when I was a kid that she knew black magic. No one would walk by her house at night.”
When Willy walked out the door, Joey sat down in the recliner and leaned back to shut his eyes. The holidays had never been his favorite time of year, and after Michelle died that feeling multiplied. The house was always too quiet. The merriment always seemed too merry. There was no more joy in the world, not really. Thanksgiving became a prelude to the misery of Christmas.
Joey tried to summon the strength to dress for his dinner with Willy and Willy’s grandmother, and instead watched the shadows from the window grow longer and longer as another of his numbered days lumbered lugubriously past.