Joey stood on the sideline and waited through a television break for MTSU to kickoff. Michaels thought Joey’s risk of injury on a special team was higher, so for the MTSU game he would not participate in kicks or punts. Joey scanned the crowd, a sellout of Vanderbilt Stadium, in disbelief. It was the last game of the season, and Vandy was 11-0. What would have happened had Joey not met Al? Willy probably wouldn’t have been invited to play as a walk-on. Downtown and his brother would have never played. Including him that was four starters, and he played on both sides of the ball. Joey realized how much time he spent with Willy and began to wonder what things would be like when his time was finished.
“Know what time it is?” Downtown Kevin Brown asked, looming over Joey and looking down with a half-smile.
“IT’S GAMETIME!” Downtown screamed picking Joey up and shaking him like a rag doll.
The whistle blew behind them, the kick went through the end zone, and Vandy took over. This week’s plan was a vanilla offense and defense. None of that mattered as far as scoring was concerned. Joey got three carries in a row, the third one a thirty yard score. He sat out on defense as Vandy held on three and out. Vandy took over after the punt went out of bounds at the fifty, and Joey scored on a screen pass the next play. His day was finished.
Final 42-0. Vandy had beaten MTSU on the eve of the one-hundredth day since Joe Daily had become Joey Goodman.
“What does it feel like to be undefeated and ranked number two in the country behind Alabama going into the SEC Championship game?” one of the dozens of reporters asked Joey after the game. The ban on freshmen was lifted. It seemed Michaels could trust Joey.
“I’m looking forward to playing Alabama. They’re an incredible team,” Joey said. “I’m almost afraid to watch the game films.”
“How has life changed since you became a Heisman favorite?” another reporter asked.
“Look around you.”
“Can you give us a prediction on the game and the Heisman?”
“No way. We’re going to do our very best against Alabama. The Heisman is up to you guys. I want to win next week’s football game, and I’m going to do everything I can to help our team. If I win the Heisman, they ought to give the award to our team.”
Joey was surprised at how easily the answers came, and he wondered if Al’s “gift” was helping him in that department as well. He didn’t think that was the case but of course he could be wrong.
Joey’s creative writing class for the week would be the last of the semester, and it might be the last time he would see Ms. Kuykendall. He was dismayed at his inability to pull off the story he hoped would woo his crush, but the relationship might have been difficult anyway considering how he badly he was still struggling with the loss of Michelle. In the back of his mind a small voice, maybe the echoes and proddings his late wife herself, told him he had to go on with his life. Joey chose to write a fictional and somewhat comedic interview with a “survivor” of the 1980’s in the hopes the article would appeal to his professor. Who better to write that story than Joey?
After each of the students read their stories and critiques and suggestions for improvement were offered, the class came to an end much too soon. Joey had difficulty making himself stand and leave the class. He needed to stay behind anyway. He had a gift for Ms. Kuykendall.
“I’ve really enjoyed the class, Dr. Kuykendall,” Joey said as he and his professor walked from the class and into the hallway.
“I’ve enjoyed reading your work,” she said. “I’m not a doctor. I have an MFA in creative writing. Just call me Jamie.”
“Good, Jamie. I really have enjoyed the class. You’re a professional.” Joey fished in his jacket pocket and pulled out tickets to the championship game. “I don’t know if the university gives its professors tickets to games or what the situation is, but here are a couple of tickets. I’d love for you to come watch me play.”
“Joey, how sweet.” She reached out and took the tickets then looked back to him. “You’re something. I’d be honored. I’ll be there.”
Joey nodded and wished he could think of something else to say, but felt awkward and guilty at the same time, almost as if he was doing something wrong. He began to say his goodbyes and walk away when Jamie spoke again.
“If you have an uncle… a brother… a single father… who is anything like you, send them my way. They don’t make ’em like you anymore.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Maybe I’ll see you at the game.”
“I hope so.” Then she added, “Beat that team. I can’t stand ’em.”
Everyone in the dorm watched the SEC Championship game special with Willy and Joey. Each time one of their names was mentioned a dozen eyes turned in unison, maybe to see what the player’s reaction would be.
The experts were split on who would win, which was surprising in itself to Joey. Alabama was loaded. They had no weaknesses. They had the number one recruiting class each of the last four years. When players left for the NFL, a new batch of stars took their place. The head coach, Nick Sadan, had the best assistance coaches money could buy. The team knew their assignments and so far their game plans had been flawless. They could identify and exploit the weaknesses in each of their opponents.
Game planning began that week, and try as they might the staff had difficulty making the matchup seem like every other game they had played. This game had huge implications. Their opposition was the number one team in the land. Vanderbilt’s plan was meticulous, expansive, and serious, all but one instance when one of the coaches could not think of the name of Bama’s quarterback.
“The qb,” he began. “I can’t remember his name. It’s an assassin name.”
The comment drew a confused look from the defensive unit.
“An ‘assassin name’?” one player prodded.
“You know, like James Earl Ray or Lee Harvey Oswald.”
“Or John Wilkes Booth?” Joey asked.
“That’s it. John Earl Jones!”
Alabama’s quarterback might as well have been an assassin. He had a tremendous arm and impeccable touch, like a marksman. Yet, he blended in so nicely, even coaches from the opposing teams failed to remember his name. He had lost only twice in the last three years. And while he might make the trip to New York for the awarding of the Heisman, experts were certain he had no chance to win the award himself. His team, so balanced and so talented, let him remain in the shadows. A silent assassin.
Vanderbilt stayed in the Downtown Hilton. On Friday players met the media. The entire game was a multi-day event that involved fans and built up until kickoff in the Georgia Dome. This game might be round one of a heavyweight fight. Or, it might be the game that eliminated one of the participants. No one knew. And that’s where they sat on the eve of the game.