The national championship series was set on Sunday as every Vanderbilt player watched together in the meeting room. They weren’t watching to see if they would make the small tournament field but rather to see who they would play. First the rankings were announced, and then simultaneously the matchups were released since everyone knew that one would play four and three would play two.
At number four, undefeated Oregon from the Pac-12 coached by Ron Hillerman. The Ducks lead the nation in scoring and have defeated opponents an average of 60 to 12 the announcer said. The Ducks are led by Heisman candidate Mikey Anitone who has rushed for 18 touchdowns and thrown for thirty more.
At number three, undefeated Florida State coached by Jimmy Fisherman and highlighted by quarterback and Heisman candidate Brock Leeway. Brock’s offense leads the nation in passing with 3,699 yards.
At number two, the Seminole’s opponent in the game to be played in Dallas, Texas. The announcer touched the screen and the familiar Alabama logo appeared. The Alabama Crimson Tide coached by Nicky Sadan and led by Travis Davidson, another Heisman candidate. Davidson has rushed for almost 2,000 yards, and the Tide has lost only once and that to our number one team he said touching the screen once more the improbable Vanderbilt Commodores. Vanderbilt will play Oregon in the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida in their semi-final. Vandy is led by Joey Goodman…
The rest of the announcement was drowned out by the cheering players and fans that packed the room. Joey’s head was spinning. Someone grabbed his shoulders and gave a mighty shake. Michaels had already informed Joey, the overwhelming Heisman favorite, that they would be flying to New York late in the week for the presentation. Never before had there been such a clear cut choice.
Finals ended on Wednesday for Joey, and for once time dragged by slowly as the weekend trip to New York approached. He strolled throughout the campus, worked out in the weight room – most of the time alone, and tried everything he could think of to occupy his time and his mind. The best thing that happened was the absence of Al, and Luan.
The skyline of New York was even more magnificent than Joey imagined. Although he had lived fifty years, he had never gotten to travel to the greatest city on earth. It seemed as though the skyscrapers went on forever.
Friday was a whirlwind of reporters and meetings. He milled around with all the other candidates and even got to meet many of the former Heisman winners, who not only got the chance to return and revel in their past glory but also voted on the winner themselves. The way they smiled and greeted Joey made it apparent who they had voted for.
“Do you have your speech ready in case you win?” Michaels asked Joey on Saturday afternoon. They were already dressed in suits and ties and they were sitting in the lobby of the opulent hotel.
“I need to look over it once more, but I’ve got it.”
Much of the speech was fiction, and Joey considered thanking Jamie for her help in writing his speech but he thought better of it. He did plan on mentioning his parents, even though they had been gone for several years not recently like most people thought. Joey even considered thanking his “Uncle Al” but could not bring himself to those heights of brazenness and bravado. Many winners would thank God, but Joey shuddered at the very thought of such a statement. Then, he considered the ramifications of his decision should he choose to stay Joey Goodman. No, if he won, and he thought that would indeed be the case, he would make it short and sweet. He would thank his coach and of course his teammates. The sooner he could board the plane and return to plan for the games the better it would be for everyone involved.
Joey sat in the middle of the invited candidates on the front row. He watched each of their highlight reels and was amazed at seeing his own arranged in such a manner. He had reviewed game film all year long, but seeing himself over and over miraculously evading the defense and outrunning would-be tacklers was staggering. Al had done quite a job.
“…it is with great pleasure that we award this year’s Heisman trophy to Vanderbilt’s Joey Goodman.”
Joey shook hands with many of the former winners in a line behind the podium. The applause subsided, and his gaze wandered over the crowd, to his coach and the parents of the losers and all the famous people in attendance. Then he saw Al who sat in the middle of the crowd, smiling with Luan at his side. Their very presence sent a chill down Joey’s spine. Why was he here? Was he worried Joey might say something? What would happen if he did?
“I don’t deserve this award,” Joey began, looking to Al whose happy expression never changed. “My coach and my teammates deserve this award. Teams play football, not individuals. Teams support each other. Teams win together and they lose together. The character of a player is often the reflection of the great character of his team.
“A team can be an assorted collection of individuals that come together for a common goal. A team can be a friend who is willing to sacrifice for the other’s success. A team can be a man and a wife who live for one another, sometimes even after death.”
Joey paused and looked down at his notes. Even though he thought of Michelle, there was no threat of tears. Still, he dared not look into the crowd and see Al’s impish grin.
“At the end of the day, the only thing an individual can do is answer whether or not he has done everything he could do to help his team win. If the answer is yes, that person can smile and with a sigh be satisfied that he has done well. I hope I do the right thing for my team. I hope I can have the courage to sacrifice everything in my life so that my team might live on to fight again.”
Joey finished his speech by acknowledging Downtown Athletics, and he began the process of answering a million questions posed by a thousand sports writers.
When Joey and Michaels returned home, a crowd led by his teammates awaited at the airport. They hugged him. They carried him through the terminal. They celebrated with him at the school. Joey kept the trophy overnight and then gave it to Michaels to display at the school. He wondered if he would ever see it again after this season.
“Go home for break,” Michaels told the team. “Relax. Meet here at eight a.m. on the 26th. We’ve got a championship to win.”
The team dispersed and Willy met Joey on the sidewalk leading to the dorms. He already had his bag and was pulling it along behind him when he caught up with Joey.
“Are you going home for Christmas?”
“I’ll be around,” Joey said. “I’m gonna’ hang out here until Christmas Eve.”
“Go with me. Gra-ma will have more food than we can eat. We’ll play video games.”
Joey felt in his pocket to make certain he had Willy’s gift, but for a moment he didn’t pull it out, worrying that Willy might not have gotten him anything and afraid he might put his friend on the spot. Getting a present for Willy was easy; it was the only gift he had to buy.
“If you get lonesome, you call me and I’ll come back and get you.”
“You know I will. I’ll be fine. I’ve got some reading to do.”
Willy opened his bag and pulled out a package.
“Here, I got this for you. Merry Christmas.”
Joey took the black and gold box and lifted the lid. Inside was a scrapbook containing press clippings with his picture and headlines cut from a variety of newspapers.
“Willy, how did you do this?”
“Don’t thank me. Thank Gra-ma. She put it all together and collected almost all the clippings. It started out for me, but when she found out we were hanging together she did you one too.”
“I’m, I’m humbled.”
Joey placed the book back inside the box and reached into his pocket.
“I got you this,” he said handing the small box to his friend.
Willy unwrapped the paper and pulled out a silver pocket watch which had engraving on the lid.
“We only have so much time to be with true friends,” Willy read. “It’s beautiful. I’ll always cherish this. But we’ve got lots of time. We’re only freshmen. You act like this is the end.”
“Go. Have a merry Christmas,” Joey said. “I’ll see you in a couple of days.”
Joey watched his friend walk away and noticed Willy take the watch out of his pocket to check the time as he went.
Joey let himself into the dorm and went to his room. The building was quiet. Too quiet. He wouldn’t be able to stand this for very long. He decided to take a chance and go home again and made the long walk across town. By the time he reached the house, night had fallen.
The back door was still unlocked, and he slipped inside, located the big flashlight, and navigated to the living room where he slumped down into his easy chair. It didn’t take long to wish he had some heat, but that was something he would have to deal with.
“Merry Christmas, Michelle,” he said aloud. The house was silent.
Joey climbed the stairs to his bedroom and began to rummage through Michelle’s things. Finally he found what he was looking for.
“Someday, years from now,” she had said, “I’ll be able to take out all these love notes and make a book. The greatest love story ever. Maybe that’s what I’ll call it.”
The box contained not only love letters, a collection of paper napkins and other bits of white space he had found on the spur of the moment, but also pressed flowers and even a couple of trinkets. Why had she kept all these old things? Did she not know how much he loved her?
On the notes his words returned like listening to echoes, and each letter brought back a tiny memory, some more fully remembered than others but all with a familiar theme. And on the final paper he studied, his windows to his soul absorbed the smooth, elegant sweep of the handwriting and the ideas Michelle left as a ministry to him. Deciding to think more about the particular epistle, he took a deep breath and uncrossed his legs to lean back. How good it felt to uncurl his pliant limbs and feel the stretch of the flexible and nimble muscles. None of that took the place of Michelle though.
“I miss you so much.”
Joey heard carolers next door, and he crawled to the window to peer down at Mr. Johnson who stood on the stoop listening. He felt a pang of regret and pity. He might as well have been looking at himself.
Joey made it back to the dorm the next day and even managed to survive until the team returned for practice; it was a nice sight after a brutal holiday. Now things could return to normal, at least Joey’s normal nowadays. Would it be sunny and warm in Miami? Joey looked forward to finding out and hoped he could escape the cold and gloom that pervaded Nashville.