Joey thought Oregon’s helmets, and their uniforms, were hideous.
“I like ‘em,” Downtown Kevin Brown said as the team stretched in unison, lined up in rows like a military unit. “Silver, shiny, with a little slash of green on the side like somethin’ from an art museum. The green and gray jerseys. Shiny pants.” The big man changed legs along with the rest of his teammates before he looked back to Joey. “Okay, I hate ’em.”
“Yeah, now I really hate ’em,” Joey said.
The Oregon Ducks are too fast for Vanderbilt. Even Joey Goodman. The Ducks defense swarms. Even if Vanderbilt scores, they can never keep up with the west coast style offenses.
Vanderbilt had heard it all week. Even Michaels had gotten in on the act and was now openly encouraging his players to listen. If the Commodore coach wasn’t as angry as he seemed, he deserved an Academy Award. He even continued to chirp to his players as he walked along the rows during stretching.
“They think you aren’t good enough. They think you don’t belong here!”
Vandy’s detractors looked right early in the game. Oregon kicked off and surprised everyone with an onside kick that one of their men caught on the bounce. Joey stopped him on the seven, but on the first play from scrimmage Oregon beat Vandy to the outside on a sweep and took the lead 7-0. They managed to corral Joey two plays to force a third and one, and when Couch tried to sneak he coughed up the football and one of Oregon’s players scooped it up and scored to make the lead 14-0. It looked like the experts were right.
Then, the ship was righted.
Joey returned the kick to the fifty and on first down he slipped through the line and found a crease which he used to outrun the defense for Vandy’s first score. Less than five minutes had passed and already 21 points had been scored. It looked like more than a hundred was possible.
But the pace of play changed, and the defenses tightened. Couch hit Willy for a big gainer late in the half, and two plays later Joey capped off the first half scoring with a dive over the pylon and into the end zone. Vandy had figured out how to stop Oregon, and it was only a matter of time until they scored enough to put the game away. Though he didn’t say as much, Michaels knew Vanderbilt would win, and his mannerisms spoke volumes to his team.
Vanderbilt scored four more times in the second half, two touchdowns by Willy and two by Joey. Oregon never mounted another serious drive. The Commodores would play for the national championship.
Later that evening in Dallas, Alabama would send a chill through the heart of every Vanderbilt player. The Tide had rebounded from their stunning loss in the SEC Championship game, and they seemed to have blood in their eyes. Florida State never forced a punt. Alabama never had a negative yardage play. Every play they ran worked. Six yards, hand the ball to the official. Eight yards, hand the ball to the official. Ten yard pass, hand the ball to the official. Score, run to the sideline and send in the defense to shut down the ’Noles offense. Repeat.
Final: Alabama 70, Florida State 0.
After the game Sadan was curt. “Now is not the time for celebration. We’ve got a job to do, and this is the most focused I’ve seen us. We’ll get down to business tomorrow, and we’ll be ready to go to New Orleans and play like we can play.”
“Enjoy this win, Co-o-och,” the sideline reporter cooed.
“We’ll celebrate when the job is finished,” Sadan said.
Vanderbilt watched film and did game planning for two days following their win in Miami. To say the mood in Nashville was somber would have been an understatement. And while Downtown tried to lighten everyone’s spirits, it was Michaels who finally snapped.
“You guys act like Alabama can’t be beaten. We’ve already beaten them once. If nothing else, that’s in their heads. Lighten up and play the game!” he screamed at the end of practice on the third day.
The team flight departed to a raucous send-off two days before the game, and on the flight Joey busied himself with the impossible task of slowing time. He wanted these days to last forever, and it seemed that the only solution to the problem was to complete the deal with Al. Could he force a last minute reprieve of sorts for Michelle? Was it possible? What if he stayed Joey Goodman? Could it be all that bad? Would he not have time to make some sort of penance and offer an apology for salvation anyway?
Landing in New Orleans, these were the very thoughts that played in Joey’s mind. If he saw Al again, he would ask him what life would be like should he choose to remain Joey Goodman. If he could erase the memory of Michelle’s letter, tucked in the bottom of his bag.
New Orleans set the tone for the entire championship weekend as soon as the team entered the hotel. A semi-talented jazz band whose members wore funny hats and beads played in the lobby. The team had a short practice and then Michaels, Willy, and Joey spoke at a press conference, again defying the coach’s original rule that freshmen could not address the media. At that same meeting of the press, Alabama addressed the media, and listening to them it was difficult to imagine Vandy had won the last game. What was most disconcerting was how angry they appeared.
“Willy, I can’t sit around this room all day,” Joey said.
Willy was stretched out in bed finishing Run For Your Life. He placed his finger where he was in the novel and looked up.
“Josh is running the New York City Marathon,” Willy said. “I won’t tell you about Tully. I’ve read all the way to the end, and I’m not going anywhere until I finish. We can walk through the French Quarter if you’ll give me another fifteen minutes.”
Joey waited, and when Willy put down the book with a heavy, contented sigh they left the hotel, passing Harrah’s and venturing into the heart of the French Quarter. Even during daylight hours, the whole place seemed dangerous.
“Willy, I’ll show you my boobs if you give me some beads.”
“How ’bout you don’t show me and I give you some beads,” Willy said. “Besides, I’ve seen ’em already, and they’re not bead-worthy.”
In an open air café, Willy bought Joey what he considered the tastiest dish in New Orleans: Beignets. As they ate the sweet treats, they listened to another jazz band, this one much better. Old couples swayed and danced. Smiles lit up every face in the restaurant.
“You’ve got powdered sugar on your nose,” Willy told Joey. “It looks like you’ve been partying down here at night.”
“Don’t let anyone snap a picture. There might be scandal.”
“Come on. I want to show you something,” Willy said leading Joey out onto the road once more.
They walked up a side alley, past several strip joints and dives, and then turned into another narrow alley before entering through an unmarked doorway. A bell over the door tinkled, and almost instantly a tall, black man wearing a sort of French style hat and shiny purple shirt opened at the collar emerged through a curtain leading to the back.
“Miss Dee here?” Willy asked.
“Can I tell her who calls?” the man said in a higher voice than fit his appearance. His long finger-nailed right hand played with his collar.
The man went back through the curtain and when he stuck his head back through he said to Willy, “Come on back.”
They walked through the curtain and down a narrow hallway all the way to the end where the man waved them into the room. Willy’s grandmother sat in a wooden rocker, and beside her sat another woman wearing a sun dress with dreadlocks fashioned with multi-colored beads that fell over her shoulders in organized chaos. Both women broke into toothy grins as the young men entered.
“Willy,” the other woman said beckoning with open arms for Willy to hug her. “You get taller every time I see you. You look so good.”
“Hi, Dee,” Willy answered and bent down to give her the requested hug.
“Who’s your handsome friend?” she continued, raising her eyebrows and looking first to Willy and then to Willy’s grandmother.
“This is Joey. He plays-“
“I know this boy,” she cackled. “He been on TV.”
She opened her arms for Joey as well, and Joey bent to hug her. She held on to him tightly and squeezed. The woman smelled of incense, and to Joey it seemed as if he was falling into a giant pillow, being pulled down deep into the depths of a feather-bed, time elongating like a dream.
When Joey stood once more, the woman’s smile was gone, replaced by a wide-eyed expression that Joey could not place. It might have been surprise or wonder. For a moment she looked almost startled.
“Strong,” she said leaning back. “It’s easy to see why this one is so famous.”
The room seemed to grow quiet at once, and it was as if a chill descended over its occupants. The woman looked to Willy’s grandmother who was now serious.
“You knew I would be here, Willy.”
“I thought you might, Gra-ma.”
“I had to watch my boy. I had to watch this one too. You need as much of the mojo as you can get,” she said, turning her head and looking down as though she might have dropped something but yet it was something else altogether, almost as if she tasted something rancid and could not remove the foul morsel from her palate.
Willy suddenly looked like he wanted to leave, to run from the place as fast as he could.
“Wait,” his grandmother said perceiving his body language as well as if he had uttered his intentions aloud. Holding up her hand, she motioned to Joey. “Hold her hand.”
Joey wasn’t sure what he was being told. He hesitated.
“Take her hand,” the woman repeated and at the same time extended her own.
At first, Joey felt the hands like one would feel any other person, both leathery and worn, warm and rough. Then, it was as if the light in the room dimmed and a low, persistent hum began to build in the back of his skull through his eyes and nose. Bright colors flashed in his vision, otherwise he could not see. He tried to open his mouth to speak and found himself frozen in place. Then the visions began.
He saw Michelle, in a long, flowing white gown, only she was not old and ravaged with disease. She was not wrinkled and her hair was not turning brittle and white. Instead, she was young, her face tight and smooth and her hair flowing in curled locks over her shoulders and blown by celestial winds. She smiled to him, and put her finger to her lips as if instructing him to be silent even though Joey could not have spoken if he had tried.
Michelle took his hand and pulled him beside her, and as he closed his eyes he felt her engulf his entire body, her familiar smell, her softness, the safety of her embrace spinning him into oblivion. Then, she held him away from her and looked into his eyes, her chin dropping as she studied him to watch his reaction as she always did when she wanted him to really listen.
“Don’t…” she said, and the voice echoed like sweet music.
Joey opened his eyes. Tears flowed down the other woman’s face, and her cheeks and chin drooped with incredible grief. Gra-ma was serious. Joey released their hands, and Willy nodded releasing them from the old women’s spell.
“Hope,” Gra-ma said. “Goodbye, boys.”
Walking from the building, the tall man with the funny hat nodded seriously in their direction but didn’t speak. The door tinkled behind them as they left.
“What just happened in there?” Joey asked as they walked back to the hotel.
“I can imagine, because I’ve had it happen before,” Willy said. “Listen.”
Joey turned to look at Willy who was watching each step as he walked along.
“Listen to what?” Joey asked.
Willy smiled. “Just listen. That’s all.”