The crowd swelled as Alabama’s kicker teed up the ball to begin the game. As Joey turned his back and trotted toward the end zone, he could hear one of his teammates yelling, “So now you wanna’ get nasty? We gonna get nasty!”
Two players went down with injuries as the kick sailed through the end zone. This game promised to be what Keith Jackson once called “A Slobberknocker”.
When Joey took a pitch on the first play of the game, what he saw looked like a team portrait of the Alabama Crimson Tide. Why had Couch not audibled out of the play? The second play was a misdirection handoff to the left, and Joey had nowhere to run. Unable to even get started, and even after squirming free from two defenders he was slammed to the ground. Couch had less than a second on the third play before he was swarmed under for a ten yard loss.
No one panicked, yet. Joey punted all the way to the other ten and out of bounds where Alabama took over. The ground invasion began. Davidson left for eight yards. Davidson right for nine. Davidson up the middle for five. The running back looked and sounded like a bull and felt like one as well as they wrestled him to the ground. By the time Bama scored, the game plan was evident. Run the Commodores into the ground until they submitted.
Vandy couldn’t physically stop Alabama’s defense from running rough shod over the line, but they could outsmart them. On the next drive, Vandy began to dink short, quick hitters over the line. Joey on a screen for ten. Willy on a slant for 12. Then, softening up the rush they slammed through the line, so fast Bama couldn’t react. Joey scored from ten yards out to tie the score at 7 apiece. The next two drives were identical, and after one quarter the score was 14-14.
The only reason the score in the first half wasn’t higher was due to the fact that both teams were deliberate. Satisfied with four or five yards each play, the offenses ground out drives that lasted minutes each. The score was 28-28 at the half.
Leaving the tunnel for the second half, Joey made certain that he walked beside Willy and Downtown. If he saw Al, he didn’t plan on stopping. But what he saw on the field bothered him. High up in the eaves was a clock. It read 10:30. He only had until midnight.
Nothing changed at the half. The two teams had only taken a breather. At the end of three the game was still tied, 42-42. No one had predicted a shootout like this. Then Bama mounted its most methodical drive of the night as the fourth quarter began.
Vandy had committed even more men to stopping the run, but the result was that Alabama was taking three plays each time to get a first down. With nine minutes remaining in the game, Alabama had the ball on the thirty. The real time clock sat at 11:25. At least the game clock was still running. But would Bama grind out a win in the process?
With seven minutes remaining, Bama punched in another score, ironically enough with a short pass this time. The Tide led 49-42.
Vandy began their own drive, and Joey was magnificent even though he was unable to get out of bounds. Now the Commodores were thinking two drives ahead. They had to have enough time to have the last possession. But the drive ended up being slow, and the Commodores got into the end zone with only 4 minutes and 11 seconds remaining.
When Alabama began to eat up clock, it was apparent they planned to get close enough for a field goal as time expired. Three minutes and thirty seconds. Five yard gain. Three minutes and five seconds, six yard gain.
Joey pulled the defense together.
“We have to let them score!”
“What are you saying,” Marcus replied, hands on his knees.
“Look at us. We can’t stop them. We have to get the ball last.”
Before the team could get their wits they were forced to line up once more, and Davidson ran for ten more. The clock continued to run.
“Act like you miss him. Let him score.”
The defense nodded to Joey.
Vandy didn’t sell the play well, but at least Bama scored. Arm tackles. One player fell on his face. Davidson pranced into the end zone with exactly two minutes remaining.
Vandy fielded the squib kick and had the ball at their own 35 with 1:55 remaining.
Willy came into the huddle and looked to the team. His face was beaming. “Faith. We can do this,” he said.
Joey took a handoff for the first play and stepped out of bounds at the fifty after scrambling around. 1:45 remaining. It was 11:45 p.m. Joey ran a draw and was tackled at the forty. First down with the clock running. By the time Vandy got the ball to the ten, only 25 seconds remained. Looking to the big clock in the eaves, he realized he had only eight minutes remaining to be Joey Goodman, unless he somehow made a deal.
Joey ran a sweep down to the three and got pushed out of bounds with ten seconds remaining. Thinking a trick play might get them into the end zone, Vandy called the pitch pass. Running to the right Joey would get the pitch and then look into the end zone. If no one was open he could run for it. They still had one timeout left.
Joey took the pitch and looked to the end zone. Nine, eight, seven, and no one came open. Six, five, four, no one… He fired the ball out of bounds. Three seconds left and time for one more play. It was 11:57.
One last chance, and the play would hinge on Joey’s athletic ability. Michaels called a timeout. How could he do that? It was 11:58. The play would never work if Joey Goodman became Joe Daily.
Michaels talked calmly on the sideline, as Joey pranced and tried to cajole his team back to the huddle. The play would take every single Vandy player to the right. Joey would get the direct snap, begin right, and then try to win the footrace to the left corner of the end zone. If they scored, Vandy would go for two. This game would not go into overtime.
At 11:59 Vandy’s center snapped the ball back to Joey. In slow motion it seemed, Joey saw his linemen begin to the right. The receiver on the left broke to the back of the end zone, also to his right. The defense followed. Here we go.
Joey slammed on the brakes and pivoted to the left. One man to beat. Sprinting from the ten, he flew. At the five, it looked to be close. He and the defender would arrive at the goal line at the same time. Joey leaped, reached out the ball, and touched the pylon. Touchdown. Vandy was down by a point.
Still the clock sat at 11:59.
“Call the timeout!” Joey screamed.
“We know the play,” Couch answered.
Joey had to think quickly. The clock still had not turned to midnight.
“I’m going to be sick! Call timeout!”
Joey ran through the defense, straight for the tunnel and into the darkness as he heard the official’s whistle signal a timeout.
And then the strangest thing happened.
The stands grew absolutely silent. Joey could hear his cleats as he came to a stop in the tunnel. With a bright light illuminating his silhouette, Al stood in front of him.
“My lad, I would say that it is midnight. And, it’s decision time.”
“What will it be like if I give you my signature?” Joey asked out of breath. The stadium sat in still silence and Joey looked back behind him where it seemed that every single person was frozen in place.
“You’ll continue to be the greatest college player who has ever lived. My end of the bargain, my boy. At some point, you’ll grow old or you’ll flame out from your incredible lifestyle should you not be able to handle the wealth and fame. At that point, you’ll fulfill the rest of the bargain.”
“You can’t bring back Michelle,” Joey said. He knew it in his heart now. The devil cannot conquer death. That belonged to someone else.
“We don’t know that for sure now, do we?”
“I’m afraid we do,” Joey said. “I can’t do it.”
“You mean, you are going to forsake your team. After that oh-so-eloquent speech at the Heisman presentation. After all this, you are going to let Vandy lose again. You may even be forsaking the love of your life.”
He paused and waited. Joey looked to the field.
“You really thought you could beat Alabama. My team. My coach, Coach Sadan. I almost let you win.”
Joey couldn’t believe what he heard.
“You fool!” Al screamed and the stadium rumbled. A terrible groan sounded all around them, and fire lit both ends of the tunnel as smoke boiled in from both ends. Al approached and seemed to swell to ten feet tall.
Then, in an instant, two dark, long and strong arms wrapped around his middle, lifting him from the ground.
Al groaned and shrieked with a primal scream not of this earth as someone lifted him into the air from behind. It was Willy. Al’s body slung from side to side. His head sprouted horns and his face morphed into an elongated and slender visage. He seemed to be screaming to be released, but Willy would not. He held tightly as the pair twisted and writhed in the ramp, smoke swirling around them in the near darkness.
Joey felt it happening. His pads and pants became loose as his muscles left him. His ears began to ring once more. Looking down to his arms, he saw the slender bones return along with his age spots and freckles. He knew he was once again Joe Daily.
“You must bless me,” Willy screamed, and as he did Al’s body went slack and returned to the form Joey had known. “Be good and I’ll let you go.”
“Let me go,” Al said softly.
Willy released the man, who staggered away, seeming to size up each of them.
“Willy,” Al said, smoothing his shirt and pants, “you’ve already been blessed, and it wasn’t by me.” Al turned to walk away and stopped to look back at the pair of friends. “You could have had it all, my boy. You could have had it all.”
They watched him walk slowly away and disappear at the end of the runway.
“How did you know?” Joe asked.
“I think I knew from the beginning, but Gra-ma helped.”
“But how did you do it? How did you…?”
And then he remembered. Willy pulled the watch from his waistband.
“Time,” Willy said. “Gra-ma said ‘hope’. I told our team ‘faith’. The greatest of these is ‘love’.”
Joe wrapped his weak arms around Willy and began to cry. All was lost. But love had saved him. Once again, the crowd rose to its feet. The noise from the stadium was deafening.
“So what do we do now?”
“We go win the game,” Willy said. “You can still run the play. I’ll take care of you.”
Willy arrived in the huddle first and called the play with Joey behind him. No one saw his face. Joey stood seven yards behind the line in the shotgun. It would be his last play, and Vandy would either win or Al would win.
The ball came back to Joey in a slow spiral and he caught it as he turned to his right. Willy ran from his right flanker spot in a full sprint, and Joey tossed him the ball as he crossed behind. The defense pursued. Joey ran out his fake as if he had the ball and the Alabama team followed Willy. It would be close. Could Willy outrun all of them to the end zone?
Then, as the defense closed in, Willy stopped… and looked right… where Joe Daily limped toward the end zone… all alone. Willy lofted the ball to Joe… who caught it all alone. Vanderbilt won the National Championship.
In a wall of humanity, the Commodores converged on Joe and swallowed him whole. Down he went, and one by one each member piled on top. In the bottom of the pile Joe unsnapped his helmet and began to wiggle out from his shoulder pads, right down to his lucky Vandy jersey. Then, he slipped off his football pants down to his shorts. The only item of clothing remaining was his cleats and he still wore them as he crawled from the pile and walked slowly away from the field. Fans streamed past him to the players, and Joe walked calmly and slowly up the ramp and out of the stadium.