The pool table in the commons room of the dorm was a hot attraction. Most of the guys staying in the dorm and not holding a cue stick were either sitting in chairs watching the action or standing around cheering. Joey tried to learn everyone’s name but mostly sat out of the way trying to be inconspicuous. Kevin must have been a hot name a few years ago, because the dorm had three of them and each loved playing pool but weren’t very good. The conversation was so lively, getting lost in the flow to become one of the guys proved to be easy. Joey’s mind kept wandering to a meeting with Coach Michaels. How was he going to pull this off even with Al’s help?
Joey looked up to see a tall African-American man, muscular, in a tank top and shorts. He looked as though he would be outstanding at anything involving athletics. Even the way he stood, with an ethereal tilt of the hip, screamed athlete.
“Yeah. Name’s Joey.” He offered his hand and the other student shook it.
“My first year here too. I’m Willy.”
Joey looked back to the game of pool and felt completely out of his element. The young man stood there beside him, watching the games himself, but altogether more confident and put together than Joey.
“You look like you could play football,” Joey said.
“Yeah, that’s the plan. I hope so. I’m going over later today to meet Michaels. He doesn’t know I’m here.”
“Yeah, I thought maybe I could walk on. I keep getting the run around when I call, so I’m going to go over and introduce myself. I don’t know any other way.”
“So you play? Or you played?”
“Man, it’s a long story. I played for Memphis three years ago. I got this.” Willy raised his shirt and in the middle of a serious six-pack that would have been the envy of any bodybuilder sat a scar about six inches long, discolored, and still nasty looking even though it was healed.
“Man, I told you it was a long story. I wasn’t playing. I was, I was taking up for a girl. It wasn’t my fault, but I still got it following me around.”
“Well, I hope you make the team, Willy,” Joe said.
“These chumps can’t play pool,” he said.
Joey realized what Willy had said, not referring to pool but that he was going over to the field later to see Michaels. The team was already practicing and had been for a while. It didn’t even seem likely that walk-ons would be permitted at this late date. What didn’t seem likely, though, was that Joey could look into the mirror and not see Joe.
“Hey, can I walk over with you?” Joey asked.
Willy agreed and said he’d meet Joey in an hour, and when the hour passed and Willy still hadn’t shown he was almost ready to go back up to his room, even though the prospect of watching part of a practice was alluring. But finally, Willy did show. He carried cleats and a bag.
“You got cleats too?” Willy asked, noticing that Joey was also carrying some things. “You gonna try out?”
“I dunno. Maybe. We might pass a ball around or something, you know. You might need for me to help.”
“That’s fine. Chill. It’s all good,” Willy said.
They walked toward the practice field, near Marler where Joey had put on the football exhibition, and more than once Willy breathed deep and exhaled audibly. Joey finally had enough and had to ask what he was doing.
“I mean the deep breathing. What is it?” Joey asked.
“Man, I’m so nervous. I’ve never been this nervous.”
“Why are you nervous? You’ve played college football. It’s not like you don’t know what to expect.”
They crossed a road and turned left and could see the field in the distance.
“My Gra-ma wanted me to come here. I want to be a lawyer, and I can do the work. It’s a hard school. It’s great preparation. I’ve always wanted to play football though. Man, if I don’t get a chance, I’ll never live with myself.”
“Then do your best. Michaels will certainly let you play if you’re good enough. He’s a good man, I mean from all I can tell.”
Willy nodded and continued walking, looking straight ahead, lips pursed. It seemed there was more to this than Joey knew. He wasn’t about to press the matter right now though.
“So they let people watch practice? I’ve never tried to come over and watch. I thought it was probably closed.”
“They let anyone watch, at least until the season starts. There aren’t too many people there. Some girlfriends and some other girls. Some guys that think they can play college football. I think there are usually some reporters standing around that cover the team.”
Sure enough, when they got near the practice field, there were very few people watching. The small stands were virtually empty and anyone could walk up to the edge of the practice field and stand if they had a notion to do so. The only thing keeping spectators away from the field was an invisible boundary of respect.
They sat on the first row of the small, aluminum stands and watched drills. Willy had spotted Michaels with the linemen, and he didn’t take his eyes off the man. Willy’s intensity was almost unnerving. He must have been something before the stabbing.
Whistles blew and players moved. A large digital clock with red numerals ticked on the far side of the field. And before Joey realized practice had even concluded Willy was on his feet moving fast.
“Wish me luck,” he yelled over his shoulder.
Willy spoke to a pair of players as he trotted across the field, and when he got to the far side he stood behind two coaches who had begun talking to Michaels. The head coach was a big man, easily as tall as Willy and twice as big around. He had been a lineman in college. The coach was smart too. Whether he was smart enough to eventually raise the Commodores to competitive status was yet to be decided.
“Walk over there,” someone behind Joey said.
Joey turned around and saw Al leaning back, relaxed with his arms crossed on his chest.
“I didn’t know you were there.”
“I am. Go over there. Tell him you want to help the team.”
“Go,” Al said, flicking his wrist as if shooing Joey in that direction.
Joey made it to Willy when the coach finally broke free.
“Hi coach. I’m Willy-“
“I know who you are. How ya’ doing?” Michaels asked.
“I’m good. I’m healed.”
“Good. Good for you. What brings you to practice?”
“I’m in school. I mean, here. I’m in school here at Vandy. I want to play football.”
The comment stopped Michaels’ banter. Suddenly serious, he surveyed Willy and then looked away. Joey, who had walked up behind the pair, thought that couldn’t be a good sign.
“Willy, we’ve already started practice. I’ve got my walk-ons.”
“I just want a chance,” Willy said.
Michaels said nothing, searching as if he didn’t know how to reply. Then he looked around at Joey.
“Who’s this? You want to try out too?”
“I think I could maybe help the team,” Joey said. Isn’t that what Al said to say?
“You look like a kicker. You kick?”
“Sure. I can do anything.”
The coach looked around and spotted a rack of footballs the managers hadn’t corralled yet and walked over picking up one in his big paw.
“Here. Kick this ball to Willy. Run down to the other end, Willy.”
Willy ran about forty yards down the field and turned around. Joey remembered the previous evening and motioned for Willy to back up, and when he backed up ten more yards he motioned again. Joey took one step and punted. The ball arced high in a spiral, over Willy’s head, sending him back at a full sprint, more than twenty more yards. Willy did manage to catch it over his shoulder gracefully.
“You a soccer player?”
“No sir. I used to play a little football in the backyard.”
“Again.” He tossed Joey another football. Joey repeated his kick even deeper. “I don’t think I’ve seen anyone punt a ball that deep. Ever. You must’ve had a big back yard.”
Michaels was smiling.
“This must be my lucky day, if you can do that under pressure.”
“I think I can play anywhere,” Joey said.
The coach motioned for Willy to come back, and when he did it seemed the coach had come to a solution.
“Willy, you come by my office tomorrow afternoon at two. You,” he said pointing to Joey, “come by practice Monday. Be at the field house at three.”
And with that he walked away, a rotund wobbling stroll into the evening toward the field house.
Joey and Willy stood there for a moment and then finally walked back to get their things out of the stands.
“I think we’re in,” Joey said.
Willy was not so optimistic.
“Not good,” Willy said. “I get this feeling.”
“Man, going back for the ball, I’ve seen grace before and you have it. I want to see you playing for Vandy. You can play.”
“Where’d you learn to punt like that? You didn’t tell me you were a kicker.”
“It’s a gift. I can play. We can play. He’ll take you; I know it.”
“We’ll see,” Willy said. “We’ll see.”
Al was nowhere in sight when they got their bags, which was just as well. He was beginning to give Joey the creeps. He didn’t want to be thinking about Al, because today was cause for celebration. Joey broke one of Al’s hundreds and they had pizza, comfort food that no amount of worry could withstand.