Joey could hear Tyler pecking on a keyboard inside his bedroom throughout the day, and once as he lay in bed reading he heard the commode flush. Joey didn’t visibly see his roommate all day though. After contemplating asking Tyler if he wanted to go out for dinner, he abandoned the idea and roamed around the hall and into what he was now calling the pool room. It was vacant as well. Even Willy never answered repeated knocks on his door.
Late in the afternoon Joey decided it was time to phone in sick. He hadn’t found a phone in his bag – which was surprising all things considered – so he went downstairs to use the phone in the lobby to call the plant.
When he began entering digits a hand reached around, seized the phone, and put it back into its cradle. Al stood behind him.
“You can’t call,” Al said before stepping back and then sitting reluctantly on the edge of a dirty, brown chair.
“I have to tell them I won’t be there,” Joey said. His fear and doubt, that little nagging voice in his mind that told him this was not right and not good, was screaming again. The voice said it still wasn’t too late.
“Joey, you’re in now. Let’s play this thing for all it’s worth. One hundred days.”
Joey looked around the deserted lobby and down to the floor before mustering the courage to face Al once more. He wasn’t sure if he was scared or doubtful. Things were happening so fast.
“I don’t think I can do this,” he said finally.
“Let’s walk. Come on.” Al smiled, happy to be moving and out of the chair. Happy to be with Joey. Life was grand.
They left the lobby and began across the campus as night fell around them. Neither said anything for a bit, and when they came to a large cement median which was the base for a gazing statue of a well dressed man studying the expansive campus, they took a seat.
“You’ll be fine,” Al said.
Joey said nothing wondering how to make his argument. He had almost decided he didn’t want it. It wasn’t worth it. Then again, he didn’t know for certain what his end of the deal was exactly. There was much that he could demand if this were indeed real. Why though? Why him?
“You know, Joey,” Al began, “God could do this for everyone. Everyone could be young. You believe that, don’t you?”
“I guess I do. Yeah, I believe it.” After he said it, Joey realized that he did indeed believe it, and the thought made him angry. That old drive, the one he harbored when he had been a young man, surfaced once more, and all the years of work and pain and sorrow came to mind. God was omnipotent and could do anything, yet…
“Ever wonder why there’s so much suffering in the world? Why does He let that happen?”
Joey remained silent. He didn’t have an answer. Al continued.
“You know what’s worse? He can conquer death. He can. No one has to die.”
The comment struck home, and Joey thought of Michelle as he looked directly in Al’s face. No one had to die. Not Michelle. Not anyone. Now he was no longer angry, but infuriated beyond measure. He could do this, and what’s more he would do this. What did he have to lose? Many times it seemed as though he had already lost everything.
“I made you young,” Al said. “You think I can conquer death?”
The point had been made. Was there more that could be done? There were further possibilities, or at least it seemed that way for Joey. The question was could he save Michelle?
“One hundred days. To decide. One hundred days?” Al looked to the heavens before continuing. “That was the deal, Joey. No one can know though. Do you understand? No one. My end of the deal is off if anyone finds out.”
Joey felt the chill of the threat as it coursed through his veins. He didn’t even dare to contemplate what might happen if someone did find out. And, he felt a bit of shame, for backing out on his friend Al and yet paradoxically for even going through with Al’s plan. What crime had he committed though? What was wrong with pursuing a course of action that would make him happy? What was so wrong with being given contentment?
“Now,” Al said, “let’s head back and get ready to live. Really live. Enjoy this thing. It’s going to be amazing; it really is.”
Al went his way when they neared the dorm, and Joey retreated inside. In the morning he attended the first class of the orientation, wondering all the while how to escape back to his room. Even though he watched for Willy, he never spotted him all day. That afternoon, he ventured to the field house, and found he was the only player there at three.
Joey pecked on Coach Michael’s closed door, and after hearing a muffled answer opened it slowly to peer inside.
“Joey!” Michaels said with genuine enthusiasm. “Have a seat.”
The coach took a folder from his desk and sat precariously on the wooden top as he opened it.
“We got your file. You’re all set. I thought we’d have to go clearinghouse then get a physical, but you’re all set. You have one heck of a guidance counselor.”
“I do at that,” Joey said. He thought of Al.
“Never played in high school? Why not?”
“I, uh, I worked.”
“Says your father is self-employed.”
“Yes sir, he was. I worked for my father.” Joey wasn’t certain it was the first lie he had told since all this started, but he was fairly certain it wouldn’t be the last.
“McMinn doesn’t know what it was missing,” Michaels said. He studied Joey for a moment. “Okay, guys will start getting here and getting taped up any time now. Go to the trainer. Get pads. Meet on the field at four for stretching. Sound good?”
“I guess so.”
“Okay then. Now, this is sort of a tryout, I guess you could call it. Let’s see how it goes.”
Easy as that, Joey began his career at Vandy. The trainers and the managers fixed him up with pads, a number 99 jersey along with football pants, and then fitted him with a helmet complete with the mask he requested. For a super fan like Joey, who used to be Joe, the entire treatment was like fantasy camp.
An NCAA head coach is more like the CEO of a corporation, and planning has to be meticulous in order to cover everything a team needs to cover in only twenty hours per week of practice. Michaels was no different. Joey was amazed at the preparation and the team’s workload, but his own practices all through the week consisted of punting and working on kicking drills. Most of the assistants’ time was being spent on proven commodities though, and through Thursday he had only kicked a few times, all beautiful, long kicks but yet unnoticed.
Practices were crisp with final run-throughs on offense and defense, and with only one week remaining the team had already begun preparation for their opener with Western Kentucky, a non-conference game against a team they were expected to handle easily. Joey watched and learned.
Classes began on Friday, and his friend Willy who had opened the door to being on the team was nowhere to be found. He never answered knocks on the door of his dorm room, and he never ventured out to the doughnut shop or anywhere the guys went in the evening. Joey had three classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and while he walked to each class he searched faces. It seemed as though Willy had vanished.
But at practice on Saturday, the day that Joey would finally get a break on the team, he spotted Willy who gave a half-hearted wave from the stands. There had to be some way he could repay his friend. It was obvious the wide receivers were nowhere close to being as talented.
During live punting action, Vandy’s number one punter came up lame. When coaches looked for the number two punter and couldn’t locate him quickly, Joey ran onto the field, helmet strapped and ready.
“I’ll do it, coach,” Joey said.
“Okay, full speed. Here we go.”
Joey took the snap and boomed a high, spiraling punt all the way to the other ten where the team’s fastest player took the ball in an ill-advised catch over his shoulder. He quickly remedied that mistake though when he circled back left and began accelerating away from the defenders. Soon, Joey was the only one standing in the way of a score. As the player juked, Joey exploded into his legs and upended him in a violent collision.
Running the punt play again, Joey tracked the ball carrier once more and ran him down from the side, tackling him with ease. Michaels blew his whistle.
“You have no problem tackling an All-SEC returner,” the coach said. “Stick around after practice. I want to time you.”
And that was how Joey began his odyssey of playing time.
“Forty yards,” Michaels said.
As all the other players made their way to the locker room, Michaels sent a coach downfield with his stopwatch. The lights from the field shone like a harsh interrogation as darkness began settling over Nashville.
“He’ll go on your first movement,” Michaels said. “Run through him. Don’t slow down.”
Joey noticed Willy still sitting in the stands.
“I need someone to run with me,” Joey said. “How ’bout Willy over there.”
Michaels looked to the stands then back to Joey, seemingly turning the idea over in his mind. He motioned for Willy.
“I’ll time you. Anthony will get Willy. First movement and you both go.” Willy arrived. “Can you run a couple of these with Joey?”
“Sure,” Willy said, already changing into his cleats and stretching. He hopped up and down a few times as Michaels went to the other end. “Thanks man.”
“No problem. I wouldn’t be out here if it wasn’t for you.”
“I’m sorry I’ve been ignoring you,” Willy said.
When Joey and Willy were ready, they each eased down into a three-point stance. Willy dug one foot into the turf.
“On three we go. You ready?”
“Let’s do this,” Willy whispered.
“One… two… three!”
Joey knew what he had on his side, but he never expected the type of explosion out of his stance that Willy demonstrated. In only two steps, Joey was behind. There would be no need to hold back. Joey accelerated and caught Willy near the thirty yard line and then with a bit more effort pulled away, finishing a full two steps in front.
“I don’t think we got it,” Michaels said. “Let’s go again.”
Joey and Willy trotted back to their spots trying to catch their breath.
“I think he did get it,” Joey said under his breath and looking away. “That was fast.”
“Man, I have to do this.”
“You will. You count this time.”
When they screamed out of their stances this time, Joey did not hold back. He saw Willy just behind him, a long, hulking figure, pulling with all his might. The coaches were a blur as the pair of wood-be players raced by. When they walked back, both of the coaches were smiling. Michaels held his watch as if he was afraid the time might fall away and be lost forever.
“I’ve never seen a time like that. Willy was at 4.28. You’re the fastest player I’ve ever seen, Joey.”
“Thanks coach,” Joey said. He had already caught his breath. “I told you, I want to help the team. I can play anywhere and everywhere. He can help us too.”
They all three looked at Willy.
“You want us both? On Monday?” Joey asked.
“Come to my office. Tomorrow. Two. Both of you. We have some work to do.”
That evening’s pizza was on Willy. They had lots of learning to do in a short amount of time. It would take teamwork for them to pull this off.
Leaving the field, if they had looked to the far end zone, they would have noticed Al, standing like Bear Bryant leaning against the goal post. He wasn’t smiling.