Joey and Willy got a big send off Friday afternoon before they departed for the Hilton Garden Inn to spend the night with the team. They were the only two players who were not staying in the dorms allotted for official players, and their friends wanted to celebrate and wish them luck. Kevin Miller appeared first, carrying a lopsided cake smeared with white icing that was thin enough in places to see the cake beneath. Someone had written “Good Luck” in black and gold around one candle that burned on its top. A member of the guilty party knew a girl in a separate apartment that had a stove, and voila, a cake. Eight other guys followed behind Miller, most of them snickering, some of them discussing whether or not they should sing something.
Not only had classes started, Willy and Joey’s football education had begun. Throughout the week, they had watched each of the sections of the video, memorizing plays and coverages. Then, late in the evening after each practice this week, they went outside and practiced moves and things they had learned. Often, their friends would come outside and toss a pass or help out. It was a team project, and by the end of the week the two players had begun to grasp many of the concepts. Joey had moved to number two on several of the defensive packages. If the coaches could have evaluated players on work from this week only, Willy would have been starting. For that matter, if they had known more about Joey, he would have been playing as well.
After a team meeting and a video at the hotel Friday evening, players dispersed to their rooms. Saturday morning would begin with an early breakfast because of the one o’clock kickoff. There would be no pep rally on the quad for this first game.
“I know I can’t sleep this early,” Willy said, sitting on the edge of the bed, eyeing the clock on the nightstand.
They each perused their three-ring binder of notes for a while, but the material had grown old. Neither of them had an appetite to study further, and Willy flipped on the television and began surfing channels. When the news came on, he stopped. ALERT. The graphics caught his attention.
Topping our news tonight, a missing Nashville man has the attention of police the anchor said. After failing to arrive for his shift Sunday night at Plastics International, authorities were summoned to the home of supervisor Joe Daily. Fearing the worst, police gained entrance and were unable to locate anyone at the residence.
Joey’s eyes were wide and realizing his shock might be visible to Willy, he tried to remain calm and act natural. Then the screen shot broke to video of Glenn looking dapper in his Cardinals cap.
When Joe didn’t show up Sunday, I knew somethin’ was wrong. He didn’t call in. Nobody’s seen ’im. It’s not like Joe. He wouldn’t do this.
Then the scene shifted to video of Joe’s home and immediately to video of what looked like a detective in a suit. The detective spoke next.
Joe Daily’s vehicle was still in the drive, and upon searching we located items that would indicate he was not involved in a robbery. It appears he has simply vanished.
Joey thought about the uncashed check. He thought about his friends at the plant and how worried they must be and felt a pang of sadness for subjecting them to his decision. The television screen switched to a picture of Joe Daily and his name printed in bold letters to the side.
If anyone has any information on Joe Daily, the man pictured on the screen, police want you to contact them as soon as possible. If you have information, you can call our tip line on the screen or the number of the Nashville Metro Police, also pictured. Mr. Daily has now been entered as missing. All tips will be kept confidential.
It’s football time here in Nashville, and the Commodores…
“Huh,” Willy said. “Wonder what happened there?”
“No telling,” Joey said. He suddenly felt tired and conspicuous even though his appearance had changed so much there was no resemblance, so he crawled up the bed, turned it down, and made himself comfortable. “Let’s get some rest.”
As the stadium filled on Saturday, players went through taping and their last minute preparations reviewing the Hilltoppers’ team. Their quarterback was a fast, agile fifth-year senior who had led the team to its best finish in school history and a bowl win last year. What he lacked in passing expertise he made up for in everything else. The line returned intact. The defensive front looked to be the team’s weakness, but if the Commodores got into a shootout the game might get away from them.
After warm-ups on the field, Michaels addressed the team. What the Commodores lacked in physical ability, they more than made up for in preparation and enthusiasm. And what stood out for Joey was the way the team had become a unit, even with their late additions who they had accepted and nurtured as one of their own. It gave Joey hope, albeit only a glimmer, and now with Al’s help winning might indeed be reality.
The team’s original kicker had recovered enough to perform on kickoffs and on the first play of the ‘Dores’ season he sent the ball into the end zone. Vandy stopped an off-tackle play to the right for no gain then stopped an option to the left. The quarterback’s third down pass was high and the ensuing punt went out of bounds near the fifty, leaving Vandy in good field position.
But Vandy’s offense didn’t cooperate. With the quarterback in the shotgun on the first play, the center snapped the ball over his head for a ten yard loss. In a case of apparent first game nerves, Ronnie Couch ran into the halfback on the next play for another loss. On third and long, his first pass attempt went high, and it was time for Joey to make his first appearance in his first college game.
The snap was true, and Joey watched the defense peel away for the return. The rush was light. A large open spot spread to the right of the field, and had Joey decided to run he would have picked up the first down easily. He hesitated and then kicked. The punt was a beautiful, high spiral, like all his punts, and by the time it fell to Earth Vandy players waited to catch it. They did so at the one yard line, 64 yards away.
His position coach met him on the sideline with a high five, but Michaels was there as well.
“If they do that again, run for it. It was open,” he said. Joey had been right. He had the green light should it happen again.
The Hilltoppers got out of trouble on the first play, executing the option that failed on the first drive. Then, their nimble quarterback eluded the rush and sprinted for 29 yards. After completing a long pass, they were across the fifty yard line. That’s where they stalled and had to punt. Their kick went out of bounds at the ten.
It looked like Couch was going to have one of those days. He bobbled the snap when he pulled out too soon from center, and after falling on the ball he threw incompletions on the next two plays. Now, Joey would be punting from his own end zone. There would be no return this time. Almost certainly Western Kentucky would bring everyone, and from the looks of all the players revving up on the line that would be the case.
He waited for the snap. And the worst happened.
The snap looked good initially, but as it traveled back to Joey it was clear the ball would be high. It was. The ball kept climbing. Joey leaped, and got one hand on it, tipping it straight up in the air in a crazy wobble. When Joey caught it, he saw players bearing down on him from the right and left. He took one step and at the last moment spun right. The defender whizzed by in the air. Another came and he dodged left. Then, the defender originally flying in from the left jumped and Joey spun out of the way once more. He put his head down and ran, past the goal line, with two more players in hot pursuit.
Thinking back later, he had no idea why he did it. Maybe it was one of those situations that Al had told him would simply happen. Joey, in a split second, slammed on the brakes, and in that instant – as the defenders sensed he had stopped and stuttered – Joey accelerated to full speed once more. The defenders were suddenly behind him. Several other Hilltoppers scattered around the field in front of him, each closing, but now Joey’s teammates were blocking.
Joey began to follow his own players, accelerating then running around packs of players. When he at last faced the lone return man, Joey planted and ran away from him and toward the end zone in the distance. Technically, Joey had executed a 94 yard run a touchdown, and a lead for Vandy.
He had no time to celebrate though. Vandy’s kicker was once again hurting and could not kick extra points. Joey tacked on the extra point, and then kicked off.
The kick off went through the end zone for a touchback.
The first quarter ended at 7-0. And that’s the way the first half ended after several fumbles and interceptions.
Willy, who had yet to get into the game, met Joey in the concourse.
“They couldn’t touch you,” he said, slapping Joey’s number 99 on the back of his jersey.
“It was like slow motion,” Joey said. He didn’t add how good it felt either.
The second half was not like the first. Vandy began to get into their game. Their SEC size and speed began to wear down the Hilltoppers. If the Western Kentucky quarterback had not been in the game, the score would have been even worse. Vandy led 14-0 after three, only because the quarterback had scrambled for well over 100 yards and kept the Vanderbilt offense on the sidelines. Each time it seemed a punt was imminent he bobbed and weaved for a big gain. Finally, on the first play of the fourth quarter, he managed to elude everyone making the score 14-7.
Then Willy got into the game. If any play could have been labeled “Willy’s Play”, this was it. A simple end around, where Willy, flanked out to the right, ran full speed behind the quarterback and took a toss to race around to the left. Willy caught the pitch and sprinted far to the left. The field clogged. He stopped and reversed course, not an action the coaches wanted, but Willy’s instinct had taken over. Willy gave ground and then cut the ball up, juked one man, hurdled another would-be tackler, and weaved his way all the way to pay dirt. 21-7.
Late in the fourth, Western Kentucky had the ball on their own thirty. One more stop and the game was history.
“Joey!” Michaels yelled. The defensive unit had assembled in front of their head coach before taking the field. “Go in at free safety. Stay about ten yards behind the middle linebackers. Everyone will do their job. Act like he’s not there,” he told them. “Joey, you are to watch the quarterback. Shadow him. He starts to run, he’s yours. Watch us. We’ll direct you each play.”
Joey ran out with the team and to his spot.
“You got him,” the team’s middle linebacker and captain said, his eyes narrow slits. “Pop him if you get the chance.”
The first play was a designed quarterback draw all the way. The quarterback took two steps back after the shotgun snap and bolted to the line looking for a hole. One of the guards had come straight for the linebacker and had him engaged as Joey darted around them. The linebacker on the left side of the line got tangled with another player, and Joey could see the qb’s eyes, wild and wide, full of adrenalin. The quarterback made a half-hearted move to the right then lowered his shoulder in an attempt to run over Joey, who had other plans. Joey broke down and exploded into the quarterback and the ball. The ball carrier’s head snapped back in the violent collision, his helmet flew backward, the ball seemed to sit suspended in mid-air. Joey, who never even fell to the ground reached out, collected it, and sprinted for his second score of the day.
The final was 28-7.
Joey made it to the locker room, and before anyone knew it two then three then four reporters had surrounded him at his locker.
“Joey, how did you like your first game?” one reporter said.
“It was fun, really fun,” Joey said.
“You seem to be a big play machine,” another prompted.
“I try to do what the coaches tell me.”
Before another question could be asked, Michaels intervened and showed the reporters the door.
“I’m sorry,” Michaels said. “We have a policy that freshmen don’t talk to the media. I never saw this coming.”
“That’s good,” Joey said. He was actually relieved. “Thanks, I didn’t know what to do.”
“You did fine. Enjoy this win. We’ve got work to do. You’re going to be a busy guy.”
He was busy. He was player of the week in the SEC.