Hail Mary (Part II)

Hail Mary II

The game of football can be a cruel mistress–one who will take everything from you and give very little in return.

The term facilities had to be used loosely when referring to the Corpus Christi Spartans’ base of operations.  Located about four miles north of the harbor off Interstate 37, the Spartans’ offices were small, substandard, and leased on a month-to-month basis within the space of a poorly kept and mostly abandoned strip mall.  Team practices took place either at local high schools or public parks, depending on the day and the finances.  Film and training sessions were made possible by the meager sponsorship of a local boxing gym, the latter supplemented through the use of an empty lot adjacent the team’s offices. 

In truth, the facilities were cheap, improvised, and horribly inefficient, but such was the bitter reality for an EIFL franchise operating in a city where local 3A high school matchups received more media coverage and higher attendance than the average Spartans’ home game.

As Lance guided his 12-year old Ford Explorer in the direction of the team facilities, he tried not to think about the demoralizing turn of events he was leaving behind.  Today was Friday, after all, and he had a check to pick up. 

If you could even call it that.  $250 per week was hardly a livable income.  Most of the Spartans’ players had no choice but to maintain a job or two on the side, all the while ensuring said occupations did not interfere with Spartans’ practices, workouts, travel or games. 

Many minor league teams had reputations for being notoriously eager when it came to levying fines against their players.  With tight budgets of their own to deal with, teams such as the Spartans did not see it prudent to indulge the various trials, tribulations, or excuses of the individuals comprising their respective rosters.

Two exits shy of his destination, Lance noticed the red needle of his fuel gauge hovering over the ominous E at the far left of the meter.  Cursing, he exited the freeway and pulled into the nearest gas station, all the while doing his best not to dwell on the fuel he had wasted traveling to and from what was ultimately a failed tryout.  As he stepped out of the vehicle, the dejected quarterback retrieved his smart phone, toggled up Amy from his list of contacts and tapped call

With the phone pressed against his ear, Lance went through the motions of refueling the Explorer, lightly squeezing the pump handle as the price gauge closed in on $10.00.  The SUV wasn’t the only thing running on fumes these days as Lance’s checking account had recently fallen on empty, itself.  With just $15.00 of cash left in his wallet, 4 gallons of gasoline would have to do until he could collect a little more capital.

“Hi, you’ve reached Amy Stanton,” began the most soothing voice in Lance’s world.  “Sorry I can’t take your call right now, but leave your name and number I will most definitely get back to you.  Muah!”

“Hey baby, it’s me,” said Lance as he entered the gas station.  “I’m on my way to pick up my check.”  He opened his wallet and passed a $10 bill to the cashier.  “It’s been a rough day.”  He sighed.  “I know this isn’t the first time you’ve heard me say that.  Anyway, just wanted to say I love you.  I’ll see you tonight.” 

Lance parked the Explorer in the sparsely populated plaza in front of the Spartans’ offices.  As he exited the vehicle, he heard the unmistakable the clang, clatter and smash of the afternoon’s workout from the lot around the corner.  Sledgehammers slinging.  Tires flipping.  The drill sergeant-like bellows of Coach Mack—part-time strength and conditioning coach for the Spartans; full-time P.E. teacher for Banquete Middle School in Robstown. 

As he entered the office suite, Lance was immediately hit by a stale odor reminiscent of the nursing homes where he and his teammates would volunteer during college.  After taking a moment to adjust to the stench, he ascended the dark, narrow stairwell and stepped into the poorly-maintained 2nd floor office corridor of the Corpus Christi Spartans. 

While the team’s management contracted a janitorial company a couple of times per month to sweep the dust and bleach the mold, these measures were nothing more than a half measure—hardly enough to raise the offices to a level of respectability.  Every step Lance took along the hallway’s mildewed carpet seemed to conjure a new horde of dust, which swirled up from the fabric before dancing and fluttering within the pools of light flooding in through the smudged windows along the corridor.

Lance held his breath—perhaps unconsciously—and passed through the hallway, stopping just outside the last door on the right.  He peered in through the large rectangular office window only to have his view obscured by the cheap, partially drawn venetian blinds, their horizontal slats each covered by a thin gray film of dust. 

To the left of the window was office’s the entrance:  a flimsy wooden door painted pastel blue and covered with chips and bare spots that had accumulated thanks to years—perhaps decades—of utter neglect.  Taped to the outside of the door was a single piece of copy paper with writing in dark, bolded font:

Doctor Da’Rel Meeks

Head Coach/Head of Football Operations

Lance refused to say the words aloud as he was incapable of doing so in a respectful tone.  Dr. Coach Meeks.  Doctor of what?  Nothing but a ridiculous, self-appointed title. 

What added to this sad comedy was that Meeks had just three certificates adorning the walls of his office:  his high school diploma; an Associates Degree from Kilgore Community College; and a framed computer printout, similar to the one scotch-taped to the office door, from some two-week online course in business management. 

Perhaps the doctorate was still at the framery, Lance joked to himself.  Who calls themselves doctor anyway? Actual doctors.  He took a deep breath—in spite of the mold—and summoned every ounce of Zen in his possession. 

Lance cracked the door a few inches and peered into the office.  “You busy, coach?”

“What can I do for you, Mr. Gunn?” said Dr. Coach Meeks without looking up, his eyes fixed on the screen of his bulky, outdated computer monitor. 

“Here to pick up my check, sir.”

Without visually acknowledging the presence of his starting QB, Meeks turned his attention to the small stack of envelopes cluttered atop his desk.  “How’d the tryout go?” he asked as he shuffled through the pile.

Slightly taken aback by the question, Lance shifted his weight and gulped down the nervous lump in the back of his throat.  He had actively taken measures to prevent Meeks from learning about his tryout that morning. 

“Went OK.  Should be hearing back soon,” he responded, unsure whether his answer qualified more as a lie or a formality.

“You know you’re wastin’ your time, boy?”  Meeks finally looked up, his eyes beady and dark behind their bifocals.  His face was fleshy, coal-black, and devoid of affect.  Lance shifted his weight again, but did not respond.  “Ya’ got a good thing here.  Consider yourself lucky.  These stupid fantasies of yours are only gonna’ hurt the team.” 

He opened the envelope marked Lance Gunn.  After checking the amount, he placed the check back in the envelope and slid it across the desk to Lance, who opened it and checked the amount himself.    

“Um, Coach,” said Lance in a puzzled tone.  “I think there was a mistake with payroll—”

“One-hundred and fifty dollars pay for a one-hundred and fifty dollars’ work,” said Meeks, his voice flat; attention back on the monitor; fingers clicking away atop the mouse pad.

“But I made all my workouts this week.  I even reorganized my shifts at work—”

“Fifty dollars deduction for tardiness on Monday.  Another fifty for your absence today.”

“Coach, with all due respect…” He tried to make the words sound less forced than they actually were.  “I was only three minutes late on Monday.  And I talked to Coach Mack on Wednesday and he said I could get my workout in early this morning, you know, because of the tryout.”

Meeks groaned.  The pudgy black man of five feet and seven inches removed his glasses and began massaging his temples, as if to tell his starting quarterback that even the mildest protest was cause for a migraine. 

“Listen, Gunn.  You’re a good kid.  We like you alright here.”  Meeks leaned back in his chair, its legs straining beneath his weight.  “But you gotta’ play by the same rules as everyone else.”

“Coach, I just thought with it being preseason and all—”

“One-hundred and fifty dollars’ pay,” he paused mid-sentence to offer some emphatic gesturing and extra condescension, “for one-hundred and fifty dollars’ work.”  He looked at Lance with his dead, vacant stare.  Yet this time, the young man saw something subdued in his coach’s eyes.  Something familiar. 

Disappointment?  No.  What was it?

That’s when it hit him like a slap to the back of the head.  Resentment.  Pure bile and envy, brought on by being in the constant presence of athletes who had managed, in some small way, to be paid for their talent and keep their dreams alive; who refused to just settle for their present situation.

Yet by some horrible miscalculation of fate, Meeks had been granted power over dozens of these young men whose only mistake was refusing to quit on themselves.  Da’Rel Meeks was not a coach.  In fact, he was quite the opposite:  a malcontent black hole of talent who thrived off the struggle and disappointment of those around him. 

It was as if the power trip of a mall cop and the unbridled sleaziness of a pyramid schemer had made a baby, and that baby grew up to be someone who was so lazy and talentless that the only way he could achieve satisfaction in his own life was to watch those around him suffer.

“That’ll be all, son,” said Meeks in his typically condescending tone.  “New pay period starts tomorrow.  I’ll see you bright and early for film.”

But Lance didn’t move.  Instead he chose to linger for a moment amidst the low light of Da’Rel Meeks’ moldy office, surrounded by his three meager certificates and little else of note.  An obsolete computer.  A desk that could barely pass as a card table.  It was lonely, depressing, and most of all, well-deserved.  Lance waited there until an exacerbated Meeks finally looked back up at him.

“I said that’ll be all.”

Lance looked into those dead eyes.  Craters as dark and vacant as the vacuum that inhabited his skull.  The quarterback smiled, then turned and walked out of Meeks’ office for the very last time.

Hail Mary (Part I)

Preparing to win means nothing if you aren't prepared to fight.

Preparing to win means nothing if you aren’t prepared to fight.

Lance Gunn dropped to one knee and positioned himself behind the small scrap of electrical tape stretched across the synthetic red pellets of the Corpus Christi High School athletic track.  He managed one final glimpse upon the man situated 40 yards downrange, stopwatch in hand, eyes fixed steadfastly upon his prospect. 

After extending his hand forward until his fingertips touched the gray strip of tape, the quarterback and former three-year starter from Southern Methodist University lifted his rear, straightened his back, and adjusted his legs until his body was postured in a textbook sprinter’s stance.  Eyes closed.  Deep, controlled breaths.  Lance’s world faded into silence as the man with the stopwatch waited. 

“On you,” he called from the opposite end of the track.  Lance opened his eyes.

Without cue, the athlete exploded from his stance in a burst of quick-twitch fury, all of his muscles uncoiling simultaneously as he sprinted from his starting position.  Jay Sloan waited at the opposite end of the track alongside the man with the stopwatch, watching as the device clicked to life.  Milliseconds accumulated into seconds as Jay’s client traversed the designated portion of the track—exactly 120 feet, or 40 yards. 

Knees high.  Arms in tight.  Lance’s high school awards included a regional championship in the 100-meter dash, which qualified him as an excellent form runner.  His training and muscle memory carried him in a nearly perfect trajectory down the track, all the way across the 40-yard marker, whereupon the man with the stopwatch thumbed the upper-right-hand button, freezing the readout at 4.69 seconds.

4.69.  Not bad, Lance, Jay thought to himself.  But would it be enough?  He watched as his client gradually geared his sprint down to a jog, which carried him another couple dozen yards around the first bend of the regulation 400-meter track.  Jay turned to the man with the stopwatch.   

“Whatcha’ think, Mike?”

Michael Tresser lowered the timepiece and shrugged.  A former roommate of Jay’s, Tresser currently served as a regional scout within the Department of Player Personnel for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a team competing in the Canadian Football League. 

A native of Houston, TX, Mike had agreed to travel to Corpus Christi—though it was well outside of his designated region of the Pacific Northwest—to hold an unofficial workout for one of Jay’s clients.  He did so as a personal favor to Jay, a longtime acquaintance and sometime friend who now anxiously awaited Tresser’s fateful judgment.

“He’s a great athlete,” said Jay, as if he was issuing some sort of reminder.  “I know, he’s no Russell Wilson, but he’s very mobile inside the pocket.  Very poised.  It’s the first thing that pops out on film.”  Tresser sighed, but otherwise remained silent, as if to carefully measure his words before speaking them.  A long, uncomfortable pause ensued.  “Will you say something, Mike?”

“He’s small,” said Tresser without hesitation.

“So is Brees.”

Tresser shook his head.  “You can’t just compare every pint-sized quarterback to Drew Brees.”  He turned his attention to Lance, who was standing anxiously at the bend of the track, waving from the distance.

“You want me to go again?” he shouted, an odd paradoxical mixture of hope and desperation in his voice.

“No need,” said Tresser, his tone failing to belie his verdict, and with it, Lance’s prognosis.  For Tresser’s voice was teeming with his own subjective truth.  And that truth was that after a strenuous 45-minute workout and evaluation, this quarterback simply did not have the skill set to sway fate in his favor. 

Lance held up his head in spite of his drowning spirit.  The quarterback stood idly at a distance, humbled and dejected once again, his career as an athlete growing ever more tenuous with each passing rejection.  Jay took Tresser’s arm and led him a few more steps away from Lance to converse in private. 

“Did you see the film I sent you?”

“Yes, Jay.  I saw the film.”

“Did you watch it?” 

He shot Jay a look of contempt.  “He’s small—”

“You already said that.”

“He’s small,” repeated Tresser.  “His arm strength is mediocre.  He’s a good athlete, but not good enough to make a position change.”

“Use him in your wildcat package.”

Tresser laughed.  “We don’t do wildcat in Winnipeg, Jay.  It’s all fun n’ gun.  And he just doesn’t have the gun.”  Jay glanced over his shoulder at Lance—chest slumped, arms crossed in front of him. 

The two had agreed to terms following Lance’s stellar senior season at SMU.  Jay had hoped that the undersized QB could find a role in the NFL as a niche player.  But after three days and 274 draft picks in the books, Lance had failed to hear his name called and thus was designated as an undrafted rookie free agent, or UDFA. 

Jay still managed to put in a call to the Arizona Cardinals, who had expressed mild interest in Lance during the 7th round, projecting him as a possible convert to WR and creative package player.  And even though Jay did, in fact, land Lance a standard UDFA contract with the Cardinals, the odds were never really in the young man’s favor. 

Upon reporting to training camp, the life-long signal caller was immediately thrown into the wide receiver mix, whereupon he became buried behind a deep roster of talent that boasted a duo of veteran Pro Bowl receivers.  After receiving a total of five snaps through two preseason games, Lance was issued his walking papers during the first round of cuts and never managed to log his name on another NFL roster. 

“Just take him to camp,” pleaded Jay.  “If he doesn’t have the chops, fine.  But give the kid a chance.”

Tresser rubbed a hand over his balding head.  “Who’s he with right now?”

“The Corpus Christi Spartans.”

“Arena?”

Jay shook his head.  “EIFL.” 

Tresser nodded, silently acknowledging the fact that both men were both well aware of.  That the Elite Indoor Football League was about as low as you could get on the professional football ladder. 

“The indoor game is probably best for him,” said Tresser without a hint of the sarcasm—or the backhandedness that typically accompanied such a statement.  Jay still took offense.

“Don’t say that shit.”

“I’m not knockin’ the kid.  But our game is an open one.”  It was true.  CFL teams played on 120-yard fields with twelve players lining up across from one another.  Indoor and Arena leagues used 50-yard fields and eight players apiece.  “He has a much better chance to shine and put together a nice little career if he focuses on the indoor game.  That’s a ladder I could see him climbing.”

“So that’s it?” 

“I’m sorry, Jay.  He’s just not what we’re looking for.”

Jay felt a familiar tightening in his gut.  He tried to bury the disappointment—not for himself, but for Lance.  An empathetic response of sorts.  After all, in the four years following Lance’s college graduation, this was the best shot Jay had given him since the Cardinals.  And probably the last. 

An empathetic sports agent, Jay thought to himself.  How’s that workin’ out?  He extended a reluctant hand toward Tresser. 

“Thanks for making the trip, Mike.”  They shook hands and the scout from the Blue Bombers offered one last favor to his old college buddy.

“You want me to tell him?”

“Nah.”  Jay shook his head.  This was one burden he’d have to carry himself.  “I’ll give him the news.  Good luck this season.”

Lance Gunn observed from a distance as his agent, Jay Sloan, and the professional scout from Canada shook hands and exchanged parting pleasantries.  His heart dropped as he watched Jay’s CFL “hookup” make his way toward the parking lot without offering a second glance in Lance’s direction. 

The 27-year-old exhaled, hung his head, and prepared himself for the all-too-familiar news.  And as he stood there, waiting, he reluctantly contemplated the acceptance that would mark the inevitable first step in ending his career and aspirations as a professional football player.

Hail Mary (Part III)

There is a thin line between greatness and obscurity, It is the choices we make that determine on which side of the line we will fall.

There is a thin line between greatness and obscurity.  It is the choices we make that determine on which side of the line we will fall.

Lance and James “Casper” McNeil first met during their freshman year at SMU, but it wasn’t until their sophomore season together that the duo hooked up for 67 receptions, 1,073 yards and 11 touchdowns en route to an Outback Bowl appearance and a pair of respective All Conference honors.  The success of the two young men—each barely 20 years old at the time—granted them celebrity status on campus while garnering significant national media attention along the way.  The sophomore phenoms who would bring SMU back to prominence.   

But that magical season would ultimately become the lone highlight of their collective career.  Lance and Casper’s time on the field together was brought to an abrupt end when the star sophomore wide receiver suffered a devastating knee injury in the opening quarter of SMU’s Outback Bowl loss to Mississippi State. 

Following the injury, Casper was forced to undergo a massive reconstructive surgical effort to repair nearly all of the ligaments of his knee.  The surgery, coupled with a long and arduous rehabilitation process, marked the end of the young man’s football career, as he would never truly be able to regain the speed and explosion that had made ‘Casper’ McNeil such a dangerous weapon in the first place.

Yet despite their divergent paths, Capser and Lance would never suffer a gap in their friendship.  Lance stayed by his side throughout the rehabilitation process and, outside of football, the duo remained as inseparable as ever. 

Following graduation, Casper began working for his uncle’s insurance company as a claims adjuster based in Corpus Christi.  And after bouncing around with a few different teams, Lance signed a contract with the Outlaws and, until now, had been rounding out his second season with the team. 

But between his dealings with Coach Meeks—and watching from the sidelines as his best friend grossed an income of $80,000 the previous year—Lance couldn’t help but wonder if Casper had been the lucky one, having his dream stolen from him so he would never have to make the impossible decision of giving it up on his own.

Lance sank his weight into the driver’s seat of the Explorer and popped the cap off a cold Shiner Bock.  He toggled Casper’s number on his phone, but the call went straight to voicemail. 

“Hey, brother.” Lance spoke loudly at first before adjusting the knob on the car’s radio interface and lowering the volume.  “I’m over at the north shore having a few brews and thought you might wanna’ join.  Or maybe I’ll pick up another sixer and stop by the crib.”  His message was interrupted by a low blip from the phone’s receiver.  Lance checked the screen.  Jay Sloan.  He wrapped up the message.  “Gotta’ go.”  He ended the conversation with Casper’s voicemail and accepted the other call.  “Hey, Jay.”

“Gatlin’ Gunn!  Whatsup, buddy?”

“Oh, you know.”  Lance adjusted the rearview mirror and looked into his tired, gunmetal eyes.  “Just livin’ the dream.” 

“Yea…” There was a moment of uncomfortable silence before Jay continued.  “Sorry about today.”

“Yea.  Me too.”  Lance took another sip of beer.  “Any more good news for your favorite client?” 

Jay sighed.  “Look, Lance, I can appreciate your self-loathing.  I really can.”  He was interrupted by an unintelligible announcement in the background.

“Where are you?”

“The airport.  I have to head out to L.A. to try and convince my one and only NFL-worthy client not to sign with this super agent, Brett Rothman.  And after taking what I’m sure will be all 12 inches of unlubricated defeat, I’ll hop on the red-eye out to Richmond and continue tossing dignity to the wind as I beg some D-2 runningback—who, mind you, is a 7th round pick at best—to sign with me before I head back to New York to avoid being held in contempt at my custody hearing on Monday morning with my whore of an ex-wife.”

“You could have just said at the airport.

“Yea, well, my flight’s about to board, and as much as I’d love to indulge you as you are probably sitting at the beach, drinking beer and waxing poetic about your life, this is actually a business call.”

“Let me guess.  You’re dropping me.”

“No, the opposite.  I just set up an appointment for you.  Tomorrow.  With a coach”

“Seriously?”

“Yes.  Seriously.”

Lance stared at the half-peeled label on his beer bottle.  “Well… I actually planned on getting wasted tonight.”

“Be my guest.  This isn’t a tryout.  This guy is ready to sign you, he just wants to look you in the eye first.”

“Wants to sign me?”  Lance shifted in his seat, suddenly more attentive.  “What team is he with?  What league?”

“He’s with a team called the Krakow Gladiators.”

Lance raised an eyebrow.  “Krakow?  Sounds like East Texas.”

“Try Eastern Europe.”

“Eastern Europe?  Like Russia, Eastern Europe?”

“Poland.  Did you even pass geography?”

Lance struggled to process the information.  “Don’t they play soccer there?”

“Yea, but they play football, too.  American football.  You know, pigskin, pads, cheerleaders.” 

Lance laughed.  Then paused, waiting for the punch line.  “You’re serious?”

“Look, Lance, I know the coach.  He played his college ball down at Louisiana Lafayette and was on my radar.  He’s a standup guy.  I put in the call and he wants to meet you tomorrow.”

“Meet me?  Tomorrow?  How the hell am I supposed to be in Ukraine by tomorrow?”

“Poland.  Are you even listening to me?”  Jay scoffed.  “Or yourself?  This guy is in Austin.  He said to meet him at 2pm, sharp.  He’ll be at a bar called Dragon’s Blood on East 6th.”

“I don’t know, Jay.  This sounds pretty shady.”

“Shadier than some two-bit indoor team that fines you a fifth of your salary every time you fart in the wrong direction?”

Nearly half-a-minute passed in silence as Lance tried to wrap his mind around what his agent was pitching.  He had only been outside the United States once in his life, and that was on a spring break trip to Cancun with Amy.  Amy Stanton, his girlfriend of six years with whom he was now engaged.  The only good thing I have going right now.  How could he even consider leaving her behind to travel to goddamn communist Eastern Europe? 

“Look, Jay.  I appreciate the effort.”  Lance sighed.  “But this seems like a pretty desperate move.”

“These are desperate times, my friend.  For all of us.”  He paused a moment to let the words sink in.  “Just think about it.  It’s only a three hour drive to Austin.”

“Yea, well.  I appreciate the call.  But I just don’t think it’s the best move right now.”

“Whatever.  Ball’s in your court, kid.  I have to go, flight’s boarding.”

Six beers later, Lance was left with the uncomfortable sensation that typically accompanied a belly full of carbonation—a feeling that was, unfortunately, not complemented by a satisfactory level of inebriation.  Thus the wayward, downtrodden athlete wandered over to a beachside liquor store for a cheap bottle of tequila. 

With the booze in hand, Lance made his way back to the beach and began strolling barefoot along the shoreline, pulling intermittently from the .75 liter bottle and curling his toes around cold clumps of damp, grimy, depressing sand.  Following another pair of respectively unsuccessful attempts at hailing his girlfriend and his best friend, Lance dialed a new number from his list of contacts.

“Hello?”

“Hey, pops,” said Lance as he sat down at the edge of the surf. 

“Hey, son.  How was the tryout?”

“I’ll give you one guess.”  The final two words came out in a slur.  He lifted the bottle in front of his right eye, then closed his left and gazed at the sunset through a swirling hue of oak liquid. 

“You signed a million dollar contract and are flying out tomorrow, but not before buying your ole’ man yacht.”  Lance could almost see his dad smiling on the other end.  He took another pull from the bottle.

“You must be psychic.”

Marty Gunn sighed into the receiver.  “It’s not the end of the world.  You know that, right?”

“Yea, right,” Lance scoffed.  “Just the end of my career.”

“You have nothing to be ashamed of.”

The two men sat on the phone in silence for nearly two minutes.  Marty had always supported Lance.  Having worked 20 years as a petroleum engineer—one who had started as a roughneck out of high school before pursuing a degree from Texas Tech—Lance’s father knew a thing or two about struggle. 

But he was also a practical man, and most practical men would look at their son and his desperate, trying plight to reach an unattainable goal, and they would advise them to let go, move on, and apply their talent toward a career that wouldn’t constantly disappoint them.  But that wasn’t how Marty operated. 

“You think mom would be ashamed?”  Lance allowed himself to fall back onto the sand.  To lie there as the world spun above him.  He closed his eyes and let the cool, salty breeze wash over him, filling him with the fleeting sensation of freedom.  He pressed the phone hard against his face, as if to pull his dad closer.

“I think your mother loves you.  And if she were alive, she’d tell you the same thing.  That you have nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I love you, pops.”  Lance’s eyelids were growing heavy.  “I love you.  Mom.  And Amy.”  He smiled unconsciously.  “I really love Amy.”

“I love you too, son.”

Lance ended the call and thus began his slow, peaceful drift away from consciousness.