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”
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.
“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.