Striped Fiction: Down the Stretch

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The quarterback laid flat on his back, legs straddling the warped wooden bench. These two weeks of solitude had been paradise. He felt refreshed, mind alert, ready to throw down at any obstacle that dared step in his path.

Above all, Andy felt serene, felt those positive endorphins release into his bloodstream as the steam took hold. He was conscious of the light smokiness in the air, the humidity, the bubbles of sweat rising to the surface of his skin.

Andy felt himself instinctively fight against the impending release, then forced his mind to let go, to surrender to the haze.

And he dreamt good dreams about his team’s coming dominion over every gridiron foe in the land.

First, San Diego—a sunscape that might seem a foreign land to a Midwest team like his, but where he was in his element. Qualcomm Stadium had nothing on those daily cleanses in the sauna.

Sunlight, heat, calming baby blues and flashes of electric yellow. 

Andy moved languidly through the scene, full of confidence, plays unspooling slower than they ever had before. He massaged the ball between his palms, slow-moed into the protective cocoon of the pocket. A.J. had one-on-one coverage on the fade, but eaaaaaaaaase into it, man, let him get another step on the safety.

Andy felt the ball leave his fingertips, pointer spinning back toward the earth to create the necessary spiral. He didn’t even need to watch, could sense the groan rising out of the stomachs of the home crowd, the energy turning against their boys even though the game was still early. 

The quarterback closed his eyes against the glare, lapping up the warmth.

Back home, with familiar routines and family meals, game-day naps and the questionable pregame nutrition of Skyline Chili—Three Way with no beans, thank you anyway. Andy had made that mistake once.

Indianapolis was reeling. The Colts had restored a fragile confidence, but one little nudge back toward self-doubt and they were hurdling back toward earth, shattered to pieces once more after an early touchdown from that swarming, black-and-orange swarm of a defense.

Pittsburgh, that old fortress where so many past Ohioan dreams had come to die—late kickoff, a bitter chill seeping under no-matter-how-many layers into bones. An all-consuming dark moonscape of an evening, suffocating any hope of that California serenity.

In its place was sharpness. No longer that preferred slow-motion, but Andy could make this work. Temperature below freezing, vessels constricting, everything took on an added crisp, from the floodlights to his own movements.

Those and, above all, the hits—crunching cheap shots, standard bull-rushes, even the slightest nudge sends alarm bells screaming up the nervous system. But instead of losing control, as these kind of medieval wars had done to him in the past, Andy grasped onto it tighter.

Even in the second half, hammer blows heightened awareness. The Tasmanian devil of a safety telegraphing his blitzes, the nickel back cheating inside, the tendency to tilt back toward prevent on third-and-longs—save that one for later. 

So cold, the pads cracked like icebergs, beards morphed into muddy icesickles. 

Fourth quarter like the directors cut of an overwrought sports movie: Head-to-head collisions, breath flowing into the night, running backs driven into the aluminum benches. A final push inside the enemy red zone, score knotted at 14, an unstoppable, gradual churn toward glory. No need to intervene. Andy just handed the ball off once more, pushed back the black with hands raised in triumph.

Less clarity from here, job already done. 

Boredom eased his mind toward fancy. Linebackers snapping spark-infused whips, receivers with six arms, a wave turned into a wall of flame that burned Paul Brown Stadium to the ground, he and his teammates cleaned by the resulting ashes. Signs in the sky, dragons gulping pigskin whole, receivers with a thousand arms. A purple army turned aside by a lazy flick of his mechanized arm.

Increasingly elaborate as they galloped unbidden toward the postseason. Fireballs, explosion, a city walled in gold. Hold it, hold it, eaaaaaaaasy man. That’s enough for today.

It took discipline to turn toward reality when he was in this deep—a hand groping around, grasping that orange shock of hair, yanking it back toward the surface.

His disarmingly pale eyes snapped open, lungs and mouth teamed to gulp deeply for air. The humidity was stifling. The tang of smoke stung his nostrils. 

The feeling lingered, the serenity, the clarity, the certainty.

Andy was ready for the home stretch.

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