The quarterback took a deep breath and willed it into being.
When he was totally, irrevocably locked in, these moments of temporary hush came naturally, just flicking a light switch.
As an athlete, it was his greatest strength, a gift out of Marvel comics. He could summon calm from chaos.
More often, and especially lately, his power came and went.
Plays—time—would lurch forward to a dizzying degree then stop on a dime. 1st-and-10, he saw Sanu breaking deep on a post unfolding in slow motion, long strides languidly unspooling in front of him. Then, as if somebody leaned an elbow on the fast-forward button, 3rd-and-4 and a cascade of bodies was bursting through the dam of his offensive line and engulfing him.
The safety is cheating up on a slant. A lurch, whistles flags crunching blindsides missed out routes breakaway runs huddles roars. It halts, and he’s just handed off to BenJarvus.
It was like being on a hurl-inducing football tilt-a-whirl.
It was at its worst when the line was being breeched, when he took a few big hits early on.
Like last week. Like against Cleveland. The second half is a flickering memory, like he’d gone a few whiskey shots too far—the taste of salty sweat, the crack of a rib shot, the brown and orange clawing at him through the breach.
Now, though, he could feel the calm returning back to him, warmth rushing through his veins. He let the clarity wash over him.
The stakes were clear. His team was reeling. Trailing by four late, a drive away from stealing one from the lauded Pats. Wobbling at .500, his team was a gentle nudge from a surge or a collapse. He could feel the uncertainty oozing from the pores of the huddle facing him, its stench like damp, decaying wood.
From everybody but A.J., his serenity never shaken
He looked the lanky receiver in the eye, knew he recognized the undertone. The feeling was back.
The following minutes flowed at half speed, stretched to their limit by his renewed focus.
A quick slant for five yards, a draw for 15. The corner bit on the play fake, and he dropped in a fade on the sidelines for 23 more. Field goal range. Another handoff, off-tackle for a yard. A dive inside for a few more. Wait for it, hold your fire. Let them bite.
3rd-and-6, do or die, but the quarterback was all-seeing. The mike backer had been tipping his blitzes all day—A.J. on a crossing route to the 15.
Moments like these, these were his nirvana, his temple on the mount. The hush, even amidst 60,000-plus.
He strolled to the line, noted the bump-and-run at the line. He caught the snap, flipped the ball in his palms, feeling every grain of the leather.
A.J. made a clean break, had his man by two steps. All day. A flick of the wrist, and he hit him in stride on the goal line.
He surrendered to the cheers.
The quarterback’s eyes snapped open.
He considered himself in the mirror opposite, inlaid in the bamboo walls of the sauna.
Angry bruises botched his arms and torso, royal purple and midnight blue jumping off their pale background. Not an inch was untouched, a color wheel of pain.
He breathed in the steam and his renewed calm. He rose slowly, wrapped himself in a towel, a cotton-white Egyptian.
Game day was a few days away, and New England beckoned. Time would slow down again, he was sure of it.
The quarterback clung to the certainty. The faint ghost of cheers hung in his ears as he opened the door and let the cold rush in.