…just started my quarterback/outfielder story. Given the decent returns on ALTB, even without any publicity so far, I can see that I need to get another longer-form romance out there soon. Angelina has a lot of research to do for her book, and she needs to take her time on her heteromcom, so it’s Brad’s turn at the helm for the long weekend.
So, here’s a little taste of what’s to come…
GIVEN THE SITUATION – Prologue
“Roger! Roger! Over here!”
Instinct, and manners, still told him to look at someone who called his name. But that was another change fame would be making in him, he guessed. When a couple hundred people were calling it, your name became less your property, more theirs. And this was different than the friendly call of fans wanting autographs – this was more feral, more desperate, every one of these guys (and they were all guys) needing the shot to make their living, their paycheck.
He also understood now why people wore sunglasses to these things, even at night. There were so many flashbulbs, and his clear blue eyes were more sensitive to light than most. But I can’t walk down the red carpet with my eyes closed, he thought, and the smile it brought to his face tripled the number of flashes as the photographers tried to capture that moment, the new star’s happy grin, the money shot on a night when so many stone-faced, too-cool-for-school athletes wouldn’t love the camera back, were worn out from loving the camera.
He’d wanted to drive himself to the ESPYs, uncomfortable with the idea of a limo, but the front office had nixed that idea. “What,” he’d said, “you don’t want a picture of me handing my keys to the valet?”
Tim Wilkins, the Huns’ marketing director, had just looked at him. “Roger, there’s no valet service. Nobody, literally nobody, drives to the red carpet.”
Roger flushed. He should have known that. But to be honest, he’d never seen the ESPYs, never watched award shows period. And besides, he had other concerns more important than having to take a limo.
The team had tried to set him up with a date. Some supermodel, he’d seen her picture, she looked…what a lot of guys would consider hot. Little do they realize I’d rather have Tom Brady on my arm than Giselle Bundchen. And at that thought, there was that big smile again, lighting up the red carpet, as he unwittingly increased his fame by laughing at it, giving the camera what it wanted, and therefore what editors would splash across their pages.
Then he got to the reporters, steeled himself. He’d told Uncle Pete that he was worried about going stag, what the questions would be like if he did. Why don’t you have a girlfriend, a hot young NFL quarterback like you, or at least a date on a night like this? But in Roger’s eyes it would have been dishonest, even implying passively that the girl he was with was a “date.” That was the bargain he’d made, not to tell the world, but not to tell a lie either.
Pete had sighed, never one to mince words. “Roger, it would be nice if they cared about your love life tonight, but I think you know what their questions are going to be about.”
“Yeah. I do.”
After the normal round of congratulations and “great to be here” quotes, the question came right up.
“Flint Owls outfielder Brian Rauch received a 100 game suspension from Major League Baseball today, Roger, have you talked to him since the announcement?”
“No, I haven’t.” But that wasn’t for lack of trying. Brian had stopped returning his calls, stopped returning everyone’s.
“Don’t defend me anymore,” Brian had said to him a few days earlier. “Don’t drag yourself down with me.”
“You’re not going down, Brian, we’re going to…”
“Yeah, dude. I am. And the least I can do is make you save yourself.” He’d hung up, and Roger’s repeated callbacks went to voice mail.
Now the reporter pressed on. “What’s your take on that suspension? Is it too harsh for a first time offender?”
The first thing you learn as an athlete is discipline. How to go to practice when you’re tired, or depressed, or just sick of it. How to govern your appetites, apply yourself to watching film, keep your grades up on top of the demands of your sport. Which, when you get famous, comes in handy when it’s time to stand in front of a camera and talk. Because you’re too disciplined to say what you’re thinking. You say, “It was a great team effort today” if you win, or “we can see what we need to work on” if you lost. If you’re asked about your next opponent you’re graciously respectful, and talk about a tough matchup even if they’ve got an 0-10 record going in and you’ll be playing one devastatingly high-scoring quarter before they put in the second and third strings.
“It’s really not my place to question what Major League Baseball has decided. I’m in the NFL so I really can’t talk to what that process is like.”
“You were one of Brian’s most forceful defenders just a few days ago. Then you went silent. What happened? Did you become aware that he was using PEDs after all?”
“Well, Bob,” Roger said, some unintentional steel coming into his voice, even as he knew that would make this quote the one that made SportsCenter, would be blogged and Tweeted and sliced and diced on PTI and Olbermann and NFL AM. “Brian is my friend. And friendship is about loyalty. And even if I did know anything about my friend that would harm him if I were to tell the world, you can bet your ass I would keep that to myself. Have a good night,” he said, moving swiftly away and into the relative safety of the Nokia Theatre’s lobby.
He shook hands, accepted congratulations from his new peers, and found Royal and his wife Jackie. More to the point, they found him, lost in the press of people, dazzled by the presence of so many of the world’s greatest athletes, guys he’d looked up to from afar only a couple years ago, impossible to imagine sharing the same room with them, never mind a national stage.
Royal shook his hand for a second before embracing him hard. “My man. Breakthrough Athlete of the Year.” His booming voice caused heads to turn, even here. Royal was Roger’s favorite receiver, a man able to take even the arrows Roger shot wide of the mark and, sometimes with just one hand, transform them into bull’s eyes.
“Don’t jinx it,” Roger said with a smile, not believing for a second he’d actually win it. “Hey, Jackie. You look fantastic.”
“Will you remember your friends when you’re famous?” she asked with a grin, dressed and made up to the nines, so unlike her normal, dude-like, sweatpant-wearing self.
“When you’re famous?” Royal said, waving his arm dramatically around to encompass the sports legends, movie stars, supermodels and wheeler dealers in the room with them. “When?” The patent absurdity of talking about fame in the future tense made them all laugh.
Jackie took his arm. “Come on, young man, let’s get you seated.”
They’d given him an aisle seat, a clear sign that someone thought he was going to win an award. They put you in the middle of the row when there was no chance you’d be getting up and have to awkwardly shift a dozen people out of your way to get to the stage.
He laughed at the host’s opening monologue – he should know this guy, knew who he was in the abstract, some TV star, but there had never been time to keep up with TV series – that was always time better spent on playbooks, on film, on work. Then the guy turned serious, talking about honesty and integrity and the purity of the games we play. We? Roger thought, not losing his smile as a cameraman crawled up the aisle to film him during this bit. Dude, you’re an actor, what do you know about what it takes to play these games? What do you know about the pressure, what it makes men do?
He knew why the camera was on him. The press always claimed to be “objective,” but that objectivity was a smokescreen. There were always ways to editorialize, and one of those ways was to put on screen the guy everyone knew was squeaky clean, while you subtly discussed his best friend, the cheater, Goofus to his Gallant. If only they knew Brian like I knew Brian. They wouldn’t be like this.
But then a new voice in his head, the voice of recent experience, had to ask him – Wouldn’t they? Doesn’t it make a better story not to know him, not to understand him, like you do? To make him The Bad Man?
He was lost in his thoughts when the scattered attention around him suddenly became magnetically drawn to him, everyone turning around, Jackie screaming and hugging him, Royal punching the air with glee.
“Get your ass up there!” Jackie commanded. Roger looked up at the giant screen over the stage. BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE OF THE YEAR: ROGER EHRENS.
He accepted the trophy and was left standing alone on the podium. “I, uh, well I guess everyone says they don’t have a speech prepared. So I’ll say it too because it’s true.” Laughter. “I wanted to thank…yeah, everyone. My teammates, all my guys, don’t be offended if I single out Royal Jackson here, the guy who really mentored me on the Huns, made my transition to the NFL as easy as something that hard is always going to be.”
The camera turned to Royal, who gave him the victory sign and mouthed, “Much love.”
“You too, man,” Roger said, his 20/10 eagle eyes able to read his lips from half a field’s length away. “I have to thank my dad, Professor Jacob Ehrens of Lessing College, who always believed in me, who encouraged me, who never forced me to do anything, except to do my best every time I put myself to something. My coach at Cal, Jonny Orson, who just wouldn’t let me go to Lessing College like I wanted to.” Laughter. “My uncle, Peter Ehrens, the football coach at Lessing, who also wouldn’t let me go there.” More laughter at the second punch line.
“And I want…” The feelings welled up. That happened, he knew, to champions. That happened when you got to the finish line, or at least a finish line, the dividing line between being some guy and being The Guy.
I don’t cry. I don’t. That was a fact. He never did. But he was about to. And it was okay because he wasn’t crying for himself.
“I want to thank Brian Rauch, my friend…”
Scattered boos interrupted him.
“My friend,” he said in that commanding quarterback voice that could be heard over a hell of a lot more noise than this, that silenced the room more out of shock at the discovery that “aw shucks Roger” wasn’t going to take any shit. “My best friend. Who has been there for me since we met. Who I know better than all of you…”
The tears came then, rolling down his face, his voice cracking. “Who is a good person. Who is a deeply caring man who…made a mistake. Like we all do. Brian, I know you’re watching. I love you so much. I don’t care what you did. Come home. Just come home.”
He left the stage to thunderous applause, his loyalty and not the subject of it what people would talk about now.
Brian, he thought. Fame and fortune are dust and ashes without you. My bed is so empty without you. Just come home.