Work harder, work longer, don’t stop. Roger told himself that every day, getting up early, hitting the weight room, the film room, the field. Some part of him knew that Brian’s absence from his life was the best thing that had ever happened to…well, to his career, anyway. Only Peyton Manning could hold a candle to Roger in the dedication department. No social life, no sex life…it was all about football, 24/7.
And there was no arguing with the results. Not today.
Royal Jackson clapped him on the shoulder pad, breaking his reverie. “Mother. Fucking. Super. Bowl.”
Roger smiled. It was like a dream, standing there in the corridor under the stadium, waiting to run onto the field. They said in the old days that you shouldn’t have sex the night before the big game, that you should keep your juices for the fight. But what he’d had last night had been better than sex.
So proud of you, was the text from Brian. Brian, who he hadn’t even heard from all season. Brian, who he knew was toiling in a basement at Lessing College, running statistics and doing laundry. He smiled fondly at the picture, thinking of Brian scowling over the math he hated, and doing it anyway – finally taking the marshmallow test and passing it. Roger could only hope that he was still the marshmallow, that they would be together again.
Then there was no more time to think about it. He shut the gate on everything other than the field in front of him as they ran out there, to the insane cheers of fans at the last, greatest, game of the season. The Florida Rumrunners were a five point favorite – so what? An athlete was nuts to listen to statistics – the last three teams to go 4 and 0 at the beginning of the season went to the Super Bowl and lost! No West Coast team with a left handed backup QB was ever ahead at the end of the first half! Big fucking deal. Statistics were right until the day they were wrong. Any given Sunday, man.
He shook hands with Antoine Phoenix, who had his game face on too – just as impatient to get through the motions of the hoopla and foofaraw and get going. Phoenix had recovered from his injury, but Roger’s insane success during his time off the field had led the Skywalkers to trade him to the Rumrunners. So yeah, it was a grudge game, no doubt.
“Good luck, have a great game,” Phoenix said for the cameras.
“You too,” Roger replied.
Then Phoenix came in for a hug. “Can’t steal this from me,” he whispered in Roger’s ear.
“Don’t have to,” Roger replied. “It’s mine.”
Then it was on. There were some games where three hours were over in the blink of an eye, but this wasn’t one of them. Roger moved the ball down the field, Roger got sacked, Roger got the team into field goal range again and again, but couldn’t score a TD. That’s okay, he told himself. Peck ‘em to death if you have to, just keep scoring.
Halftime, Rumrunners 17, Skywalkers 14. The endless half time, unlike any other where the 12 minutes were perfect to rest, hit the can, push reset, get back out there before you got stiff. But here, now, you had to wait while some pop star lip-synced some Autotuned slop, everyone in the booth terrified that a boobie might pop out, everyone at home hoping that it would.
Grind, peck. Up, down, sack, pass, HUGE pass. Fourth quarter, Rumrunners 17, Skywalkers 28. Don’t look at the scoreboard, first lesson, don’t be anything but zen about the score, never relax, never settle. It’s Antoine Phoenix! He’s sure as shit not giving up.
Another field goal, 31-17. Two minutes to go and a two-score lead. All Roger had to do was run down the clock.
But the Rumrunners didn’t think so. Roger called the play, a simple run to run the clock, and saw the eyes of the outside linebacker, full of rage, and he thought, no, man, don’t do it. Let’s all save it for next year. Get your mind on golf now.
Not to be. His own line was caught unaware by the surge of aggression on the other side. This wasn’t how the game was played! When you lost, you didn’t take chances with your bodies, the other team’s bodies, on the last plays of the game! The Skywalkers’ coach was already throwing his headset down and yelling before the play was half over.
The OL hit Roger, hard. Roger’s foot was stuck under his own guard. He turned, twisted, tried to correct as he fell.
He heard it before he felt it, the pain. He screamed, involuntarily as he fell. My leg. Oh shit my leg.
Thank you, whoever’s up there, he thought as he hit the ground. Thank you for letting me win before taking it all away. Then he blacked out.
When he came to, they were putting him on a stretcher. “What’s wrong with me?” he asked.
“You’ll be fine,” the trainer said, the worst possible news he could get. “We’re taking you to the hospital.”
“No, you’re not.” He tried to sit up, propped himself up on an elbow, to the screeching joy of the crowd, who hadn’t seen him moving. “I won the fucking Super Bowl. I want my fucking trophy.”
The EMTs laughed, the crowd saw it on the Jumbotron, cheered wildly. Roger had missed the massive, bench-clearing fight the OL’s unnecessary roughness had triggered, his team rushing to avenge the wrong done to him. They hauled him to the sideline, where he was mobbed with well-wishers.
“We’ll give you something for the pain,” the medic said, as Roger clenched his teeth against the agony. His knee was ruined, he knew it. His tibia screamed as only a severely broken bone can.
“No. Nothing to blunt this. This is my moment.” Maybe, they all knew, his last moment, his last time on a football field.
The clock ran to zero, the Rumrunners abashed, mortified by what had happened.
Then the screaming started for real, his own teammates repressing it till the clock said 0:00. They surrounded Roger and before he knew it, they were carrying him onto the field, on the stretcher. He laughed, cried, knowing the tears were being broadcast to hundreds of millions of people. The endorphin surge turned the pain into a dull ache, the overwhelming ecstasy and exhausted relief plain on his face. The over-field camera, the one on wires that panned and zoomed, was suddenly above him, an eye in the sky. He met its eye.
“Brian,” he said straight into it. “I did it.”
“Yeah, buddy,” Brian said, tears running down his face as he watched Roger’s lips move on the Jumbotron. “You did. I always knew you would.” The rest of the people around him in the stands, the whole local contingent he’d come with to the Super Bowl, were going insane. Roger Ehrens, Santa Vera homeboy, son of a Lessing College professor! Super Bowl Champion!
Only Jacob remained still, sitting next to Brian, tears finally spilling when he saw that his son was…okay. At least on the inside. Whatever had happened to his body, he was okay.
Jacob took his hand. “It’s time, Brian. Time to stop punishing yourself.” He got up, pulled Brian up to his feet with surprising strength.
Brian nodded. Yeah, huh? Just like that, it was time. There he was, his best friend, the friend he’d turned away from for his own good, and all Roger could think about in that moment of triumph was…Brian. Who was getting used to being loved, accepted, the presence once more of Coach Blaine and Professor Ehrens in his life helping him become more mature, more stable, and yet, that much love was…still a little unbelievable. But there it was.
He and Jacob pushed their way through the crowd, down and out to a off a concourse, just a random number 17 on it. As always at a sporting event, now and maybe forever, people looked at Brian, some of them recognizing him, some of them angry, some of them giving him the thumbs up for his epic TV rant, but most of them oblivious, lost in the delirium of victory or crushed by the shameful defeat.
There was a burly guard just inside the door (just outside the door would have attracted too much attention) and the oversized access passes they’d kept hidden most of the day were now flashed and in they went into the bowels of the stadium.
A Skywalkers PR person steered them to the medical area, where an ambulance was waiting to take Roger to the hospital.
Roger smiled through the glaze of opiates he’d finally had forced on him after he’d had time to kiss the trophy, hold it up high, turn from his stretcher and say to the camera, “I’m going to Disneyland…after I get out of the hospital,” winning America’s heart forever.
“Hey Dad. Did you see me win?”
Jacob smiled. “I sure did, son. You did great.”
“Hey buddy,” Brian said, taking Roger’s outstretched hand. “How are you doing?”
“It’s pretty bad.”
“No, man, you’ll be fine,” Brian said, eyeing the shocked and upset training staff and knowing it wasn’t true. This could be it, could be Roger’s last day on the field.
“Wouldn’t it be great if it was over?” Roger said, the shot of dope they’d given him loosening his tongue. “If we didn’t have to be apart anymore? If we could be together?”
An EMT raised an eyebrow but nothing more.
“No, man, not like that.”
Suddenly lucid, Roger grasped his hand tighter. “Yeah, like that. Like any how, any way. I’m done being without you. You’re not fucking getting away again.”
Brian choked back the sob, knowing he had to be strong for Roger now. “I’m not going anywhere, man. You and me.” He stunned himself with his next statement. “I deserve you now. I deserve to be loved.”
Roger smiled. “You always deserved it.”