“Hut-twenty-nine-thirty-eight! Zee-sixty-four!” called Jefferson High School Quarterback Rich Metcalf, during football practice on a crisp autumn afternoon on Riddle Field in Cardinal City. Practice had been going smoothly until Coach Wagner had introduced a new play that was supposed to beat the Centralville defense. However, the team had not perfected it yet, and practice was winding down on Wednesday.
“Hike!” The ball snapped back to Rich, who handed it off to his fullback, Steve Gaines. Steve then tossed the football back to Halfback Will Zimmerman, who rocketed a long pass that came up just shy of Anthony Jones, the wide receiver.
“Will, I told you! You have to put some more muscle into it!” shouted Coach Marcus Wagner from the sidelines.
“Coach, I don’t have any more muscle to give it!” Will retorted. “I aired it out as far as I possibly could.”
“Well, all right. I guess we’re just wasting our time with this play. Let’s work on the fade routes with our receivers. I want Zimmerman, Gaines, Stone, Jones, and Armstrong to line up and run fade routes from the left split. Rich, when you throw ‘em, throw ‘em high. Centralville has some tall cornerbacks.”
“All right, Coach,” Rich replied.
Eric Metcalf was the third-string runningback. He had stood on the sidelines all day except when called on to test the defensive reserves. Now, however, he approached the coach with a request. “Coach, I think I could probably hit Anthony on that curl route.”
Coach laughed. “Hah! You mean on the z-sixty-four play? Listen, just because your brother is a star quarterback doesn’t mean you can throw it a mile. Anyway, you’d probably fumble it.”
Eric rolled his eyes. He knew that Coach Wagner was surreptitiously referring to last year’s state championship game against Centralville, in which Eric had fumbled a punt return, allowing the Centralville Rams to score the go-ahead touchdown late in the game. Now the Jefferson Red Hornets were facing the Rams in the championship again, and Coach wasn’t likely to let Eric play at all, much less pass. Eric returned to his spot on the sideline and waited for practice to be over.
After practice with the team and dinner with their family, the Metcalf brothers spent the few remaining minutes of daylight practicing on their own in the Metcalf backyard. Sometimes they were too worn out from practice to play any more, but on this particular evening, Rich wanted to prepare as much as possible for the upcoming game and Eric was determined to help him. Eric had something else in mind besides this, and after catching one of Rich’s long passes, he asked, “Rich, how about we switch up this time? You go deep and I’ll hit you with a long one.”
Rich chuckled. “Are you serious? What route do you want me to run?”
“How about the z-sixty-four route?”
“Okay. I hope you hit me!”
Rich’s good-natured teasing simply pumped Eric up. After receiving a clean snap from Rich, he went through all the steps of the play, faking the handoff and toss, and finally acting the role of the halfback. Rich went out for the pass, and ran the route just the way he would want it run by a receiver. When he turned to face Eric, the ball was in his hands. He was so surprised at its perfect placement that he almost dropped it. “Eric! That was a great throw!” he exclaimed.
“Well, of course!” Eric exclaimed. “What did you expect from the little brother of Jefferson High’s star quarterback?”
Rich laughed. “Eric, I’m really impressed. Have you asked Coach if you can throw it on that play instead of Will?”
“Yeah. I have.” A cloudy look filled Eric’s face. “He said I’d probably fumble it,” Eric said with a hint of anger in his voice.
“Oh. I see. Well, maybe I can talk to him about it. Wait – is that why you had me catch the ball while you threw it? So I could see how good you are at it and then want to persuade Coach to let you play?”
A devious look replaced the anger in Eric’s countenance. “I knew I could get you to try it, at least,” he grinned.
“Well, Eric, I can’t promise anything, but I’ll talk to Coach about it. But remember – in the end, it’s his decision.”
“I know, and I hope he makes the right one.”
After practice the next day, Rich went up to Coach Wagner, who was on the sidelines, head down, studying the playbook that he held. “Rich, what would you do if the linebacker dropped to cover Todd instead of Will on x-forty-five?” he said, pointing to a jumble of x’s and o’s spread across a page of the book.
“Well, I’d pass it to Will quickly, and hope he could make something out of it,” Rich responded. “But Todd should be open, usually.”
“Yes, but I want you to make sure he is before you throw it to him,” Coach stated without looking up. “You have to make the right read, or you could be intercepted.”
“All right,” Rich agreed before asking, “Coach, can I talk to you about something?”
“Sure, Rich. Why don’t you follow me back inside to my office? We can discuss it there.”
“Okay,” Rich complied.
When they were comfortably seated in Coach Wagner’s office, Rich began. “Coach, I don’t think you should completely scrap the z-sixty-four play.”
“What are you talking about? You saw that Will couldn’t throw it. We have too much preparation to do to worry about that.” Coach was still looking at his playbook.
“I know that Will can’t throw it. But I know someone who can.”
Coach’s eyes rose to meet Rich’s. He suddenly realized why Rich was there. He groaned and looked at Rich with disgust. “You’re going to tell me to let Eric throw it, aren’t you?”
Rich merely nodded sheepishly.
Coach sighed. “Rich, I wish you’d just forget about that; you and Eric both. I’m just not ready to let him play in the championship game.”
“I understand, but I’ve seen him throw that route perfectly with my very own eyes!”
“How many times? Rich, a quarterback needs a lot of repetitions to perfect even the simplest of routes. How do you know he won’t overthrow you next time?”
“Well, Coach, I trust him. I really think he would do it fine.
Coach was silent for a moment. Then he queried, “Would you be doing this for Eric if he weren’t your brother?”
“Yes, I would.”
Another long moment passed before Coach broke the silence abruptly. “Rich, frankly, the only experience Eric has in the championship game is some very bad experience. Now, I won’t have him throwing the ball, and I won’t hear another word about it. You need to focus on what you’re going to be doing Friday night, not on some crazy idea from your brother.”
Rich stood and threw up his hands. “All right. Like I told Eric, it’s your decision. I just hate to see the look on his face when I tell him you rejected it.”
“Richard Metcalf,” Coach said vehemently, “not another word.”
“Right – not another word. Well, see you tomorrow afternoon. Hope we beat ‘em.” With that, he turned and left the office to head home with Eric.
Riddle Field in Cardinal City was crammed for the championship game. Almost everyone in Cardinal City wanted to see if the Red Hornets could finally beat their longtime rivals in the ‘big game’, even though Jefferson High was a private school and had a small enrollment compared to the public high school, Cardinal City High. The many fans who had made the trip from Centralville were longing for a repeat championship.
Rich Metcalf was determined not to let the Centralville fans get their wish. If the Red Hornets were going to win the game, it would probably have to result from a stellar performance from his arm. His determination was mixed with sadness, though, from having seen how Eric was hurt when he heard how the conversation with Coach Wagner had transpired. He pushed thoughts of that subject from his mind and prepared for the intense concentration required in the game.
The game was a defensive struggle, which disappointed Rich. He was unable to lead a successful aerial attack all game. The Centralville defense had his number, intercepting him twice and allowing him to complete only nine passes. Nor did the running game accomplish much. The upside of that was that the Rams offense did not do considerably better against a well-prepared Jefferson defense. With only a minute and a half to play in the fourth quarter, the Red Hornets trailed, ten to six. Rich’s offensive unit had the ball at their own thirty-eight yard line. Rich called a play in the huddle. “Ex-forty-five! Let’s get this done!”
Shouting out directions at the line of scrimmage, and then dropping back under center, Rich tried not to let nervousness overcome him. He recalled his Coach’s instructions on the play from Thursday afternoon. He took the snap, made his read, and dumped the football to Will Zimmerman. Will broke a few tackles and went out-of-bounds at midfield. Rich punched the air in joy. His team was moving the ball, finally. Three plays later, with twenty seconds left in the game, one timeout, and twenty-five yards left to the end zone, Rich yelled above the crowd noise to lead his team to set up a play without a huddle. When he took the snap, he saw only two things. First, he saw a massive Centralville defensive lineman breaking through the line and advancing toward him. Then he saw stars.
Eric and the Red Hornets team were watching from the sideline. They watched Rich go down. He didn’t move for a few minutes. The Centralville fans were celebrating, because Coach had been forced to use his final timeout so that Rich could be helped off the field and over to the bench. Coach motioned to Rich’s backup to go into the game. Centralville’s vast cheering section had reason to be happy with Quarterback Craig Romberg at the team’s helm. The freshman had not played yet in the season, and would have difficulty scoring from thirty yards away with only twelve seconds and no timeouts.
Eric hung his head, upset with his brother’s condition and the dim prospects of winning. Nearly everyone else on the Jefferson High sideline did the same. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up into Coach Wagner’s face. “Son,” Coach said, “get out there and run the z-sixty-four play.”
Eric started with surprise. “What – thank you, Coach! I won’t let you down!”
Coach replied, “You’d better not. Now, get a move on. Time’s a-tickin’.”
Eric rushed onto the field and listened as Craig called the play. Craig snapped the ball, and handed off to Steve Gaines, who tossed it back to Eric. Eric put all of his strength behind the throw, which fell right into the hands of a Centralville defender. However, his were not the only hands on it. Receiver Anthony Jones wrestled the ball away from him and took it into the end zone for the winning Jefferson High touchdown as time expired. The offensive unit ran off the gridiron, leaping and pumping their fists in the air. The special teams came on and kicked the extra point. Eric hugged Coach, and then ran to find his parents in the stands. Accompanying him at a much slower pace was Rich, who had recovered his senses, but still walked gingerly. Riddle Field was a confusion of exultant Jefferson High fans and players, and disappointed Centralville supporters who were trying to leave as quickly as possible.
At home late that night, the Metcalf family took chairs around the kitchen table and discussed the game.
“Eric, I just about had a heart attack when that Centralville guy caught the ball,” Mrs. Metcalf admitted.
“I think just about everyone from Cardinal City had problems with high blood pressure tonight,” Mr. Metcalf agreed.
“I was so shocked when Coach asked me to throw it,” Eric related. “I guess he didn’t really have very many options at the time.”
“Not with me out,” Rich quipped. “Thanks for winning the game when I couldn’t, although I should probably give the credit to Anthony.”
“It was a team effort,” announced Mr. Metcalf.
“Well, Rich, thank you for telling Coach about my wanting to throw that play,” Eric said. “Without that, we probably would’ve lost.”
“No problem,” Rich answered. “That’s what brothers are for. I just hope next time I don’t get injured, so I can take all the glory for winning instead of my little brother.”
Eric rose from his chair to put his brother in a playful headlock while the brothers and their parents erupted in laughter.