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  2. Knights of Andreas FOUR YEARS LATER Chapter Eighty-Three – Ghosts of Seasons Past “Don’t ever play this game scared.” –Merle Harden The two men sit in stools at the middle of the bar, no one near them. Others talk in hushed tones under dim lighting and a soothing atmosphere. Some fill the air with cigarette smoke. The two at the bar each nurse glasses of whiskey, one neat and one with a giant ball of ice. “So it’s finally happening, huh?” “Yep.” “Where?” “Carolina.” “And you’re calling the plays.” “Yep.” “Shit. Well, then, cheers to you, Merle.” Mac raises his glass. Merle does the same. They both drink. Mac’s ice jingles in the glass as he puts it down, getting a glimpse at the clock. It’s a little past ten. “So you’re the guy now,” Merle says. “Can’t imagine the boosters have a problem with it, but if they do, I’ll straighten ‘em out. So cheers to you, Mac. You’re a college head coach.” They raise their glasses again and drink. “What did it for you?” Mac asks. “What?” “You’ve had offers the last couple years. Why now?” “Hell if I know. Just felt like time, I guess.” “Yeah.” Mac takes a drink and looks up at the clock. It’s quarter to twelve. “We’re gonna have a good team this year, Merle. You could be walking out on a championship.” “I’m not an idiot, Mac.” “Sure hope you’re not picking now to give me an easy start, prevent me from going on the hot seat too fast.” “You think I’m fucking soft? The hell is it with you tonight?” “Oh, I don’t know.” Merle drinks. Mac drinks, looks at the clock. It’s a little past nine. Mac stares at his glass as a thought grips him. He looks around, at the place, at the bar, at the clock. He looks again at his drink and at his friend. “How are the guys?” Merle asks somberly. “As good as they can be, after a 1-1 start. Don’t know what happened last week.” “I’m sure Chet’s too soft with his play calling. I told him not to be.” “No, you told him to run his defense how he wants to run it.” “That’s right.” “The guys are good, it’s just…” Mac searches for the right words as Merle looks curiously at him. “It’s tough,” Mac says. “I know, I know.” “I miss you, Merle.” “Oh, fuck off.” Merle looks back to his glass and downs it. Mac takes a sip. “What’s it like, being gone?” Mac asks. “Not so bad.” “You’re just saying that.” They both drink. The music slows. “Do me a favor,” Merle says. “What’s that?” “The big seat is tough. I know it is. But don’t stand there and tell me all your troubles are just football.” Mac blinks a few times, suddenly trying to find his balance. “What are you talking about?” Merle stares at him, inching forward on his stool. Mac feels scared. He wants to leave. “Merle, what do you mean?” Merle rises from his stool and steps closer, leaning in, inches from Mac’s face… “You think I don’t know?” Everything goes black. Merle’s words echo into the new world, coming into focus. McKenzie lifts his head and blinks, sees his arms, a desk, and the rest of his office appears. McKenzie sits up as his office around him comes into focus. He checks the time—2:32. He must have fallen asleep watching film. At this point, he may as well try for some more sleep here. He staggers from his office toward the sleeping quarters down the hallway. The 35-13 drubbing in Pittsburgh resonates on both floors of the MedComm Center, but the Knights lift the fog with a solid 31-13 win against the Dolphins. They head into week 4 with a 2-1 record, facing back-to-back road games in Green Bay and Detroit. Wednesday’s practice concludes, players head to the weight room or clinic, and both coordinators head to the press room for their weekly conferences. The offensive coordinator speaks for what feels like two minutes, then Ripka takes the podium. He fields a much more pleasant round of questions than last week, plus the usual batch of injury and game plan inquiries: preparing for Aaron Rodgers, game planning against Caden Daniel (who he played under for three seasons), etc. Reporters occasionally get into the X’s and O’s of plays from the previous game, where Ripka is happy to go into detail. “Coach,” one reporter eventually asks, “at the end of the half, when Miami was driving—it was still a close game at that point, only 14-10—you guys ran an interesting play where it looked like the two safeties were cheating up, almost showing blitz and then ended up switching sides of the field.” “Yep,” Ripka says. They ran that play design two times in the Dolphins game: just before halftime on third and six, and the middle of the third quarter on second and twelve, both from the nickel. “Some people on Twitter caught this one,” the reporter continues. “That design actually looks like the same play the Bears ran in the playoffs back in ’03, against Philly, that play where you intercepted the pass in the end zone.” Ripka looks away from the small crowd, tracing his memory. “Which game?” “Divisional Round, 2003. You lined up on the left side of the field, came into the box pre-snap, then floated to the right side, ended up intercepting the pass in the corner of the end zone.” Ripka’s eyes wander. He had the privilege of playing in several playoff games in his career, so he searches for that particular game. He remembers flying to Philadelphia, remembers Urlacher’s big pre-game speech, remembers a somber flight home after they blew the lead in the fourth quarter… “Coach?” Ripka blinks his focus back to the reporter. “Sorry. Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to say it’s the same exact play, but of course, you draw influence from old plays wherever you can. You’re not always reinventing the wheel from scratch. So, that’s part of the process, yes. I’ll say that much.” Another few generic questions later, the conference concludes. Javad types his final note into his phone, then glances across the room to Jessica, planning to ask at lunch if she has the same question he does. Knights 20, Packers 10, 8:45 to go. The sky is now nearly invisible against fully lit Lambeau Field. A buzz of nervous energy fills the stadium as Aaron Rodgers leads the Packers into the red zone. Randall watches Rodgers calling audibles, adding a few of his own. Grantzinger hears one and shifts off the line of scrimmage. Rodgers takes the snap. Randall and Grantzinger float over the middle of the field, keeping all green jerseys close. They watch as Rodgers launches a back-shoulder fade for Davante Adams, who spins and catches it for a touchdown. Randall and Grantzinger look at each other nervously. The Knights take over and McKenzie sticks to a pass/run balance. Maverick finds enough receivers to move the chains and work the clock. They cross midfield as the clock hits 6:00 and McKenzie calls a deep shot. Maverick drops back, feels pressure, steps up, and readies a heave to the end zone. He gets hit from behind, falls forward into a crowd of linemen, and turns around looking for the ball. Grodd finds himself on the bottom of the pile and spots the ball. He reaches for it, ignoring the clawing of his arms, but can’t grab it. Officials soon clear the pile and declare Packers ball. Lambeau Field screams louder than it has all day. From his assigned suite, Phillips feels precisely what his players and fans feel: the sudden gut punch of momentum swinging the other way, a 3-1 record falling to 2-2. He watches helplessly as Rodgers takes over and picks apart the Knights secondary, ultimately handing off to Aaron Jones on a draw that Jones takes into the end zone. Packers 24, Knights 20, 2:58 to go. Phillips, wanting to be on the field for the end of the game, gets up from his seat and begins the long journey down. He walks nearly the length of the field toward the private elevator, joins a security escort through the bowels of the stadium—hearing a concerning amount of cheers from the home fans—and emerges from a tunnel with celebration around him. He views the scoreboard: still 24-20, 0:53 to go, but the Packers have possession. Whatever comeback the Knights mounted has already failed. A few kneeldowns end the game, and Phillips rushes the field with everyone else. He conservatively hovers near the Packers’ tunnel, eventually spotting their head coach and extending his hand. “Nice win, coach,” Phillips says, “congratulations.” “Hey, Chance,” Caden Daniel says, not breaking stride. “Thank you.” “Tried to find you before the game. I know you’ve got to get back.” “How is everything? Family good?” “Yeah, everything’s great.” Phillips looks up; they are just steps from a tunnel he will not be allowed to enter. “Hey, what do you say we do a rematch in February?” Daniel says. “I’ll see you in Tampa,” Phillips says, extending his arm again. They shake hands, Daniel departs, and Phillips looks back around the most mythical stadium in the league. In the shadow of legendary names—Starr, Favre, Lombardi—he expects a heavy wave of nostalgia and admiration to wash over him. It doesn’t. All he can feel is the pressure of being general manager of a struggling team with a 2-2 record. Monday morning, Knights arrive at the MedComm Center all too aware of the landscape: the Knights are square with the Chargers in the AFC West, looking up at the 3-1 Broncos, and miles behind the 4-0 Chiefs. Early season variance aside, no one wants to be tied for third place after the first quarter of the season. McKenzie tries to find a happy medium in his address to the players. Yes, the season has grown urgent uncomfortably soon, but this week they get the 1-3 Lions. As long as they develop a solid game plan and execute, they win, go to 3-2, and all is well. Coaches are engrossed in film for hours while players complete their brief Monday routines. A little after noon, most of the coaches hit the weight room themselves for a workout/discussion. They all work out for varying lengths of time, but after an hour, McKenzie is the only one still going, running furiously on a treadmill, surrounded by his offensive staff, still putting together their game plan. “Wilkes can beat Rose in coverage. He’s done so plenty of times.” “I’m sure he can, but we shouldn’t rely on six catches from him.” “I agree. Have Wilkes draw Rose and let us take our chances with Flash.” McKenzie keeps running. He feels his heart thumping against his chest. His breaths become wheezing gasps. “If Wilkes can’t draw Flash, it’ll be tough to find open guys.” “Like I said, the run game will be huge for us this week.” “Hey, Mac, you alright? You’ve been on there forever.” “Yeah, want a breather?” He turns up the speed on the treadmill. His run becomes a hurried sprint. His feet pound the moving ground. “Whoa, Mac…” “Hey, take it easy, it’s ok…” He ignores them as he coughs. His hands clutch the rails of the treadmill, propelling his run… “Hey! Coach!” “Shut it down! Shut it down!” The whole weight room crowds around the treadmill. McKenzie keeps going. From the crowd, Ripka struts toward the front of the machine and slams his fingers on it. The treadmill’s hum fades, as does McKenzie’s pace. When everything stops, McKenzie is clutched over, desperately drawing as much air as he can. He looks up and locks eyes with Ripka, who stares him down. Ripka shoots him a stern look, thinking, Yeah, I know. McKenzie finally breaks eye contact, and Ripka leaves the room. The rest of the coaches wonder what just happened, ultimately deeming continued formulation of the game plan the best idea. By Friday, the game plan has been set, practiced, refined, practiced, and printed. Coaches enjoy their shortest day of the week, leaving MedComm before most of Los Angeles leaves work. Ripka, however, suffers through an hour of traffic before arriving at his monthly appointment. The medical office is small, with few patients still there this late in the day. Better still, none of the doctors are affiliated with the Knights, just the way he wants it. Ripka only waits ten minutes before being called in. His neurologist takes him through the usual motions, checking his vision and conducting some memory recall tests. Then, he asks the question. “Any symptoms at work the past month?” “Yes, actually,” Ripka says. The doctor pauses, obviously not used to this particular answer. Ripka sighs and goes on. “I was doing a press conference last week.” “When?” “Wednesday. One of the reporters asked me about a game I played about seventeen years ago. I didn’t remember it.” The doctor looks at him pensively. “I looked it up later. He was right about the game. I remember practicing for it, I remember flying there, I remember flying home. But I didn’t remember the game. I don’t remember the game.” The doctor’s eyes bob around as he thinks, then land on his patient. “Any other symptoms in the last month? Or the last year, that you haven’t told me? Headaches? Mood swings? Dizziness?” “No.” “Then I’m not that concerned.” “Not that concerned I can’t remember a football game I played in?” “You most likely suffered a concussion during the game, which is affecting the memory from it. That is not uncommon among anyone who suffers a concussion, football players or otherwise.” Ripka nods politely, looks down, suddenly trying to run through every game of his whole career. How many others can’t he remember? “Chet,” the doctor says. He looks up. “It doesn’t mean you have CTE.” “It doesn’t mean I don’t.” “You have been seeing me for almost a year now, and over that time, including what you have told me today, my conclusion remains the same: your symptoms are consistent with a former football player who sustained multiple concussions over the course of his career, not necessarily a former football player suffering from CTE.” Ripka nods again, feeling slightly better this time. “I want you to keep the same routine,” the doctor continues. “Document anything unusual. And make sure your wife and co-workers are aware and do the same.” “You got it, doc,” Ripka says, knowing his wife will happily report any symptoms she notices. His fellow Knights, however, have no idea about this. Players and coaches spill out from their cars at the MedComm parking lot. Some venture inside to collect a few things; others are ready to go. The buses have already pulled up and everyone knows their assignment. By noon, the coaches have double-checked attendance—all players and staff accounted for. The buses will have them at LAX in twenty minutes. Forty-five minutes after that, their private flight lifts off. Four hours and fifteen minutes after that, they touch down in Detroit. People begin filtering onto the buses when some raised voices far away get their attention. Something seems to be happening at the security gate leading into the lot. No one gives it much thought until a lone car speeds into the lot. Suddenly, everyone is on guard as the car heads straight for them, stopping just short of the last bus. Players scatter and look frantically at each other. The car door opens, and an older man, looking just as frantic, emerges. “Oh no,” Grantzinger says. Randall, nearby, understands what’s going on. “ZACK!” the old man screams. “WHERE’S ZACK! WHERE’S MY BOY?” Grantzinger emerges from the crowd. “Dad! Dad! It’s me. For fuck’s sake.” Everyone stands in awe and confusion. Those on a bus press their face against the nearest window to see. Some run off the bus for a better view. Phillips, not on his bus yet, jogs to the front of the crowd. “I got your call! Your message!” “Keep your voice down…” “Said you were out driving drunk somewhere—” “Dad, I’m right here, in front of you—” “I came to pick you up.” “Ok, ok, it’s ok. Fucking hell, dad.” “Oh, I’m goddamn sorry for helping my son after he’s fucked up.” “What’s going on?” Phillips asks, appearing. “Get in the car,” Grantzinger says. “I’m ok, dad. I’ll just be a minute.” He ultimately does so, leaving the door open. Grantzinger turns to his general manager. “This is my old man. He, uh, has Alzheimer’s. Today is another episode, apparently.” “What was he talking about, you driving drunk?” Grantzinger hangs his head, and Phillips understands. “Give me one second,” Phillips says, extracting his phone from his jacket as he walks off. Grantzinger stands alone, unable to look at the mass of teammates behind him. Mercifully, one of them approaches him first. “Now I see what you mean,” Randall says. “What happened to that person you had taking care of him?” “Good question,” Grantzinger says. “I guess I won’t ask about what he said.” “Good.” “Half the guys probably think it was a hallucination or something.” Grantzinger closes his eyes, preferring not to dwell on the psychological workings of Alzheimer’s disease at the moment. He is spared by Phillips, who reappears, phone in hand. “Ok,” Phillips says, “we can have one of our drivers take him home, but I’m sure you’d be more comfortable doing it yourself.” “I would, but what about the flight?” Phillips lifts up his phone. “I was talking to Wayne. Once your dad’s home and calmed down, give him a call. His private jet is at LAX. You can take it to Detroit and meet us at the hotel.” “Oh, ok.” “No rush, Zack. Just take care of your dad. Everybody will understand.” Phillips backs off towards his bus, trying to look composed. Grantzinger stays where he is and turns to Randall. “Square it with the guys.” “Oh, don’t worry,” Randall says. “Anyone who starts shit gets left at the airport.” “Just square it. No questions. Anyone waiting for an explanation from me might as well keep waiting for Jesus.” A few hours later, the Knights disperse amongst their assigned rooms in a Detroit hotel. Curfew is set, and players make dinner plans. For his part, Phillips has no plans in mind until Jensen knocks on his door. “Hungry?” Jensen asks. “I was going to order room service. Why?” “I used to be a scout here, made my share of connections. I can get us some privacy at a good seafood place.” And so, forty minutes later, the Los Angeles Knights’ top two front-office decision makers find themselves at a secluded table of a downtown restaurant, each working on a cocktail with appetizers on the way. “I’m surprised Schneider didn’t make the trip,” Jensen says, balancing a dirty martini in his hand. “Hasn’t been traveling with the team this year,” Phillips says, sipping a rum and coke. “Hasn’t been at MedComm as much either.” “So I noticed. It really started after that CBA vote, didn’t it?” “Yeah. Apparently he’s one of the key owners trying to negotiate a deal. The vote was a bad look for the league, so Goodell wants to announce a deal before season’s end, doesn’t want any more offseason drama.” Phillips takes another sip, catches Jensen’s eye, and adds, “But that’s confidential.” Jensen nods in understanding. The waitress arrives with two orders of shrimp cocktail, and they dig in, neither speaking for a moment. “I saw you on the field with Caden Daniel last week,” Jensen eventually says. “That’s right. Wanted to say hi. Didn’t get a chance before the game.” “You still have a relationship with him?” “I don’t know if I’d say that.” Jensen takes another bite of shrimp, studying Phillips carefully. Phillips drains the rest of his drink and looks for the waitress. “Daniel was my guy,” Phillips says at last. “He was my twin. Rational, methodical, patient, precise.” “Yet you fired him.” “I can’t go into detail on that. But you’ve been in the league long enough to know by now.” “Know what?” “Sometimes there comes a point where someone has to pay. Fair or not, right or not, someone has to pay. In ’12, it was Daniel. One of these years, it’ll probably be me. It’ll be you, too, if you have your own team one day.” “One day soon?” Jensen asks, and Phillips looks at him firmly, understanding exactly what he’s asking. Rick Jensen will almost certainly be a general manager in the NFL, and soon. Typically, it would be impossible to prevent his ascension to GM of another team. So Phillips thought, anyway, until this offseason, when Schneider floated an idea: installing Jensen as GM of the Knights and promoting Phillips to Team President. “Nothing lately from Wayne,” Phillips says. “I wish I could tell you more.” “You’re still hoping for it, right? We’re still on the same page?” “My thoughts haven’t changed. If you want to be a GM in charge of absolutely everything, running a team the way you want, you have to leave the Knights. If you’re ok with all your decisions going through me, then stick it out here.” “But you wouldn’t be micromanaging me. You wouldn’t be in the building as much.” “Correct.” “Is that what it’s about for you? More family time?” Phillips chews the last of his shrimp slowly, pondering that question honestly. “In some ways it is; in other ways, it’s too late,” he says, drifting off in thought before realizing he wants to bring the conversation back to football. “Anyway, the important part is that all the parts of the organization are in sync. That’s what I was talking about regarding Daniel. “But you got along with Harden pretty good, though, right?” Phillips suppresses a chuckle when he sees the waitress approach. He gracefully switches his empty glass for a new one and takes a sip. “You know, that’s the funny part. In many ways, Harden and I were the worst possible match between head coach and GM.” “How so?” “I’ll put it this way. We’d scout the hell out of some cornerback, run through medicals and background. Everything. Work the process, and work it right. Scouts come back with a firm third-round grade. But he says the kid’s a first-round pick. So I pick him in the first. It went against every damn principle I believe in as a GM, and I did it because Merle Harden told me to.” Phillips drifts off again, this time in no hurry to come back. Another round of silence passes between the two as they study the menu and order entrees plus a bottle of Riesling. The wine arrives and they each sip from full glasses. “Ok,” Jensen says out of nowhere. “Let’s talk trade deadline.” “Rick, isn’t it a little early to—” “Chance, we’re off the clock. It’s an unofficial discussion.” Phillips raises his glass. “That it is.” “We’re 2-2. After tomorrow, we’ll be 3-2 which puts us in play for the deadline. Due diligence can wait; just humor me. I’d like to throw out some sentimental names.” “Alright then, as long as we’re reminiscing here. Fire away.” “Jerome Jaxson.” “Doubt very much Brady would appreciate them trading one of his weapons, even if he’s not starting.” “Logan Bishop.” “He’d give jersey sales a temporary boost and help the locker room, but does he move the needle?” “I don’t know, Chance, as a second tight end I think he’d be open on a lot of checkdowns. Maverick wouldn’t mind.” “Since when has Maverick liked checkdowns?” “He hates checkdowns, but he hates losing more.” “I bet Jacksonville’s price is too high.” “You sure?” “Alright, hell with it, check in anyway.” Jensen rounds off more names, Phillips deflects as politely as possible, and the two enjoy the rest of their wine and food as the final hours of night slip away. Lions fans pack Ford Field with as much pre-game enthusiasm as they can for a 1-3 team with a head coach on the hot seat, but the opening frame gives them—or anyone—little reason to cheer. Both defenses shut down the opposing offense, barely allowing first downs, and the first quarter ends in a scoreless tie. On the visitors’ sideline, the Knights remain calm, focused, and worry-free. The defense will continue to lock things down, and the offense will get it in gear eventually. They appear poised to do just that, just shy of midfield on second and two. Then a shotgun snap flies over Maverick’s head, a third-down screen gets stuffed, special teams suffers a long punt return, and the Lions are across midfield. Four plays later, Matthew Stafford finds Kenny Golladay in the end zone, and Ford Field celebrates the first score of the day. McKenzie tries to drown out the crowd noise, louder than usual in a dome, and finds his quarterback before the next drive. “Leaning on you now,” McKenzie says. “No sweat, just execute.” “No problem, coach,” Maverick says, always happy to unleash his side of the playbook. The Knights take over, and Maverick surveys the secondary from shotgun, focusing almost exclusively on two familiar faces. His primary read on most plays, Wilkes can barely find clean grass against Malik Rose, so Maverick stops looking. Elsewhere, it seems every time a white jersey is about to get open, Griswold “Flash” Johnson appears to fill the gap. Maverick can’t find anyone open beyond five yards, and the Knights punt after a six-play, fifteen-yard drive. Maverick falls onto the bench, resisting the impulse to throw his helmet and start screaming. “Might as well just run the fucking ball every play,” he says. “We’ll get the same amount of yards.” “I’m on board with that,” Grodd says. “Can’t handle Flash and Rose in the same secondary?” “Between the two of them, there’s nowhere to go except these pussy ass checkdowns.” “Makes you appreciate when we had ‘em both, huh?” “I don’t know how we ever lost.” “I can beat him,” Wilkes says. “I’ve done it before.” “Yeah?” Maverick says skeptically. “C’mon, Mav, I know how to get in his head. Let me break him.” “Go ahead. Just do us all a favor and spare us the fourth quarter dramatics. Let’s just get out of here with a win.” On their next drive, Maverick gets a first down, and McKenzie decides to use the trick play he was saving for the second half. Maverick takes a snap and fires sideways to Wilkes. White jerseys move toward him for a bubble screen—Wilkes lobs it back to Maverick, who spots a receiver downfield. Finally. His sixty-yard throw doesn’t miss, and the equalizing touchdown silences the crowd. The offenses trade failed two-minute drills, the rest of the half proceeds without excitement, and it’s a 7-7 tie at halftime. The Lions take the first possession of the half and start marching. Ripka scrambles to find the right play call with Detroit suddenly in rhythm. He calls a cover zero blitz on third and seven from midfield. Grantzinger surges around the edge and hits Stafford as Randall leaps from a carnage of linemen to tip the pass, but both miss their target by a fraction of a second. The lob pass finds an open Danny Amendola for a thirty-yard gain. A few plays later, on second and goal, Stafford sneaks it in for a touchdown. Thanks to successful locker room lobbying, Wilkes takes the field as the primary target on offense. He has beaten Rose in coverage five times today, and Maverick only threw to him once. Now he runs deeper routes, going for the kill and talking trash after every play. He runs his first two routes aggressively, shoving off a little on the break to get separation, but the ball doesn’t come his way. “What’s the matter, Malik?” Wilkes says after a play. “The wrong side of thirty slowin’ you down?” “I only need to go half-throttle to keep up with your ass,” Rose says. Wilkes spends the third quarter focused on Rose, frustrated with his lack of targets (and the quality of Rose’s trash talk). A long Detroit drive leaves him too much time on the bench but ends abruptly when Randall takes an interception to the house to tie the game. Celebration around him, Wilkes feels disappointed he has to wait longer to get back on the field. The Lions re-take the field against a tired defense and, as the game crosses into the fourth quarter, put together another long drive that ends in a fifty-yard field goal. 17-14, Lions, 12:33 to go. The ensuing possessions showcase not an exciting offensive back-and-forth of skill, but a grinding field position struggle. Meanwhile, the clock ticks. At last, Ripka calls a cover zero blitz at the perfect time, resulting in a sack, and the Knights get the ball back with 2:12 on the clock. “Enough bullshit, ladies,” McKenzie says to whichever offensive players are listening. “Game’s in front of us right here. Let’s get six and go the fuck home.” Maverick commands the huddle with intensity and reminds everyone of the protocols: get out of bounds when you can, listen for audibles. From the shotgun, he fires on quick passes, trying only to move the chains, doubtful he can find anyone open for the deep shot he desperately wants. The front office has surrounded him with fast receivers, but he misses guys like Joseph Watson, whose game-breaking speed was unmatched. After a nine-yard pass to Wilkes (officials separate Wilkes and Rose without throwing a flag), it’s third and one. McKenzie calls a simple run up the middle. Grodd, relieved for a run, digs his feet in and surges forward. He sees bodies piling up to his right and he knows what has happened: run stuffed, fourth and one. In a quick huddle with the clock ticking, Maverick calls the play, another run, and says, “Stick your guys. Stick ‘em in the fucking mouth. One yard on the ground and I’ll take it from here. Let’s go.” Grodd lines up, listening for the cadence with the stadium in an uproar. He times his release perfectly, pushing his man ahead a few yards. The crowd cheers. Grodd turns around, seeing the officials spot the ball far enough for a first down, he thinks. The clock stops. Players stand around apprehensively as the chains come out to measure the ball—inches short. Turnover on downs. Lions ball. Ford Field rumbles as the Knights offense sulks back to their sideline. Grodd suppresses his rage at back-to-back runs stuffed for no gain. He remembers a time when the Knights, with he and Brian Penner, would dominate the inside run game. Given back-to-back plays like that, at least five yards were guaranteed. Having burned all but one of his timeouts, McKenzie can only stand and watch as the Lions run out the rest of the clock, and the game ends. Maverick begrudgingly trots around the field, shaking hands, looking for old teammates. He finds Rose, and the two share the briefest of smiles. “Good job being a pain in my ass,” Maverick says. “You know I respect you,” Rose says, “but I love beating you.” “I got you. Give my best to Eva and the girls.” Post-game ceremonies continue and, despite the frustrations and tribulations since the Super Bowl in January 2018, Knights fans must confront something the previous two seasons never wrought: a losing record. McKenzie gives his players the silent treatment and sticks to it, per the Merle Harden philosophy: if you’re not sure what to say to your team, say nothing. It’s well past nightfall when players and coaches disperse from the MedComm Center toward their homes. McKenzie drives through the southern California night, barely breaking the speed limit. He navigates the highways, then the smaller roads, finally pulling into the gravel driveway. A million thoughts race through his mind, each moving too quickly to hold down. He needs a good night’s sleep, though he knows he won’t get it. He approaches the front door, and the dog is there to greet him, but McKenzie barely pets him, instead locking up the quiet house, getting a glass of water from the kitchen, and heading upstairs. He opens the bedroom door, takes off his shoes, and tiptoes toward his side of the bed. He eases the glass onto his end table and lightly falls into the bed. The frame creaks as his lays back onto the pillow. The woman next to him rolls over, leaning against his shoulder. “Rough game,” she says. “You watched?” “A little.” McKenzie says nothing. “You’ll get through it, Ron. Just try to get some sleep.” She grabs his hand tenderly, sliding her fingers over his wrinkled knuckles “Thanks, Mel,” he says. Hurried legs trot into the bedroom, and McKenzie feels the foot of the bed sink as the Doberman pinscher leaps onto it, inching his way up and laying down with his head pressed against McKenzie’s other hand. “Hey, Bowser,” McKenzie says, petting him. “Good boy.” Melinda rolls back over, and McKenzie’s hand pets Bowser subconsciously, his eyes fixed open staring at the ceiling.
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  8. DJT20

    2020 Democratic Primary Race

    Liberal spin: "Yeah, Biden might not be there a little bit, but he's a far better option than racist dictator Trump" After Trump wins in November, instead of crying about Trump for the the following four years, how about moving elsewhere? Canada? Mexico? Venezuela? Plenty of options if you hate America.
  9. DJT20

    2020 Democratic Primary Race

    "40 minute ad for Joe Biden". lol. Joe Biden can't be coherent for 2 straight minutes, let alone 40. He can't even read correctly off his teleprompter. Trump will nail him in a coffin when the debates get going. The world is going to see how lost Joe is and how his dementia/mental illness is beating him like a drum. Btw still waiting on a breakdown on why Trump is so bad for America, fellas. I'll wait.
  10. Thanatos

    2020 Democratic Primary Race

    This is the worst interview Trump has ever had. Swan absolutely annihilates him and shows how little understanding he has of basic things. He wants to talk about how the US is ahead of multiple places in terms of death per number of cases, (mortality rate), and claims Swan can't use deaths by capita. He doubles down on wishing Ghislaine Maxwell well, specifically saying "good luck they have to prove people guilty." Which is technically true, but yeesh, not a good look. This is essentially a 40 minute ad for Joe Biden lol.
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  12. Thanatos

    2020 Democratic Primary Race

    What projection were you looking at here Favre? It was basically spot on. I'd like to see where it thinks we'll be in November.
  13. Earlier
  14. Knights of Andreas FOUR YEARS LATER Chapter Eighty-Two – Remember When “We’re NFL players in our mid-twenties. How long is this gonna last?” –Sean Brock After shining on the rest of the country, the sun climbs over the San Gabriel Mountains and illuminates the City of Angels, running from eastern Pasadena to Venice Beach and beyond, into the Pacific Ocean. Somewhere in the middle of that stretch stands a two-story building, built in 2009 and sponsored by Medical Communications, Inc. since 2010. Sunlight brings to life the empty lobby, highlighting a massive logo, purple and black and silver and white, surrounded by gray tiled floor. Residual light pours through the windows to perfectly illuminate an imposing trophy case, sporting trophies of various size recognizing conference championships, division championships, and individual awards like Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Valuable Player, Coach of the Year, and more. But these all stand peripheral to, squarely in the middle, a separate compartment of bulletproof glass shielding three Vince Lombardi Trophies. The inside of the building is as quiet as the outside. Next to the empty players’ lot, a few cars occupy a smaller parking lot, from which a limousine emerges, leaves the complex, and heads for downtown. Minutes later, the limousine veers off the highway into the sports complex. It stops short of the Staples Center, steering toward a private entrance to the taller stadium named Farmers Field. The driver stops close to the entrance, where two security guards stand. A man emerges from the limo. He buttons his suit and walks confidently toward the entrance. One of the guards steps forward, and the man flashes his credentials, purely out of habit. Anywhere in southern California—anywhere in America, really—the face of Wayne Schneider is unmistakable. “Good morning, Mr. Schneider,” the guard says. “Here for the final walkthrough?” “You know I am.” Schneider strolls through the bowels of the stadium and soon finds himself standing in the south end zone. Three days before kickoff, the grass is all green save for white yard markers. No logos, no paint in the end zones. As he has for the last ten years, Schneider waits as a group slowly assembles around him. Per protocol, nine people must participate in this walkthrough, all with titles of varying importance. Those already present make smalltalk Schneider wants no part of, so he steps away from the crowd. He gazes past the north end zone, above two levels of seats, where the third level gives way to a space once reserved for sponsors, now occupied by banners. Though the collection is impressive, Schneider dwells on the rightmost section. Second from the right, a banner as large as any reads, “2017 SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS.” Right of that, a smaller banner reads, “2018 AFC WEST CHAMPIONS.” Right of that, an empty space gazes right back at Schneider, wondering what 2019 should have been. Besides two years without a Super Bowl appearance, Farmers Field itself dampens Schneider’s spirits. What was once the shining jewel of NFL stadiums has become an also-ran. Three new stadiums have opened since Farmers Field’s inception ten years ago, and a fourth opens in three days: the Rams’ new stadium in Las Vegas, a stadium he essentially built when he warded the Rams away from Los Angeles. It was the only way, he keeps telling himself. The full assembly has gathered now, but none of them dare beckon Schneider to join them. Schneider doesn’t mind making everybody wait. “Alright, gentlemen,” he says at last. “Let’s get on with it.” The tour begins with a lap around the field, then heads up into the concourse. People occasionally ask questions Schneider’s annoyance. All nine participants cram into a private elevator toward the luxury suites and then press box. Each phase proves the tour to be a rudimentary exercise; apart from some minor hassles, Farmers Field is ready for football. Per Schneider’s wishes, the walkthrough concludes above the north end zone, the one open section of the stadium with a massive screen standing where seats would be otherwise. Schneider’s focus, though, is on the concourse itself, now one year removed from renovations. When the stadium was built, the concourse was a strip lined with vendor stands, not unique among stadiums in any way. Now, though, Schneider has left his mark on it. In the middle of the concrete floor there is a thin strip of shiny, black marble tiles, modeled after the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame nine miles away. For now, the Knights’ version is nearly all marble. It will, over time, add brass stars to commemorate the very best to wear Knights colors. Schneider stares inquisitively at the empty pavement for a moment, then stares straight down at the single star beneath him. The sun reflects back into his eyes off the glossy surface; he shifts to see the name in focus: MERLE HARDEN. Finally, Schneider walks away, ending the walkthrough without a word. He strolls back down through his stadium toward his limousine, eager to get back to MedComm to observe practice. As soon as his eyes flicker open, he reactively rolls to his right and unlocks his fully charged phone: a wave of texts, a few emails, no missed calls—and no breaking news. Nothing he needs to handle immediately. He looks back across the bed, occupied by the most gorgeous woman to ever grace his apartment, by far. Her face twists as she stretches. “You up?” he asks. “Getting there,” she says. “I’ll make some coffee.” Adam Javad gets to his feet and staggers to the kitchen, performing the ritual he has now perfected: making coffee with one hand, tapping his phone with the other. He has a busy day ahead, and he’s already behind schedule. He glances back toward the conflicting feelings he left in the bedroom. He didn’t mean for her to spend the night. Not that he was against it in theory (not at all, in fact), just that the eve of the 2020 NFL season was probably not great timing. But they had a great dinner downtown, which turned into some after-dinner drinks at a bar, which turned into one more drink at the apartment, and that was that. “Anything going on?” she asks, startling him. She stands in the doorway connecting the bedroom to the kitchen, wearing his shirt and her underwear. She’s also buried in her phone. “Nope,” Adam says. She taps away another moment, then looks around the living room. “Didn’t really get a chance to check it out last night,” she says. “It’s an apartment. You don’t have to be complimentary.” “Oh, shut up.” She circles the room, studying the pictures occupying wall space and end tables. She moves from picture to picture, only pausing for an imposing frame (Adam’s diploma from the University of Missouri) before she stops in front of another framed picture, this one a photograph. She examines every detail: two men, seated across from each other in what looks like a living room. On one side, Adam studies a paper in front of him, undoubtedly lined with questions, with a large Doberman laying comfortably at his feet. On the other side, an older, weary-looking, nearly bald man shows an annoyed but acceptant look on his face. His arms are crossed over his purple polo, not quite covering the Knights logo on it. She is right to study this more than anything in Adam’s apartment; she knows this is the interview that launched his career to the Times, while she’s still stuck at the Pasadena Gazette. “What was he like?” she asks. “I mean, in person.” “Hmm,” Javad says, happy to reminisce and relive the memory of that interview. In the months after he received the award, he grew tired of answering questions about it. But he hasn’t fielded such questions in a while. “Grumpy, cross, profane.” “That’s how he was in press conferences.” “In person, too.” Her eyes finally find the bottom right of the picture, where someone’s hand has scribbled over the picture in black marker. “Can’t believe you got him to sign it.” “Me neither, to be honest,” Adam says, joining her in the living room with the coffee brewing. She finally moves off the picture. “What’s your day like?” “I’ll probably record my podcast first, then an interview with the Rich Eisen Show at eleven, then—” “By phone or in studio?” “Studio. He tapes not far from Farmers. After that, I’ll go to MedComm for quotes. Otherwise, it’s—I mean, we’re just three days out.” “Yes, we are.” Adam pauses, not sure if this part of the conversation is over. She stares back at him for a second, then looks away. He goes for it. “So, listen, Jess,” he says. “On Sunday…” “How many times are we going to have this conversation?” Jessica asks. “I guess you’re right.” He waits for the coffee to finish. After one cup with accompanying smalltalk, they decide they’re both too busy for a large breakfast, and she leaves—in her own clothes. Adam brings his coffee mug into the office, where podcast equipment is ready for him. He organizes his notes on the desk and begins recording. “Hello, Knights fans, and welcome to another edition of The Extra Point with Adam Javad. We’ve finally made it; the 2020 NFL season is upon us. And while we won’t have Knights football for a few days—I’m recording this on Thursday—it’ll be good to see football on our TV screens again. In the meantime, I’ve got an interview with defensive tackle Riley Osborne, the Knights’ first-round pick from April, with his thoughts on training camp, preseason, and adjusting to joining an esteemed franchise. And then we’ll do what has become a yearly tradition on this podcast, a position-by-position review of the Knights’ roster, which should prove interesting, given all the turnover this offseason.” Under the California sun, the Los Angeles Knights walk, jog, and run around the field adjacent to the MedComm Center for the penultimate practice of the offseason. On one side of the field, the starting offense runs plays against reserve defensive players. Leading them, dressed in the same long-sleeve-shirt-and-shorts combination as the rest of the coaches, Ron McKenzie makes frequent use of his whistle. McKenzie can feel it. With game one so close, he is anxious to be done with the offseason and start the real football. Unfortunately, his players feel the same way. If they give in to that feeling, they will conclude the week with sloppy practices, go into Sunday unprepared, and get their asses kicked in front of their own fans. McKenzie blows his whistle after the most recent play ends successfully. “Run it again, ladies! Run it again! Three in a row, that’s our goal.” Today the Knights will finish practicing the between-the-20’s section of Sunday’s playbook. Tomorrow, they focus on red zone and third down. McKenzie blows his whistle. “C’mon, 77, you gotta sell it better before you get out into the flat.” Whistle. “Atta boy, 81, nice block in space. Do that on Sunday, so we can get it on film.” Whistle. “Nice job, 70, nice job. Again!” On the other side of the field, the starting defense goes through the same process. Leading them is Chet Ripka, a man whose memories of wearing the same pads and cleats as his players fade more with each passing year. “Good call, 57, good call.” “Nice rush, 52. Really nice.” “Need more hustle, 96, need more hustle. Half a second late on that split and Tyrod is running right past you.” “C’mon, coach,” number 96 fires back between breaths. “We don’t even know if Tyrod’s starting.” “No way the rookie gets the start over him,” Ripka says. “Until I see Tyrod on the bench, I don’t want any more excuses. Back in formation.” From the comfort of air conditioning and the shielding of wall-to-wall glass windows, two men watch practice from the second floor of the MedComm Center. One is Schneider, whose mind bounces all around his office, from players on the field, to TV coverage previewing tonight’s Chiefs/Texans game, to everything in between. “I suppose I’m frustrated, is all I’m saying,” Schneider says, looking back to the TV. The other man keeps his gaze on the field and brushes his hair, sprinkles of grey now covering his entire head. “I understand,” Chance Phillips says. “Back-to-back Super Bowls, and we were the talk of the city. You go downtown on a Tuesday in July and you saw someone wearing a Knights jersey. Not like New York, where they’re on four different teams at once. Los Angeles was a Knights city. Now, two years without a Super Bowl, and what does L.A. talk about?” Schneider unleashes a harsh sigh and falls into his chair. “The fucking Lakers.” “The fans are fired up for this season. You know they are.” “With high expectations comes high risk.” “You’re not confident in what we did this offseason?” Schneider pauses. Phillips finally diverts his attention from the field to Schneider, and they lock eyes. “I told you all offseason you had my support,” Schneider says. “But I’m sure you’d agree that the moves we made were more for long-term success than short-term.” “And if that results in bad short-term returns?” Schneider stares menacingly at his general manager, not wanting to answer that question. A knock on his open door saves him from doing so, and the third-ranking man on this floor confidently strolls into the office. “Injury report from practice,” he says, handing a piece of paper to Phillips. “Any changes?” Phillips asks. “No, not from yesterday.” “Ok, good. Thanks, Rick.” “And, Chance, that salary cap analysis you wanted to do?” “My office. Five minutes.” Assistant general manager Rick Jensen nods and departs. Phillips studies the paper in his hands and looks back to Schneider. “Anything more for me?” “Not at the moment,” Schneider says. Phillips nods, happy to table things for now. He, of course, has long since gotten used to prodding like this from his owner. In fact, he shares Schneider’s frustration regarding the Knights’ place in the AFC, and thereby the league as a whole, a stark reminder of how quickly things change in the NFL. Just a few years ago, with Tom Brady fading into the horizon and Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement, the stars had aligned for Jonathan Maverick and the Knights to dominate the AFC for the next decade. Then came Patrick Mahomes. Then came Lamar Jackson. Last season—especially the playoffs—made it clear that the Chiefs and Ravens were on a level by themselves in their conference, and the Knights were a step below them. One offseason of transactions later, whether the Knights have joined that group appears to be the defining question of the 2020 season. At best, the Knights are part of a triumvirate atop the AFC. At worst, they’re not even an elite team. The city of angels wakes up earlier and quicker than it has in nine months. With most national pre-game shows starting at 9am local time, mimosas and red beers are flowing at sports bars and restaurants all over Los Angeles. Farmers Field parking lots open at 10am, and countless cars pile into spot after spot. Within minutes, Knights fans in black and white jerseys surround the stadium and revive tailgate rituals. Scattered pockets of blue and yellow litter the scene, as the visiting fans from San Diego always do. When the stadium opens an hour later, fans trickle in faster than normal; nobody wants to miss kickoff for week one. Knights fans fill Farmers Field with the buzz and optimism of a new season. As fans settle into their seats and count down to kickoff, they tap away on their phones, following all the results from the early window. Eight games are going down to the wire, with Knights/Chargers and three other late-window games to follow. At long last, the final moments of the offseason wither away. A pump-up montage plays on the stadium’s large video screen, dramatic rock music blares through the speakers, and a wave of players in black jerseys rushes out of the southwest tunnel. Fans roar for their team—most of them, anyway, and keep their eyes on the tunnel. Under cover and out of sight from most fans, stadium personnel hold back the five players still left, to be introduced one by one. Per Wayne Schneider’s instruction, they must be introduced in ascending order of jersey sales—most popular player goes last. The stadium PA announcer’s voice booms over the stadium, just loud enough to be audible over the still-rocking music. “Starting at left guard for the Knights, number seventy, Chase…Grodd!” Grodd runs out of the tunnel and holds one finger in the air, getting as loud of an ovation as an offensive linemen can. “Starting at middle linebacker, number fifty-seven…Briggs…Randall!” Randall sprints out of the tunnel, not making any gesture at all, to a slightly louder ovation. “Starting at wide receiver, number eighty-one…Da’Jamiroquai…Jefferspin…Wilkes!” The crowd’s roar crescendos before Wilkes appears, leisurely walking out of the tunnel as if he doesn’t hear anything. He bends down lethargically, then leaps backward into the air, brilliantly executing a full backflip, sticks the landing, and accelerates toward the rest of the team. The crowd roars again. “Starting at defensive end…” The crowd drowns out the PA announcer as well as they can. “…number fifty-two…Zack…Grantzinger!” Grantzinger repeats Randall’s no-gesture attitude, albeit with a jog instead of a sprint, and gets to the sideline. The stadium’s music seems to fade. Noise level lowers. The final moment has come, and the PA announcer milks it for everything he can. “Starting at quarterback…” Everybody in the stadium wearing black and purple either points their phone at the tunnel or claps their hands together as hard as they can. “…number twelve…” The final player in the tunnel feels a tap on his shoulder, and off he goes. “…Jon-a-than…Maverick!” Farmers Field erupts for their franchise quarterback, who blows kisses to his fans as he jumps and screams himself, eventually finding his way to the sideline. Pre-game ceremonies conclude. Both teams line up for kickoff. From his luxury suite, Schneider scans the stadium. The past few years, with the Rams sharing this stadium, have seen plenty of blue and yellow in the stands, a terrible eyesore for Schneider he hopes to see gone this season. Unfortunately, the Chargers’ similar color scheme makes it impossible to know today. San Diego gets the ball first. As Ripka predicted, Tyrod Taylor takes the first snap of the season. One stuffed bubble screen and two incompletions later, the Chargers punt. The Knights offense takes the field to elevated applause. An incompletion and short run later, it’s third and seven. The excitement of a new season is giving way to the tedium of the game, then Maverick ropes one over the middle for a thirty-yard gain, and fans get to scream again. The offense moves the ball efficiently, quickly entering the red zone on second and two. Maverick lines up under center, sees confusion in the secondary, and spots Wilkes in single coverage. No one can stop what happens next. Maverick drops back three steps and lofts the ball toward the end zone, hitting Wilkes’ hands in stride. Maverick jogs back to the sideline with the crowd noise barely subsided. “We’re back, motherfuckers!” he shouts to whoever listens. The rest of the first half appears to confirm the Knights are indeed back. Ripka’s defense sticks to its game plan, allowing Taylor a few successful scrambles but suffocating the pass offense. The Chargers only manage a field goal, while the Knights add another touchdown, and the home team leads at halftime, 14-3. On the opening drive of the second half, the Knights tack on a field goal of their own. The ensuing drive halts when a Charger is ruled out of bounds on a sideline catch that Anthony Lynn challenges. The long review puts the stadium in a lull. From the sideline, Maverick looks around at the crowd. “When we first came here, I remember the fans,” he says. Grodd and Wilkes, who have been with him from the beginning, listen. “You know, the ones who were with us at the beginning. How many you think are still here?” “What?” Grodd says. “Nothing. Never mind.” The ruling stands, says the referee. Second and ten. Maverick stands up and studies the white jerseys in the huddle. He focuses on #5, an unfamiliar number playing quarterback for the Chargers. He looks to the bench, searching for #10. “The hell are you staring at?” Grodd says. “Hopefully Herbert develops into something,” Maverick says. “Not much of a rivalry without Rivers, is it?” “Aw, how cute,” Wilkes says. “Batman misses the Joker.” “Joker misses Harley Quinn is more like it,” Grodd says. “Fuck you both,” Maverick says. “You miss a single block or drop a single pass on the next drive, I’ll—” The stadium booms in surprise, drawing the trio’s gaze to the giant screen. They see a defender in a black jersey running with the ball, zigzagging through white jerseys before tripping close to the line of scrimmage. Maverick grabs his helmet. “Let’s get to work,” he says. “Two last year!” Wilkes says. “Two dropped passes. And Chase only missed three blocks in pass protection!” Maverick tries to ignore him. “Always with the goddamn fucking analytics, D-Jam!” With the momentum and field position, the Knights manage a field goal, making it a three-score game. On the Chargers’ next drive, their offense finds rhythm, with Taylor finally connecting on a few downfield throws. Now into the fourth quarter, the Chargers reach the end zone. 20-10, Knights. Both offenses trade three-and-outs. With McKenzie trying to run the clock out with a middling run game, the Knights punt after one first down. The Chargers appear ready to do the same, when Taylor bombs one deep for Keenan Allen, somehow wide-open and streaking into the end zone. 20-17, Knights. Tension fills Farmers Field. Every exciting hour of anticipation and celebration is about to descend into a very bad Sunday. While Ripka scrambles with his coaches to figure out what went wrong, McKenzie abandons the run game and lets Maverick take control. Working the field on short and intermediate gains, the Knights move the chains. With each first down and tick of the clock, Knights fans breathe easier. The two-minute warning hits with the Knights on the edge of the red zone. A few more short passes later, they face first and goal with 1:02 on the clock. The Chargers burn their timeouts, hoping to get the ball back down six points. Third and goal from the five, 0:40 to go. McKenzie dials up a fade to Wilkes. Maverick takes the snap, looks. It’s not there. He scans the field—nothing. He’s ready to scramble, wanting to keep the clock running. He tucks the ball, then sees an open black jersey with defenders closing. He fires a bullet for his tight end that hits him between the numbers, and Farmers Field roars. The Chargers get the ball in an impossible situation, gain some garbage-time yards against prevent defense before time expires, and, in the end, Knights fans get to celebrate exactly what they wanted: a win that gives them faith their football team can return to glory this year. A jovial locker room buzzes with energy. Players know by now not to expect any sort of speech from Coach McKenzie, so they just circulate from locker to locker, soaking in the celebration—and the relief. Maverick, no interest in celebrating anything just yet, removes all his pads and undresses down to his shorts, wincing as he relives each hit he took. He lumbers around the corner toward the ice baths, finding one of them available. Not long ago he wouldn’t need this after the first game, but need it he does. He lifts his body over the tub and counts. One, two, three. He lets go and falls into the water. It pierces every inch of his skin, tightens his entire body. Then, it fades. He feels his muscles relaxing. He leans back, closes his eyes, and lets out a deep, soothing breath. Back in the heart of the locker room, a group congregates around Randall’s locker, as it usually does, a sort of defensive debrief. These tend to last much longer after a win. The players replay highlights and dissect plays as Coach Ripka appears. “Great game, everyone,” Ripka says. “Thanks, coach,” Randall says. “And you too. You called a good one today. That corner blitz was a great call.” “Hell yeah,” the rookie corner who notched a sack on the game’s final play says. “Good one, coach.” “Thanks, guys,” Ripka says. “You all played a hell of a game. We play like that on D, we can beat anybody. All the young guys did a really good job too.” Everyone murmurs in agreement before realizing Grantzinger is both suspiciously quiet and changing into street clothes rather quickly. “You good, Zack?” Randall says. “Yeah.” “Got some place to be?” Ripka says. “Gotta check in on my old man.” Ripka puts his head down and walks away. The rookie, apparently out of the loop, looks suspicious. “What’s up with your pops, Zack?” “He’s got Alzheimer’s,” Randall says. “No shit?” “Yeah shit,” Grantzinger says. “How’s he doing?” Randall says. “Worse. I’ve never seen him like this. We’ve had our father-son bullshit in the past, and it’s been rough, but nothing like this.” “I had an uncle who had it,” the rookie says. “Yeah? And?” “Honestly, I was just a kid. Didn’t really understand it at the time, thankfully.” “Helpful.” “Hey,” Randall says, “check in later?” “Yeah, I’ll call you.” “Aye!” sings another voice. “Yo! Yo! Yo! Yo! Yooooo!” Randall sighs as the team’s certified diva wide receiver does jumping jacks behind him. “Guess who leads the league in touchdown catches?” “Hopkins, probably,” Grantzinger says, packing up his belongings. “Man, he ain’t gonna do shit with that four-foot QB throwin’ to him. Speaking of, y’all seen Mav?” “Not since the field, no,” Randall says. Wilkes spins his head around and goes on the hunt, circling the locker room twice before spotting a patch of hair sticking out of one of the tubs he correctly identifies. He waltzes over but refrains from doing jumping jacks. “Ah, there’s the princess,” Wilkes says. “Fuck. Off.” “What’s the matter, brother?” “Two sacks and five hits hurts a little more than it did a few years ago,” Maverick says. “Pain is temporary, man. This is what I’ve been tryin’ to tell you.” “Don’t get started. Please.” “D-Jam,” Grodd calls from farther away, “spare us your preaching, please.” “Man, it ain’t no preachin’! You fools need some spiritual education.” “What I need,” Maverick says, “is some fucking quiet.” Wilkes relents. He shrugs and walks off in search of a new audience. After a frustrating grind through L.A. traffic, Zack pulls up to his house, spotting the familiar car in the driveway. He paces to the front door and opens it. “Hey,” the woman in the doorway says, “how was the game?” “You didn’t watch?” Zack says. “We turned it on for a little bit. I thought it would help him. But he started to get angry, so we—” “It’s ok. It’s fine. How is he otherwise?” “Ups and downs. Got him to spend some time on a puzzle. Those have been good lately. So, overall, a normal day.” “We won.” “I bet he’ll be glad to hear.” “We’ll see.” They both linger for a moment, and Zack steps into his home. The woman who has served as caretaker of his father departs. Zack considers another word before hearing a boisterous voice from the den. “I can’t deal with these fucking commercials!” Zack hurriedly finds his father, laying on his recliner, focused on the television. It is indeed on commercial, and Zack spots from the ticker he’s watching ESPN. A full glass of iced tea condensates on the end table next to him. “Hey, dad.” “Listen, I ask you for a couple things, and you just walk away. I need you to stay close.” “Sorry, dad,” Zack says in an emotionless tone. He takes a seat on the couch nearest the recliner. “We won today.” “Of course you did. You think I am, deranged?” Zack’s spirits lift. A lucid discussion on today’s game would be just what he needs, and certainly what his father needs. “So,” Zack says, “what did you think?” “Ripka called a terrible game.” “What do you mean? We held the offense in check most of the way. Made the plays when we needed to.” “He should have stayed in cover-3. Lousy fucking coordinator.” Zack feels his mood sink into the floor. The Knights ran, to his memory, no more than four cover-3 plays today. It wasn’t a staple of the game plan, and there was definitely no point when they pivoted from cover-3 to something else. All Zack manages to say is, “Hell of a safety in his prime, dad. Borderline Hall of Famer.” “He’s not in the Hall yet, is he?” “No.” “Then he’s not ‘borderline.’ You’re either a Hall of Famer or you’re not.” Zack looks away, eyes pinned to the TV screen but not processing any of it. “How about getting me that goddamn iced tea I asked for?” “It’s right here, dad.” “About fucking time.” Zack hones in on the TV, watching scores flash at the bottom of the screen, wondering whether he’ll change the channel to watch the second half of the Sunday Night Football game. The long offseason makes football feel more meandering than organized, more free flowing than rigid. But now, with week one in the books, Knights players and coaches fall into the week-to-week routine of a football season. Monday, players fill the auditorium for a formal debrief. McKenzie has more good than bad to say and keeps it concise, allowing players to spend time with their positional coaches for more detail. Players then hit the weight room, get a good workout in, head to the cafeteria for lunch, and leave for the day. Coaches stay, watching film on the Steelers. Tuesday, players stay home. The coaching staff starts at 6am and doesn’t leave until a little after 11pm, when the first iteration of Sunday’s playbook is finished. Usually, the luster of a new season takes weeks to fade. This season, the Knights’ core find themselves fading into the fast-paced grind much faster than usual. Wednesday’s practice fades into Thursday’s practice, which fades into Friday’s red zone/third down focus, which fades into Saturday’s walkthrough, and before long, they’re on a plane to Pittsburgh. Just four years ago, Heinz Field hosted one of the most famous regular-season games in NFL history, a week 15 contest between two undefeated teams decided in the final seconds. The franchises have faced off a few times in the years since, but never living up to the resulting hype. Of course, four years is a long time in the NFL. But while fans may dwell on nostalgia, players know better. The only thing they chase today is a 2-0 record. Before long, however, the Knights are chasing points. Players are sloppy on both sides of the ball: drops, poor tackling form, missed assignments, late play calls. This is the type of execution tolerated by some in week one, not now. The Knights are playing a better team than last week, but neither McKenzie nor Ripka wants to hear that. The offense gets the ball five times in the first half. These culminate in two field goals, two punts, and a fumble. The Steelers, meanwhile, operate a fine-tuned offense. Ben Roethlisberger looks sharp as ever, facing little pass rush and finding open receivers. He leads three drives into the red zone, converting touchdowns on all three. The Knights go into the locker room down 21-6 but come out with an aggressive game plan. Their first drive indeed finds rhythm. Linemen finally nail their assignments. Maverick has time to throw and doesn’t miss open receivers. McKenzie times a screen pass perfectly, and the Knights are in the red zone. Two plays later, Maverick drops back, waiting for Wilkes to break on an end-zone post—a Steeler defender crunches him into the grass. He looks around for the football, shocked to see it’s still in his grasp. Maverick is ready to tear into the offense on the sideline when the crowd returns his attention to the field—the ensuing field goal attempt has sailed wide right. Maverick says nothing. The Steelers pick up where they left off, gaining first downs with ease. The Knights’ pass rush reaches Roethlisberger, but only after he has delivered a pass. The home team brings the crowd to its feet with a ten-play, seventy-nine-yard touchdown drive, taking a 28-6 lead. Resignation sets in on the Knights sideline, strangely unfamiliar to a few white jerseys. Every football player knows all too well the feeling of a lost game—even worse, knowing there’s more football to play with the game already decided. But this was a foreign feeling to the Knights not long ago. There was a time when, no matter how deep the deficit, no matter how poor their play, the Knights were always in contention. Even if it were mathematically impossible, the players knew they would win. On the next drive, Maverick would hit a deep pass to get things going. Randall or Grantzinger would come through with a big sack. They would make the plays they needed. They knew it. Now, something feels different. Players sit on the sideline going through the motions, listening to their coaches and analyzing pictures, nothing left to do but grind out the final twenty-two minutes of a loss.
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  25. One week from now, you will all have new KoA to read. Happy times! Once again, it'll be a quick stretch: eight chapters. No teasers. However, since it's been so long, I put together a character guide/recap to familiarize everyone before "Four Years Later" begins. Johnathan Maverick remains an elite quarterback, which keeps the Knights an elite team, despite various issues at other positions. In 2019, he marries Trisha Harden. In 2020, he signs an extension that makes him the highest paid player in football at the time. Marcus Jameson remains an offensive cornerstone for the Knights through 2019. In 2020, he is surprisingly released and signed by the Steelers. Jerome Jaxson bounces around the league—first as a running back, then as a kick returner. In 2020, he signs a one-year deal with the Buccaneers. Da’Jamiroquai “D-Jam” Jefferspin-Wilkes remains one of football’s best receivers—and one of its most prolific trash-talkers. In 2018, he converts to Buddhism in an effort to preserve his body and lengthen his career. As of 2020, his yards and receptions have decreased while touchdowns have remained consistent. Joseph Watson enjoys inconsistent success as the Knights slot receiver. In 2020, he is released and signed by the Panthers. Alex Johnson plays a few years for the Packers before being released amid injury (and age) concerns. When training camp opens in 2020, he is still unsigned. Logan Bishop signs with the Jaguars. As of 2020, he is one of the more reliable players on Jacksonville’s roster, an elite run-blocker and a threat after the catch. Chase Grodd becomes the only elite offensive linemen on the Knights roster and establishes himself as one of the best guards in football. In 2020, facing a contract year, he endures an offseason ripe with trade rumors but remains a Knight. Without a new contract, he holds out from OTAs, training camp, and the preseason. Brian Penner resists coaching overtures—as well as his own itch to play again—and enjoys retirement. As of 2020, he is living in Minnesota with his family. Sam Luck enjoys a productive contract year with the Knights in 2017, then signs a lucrative free-agent deal with the Colts. As of 2020, he is a productive edge rusher in their defense and a borderline Pro Bowler. Zack Grantzinger signs a mega-extension in 2017. He wins Defensive Player of the Year in 2018. In the Knights’ new 4-3 defense, he alternates snaps between defensive end and strong-side linebacker. As of 2020, he is still a top 10 non-quarterback in the league and showing no signs of aging. Briggs Randall remains one of the league’s best middle linebackers and smartest defensive players. He is a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 and 2019. He receives a contract extension ahead of the 2020 season. Marlon Martin signs with the Broncos in 2017, plays one season, then retires. He resists multiple offers to play as a special teams captain and remains retired through the 2020 season. Sean Brock plays for the Bengals for two seasons, then the Eagles for one, before leaving football for political reasons. Current whereabouts unknown. Malik Rose continues playing for the Chargers, enjoying bi-annual battles with D-Jam against the Knights. In 2020, his contract expires, and he signs a one-year deal with the Lions. Griswold “Flash” Johnson signs a large contract with the Lions. As of 2020, he is no longer an elite athlete but still one of the league’s best safeties. Robert Schwinn signs with the Texans and becomes an underrated part of a strong defense. As of 2020, he is entering a contract year. Merle Harden dies a legend, known as one of the best and most unique defensive minds in the game and one of the most fiercest leaders. He is survived by wife Melinda, daughter Trisha, and pet dog Bowser. Ron McKenzie assumes the head coach position after Merle Harden’s death. A winning culture already established, he settles into the role naturally, though he struggles to connect with his players the way Harden did. He is considered by fans a good-not-great coach reaping the benefits of a top-5 organization. Chet Ripka silences critics by proving a capable defensive coordinator. His greatest strength is his ability not to over-coach, and to let the Knights’ defensive talent run itself. During the 2020 offseason, he is rumored as a possible future head coach, though he receives no interview offers. As of 2020, he has been Hall of Fame eligible (as a player) for three years and has not gotten in. Chance Phillips remains an elite general manager. Though fans sometimes criticize him for not making splashy moves, he maintains a competitive roster without salary cap complications. Wayne Schneider succeeds in keeping a second team from Los Angeles, helping move the Rams to Las Vegas and keep the Chargers in San Diego. As of 2020, he is one of the league’s most respected owners. Adam Javad is hired at the Los Angeles Times and gains the respect of his colleagues and the teams he covers, though his football coverage truly carries his career. Caden Daniel becomes the Packers’ offensive coordinator. His presence creates both resurgence and conflict in Green Bay, clashing with head coach Mike McCarthy. In 2019, McCarthy is fired and Daniel becomes the Packers’ head coach. He leads the Packers to an NFC Championship appearance in his first season. @Sarge @DalaiLama4Ever @GA_Eagle @JetsFan4Life @BwareDWare94 @Maverick @BigBen07 @Bangy @theMileHighGuy @Vin @BradyFan81 @Turry @Zack_of_Steel @seanbrock @Cherry @RazorStar @ATL_Predator @DonovanMcnabb for H.O.F @FartWaffles
  26. Brief writing milestone/update: I now have rough drafts for all eight chapters (some more polished than others). So, I will make sure every chapter is exactly how I want it before being published, which I'm very excited about. I hope you all are staying safe, and I look forward to giving you a little escape back into the KoAverse in 2 weeks and change.
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