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Knights of Andreas 7.03: In Time, Out of Control

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Knights of Andreas
FOUR YEARS LATER

 

Chapter Eighty-Four – In Time, Out of Control

“I have respect for a man who has respect for his profession.” –Chance Phillips

The morning after the Knights’ descent to a losing record, three men enter the largest office in the MedComm Center, less than ten hours of sleep between them.

Schneider, Phillips, and McKenzie take their positions for one of many weekly routines: the Monday morning debrief. These are short, concise, (mostly) casual, and just the three of them, as Schneider has always insisted.

Conversation drudges along as it typically does following a loss, slightly more somber but covering the same talking points: key reasons why the Knights lost, key areas of improvement for next week and beyond.

“So,” McKenzie says in response to one particular inquiry, “I gotta do a better job in handling the game plan. I think we held onto it too long, and it cost us.”

Schneider nods politely and looks at McKenzie as if he’s waiting for more words.

“So, Ron,” Schneider says, “we’ve been doing these meetings with you four years now. The last two or so, we have discussed multiple topics that have ended with you saying you have to do a better job. With all due respect, when are we going to see that?”

McKenzie freezes, stunned by the sudden attack. He looks to Phillips for a lifeline but finds none; Phillips is neither surprised nor willing to help at the moment.

“Well,” McKenzie finally says, “Mr. Schneider, I apologize if…if it seems like my responses here are disappointing.”

“It is our record that is disappointing, Ron.”

“All I can say is every coach and every player will be fully focused on getting us straightened out this week and getting a win on Sunday.”

“Ok,” Schneider says, his face emotionless. “Good enough.”

McKenzie takes this as a welcome sign that the meeting is over and walks out of the office. Phillips does so a moment later, reaching the doorway when McKenzie is long gone.

“Chance,” Schneider says from his chair. “Same question.”

Phillips feels shocked, but he’s not unprepared. Schneider hasn’t been on the warpath like this in a while, but he knows how to defend himself. He walks back to the conference table and stands behind his chair, looming over the team owner.

“Is there something I’ve done that you think is a problem?” Phillips asks.

“I’m just trying to get your read on the shining state of our franchise at the moment.”

“I know 2-3 is bad—”

“It’s worse than bad.”

“—and yes, part of that is because of the offseason. But we have a good young core of players. You’ve been in the analytics meetings with me. They will blossom.”

“Will they?”

“Our last two losses were by seven combined points. The difference between 2-3 and 4-1 is a fine line. That’s football, and you know it.”

“That may be, but the bottom line is the bottom line.”

“Indeed it is.”

Neither man speaks. A phone rings somewhere else on the floor.

“Week after next,” Schneider says, “we’ll have a meeting with the firm we discussed. On Friday, while Ron isn’t here, obviously. That’s all, Chance. Thank you.”

“I told you I thought that was unnecessary.”

“Mr. Schneider,” calls his assistant from the hallway, “I have Dean Spanos on the line for you.”

Schneider holds up his arms. “Going to be a busy morning. That’s all, Chance.”

Phillips nods firmly and exits the office. Schneider watches him leave and gets up, strutting back to his desk, where Spanos’ call—plus a mountain of others—awaits him today. He hopes to have done some good with his GM and head coach; he has much more important things to be worrying about this week.

 

The Knights endure their post-loss meetings, as a team then as positional groups, and Week 6 begins. Beyond the usual frustrations of a loss, no one says or does anything to indicate the team’s poor standing. Fortunately, the Knights get a home game this Sunday against the 2-3 Bears.

After an off day, players hit the practice field eager to prove themselves. The game plan for Chicago takes shape over the course of several practices and meetings. On the surface, everything looks and feels very normal. Altogether, under Coach McKenzie, the practice week after a loss resembles the practice week after a win much more than one would think—as it was under Coach Harden.

After Friday’s practice, all but four players head home. The remaining four—Maverick, Grodd, Grantzinger, Randall—join Coach McKenzie in his office for the weekly players council meeting, a relatively new addition McKenzie brought from his college days. Coaching a roster with more youth and inexperience than he has ever had, McKenzie knows communication with his veterans is more crucial than ever.

“Ok guys,” McKenzie says once the four veterans have taken their seats, “how are we feeling?”

As usual, Randall speaks first.

“Everything’s good on D. The guys are feeling confident we can beat Foles up pretty good. And even if we can’t, they don’t have anybody else who scares us.”

“Good,” McKenzie says. “Zack, you on board with that?”

“Absolutely.”

“Ok. Mav? Chase? How about offense?”

Maverick wants to talk first but defers to his offensive linemen, who will occasionally be responsible for containing Chicago’s biggest threat.

“Obviously, blocking Mack is no joke,” Grodd says. “Protection is gonna have to be spot on or we’re in trouble. All the draws we installed this week should help a lot.”

“Rollouts too,” Maverick says. “They’ll work no matter what, but if we can call them at the right time, they won’t stop us.”

“Don’t forget,” Grodd says, “we’ve faced Von Miller twice a year since I got here and handled him well, for the most part. We can handle Khalil Mack.”

“Ok, good,” McKenzie says. “As always, communicate. If you see something on the field where you think a certain call is a good idea, let me know.”

“Only if you promise to actually call it,” Maverick says.

McKenzie contorts his mouth into a grin. “No promises, Mav, you know that.”

Maverick sighs, part frustration, part acceptance. McKenzie changes the subject, and the rest of the meeting proceeds without anything consequential.

 

Farmers Field is loud to start the game, anxious to restrict the Bears offense, which has been meandering at best through five games and on the road to a quarterback controversy.

Knights defenders line up unafraid of Nick Foles. The only threat to the secondary is Allen Robinson, and defenders shade toward him. The stadium cheers louder with each down, culminating in a three and out.

When the defense retakes the field, they already have a 3-0 lead. But Foles finds some open receivers, and the Bears find momentum. They reach the red zone, crowd noise increasing, and try to establish the run game. This is promptly stuffed, and they kick a field goal to tie the game.

The Knights defense maintains its performance throughout the rest of the half, restricting big plays and allowing yards but no touchdowns. By halftime, the Bears offense has mustered three field goal attempts, two of which are good, and the Knights lead, 10-6.

After Knights score a touchdown on the second half’s first drive, defenders take the field eagerly with an eleven-point lead. Lining up at left defensive end, Grantzinger readies to go all-out assault on Foles, who he has only hit once today. But the Bears keep committing extra linemen, running backs, and receivers to either chip him off the line or double him altogether. This is fine for Grantzinger, but the rest of the defensive line needs to step up.

At the opposite defensive end position is Jaden Solomon, a first-round pick who hasn’t quite taken the second-year leap the Knights had hoped. He flashes moments of greatness, but he doesn’t reap the benefits of Grantzinger’s double teams like he should.

In the middle, the Knights employ a three-man rotation for the two defensive tackle spots. The one with the most potential is Riley Osborne, this year’s first-round pick. He is already a monster in the run game, but his pass rush has been nonexistent.

Overall, Grantzinger endures a frustrating lack of sacks. The closest the Knights get, ironically, is when Ripka has Grantzinger drop back in coverage; despite an eternity in the pocket against a three-man rush, Foles finds no open passing lanes.

Later in the third quarter, the Knights defend a 24-9 lead. With the Bears almost certain to abandon the run game, Randall calls audibles in favor of pass rush and extra blitzes. Anchoring the team’s 4-3 defense, Randall’s worries lie behind him with the team’s secondary, easily their biggest defensive weakness. Their starting corners benefit from strategic calls from Ripka, though his zone coverages surely make Merle Harden roll in his grave.

Giving everyone hope on defense is the emergence of Ta’Shawn Hayes, a ball hawking safety with serious playmaking ability. The fourth-year pro has come into his own with his combination of athleticism and instincts; he’s not quite Flash at free safety, but he provides comfort in a secondary full of unease.

By the fourth quarter, Randall relaxes on the audibles with the game very much in hand. The Knights lead, 31-12, and Foles desperately tries to gather momentum. If this game were at Soldier Field, fans would almost certainly (begrudgingly) be calling for backup Mitchell Trubisky.

Grantzinger lines up on a standard play until he hears Randall audible for a linebacker blitz. Finally, he might break free with six men on the rush. He times his jump perfectly, jukes the right tackle, and sees Foles wind up. He leaps for the quick pass. As the ball flings past his hand, he spins and watches Robinson catch it over the middle and collide with Randall. The two fall to the ground for a meager five-yard gain, four yards short of a first down. The Bears punt.

Defenders rest on the bench as the game’s final minutes tick away. Grantzinger squirts Gatorade in his mouth and catches a glimpse down the bench—Randall winces uncomfortably as he looks at pictures from the previous drive. Something seems off. But the next moment, Randall is talking to coaches normally. The next and final drive, Randall seems fine, and Grantzinger gives it no more thought as the Knights coast to victory.

 

Players settle into the auditorium for Monday morning’s debrief. Grantzinger takes his usual spot near the middle and waits for Randall to show up (he didn’t see his car in the parking lot). Minutes pass, the auditorium fills, and McKenzie starts the presentation. Grantzinger swivels his head around—no sign of Randall. He leans toward a rookie two seats down.

“Has anybody seen Briggs?”

“Beats me, I just got here.”

“Useless,” Grantzinger mutters under his breath.

McKenzie congratulates the team hastily and moves on to weaknesses. He chastises the offense for not scoring enough points, qualifying it with a promise to call more deep shots. (A scoff escapes Wilkes’ mouth in the back row.) He transitions from complimenting the red zone defense to bemoaning the lack of turnovers created. Grantzinger is too distracted to care.

The meeting breaks, and Grantzinger tries to find Ripka through the crowd; Ripka finds him first.

“Zack,” Ripka says, “Briggs called in sick, so you fill in as captain in meetings today.”

“No problem,” Grantzinger says flatly.

 

He hears another knock on the door—how many have there been?—and hurries toward it.

“Who is it?”

“Zack. Open up, asshole.”

Briggs unlocks the door, which opens before he can turn the knob. Zack inspects him curiously, launching an intense glare toward his face, then strolls into the loft.

“What’s up?” Briggs says helplessly, closing the door.

“You don’t seem sick,” Zack says, standing in the middle of the living room, arms crossed.

Briggs walks past him and retakes his spot on the couch. “Just didn’t feel right this morning. I’ll take today and tomorrow, and I’ll be good to go Wednesday.”

“What do you mean ‘just didn’t feel right?’”

“You want to take my temperature?”

Zack hesitates. Briggs does seem normal, and he’s not sure if that makes his hypothesis more or less likely to be correct. He decides to the cut the bullshit and get straight to it.

“You got a concussion, didn’t you?”

Briggs looks away, then back to Zack, then purses his eyebrows. “What?”

“That hit over the middle. When Robinson caught that slant, you were right there. He banged your helmet pretty good.”

“It was a quick play and an awkward tackle to make. I bet it looked funny.”

“Not as funny as you looked on the bench afterward.”

Briggs bows his head, feeling another wave hitting him. Almost instinctively, he presses his fingers against his nose and closes his eyes.

Finally, he says, “It’s not a bad one. I’m just a little foggy.”

Zack drops his arms, trying to decide whether he wants to kick Briggs in the teeth, storm out of the loft, or do nothing. He considers all three options strongly.

“Call me tomorrow,” Zack says. “If you fucking remember, anyway. If not, I’ll call you.”

Zack breaks for the door.

“You’re not gonna say anything, I hope. Right?” Briggs watches Zack reach the door. “Right? Zack!”

Zack opens the door and turns around in the doorway, facing Briggs.

“I’m not gonna watch you get dementia because you take a big hit with a busted brain.”

“You’re my best friend on this team. If I don’t have your trust, what’s left?”

Zack squeezes the doorknob in his grip.

“At least you have enough sense to remember that.”

The door slams shut with a loud thud that causes Briggs to close his eyes again.

 

An odd feeling hangs over Wednesday’s practice as the Knights set their game plan for the Patriots. They have fared well against the Patriots over the last decade, particularly at Gillette Stadium, so confidence would not be misplaced. But this week, players and coaches feel more relaxed than they ever have facing New England, preparing for the first time against a quarterback not named Brady. This year’s Patriots have, like the Knights, started the season erratically, staggering to a 3-3 record.

From film study, Maverick knows the strength of the Patriots’ defense is their secondary, so he fears a stupid, run-first game plan. He’s relieved to see a playbook with plenty of passes, and although many are screens and short throws, it’s still better than handing the ball off.

The defense practices a game plan much like the previous week’s for Cam Newton, who has been a mixed bag as a Patriot. Ripka declares the game a great opportunity to fix their mistakes from the Bears game: fewer points allowed, more turnovers generated.

When Randall enters the facility, he stays frosty, keen to catch any sideways looks from the coaching staff. His first encounter with Ripka comes in the locker room in the form of a casual “good morning,” and nothing seems amiss.

Grantzinger keeps his eyes on Randall while everyone pads up for practice. He seems fine, never looking in Grantzinger’s direction but never revealing any symptoms either.

Practice begins, and Grantzinger glances to the defensive captain whenever he can. It’s a light practice, so nobody is the giver or receiver of hard hits. By day’s end, most players feel confident in the game plan and their opportunity to reclaim a winning record.

Randall and Grantzinger strike up conversations with teammates occasionally—Randall coaches up the younger players on nuances of certain plays, and Grantzinger happily delivers criticism to linemen with improper technique. After practice, both dress in the locker room and leave without a word to each other.

 

As coaches and players spend their final hours in the MedComm Center Friday afternoon, Phillips spends hours in his office, back and forth between detailed salary cap breakdowns with Jensen and negotiations with Chase Grodd’s agent over the phone.

Over the summer, Phillips had insisted on a three-year deal with most money guaranteed; Grodd’s agent had insisted on a five-year deal with as much overall money as possible. Neither side budged from their position, talks broke down, and Grodd announced a holdout.

Now, each side has compromised toward a four-year deal. Phillips feels an agreement is within reach, but Grodd’s agent’s demands for guaranteed money are much higher than he likes, so talks stall again. At one point, Phillips fears the agent will drop the hammer (no more negotiations until free agency), but both sides ultimately agree to table talks until next week.

Phillips sends Jensen home and keeps working into the night, after all players and coaches have long gone. At exactly eight, he enters Schneider’s office, and the two of them take a rare closed-door meeting with a man not affiliated with the Knights, nor with the National Football League at all.

The man matching their tight-fitting suit attire represents one of many executive search firms that specialize in executive hires for various corporations. Their contribution to the sports world is that of executive and coaching hires. As several teams do when transitioning between leadership, the Knights, on Schneider’s orders, have reached out to identify possible head-coaching candidates for 2021. Schneider and Phillips know they are capable of fielding their own search, but another voice is never unwanted.

The executive begins by rambling off his firm’s accomplishments. Phillips and Schneider seem neither interested nor impressed. Schneider interjects only to question the confidentiality agreement, which the executive insists is rock solid. Word of this to the public would be incredibly disruptive to the Knights, a team with an ostensibly stable coaching staff.

He finally gets to the results of the fourteen-day study, distributing professionally printed packets. The conclusion includes names familiar to Phillips and casual fans alike: Dave Toub, Robert Saleh, Eric Bieniemy. Another name, Lincoln Riley, transitions into a half-debate-half-discussion of the merits of hiring college coaches.

“Our firm thought very highly of Matt Rhule,” the executive says. “We think he will be very successful in Carolina.”

Phillips soon gives in to his temptation of hypotheticals. He has a lot of respect for Chet Ripka, but he would be highly intrigued to see what someone like Saleh could do with the Knights defense. Then again, someone like Toub, a special teams coordinator, could take over while keeping both coordinators in place. Would Toub be open to that? Would he want to bring in his own guys? Would Saleh?

Phillips doesn’t like it, but it’s diligent. It’s the extra-mile level of detail and preparation that separates great organizations from good ones. And it’s the kind of the diligence that has given this franchise three Super Bowls.

The executive concludes his presentation, and Phillips is surprised to realize it has taken almost an hour. Schneider flips back and forth through the packet, scanning each page carefully.

“So,” Schneider says, not looking up, “your top candidate would be…?”

“Again, that’s not for us to determine,” the executive says. “Our aim is not to identify the so-called ‘top guy.’ Our aim is simply to present you with all the information possible, and all the viable candidates. Your interview process should then make the top choice apparent.”

“In the event that we conduct an interview process,” Phillips says.

“Of course. There are other factors that our firm simply cannot adequately judge, such as which coaches best match your personnel. Confident though we are in our work, that level of football analysis is just outside our wheelhouse, I’m afraid.”

“Indeed it is,” Phillips says.

“Very well then,” Schneider says, rising from his chair. He thanks the man and his firm for their work and politely escorts him out of the building. When he gets back to his office, Phillips is still there, waiting for him.

“I know you don’t approve,” Schneider says, strolling toward the wall-to-wall windows and gazing at the illuminated skyline of downtown Los Angeles.

“I just think it’s way too premature to starting preparing for the apocalypse,” Phillips says, standing in place.

“You ever play chess, Chance?”

“No, not really. I mean, a little when I was a kid, sure.”

“I played in high school. Captain of the school’s team, in fact.” Schneider turns from the window and looks at Phillips. “At the end of most chess matches, you reach the endgame. Most pieces are off the board, probably just a few pawns and minor pieces left. From there, it’s a grind. It may take forty moves to reach the endgame, but it takes another sixty to end it. It’s a tedious, grueling aspect of the game most players never perfect, but it was always my favorite. Care to know why?”

Phillips shrugs. “Enlighten me.”

“Because you realize the endgame isn’t the endgame at all—it’s the culmination of every previous move, every strategy, every exchange. You might advance a pawn on, say, move ten, and never move it again for forty moves. But then, on move fifty, firmly into the endgame, the position of that pawn is crucial to your winning chances. So, when you move that pawn on move ten, still in the opening phase of the game, you’re also moving it for the endgame. Every move you make sets up your endgame position, for better or for worse.”

“I appreciate the depth of the game. But, again, I don’t think our team’s performance warrants using the term ‘endgame’ so frequently.”

Schneider smiles and loosens his posture a bit. “Preparation, Chance. Nothing more. We’re not looking to make changes here, we’re just positioning ourselves for the very small possibility that they’re necessary. I agree, we’re fine—though 4-3 after this week would certainly feel much better than 3-4—but we’re fine.”

Phillips takes this as his cue to leave and heads for the door, hopeful that traffic will be somewhat tolerable.

“That being said,” Schneider says, freezing Phillips in the doorway, “I will not be patient for the sake of patience. I will not watch the Super Bowl caliber core of players you built wither away under the leadership of an underachieving head coach. If change needs to be made, change will come.”

Phillips bottles his conflicting feelings with a stern look and simply says, “I understand.”

 

Fans fill in Gillette Stadium with a decided lack of energy in the air. What was once a scintillating matchup of AFC powerhouses is now a battle between teams with a combined record of 6-6, probably not what CBS executives who pegged this as the 4pm national game for week 7 were expecting. Then again, in past years, this game would have been a near-lock for primetime.

Maverick leads his offense on a field where he has notched some classic victories, not sure if those memories help or hurt him. The first plays of the game, he follows the playbook to a tee, not improvising. McKenzie’s calls are patient but surgical, and the Knights score first with a forty-yard field goal.

After the next drive ends in a punt, Maverick finds his rhythm. Though he hates this dip-and-dunk strategy, it certainly works. He’s not sure, but he suspects McKenzie is now learning how to optimize this receiving corps.

Though Maverick’s weapons aren’t what they used to be, they are still good enough to operate a pass-first offense. Everyone knows Wilkes’ elite ability, and Joaquin Harper is a fine number-two. Giving Maverick more hope is Connor Gillespie, emerging as a viable third option at receiver. He tore his ACL senior year in college and fell to the sixth round of the draft, where the Knights scooped him up to play exclusively in the slot.

Maverick distributes the ball amongst his receivers effortlessly. He craves a deep shot, but Wilkes commands enough attention to keep things open for short gains. The Knights reach the red zone, where Maverick’s precision is finally needed. He drops back, stares down Wilkes, then fires to the opposite corner of the end zone, hitting Harper perfectly on a corner route for the touchdown.

The Knights add another field goal before halftime, taking a 13-0 lead to the locker room.

McKenzie keeps his foot on the gas in the second half, and Maverick gratefully keeps slinging the ball, finally hitting Wilkes on some deep shots. With the offensive line giving him a clean pocket, Maverick dominates the game, hardly throwing any incompletions.

With crisp pass blocking and keen vision for adjustments, Grodd anchors the offensive line. The 30-year-old left guard is the oldest player of the starting five by far; second closest is the 24-year-old right tackle. And while the youth around him is enjoying a good game in a young career full of good and bad, Grodd is nearly perfect. He stymies every pass rusher who tries to beat him and barrels through navy jerseys in the run game.

Two dominant touchdown drives later, the Knights enjoy a 27-3 lead with one quarter to go. The next drive, McKenzie calls more run plays, putting the game in the hands of Kenyon Hart-Smith. The second-year running back has been a huge disappointment so far. He didn’t get much playing time last year, sitting behind Marcus Jameson, but his time as a starter this year has been consistent: great speed and agility, awful vision finding running lanes.

Today is more of the same. Despite great blocking, Hart-Smith finds little room between the tackles. When McKenzie gets him in space on a sweep, he evades tacklers and accelerates for first downs.

After a punt, the offense catches their breath on the sideline. Grodd gratefully breathes in oxygen, riding the adrenaline of his best game of the season, in the face of his distractions, no less. But he shakes them off, determined not to let it bother him during a game. It can wait, he tells himself. It can wait. It will wait.

With seven minutes to go, McKenzie gives the order: bench Maverick and a few other starters, call off the dogs, run the clock out. Maverick stands curiously on the sideline and watches his backup guide the offense.

Rodney Stillman is in the third year of a career that has never threatened Maverick, but his performance in training camp this summer was undoubtedly impressive. Though the Knights operate a run-first offense, Stillman faces multiple third and longs and converts each one, hitting receivers with pinpoint accuracy (and a much weaker arm than Maverick).

“Uh oh!” Wilkes screams after one particular first down. “Better watch out, Mav. Rod is slingin’ it!”

Though he would ignore him anyway, Maverick’s thoughts dwell on things much more important than football—he’s pretty sure, anyway.

 

Mav eases his car around the long, circular driveway, opens the oversized front door, and enters the mansion. The only sound he hears is the near-silent hum of the air conditioning. Instinctively, he walks through the middle of the home and into the fenced back yard. As expected, he spots Trisha lounging in the hot tub. She reclines with her head back, eyes closed, arms outstretched, one of them holding a glass of red wine.

“Hey, babe,” Mav says.

“Hey.”

“What’s the word?”

Trisha bobs her head in the direction of a nearby table. Mav sees the tiny, white piece of plastic, now a familiar sight to him. Against the purple-orange sky, he can’t see into the fateful oval-shaped window. He steps closer and lifts the object up in his hand, and the two vertical lines are now unmistakable.

Mav feels a surge of emotions all at once: a rush of joy and a wave of hopeful images of his future, then apprehension as the gravity of the situation sinks in, then grave fear. This last emotion lingers the longest as he puts the test down, removes his shirt, and slides into the hot tub, not caring that he’s still wearing his jeans.

“So, what do you think?” Mav asks, a little uncomfortable at the lack of energy between them. The first occasion had been decidedly more festive.

“I don’t know, what am I supposed to think? Happy, I guess. I mean, this is what we wanted, right?”

“Yes. It’s exactly what we wanted. What we want. Did you tell anyone yet?”

“Mom, obviously. Other than that, I don’t see the point in spreading the word.”

Mav feels an urge to slide around the edge of the hot tub against her, but suppresses it as she takes another sip of wine.

“Shouldn’t you…I mean, if…don’t you think…”

Trisha looks as if she knows exactly where her husband’s disjointed thoughts are supposed to go.

“I know,” she says, looking between the nearly empty glass and the opened bottle. “I guess I figured this would be the last one, you know?”

“Right. I mean, sure,” Mav says, leaning his head back.

“How much are you gonna be around?”

Mav snaps his head forward. Trisha keeps her gaze on her wine glass, red liquid swirling around it.

“During the season?”

“You know what I’m asking.”

“And you know I’m tired of being compared to your father.”

“You know what I mean.”

Mav releases his stare, understanding he won’t be able to steer the conversation where he wants. He tries to focus on the hot tub, on the jets pulsing warm water onto the exterior of his sore muscles.

“I’ve told you before,” he says, “that for a long time, I never thought I had anything other than football. I always figured, once I retired, that would be it. I would find some way to capitalize on my name, land stupid gigs for money, but my life would be over. Now I know different.”

“But you’re not about to retire.”

“You don’t want me to. And we both know I have more than a few years left.”

“Everybody thinks they have more years left than they do. In everything, Jon, not just football. My dad understood that.”

“I know he did. I wish he were still around. Even if it were just five minutes, to talk to him one more time.”

“Not as much as me.”

Mav wants to challenge her on that point, to tell her she’s wrong. But he says nothing, grunting instead, not sure if he’s trying to communicate agreement, objection, or both. He leans back, embracing the warmth of the water on his bruised body, and stares at the darkening sky.

 

The Knights’ 4-3 record seems to lift all pressure from the MedComm Center the next week. Meetings and practices start on time with no worry in the air, even though the Knights are staring down a trip to Arrowhead Stadium to face the defending Super Bowl champions.

Players, for their part, seem eager for a shot at the champs, to prove to themselves and everyone that the Knights belong in the same conversation. Coaches match their confidence with an aggressive game plan centering on the aim that the Knights will not stop the Mahomes-led Chiefs—they will outscore them.

Wednesday’s practice comes and goes. Then Thursday, then Friday, and all Knights are heading out for their last night in town save for four, who report to Coach McKenzie’s office for the players council meeting.

Maverick checks his phone almost frantically, waiting (hoping) for word from Trisha. But none comes. He wonders when he should tell the team, if at all. Things won’t get serious until after the season, if they make it that far this time.

Grodd is also constantly glancing at his phone, wanting some more info from his agent. Based on their conversation last weekend, he thought a deal might be done by now. He’s not against the idea of hitting free agency; he used to be, but now, he just wants to know, either way. He wouldn’t even mind something new from the realtor at this point. He has grown tired of having things drag out during the season. He may have just played his best game of the year with everything looming over his head, but he’s not confident that can last.

Grantzinger tries to wade off the cobwebs in his eyes. He needs to suppress a yawn every minute, it seems. After a long, bad night with his father, he managed to grind out practice without problems, but it’s catching up with him. He can’t get through this meeting soon enough to get some sleep.

Randall still looks suspiciously at coaches—and at Grantzinger—and finds nothing noteworthy. He wonders when he should reach out to Grantzinger again. After all, he doesn’t know just how deep Randall’s thoughts are. Maybe he himself doesn’t know. He just needs some time to think about things; this crisis would have been much better served occurring in the middle of summer, not with a big game looming.

The four players take their usual seats, and McKenzie looks out at them. They don’t know, he tells himself. He would pick up on something immediately if they did, if they even suspected. He tries to brush it off and stay on task as he kicks things off.

The meeting begins and ends without anything consequential.

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Zack needs to tell someone. For Brigg's own good. Too many careers were ended that way. This is a much darker turn here with this story, SteVo, not that that's a bad thing.

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