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Knights of Andreas 7.05: Rumors

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Knights of Andreas
FOUR YEARS LATER

 

Chapter Eighty-Six – Rumors

“You are exactly what the press thinks you are.” –Wayne Schneider

The Monday news cycle recaps week 9, the season’s unofficial midway point with every team at least halfway through their schedule. After detailing the most exciting and consequential games from Sunday, many outlets get to the Knights, who have not played since Thursday but find themselves in a unique position.

The Knights are 5-4, their worst record after nine games since 2015, the last time they missed the playoffs. They hold a playoff spot for the moment, clogged in a populous wild card race, their worst midseason outlook in recent memory.

Rich Eisen, in the third hour of his radio show: “And here in Los Angeles, there is a bit of…grumbling, as it were. Even though the Knights did win last Thursday—feels like a while ago—they’re 5-4. Five wins, four losses. Not bad, not great. 5-4. In the playoffs, if they started now. Let’s check the standings here…if the playoffs started today, they would be playing…Baltimore. They’re the sixth seed. So your path to the Super Bowl would be: at Baltimore, at Kansas City, then at someone else in the AFC Championship. It’s been quite a few years since the Knights have faced a road like that.”

Michael Wilbon, on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption: “You know, they’re just not that good, Tony. They’re good, but they ain’t great. And this is an organization that was, not that long ago, great. And you know, I think sometimes this comes down to overthinking. You know, there’s all these reports how they’re really heavy into analytics, they let a bunch of guys go this past offseason. You know what? You’re not the Patriots. I’m sorry, but stop trying to be the Patriots. You can’t just shuffle guys in and out and win the division every year. ‘Cause there’s a guy named Mahomes now, and you gotta beat him to stay on top.”

Skip Bayless, on FS1’s Undisputed: “I have said it the last few years now. The Los Angeles Knights are an above average team. Period. I said their offseason was a complete disaster. It was arrogant. It was wrong. And now they are paying the price. And in fact, on this show, I have always considered them overrated.”

Shannon Sharpe, interrupting: “Skip, Skip, Skip—”

“Ov-er-ra-ted.”

“Three Super Bowls, Skip! How is that overrated?”

“Ok, three Super Bowls. Fine. They won’t win another one. The dynasty—their very brief dynasty—is over.”

 

Phillips stands just inside Schneider’s office, their meeting about to conclude, checking his phone frequently as respectfully as he can.

“Anyway,” Schneider says, gathering papers from his desk and shoving them into a large briefcase, “if you find common ground on the Grodd contract, don’t wait for my call. Hit it. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll be away most of the week but I’ll try to meet you in Denver for the game.”

“Progress on the CBA?”

A thick packet of paper hovers in the air above the briefcase as Schneider considers his response.

“Maybe. But, in all honestly, I learned the perils of optimism long ago.”

Schneider snaps the briefcase shut and lifts it from his tidied desk.

“Wayne, one more thing. And I know this probably isn’t the best time, but—”

“The promotion?”

“Yes.”

Schneider looks away in thought for a moment, then brushes past Phillips toward the door as if he hasn’t heard anything.

“In progress, Chance,” he says from the hallway. “The board is considering it. That’s all I can give you for now.”

The echo of his footsteps in the hallway grows quieter as Phillips looks around the office. He feels his phone buzz and snatches it up—he’s here.

Phillips slithers downstairs toward the usual meeting place in the back of the building, facing the empty practice field. Javad clears security and meets him there moments later. They shake hands.

“Nice win last Thursday,” Javad says.

“That’s polite of you. Big one next week, though.”

“Didn’t you once say every divisional game is big?”

“If I did, I still believe it. What have you got?”

Javad extracts a notepad from his pocket, a cheap pen attached to it. He scans his notes unnecessarily and starts at the top.

“Injuries,” Javad says.

“Which?”

“Benn’s ankle.”

“Worse than we’re saying.”

“Colson’s shoulder?”

“Better than we’re saying.”

“I can have both of those?”

“One.”

Javad scribbles something onto the paper.

“Care to indulge me for a moment?”

Phillips, not exactly sure what he means, shrugs as if to say, If you must.

“The CBA. Anything there?”

“Negotiations ongoing, but nothing will ramp up until the offseason. Don’t really have anything for you. Wayne’s playing it close to the vest.”

“What about the stadium rights? Is Farmers Field about to become Verizon Field or something?”

“The reports about the opt-out clause are true.”

“I know they are.”

“The reports that we’re seriously considering it aren’t. But still, anything could happen.” When he catches Javad gazing at him, waiting, he adds, “I can’t say any more.”

“Ok. What about…”

He flips his notepad shut and pockets it, ready to move to the one topic he didn’t write down. Phillips shifts his weight from one leg to the other.

“McKenzie.”

Phillips feels a lump in his throat; how could Javad possibly be on this already? He can’t. It must be something else.

Javad goes on: “Apparently there’s a thing—he’s involved with—”

“Nope,” Phillips says, relieved it wasn’t what he thought—not that this is any better.

The firmness in Phillips’ voice tells Javad no further clarification will be given.

“Ok then. That’s all I got. See you in the media room.”

They shake hands again. Javad heads for the exit, politely thanking security guards as he passes them. Even after all these years with Phillips, he can’t tell if his response to the McKenzie rumor was repulsion at its existence or fear that it could get out. Either way, Javad doesn’t have enough to print it.

Then again, someone eventually will, sufficient evidence or not, so he considers the one play he could make—giving it to Jessica. It would potentially be a huge scoop for her, get her a lot of attention; but if it turns out to be wrong, it would be a huge black eye, maybe even sink her.

Giving it no more thought, he decides against the idea and drives away from the complex.

 

The Knights’ mid-November trip to Mile High Stadium is their first cold blast of the year, the temperature barely reaching fifty on crisp, chilly day. For their part, the Knights don’t show a lack of comfort, storming out of the gates from the first snap.

Maverick leads a quick-huddle, quick-strike offense designed to mitigate Von Miller’s presence; it works. McKenzie calls plays fearlessly, now approaching games as if he’s coaching his last season. In what feels like a minute, the Knights hit the red zone, where Maverick audibles from a screen to a draw, and Hart-Smith surges through a huge hole in the defense toward the end zone.

Drew Lock, in the middle of a breakout season, looks pedestrian against the Knights defense. Between Grantzinger, Solomon, and some timely blitzes, the pass rush disrupts Lock more than it has disrupted any quarterback this year, and the Broncos offense is stymied.

The first half continues much the same way, and the Knights take a comfortable 14-3 lead into the locker room against their divisional opponent.

As the second half wears on, the Denver crowd grows increasingly restless. For the 6-3 Broncos, today’s game was a huge opportunity to solidify themselves as the second best team in the AFC West.

Grodd shuts down every pass rusher he faces, but Miller occasionally breaks through when lining up on the right side, so the best the Knights can do in the third quarter is add two field goals. Lock, meanwhile, finally pierces the secondary thanks to heavy blocking packages and caps a long drive with a touchdown pass to Cortland Sutton. 20-10, Knights.

After trading punts, the Knights find momentum again, pulling a win within reach. From midfield, Maverick drops back against a blitz and rolls right, evading orange jerseys. He reaches a full sprint and hurls the ball sixty yards for the end zone, where Wilkes leaps into the air for a spectacular catch, coming down with two feet in the corner of the end zone. 27-10, Knights.

The mood on the visitors’ sideline lightens. Victory in hand, the adrenaline fades, and they suddenly remember how cold they are. Players bundle in heavy jackets and crowd precious seats on the bench near heaters.

The Broncos mount another futile drive, ending when a deep shot on third and long misses Jerry Jeudy, who bangs helmets with Hayes in the process. Randall is already back on the sideline when he sees Hayes staggering awkwardly toward the bench. He and another teammate grab him before he falls and carry him onto the bench. Before the neurologist arrives, Ripka leans in and inspects the safety, staring into his eyes.

The neurologist takes over. Ripka looks toward Randall, who looks back, catching something in his eyes. Fear? Confusion? In a blink, Randall is dissecting the previous drive with other linebackers, and Ripka is doing the same with his positional coaches.

 

Zack finally pulls into his driveway, weary from a long flight and drive, hurrying to the door as fast as he can. Every one of his teammates is surely prolonging every moment of their bye week; he just wants to fast-forward to week 12. Before he slides the key into the lock, the door opens.

“Saw your lights,” she says. “He was sleeping but he just woke up.”

“And?” Zack says. “Good day? Bad day?”

“Bad, for the most part, but nothing serious.”

Zack purses his lips, wondering what he can say.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she says, and brushes against his chest as she walks away. Zack hears something hit the floor in another room and heads inside, locking the door behind him.

“I’m home, dad,” he calls out.

“The dickheads doing the highlights are a fucking joke!”

With a sigh, Zack eases into the living room, picking up the fallen remote and taking a seat next to his father, fixated on NFL Network showing highlights from today’s games, currently on Broncos/Knights.

“We won,” Zack says.

“I know, goddamn it.”

“Thirsty?”

“Got my iced tea right here,” he says, holding up a dry glass of ice.

Zack leans back, staring at the TV absentmindedly. His thoughts spiral around is head, football somewhere among them.

“I figured Ripka would go into nickel at halftime,” the father says. “I said he should have done it at the beginning of the game, stupid ass.”

Zack leans in, studying his father curiously. It’s far from an innovating concept, but the Knights did indeed lean on nickel packages later in today’s game.

“You shouldn’t have even been lining up at end. Don’t know why it took him three quarters to figure it out.”

“You’re talking about today’s game?”

“Of course I am. What else would I be talking about, the goddamn Immaculate Reception?”

Zack stares wide-eyed at his father, wired in on the TV screen. He eventually grabs his glass without asking and heads for the kitchen to fill it.

 

Phillips sits in his office, door open, a quiet floor around him, pouring through cap figures he studied an hour ago. He debates another call to Grodd’s agent (the second mental debate in the last hour) and decides against it, finally giving in to what’s bothering him. He makes a note to discuss it with Jensen later.

“Chance, is Wayne here?”

He looks up; it’s McKenzie, finished with his coaches meetings for the day. The players may have the week off, but the coaches don’t.

“Nope. Need me to give him a message?”

“No, just wanted to check in before I left. Well, see ya.”

Phillips looks up into the empty doorway and, feeding off the frustration from lack of progress on Grodd’s contract, from Schneider’s lack of communication, from a meandering season when he least needs it, he decides to let loose now. He springs up from his chair and into the hallway.

“Ron!”

The coach halts and takes a few cautious steps back as Phillips paces toward him. Aware of his tone, Phillips tries to ease his posture.

“Have you thought at all about last Monday? About what Wayne and I said?”

“I have, Chance, but I’m in the same position right now.”

“Just don’t commit to anything. That’s all I’m asking. I mean, 6-4, in the playoffs…what kind of coach resigns after a playoff season?”

McKenzie, not sure if Phillips was trying to wound him with that statement, decides to let it go.

“If I change my mind, I’ll let you know. Just don’t complain that I blindsided you, because I didn’t.”

“I need you, Ron,” Phillips says, the pitch in his voice sharpening. “This team needs you, whether you know it or not. But we need the tenacious, fearless Ron McKenzie who was Merle Harden’s go-to guy, not this scared, withered version of him.”

“What did you call me?” McKenzie says, squinting his eyes at the man he is now sure is trying to wound him. Phillips doesn’t back down, taking the smallest of steps toward the head coach.

“Listen to me. If I think this football team is being led by a coach who’s a shell of his former self, then I’ll fire you. You won’t get to resign and walk away peacefully; you’ll leave here with your tail behind your legs. You want another job in this league? You’ll have to settle for offensive coordinator of an unstable, rebuilding franchise. Or you’ll have to go back to college.”

Visibly shaken, McKenzie takes a few breaths, then finds a smile, genuinely impressed.

“What?” Phillips says.

“Merle warned me you were fierce when you rolled your sleeves all the way up. Never saw it until now.”

A few seconds of silence pass between them, and McKenzie resumes his walk toward the stairs.

“Merle wouldn’t walk away,” Phillips says. “You know he wouldn’t.”

“Yep, he wouldn’t,” McKenzie says just before descending the stairway. “But that’s the thing, Chance. I’m not him.”

McKenzie disappears, leaving Phillips alone in the quiet hallway, barely concentrating on his rapid heartbeat.

 

Wilkes reaches out to as many teammates as possible, trying to schedule a bye week get-together at his place. The veterans rebuff him, apparently too busy. Only a few rookies make lukewarm commitments, and by Wednesday, Wilkes decides to postpone the gathering, not wanting his de facto housewarming party to devolve into him babysitting a bunch of kids.

Grodd takes his family to Minnesota, eager to get away from the sign hanging in his front yard, making a pit stop at the Penner residence. He begins the week with hope that the bye week will finally spur action, one way or the other, but each day passes without word, and he tries to unwind as best he can while away from Los Angeles.

Grantzinger endures a week with his father, glad to give the caretaker a week off she has most certainly earned. The predictably tumultuous week hits a high point when they bond over lucid memories of Grantzinger’s college playing days and a low point when Grantzinger wakes up in the middle of the night to find his father frantically searching for his long-dead wife.

Maverick and Trisha forsake bye week tradition (a road trip to wine country) and spend a mostly dull but quiet week at Melinda’s house, relaxing with family and talking about baby prep again.

Randall stays inside as much as possible, soaking up film on the Knights’ remaining opponents. Physical symptoms from his concussion have long since subsided, but the mental ones haven’t. Back in the offseason, when he heard about the retirement of Luke Kuechly (the only player in football who could rival Randall for best inside linebacker), he celebrated, thrilled to be alone at the top. But now, he wonders if Kuechly was on to something, if the end of Randall’s career should be much sooner than he thought.

 

“Here’s what I keep thinking,” Phillips says to Jensen in his office, knowing this meeting is the last thing standing between the two of them and a rare weekend off. “There’s a wave of early retirements out there. And it’s league-wide, at multiple positions. I’m not about to give a 30-year-old offensive lineman a four-year deal only to fall victim to that.”

“Is there a way to ensure that, though?” Jensen says. “Delicately?”

“Probably not.”

“I guess you just need the language in the contract to be tight, regarding retirement. But that’s not something you spring at the last second.”

“Definitely not.”

“What about Schneider?”

Phillips raises his eyebrows. “What about him?”

“I don’t know, I just feel like maybe he could see something we’re missing.”

“Even if he could, he won’t be back in the building for a while.”

“Where is he, anyway?”

“With other owners, I think. CBA negotiations. Like I told you, it was a big stain on Goodell’s resume when that fell apart last spring. Schneider was stunned. He’s never quite said this, but I think it could be the end for Goodell. After the new CBA, of course. Get a new deal in place and let him go peacefully. Anyway, Schneider decided he’d play a key role in the new round of talks, and, you know Wayne, once he latches on to something…”

Phillips stops himself at the sight of Jensen’s face, deep in thought in an uncomfortably serious way.

“Rick?”

Jensen doesn’t move. Phillips gives him a few seconds before pressing again.

“Rick. What’s the matter?”

Jensen suddenly breaks from his concentration and bolts for the door like he’s about to leave. Instead, he scans the hallway, shuts the door, and retakes his seat, leaning much closer to Phillips this time.

“Ok,” Jensen says at last, “maybe I’m reaching here, but Chance, listen to what you just said. Hear your words and put the pieces together.” Phillips waits, intrigued but unsure of Jensen’s intentions. “Schneider’s been spending a lot of time with other owners, heavily involved in the CBA…and Goodell could be on the way out…”

Phillips strains to see the full picture, equally curious what Jensen means and why he’s so serious about it. Then, it clicks.

Schneider. CBA. Goodell.

Schneider. Goodell.

Commissioner.

“Oh, shit,” Phillips says, shock running through his body and sticking it to his chair.

Apparently satisfied, Jensen remains silent, hands covering his mouth. Phillips now takes a turn in deep thought. A decade in this building has given him multiple opportunities to ponder life without the Knights. Now, for the first time, he ponders the Knights without Schneider.

“Ok,” Phillips finally says. “We need to figure out if this is real, before we get carried away. We have the contacts to do it.”

Jensen scoots his chair even closer, hanging on every word. His knees brush against Phillips’ desk.

“Work your sources however you can, I’ll do the same. Covertly. Ask without asking. Understand?”

“Yes.”

“And don’t force it. This doesn’t have to be done now, but it does have to be done right. One person gets curious and…”

“And what?”

“I’m not sure,” Phillips says honestly.

 

Players return from the bye week convincing themselves they’re “rested and refreshed,” ready for the stretch run. Their 6-4 record keeps division title hopes alive, but those hopes are about to be either enflamed or extinguished this Sunday, with the 9-1 Chiefs coming to town.

Monday’s meetings are brief; coaches want players spending most of their time with weights and trainers, getting an accurate picture of the roster’s health.

Wednesday’s practice proceeds without incident and a little uniqueness; the Chiefs are the first divisional opponent the Knights are playing the second time. Memories of their week 8 drubbing remain fresh in everyone’s minds.

And then, on Thursday, a piece of news begins to permeate the locker room. It comes from no official story, no breaking news, not even a reporter’s comment. It seems to materialize out of thin air.

“Yo, you heard about this shit?”

“Y’all believe it or not?”

“Did you hear about Coach?”

“No way it’s true, right?”

Eventually, by the end of practice, a similar conversation takes place, this one between Grantzinger, Randall, and some defensive players.

“Do you guys believe it?” Osborne asks anyone who wants to answer.

“Shut it,” Grantzinger says.

“Listen,” Randall says to everyone, “we hear bullshit rumors every year. Every week, even. I don’t see any reason why this should be different.”

“Yeah, but,” Solomon says, “what if it’s true? I mean—”

“Enough,” Grantzinger says, commanding firm looks from everyone. “I don’t care how anybody feels about this. I really don’t. Anyone who leaks this or spreads it further gets a broken nose. Got it?”

The message apparently received, players go back to their lockers and change for the day.

Friday’s practice proceeds with rising confidence regarding the playbook, with players and coaches alike cautiously optimistic about a season-defining win this Sunday. And still, the story, which hardly anyone believes or wants to believe, lingers.

 

From a luxury suite high above Farmers Field, Phillips stares at the field, Schneider and Jensen on either side of him, in a state of shock. He glances at his notes, wondering if he should continue writing them.

Chiefs 27, Knights 7, 3:30 to go in the third quarter.

Players and coaches stand around the Knights sideline, dragging through the procedures of a football game, their urgency gone. As the offense waits to get the ball back, Maverick wades through a crowd toward the head coach.

“We’re not going down like this,” he says. “I don’t care if we stop running the ball. I can find guys against this secondary. It’s all-out war from here until the final whistle.”

“After you, Mav,” McKenzie says.

A moment later, Maverick leads the offense onto the field. “Let’s execute, ladies!” McKenzie yells. In the huddle, Maverick warns his receivers that all drops from this point forward are punishable by various offenses. Wilkes snickers, Maverick calls the play, and everyone lines up.

Maverick calls for the ball before the Chiefs are ready. He fires for Harper down the seam, open, and Harper accelerates to midfield before being dragged down. The crowd applauds politely.

Maverick hurries everyone to the line, shouts the play, and rushes the snap. This time it’s Wilkes open, and Maverick doesn’t miss. Wilkes tiptoes along the sideline, putting the ball at the twenty-three-yard-line.

No receivers roam open in the end zone, but Maverick stays patient and surgical. Five-yard slant, six-yard curl, four-yard out. The game clock nears zero for the quarter, and Maverick hurries another snap. He drops back, scanning an end zone full of white jerseys, and sees the offensive line part in front of him. He commits, tucking the ball and running as fast as he can. Two defenders close in. A goal line collision is imminent. Maverick lowers his shoulders, then, at the last second, eases up and spins to the right. He feels someone brush off his pads and he dives forward, landing in the painted grass of the end zone.

New life breaths into the stadium at last, and the fourth quarter begins with a 27-14 score.

The Knights defense, which has been eviscerated today, takes the field. Mercifully, the Chiefs run twice into a wall of black jerseys, and when Mahomes drops back on third and nine, the blitz forces a deep heave just high enough to land incomplete.

Maverick lines up, eager to keep attacking. After a few short passes, it becomes clear the Chiefs defense is gassed. Maverick calls for a no-huddle, and McKenzie doesn’t object. Now calling every play, Maverick leads his offense as if the Super Bowl hangs in the balance. He has Wilkes or Harper deep nearly every play, stretching the defense but gassing his receivers in the process.

After crossing midfield, Maverick deploys one of his favorites in the playbook. An exhausted Wilkes and Harper run like they’re going deep, then cut across the field. Maverick pumps, both safeties bite, and Hart-Smith, running a sideline wheel route, is open by five yards. Maverick lofts a deep pass that Hart-Smith catches as he crosses the goal line, and Farmers Field screams, alive again.

Chiefs 27, Knights 21, 12:32 to go.

Knights defenders try to narrow their focus; the Chiefs won’t be in clock-milking mode anymore. Mahomes is about to be unleashed, and they have to find a way to stop him.

The Chiefs do indeed unleash the passing game, with Mahomes finding receivers open. Randall desperately searches for a pre-snap call, trying to send an unblocked defender Mahomes’ way, desperate for just one turnover.

The Chiefs approach midfield and face third and five. Mahomes screams audibles against the rising crowd noise. Randall calls one with Grantzinger next to him: dual linebacker blitz. Mahomes takes the snap. Randall and Grantzinger surge ahead. Randall collides with a linemen while Grantzinger runs free. Mahomes lofts the ball over him just as he gets crunched. The pass hits a wide open Travis Kelce over the middle, then bobbles and falls to the ground.

Defenders return to the sideline more relieved than excited, and the Knights get the ball with 9:59 on the clock.

Maverick is eager to resume the no-huddle, but the Chiefs defense has benefitted from some rest. He abandons it after a few incompletions but keeps the chains moving. In the trenches, Grodd tries to stay focused on his assignment, but he can’t help noticing that the line around him hasn’t missed a blocking assignment since halftime.

Passing windows tighten. Maverick squeezes throws in, narrowly missing interceptions. Begrudgingly, he mixes in some running plays, and the Knights find themselves in the red zone with less than six minutes to play.

Maverick drops back, and the field opens in front of him. He lowers his shoulders to run with defenders closing, then looks up. At the last second—behind the line of scrimmage, he thinks—he jumps in the air and lofts the ball to the corner of the end zone. Wilkes and a white jersey are there for it. Each jumps in the air, but Wilkes jumps higher, cradling the wobbly pass in his hands. The nearest official raises his arms, and Farmers Field roars.

Knights 28, Chiefs 27, 5:26 to play.

McKenzie studies the scoreboard and game clock, running multiple scenarios through his head.

“Get ready,” Ripka says to his defense, patrolling the sideline. “Get ready. They’re gonna throw it all at us now.”

Maverick watches the kickoff teams line up, unable to sit. Mahomes will almost certainly strike back here; the big question is how much time he will have left for the winning drive.

The Knights’ kicker raises his arm, runs up to the ball, and shanks it right. The ball bounces toward the sideline past a white jersey before landing securely on a Knight’s chest.

The stadium erupts, its foundation shaking. From their luxury suite, the three men in suits leap to their feet in utter shock.

“Oh!” Schneider screams. “Ron!”

“Incredible!” Phillips says. “He’s got K.C. on the ropes and he’s going for the throat!”

The Knights offense runs onto the field, drawing energy from the electric stadium and the audacity of the onside kick. They run plays with a meager one-point lead, but with their momentum, they might as well be leading by twenty-one.

Maverick moves the chains effortlessly, still calling the plays. He remembers to mix in some runs, and Hart-Smith gains yards when his linemen create holes. All the while, the clock ticks.

Before anyone can process it, the two-minute warning hits with the Knights in field goal range. Maverick calls a run play, lines up, and audibles to a screen. He takes the snap and rolls right as if on a quick passing play, then throws back left. Hart-Smith catches it with a wall of blockers in front of him and takes off. Crowd noise crescendos as Hart-Smith runs through open grass and jukes a defender into the end zone.

Knights 35, Chiefs 27, 1:52 to play.

The Knights line up on defense, no illusions about what is coming. Mahomes leads his own no-huddle offense now, though his audible screams are swallowed midair by the screams of seventy thousand fans.

The Chiefs move the chains slowly, ticking off much of the clock. They reach midfield with 0:52 to go and just one timeout. A few quick passes later, it’s fourth and two with 0:39 to go.

Randall studies Mahomes, under center, ready for any play here. He wants to back off into coverage but decides against it. Mahomes takes the snap, fakes a handoff, and drops back. Randall backpedals in coverage. Grantzinger runs wide of the tackle, then spins, beating him. Mahomes winds up for a deep throw as Grantzinger’s hand finds the football. They both clutch at it, neither evading the other’s grasp, and fall to the ground. The Knights celebrate the turnover on downs, a meaningless 32 seconds left to tick.

One kneel-down ends the game, and McKenzie walks to midfield, shaking Andy Reid’s hand before heading to the tunnel. He contemplates the wave of emotions crashing around him, deciding that chief among them is relief. Relief for a win that could have been a loss. Relief for a season that could have been lost, and still might be.

He walks, head down, to the tunnel. Players run and jog past him, some slapping his shoulder or delivering various doses of verbal encouragement. The fans above deliver plenty of celebratory and encouraging words. All the while, McKenzie keeps walking, forcing a grin onto his face for appearance. But he feels none of the celebration around him, none of the excitement. The moment brings him no joy.

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