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Knights of Andreas 7.08: All Roads Lead To...

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Knights of Andreas
FOUR YEARS LATER

 

Chapter Eighty-Nine – All Roads Lead To…

“When I look out to the distance, I see what’s comin’.” –Brian Penner

Maverick covers his ears to hear the call, then screams it to the offensive huddle with Arrowhead Stadium booming. The play clock hits :04 once everyone sets, so he doesn’t have time for an audible.

He takes the snap, looks over the middle, looks right—green grass. He sprints toward the sideline and slides after reaching a first down. The crowd calms, slightly and briefly, as officials reset the chains.

Chiefs 31, Knights 31, 3:04 to go in the final game of Divisional Round weekend. The NFC Championship is set; the Ravens await tonight’s winner.

Maverick takes the snap from the Chiefs’ forty-yard line. He drops back, feels pressure, and waits. Wilkes breaks deep, and Maverick heaves it up as he gets hit. Wilkes jostles for position but doesn’t see the ball until the last second. He reaches out and snags it before the corner pushes him out of bounds at the two-yard line.

“Go! Go! Go!” Maverick screams, sprinting down the field, wanting to capitalize on a tired defense. He hurries everyone to the line in the same formation as before, shouting the call to both sides of the field while the Chiefs scramble. He doubts his receivers can hear him, but it doesn’t matter.

He takes the snap, lowers his shoulders, and plows forward, trying to lean left toward Grodd. He falls into a heap of bodies, gripping the ball as tight as he can, and hits the grass. Everything stops around him as darkness slowly lifts, and he realizes he’s in the end zone, surrounded by white jerseys.

Celebration for the 38-31 score is brief; the Knights may have taken the lead, but now they have to stop Mahomes.

Expectedly, Mahomes drops back and launches the ball to red jerseys in succession. First down with 2:42 to go, first down with 2:31 to go, across midfield with 2:12 to go.

The two-minute warning hits with the Chiefs forty-one yards away from the tying score. Mahomes drops back as Randall comes on a blitz. Mahomes throws over the middle. Grantzinger raises his arm and feels the ball strike his fingers. It goes hurling into the air. Players from both teams look above the blinding floodlights atop the stadium, but Grantzinger finds it first, cradles the ball in his lap, and goes down.

The Knights’ jubilation eventually evolves into victory formation. With only one timeout, the Chiefs are powerless to stop the clock, and the defending Super Bowl champions swallow a one-and-done postseason at the hands of their AFC West rivals.

The post-game locker room is the loudest and wildest of the year for the Knights. Most players didn’t think they’d escape this one, though no one will ever admit it.

McKenzie winds his way through the chaos to the head of the room, straining his voice to get everyone’s attention. Players slowly congregate around their head coach.

“Alright, ladies, listen up,” McKenzie yells once everyone’s quiet. “One of the problems we had earlier in the season was not doing what we were supposed to be doing.”

Players nod and murmur in agreement.

“Well, we still have the same problem.”

The murmuring stops. Everyone tries to slow their heavy breathing.

“We were supposed to lose up in Indy. We didn’t.”

Everyone breathes and smiles again.

“We were supposed to get our asses kicked tonight, but we didn’t!”

A few players and coaches clap and utter phrases of approval.

“Maverick!”

The quarterback emerges from the crowd, a fierce look on his face, riding an incredible adrenaline rush.

“RAISE THE FLAG, MOTHERFUCKERS!” he screams as loud as he can, jumping onto a nearby chair, where every man in the locker room can see him. “THE KNIGHTS OF ANDREAS JUST TOOK BACK THE WEST!”

A deafening roar shakes the locker room like a California earthquake. Maverick jumps down into a crowd of screaming, high-fiving teammates, and the Knights live up every second of their ascent to the league’s final four, seven days from their trip to Baltimore.

 

Monday morning, the work begins for the third January game the Knights weren’t sure they’d get, this one with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake.

Outside the MedComm Center, fans process the Knights’ stunning turnaround after starting the year 2-3, citing variations of the same statistic. The Knights have won eleven of their last thirteen games, nine of their last ten, five in a row. Despite entering the playoffs as a longshot, they are given a legitimate chance to upset the Ravens by both pundits and Vegas, opening as a five-point underdog.

Inside the MedComm Center, everyone operates with laser focus. For players and coaches, the 2-3 record is miles behind them, and a potential Super Bowl against the Packers or Eagles is miles ahead, both too far to see.

Ripka, however, tries to conceal his worry. The Knights have won two playoff games behind their high-powered offense, while Ripka’s defense has surrendered 59 points. The Knights won’t win the Super Bowl giving up thirty points per game. Best of all, he has to somehow cure his woes against Lamar Jackson.

Fortunately, the Knights run defense has been stout all year. After grinding through hours of film with his coaches on Monday, Ripka embraces a strategy designed to stuff the run and force the Ravens into a passing offense as soon as possible. If the Knights can take an early lead and force the Ravens out of their comfort zone, they’ll have the upper hand.

Upstairs, management approaches the week with more eagerness than the coaching staff. Without much to do for the game itself, the front office merely wonders whether their offseason will begin this Monday or two weeks later.

Phillips notices Schneider present in his office every day, a sign he interprets as confirmation of the rumors. The two have little interaction throughout the week, with the exception of one item Schneider charges Phillips with. He waits until Friday to carry it out, making his way down to the practice field, thrilled to see McKenzie firmly in command.

“No lazy reps, ladies! This is our last practice of the year if we keep up that effort!”

Phillips keeps his distance until McKenzie breaks for a cup of Gatorade. McKenzie isn’t surprised to see Phillips approach, keeping his eyes on the offensive line, working on snap cadences that Maverick calls out.

“How’s it going, Ron?” Phillips asks.

“It’s practice. It’s going.”

Neither man speaks for a minute. Maverick and the offensive line keep working, nailing every cadence.

“You know,” Phillips says, “I’ve been waiting as long as I could to ask, but—”

“Stop dicking around, Chance.”

Phillips shifts his gaze from the players to McKenzie. “Are you still planning on resigning?”

McKenzie stares him dead in the eye. “Fuck no.”

Phillips smiles. “See you on the flight tomorrow.”

 

The Knights hit the field for pre-game warmups at M&T Bank Stadium, and the piercing cold of January in Baltimore hits them right back. Players work up a sweat to fight the temperature. Many keep looking up at the scoreboard of the NFC Championship in progress.

When Maverick gets back to the locker room, he finishes dressing and sits by his locker quietly.

“Green Bay and Philly just went into overtime,” Hart-Smith says.

“Cool,” Maverick says.

The next half hour goes by in a blink, and the Knights are summoned to the field.

“Mav!”

He turns around to see Gillespie hurrying toward him.

“Just saw the score,” Gillespie says. “It’s over, the—”

“Don’t,” Maverick says, holding up his hand.

“You don’t want to know who won?”

“Let’s win this first. Then you can tell me who we’re playing in two weeks.”

 

The sky is pitch black by kickoff, the air a touch cooler, and the primetime football game begins.

Lamar gets the ball first, and the Ravens operate the complex, run-first offense they’ve mastered over the last two seasons. Though big plays are scarce, the home team marches down the field for a touchdown.

Maverick gets the ball, and the Knights operate the aggressive, pass-first offense they’ve mastered over the last decade. Facing a persistent pass rush, Maverick gets just enough time to find open receivers, and the Knights go down the field for a touchdown of their own.

Lamar goes right back to work. Ripka grows frustrated with his defense; they are limiting huge gains, but the Ravens convert every third down they face. The Knights can’t find a big play at the right time, and the Ravens score their second touchdown just before the first quarter ends.

Maverick too picks up where he left off, hitting Wilkes for a big gain but otherwise spreading the ball around. The field tightens in the red zone, Maverick takes a sack with no one open, and the Knights settle for a field goal.

The Ravens offense appears unstoppable. They grind yards and clock methodically and reach the red zone yet again. On third and three, Grantzinger sheds a blocker and brings Mark Ingram down two yards short of a first down. Some field goal unit players jog off the sideline but are called back with the Ravens’ offense still on the field.

Ripka sells out to stop the run; he’ll trust his corners if Lamar is going to throw. Lamar takes the snap in shotgun and looks to hand off—both Grantzinger and Randall find themselves stuffed, then see Lamar going down at the line of scrimmage, smothered by Osborne.

The rookie tackle soaks in sideline praise in forms of “Way to go, Oz!” and “Great play, Oz!” Meanwhile, the Knights get a few first downs before McKenzie calls a deep shot for Wilkes. Again, Maverick gets just enough protection, heaves it deep, takes a big hit, and Wilkes makes a contested catch in the end zone, giving the Knights a three-point lead.

The Ravens take over. Ripka hopes they abandon their strength and open up the pass game, but they don’t. Lamar, Ingram, and J.K. Dobbins run all over the field. This ticks clock, though, and all they can do before halftime is kick a field goal. Both teams head to the locker room facing a 17-17 tie.

After few halftime adjustments, the Knights offense punts for the first time. On defense, Ripka withholds major adjustments for now, hoping to keep the Ravens scoring field goals rather than touchdowns. For the first drive, it works, and the home team re-takes a three-point lead.

McKenzie tries to get the running game going, displeasing Maverick, but Hart-Smith runs behind decent blocking with better vision than he has displayed all season. The only difficult throw Maverick has to make is the last of the drive, a twenty-yard strike to Gillespie on a seam route, and he doesn’t miss. Gillespie runs into the end zone untouched.

Lamar strikes back, hitting Marquise Brown deep for a fifty-yard bomb that energizes the crowd. Ripka sticks to his original plan, but the Ravens run their way back into the end zone.

Desperate to re-take the lead, Maverick looks for deeper targets, but purple jerseys have everything covered. This leads to third and ten, where McKenzie dispatches a screen that gains eight. Despite pressure from Maverick to go for it, McKenzie punts it away from deep in his own territory.

The fourth quarter starts with the Ravens up 27-24 and driving. Ripka finally deviates, bringing some safeties into the box on obvious running downs. If Lamar wants to go deep, the blitz should get there first. But Lamar takes only one deep shot, an incompletion, on his march into field goal range. Facing third and five, he takes another shot, but Hayes hits him as he releases it, and the pass falls harmlessly to the grass. A short field goal makes it 30-24, Ravens.

Maverick gets the ball with 10:03 on the clock. With the way Lamar is playing, this drive has to be a touchdown. Maverick takes the field with the rest of the game planned in his mind: Knights score and re-take the lead, then Ravens score and re-take the lead, then Maverick leads the winning drive with no time left.

Short, quick passes move the chains. McKenzie mixes in some runs, which are effective but force Maverick to hurry everyone in and out of the huddle with precious seconds ticking away.

After an impressive sideline catch by Harper puts the Knights in field goal range, they face third and five. Maverick drops back, feels pressure on the edge, and steps up. He wants to run, but a linebacker closes in. He fires it deep for Wilkes and gets pulled down by his shoulder. The pass sails over everyone’s head beyond the end zone. McKenzie considers going for it before he realizes Maverick is still down.

The pain he felt in his lower back when he hit the ground hasn’t gone away. Maverick gets to his feet and heads for the sideline, feeling an awkward, pulsating throb. This isn’t just pain from a big hit; something feels off. One of the trainers notices and makes his way through the crowd while backup quarterback Rodney Stillman watches.

“Where?” one trainer asks.

“Lower back,” Maverick says.

“What happ—”

“Not good.”

Multiple trainers follow Maverick, who doesn’t bother with an on-field exam. He walks, head down, past all his teammates along the sideline, just feet from the front row of fans, toward the tunnel. The last thing he hears from the field is the PA announcer.

“The field goal is good. Current score: Baltimore Ravens 30, Los Angeles Knights 27.”

Maverick and the doctors cram into a small interior room, and the physical exam begins. He feels general pain around his back, but one section in particular sends fire up his spine any time one of them touches it.

“X-ray room,” the head doctor decides.

Crossing the tunnel between rooms, Maverick hears a cheer from the crowd. Not loud enough for a touchdown, he thinks. He assumes the position in the X-ray room, with some help, and a buzzing sound fills the room. When it stops, Maverick sits in place.

He looks across the room to the doctors, suddenly realizing they’ve been studying the results for longer than a minute.

 

Phillips sees his phone illuminate, spots the name, and answers.

“It’s Chance. Go.”

Schneider and Jensen hang on every twitch of Phillips’ face. He looks concerned but not totally defeated, then his eyes go wide with fear.

Phillips snatches a pen and scribbles furiously on the notepad in front of him.

“Got it. I’ll be right there.”

He hangs up, finishes scribbling, and shoves the notepad toward Schneider.

“I have to go to the X-ray room. Get this info to the sideline right now.”

 

“C’mon, doc, what’s the word?” Maverick says again.

The doctor crosses his arms. “It’s a slight dislocation of—”

“Doc, there’s probably only five or six minutes left in the game. Can I play, or not?”

“You can play.”

Maverick stares, waiting for the other side of that sentence.

“Let me guess,” Maverick says. “I can play, but I can re-injure it, maybe put next season in jeopardy. That’s it, right?”

“Not quite,” the doctor says. “It’s worse.”

“Oh, I get it. If I re-injure it, I might not play football again?”

“If you re-injure it, you might not walk again.”

The wall Maverick had built to absorb the doctor’s words collapses. A whirlwind of thoughts rush through his head so fast he doesn’t notice the door swing open. Phillips appears and looks to the doctor as if to ask, Does he know? The doctor nods somberly. He knows.

“This is your decision,” Phillips says. “I don’t care what the stakes are on that field. They’re higher if you get back out there. If you don’t, no one will judge you or think any less of you.”

Maverick says nothing, his seated posture tall and firm, his eyes elsewhere, staring off into the distance.

“Mav,” Phillips goes on, “you don’t have anything else to prove to anyone in this organization, or this league. It’s your choice alone.”

Maverick feels his thoughts coalesce, somehow circulating around the same thing, gravitated by the same inner force.

“I know it is,” Maverick says. “I’ve made it.”

 

Every pair of eyes in the stadium finds #12 as he walks out of the tunnel past nameless individuals onto his sideline. A glance up at the scoreboard shows a 33-27 Ravens lead with 3:58 to go. The seas part for Maverick, players and coaches sliding out of the way, as he navigates the sideline and finds McKenzie. The coach takes off his headset and looks his quarterback dead in the eye.

“No,” Maverick says.

“I understand,” McKenzie says.

“Get me a headset.” Maverick turns around and finds the offense, Stillman already standing among them. “It’s your show, Rod. Just take it one play at a time. Don’t let the moment be bigger than you.”

“I got you,” Stillman says.

“Alright then,” Grodd says to the other four starting linemen, “we gotta protect this guy and let him finish the job. We’ve played a great game tonight, boys. Let’s finish it in style.”

Maverick puts on his headset and tries to stand as still as possible on the sideline. Despite the brace wrapped firmly around his midsection, his back feels worse every minute.

McKenzie calls simple plays for Stillman, who hits open receivers. The Ravens defense seems to be backing off, allowing short passes. Maverick wants to give Stillman some encouragement but can’t find time with McKenzie hurrying the play calls, Stillman shouting them out against a screaming crowd, and the clock ticking down.

Stillman leads the Knights across midfield when the two-minute warning hits, and he jogs back to the sideline.

“Great job, Rod,” Maverick says. “Just keep doing what you’re doing. We got two timeouts, and Coach will tell you when to use them.”

Stillman again finds open receivers over the middle of the field. The Ravens have the sidelines covered. Maverick watches helplessly as Stillman runs the no-huddle a tad too slow, and the Knights only get one more first down before the clock ticks under one minute.

A string of incompletions brings up fourth down with ten yards to go—fourth and season for the Knights. Maverick suggests a play to McKenzie, who relays it to Stillman.

Incessant screams of seventy thousand fans cascade onto the field. Stillman lines up in shotgun, not daring to call any audibles, and takes the snap. As planned, he rolls left. Maverick looks for open receivers, seeing only Wilkes in single coverage. Throw it, Rod. Stillman hesitates, running closer to the sideline before unleashing a bullet. Wilkes and the corner jump simultaneously. The ball bounces around. When the two land, the ball lands with them, hitting the grass and ending the game.

Maverick tries to ignore the throbbing pain in his back and reaches Stillman first, congratulating him on a gutsy performance with hardly any practice reps. The backup doesn’t respond, looking inconsolable and aloof, much like the rest of the sideline, hopelessly watching the Ravens’ celebration morph into victory formation.

 

With celebratory shouts permeating the walls on either side of them, Schneider, Phillips, and Jensen sit in silence, nothing to do but watch assembly of the makeshift stage for the Lamar Hunt Trophy presentation.

“Rick,” Schneider says, “would you excuse us for a moment?”

“Yes, of course.”

Phillips’ heart pounds heavily against his chest, legitimately fearing for his job for the first time in years. He decides to get ahead of the conversation.

“Wayne, I think an AFC Championship appearance speaks for itself. I know it’s disappointing, but it’s proof that our strategy in the offseason was right.”

Schneider studies Phillips curiously, in no hurry to say anything just yet.

“Give the younger guys another year,” Phillips continues, “and we’ll win this game. And we’ll win it at Farmers Field. This can work. This will work.”

Schneider looks back to the field, letting Phillips’ pleas into his left ear, ready to finalize the decision he accepted minutes ago. Weeks ago, actually, but this game sealed it.

“Chance,” Schneider says, “I believe you.”

Phillips lets out an aggressive sigh of relief, then looks back to the field. He barely notices Schneider stand up to leave.

“Oh,” Schneider says, “I got approval from the board. It’s all done.” Phillips nearly jumps to his feet. “And while I share your optimism for the future, I’m sure you understand the optics of announcing a promotion for the GM the same week we’ve been eliminated from the playoffs.”

“Of course.”

“In the meantime, you can tell Rick. Or I can, if you prefer.”

“No, I’ll do it.”

“Very well, then.” Schneider extends his hand. “Congratulations, Mr. President.”

Phillips shakes Schneider’s hand firmer than he has in some time, forcing his face into as much of a smile as he can.

Schneider walks off. Phillips falls into his chair. His eyes look toward the field though he processes none of it. Jensen reappears and slowly takes the chair next to Phillips.

“What happened?” Jensen asks.

Phillips relaxes and extends his hand.

“How’d you like to be the next general manager of the Los Angeles Knights?” Phillips says.

Jensen holds his hand back nervously.

“At your expense?”

“Nope.”

Jensen smiles and shakes Phillips’ hand, letting out a sigh of relief and pride. Both men try to retain their happiness while watching the Ravens celebrate a conference championship.

 

After every loss this season, the Knights locker room has endured the appropriate sting of defeat, players talking in hushed conversations about mistakes from the game and resolutions for next week. Tonight, the locker room is still. Hardly anyone speaks. Players change slowly, very slowly, as if they have all the time in the world.

The usual defensive debrief around Randall’s locker never materializes, save for Hayes, who approaches tentatively and says, “So, what happens now?”

Randall looks at him curiously, temporarily stunned by the simple question.

“Next year,” Grantzinger says from a few lockers down.

“Next year?” Hayes says.

“Is there any other year?” Randall says.

Grantzinger and Randall lock eyes, sure to have more detailed discussions about next year, sure to resolve what’s built up between them this season, but not tonight.

“You played great tonight, Ta’Shawn,” Randall says. “You played great all year. That’s all you should think about right now.”

“Damn, no shit, Briggs. What do you think, Zack?”

“You were alright.”

Across the locker room, Maverick too entertains less company than usual, though Grodd approaches him as soon as he can. Maverick feels a rush of sadness as soon as he sees his left guard.

“Ready for free agency?” Maverick asks.

“Nope,” Grodd says proudly.

Mav squints his eyes in confusion, excited at the beaming happiness on Grodd’s face but not ready to believe it.

“You didn’t—”

“Yep. Four-year deal, like I wanted.”

“Holy shit, Chase, that’s—”

“Zip it. Can’t spread the word just yet. But rest easy. When camp opens next summer, I’ll be back.”

“So will I,” Maverick says, adjusting the brace.

Someone comes up behind Grodd’s shoulder—it’s McKenzie, looking sullen. Grodd takes the hint and walks away without a word.

“You did the right thing,” McKenzie says.

“I don’t need reassurance,” Maverick says, letting his shoulder pads hit the floor as he finishes changing.

McKenzie steps closer and lowers his voice.

“You think if he were here, he’d be proud of me?”

“No,” Maverick says after he stops changing, “he’d berate you for being soft and not trying hard enough. For fuck’s sake, coach. Of course he’d be proud of you. All the roster issues we’ve had, I’m not sure he would have coached this team to the playoffs, being honest.”

“Yeah…yeah, maybe you’re right.”

“Listen. Trish and I will swing by Melinda’s tomorrow night. We’ll have a nice, relaxing family dinner. We’ll talk about next year. And we’ll get that fucking Lombardi back.”

McKenzie purses his lips, which contort into something of a grin as he thinks about the road home.

 

The airport gate fills with passengers, several of them beat writers flying back to Los Angeles. Javad scrolls through Twitter on his laptop, his story already submitted and published. He periodically adds a thought or two to his season-ending piece, to be published tomorrow.

An announcement declares boarding “just a few minutes” from starting. Someone takes the seat directly across from Javad. He looks up and sees Jessica, looking back at him. He’s sure she hasn’t taken that seat by accident, but she doesn’t say anything. After a moment, they both go back to their laptops.

Boarding commences. Javad takes a window seat near the middle of the plane. With the last passenger on board, the flight is about half full. Just before the plane taxis out of the gate, Javad hears a seatbelt click a few rows behind him. Jessica reappears and takes the aisle seat in his row. Then, before fastening her seatbelt, she slides over to sit next to him.

They lock eyes again as the plane begins to move, and she reaches out and touches his hand. She smiles. Javad smiles back, thankful for a long flight ahead.

 

The buses finally stop in the MedComm Center parking lot at half past midnight. Doors open, and everybody scatters, black dots in the illuminated lot, one light among many in a city after dark. The coaching staff inevitably gathers, and Ripka asks the question on everyone’s mind.

“Back here at eight?”

“No,” McKenzie says.

“When, then?”

“I don’t care.”

Ripka purses his eyebrows, wondering if he’s still asleep on the flight.

“Get here whenever you want to,” McKenzie says. “Get some family time in.”

The grateful coaches bolts to their cars before the head coach can change his mind, except for Ripka, who stands next to McKenzie in the light.

“How is family time on your end?” Ripka asks.

“Better now that my head is right.”

“Oh yeah?”

“You know, I look back on crossroads throughout my life, choices I thought were impossible at the time. It’s later you realize it only seemed impossible because your head wasn’t right.”

Ripka winces, studying his head coach for a good, long moment while McKenzie studies him right back.

“You know, Mac,” Ripka says, “I bet we understand each other better than we think.”

“I bet you’re right.”

They eye each other up one last moment, able to contain their smiles to modest smirks, and shake hands for the season.

Across the lot, Phillips is a few steps from his car when he hears footsteps behind him. He spins to see Schneider, an odd, curious look on his face.

“You in a hurry to go home?” Schneider says.

Phillips checks his watch. By now, everyone in the house has long since fallen asleep. “At this point, not really.”

“Take a drive with me.”

They climb into Schneider’s limousine and drive toward downtown. Schneider makes a call on the way, and they find themselves coupled with a security escort, strolling through the bowels of a dark Farmers Field, illuminated by a nearly full moon, shining brightly in a clear sky.

Schneider walks and Phillips follows up through the seats to the open concourse of the north end zone. Phillips realizes he has not been here since they first announced the Walk of Fame concept.

They mill about aimlessly, silent for minutes as a decade of history flashes before them. Phillips tries to look anywhere else he can, finally unable to divert his eyes from one particular spot on the concrete, MERLE HARDEN staring back at him.

“Who else?” Schneider says.

“What?”

“Ten years from now, who else has a star on this path?”

“Oh. Let me think. Well, Maverick, for sure.”

“There’s a couple for-sures.”

“Randall, Grantzinger…”

“Grodd and Wilkes?”

Phillips thinks, then says, “Yes. Rose?”

“Hmm. Too soon to say. Penner?”

“I’d lean yes, but it’s not a slam dunk.”

After another long silence, Phillips says, “Schneider?”

“No. We don’t get stars in the pavement.”

“Poor us, sitting in air-conditioned suites without proper gratitude.” Phillips turns to the field, more memories flooding through him now, memories from long before he was a general manager.

“Your quarterback days,” Schneider says, “how long ago?”

The memories keep flashing for Phillips, but much blurrier than those of the last decade, and much more scant. The pictures fade, and Phillips sees the field again before looking out to the distance.

“Another lifetime, now,” Phillips says.

 

Maverick slams the car door shut and looks up at the mansion, barely any of its lights illuminated. Trisha has stayed up for him every single road game of the year, but he suspected this would be the exception.

He searches the quiet mansion for signs of life, figuring she’s asleep upstairs until a glowing, blue light from the back yard catches his eye. He opens the refrigerator, grabs a bottle of sparking water next to a case of beer, and heads outside, where Trisha reclines in the hot tub.

“How was the flight?” she says.

“Long.”

“Back feel any better?”

Without responding, Mav strips his clothes and lowers his body into the hot, bubbling water as if it’s an ice bath. He leans against Trisha and rests his head on her shoulder. She strokes his hair as he looks down through the water at her belly, hopeful at what is in store for the two of them over the next six months—and beyond.

 

As he drives his car through the neighborhood’s winding roads, Grodd runs through the same thoughts he pondered on the plane.

He would give anything to get one more game out of this strange season. But he can’t escape the joy of knowing where the offseason road leads. He always figured the end of the season, whenever it came, would be the beginning of more anxiety, his free agent fate on the horizon at last. Instead, he and his wife can live in their house another four years.

Grodd finally turns into the driveway, noticing the white sign that has been in the yard for months. Somehow, he hasn’t taken it down yet. He gets out of the car, walks toward the street, and studies the letters bearing a realtor’s name, a phone number, and “FOR SALE” in large, red letters.

He grabs the sign’s light, wooden base, unearths it from the ground, and throws it down. It lands with a soft thud on the grass. Grodd smiles as he locks his car and heads for the front door.

 

Randall locks the door behind him and plops down on the couch. It’s late, but despite an exhausting game and flight, he’s still wired, which means it’s film time.

He reaches for the remote, but something stops him. He suddenly realizes how hungry he is. Inside the fridge is enough chicken and vegetables for a solid, lean meal, but again, something stops him.

Randall should be prioritizing his body more than ever. How many seasons he has left he cannot know, but it’s unlikely to be more than four or five. But tonight, for some reason, he feels himself pulled toward a different road.

He opens a delivery app on his phone he hasn’t used in at least a year, finds a burger place, and orders what he expects to be a greasy mess of a cheeseburger and fries. After the order is confirmed, he opens the fridge again and grabs a bottle of beer from a six-pack that has been untouched for months.

Randall goes outside onto the small balcony, cracks the beer, and leans against the railing. The lights of downtown Los Angeles shine back at him. Different versions of the twilight of Randall’s career flash in his mind, but this time, at last, he doesn’t try to choose or reject any of them. He will be ready, he tells himself, whichever road he finds himself on.

 

A tired Wilkes resists the urge to sleep, knowing he needs to process his thoughts first, if only for a short time.

He lights a few candles in his favorite room and gets some music going. He sits, adjusting his legs, and feels his breath. Inhale, exhale.

He can’t help but feel his body, bruised from another year of football. When next season starts, he will be a 33-year-old wide receiver. His stats will fade as much as they did this year, perhaps more. But he will still be playing. And he will still be a force.

Inhale…exhale…

Wilkes reflects on another year of suffering, embracing the year of suffering ahead. For now, he is a man sitting and breathing in his home, a year older, a year closer to retirement, to nirvana.

 

She’s there to meet Grantzinger in the doorway. He doesn’t even ask, and she says, “Ups and downs, like usual. He got upset after the game,” and leaves. Grantzinger readies himself for this long night to get even longer, hoping his father is already asleep. But he is dismayed to see him hurry around the corner.

“Zack!” he says, a strange look of joy beaming on his face.

“Hi, dad.”

“I’m so glad you came. I’m so proud, Zack, watching the game, and I was afraid you wouldn’t show up.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, don’t be a stupid ass about it. 19-0! Undefeated! I can’t believe it. And that goal line stand at the end. Haven’t seen defense like that in the NFL in a long time.”

Grantzinger is about to go down the usual road of correcting him, but memories of the Super Bowl four years ago flood through him, and he gets a different idea.

“Let’s watch some highlights,” he says.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, let’s break ‘em down. It’ll be fun, pop. I’ll get us some drinks.”

“Hell yes. I’ll wait in the living room.”

Grantzinger heads for the kitchen and prepares two glasses of iced tea, then hurries upstairs, desperate to play out this moment as long as it can last. He reaches the room and studies a tall bookshelf, full of nearly three hundred DVD cases, labeled and organized by season.

Grantzinger stares at his entire life: from high school to now, every sack, tackle, interception, win, loss, and everything between. He looks at rows and rows of games, each with their own story—and at the empty rows near the bottom, waiting to be filled.

He grabs the very last disk from one particular season and rushes downstairs, ready to watch highlights of tonight’s victor, the undefeated Knights of Andreas.

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Hey man, I know I haven't been super responsive to this as of late because of other stuff I've been up to + the site being kind of dead, but I just want you to know how much I appreciate you putting this together. Know that you still have readers for this and that you're not just throwing you words to the wind. Big love SteVo. 

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