Knights of Andreas
Chapter Sixty-Eight – Horizons
The sun pierces through a thin layer of clouds, shining on the practice field adjacent to the MedComm Center. In a few hours, this field will fill with players, coaches, and trainers, plus executives coming and going. For now, a single man jogs around the track.
Harden’s feet hit the clay with soft thuds as he rounds the track for the last lap. He spots McKenzie, who takes a seat on the bleachers as part of what has become a ritual. He collects the stopwatch and waits for Harden to come around.
Slowing down, Harden staggers to the finish line as McKenzie clicks the watch. He takes a full minute and then some to gather his breath and drink some water before asking, “Well?”
“8:48,” McKenzie says.
“Damn. I hit 8:30 last week.” McKenzie doesn’t respond. “You know, when I was in high school, I ran a six-minute mile. Like it was nothing.”
“Back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth?”
“Somewhere around then. Hell, I’d skip one of my classes to run, play the game that night, then go party somewhere and drink a whole fifth of Jack. That was my Friday ritual.”
“Feels like a long time ago, right?”
“No. My Saturday routine in college was something similar before I tore up my knee. And that feels like a long time ago. High school feels like another lifetime.”
“You’re old, Merle. Hell, both of us are. Getting there, anyway.”
“Actually, between you and me, Mac?” Harden steps closer. McKenzie leans forward. “I’m worse than old these days.”
On his way out of the bathroom, Phillips spends a few extra seconds in front of the mirror. He inspects his hair, yet again, where a few sprinkles of gray around his ears have spread, and patches of gray now cover his head. His father went gray at about this age, so, fair is far.
Phillips swings his crutches across the hallway, stopping before Schneider’s office as he sees Harden walking towards him. He waves, but Harden, as usual, has no time for such useless gestures. Schneider leans back behind his desk as the two take their usual places.
“Good day of practice, Merle?” Schneider asks.
“I’d say so. We got the monkey off our backs with a good start, like I said last week, but the guys are still hungry.”
“While we’re on the subject, how is the locker room?”
“Outstanding, as best I can see. We’ve always had a young team under my watch, but a couple years ago it was full of 24-, 25-year-olds. Now everybody’s 27, 28. Those few years make a big difference.”
“Indeed they do. Well, let’s get to Brock, then. Chance?”
“We called around,” Phillips says, “and we barely got a bite. Teams are interested, but not for anything more than a late-round pick, and frankly, that’s too lopsided a deal for us to make.” Harden nods as if to say, Okay, go on. Phillips glances at Schneider and continues. “As for releasing him outright...honestly, Merle, we don’t see that as a good decision. Neither one of us has to lecture you on pass rush, and we don’t know what we have in Harrington yet. Unless you have a really solid reason why he’s a hazard in the locker room…” Harden shakes his head. “Then he’s staying on the roster.”
“So be it,” Harden says. “Just wanted to see if any doors were open. I appreciate the both of you looking into it.”
“So,” Schneider says, “we can expect to see him this Sunday?”
“Yeah, you’ll see him. On the bench.”
Schneider sits up and leans against his desk. “Now, hang on a second—”
“I want to see what we have in Harrington. And no, he’s not toxic yet, but he has to pay for his bullshit.”
“Coach, putting Brock in the starting lineup wasn’t a mutual suggestion by Chance and myself. It was a command.”
“Brock sits all the same.”
Schneider shifts position in his chair, obviously uncomfortable. “Merle, you were never one to overstep your bounds, so I’d be careful about starting now. I own the team.”
“No sir, you own the franchise. I own the team.” Phillips is so stunned he fixates on Harden, missing the priceless look on Schneider’s face. “You may decide who goes on the roster, but I decide who goes on the field. Brock plays when I want him to play.” Harden pushes himself to his feet. “Good day, fellas.”
Schneider watches Harden walk out, pursing his lips, hopelessly speechless. After a moment of waiting for Phillips to speak, he says, “The first sign—and I mean the first fucking hint—that Harrington is no good, Brock goes back in the lineup. I don’t give a shit what he says.”
Phillips shrugs, knowing better than to respond. It takes all the energy he has to suppress a smile.
Both teams take the field under the hot Jacksonville sun for one of week 4’s most lopsided matchups. The 0-3 Jaguars are rapidly approaching a breaking point, and they will need to beat the 3-0 Knights to start turning things around.
The Knights open with three-receiver formations, spreading the defense out, and run the ball. Anticipation and energy around EverBank Field wanes as the Knights lead a boring-but-effective offense.
The Knights run primarily to the right, so Grodd faces off against Roy Miller, Penner against Malik Jackson. Grodd dominates Miller easily, while Penner enjoys a good fight with Jackson. Penner gains leverage most plays, enough to spring Jameson into the second level, and the Knights reach the red zone.
Maverick drops back as his blockers pick up a blitz perfectly. He steps up and fires to Bishop, running for the end zone corner. Bishop spots the overthrown pass and leaps, extending his arms as far as he can, catching the ball and taking a big hit. He hangs on for the touchdown.
After blocking for the extra point, Bishop receives a healthy dose of high-fives on the sideline, grabs some water, and admits, “That might be the most athletic catch of my career.”
“Not a day over 31!” Wilkes says.
“Careful, D-Jam,” Maverick says. “You’ll hit the big 3-0 before you know it.”
“No way. I’m a beautiful, ageless wonder, baby.”
Everyone is spared from much of Wilkes’ continued banter when a Jacksonville punt returns the offense to the field with good field position. McKenzie sticks with his strategy, running right through Jacksonville’s defense into the red zone again. This time, Wilkes gets what he wants. Lining up against talented but inexperienced Jalen Ramsey, Wilkes runs toward the end zone as if on a fade, then spins toward the middle. He gets in front of Ramsey and catches the pass in stride as he crosses the goal line.
“Too easy!” Wilkes screams. Jaguars fans are so quiet, spectators in the lower levels can hear him. “Too motherfucking easy!”
Minutes later, the Knights’ starting defense takes the field in its 3-4 formation. T.J. Yeldon gets a carry up the middle, running into a Randall-Martin wall. Then Blake Bortles launches an errant pass towards the sideline that Grantzinger nearly intercepts. Already frustrated fans boo loudly as both teams line up for third and ten. Bortles drops back, steps up, and gets sacked by Andre Harrington.
From the bench, among a crowd of celebrating players and coaches, Brock looks up at the mega-sized screen and watches a replay of his replacement making his first career sack.
Brock keeps his place throughout the first quarter, occasionally getting up for some water to stretch his legs. The Jaguars manage to put together a few first downs, then Bortles hits a wide-open Allen Robinson for a sixty-yard touchdown that brings the crowd back into it. Brock enjoys the show as Harden explodes on his secondary and Coach Ripka for a coverage breakdown.
The Jaguars’ momentum is quelled on the next drive as the Knights go down the field in a hurry, striking when Wilkes beats Ramsey again, this time on a simple go route, for his second touchdown of the day. Between their next three drives, the Jaguars manage only a field goal and go into the locker room down 21-10.
The Knights offense opens the second half with two solid drives resulting in field goal attempts. McCabe makes the first, from forty-two yards, and misses the second, from thirty. Home fans grow restless with the Jaguars down fourteen and showing no signs of life on offense.
Harden calls plays as casually and stress free as he has in recent memory. It helps that he’s facing an inept offense, but his defense is on lockdown, plain and simple. Just as he starts to wonder if they’ll start regaining 2014 form, they allow consecutive first downs.
Martin lines up next to Randall for first and ten. Bortles takes the snap under center, and Randall blitzes. Martin watches Yeldon get the ball, and the trenches part, lining the two up. Martin lowers his shoulders, going low as Yeldon jukes. Martin’s arms bounce off the running back’s legs, and he watches Yeldon run into the secondary for a twelve-yard gain and another first down.
The Knights make some substitutions on defense. Martin looks toward the sideline, dismayed to see #58 jogging out to replace him. He high-fives his replacement, grabs some water, takes a spot on the bench (far enough away from Brock), and relives the moment that defined his offseason.
For the first time in his career, he watched every second of the draft, thrilled to see the Knights spend two of their first three picks on offense. They drafted a linebacker in the second round, but Harrington is a pass rusher, no threat to Martin. He felt confident as the draft entered round three. Then the Knights picked Scott Sterling, inside linebacker from TCU.
A late-round backup would have been fine; Martin has dealt with that before. But Sterling is a talented player with great instincts. He will take Martin’s spot on the depth chart one day, perhaps as soon as next season. Martin has no illusions about his “three-year” contract. If the Knights cut him this offseason, they save $4.6 million in cap space.
The Jaguars punt, and Martin waits for the defense’s next possession to get back on the field. When he does, the Knights take control of the game physically, punishing anyone in a black jersey with big hits.
Robinson catches a quick pass, cuts upfield, and is decked by Randall and Grantzinger simultaneously. Yeldon takes a sweep around the edge, cuts upfield, and is upended by Schwinn. He flips in the air and lands headfirst on the grass.
Wincing with each hit, Ripka eventually loses himself in thought, staring at the ground in a trance.
“Hey! What’s with you?” Ripka snaps out of it and sees Harden in front of him.
“Nothing,” Ripka says. “Nothing. We’re solid in the secondary, coach.”
“That’s what I pay you for, to tell me everything’s solid when we’re up two scores? What’s the matter with you?”
“Just some stomach pain. It’s nothing. I’m fine.”
“Ah, a little indigestion, huh?” Harden eases his posture and stands next to Ripka, both of them facing the field. “I’ve got the ultimate cure for that. When you get home tonight, fix yourself some ginger ale and coconut rum.”
“All due respect, Merle, that sounds awful.”
“It doesn’t taste like heaven but it’ll settle your stomach. I used to take it all the time for hangovers, fevers, anything. Canada Dry works best, any coconut rum, and add a pinch of sugar, too.”
“You remember all that?”
“How could I forget?”
A violent cracking noise grabs their attention as Flash levels Julius Thomas near the sideline. Thomas asks for a flag, doesn’t get one, and the Jaguars punt again.
The Knights pound the rock with Jameson, and Penner continues his battle with Malik Jackson. Penner has the upper hand, leading the dominance in the trenches and opening plenty of holes for Jameson. The Knights reach field goal range easily.
A one-on-one fight in the trenches is a war. It has, like the game around it, momentum swings on both sides. But if one man is dominating the other, a point can be reached where the other man’s confidence is permanently shaken, and the war is over.
Penner ends the war with a pancake block that springs Jameson for a twenty-yard touchdown, and fans head for the exits with the Knights up 31-10.
Everybody rests on the sideline during the ensuing commercial break, catching their breaths and savoring imminent victory. Then, one by one, they feel small drops of rain on their arms and hear them hit their helmets.
“Rain? What the hell?” Schwinn exclaims, looking around incredulously. “But it’s sunny. It’s 90 degrees out here!” He looks up to identify the guilty cloud, but multiple raindrops strike him in the eye instead.
Bishop, who went to college 150 miles away at Florida State, is no stranger to weather like this. “Welcome to Florida,” he says.
“This is fuckin’ weird,” Grodd says.
“Shit, man,” Wilkes says. “I was gonna retire here! Hope the weather’s better in Tokyo.”
Between everyone within earshot, a conversation familiar to Wilkes unfolds. He explains, yet again, about his upcoming commercial shoot, unsuccessfully tiptoeing around the fact that it’s for men’s underwear, preferring to answer questions about why he’s filming a commercial for an American company in Japan, but he doesn’t have answers for that either.
The weather changes a few minutes later. The score doesn’t, and the Knights fly home, their next game only four days away.
Typing quickly, Javad’s game summary comes together. He hurries through the words with his deadline much closer than usual. Thursday Night Football compresses the week for journalists, too, and Javad has barely done research for his Jets preview. He could be looking at his first all-nighter of football season.
His phone vibrates with an incoming call. He continues typing as he leans over to see who’s calling, then ignores it. That’s a source he hasn’t heard from in a while—reliable, but a strange source to be getting a call from on a Sunday night. What little injury news the Knights have is already out.
At the last second, he answers, out of either curiosity or frustration, holding the phone between his shoulder and ear as he watches his words fill up the laptop screen.
“Hello?…Yeah, I know who it is. You got something?”
His fingers slow down as he listens, eventually freezing in place above the keyboard.
“Are you sure?…Then get confirmation and get back to me…Yes, of course I’m interested. But I need something concrete. And, hey! Hey! Don’t tell anybody else!…Alright, I’ll wait to hear back from you.”
He hangs up and sets the phone back on his desk gently, staring at it a few seconds.
As always with a Thursday game, coaches expect a series of nights spent entirely at the MedComm Center. But Harden and the defensive staff finalize the game plan much earlier than expected, and Ripka makes it home a little after nine.
The first floor is quiet as he puts together a platter of leftovers for dinner. Just as he sets the timer on the microwave, he hears footsteps running down the stairs, and his son walks into the kitchen.
“Hey, Chris,” Chet says. “How was school?”
“First game of the season was last Thursday. They lost.”
Of course, he just jumps right into what he wants, nothing resembling an answer to the question. Chet knows this is typical adolescent attitude, but it’s still tough to get used to.
“We’re not getting into this again,” Chet says. “It’s done. When did you say basketball tryouts were?”
“Dad, the JV coach told me I would start if I played. Wouldn’t even need to try out!”
“Chris, drop it. We’ve been down this road too many times. You’re not playing football, and that’s that. Besides, I don’t know what you’re so upset about. With your jump shot, you could make varsity as a sophomore.”
“Fuck you, dad!”
Chris runs away toward the stairs. Chet thinks of following him, but his wife appears from the same spot.
“What was that about?” she asks.
“Take a guess.” The microwave beeps, and Chet removes the plate from it, stirring the food with a fork.
“The most logical career preference for a son is to follow his father’s footsteps. Can you blame him?”
“You’re right. He is my son. And that means JV will turn into varsity, varsity will turn into a college scholarship—”
“Doesn’t mean he’s going to the NFL. You know what the odds are.”
“It doesn’t matter. Heck, even high school worries me. I know the cost. I know the price you pay.”
“Hey, we’ve been lucky so far. Remember that neurologist we spoke to? You haven’t shown any—”
“Stop,” Chet says, waving his hand. “I don’t want to go there. Not now.”
Soldier Field bursts with electricity, the sellout crowd screaming into the cool October night with one monster hit after another on the field.
The 3-1 Bears have been a pleasant surprise so far in 2001, but tonight’s game is the biggest astonishment yet. The undefeated, Super Bowl favorite Rams have come to town in what was supposed to be a one-sided Monday Night Football game. Instead, the Greatest Show on Turf is getting dominated on national television.
The Bears have a 14-3 lead and are crippling the Rams’ high-powered offense. Kurt Warner drops back to pass, but his receivers can’t make catches. Those who do get open over the middle are quickly leveled, dropping the ball in the process.
Bears fans enjoy the defensive dominance, centered on a breakout performance. They found a cornerstone last year when they drafted Brian Urlacher 9th overall, and it now it looks like they’ve got another one. His name is Chet Ripka.
Last year’s third-round pick has been a solid player, but tonight, #21 is all over the field, dishing out devastating hits left and right. Rams receivers have found no solace in the middle of the field. From his strong safety position, Ripka watches receivers running towards him from a distance, then guns for them with the ball on its way.
“Great play, 21,” Urlacher says to him on the sideline.
Ripka sees Torry Holt cut towards the middle. Holt reaches out for a catch, Ripka lowers his body, and the two collide. The ball bounces away, incomplete.
Ripka sits on the bench, leaning in towards the grass. He looks up at the scoreboard but can’t read it.
“What quarter is it?”
“What quarter is it?” Ripka asks.
“Fourth quarter, man,” the player next to him says. “C’mon, dawg, get it together.”
“Ripka! Get in there! You still play defense, don’t you?”
Ripka grabs for his helmet, but it’s already on, and runs out onto the field, finding his place in formation.
Any NFL player, young or old, relies on routines. Monday morning recovery, Saturday morning walkthrough, etc. Every week follows the same structure, at least in principle. The dreaded Thursday game compresses all of that in a sudden, uncomfortable way that gets worse the longer you play.
The Knights have one of the youngest rosters in the league, but they are not without their older players. For them, this is a physical struggle, so they rely on the mental toughness they’ve built up over the years. Just stay focused, they tell themselves, stay focused, get through it, and bring your best to the field on Thursday.
So, the Knights go through the motions Tuesday, with players moving through their Jacksonville debrief rather quickly (even Coach Harden finds little to nitpick) and planning for the 1-3 Jets, who don’t instill fear in anyone.
When practice finally ends, players change in a hurry and head for the parking lot. Penner wraps up and is surprised to see Ripka walking toward the offensive side of the locker room. A few seconds later, Ripka stands in Penner’s path.
“Hey Brian, you got a minute?”
“Gotta get home, Chet.”
“I know, me too. Just wanted to talk to you for a few minutes, grab a beer maybe.”
Penner shared this locker room with Ripka for two years, long enough to know he doesn’t want to talk about the weather. Still, it’s late.
“Rain check on the beer. Let’s just hang out here.”
“Okay, fine. Let’s go to my office.”
They make their way down the coaches’ hallway and into the small room with Ripka’s name on the door. On the small TV planted on the desk, game tape of the Jets’ offense plays.
Ripka takes a seat, and Penner does the same. Ripka wants this to play out like a player-player conversation, like they might have had a few years ago. He doesn’t want Penner to see him as a coach. Not today, anyway.
“My son, Chris,” Ripka says, sensing Penner will appreciate him getting to the point. “He’s a freshman in high school now, and…” Realizing he has no way to summarize, he tells Penner the whole story, from Chris’ dominance on his middle school football team to Chet’s decision not to let him play in high school.
“What position does he play?” Penner asks.
“Did he play.”
“You know what I mean, goddamn it.”
“Ah, a safety like his old man.”
Ripka sighs uncomfortably. “I know how much he wants to play. I’ve been there myself. We all have.”
“Then what’s the matter with you?”
“Let me ask you this. How many concussions do you figure you’ve had over the years?”
“Hell if I know, hell if I care.”
Ripka expected this. He knows all about the tough guy persona that is Brian Penner. He just has to find a way to crack it.
“So, imagine this,” Ripka says. “You become another one of those CTE patients, die before you hit fifty, leave your wife and kids behind. You want to tell me you don’t care?”
Penner’s posture hardens. Without saying anything, he conveys his willingness to punch Ripka square in the jaw if he hears another word he doesn’t like.
Unintimidated, Ripka goes on. “Look, you and I both gave our lives to this game. But I stepped away with a little left in the tank on purpose. And you say you’re serious about retiring this year, but everyone knows you’re not running on empty.”
“What are you trying to say, Chet?”
“Why are you hanging it up when you could keep going?”
“You wanted a conversation so you could analyze my retirement plans? I get enough of that shit from the media.”
Ripka doesn’t feel this is going anywhere, so he changes direction.
“Chris is mad at me because he thinks I’m taking something away from him. And in the short term, I guess he’s right. But he’ll thank me one day.”
“That’s what parenting is, isn’t it? Doing the right thing doesn’t mean what feels right at the time.” A thought occurs to Penner that makes him laugh. “My kids love ice cream. It’s their favorite bedtime snack. But I can’t give them ice cream every night, right? You can never understand how hard it is to deny your children something, even something simple like ice cream, until you’re a father.”
“I’m not talking about ice cream, Brian.”
“I know that,” Penner says through gritted teeth. Ripka looks tough but doesn’t say anything. “You know something, Chet? You could have stepped away at any time, but you didn’t. You bashed your brains in over and over, one tackle at a time, like the rest of us. Like me. Probably for the same reason as me. And you know what I’m talking about.”
“I guess I do.”
“Stepping on that field, going to war with your brothers…there’s nothing like it. When I think about the greatest days of my life, there’s my wedding, the days my boys were born, and lifting the Lombardi when we beat Green Bay. And I can’t really put one above the other. That’s why we do it.”
Ripka presses his lips together, keeps his mouth closed, but he agrees. He absolutely, unequivocally agrees.
“What about your kids?” Ripka asks.
“What about ‘em?”
“Are they gonna play past Pop Warner?”
“I guess so. I never really thought about it.”
Come to think of it, Ripka never really thought about it either, until it happened. He shakes his head in frustration. At this point, he just wants to go home. Thankfully, Penner picks up on this.
“Alright, I gotta get some sleep,” Penner says. “These fucking Thursday games kill me.”
“Hey, at least the Super Bowl is still on a Sunday.”
They shake hands, and Penner heads out towards his car, the last one left in the players’ lot. He steps on the gas and speeds home, saving some time thanks to the recently repaired freeway, eager to see his boys before they go to sleep. Tonight, they’ll get ice cream.
A few days before the sun sets on July, one of thirty-two NFL training facilities opens in Valencia, California. The 2011 season kicks off in six weeks, and for the men in pads and cleats, those are six very important weeks.
One year ago, the Los Angeles Knights came to this facility for the first time, complete with a new front office, new coaching staff, and revamped roster. A 5-11 season later, the Knights return to Valencia, but there are plenty of new names on the backs of purple and white jerseys.
Caden Daniel stands on the field, arms crossed, and watches his players walk out of the building. It may only be the first day of training camp, but he wants to see progress today. He needs to see progress today.
Daniel faces a challenge familiar to coaches of rebuilding teams: trying to groom a talented, young quarterback behind a shaky offensive line. If the blocking doesn’t improve this season, quarterback Jonathan Maverick likely won’t either, and that could get Daniel and offensive coordinator Tom Everett fired in a hurry.
The players start out with their own position group, working with positional coaches, as Daniel wants it. He wants to build trust and comradery from the ground up, not the top down. He moves between the offensive groups (occasionally distracted by Coach Harden’s bickering on the other side of the field), focusing on offensive line and quarterback. He’s in the middle of studying Maverick’s footwork when one of the linemen distracts him.
“Let’s go! Don’t fucking walk to formation, sprint to formation!”
Daniel walks toward the linemen, noticing the vocals are coming from the only newcomer among the starting five.
“Move! Move your ass! That’s it, boys.”
Daniel stays with the linemen for a few minutes, watching them run through their drills with intensity, following the apparent new ringleader.
“It’s called set and punch, you pussies. Don’t just wave your goddamn arms. Punch!”
Daniel eventually checks out the running backs and receivers, but Penner’s screams fill the practice field. When the time comes for the starting offensive and defensive lines to square off, Daniel stands nearby.
“Let’s go, give ‘em somethin’ that’s gonna hurt in the morning!”
The linemen put on a show, giving maximum effort on every drill, every rep, every motion, just what Daniel wants to see. Leading is about establishing expectations, setting the tone. One day in, and the tone has been set. If the offensive line ends up being a weak link again this year, it won’t be for lack of trying.
There are many styles of leadership, and today, Brian Penner’s style is on full display.
Phillips gets off the phone with Melissa, content to know all three kids have gotten home safely from school. He hardly ever talked to his family directly from work, at least not on a regular basis—until a 7.2-magnitutde earthquake tore through Southern California.
The phone beeps, and he hears his secretary’s voice from the hallway. “Mr. Phillips, I have Adam Javad for you on line two.”
Phillips freezes. He and Javad haven’t spoken outside of a press conference since…Phillips can’t remember. His first instinct is to say he’s busy.
“I’ll take it,” he says, lifting the phone from the receiver. “Chance Phillips.”
“Hi, Chance. Adam Javad.”
“I know. What you want?”
“I need to talk to you privately.”
“I think we’ve had enough of those.”
“This isn’t just more bullshit. Something I need to show you. It’ll be worth your while, I promise.”
Phillips has no idea what Javad could be up to, and he doesn’t bother trying to figure it out. Once again, his first instinct is to avoid him and hang up on the spot.
Most Knights fans with work offices still intact leave for the day and head straight to Farmers Field, where the stadium lights are already illuminated for Thursday Night Football.
From his executive suite, Schneider watches over the stadium like a hawk, staying in contact with Frank Serkin via walkie-talkie. Any problem in the slightest, be it a malfunctioning concourse light or a clogged toilet, and Schneider is the first to know. There may be dozens of buildings in Los Angeles running on faulty power grids, prone to surges and outages, but Farmers Field sure as hell isn’t one of them.
Multiple problems occurred three weeks ago, but all of them were minor, and that was nine days after the earthquake. Tonight, problems will be fewer and things should be better. By the end of the season, Serkin claims, they should be able to host a game glitch-free. Schneider finds that timetable a little too elongated.
The Knights make a striking impression as they take the field, sporting their all-purple alternate jerseys as part of the league’s Color Rush concept. Mercifully, the Jets wear normal looking all-white, sparing fans from what surely would have been a putrid purple/green combination.
The Jets get the ball first and go three and out. The Knights take over and pick up where they left off in Jacksonville, with Jameson leading a run-first attack that gains yards easily. McKenzie notices the Jets’ secondary allowing plenty of space, apparently wanting to contain the passing game, so he takes advantage. The Knights ride Jameson into the red zone, where Wilkes does his thing, outjumping a helpless corner for an easy touchdown.
On the ensuing drive, Ryan Fitzpatrick drops back, winds up to throw, and Grantzinger swats at his arm, batting the ball free. He falls to the grass on top of the ball, and the Knights take over on a short field.
A few quick running plays later, Maverick drops back looking for Wilkes, who is blanketed. So he looks to the other side of the field, happy to fire for Harper in single coverage, who makes a dazzling catch in the corner of the end zone, and Farmers Field roars with the home team up 14-0. Fans from around the league watching on CBS and NFL Network think to themselves, Yep, another crappy Thursday night game.
Nothing the rest of the night dispels that notion. McCabe tacks on a field goal, giving the Knights a 17-0 lead at halftime. The Jets eventually get on the board thanks to a Watson fumble, but the Knights strike back with another touchdown of their own, and it is clear there will be no comeback tonight.
As the fourth quarter begins, players think about next week. The benefit of playing these Thursday night games is the added rest before the next game, and some need it more than others do.
While the Knights defense is on the field, Grodd and Penner sit together on the sideline. With the lopsided score, Grodd figures now is as good a time as any.
“I’m gonna bring it up again,” Grodd says.
“Give it a rest, for fuck’s sake,” Penner says.
“We’re rolling, man. No reason for you to step away this year.”
“You’re always fresh a few weeks in. Talk to me in December.”
Penner may not know this, but Grodd, finally, isn’t initiating this conversation because he’s uneasy about leading the offensive line. This is purely about football.
“So you play past your prime a little,” Grodd says. “Who cares? With your leadership, you could be valuable to this team another two or three years.”
Penner shakes his head. “Once you get old enough, you stop lyin’ to yourself.”
“All of it.” Penner looks around at the field, the crowd, and the moon shining atop the stadium. “When I look out to the distance, I see what’s comin’.”
Penner’s spot on the bench is near the reserve linemen, including Bruno Fitzsimmons, the second-round rookie who will take his job next year. Hell, another injury to Penner and Fitzsimmons might take it this year.
Bishop notices Coach McKenzie using more double-tight end formations as the game goes on, getting fourth-round rookie Nathan Turner more snaps. Turner has the freak athleticism Bishop doesn’t; it’s easy to see where this could go.
Martin continues splitting snaps with Scott Sterling throughout the second half. Coach Harden would say he’s keeping Martin fresh, he knows. But nobody’s keeping Randall or Grantzinger fresh.
Football is a fluid game. The greatest of players, the most enduring of legends, were all eventually replaced. Players’ careers are, like their lives, finite. Today and this season, fans buy jerseys with names like Maverick, Jameson, Jefferspin-Wilkes, Bishop, Penner, Randall, Martin, Grantzinger. But soon enough, they will shift their eyes toward other names. Harper, Turner, Fitzsimmons, Harrington, Sterling.
These young guys may be stars, may be decent, may be busts. But that determination will be made long after the older guys are gone.