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  1. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part VI Chapter Seventy-One – Before We Say Goodbye Less than twelve hours after giving his team the entire week off, Harden takes the podium for his Monday press conference. The Knights don’t face an opponent this Sunday, but considering they are one of three undefeated teams in the AFC, reporters have plenty to ask about. Harden expects a horde of stupid comments about last night’s comeback, but to their credit, they get straight to it. After Harden confirms some injury news, he hears the first question of the day: “Coach, I know it’s early, but have you thought at all about the possibility of going undefeated? And if so, what’s your personal belief on playing for it versus resting players, if things are clinched and what not?” “Damn right we’re going for it,” Harden says. “The objective is to win every game, as it always has been, but you hardly ever get a team capable of doing it. So, yeah, 16-0 is our goal. Well, 19-0 is the goal, but, one step at a time.” Another reporter cuts in, “What gives you the idea that this team’s capable of running the table, coach?” “Well, the fact that we’re 8-0 is pretty much a giveaway. Any more dumb questions?” Front offices don’t get bye weeks, so the MedComm Center second floor is business as usual. Phillips, now enjoying full muscular function of both legs, finds reasons to walk from office to office, taking the stairs to attend all the coaches’ meetings for the day. At the conclusion of one meeting, the room empties save for Harden and a few others, so Phillips steps close. “Hey, we still on for Sunday?” Phillips asks. “Bet your ass,” Harden says. “Come over whenever. And don’t wear a tie this time.” Phillips laughs, remembering last year’s dinner he and Melissa attended. Minutes later, he pops into Schneider’s office to drop off some papers, surprised to see Schneider standing by the window, holding what looks like a football uniform up to the light. “What’s that there?” Phillips asks. “I haven’t told you? New jerseys for next season!” “We’re getting new jerseys? Already?” “This is an early model, a rough draft, so to speak. But it’s more or less what I envisioned.” Schneider hands him the jersey, bearing Maverick’s name and number, admiring the fabric while Phillips inspects it. The adjustments are subtle, transitioning to a sleeker, modern look. Still black, the jerseys will now feature more purple and silver, mixed in without being too striking. It is a transition from the current jerseys, a predominantly black scheme that resembles the Raiders’ uniforms. This was Schneider’s plan from the beginning. “Looks good,” Phillips says honestly. “Pants and helmets too?” “Pants will change slightly to match the jerseys. We’re experimenting with purple helmets but we’ll probably stick with black. And there’s too many silver helmets around the league as it is.” Phillips continues studying the fabric and stitched lettering, wondering if these new jerseys are change for the sake of change—or symbols of a new era in Knights football. Players have had this week marked on their calendars since the schedule came out in April. In the months since, they have considered a variety of options, trying to decide how best to spend seven days away from football. The 9/9 earthquake changed the equation for some, amplifying either their instinct to stay in Los Angeles or their urge to leave. Luck puts in a few days of public charity work, grateful for the extra hours afforded by no practice. Then, he and Brenda make good on their promise to stop by the Bishop household. Taking advantage of beautiful weather, they spend most of their time in the back yard while Logan cooks on the grill. Ashley and Brenda compare the size of their expanding bellies and approaching due dates (Ashley is due November 25th, Brenda the 26th). “Have you thought about it at all?” Sam asks at one point while the wives are preoccupied elsewhere. “About what?” Logan asks while flipping the rest of the hamburgers. “About what that day’s gonna be like.” Logan closes the grill. “Not really. Just been hoping for a healthy baby. Besides, what do we really know until it happens?” “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Sam and Logan spend the rest of the day discussing various topics, occasionally pondering fatherhood, never mentioning football. Grodd tries to maintain a low profile as he boards an international flight to Winnipeg, but it’s hard for a 305-pound man to hide. He attracts plenty of attention from fans, signing a fair amount of autographs for an offensive guard. After an hour-long layover in Calgary, a short flight puts Grodd in Winnipeg, where he rents a car and drives two hours towards western Manitoba. His first words to Penner, greeting him in the driveway are, “Couldn’t have just stayed in L.A.?” “I never miss a chance to come to this place,” Penner says. Grodd can’t blame him. A beautiful combination of lakes, mountains, and valleys makes up the landscape, and the 30-degree weather doesn’t bother Grodd, who grew up in the American Midwest. Grodd blends in with the Penner clan right away. It’s difficult to determine whether Penner’s two sons or three dogs enjoy Grodd’s company more. Penner’s kids seem to love football as much as their dad, so they spend hours recounting old stories, of Penner’s time in the CFL, of Grodd’s college days at Iowa, of their most memorable games together since the Knights made Grodd the 22nd pick of the 2012 draft. Flash makes the scenic drive down California’s coast towards San Diego, sparse conversation with his girlfriend filling the time. Once there, they have a great time, as Flash always does. But when Malik mentions Tatyana’s 3rd birthday is coming up, he realizes how big Malik’s girls have gotten already. He won’t admit it to Malik, but he now finds himself wondering about the future, about when he’ll have children of his own. But before any of that can be decided, he needs to find out where he’ll play football next year. He currently has no desire to do so in Los Angeles. Power finally restored to Randall’s house, he decides to host a party. Most of his teammates already have plans, but enough attend to make it worthwhile, including Grantzinger and Brock. The trio ends up eating plates full of greasy, fattening food (Randall has cooked some organic stuff for Grantzinger), knowing they don’t have to weigh in again for several days, when Grantzinger notices a notepad near the TV with a remote lying on top of it. Grantzinger: “Were you watching film before we got here?” Randall: “Of course.” Grantzinger: “Damn man, on a bye week. Give it a rest.” Brock: “At least you guys still see the field.” Grantzinger: “You did this to yourself, Sean.” Randall: “Hey, ease up, Zack. Let’s not get into it here.” He takes another bite of his cheeseburger. “But seriously, Sean, you don’t have to be stuck on the bench forever.” Brock: “This again?” Grantzinger: “Don’t be a bitch, Sean. Briggs is right.” Brock ignores them, focusing on his food. If they keep going on about this, they’ll bring up his debts again, though it’s not all bad news on that front. He has used his weekly checks this year to pay off a few guys like Martin and Bishop. So, it’s a start. Trisha drives to Maverick’s house, and they take off in Mav’s Audi, riding north towards wine country. The two have been looking for an extended vacation, and thanks to Mav’s growing (and surprising) appreciation for wine, a road trip to Sonoma qualifies. Mav’s celebrity status forces them to construct their vacation with private tours, and they can’t simply walk from winery to winery or restaurant to restaurant. So they spend most of the trip enjoying each other’s company, far from a bad thing. They both enjoy a few days away from football, away from their families, to enjoy each other, to think about each other. Chance eases his car into the driveway, spotting Merle on the porch. Just as he shuts the car door, Bowser leaps off the porch. Chance braces for an attack, but the Doberman instead circles his legs, sniffing his khakis and shoes, so Chance pets his head and scratches behind his ears. “Thought you might wear jeans, but this is an odd sight as it is,” Merle says, sporting a buttoned-down Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. Chance has to hand it to him; he has one of the most stressful jobs in the world, but the man knows how to relax. “Take a seat. Early games just started.” Chance sits down with Bowser laying at his feet while Merle flips through multiple channels, trying to pick the best football game to display on the 42-inch TV mounted against the wall. He eventually settles on Lions/Vikings, eager to watch Minnesota’s defense. “Nice setup you’ve got here,” Chance says, taking in the tranquil, tree-filled surroundings. “I got you something,” Merle says, reaching down next to him and summoning a six-pack of aluminum cans, which Chance quickly recognizes as Yuengling. “Didn’t ask what you liked, I know. Wanted to surprise you, I guess.” “You getting sentimental, Merle?” “It’ll never happen again, I swear.” Chance smiles, removing one can from the plastic wrapping. Merle points to a nearby cooler, into which Chance deposits the rest. As he cracks open the beer, he stares at the game on the TV screen, hesitating. “This is strange,” Chance says. “Something wrong already?” “I can’t remember the last time I had a beer while watching a football game. College, maybe?” “What’s wrong with you?” “Game day has always been work for me. Well, cheers.” “Cheers.” Merle raises his glass of iced tea. They both drink and look at the TV screen, commenting only on the game for a few minutes. The Vikings defense allows a touchdown on the opening drive. A few minutes later, the Redskins move the ball again, reaching the end zone on a long touchdown pass to Vernon Davis, and the Vikings are down 14-0. “Frauds,” Merle says, snatching the remote and searching for another game. “No RedZone?” Chance asks. “I refuse to pay for that fantasy football bullshit. That’s not how you watch a football game.” Moments after Merle settles on Eagles/Giants, Melinda comes out with a plate of appetizers. “Where’s Trish?” Chance asks after Melinda goes back inside. Merle frowns. “Out. With Mav.” Chance doesn’t say anything. He isn’t sure what to think of his starting quarterback dating the head coach’s daughter, but he doesn’t have to guess how Merle feels. “Where’s Melissa and the kids?” Merle asks. “She has a sister who lives out here, actually, so she took the kids to see her.” “And you managed to get out of it, huh?” Chance doesn’t respond, preferring not to get to that subject yet. Instead, he works on his first beer, enjoying the football and food. When he feels Melinda isn’t about to barge in on the conversation, he brings up London. “You can bet I ain’t goin’,” Harden says. “I imagine plenty of the players wouldn’t, either.” “The players are under contract.” “So am I, but you think that would tie me down?” Chance realizes Merle has more leverage than most of the players would, but his point is convincing nonetheless. He ponders it for a few minutes while watching the game. “You know, it’s funny,” Merle eventually says. “When you were you giving me the rundown last week, you mentioned 2012, when Daniel ended up getting canned.” “Yeah?” “Guess I never told anyone outside this house, but, before you offered me the head-coaching gig, I was gonna retire. Actually, I was sure of it.” “You were?” “I really thought we’d make a run of it that year. Maybe one loss turns into a win and we still do. Anyway, I was coordinating a young defense with tons of talent…at the time, I figured a playoff push would have been my run towards the sunset. Instead I stuck around, and it cost me my wife and daughter. At least I got ‘em back.” Chance replays that conversation he had with Merle, offering the head coach position, remembering every detail. It was cold and rainy in the parking lot, and he remembers the look of surprise on Merle’s face. He goes back through his memories of those tumultuous weeks, now knowing what Merle just told him. Both men watch football for a while, commenting only on the games. Chance makes a point of mentioning that both the Steelers and Patriots are 8-0, but Merle, of course, hardly seems worried. Another beer or so later, Chance finds his thoughts wandering and vocalizes them. “You know,” he says, “that ride-into-the-sunset plan doesn’t sound so bad.” “What, you’re not into European culture either?” “London or Los Angeles. Either way.” “What are you talking about?” “Well…” Chance looks around. “You’ve got a pretty sweet setup here, Merle. Wife and daughter you love, they support you…” “Easier to balance with one kid as opposed to three,” Merle points out. “And it’s also easier with Trish being older.” “Regardless, I’ve been thinking lately about something my dad said.” “Oh, here we go. Maybe I should have a beer.” “I can’t remember it word for word—it was typical father advice stuff—about family being more important than anything you’ll ever accomplish in life. Something like that. And lately, I’m starting to feel like maybe I’m missing something.” Merle thinks about that; he certainly appreciates where Chance is coming from. “Besides,” Chance says, “I’ve set this team up perfectly. Contenders for the next five-plus years with competent management.” “Yeah, but with you running things, they’re Super Bowl contenders for the next decade.” “I can’t ponder this decision every year. I’ve got to choose.” “Damn it, do you want my opinion, or are you just rambling?” “Sorry.” Chance refocuses, making a point of eating some more food before his next beer. Neither says anything for a few minutes. They focus on football long enough to shift the topic of discussion. A commercial comes up, and Chance decides this is an appropriate moment. He’s built up enough of a buzz to do it. “I know about the cancer, Merle. I’m sorry.” “Did someone tell you?” Chance’s heart sinks. He had been clinging to the faint hope that Javad’s report was false, that it was his last effort at reconciliation, that Merle had simply lost weight and hair from old age. “I have a source at Good Samaritan.” Merle relaxes, thankful neither Melinda nor Trisha talked, though he wouldn’t believe it if they did. “Does anyone else know?” “I haven’t said a word, and I don’t plan to.” “Good.” “Merle, I know this is hard, but I have a right…” Chance struggles with his words, wanting to sound as delicate as possible. “How bad is it?” “Let’s not beat around the goddamn bush,” Merle says, looking up at the game. “You can probably consider me on a retirement path. Mac will take the reins in a year or two.” Chance has to look away. On an instinctual level, he always suspected that would be the long-term plan, but the words are still difficult to hear. “So,” Chance says, “if we move to London…” “I won’t be the coach. Would have a hell of time talking Mel into it even if I wanted to. Have you mentioned it to Melissa yet?” Chance laughs. “I know better than to even bring it up.” “Ah, the sign of a good marriage.” Chance thinks about his marriage, and his family. He came here today not knowing what to expect, save for confirmation on Merle’s cancer. But something else is eating at him. “Merle…” “What?” “If the team does go to London, how do you think the locker room will take it?” “It won’t be pretty, I’ll say that much.” Chance cracks another beer. Harden gets to the MedComm Center early Monday morning, eager to get to work after a week off. It’s McKenzie who faces the greater challenge this week, up against Denver’s defense, but Harden doesn’t care. On his way into the building, he spots a lone car in the players’ lot but thinks nothing of it. He barely sets up shop in his office, all the Denver tape ready for watching, when he hears a knock behind him. “About time, Mac. We’re—” As Harden’s eyes find the doorway, his lips freeze. Brock stands before him, visibly tired and looking nervous. “Morning, coach,” he says. “What do you want? It’s rare enough to see you coming in early or staying late, let alone here on an off day.” “Can I talk to you?” “You already are. Get this over with, whatever it is.” Harden crosses his arms as Brock takes a step into the office, looking down. “I want back in the lineup, coach.” Okay, Harden figured that much. What else? “I’m sorry about all that shit I said. It was out of line. You were right.” Brock looks up, disappointed to see Harden’s completely unimpressed expression. C’mon, coach, this is hard enough as it is. “I still think the earthquake thing is bullshit—” “You just can’t help yourself, can you?” “But something special is happening this year, coach. I don’t know if the quake has anything to do with it or not, but something’s happening with this team. And I want to be part of it.” Harden relaxes his posture a little, finding that comment enticing. He tries to think about this from a football standpoint, ignoring everything else. “This would be a lot easier if you weren’t an insufferable prick, you know that?” Brock bows his head, almost in shame, saying nothing. “Okay. You’re a rotational player. You split reps with Harrington and I ride the hot hand. You want more snaps? Earn ‘em.” “No problem, coach,” Brock says, eyes lighting up. He bolts away from the office and into the parking lot, leaving a befuddled Harden to gather his tape and head for the film room. While the coaches develop their game plan, Phillips finds time in his office to finalize a plan of his own. Once he’s sure and ready to go through with it, he locks the door and takes out his cell phone, finding a number he hasn’t called in over a year. “Hello?” says a nervous voice on the other end of the phone. “Adam, it’s Chance Phillips.” “Yeah, I know,” Javad says, obviously uneasy about the circumstances of the call. “What’s going on?” “In a few minutes, a story is going to break. Don’t bother scrambling around with your sources. Confirm it.” “Wait. What…” In his apartment, Javad fumbles around on his desk, searching frantically for a pen and paper. “You were right about Harden,” Phillips says. “Cancer.” That freezes Javad, and he finally understands that this phone call isn’t Phillips trying to play him in any way. He keeps listening. “You were right about something else, too. I owe you a big story. It never sat well with me, the way things went between you and I.” Phillips pauses, hoping Javad believes that. After a few seconds of silence, he adds, “We’ll get together later this week. I’ll call you from my cell.” He hangs up, and the screen on his phone fades to his contact list. He has a long list of journalists on this list, and for this occasion, he calls the most notable. As he presses the phone to his ear, he checks again to make sure his office door is closed. “Adam, it’s Chance Phillips, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Got something big for you, and you have my word it’s legitimate.” Schneider flips through every sports channel on the TV in his office and clicks through every web site. The story is everywhere. He clicks back to ESPN and gathers the courage to unmute the TV. Analysts sit around a semicircular table with a graphic across the bottom of the screen: “BREAKING NEWS: Knights considering relocation to London.” Adam Schefter: “Well, we know the league has been looking at London for a few years now. They’ve consistently been exploring the idea of adding or moving a franchise there.” Trey Wingo: “But Adam, we have reported in recent weeks that the league owners are set to vote on relocation, for the Rams and Chargers, both potentially eyeing Los Angeles. And the league, Commissioner Goodell included, has voiced optimism regarding two teams there. This must have something to do with that dilemma, yes?” So furious he can barely think, Schneider slaps the buttons on his phone, reaching the office adjacent to his. “Chance, get in here. Now.” He slams down the phone and looks back at the screen. Schefter: “…certainly a bit of a surprise that Los Angeles, of all teams, would be the league’s pick to move to London. So it’s definitely possible this is part of a larger plan, that either the league, or perhaps Knights owner Wayne Schneider, actually does not want two teams to compete for the Los Angeles market.” It’s all out there now, for everyone to see and understand. All of Schneider’s careful planning is now worthless. “Wayne,” Phillips says, “what’s—” “Shut the door.” Phillips does so, and Schneider points to the TV screen, letting Phillips hear a few seconds of discussion before muting it again. “None of the other owners knew,” Schneider says. “They couldn’t have. How the fuck did this get out?” “How indeed,” Phillips says, sounding as smug as he can. Schneider’s eyes widen, and Phillips enjoys, briefly, how astonishingly stunned he is. “What in the world are you up to? What were you thinking?” Phillips puts his hands in his pockets, enjoying the confidence of having the upper hand. “Oh, you know how it is. To maintain relationships with press members that are mutually beneficial, you have to give them some things every now and then.” “So you give someone this? What the fuck is wrong with you, Chance? I specifically told you this couldn’t get out!” Phillips shrugs casually. “So fire me.” Schneider tries to subdue his anger. He needs to figure out Phillips’ true intentions here. “Are you always going to play the ‘fire me’ card in situations like this? I would enjoy it, believe me, but that’s not happening.” “What, then?” “You tell me. Why am I hearing about London on every channel? Why is my phone blowing up with inquiries from owners? I’m sure Roger will be calling any minute. Why am I standing here, desperately trying to figure out what to say?” As satisfying as it is to see Schneider this flustered, Phillips decides now is a good moment to seal the conversation. “I’m not moving to London,” Phillips says, walking towards the door. “Over the next few hours, I think you’ll find that I’m not alone.” Mav and Trish are in the middle of an excellent bottle of cabernet they got from Sonoma when Mav’s phone blows up with repeated calls from Wilkes. Mav wants to ignore him, but his persistence is a total buzzkill. “Ugh, I’m sorry, Trish.” “Tell him to stop going for one-handed catches all the time.” “And be less of a show-off? Yeah, right.” He answers the call. “What, D-Jam? I told you I’m in the middle of something.” “Turn on your TV,” Wilkes says. “ESPN.” “Is this really necessary?” “Do it, man, this shit is serious!” “Yeah, I’m sure it is.” Mav puts the phone down, D-Jam’s wining barely audible, and turns on the TV. This better be good… The headline speaks for itself. Mav almost knocks his wine glass over, suddenly eager for a sip. He doesn’t think to turn his head, but Trish looks just as shocked as he does. He grabs the phone. “You weren’t kidding.” “See? See?! What the fuck, Mav? What are we gonna do?” “We’re gonna chill the fuck out and get ready for Denver. What else? This is probably bullshit.” “No way, man! Ain’t gonna be no normal practice week with this shit!” “D-Jam, have a beer. We’ll talk tomorrow.” He hangs up, praying D-Jam doesn’t call back immediately. Mercifully, he doesn’t. Mav and Trish stare at the TV screen, taking in the news between sips of wine. “My dad’s not leaving, I can tell you that,” Trish says. “Which means you’re not leaving.” Her face answers the question. Mav grabs the bottle of wine, steadying his hand and pouring them both some more. After some of the best time together he and Trish have shared, he’s uncomfortable with their relationship being tested so suddenly. Throughout the next few hours, every Knight hears about the news, and despite a formal statement from the team denying the reports, everyone is forced to consider life in England, a radical change for most. No players make public comments, as requested by their agents, but the media has plenty of discussion on the matter. Reaction from Los Angeles draws universally negative reviews. Many unleash heated criticism on Schneider, who already left a passionate Oakland fan base in the dust, for departing a city still recovering from the 9/9 earthquake. Players return to the MedComm Center Tuesday morning and, as is typical during times of background noise, Coach Harden is intensely focused on the upcoming opponent, and nothing else. He consistently mocks the Broncos defense as overrated, telling Coach McKenzie and the offensive players, “If you don’t hang thirty on them, you suck.” He has stronger words for his defense, feeling extremely confident against a Trevor Siemian-led offense, saying, “Every point you give up translates to ten minutes of suicides next Tuesday. Every turnover takes five minutes off.” Meanwhile, the television in Schneider’s office remains on all day as the London story circles the league. The Knights eventually release an official statement denying any interest in moving, remaining committed to their fans in Los Angeles, etc. Schneider even does a phone interview with a local radio station where he rambles about his L.A. roots and what it meant for him to bring NFL football to his home city. It’s enough to deflect any momentum from the story, but London is now a topic of discussion around the league, something Schneider wanted to avoid for another few months. There’s still plenty of tension in the building, assuaged by a full schedule of coaches meetings, where the 8-0 Knights leave little room to complain. Phillips, however, enjoys the tension, going about his business and counting the days until Friday, when he takes an alternate route home, parking his car under the I-10/I-110 interchange. A quiet spot in the middle of chaos, he usually comes here during stressful times in the front office or after tough losses. He spent an hour here the night Daniel got fired, just sitting, thinking. Tonight, this is a place for business, not rumination. Javad’s car pulls up a few minutes later, right on schedule. Phillips takes the folded piece of paper out of his pocket as Javad opens the passenger-side door. “This is a little sketchy, isn’t it?” Javad says, sitting down. “We could have picked a bar somewhere, but I suspect that would gather a little too much attention. Here.” Javad unfolds the papers, realizing there are two of them, and sees a sprawl of typewritten paragraphs, organized by heading. He reads every word. “Questions?” Phillips asks. “Several.” Javad looks up. “Schneider’s an L.A. native. He bought the Raiders specifically to bring football back to his hometown. Why move?” “Wayne Schneider is a businessman, first and foremost. Always has been. With another franchise headed this way, maybe he sees a better business opportunity in London than sharing income in L.A.” “We don’t even know if the Chargers or Rams are headed here, though. Why jump the gun?” “Think of it this way. Good businesses embrace trends; great businesses get out in front of them. From Schneider’s perspective, if London is so appealing, why wait?” Javad nods. That answers one of his big questions; now onto the other one. “What’s your angle on this, Chance? Trying to burn the guy publicly or just get some leverage? Because you know once this gets published, you’re out.” “I understand.” “Not just from the Knights. This story doesn’t have traction if it’s anonymous; it has to have your name on it. That means this is your resignation from the entire league.” “I want to see what you come up with first, how you would present it. Whatever the case, this is bad press for the league in a year where ratings are down. That makes it a big story. I tried to be concise, but if you want me to elaborate on anything, just ask.” Javad nods, realizing that’s his cue to get out of the car. He does so, freezing before shutting the passenger-side door. “Tell me something.” Phillips looks up. “My story on the Maverick trade. Was I right?” Javad knows he was; he just wants to hear Phillips say it. “Yes, you were. It was Philly.” Javad looks satisfied. Phillips decides not to tell him he abandoned the trade at the last minute, knowing it would sound suspicious. Javad shows half a grin before closing the door and getting back in his car. Both men drive away. When both teams take the field Sunday, the rumors of London linger in the air among fans. But for the players, all is forgotten once the game starts. CBS captures one shot of a Knights fan holding a “STAY IN L.A.” sign, prompting the commentators to briefly discuss the matter before moving on. London becomes an afterthought in the face of the Knights’ domination. McKenzie dials up a wave of screens and quick passes, neutralizing the Broncos’ ferocious pass rush. Maverick displays remarkable touch on his passes, leading two well-executed scoring drives that result in a Harper touchdown catch and McCabe field goal, putting the Knights up 10-0 after one quarter. The defense does its part as well, stacking the box and shutting down the run game, forcing Trevor Siemian to beat the Knights with his arm, something he cannot do. Harden screams at the top of his lungs after allowing a field goal, but the offense goes down the field again. Jameson adds a touchdown on the ground, and the Knights take a comfortable 17-3 lead into halftime. The Broncos make adjustments on defense, and first downs are harder to get. Still, the Knights remain patient and don’t turn the ball over. With a dominant defensive effort behind them, field position tilts in their favor, and Bishop finds the end zone near the end of the third quarter. On the ensuing Broncos drive, Flash intercepts a Siemian pass to set up the Knights in field goal range. A few plays later, Jameson powers through for another touchdown, and it’s all over. Players return to the sideline after each score feeling what they’ve felt all season: a new energy from the fans. The coaches have felt it, too. The celebrations are louder, the boos are more vicious. Farmers Field is a bigger home-field advantage than it has ever been for the Knights. In their executive suite, the latest touchdown brings Phillips and Schneider to their feet, clapping and cheering. They remain standing after the extra point goes through, along with much of the stadium. “What a crowd,” Phillips says, hoping for a reaction. Schneider looks stoic. “These are people living paycheck to paycheck to rebuild their homes, but they spend hundreds of dollars to come here and watch a football game.” “Indeed,” Schneider says flatly, knowing what card Phillips is playing and wanting no part of it. Schneider walks away, leaving Phillips to enjoy the final minutes of a decisive victory.
  2. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part VI Chapter Eighty-One – Epilogue The 2017 NFL season kicks off between the Los Angeles Knights and Pittsburgh Steelers at Farmers Field. The night begins with an emotional pre-game ceremony that raises the championship banner of the undefeated ’16 team, honors the memory of Merle Harden, and commemorates the one-year anniversary of the 9/9 Pasadena earthquake. Of the Knights/Steelers game, most fans expect a close battle reminiscent of last year’s regular season showdown. Instead, the Knights dominate from start to finish, winning 40-7 and solidifying their standing as the best team in the league. Two weeks later, the Knights advance to 3-0, extending their winning streak to 22 games (playoffs included), breaking a record previously held by the Patriots. Fittingly, the Knights travel to Foxborough in week 6, and the Patriots hand them their first loss of the year, ending the winning streak at 25 games. The Knights appear poised for a strong repeat campaign, 7-1 at the halfway mark of the year, until the calendar turns to November. The Knights’ rookie free safety struggles, and secondary breakdowns become regular. Their record drops to 8-4, and fans worry the team is headed for a collapse all too similar to the 2015 season. But Marcus Jameson returns to full health, elevating the offense to historic levels again. The Knights win three of their last four games, good for an 11-5 record and second seed in the AFC. After an easy Divisional Round win, the Knights return to Foxborough to face the top-seeded Patriots. The game proves a worthy rematch of last year’s AFC Championship, featuring an epic quarterback duel between Jonathan Maverick and Tom Brady. After Brady throws a touchdown to give the Patriots a four-point lead with two minutes left, Maverick answers with a touchdown drive of his own, finding Da’Jamiroquai Jefferspin-Wilkes in the end zone with six seconds left, and the Knights win their fourth AFC title in five years. Super Bowl LII pits the Knights against the Dallas Cowboys. After two weeks of hype, the first half is boring and one-sided. The Knights offense takes four drives into the red zone, and though Maverick throws an interception on one, the other three result in touchdowns. The Knights defense, meanwhile, shuts down Dallas’ offense, allowing them to cross midfield only once. The Knights take a 22-0 lead into halftime and don’t look back. The Cowboys get things going in the fourth quarter, but it’s too late. The Knights win, 29-17. Zack Grantzinger wins Super Bowl MVP thanks to a dominant performance that includes three sacks, one interception, eleven tackles, and four tackles for loss. This is the Knights’ third championship in four seasons, cementing their status as an NFL dynasty. A few days later, Adam Javad pens, “No sports team in recent memory has been farther atop their mountain than the Knights are right now. Last year’s undefeated season put them on top of the NFL world—of the entire sports world—and this season, they somehow made the mountain taller.” The ensuing offseason sees the Knights lose a few players to free agency, most notably Sam Luck, but the team still heads into the 2018 season returning a majority of their starters, making fans hopeful for the first three-peat in Super Bowl history. Over the course of the season, the Knights defense evolves from the hybrid into a primarily 4-3 scheme. Randall plays middle linebacker, while Grantzinger splits his reps between strong-side linebacker and defensive end. In their second year as lead coaches, Ron McKenzie and Chet Ripka avoid any losing streaks like last year, and the Knights enjoy a consistent season. The team’s strength continues to be its offense, featuring an array of receiving options few defenses can contain. Plus, the growth of center Bruno Fitzsimmons and right guard Adrian Dunn gives the Knights one of the best run-blocking lines in football, behind which Marcus Jameson has a career year. On defense, things are shaky. The Knights lack an impact player on the defensive line (outside of Grantzinger, when he lines up there), so they give up plenty of yards, but with a strong secondary and two of the best linebackers in the league, they prove hard to score against. Ripka has his defense play a significantly higher percentage of snaps in nickel formations with a slot corner. This is not a decision Merle Harden would have ever made, but Ripka remembers words Harden told him months before he died: “Don’t let my fucking ghost tell you how to do things. It’s your defense. Coach how you want to coach.” The Knights go 12-4, losing the top seed to New England on a tiebreaker. In the Divisional Round against the Colts, the Knights overcome a slow start, scoring 30 points in the second half to win, advancing to the AFC Championship for the third consecutive year. Instead of another trip to New England, the Patriots are upset by the Tennessee Titans, and Farmers Field hosts the AFC title game. The Titans prove a worthy opponent, battling the Knights in a back-and-forth battle. The Titans have a 27-25 lead late in the fourth quarter, and Marcus Mariota’s scrambling ability helps them run out the clock, winning the game. The Knights suffer their first postseason loss since Super Bowl XLVIII, five years ago, and fail to capture the elusive three-peat. Fans are smart enough to realize one year without a Super Bowl does not signal the end of the Knights’ winning days. But the following offseason does have fans worried about the future. With so much of the Knights’ money invested in their core, they have been unable to retain any young talent behind them. Thankfully, the team’s drafting has been good enough to keep solid players coming in, but fans become frustrated watching good names leave Los Angeles every year. This offseason, fans watch two favorites, Logan Bishop and Adrian Dunn, sign elsewhere. Dunn is the better player, but Bishop’s loss is a sentimental one, and hurts just as badly. Losing so many players to free agency nets the Knights multiple compensatory draft picks, and they enter the 2019 draft with eleven selections, plenty of youth to counter the team’s aging core. Despite a roster with six new starters and plenty of inexperience, an easy schedule allows the Knights to open the season 4-1. Behind a shaky offensive line, Jonathan Maverick leads an elite passing game. For the rest of the league, outscoring the Knights is never easy. The rest of the season includes plenty of close games, with almost every game on the Knights schedule decided late in the fourth quarter. They still win their share, entering December with an 8-4 record. But injuries start piling up, and the Knights finish 10-6. The Broncos win the AFC West, so the Knights’ playoff run starts on the road. The Wild Card Round takes the Knights to Tennessee, where they get revenge on the Titans from last year’s postseason loss, riding a strong first quarter to a 35-24 win. It is the Knights’ first double-digit victory since October. The Knights head to Denver for their third match with the Broncos this year. The game is a typical AFC West battle, though the Broncos have the upper hand for most of the day. Denver’s defense harasses Maverick all game, relegating the Knights to field goals while the Broncos score touchdowns. The Knights never find a way to break through, and the Broncos win, 21-12. The Knights enter a pivotal and tumultuous offseason in 2020. The team is coming off consecutive postseason disappointments, and many starters are either free agents or entering contract years. Jonathan Maverick and Briggs Randall receive long-term contract extensions within days of each other. Marcus Jameson, Tony Jefferson, and Joseph Watson are released, creating over $21 million of cap space. Da’Jamiroquai Jefferspin-Wilkes’ contract is extended and restructured. After being pressed against the salary cap for years, the Knights have money to spend. They don’t target any big names in free agency but are able to find stopgaps they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford. More importantly, they will be able to pay their young players about to become stars. And the Knights continue reloading on youth, armed again with plenty of draft picks. The 2020 season begins, and each successive game makes it clearer something is wrong with the Knights. After a rough opening month, a week 5 loss drops them to 2-3, the first time the team has had a losing record in over five years. The team has problems across the roster and treads water the next few weeks, unable to separate from a .500 record and entering December 6-6. Pressure mounts as fans and media pundits label Ron McKenzie on the hot seat. Then, something clicks. The Knights run the table, finishing 10-6 and winning the AFC West thanks to a week 17 victory in Denver. The conference’s third seed, they continue their hot streak with consecutive postseason victories but fall short of the Super Bowl, losing the AFC Championship Game to Indianapolis. Though fans are disappointed at another pre-Super Bowl defeat, the last two months of the year give plenty of hope for next season. At the start of the 2021 season, only four players from the undefeated 2016 team remain: Maverick, Wilkes, Grantzinger, and Randall. After a week 1 loss, the Knights validate their hype by winning seven straight games, rocketing to the top of a weak AFC. They ultimately finish 12-4, the top seed in the conference. After beating the Colts in an AFC Championship rematch, the Knights advance to Super Bowl LVI, where they defeat the Atlanta Falcons to capture their fourth Lombardi Trophy. Despite riding high from their fourth championship, the following seasons show a decline in the Knights franchise, a slow descent that signals the end of their dynasty. The Knights take a step back in 2022, partly due to costly injuries. Against a weak AFC West, the team manages only a 10-6 record and a division win, but they go one and done in the playoffs. The following offseason, Briggs Randall surprisingly retires, and the Knights cut Da’Jamiroquai Jefferspin-Wilkes. The 2023 season is more consistent but still unimpressive. The Knights appear to be a typical middle-of-the-road team, racking up wins against lesser opponents but unable to compete with the league’s elite. They are nevertheless in position for a playoff run, but a late-season injury to Jonathan Maverick dooms them, and they go one and done in the playoffs again after a 9-7 record. In 2024, the Knights are frustratingly mediocre. They struggle to put together wins in spite of a talented roster. Both McKenzie and Ripka come under fire from fans and the media. A rebuild appears imminent. Jonathan Maverick is injured again, and his backup, the team’s first-round pick last year, shows potential in the games he starts. The team finishes 7-9, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2015, and Knights management commits to a rebuild of sorts. Within the span of a month, Ron McKenzie and Chet Ripka are fired, Jonathan Maverick is released, and Zack Grantzinger retires. Los Angeles turns the page to a new era of Knights football. | | | | | | Brian Penner remains committed to retirement. He does, as he suspected, feel the itch to play when training camps open, but he never seriously considers a comeback. In his early retirement years, he enjoys being a stay-at-home father in Manitoba and maintains a close friendship with Chase Grodd. The Knights, plus several other NFL teams, reach out to him for a potential coaching position, but he declines. When Penner is eligible for the Hall of Fame, he becomes the subject of much debate. He spent three years in the CFL and had a few injury-plagued years of mediocrity, but he was an undeniably great player in his prime. A few years of voting come and go, and he is not inducted. Penner doesn’t care. After his release, Marlon Martin makes it clear to all prospective teams he will sign only as an inside linebacker, not a special teams contributor. With his 35th birthday on the horizon, Martin only wants to play another season or two. Though he finds a lukewarm market at first, Martin eventually signs with the Denver Broncos, happily joining a loaded defense as a rotational linebacker. A small snap count keeps him as fresh as possible, and he contributes, surprisingly effective as a pass-rusher. After one season, the Broncos ask him to take a pay cut. Martin declines, so the Broncos release him. To conclude a career spanning fourteen years and six teams, Martin signs a one-day contract with Los Angeles and retires a Knight, a show of respect to the first team that made him a linebacker. Encouraged by his agent, Sam Luck holds out of Knights training camp in search of a new deal but doesn’t gets one. With the Knights still operating the hybrid defense, Luck gets plenty of opportunities to showcase his talent. He ends the year with a career-high 12 sacks and plays an integral role in the Knights winning Super Bowl LII. Luck does not hear much from the Knights in the early weeks of the offseason. Already investing about $30 million to Grantzinger and Randall against the cap, the Knights view Luck as a luxury, and he becomes one of the biggest names of free agency. Though Luck wants to finally play in a full-time 4-3 defense (one the Knights, ironically, will now implement), he has a son at home plus a daughter on the way and must take the best contract for his family. This comes from the Indianapolis Colts, who sign him to a five-year deal. The Colts run a 3-4, but Luck plays outside in nickel formations, similar to his role in Los Angeles, and thrives. Sharing a surname with the franchise quarterback makes him a fan favorite immediately, a role he maintains throughout his time in Indianapolis, playing into his late thirties and retiring a Colt. With his combination of red flags and pass-rushing ability, Sean Brock becomes an intriguing free agent, ultimately signing a two-year deal with the Cincinnati Bengals. He is one of the Bengals’ better players on defense, but late into his second year, he is involved in an altercation with a bouncer at a Cincinnati nightclub. The charges are eventually dropped, but the Bengals don’t re-sign him. Now 32, Brock manages only a one-year, incentive-laden contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. After a slow start, he puts together a very solid season, and the iconic moment of his career comes in the NFC Championship, when Brock sacks Dak Prescott on a fourth down that wins the game. The Eagles go on to lose Super Bowl LIV, a game in which Brock records no sacks. Brock spends the next few years bouncing between teams on cheap contracts, both sacking opposing quarterbacks and finding off-the-field trouble in a periodic manner. After retiring, he develops an affinity for political activism on social media, railing especially against capitalism and corruption in politics. He becomes known as “The Truth” and lives in an unknown location in the Rocky Mountains. Griswold “Flash” Johnson is one of the hottest free agents on the market in 2017. With many teams offering lucrative contracts, Flash signs a five-year deal with the Detroit Lions. He improves the Lions’ defense immediately, entrenching himself as the best ball-hawking free safety in the league. Still a big trash talker, he is prone to fines and suspensions for dirty hits, prices the Lions gladly pay. As he ages, his role evolves into something of a hybrid safety, splitting his snaps between pass coverage and stopping the run. This is a transition Flash embraces, but more snaps in the box wear his body down, accelerating the latter stages of his career. Robert Schwinn is set to return to Los Angeles until a late surge by the Houston Texans changes things. The Knights fail to match the Texans’ offer, and Schwinn heads back to his home state. As he did in Los Angeles, he becomes an excellent strong safety and a rousing joker in the locker room. On defense, Schwinn’s talents are grossly overshadowed by the likes of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, but he doesn’t mind. A brief contract extension keeps Schwinn in Houston through 2022. His next free agency destination keeps him in state, and he joins the Dallas Cowboys for three seasons. After being fired by the Chargers, Caden Daniel receives a wave of college football interest; yet, he still feels the pull of the NFL. He resolves to himself to take one more NFL job before going back to college. He lands in Green Bay as an offensive coordinator, where he fits well with head coach Mike McCarthy’s leadership style and has the enviable task of coaching an offense led by Aaron Rodgers. This turns out to be a great match, culminating when the Packers win Super Bowl LIII. The Packers follow up their championship with a few stale seasons, and the organization decides on a change. Mike McCarthy steps down, and Caden Daniel becomes the 15th head coach in Green Bay Packers history. After his contract with the Chargers ends, Jerome Jaxson becomes a free agent again. Most initial contract offers are below his expectations in terms of money and length, and he eventually settles for a one-year deal with the New York Giants. Though productive, Jaxson is let go by the Giants at the end of his deal. He signs with the Green Bay Packers, reuniting with Caden Daniel. At the end of the year, the Packers too let him go. Jaxson spends the latter years of his career hopping from team to team on one-year deals. As he ages, he takes fewer snaps at running back, being employed mostly as a punt and kick returner. Alex Johnson becomes a free agent, this time with no illusions about his value. NFL teams see him as a wide receiver who can be productive, can’t stay healthy, and shouldn’t be a featured part of an offense. Johnson is fine with all those things; he just wants to play football. He signs a cheap, two-year contract with the Green Bay Packers, joining a receiving corps littered with talent and coached again by Caden Daniel, who was the Knights’ head coach when Johnson was drafted. He avoids another significant injury akin to his broken ankle in 2015, but Johnson still deals with nagging injuries that keep him sidelined for weeks at a time. When healthy, he is a reliable target for Aaron Rodgers, especially in man coverage against backup corners. He wants to return to Green Bay for a third season, but the Packers don’t want to overpay for a 30-year-old receiver with his injury history. So, Johnson spends the rest of his career bouncing from team to team on one- or two-year deals. Though he begins to slow down, he remains a precise route runner and therefore a reliable wide receiver, finally retiring at age 35, at the end of what is considered a good career, despite the injury-prone label. Logan Bishop plays out the rest of his contract, playing his final game as a Knight in the AFC Championship Game loss to Tennessee. As a free agent, he is pursued by many teams, the Knights included, but ultimately signs a three-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars wade through a failed rebuilding cycle, but Bishop is a consistently productive player for their offense. Though age slows him down, limiting his athleticism, his physicality makes him a threat after the catch, and he remains an excellent run-blocker. At the end of the 2021 season, Bishop is a 37-year-old free agent. After seeing a lukewarm market for his services, he decides to retire. His family stays in Florida. Bishop’s legacy as a player is enduring in Los Angeles, where Knights fans remember him for his penchant of being involved in the franchise’s most iconic plays. After a few years away from football, Bishop decides to begin a coaching career and returns to his alma mater, becoming tight ends coach at Florida State. Marcus Jameson is stunned when the Knights cut him in 2020. He had hoped to take a pay cut and finish his career with the team that drafted him. Instead, he becomes a free agent running back months before his 30th birthday. Despite being one of the most productive running backs in football, Jameson sees an uninspiring market for his services. He eventually signs a two-year contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jameson enjoys a solid year with his new team, including a revenge-fueled three-touchdown game against the Knights. The following season, however, age hits him hard and fast. For the first time in his life, nagging injuries limit his playing time, and he shows limited explosiveness when he does see the field. In the wake of the worst statistical season of his career, Jameson returns to Pittsburgh on a cheap, one-year deal. The next season is even worse, and Jameson is, when healthy, nothing more than a short-yardage back. He retires the day after the season ends. Joseph Watson has a bounce-back year in 2017, becoming both one of the best slot receivers and one of the most dangerous deep threats in football. Though his shaky confidence makes him prone to periods of inconsistency, he remains a vital part of the Knights’ passing game. And his Super Bowl LI touchdown catch immortalizes him in Los Angeles. When the Knights release him in 2020, the 29-year-old gets plenty of interest around the league, ultimately signing a four-year deal with the Carolina Panthers. Part of an offense that requires him to play a more featured role, Watson proves his worth. He is surprisingly physical given his small frame, and he flashes an ability to make catches in traffic he never showed in Los Angeles. He plays four full, productive seasons catching passes from Cam Newton, peaking in 2023 when the Panthers win Super Bowl LVII. Playing into his thirties, Watson’s play declines sharply as he loses speed, and the Panthers let him hit free agency after his contract is up. He signs a two-year deal with the Las Vegas Rams, but by his second year there, he is most valuable as a return specialist, and he retires at the end of the season. Chase Grodd anchors the Knights’ offensive line for five years, building a reputation as one of the best offensive linemen in the league. He is also one of the most underpaid, so he holds out of OTAs in 2019 in hope of a new contract, which doesn’t come. Then in 2020, after dodging plenty of trade rumors, he holds out of OTAs and training camp before playing out the final year of his deal. Grodd hits free agency at age 31, too old for a left guard to get a premium payday, he thinks. But the Bengals surprise him with a huge five-year deal, and Grodd heads to Cincinnati. He has one dominant year before seeing his play decline. Though still a mauler in the run game, his pass protection worsens, costly in a league that is as pass-happy as ever. Grodd’s fourth year in Cincinnati is his worst, playing injured nearly the entire season. The Bengals release him the following offseason. Grodd signs a cheap two-year deal with the New England Patriots and enjoys a resurgence. He sheds some weight and becomes more of a pass-blocking guard, playing two solid years before retiring. Da’Jamiroquai Jefferspin-Wilkes plays every football game as if he has to live up to his reputation as a physically dominant, trash talking, flamboyantly celebrative player—and live up to it he does. Despite his status as a diva, he is also one of the best receivers in the league, and he and Maverick form one of the best QB-WR duos in the league. The stability in his professional life reaps benefits for his personal life, including cutting off his Uncle Lincoln for good. After the Knights win Super Bowl LII, Wilkes wants to preserve his body (and mind) to win as many Super Bowls as possible, so he converts to Buddhism. The next few seasons see Wilkes’ receptions go down as the offense incorporations more spread formations, but his touchdown numbers are consistently high. He wins Super Bowl LVI MVP with a three-touchdown game. Wilkes has nothing to do with the Knights’ down year in 2022, but the team cuts him anyway. He signs a three-year contract with the Denver Broncos, eager to play the Knights twice a year. His career in Denver shows promise initially, and Wilkes lights up the stat sheet in both games against the Knights, but the Broncos are not a playoff team, and he grows bored. He plays his age-36 season slower than he has ever played football before, and the Broncos cut him the following offseason. His entire career in Los Angeles, Briggs Randall is a hallmark of consistency. Though he doesn’t dominate the flashy statistics like sacks and interceptions, he is a perennial elite middle linebacker. Randall is named a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, 2019, and 2020, though he never wins. When he signs a long-term extension in 2020, he has every intention of playing all six years of the contract. But circumstances adjust his plan. Late in the 2021 season, he suffers a concussion that sidelines him for a month. Early next season, he sustains another concussion. He returns to the field weeks later, but he doesn’t feel the same despite being medically cleared. After finishing out the year, Randall announces his retirement from football. He leaves the game with thoughts of a coaching career but no desire to pursue them in the near future. On the heels of his MVP campaign and 19-0 season, Jonathan Maverick is an undisputed elite quarterback in the NFL. Over the next half-decade or so, the Knights roster has plenty of weaknesses, but its strength at quarterback makes them a perennial Super Bowl contender. Maverick still possesses a gunslinger mentality and is prone to high interception numbers, but he throws more than enough touchdowns to make up for it. In the spring of 2019, Maverick marries Trisha Harden in a private ceremony that the entire team attends. A year later, Maverick signs a long-term extension with the Knights that makes him the highest paid player in the league. In 2023, he suffers a minor injury to his throwing shoulder—the same shoulder that cost him most of the season in 2014—and misses the team’s last three games, including their playoff loss. In 2024, his interception numbers are high again, and injuries on the offensive line lead to plenty of sacks. He injures his throwing shoulder again, this time costing him over a month, during which he watches his eventual successor play quarterback. After firing most of the coaching staff, the Knights enter a rebuilding period, and Maverick has no desire to stick around. The team tries to trade him, but Maverick’s massive contract makes it impossible, so he is released. Days later, the 36-year-old quarterback signs a three-year deal with the Dallas Cowboys. Maverick stays healthy his first two years in Dallas and remains one of the best quarterbacks in the game. The Cowboys fail to make a deep playoff run, however, and Maverick’s final year there is again marred by injuries. After being released, he signs a one-day contract with Los Angeles and retires a Knight. Before the 2017 season, Zack Grantzinger is rewarded with a massive five-year contract that makes him one of the highest paid non-quarterbacks in the league. He continues his dominance during that stretch, winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2018. When the Knights adopt a 4-3 defense, he splits snaps between strong-side linebacker and defensive end. Grantzinger makes fans nervous by playing through a contract season in 2021, though publicly he states that he doesn’t want to play anywhere else and intends on receiving a new contract quickly after the season ends. He does just that, taking a hometown discount in the process. Still a workout fiend on an organic diet, Grantzinger’s play declines only slightly as he ages. He remains an elite defensive force in the league and a cornerstone of the Knights defense. After the 2024 season, 37-year-old Grantzinger faces a dilemma. He knows his body can give him at least one more year, but when the team overhauls the coaching staff and releases Maverick, he decides he’d rather not choose between being part of a rebuild and finding a new home. The day of his retirement, he is universally hailed a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Ron McKenzie finds his transition to head coach surprisingly smooth. Though critical fans come to label him a good-not-great coach reaping the benefits of a talented roster, he guides the Knights through their dynasty with confidence and consistency. When the team navigates its second disappointing season in a row in 2024, McKenzie is smart enough to understand what’s coming. He is not surprised when the Knights fire him, and he leaves Los Angeles on good terms with everyone in the building. Chet Ripka enjoys a relatively stable career as Knights defensive coordinator despite his meteoric rise to the position. His leadership style meshes with Ron McKenzie’s, and the two lead one of the NFL’s premiere franchises for eight years. Behind the scenes, Ripka begins to manifest symptoms of what he believes is CTE. He is monitored by doctors privately, preferring to stay out of the limelight in this regard. When the Knights decide to purge the coaching staff in 2024, Ripka receives a wave of offers around the league, both for head coach and defensive coordinator positions. He instead steps away from football altogether, returning home to Chicago to live quietly with his family, including his son, with whom he remains close. Chance Phillips oversees one of the most talented rosters in the league, keeping it that way despite limited financial flexibility. The Knights’ 10-6 record in 2022 represents their tenth consecutive winning season, a time during which they won four Super Bowls, five conference championships, and seven division titles. In 2021, after a relatively quiet offseason, Phillips is the beneficiary of a big front-office move. His assistant GM, after four years of grooming, becomes general manager, and Phillips is promoted to Team President. This entails elevated stature around the league, higher pay, better hours, and a lessened grip on day-to-day operations while retaining final say on personnel. Phillips is known as one of the best executives in the league and a surefire Hall of Famer when he retires, though he has no intention of doing so for many years. He maintains a testy but productive relationship with Wayne Schneider. Adam Javad’s interview with Merle Harden launches his career into the national spotlight, earning him a job at the Los Angeles Times. He finds ways to distinguish himself in a crowded field of journalists in Los Angeles, thanks in part to his relationship with Chance Phillips. ESPN and NFL Network reach out to him multiple times with job offers, but he declines, preferring his position as the most plugged-in journalist covering Los Angeles sports and one of the most respected sportswriters in the country. Jay Cooper and Cassie Sampson continue their friendship and their status as Knight’s End regulars. They attend Farmers Field every year for one Knights game. Though still and always a die-hard football fan, Cooper develops an increasing appreciation for baseball. He begins attending Dodgers games, but during an intense, extra-inning game against the Giants with a playoff berth on the line, Cooper leaps from the left field bleachers and sheds his clothes. He goes streaking for exactly eight seconds and is banned from Dodger Stadium. Malik Rose remains a Charger through the 2019 season courtesy of a contract extension. Even into his thirties, he remains a true shutdown corner, able to keep the best receivers in the game off the stat sheet. His biannual battles with Da’Jamiroquai Jefferspin-Wilkes become legendary, and Knights/Chargers matchups get at least one primetime game per year. Age finally slows him down slightly, and playing a position predicated on speed, Rose’s play drops off sharply. San Diego lets him go after his contract is up, and he signs a one-year deal with the Detroit Lions to reunite with Griswold Johnson. Though Rose is not an elite corner anymore, the Lions’ secondary is among the best in the league. The following offseason, every team that reaches out to Rose wants him to convert to safety, a move he rejects. Rose retires a few months later. He is known as one of the most dominant cornerbacks to play the game, but off-the-field incidents cast a shadow over his reputation. The memory of Merle Harden looms large over the Knights, whether fans and players want it to or not. He leaves behind a legacy as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach who was beloved by his players. His NFL career ends with a 56-18-1 record, 9-1 in the playoffs. Though Melinda wants to move away from Los Angeles, she stays to be close to Trisha. In the spring of 2019, the Farmers Field concourse overlooking the north end zone goes under construction for the team’s hall of fame, a walkway modeled after the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The first star in the pavement belongs to Merle Harden. Through all the ensuing years of Knights football, the nickname that came from the Earthquake Reception somehow sticks. The name inspires memories of the players and era that birthed it, as NFL nicknames do—Monsters of the Midway, America’s Team, the Steel Curtain—but it is still a permanent fixture, an eternal label to every player and coach who wears black and purple. They are the Los Angeles Knights, and they are the Knights of Andreas. | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | Based on Characters Created By: badgers Bangy Barracuda Bay BigBen07 BradyFan81 BwareDware94 Chernobyl426 DonovanMcnabb for H.O.F eightnine. FartWaffles Favre4Ever GA_Eagle JetsFan4Life Maverick OAK RazorStar Sarge seanbrock Thanatos Turry theMileHighGuy Vin Zack_of_Steel
  3. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part VI Chapter Seventy-Nine – Super Bowl LI The Knights offense, instead of jogging onto the field, walks back to the bench, where a startled defense rushes into formation against a visibly confident Seahawks offense. Russell Wilson fires for Doug Baldwin, who runs through open space for eight yards. Thomas Rawls carries up the middle, running into Randall with enough momentum for a first down, already past midfield. Ripka fights off shock from the onside kick and sticks to the pre-determined set of plays for his defense’s first drive. He keeps waiting for Harden to add some commentary or make a suggestion or say anything at all, but he doesn’t. Another pass to Baldwin and one to Jimmy Graham get the Seahawks another first down, and Ripka realizes Wilson is getting the ball out too fast to make his blitzes effective. The Seahawks march toward the end zone with a mix of quick passes and Rawls in the run game. When they reach the red zone, Knights defenders have their arms on their hips between plays, gasping for air. Rawls tries to cut outside and meets Luck, wrangled down for a one-yard gain. Then Wilson drops back to pass, and Grantzinger breaks through. Wilson rolls out towards Brock and throws it away, bringing up third and nine from the eighteen-yard line. Wilson lines up in shotgun as Randall gets defenders in place, deciding to blitz. Wilson takes the snap and lobs it over the middle for Graham. The pass sails over Grantzinger’s arms and Graham runs for the end zone. Flash levels him at the goal line, but Graham hangs on to the ball. The bipartisan Houston crowd cheers for Super Bowl LI’s first score, and the surprise of it. The underdog Seahawks have done exactly what many pundits said they needed to do: come out swinging and seize momentum. Harden prowls along the sideline, not sensing any panic around him. It’s far too early, and everyone wearing purple should know it. With McKenzie’s offensive plan in mind, he glances up at the scoreboard, showing a 7-0 score after the extra point, then across the field to Coach Carroll, whose onside kick decision, Harden feels, was undeniably great. Okay Pete, we’ve seen how big your balls are. Now have a look at mine. Hauschka boots the kick downfield this time, into the end zone for a touchback. Maverick sets up shop at the twenty-five and Wilkes jogs toward the formation’s right side, staring Richard Sherman down with a gleaming smile. Maverick takes the snap, and Wilkes runs a comeback route as the ball comes flying in. He feels Sherman hit him before the ball gets there, but he catches it anyway, forcibly dragged down. “Fuck you, bitch,” Wilkes says to Sherman as he tosses the ball to the nearest ref. Sherman chirps back as Wilkes casually gets in formation. Sherman and some of the Seahawk defenders don’t realize the Knights are already lined up. Penner snaps it. Wilkes takes off, getting behind a surprised and out-of-position Sherman. Maverick’s pass is on target again. Wilkes snags it as Sherman dives for his feet, and the Knights hurry to formation. Maverick looks left this time, where Harper is open along the sidelines. Maverick hits him in stride, and Earl Thomas forces him out of bounds in Seattle territory. Maverick fires over the middle for Bishop, who sheds a tackle before Kam Chancellor brings him down. Maverick hits Johnson on a slant, running away from his man and diving for another first down. Maverick drops back, lets the blocking develop, and rolls right. He throws for Watson, open on the sideline, who catches it and stumbles forward a few extra yards. On the edge of the red zone, the Knights set up in shotgun, but Maverick decides on an adjustment this time. He switches Wilkes and Harper, and when Wilkes lines up to his left, Sherman doesn’t go with him. Maverick takes the snap and rolls left. Wilkes runs for the end zone and Thomas doubles him, just what Maverick wants. He looks back over the middle, where Bishop is open. He fires a dart that Bishop jumps to catch, absorbing a big hit from Chancellor and landing in the end zone. The crowd cheers and applauds again. Fans wondering how the Knights would answer Seattle’s six-minute, fifty-yard drive have gotten their answer: with a two-minute, seventy-five-yard drive of their own. Both field goal units stay on the sideline, and Maverick lines up under center with Wilkes isolated wide right against Sherman. Maverick calls his cadence and motions Johnson right just before taking the snap. Wilkes runs a slant, Sherman goes with him, and Johnson is wide open for an easy conversion. The Knights offense gets some much-needed water on the sideline, celebrating their 8-7 lead. Reynolds runs up for the kickoff and chips the ball laterally to his right. A few blue jerseys aren’t fooled, and at least four players are under the ball when it comes back to the field. It bounces backwards, hitting the grass before landing in the arms of backup linebacker Scott Sterling, and the Knights offense gets back on the field. Fans look up to the stadium’s big screens for a replay, many of them incredulous at the opening minutes of this game. Many Super Bowls have boring, uninspiring starts but build to an epic climax. In ten minutes, Super Bowl LI has already had two onside kicks and a two-point conversion. Maverick hands the ball off this time, and NesSmith runs through the middle for five yards. The Seahawks scurry to formation, ready for a hurry-up offense, but the Knights huddle up. “Sons of bitches are dead tired,” Penner says. “Got ‘em on their heels big time.” “Duly noted,” Maverick says, hearing McKenzie’s two play calls, one pass and one run. Maverick hands off again, and NesSmith finds more room, sliding through blockers for a first down. The drive continues, with NesSmith and Banks splitting carries every play. The Knights milk the play clock against a tired defense with McKenzie shuffling personnel and formations, never showing the same look twice. He enjoys having a firm upper hand. Pete Carroll decides to burn a timeout to give his defense rest, but it doesn’t help. After Banks converts on third and two, the Knights have a fresh set of downs nine yards from the end zone. At last, Maverick drops back to pass, but a free rusher comes off the edge, forcing him to throw it away. NesSmith carries up the middle for three yards, setting up third and goal. Maverick drops back looking for Wilkes, but Michael Bennett gets a hand on the football. Maverick hangs on to it and sprints away from the pocket, getting loose before hurling it out of bounds, trying not to show his frustration. Despite not reaching the end zone, the Knights take an 11-7 lead on McCabe’s field goal. Seattle only runs one play, a four-yard run by Rawls, before the clock runs out on what is surely the most memorable first quarter in recent Super Bowl memory. The Knights defense sets as Russell Wilson audibles, changing the formation. Randall responds with a complicated adjustment that puts Brock in coverage in the slot, where Doug Baldwin lines up. On the snap, Brock drops back, already beat, but Baldwin cuts toward the sideline, and Brock is in front of him. Brock looks back to intercept the pass, but Baldwin cuts upfield, and Brock is behind him again. Wilson throws the pass, and all Brock can do is tackle Baldwin after he catches it for a fifteen-yard gain. “C’mon Sean,” Randall yells as everyone gets set for the next play, “learn to fucking cover. Jesus.” Brock internalizes his anger for now, knowing he’s better off using it on the guys wearing blue jerseys. The next play has him in coverage again, but Wilson’s pass goes to Jermaine Kearse. After Lucas misses the tackle, Brock brings him down for what looks like a first down. Kearse jumps up and screams in celebration. Brock walks away, visibly disgusted. Knights defenders stand idly while officials call for a measurement. “What’s your problem?” Grantzinger asks. “Fuck these guys, man,” Brock says. “Every first down is a championship to these pricks.” “Make it hurt for them, then, you pussy.” Officials rule a first down. Brock gets to rush the passer, eagerly joining the wild battles raging on in the trenches. Players grab jerseys and facemasks for leverage. Multiple penalties are visible on each play, but officials don’t throw any flags. They have decided how they want to call this game. So be it. Rawls barrels through would-be tacklers for another first down, near field goal range, and Ripka decides it’s time for the hybrid. He radios the call to Randall, and the Knights line up in 3-4 with Wilson under center. Wilson steps back, surveying the defense. Randall yells, “Seahawk! Seahawk!” The defensive line and linebackers slide in opposite directions into a 4-3. Wilson hurries the snap, and offensive linemen surge ahead with Knights shifting. Rawls runs up the middle, his blockers pummeling white jerseys. Rawls surges into the secondary, going ten yards before being touched. Flash wraps up, but Rawls keeps his feet moving for another five yards before going down across midfield. Before calling the next play, Ripka radios to Randall, “From now on, no hybrid calls unless Wilson is off the ball. Can’t get caught out of position like that.” Seattle maintains momentum, continuing the drive into field goal range though the Knights don’t give up any more big plays. Harden looks on, frustrated that his focal point on defense, beating Seattle’s offensive line, is failing. Luck, Brock, and Grantzinger are all getting past blockers. Wilson is just getting rid of the ball too fast. On second and goal, Wilson runs from the pocket into open grass. All the white jerseys have their backs turned in coverage, so Wilson runs it in himself for the Seahawks’ second touchdown of the night. The extra point makes it 14-11, Seahawks, and Ripka and Harden wait for the defense. Their eyes meet, and Ripka doesn’t hide his stress. “It’s alright,” Harden says. “We’re fine.” For Harden, the game somehow feels easier to manage without the burden of play-calling. He thinks for a moment that this could be a refreshing new start, the beginning of a new way to coach, but then again, of course it won’t. Despite the score, no one panics on the Knights sideline. When the offense gets back on the field, Maverick finds Bishop and Watson on consecutive first-down completions, and everything is fine. The defense will work its issues out, and the Seahawks won’t be able to outscore them. Maverick leads a ruthlessly efficient drive, making it look easy against an elite defense. The Seahawks play the Knights tougher than they’ve been played all year, making them earn every inch, but earn it they do. Maverick mixes in short passes with deeper shots, always avoiding Earl Thomas when he goes long. Wilkes gets open against Sherman frequently enough to avoid frustration. The run game is rare but effective when McKenzie calls it. Bishop’s fifth catch of the day sets up first and goal. Wilkes motions left, away from Sherman, and Maverick takes the snap. Coverage is tight in the end zone, but Maverick throws as Wilkes breaks open. The bullet pass bounces off Wilkes’ hands. Wilkes gets hit, unable to make the catch as a diving Kam Chancellor gets under it, quickly tackled for a touchback. After finishing the last drive frustrated, Maverick shows his disappointment this time, sulking all the way back to the sideline. The Seahawks take over, still with the lead, 4:25 left in the half, and now, for the first time, fear creeps into the Knights sideline. The players feel Coach Harden’s pre-game comments resonating. After everything they’ve done this year, after everything they’ve won, they may lose this game. And they’ll never forget it if they do. Ripka scans his play sheet as Harden walks up to him. “Remember,” Harden says. “They deferred. So if they go down the field here, they get the ball in the second half with a two-score lead. No pressure.” “Thanks, Merle.” “Take it easy on the blitzes. They’re not working anyway. We need to disrupt Wilson’s passes before we come after him.” Grateful for some legitimate advice, Ripka finds a few plays he likes and relays them to Randall. The Seahawks try to run the ball, finding no room, but Wilson finds receivers when he drops back, working the outside. Richardson and Kearse can’t beat Stone and Lucas deep, but they get open easily on underneath routes. The Seahawks are near midfield on third and four with the clock approaching the two-minute warning. Ripka decides now is the time to blitz. Harden hears the call and suppresses a smile. The Knights line up in 4-3. Wilson steps back in shotgun, then calls out adjustments. “Seahawk!” Randall yells. Defenders slide quickly, resetting in a 3-4 as Wilson takes the snap. Randall and Martin blitz. Martin gets picked up but Randall has a free shot at Wilson, who gets crushed as he hurries a pass over the middle. Graham is open, but the ball sails over his head and into Flash’s arms. A Seahawk receiver is ready to tackle him, but Schwinn unleashes a devastating block, and Flash has room to run. The stadium roars as Flash accelerates toward a wall of offensive linemen, then cuts laterally, sweeping around them. Near the sideline, he cuts upfield, eyes on the pylon. Wilson is about to cut him off, so Flash jukes left. He stumbles a bit, and someone brings him down from behind, ten yards short of a pick-six. The crowd maintains its energy as the Knights offense takes the field. Maverick hands off to Banks, who cuts through the trenches for three yards. Second and goal from the seven. The clock ticks as the Knights huddle, in no hurry. Wilkes lines up against Sherman, and Bishop motions from right to left, leaving the two isolated, just what the Knights want. Maverick takes the snap and stares down Wilkes, faking a quick throw. Sherman bites slightly, anticipating a back-shoulder fade, and Wilkes gets in front of him. Maverick throws as hard as he can. Wilkes grabs the pass, presses it against his chest with Sherman grabbing for it, and lands in the end zone. He spikes the ball emphatically before huddling up for the two-point conversion. Maverick fakes a handoff and looks for Harper, but pass-rushers are in his face, and he can’t escape, taking the sack. He doesn’t show any concern, though, high-fiving his offense back to the sideline with 1:14 on the clock. The Seahawks try to run a two-minute drill, but Wilson scrambles around, unable to find anybody open downfield. The drive actually turns into a punt, the Knights get the ball back with 0:02 left, take a knee, and the half ends with the score 17-14, Knights. “Man,” Sampson says, “I gotta pee, but the lines in the bathroom are outrageous.” “We should be winning by twenty,” Cooper says. “Can’t believe Wilkes dropped that touchdown.” Knight’s End hums with anxiety and excitement. Fans are understandably nervous about a close game, but they talk with confidence knowing their team has the lead. The crowd around the bar has gotten so large it almost borders Cooper and Sampson’s high-top, and a few periodically turn around to engage the duo in conversation. One fan, donning a black Ripka jersey, says, “How are we not killing their offensive line? I thought we’d get five sacks by now.” “Wilson’s getting rid of the ball,” Sampson says. “They gotta start pressing,” Cooper says. “Harden should be calling the plays.” “Well, fuck it,” Sampson says, standing up. “The lines aren’t going anywhere, so I might as well.” Cooper studies his beer glass, near empty, wondering how many more he’ll have to order to survive the second half. Fans watch for an onside kick, but Reynolds boots it deep, and the second half begins. The Seahawks resume their quick-throw offense, keeping Wilson’s jersey clean. They get a few first downs before trying to run the ball, but Rawls goes nowhere. Luck tips a third-down pass at the line of scrimmage, and the Seahawks punt. The Knights offense takes the field with an opportunity to extend their lead, but Cliff Avril breaks through for a sack and a nine-yard loss. Two plays later, Reynolds comes out to punt, the first time both offenses have traded punts in this game. Some fans suspect coaches’ halftime adjustments will turn Super Bowl LI into a defensive battle the rest of the way, but are quickly proven wrong. The Seahawks spell Rawls with C.J. Prosise, a more dynamic threat in the passing game. This spreads out the Knights defense and springs Wilson on a few big scrambles. A few plays after reaching the red zone, Wilson connects with Jermaine Kearse on a six-yard touchdown. 21-17, Seahawks. McKenzie has Maverick run the no-huddle. Seattle’s defense is more rested this time, but the Knights mix up formations enough to get them out of position. It takes a few third-down conversions, but the Knights get into the end zone on a ten-yard pass to Harper. Lining up for two, Maverick gets the defense spread out and hands off to NesSmith, who bolts up the middle for the score. 25-21, Knights. Ripka steps up the blitzes, believing he has finally countered Wilson’s quick-strike strategy. This leads to a one-yard run and an incomplete pass, bringing up third and nine. Wilson dumps it off to Prosise on a screen, darting through blockers and diving ahead, getting a first down by inches. Whistles blow everything dead. Players look up at the scoreboard and instinctively hold four fingers in the air, some of them in shock that the end is just fifteen minutes away. Though Wilson somehow finds receivers downfield, pushing the drive into Knights territory, Ripka calls plays with confidence. Seattle’s offensive line is starting to break down. The Knights are on the verge of dominating. A stuffed run and incompletion brings up third and ten. Ripka has his blitz ready, and Wilson takes the snap in shotgun with three linebackers running for him. Wilson hurriedly sets his feet and hurls the ball in the air for Baldwin. Stone has him covered, but both players look up and lose the ball in the lights. Neither sees it until it bounces off Stone’s shoulder and into Baldwin’s arms. Stone tackles him, down at the five-yard line. The Seahawks celebrate like they’ve won the game while the Knights prepare for first and goal. “That’s bad luck, Chet,” Harden says. “Brush it off and keep doing what you’re doing.” Ripka tries to do just that, clinging to the idea of a field goal here and maintaining a one-point lead. Rawls takes a carry up the gut to the three-yard line. Wilson takes a shotgun snap and sweeps left on a designed run. A messy pile of colliding players somehow forms into well-set blocks, and Wilson cuts upfield into the end zone. Harden looks up after the extra point: Seahawks 28, Knights 25, 11:31 to go. He studies his players as they take seats on the bench, eager for water. Harden doesn’t see the point in mentioning it, but his defense is tired. They need a long drive from the offense here. Thankfully, McKenzie and Maverick are ready for just that. They have spent the last twenty minutes planning this possession, and both men are fully confident in a long, grueling touchdown drive that will wear the Seahawks down for good. Things start simply. NesSmith takes a shotgun draw up the middle, gaining only two yards. Then Maverick drops back, looking outside for Wilkes, but pressure comes off the edge. He steps up as the pocket collapses around him, and he goes down, multiple blue jerseys landing on top of him. McKenzie studies his play sheet, forced to adjust his plan for third and fourteen. He has everyone run downfield routes, hoping a streaking Watson will get Wilkes open over the middle. Maverick takes the snap, waiting for the routes to develop, but a free rusher beats Penner up the middle. Maverick rolls left into Michael Bennett. Maverick extends a stiff-arm, running backwards to escape, but Bennett trips him up, and Maverick falls to the ground. He slams the football against the grass, forced back to the sideline as the punt team trots out for an embarrassing fourth and twenty-five. All five offensive linemen plop down on the bench and scarf down water, out of breath. Penner, in particular, is desperate for air. “What the fuck?” McKenzie says, positioning himself in front of the O-line. “Brian, what’s your problem?” “My old body’s fightin’ me,” Penner says. “I’m doing my best.” “Are you fucking kidding me? This is the goddamn Super Bowl, and you’re whining about your best? Get in the game or ride the bench. Your choice.” McKenzie struts off to grill Maverick for adding ten yards to that sack. Penner stays where he is, trying to catch his breath a few minutes while watching the game on the big screen. None of the linemen speaks. By the time Penner feels somewhat relaxed, he also feels his back throbbing. He looks up at the big screen, seeing Grantzinger notch a third-down sack, setting the Knights offense for a return to the field. “Okay,” Penner says, standing up and getting the offensive line’s attention. “I am either dying in my bed, a long fuckin’ time from now, with two Super Bowl rings on my fingers…” He turns around. “…or I am dying tonight, on this field, with one. Let’s play football.” A great punt leaves the Knights on their own three-yard line, down three points with 8:26 on the clock. Maverick leans on Wilkes, still able to beat Sherman on short routes, for some easy passes that buy the Knights breathing room. The chains move and the clock ticks. McKenzie is comfortable with the pace, knowing a long drive could put the Knights ahead with very little time left. Maverick builds some confidence, able to find receivers with good blocking in front of him again. McKenzie calls a few rollouts, and they work. A ten-yard catch by Johnson puts the Knights near midfield as the clock ticks under five minutes. An incompletion and short throw to Wilkes brings up third and five. Maverick drops back with Wilkes and Watson running deep. Pressure comes off the edge. He steps up, unable to spot anybody. He tucks the ball to run it himself, but multiple linebackers head straight for him. He spots Bishop out of the corner of his eye and laterals it to him. Bishop catches it and runs sideways, trying to outrun the defenders, but they’re too fast. “LOGAN!” Bishop hears Maverick’s voice and, no time to see if he’s beyond the line of scrimmage, throws it back across the field. Maverick catches the sideways pass, puts his fingers on the laces, and bombs it to the end zone as a defender levels him. From the grass, he watches as Watson runs full speed, escaping double coverage, trying to catch up to the ball. As he reaches the end zone, he dives, fully extending his body. The ball hits his hands, and he holds on to it as his stomach hits the ground and he slides through the end zone and out of bounds. The nearest official raises his arms as Watson shows off the ball. Touchdown, Knights. Watson hurriedly springs to his feet in a fit of madness. “OH YEAH! LET’S GO, BABY! LET’S GO!” Watson leads a frenzied celebration onto the sideline, most of the offense following as Harden calls for the extra point, wanting a four-point lead. McCabe knocks it through, and the Knights are on top, 32-28, with 3:53 to go. Every player, coach, and trainer stops by to congratulate Maverick and Watson (and Bishop) on one of the wildest touchdowns they’ve ever seen. After celebrating, Maverick and Watson gulp down water and gasp for air, both too tired to realize they just made career-defining plays. After a touchback, many fans in NRG Stadium don’t bother sitting down through the commercial break. The Knights defense stands on the field, inching closer to Randall to hear the first play. “Alright, boys,” Randall says. “No MVP drives from Maverick tonight. It’s defense wins championships. Let’s seal this fucking thing and celebrate.” Ripka and Harden stand shoulder to shoulder, Ripka calling plays and Harden providing scarce feedback. The Seahawks start what looks like one of their drives from the first half; Wilson gets rid of the ball quickly for short, safe completions. This chews a lot of clock, despite a hurried pace. Wilson rolls to his right, finding Baldwin over the middle for another first down. 3:01, 3:00, 2:59… Graham catches a quick pass and Randall wraps him up, but a Seahawk receiver pushes the two forward, and Graham keeps his feet moving for a nine-yard gain. 2:42, 2:41, 2:40… Wilson hands off to Rawls, sliding through blocks for a first down before Randall and Brock bring him down. It’s first and ten from midfield. 2:10, 2:09, 2:08… The Seahawks try to get lined up with Pete Carroll preserving his timeouts, but the clock hits 2:00, and players get another rest. After the commercial break, the Seahawks line up in a bunch formation, then spread everyone out. Randall flips the 4-3 to a 3-4 and calls adjustments to the secondary. Wilson drops back against an inside blitz. Martin has a free run at the quarterback, whose eyes light up before bombing it downfield. The Knights sideline watches in horror as a wide-open Jimmy Graham streaks toward the end zone, nobody near him. Flash reaches full speed to catch him, diving and hitting his feet at the ten-yard line. Graham stumbles, falls, extends the ball, and slides into the end zone grass. He holds the ball up, celebrating a touchdown. The nearest official, though, stands a yard short of the goal line and holds one arm up, signaling first down. Graham protests while Flash and Schwinn yell at each other about who was supposed to be over the top. Meanwhile, Pete Carroll lets the clock wind before calling timeout with 1:18 to go, allowing both rest for his offense and an opportunity for a booth review. Officials confer about the spot, but multiple replays on the stadium big screens confirm that they’ve gotten it correct, right around the one-yard line. Randall walks to the sideline to confer with Harden and Ripka. From their executive suite, Phillips and Schneider stand, unable to sit, and ponder the upcoming set of downs. “We’ve got to let them score, don’t we?” Schneider asks. “Allow the touchdown, make it 35-32, then give Maverick two minutes to score.” “I think we should,” Phillips says, “but I don’t think we will.” Unknown to them, Randall and Ripka have the same idea, but it is Harden who speaks first. “Alright, they’re gonna run it here on first down, so let’s stuff the middle.” “Hang on,” Ripka says. “Merle, I know what you’ll think, but I honestly think the smart thing—” “Zip it,” Harden says, anticipating someone would bring it up. “We did not get here by letting teams score.” “We didn’t get here with elite defense either, in all fairness.” Harden stares down Ripka, and Randall jumps in. “Coach is right,” he says, motioning toward Ripka. “We can’t stop them four times with normal plays. We have to guess run or pass every play and commit to it.” “Agreed,” Harden says. “Chet and I will make our guess. You see an adjustment, you make it. Got it?” Randall nods. “Get out there.” Randall jogs back toward his defense as Harden and Ripka agree on a call. The other ten defenders gather around their defensive captain, figuring, but not liking, that they’ll have to just concede a touchdown here and hope the offense wins the game. Randall waits until he’s sure everyone is looking him in the eye. “This is gonna be the goal line stand of our lives,” he says. “They’ll talk about this one for years.” Everyone’s eyes light up, and Randall relays the call that buzzes in his ear. Both teams line up in a bunch, goal-line formation. Wilson lines up under center with Rawls behind him. He takes the snap and hands it off. Randall, Martin, Schwinn, and Flash all run up the middle. Rawls leaps over the pile of bodies. Randall and Martin hit him mid-air, and he falls back to the ground for no gain. Second and goal. Ripka and Harden turn to each other and say, “Run,” simultaneously. Ripka calls a similar play. The Seahawks line up with extra receivers this time, but the Knights keep the box stacked. 0:40, 0:39… Rawls gets it again, running up the middle before cutting outside. Grantzinger sheds his blocker and hits Rawls, stopping his momentum. Schwinn comes flying in to bring him down, and officials spot the ball back at the two, a loss of a yard. Third and goal. “Pass,” Ripka and Harden say simultaneously. Carroll lets the clock run before calling timeout with 0:12 to go, essentially preventing the Knights from getting the ball back after a game-winning score. Ripka and Harden stick to their original call. Wilson lines up under center, then backs up into shotgun. Randall spreads out the front seven. Wilson takes the snap and looks right. Blue jerseys get pressed at the line of scrimmage. He looks left. Rawls runs a route towards Brock, who tries to follow him as Rawls cuts left into the end zone. Wilson throws for him. Brock tries to catch up, diving through the air and extending his arm, tipping the ball over Rawls’ head and out of bounds. Fourth and goal. Brock leaps to his feet and teammates surround him, feeding off the great play and the reality: whether they agreed with Coach Harden’s decision or not, no one had any illusions about their odds. But now, they’re one play away, with 0:06 on the clock. Seattle calls its final timeout. Randall waits for the call, looking toward Ripka and Harden, neither of whom has spoken yet. “Run or pass?” Ripka finally asks. “I don’t know,” Harden says honestly. “One yard out, I’d say run, but from the two? Could be anything.” “We can call against a pass and give Briggs some blitzes if he senses run. And we’ll stack the box regardless.” Harden thinks. “That works for me. Make the call.” Ripka radios in the play plus audibles, Randall relays it, and both teams line up for Super Bowl LI’s final play. No one on either sideline, anywhere in the stadium, or anywhere in the world watching the game, is sitting. Wilson lines up in shotgun with two receivers, plus Graham in the slot, Rawls next to him. The Knights have man coverage on the outside, Flash against Graham, with defenders crowding the line of scrimmage inside, showing blitz. Wilson shouts a few adjustments. Randall changes nothing. Wilson takes the snap. He drops back, looking right for Graham. Flash stays with him. Randall waits for a receiver, wanting to blitz, and sees something in the pass protection. It must be something he noticed on film, but he sees it. “SCREEN!” he yells. “SCREEN!” He cuts to his right as Wilson dumps the ball off to Rawls, but a lineman crushes him. Brock and Martin break off coverage, sprinting toward the developing screen. Rawls catches the ball four yards from the end zone with two blockers in front of him. Brock and Martin take on their blockers, fighting for leverage at the goal line. Rawls stops, no room to slide between blocks, and cuts right. The clock hits zero. Martin sheds his block enough to make Rawls run wide, where Randall closes down on him. Rawls cuts toward the end zone, one yard away, extending the ball. Randall and Martin hit him, stopping him dead. A wave of offensive linemen run toward the pile, ready to push Rawls into the end zone, but Schwinn gets there first, lowering his shoulder into Martin, driving the whole pile backward. Randall stays on his feet as Rawls goes down, breaking into an adrenaline-induced sprint back toward midfield. He doesn’t look back to see where officials spot the ball, but he sees the entire Knights sideline emptying, white jerseys flooding the field. Harden stands still, trying to spot the officials through the chaos in front of him. He has to glance up at the big screen to confirm it, but sure enough, it’s down on the one-yard line, turnover on downs, game over. Knights 32, Seahawks 28. Harden stands in shock, slowly turning back toward the sideline, already almost empty. He sees Maverick, arms extended, barreling toward him. Without a second thought, he smiles, opens his arms, and the two embrace as a cooler of Gatorade comes flying in, dousing them both in purple liquid with ice cubes flying in all directions. 19 wins, 0 losses. Phillips breaks from his embrace of Schneider and turns to his family. All three children mob him, physically overpowering him so much that he falls down. For a moment, he feels like a young father again, in no hurry to get up. Everyone in the restaurant raises their arms, spraying beer into the air, bellowing out in jubilation. They don’t know and wouldn’t think to consider it, but the celebration can be heard multiple blocks away. Cooper knocks his beer over to leap across the table and mob Sampson with a monstrous bear hug. When he’s done with him, he does what every other Knights fan is doing: circle around the bar, shaking hands and high-fiving and hugging people he has never met, all of them sharing the same victory. The initial wave fades, fans begin focusing more on the TV than themselves, and the celebration turns emotional for some. Men who have never cried in their lives wipe away tears running down their face. Everyone looks up at the scene in Houston, and the noise level around Knight’s End lowers enough so fans can hear, off in the distance across the city, the sound of fireworks. Players move around the field in a daze, confetti littered across their jerseys and falling onto hats that say, “Los Angeles Knights, Super Bowl LI Champions.” Many stay close to family members, congratulating whatever player or coach passes by. Most of these players enjoyed this same celebration two years ago, but that wasn’t going undefeated. Two years ago feels meaningless compared to this. The stage is set up, and players part into two groups, forming a long line down which the shiny Vincent Lombardi Trophy comes, touched by players’ hands on its way to the center of the field. Phillips watches the trophy coming his way, standing next to Schneider and Harden. He tries to live in this moment, to focus on every detail around him and nothing else. He remembers the Super Bowl two years ago, how everyone so quickly moved on to preparation for free agency, for next season, for winning another Super Bowl before celebrating the one they had just earned. He won’t make that mistake this time. And so, the Los Angeles Knights pass around the Lombardi Trophy, celebrating both a championship and what many will call a perfect season. The Knights, of course, know this year has been far from perfect. These players have all survived a catastrophic earthquake that left them with physical and emotional damage. They watched their head coach collapse during a game shortly before learning he had throat cancer. They watched their star running back suffer a devastating knee injury. They warded off rumors that the team itself was being relocated to a different continent. And yet, here they are. As Coach Harden said in December… Perfect? No, the Knights can never celebrate perfection. Instead, they celebrate a 19-0 record, something not even the previous fifty Super Bowl winners accomplished.
  4. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part VI Chapter Seventy-Eight – Last Words Situated on the shore of Lake Washington across from Mercer Island, the Virginia Mason Athletic Center opens early Monday morning, and various members of the Seattle Seahawks, headquartered inside, begin to arrive. First in the door is head coach Pete Carroll, who got about four hours of sleep and will be lucky to top that tonight. Carroll and his team are still riding high from yesterday’s win in Dallas, a win no one expected, and they’ll have to maintain that energy for two weeks to engineer another upset. Carroll, of course, knew his opponent would be either the Knights or Patriots if he beat Dallas, so he already has a few ideas about where to lay the game plan’s foundation. The Knights’ strength is their offense, so Carroll, a defensive coach by trade, starts there. Not long after he gets going, defensive coordinator Kris Richard joins him, and they bounce ideas off each other, watching film and scribbling notes. Richard mentions a few tactics they used in their previous matchups against the Knights, in Super Bowl XLVIII and the regular-season game the following season. “Let’s not fall in love with that,” Carroll says. “We can use what worked in 2014, but we shouldn’t stick with it. Two years have passed, you know? This is a different team. They’re different, we’re different, it’s gonna be a different game.” They watch tape from throughout the Knights’ season, collectively showcasing an offensive clinic. The league’s highest-scoring offense will be difficult to stop, but Carroll knows the Knights haven’t faced a defense as good as his yet. He pauses the tape to make another point. “They have so many playmakers, so many guys, but it really all hinges on 81,” he says, referring to Da’Jamiroquai Jefferspin-Wilkes. “It’s a different game if he plays.” “I haven’t heard anything,” Richard says, “but you’d think, with two weeks, he’ll be ready.” “We might as well assume so. You know, the only defense that really gave them fits this year was San Diego.” “Rose.” “Exactly. We need Sherman to duplicate that.” Unknown to Carroll (though it wouldn’t surprise him), Richard Sherman has been praying for a Knights rematch. He has shut down Wilkes the only two times he’s faced him and fully expects to shut him down again. “Let’s get him fired up, too,” Carroll says. “I want him rattled, I want him uncomfortable. Get in his head.” Carroll and Richard eventually transition from containing the Knights’ receivers to exploiting their weakness. And while their 18-0 record makes them look invincible, Carroll finds one. “You know, they get credit for a great O-line, but their tackles are weak,” Carroll says. “They give up a lot of pressures. They don’t give up sacks because Maverick is so mobile—people don’t talk about that enough, his ability to escape—but that’s a point of emphasis for us.” Carroll is right. The Knights’ strength in the trenches is their interior trio of maulers. But tackles Tristan Adams and Evan Fowler have been relative weak links this year. If Carroll listened to Los Angeles talk radio, he’d know the most critical of Knights fans have been complaining about them since week one. “I want to push Michael this week,” Carroll says, referring to Michael Bennett, “push him real hard. He has the potential to change the whole game.” Eventually, Carroll leaves Richard for another film room. By now, the day is in full swing inside the building, and players are beginning to arrive. Carroll links up with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and quarterback Russell Wilson to check on their progress. When Seattle last played them in 2014, the Knights were a defensive powerhouse. They have since become an offensive team, but Carroll knows never to underestimate a defense coached by Merle Harden. “He blitzes every play and gets away with it,” Carroll says. “I’ve never seen anyone else do that and not get burned.” He looks away from the monitor, towards his quarterback. “They’re gonna come after you hard. You’re gonna be running around.” “I’m good with that,” Wilson says. “I think we have to double 52, coach,” Bevell says, referring to Zack Grantzinger. “We just have to.” “So be it,” Carroll says. He doesn’t want to commit to a double-team, but he knows his offensive line is his biggest weakness and must find a way around it. “We just have to get you out of contain, Russ. If, when you’re pressured, you can escape into the flat, someone will break open. And if they spy extra guys to cover you, that’ll leave receivers open downfield.” “Not Harden’s style to have a spy,” Bevell says. “I know. And that favors us.” They soon move beyond the front seven and into the secondary, where everyone likes Seattle’s matchups on the outside. “Doug can make pays,” Wilson says, not seeing any film on starting cornerbacks Julian Stone and Ken Lucas that worries him. “We just need to keep him away from 20,” Carroll says, referring to Griswold Johnson. “Also, Harden’s the kind of coach who likes simplifying the game with matchups. I want him out of his comfort zone on that. Let’s mix up formations and matchups for sixty minutes. Jimmy, especially. I want him lining up all over the place.” “Hang on a second, coach,” Wilson says. “What about their hybrid?” “I have a few ideas for that, actually,” Carroll says. As soon as Logan Bishop lunges over the goal line to win the AFC Championship, Las Vegas is taking bets for Super Bowl LI. The Knights open as 5-point favorites and receive the majority of early action. The spread slides to -5.5, then -6.0. Seattle’s upset victories over Atlanta and Dallas have not bought them legitimacy, it seems. The sports world sees them as a streaking team whose luck will run out against a superior opponent, a team that simply doesn’t have the talent to keep up with the Knights. The media dissects the game from every angle, laying the groundwork for two weeks of analysis that will become excessive days before kickoff. Many pundits, of course, make repeated mention of the fact that this is a Super Bowl XLVIII rematch, a catchy tidbit that makes for good advertisement taglines, but not much more. The Knights are looking to cement their place in NFL history with an undefeated season, but the Seahawks have the same idea: a win in two weeks would be their second Super Bowl in four years, prerequisite to a dynasty. The official definition of the word “dynasty” is again debated. A Seahawks win would give them two Super Bowls in a four-year period including three NFC Championship appearances and four ten-plus-win seasons. The Knights’ case, with a win, is just as compelling: two Super Bowls in three years, three appearances in four years. The largest draw for Super Bowl LI is, of course, the Los Angeles Knights’ 18-0 record, one win from perfection. As it did with the Patriots in 2008, the sports world examines the Knights’ legacy with a 19-0 season, where they would rank in both NFL lore and the sports world as a whole. And the Knights have other factors of interest. Record aside, the 9/9 Pasadena earthquake put them at the top of news reports all season, and Merle Harden’s cancer has kept them there. Altogether, the league expects record-breaking ratings for the Super Bowl, even if most fans aren’t expecting a good game. McKenzie strolls through the MedComm Center lobby, coffee in hand, finally forced to think about the task before him after a peaceful drive. In just his third year in the NFL, he is coordinating one of the league’s most prolific offenses, so of course he faces one of the league’s most formidable defenses in the Super Bowl. God help him if Wilkes can’t suit up. He opens his office door and puts his coffee down, freezing in place as he spots a piece of paper taped to his desk. He pauses at the eerie sight, eventually deciding to grab the paper, nothing underneath it. On it is written a single question: “How did you get here?” “What the hell?” McKenzie says aloud. Alarmed and perplexed, he looks around the office. Nothing else appears out of order. A thought occurs to him. He steps back into the coaches’ hallway and pops his head into a few offices. Sure enough, a piece of paper bearing the same question is taped somewhere in each office. His wits returning to him, McKenzie rereads his paper and identifies the handwriting. He makes a beeline for Harden’s office. “Merle,” says a voice from the doorway, distracting Harden from his white board, littered with X’s and O’s. “Yeah, Mac.” McKenzie holds up the paper even though Harden isn’t looking at him. “What the hell is this?” Harden spins in his chair, sees the mystified look on McKenzie’s face, and laughs. “I figured you’d like that.” “What’s the matter with you? This isn’t your style, Merle. You go off the deep end or something?” “Calm the hell down, Mac. Drink your coffee and take a goddamn seat.” McKenzie does so, no less disturbed, and Harden puts down the marker, relaxing as he faces his friend. “I had a dream about ’85,” Harden says, reliving the details of that night in his mind yet again. “Devil’s Lake?” “Mhmm. My first state championship. I was nervous as hell, and the game got the best of me. I blitzed when I should have dropped back, I played it safe when I should have blitzed.” “So what happened?” “We won, by the grace of God, and the grace of the opposing quarterback totally shitting himself.” McKenzie leans back in his chair, not knowing where Harden is going with this and knowing he’ll get there any second. “We haven’t lost a game this year, Mac. Think about that. Not one game.” “So?” “That scares the hell out of me. We’re up against something big with this game, and we can’t let it beat us. We can’t overthink anything. We have to play our game. Because you can bet Russell Wilson ain’t gonna shit himself.” “Understood. Would you like me to communicate this to my side of the coaching staff, or would you rather tell that dumb story another twenty times?” “Your choice, Mac. Now get out of here. Some of us have work to do.” McKenzie cracks a smile as he leaves the room, and Harden gets back to balancing film from the Seahawks and Patriots. Normally he would focus fully on his upcoming opponent, but something nags him about yesterday’s game. And sure enough, the longer he watches film, the harder he analyzes, one thing becomes clear. Harden finds Ripka’s office empty, so he walks back through the lobby in search of more water. Ripka happens to be walking in, and Harden stops him. “Chet! Get over here a second.” “Good morning, Merle,” Ripka says. “What’s on your mind?” “I want you to call the plays against Seattle.” Ripka’s eyes widen. “You…I…what?” “I fucked us a couple times yesterday, and it almost cost us the season. Can’t let that happen.” “But I—” “I watched the K.C. game when I was stuck at home. Took the film apart too. You were fine. You made calls on all the big plays I would have made. So, you call the plays, and if you’re ever not sure, we decide together. I figure we start working on this now so we’re not burning timeouts in Houston.” Ripka is astonished and humbled, working through the shock to thank Harden for the incredible opportunity. Two years ago, he walked into this building with no coaching experience hoping for a role where he could contribute. Now, he’s about to hold play-calling duties for the Super Bowl. “Merle,” Ripka says, “I can’t begin to—” “Don’t make a big fucking thing out of this now,” Harden says, and walks away. Spirits are high as players take their seats in the auditorium for one last introductory address. Players relive exciting moments from Sunday’s game, make a few comments about Seattle, and enjoy the freedom that everyone can finally speak openly about the upcoming NFL Honors, a show the Knights should dominate. Maverick is the universal favorite for MVP, and he figures to win Offensive Player of the Year as well. Wilkes wants that award, and Maverick thinks he deserves it, but history is against him. The last time a receiver put up numbers like him was Randy Moss in 2007, and even then, Tom Brady won Offensive Player of the Year. For the moment, though, the award centering discussion amongst the players is Coach of the Year, which Harden will absolutely win. There are several coaches around the league with compelling cases, but like Bill Belichick in 2007, going 16-0 wins you the award on principle—even if the Knights were technically 15-0 in regular-season games Harden coached. Naturally, players are eager to see their limelight-hating head coach get up on stage and accept the award in what will certainly be a short speech, if it can be called a speech at all. Spearheaded by Schwinn, players bet on the length of the speech, with the initial line set at 10 seconds. Schwinn, despite the uneducated vibes his redneck accent projects, is well versed in the mathematics of odds and gambling, able to perform the calculations mentally. “Place your bets, cowboys, place your bets!” Schwinn announces as sums of cash change hands and frantic bets are made as if the MedComm Center auditorium has turned into Wall Street. During a lull in the action, Luck, who has not placed a bet yet, steps up. “What about this,” Luck says. “What are the odds he goes Steven Wright and just says ‘Thanks’ and walks off the stage?” “Depends how confident you are, partner,” Schwinn says. “What’s the shortest bid right now?” “Shortest one on the books is Zack. He took four seconds.” “Alright, hell with it. I’ll take one second.” “I like your style. I’ll give you eight-to-one.” “Sold.” “Hang on,” Martin says, entering the mix. “What’s the longest bet on the books?” “Logan has thirty seconds.” “Give me forty-five seconds. Ten-to-one.” “Eight-to-one, same as Sam.” “Nine-to-one.” “Oh, a hard bargainer. I like it. Nine-to-one it is.” The round of betting seems poised to continue until Harden assumes his position at the front of the auditorium, and the chatter slowly dies down. “We’re gonna talk about where we fucked up against New England in a minute,” Harden says, “but for now, I got something to say about Seattle. In fact, I got news for you all. You do not want to win this game more than them. Don’t make it about that. As much as we want to finish what we started, as much as we want to go undefeated, they want to be the ones to stop us just as much. This game will come down to who plays better football, plain and simple. That should be us, if we don’t fuck it up. And don’t give me that ‘unfinished business’ crap either. Anyone wants to make this about what happened three years ago, leave that shit here before we fly to Houston.” Despite Coach Harden’s words, some players can still feel the agony of that Super Bowl defeat, and they have wanted vengeance ever since. “We got this far on good plans by the coaches and good execution by the players. That’s how we’re gonna finish it.” Finished with his opening spiel, Harden talks about New England, highlighting only a few items before moving on and officially beginning the Knights’ preparation for the Seattle Seahawks. Players hit the practice field after learning the basics of a game plan that will evolve over the next few days. Harden is licking his chops to take on Seattle’s offensive line, a very poor unit outside of center Justin Britt. Harden considers and abandons a passive approach, instead opting to make this the focus of the game. He plans on throwing everything at the Seahawks’ front five: blitzes of every sort, stunts, the hybrid, everything. This, of course, will put Russell Wilson on the run, a much greater concern. To prepare for Wilson’s mobility, the Knights defense practices their blitzes with Watson as their Wilson clone. Watson is faster than anyone on the scout team, and based on his recent funk, the reps at wide receiver won’t do any good anyway. Even with all these blitzes, Wilson will get his shots downfield, and the Knights secondary must be ready. The Seahawks will undoubtedly look at what Danny Amendola did out of the slot a few days ago and try to duplicate that with Doug Baldwin. In response to this, Harden will have either Schwinn or Flash covering Baldwin on passing downs. He’s confident Stone and Lucas can handle Paul Richardson and Jermaine Kearse on the outside. The wild card in all of this would typically be Jimmy Graham, but Randall has quietly had a career year by shutting down tight ends. On any play where Randall is blitzing, that duty passes to Flash. This creates potentially complicated variations (on plays when Flash is covering Baldwin, for example), but the complexity is nothing new for Harden’s defense, and his players have an extra week to learn it. McKenzie faces the greater challenge in planning, but he doesn’t show it. The Knights offense hasn’t scored over 500 points by being afraid of opposing defenses. McKenzie tries to convey confidence to his players with a simple game plan. His primary refrain during the first few practices of the week is, “We’re going to set the tone. They will adjust to us, not the other way around.” Upstairs, Phillips resists the urge to spend time on the field Tuesday, giving Harden the first day to work with the team. Wednesday, however, he seeks relief from the tension between him and Schneider and hits the field. The team’s offseason plan is basically set, and Phillips isn’t confident he’ll be the one orchestrating it anyway. He enjoys watching the players work awhile, particularly intrigued by all the blitz combinations Harden has crafted. When whistles declare a water break for the players, Harden and Ripka converge to discuss some details. Phillips decides to make that his first inquiry after the two separate. Harden notices Phillips’ presence and begrudgingly walks over to him. “Heard you handed play-calling to Chet,” Phillips says. “I did.” Phillips turns his head, studying Harden’s face closely and waiting for elaboration. “It was the right thing,” Harden says. “I don’t want to be responsible for fucking up my last game.” “Last game? Merle, when we talked about this a few months ago, I recall you saying McKenzie would take over in a year or two.” “Well, it ain’t gonna be two, I guess.” Phillips steps closer, lowering his voice even though no one stands close to them. “Merle, you still haven’t told me what the doctors said the last time you went in for evaluation.” “Oh, those assholes. They want to slice my whole neck open and play Operation.” “So? What’s the downside?” “I’d probably lose my voice. Sixty to eighty percent chance, they said.” Phillips considers the possibility of a mute Merle Harden, an enormously odd proposition but still preferable to an early death. “You could still coach, you know.” “Are you retarded?” “I’m serious, Merle. Coach from the booth, let McKenzie run the sideline. You can communicate through text, I don’t know. We can figure it out.” “Coaching without a voice…I’d kill myself.” “Merle.” “Alright, I’d retire, sit around at home a few weeks doing nothing. Then I’d kill myself.” Phillips sighs, this particular line of conversation very much hopeless. “So, here’s another dumb question, then,” Phillips says. “Fire away.” “Do you want us to put anything together, a ceremony or a party, something? To commemorate your last game?” Harden frowns, looking at Phillips as if he just spoke an ancient Aztec language. Phillips sighs again. He figured. “I’ll put it this way,” Harden says. Phillips raises his eyebrows. “I fell asleep on the couch the other night. When I woke up, there was some damn program on about Marx, something Marx, that communist asshole. Anyway, right before he died, he said, ‘Last words are for people who haven’t said enough.’ That sounds about right.” Appropriately, Harden walks away to end the conversation, leaving an amused Phillips to get back to work. However, faced with the thought of dissecting scouting reports with Stein, Phillips finds a spot on the sideline and keeps watching. Later in the week, players have just finished stretching and are about to get practice going when another purple jersey emerges from inside the building. The man wearing #81 sprints onto the field with trainers keeping a close eye on him. “Oh, shit,” Penner says, getting the offense’s attention. “Look who decided to join us.” “Fuck yeah!” Wilkes yells, running around wildly. “I’m back, baby! I’m back! I’m back!” Wilkes is indeed back, but conditionally so. With extra time before the Super Bowl, the Knights are being extra cautious to ensure he clears the league’s concussion protocol. Since the slightest issue could lead to a disastrous setback, the team will limit his practice time (for now) and continue monitoring him regularly. Officially, Wilkes is listed as questionable, and doctors communicate to the coaches that, barring anything unforeseen over the next week, he should be cleared well before Super Sunday. McKenzie happily scraps many West Coast elements from the playbook in favor of a vertical, downfield attack. With the limited practice reps he has, Wilkes makes his presence known. Maverick is thrilled to be throwing to his best target again, relieved he won’t spend the Super Bowl throwing to checkdown targets for five-yard passes. The doctors manage to drag Wilkes off to the sideline for a scheduled break, and he waits impatiently as his teammates practice without him. The doctors do their usual crap, shining lights in his eyes and such. Then, someone from inside the building taps him on the shoulder. “D-Jam, there’s someone on the phone for you.” “Not now,” Wilkes says firmly, sending the man inside. He certainly doesn’t want to deal with Uncle Lincoln pretending to care about him. He doesn’t want anything or anybody ruining the exhilaration of stepping on the field again. Cleared for action, Wilkes rejoins the offense, this time tested by Coach McKenzie. Everyone knows Wilkes can play, but McKenzie needs to know if he’s been studying the playbook. He has. Wilkes has most of the plays down, even the complicated ones McKenzie drew up for this game. Wilkes will be lining up against Sherman most plays, and Maverick will be calling plenty of hot routes to try to get him open. Wilkes has so much fun the next segment goes by in a blink, and he soon catches his breath under observation again. He can’t wait for this dumb stuff to end so he can practice like normal. “D-Jam,” says a voice from behind him. “Someone’s calling for you again, says he’s your uncle.” Wilkes looks out toward the field, gets the thumbs up from the doctors, and puts his helmet on. “I don’t have an uncle,” he says, jogging back onto the field. Vegas’ spread varies throughout the week, but reports of Wilkes’ health give the Knights a boost, and it seems to solidify at Knights -6. The week’s end arrives, and both teams prepare to travel to Houston. The Seahawks fly to Houston Sunday, the Knights Monday. Selected players and coaches of both teams participate in introductory press conferences, where nothing noteworthy occurs save for an exchange between Coach Harden and a reporter about Wilkes. The reporter asks for an update on Wilkes’ health, and Harden tells him, “You’re a reporter. Shouldn’t you pay attention to the news?” Then comes Media Day, a circus of interviews that mostly circle around the same questions both teams have been asked for weeks or months. The Seahawks face questions about being underdogs, about being up against an undefeated team, about containing a historically prolific offense. The Knights face questions about the pressure of going 19-0, about Coach Harden’s health, about being a source of inspiration for Los Angeles after the 9/9 earthquake. Phillips is relieved when his interviews conclude, undertaking the challenging task of finding a spot out of sight from cameras and out of reach of microphones. Once he does, Javad joins him for a brief conversation. “That thing you mentioned,” Javad says. “Is it still happening?” “Yes,” Phillips says. “After the Super Bowl.” “When?” “Days. Months, maybe. But you’ll get it. I promise.” The day ends without a buzzworthy quote circulating in the press, and both teams spend the rest of Media Week fulfilling the act-like-you’ve-been-here-before cliché. Final walkthroughs take place Saturday afternoon, and the Knights suit up for the NFL Honors. Ten miles from NRG Stadium, the Wortham Theater Center fills with well-dressed players and coaches for a who’s who of the NFL world, an event that serves as both celebration and reflection, one last look at the season as a whole before its final game tomorrow. The Knights take seats near the front and garner plenty of attention. Most wear conservative suits, but Wilkes, as if to announce his return, dons a shiny purple tuxedo and bowtie. The Seahawks are not present, an acceptable absence given their participation in the game, now less than twenty-four hours away. The Knights could have skipped out too (if Harden had his way), but Schneider insisted they go. The ceremony’s host, Keegan-Michael Key, delivers a rousing opening, throwing humorous jabs at the NFL’s elite before giving way to the awards. The league has a lot to pack into the two-hour show, including the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2017. After one hour, the Knights’ only victory has been Maverick winning FedEx Air Player of the Year, an award that will soon be forgotten. Then, J.J. Watt takes the stage to announce Defensive Player of the Year. Unlike traditional awards ceremonies that utilize envelopes to announce winners, the NFL has embraced modern technology. Each award presenter takes the stage with a wireless tablet and simply swipes the screen to unveil and announce the winner. Watt waits while a video montage highlights the nominees: Grantzinger, Von Miller, and Landon Collins. When it finishes, Watt speaks into the microphone. “The 2016 Defensive Player of the Year is…” He swipes the tablet. “…Zack Grantzinger.” Everyone applauds, especially the Knights, who cheer on their star defensive player as he walks up to the stage, shakes Watt’s hand, and takes the trophy. Watt backs off as Grantzinger stands before the microphone. “Thanks to everyone who voted for me, I really appreciate it,” Grantzinger says. “And thanks to my teammates, who share this award with me, but we still have a game to play tomorrow. Thank you.” Everyone applauds again. Among the Knights crowd, Schwinn checks his watch. “Ah, a true Merle Harden understudy,” he says. “That was nine seconds, if anyone’s curious.” A few players are, hoping to soon collect on a bet, some with longer odds than others. The next marquee award is Offensive Player of the Year, for which Maverick and Wilkes are both nominated, plus three others. A trio of celebrities takes the stage to present the award. “The 2016 AP Offensive Player of the Year is…” Wilkes shoots one last look at Maverick, who gives him the thumbs up. “…Jonathan Maverick.” The cameras focus on Maverick, who stays in his seat. From the row in front of him, Wilkes jumps to his feet and runs on stage. Nobody is sure what’s happening as Wilkes grabs the mic and the awkward applause fades. “Shout out to my man Mav for letting me accept this for him,” Wilkes says. “I mean, y’all know he’s gon’ win MVP, so, he’ll get his speech.” The hall erupts in laughter as Wilkes goes on. “I got to thank everyone who helped me get here, y’all know that. But I especially want to thank everyone who doubted me, everyone who told me I wasn’t good enough. You were trying to bring me down, but you only made me stronger, and that’s what it’s about, baby! Best receiver in the league! Richard Sherman, I’ll see you tomorrow!” Wilkes jogs back to his seat after delivering what will almost certainly be the night’s most memorable moment. Next up is Man of the Year. Kurt Warner takes the stage, without a tablet, and delivers an eloquent tribute to the nominees and the work they have all done in their respective communities. “It is my pleasure to introduce the two Walter Payton Men of the Year…” Warner pauses for dramatic effect, allowing everyone to react to the surprise. “…Mr. Larry Fitzgerald, and Mr. Sam Luck.” Fitzgerald and Luck take the stage to a rousing applause that turns into a standing ovation. Both men give short words of thanks, deeming this award inappropriate for a personal speech. At last, only two awards remain. This year, the league has altered the traditional order, tabling Coach of the Year for last. Peyton Manning is greeted with applause as he presents the MVP nominees: Maverick, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Ezekiel Elliott. “The 2016 AP Most Valuable Player is…” He swipes the tablet. “…Jonathan Maverick.” Maverick stands up, shaking hands and high-fiving his way into a walk towards the front of the theater. He focuses on his steps as he strolls across the stage, trying to look cool but forgetting the speech he had planned. In a blink, he’s holding the trophy, facing the crowd, words forgotten. Ah, screw it, speak from the heart. “Wow, um, this is really humbling, to walk up here and be handed MVP by Peyton Manning. This is really awesome.” The crowd applauds, giving him a brief rest during which he remembers his speech. “When I came into this league, I don’t think I really understood what it would take to win a Super Bowl, as much as I thought I did. I didn’t really grasp the amount of work it would take to consistently win at this level. But now I do. And I’m proud to say I didn’t get here alone. So, I share this award with my teammates, particularly my offensive line for keeping my jerseys clean, and my receivers, for making my throws look good. I also want to thank my coaches, and the guys upstairs for putting together a hell of a football team. Thank you.” Maverick leaves the stage, and the ceremony has one award left. Longtime head coach and recently hired executive Tom Coughlin takes the stage to a warm applause, presenting the nominees: Harden, Jason Garrett, Mike Tomlin, and Bill Belichick. “The 2016 AP Coach of the Year is…” He swipes the tablet. “…Merle Harden.” All the Knights players practically jump to their feet, and the rest of the audience follows suit. Schwinn is the first to stop clapping, readying his watch. Harden sighs, no longer able to hope that the league spare him, and makes his way to the stage. He enjoys seeing Coughlin, who he respects immensely, but when he faces the crowd, everyone is standing and cheering rousingly. “Sit down, you saps,” he says. The applause tempers in favor of laughter. “I’m going to assume—I’m going to hope, anyway—that this is for football and not because you all feel sorry for me. There’s no room for sympathy in football, as everyone in this theater knows.” Schwinn’s eyes bounce between the stage and his watch, his free hand ready to stop the clock. “I’m proud to have watched some of my players come up here and win awards, and I’m especially proud that all of them have mentioned sharing the honors with their teammates. Because that’s true for all of us, me especially. Hell, I even missed a game this year and you still gave me this.” Harden motions as if he’s about to walk off the stage. Schwinn hovers his finger over a button on his watch, fixated on his head coach as his teammates are, stunned the speech has lasted this long. Suddenly fighting back emotion, Harden looks around at the faces in this crowd—players, coaches, even the journalists. They’re football people. They’ll understand. “You know,” Harden says, “as long as I’m standing up here, I would like to say something, because it’s been bothering me, and this is as good a place to get it out there as any. Going through the cancer and everything—once everyone found out, anyway—so many people have told me things like, ‘Oh, this really puts everything in perspective. This makes you realize that football is only a game.’ You know something? They’re wrong. It does put it in perspective, yeah, but it actually makes you realize how important football is. Going through all my treatment this year, the best medicine I get is stepping out onto that field. I mean, chemo is supposed to be helping, but that crap just makes me feel dead. Football is what makes me feel alive.” Everyone’s mouth hangs open in shock. Schwinn has forgotten about his watch. “So, to the men who have put it all on the line on the football field this year, thank you. But don’t go soft, because we’ve got one game left. Thank you to the front office for giving me a roster of great football talent, and great men. Thank you to the rest of my coaching staff for putting up with my crap more hours than anyone else. And finally, thank you to Melinda and Trisha, my wife and daughter. I’ve coached a lot of teams, a lot of men, on three levels of football, but those two women have been with me through it all, and they have helped me more than they will ever know. Thank you all.” Harden walks back to his seat, and everyone stands to applaud him again. This ovation lasts even longer than the first, and once it finally quiets down, Schwinn notices a few players looking at him. He realizes he left his watch running, though it doesn’t matter. “Well, Marlon…Uh, I guess you win the, uh, the money, so…” Martin waves his arm. “Keep it.” For the third time in four years, the downtown restaurant called Knight’s End floods with football fans ready to watch their team in the Super Bowl. Cooper gets there early to secure the high-top with Sampson stuck in traffic, but he barely touches his first beer of the day. “What’s the matter with you?” Sampson asks once he gets there and orders a beer of his own. “I’m nervous,” Cooper admits. “Yeah, me too.” “Can’t come all this way just to lose in the Super Bowl.” “Sure you can. Ask Patriots fans.” “Fuck the Patriots.” Sampson’s beer arrives, and Cooper finally finds the courage to take a few deep swigs. He looks around at the scene; every seat is filled, and a standing-room-only crowd gathers around the main bar. Kickoff is less than an hour away. The pre-game hours fly, as they have all year, and the Knights soon find themselves back in the NRG Stadium locker room, an uncomfortable silence hanging over them as they look up at Coach Harden. “Not much left to say, men. There’s really not. Well, one thing, I guess. All that shit we won last night? Meaningless. Fucking meaningless. I think you all know that, but I’m gonna say it anyway. Not a good feeling hanging that MVP award on your mantle, knowing every time you stare at it you’ll think of a Super Bowl loss.” Maverick scoffs. Thanks for the subtle jab, coach. “We’re already legends. Making it this far without a loss does that for you. So all that’s left to be decided is this: do you want to be remembered as the team who almost went all the way? Who got to the Super Bowl and blew it? Because whether you realize it or not, it’s only gonna take a few bad plays or a few things not bouncing our way and that’s what’s gonna happen. Or, do you want to be the team who finished the job? Who did what no other team ever could. It’s that simple. So let’s finish it.” The Knights march to the end of the tunnel, waiting to be introduced. In minutes, both teams take the field. The NFC is the designated home team, so the Seahawks are in all blue, the Knights in their road whites with black pants. The roof to NRG Stadium is closed, and nearly every seat is already filled. The typical Super Bowl buzz hovers over the stadium as pre-game protocols build to the national anthem. Luke Bryan’s words ring throughout the stadium. Players feel their hearts beating against their chest pads. Captains meet at midfield for the coin toss. The Seahawks win and defer to the second half. Both kickoff units take the field, and the gravity sets in. Roughly three hours from now, the lives of everyone on both sides will be changed significantly and forever. Players savor their final moments before kickoff: one last look to the crowd, one last whiff of the smelling salts, one last prayer to God. Hauschka’s arm rises and falls before he runs up to the ball. Cameramen, fans, players, coaches, and officials look to the sky, faked out as the kick bounces sideways, traveling about twelve yards and landing in the arms of a blue jersey.
  5. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part VI Chapter Seventy-Seven – Western Wind, Eastern Sun Patriots 35, Steelers 31, 1:33 to go. Ben Roethlisberger leads a potential game-winning drive as the final seconds tick from a thrilling AFC Divisional game. The commentary of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms fills living rooms and sports bars across the country, including the homes of the Los Angeles Knights, about to learn their next opponent. “Roethlisberger, back to pass, throws for Brown, and he’s got him. Good for another first down, just past midfield.” Inside his house, Randall and Grantzinger study Pittsburgh’s offense in detail as they have with both teams all night. Grantzinger: “They’re still blocking straight across. No doubles or shifts like they did against us.” Randall: “That’s because New England doesn’t have an elite pass rusher.” Grantzinger: “We gotta look at their Baltimore film, figure out how the blocking was different.” “Roethlisberger dumps it off. It’s Bell, on a screen. He’s got blockers! Across the forty, jukes a defender, and he’s down around the thirty-two! Another electrifying play by Le’Veon Bell! And the Steelers are within striking distance as the clock is near a minute now.” Harden shifts uncomfortably in his recliner, shuffling his feet and accidentally kicking Bowser, who gets up, spins around about five times, and lays down again. He doesn’t know it, but Harden has been thinking the same thing most of his defensive subordinates have: if the Steelers win, scheming against the Bell/Brown combination again won’t be fun. “Roethlisberger, deep drop, looking, throws for the end zone…intercepted! Malcolm Butler! It’s picked off in the end zone, and New England’s gonna win the football game! The Steelers have only one timeout, so the Patriots can run out the clock and punch their ticket to the AFC Championship!” Maverick, who has been taking notes on both defenses, throws his notepad and pen across the room and rises from the couch. “Alright then,” he says to the empty mansion. “Bring it on, Brady.” Wilkes watches the Patriots celebrate, as he has all night, under the supervision of team doctors. In the morning, they will report that Wilkes asked, “Who won the game?” multiple times after Brady took the final kneeldown. Knights coaches assemble, most of them arriving at the MedComm Center early, to plan for football season’s penultimate weekend (the Pro Bowl notwithstanding). The NFC Championship Game, which pits the Seahawks against the heavily favored Cowboys, doesn’t come close to matching the buzz surrounding the Knights/Patriots showdown. Three years ago, the Knights beat the Patriots on a snowy night in Foxborough, a win many considered symbolic of a power shift in the AFC. The Knights went on to win the conference two consecutive years, while the Patriots haven’t been to the Super Bowl since. Adding to the intrigue, of course, is the Knights’ pursuit of 19-0, a legendary record the Patriots themselves fell one win short of nine years ago. If the Knights are to fall short as well, it would only be fitting that the Patriots be the ones to knock them out. And on the heels of a dominant season and 17-1 record, they have a good chance to do so. Either way, the fan and media consensus is that the de facto Super Bowl takes place at Farmers Field this Sunday night. The Patriots and Knights are the two best teams in the league, and whoever wins should lift the Lombardi Trophy. After the coaching staff finalizes the week’s schedule, they split into three groups. One of the two larger groups, Harden and the defensive coaches, fill their usual meeting room, armed with film of every Patriots game this season, a large white board, and plenty of markers. “It all starts with 12, as we all know,” Harden says, referring to a quarterback some consider to be the greatest of all-time. “And my position on him hasn’t changed in ten years: we’ve got to pressure him up the middle. We can send pressure on the outside all we want, and all he’s gonna do is step up and find guys over the middle. All those little four-, five-yard passes, he’ll nickel and dime us right into the offseason.” “What’s the story with the hybrid?” the defensive line coach asks. “Brady’s smart enough to figure it out, but we should make him work for it anyway. Plan on a fifty-fifty split, or something close.” Ripka nervously pipes up, saying, “Sounds like this will be a bend-don’t-break scheme in the secondary, coach.” Harden looks at Ripka, resisting the instinctual urge to throw a marker at him. Ripka knows Harden distains the bend-don’t-break concept behind playing defense. He remembers Harden saying once, as defensive coordinator, “Don’t break and don’t bend; play fucking defense and stop them.” In this case, though, the Knights will have to be realistic about containing the Patriots offense. “Looks that way,” Harden eventually says. “It’ll probably come down to the red zone, I guess.” “What about Gronk?” Ripka asks. “Briggs has him,” Harden says firmly. “He’s shut down every tight end he’s faced this year.” “Shouldn’t we draw up some other coverages as a back-up?” “Sure. We can get Malik to—” Everyone in the room freezes as Harden catches himself. Malik Rose once proved a formidable opponent for Rob Gronkowski in coverage, but he no longer wears a Knights uniform. “Sorry, men,” Harden says. “Keep thinking about two years ago, and we had him then. Put Flash on it.” Coaches nod in agreement, waiting for an uncomfortable silence to end. Once Harden speaks again, they work on the tedious task of analyzing coverage matchups across various formations. In the next room over, the offensive staff is ready to build a game plan of their own, but McKenzie holds everything up, something to address first. “Before we get going,” McKenzie says once everyone is seated, “I asked Dr. Evans to stop by, for obvious reasons.” The coaches sit idly, knowing they would be unable to begin without an updated prognosis anyway. It only takes a minute for Evans to appear, stepping through the doorway and looking around the table before focusing on McKenzie. “What’s the word, doc?” McKenzie asks. Every coach leans forward, knowing their entire game plan for New England is about to go one of two ways. “Well, it’s early,” Evans says. “He’s still extremely foggy, still some memory lapses.” “Doc,” McKenzie says, “we’ve been through this routine before. Get to the meat and potatoes.” “It’s not good. As I said, he’s got time to improve, but he sustained a pretty serious concussion. Even without league protocols, I’m not optimistic he’s ready to play in six days. In fact…” Evans pauses. The coaches listen closely. “I’ll put it this way. If it were December, and the team was out of the playoffs, I would make a formal recommendation that he be shut down the remainder of the year.” A blistering silence covers the table as McKenzie swallows, hard, and decides rather easily he’s heard enough. “Okay, doc, thanks for the update.” Evans nods and disappears. The coaches gather their thoughts for a minute, well aware they now have to beat the Patriots without their greatest offensive weapon. By the second day of practice, any unknowns about the game plan have been explored and solved. The remaining practice time will be used improving a scheme that may need to be perfect for the Knights to win. The team is all business this week, respecting the challenge that lies ahead. Even Schwinn has been extremely light on jokes and locker room pranks. It’s been like this since Coach Harden’s introductory address yesterday morning, and it won’t change until after Sunday. Maverick, in particular, has been putting in more hours than usual, figuring the offense will need it if Wilkes can’t suit up. Fans like to say the playoffs are times when typically average players become great and win games. Maverick feels that way about his receiving corps; he has a group of good receivers, but one of them will need to have a great game against New England. Wilkes doesn’t get to see the practice field, stuck instead inside the building, where doctors and trainers perform test after test, having him follow their finger and bullshit like that. Wilkes feels miles better today except for a bad headache, but he’s sure as hell not going to tell them that. “Man, why can’t I get the playbook at least?” he asks the doctor shining a light in his eyes. “You need cognitive rest.” “Man, whatever that mean.” At the very least, the dazed and despondent Wilkes has been replaced with his usual, bitchy self, a good sign to the doctors who know him well. The doctor finishes, walks away to speak with the league’s doctor, and Wilkes’ phone buzzes on a nearby table. “You need to limit your electronic use.” “Man, I can’t do nothin’ but scratch my balls without y’all being pissed!” Wilkes grabs the phone anyway, answering the incoming call. “What?” “Hello, Da’Jamiroquai,” a familiar voice says, “how are you?” “Kinda busy, Uncle Linc.” “I’m sure you are. Feeling better?” “Yeah, but the doctors keep making up reasons to keep me off the field. Man, stop flashing that thing in my eyes! You gotta tell me first! Sorry. Like I said, I’m kinda busy. What you want?” “You sound surprised I’m calling.” “You don’t just call to check up on me.” “Now, Da’Jamiroquai, that’s not fair. I’m not—” “Hey, I’ll check you later, Uncle Linc. I gotta go.” Wilkes ends the call and pockets his phone, resigned to more time with the doctors. The hope of running routes on the practice field grass keeps him from having a nervous breakdown. The team, meanwhile, runs through and finishes practice with no sign of Wilkes, and the popular sentiment is that the league’s concussion protocol will make it nearly impossible for him to play—even if his symptoms improve. Good news comes at day’s end when the league announces the finalists for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, and Sam Luck is among them. Luck’s charity work, particularly as part of recovery from the 9/9 earthquake, makes him a strong contender. The Knights figure to clean up at the NFL Honors ceremony in a few weeks, but they will be hollow victories without an AFC Championship. The parking lots open at eleven and are nearly full by noon, fans decked in black and purple firing up grills and TV sets, tossing footballs and drinking beers. This is Farmers Field’s last home game no matter what, so Knights fans are going to enjoy it. Everyone with a TV, of course, follows the NFC Championship in Dallas. Inside the stadium, players of both teams do the same, glancing up at the scoreboard while they’re on the field warming up. The Seahawks jump out to an early 14-0 lead, but by one thirty, when the gates open and fans begin filling the Farmers Field concourses, Dallas has closed the gap, and the game goes to halftime with Seattle up, 17-14. The majority of tailgaters have moved into the stadium by three, at which point the Knights are finished with warm-ups, nothing to do but count nervously to kickoff. In Dallas, a big third quarter has put the Cowboys ahead 28-17, and they are poised for their first Super Bowl appearance in two decades. Two years ago, the Knights were in this very spot, waiting on the Seahawks/Packers game, expecting to hear news of a rematch with Seattle, but the Packers won. Today, the Knights are expecting, should they win, a matchup with Dallas. Instead, Russell Wilson leads a dramatic comeback, the Seahawks win, 31-28, and the Knights are set for the Seattle rematch they wanted two years ago. Reynolds sends the opening kickoff out of the end zone, and the man with four Super Bowl rings leads his offense onto the field. The Patriots line up with three receivers and two tight ends, no one in the backfield with Brady. The Knights line up in their 3-4 base. Brady takes the snap and fires, hitting Danny Amendola in the slot. Green grass around him, Amendola surges ahead for an eight-yard gain. On second down, Brady fires another quick strike to Gronkowski, and this strategy dominates the opening drive, with the Patriots showing no desire to run the ball. They reach midfield, but a third-down blitz by Randall forces Brady to throw it away, and the Patriots punt. The Knights get their turn, also leaning on multi-receiver formations, though their best wide receiver will not play tonight. McKenzie has every possible combination prepared for tonight’s playbook, including some double-TE sets. Maverick works his receivers on short routes, trying to feel out New England’s corners. He knows the toughest among them is Malcolm Butler, lining up to his right, so he expects plenty of throws to his left (whichever receiver is there) and over the top, so long as he stays away from Devin McCourty. Like the Patriots, the Knights chip away for a few first downs before punting. Brady takes over from his own twenty and strikes on three big gains that each net a first down. With no apparent pass rush and no coverage over the middle, the Knights defense is on its heels. This has been a weakness in Harden’s play-calling for years. Harden almost never deviates from his base defense on first or second down, refusing to put extra defensive backs on the field. This leaves plenty of space in the seam for slot receivers and tight ends. It is no surprise that a Bill Belichick-coached team has come out and exploited this right away. An inside blitz catches New England off guard and Martin notches the game’s first sack, taking the Patriots out of field goal range. Then, on third and nine, James White escapes into the flat, where he beats Brock in coverage. Brady floats a perfect pass, and the Patriots are in the red zone. Patriot receivers find less room to get open, and Grantzinger finally gets some pressure on Brady. A couple incompletions bring out Stephen Gostkowski, who puts in a chip shot field goal, and it’s 3-0, Patriots. After a touchback, Maverick lines up in shotgun and finds Bishop over the middle for five yards. Next, he looks left for Harper, but Eric Rowe swats away a back-shoulder fade. Third and five. Maverick drops back and throws right as Watson breaks on an out route. Watson extends for the pass, catches it, and brings it back to his chest. The ball squirts loose and hits the ground. The offense retreats to the bench, and the crowd serenades them with boos. Los Angeles fans will be neither gracious nor forgiving tonight. The Knights have had more than their share of slow starts this season, and fans are sick of it. Last week, though, the Knights were always going to have time to score points against the Chiefs. Tonight, the Patriots are capable of turning this into a rout if the Knights don’t wake up. While McKenzie tries to find a catalyst, Brady gets back to work, still leaning on a heavy dose of Danny Amendola, who is open nearly every play. The Patriots move the ball without facing a third down before reaching the red zone. Ripka makes sure Harden picks formations that have Amendola covered, and the Patriots respond by running the ball. LeGarrette Blount takes two carries up the middle for eight yards, bringing up third and two. Knights fans come to their feet, desperate for a stop. Harden calls a four-man rush against a shotgun formation. Brady takes the snap and scans, looking for Gronkowski, but Randall has him covered. Brady looks like he’s about to tuck it and run, but Julian Edelman breaks from Lucas, getting slight separation, and Brady’s pass is perfect. Touchdown, Patriots. After Gronkowski’s extra point and an uneventful kickoff, the quarter ends, leaving Farmers Field in an uncomfortable commercial break with the Knights trailing, 10-0. Maverick drops back behind another clean pocket, waits for Bishop to break on a comeback route, and hits him between the numbers. The first down puts the Knights across midfield. Maverick is thankful his pass protection has been solid tonight, otherwise the Knights might not gain a yard. Belichick will adjust, though, and Maverick will face pressure eventually. When he does, they’ll need to have something ready. In the meantime, McKenzie keeps calling short passes, consciously spreading the ball around. It still remains to be seen which receiver will become tonight’s hero, if anyone, but it doesn’t appear to be Watson, who is barely getting separation on his routes. The Knights soon face third and five, and Maverick drops back, surprised by a blitz. The pressure forces him to roll left, where only one receiver is in sight: Johnson, open, but McCourty is ready to jump the route, so Maverick throws it away. McKenzie digs through the playbook again and Maverick takes his seat on the bench, scanning fresh pictures. He doesn’t look up to see McCabe’s forty-five yard kick clear the crossbar by inches, but the stadium’s celebration tells him it’s good. “Look at this,” Maverick says as McKenzie sits next to him. “They’re playing zone on one side of the field and man on the other. I’ve never seen New England running that.” “They’ve never done anything like that this year,” McKenzie says, film footage from the Patriots’ season playing in his head. “But we have to crack it, and we can’t wait until halftime.” “I know. We gotta spread them out somehow.” Maverick and the coaches bounce ideas around while the Knights defense endures another long drive. One short pass after another, Brady chips away at the Knights defense, making it look easy and draining the stadium’s energy with each pass. Many fans expected an electrifying quarterback duel out of this game, and rightfully so; Brady and Maverick are known for making some of the most ridiculous throws a quarterback can make. But tonight, they are tempered and surgical. This game will be a war of small battles, and right now, the Patriots are winning plenty of small battles. Blount punches through on third and one, setting up first and goal at the nine with under four minutes left in the half. Brady finds Amendola again, and Schwinn brings him down for a five-yard gain. Second and goal. Brady fakes a handoff and fires for Malcolm Mitchell, but Stone has him covered. Third and goal. Knights fans come to their feet again as Harden calls a blitz, something Ripka uselessly cautions against. Brady takes the snap. Grantzinger gets doubled again, opening holes for Randall and Martin. Brady has only a second, but Gronkowski is wide open in the end zone. He fires, and Gronkowski extends for the pass. The outstretched arms of Flash get in the way, and the ball bounces out of bounds. The Knights sideline gets fired up for the first time tonight. Even though Gostkowski makes the chip shot, extending New England’s lead to 13-3, defenders get plenty of encouragement when they return to the sideline. “Big stop, D!” Maverick says, leading the charge. “That’s a huge stop! Our turn to get in the end zone now.” Armed with subtle adjustments, the Knights offense takes over with 2:20 on the clock. Though they stick to their quick-pass strategy, Maverick operates the no-huddle, in two-minute mode, and this seems to help. Maverick throws over the middle and to his left, avoiding Malcolm Butler. Harper and Johnson find open space and keep the drive going. The two-minute warning and one timeout later, the Knights are on the edge of field goal range. With a minute to go, Maverick drops back and tracks Bishop, covered over the middle. He looks deep for Harper, sets his feet, and bombs it. He knows it’s a mistake as soon as he lets it go. Rowe runs a step behind Harper, but McCourty is already tracking the ball like a punt. He and Harper converge at the goal line and collide as the ball bounces off a helmet. McCourty falls. Harper stumbles, finding the ball in midair and grabbing it as he lands on the purple grass. Maverick lets out a sigh of relief as Farmers Field roars. Though grateful for the good fortune, that’s a throw he can’t make. He looks to the sideline, almost instinctively expecting to see the coaches holding up two fingers, but Wilkes’ absence changes things, and McKenzie sticks with the decision he made this week in practice: kick the extra point. The offense rests on the sideline while McCabe makes the kick. With only 0:54 on the clock, the Patriots try to put something together, but the Knights have the sidelines covered, and the clock runs out. Both teams head to the locker room with the Patriots up, 13-10. Halftime takes forever to Knights fans around the stadium. Tension, worry, and optimism all build up over a twenty-minute period, and everything explodes when Maverick finds Harper on the second half’s first play, downfield for a thirty-yard gain. Maverick hands off to NesSmith, accelerating up the gut for eight yards. The Knights hurry the pace to a quick huddle, mixing the play-calling, and Maverick finds his rhythm. Consecutive strikes to Johnson put the Knights on the edge of the red zone. Maverick drops back, tracking Harper, running against Butler. He stares him down and sees a safety shade that way, then fires over the middle for Bishop, who makes a leaping grab in traffic as he crosses the goal line, coming down with the ball secured. With the Knights’ first lead of the night putting Farmers Field in an uproar, Maverick jogs back to the sideline and high-fives the entire offensive coaching staff before gazing across the field. Your move, Brady. Harden keeps calling plays under the bend-don’t-break mandate, and Brady keeps making it work. The halftime decision to bump Amendola at the line of scrimmage doesn’t appear to help. Brady sees nothing but clean pockets, something Harden can’t stand. They’re doubling Grantzinger, of course, but nobody else can beat New England’s offensive line. Another effortlessly efficient Patriots drive reaches the red zone, culminating in third and two. Officials hold up play to talk about the spot, letting Harden consider his call. “Let’s bring the house,” he says. “I wouldn’t, Merle,” Ripka says. “We gotta get this fuckin’ guy out of his comfort zone, whatever it takes.” Harden calls the all-out blitz, having his defense line up in 4-3. Brady lines up under center and calls out adjustments. Randall flips everyone to a 3-4, and Brady backs into shotgun, taking the snap as the entire front seven converges. Brady sets his feet and fires into the flat, where James White is wide open. He gets the first down easily. Flash has him lined up, but Gronkowski crushes him with a block he doesn’t see coming, and White waltzes into the end zone. Fans take a breath, grateful for the between-action minutes now, with the Patriots up, 20-17. Maverick starts the drive with a deep shot again, this time for Watson on play-action. Watson can’t corral the pass, but the Patriots defense has gotten the message and spreads out accordingly. This opens up the run game, mixed with some simple pitch-and-catch, and the Knights find rhythm again. The guard tandem of Grodd and Dunn doesn’t let a white jersey behind them, but Penner isn’t getting as much push as usual. McKenzie hears that from upstairs and ignores it for now. Into field goal range, Maverick hands off on third and one to Banks, who dives up the middle into a wall of Patriots, stuffed for no gain. After blocking for McCabe’s field goal, which slides through and ties the game, Grodd and Penner sip some water on the bench. “Hey, you okay?” Grodd asks. “What?” Penner says between sips. “Third and one is usually bread and butter for us.” “Just my damn back, tightening up again.” “Hey,” Maverick says, joining the conversation. “We all good over here?” “Why are you assholes babysitting me?” Penner says. “Worry about your job and I’ll worry about mine.” “Alright, alright. Just hang in there, yeah?” “I’m hangin’.” Brady slings a few passes downfield before whistles blow, the third quarter over. Harden glances up at the scoreboard multiple times as if somehow, he’ll look again, and the score won’t be tied. “Of course,” he says to no one in particular. “Of course this one’s a goddamn heart attack.” “Would you have it any other way?” Ripka says. “Yeah, a forty-point blowout would have been nice.” Brady keeps connecting, with Edelman becoming the feature of the offense. Harden sends blitz after blitz, but Brady finds his quick read every time. Ripka considers saying something at the next stoppage. On third and eight near midfield, Brady drops back against an inside blitz. He lofts one over the middle for Gronkowski, who catches it before Flash hits him. Gronkowski’s momentum and superior physicality carry them both forward for another first down. “Dammit, Flash,” Harden says, taking a few steps onto the field. “Be physical! TACKLE!” Harden steps back onto the sideline and calls the next play between coughs. His focus fades, conscious of his heartbeat, and he marches toward the Gatorade coolers for some water. He gulps down a cup and leans against the table, slowing his breathing. “You okay?” Harden looks up at McKenzie, who looks relaxed, not wanting to make a big deal of anything, but Harden can tell he’s worried. “Fine,” Harden says, feeling his heart slow down. “Fine.” He pitches the cup and returns to the edge of the sideline in time to see Blount stiff-arm Brock en route to a nine-yard run. Brady tries a quick throw to Edelman, but Lucas finally makes a play and deflects the pass. Third and one. Brady throws for White in the flat, but Grantzinger jumps off his block to swat it down. Fourth and one. Harden wonders if Belichick will try a sixty-yard kick, but Brady hurries everyone to the line. Randall gets everyone in place on defense. Harden hesitates, wary of burning a timeout. Brady takes the snap under center. Randall and Martin, who have both seen this on film before, jump the snap and surge up the middle, stopping Brady’s sneak in place. Randall breaks free of his lineman and leaps over the pile, dragging Brady backwards for a loss of downs. The Knights offense runs onto the field, in position to take the lead with 11:25 on the clock. McKenzie leans on what has worked, and Maverick moves the chains despite increased pass rush by New England. Maverick takes the snap on a designed rollout and runs right. White jerseys run in front of all deep routes, so he dumps it off to Watson, surprised by the bullet pass. He falls forward, getting a first down and putting the Knights on the edge of field goal range. The drive continues with Maverick gaining yards in small chunks, taking plenty of hits in the process. With the clock looming, everyone in the stadium looks up after each play. Harper catches a slant for ten yards. 8:30, 8:29… Johnson catches a quick pass with a screen in front of him, running out of bounds after five yards. 7:48. Two plays later, Bishop hauls in a catch in traffic for another first down. 5:41, 5:40… When the clock hits the five-minute mark, the Knights are on the Patriots’ twenty-yard line. While McCabe practices kick after kick on the sideline, McKenzie searches for a red-zone touchdown without Wilkes. He uses the run game, at first, which gets eight yards in two plays, bringing up third and two. Knights fans come to their feet but temper noise as Maverick lines up in shotgun with NesSmith and Bishop beside him. 3:28, 3:27… Maverick takes the snap and fakes a handoff to NesSmith while Bishop runs into the flat for a developing screen. Maverick sells the handoff, spins back to the right side of the field, and Dont’a Hightower drills him. Before he can brace himself, Maverick gets driven into the ground shoulder first, extending his left hand for Penner to pull him up. “That one hurt,” Maverick admits on his way to the sideline. “Need a Band-Aid?” Penner asks. “Not exactly my strong shoulder.” Maverick and the rest of the offense stop on the edge of the sideline to watch McCabe’s thirty-three-yard kick, which hooks left from the right hash, through the uprights. Knights 23, Patriots 20, 2:40 on the clock. “Alright, men,” Harden says to as many defensive players as he can, “this is our drive. We’ve forced a punt on these assholes a few times tonight. We do it one more time, and we’re going to the Super Bowl. Let’s get it done.” Brady takes the field again, and the Knights line up in a 4-3, which Harden will stick with the entire drive. After a two-yard pass to Edelman, Luck swats down a pass at the line of scrimmage, and it’s third and eight. Harden has his corners jam their receivers, and Brady drops back under pressure. He tries to escape right, but Grantzinger is there to bring him down. Seven-yard loss, fourth and fifteen. Farmers Field goes crazy as the Patriots hurry to the line. Brady apparently has a play ready and wants to run it before the two-minute warning. “Go after him, Merle?” Ripka yells over the crowd noise. “No,” Harden says. “We’re just gonna sit back and pick him off.” Randall gets everyone in position for a four-man rush as Brady takes the snap, looks left, and floats a throw for Amendola, who gets behind Martin and catches it in stride. He runs through a hole in coverage, perfectly between Lucas and Flash, sprinting ahead well past the first-down marker before Flash brings him down. The twenty-five-yard gain silences the crowd as officials stop play with 1:56 on the clock. Harden and the Knights defense get a commercial break to catch their breath, and to deal with the fact that the Patriots just made a game-saving conversion look routine. When play resumes, the Patriots leave no doubt that they’ve seized momentum. Brady effortlessly finds receivers, executing the drive with masterful clock management. The Knights offense, which had been preparing for a potential game-winning drive, now watches with their arms crossed, knowing the game is either going to overtime or ending on this drive. The Knights secondary keeps things contained so Brady can’t take an end-zone shot. The Patriots still get first downs, but the clock runs, and the Patriots use two of their timeouts before reaching the red zone. Consecutive incompletions bring up third and ten from the Knights’ eighteen, 0:13 on the clock. Farmers Field is as loud as it has been all night. Brady and Randall shout adjustments with the play clock running low. Brady takes the snap as Randall blitzes through an opening, forcing Brady to hurry a lob to the end zone. Fans watch an open Gronkowski reach the goal line, slow down for the underthrown pass, and reach for it. A leaping Grantzinger gets a hand on it, and it bounces out of bounds. Players from both sidelines rise and clamor for a view of Stephen Gostkowski, lining up for an essential chip shot. Harden watches the field goal unit set up, knowing that if just one of them can get a hand on this thing, it’s all over. The ball is snapped and spotted. A wall of black jerseys surges forward and leaps as Gostkowski kicks the ball, which sails over their outstretched arms and through the goal posts. Knights 23, Patriots 23, a meaningless 0:07 on the clock. Maverick and the captains watch the coin flip through the air before bouncing on the grass. Everyone leans in to see which side landed face-up. “It is tails,” the referee announces. “New England, you have won the toss.” The Patriots elect to receive, and the Knights defend with the wind in their favor. Both teams return to their sideline aware of the rules. A touchdown on overtime’s first drive, and the Knights will never get the ball back. Reynolds’ kick sails beyond the end zone, and out comes Brady, seventy-five yards from ending the Knights’ season. The Patriots run a few quiet plays, simple handoffs and quick throws, temporarily numbing fans to the high stakes of overtime. Then Brady fires a dart over the middle to Gronkowski, ten yards from midfield. Brady drops back again. Grantzinger almost breaks through, forcing Brady to shift left before throwing for Amendola. In the middle of the field, Martin jumps the route and dives for the football, feeling it hit his hands as he smacks against the grass. He rolls onto his back, holding the football against his chest and feeling multiple arms grabbing him. Two are Amendola to officially end the play; the rest are teammates, dragging Martin to his feet before mobbing him in celebration for the interception. Maverick sprints off the bench and onto the field, celebrating with the defense and waiting for the offensive huddle to form around him. He looks down to the end zone, fifty yards away. Despite the energy around the stadium, McKenzie starts with simple calls. Banks takes a carry up the middle for three yards, then Maverick hits Johnson on a quick out route. Johnson runs out of bounds, and it’s third and one. McKenzie has his play ready. The Patriots crowd the line of scrimmage. Maverick lines up under center with Bishop and Banks behind him. He takes the snap. Banks runs forward with Bishop blocking ahead of him and collides with defenders at the line of scrimmage. Suddenly, multiple black jerseys dive toward a random spot three yards away. Patriots react to the apparent fumble with confusion all over the field, except for the two New England safeties, the only defenders with eyes on the football. Maverick sprints down the sideline, no one around him, eyes on the pylon forty yards away. Fans eventually realize he has the ball and come to their feet screaming. McCourty closes on him as Maverick makes each stride as long as he can. Ten yards away, Maverick secures the ball with both hands, ready to dive. McCourty hits him just after he leaves his feet, and he flies through the air, landing and sliding out of bounds, next to the end zone. Maverick looks back at the official, who waves his arms and stands at the two-yard line, indicating the spot. Maverick gets up and gathers the celebrating players into a huddle, assuming Coach Harden won’t kick a field goal yet. Before calling a play, McKenzie walks down towards Harden and says, “I’ve got a play, unless you want to kick it.” “Fuck the field goal,” Harden says. “Punch it in, Mac.” McKenzie calls his favorite formation, the I-Form 3-WR with Bishop at fullback. Maverick lines up under center with the play clock low and motions Bishop right. He takes the snap and fakes a toss to NesSmith as the defense shifts right, then hands off to Bishop, cutting back across the field. Bishop runs laterally to avoid a free rusher, then cuts back toward an opening. With defenders closing, he dives over the goal line. Touchdown, Knights. Game over. Fans go berserk, screaming and jumping in their seats. The stadium vibrates enough to make cognizant fans weary of an earthquake. Purple and white confetti falls from the sky as black jerseys storm the field. Maverick breaks free from the end zone celebration to find the other #12, spotting Brady and shaking his hand. “Great game, Mav,” Brady says. “Hey, you too,” Maverick says. “You guys made us earn it.” “You’re a great competitor. Good luck in two weeks.” “Thanks. See you next year.” Players and fans alike try to catch their breath, but the adrenaline rush carries into the post-game ceremony, which arrives quickly. The Knights accept the Lamar Hunt Trophy and celebrate a conference championship with their fans for the second time in three years. Two years ago, they were one win from a Super Bowl. Now, they’re one win from immortality. When the ceremony ends, season-ticket holders, first-timers, and everyone in between begin pouring out through all stadium exits. Chants of “Let’s go Knights” ring through the concourses as parking lots empty into downtown Los Angeles. Closing procedures commence for the tenth time this season, an added sense of finality to them. Farmers Field will be active over the next few months—it hosts a high school all-star football game in two weeks and two concerts in the spring—but it will not see the Knights again for over half a year. On the stadium’s interior, beneath the seats, players and coaches conduct interviews and press conferences before boarding buses that likewise take them out of the stadium. Gates close off concession stands. Stadium personnel collect wrappers, bottles, and other trash from the seats and hallways. Others patrol the field itself, cleaning off a layer of paper confetti. Some hours later, all procedures have concluded, and all stadium employees have left or are leaving. Those in charge of power supply are the last to go, getting the all-clear one last time before throwing the master switch, dousing the floodlights that tower over the stadium, and Farmers Field is dark.
  6. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part VI Chapter Seventy-Six – City of Angels Inside league headquarters in New York City, twelve nearly identical letters are drafted, folded into envelopes, and sent out via overnight mail. One of these twelve is bound for the opposite end of the country, where it ends up on Wayne Schneider’s desk. Phillips pops his head in to inquire about a free agency report, hoping to spend less than ten seconds in the doorway, but Schneider focuses on the letter in his hands. “‘To Wayne Schneider and the Los Angeles Knights,’” Schneider reads, “‘Congratulations on qualifying for the 2016-17 playoff tournament.’ Third letter in four years, Chance. Not a bad streak.” “Not bad at all,” Phillips says. “But it’s not gonna mean anything if we don’t get that Lombardi Trophy.” “Wow. Hadn’t thought of it that way before.” Schneider looks down from the letter, unfazed by Phillips’ sarcasm. “It’s coming to a head this week.” “When?” “By Thursday, if I had to guess. It could drag into next week, but I think everyone will want a resolution before the games this weekend.” “I guess I’ll keep an eye on the headlines.” Phillips walks back into his office. He will enjoy the next few days without Schneider in the building, but he’s especially relieved this will finally be over, whatever ends up happening to the Knights—and to him. Dean Spanos wraps up his presentation to thirty-one other owners plus Commissioner Goodell, summarizing once again the details of his plan to move the Chargers to Carson, California. He restates the main arguments of why it would succeed, then emphasizes, somewhat delicately, why his plan is superior to that of Stan Kroenke, who wants to move the Rams to Inglewood. Spanos finishes, and the room thanks him with polite (not emphatic) applause. Wayne Schneider is directed to the podium. Unlike the previous two presenters, he does not carry any sort of graphic with him. He has no construction plans to detail, no new stadium to unveil. He has only been granted a formal presentation because his market is the topic of discussion. Schneider reads from papers in front of him, rarely looking down, directing his eyes at his audience. His mind subconsciously targets the owners he knows he needs to persuade, but he stares at all thirty-two of them, not looking between chairs or at the wall. The instant any one of them looks down at their phone for too long, he maintains eye contact until their look up, occasionally providing some awkward tension. After about five of these moments, they get the message, and no one checks the clock again. Word by word, Schneider makes an impassioned pitch against a second NFL franchise in Los Angeles. He talks about the fragility of the Knights’ success in a city he knows, about the glory of the league in danger of succumbing to greed. He knows these are stubborn, committed men, and most of them couldn’t give a damn what he says. But as long as he’s standing here, he’s going to give them their money’s worth. Schneider has organized this argument to avoid, as much as he can, repetition with similar pleas he has made over the last year. This time, though, he has a new angle to take: the 9/9 Pasadena earthquake. Schneider describes the city’s emotional response to the natural disaster that claimed over a thousand lives. He speaks about how the Knights have provided a damaged city with a source of hope. He delivers his words more eloquently now, intentionally getting a little emotional. After a dramatic pause, he says, “The fans of Los Angeles, they are behind us. Mark my words, gentlemen: another team in L.A. will never receive the level of support the Knights do. Never.” He pauses again to let that line hit home—as much as it can. The earthquake card is a tricky one for Schneider to play. Had an earthquake of similar magnitude struck San Diego, Qualcomm Stadium would have been damaged beyond quick repair. Renovating the stadium to earthquake standards would cost the city upwards of $300 million, a figure no one in San Diego has signed off on paying. Schneider wraps up, believing less is more, that rambling can only hurt his chances, and sits down. He tries to read the audience through their applause—no more loud or soft than Spanos’ response—but can’t pick up on anything. The meeting room clears, and cameras capture owners leaving, smiling and waving on their way out, revealing nothing. What little has been leaked to the media is sparse and inconclusive, so speculation runs rampant. But these men have been presenting, debating, and angling for over a year; by now, it’s clear who supports the Rams, who supports the Chargers, who supports the Knights, and who’s on the fence. Schneider will need everyone currently undecided into his corner, but first, he needs to get one of Kroenke’s most fervent allies. Vallone’s Steakhouse has turned into an unofficial hangout for the owners, a place to prepare and debrief, sometimes at the same time. Schneider strolls in, works his way to the back, and spots a booth with three owners, among them Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Schneider walks up without a word, getting their attention. “Howdy, Wayne,” Jones says in his Arkansas accent. “May I have a moment?” Schneider asks. Jones rises, and they step away toward a relatively quiet spot in the restaurant, surrounded by empty tables and high-tops. “I’m out of time here, Jerry,” Schneider says. “This is my final card to play.” “Now, Wayne, you know where I stand. Besides, it’s a little late in the game for more options, isn’t it?” “I’ve been working on this for a while, with about five or six others. And with your help, I think we can get it through.” “I haven’t heard about any of that.” “That’s because you haven’t been listening.” Jones shifts uncomfortably, a landed punch for Schneider. “Then I’ll talk, and you listen,” Jones says. “This isn’t just about logistics and economics. Relocation is big, Wayne. There’s no way we can pass it off as a small story. So, whatever move we make, it’s gotta be big. It has to be aggressive.” “I know,” Schneider says. “I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. I’m just saying I don’t know why we’re acting like it’s the only option that makes a splash.” Jones shifts back at the word ‘splash,’ apparently trying to calculate what Schneider means. Schneider has his attention; now comes the decisive moment. “The Carson project has big balls, I don’t deny it,” Schneider says. “But I can think of something bigger.” Jones raises his eyebrows. Schneider lays out the idea, the very basics of it, and Jones invites Schneider into the booth. The four owners talk and dine for a few hours, sharing a thousand-dollar bottle of wine before realizing they’ll need to be sober tonight. Phone calls are made. Proposals are exchanged. Casual conversations turn serious and linger well into the night. Schneider stays awake until the sun comes up, showers, changes suits, gets a cup of coffee, and keeps working. By the time the next meeting begins, a monumental shift has occurred. The owners take their usual seats, and the proceedings begin. Players have a well-established ritual when significant news hits the wire: text whatever channel is breaking the news to as many teammates as possible, as soon as possible. Maverick is digging through next week’s tentative playbook (to be finalized when the Knights’ opponent is decided) when he gets the text from Wilkes: “ESPN.” He flicks on the TV, keeping his head down, focusing on one particular play with Wilkes and Watson on dual crossing routes. He’s not sure the play would succeed against a good pass rush. He tries to think of an adjustment when urgently spoken words come from the TV: “…not sure when the owners took this new direction, but it is an obviously significant and surprising decision.” Maverick looks up and sees the headline. “Rams relocating to Las Vegas, new stadium in San Diego.” “Wow,” Maverick says. He listens to the coverage a few minutes, so shocked by the news he doesn’t realize the good news for him. When he does, he texts Wilkes back: “No London for us.” A few minutes later, Wilkes texts back: “Fuck yeah!” Javad is walking through downtown Los Angeles when the news breaks. He zips into the nearest building, appropriately a sports bar called Knight’s End, and grabs a spot at the bar. Though the place is as empty as most restaurants are at noon on a weekday, those there buzz about the story shown on most of the televisions in sight. Javad orders a beer, gets out his tablet, and types up an article. A story like this, coming from the very top of the NFL’s food chain, is out of his ring of sources. So he simply summarizes what the national reporters are saying. The St. Louis Rams will officially become the Las Vegas Rams when the league year starts in March. Construction on a new stadium in Vegas will take two years, so the Rams will, in the meantime, split their home games between Farmers Field and L.A. Coliseum. The Chargers will remain in San Diego, playing one or two more seasons in Qualcomm Stadium before their new downtown complex opens. The complex will be financed in part by Wayne Schneider. Further financing details will be put to a citywide vote in 2017, and Schneider’s contribution may increase, but the league apparently feels confident enough in what is already official to break ground. It’s a lot of take in, so Javad finishes his article and sends it to his editor, browsing on Twitter in the meantime, speculating along with the rest of the football world. Another hurried sip polishes off his beer, and he is about to put some cash on the bar and leave when a thought occurs to him. The Phillips story. He still doesn’t know what Phillips is up to, but he’s smart enough to figure this has something to do with it. The Knights staying in Los Angeles has to be good news for Phillips, doesn’t it? So, what does that mean for the fate of the story Javad has been sitting on? He suspects this could be another step toward his greatest fear, that a career-altering story will have to be buried. When the bartender passes by, Javad says, “I’ll have one more.” Flipping through channels eventually lands Merle on the story, which he watches for a few minutes. Melinda eventually pops in, apparently overhearing. “What does this mean?” she asks. “It means we don’t have to worry about moving across a goddamn ocean,” Merle says. “I thought you said we weren’t moving regardless.” “We weren’t. I just mean I didn’t want this shit hanging over us in the playoffs.” Melinda lingers for a minute before leaving Merle alone. He gets tired of the coverage and resumes his search for a good movie, but his mind attaches to the story. He thinks to himself, At least Mac won’t have to move. Chance catches the wobbly pass from Jack before throwing it about thirty yards toward Max, who jumps and brings it down. His catches have grown more impressive with every game of backyard catch, but he hasn’t shown a desire to play football yet. High school is only a few years away, though. Melissa heads out the back door, almost breaking into a jog. Chance assumes she has heard the news. He saw it on his phone a few minutes ago but wanted to enjoy tossing the football around as long as possible. “Did you guys hear?” Melissa asks. Max: “No!” Jack: “Hear what?” Max and Jack each whip out their phones, and before Melissa can figure out how to explain, they find the news on their Twitter feeds. Jack: “Vegas?!” Max: “Let’s watch the TV!” The brothers break into a sprint towards the house. Melissa instinctively follows them, turning to Chance as she heads back into the house. “Now what?” she asks. Chance stands in the backyard, alone, football in his hands. “Yeah,” he says to himself. “Now what?” Schneider spends the rest of the week bouncing between Las Vegas and San Diego, finalizing the master deal he miraculously conjured, so the MedComm Center resumes relative normalcy with buzz from the story fading. As far as the Knights are concerned, the most pressing story is the football game to be played next week. Wild Card Weekend begins with the Chiefs visiting the site of the recent owners meetings to play the Texans. What unfolds is an inauspicious start to the playoffs, a one-sided game the Chiefs control from start to finish thanks mostly to ineptitude at quarterback for the Texans. The fifth-seeded Chiefs win, 30-13, and advance to the Divisional Round. The Knights await them unless the Dolphins upset the Patriots tomorrow. In Seattle, Lions/Seahawks opens with a scoreless first quarter, making fans wonder if the Lions can actually pull off the upset. But the Seahawks defense is its usual dominant self, holding the Lions under 200 yards of offense. Russell Wilson leads an unspectacular-but-efficient offense, and the Seahawks roll, 26-3, setting a date in Atlanta next week. The Dolphins take the field in Gillette Stadium Sunday with thoughts of a franchise-defining upset, feeding off their victory against New England in week 17. But the Patriots have other ideas, jumping out to a 14-0 lead on their first two drives. Miami narrows the gap to 14-10, but an injury to Ryan Tannehill dooms them, and New England runs away with it. The final score of 35-13 sets up a Patriots/Steelers rematch and officially sends the Chiefs to Farmers Field. The most hyped matchup of the weekend, Giants/Packers, begins as advertised, with a close game in sub-freezing temperatures, but Aaron Rodgers takes over the game, and the Giants can’t find a way to stop him. A 14-6 halftime lead grows into a 38-13 win for Green Bay, and they will head to Dallas to take on the NFC’s top seed. With Chiefs/Knights scheduled for primetime on Saturday, the Knights begin their week of preparation on Monday. Though this is the Knights’ third battle with the Chiefs this year, it will be the first under normal circumstances. The first game, half the team was vomiting and underweight; the second, Coach Harden was hospitalized. Despite the familiarity, every player and coach approaches the game as the must-win that it is. The Knights have no illusions about their 16-0 record; they have coasted through the season undefeated for a reason, but now it’s all down to one game. One bad day from a handful of players, and it’s over. Things are tense on the second floor too, where offseason preparations are well underway. The Knights will face a challenging offseason no matter how this season ends. The team’s dominance has brought attention and accolades, and it will soon bring elevated salaries. Multiple agents have already told Phillips they will pursue a raise for their players in the offseason. Meanwhile, five starters are free agents to be, and the two best players from that group (Penner and Flash) likely won’t return. If Schwinn, another free agent to be, also leaves, the safety position could be in crisis. And all of this will probably occur under a head-coaching change. Bracing for a turbulent offseason means plenty of study, analysis, reports, and meetings. But eventually, Schneider finds himself in his office with Phillips and Stein with no pressing report or serious conversation, finally able to dive into the chaotic events of the past week. “It went down to the wire,” Schneider says, reclining in his chair and reliving every detail. “Had I not spun Jerry toward my side, the league would look quite different right now. And I only got him because of the support I’ve been building up over the last few months. It all came together brilliantly, I must say.” “Outstanding work, Wayne,” Stein says. “Really incredible stuff, truly. But what about Dean Spanos?” “He got nervous. Kroenke had built up a lot of momentum over the last month. Spanos figured if it came down to a vote, he would lose. And he was right. So I got him behind the Vegas idea with the kicker of financing his stadium for him.” “Which was admirable,” Stein says. “Is admirable.” “Thank you, Allan,” Schneider says, glancing at Phillips, who doesn’t look the least bit impressed. They have something to discuss and Stein is in the way of that, Schneider knows, but he is angry Phillips will never be able to appreciate his actions over the past few months. “Unfortunately, this deal isn’t all good news for us. Getting Kroenke off his Carson project was near impossible, so I had to let the Rams in for a few years. To Kroenke, that’s their way of strengthening the Vegas market—by pulling fans from here. We’ll have to fight very hard for fans the next two years. They will be very important years for this franchise.” “We’ll be up to the challenge,” Stein says, smiling before looking at Phillips in shock, as if he just noticed his presence. “You’re unusually quiet today, Chance, on a day where we should be celebrating.” Phillips glares at Stein for only a second before turning his head to Schneider, confident he will understand. “Allan,” Schneider says, “could you finalize those free agency projections and show it to me? Meet me back here in thirty minutes.” “It’s ready right now, sir.” “Go over it again. We shouldn’t let the good fortune of current events dilute our level of thoroughness. Free agency still starts in seven weeks.” Stein nods and gets up, strolling through the hallway down to his office. He leaves the door open, so Phillips gets up and closes it. He expects Schneider to go first, but he doesn’t. “Well?” Phillips says, arms extended. “I’m wondering what happens between us, Chance.” “What do you mean?” “You blackmailed and strong-armed me into action. You threatened me with a story that would have significantly affected my reputation. You breached my confidence and the confidence of this building by leaking private information to the press. Did you expect we would forget all that just because I was able to fend off relocation?” “You want to win Super Bowls with Allan Stein as your general manager? I wish you the best of luck.” “Let me worry about the future of this franchise, if it doesn’t include you.” The conviction in Schneider’s voice worries Phillips, who tries to look poised. Unsure of a confident response, he hesitates. “What do you propose?” Schneider asks. “I don’t think expanding on any of this will be good for the team while the playoffs are ongoing. So, we table it until season’s end, which, hopefully, is after the Super Bowl. At that point, you and I sit down and talk.” “And until then?” “Business as usual.” This is a power move on Phillips’ part, remaining in control of the Knights’ offseason preparations for at least a few days and as long as another month. If Schneider is hell-bent on firing Phillips as soon as possible, he has to do it right now. “So be it,” Schneider says. “Business as usual.” Knights fans stroll through the Farmers Field concourses as confident as sports fans facing single-elimination can be. Not only have they watched their team dominate the league for seventeen weeks; they’ve spent the last two weeks absorbing waves of media coverage talking about how great the Knights are. The 16-0 record alone is legendary, but all the statistics that come with it place the 2016 Knights in conversations among the best teams in NFL history. All award prediction articles cite Maverick as the clear favorite for Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year. Grantzinger is a strong contender for Defensive Player of the Year. Harden will almost certainly win Coach of the Year. The Knights are the best team in the league, plain and simple. Fans pack the stadium and get fired up for the second game of Divisional Weekend, ready for a bonus AFC West victory. What happens next is tragedy in slow motion. A sack derails the Knights’ opening drive, and they punt. The Chiefs respond by showing more flare on offense than they have all year. Alex Smith fires deep passes for Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce, getting the Chiefs in the red zone. Kelce gets open again, this time in the end zone, and the Chiefs have a 7-0 lead. Maverick drops back and fires a bullet to Wilkes for twelve yards, and the Knights look primed to answer. The next play, NesSmith takes a carry up the middle, and a defender strips the ball. It bounces backward, covered by Penner after a six-yard loss. Consecutive pass attempts fail to make up the yardage, and the Knights punt again. The Chiefs keep rolling, reaching midfield in two plays. Harden is so confounded he doesn’t scream at anyone. They’re doubling Grantzinger, and Harden can’t find a way to get pass rush elsewhere. Even worse, the Knights’ pass coverage is making Smith look like Joe Montana. Luck finally breaks through for some pressure, forcing Smith to throw it away on third down, and Andy Reid chooses a punt over a sixty-yard field goal attempt. Pinned near his own goal line, McKenzie dials up some quick passes that get the Knights breathing room. Watson makes a tiptoed sideline catch that nets the Knights their second first down of the drive, bringing the crowd back into it. Banks takes a carry, cutting through a gaping hole in the trenches and into the secondary, where a corner gets his helmet on the ball and pops it loose. A white jersey is at the bottom of the pile this time, and the Chiefs set up shop where their last drive ended. The Knights offense watches nervously as the Chiefs run the ball up the middle, slowly crawling toward the end zone. On third and goal from the two, Smith hands off to Spencer Ware, who runs through a wall of black jerseys, somehow getting the ball across the goal line, and the first quarter ends with the Chiefs on top, 14-0. The ensuing commercial break is nearly unbearable, a solemn hush saturating the stadium with no one sure what to do about it. NesSmith and Banks, the pair of fumbling running backs, sit next to each other on the bench, listening to the usual pick-me-up from coaches. Then they hear more encouragement from behind them. “Stay in the game, guys!” Jameson says. “Three quarters to go. Stay in the game.” The running backs nod and fist-bump the injured Jameson, wandering the sideline in a knee brace. He was offered a luxury suite upstairs, but he’d much rather be here. NesSmith starts the drive on the field, but the Knights are in pass-only mode, desperate to get back in the game quickly. The Chiefs are operating a confusing scheme on Wilkes, sometimes doubling him and sometimes not, which Maverick finds hard to detect. This leads to the Knights looking more like a West Coast offense than the vertical attack they like to be. Still, Bishop and Johnson rack up catches underneath, with Bishop particularly effective gaining yards after the catch, and the Knights reach field goal range. Consecutive end zone shots to Wilkes and Watson fail, and they settle for a forty-yard kick that McCabe makes, putting the home team on the board at last. Harden searches for a game-breaking play on defense but doesn’t find it. The Chiefs continue warding off the Knights’ pass rush, moving the ball at will. The secondary tightens up, though, cutting off any downfield throwing and limiting Kansas City’s offense enough to force a punt. Two inconsequential drives and a trade of punts later, the Knights get the ball back with 2:33 left in the half. In two-minute mode, McKenzie presses for deep throws, but the Chiefs have everything covered. Maverick is forced to get multiple first downs with his legs, and the offense burns the rest of the clock just to get in field goal range. The half ends with McCabe shanking a forty-five-yard kick, and the score holds at 14-3. Fans decide they’ve had enough, shelling their beloved Knights with a round of boos. The home team’s locker room is eerily still. Not since these players filled the Good Samaritan emergency hall waiting area have they sat together in such a morbid silence. The position coaches have gone around and detailed second-half adjustments, but they provide no comfort to anyone. Harden debates his words before halftime ends, but he sticks to his instincts: these players don’t need to be yelled at; they need to turn things around on their own. The Knights refill the sideline with Farmers Field booming. Apparently, the halftime pump-up videos have worked, and the fans are ready for a big comeback. Players feel energy returning to them, ready to retake the field, when Tyreek Hill surges out from his own end zone and takes the opening kickoff all the way. Fans can’t find the strength to boo this time. The extra point makes it 21-3, and Farmers Field is strikingly quiet. Not a single Knights fan entered this stadium scared of the Chiefs, figuring they would, at worst, battle through a tough AFC West game and pull away in the game’s final act. Now, they are forced to witness what must be one of the biggest chokes in sports history. Maverick and the offense wait on the field for the commercial to end, hands on their hips, milling aimlessly. “Alright, it’s like this,” Maverick says, commanding everyone’s attention and drawing them into a close huddle. “I’m not gonna go all rah-rah to get you guys fired up. I’ve done enough of that. If we lose this game, if we come all this way just to blow it in our first playoff game, we’ll never forget it. I’m not taking this shit to my grave. And neither are you. But it’s not gonna happen all at once. One block, one catch, one play at a time, we’re winning this fucking game. Let’s go.” McKenzie can’t help but stick with his pass-first approach, but he embraces the short passing game, hoping to play the Chiefs’ deep coverage against them. It works. Wilkes gets going on some crossing routes, and Maverick gets in rhythm, firing to open receivers left and right. Across midfield, Maverick drops back for a deep shot to Wilkes, but he spots safety help at the last second. Under pressure, he rolls right, finding Watson open in the flat. Watson’s speed gets him upfield in a hurry, and the Knights are in field goal range again, though Harden has no intention of kicking one. A few runs to NesSmith get another first down (without any fumbles), and Maverick lines up in shotgun. He studies the defense, recognizing something. He takes the snap expecting double coverage on Wilkes—he gets it. He pumps, then looks left, where Bishop breaks toward the corner of the end zone. Maverick’s pass hits him in stride, and Farmers Field comes back to life. Maverick looks back to McKenzie for the two-point call, but McKenzie and Harden hold a single finger in the air. Without a shred of protest, Maverick nods and jogs back to the sideline. “I got ‘em now,” Maverick tells McKenzie, eager to see the pictures from that drive. “I knew D-Jam would be doubled. Unless they change it up, we can break this thing open.” “Okay, let’s look at it,” McKenzie says. McCabe’s extra point makes it 21-10, and Randall spends the ensuing commercial break firing up his defensive teammates one by one. When Randall gets in formation for first and ten, he sniffs out a run, bolts through the trenches, and lights up Ware with a vicious hit. Second and thirteen. Smith drops back as a screen develops, but Martin and Brock have it covered. Smith looks deep, but Flash is tracking Maclin step for step. Smith spots Kelce, open, and throws. Schwinn covers the ground and dives, swatting the pass away. The crowd comes to its feet for third down as the Knights line up in a 4-3. The hybrid hasn’t worked yet, but Harden has something different ready. On the outside, Grantzinger backs off, and the right tackle blocks Luck. Grantzinger sweeps back to the middle, accelerating through an opening and bringing down Smith for the sack. “We’re back, baby!” Randall screams on the sideline to anyone who will listen. “We’re back! Hey,” he says to Maverick, “we got this now. It’s there for you. Go out and take it.” “We’re about to,” Maverick says, brimming with confidence after finalizing the plan for the next drive. McKenzie works the short pass game again, letting Maverick feel out the defensive scheme. After two first downs, Maverick spots what he thinks is single coverage on Wilkes and audibles from the called run. He sells a handoff to NesSmith as Wilkes breaks deep, beating his corner with no safety in sight. He looks up and watches the pass sail toward him perfectly. He catches it as the defender latches on, but Wilkes keeps his feet moving for another ten yards. He spikes the ball emphatically as the Knights set up shop on the Chiefs’ nineteen-yard line with Farmers Field buzzing. Bishop catches a quick pass over the middle, followed by a Watson slant, and the Knights are five yards from the end zone. Three receivers line up to Maverick’s left, so the Chiefs shade that way, anticipating a screen. Maverick takes the snap and tosses it right to NesSmith, who breaks for the pylon and dives through it. Touchdown. The stadium’s celebration continues as the Knights line up for two, trying to make it a three-point game. They use a bunch formation again, but the Chiefs ignore it this time. Maverick hurries the snap, content to fire sideways for Wilkes. With Harper and Bishop blocking in front of him, he literally walks across the goal line. The Knights’ sideline, along with the stadium around it, enters a frenzy, expelling all the energy bottled up over the last few hours. At last, the Knights are awake, trailing only 21-18 with 4:32 to go in the third quarter. Harper catches the pass on a slant, tackled beyond the first down marker. Fans clap as the chains reset for first and ten. Maverick looks up at the clock. 11:03, 11:02… The Knights start a new set of downs on the Chiefs’ thirty. Momentum has completely swung in their favor over the past hour, and they are only a few plays from taking the lead for the first time today. Banks runs left off-tackle for three yards, and neither team changes personnel for second down. Maverick motions Harper left, leaving Wilkes isolated on the right side. Maverick spots double coverage, but he doesn’t care. He drops back and tracks Wilkes, running along the sideline. Maverick sets his feet and fires the back-shoulder fade. Wilkes turns his head as he reaches the goal line—underthrown. He plants his feet in the grass to slow down and spins, extending his left hand and letting the ball hit it. A defender hits him at full speed, and he falls to the ground after planting his toes. The nearest official, only a few feet away, gets a perfect look and makes his call instantly, raising his arms in the air. Farmers Field explodes for the go-ahead score and for an insane one-handed catch that must be one of Wilkes’ best. The receiver springs up from the big hit and leaps into the air. “CAN’T STOP ME!” he yells. “CAN’T STOP ME!” Maverick runs in, mobbing Wilkes in something that’s part hug, part helmet tap. The players in black jerseys are all smiles as McCabe’s extra point makes it 25-21. The Chiefs take over with 9:40 on the clock, and Harden sticks with what has worked in the second half: constant deception and showcasing the hybrid, switching between 4-3 and 3-4 aggressively. Alex Smith finds receivers for short gains that get tackled immediately. This nets a first down, with the clock ticking, before Flash and Stone each break up a pass, and the Chiefs face fourth and seven. Harden signals for his defense to stay on the field, but the Chiefs punt team appears. Knights are cautioned against a fake, but Dustin Colquitt boots it downfield. A fair catch places the Knights at their own fifteen-yard line, 6:55 to play. McKenzie readies his strategy. With a healthy Jameson, he would go into full closer mode, grinding the clock out one run at a time. Without him, the Knights will have to pass. Banks and NesSmith split carries with the Chiefs playing against the run. Maverick drops back to pass on third and five. A doubled Wilkes leaves Watson open over the middle, and Maverick doesn’t miss. First down. 4:48, 4:47, 4:46… The Knights repeat the run-run-pass strategy. This time, Bishop breaks open over the middle on third down, reaching midfield for another first down. The Chiefs call their first timeout, and the clock stops at 2:40. Farmers Field stays loud and electric with the Knights taking control, one or two more Maverick passes away from ending this thing. NesSmith takes a run up the middle for two yards and the Chiefs call another timeout. 2:32. Banks gets the carry this time, getting stuffed but bouncing outside and finding space. A great downfield block from Bishop gets another first down, and the stadium roars while another timeout freezes the clock at 2:22. Three consecutive runs could give the Chiefs the ball back, so Harden has McKenzie go for the kill. Wilkes hears his number called and lines up wide left, apparently in single coverage. Maverick takes the snap. Wilkes runs straight, then cuts across the middle. He sees Maverick release the pass, extending his D-Jam. White fades to black, then white again. D-Jam, can you hear me? Figures, above him. People. They’re people. D-Jam, can you blink your eyes for me? The game. Is the game over? They must have won by now. “D-Jam, can you hear what I’m saying?” He recognizes faces now, doctors he normally sees on the sideline. Normally. Black helmets pop in and out of view, but he can’t make out the faces behind them. An apparent rush of energy flows through his body, and he sits up. He hears the crowd cheer, realizing he hasn’t heard them this whole time. Wilkes doesn’t know it, but he’s been on the ground two minutes, and to the quiet Farmers Field crowd, it seems like two hours. Applause feels like relief, but all eyes are still on #81, sitting on the grass, surrounded by trainers and teammates as a medical cart pulls up next to the gathering. Anyone brave enough to look up at the replay screen sees, in slow motion, the ball hit Wilkes’ hands as he turns his head upfield. The linebacker leads with his shoulder, hitting Wilkes square on the chin as his head snaps forward, backward, then backward again as his back hits the grass. The trainers get Wilkes to his feet, drawing another wave of applause. After they get him seated on the cart, Knights and Chiefs crowd around him for fist bumps of good will. “I’m good,” Wilkes keeps saying. “I’ll be alright. I’m good.” The players disperse, and the cart drives off the field towards the tunnel. Wilkes appears cognizant but does not give anyone the thumbs up. Players and fans try to re-focus for second and ten. McKenzie calls a few simple run plays, and behind the blocking of Grodd and Penner, NesSmith powers forward for another first down. Beyond the two-minute warning now, Maverick takes a few kneeldowns, and the game is over. The injury lingers around the stadium, making a wild celebration feel inappropriate, so the Knights simply congratulate each other and look ahead. Many players, as they leave the field, hold two fingers in the air in the direction of fans, teammates, and cameras. Two more games. | | | | | | | | | | | | | | |
  7. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part VI Chapter Seventy-Five – Kings of Andreas Finally home from another shitty Monday at work, Cooper throws off his jacket and prepares for the shower he didn’t have time to take this morning. He turns on ESPN before undressing, but he doesn’t see what fades onto the television, missing the monumental news that broke an hour ago. During the shower, Cooper contemplates what to watch tonight, faced with the usual dilemma. The Kings and Clippers suck, and he’s counting down to pitchers and catchers reporting for the Dodgers. He can only guess what the Raiders, in the wake of Al Davis’ death, are doing. That leaves the Lakers, a first-place team probably headed to the Finals again. And while Cooper doesn’t like the Lakers, they afford him an opportunity to watch high quality sports, something he rarely experiences. Cooper gets out of the shower and hears the Raiders mentioned on the living room TV. Wearing only underwear, Cooper walks into the living room, and he nearly shits his pants at the news: the Oakland Raiders have been sold, and the new owner’s name is Wayne Schneider. Cooper remembers that name, floated amidst the endless rumors that followed Davis’ death and the idea that the team might get sold to a third-party businessman. Cooper opens his laptop and does a quick Google search, learning Schneider was born and raised in Los Angeles. That fact alone piques Cooper’s interest. The next few hours, Cooper, still in his underwear, posts up on his couch, glued to coverage through ESPN, NFL Network, and local channels. A press conference is scheduled for tomorrow, and speculation grows that this may be more than a formal introduction—that Schneider may be moving the team to his hometown. This thought alone keeps Cooper awake, researching, and dreaming well into the night. The next day at work, Cooper takes his lunch break during the press conference and hears the fateful news: after this season, the Raiders are relocating to Los Angeles. Cooper comes home to his apartment, and it’s as if he sees the Los Angeles Raiders posters and memorabilia for the first time. His love of football and the Raiders, born in the late 80s, has at last been rekindled. Cooper spends the next few weeks and months glued to sports coverage, listening to talk radio to and from work, wondering what direction the new Raiders will take, who their coach and GM will be, where they’ll play their home games, and what they’ll be called. Phillips reclines in his office chair, door closed, and reads through the words printed over three sheets of paper, paragraph by paragraph. The team is currently in film review for the Colts game this Sunday, and this close to January, offseason previews and scouting reports and free agent projections constantly cross Phillips’ desk. But what he reads right now has no official connection to the team. It is, however, the most important document he’ll read this year. He reads and re-reads every word. Very nice work, Adam. He hesitates only slightly before rising and walking towards Schneider’s office. He has put plenty of thought into this, both aware of the point of no return he is approaching and confident in his decision to cross it. He knocks on the open door. Schneider is sifting through paperwork and motions Phillips inside. He closes the door, a sign that makes Schneider stop and sit up in his chair. “What’s on your mind, Chance?” Schneider asks, thinking this conversation could go many different directions. “I have something for you,” Phillips says, holding up the three sheets of paper and stepping closer to Schneider’s desk. Schneider can tell from his tone that the methodical, rational, general manager Chance Phillips is not in his office. It is instead the conniving, sly Chance Phillips, the one who leaked the London story to the world. “Will this conversation end with me turning on that TV, seeing that you’ve sold another story to the press?” “Leaking London was just an appetizer. This is the main course.” Phillips gently places the papers on top of the desk. Schneider, eyebrows raised, picks them up and sees multiple paragraphs printed in basic font, no name attributed to it, though there is a bolded headline at the top, which Schneider reads aloud: “Lies, false promises, and broken dreams: inside the Schneider era of the Knights organization.” “A little long for my taste,” Phillips says, easing into a chair and crossing his legs. “Take your time. It’s best if you read it all.” Schneider does so, eyes moving through the words slowly, deducing very quickly what this is: a firsthand account of the last seven years, told by Phillips. His eyes proceed through the pages, reading details of Caden Daniel’s firing, of Malik Rose’s release, of the trade deadline drama in 2015, of everything. The writing seems to be that of a journalist, not Phillips himself. “Who wrote this?” Schneider asks once he’s finished reading, though his eyes still study the pages in case there’s something he’s missed. “A prominent sports journalist. Does it matter who, specifically?” Schneider’s eyes break from the page and find Phillips, conveying, as best Schneider can, his disdain. “This is betrayal, Chance. Complete and utter betrayal.” “Wrong. It’s a threat of betrayal. Until it’s published. Then it’s for real.” “You’re threatening me? With what?” “I know there are owners meetings next week. I know the official vote is the week after that. You keep this team in Los Angeles, or—” “Stop,” Schneider interrupts, finally understanding Phillips’ play—and seeing through it. “You realize, I hope, that this type of story only has value if it comes from a GM. This story from a recently-fired GM reads much differently.” Phillips’ smile fades, a deliberate gesture, giving Schneider a moment to think he’s won. Phillips anticipated this and has his counter ready. “Not if the firing is controversial. Has a GM ever been fired the same season he won Executive of the Year?” Schneider sighs. He decides not to respond vocally, hoping Phillips understands this is his chance to state his demand. He does. “You keep this team in Los Angeles, or this story destroys your reputation.” “Are you strong-arming me?” “You’re damn right I am.” Schneider leans back, purses his lips, then contorts his face into a crooked smile. “Good for you, Chance. Good for you.” Phillips stands up, not wanting a prolonged conversation now that everything is out in the open. As he approaches the door, Schneider says, “I need you to understand something, Chance.” Phillips turns around slowly, one foot in the doorway. “I’ve said this before. As the owner of this franchise, it is my responsibility to place it in a viable market. If things don’t go our way—and believe me, I’m doing everything I can—I will do that, be it in London or someplace else. You want to publish your story anyway? Go ahead. You’re a fool if you think that’s a career killer. But I promise you this—whatever piece of my reputation that story takes, it takes you with it.” Phillips keeps calm. He figured Schneider wouldn’t take his willingness to leave football seriously. “I understand,” he says, and walks out the door, back to his office to dissect Stein’s latest free agency summary. Knights fans pack Farmers Field for the penultimate game of the year, one of great consequence, even by week 16 standards. A win takes the Knights to 15-0, clinches home-field throughout the playoffs, and puts them one game away from an undefeated regular season. Any worry about a possible letdown following last week’s exhilarating victory in Pittsburgh evaporates throughout the first quarter. Maverick has his way with the Colts secondary, and the Knights lead two seventy-five-yard touchdown drives with both two-point conversions for an early 16-0 lead. The Knights defense dominates Indy’s offensive line, putting constant pressure on Andrew Luck and preventing their secondary from being beat. The Knights add a touchdown in the second quarter, missing the two-point attempt, for a 22-0 lead at halftime. The opening possessions of the third quarter show no hope for the Colts, and even the most nervous Knights fans don’t fear a meltdown. Wilkes adds to the lead with his second touchdown of the day, his 23rd of the year, tying Randy Moss’ single-season record. The fourth quarter ticks away with the Knights on top, 34-3, a blowout reminiscent of their Monday Night Football game against Houston. And while players and coaches on the home team’s sideline are confident and relaxed, their thoughts inevitably dwell on next week, when the Chargers will be in this building. The proposition of resting players with the playoffs clinched is nothing new in the NFL, but the Knights’ record puts a unique spin on it. And players and fans alike don’t know what to expect. Nine years ago, Bill Belichick faced the same dilemma and played his starters en route to a 16-0 season. Will Merle Harden make the same choice? Players take their seats in the auditorium for the last time this regular season. Unlike last year, their season will continue into January, and they will be two home wins away from their third Super Bowl appearance in four years. Additionally, the Knights have the honor of six Pro Bowlers on their roster (Maverick, Wilkes, Grodd, Penner, Grantzinger, Randall), tied with Atlanta for most in the league. All of this should inspire confidence among the team, but they feel instead a tension in the air. Harden feels it too, and he plans on killing it immediately. “Alright, let’s get this out of the way,” Harden says once everyone has settled in. “Before we talk about mistakes from two days ago or what we’re gonna do against San Diego, we have a decision to make.” All the players sit up, at full attention. They’ve always admired Harden’s policy of addressing lingering or awkward questions head on, and this is no exception. “We’re 15-0, got the AFC clinched. Nothing that happens this Sunday can help us. On paper, anyway. And there’s a whole lot that can hurt us. Now, I’m generally not much for democracy when it comes to these things, but I think you all have earned the right to make this decision for yourselves. So, what do you say, men?” The auditorium is silent. Each player has already thought about this and knows where he stands, but nobody wants to be the first player into this conversation. “Fuck it,” Penner says, happy to take the lead. “Let’s go for it.” Most of the players nod their heads and murmur in agreement. “Think of it this way,” Randall says. “How many teams actually get to experience this? Are we really gonna be one of those few, and then just bow out? We have to go for it.” “We don’t have to,” Flash says. His contrarian opinion turns plenty of heads. “I don’t wanna get hurt in a game that doesn’t count.” Players pipe up, louder now, to disagree. The auditorium gets rowdy. This is what Harden wanted to avoid, but he refrains from intervening, allowing the players to work it out themselves. “Hold on, hold on!” Wilkes yells, able to settle everyone for a second. “Ease up on Flash, y’all. The goal is the Super Bowl, right? This Sunday don’t get us no closer to the Super Bowl. I’m not saying we shouldn’t play, I’m just saying I see where you’re coming from, Flash.” Flash nods toward Wilkes, grateful for the temporary support. “What about this?” Grantzinger says. “Let’s say we rest up, lose, then go all the way. Champions with an 18-1 record. Do we want to look back and say, ‘Why didn’t we go for 19-0?’” Everyone reacts silently, considering that angle of the debate. “Should we vote?” Maverick asks. Harden steps in. “This ain’t the goddamn senate. No votes. Just look here and listen, everyone. If things go wrong, if anyone gets hurt, I don’t want to hear any bitching.” He looks around, into everyone’s eyes, and sees what he was hoping for. They’re with him. “Alright, that’s it, then. We’re going for it.” A cold front pushes the temperature in Houston into the 40s, colder than usual, even for December. Inside Vallone’s Steakhouse, next to the Westin where NFL owners will meet over the next two days and thirty minutes from the site of Super Bowl XLI, sits Dean Spanos, Chargers president and representative at this week’s meetings. At a booth by himself, Spanos munches on a chopped salad and broods over the next forty-eight hours. The consolation that all the drama will soon be over somehow provides little relief. “Good afternoon, Dean,” says a voice. Spanos looks up, barely processing Wayne Schneider’s presence before the Knights owner occupies the opposite side of his booth. “Mind if I join you?” “Jesus, Wayne,” Spanos says, “you could have told me you were stopping by.” “I’ve been leaving voicemails in San Diego for weeks. But now it’s sort of the eleventh hour, isn’t it?” “I would ask you to get to the point, but I’m sure you’re about to.” “There will never be three teams in one city. Can we agree on that?” Spanos shrugs as if to say, Of course. “Then it’s you versus Kroenke. Chargers versus Rams. One is moving to L.A., and one is getting fucked. You’re a nice guy, Dean, and you’re well respected, but your odds of getting fucked are higher than fifty-fifty, and I think you know it.” “Here just to criticize me?” “Of course not. I’m here to offer a solution.” Spanos looks skeptical, and fairly so. The league’s owners have been wheeling and dealing for Los Angeles over a year; Schneider needs to convince Spanos this isn’t the usual banter. “To what, exactly?” Spanos asks. “I want you to say in San Diego. I want the Chargers in San Diego. Permanently. I believe that’s best for everyone.” “Great, Wayne, I don’t disagree. But where’s the money coming from? You’ve seen the proposals. We’re short between—” “I’ll finance the fucking thing myself.” Spanos’ face remains still except for a brief moment where his eyebrows raise very slightly, and Schneider notices. “That’s a bluff,” Spanos says. “No, it’s not.” “How far are you willing to go?” “As far as it takes to get this done without hurting your pride too badly. Because I enjoy working with you, Dean. I mean that.” He pauses to let that line sink in. “I need you in San Diego. Once you’re locked up, I can take on Kroenke one on one. But I can’t fight a war on multiple fronts here.” “You’re asking me to give up on the Los Angeles fight and risk Kroenke going there anyway.” “I’m giving you a financially feasible and prosperous way to stay in San Diego. Do you really care about anything else?” Spanos puts down his fork and wipes his mouth with a napkin. No, he doesn’t. Schneider smiles. One down; now, onto Stan Kroenke. The Chargers travel to Los Angeles Saturday, as they always do for their annual trip to Farmers Field, but once set up at a hotel near the stadium, head coach Caden Daniel leaves, a prior obligation scheduled. He drives a rental car away from downtown Los Angeles and toward a house he has visited before, though not in several years. He parks in the driveway, and there to greet him at the door is a raucous Doberman pinscher and a man who once called Daniel his boss. “Good to see you, Caden,” Merle says, shaking his hand. “Glad you could make it.” “Same to you,” Caden says. “Last time I was here, you didn’t have the vicious guard dog.” “Vicious. Yeah, that’ll be the day. Mel! Caden’s here.” Caden and Melinda share a warm greeting, and the three make smalltalk before dinner is served. Between bites of food, Caden and Merle find plenty to discuss. These two men have dined in a similar situation before, where one was the other’s subordinate. Tonight, they dine as friends who happen to be in the same business. They talk in a relaxed, free-flowing way, a conversation they could never have when they were on the same coaching staff. Once dinner is over, Caden and Merle step out to the back yard, multiple acres of land around which Bowser enjoys running, chasing tennis balls that Merle throws. They finish one of their earlier conversations, and then finally turn to football. “I know better than to think you care,” Caden says, “but for what it’s worth, I think you’re doing the right thing playing your starters.” “That goes two ways, coach. You’re doing the right thing too.” “I guess.” Caden chuckles. “After giving Cleveland their first win last week, I thought the guys would shut down. But they haven’t. Apparently an opportunity to crack 16-0 is enough to keep them going one more game.” “I’m sure we’ll get your best shot.” Caden doesn’t say anything. He enjoys no part of any mentioning of the Chargers or their record, but his frustration and regret has slowly evolved into acceptance. In a league where losing coaches generally don’t finish the third year of their contract, Caden is carrying a 5-10 record in year four. “I’m not surprised to see you guys running the table,” Caden says after Merle throws another ball for Bowser. “I always knew we could build something in L.A. You got a special group of guys in that locker room, Merle.” “You got a raw deal,” Merle says, remembering what Phillips told him about that firing. “They needed a fall guy and made it you.” “It’s business,” Caden says. “If I didn’t want to get into it, I would have stayed at UConn.” “You think you still might head back?” “I don’t know,” Caden says honestly. “I won’t deny I was happier there, but, something’s keeping me in this league. I guess I don’t want my only Super Bowl ring to be won as a backup quarterback.” “It’s not a bad deal. Hell, I’d consider going back to college or high school if…” His words trail off. Caden looks over. “…if I had more time.” Caden doesn’t know what to say on that topic, so he sticks with his coaching prospects. “I imagine I’ll still get an interview or two for head coach, but who knows.” “You and Mac would get along, I know it. If it’s kosher to take a step down, you’d fit in perfectly at coordinator, QB coach, whatever.” “You’re talking as if you won’t be there next year.” Merle doesn’t say anything. This time, Caden doesn’t look at him. “That bad, huh? I’m sorry, Merle.” “Not bad enough to keep me off the field the next month or so. And that’s all that’s gonna matter.” A massive traffic jam shortens Cooper and Sampson’s tailgating time in the north parking lot, so the duo consequently walks toward the stadium much more sober than intended. As they make their way through droves of fans in black and purple (and a few powder blue), they feel the energy in the air. Everyone enters the stadium firmly aware of the gravity of this game. Neither Cooper nor Sampson has gone to a playoff game, but they imagine this must be what a playoff atmosphere feels like. Neither man says a word as they ascend spiral walkways to the upper level, where they buy a couple beers and a pretzel and find their seats. The next thirty minutes seem to drag and fly at the same time. By kickoff, nearly every seat is filled, and the 70,000-plus fans watching pale in numeral comparison to the millions watching Sunday Night Football at home. The Knights come out firing. Maverick drops back and hits receivers with quick strikes that keep the home crowd energized. After reaching midfield, Maverick takes a sack on third down. Reynolds tries a coffin corner that lands in the end zone, and the Chargers take over. Showing more balance and less urgency, Philip Rivers leads a balanced drive, going down the field one small gain at a time. With each third-down conversion, the Farmers Field crowd loses enthusiasm. Jerome Jaxson catches a screen pass and darts upfield, juking between several of his old teammates into the end zone. Small patches of fans wearing blue jerseys celebrate while most of the stadium is silent. Cooper: “We’re doomed. Might as well just quit now.” Maverick picks up where he left off, taking three-stop drops and firing into tight coverage. Apparently, the Knights have no desire to run the ball today. They get a much-needed break when Watson catches a pass in traffic and his defender falls down. Watson surges into field goal range, and a few plays later, McCabe gets the Knights on the board. Cooper: “Where the hell is Wilkes?” Sampson: “Rose is all over him. He hasn’t been running deep, though.” The Knights keep up the pass-happy attack, soon facing third and one. Maverick lines up under center as Chargers stack the box and creep toward the line of scrimmage. Maverick takes the snap, fakes a handoff to NesSmith, and fires for Wilkes on a post. Wilkes catches the pass as Rose falls on top of him, and the stadium cheers for a big first down—and Wilkes’ presence on the stat sheet. Two plays later, Maverick sells a play-action fake and rolls right, plenty of green grass around him. Sampson: “He’s got him! He’s got him!” Maverick sees Harper, open by a few yards downfield, and slings it. Harper catches the pass with defenders closing, but they can’t catch him before he reaches the end zone, and Farmers Field goes wild. The celebration has barely stopped when Maverick sneaks it into the end zone for the two-point conversion. Cooper: “Fuck yeah, baby!” Sampson: “Can only contain this offense for so long, man.” Cooper: “We’re going 19-0. We have to. We’re not losing.” The ensuing Chargers drive only lasts two plays before officials stop the game, and fans realize the first quarter has ended. Chargers 14, Knights 11, 5:32 to go in the second quarter. The Chargers line up to punt as McKenzie preps his offense for their next drive. So far, the Knights’ passing game has been effective but limited. Still, McKenzie pumps up his quarterback and receivers as they take the field, ready for another pass-happy drive. Harden, who has been listening, walks up next to McKenzie. “Gonna force it until it works, huh?” “Yup.” “They have a fearsome secondary, Mac.” “We have Maverick.” The Knights quarterback commands the huddle and leads the offense with poise. He desperately wants to win this game, but it’s far too early to be nervous. His confidence grows after hitting Bishop and Watson on consecutive plays for a first down. Wilkes lines up against Rose yet again, running a post-in route. He gets a little separation, and the pass comes flying. He catches it and turns upfield, but Rose latches himself to Wilkes’ legs and brings him down. The fans celebrate, but that’s only Wilkes’ second catch of the day. He only needs one end zone catch to break Moss’ record, but it doesn’t seem likely. Maverick is chasing history too, currently at 46 touchdown passes on the season. It would take an offensive explosion for him to hit 50, and there’s no way he touches Peyton Manning’s record of 55, but he wouldn’t care if he could. He wants to win. The Knights move the ball with purpose, taking a lot of clock in the process. Maverick takes a sack that appears to doom the drive, but on third and fifteen, he throws a dime to Bishop on a wheel route, and the chains reset. Two short completions and two runs later, McCabe nails a forty-five-yard kick, tying the game. The Knights defense retakes the field with 1:35 on the clock, a seemingly obvious situation to play conservative, but Merle Harden is calling the plays. Rivers tries to connect downfield, barraged with pressure. After being hit twice on two incompletions, he finds Keenan Allen for a first down, taking an even harder hit from Grantzinger in the process. Another completion gets the Chargers close to Hail Mary range, but Rivers can’t find anyone, and the first half ends with the score locked at 14-14. The Knights locker room is tense, much tenser than it should be for a team that has home-field advantage secured. Few players expected an easy win over a division rival, but they all feel the determination they took into this game. They will not be remembered as the team who fell one game short of 16-0. Chatter between lockers is minimal, and nobody quells the uneasiness in the air, simply resting and waiting to hear about the second half plan. Coaches are more relaxed, thankful to escape the first half without injuries. A few minutes later, though, Penner reports tightness in his lower back. The home team’s sideline repopulates, with coaches and players shouting generic chants of “Let’s go” and “Let’s get a good start now.” The half begins as Jaxson catches the kickoff, reaches full speed through a wave of perfect blocks, spins past the kicker, and coasts into the end zone. A winded Jaxson throws the ball into the stands toward one particular Knights fan who, as if at a Dodgers game, throws it back. The Knights sideline takes in the 21-14 score stoically. Maverick simply grabs his helmet and says, “Back to work.” Maverick takes the field without Penner, who is still being evaluated but seems fine, lining up behind Fitzsimmons. After an off-tackle run to NesSmith goes nowhere, Maverick drops back, tracking Harper on a corner route. Pressure comes up the middle as Maverick stands in and throws, hit as he lets it go. The wobbly pass sails toward Harper but lands in the arms of a white jersey, and the Chargers offense takes the field. Fans, players, and coaches consider the reality of the situation, now forced to wonder if this simply isn’t their time. Their MVP quarterback just threw his third interception of the season. Their 23-TD receiver has only caught two passes. Their opponent has a 5-10 record and is on the verge of a two-touchdown lead. Randall, however, fills the field with screams, trying to motivate his teammates, who need a stop here. Jaxson takes a carry up the middle, running into Randall and Martin for a one-yard gain. Rivers drops back looking for the end zone, but Luck and Brock break through, forcing an incompletion. On third and nine, Rivers floats one deep, but Flash undercuts it, getting his hands on the ball before it bounces out of bounds. Fans and teammates curse in frustration at Flash dropping an interception, but the Chargers settle for a Nick Novak field goal, taking a ten-point lead. The change-of-possession commercial break lingers forever, seemingly, until the Knights line up from their own thirty. Chargers 24, Knights 17, 12:17 to go. Everyone in the stadium hangs on each play as if it will decide the Super Bowl. Fans watch, excited and nervous, as Maverick leads another aggressive drive, throwing one dart after another, generally into tight coverage. Penner has re-entered the lineup, bolstering the pass protection, but Maverick does take a huge hit and stays down for a lingering, horrifying moment that makes everyone wearing black and purple want to pull the plug on the whole thing, rest every starter, and concede the game. But Maverick gets back up, and everything is fine. The Knights enter the red zone. Wilkes runs a wheel route with Rose all over him, looks back, and sees Maverick flushing out of the pocket. Wilkes cuts back toward the middle of the field, beating Rose, and Maverick fires. He catches it at the one-yard-line, gets hit, and pushes as hard as he can for the extra yard, extending the ball before being thrown backward. The stadium celebrates a touchdown, but officials spot the ball about a foot short. First and goal. The next play, Maverick tosses it wide to Banks, who runs for the pylon before cutting back between blocks, diving over the goal line. Touchdown. McKenzie holds up two fingers and glances sideways at Harden. “Any veto, coach?” “Hell no,” Harden says. Maverick lines up under center, working a hard count unsuccessfully. He takes the snap and stares down a covered Wilkes before looking toward the middle and getting swallowed by a linebacker. Chargers 24, Knights 23. 6:40 to go. Cooper: “Why not just kick the extra point there? Now we’ve gotta score on these assholes again.” Sampson: “Only a field goal wins it, though.” Cooper: “Which McCabe will probably fucking miss.” The Chargers take over, and Randall leads the vocal charge again. “Let’s go, boys! We gotta finish this! Big stop here and the offense wins it, let’s go!” With the lead and time on their side, the Chargers slow things down. Rivers deliberately milks the play clock between plays, and a few short throws get a first down. 5:21, 5:20, 5:19… Jaxson takes a handoff up the middle, surging through an open hole until Schwinn comes out of nowhere and decks him. Jaxson gingerly walks to the sideline after the three-yard gain. After another short run, Rivers finds Antonio Gates over the middle, but Randall is there to tackle him immediately, one yard shy of a first down. Fourth and one. Caden Daniel and his offensive staff give their offense the signal: stay on the field. Harden smiles. Good call, Caden. He calls his play and sees Jaxson re-enter the game. He and Randall both suspect run, so the Knights crowd the line against a three-wide formation. Everyone around the stadium stands and screams as the play clock winds down. It looks like Rivers is about to call a timeout. Then he snaps the ball, hesitates as if to sneak it, and pitches it wide to Jaxson. Everyone bites up the middle except Grantzinger, who lines Jaxson up in the open field. Jaxson accelerates, building speed, and makes his move, faking left before cutting to the outside. Grantzinger is faked out, but he plants his right foot in the ground and dives for Jaxson’s ankles, tripping him up just enough. Jaxson stumbles, unable to regain his feet, and falls to the ground two yards short. The Knights sideline goes ballistic. Every player rises from the bench in celebration. The trainers wave towels in the air. Even Harden lets himself get fired up. “That’s how you fucking tackle, men!” he screams. “That’s how you fucking tackle!” The energy around the stadium persists through the commercial break, and the crowd is still in a frenzy when Maverick lines up in shotgun, forty yards from the end zone. McKenzie finally dials up the run game, spelling NesSmith and Banks, who find enough room to move the chains. Just before the two-minute warning, Maverick drops back against a three-man rush, looking deep with no pressure. Everyone’s initial routes are covered, so Maverick waits for guys to come back to him. Wilkes does so, attracting more attention but pulling defenders from the end zone, where Harper runs over the middle, open by a step. Maverick sees him, plants his feet, and fires to the corner of the end zone. Harper runs on the edge of the purple grass as the corner narrows the gap, leaping for the ball and grabbing it, touching his toes down in bounds before hitting the ground. The nearest official makes sure he’s still got the ball and puts his hands in the air. Cooper: “OHHHHH!” Sampson: “What a throw! Holy shit!” Maverick withholds a celebration, setting the formation for the two-point try. The Knights get set while the Chargers are scrambling, so he hurries the snap and hands off to NesSmith, who runs through the middle untouched. Knights 31, Chargers 24, 2:00 to play. Graphics on the stadium screen prompt fans to get loud, but they’re already on their feet, screaming with whatever’s left of their vocal chords. A touchback puts the Chargers on the twenty-five, and the Knights defense takes the field, history just a few plays away. Harden sends outside blitzes, with Grantzinger and Brock collapsing the pocket around Rivers. Two hurried throws land incomplete, and it’s third and ten. Harden calls a weak-side blitz, dropping Randall and Grantzinger in coverage. Rivers drops back. Looking deep, he feels pressure and rolls right. Brock dives for a sack, and Rivers flings one toward the sideline. Grantzinger turns around in time to tip it into the air, and Randall catches it in stride, running towards the end zone. Farmers Field sounds like an explosion as Randall jukes a few linemen and runs across the goal line. McCabe’s first extra point of the day is good, and it’s over. Knights 38, Chargers 24. Everything sinks in immediately. The Knights high-five and hug each other on the sideline, savoring every moment of their 16th win. The Chargers run a few more plays, managing a few completions before the clock runs out, and Farmers Field celebrates. The post-game handshakes resemble nothing of a rivalry. Both teams are professional, and the Chargers are genuinely congratulatory of the Knights’ achievement. Daniel and Harden meet at midfield for a long handshake, promising another dinner sometime soon. Maverick meets Rivers and resists telling him off, instead thanking him for some great quarterback duels over the years. Both Rose and Jaxson enjoy friendly conversation with old teammates, some insisting they will get together this offseason. In the stands, Cooper and Sampson stay in their seats, in no hurry to join the traffic-jam exodus. They talk with nearby fans who are sticking around, trying to figure out where this Knights team is best placed among the chronicles of NFL history. Almost off the field, Maverick is waving to fans when he sees Wilkes, who looks dejected. “What’s up with you?” “Bummed I couldn’t get the record, man. One yard away.” “I know. But hey, season’s not over. And we’re chasing bigger records now.” Wilkes thinks about that for a second, and his eyes light up. “Yeah. Yeah we are.” Maverick and Wilkes bump fists and head to the locker room, where a wild celebration awaits them, a celebration the Knights have earned and will enjoy. This isn’t a team that needs to be reminded of what lies ahead. They just went 16-0, and they’re going to celebrate that for a few days, then they’ll get to work on finishing what they started. The transition between the Oakland Raiders and the Los Angeles Knights has been a demanding one. Daniel and Phillips are eager for some sleep at the conclusion of another fourteen-hour workday, but Schneider insists he’s got something to show them. He has his limo driver take them south through downtown, past Farmers Field, still under construction, and they get off the highway, seemingly into the middle of nowhere. After sequence of turns toward a security station, however, Daniel and Phillips realize where they are. The limousine stops in front of the building, which, as far as anyone can tell, looks finished. They all get out and look. It’s difficult to admire it at night, but Schneider wanted them to see it as soon as possible. “Bidding for sponsors and naming rights is ongoing,” Schneider says, “so for now, ‘Knights Headquarters’ will have to do.” The trio walks through the glass doors and into the lobby. The building smells of new tile and paint. Every detail is meticulously crafted, per Schneider’s vision. “Upon this rock…” Phillips says. “Let’s all take a moment for ourselves, shall we?” Schneider offers. They agree. Daniel paces through the hallway of offices, though he doesn’t walk into any of them, eventually winding up inside the locker room. It smells new and fresh, like the rest of the building, a luster that will soon give way to odors of sweat and blood. Each locker is identical, no names assigned. Daniel imagines how different they’ll look in a few short months, which lockers he’ll need to visit most frequently, what sort of speeches he will give. Phillips spends a few minutes in the large room that will be his office, but he finds himself wandering the second-floor hallway, wondering whose names will be on which doors. He ends up in the war room, a massive, square-shaped conference room with a big table at the center. One of the walls is suspiciously plain, soon to be decorated with names of college prospects. This is where Phillips’ team will be built, he knows. In just a few months, he will sit at the head of this table, making phone calls to other teams and newly drafted Knights. This is where his legacy as a GM will either be born or killed. Schneider finds his office immediately. He takes in almost none of the individual details, focusing on the fact that the door is engraved with letters declaring him the Team Owner. It took years of patience, a little good luck, and brilliant maneuvering, but he is the owner of an NFL team. He steps past his desk to the far side of the room, staring out the wall-to-wall glass windows toward the Los Angeles skyline. These windows were the first idea he had for this building, and he will gaze out them many times in the years to come.
  8. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part VI Chapter Seventy-Four – Game of the Century Oregon 31, Penn State 28, 10:30 to go in the fourth quarter. The California sun is setting on the 2010 Rose Bowl, and an exciting football game is set to go down to the wire under the lights. The Nittany Lions start a possession in their own territory. Quarterback and Heisman finalist Jonathan Maverick drops back as pressure flushes him from the pocket. He runs right, eyes downfield, and throws across his body, hitting his tight end over the middle for seventeen yards. The mostly nonpartisan crowd cheers for the big gain. Two plays later, it’s third and five. Maverick drops back, eyes following his primary receiver. With a blitz coming, Maverick stands in and fires a dart, hitting the receiver just as he breaks on a comeback route, but the ball bounces off his helmet and onto the sideline. A visibly frustrated Maverick struts to the bench with punt units coming out. “That was our drive, O!” he says. “That was our drive!” After the coaches have their say, and while Oregon mounts a drive of their own, Maverick takes charge of the sideline with every offensive player within earshot. “We can’t have these fucking mistakes, guys! We told ourselves coming in we wouldn’t do this shit! Pick up the blocking and stop it with the drops and we can win this fucking game!” A little over sixty yards away, standing near the corner of the north end zone, two men notice the young quarterback firing up his offense, though they can’t tell what he’s saying. Their press passes identify them as Chance Phillips and Caden Daniel, official associates of the Oakland Raiders. In eight months, these recently hired men will watch their football team play its home games about twelve miles from here. To win those games, they’ll need a quarterback. The Raiders (Knights, in nine weeks) own the third overall pick in the upcoming draft, a pick that will almost certainly be used on a signal caller. The first two picks belong to the Rams and Lions, but the Lions drafted a quarterback last year. So, a team could conceivably trade ahead of the Knights, a concern in a draft class that only boasts two elite QB prospects: last year’s Heisman winner Sam Bradford, and Maverick. Phillips will soon learn he has no competition for the second or third pick; the Knights will be in position to take whomever the Rams don’t. Because Bradford sat out most of this season with a shoulder injury, the Knights’ evaluation of him is nearly complete, and they’d be fine taking him if the draft were today. Penn State gets the ball with 7:37 to go. Maverick drops back, hitting his receivers quickly to negate Oregon’s pass rush. The Nittany Lions reach midfield with the clock ticking and anticipation mounting around the stadium. Maverick screams audibles and adjustments over the crowd noise. “Making adjustments at the line,” Daniel says. “Definitely a good sign.” Phillips agrees. He and his scouts will have plenty of time to dissect Maverick’s mechanics. Tonight is about seeing his real-time feel for a football game. Maverick takes the snap from midfield and drops back. Pressure comes up the middle. He runs left, looking deep with a defender closing. Backtracking, he throws as hard as he can toward the end zone before getting hit. The Nittany Lion receiver runs across the end zone, towards where Phillips and Daniel stand, and catches the pass in stride. Rose Bowl Stadium rocks. Maverick goes crazy celebrating with his teammates as Penn State takes a 35-31 lead. Once things calm down, Phillips leans toward Daniel and says, “He was moving backwards. Threw against his body, too.” “That’s one of the best throws I’ve ever seen,” Daniel says. During the next commercial break, Phillips walks away towards the nearby tunnel, taking out his phone and dialing a familiar number. “Wayne, it’s Chance. I know you won’t get back in town until tomorrow afternoon, but when you do, let’s get together. I’m standing here with Caden, and…I may have good news. Whatever the Rams do, we’re getting a franchise quarterback in this draft.” Doctors initially wanted Harden to take another week of rest, a suggestion he refused. Then they specified, advising against traveling to Denver due to the city’s elevation, and Harden refused just as quickly. Thankfully, despite every between-play camera angle and sideways glance pointed at the man who collapsed on the field two weeks ago, his players keep his heart rate down. After jumping out to a quick lead with an opening-drive touchdown, Grantzinger takes a Trevor Siemian interception to the house. Next drive, Randall forces a Devontae Booker fumble, and the Knights capitalize on the short field with a quick score. The first quarter ends with the Knights up 20-0 (one for three on two-pointers), and they never look back. With this game under control, players occasionally glance up at the section of scoreboard that shows scores from around the league, focusing on the ongoing matchup between the 12-0 Steelers and 12-0 Patriots. For now, it reads NE 13, PIT 10. Just before halftime, Denver gets on the board with a touchdown of their own, but the Knights respond with a fifty-yard McCabe field goal. They go into the locker room ahead 23-7 and look up again. NE 13, PIT 17. Another Knights touchdown and two-point conversion makes it 31-7, and players listen to coaches insisting they maintain focus and finish. NE 20, PIT 24. An embarrassing December defeat for the Super Bowl champions sends fans out of the stadium during the fourth quarter. The game’s final act includes a garbage time touchdown for each team, and the Knights win, 37-14. Players take one last look before they reach the locker room: NE 27, PIT 31, with an illuminated “F” next to the score. The Knights have gotten what they want. For players and coaches, chatter in the locker room and during the flight home focuses on next week’s monumental game. They aren’t alone. The media’s wrap up of week 14 spends plenty of time recapping Pittsburgh’s epic victory over the Patriots, mostly talking about what the win has set up. NBC wastes no time; during the Giants/Cowboys Sunday Night Football game, they pour on plenty of advertisements for next week’s Knights/Steelers matchup, hailing it as “the most anticipated regular season game in recent memory.” Both teams are now 13-0. The winner in Heinz Field will enter the final two weeks with a strong likelihood of securing home-field advantage and, most significantly, a shot at 16-0. The busy sports day keeps Javad working past midnight, dedicating plenty of time to hyping up next Sunday’s showdown while finally putting the finishing touches on the most important article of all. He prints out a hard copy as Phillips instructed (“Nothing electronic,” he said.), folds it, and inserts it into a newly bought pack of envelopes. He writes down the address given to him and sends Phillips a text before he forgets: “In a few days, check your mail.” As he puts a stamp on the envelope, he wonders about its fate. This is potentially a career-defining story, and Phillips never guaranteed it would see the light of day. Javad hopes this won’t all be for nothing. A playoff atmosphere populates the MedComm Center Tuesday morning. Coaches have barely slept after constructing the game plan for Pittsburgh and won’t sleep much after finalizing it tonight, but they don’t show it. Everyone in the building is excited for what is probably the biggest regular-season game in Knights history. The Steelers have gotten to 13-0 on the heels of one of the league’s most effective offenses, second only to the Knights in most statistical categories. They might boast the best QB-RB-WR trio in the league, especially now that Marcus Jameson is done for the year. On defense, the Justin Houston/James Harrison duo gives them a ferocious pass rush, complemented with an improving secondary. Like the Knights, defensive issues sunk them last year, but this year, they’re Super Bowl contenders. McKenzie originally intended to attack Pittsburgh’s defensive weakness, in the trenches and up the middle, and open up the pass game. Jameson’s injury changes things. He thinks he can still lead a competent running attack with NesSmith and Banks because of his offensive line, but he’s not going to risk a slow start. Instead, the Knights will play strength on strength and pass to set up the run. Defensively, Harden faces a unique challenge in trying to defend Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, two players he would normally construct an entire game plan around. Can the Knights contain both? Will focusing on one allow the other to dominate? Harden leans on his subordinates, perhaps more than he ever has, assembling an atypically complex game plan with hundreds of plays to memorize. Despite such an intimidating opponent, the Knights are confident; they’re 13-0 for a reason. Maverick has thrown 37 touchdown passes to only 2 interceptions; 19 of those passes have gone to Wilkes, on pace to tie Randy Moss’ single-season record of 23. And the Knights have a defensive juggernaut in Grantzinger whom the Steelers must account for at all times. The most nervous man on the practice field Tuesday is Maverick, but not for anything football related. Not directly, anyway. When practice ends, he changes quickly and passes by the coaches’ offices, but they all seem busy, so he leaves, putting it off at least another day. The next day, Phillips makes an appearance on the practice field, finding a quiet moment to approach Harden. When the players get a five-minute water break, he goes for it. “How are you?” Phillips asks cordially. “Fine,” Harden says, studying his players as if he’s ready to yell at them for improper resting technique. “How are you feeling, Merle?” Phillips asks, firmly this time. “You’re as bad as my wife, Chance.” He looks sideways; Phillips isn’t amused. “I’m fine. I feel good, to be honest with you. Sunday’s gonna be a hell of a game.” Phillips smiles, satisfied. “What about you?” Harden asks. “Huh?” “How’s the mid-life crisis going?” Phillips thinks about that conversation with Harden, about several conversations he’s had with Schneider and Stein since then, and about the letter that arrived in his mailbox yesterday. “Ask me next week.” Not sure what that means, Harden looks back to the field and sees a red jersey heading towards both of them. “Got a second, coach?” Maverick asks. “See you later,” Phillips says, walking away. Harden lets out a sigh. He almost forgot he had to deal with this at some point. “What do you want, Mav?” “About last week. About you and I. We—” “Forget it. It’s fine.” “What? It’s fine?” Harden steps a little closer, just to make sure Maverick knows he’s serious. “Life’s too fuckin’ short, Mav. No beef here. Now get back out there.” In most other circumstances, Maverick would deem this as good a reconciliation as he could get and let it go. Not this time. Harden extends his leg to jog back on the field, but Maverick’s arm holds him back. Harden resists the impulse to smack his quarterback in the face. “Promise me,” Maverick says, “that when the season’s over, you and I sit down.” “I’m getting’ old, Mav. I got too many promises to keep.” Maverick holds firm, saying nothing. “You’re a pain in the ass, you know that?” Harden says. “I’ll get the entire team’s attention if I have to.” Harden looks toward the players, several of whom have noticed the gathering, ready to sprint across the field to break up round two. “Fine,” Harden says. Maverick nods and takes his arm off Harden, who blows his whistle, commanding everyone back onto the field. The energy around Heinz Field is palpable and substantial throughout warm-ups. Steelers fans are known for traveling well, but their home fans have packed this stadium tonight and are ready to scream. In a blink, the Knights find themselves in the visitors’ locker room in full pads and jerseys, kneeling and standing around Coach Harden, kickoff minutes away. They expect a quick one-liner here; Harden generally saves his best speeches for the playoffs, if at all. They wonder, though, when they see him holding a slip of paper, studying it curiously. “You all know I’m not one for stats,” Harden says. “But I got a few I think you should hear.” The players squint and raise their heads, as if a slightly better look will reveal the small notes on the paper. “Let’s see…145 incomplete passes, 11 dropped passes, we’ve given up 21 sacks, allowed 47 pressures…” Players watch incredulously as their coach rounds off statistic after statistic. Harden has always been the sort of coach to focus on his team’s weaknesses as a method of firing them up, but this is certainly an interesting way to do it. “…45 missed tackles, 7 dropped interceptions. Here’s a good one: we are terrible in the red zone, on defense. When we let a team in our red zone, they get a touchdown 58 percent of the time. That’s goddamn awful.” Defensive players exchange uncomfortable looks with each other as Harden wraps up. “And despite all of this bullshit…13 wins, zero losses. I only point this out because this week, all I keep hearing is perfect, perfect, perfect. No such thing, men. No such thing. If we take care of business, we may be undefeated when it’s over. But perfect?” Harden shakes his head. “You’ll never be perfect, and neither will I. All we can do is score more points than the other team, and that’s all we’ll ever have. And in that regard…” Everyone looks up. Harden pauses, hesitant to pull this card now though he’s already committed. “…You are the best football team I’ve ever coached. Hell, forget the ones I’ve coached. You’re the best football team I’ve ever seen. And I think most of you know me well enough to know I would never bullshit you on that. We can’t be perfect, but we can win every game. And you bet that’s what we’re gonna do. So let’s go kick some fuckin’ ass.” The Knights take the field first, facing immense crowd noise with yellow towels waving. They have their first set of plays memorized, hopeful things will quiet down after that. Maverick drops back in shotgun and hits Bishop on a short route. Everyone lines up again, without a huddle, Maverick calling out adjustments as needed. He takes the snap and fires for Wilkes, getting a first down. McKenzie calls a draw to NesSmith that gains six yards. After a screen to Watson is bottled up, Maverick drops back and gets swarmed by pass rushers, barely escaping in time to throw the ball away. Pittsburgh takes over. The Knights line up in a 3-4, ready to put the hybrid defense they debuted on this field a year ago on full display. The Steelers operate a balanced offense, alternating quick passes with runs to Bell up the middle. The Knights’ front seven prevents Bell from breaking loose, but he does churn out four- and five-yard runs. After two first downs, Roethlisberger drops back, looking deep, and Brock breaks through for a sack. The Steelers punt a few plays later. Maverick drops back and hits Harper for six yards, Johnson for eight, Harper for five. He likes hitting a rhythm early but wants to stretch the field. He drops back with a fresh set of downs, feels pressure on the outside, and steps up. With black jerseys closing, he sees Wilkes break over the middle and fires. Wilkes makes a leaping grab in traffic for a thirty-yard gain. After a short NesSmith run, Maverick lines up under center. The play call is a receiver screen to Wilkes, but the Steelers crash the line at the last second, blitzing. Maverick takes the snap and lobs it to the end zone without calling an audible, where Wilkes has abandoned the screen and gone deep. He beats Artie Burns in coverage and catches the perfect pass as he crosses the goal line. Heinz Field goes quiet but ramps back up for the two-point attempt. The Knights spread out their receivers and Maverick hands off to NesSmith, who barrels into a pile at the goal line. Knights linemen raise their arms for a score, but officials spot it a foot short. 6-0, Knights. “Good drive, O!” Maverick says on the sideline. “Good drive, O. We’ll get that two next time.” Roethlisberger spreads the ball around, hitting Markus Wheaton, Eli Rogers, Jesse James, and Antonio Brown despite double coverage. Harden dials up more aggressive blitzes that nearly get a few sacks, then Bell takes a screen pass thirty yards into the end zone. The home crowd celebrates but quiets down quickly as Pittsburgh goes for two. The Knights line up, well prepared for Pittsburgh’s arsenal of two-point plays. Roethlisberger looks toward a doubled Brown before firing it to Rogers on a slant, splitting Schwinn and Flash with the throw for the score. 8-6, Steelers. The Knights’ next drive takes the game into the second quarter, and fans begin to understand this game will be the offensive shootout it was hyped up to be. Just outside the red zone, Maverick drops back on play-action, no one open. He rolls right, seeing Bishop break in the end zone. He throws for the corner with three defenders closing, and the pass hits Bishop in the hands as he plants his feet for the touchdown. The Knights line up for two in the same formation as before. Maverick fakes a handoff to NesSmith this time, spinning and firing for Wilkes, who catches the jump ball in the end zone. 14-8, Knights. The Steelers take over, and Bell steals the show, zigzagging through multiple defenders with one electrifying carry after the next. Harden admonishes his front seven for terrible defense, knowing (as Ripka constantly reminds him) his secondary has its hands full. Roethlisberger drops back on play-action looking deep, but Brown is bottled up. He looks the other way and fires for Wheaton, who beats Lucas in coverage and comes down with a fifty-yard pass. Two plays later, Bell punches it into the end zone. The Knights face a five-receiver set on the two-point try. Randall spreads everyone out to cover a pass, but Roethlisberger sneaks it, colliding with Randall and Martin at the goal line. They push him back, but the ball breaks the plane, officials rule. 16-14, Steelers. On the sideline, Harden crosses his arms and speaks to no one, waiting for feedback from upstairs. He doesn’t care how good Pittsburgh’s offense is; surrendering two eight-point drives is unacceptable. “Stone’s doing much better against Brown than Lucas.” Oh well. Nothing Harden’s going to do about that now; Stone and Lucas each have their side of the field, and that’s that. “Mann is getting beat off the ball, giving Bell space up the middle.” Once again, nothing Harden can do. He doesn’t have a backup nose tackle. “Grantzinger’s getting stuffed on every pass rush.” That’s one Harden didn’t want to hear. He noticed Grantzinger’s subpar performance in Denver (which is to say he wasn’t outstanding), and he saw it on the Kansas City film when Ripka was running things. Harden keeps his eye on the linebackers, waiting for position coaches to finish debriefing. Thankfully, as the linebackers coach gets up, Randall follows him, curious about a particular play. That leaves a spot on the bench next to Grantzinger, which Harden fills. “What’s up, coach?” Grantzinger asks, drinking some water. “I should ask you,” Harden says. “You’re playing like shit.” Grantzinger looks stunned at Harden calling him out, and Harden’s glad he is. “Don’t give me any bullshit, Zack. We’ve known each other long enough.” Grantzinger breaks eye contact, looking out into the upper level of seats on the opposite side of the stadium. “It was just, with you in the hospital and all—” “Stop that shit right there. I don’t want to hear it.” Grantzinger bows his head. Harden lets out a sigh and softens his tone. “You know, I fought for you to start your rookie year. Daniel was against it.” “He was?” Grantzinger asks, looking his coach in the eyes now. “Yep. He knew it was smarter, long term, for the young guys to play, but he had to convince the team he wasn’t just rebuilding. So I fought him and wore him down. I saw you in training camp and I knew you’d be special.” The crowd cheers in celebration. Grantzinger looks up at the stadium’s big screen, seeing a replay of Maverick getting sacked, bringing up third and fifteen for the Knights. “Why are you telling me this, coach?” Grantzinger asks. “Because I’ve been yelling at your ass the last two weeks and it hasn’t done a thing. So, maybe I’ve gotta get soft. If that doesn’t work, I can try threats. Step up or Brock takes your spot permanently. How about that?” He watches Grantzinger’s face melt from tired curiosity into contempt, and he decides he’s got him. He leans in. “Make a fucking play.” Grantzinger puts his helmet back on as the Knights punt it away. The Steelers take over, still up 16-14, with 3:50 left in the half. Grantzinger hears Randall’s play call and gets in formation with a lot running through his mind. Somehow, he remembers an old adage of Penner’s. When you’re not sure how to play, play angry. Grantzinger bull-rushes the right tackle, throwing him to the ground, and dives for Roethlisberger, crushing him as he releases an errant pass that falls incomplete. After a short run by Bell brings up third and six, Harden calls an outside blitz. Grantzinger lines up as a 4-3 DE before Randall flips formation, putting him as 3-4 OLB. Roethlisberger takes the snap in shotgun as Grantzinger rushes wide. Linemen spread out, and Grantzinger spins just as Luck takes on the right tackle, opening a hole. Grantzinger shoots through, sees Roethlisberger wind up to throw, and swats the ball out of his hand. It bounces along the grass, eluding multiple outreached arms before Brock falls on top of it and hangs on through the ensuing scrum. The Knights offense retakes the field with energy after the game’s first turnover. Grantzinger nods to Harden on his way to the sideline and credits Luck for springing him loose. At midfield with 2:53 on the clock, McKenzie doesn’t rush anything. Maverick drops back and, as he has all night, hits receivers in their hands. Though disappointed McKenzie doesn’t call a deep shot, Maverick dips and dunks the Knights into the red zone. The clock ticks under a minute, but Maverick doesn’t panic, three timeouts in his pocket. He drops back, senses pressure, and fires over the middle for Watson, who catches it ten yards from the goal line. He turns upfield with two defenders closing. He slows to juke them and gets hit from behind. The ball pops loose and bounces into the end zone, secured by black jerseys for a touchback. Watson keeps his head down, thankful no one says anything to him as the Steelers run out the rest of the clock, and the Knights head to the locker room down two points. Fans around Heinz Field who make a halftime run for food or the bathroom rush back to their seats during the third quarter’s opening minutes. An electrifying thirty-yard run by Bell and a diving twenty-yard catch by Brown put the Steelers on the edge of the red zone. The Knights tighten up, preventing big plays and allowing yards in short chunks. But the Steelers convert two third downs, including third and goal, for a touchdown. On the two-point try, pass rush up the middle forces Roethlisberger to throw it away, and the Steelers lead, 22-14. McKenzie calls Wilkes’ number, having realized at halftime Pittsburgh is struggling to cover him between the twenties. Wilkes gets the Knights to the red zone almost single-handedly, where they try to get the run game going. This brings up third and three, on which Maverick connects with Bishop on a seam route. Bishop absorbs a big hit but holds onto the ball for the touchdown. On the two-point try, the Steelers blanket Wilkes but leave Harper isolated. Maverick throws up a jump ball, and the rookie makes an acrobatic grab, planting both feet in bounds. Tie game, 22-22. Maverick catches his breath on the sideline, enjoying every moment of this game. This is the type of quarterback duel he lives for, and it helps to have all his receivers playing at their best. Well, all but one. After a few minutes, Maverick walks over towards Watson. The memory of Watson’s infamous drop last year still hurts, and Maverick can only imagine how Watson feels. But he can’t let his fumble before halftime affect the rest of this game. “Hang in there, Joe,” Maverick says. “Yeah,” Watson says. “Hey, don’t ‘yeah’ me, motherfucker. We’re gonna need you to win this one, so stay energized. Stay positive. Next drive, first ball’s coming to you.” Maverick walks away to secure that play call with McKenzie while the Knights defense goes back to work. Harden struggles to contain the Bell/Brown combination, but improved pass rush expands his options. The Steelers chew some yardage, but a thunderous tackle by Schwinn stuffs Bell on third and two, and the Steelers punt. Maverick drops back and, true to his word, fires for Watson on a quick comeback route. Watson snags it, runs upfield for a few yards, and dives with defenders approaching, ball secured. The Knights move the chains, and Maverick doesn’t miss a single pass. Sixty-five yards later, the third quarter ends, the score still even. Maverick drops back looking for Wilkes, who breaks toward the end zone into double coverage. Pressure comes up the middle but Maverick stands in, firing toward the middle of the end zone. Three black jerseys reach for the pass, but it sails inches beyond their reach and into Harper’s arms. He plants his feet for the touchdown. Teammates mob Maverick for the awesome throw, but he shoos them away for the two-point attempt. Maverick fakes a handoff and rolls right, towards Wilkes, who’s doubled. Maverick motions with his arm, and Wilkes cuts back toward the middle of the field, taking the defenders with him. Maverick runs into the end zone untouched. 30-22, Knights. Harden relaxes, feeling the game within reach for the first time. A stop here—or a touchdown without the conversion—and the Knights are one offensive drive away from victory. The Knights, though, have no answer for the Steelers offense, which marches to the red zone, Heinz Field cheering louder with each first down. Roethlisberger hurries a snap with the Knights still getting in position and floats one for Brown, who gets behind Lucas. Flash is a step late, only able to deliver a vicious hit, but Brown hangs on. Harden screams for his guys to get lined up properly for the two-point try, which sees Roethlisberger in shotgun. He drops back, looking to his right, then flips it back to Bell on a screen. Bell waits for the blocks to set, then surges through an opening, diving across the goal line for the score. Steelers 30, Knights 30, 9:31 to play. The ensuing commercial break lets everyone in the stadium brace for a finish that will surely be chaotic—and significant. This is, most likely, an AFC Championship preview, and the winner gets to play the rematch in their city. The Knights would relish another chance at this team, no matter how tonight turns out, but they would much rather do so at Farmers Field. Maverick takes over, finding Watson and Johnson for short gains. Bishop makes a tough catch in traffic for a first down, then Justin Houston breaks through for a sack, and the stadium rocks with noise. A safe, quick pass play makes it third and eight with Steelers fans roaring. Maverick drops back, rolling out to avoid pass rush, and heaves it deep for Wilkes. The receiver runs half a step ahead of double coverage, leaps for the ball, and feels it hit his hands. He hits the grass with bodies on top of him and emerges with the ball. The Knights run downfield for what looks like a fifty-yard gain, but officials rule an incompletion. Harden holds his hands up, waiting for an explanation that comes in the form of “process of the catch” nonsense. As the punt team lines up, Harden hears from upstairs: ball bobbled and hit the ground, do not challenge. “Man, that’s fucking bullshit!” Wilkes yells on the sideline, slamming his helmet on a nearby table and sending multiple cups of Gatorade flying. “Chill, D-Jam,” Maverick says. “Game’s not over yet. You’ll get your shot.” Harden looks up at the clock: 6:49. The way his defense has played, Pittsburgh is likely to take this to the goal line and score with no time left. The Knights need a turnover to win. Harden gets aggressive, calling heavy blitzes and press coverage. This shuts down the run game, but Roethlisberger finds ways to get first downs. He counters a few blitzes with vintage Ben Roethlisberger plays, somehow eluding a sack and buying just enough time to throw downfield. A twenty-yard strike to Eli Rogers puts Pittsburgh thirty yards from the end zone with the clock at 4:55 and counting. A handoff to Bell catches the Knights’ front seven off guard, and Bell dashes through linebackers for another first down. Grantzinger and Brock get pressure on consecutive plays, forcing incompletions. Third and ten, 3:56 to go. Roethlisberger drops back and hits Brown on a slant. Stone and Flash bring him down immediately and look toward the sideline for the spot: one yard short. Fourth and one from the nine-yard line. Harden watches his field goal unit run onto the field around him, then calls them back. “Back, assholes! Get the fuck back!” The Steelers offense remains on the field. In the scramble, Harden is unable to call a play, so he burns a timeout. The clock freezes at 3:20. Randall runs over to the sideline. “Not sure they’ll still line up to go for it,” Harden says, “but if they do, be ready. If anyone jumps offside, they’re walking back to L.A.” “Got it, coach,” Randall says. Harden makes the call, stacking the box with cover two over the top. To his surprise, the Steelers offense stays on the field for fourth down. “They got balls,” Harden says to himself. “I like this.” Roethlisberger lines up under center, white jerseys crowding the line. He tries a hard count. A few Knights flinch, but no one jumps. Randall shouts, “Easy! Easy!” to the linemen in front of him. Roethlisberger takes the snap and looks to the end zone. With Bell staying in the backfield to block, Randall and Martin blitz. Roethlisberger pumps, getting both linebackers to jump, and takes off down the middle, green grass in front of him. He gets the first down as Schwinn lines him up in the open field. Roethlisberger jukes, and Schwinn dives, completely faked out, eating a chunk of grass and hearing the stadium roar around him. Touchdown, Steelers. Harden’s disgust only lasts a moment before seeing Pittsburgh’s field goal unit finally come onto the field. Mike Tomlin is apparently content to take a seven-point lead with 3:12 left. “No balls whatsoever,” Harden says. “Pussies.” The extra point is good, and it’s 37-30, Steelers. Defeated and gassed Knights jog back to the sideline, and Harden, unsurprisingly, targets Schwinn. “You just got juked by a guy who weighs more than you,” Harden says. “How’s that feel?” Schwinn bows his head in shame. Harden walks over toward the offense. “Mac, I’m sorry to say it, but we’re gonna need you to win this one for us.” McKenzie smiles, as confident and relaxed as he was when he woke up this morning. “We got it, coach.” Maverick and McKenzie go through the playbook, totally in sync with what the defense is showing them, what they want to do, everything. Three minutes with two timeouts is plenty. The ensuing kickoff sails out of the end zone, so the Knights take over at their twenty-five. Maverick calmly walks toward the huddle, feeling his heart pounding. This only happens in moments like this. His focus is so sharp, he could hit a target seventy yards away if they set one up. Without any sort of pep talk or pump-up, Maverick calls the play and breaks the huddle. He lines up in shotgun with Heinz Field in an uproar. He expects this the rest of the drive, and that’s fine. Maverick drops back and finds receivers quickly. Harper for seven yards, Bishop for ten, Wilkes for eight. In no extreme hurry, the Knights reach midfield at the two-minute warning and keep marching. The Steelers blitz, flushing Maverick from the pocket. No one’s open, so he tucks the ball and runs upfield. He sees a safety coming straight for him, readying his spin move. He doesn’t see the corner approaching from his right. He gets hit just before spinning, and he feels the ball pop out of his hand. The ball bounces toward the sideline and into a pile of four men, two from each team. The pile doubles in size within seconds, and officials pry through the carnage. Harden screams for a timeout, and the clock eventually stops at 1:41. Officials dig in search of the football with players from both teams claiming they’ve got it. Finally, Wilkes emerges from the pile—without the ball, but his eyes are gleaming. “Joe’s got it! Joe’s got it!” The last man on the bottom of the pile is Watson, and the ball remains clutched against his chest. Officials signal possession for the Knights, and their timeout freezes the clock. McKenzie shakes his head and scans his laminated play sheet, no time to wonder how, in a pile totaling nearly a ton of human weight, short and skinny Joseph Watson emerged with the football. Another big Wilkes catch gets the Knights into the red zone, where the Steelers tighten up. Against near-perfect coverage, Maverick connects with Johnson on completions of three and four yards. Harden calls his final timeout with 0:42 left, the Knights thirteen yards from the end zone. After calling the play, McKenzie walks over to Harden and mentions a rarely used formation. “What do you think?” McKenzie asks. “It’s been a while…Yeah, why not? Next stoppage.” Maverick drops back and surveys the coverage. He steps up and finds Bishop, hit immediately and brought down at the six. Everyone hurries to the line. Heinz Field reaches peak volume again. Maverick gets everyone where he wants them as the clock winds. 0:21, 0:20… Maverick takes the snap and looks for Wilkes—covered. He looks over the middle—a free rusher comes right for him. He takes off in the opposite direction, reaching full speed just to escape the pocket before throwing it away. The clock stops again. 0:12. Harden jogs back toward his defensive players. “ZACK! Get the fuck out there!” A surprised Grantzinger hesitates before throwing his helmet on and running out into formation. Six yards from the end zone, the Knights line up in a rare iteration of the I-Form 3-WR, with Grantzinger replacing Bishop at fullback and Bishop replacing Watson in the slot. Maverick fakes a toss to the right and rolls left. Harper tries to break good coverage. Wilkes runs left but is doubled. Maverick nears the end zone, considers running, and hesitates, wanting to save time. He doesn’t notice the clock is about to hit zero. He plants his feet and looks back across the field, spotting a white jersey. He throws as hard as he can, firing a laser that hits Grantzinger’s jersey with a thud. Grantzinger presses the ball against his chest and gets hit twice. He feels dazed, not sure he’s in the end zone. Teammates excitedly bring him to his feet, ball in hand. Touchdown, Knights. 37-36, Steelers. 0:00 on the clock. Amidst a chaotic sideline celebration, McKenzie sees Maverick holding up two fingers. “Go for the win, coach?” McKenzie asks into his headset. “Absolutely,” Harden says. McKenzie puts all his receivers on the field (not including Grantzinger) in an unbalanced formation: Johnson isolated wide left with the other four to Maverick’s right. Without a counterbalanced defense, it’s an easy receiver screen for the win. Maverick lines up under center against a wide defensive line. Sneak, maybe. He’s ready to snap it when the Steelers send most of their secondary toward the bunched receivers. There goes the screen. He looks back to Johnson, still isolated. Two years ago that would be an easy touchdown, but now? The play clock ticks under ten seconds. Maverick surveys again, thinking there will be enough blocking for the screen to work. He calls his cadence and takes the snap as multiple linebackers accelerate toward him on a blitz. He looks right, but there’s too much chaos. Can’t do it. He tries to look left but linebackers surge toward him. Gotta throw it. He lobs it up in Johnson’s direction and gets crushed. Johnson breaks on his slant, sees the pass wobble the other way, plants his cleat in the grass, and cuts back. He jumps as high as he can, cradling the ball and planting both heels in bounds before hitting the ground. White jerseys storm the field as Steelers fans watch in shock. The nearest official makes his call with no hesitation, and instant replay shows no reason for a review. Knights 38, Steelers 37. The victors enjoy an emphatic and deserving celebration in the end zone, but many make a point to shake hands with as many Steelers as possible. More than one player says to another, “See you in January.” That rematch is a distinct possibility but will have to wait. For now, the Knights celebrate victory in one of the most memorable regular season games ever, then fly back to Los Angeles, two wins from history.
  9. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part VI Chapter Seventy-Three – It Tolls for Thee The nurse paces down the hallway, catching a glimpse of a nearby clock. Only two more hours until her third consecutive twelve-plus-hour ER shift ends, and she finally gets some rest. One of her colleagues comes running around the corner, looking more exasperated than usual. “Have you seen the waiting area?” “What do you mean?” The two take off around the same corner, patients and doctors whizzing by. They hear more chatter than usual coming from the waiting area and eventually see what must be fifty men crowded around, all talking nervously amongst themselves. As they get closer, an aroma of sweat hits them. This is less bothersome to experienced nurses, but it doesn’t make the presence of an overcrowded waiting area any easier to handle. “Excuse me,” the nurse yells. “Excuse me! You all need to leave!” A few players notice the nurse, but conversation continues. “Excuse me!” she yells again, louder this time. “Can I have your attention, please?!” That gets them quieted down, though everyone seems to whisper between themselves. Maverick and Randall emerge from the crowd as the nurse presses on. “This is too many people for the waiting area. Some of you will need to leave.” “We’re not leaving,” Maverick says. “It’s against fire code, sir.” “All due respect, ma’am,” Randall says, “but our head coach is in one of those rooms right now in God knows what condition. He could be dead for all we know. Do you think we give a fuck about some fire code right now?” Before the nurse can respond, a slight commotion stirs on the far side of the crowd. The players clear a path for Trisha and Melinda, both in tears, and they approach the nurses. Maverick and Randall back off as the Hardens identify themselves and are taken somewhere down the hall. The players wait. They adhere to the nurses’ request, somewhat, setting up shifts to get food or drinks so too many players aren’t in the waiting room at the same time. Among those coming and going is Bishop, splitting his time between here and the nursery ward on the other end of the hospital. Fittingly, he ends up sitting next to Luck, who notices him and, after a moment, remembers. “Shit, Logan, I totally forgot. How did…” “Fine,” Bishop says, smiling. “A healthy baby boy.” Luck smiles, grateful for some relief. “Congratulations, man.” Eventually, the rest of the coaching staff arrives, followed quickly by Schneider, Phillips, and Stein. By now, word has gotten to the players that Coach Harden is alive. They know nothing more. An hour goes by, and things are relatively calm. McKenzie is in a deep trance when a thought occurs to him. “Hey, hold on,” he says to no one in particular. “How are we gonna keep the damn press out of here?” “Not to worry, coach,” Martin says, grinning. “We have that handled.” Down the hallway, an eager press member strolls into the emergency room with his phone in hand, ready to Tweet the news as soon as he gets the scoop. He has two doctors in this hospital who owe him a favor, so there’s no way he’s leaving without information. He turns a corner, and two gigantic men he identifies as Chase Grodd and Brian Penner occupy the hallway. “Hey, guys! Any news for the Times about Merle?” “Nope,” Penner says. “Not a thing,” Grodd says. “Oh. Okay. Well then…” He takes a step to walk past them, and the linemen slide in front of him. He backs up so he doesn’t touch them. “Sorry guys, I’m just gonna…” “Go home,” Grodd says. “Nothing to see here,” Penner says. The six-foot-three men with six hundred pounds between them inch closer with malice on their face, a cruel expression they usually save for the trenches, and the reporter scurries away, cowering out the door. Among the waiting area crowd, a few notice Melinda and Trisha emerge from beyond the hallway and try to read their faces for information. They have both been crying, but they seem calm. Is that good or bad news? No one gets up to bombard either one for information, including Maverick. Phillips looks over, surprised to see Melinda motioning toward him. He looks back toward the gathering of players and coaches before stepping about ten yards away, out of their earshot. “Merle told me that you know,” Melinda says. “About his cancer.” “That’s right,” Phillips says. “Ron, too.” “I know. So, you should probably hear what the doctor has to say. He’ll be out in a minute.” Phillips thinks, looking back to the crowd. He gets Schneider’s attention. “If it’s alright with you…” Melinda nods. Phillips waves Schneider over, and McKenzie follows. Schneider has Stein stay back with the players. Before Phillips can say anything, a doctor approaches, and everyone listens intently. “We got him stable,” the doctor says. “He’s resting now.” “So he’s okay?” Phillips asks. “He will be, but he’ll need to rest for at least a few days. And we’ll need to monitor his cancer very closely over the next few weeks.” “His what?” Schneider says, eyes bulging out of their sockets. “I’ll explain later,” Phillips says. “So, the collapse?” Melinda asks. “His throat got inflamed, constricted his breathing. It got rough when we brought him in because he got some blood in his lungs.” “Oh my God,” Melinda says, covering her face in horror. Trisha puts her arm around her. “I’d like him to sleep a few more hours, then you can go in and see him. But please, keep it short. He really needs to rest.” “Okay, thank you, doctor,” Phillips says. He turns to Melinda and Trisha, both fighting back tears. “Why don’t you two go in and see him?” They nod and take off, leaving Phillips and McKenzie with Schneider, who looks stunned. “Okay, Wayne, let’s talk.” Over the next few hours, word spreads to all the players, all the coaches, the entire organization, and inevitably to the press. Into the late hours of Sunday night, it becomes breaking news across the sports world: Merle Harden has stage 3 throat cancer. Details of his cancer, of the initial diagnosis and subsequent treatment, will leak out over a period of days and weeks. For now, Knights players mull around Good Samaritan Hospital, unable to think of today’s win or their 11-0 record, forced instead to cope with a shocking revelation. Among the hushed, somber conversations is one between Maverick and Trisha. After ensuring from Trisha that Harden is okay, Maverick asks, “You knew about the cancer, right?” “Yes. He didn’t want anyone else to know.” Maverick looks away. He knows he’s supposed to play the annoyed boyfriend here, wondering why Trisha couldn’t be open with him. But breaking a vow to Merle Harden is something he would find near impossible, and he’s not blood related to the man. Merle swats his thumb at various buttons on the remote, flipping through channels angrily. It’s bad enough they moved him to a new room with a shittier view, but he can’t even find ESPN on this TV. “Fucking thing,” he mumbles just as he locates ESPN, relieved for a fleeting moment before seeing the headline at the bottom of the screen: MERLE HARDEN STABLE, UNDER OBSERVATION. “Of course. Goddamn shitbags.” He turns off the TV and throws the remote aside, hearing it smash wherever it lands. Unfortunately for Merle, this immense press attention isn’t going anywhere, and it reaches beyond sports. An active NFL head coach with cancer is a big story. Naturally, Merle rebuffs any and all journalistic outreaches. His rallying cry has become, “No quotes, and no fucking interviews of any kind.” He hears the door open, praying it’s not someone associated with the hospital. Mercifully, it’s Melinda. “Get me out of here,” he pleads. “As soon as they say you should,” Melinda says. Merle grunts. He knows he shouldn’t argue, but the situation is dire. “Dammit Mel, I don’t want to go back to work. Just let me set up camp on the couch and relax. They won’t even let Bowser in here, for fuck’s sake.” “Merle, that’s enough.” Boasting a stern, unwavering face, Melinda leaves the room, and Merle is alone again. He should have known better. Over the next few hours, Melinda and Trisha come and go, with Merle refusing to see anyone associated with the Knights, players or otherwise. He eventually relays to the team through Melinda that McKenzie should act as head coach until he says differently, a directive the organization had already begun operating under anyway. Finally, he gets taken to the cancer ward for some evaluation by Dr. Kern, who arrives in his room hours later. Thankfully, Melinda and Trisha are five floors away, getting some food. “If you’d like,” Kern says, “I can come back later, when—” “Nah, best if I hear it first. Shoot.” Kern looks down at a piece of paper attached to a clipboard, then back up at the bedridden coach. “Well, you know I’ve been asking for a more persistent schedule of—” “God damn it, doc, how long have we been having these conversations? Get to it.” “Very well. Unfortunately, we’re on the verge of stage 4 here. Without intense chemotherapy, the cancer will soon spread to your lymph nodes, esophagus, and beyond the throat area entirely.” “Okay,” Harden says without a trace of emotion. “I understand you’ll want to think it over—” “That’s right. Get out of here.” “Merle, I—” “You got other patients. Go.” Kern nods, pursing his lips, and leaves. Merle lays in bed awhile, thinking. Melinda and Trisha rejoin him, and he picks the best time to bring it up. The next day, Merle is longing for home, told he won’t spend another night in the hospital bed. Somehow, this takes longer than expected, so he wastes away on the bed, counting the minutes. “Merle,” Melinda says, popping her head in for the ninetieth time. “You’ve got a visitor.” “No! I told you, I don’t want to see any players. And if it’s Trish and Mav again, you know the drill. Only let Trish in.” “No, it’s not anyone from…” “Mel, who the hell is it?” “Caden Daniel.” That freezes Merle. What the hell is Daniel doing here? Does he want to say something? Should Merle be the one to tell him something? “It’s your call, Merle. Do you want to see him?” “No.” Merle gets home, tired from a day of haggling with the team and his agent, and grabs a beer out of the fridge. His tenure as Panthers defensive coordinator has included plenty of stressful days, but today he has the distinction of being unemployed again. He seats himself outside on the back deck, looking out toward the Appalachians and drinking. He’s halfway through his second beer when Melinda comes out from behind him and massages his shoulders. “Well?” she asks. “The pricks don’t want me back,” Merle says. “They keep lowballing me.” “That doesn’t make sense.” Melinda follows football closely enough to know this is a strange decision, but she’s smart enough to think of a few reasons. “Eh, that’s why I didn’t get an extension last summer, I guess. My agent told me they see me as more of a positional coach than a leader. Assholes.” Melinda brushes Merle’s hair, wondering what all of this means. Their time in this house is almost certainly numbered, so where is their next destination? She leaves Merle alone for a while, and Trisha eventually comes home. “Don’t you have homework?” Merle asks. “It’d be nice if you graduated.” “Geography,” Trisha says. “I’ll do it before dinner. Just wanted to say hi.” She bends down and kisses her father on the cheek before disappearing. Merle pounds down the beers, thinking about where to go next. If the Panthers want nothing to do with him, he’s not counting on a long line of NFL interviews. Over the next few days, his suspicions are confirmed. After all head coach positions are filled, the coaching carousel moves to coordinators. Merle’s phone doesn’t ring. He gets plenty of calls from the college ranks, of course, but he feels his heart going in a different direction: returning to his high school roots. Melinda’s eyes light up when he mentions it at dinner one day, saying, “That sounds wonderful. Where, though? Back at Devil’s Lake?” “Doesn’t have to be,” Merle says. “Anywhere in the Dakotas, someplace quiet. Wyoming, Montana, I don’t care. What do you think, Trish?” “Quiet would be nice,” she says. A few days later, Merle has compiled some research on prospective high schools. He might have to sit out a year at this point, something he’s not necessarily against. Then, his agent calls. Merle expects yet another college pitch (probably Division II), but he’s wrong. The call sends him out back again, for another session of beer drinking and deep thought, looking out at the mountains that sprawl for miles. “Hey,” Melinda says, joining him, “Trish says you got an NFL interview?” “Yeah, the Raiders. Or, the Knights, I guess. I know Caden Daniel; he did great work at UConn. Good coach.” “You think you would fit?” “Don’t know. Maybe. Not a lot of talent out there. And it’s a little late in the market; they must have interviewed other guys for defensive coordinator.” Melinda takes a seat next to Merle with a bottle of wine as they explore a potential move to Los Angeles. Merle seems genuinely conflicted and far from certain, and after finishing yet another beer, he says, “Ah, fuck it. I’ll take the interview, see what happens.” Tuesday morning, players file into their usual seats in the MedComm Center auditorium and look up at the slightly odd sight of Coach McKenzie leading the start-of-week meeting. McKenzie opens with, “Let’s get the elephant out of the way,” briefing everyone on Coach Harden’s condition. He’s resting at home and feels fine (all things considered). McKenzie necessitates the need to focus on football. “This is a big week,” he says. The Knights are traveling to Arrowhead Stadium, a historically difficult venue for them, and the Chiefs, surprisingly, have emerged as the second best team in the AFC West. The Knights’ dominance this year, though, has bought them opportunity: a win this Sunday, and they clinch the division with four games to play. In Harden’s absence, Coach Ripka assumes the role of defensive coordinator, including play-calling responsibilities. In meetings with his players, Ripka conveys his desire to call plays “as Merle would call them.” Offensively, nothing changes. McKenzie reminds his players that their previous meeting with the Chiefs was marred by that godawful sickness. This time, with everyone fully healthy, he expects at least thirty points. The team puts a solid first day of practice in the books, making McKenzie the happiest guy in the building. This isn’t the first time he’s taken over for Harden, and it’s his third year with the team, so he’s comfortable in this role. But he’s been coaching long enough to know not to take anything for granted. He is enjoying a quiet moment in his office, queueing up some more tape on the Chiefs defense, when his entire offensive staff walks in, each with a more horrified look on their face than the next. “More bad news?” McKenzie says. “Let’s hear it.” “It’s Penner,” the O-line coach says. “What? He can’t be hurt. I was out there when we finished practice. I saw him in the locker room!” “It’s not him; it’s his father.” “What about him?” “He died. Heart attack.” “Fuck.” McKenzie puts his hands on his hips, shuffling the offensive game plan in his head. “Where is he now?” “Just left. Gonna fly to Minnesota with his family. He didn’t say when the funeral would be, or when he would be back.” McKenzie falls into his chair and gathers his thoughts. “Okay. We should assume the worst. Go get Fitzsimmons. If he left already, call him. Tell him he’s starting Sunday.” The coaches nod and head out the door. McKenzie gathers the tape, bracing himself for what will now become a long night of studying film and adjusting the game plan. He can’t catch a break. When he had to fill in for a week last year, he had to deal with Wilkes being an asshole. Now this. “No such thing as a quiet week around here,” he says to himself. The Penner family gathers in the dimly lit funeral parlor, paying their respects to Thomas Penner. Brian stays with his boys, knowing this is, in a way, harder on them than it is on him. He goes through the motions, thanking everyone for coming and such, but he’s annoyed that old words keep ringing in his head, words from that damn conversation he had with Ripka a few months ago. Brian’s father was an old man and lived a good life, but will people one day say the same about him? There’s no telling how much football has cost him, and he never saw much use in dwelling on it—but now, he can’t help himself. How much longer until his sons are in a parlor like this, with family members kneeling in front of his coffin? These are morbid, funeral-induced thoughts, but they’re still important. His oldest son is a little over a year away from playing football in pads, full tackling and all. He will surely think about this more over the next few months, but for now, Brian wonders, Maybe Chet was right. He looks forward to another conversation with him, this time with two glasses of beer. Practice goes on for the Knights, trying to forget about their coach’s sickness and a teammate’s absence, both easier to do with an undefeated record to defend. The week’s end arrives, and players and coaches line up in the parking lot, boarding the bus that will take them to the airport, Kansas City-bound for kickoff in twenty-four hours. Everything is proceeding in a typically boring fashion until another car rolls into the parking lot, and from it emerges Penner, multiple bags in tow. Everyone looks on as Penner drops his bags in front of the bus and finds Coach McKenzie. “Technically,” McKenzie says, “I’m supposed to punish you for going AWOL, even given the circumstances.” “My apologies, coach,” Penner says. “I want to play tomorrow.” “Only if you break the news to Fitz. Kinda feel for the kid; he was a badass in practice.” “Deal.” Penner gets on the bus, and the entire team rises, each offering their condolences and support, glad to have him back for tomorrow’s game. Awarded the ball first with a screaming Arrowhead crowd, the Knights come out firing. Maverick hits Watson and Johnson on quick strikes to move the chains. He drops back, taking more time and looking deeper for his targets. He hits Wilkes and Bishop, and the Knights cross midfield. McKenzie notices Maverick isn’t coming close to being touched in the pocket. The guys upstairs confirm solid O-line play, especially from Penner. An emotional Penner against a very capable nose tackle in Dontari Poe worried McKenzie, but it appears an emotional Penner is a good thing. Maverick sits back and picks the Chiefs defense apart, capping the drive with a fourteen-yard touchdown strike to Wilkes. On the two-point try, he fires for Harper on a slant, but the corner tips it away. After a quick debrief, a punt returns the offense to the field. Aware of Penner’s play this time, McKenzie dials up a heavy dose of Jameson. Penner dominates the trenches like he did in his prime and, together with Grodd and Dunn, paves gigantic holes for Jameson to surge through. The Knights carve up the Chiefs one large gain at a time, scoring when Maverick hits Watson on a wheel route. McKenzie makes the proper two-point call this time, feeding Jameson up the gut, and the Knights lead, 14-0. The Chiefs offense retakes the field with worry in the air. The Knights appear to be going for the kill, blitzing aggressively, but a well-timed screen pass to Spencer Ware nets twenty yards and some relief for the home team. On the visitors’ sideline, Ripka calls plays under the mandate: What would Harden do? This is the most natural option, he feels, and the one that will put the least amount of pressure on him. The Chiefs, though, find momentum. Despite blitzing, the Knights generate almost no pass rush, and Alex Smith finds open receivers all over the field. Ripka wonders what he’s doing wrong as Smith floats one deep for Jeremy Maclin, splitting both safeties for a thirty-yard touchdown. Ripka reviews footage from the previous drive on his tablet and finds himself in an uncomfortable position: the calls are fine; the players simply aren’t executing. He decides one drive isn’t enough to get fired up, instead falling back on his usual refrain. “Short memory, guys. Next drive. Short memory.” The Knights’ first punt of the day sends the defense back to the field, soon facing third and one. Ripka calls a standard, Harden-esque inside blitz from the 3-4, but he recognizes the Chiefs’ formation, one that they like to run sweeps out of. With enough time on the play clock, Ripka radios an audible to Randall, who calls it out to the defense. The Knights shift to a 4-3, players now ready to jump either side of the field. Smith takes the snap and tosses it right to Ware. The Knights converge on the strong side of the field as Ware flips it back to Tyreek Hill on a reverse. White jerseys switch direction, completely beat and racing to catch up, but Hill cuts upfield and outruns everyone, Flash included. Ripka doesn’t need a tablet to tell him what went wrong on that one. He grabs some water as the extra point ties the game, 14-14. Both teams trade punts, the game now well into the second quarter, and the Knights take over with poor field position. After a holding penalty brings up third and twenty, McKenzie calls a draw to Jameson, just trying for better field position. Behind great blocking, Jameson breaks three tackles and gets the first down with inches to spare. The Knights ride the momentum of that conversion to the end zone, going seventy yards in nine plays, capped by a Bishop touchdown. Jameson punches in another two-point conversion, and the Chiefs fail to score in the half’s final minutes. The Knights go into the locker room up 22-14. After a halftime of minor adjustments, the Knights defense fails to seize momentum, yielding one first down after another. Ripka struggles with play calls on multiple third downs, learning the hard way that once you second-guess a decision, even for a fraction of a second, you’re guaranteed to doubt whatever call you make next. The Chiefs go seventy-five yards in ten plays, with Travis Kelce finding the end zone. Content to kick the extra point for now, they make it a 22-21 game. On the sideline, Ripka doesn’t sense any sort of mutiny from the players, and he shouldn’t. They all like and respect him. He’s a smart guy and was a hell of a football player. But he’s no Merle Harden, plain and simple. McKenzie is eager to strike back, but Marcus Peters steps up coverage on Wilkes, forcing Maverick to look elsewhere, and untimely incompletions lead to a quick punt. Still lacking pass rush, the Knights don’t seem to have an answer for the Chiefs offense. Randall ups his energy level, trying to motivate someone to make a big play. Though they don’t get the game-changing turnover they want, they stuff the Chiefs on third and one to force a punt. The Knights go back to the run game, and Jameson pounds away, still getting great blocking. Maverick delivers two deadly play-action strikes, and the Knights reach the red zone in a blink, where Jameson finishes what he started, pummeling two red jerseys in a goal-line collision for a highlight reel score. Up 28-21, McKenzie decides not to risk the two-point try, and McCabe kicks a wobbly extra point through, giving the Knights an eight-point lead with 3:20 left in the third quarter. The Chiefs respond. Moving the ball again with a surprisingly efficient Alex Smith-led aerial attack, they work the short passing game into Knights territory. On the last play of the third quarter, Tyreek Hill takes a receiver screen into the red zone. Two plays later, Spencer Ware takes a toss and dives over the pylon for the touchdown. The Chiefs line up to go for two, trying to tie the game. Ripka’s instinct is to blitz, but he decides against it, fearful of a screen. Smith drops back behind a clean pocket, scans the field with nobody open, and dumps it off to Ware in the flat. White jerseys surround the running back, bringing him down two yards short, and the Knights have a two-point lead. McKenzie sticks with what has worked, pounding away with the inside running game. The Chiefs have finally clued into this, though, stacking the box. McKenzie changes gears and leans on Maverick, more than happy to air it out. Wilkes is still struggling to get open, but Harper and Johnson rack up a few catches, taking the Knights into field goal range. Facing third and six, Maverick drops back against a blitz. He can’t spot his quick read in the flat. He backpedals, looking deep, and bombs it. Wilkes has separation, but the pass sails out of bounds. The Knights settle for a forty-five-yard field goal attempt by McCabe, which bangs off the right post, no good. Knights 29, Chiefs 27, 11:31 to play. The Chiefs come out on offense and gain eighteen yards on their first play, so Ripka fears the worst. The defense tightens up, though, forcing consecutive incompletions and finally notching a sack when Randall breaks through on a blitz. The ensuing punt, however, is a beauty, bouncing out of bounds at the two-yard-line. “Alright, no secret here,” McKenzie says to his offense before they take the field. “Jam it down their throats and run this clock out. Let’s go.” Jameson lines up behind Maverick, standing in his own end zone with over ten minutes of clock to chew. He gets the ball twice, gaining eight yards. Maverick hurries the snap on third and two, sneaking it for a first down. 8:18, 8:17… Jameson gets it again, chewing up yards behind dominant run blocking. The Chiefs stack the box, but Jameson doesn’t go down easily. On third and one, the Knights line up in an I-form with Jameson at fullback and NesSmith at tailback. Maverick fakes a quick handoff to Jameson and tosses it out to NesSmith, who gets the first down easily, going down in bounds. 6:05, 6:04… Now on their own twenty-five, the Knights have enough breathing room for a good punt if they fail to get first downs. But they keep pounding away up the middle, getting at least four yards per play. “This is beautiful football,” McKenzie says to himself. Third and two. Jameson takes it inside, but the blocking isn’t there. He cuts outside into open grass, getting the first down as he runs toward the sideline. Stay in bounds, stay in bounds. He cuts back toward the middle, going down as his leg buckles slightly. He gets up, feels some stiffness in his knee, and hobbles to the sideline. Grateful to avoid an injury timeout and clock stoppage, McKenzie has NesSmith continue the clock-running strategy, confident his offensive line can get it done. They do. Another three runs up the middle get a first down, and the clock finally stops at the two-minute warning. Chiefs fans boo, angry and incredulous that they haven’t gotten the ball back yet. During the break, McKenzie consults the trainers examining Jameson’s knee. “Well?” he asks. “Don’t think it’s serious, coach,” one trainer says, “but there’s some swelling. Could be a sprain.” “Alright, rest up, Marcus,” McKenzie says. “We got this one.” NesSmith takes two carries up the middle for three yards each, followed by the Chiefs’ last two timeouts. Third and four, 1:47 on the clock. Maverick fakes a handoff to NesSmith, and the defense bites hard. Maverick spots an open Bishop running down the seam and hits him between the numbers. Bishop goes down without further contact, and the stadium begins to empty as the Knights’ celebration begins. A few more kneeldowns end the game, and the Knights march to the locker room, 2016 AFC West Champion hats and t-shirts waiting for them. After the MRI, trainers reapply the brace to Jameson’s right knee and have him wait in the exam room while doctors look at the scan. The swelling has gone down sooner than expected, a good sign. When he woke up and couldn’t bend his knee this morning, Jameson knew he hurt something. But he doubts it’s anything significant. MCL sprain, he keeps telling himself. MCL sprain, I’ll be fine for the playoffs. Coach McKenzie enters the room, no doctors in tow. Jameson tries to read his face as the coach stands in front of him. “It’s the ACL,” McKenzie says. “What about it?” “It’s torn.” Jameson’s head sinks down. He stares at the floor, unable to look at anything else. Tears fill his eyes, and he doesn’t bother fighting them. All the dreams he had tied into this season…going for 16-0 under the Farmers Field lights, chasing another Super Bowl… Gone. Just like that. Jameson looks up and realizes that McKenzie is crying too, a surprising sight. He has never showed any emotional vulnerability to any player before. Jameson isn’t sure what to make of it, and neither man knows what to say. Players take their auditorium seats for Coach McKenzie’s address. The opening slide on the projector screen is titled, “Chiefs Recap,” the typical opener, addressing the major strengths and weaknesses from the previous game. But McKenzie opens on a different note. “By now, you’ve all heard about Marcus, I’m sure.” Indeed they have, and they don’t want to dwell on it. Every player hopes McKenzie moves on quickly. “He’s in good hands with the medical staff, but let’s keep him in our thoughts and prayers. As far as this season goes, this team has survived worse injuries, and we all know it. Next man up.” McKenzie finds Maverick in the crowd and stares him down. He hopes the players understand how serious he is. If they won the division with a backup quarterback and first-year offensive coordinator, they can survive an injury to their starting running back. “Now, before we talk about Denver, let’s get something out of the way. No looking ahead this week.” Players who had been bowing their heads in sad reflection about Jameson now look up again, intrigued. This is a topic they wouldn’t mind McKenzie dwelling on. “I know we all can read the schedule, and we all know what’s in two weeks,” he says, referring to a Sunday Night Football game against the 12-0 Steelers. “But we’re not here to prepare for two weeks. We’re here for this Sunday, for the Broncos. And I swear to almighty Jesus, if I even think any of you assholes are looking ahead, this week will become unpleasant for all of us. Understood?” A few players mutter, “Yes, sir.” A few nod. Satisfied, McKenzie moves on. “Alright, let’s talk about Kansas City. We—” The auditorium doors open, a jarring sound to McKenzie, who knows that all players were on time and are accounted for. But it is not a player who walks down the aisle, commanding the entire auditorium’s attention as he takes a place at the head of the room, next to McKenzie. “Thanks for holding the fort, Mac,” Harden says. “I’ll take it from here.”
  10. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part VI Chapter Seventy – Red Roses, Blue Sky Rose backtracks as the receiver runs toward him. The receiver cuts right, and Rose undercuts the route, getting in front. The receiver changes direction, running for the end zone, and Rose runs with him. Pause. Rewind. Wilkes lets the tape wind again. Rose maintains perfect position throughout the entire route; there’s never an opportunity for the quarterback to throw the ball. The whole game is filled with this. Frustrated but determined, Wilkes switches out the tape for another game, not ready to leave even though the rest of the team went home hours ago. This is as much about his opponent as it is about him. He has his season stat line memorized: 45 catches, 646 yards, 9 touchdowns. He has scored a touchdown in all six games this season, a streak he wants to continue. But Malik Rose stands in the way. This season, Rose has been dominant. There’s no other word for it. He has yet to allow a reception in man coverage. Zero catches. Zero yards. The tape may not show a weakness, but Wilkes sees one anyway: his opponents. Rose has shut down the likes of Jeremy Maclin, Allen Robinson, T.Y. Hilton, and Brandin Cooks. Those are talented receivers, but not elite ones. Rose hasn’t shut any of those down. He hasn’t shut down Da’Jamiroquai Jefferspin-Wilkes. Wilkes goes back to the Indy tape. There was one play where Hilton got separation on a swift inside move, but Andrew Luck got sacked before he could throw. “Look who learned how to watch film.” Wilkes spins around and sees his head coach in the doorway. “Uh, hi, coach.” “Briggs does this shit every week,” Harden says. “I gave up trying to tell him otherwise years ago.” “You don’t think this is gonna help, coach?” “I think everything you need is out there on that field, either now or in memory. You don’t remember?” “Remember what?” Harden steps closer. “Your first year here. Malik’s too. You guys weren’t big time yet, but you were each number one for us. So in scrimmages, you lined up against each other.” Wilkes remembers. “So?” “He couldn’t cover you.” “What? Yeah he could!” “I’ve coached defense a long time. Malik Rose plays cornerback as good as anyone I’ve ever seen in this game. But he’s not invincible. No corner is. He can’t cover you for sixty minutes.” Harden walks away, leaving Wilkes to spend the next few hours clicking the remote, pausing and playing the film, though his mind focuses on year-old memories, trying to relive them as best he can. Phillips’ Thursday passes through the usual routines while he waits for a chance to talk to Schneider, back from two days of owners meetings in Houston. The TV in his office is on, coverage focused on the grim news. “…vote for relocation has been set for January. League owners will meet prior to that, in December, but the vote will happen in January. Votes for both the Chargers and Rams will take place, with Los Angeles being the primary target. Interestingly, governor of Nevada has stated…” So everything’s still going according to plan. Everybody is fixated on Los Angeles, no idea Schneider is laying the groundwork for London. Phillips would admire the plan’s brilliance if he weren’t directly positioned to suffer from it. He mutes the TV. It’s just past five, and he wants to catch Schneider before he leaves for the day. He gets up, leaving his crutches behind, and puts almost all his weight on his casted leg as he hobbles down the hall. He knocks on Schneider’s door and opens it, seeing Schneider on the phone with Stein seated across from him. What is Stein doing meeting with Schneider privately? Before Phillips can say anything, Schneider hangs up the phone and stands up, reaching for his coat. “On my way out, I’m afraid.” “Sorry, Wayne,” Phillips says, “thought we’d get a chance to catch up.” “Let’s do tomorrow. Oh! But Chance, I’ve got the greatest idea.” “It really is brilliant,” Stein says. “Remember all those ideas we tossed around for a team hall of fame? I’ve finally figured it out.” “I’m listening,” Phillips says. “The Hollywood Walk of Fame, with all the stars? We’ll have our own! Every player or coach we enshrine gets his own star. It’s brilliant! And it’ll only take minor construction to the concourse by the north end zone. That’s the most likely place for it, anyway.” For all of Schneider’s traits, this is one Phillips sometimes finds endearing: when he latches onto an idea, he doesn’t let go. He rambles on about the Walk of Fame idea until, thankfully, Stein leaves the office first, with Schneider a few steps behind. Phillips pounces, standing in Schneider’s path and lowering his voice. “Wayne, should I ask about the meetings? About London?” “I wouldn’t,” Schneider says, brushing past Phillips down the hallway. Phillips stands in the owner’s office for a moment, a deep pattern of thought interrupted by a jolt of pain when he puts too much pressure on his right leg. Saturday night, Los Angeles sports fans cling to their TVs with the Dodgers in a must-win NLCS game 6 against the Cubs. But Clayton Kershaw yields some early runs, and the Dodgers can’t get on base. Inning by inning, hour by hour, the Cubs’ lead grows without the Dodgers putting up a run. The score ends at 5-0, and Wrigley Field celebrates a pennant. L.A. fans go to sleep with the dream of a Dodgers World Series, a dream amplified by the 9/9 earthquake, now dead. When they wake up Sunday morning, they anxiously count the hours to kickoff for the Knights, who have dreams of their own after opening the season 6-0. Players take the field for warm-ups in San Diego, an invisible line separating the teams at midfield. Every player, coach, and trainer keeps to their side of the field until Flash crosses the line to meet Rose. A few cameramen run in, reacting to a blue and white jersey communicating, though they only capture a loose, friendly conversation. “How you been?” Rose asks. “It’s been a while since we had you over.” “Got a new girl, actually,” Flash says. “Hey! Finally, some good news. Why haven’t you brought her around?” “Tryin’ not to get too comfortable. Could be anywhere in the country next year.” “Well, wherever you are, you’ll always be welcome here. You know that.” “Yeah, I do.” They both look up at the sight of someone not in uniform walking up to them. “Afternoon, gentlemen,” Phillips says. Neither player hides their discomfort, and the scene is blisteringly awkward, as Phillips figured it would be. “Malik, I know we never got a chance to talk after everything went down last year, but—” “It’s all good,” Rose says, stepping away. “You sure?” “Yeah. Just business.” Rose breaks into a jog toward his teammates. That went better than Phillips hoped, so he turns to Flash. “I know you’re not my biggest fan either, after this past offseason, with the franchise tag and everything.” Flash nods stoically. He’s determined not to show how much he despises this man. “Flash, I want you to know how much I appreciate you giving it your all this season after thinking you were gone. You’re a true professional. When the season is over, you’ll have offers from a lot of teams, including us. I only hope you’ll consider it, because we want you back. We want you to be a Knight for a long time.” “We’ll see,” Flash says quickly before jogging back toward the visitors’ side of the field. Phillips sighs, not sure if that went great, terrible, or somewhere in between. He looks across the field, where Harden and Daniel are talking, another odd sight. “You haven’t been returning my phone calls,” Daniel says. “I don’t know, wanted to wait until after the season, I guess.” “You’ve lost weight. You look good.” “Thanks.” Harden isn’t sure how he feels about Caden Daniel, or how he’s supposed to feel. This is a man who gave Harden a chance when Carolina wanted nothing to do with him, a man whose leadership style clashed with Harden’s but supported him at every turn. Then again, he coaches and represents the Knights’ archrivals. And the memories of the 2014 AFC Championship and both regular-season blowouts are still fresh in Harden’s mind. He guesses they are in Daniel’s, too. Chargers fans get loud as Wilkes lines up wide right, Rose staring him down. The first few plays are designed for Wilkes to feel out his man a little, get an idea of how he can get open. So Maverick targets Bishop, Watson, and Harper, connecting and moving the chains. Wilkes thinks of nothing but his routes, sticking to quick ins and outs for now. When he breaks, Rose breaks with him. He can feel Rose’s arms on him at every step. He’s expecting some trash talk, but Rose blankets him without a word. The Knights stay on the field, letting Wilkes run plenty of routes as Jameson takes a few carries into field goal range. Facing third and five, McKenzie calls Wilkes’ number. He lines up wide left, trying not to show his excitement. He breaks off the line and runs along the sideline, timing his spin just as Maverick’s throw comes in. He extends his hands as Rose’s arm deflects the pass out of bounds. “Good throw, Mav,” McKenzie says on the sideline, Wilkes within earshot. “Nothing either of you could do there.” “I’ll get him,” Wilkes says. McCabe makes the short kick, and the Knights are on the scoreboard first. The offense debriefs with coaches, and a punt returns them to the field. The Knights line up in a five-receiver set, a miracle among them. Maverick drops back and looks left for #85, who breaks on a simple out route, catches the pass, and goes out of bounds onto the Knights’ sideline. The stadium PA announcer’s words ring throughout the stadium, “Pass complete to Alex Johnson, gain of five yards.” Players and coaches gravitate towards Johnson, celebrating the return of a man who had his entire ankle reconstructed by some of the world’s best surgeons. Johnson stays on the sideline as Chargers fans around the stadium give him a classy ovation. It’s a nice moment, the kind that makes for good TV, but it means little to him. He already experienced his emotional climax when he was able to walk again. He spends the rest of the drive on the bench, entrenched as fourth receiver on the depth chart, a lowly designation that makes him wonder why he came back. Another field goal gives the Knights defense a 6-0 lead as it lines up against Philip Rivers. Harden’s target is the offensive line, but his attention shifts to the secondary as Rivers finds Keenan Allen and Tyrell Williams for large chunks of yards. The Chargers reach the red zone, where Rivers floats a pass for Melvin Gordon, on a wheel route against Harrington, who catches it in stride as he crosses the goal line. Qualcomm Stadium buzzes with the home team ahead after one quarter. A few inexplicable last-minute losses have sunk the Chargers to 2-4 this season, but fans would probably allow a season full of losses to knock off the Knights today. Conversely, the Knights would rather their winning streak end at the hands of any other team. The Knights get the ball back and face third and four. McKenzie dials up a receiver screen for Wilkes. Wilkes stares down Rose, takes a step forward, then backs up for Maverick’s pass. He sets his feet with the ball flying in, and Rose surges ahead to swat it down. Wilkes’ eyes find Harper as the punt team comes out. “What was that?” “He slid around me,” Harper says. “I didn’t have an angle.” “Man, you supposed to be blocking him!” Harden notices the commotion, which subsides, and seeks out McKenzie. “What’s going on, Mac?” “It’s the same fucking story. They’re not doubling Wilkes, so they have room to cover everyone else.” “This is a surprise? You had all week to come up with something. I sure hope this isn’t it.” Harden goes back to his defense, stuck with poor field position. They allow some more big catches before tightening up, and the drive ends with a Nick Novak field goal. Wilkes composes himself for the next drive, calmed down by McKenzie promising some deep shots. He lines up in various places, even in the slot a few times, Rose glued to him on every route. He runs deeper routes, cutting ten, fifteen yards down the field. Rose stays with him every step. After Bishop earns a new set of downs with a tough catch in traffic, McKenzie calls the big play. Wilkes runs straight ahead, no deception, reaching full speed with Rose behind him. He feels he’s beat him, but Rose closes the gap. Wilkes looks up, surprised to see a pass flying in. Both leap for it simultaneously. It bounces off someone’s hands, and they both hit the ground. Wilkes shoves Rose into the grass as he gets to his feet, but Rose pops right back up. Wilkes is sure they’re about to fight, but Rose says nothing, just looking at him with a menacing stare. Wilkes does his best to stare back as coaches call him back to the sideline. The Knights soon punt, and the Chargers do the same minutes later. The game’s energy wanes as halftime nears. The Chargers eventually start a drive on their own seventeen with 1:15 on the clock. Harden calls an outside blitz and Grantzinger, who has been unblockable today, lines up with his eyes on Rivers. Rivers fakes a handoff to Gordon and looks downfield as Grantzinger explodes off the line. Rivers winds up as Grantzinger swats his arm, and the ball hits the ground. It bounces backwards as everybody dives for it, and a pile builds at the nine-yard line. Officials peel away the carnage with both teams claiming possession, but at the bottom of the pile is Luck, the football clutched against his chest. Maverick runs onto the field with the offense, set up beautifully with first and goal, eight yards from the end zone. An end zone fade for Wilkes is on everyone’s mind, so McKenzie calls Jameson’s number first. He runs into a wall of linebackers for a two-yard gain. Second and goal. Maverick looks for Wilkes but spots Bishop instead, who catches it and goes down on the three. Third and goal. Jameson and Bishop line up in the backfield with two receivers right. Wilkes and Rose are wide left, no one within ten yards of them. Everyone in the stadium watches Wilkes run for the corner of the end zone, Rose stuck to him, as the ball comes flying. Rose turns and jumps at the last second, but the pass sails over both of them. Maverick curses himself in frustration and avoids everyone on the sideline as McCabe’s chip shot makes it 10-9, Chargers, at halftime. After halftime, McKenzie calls plays with an added array of screens and quick passes, but they only reinforce the part of the offense that’s working. With Wilkes invisible and Watson somehow struggling to get open deep, the downfield element of the Knights offense is gone. Still, McKenzie is smart enough to not forget Jameson, who gashes the Chargers’ weak run defense and takes the Knights across midfield on the second half’s opening drive. Then Maverick resumes the nickel-and-dime attack, leaning on Bishop. On third and one, Jameson runs off-tackle left into a wall of defenders, and McCabe comes out again. He boots a forty-eight yarder that slides inside the right goal post, retaking the lead for Los Angeles, 12-10. “Alright, ladies,” McKenzie says on the sideline, “good drive. Let’s regroup.” “Man, good drive my ass,” Wilkes says. “You had me twice, Mav.” “Like hell I did! 25 was all over you.” “You gotta let me make a play!” “Hey!” McKenzie says, stepping between the two. “Chill the fuck out. You want targets? Get separation. Otherwise I don’t want to hear any bitching.” McKenzie walks away, wanting to get away from Wilkes and let the position coaches do their jobs. “Man, don’t do me like that! I’m getting separation! You gotta feed me the ball.” Wilkes keeps pleading his case against Maverick’s useless responses. He knew the end of his touchdown streak was a real possibility coming into this game, but the idea of leaving San Diego with zero catches is unacceptable. Eventually, Bishop gets in the middle and settles things down, telling Maverick, “You know him, he just wants looks.” “I know how to handle him by now. Nice catch on that slant, by the way.” “Thanks.” The offense watches the defense give up first down after first down until Rivers floats a pass to the back of the end zone for Keenan Allen, and the Chargers are in front again. The Knights get back to work leaning on the run game again. McKenzie wants to remain patient; plus, attacking the Chargers’ run defense is his best way to score points. A few plays later, though, the Chargers make a stop on third and short, and the Knights punt. The Chargers fail to add to their lead, but the clock ticks, and fans around the stadium grow increasingly confident with the home team leading, 17-12. They applaud and hold four fingers in the air as players traverse the field for the final quarter. Now desperate, McKenzie reaches deep into his playbook, calling screen passes to NesSmith and quarterback draws up the middle. These involve a lot of adjustments at the line, running the play clock down and taking plenty of time, but the Knights get something going. Wilkes keeps battling with Rose on the outside as the offense gives the ball to everyone else. He begins to suspect they’re using him as a diversion with no intention of looking his way, and if that’s the case, there’s gonna be a problem. Maverick slides on the grass after a twelve-yard-gain, putting the Knights in field goal range with momentum on their side. Two plays later, Maverick fires for the end zone on third down. Watson runs along the sideline, covered, and jumps to make an off-balance catch, but the throw is off-line and bounces off his hands. Watson keeps his head down on his way to the bench, bothered by everyone slapping him on the helmet and shoulders, encouraging him for not making a “tough catch” on a “bad throw.” If there’s one thing he’s sensitive to when he’s struggling with drops, it’s his teammates trying to help him. McCabe’s field goal is good again, and Harden’s defense takes the field with 11:35 on the clock, tasked with keeping the score 17-15. McKenzie plans the next drive in similar fashion, knowing if the Chargers get a touchdown here, it’s probably over. The Knights defense yields a few first downs before forcing a punt. The kick goes out of bounds at the fifteen, and the Knights take the field with 6:33 left. After Jameson goes nowhere, McKenzie calls a deep shot for Wilkes. Lined up on the left side next to Watson, Wilkes breaks on a slant, and Rose runs toward him. He plants his right foot in the grass and swipes Rose’s arm, shoving him aside just enough, and takes off downfield, no safeties in sight. He reaches full speed with Rose a step behind and looks up. Throw the fucking ball, Mav. Behind a clean pocket, Maverick takes his time, sets his feet, and fires. Wilkes and Rose stay at full speed as the pass hits Wilkes in stride. His adrenaline keeps his legs moving, eyes on the end zone. He can feel Rose behind him as he crosses the forty, thirty, twenty… Rose gets his fingers on Wilkes, who swats his right hand back to deflect him, left hand clutching the ball. Rose reaches one last time, grabbing onto his jersey, but Wilkes applies a solid stiff-arm, holding himself upright as his momentum takes them both across the goal line. Wilkes slows down, arm still latched onto Rose. He plants his feet, lifts Rose off the grass, and slams him down on the grass. The crowd shouts angrily, along with the Chargers sideline, and players from both teams run in. Multiple blue jerseys take their best shot at Wilkes, who somehow avoids everyone and jogs back to the bench with some jostling in the end zone. Officials settle the chaos with multiple flags, but Wilkes smiles from ear to ear on his way to the bench. Two offsetting personal fouls and a missed two-point conversion later, the Knights lead, 21-17. Fans and players prepare for an intense finish, but an incompletion and a Grantzinger sack brings up third and twenty. Rivers falls under pressure again and lofts one deep over the middle that Flash catches easily. He runs around a bit before going down, and fans head for the exits while the Knights run out the clock. Amidst the biggest victory of the year, Wilkes is the happiest man on the bench. He’s putting together a season for the ages, and he’s incredibly proud of today’s stat line: 1 catch, 85 yards, 1 touchdown. Despite high tension, the post-game handshakes commence without incident. These teams meet again in week 17, and everyone knows it. The Knights’ dramatic win against a division rival and 7-0 record keeps spirits high around the MedComm Center, higher than they’ve been in recent memory, but Phillips struggles to find comfort. Every conversation with Schneider leaves him distracted, and every meeting with Stein is as disagreeable as ever. Not long after seeing the players run off the practice field, he limps to Schneider’s office, finding it empty. You know what? Hell with it. Phillips crutches to the elevator and bolts for the head coach’s office, where he finds Harden, apparently not in the middle of anything. “We need to talk,” Phillips says, not realizing how desperate he sounds. “I’m on my way out,” Harden says. “Mel and Trish are expecting me.” “Tell them you’re gonna be late.” Harden looks up, recognizing how serious this is. Fine. He can spare a few minutes. He gestures as if to say, Go ahead. Phillips nods and closes the door. “I guess I’ve gotta start at the beginning,” Phillips says. “The fuck is this, some kind of fable?” For a second, Phillips hesitates, understanding the gravity of this conversation if he goes through with it. He does. He starts in 2012, detailing the saga of Caden Daniel’s firing, the true story from his perspective. He leaves out, for now, his plan to fire then-defensive coordinator Harden as a fall guy, but spares no detail otherwise. He unloads a mess of facts and snippets about Schneider, ultimately leading up to the relocation battle surrounding Los Angeles and, finally, the looming move to London. Harden thinks about everything for a minute, not knowing where to begin analyzing, eventually asking, “Why are you telling me this, Chance? Is there a request at the end of this conversation?” “No, I…I just wanted you to know, I suppose. I always meant to tell you what happened in ’12. Now’s as good a time as any, given the circumstances.” “Alright,” Harden says, standing up. “I’ve got an idea.” Phillips’ eyes widen, suspecting this “idea” could range from Let’s sleep on it to Let’s blow the whole thing up. “We’re on bye next week. Got any plans for Sunday?” “Uh…nothing comes to mind. Actually, I think Melissa was gonna take the kids to—” “That’s it, then,” Harden says, waving his hand. “You’re coming over. We’ll hang out, watch some football, talk things over. Melinda will make us some food and everything.” “Sounds good,” Phillips says as Harden slaps his shoulder and walks past, gone for the day. With Melissa nursing a fever, Chance takes command of the kitchen. Though still in a cast, he can move about the house without any crutches, so every chore is a welcome opportunity to walk around. He leads Jack and Max in an effort to prepare dinner while listening to their plans for the weekend. Nobody asks him about his flight to Tampa tomorrow. He thinks about the days when either Jack or Max would be accompanying him on that flight, solemnly realizing those days are long gone. “And you,” Chance says, pointing his finger at Jack, “let’s get some study time in after dinner tonight. Gotta get those grades up.” “I have straight A’s, dad,” Jack says. “You do?” “How many times do I have to say this? School is easier this year. I have good teachers, especially now that I don’t have Mr. Simon, and—” “Why didn’t I hear about this? This is good news!” “You were busy. You’re always busy. I figured Mom would tell you. Max! Where’s the salad fork?” Max runs in from the dining room, holding out the plastic forks and handing them to his brother, unintentionally spearing him in the arm. “Ow!” Jack yells. “That hurt! What the hell?” “I’m sorry if you can’t catch!” “Boys,” Chance says sternly. “That’s enough, okay? Let’s get this finished.” “Idiot,” Jack says. “You don’t hand people sharp things by stabbing them with them, dickhead.” “Shut up!” Max screams. “HEY!” Chance says, thrusting himself between the two just in time to prevent shoving. Max pouts and runs for the staircase, stomping his feet on each step towards his room. “Nothing you can do sometimes,” Chance says to himself, at a loss for words otherwise. “Oh, c’mon, dad,” Jack says. “What?” “Of all your stupid ‘dad advice’ over the years, isn’t that one of the big ones? ‘No matter what the situation, don’t think you’re out of options. There’s always something you can do.’ How many times did I hear that speech?” Chance thinks about that. “Stupid, huh?” “Ugh, you know what I mean.” No, not stupid, Chance thinks to himself. Not stupid at all. The streak is over. A hodgepodge of missed tackles, miscommunication, and sloppy play culminates in a 17-0 Buccaneers lead, and Knights fans watching Sunday Night Football resign themselves to the fact that their team will be 7-1 heading into the bye week. Then, with 0:58 to go in the half, Jameis Winston heaves up a wobbly pass that Flash and Stone somehow lose in the lights and Mike Evans comes down with in the end zone. Then, Maverick throws a sideline pass off his back foot that Brent Grimes takes the other way, and the second quarter finally ends with Raymond James Stadium booming. Buccaneers 31, Knights 0. After discussing adjustments with position coaches, players wait for the inevitable lashing from Coach Harden, which comes as a single sentence: “If we lose this game by twenty or more, everyone in here is working the entire bye week, I swear.” No player disbelieves an ounce of that vow, so the Knights come out in the second half full of energy. It doesn’t help. The Knights punt the ball as quickly as they receive it, and Harden decides he’s had enough. “What the fuck, Mac?” he says to McKenzie, huddling with other offensive coaches. “This ain’t the ’02 Bucs with Brooks and Barber.” “One series, Merle. Give me some time.” “Put some goddamn points on the board.” The Knights eventually get the ball back with terrible field position and string together a few first downs. None of the deep throws McKenzie calls work out, but slowly, three or four yards at a time, the Knights crawl down the field. It takes most of the third quarter, but they reach the end zone when Watson finds a soft spot in coverage and absorbs a bullet pass. Two-point conversions could make it a four-possession game, so McKenzie keeps the offense on the field. The Bucs make the mistake of leaving Wilkes in single coverage, so Maverick throws him an easy jump ball, and it’s 31-8. Harden is giddy to send his defense out again, eager for a momentum swing now that the offense has remembered how to score. But Winston makes it look easy, especially with his legs, scrambling to extend plays and either finding receivers downfield or getting first downs himself. He puts a nasty spin move on Harrington, forcing Harden to consider subbing Brock in for the rest of the series. (Brock knows better than to ask.) A few plays later, Randall runs Winston down on third and three, setting up a long Roberto Aguayo field goal that sails through, and it’s 34-8 with 1:31 left in the third quarter. No sense in a façade of balance, McKenzie has Maverick operate exclusively out of shotgun with four- and five-receiver sets. The Bucs back off, playing it safe to prevent anything downfield, so Maverick leans on Johnson and Bishop. The fourth quarter begins. The Knights operate a fast-paced, pass-only offense. The Bucs allow plenty of space within ten yards, so Maverick takes it. Dipping and dunking down the field, Maverick finally takes a deep drop and fires for Wilkes, in double coverage. The ball zips perfectly between the corner and safety, and Wilkes slides through the end zone with the ball in hand. The Knights line up for another two-point conversion. Tampa doubles Wilkes this time, so Maverick checks down to a Jameson run, but the blocking collapses. The score holds at 34-14, 12:55 to go. McKenzie decides against further two-pointers, since three touchdowns with extra points wins it. Harden watches his defense surrender more first downs at Winston’s hands, thinking of his vow to work the team during the bye week, a tactic that would lead to a wave of fines from the league, every cent of which he would gladly pay. Then, Randall and Grantzinger combine for a third-down sack, forcing a Buccaneers punt. A well-executed coffin corner pins the Knights on their own six-yard-line with 9:36 on the clock. Maverick picks up where the last drive left off. This time, though, he leans heavily on Johnson, who gets open on every route. Like last week, Johnson lines up against mediocre corners, but today he doesn’t care. At this point, after months of rehab, it feels good to run routes, to plant his cleats in the grass and see the ball coming for him, to sniff out soft spots in zone coverage. It feels good to play football again. Across midfield and moving fast, the Knights stick to five-wide sets. Maverick drops back, fakes a quick pass, and looks deep. Watson gets behind the defense close to the end zone, looks up for the pass, and realizes it’s overthrown. Watson extends his right arm for it as he crosses the goal line, slowing down for a split-second before realizing the ball is in his hand. He doesn’t believe it until teammates come running down the field, jumping on him. His shock fades after the extra point, but only slightly. Buccaneers 34, Knights 21, 6:20 to go. Harden thinks Tampa should go aggressive, but they only try to run the clock. It works, though, and a first down brings the clock toward the four-minute mark. Another one, and the Knights have to burn timeouts, an unpleasant thing to do down two touchdowns. Third and three. The Knights inch closer to the line as the clock ticks. 3:33, 3:32… Winston fakes a handoff and drops back. Pressure comes up the middle. He fires toward the sideline for his tight end. Randall undercuts the route and catches it. He runs past the frantic Knights sideline toward the end zone, and no one catches him. The extra point puts the Knights down six points in a game they once trailed by thirty-one. The offense excitedly huddles around Coach McKenzie, waiting for the ball back. The defense holds. Two timeouts and a punt later, the Knights take the field on their own twenty-eight with 2:55 on the clock. Wilkes and Watson are covered deep, so Maverick checks it down to Bishop and Johnson. They get easy first downs, but the clock runs. The two-minute warning hits with the Knights just past midfield. The Bucs protect the sideline, so Maverick works the middle some more. He finds Wilkes on a crossing route that sets up first and goal at the ten. 0:39, 0:38… The Knights hurry to the line, preserving their last timeout. Maverick fires for Wilkes in the end zone but misses. Then he drops back looking for Bishop, but pass rush forces him to step up, tuck the ball, and run. He only gets a few yards before sliding down. Instinctively, he pops up and calls timeout. Everyone in the stadium takes a breath and sizes up the scenario. Third and goal from the six, 8 seconds left, no timeouts. Two quick shots into the end zone. McKenzie decides on a call, discusses some details with Maverick, and the Knights line up in shotgun, four receivers plus Jameson to Maverick’s right. Bucs fans get loud as Maverick takes the snap. He looks to the end zone, sizing up the safeties for a split-second, and he hands the ball off. Jameson bolts through pass rushers, two red jerseys converging on his path to the end zone. He prepares for a collision he’s endured many times before, lowering his shoulders and slamming into defenders. He stops two yards short, stumbles, finds his feet as the Bucs drag him down, spins, and dives. The ball extends over the goal line, and Jameson is only on the ground a second before teammates lift him up. Amidst the sideline chaos, Harden sends out the field goal unit and finds McKenzie. “You’ve got some fuckin’ balls, Mac.” McCabe’s extra point sails through, and the Bucs’ lateral-filled attempt at a miracle ends with a fumble. The game is over. Knights 35, Buccaneers 34. The Knights storm the field, high-fiving, fist bumping, screaming at each other, celebrating with vigor they’ve never felt outside the playoffs. They ride an energy high that will keep them awake long into their celebratory flight home. Tampa Bay fans go to sleep in shock (many are already sleeping peacefully with bad news waiting for them in the morning) while Los Angeles enjoys a party for a few more hours, their football team halfway to an undefeated season courtesy of the greatest regular-season comeback in league history.
  11. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part VI Chapter Sixty-Nine – Infected Players hit the practice field Tuesday with the confidence of a 5-0 team as they prepare for their first divisional game of the year against the 2-2 Chiefs. Coaches display their share of confidence when discussing the game plan, and everyone believes the Knights are in line for an easy win if they execute. Towards the end of the day, Maverick feels a little nauseous. It passes by the time practice ends, so he doesn’t think anything of it. Luck has the same experience, but he feels worse as the day goes on, eventually bedridden when he gets home. He’s so sick he has to skip Brenda’s ultrasound. Randall feels fine when he gets home, once again firing up the generator for power. He eats dinner, watches some more film, and goes to sleep before waking up sometime in the middle of the night running for the toilet. ­­ Schneider summons Phillips to his office Wednesday morning with a deliberately urgent tone. Phillips makes some calls, tidies up a bit, and limps to the next office. It’s been almost five weeks on these crutches. Any day now, he’ll be able to put some weight on it, and the cast comes off in two weeks. Or so the doctors say. Schneider spots Phillips and says, dramatically, “Close the door. Have a seat.” Phillips does so, setting his crutches against Schneider’s desk. “What’s on your mind, Wayne?” “Relocation.” “I see.” Phillips knew this topic would come up again, though he didn’t think it would be so soon. “As I’ve been saying, we can only deflect the Rams and Chargers for so long. The pieces are already moving faster than last year, so I’m afraid we’re running out of options.” Phillips keeps a straight face, but that sounds ominous. “Where is this going?” Schneider takes a breath before reciting the line he has crafted and memorized. “Well, as owner of the franchise, it is my job to place this team in a viable market. I did that with Los Angeles. And if a second team is unavoidable, then I have to consider other markets, and I’ve found one.” “Whoa, whoa,” Phillips says involuntarily, holding his arms up. “I realize this is a little shocking—” “A little?!” “It’s business, unfortunately.” Schneider gives Phillips a moment, so he tries to collect his thoughts. After the initial shock wears off, he thinks about what other market Schneider means. San Antonio? Las Vegas? Actually, Vegas wouldn’t be such a drastic move. Phillips could probably keep his family in Los Angeles in that case. “What market are we talking about?” “London.” Phillips’ eyes widen. “Are you fucking kidding me?” “It’s a significant proposition, I’m aware.” Schneider knew Phillips would react this way, and understandably so. But Phillips needs to understand this isn’t just speculation. “We both know the league’s been eyeing London for some time. An American franchise was bound to make its way over there, and right now, it looks like that’s going to be us. Chance, I need you to mull this over. Nothing’s happening today or tomorrow. Sleep on it. I don’t think we’ll get anywhere by talking about it now.” “No, definitely not.” “Think it through. Talk it over with your wife, if you must, though I’d caution against telling your kids.” “Why?” “Kids talk. I can’t stress enough how critical it is that this not get out. None of the other owners know this is in the works, and that’s how it has to stay if this is going to succeed.” What if I don’t want it to succeed? Phillips catches himself, instead saying, “I understand. I think I’ll look over some scouting reports.” “Very well.” Schneider smiles, a confident, restrained smile. This could have gone much worse. “Thank you, Chance.” Phillips nods, grabbing his crutches and pressing them down, lifting himself from the chair. He limps back to his office, not confident in his ability to be productive today. On the practice field, the offense runs plays from the Kansas City playbook against the scout defense. They focus on McKenzie’s new favorite formation: I-Form 3WR, with Bishop lining up at fullback. Since Marcus Peters and Eric Berry should give Wilkes plenty of attention, the Knights will predominantly line him up in isolation with Harper and Watson on the opposite side, where they will find plenty of space. Maverick drops back, casually setting his feet against an invisible pass rush and throwing to his right. He and Harper are in perfect unison; the extra work they put in this summer is paying off. Maverick doesn’t, however, feel the same about Watson. So he throws some off-target passes, forcing him to make tough catches. Coach McKenzie blows his whistle and yells, “Shotgun! Trips left! Logan, start next to Fowler then we’ll move you wide right.” Everyone lines up accordingly with McKenzie shouting plays. Maverick takes a snap and throws for Wilkes on a post route. The ball skips, hitting the ground five feet in front of him. “Yo,” Wilkes says. “What the fuck is that?” Maverick blinks, shaking off cobwebs. “Sorry. Had to get it out of my system.” Everyone lines up for another try. Maverick catches the snap, waits, and throws over the middle. He doesn’t see where the pass lands, instead falling to his knees and lifting his facemask as a load of vomit flies out of his mouth. “Whoa!” Wilkes says. “Take it easy, McNabb!” Other players and coaches react loudly enough to get most of the field’s attention, and everything stops for a moment as trainers escort Maverick toward the sideline to hydrate. Kellen Clemens comes out to run the offense, an unwelcome sight that everyone brushes off, expecting Maverick to return quickly. Five minutes later, Grodd goes down with an apparent ankle injury. Trainers surround him and ask where it hurts, to which he responds, “My ankle’s fine, I just can’t get up. I’m lightheaded.” Grodd eventually does get to his feet, staggering toward the sideline for some water. Everyone has barely had time to process what’s going on when Randall and Schwinn start puking within seconds of each other. Thirty minutes later, practice has come to a standstill as Schneider, Phillips, and Harden watch Dr. Evans make his rounds throughout the field, examining every player who looks sick before reporting to them. “Earning your paycheck today, huh, doc?” Schneider says. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Evans says. “Bugs can go through locker rooms, sure, but never in a way that presents symptoms so quickly.” Nobody responds. Schneider goes back inside without a word, and before long, the entire team does the same, congregating in the locker room to enjoy some air conditioning, at the very least. No one knows if practice is over, if the team will be heading back onto the field at some point, or something else. So everyone sits at their locker with pads on, hanging on their body’s ever move, wondering if the slightest muscle twitch is a prelude to vomiting. With no warning, Watson throws up through his facemask, and a puddle of murky vomit covers the purple floor around his cleats. Players rush in, holding Watson upright as he regains his energy before being taken away for evaluation. Within the next few minutes, Bishop, NesSmith, Mann, Martin, Adams, Brock, and McCabe make their own contributions to the vomit-lined floor. Upstairs, Schneider and Phillips wait nervously in Schneider’s office. Phillips tries to figure out what could be going on, though Schneider doesn’t seem to have any interest in contributing to the conversation. The phone on the desk beeps, and Schneider’s secretary says, “Mr. Schneider, the gentlemen from the CDC are here.” “Thank you.” Schneider rushes out down the hall. Phillips hurriedly swings his crutches to keep pace. “CDC?” he asks. Schneider says nothing. “Wait. Center for Disease Control?” Schneider zips past the elevator and down the stairs. “Wayne, wait—damn it.” Phillips taps the elevator button, waiting forever for the doors to open. Emerging from the elevator onto the first floor, Phillips expects stereotypical government-looking men in black suits, so he’s floored to see two figures in neon yellow hazmat suits standing next to Schneider. “Don’t be alarmed, sir,” one of the suits says to Phillips, apparently noticing his distressed expression. “This is probably just precautionary.” “What’s going on, Wayne?” Phillips asks. “We need to speak with the players,” the other suit says. Schneider escorts them to the locker room. He opens the double doors, and a rancid stench of sweat and vomit hits him. “Jesus Christ!” Schneider says. “It smells like Oakland in here.” Players look up at their owner, but the sight of two figures in hazmat suits startles everyone. “Whoa, what the fuck?” “Holy shit.” “We’re gonna die!” Bedlam erupts as an insurmountable noise level dominates the room. Schneider raises his arms and tries to calm everyone down, to no avail. “SHUT THE FUCK UP, ASSHOLES!” Harden screams, silencing everyone. He takes a breath and clears his throat. “Keep cool and listen to whatever these guys want.” One of the hazmat suits steps forward. “Okay, first off, we need to know when symptoms began presenting. Did anyone feel sick prior to today?” Maverick, Luck, and Randall each describe their symptoms yesterday. Randall catches plenty of dirty looks when he mentions throwing up last night but defends himself by insisting he felt fine this morning. “Very well,” the suit says. “Has anyone left the country recently? Sometime in the last month?” Wilkes’ hand shoots up. “I went to Japan a few weeks ago.” “For what purpose?” Brock jumps in. “To shoot a Victoria’s Secret commercial.” “It was Fruit of the Loom, bitch!” “Okay,” the suit says. “Anyone else?” Everyone looks around. Nobody’s hand is raised. “So be it,” the other suit says, turning toward Schneider. “We need to quarantine the building and get bloodwork from everyone immediately. Again, I’d say this is just precautionary, but it’s still a good thing you called, Mr. Schneider.” Nervous chatter fills the room, most players repeating the word “quarantine.” “Hang on,” Schneider says, “how serious is this?” “Because nobody’s condition is worsening beyond nausea and fever, it’s probably nothing more than an exotic flu strain. But we don’t want to take any chances.” “Hold up,” Wilkes says, standing up. “That commercial shoot was weeks ago, though. And I ain’t even sick!” “That doesn’t necessarily matter,” the other suit says. “You could have contracted the bacteria there and transmitted it to others here weeks later. Some of these things have latency periods where the symptoms don’t manifest for quite some time.” “Oh,” Wilkes says, only comprehending about half of those words. Harden walks over to Schneider and Phillips, fixating his gaze on Schneider. “You called these pricks?” “I have to take every precaution. I didn’t know they’d shut the place down.” “Thanks a lot.” Harden walks away, leaving Schneider to contemplate a response he never vocalizes. He instead says to Phillips, “Well, we have to put together a statement. This will hit the wire within the hour, if it hasn’t already. Can’t have everyone thinking we’ve been hit by bioterrorism.” “Quarantined with the flu? It’ll be embarrassing,” Phillips says. “Rather embarrassing than frightening. This city’s had enough horror.” More CDC workers arrive, establishing a perimeter around the building and solidifying the quarantine. Players and coaches call home, describing the situation and asking if their wives/girlfriends/children feel sick. No one receives a bad report, so the mystery illness is apparently confined to the MedComm Center. Maverick is in the main lobby when he finishes his phone call, one of the first in line to submit bloodwork. “Okay, I’ll text you when I know more,” Maverick says into the phone. “Love you, Trish.” Smiling, he hangs up, about to go for bloodwork when he sees Harden at the other end of the lobby, staring him down. His smile fades as he walks away. Players take showers and change into street clothes, nothing to do but wait. Word spreads that it’ll take twelve hours to get results, so they’re stuck here overnight. Groups of players eventually congregate in meeting rooms and tune TVs to live coverage. One group sets up shop in what is normally the offensive line’s room, trying to pick a channel. Someone mentions trying to figure out what caused this sickness, and Wilkes’ investigative brain clicks on. “Wait a minute,” Wilkes says dramatically, eyes bulging and mouth hanging open. “It was Florida!” Flash: “Oh shit. We got the Zika flu!” Wilkes: “No no, at the end of the Jags game. The sun shower! I told y’all that was fucked up!” Schwinn: “Rain don’t get you sick, shit for brains.” Martin: “Exactly. And even if it could, that Jacksonville game was, what, ten days ago? We would have been puking way before today.” Wilkes: “Man, didn’t y’all hear what that dude from the CIA said? About symptoms lying low and shit.” Wilkes continues acting out his flair for investigative journalism, rebuked by his teammates at every turn, though he doesn’t seem to care. Coaches come and go in Harden’s office as position coaches keep tabs on the health of their players. They eventually move to an upstairs meeting room, and Harden leans against the table with McKenzie next to him. “Play on Thursday, get some extra rest, and for what?” Harden says. “All to shit.” “Yeah,” McKenzie says, “terrible luck for a 5-0 team.” “And they had their bye last week. Against Andy Reid coming off a bye, we’re coming off a bad acid trip. CHET!” Ripka, who had just disappeared into the hallway, instantly reappears. “How many sick starters on D?” Harden asks. “That depends on what you mean by ‘sick.’ Some guys haven’t puked but are definitely—” “Fine. Fine! For fuck’s sake…okay, if we assume anyone who’s sick doesn’t play, where does that put us?” “That puts us…” Ripka tallies names on the paper in front of him. “…without two linemen, three linebackers, a corner, and both safeties.” “So, fucked sideways with a steel dildo.” “In so many words, yeah.” Harden clenches his fist against the mahogany table. He feels like he wants to puke—for psychological reasons. Most of the players invariably gather in the auditorium, with live TV coverage set up on the projector. Despite the sickness, this is more entertaining than the time they usually spend in this room every Tuesday morning, listening to Coach Harden downplay their latest win and talk about how hard they’ll have to work to win again. By now, the media has picked up on the quarantine at the MedComm Center and understood that the matter is not as serious as it appears. The coverage evolves into something of a joke, but scattered amidst the Knights discussion is praise for the team’s statistical prominence. Maverick leads the league with 16 touchdown passes, and his single interception is fewest among quarterbacks with double-digit touchdowns. Wilkes leads the league with eight receiving touchdowns, and no other receiver has more than five. His 591 receiving yards are also tops in the league, a torrid pace of 118 yards per game that puts him on pace to approach Calvin Johnson’s single-season record. The Knights offense has scored 164 points, most in the league. They lead the league in touchdowns and red zone efficiency. The team, as a whole, has the best turnover differential in football. The defense has not been dominant but boasts plenty of strengths. The Stone/Lucas cornerback duo that doomed the team last year is improved. They’re not playing lockdown defense, but they’re not getting burned constantly. Grantzinger has seven sacks, good for a tie with Von Miller for most in football. He also has five tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and an interception returned for a touchdown, a résumé reminiscent of his 2014 campaign that could have won Defensive Player of the Year if not for J.J. Watt. Everyone agrees five games is too small a sample size to extrapolate to a sixteen-game season, so the Knights aren’t pushing the annals of football history just yet. But they do have the league’s attention. Just when everyone’s egos have been adequately massaged, they change the channel and find a rerun of today’s Undisputed, and the graphic at the bottom of the screen reads, “Pats, Steelers, Knights 5-0 in AFC,” with the subtitle, “Which team is best?” Shannon Sharpe: “…just think it’s too early to tell. Right now? Give me any of them.” Skip Bayless: “Shannon, as usual, you are wrong. There is an outlier here, and I’m going to tell you why. I’ll put it this way: assuming all three of these teams make the playoffs—which they should—we’re going to do this segment again, and the question will be: ‘Between Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Jonathan Maverick, which quarterback do you trust most in January, to lead their team to the Super Bowl?’ And I have to say, one of those does not belong.” Sharpe: “Come on, Skip, I know—” Bayless: “Just wait! Just let me—” Sharpe: “I know where you’re going with—” Bayless: “Just let me finish. Jonathan Maverick is a good quarterback. He might even be a very good quarterback. But he does not belong in a class with these guys.” Sharpe: “He’s got a ring, coach!” Bayless: “Yes! Yes, he does! He rode an elite defense toward that ring. Let’s not forget, he put his team down 14-0 in that Super Bowl with two pick-sixes on his first two possessions. How he won MVP of that game is absurd, and it has yet to be explained to me.” From his seat, Maverick tries to look normal. A few teammates sitting nearby give him nods of encouragement. Bayless: “The AFC will be a battle between Brady and Big Ben, because this year, just like last year, the Knights defense is not good enough.” Maverick shakes his head. A few players pipe up in response, assigning a variety of labels to Bayless, ranging from “idiot” to “blowhard” to “stupid dumbass motherfucker.” “Everything good in here?” says a voice from behind everyone. Players turn around; it’s Coach McKenzie. Maverick waves, motioning his offensive coordinator to come closer. He does, and a few players move closer too. “Coach,” Maverick says, “we should draw up some two-point plays for Sunday.” “What are you talking about?” “How many extra points has Noah missed this year? With the way Wilkes and our O-line are playing, we would make more than half of them!” McKenzie looks around at the faces of linemen and receivers. It’s clear they’ve talked about this before and Maverick is speaking for much of the offense. So, McKenzie grabs a seat, and they discuss the X’s and O’s of potential two-point plays as well as the general strategy of going for it versus kicking the extra point. Some defensive players avoid the auditorium to gather in a film room, studying more tape on the Chiefs offense. Randall leads this group, of course, though his concentration from the film breaks multiple times as he clutches his stomach in pain. “Still?” Grantzinger asks. “Seems like everyone quit hurling hours ago.” “I can’t eat, man,” Randall says. “Everything I eat I throw up. Can barely keep a glass of water down.” “How long have I been telling you to go organic?” “You know what? Maybe this is the beginning.” Grantzinger summons an organic protein bar from his pocket, a bizarre occurrence nobody questions as Randall peels back the plastic wrapper and takes a bite, chewing slowly. “It’s…not terrible,” he says. “I’ll probably be puking this up in a few minutes, but, not bad.” The other defenders in the room perk up. Grantzinger has been touting his new organic diet since mini-camp, and everyone has noticed his increased muscle tone. More importantly, they’ve noticed his domination on the field. “Alright,” Schwinn says. “Give one here, partner.” “It’ll lengthen your career,” Grantzinger says, handing off yet another protein bar. Schwinn takes a bite, chewing a few times before he experiences involuntary muscle spasms. His eyes appear poised to pop out of their sockets and he spits out the contents of his mouth, crumbs of half-eaten protein bar and saliva flying everywhere. “Fuck, Bobby,” Randall says after ducking to avoid the projectiles. “A napkin, maybe?” “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Reminds me of that Canadian tequila I had once.” “Canada makes tequila?” “It’s the fruit of the devil, my friend, the devil himself.” “I wasn’t the biggest fan of it at first either,” Grantzinger says. “But I’m telling you guys, a few weeks of nothing but organic food in your system, and you feel five years younger. This is your ticket to playing into your late thirties.” “Oh yeah?” Schwinn says, looking at the plastic wrapper in disgust. “Well, I’d rather retire at 30 than retire at 35 and eat this horse shit.” Near midnight, everyone has submitted their bloodwork, and with no results coming in, sleeping arrangements need consideration. Most of the coaches have dispersed from the upstairs room, though Harden stays there. In the middle of reminiscing with Ripka, McKenzie walks through the door. “Where were you?” Harden asks. “With the players,” McKenzie says, taking a seat next to the head coach. “Wanted to change the game plan.” “They what?” “Mav had some ideas, nothing serious. Though he did make a good point about two-point conversions—” McKenzie looks up and realizes he’s talking to an empty chair. Harden flies down the stairs and beelines for the auditorium. He throws open the door with enough force to turn a few heads, and Maverick is one of them. “Hey!” he says, getting everyone’s attention as he struts down the middle rows where Maverick and some teammates sit. “No changes to the game plan. Cool it with that shit.” “Coach,” Maverick says, “we were just—” “‘We were just’ my ass. We’re not changing the fucking game plan! The game plan is finalized by Wednesday, and it doesn’t change. I’ve been doing that since I’ve been head coach, and I’m not changing it just because we’re all cooped up with a fucking case of cat scratch fever. Got it?” The rest of the players nod in agreement, but Maverick holds firm, quite convinced this conversation is not about the game plan. Harden slowly steps away, to Maverick’s disappointment. The rising sun shines on the MedComm Center as CDC employees dismantle the structures that had air-locked all entrances to the building. The bloodwork results are explained to many and comprehended by few, though everyone is able to understand that it’s nothing more than an aggressive version of the flu. There is no risk of worsening symptoms or widespread biological terror. Of concern, however, is how long symptoms will linger. On this issue, the CDC provides no definitive conclusion. Everyone’s body responds to the virus differently, so some players will be fine by Sunday; some will not. And even those who are healthy will have experienced weight loss. Very few Knights will be at full strength. The week’s end finally comes, and the Knights’ final injury report boasts what is surely the largest collection of players questionable with flu-like symptoms in league history. Phillips is the only one on the second floor still experiencing symptoms, feeling just sick enough to be bothered but healthy enough to work. Schneider took the day off, leaving him one of the few workers on the floor. Despite wavering focus, he puts in some meager work, draft analysis that will be revised later, waiting for the call that comes a little after noon. “Mr. Phillips,” his secretary says after a beep of the phone, “Adam Javad is downstairs for you.” “Thank you, Jennifer. I’ll head down now.” He takes the elevator downstairs, sees Javad, and leads him into a nearby film room. When he first agreed to this meeting, he considered outside in the back of the building, but the memory of their last conversation there is still too recent and too painful. “Let’s get this over with,” Phillips says. “I’m sick.” “You’re not the only one.” “Excuse me?” From his pocket, Javad extracts a slip of paper. He unfolds it and hands it over. Phillips sees a barrage of words and numbers, not sure what to look at first. “That’s a copy of a medical record from Good Samaritan Hospital,” Javad says. “I have a source that gives me the scoop on injuries sometimes.” Phillips skims the meat of the report. “Two cancerous masses, pharynx, larynx, chemotherapy…you considering a career in medicine?” “Look at the patient name, at the top.” Phillips’ eyes fly to the top of the paper, seeing a name he doesn’t recognize. He realizes that’s the doctor’s name and spots the name below it. His heart skips a beat. He has to squeeze the paper tightly between his fingers to hold onto it. “Is this legitimate?” Phillips asks. “How reliable is your source?” “He’s never given me anything wrong.” “Oh, Jesus Christ…the weight loss, the hair loss.” Javad nods. Like Phillips, he never thought much of it, and now he can only wonder why. Phillips keeps inspecting the report, as if he might find some salvation in it. He brings his hand to his face, suddenly needing to wipe away moisture from his eyes. “He just turned 60 a few months ago,” Phillips says. Javad doesn’t respond. After composing himself, Phillips realizes Javad is still standing there, awkwardly. “Why hand this off? Why to me, especially?” “Publishing it is an ethical gray area, and me, right now…” “You don’t have that kind of flexibility.” Javad nods, staring with as much disdain as he can. Phillips is the reason he lacks that flexibility, and he better know it. “What do you want me to do with this?” Phillips asks. Javad shrugs and backs away. “Whatever you want. Burn it, for all I care.” Javad disappears into the hallway, and Phillips crumples up the paper, wanting to throw it into the nearest trash bin, but he pockets it instead. He waits a moment, focusing on slowing his breathing, before taking the elevator upstairs to his office, planning to keep the door closed awhile. Fans pack Farmers Field on a beautiful, sunny afternoon. The temperature peaks at 72 degrees with a slight breeze, a perfect day for football. After pre-game warmups, the Knights get a final count: twenty-seven players are 100%, sixteen feel slightly weak or lightheaded, and nine are vomiting on an irregular basis. Coaches watch the game’s opening snaps carefully, listening to feedback from coaches in the booth to see which players are sluggish. Harden hears plenty from upstairs confirming what he sees: weakness up the middle. Mann is getting pushed backwards on every snap, leaving a sick Randall and healthy-but-old Martin to hold things together. Spencer Ware, filling in for an injured Jamaal Charles, runs through gaping holes and moves the chains in embarrassing fashion. The Chiefs take their two opening drives into the red zone, where the Knights tighten up and force field goals. Offensively, things aren’t any better. In the trenches, Penner is the lone bright spot among an abyss of poor blocking. This cripples every idea McKenzie has for the offense, and they only look competent after Grantzinger forces a fumble, setting them up on the outside of field goal range. Six plays and ten yards later, McCabe makes a forty-eight yarder. The game’s opening quarter ends with the Chiefs on top, 6-3, making it clear the Knights will have to fight their sickness to get a win, a proposition that makes fans uncomfortable. Normally, a 5-1 record would be just fine, but the Knights do not want to start 0-1 in the AFC West, especially with Denver looking every bit like the Super Bowl champions they are. McKenzie involves Maverick in sideline discussions, realizing the game plan needs a radical transformation. “So much for no pass rush,” Maverick says, quiet enough so none of the linemen can hear him. McKenzie nods. The Knights were counting on a clean pocket for Maverick, so the playbook includes plenty of deep throws and slow-developing routes. All of them can probably be scrapped. “Let’s try some rollouts, then,” McKenzie says. “That’ll get us going, at least. We can draw up some reverses at half.” The Knights won’t wait for the offensive line to improve. They need to find ways to get Wilkes and Harper involved, priorities that would be much easier with a healthy roster. Harden, on the other hand, doubles down on his strategy of attacking up the middle. Faced with few healthy players, he simply blitzes more people. This forces Alex Smith out of the pocket on multiple plays, and the secondary plays breakdown-free. McKenzie’s adjustments get the Knights a few more first downs, but they still fail to cross midfield, prompting light boos from the crowd. The Chiefs, meanwhile, add a field goal to their lead. With the defense on the field, Maverick sits on the bench and sips water, slowly, making sure he keeps it down. “Hey!” Wilkes says nearby. Maverick doesn’t bother looking at him. “I’m open every play, man! Against Peters! You know how hard that is?” “I’m not a hundred percent, D-Jam.” “Then let Brian play.” “You serious?” Wilkes gesticulates in every direction, releasing as much stress as possible as he continues to bitch at anyone who will listen, up and down the sideline and into the locker room as the half ends with the Chiefs leading, 9-3. The second half starts with music blaring and the home crowd into it, but half the Knights players just want things to end. After the Chiefs take their first drive sixty yards in nine plays, resulting in a field goal and a 12-3 lead, fans boo louder, and players realize they’ll need to push the envelope to escape this game with a win. Grodd runs as fast as he can on a swing block, crushing a helpless defender to spring Jameson to a big run. A few minutes later, he’s listening to the offensive line coach when a few projectiles of vomit escape his mouth, causing his fellow linemen to scatter. Randall surges through the line and levels Alex Smith, bringing the crowd to its feet. He jogs off the field and throws up in the first bucket he sees. Schwinn tracks a pass headed Travis Kelce’s way, watches it soar over his head, and strikes the leaping tight end, throwing him sideways in the air. Schwinn spends the next few minutes laid out on a trainer’s table, on the verge of passing out, mumbling a language no one understands. Maverick navigates a collapsing pocket, eyes downfield, barely escaping toward the flat, where he throws a dart downfield to Wilkes a split-second before taking a huge hit. Grateful he’s near the sideline, he beelines for a bucket of his own. He gets back on the field before the next play, but after the ensuing field goal, he returns to the bench so pale, McKenzie has Brian Roosevelt warm up, a sight that makes fans feel nauseous. Field position tilts in favor of the Knights, and Maverick quells his stomach enough to fire downfield, springing Wilkes and Harper on double moves and breathing life into the offense. The Knights enter the red zone for the first time with the third quarter almost over. McKenzie pounds away with Jameson, but it doesn’t work. The Chiefs are still stacking the box and the Knights’ offensive line still isn’t getting enough push. Facing third and eight, Maverick drops back, rolls right, and sees everyone covered. Instinctively, he sweeps back to his left, surrounded by white jerseys. He jukes and slides through defenders as best he can, feeling dizzy, and reaches open field. He doesn’t think he’s past the line of scrimmage, so he looks downfield, seeing Wilkes double covered. He lobs up a throw and shields himself from a rushing linebacker. In the end zone, Wilkes plants his feet between two defenders and jumps for the ball. He outjumps one Chief, getting his hands on it as the other tries to wrangle it away. He lands in the end zone and wins the shoving battle, emerging with a touchdown. Maverick doesn’t celebrate, instead staggering toward the bench in search of a bucket. Healthy teammates pat him on the back aggressively, making the bucket search even more urgent. The Chiefs’ ensuing possession takes the game into the fourth quarter. Harden, as convinced as ever his aggressive strategy will work now that the offense has woken up, keeps the blitzes coming. After a three-yard run by Ware, Smith drops back under pressure and floats one over the middle right into Flash’s arms. Chiefs bring him down quickly, but the Knights set up shop on the edge of field goal range. After a Jameson run goes nowhere, Maverick throws for Watson on a screen, but the ball lands short. In the huddle, Maverick hears the play call and relays it, suddenly out of breath. “Mav, you okay?” Penner asks. “I’m fine. Let’s get this first down.” The huddle breaks, and they line up with four wide receivers. Maverick drops back, tracking Bishop on a slant route. He fires, and the pass sails off target, dangerously close to Eric Berry’s hands. The field goal unit comes on as Maverick sits down, hoping his energy comes back. McCabe lines up for the fifty-five yarder and boots it. It sails through the air, down the middle, and over the cross bar by a few feet. The stadium rocks as McCabe gets mobbed in celebration. McKenzie shakes his head. “I don’t get this kid,” McKenzie says to whoever’s listening. “Misses extra points all the time but nails fifty-yarders like they’re nothing.” Whatever the case, McCabe’s kick gives the Knights a 16-12 lead with 13:04 to go. Despite the quarantine, the vomiting, the lost practice time, and the continuing illness, the Knights are thirteen minutes from remaining one of the four unbeaten teams in football. Harden’s defense continues attacking, and the Chiefs inexplicably abandon the run, leading to a quick three and out. The Knights get it back, but Maverick is still on the verge of passing out, so McKenzie dials up a reverse to Watson and some sweeps for NesSmith. This gets one first down before the Chiefs tighten up, and the Knights punt it back. Alex Smith repeats the previous drive, throwing short, safe passes into tight coverage and going three and out. The Knights take over with 7:36 to play. They appear doomed to punt, but Maverick connects on a back-shoulder fade to Harper for a twenty-yard gain. McKenzie calls a fake reverse screen to NesSmith that gets ten more yards, and the Knights cross midfield with the clock ticking. Maverick fights off heat flashes with everything he has. They need a touchdown on this drive to seal the game. A field goal won’t cut it. A few more stuffed runs and short passes get the Knights into field goal range, with Maverick letting the play clock wind down. They soon face first and ten from the seventeen-yard-line, 2:58 to go. Jameson runs off-tackle left, breaking a few tackles for five yards. The Chiefs call timeout. 2:51. Maverick lines up in shotgun for a pass, audibles to a run, and hands off to Jameson. He runs through a hole but Penner can’t hold on to his defender, and Jameson goes down for a one-yard gain. The Chiefs call timeout again. 2:45. McKenzie calls a pass but instructs Maverick, “If nothing’s there, take the sack to keep the clock rolling. Don’t go out of bounds or throw it away.” Maverick drops back, looking for Wilkes—blanketed in double coverage. He looks right, but the pocket collapses. He steps up, escapes, sees green grass, and commits. He runs for the pylon, reaching full speed with defenders closing. He feels his legs shaking, every inch of his body ordering him to stop running. Inside the five, he lowers his shoulders, cradles the ball, dives… …and he’s lying in the end zone, without the ball, teammates on top of him. He can’t tell if the crowd is cheering or booing, but they’re loud. While two players help him walk back to the sideline, he asks, “What happened? Did I fumble?” “Nah man, you scored!” “Yeah, you dove across the goal line and did an Elway into the end zone. It was badass, man!” “Oh,” Maverick says. “That’s good.” He remembers diving across the goal line, losing the ball, and throwing up—but he’s not sure in which order. The trio walks past Harden and McKenzie, who both look shocked. “You know something,” Harden says. “I’ve never been able to say I saw a quarterback win a game on sheer guts before.” “Why’s that?” “Because his guts are all over the goddamn end zone.” McKenzie nods, preferring not to look. McCabe knocks the extra point through, and the Knights lead, 23-12. Home fans expect a two-minute drill from Kansas City to set up an interesting finish. Instead, Smith is sacked by Grantzinger, throws incomplete, and gets sacked by Grantzinger again, forcing a punt, essentially conceding the game. Plenty of fans head for the exits, eager to head for home or a nearby sports bar to watch game 2 of the Dodgers/Cubs NLCS, which starts in about ten minutes. The duties of handing off to Jameson and kneeling down are passed to Roosevelt as Maverick recovers on the bench. Only seconds pass before Wilkes takes a seat next to him. “Glad we’ll all be over this in the next couple days,” Wilkes says. “Gotta be at our best next week.” “What? Why?” Maverick asks. Wilkes’ look says it all. “Oh,” Maverick says, remembering. “Rose.” Wilkes nods, and Maverick thinks about the looming matchup with San Diego. Sick or healthy, puking or not, next Sunday won’t be easy.
  12. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part VI 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. “Fuck me.” 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!” “HEY!” 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?” “Huh?” “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.” “Free safety.” “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.” “Amen, brother.” 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.” “About what?” “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.
  13. | | | Knights of Andreas Part VI Chapter Sixty-Seven – Forgotten The streets of Los Angeles are damaged, but calm. The National Guard presence has departed. Police are not responding to active rescue scenes. All fires from the original earthquake are now extinguished, but fire stations remain on standby, waiting for more aftershocks. Those able to return to work Monday morning take alternate routes to get there, all major highways under construction. But Los Angeles is far from recovered, made clear by a rising death toll. Sometime between early morning and noon, the damage reaches a tragic milestone: there are now over 1,000 reported dead. The 2016 Pasadena earthquake (earthquakes get forgettable names, unlike hurricanes) is America’s most damaging natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina and the most damaging earthquake in over one hundred years. Los Angeles is on the minds of people all over the country. Hashtags trending on Twitter include #PrayForLA and #NeverForgotten, paying tribute to lives lost in the earthquake. Donations pour in through multiple charities, aiding what is forecasted to be over $100 billion in damage. The recovery effort receives a much-needed morale boost thanks to members of the Los Angeles Knights lending a hand. Scattered throughout the city, players help out in various ways, though their contracts prevent them from any rigorous physical activity. It’s good PR, but more importantly, their presence appears to make a positive difference with the citizens who see them. And it is a welcome reminder that football returns to Farmers Field this Sunday. One group of players, led by Luck and his Good Luck Foundation, helps a group of city workers transport bottled water to homes who need it. Luck enjoys the work, as always, but somehow draws the unfortunate task of driving Brock around between houses. “This is bullshit, man,” Brock says as they drive from one house to the next. “What?” Luck asks. He usually avoids Brock, but in this case he’s willing to take him to task. “Lending a hand to people who need some help is bullshit? You really are a piece of work, Sean.” “No, not that, douche bag. I mean this whole thing about us being an inspiration to the city. This season is now tied to this fucking earthquake whether we like it or not. This is all we’re gonna hear about until the end of the season. It’s Katrina all over again.” “Yeah, like the city being behind us is a bad thing.” “Whatever, man.” Harden works his defense hard, harder than usual, saying, “Pick it up, men! This is your penance for Sunday’s meltdown, assholes.” After suicides, cone drills, and sprints, he groups everyone together for basic positional drills. These should be a piece of cake, so Harden scrutinizes every detail, lashing out for the slightest fault in technique. Though he’s not officially linebackers coach anymore, Harden focuses most of his attention there. Only a few minutes pass before he’s bothered. NFL linebackers are, theoretically, responsible for three things: rushing the passer, stopping the run, and covering receivers. Some defensive coaches structure their defense so their linebackers only have do two, but to play for Merle Harden, you need to do all three. Three of his starting four meet that requirement. Brock goes through the cycle of workouts, focusing his energy in pass rush, as always. He won’t know until tomorrow, but he’s hoping this week’s playbook includes some 4-3, where he feels he shines. “BROCK!” Harden yells. “Stop slacking in coverage. You’re not getting the scout team on Sunday, you’re getting Devonta Freeman. And if they send him your way with that effort, we’re all fucked.” Brock nods and sets for another run-through. Harden chastising Brock for subpar coverage is nothing new, but at least Brock has finally learned not to fight it. Hours pass, and the fateful horn sounds. Players surround Coach Harden at midfield for the day’s final message and run to the locker room. Harden follows, eager to escape the heat. The air conditioning brings relief, but he feels the nausea that has bothered him all day returning. He walks as normally as he can past the locker room, high-fiving a few players and coaches along the way, toward the bathroom, where he slams open the door on the nearest stall and falls over the toilet, closing his eyes as the vomit hits the water. “Fucking chemo,” he says aloud once it’s over. He stays on the floor a minute, a few minutes, letting his energy come back. Meanwhile, Brock moves from locker to locker in another round of money borrowing, getting no positive responses. “Sorry man, I’m a little tight after the quake,” Grodd says. “Damage to my yard is gonna cost me half my salary as it is,” Randall says. “I’m sorry, Sean, I’m having to put a lot of my signing bonus into my house,” Jameson says. It’s cool. Everyone should be putting themselves first in light of the situation. Brock knows that. He feels confident when he gets to the hundred-million-dollar locker. “No can do, Sean,” Maverick says. Brock waits for an explanation. When Maverick fails to provide one, Brock says, “Dude, your contract could fix the whole city.” “No, it couldn’t, but it doesn’t matter. Can’t help you, Sean.” “C’mon, Mav. You’re one of my best friends on this team. I know we haven’t partied in a while, but—” Maverick waves his hand in the air. “Sean, you’re right, we’re friends, and I want to help, but I can’t. And that’s it.” He still hasn’t heard a good reason, but Brock lets it go and walks away. These guys are supposed to be his brothers, aren’t they? A few minutes after Brock has left, Maverick makes his way across the room towards Grantzinger’s locker. “Hey,” Maverick says, “you been lending Sean any dough lately?” “What?” Grantzinger says. “He and I are Bert and Ernie now?” “Don’t bust my balls, Zack, just answer the fucking question.” “Outside of buying a drink here and there, no, not recently. Not ever, really.” Maverick moves on to other teammates, and Brock’s finances become the primary topic of discussion. Maverick suspects he’s wasting his time and is about to leave when Wilkes says, “Y’all talking ‘bout Brock? He owes me a couple hundred.” “D-Jam, aren’t you listening?” Randall says. “Everyone else is talking thousands. A few hundred is nothing special.” “Nah, I mean a couple hundred thousand.” Everyone stares in shock at Wilkes, who looks surprisingly cavalier about this. Martin: “How much, exactly? Just so we can get this straight.” Wilkes: “Man, how should I know? I’m no good with math.” Schwinn: “Yeah, we all know reading’s more in your wheelhouse.” Randall: “Cut that shit out, Bobby. D-Jam, you lend anybody else cash like that?” Wilkes: “Just my Uncle Lincoln, but…Yeah, I’m not gonna go there.” Bishop: “I’ve loaned Sean a lot too.” Luck: “You, Logan? Even after that shit between you guys last year?” Randall: “Yeah, what was that, anyway?” Bishop: “Settled. That’s what it is.” Martin: “Well, Brock’s debts certainly aren’t settled.” “Hang on,” Maverick says, holding up his hands for control of the conversation. “So we’ve all lent Sean some cash now and then. Has he ever paid anybody back?” Nobody breaks a long, uncomfortable silence. “Okay,” Bishop says. Everyone looks up. “I think it’s time we take a hard line. None of us are going to help him by ballooning his loans.” Most players nod in agreement at what sounds like a good idea. Grantzinger: “You know, I don’t like that we’re just throwing one of our teammates under the bus.” Randall: “We’re not fucking him over. We’re trying to help him.” Luck: “I figured you’d be first to jump on this, Zack. And it’s not like he doesn’t deserve it.” Grantzinger shrugs. “He’s a dick, no doubt. But he wears the same jersey you all do. We’ve all thrown our share of bullshit around here. A teammate is a teammate.” Nobody responds as Grantzinger packs up the last of his things and walks out of the locker room. The 2009 scouting combine is in full swing. Multiple positions have already completed their on-field drills, so teams are finalizing scouting reports and player grades. Today’s highlight is the forty-yard dash for wide receivers, but it’s also a key date for defensive linemen, who will interview with various teams. They will be tested primarily on football IQ, but some face scrutiny for their character. One of the more intriguing names from this group is Sean Brock, defensive end from Temple. His physical profile is solid: 6’4”, 245lbs, 4.75 forty-yard dash. He had a junior year that could have put him in the first round, flashing an impressive combination of pass rush and run stopping ability. He was easily the best player on a bad team. Senior year, he was the target of many double-teams. His production went down, and so did his motor. All in all, Brock is still a solid football prospect. He is a good, not great, pass rusher. His run defense is way above the norm for college players. He only ended up in coverage a few plays, and he was dreadful, so he seems to fit best in the NFL as a 4-3 DE. Off the field, there’s a mountain of issues. Between two assault cases where Brock was a witness, endless rumors of marijuana use, and a DUI just a few months ago, Brock has a lot to answer for. Teams will rely heavily on these interviews to determine his value. Brock gets in a room with these guys, loving the opportunity he gets at the white board, talking about stunts and blitzes and playing against different blocking schemes. He nails every football question thrown at him. Then, unfortunately, they waste his time with the bullshit questions. Why did you go from 12 sacks junior year to only 4 this year? “After I broke out junior year, teams started double-teaming me. It was like, every play I’m commanding all this attention. And none of the other guys on the D-line stepped up.” What should we make of all the off-the-field issues on your resume? “Hey, make it what you want. When you turn on the tape, you’ll see the kind of player I am.” When we get your results back in a few weeks, will you test positive for marijuana? “Only if there’s something wrong with the test.” In the following weeks and months, when teams review their draft boards for character, Brock draws a lot of attention, none of it positive. Some teams take him off their board entirely, while most move him from the third or fourth to the seventh round, where he will eventually be taken by the soon-to-relocate Oakland Raiders. Players dress in Farmers Field locker rooms for the first time this year, trying to drown out plenty of background noise. The earthquake has left players distracted throughout the week, and Coach Harden didn’t seem to notice—unlike him, but players won’t object to escaping punishment. Maverick and Trisha haven’t spent any quality time together with the mansion in repair. Flash needs to get his place fixed so he doesn’t lose a fortune when he sells it later this year. Luck and Bishop have both delayed putting together the baby’s room because of repairs elsewhere in the house. The pre-game hype builds to a crescendo as a swell of energy flies around the stadium. Every fan stands, claps, and cheers as the Knights run out onto the field. In the southwest corner, upper level, Cooper and Sampson stand among the sea of purple, contributing their share of vocal chords. Cooper enjoys every bit of this homecoming, remembering all the unique details of Farmers Field football, details he had forgotten in three years as a Knight’s End regular. Players take their place on the sideline under a warm sun, feeling a thin layer of sweat between their pads and their skin as a thunderous, elongated applause carries into the coin toss. The Falcons get the opening possession and run the ball. Linemen crunch their pads together at the line of scrimmage as clumps of grass get kicked up around them. Brock works on left tackle Jake Matthews, getting stymied on the pass rush but beating him against the run. On third and six, Brock tries a spin move but falls to the grass. He gets up to see Mohamed Sanu catch a deep ball, setting the Falcons up for first and goal. Two plays later, Devonta Freeman runs into the end zone. Harden waits for his defense to get seated, first targeting Stone, who gave up that long catch to Sanu. “Julian, what the hell was that?” “Got me twisted around, coach. I was on an island.” “You get paid to live on islands. Man up. Flash is wrapped up with Julio and he ain’t leaving. The rest of you, run D doesn’t suck too bad, so keep that up.” The defense retakes the field after the offense ties the game, 7-7. Atlanta tries to run the ball again, stuffed each time. Coach Harden’s defenses have always prioritized strength up the middle, and the Knights have that today. They haven’t seemed to lost anything with Mann replacing Anthrax at nose, and with Randall and Martin plus Schwinn behind him, the Falcons get no traction on the ground, going three and out in a hurry. The Knights rest and repeat on defense, facing minimal bitching from Harden and forcing Atlanta into a pass-first attack. Leaning on Matt Ryan, they manage a few positive plays but can’t string first downs together. Stone steps up against Sanu, and Julio Jones gets blanketed by a double-team. This double occasionally leaves Schwinn in coverage against tight ends and slot receivers—Harden’s only concern—but he holds his own. Defenders watch from the sideline as the offense leads a long, methodical drive down the field, eventually scoring a touchdown on an end zone fade to Wilkes. Well rested and confident, the Knights defense retakes the field up 14-7 with 3:26 left in the half. The Falcons get a first down with some screens and quick passes. Harden doesn’t flinch; they won’t throw screens all the way to the goal line. The Knights line up for a weak-side blitz. Randall flips the play at the last second, leaving Brock in coverage. He drops back and sees Freeman coming his way at full speed. He turns his body, running as fast as he can. Freeman looks up for a pass, so Brock does too, but he sees it half a second late. He swats at Freeman’s arm, falling to the grass as the running back sprints sixty yards toward the end zone. “I’ve been trying to teach you coverage for seven years now,” Harden tells Brock on the sideline, “and you haven’t learned a goddamn thing.” Brock takes the abuse silently, replaying the touchdown in his head. All he had to do was grab Freeman’s ankles, and it would have been a fifteen-yard catch instead of a touchdown. The Knights get a few first downs on offense but can only reach field goal range. Players and coaches watch pessimistically as McCabe lines up for a fifty-four-yard attempt. He kicks it deep and down the middle, nailing it as the clock hits zero. During halftime, McKenzie and his staff make adjustments across the board. The run game has been stable but average; the pass game has been inconsistent. They need to do better. On the offense’s first second-half possession, Wilkes lines up wide left, opposite from his normal side. Working a new corner, he gets open more frequently, and Maverick finds him for a couple completions. A few plays later, the drive stalls at midfield, but players feel they’re making progress. Next drive, Wilkes racks up a few more catches from the left side, and McKenzie makes a switch. Bishop, who has been running short routes into the flat, and Watson, who has been trying to find holes over the middle, swap roles. Bishop becomes Maverick’s favorite target, making catches in traffic that put the Knights in the red zone. Jameson gets a few carries, pounding through stacked boxes, eventually bringing up first and goal, where Maverick hits Bishop in the corner of the end zone. The defense stays on lockdown, and the Knights get the ball back with good field position. Maverick looks for Watson on a sideline route, and fans recoil in horror as the pass sails right into coverage, and the Falcons take over. The Knights defense holds, though, forcing a forty-six-yard field goal attempt, which Matt Bryant nails, cutting the lead to 24-17. Players switch sides of the field for the fourth quarter. The Knights have been the better team today, but a seven-point lead is far from secure, especially after last week. Maverick retakes the field with his eyes on the end zone. After a few short runs and a first down, McKenzie calls a deep throw. Wilkes lines up from the right slot, causing confusion on defense. Wilkes runs a corner route, looks back, then cuts the other way, toward the middle of the field. Maverick rolls right with plenty of space and time, sees Watson wide open, steps up, and bombs it for Wilkes. Two defenders run behind him, but the pass hits Wilkes in stride. He cuts back toward the end zone, and nobody catches him. Farmers Field rocks, the game apparently in hand. When the Falcons line up on offense, down 31-17, the Knights line up in 4-3. With Ryan dropping back to pass every play, Luck and Brock pin their ears back and get after him, putting the quarterback under constant duress. Ryan somehow manages a first down but soon faces fourth and one. The Falcons go for it. Against a bunch formation, the Knights stay in 4-3 but crowd the line of scrimmage, nine men in the box. Ryan fakes a handoff to Freeman, drops back, and gets blindsided by Luck. The ball pops loose into a pile, but it doesn’t matter. The turnover on downs seals the Knights’ victory. Fans around the stadium cheer and high-five each other. Sampson and Cooper admire the view and enjoy the game’s final minutes as they analyze the Knights’ schedule, trying to pick another game to see. The mood around the MedComm Center is different every Tuesday, inevitably a reflection of the previous Sunday. This particular Tuesday brings joy, from Sunday’s win, but also relief. The disappointment from the way last season ended, the haunting feeling that stuck with players for months, is now gone—temporarily, at least. The Knights are off to a 2-0 start and go to Tennessee this week to play one of the league’s weaker teams (on paper). Players ride their positive energy onto the practice field, which evolves into less of a practice and more of a celebration. Players prone to goofing off—Maverick, Wilkes, and Schwinn especially—lead the charge and everyone else follows suit. For maybe the first time since 2014, Knights players have fun on the practice field, and Coach Harden doesn’t stop them. Maverick and Wilkes make some space on the field and run one of their favorite offseason drills: Maverick throwing deliberately off-target throws for Wilkes to catch acrobatically. This soon evolves into simple pitch and catch practice, with one exception: Wilkes has to make all his catches one-handed. He snatches each one out of the air easily. Too easily, Maverick decides, so he starts throwing them above Wilkes’ head. At first, Wilkes just sticks up one of his arms and catches the ball. As the passes get higher, he jumps for them, hauling in every throw. “Yeah!” He grabs another one. “Oh yeah! Fuck you, Odell!” He leaps as high as he can, catching another with his fingertips. “Get some! GET SOME! AHHHHHHHHH!” Maverick walks toward the edge of the field for a break, where Phillips has been watching the two. Phillips is ready to comment, but Maverick talks first. “How much longer you crutching around?” “Another two months, probably. Maybe in six weeks I’ll go from doubtful to questionable.” Maverick chuckles in between sips of water. That’s a bad joke, and Phillips appreciates him laughing at it. “Hell of a show you two are putting on.” “He’s doing all the work.” They both watch Wilkes, running randomly all over the practice field, waving his arms like a lunatic. Any other player, and they’d consider psychiatric care. “Thank God you signed this guy.” “Yeah, I guess so,” Phillips says, remembering the inauspicious nature of the signing. Ten weeks after being rung up on bullshit gun charges, Da’Jamiroquai Jefferspin-Wilkes walks free, released from a penitentiary in upstate Washington. He has done his time like a man, and now he’s ready to play football again. Though he’s forbidden from participating in any team activities whatsoever, he follows the Seahawks through December. Three consecutive losses appear to doom them, but they beat the Rams in week 17, winning the NFC West at 7-9. Wilkes excitedly watches the final hours of the game—and of his suspension—counting the hours until he can practice with the team again. He’s dying to get on that field, to play a playoff game in front of the wild Seattle crowd. Mere hours later, the Seahawks release Jefferspin-Wilkes, a bold, no-nonsense decision that takes a headline backseat to head-coach firings and playoff storylines. Wilkes is devastated. He even drives to team headquarters, to either seek an explanation or see if there is some mistake, but he is turned away. So begins his time as a free agent. After days of isolation in his Seattle apartment, he feels hope of getting picked up by a playoff team. The possibility of playoff football keeps him going, and he stays in regular contact with Drew Rosenhaus, his agent. Teams are apparently interested, and they should be—Wilkes’ stats through eight games put him on pace for Offensive Player of the Year, but for whatever reason, it’s not happening. So, days pass. Weeks pass. The playoffs come and go. Wilkes stays isolated, fighting off depression with thoughts of free agency. But the early weeks come and go with nothing more than buzz. He remains a man without a contract, without a home. Then Rosenhaus gets in touch, finally with an offer: Los Angeles. Wilkes doesn’t know much about the Knights, as they are now called, so he does some Googling. They went 5-11 last year. After starting 3-5, Jason Campbell was benched in favor of their first-round quarterback, Jonathan Maverick, who went 2-6. From what Wilkes reads, Maverick is an immature, hotshot quarterback who will probably be a bust, definitely not the guy Wilkes wants throwing him the ball. Still, there’s potential. The Knights have absolutely nothing at receiver. They could draft somebody, sure, but Wilkes would be their number-one guy right away. That could be 150 targets. And Wilkes knows from his two years at USC (which he would rather not relive in detail) how awesome Los Angeles is. The Knights gather around Coach Harden in the visitors’ locker room, minutes from kickoff. “As you all saw in warm-ups, there’s a lot of purple in that crowd,” Harden says. “So let’s remember why. Let’s remember we’re fighting for more than just wins right now.” Brock lets out a groan of disgust, probably loud enough for Harden to hear, but he doesn’t care. He counts the seconds through the tunnel until kickoff, when the Knights get the ball first. Maverick leads a pass-happy attack down the field, looking for Wilkes more than once and checking it down. Wilkes runs his routes as aggressively as he can, but the Titans are all over him. For now, he watches as his offense moves the chains with ease, and Jameson takes an eight-yard carry into the end zone. “Y’all are welcome,” Wilkes tells everyone on the sideline. “Be patient, D-Jam,” McKenzie says. “We’ll spring you eventually.” “Heard that before!” Harden watches carefully as his defense lines up. Two games of film isn’t enough to determine if the Titans offense is underachieving or just ineffective. The priority, as was stressed in practice this week, is containing Marcus Mariota’s running abilities. Mariota drops back behind surprisingly clean pockets, able to find receivers for short gains. Harden calls more blitzes but struggles to generate pressure against Tennessee’s apparently stout offensive line. Across midfield, Mariota drops back and scans the field. Luck breaks free, forcing Mariota left. Brock separates from his man and lines up Mariota, but the quarterback jukes him easily, running into open field with the crowd cheering. Mariota goes out of bounds twenty yards later, and the Titans are in field goal range. DeMarco Murray takes a few carries up the middle, finding no running room. On third and ten, Mariota finally falls under pressure and hurries a throw that lands incomplete. Ryan Succop makes a forty-five-yard kick, and the Titans are on the board. McKenzie continues searching for ways to get Wilkes loose, but in the meantime, the Knights get first downs. While Adams struggles to contain Brian Orakpo, Grodd shuts down Jurrell Casey, a player who has beaten him before, and Maverick only has to scramble around occasionally, which is fine by him. Either in the pocket or on the run he finds open receivers, ultimately hitting Harper on a seam route for a fifteen-yard touchdown. The first quarter ends with the Knights in front, 14-3. The Titans strike back. Despite no run game to support him, Mariota continues making plays with his legs. Randall becomes liberal with his adjustments and audibles, feeding off the energy of a great game. His struggle covering tight ends was a dark spot for him last year, but today, he’s shutting Delanie Walker down. Brock, meanwhile, grows more frustrated with every play. Taylor Lewan is stifling him on pass rush, and he’s missing a tackle every drive, it seems. His frustration leads him to rip Lewan’s facemask off on a blitz, an obvious penalty the refs somehow miss. A few plays later, Mariota throws a dart toward the end zone that Tajae Sharpe catches in stride. 14-10, Knights. McKenzie draws up some screens and quick passes to get Wilkes involved. But his presence on the stat sheet doesn’t help the Knights, who punt for the first time today. It looks like the Titans will soon punt back, but a miscommunication in the secondary lets Rishard Matthews get wide open, and Mariota doesn’t miss him. The stadium booms with the Titans ahead, 17-14. Maverick gets the hurry-up offense going in the half’s final minutes, but the drive stalls, and McCabe misses a forty-two-yarder as time expires. Both teams head into the locker room. The Titans go three and out to start the third quarter, and McKenzie has his plan ready. Transitioning to a run-first attack, the Knights lean on Jameson to go down the field. This tightens the defense up slightly, but not enough to spring Wilkes free. Maverick does, however, find Harper and Watson downfield, capping the drive with a perfectly timed screen to NesSmith, who runs into the end zone without being touched. McCabe’s extra point bangs off the left goal post, and the Knights lead, 20-17. Harden makes a mental note to work out a free agent kicker next week. The Titans take over and try to run the ball, still to no avail. Their rushing duo of Murray and Derrick Henry stands no chance. With Mann at nose, the Randall/Martin duo behind him, and Schwinn in the second level, the Knights’ run defense is impenetrable. Taking note of this, Ripka makes some adjustments in the secondary, prepping his players for what should be a pass-happy offense the rest of the game. The Knights get the ball back, relaxed despite only being up three. Jameson carries the offense again, moving the chains as Wilkes grows restless. Corners are jumping every sideline route, and safeties are doubling him on anything over the middle. He’s been open a few times downfield, but Maverick hasn’t tried it. How much longer is he supposed to put up with this? Across midfield, Maverick fakes a handoff to Jameson and looks deep. Watson sprints as fast as he can, and the safety, surprisingly, is slow picking him up. He’s open, and he looks up to see the pass coming his way. Oh no. He tracks the ball, staggering his feet to get in position. He turns his body, catches the pass, and falls backwards out of bounds. Officials signal a completion as McKenzie curses in frustration. That’s a forty-yard pass, but Watson should have scored easily. No one says anything to Watson as the Knights line up for first and goal. Maverick rolls out and hits Bishop, open in the corner of the end zone. 27-17, Knights. With some smart ideas from Ripka, Harden crafts his game plan for the game’s final act, ripe with complex blitzes. Mariota still leads a one-man show, moving the chains with his legs and short throws. The Titans build some momentum, but the drive takes a lot of time, carrying over into the fourth quarter. The Titans reach field goal range, facing third and three. Harden calls a weak-side blitz, and Brock eagerly lines up. He’s been wearing Lewan down this quarter, and he’s ready for a sack. Mariota lines up in shotgun and sends Walker out in motion. Randall responds by flipping the play as the ball is snapped. Grantzinger barely registers that he has to blitz, not cover, and jumps late. Jack Conklin stuffs him on the edge, so he cuts back toward the middle and accelerates, diving for an escaping Mariota and tripping him up. Luck brings him down for the sack, and the home fans groan. Succop re-energizes the stadium some by nailing the fifty-yard field goal, but spirits are still high on the Knights sideline, up 27-20 with 13:43 to go. Randall grabs a drink of water, joined quickly by Grantzinger. “That’s three times you’ve flipped a weak-side blitz to my side,” Grantzinger says. “You got a problem getting sacks?” Grantzinger doesn’t respond, instead ushered to the bench by the coaches. The linebackers sit together, with Grantzinger and Randall both glancing at Brock, and overhear Ripka complimenting the secondary for good coverage. As the offense readies for their next drive, McKenzie picks his play. He doesn’t say anything, but this is the one, he knows it. After a few runs and a quick pass get a first down, McKenzie calls a fake receiver screen to Watson, who lines up to Maverick’s right. After a hard count, Watson motions left, lining up next to Wilkes and Harper. Maverick takes the snap, fakes a quick handoff, and looks left, pump faking toward the developing screen. Multiple defenders converge toward Watson as Wilkes bolts through them, behind the defense at last. Ready to run off the field if he doesn’t get this one, Wilkes sees Maverick loft a deep ball in the air. Underthrown, you asshole. Wilkes slows down with a corner closing. In one fluid motion, he catches the pass and stiff-arms the corner to the ground. He surges ahead, the Knights sideline going crazy next to him, and throws the ball into the crowd after crossing the goal line. The visitors’ sideline becomes comfortable now, entering celebration mode despite 11:29 left on the clock. The Titans go no-huddle, down fourteen points, and Harden keeps up the blitzes. First and ten from the Titans’ forty. Schwinn creeps toward the line as Mariota hurries the snap. Schwinn takes off, surging through an opening and hitting Mariota as he throws for the sideline. Grantzinger gets in front of the pass and heads for the end zone, no one near him as he scores. The home fans either boo or head for the exits. Knights 41, Titans 20. Game over. The Titans try the no-huddle again, this time leading to forth and six, and the Titans punt, rightfully conceding victory. The Knights defense enjoys the rest and celebration on the sideline, especially with the groups of fans sitting in the lower level. Players wave at them as more home fans leave, making purple more prominent around the stadium. “Los Angeles!” Luck screams toward them. “This one’s for you!” “Give it a fucking rest,” Brock says. “You know what? That’s enough of your bullshit, Sean.” Luck’s rare aggression gets the attention of a few teammates and coaches, who inch toward the two. “You’re the one spewing bullshit, you idiot,” Brock says. “And you know what? Everyone’s thinking it. I’m the only one who’s got the balls to say it.” “What’s going on here?” Harden asks, getting between the two. Brock motions toward the fans, and Harden knows what he means. “You don’t think this is helping back home?” “Coach, this is bullshit. It’s a football game, and that’s all it is.” “Oh yeah? Well, in terms of football you aren’t playing so hot, so maybe you should look outside the game.” “You know, coach, I don’t—” “Yeah, yeah, we know,” Harden says, interrupting as more people on the Knights sideline take notice. “You don’t give a shit. Let me put it this way. Let’s say out of that thousand is someone you care about. Your girlfriend, your wife, your mother, father, son, daughter. Dead because of a fucking earthquake. Want to tell me you wouldn’t give a shit about that?” “I don’t have a wife or kids, coach,” Brock says, bearing that smug smile of his. Harden decides he’s had enough now. “You know something? Maybe there’s a good reason for that. In fact, let me give you a new friend. See this?” Harden points to something behind Brock, who turns around. “That’s the bench.” Brock is about to respond when Harden shoves him violently, and his ass hits the seat. “Get acquainted.” Brock doesn’t get up, and players don’t linger. Normalcy resumes on the sideline as the rest of the game winds down without further excitement. Schneider strolls into the MedComm Center, coffee in hand, and settles into his office. He returns a few phone calls before summoning Phillips for their meeting. “Any idea what Merle wants?” Schneider asks as Phillips takes a seat. “No clue.” Schneider reviews yesterday’s games to pass time. He’s been in good spirits lately, and the team’s record certainly helps. The impending conversation with Phillips lingers, but it can wait a few more days, at least. Finally, Harden arrives, approaching the desk confidently, standing far enough away to maintain eye contact with Phillips and Schneider. “Good morning, coach,” Schneider says. “You’re looking good. Still keeping the weight off, I see.” “Yep. Bowser and I go walking every night,” Harden says, lying. “Running, some nights, but long walks are enough.” “Glad to hear it. So, what’s on your mind?” “I have a request. I suppose this is directed mostly at Chance, but I wanted you both to hear it from the horse’s mouth.” “So be it,” Phillips says. “What’s up?” Harden clears his throat. “I want you to trade or cut Sean Brock.”
  14. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part VI Based on Characters Created by: badgers Bangy Barracuda Bay BigBen07 BradyFan81 BwareDware94 CampinWithGoatSampson Chernobyl426 DonovanMcnabb for H.O.F eightnine FartWaffles Favre4Ever GA_Eagle JetsFan4Life Maverick OAK RazorStar Sarge seanbrock SteVo Thanatos Turry theMileHighGuy Vin Zack_of_Steel Chapter Sixty-Six – Fault Line A shuffling noise in the dark wakes Merle up. He reaches out and feels Melinda next to him. He’s been asleep awhile, he thinks, but it’s still dark—a few hours until practice, at least. He recognizes the noise as Bowser, trotting through the second floor. Bowser typically moves around the house through the night, sleeping in different rooms for hours at a time. Merle still can’t see through the dark, but he hears the bedroom door creak, then feels the thud of a leaping Bowser landing on the bed. Melinda rolls over, apparently awake, extending her hand for Bowser to lick. “Is Trish home?” Merle asks. “No, she spent the night at Jon’s.” Merle grunts as Bowser crawls forward, laying his head on Merle’s stomach, whimpering. “What’s the matter, boy?” This is strange. Bowser didn’t quite grow into the tough dog Merle hoped, but it’s not like him to whine in the middle of the night like this. Merle doesn’t understand. Then he feels it. The living room TV is still on when Chance wakes up, leaning forward on the recliner and rubbing his eyes. NFL Network is airing a rerun of last night’s game. He fell asleep before the fourth quarter, but through blurry eyes he spots the ticker at the bottom of the screen: Broncos 21, Panthers 20. The defending Super Bowl champions are 1-0, bad news for the Knights. Chance gets up, planning to sleep a few hours in bed. He loses his footing, stumbling forward a few steps. Did he stand up too fast? He balances himself, taking the next few steps carefully. Then he feels the ground shaking, and he’s wide awake. “MELISSA!” he screams as he reaches the bottom of the staircase, the entire house rumbling. “EARTHQUAKE!” He hears screams from the upstairs bedrooms as he treks up the stairs, swaying between the railing and the wall with framed pictures falling at his feet. After the top step, he cuts left toward his bedroom. Melissa holds Kimmy in her arms, both okay. Chance spins around towards the boy’s bedrooms. “Jack! Max!” A violent jolt throws him off balance near the top of the staircase. His arm grabs for the railing but misses, and he tumbles down the stairs. He feels his right leg buckle, falling forward, and blacks out. Mav and Trisha open their eyes within seconds of each other. Neither is a California native, but the unnatural shaking around them is unmistakable. They both sit upright on the bed, spinning their heads around in the darkness. To Mav’s left, he sees the large bookcase nailed to the wall, books sliding off and falling onto the bed. “Look out!” He grabs Trisha and pushes her off the bed. They land on the rug as a few books strike Mav’s back. Apparently safe, they stay still, holding each other, eyes closed. They hear a series of bangs, crashes, and thumps from around the house, each more terrifying than the next. And then it’s over. They come to their feet cautiously, flinching every time something else smashes against the floor somewhere in the mansion, but the ground below them is stable. “Are you hurt?” Mav asks, rubbing a spot on the back of his head where a book landed. “No, I’m okay,” Trisha says. “You?” “Fine.” He looks around, heart pounding, still not able to see much. “That was a big one, wasn’t it?” “I should call my parents.” She grabs her phone off the end table and calls her dad’s number. As she waits for an answer, Mav looks for his slippers, knowing there could be shattered glass all over the floor. “Straight to voicemail,” Trisha says. “That’s not good. That means his phone’s off. His phone is never off.” “I’m sure he’s fine. The whole city probably lost cell service. I’m surprised you were able to get a call out.” “What if he’s not? What if—” “Listen, we’ll get situated here, and then we’ll drive to their house. Okay? Stay here for now. Let me make sure the rest of the house is safe.” The final hours of darkness across Los Angeles are filled with the sounds of police sirens, car horns, and news helicopters. Eastern Americans wake up to horrifying news shrouded with uncertainty. The country has been waiting for “the big one” to strike California for years; is this it? Geologists pinpoint the earthquake’s epicenter and magnitude (western Pasadena, 7.2), but the extent of the damage remains hidden in the night. The sun rises, unveiling a plume of smoke covering most of the city. Fires have popped up everywhere, most of them small but growing. The downtown skyline stands tall, all skyscrapers intact, though some smaller buildings throughout the city have collapsed. Construction sites have been reduced to ruin. Bridges and major highways have suffered catastrophic damage, disrupting traffic throughout Southern California, though hardly anyone drives to work today. Massive subterranean damage lurks, invisible underground but affecting the entire city. Water and power lines have been ruptured and will not be fixed easily. Millions of people will be without water and electricity for days, maybe months. Over all of this, though, looms the loss of human life. Landslides have destroyed homes built on hills and mountains. People driving during the earthquake have swerved their cars into fatal accidents. The media tracks the amount of casualties, initially relaying ambiguous reports of deaths in the “tens, maybe hundreds.” It soon becomes obvious “tens” is irresponsibly conservative, and CNN changes its breaking news headline to, “THOUSANDS FEARED DEAD IN L.A. QUAKE,” a figure that hits hard for everyone watching, coupled with live shots of the country’s second largest city, partially destroyed. Los Angeles will soon learn that the timing of the earthquake saved thousands of lives. Reports estimate that had the earthquake occurred during the business day, just a few hours later, the death toll would have quadrupled—at least. President Obama addresses the nation, asking citizens to keep Los Angeles in their thoughts and prayers, and urging them to lend support to the recovery effort. Despite the damage, parts of the city experience normalcy, including the MedComm Center, where backup generators have been operating since dawn. Through a series of phone calls the organization learns that, mercifully, no Knights players or coaches were harmed in the earthquake, nor were any immediate family members. The only injured Knight will not be listed on this week’s injury report. Phillips makes his way to the trainer’s room, not for an update on a nagging hamstring, not for a diagnosis of a knee injury, but for x-rays on his right leg. He is diagnosed with a fractured tibia and given an eight-to-ten-week timetable for recovery. Team doctors cast the leg and give him a pair of crutches. He takes the elevator to the second floor. Once there, Phillips learns the effect of this morning’s chaos on the team: Harden allows players to come to practice late, based on their circumstances at home. The Saints game in two days is second priority to the well-being of everyone’s family. Phillips has barely had time to relax at his desk, still getting used to moving around with the cast weighing his leg down, when Schneider appears in the doorway. “We’re taking a trip to the stadium,” Schneider says. “You’re coming with me.” “Wayne, c’mon,” Phillips says, pointing to his leg and the pair of crutches leaning against the wall. “I’d like to just sit down for a while, if you don’t mind.” “We’re driving, it’s fine. Besides, you need to break those crutches in. Let’s go.” Thirty minutes later, the duo treks across the Farmers Field grass (Schneider on his feet, Phillips on his crutches), where Frank Serkin, President of Farmers Field, talks with some construction workers. As Serkin walks to meet them in the south end zone, Phillips looks around. From what he can see, the stadium looks fine. “Well?” Schneider asks. “Structurally, everything is fine,” Serkin says. “Bits of damage here and there, but nothing we can’t fix in a day or two. Internally, however…” “Spell it out, Frank.” Serkin shakes his head. “There’s serious damage. Electrical wires, water pumps…And the worst part is, I don’t even know how bad it is.” “It’s your job to know how bad it is.” “I’d have to dig up half of L.A. County to be sure. For now, all I can say is the lights won’t come on, and only half the toilets flush.” “We’ve got a home game in nine days. I don’t want to move it to the Coliseum—Lord knows that’s probably fucked up too—or anywhere else. I want it here. I want our fans to come through the same gates, sit in the same seats.” “It’ll take a miracle.” “Then a miracle is what we’ll get.” Serkin shrugs his shoulders, not hiding his uncertainty, so Schneider presses on. “After next Sunday, we aren’t home again until week 5. Just pull it together, I don’t care what it takes. Make this place a goddamn house of cards that can stand for three hours, then take the time to get it right. Okay? Get it done.” Serkin jogs back toward the construction workers and yells urgent instructions. Schneider looks around, though he doesn’t seem to be inspecting for damage. “I’ve always liked the architecture of this place,” he says. “You have to be at field level to truly appreciate it. Reminds me of…a fortress. Or a castle, maybe.” “I don’t know,” Phillips says. “Always seemed more like a palace to me.” “A palace…Yeah, maybe.” Phillips soon notices Schneider walking towards the tunnel. He digs his crutches into the end zone grass to catch up. With players filtering in throughout the day, coaches struggle to build any sort of cohesion on the practice field. Eventually, everyone just stands around, throwing footballs, sharing their earthquake stories. The first question everybody asks is “Do you have power?” Most players live in Los Angeles’ more affluent neighborhoods, which were spared from the worst of the earthquake’s wrath. “Briggs,” Martin says, “I heard half of Beverly Hills lost power. Which half do you live on?” “The one with refrigerators full of rotten food.” Grodd tells another group of players, “Man, I didn’t even know anything happened. Woke up when my parents called a few hours later.” “Fuckin’ A, cowboy,” Schwinn says, “what if your family had been there?” “That’s why I don’t have a family yet.” “Leave him alone,” Penner says. “You got time, Chase. How old are you now, fourteen?” “Twenty-six, old man. I’d ask your age but I’m pretty sure you lost count.” “This old man can still kick your ass, so watch it.” Luck and Bishop invariably get together, as they have all offseason, for another round of updates. “What’s Ashley’s due date again?” Luck asks. “November 21st,” Bishop says. “What about Brenda?” “Just got bumped to the 25th.” “Is that Thanksgiving?” “Day after.” “At least it’s not a Sunday.” “Not crossing that bridge yet. Boy or girl?” “We don’t know yet.” “C’mon, Logan. That’s weak.” “Nothing wrong with a little suspense. Boy for you, right?” “Yes sir. Sam Luck Jr.” “Seriously?” “No, I don’t know. We don’t know yet. Just excited to have a baby boy.” Players assume everyone was asleep during the earthquake, which struck around 3am, until hearing Brock’s story. “I was partyin’, man. We didn’t know what the fuck was going on.” “What a shock,” Grantzinger says. “Never change, Sean.” “I’m as ready for Sunday as you,” Brock shoots back. “Just because I didn’t go on some gay, weird ass diet this offseason, doesn’t mean I’m not gonna bring it.” “It’s organic food, Sean. Organic. Far from the weirdest diet out there, you dumbass.” After tossing passes back and forth for a few minutes, Maverick and Watson come together to talk. Maverick tells him about the extensive damage throughout his mansion. “Was Trish at your place when it happened?” Watson asks. “Yeah, she was.” “She’s good, though, right? Nobody got hurt?” Maverick gazes across the field towards Harden. “Yeah, everybody’s fine.” Players leave for home having hardly practiced at all. The day has served primarily as a morale-boosting get-together for players. Surprisingly, Harden is fine with forsaking his last day of practice, telling Phillips and Schneider, “We’ve had a whole goddamn offseason to get ready for this game. If we’re still not ready, you can blame my ass, not theirs.” Still, Harden is firm on one thing: tomorrow’s team flight will lift off on schedule, and any players not on it won’t play in New Orleans. This is part of the team’s refocusing on routine and structure, a direct consequence of last season’s disappointment. For example, Harden used to sometimes skip introduction meetings at the beginning of the week, finding them useless. This year, the Knights will have sixteen meetings for sixteen games, each with a clear, focused message about their upcoming opponent. For tonight, players and coaches return home to their families, many beginning physical repairs to their houses. Those with functioning TVs tune into news coverage, where an escalating death toll supplements every report. By sunset, there are between 625 and 650 reported dead (the number varies between news outlets). A few hours later the numbers are between 650 and 675, and by the time Los Angeles goes to sleep, most estimates top 700. A full day of recovery passes with only minor aftershocks, despite citywide fear, and Sunday arrives. In spite of the earthquake, or perhaps because of it, many citizens table their rebuilding plans in favor of their fall Sunday routine: alcohol and good food scheduled around Knights football. After all, these fans have spent the last eight months dissecting every aspect of the team’s roster, tracking every free agent move, researching every draft pick. While plenty of fans stay at home for the first full slate of 2016 NFL action, many are still without power and elect to go out. This leads to jam-packed sports bars across the city, including Knight’s End, one of the few downtown restaurants to avoid extensive damage in the earthquake. By 10am, mimosas and red beers are flowing all over the restaurant. Anticipation mounts as the pre-game shows conclude, only one commercial break between the first round of Sunday football. Cooper and Sampson watch anxiously as the crowd surrounding the bar grows, extending close to their table. Kickoff can’t get here soon enough. “One more week,” Sampson says. “Hey, I’ll drink to that,” Cooper says, clinking glasses and chugging the rest of his beer. He looks for their waitress, difficult to flag down in this madness. “The game’s still at Farmers, right?” “Schneider said they’d make a final determination Tuesday or Wednesday, but I think so.” “Awesome. Wow, look at Harden!” Cooper points to the big screen nearest their high top. “He’s lost weight.” “I told you,” Sampson says, referring to a preseason observation he made weeks ago. “He looks a lot older, too. And look! Look!” The camera captures Harden as he lifts his hat to wipe sweat away from the top of his head. “He’s almost completely bald.” “Damn. Father Time gets us all, huh?” “Oh my God…” “What? What?” Sampson points toward the bar. “Smokin’ hot chick. Next to the guy in the Rose jersey.” Cooper whips his head around, seeing through the crowd a monstrous, 250-pound behemoth of a woman, rolls of fat hanging over her bar stool. “Scale of one to ten?” Sampson asks. Cooper purses his eyebrows, squinting as if he’s legitimately thinking about it. “Eight,” he says. “Eight? Out of ten?” “Yup. On the Richter scale. Oh!” Cooper raises his glass and drinks the remaining drops of beer in it. Sampson looks mortified. “What, too soon?” “Much too soon, man. Much too soon.” Cheering and screaming inside the Superdome builds to a crescendo as the newest NFL season kicks off. The ball sails beyond the end zone, and the Knights set up on the twenty-five-yard line. It is a dark coincidence that the Knights open their season in New Orleans, a city familiar with natural disasters. Saints fans show a lot of class regarding the earthquake, many holding up signs with messages of good will towards Los Angeles. Players in white jerseys, though they won’t admit it, are glad to be opening the season away from home. Maverick calls his cadence over the crowd noise behind #54, trying not to think about this being the last season taking snaps from Penner. He drops back and looks right, hitting Wilkes on a short post route. With McKenzie calling pass plays, Maverick throws to his right side: Wilkes outside, Watson in the slot. Bishop lines up right but spends most plays blocking to keep Cameron Jordan, the Saints’ greatest front seven threat, contained. The Knights cross midfield, and Maverick finally looks to his left, firing for the 6’2” 22-year-old first-round pick, who catches it for his first career reception. Knights players, coaches, and fans are all eager to see Joaquin Harper start the season strong. A strong possession receiver lacking elite speed, he’s essentially a taller, more physical version of Alex Johnson—without the injury concerns. Maverick keeps throwing, soon reaching first and goal thanks to Bishop’s first reception. Harper catches a slant at the one-yard line, then Maverick misses an end zone fade for Wilkes. Third and goal. Maverick lines up behind a bunch formation, motioning his receivers and calling adjustments. He takes the snap and hands the ball off. Jameson spots an opening, lowers his shoulders, and barrels through multiple bodies into the end zone. The Superdome goes quiet as the Knights celebrate their first touchdown of 2016. Jameson is all smiles on the sideline, happy to put his preseason foot injury behind him and enjoy another season in Los Angeles thanks to his five-year, $33-million contract. He’s not thrilled about the offense becoming pass-heavy, but he’ll never complain about putting points on the board. McKenzie hovers over his position coaches as they debrief with players, but there’s not much to criticize. The Knights are returning nine starters on offense, and it’s not outlandish to think Harper could end up as an upgrade over Johnson. Doctors say Johnson could be back by late October, but McKenzie is determined to make sure the team doesn’t miss him. The offense has barely rested when a Saints punt returns them to the field. This time, they work the ground game with Jameson, running behind an offensive line with only one new starter: second-year right guard Adrian Dunn, replacing Kevin Zeitler. Anchoring the group of young linemen is its 36-year-old center, still as dominant a run blocker as ever. Penner feels fresh, miles better than the end of last season. He took it easy on offseason workouts this year, and it’s helping. The question remains how long he’ll hold up, but he can worry about that later. The Knights cross midfield again, but pass rush forces Maverick to throw it away on third down, and Keith Reynolds, the seventh-round rookie replacing the legendary Shane Lechler, comes on for his first punt of the year. Known for power more than accuracy, Reynolds skies it to the seventeen-yard line, where a fair catch puts Drew Brees back on the field. Harden watches from the sideline as his defense lines up against one of the best in the business. He knows many are critical of Brees’ age, but a quarterback as accurate as him is always a threat. He also knows Brees is watching to see if the Knights reinstitute last year’s hybrid defense, which was nowhere to be found during the preseason. For now, they play 3-4 exclusively. Randall relays the play calls—simple, but very much Merle Harden. Grantzinger blitzes, Martin and Brock blitz, Grantzinger and Randall blitz, Brock and Schwinn blitz. Brees faces pressure but gets a few first downs with good throws. Near the end of the first quarter, the Saints face third and five. Brees lines up in shotgun as all four linebackers inch closer. On the snap, Brock and Grantzinger blitz and the inside linebackers drop back. Brees steps up and fires toward the sideline. Harden sees an open receiver, but #20 sprints from across the field, swatting it away. Fourth down. “Nice play, Flash,” Harden says. “Thanks, coach,” Flash says, taking a seat on the bench as the punt teams come on. Flash feels good to be back on the field, even if he hasn’t yet escaped Los Angeles. He was ready for free agency, house on the market and everything, when he got franchise-tagged. That really burned him. Then there were the trade rumors. His agent said a deal was close, but it never happened. Trade buzz surfaced again during the draft, but that fell apart too. This offseason was a mess, and he spent the summer months putting it all behind him. After more Jameson runs, McKenzie opens up the play-calling. Just like the first drive, Maverick sits back and hits his targets. This time, though, he forces a few passes Wilkes’ way, even when he’s not open. The Knights’ number-one receiver proves his worth, making catches in traffic and taking the drive into the red zone. “We’re going to make D-Jam a focus this season,” McKenzie said during training camp. “We’ve been treating him like our number-one, which he is, but we need to start treating him like he’s the league’s number-one.” Wilkes, of course, loves every bit of that strategy. And it’s about damn time Maverick realizes he shouldn’t avoid throwing his way just because he’s covered. Twelve yards out, Maverick drops back and sees a safety shading Wilkes’ way. He hurries and fires a bullet. Wilkes tries to grab it, but it bounces off the corner’s helmet and into the air, where he reels it in and plants his feet in the end zone. Worry fills the air among Saints fans watching a decidedly one-sided game. Brees soon rejuvenates the crowd, though, taking his offense seventy-five yards in nine plays, capping the drive with a twelve-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks. Neither team makes any splash plays in the quarter’s remaining minutes, and the Knights take their 14-7 lead into halftime. McKenzie considers going no-huddle in the second half but decides against it, confident the current pass game will put up more points. It does. Maverick leads another ruthlessly efficient drive, spreading receptions around until Harper gets his first career touchdown. McCabe’s extra point bounces off the inside of the upright, still good, and the Knights lead, 21-7. The Saints look primed to respond, but a third down sack by Grantzinger gives the Knights back the ball, and Maverick picks up where he left off. From their designated luxury suite, Schneider and Phillips feel increasingly comfortable as the Knights go down the field again. This is just what the franchise needs, Schneider thinks. Probably what the city needs too. He looks over at Phillips, who doesn’t look the least bit satisfied, stoically taking notes as always. Schneider has to hand it to him. After an absolute disaster the final weeks of last season, Phillips responded with a beautiful offseason. In the face of Flash’s aggressive rhetoric, he had the balls to franchise-tag him, knowing the team wouldn’t have a quality free safety otherwise. He aggressively re-signed Watson, recognizing his stock would never be lower after that infamous week 17 drop (which is still inexcusable). Then, he played the running back market beautifully with Jameson. Knowing teams wouldn’t be eager to throw money at a downhill runner with plenty of tread on his tires, Phillips waited until the last possible second, striking an incredibly team-friendly deal after Lamar Miller signed with Houston. To be fair, Phillips wasn’t scared to lose Jameson, ready to spend a second- or third-rounder on his replacement, but it was brilliant management regardless. Finally, Phillips aced the draft, where the Knights originally had the 20th overall pick. But Phillips was able to drum up a trade market, getting Denver to trade up for Paxton Lynch, a move the league thought would happen in the mid-/late-20s. Then, after acquiring extra picks, he landed Harper, a steal at 32nd overall. One of the biggest knocks on Harper was his inconsistent production in college. During a combine interview, he blamed that on his coaches, a mistake that sent him tumbling down draft boards—but Phillips was smart enough to realize it didn’t matter. Schneider himself didn’t have a bad offseason either. Thanks to some of his best wheeling and dealing at the owners meetings, he thwarted relocation efforts to Los Angeles. It’s only temporary, and he probably won’t be able to hold them off two years in a row, but he bought himself valuable time, with which he was able to gather options. And, of course, a few weeks later, Super Bowl 50 went off without a hitch. Screams from the crowd direct Schneider’s attention back to the field, where Watson surges through a receiver screen into open field, and his speed takes him into the end zone untouched. Knights 28, Saints 7, 2:42 to go in the third quarter. Relaxation sets in on the visitors’ sideline, particularly among offensive players. When FOX returns from commercial, an infographic appears with an interesting statistic: the Knights scored 28 points only once in their final nine games last season. The festive mood fades as the Saints go back to work, mixing in more run plays, surprising to Harden considering the 21-point deficit. It moves the chains, though, and on the fourth quarter’s first play, Brees finds Coby Fleener in the back of the end zone. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy with this guy,” Harden says on the sideline. “Settle the hell down and finish.” Defenders have just enough time to review what went wrong before they’re back on the field with 13:25 on the clock. Brees operates exclusively out of shotgun now, though the Saints are in no hurry. Mixing in fewer runs, Brees leans on his outside receivers, working the Knights’ starting cornerbacks. From the sideline, Harden and Ripka watch nervously. Seeing Stone and Lucas get beat in coverage brings back painful memories of last season. Ripka agreed with Harden’s unpopular decision to stick with the young duo, anticipating major steps forward this season, but perhaps those steps won’t come today. Harden sends more linebackers on blitzes, realizing Brees isn’t throwing over the middle. This brings up third and nine, but Mark Ingram catches a screen pass and runs all the way to the three-yard line. The next play, Brees fires for Willie Snead, who beats Stone for a jump ball in the end zone. The Superdome goes wild. The home team is down seven with 8:03 to go. “Short memory,” Ripka tells his secondary. “Next play.” Ripka gathers with his other positional coaches, new faces on this sideline. The Knights hired a new defensive line coach after theirs got poached for a coordinator job in college, and Harden stunningly gave in to the front office’s request to hire a linebackers coach. So, Ripka is now the most tenured position coach on defense, complete with the designation of “assistant defensive coordinator” and a pay raise. Feeling panicked, McKenzie does what he can to run the clock, leaning on Jameson for a few first downs before punting with 3:18 to play. Brees starts eighty yards from the end zone and reaches midfield in two plays, hitting Snead and Fleener for big completions. Another quick pass to Cooks puts the Saints on the Knights’ forty-five at the two-minute warning. “Let’s go!” Randall yells to his teammates. “Stay sharp! One turnover wins this thing!” The Knights get pressure on blitzes, but Brees converts a few third downs, and the Saints reach the eight. First and goal, 1:10 to go. A draw to Ingram goes nowhere, and the Saints call timeout. 1:04. Brees lofts an end zone pass for Fleener, but Randall tips it out of bounds. 0:57. Brees drops back again, and Brock gets a hold of his jersey. He fights to get away, but Grantzinger finishes the job. Brees gets up and calls timeout. Fourth and goal from the fifteen, 0:49 on the clock. Harden calls an outside blitz, man coverage with safeties doubling over the top. He doesn’t want to get beat by a simple comeback route on the outside. The Saints line up in shotgun, four receivers wide, against the Knights’ nickel. Randall stares down Ingram in the backfield, unafraid of a screen fifteen yards out. He decides to blitz. Brees takes the snap and looks right, towards Snead, running against Stone. Snead runs a stop-and-go, and Stone gets tripped up. Brees fires as a wide-open Snead runs toward the end zone with Schwinn closing. The safety sees the pass—he won’t get there in time—lowers his shoulders, and crushes Snead just as he catches it in the end zone. Schwinn gets to his feet as Snead shows the ball to the nearest official. Touchdown. The extra point ties the game, 28-28, and everyone on the Knights’ sideline feels sick. Three touchdowns allowed in three drives, and an easy win is now going to overtime. The most comfortable looking player is Maverick, causally tossing passes back and forth. “Still 44 seconds left,” he says. The ensuing kickoff is a touchback, and the Knights take over. In the huddle, Maverick says, “Don’t anybody doubt we can do this. A field goal wins it, and we got all three timeouts. A few catches, and we’re there. Let’s roll.” Maverick drops back and sees three deep safeties, a passive defense he will gladly exploit. He hits Bishop over the middle for seventeen. Timeout. 0:36. Watson catches a sideline route, jukes his man, and runs upfield another fifteen yards, going out of bounds. 0:27. The Knights are across midfield, approaching McCabe’s range. Anticipating the Saints will tighten up a little, McKenzie goes for it. Maverick drops back and looks deep for Wilkes, who breaks on a deep crossing route. Maverick steps up and throws a devastating pump fake, getting both safeties to bite and breaking Wilkes free. Wilkes catches the bullet pass at the goal line and throws the ball into the stands at silent Saints fans. The Knights’ sideline is now the loudest part in the stadium. McCabe misses the extra point, but nobody cares. When Brees gets the ball back, he can only manage one completion before a Hail Mary lands well short of the goal line, and the Knights win, 34-28. The plane ride home is a party. Players relive every detail from the game, excitedly moving around the cabin. Maverick showers his offense with praise, insisting today is the beginning of a great season. Wilkes brags about his eminent greatness to anyone who will listen. Schwinn says of the game-tying touchdown, “I hit that fucker as hard as I could. How he held onto the ball I’ll never know, God bless him.” Harper gets extra congratulations from everyone on the plane for his first touchdown, and for a promising start to his career. Brock accuses Grantzinger of stealing half a sack from him, to which Grantzinger replies, “He was about to break free when I finished him off, pussy.” Players and coaches on defense still feel uneasy about the fourth quarter, but that can wait until film review. For now, they allowed fewer points than the offense scored, and that’s all that matters. “Holy shit!” Martin yells, staring out the windows on the right side of the plane. “Look!” Hardly anyone hears him at first, but those who do press their heads against the nearest window, horrified at the view. Others catch on, and the chatter fades. Soon, everyone jostles for a window seat, and the festive mood evaporates. Los Angeles looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. A twisted combination of white and black smoke surrounds the city. Damaged and destroyed buildings are visible through the smog. The unbroken highways are lined with red and blue flashing lights. An uncomfortable silence fills the plane. Everyone slowly moves away from the windows, finding a seat and descending in silence toward their broken city.
  15. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part VI Chapter Seventy-Two – Sons and Daughters Maverick takes the snap and the Texans defense spreads out. Maverick throws right for Wilkes, open near the sideline. The twenty-yard strike puts the Knights on the Houston thirty. Maverick looks up at the clock as he hurries the offense into formation. He drops back again and fires for Bishop over the middle. Bishop gets hit but keeps his legs churning for a few extra yards. McKenzie looks up, considers a timeout, and calls the next play. Knights 22, Texans 3, less than a minute until halftime. This week’s Monday Night Football game has been a one-sided clunker, but the Knights offense has been entertaining to watch. They have moved the ball at will against Houston’s defense, and they have debuted an apparent new strategy: two-point conversions instead of an extra point attempt. They’re two for three tonight, with Wilkes and Harper each with an end zone catch. Still in a five-receiver set, the Knights line up ten yards from the end zone. 0:37, 0:36… Maverick takes the snap and surveys—everyone’s covered. Pressure comes up the middle. He rolls left, looking for Wilkes, who has three short defenders around him in the back of the end zone. Yeah, why not. Maverick sets his feet and fires into triple coverage. Wilkes tries to time his jump perfectly, using his six-foot-five frame to outreach three white jerseys, grab the ball, and get his feet down on the purple grass. Farmers Field celebrates the fourth touchdown of the half, cheering extra loud for the ridiculous pitch-and-catch. Maverick and Wilkes get the sideline star treatment, and the offensive coaches can’t help but pat Maverick on the back for such a horrendous decision. Two-point conversions no longer seem necessary, so McCabe makes it 29-3. The lull during halftime calms the fans, but the Knights offense doesn’t relent. McKenzie operates out of the five-receiver set, which is near unstoppable. His top trio of receivers is as good as any in the league, Bishop is a matchup nightmare in the slot, and Johnson can’t be covered on short crossing routes. All of this helps to reduce Jameson’s touches, an old goal of McKenzie’s that he finally has the offense to accomplish. On the other side of the ball, things are just as ugly for the visiting team. The Knights hone in on Lamar Miller, limiting him to a paltry 2.2 yards per carry. This forces Brock Osweiler to carry the Texans offense, an onus that has gotten Houston across midfield once between multiple punts and two interceptions. Field position gives the Knights offense a short field, and they go 56 yards in five plays, with Jameson’s first touchdown of the night making it 36-3. On their next drive, the Knights show more balance, with Jameson going into closer mode. Houston can’t stop this either, and with the third quarter almost up, the Knights reach the red zone again. Maverick fakes a handoff and drops back, throwing a perfect back-shoulder fade to Wilkes, and the receiver whose touchdown streak was broken last week finds the end zone for the third time tonight. Coach Harden calls off the dogs in the fourth quarter, giving several starters some rest, though the Texans still can’t score. The game becomes excruciatingly boring, even for the home fans celebrating victory. The clock eventually runs out, and with a dominant 43-3 thrashing, the Knights win again, joining the Patriots and Steelers at 10-0. Logan’s eyes blink open and he rolls over, seeing an empty side of the bed. Jolting awake, he springs out of bed and finds Ashley in the bathroom, but she looks calm. “Not yet,” she says. “Just had to pee.” “Oh. Feel okay?” “Beyond the usual? Sure.” Logan breathes, equally thankful and disappointed. He has lost count of all the close calls over the last week, every painful contraction making him think he’s an hour away from fatherhood. Logan takes a five-minute shower, checking on Ashley again before he gets dressed. On his way out, he takes a long look at the baby’s room, finished crib and all. He keeps his phone within sight the entire drive to the MedComm Center. Players spread out across the practice field and stretch, warming up for their first day of preparation for the 4-6 Panthers. Coach Harden marches through rows of players and coaches, feeling confidence in the air and doing nothing to temper it—for now. The Knights are not only undefeated; they’re four games ahead of the Broncos and Chiefs in the West. They’ll get a crack at the Steelers in a few weeks, but for now, they’re in as cozy a spot as they can be with six games remaining, and they should be proud of that. What Harden needs to stop is the growing obsession with statistical accolades. Maverick’s 29 touchdown passes and Wilkes’ 15 touchdown receptions are both on pace to approach legendary records. The offense’s 314 points scored is, too. And, of course, there’s the most elusive record of all, nine wins away. Coaches on both sides of the ball keep their eyes on Bishop and Luck, men scheduled to become fathers this week. The Knights haven’t celebrated a birth since Tatiyana Rose in 2013, so it’s cool to have two around the corner. On the other hand, this creates complications for coaches responsible for a game plan. Harden and McKenzie walk towards #89, staying casual and not wanting to draw attention. They want to get this over with and start practice. “Alright, Logan,” Harden says. “When’s Ashley due?” “Thursday,” Bishop says while stretching. “It’s basically any day now, at this point.” “Try not to get too stressed about it,” McKenzie says. “Our first was the same way, biting fingernails and bouncing off the wall for days. It’ll happen when it happens.” Bishop nods and Harden steps closer. “Listen, Logan, we have to ask—and there’s no shame on either side of this—if it goes down on Sunday or close to it, are you suiting up?” About ten yards away, Luck overhears this conversation, but he can’t make out Bishop’s answer. He focuses on his stretches, trying to think only of football. A minute later, Harden and Ripka approach him. “You heard?” Harden asks, motioning his head towards Bishop. Luck nods. “Alright then. Same question, Sam.” The locker room is relaxed and festive after practice, as it has been lately, making Bishop and Luck outliers in a room of confident men. Luck hasn’t even gotten all his pads off when he walks toward Bishop’s locker. “Coaches talked to you too, right?” Luck asks. “About Sunday? Yeah, of course.” “I was honest. I don’t want it this way, but I’m not missing the birth of my son. I hate to miss a game—never lost a snap due to injury at Stanford or here—but this is different.” “I don’t disagree with that.” “What did you tell them?” Bishop hesitates. Before he can answer, the sight of Penner approaching distracts him. “Papas to be,” Penner says jovially. Luck and Bishop ease up a bit. Penner throws his arms over each man’s shoulder. “Now both of you listen to me. You both still got years left in this game, so take my advice: make the most of every offseason. And I mean every damn second. Because from week 1 until the end, you’ll barely have a family. And it’ll hurt. But what’ll hurt even worse is realizing how much time this game takes. And you never get that time back.” “We’re playing this game for a reason, Penn,” Luck says. “You think I’m not? Just giving you two some advice.” “We get it,” Bishop says. “Thanks, Brian.” Eavesdropping, Schwinn walks up behind Penner and says, “Listen to this, y’all. Brian Penner the philosopher!” A few players look toward the gathering. Some had noticed Penner talking to Luck and Bishop and wanted to mind their own business, but Schwinn’s presence greatly increases the potential for entertainment. “We should be thankful you ain’t having kids,” Penner says. A few players react to the zinger, well aware this is just friendly ball busting. “Hey man, I’m serious about that philosophy shit.” Schwinn reaches out to touch Penner’s stomach. “A few more pounds here and we could pass you off as Buddha.” In a blink, Penner snatches Schwinn’s arm and spins him around, tangling him up as his shoulder twists awkwardly. “Ow!” Schwinn cries out, fighting for leverage. “Ow! C’mon, ease up, partner!” “Say uncle, motherfucker.” The whole locker room enjoys the show, laughing and cheering at the sight of Schwinn flailing his one free arm through the air, completely trapped. “Ow, that hurts! Damn it, man!” “Say uncle.” “Ah! Okay, uncle. Uncle! Uncle!” Penner releases, and Schwinn sprints to the other side of the locker room. Before he can say anything, Coach Harden’s voice bellows towards every locker. “What the holy fuck are you assholes doing?” Nobody responds, instead resuming the process of changing into street clothes and leaving for the day. “Queers,” Harden says, walking back to his office. Merle drives himself home from the hospital, thankful tonight was just an appointment and not another round of chemo. He gets home in time for dinner, he thinks, expecting to smell Melinda’s cooking as he walks into the foyer with Bowser excitedly circling him. “I’m home,” he announces. “What did Dr. Kern say?” Melinda asks from the kitchen. “Told me to stop yelling, of course. Thinks I need to do more chemo even though it’s football season. The usual shit.” “And the cancer?” “Again, the usual. Where’s Trish?” “Upstairs. She’s sick.” “What, got the flu or something?” “Not the flu.” Melinda gives Merle an all-too-familiar look, and he understands exactly what has happened. He feels his heart thumping as he walks up the staircase towards Trisha’s room. He knocks a few times before opening the door, seeing Trisha sprawled out on her bed, beads of sweat running down her face. A rotten stench hits Merle’s nose. “Smells like puke in here,” he says. “I got the toilet, mostly,” Trish grumbles, rolling over. It breaks Merle’s heart to see his daughter like this. It’s a sight he hasn’t experienced in a while—one he thought he was done with. “What happened?” “We just had a little too much wine. It’s okay, dad, really. It’s okay.” Merle can’t find any more words, so he sulks back down the steps, not looking at Melinda on his way to the living room. “Merle,” she says, “don’t be upset.” “I’m not upset. Just tired. I’m watching football. Let me know when dinner’s ready.” He lays down on the recliner and turns on Thursday Night Football, barely following the game as Bowser lays down at his feet. Players gradually fill the locker room for Friday’s practice. Almost everyone stops by Luck and Bishop’s lockers, each getting the same story: no word, could be any minute, just waiting. Maverick follows the same pattern, particularly concerned about Bishop’s presence (or lack thereof) for Sunday’s game. He has made the mistake of deeming Bishop a replaceable piece of the offense before. With no news, Maverick heads for his locker and starts dressing. He doesn’t hear the footsteps behind him, flinching in surprise when he spins around and sees Coach Harden in front of him. “You better get your act together, and fast,” Harden says. Maverick looks around. So, he’s really doing this right here? In front of everybody? Among the first to notice the confrontation are a group of linebackers, among which Martin is the first to speak. “You know,” he says, “I’m surprised it took this long.” “Maybe something went down behind the scenes,” Randall suggests. Maverick does his best to look relaxed, finally saying, as softly as he can, “It was no big deal, coach.” “My ass,” Harden says, his voice anything but soft. “Forget Trish for a minute. On a practice night, you pull that shit?” “We had some time to kill.” “That’ll be the last time I end practice early. You’re out of control.” “Bullshit,” Maverick says confidently, ignoring the spectators around him. Harden is pulling a cheap move, doing this in the locker room to get the upper hand. But Maverick isn’t backing down. “You got some fuckin’ balls, Mav.” “We were having a fun night. We had a little too much. It happens, coach. We’re normal people.” “Trisha is not ‘normal people.’ After what I’ve been through, I know it, and I don’t give a damn if you think you know better. Get yourself together.” “I’m not out of control.” “Oh yeah?” “You don’t see anyone staging an intervention for me, do you?” “You ungrateful little fuck…” Harden grabs Maverick’s neck. Maverick instinctively reaches for Harden’s hands as he gets shoved backward. The back of his head slams against his locker. Every man in the locker room swarms the fight, and the nearest players have the two separated instantly. Nearly everyone focuses on Maverick, who looks shocked but physically okay. He rubs a growing lump on the back of his head, but he feels fine. A few turn their attention to Harden, separated from the crowd, in an apparent coughing fit. He hacks away uncontrollably, coughing into his arm, which he uses to cover his watering eyes. He coughs and coughs, while everyone stares, until he finally rights himself, straining every muscle in his body and fighting his dry throat to utter the words, “Practice field. Now.” Minutes later, players are on the field getting loose. Maverick is examined briefly but displays no concussion symptoms, so he’s good to go. It isn’t long before the Knights are mastering Sunday’s playbook, and the locker room scuffle becomes forgotten in the face of practice—though players will discuss it later. Hardly anyone notices an intern running out of the building onto the field towards Coach Ripka, who pulls Luck out of formation. Everyone understands what’s happening when they see Luck sprint back inside. “Good luck, Sam!” they all yell, in one variation or another. Bishop looks toward the building, but the intern walks back inside. There is no news for him yet. Players take their seats in the auditorium, ready for another quick and confident walkthrough. Harden scans the crowd, and all conversations stop. “Twenty-six hours to kickoff,” Harden says. “First order of business…congratulations to Sam!” In the middle of the seats, Luck glows with a smile as everyone applauds and cheers. “Any details, Sam?” Harden asks once things quiet down again. “James Samuel Luck, eight pounds, five ounces, a healthy baby boy.” Another round of applause fills the auditorium. Among the first to stop clapping is Bishop, checking his phone yet again. The Knights proceed through their eleventh walkthrough of the season, and it feels very much like the first ten: Harden details the intricacies of his blitzes, repeatedly reminding his players how things can go wrong; McKenzie tests Maverick on every nuance of every audible of every play, and the quarterback knows them all. Once everything wraps up, the buses line up in front of the building for loading and transportation to a downtown hotel, the Knights’ designated location the final hours before kickoff. The coaches invariably gather towards the side of the locker room, and Ripka asks Harden, “Want to go through the audibles again, coach?” “No,” Harden says, thinking. “In fact, in light of recent events, I think we’ve all earned a little family time.” The other coaches stand up a little straighter, blinking their eyes, wondering how far Harden is going with this. “Take a few hours, relax, and make your own way to the hotel by 7. No beef if you’re there by 8, but we don’t need a goddamn players’ rebellion if one of us misses curfew.” “You sure, Merle?” McKenzie asks. “I mean, we haven’t even looked at—” “The playbook’s fine, Mac. Everything’s fine. We’re gonna kick Carolina’s ass tomorrow. Take a few hours. All of you. Get out of here.” Despite the surprise of a few free hours, Chet knows immediately where he’ll go. He drives home, changes into street clothes plus a hat, to avoid being recognized, and heads for his son’s high school. He texts his wife to make sure it’s a home game. He finds a parking spot and heads for the gymnasium, glancing more than once across the athletic complex at the football field. He pays for a ticket, enters the gym with the game ongoing, and finds a quiet spot on the bleachers. The game is tied, 20-20, with a few minutes to go in the second quarter. Chet identifies Chris, playing a combination of small forward and shooting guard, and watches him play. Chet is far from a basketball analyst, but Chris’ footwork looks good, he’s fast, and he knows how to create space for himself to put up shots. Over the next few minutes, he puts up four points on three shots and plays solid defense. The clock runs under thirty seconds, and the home team has the final possession before halftime with a slim, 26-25 lead. They try working it down low, but the opposing team plays tight defense. The point guard puts up a shot that bounces off the rim. With 2 seconds left, someone passes it back out to Chris, who puts up a three. The buzzer rings and the ball flies through the inside of the net. The modest crowd cheers for the home team as the players and coaches walk toward the locker room. Chet stands and claps too, watching Chris proudly as he walks with his teammates. Chris looks up to the crowd, scanning for his mom and catching a glimpse of Chet at the last second. The smile fades from his face, and he bows his head as he leaves the court. Chet stops clapping and walks along the bleachers, looking for his wife. Unlike the players and coaches staying downtown, Chance is not under curfew tonight, so he enjoys a rare opportunity to eat a sit-down dinner with his family. Table talk is the usual, with Melissa prying the kids for info about school and each of them deflecting with minimal answers, but Chance enjoys it nonetheless. He spends most of the dinner catching up on the lives of his children, on the things they or Melissa haven’t told him (or he hasn’t remembered). Maintaining family life while working in the NFL is a tightrope Chance has walked for years. It’s something he and Melissa got used to early in their relationship, and it has never, in Chance’s opinion, put a serious strain on their marriage. But as his children are growing up, it is wearing on him. Both the Knights and the Phillips family, he begins to suspect, need a fully committed Chance Phillips to thrive, a commitment only one can receive. With what’s on the horizon, however, it won’t be long before that happens. The bus leaves the hotel on schedule, making the short drive to Farmers Field, where men in suits get off and head for the locker room, purple jerseys waiting for them. Players hit the field for warm ups and return to the locker room to put on pads. Bishop does so nervously, trying to think about today’s playbook (which features him more than most games this year) when his phone lights up. “Hello?” he says. “Water broke!” Ashley says, sounding panicked and excited. Logan’s heart pounds. His eyes dart around the locker room. Of course this happens today. Of course. He spent the better part of last night thinking about what he would do in this exact situation, so he already knows his decision. A few players notice as Bishop runs off toward the coaches, then comes running back, gathering a few of his things and taking off before anyone can talk to him. A minute later, Harden addresses the players, most of whom are still getting padded up. “Logan’s off to the hospital,” he says. “Ashley’s going into labor and we should have a baby Bishop by the time this game’s over. Just so there’s no bullshit, I would have made Logan go if he asked to stay. Anyone got a problem with that?” More than a few players find the concept of bailing on a game this close to kickoff uncomfortable, but none of them vocalize that feeling. “Good,” Harden says, going back to the coaches, where McKenzie has gathered the entire offensive staff to dissect the playbook. “The hell’s the matter?” “This is bad,” McKenzie says. “Half the playbook needs to be scrapped. We drew up so many plays with him in the blocking scheme, and I don’t feel comfortable sliding Arcana into that role.” “Stop bitching, Mac. You’re the goddamn coach. Figure it out.” Ashley walks through the crowded hallway, nurses and patients flying by, with Logan at her side. The doctors encouraged her to walk up and down the halls to speed things along, but she doesn’t feel any closer. After a few more steps, they reach her room again. “Another lap?” Logan asks. “I don’t know. Isn’t the doctor about due to come around?” Logan feels his phone buzz and looks down. “Oh, my brother’s here.” “Great! Go say hi, I’ll wait here.” “You sure?” “It’ll be fine.” “Be back in a minute.” He kisses her on the cheek and scurries to the waiting area, where among a set of couches sit two unrelated men. Logan approaches the one closest to him, who doesn’t see him coming, eyes fixated on some nearby object. “Hey, Vic!” Victor Bishop looks up, sees his older brother, and rises from the couch. Logan hugs him before he can brace himself. “Good to see you,” Logan says. “This game, man,” Victor says, pointing to a nearby TV. Logan looks up and sees the Panthers/Knights broadcast. The scoreboard shows a 14-0 lead for Carolina, and the camera cuts to a shot of Coach Harden screaming at someone. Logan looks away. “I’m not worried about that right now,” he says. “Yeah, I know what you mean. How’s Ashley?” “Five centimeters dilated, so, soon.” “Oh man, I got here just in time. Awesome.” “Mom and Dad on their way?” “Yeah, they just left the house a few minutes ago, actually.” “Good, so they should make it. Listen, I’m gonna go check on Ashley. Text me when they’re here and I’ll come out if I can.” “Okay, great. Well, good luck, man.” The brothers shake hands and embrace one more time, and Logan disappears down the hallway. Victor falls onto the couch, and the happiness he feels for his brother wanes in favor of frustration at the football game. With three seconds before halftime, the Knights line up for a forty-two-yard field goal. Everyone on the home team’s sideline stands, wanting to get to the locker room as soon as possible. After a good snap and hold, McCabe boots it from the right hash. The kick sails wide left, missing the upright by about ten yards. “That figures,” Harden grumbles to himself as he removes his headset. Fans around the stadium boo with the Knights trailing, 17-6. Harden enters the locker room, and he can feel the frustration in the air, a feeling the Knights have experienced only once this year. A historic comeback saved them then; today, Harden has no idea what it will take. Before he can gather his defensive coaches, McKenzie walks up to him. “This is a nightmare,” McKenzie says. “We’re only down eleven.” “Every play I call they’ve got the perfect defense for. We need to scrap everything.” “Then do it. I look like I coach on your side of the ball? And the offense has looked like dog shit since kickoff. You’re just figuring out adjustments now?” “That’s not fair, Merle. Haven’t you been paying attention on the sideline?” “I’m busy on defense. Don’t break my fucking balls, Mac.” Harden walks away and finds his defensive staff. They have no good ideas, of course, so Harden figures the second half will provide continued suffering. The Panthers get the ball, and Cam Newton moves the chains with ease, as he has all afternoon. The Knights, with a predictably dominant Grantzinger and a surprisingly productive Harrington/Brock rotation, have gotten plenty of pass rush, but Newton’s scrambling ability has negated it. Of the Panthers’ 12 first downs in the first half, 6 came thanks to Newton’s legs. The Panthers reach midfield. Newton hands off to Jonathan Stewart on third and short, and Randall explodes through the line, crushing Stewart with a vicious hit that rouses the crowd. “Oh!” Harden yells. “At least someone came to play today!” Any momentum from Randall’s hit is squashed when a perfect coffin corner punt pins the Knights on their own one-yard line. McKenzie calls a few Jameson runs to get some space, then Maverick throws incomplete, and the Knights punt it back. Harden’s defense finally remembers how to play football, and the Panthers endure their first three-and-out of the day. With less terrible field position, the Knights get something going. McKenzie isn’t being too creative; he’s confident his original game plan can work, Bishop’s absence be damned. Maverick drops back near midfield on play-action, and the pass blocking picks up a blitz perfectly. Maverick steps up and bombs it for Wilkes, in single coverage. Wilkes catches the pass and outmuscles the helpless defender easily, waltzing into the end zone for his second touchdown of the day. Farmers Field screams in celebration with the Knights back in the game. Lining up to go for two again, Maverick gets the defense to jump on a hard count, putting the ball on the one, and Jameson punches it in. 17-14, Panthers. The Knights defense looks renewed, and the Panthers are on the verge of another three-and-out. On third and eight, Newton drops back and pressure flushes him left, running towards the Knights sideline. Harden backs up as Newton runs for the first-down marker, but with Flash closing, he won’t get there. Flash hits Newton on the edge of the field, and he falls out of bounds about two yards short. Harden starts clapping until he sees a yellow flag hit the ground. “What the fuck?!” he says, running up to the nearest official. “That’s in the field of play! The fucking ball wasn’t even out of bounds when he hit him!” The rest of the sideline protests too, to no avail. The personal foul gives the Panthers a first down, suddenly approaching midfield. “Unreal,” Harden says to himself. “This guy hasn’t gotten one call all year. Today, they decide to call everything. Fucking assholes.” Harden crosses his arms and watches as the Panthers grind out a few more first downs and Graham Gano makes a forty-yard field goal, extending the deficit to 20-14 as the third quarter ends. Above the stadium, the clouds from the first half have cleared up, and the sun beats down on the field in what is surely the hottest day of November. Just let this game end already, Harden finds himself thinking with sweat trickling down his neck. In crunch time now, McKenzie gives in to his instincts and operates an all-out passing attack. The Knights offense has been at its best in those situations anyway. Still, Bishop’s absence means the five-receiver sets won’t work. Instead, the Knights send out four receivers with NesSmith in the backfield. NesSmith is a mediocre runner but a better receiver out of the backfield than Jameson, and his pass blocking has improved a lot over the last year. Despite the shift in formation, Maverick has every nuance mastered. Blitz? Check it down to Johnson. Blanket coverage? Roll out and run or hit NesSmith on the option route. Cover two? Wilkes deep over the middle. Cover three? Harper or Watson toward the sideline. Maverick puts his knowledge on display, throwing darts all over the field and gaining yardage in large chunks. Confidence filters back into the stadium with each first down, and the crowd has reason to celebrate when a highlight reel sideline grab by Harper puts the Knights into Panthers’ territory. Maverick drops back against a blitz. He can’t see Johnson in the flat, so he scurries out of the pocket. Ready to run with green grass in front of him, he looks downfield and sees Watson wide open. He fires it as hard as he can toward the corner of the end zone. Watson slows down to stay in bounds with a defender closing, lets the pass hit him on the chest, and gets tackled. The ball is still clutched against his jersey, and he spikes it on the ground once the officials declare a touchdown. Despite the tied score, Harden gives McKenzie the green light for a two-point conversion. Maverick lines up under center in a bunch formation. The Panthers make it clear they’re doubling Wilkes, so Maverick takes the snap and looks right. Harper breaks on his route, but he’s covered. Under pressure, Maverick has nowhere to go with the ball and just throws it out of the back of the end zone. Fans boo angrily; the Knights just cost themselves the lead with unnecessary aggression. “Damn,” McKenzie says, knowing that Maverick normally would check that down to an open Bishop, and the Knights would put two points on the board. Maverick reaches the sideline and says to McKenzie, shaking his head, “If only we had—” “Yeah, yeah, I know, I know,” McKenzie says. “Don’t worry; he’s having more fun than we are.” An arduous, emotional round of screaming culminates, and while neither Logan nor Ashley think to look at a clock, the doctors and nurses have this procedure down to a science. And so, on November 27, 2016, at 3:16pm Pacific time, Eli Nathaniel Bishop officially enters the world. To Logan, everything happens quickly and slowly at the same time. The nurses perform a million tests, it seems, but Eli gets bundled up and placed in his mother’s arms. His heart rate, breathing, and all physical functions are normal, so he stays there. Logan and Ashley enjoy their first moments as parents, though Ashley is beyond exhausted. She fights it, and Logan doesn’t protest with the doctors giving her a clean bill of health as well. Eli is too tiny to tell for sure, but Logan thinks he looks more like Ashley. It will probably be years before they know whom he resembles more, of course. Logan thinks about other things he’ll experience in the future—first words, learning to walk, teaching him football. They all seemed like dreams months ago, minutes ago, but now that he can see his son, now that he can feel his skin, they seem much different. The medical procedures wrap up, and the new parents reluctantly give Eli away to take his place in the nursery. Ashley falls asleep almost instantly, so Logan sends for his parents. The new grandparents admire Eli from behind the nursery glass, between hugs and tears of congratulations and joy. Victor is next, and Logan is so dazed he doesn’t notice the distressed look on his brother’s face. “Yo,” Victor says, “the game—” “Not right now,” Logan says. “Say hello to your nephew.” He points through the glass, gives a few details, and Victor finds baby Eli in the crowd. “He’s beautiful, man,” Victor says. “Congratulations.” They exchange an awkward handshake that turns into a firm hug. Logan tells him to come back in a little while. Those minutes go quickly for Logan despite not much happening. Ashley rests, and Eli cries in the nursery, still fully healthy. Logan makes a point of thanking the doctors and nurses one more time. The euphoria begins to fade, and Logan decides it’s time for football again. Logan makes his way toward the waiting area, where he sees Victor pacing nervously, tapping away at his phone. They make eye contact, and Victor pockets the phone. “Okay,” Logan says. “Fill me in.” “Well,” Victor says, stumbling over his words, “there, um…” “Did we win?” “Yeah, we won, 27-23, but…” “But? What happened?” Victor looks around. “We should probably head to the south side of the hospital.” “Why?” “Because that’s where the emergency room is.” Panthers 23, Knights 20, 4:32 to play. After a Carolina punt sails out of bounds, officials spot the ball on the Los Angeles thirty-two. The Knights are about thirty yards from a game-tying field goal and exactly sixty-eight yards from a game-winning touchdown. “Let’s go, men!” Harden says to the offense as they run onto the field. He’s about fed up with this game, and he can’t take overtime. They need to win it here or be done with it. Maverick drops back and hits Harper on consecutive completions. The Panthers have shaded increasingly towards Wilkes this quarter, which is fine. The Knights have enough receiving threats to go around. Hurrying the pace with the clock ticking, Maverick gets everyone lined up, the entire stadium on edge. He goes through his cadence, working a hard count again. A white jersey jumps into the neutral zone. Penner snaps the ball, and Maverick takes a deep drop with a free play. He tracks Wilkes, steps up, and gets crushed, holding onto the ball. Harden takes a few steps onto the field, not seeing a flag. “OFFSIDES! OFFSIDES!” Officials spot the ball for second and seventeen as an incredulous Maverick pleads with the referee. “HE WAS OVER THE GODDAMN LINE!” Harden yells as officials and coaches usher him back onto the sideline. He keeps working the refs as McKenzie calls the next play. Feeling his throat dry, Harden tries to relax. But his heart keeps pounding, and it feels like he’s got a wad of mucus in his throat. Breaths escape his mouth as gasps. Gasps become coughs. He walks toward a nearby table for some water. By the time he gets there, his hand trembles as he grabs the cup. He subconsciously blocks a hard cough with his hand, and he blinks repeatedly, feeling lightheaded and seeing a spat of blood covering his hand. Players and coaches nearby witness Harden looking strangely at his hand before he stumbles, his face as white as the chalk lines on the field, and he falls to the ground.