After the Game (Page 16)

Coach would talk to us and remind us who we were and what we’d come here for. He was good at halftime talks. I could count on him to get the team’s heads back up and ready to go fight.

There would be roars and fists in the air as we charged back onto the field. This wasn’t the first halftime we had been behind. It was just the first time we had been shaken. The way we had played tonight should have had us a touchdown or more ahead. Not behind.

“Where is your head tonight?” Gunner asked me as he lifted himself up from the locker he’d been leaning on.

Was he blaming me for this? “Not sure what you mean by that,” I replied, anger slowly building inside me. The accusation on his face was enough to tell me he was pointing at me instead of all of us. “This is a team. Where is your head?” I shot back.

“F**k that. You’ve got the ball. You run the team. And I’ve been playing ball with you since we were kids. Your head isn’t with us out there. So where the f*****g hell is it? Because we need it on that field.” He was yelling now.

“Back off, Gunner,” West said, stepping up between us. Nash and Asa had also moved closer to us. As if a fight was about to start and they all needed to be there to break it up.

“No! He is going to lose us this game. His head isn’t there, and we need it!” Gunner yelled. “Hunter is a damn sophomore and not ready for this. We can’t hand the game over to him. We need Brady to get it together before we walk back onto that field.”

I wanted to get in his face and tell him just where he could shove his accusation. The idea of slamming my fist into his face was also appealing. However, he was right. My head wasn’t completely there. Gunner was the only one with balls enough to point it out.

“Go drink some water and calm down,” Asa told Gunner. They all thought we were about to tie up. Any other time, I just might do it. But tonight Gunner was right. This was my fault. Admitting it hurt, but it was true.

“What’s going on out there, boys?” Coach asked as he entered the field house. The local media had stopped him for an interview on his way to us, so he’d missed the confrontation.

Everyone but Gunner turned to look at Coach while Gunner’s eyes stayed glued to me. He was waiting on his answer. He wasn’t getting one because the truth would cause more than just me messing up. Hell would break loose.

“I’m off tonight,” I replied to Coach’s question while keeping eye contact with Gunner. “This is all on me.”

That was the first moment I’d had to do this in a locker room in all the years I’d been playing. It had never been me. It had always been someone else I had to talk out of whatever funk they were dealing with. This was hard. Like admitting I was a failure.

“Then let’s fix this. You’re the best senior quarterback in Alabama, Brady. Or did you forget that?” Coach replied.

I hadn’t forgotten. I may not agree, but I hadn’t forgotten the title had been given to me in the latest stats. If I lost this, Riley would blame herself. This wasn’t her fault. It was mine. This wasn’t just for me; it was for this entire team and our town.

“I’m ready,” I told him.

Coach nodded and started in on his plan for the next half. Now we had seen the Panthers’ play and their strategy, we had to adjust ours. I soaked it in and managed to put Riley Young out of my mind. Tonight I had a lot to prove. Especially now.

As we ran back onto the field, Gunner came up beside me. “We’ve got this.”

That was his way of apologizing. Making sure we were okay.

I nodded in agreement. Because we were. We’d win this game tonight. Then we would prepare for next week. It was almost at an end for us and Lion football. Graduation would be our next step.

I was ready for the future, but the smell of the fresh-cut grass and the cheer in the crowd while the guys who learned to play football with me when we were kids were all huddled around me—that would be missed. We’d never get that back.

Because of them, because of that memory and all the others that went with it, I gave everything I had and then some I didn’t know I had. With each play called, I focused harder than ever. I drowned out the roar of the fans. I ignored the pop shots called at me from the other team. I had one mission. One drive. To win this game.

And we did. By three touchdowns.

I Owe Tonight to You

CHAPTER 19

RILEY

If I said I went to bed without staying up to watch the news, I would be lying. I was nervous. I had never been nervous over a football game in my entire life. But I was now. I had barely been able to eat dinner, but I had forced myself to so my mother wouldn’t question me. Typically I had a great appetite.

Dad was sitting in his recliner with his feet propped up and one of the many blankets my grandmamma had knitted thrown over his legs. His evening bowl of cereal was in his hands as he watched the local news come on. I never watched the news with him, so I tried very casually to walk in and take a seat on the sofa.

Mom was much more observant, so I was thankful tonight she was soaking in a bath at the moment and not out here watching the news with him. She’d question my being out here.

“You still awake?” he asked as if I went to bed early every night. I normally went to my room relatively early, but rarely to sleep. I’d play a game on my phone or read a book. Those sorts of things.

“Yeah,” I replied, hoping he left it at that. Normally my dad wasn’t a big talker. But when he had something to say, it was always important. He didn’t waste words. That’s what Mom always said about him.

Thankfully the reporter started talking about gas prices, and Dad fell silent. I could hear him eat the crunchy flakes in his bowl and was glad he had something else to do with his mouth other than talk.

After they covered soaring gas prices, a house burning down in a neighboring town, and the president’s new insurance plan, they finally played the clip of a football flying through the air, which meant the local teams’ scores were about to be posted.

“The Lawton Lions have done it again” were the first words out of the news anchor’s mouth, and I let out an actual sigh of relief. The lady droned on to say that Brady Higgens had struggled through the first half but he’d come back in the second half and owned the game. The Panthers hadn’t been ready for him, or at least that was the Panthers’ coach’s take on it when they asked him. He seemed impressed, and although he was sweating and tired-looking from the game, he agreed that Higgens was the best quarterback in the state. He’d now experienced it and looked forward to following the boy’s career.

A little burst of pride welled up in me, and that was silly, but it was the truth. We had been friends as kids but not anything special. I had been friends with all of them. Brady had always been the leader, even when we’d all been playing together on the swing set at the park.

It made sense that he was the leader now. I stood up to leave when the recaps of tonight’s game moved on to something else.

“Guess you can sleep now knowing that boy had a good game,” Dad said as I was leaving the room.

I paused and winced. I was a little obvious walking out just after that news. “He was nervous and possibly the only friend I’ll ever have in this town.”

That was the best explanation I had, and it was the truth.

“He’s a good kid. Talented athlete. But I will say I’m more proud of him for ignoring the rest of them and reaching out to be your friend anyway. He has a lot riding on him, so to see him take a stand like this gives me hope for that bunch after all. Brady is their leader. They may buck him at first but eventually . . .” He trailed off.

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