They say that an NFL training camp tests the will of champions. While Blaine Fife finishes his fourth set of gassers, his heart pumps as hard as a spoon hammering a kettle at a corral. After racing through the final leg—a sprint from the fifty-yard line—he stands up straight, trying to lock eyes with Coach Strawman.
On the sidelines, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Head Coach, Wade Strawman, twirls his whistle, overseeing players racing from end zone to yard mark and back, each leg a five yard increment until they reach midfield. Back and forth they go, touching chalk. These are called gassers and some of the older veterans and ambitious rookies—ones who overestimate their stamina—tip over, the sun baking their sweat drenched jerseys. Most of those who finish clasp their hands behind their helmets, breathing in saturated air from the thunderstorm earlier in the day. Some bend over, scratching the rashes underneath their kneepads.
The old coach adjusts his visor and whispers something to Timothy Roman, the Offensive Coordinator. His index finger points at two wide receivers competing for roster spots—Hugh Worthy and Cameron Carlyle—late round picks who have worked with Fife over the past week and half. Over that period, Fife established chemistry and perfected timing routes with these two. Their preseason game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looms and the first round of cuts hang in the balance. At this moment, Worthy and Carlyle are squirting spare Gatorade bottles at each other. These two clowns could be cut even before the first preseason game and Fife does not have the time to work on timing routes with any free agents brought in to take over their reps.
Coach Strawman pulls the whistle to his lips, so Fife sprints ten yards across the end zone, his veins oozing acid. His neck burns. When the whistle sounds, Fife rips a bottle from Worthy’s hands.
“Quit acting like a bunch of baffoons,” Fife mutters. “This ain’t college anymore.”
“What in God’s tar pit is going on over there?” asks Coach Strawman. “Who are these two minions, anyway?”
The water boy sprints over as Olama Swinson, the Wide Receivers Coach, shouts, “Worthy and Carlyle.”
“More like Beavis and Butthead,” yells Strawman. “Who told y’all to waste that? You see your teammates huffing and puffing and you selfishly play piss pass with one another.”
Fife hands the bottles to the water boy, grabs Worthy’s facemask, and whispers, “Get it together, man. Do you want to make this squad or not?”
“Why do you care, Fifey?” asks Worthy. He slaps the young quarterback’s hand away. “It ain’t like they care about you, anyway.”
While Fife gulps, he steps in front of Worthy, who tries to walk to Coach Swinson. Cutting him off, Fife plants his palm over the top of receiver’s shoulder pads, saying, “We’ve worked too hard to let this petty stuff continue. Help me make you better.”
“Stuff?” asks Worthy. “Just say crap, Mormon.”
As Worthy blinks, Fife hopes the words get through to him. Worthy’s point is that they’re up against impossible odds. But this is no reason to be cut before performing on the field. Their game against the Bucs should speak for itself.
Worthy adjusts his helmet, pats Fife on the butt, and says, “Cool.”
Fife sprints back to his section of the end zone, while Coach Swinson chews out his rookie receivers, questioning them on team philosophy and whether they want NFL jobs or not. As Coach Strawman orders the linemen to do another set of gassers, Fife locks eyes with the old coach. Fife understands that the coaching staff has paid attention to him. It feels like the first time.
Camp arm—this is the title for a quarterback brought into training camp to compete for a backup job, but in all reality, he is just some no one acquired by a franchise to throw the football to promising young receivers, each with a better chance at making the final roster.
To make matters worse, Blaine Fife—an undrafted rookie out of Southern Utah State University—must vie against Thomas Honeycutt, the league MVP; Robby Pinkerton, an eleven-year veteran with starting and playoff experience; and Earl Jackson, a third round rookie drafted to be the long term backup. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that Fife fits the prototypical camp arm, and he has little choice in the matter. It is either quit or compete. Other franchises passed on him in the draft for a reason, and like many throughout NFL history, all Fife has left is a hope and a dream.
The Chiefs’ training camp is at Missouri Western State University, located in St. Joseph, Missouri. This forces players to be crammed into vacant dorm rooms, paired with a roommate. It is like reliving college all over again, except without women sneaking between the halls. Fife calls his fiancé, Whitney Covington, who he has not seen for a month. They believed it was best for her to stay in Utah, just in case an early cut happened. That doesn’t stop Fife from studying the real estate section of the Yellow Pages in between memorizing formations in his playbook.
“I miss you, baby,” says Whitney. “The heat isn’t getting to you?”
Fife rubs the bruise on his kneecap, an injury he suffered due to a clumsy offensive guard allowing a tackle to manhandle him while Fife bought extra time in the pocket. Two seconds too early, an interception. Two seconds too late, you get sacked.
“It’s fine,” says Fife. “The hardest part is grasping Coach Roman’s playbook. Like I need to know how to adjust in case of a zone scheme or if the linebackers show a blitz. I have to anticipate the receivers to redirect their routes at the line of scrimmage.”
“All Greek to me,” says Whitney. “You’ll get it quicker than a cow to hay.”
Fife’s dorm mate, Jonathan Edelman, keeps adjusting his Beats by Dre. The phones are plugged into the man’s ear, but the music is entirely too loud, tambourines being slammed and drums looping through a sampler. As Edelman scratches at his dreads, Fife pumps his palms down, warning him to lower the volume.
“Man, why you always so concerned about everyone,” says Edelman, unplugging one phone. “You know that Arrowhead Stadium is louder than these here beats, so I’ll be able to hear an audible.”
“But you don’t want to go deaf before your twenty-sixth birthday,” says Fife.
Edelman plops the earphones back in, muttering, “And I thought that I was the veteran here.”
It is true that Edelman—the tight end out of Arizona State—has played in the league for three years, but he is also a camp casualty waiting to happened. A former fifth round pick, Edelman is in the final year of his contract and only has twenty-five career receptions and no touchdowns to show for it. In practice, Coach Strawman only gave Edelman first team reps when he was required to block, but on the scout team, he worked as Fife’s receiving tight end. Though the two have connected a few times during live drills, their chemistry seemed off when Fife was required to take five step drops, since by the time he planted his feet, Edelman was well past his in cut or skinny post.
“Who’s that?” asks Whitney.
“My tight end,” says Fife.
“I miss your tight end, baby,” says Whitney. She laughs, causing Fife to pull the phone away. Ringing echoes in his ears.
“I thought that you were Mormons,” says Edelman, flipping through his playbook. “Y’all can’t be talking like that.”
Edelman is correct to assume that Fife is a Mormon, not because he hails from the state of Utah—no—that would be stereotypical. The Book of Mormon has been sitting on the nightstand over the course of the week. However, Whitney’s family subscribes to no such religion. Whitney’s father had said to him, “As long as you don’t turn her into some polygamist.”
Fife asks, “How can you hear that?”
Edelman says, “Like I said, Arrowhead. Always Arrowhead.”
“So Mom’s freaking out about our wedding,” says Whitney. “We might have to cut back on some of the perks.”
Fife knows what she’s about to get into. She’s about to go on about her mother and the mess at the bakery. In Salt Lake City, Whitney’s parents own a pastry business that has been around for over twenty-one years. Though a staple of the community and voted Utah’s best pastry shop once upon a time, the current economy left local businesses on edge. The cost of flour and sugar continued to climb every year, and with the presence of Obamacare, Republicans in Utah preached an emphasis on businesses offering better benefits for employees. Given the bakery is in the reddest of red states, diehard Republicans were seeking jobs from people who would offer them opportunities to fight Obamacare, and with the cost of insurance premiums reaching all-time highs, Whitney’s parents witnessed some of their most loyal employees leaving.
As Fife glances out the window, Thomas Honeycutt—the starting quarterback—signs autographs for a group of fans camped out in the parking lot. Little boys smile as the man poses for pictures. Grown men snap the camera, cocking it sideways in hopes of capturing the memory from several angles. Fife has to admit—he admires how the league MVP handles himself as a professional off the field.
Fife begins to daydream about the day Whitney moves to Kansas City, how the two will sit at a relator’s office, hashing out the paperwork before moving into their starter home. They will have three bedrooms, one for the two children that they’d have in the near future. Their yard will only be a few square feet of grass with a clean walkway and a porch swing. Every week, Fife will set money aside to put his kids through college. It’ll be glorious, modest, and downright beautiful. As he dreams the perfect dream, Whitney’s very real voice shrills through the speaker as details about their upcoming wedding are brought up.
Though Fife feels bad for Whitney’s parents, he doesn’t foresee both living in the basement of the Covington residence for the rest of their lives. Immediately after they both graduated from Southern Utah State, they moved into that house in order to compensate for the unknown. Whitney earned a degree in Criminal Justice, but instead of finding a job, she replaced one of the fleeing employees at the bakery. Fife had his eye on the NFL, so sitting in this room, watching Edelman jam out to his rap music, he understands the importance of making the Chiefs’ roster against all odds. The difference means living in the Covington residence and working at the pastry shop to make ends meet, or providing a stable home for Whitney, away from the craziness of Utah.
“Oh, shoot,” says Whitney. “Mom’s knocking on the door. Call me tomorrow, okay?”
Though Fife feels guilty for not paying attention to all that Whitney said, he’s relieved that he can get back to studying his playbook. He paces away from the window and plops on his bed.
“You got it,” Fife says. “I love you, sugar bee.”
As Fife hangs up the phone, Edelman turns off this MP3, thumbing through his playbook. He points at a play that requires him to run a skinny post or an in cut to the strong side, depending on the formation.
“We’ve been messing this one up a lot,” says Edelman. “It is like the safety blankets me the moment I cut up field.”
Fife understands that he must accept blame for this, being the quarterback. However, Coach Simpson—the Quarterbacks Coach—and Coach Roman have been insisting that he take five step drops in order to spread out the field. A three step drop would allow for the ball to be released much faster and give Edelman space to use his big body to bulldoze the safety. After all, if he’s being used as a blocker with the first team, imagine the punishment he could deliver to opposing tacklers.
“I know that I’m not getting the ball off quick enough.”
“It’s a rookie mistake, sure,” says Edelman, “but if you care so much about my hearing, then you should care more about us making this squad.”
“I’m still grasping these double tight end plays, man,” says Fife. “At Southern Utah, we ran out of the gun. It was stand there like a statue, go through your progressions, and fire to the open man.”
“Free agents make excuses,” says Edelman. “You’ve got to get the ball out quicker. And that offense was meant for your quick release, right?”
“So you’re saying that I should just defy what the coaches say and take three step drops?”
“Now you’re starting to think like a veteran. You’ve got to play up your strengths to at least make the practice squad. It’s about buying time to develop your weaknesses.”
Edelman stands up to use the bathroom. Fife opens the playbook, takes out a sticky note, and jots down, “Three step drop?” He presses it against the play Edelman mentioned—Double Tight, Z-Wide Split. As he imagines Coach Roman throwing down the clipboard, calling him a dumbass for forgetting the five step drop, he ponders if such a thing could gain him the reputation for being uncoachable. Then again, he pictures Whitney’s frown, thinking about something she had told him after he played it safe and lost Southern Utah State a playoff game—No risk, no reward.
The script for the first preseason game normally goes like this, assuming injuries do not pile up (which they always do)—the first team plays one series, roughly eight to twelve plays, the second team finishes out the first half, and the entire second half is devoted to players on the third string or just trying to make the squad. Through one half of football, Kansas City’s game against the Buccaneers goes according to plan, with only a reserve linebacker and a backup safety suffering dislocated bones.
Since Thomas Honeycutt is league MVP, Coach Strawman only has him handoff the ball through the first series and then instructs him to take a seat on the bench. There’s absolutely zero reason to risk the face of the franchise in what seems like a meaningless game, but for Fife, the learning experience is everything. Once the backup quarterback, Robby Pinkerton, enters, Fife and Earl Jackson hold clipboards, taking close notes as they wear headsets, listening to Coach Roman call in plays. At times, Pinkerton audibles, finding a mismatch and flaps his arms toward his hot read. As expected, Pinkerton dissects the Tampa Two defense, taking short passes, eating up clock, and converting first downs. Though Pinkerton—an eleven year veteran—makes minimal mistakes like an underthrown ball here and there, he does enough to get the offense into field goal range, helping the Chiefs score points. If anything, Fife understands how to find the underneath routes on second and third down, but he wonders why the offense can’t complete the job and score touchdowns. Is this the difference between starting quarterbacks and backups? Making the team is the goal, yes, but Fife questions if he wants to be like Pinkerton—someone holding down a job and only used as an emergency policy—or someone who can lead the offense.
At halftime, the Chiefs lead the Buccaneers 9-7 and the team crowds the locker room, having short conversations with their position coaches. Coach Swinson yells at the receivers, ordering them to fight off the cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage. They were getting jammed and sometimes driven out of bounds, making Pinkerton’s reads a bit tougher from the pocket, forcing him to dump the ball off to the running backs.
Coach Simpson slaps Earl Jackson on the shoulder pads, asking, “Are you ready to show the fans a flash of your Sugar Bowl brilliance?”
“You know it, coach,” says Jackson, lifting up his right sleeve. On his Under Armour rests a Georgia Bulldogs patch. “I’ve always got my swag. We’ll put one in the end zone.”
“I expect more than one,” says Coach Simpson. “Coach Roman says that you may go the entire half, so be ready.”
Fife stands up and presses Coach Simpson’s arm, instantly regretting the impulse to speak. Impulse strikes in moments of desperation and Fife imagines his cellphone blowing up Sunday afternoon, being one of the first cuts. “What about me?” asks Fife. “I’m ready to go. And did you see the safeties cheating up at the beginning of the second quarter? They’re giving up the deep middle.”
“Yeah, if a receiver can get off the line quick enough to blaze by,” says Coach Simpson. “Make sure to keep an eye for that, Jackson. I’m hoping their corners are naïve and are not physical enough to handle Carlyle’s speed.”
Jackson slapped Fife on the chest and says, “Thanks for the tip, Fifey.”
Though Fife wants to question how Jackson couldn’t have seen it, he sighs and says, “Sure thing, man. Be sure to get rid of the ball fast, too.”
“Oh, you know me,” says Jackson. “I’ll make a play if things break down.”
Fife knows full well how Jackson handles a pocket collapsing. Though the Chiefs’ coaching staff has emphasized trusting the offensive line and hanging in the pocket, Jackson’s calling card throughout college was to run past defensive linemen and blitzing linebackers if the first read wasn’t there. Scouts loved Jackson’s speed and felt that he could run a spread option in the NFL, since his ability to sprint around Clemson’s defense in the Sugar Bowl raised his stock. Fife could not understand why the Chiefs drafted Jackson in the third round, since they didn’t run a spread option.
“Be ready if called upon, Fifey,” says Coach Simpson. “You never know when your number’s up.”
As Fife walks to the urinal, Jonathan Edelman tightens his belt. He pops his neck and says, “Fucking Arrowhead, man.”
“What?” Fife asks as he urinates. “It wasn’t too loud. Maybe my headset took something off.”
Patting Fife on the butt, Edelman laughs and mutters, “This is preseason. You haven’t heard dick until you’ve experienced a Chiefs regular season game. It’s like playing through an earthquake and erupting volcano happening at once.”
“They’re not going to put me in,” says Fife, finishing up. He adjusts his jock strap.
“Jackson’s a train wreck on wheels,” says Edelman, pulling Fife in closer. He whispers into his ear, “You’re not getting cut. They know he might get hurt and they can’t afford to bring in another veteran to be the third quarterback. Keep your head up and your game tight. We’ll do some damage on the field, brother.”
Edelman tightens his fist, anticipating a pound.
“We just took a leak,” says Fife.
Edelman yanks Fife’s hand, molding it into a ball. As a result, Fife’s pants dropped to his kneepads. As their knuckles embrace, other players walk by, laughing at the sight. Someone mentions how Fife’s jock strap is sexier than a G-string on a premium stripper.
“Screw that, man,” says Edelman. “After you play this game long enough, germs will be the least of your concerns.”
Fife pulls up his pants and the bruise on his kneecap begins to flare a bit. Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise, since he should be completely healthy for the next preseason game. He says, “Go kick some ass.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. A Mormon with a potty mouth!”
Sunday marks the first round of cuts and everyone is on edge. Fife, Worthy, Carlyle, Edelman, and some reserve linemen stare at their cellphones aligned over the jagged oak, makeshift table. Moe’s Bar-Ba-Que has many tables like this one, with vertical logs as seats. In the corner, locals play horseshoes and shuffleboard, not paying attention to any of the players. The sun beats down the dirt, causing flies to hover everywhere over strips of pork and brisket. Globs of spicy meat sauce stay over wax paper.
As Fife nibbles a rib, he notices that not even the hosses—his big, beefy offensive linemen—are enjoying their meal. Sighs and humidity fill the empty space. Suddenly, Fife’s cellphone buzzes, causing everyone to jump up. Carlyle grabs a fly swatter, pointing it like a fencer at his own mobile device.
“It could be a disease, ready to spread,” Carlyle says.
“You’re not getting cut,” says Edelman. “You scored the game winning touchdown.”
It is true. With fifty seconds left on the clock against the Buccaneers, Earl Jackson hurled a forty yard dart on Carlyle’s streak route. He burned the cornerbacks out of position and the cheating safeties. He finished the game with a touchdown, five receptions, and ninety receiving yards, so his spot is safe for now.
Fife’s phone continues to rattle. He fears who could be on the other line.
“Someone pick it up,” says Worthy.
Edelman creeps near it, snatches it like a dead rodent, and stares at the screen. He sticks his tongue out, hissing, and says, “It’s just the soon-to-be Mormon wife.” He answers, disguising his voice like a decrepit old lady, hyperventilating into the speaker, saying, “Ma’s Bingo Hall. Ma speaking,” and then tosses the phone to Fife.
While Fife bobbles it, everyone crowds over their chow.
“Hey, honey,” says Fife.
“What’s a camp arm?” asks Whitney.
Blinking, Fife dreads this conversation. Sure, he knows that he’d have to explain himself for not being put in against the Buccaneers, but he never thought the phrase camp arm would be uttered in this explanation.
“I’ll get in during the next preseason game,” says Fife. “Don’t worry about me.”
“But Dad was having a conversation with someone at the diner and that guy said that they only brought you in as a camp arm and you’ll be gone soon. I know the arm has something to do with playing quarterback and that you’re at training camp, but it sounds like a nasty thing.”
Fife walks past the men playing horseshoes and the jukebox under the patio. He does not want the others to hear about what he’s going to say, giving them ammunition to razz on him later. In the parking lot, haze comes off algae outlining pot holes.
“It’s a term of endearment, babe,” says Fife. “Did you know that Tom Brady, Kurt Warner, and Jake Delhomme were all camp arms before becoming full-time starters?”
“I’ve heard of the other two, but who’s Jake Del-whoever?” asks Whitney.
“They brought me here to compete,” says Fife. “And that’s what I’m doing. I’m pushing others to do better and they’re pushing me.”
“Yeah, but does that mean you’ll make the team? It seems wrong to cut you without letting you play a preseason game.”
“I’m not getting cut today,” says Fife, fidgeting at the word today, which could have been left out entirely.
After a brief silence, sniffling creeps over the speaker. Fife imagines her curling up in bed, a box of tissues over a stack of unread magazines.
“Will they at least pay you? I don’t think Mom and Dad have much money left for the wedding.”
This is the worst-case scenario Fife has planned all along. If he does not make the team, then the preseason checks will go to the wedding and initial payments on a two carat, round cut diamond ring.
“Of course they’ll pay. Though it might not be much, the point is we’ll be together forever. Heck, maybe we can spare your folks the expense and just get married at the courthouse.”
The crying ceases and as Fife hears frogs and crickets in the background, he turns around, seeing his teammates standing around the corner, pointing and chuckling. On one hand, they are entertained every time Whitney calls about every small problem, but then again, Fife just believes they’re secretly looking for any excuse to get away from their own phones.
“Let’s not get off track, here,” says Whitney, her voice direct and defiant now. “You better get on the field and earn game checks, if it’s the last thing you do.”
Though Fife, Edelman, Worthy, and Carlyle all survive the first round of cuts, trouble happens during a joint practice with the Packers. The Chiefs travel a few days early to Santa Clara, California before their scheduled preseason game against the 49ers, but the Packers make this west coast trip, too, in preparation for their game against the Oakland Raiders. Since the two teams have to share a practice field for a few days, a scrimmage seems beneficial to both sides, as long as they agree not to murder each other’s quarterbacks.
As Honeycutt, Pinkerton, Jackson, and Fife take turns working on timing routes with their respective receivers, cameras set up outside the barricades. This year, the NFL selected the Green Bay Packers to be the team on HBO’s Hard Knocks. Position coaches instruct everyone to be on their best behavior, since the entire country will be watching this next Sunday. Coach Strawman yells at the offensive and defensive linemen to compete hard, but don’t make the franchise look like a bunch of jackasses by getting into any fist fights—which, let’s face it, is like telling a bunch of hungry dogs not to eat a steak.
Before Worthy approaches the line of scrimmage, he points at some lady hollering at him. He strokes the imaginary hair that would otherwise cover his helmet, styling and profiling. He jumps in mid-air, hyped like a jackrabbit, his knees touching his chest.
“Let’s do this!” he yells.
“Knock that off and run your hitch,” shouts Fife, holding the ball out as if he were getting it from the center. “Hike!”
Worthy sprints twelve yards, pivots his left foot, and slightly curves back his route as if tracing the small end of a checkmark. Fife takes a five step drop and hurls the football, a tight spiral whipping off his fingertips as it sails seven yards, hitting Worthy right in the numbers.
“Nice throw, Fifey,” says Coach Simpson, “but try not to cross over when getting to that third step. Stay on your toes and lean into your throw. It is important to protect your body in the follow through. You don’t want some mammoth, Reggie White wannabe trucking you post-delivery.”
Fife says nothing. At Southern Utah State, he learned to just listen and never debate the coach. To question or argue back gives the appearance of being disgruntled, that you’re somewhat above the game. The player’s job, at least when starting out, is to absorb information. Stay on your toes. Check. Lean into your body. Check. Protect your body in case you have a long career? Possibly.
Thomas Honeycutt licks his lips while spinning the ball in his hand. He sees a bunch of Packer players heckling fifty yards away, thrusting their hips forward, and using their helmets as phallic symbols. The pelvic thrust has been a trademark of Honeycutt’s end zone dance ever since entering the league, and though harmless, if not classless, some have said that the dance is secretly a nod to the gay community. Though it has not been confirmed, rumor has it that Honeycutt is a closeted homosexual and has a live-in boyfriend that stays in his offseason Malibu beach house. TMZ snapped some well publicized pictures of some guy in Honeycutt’s kitchen, wearing his jersey and a man thong. Ever since then, Honeycutt laughed off the accusations, claiming that the guy is a roommate who holds down the fort during the season.
Carlyle steps up to the line of scrimmage as Packer players blow kisses and massage the top of their helmets. One player, Marcellus Peters—a Pro Bowl defensive end for the Packers who lead the league in sacks—starts twirling around like a ballerina. Earl Jackson stares down, planting a hand under his facemask, hiding laugher. Everyone else stands still, keeping quiet. You don’t question the leader of the franchise. You just let him do his thing.
“Yo, rook,” says Honeycutt. “Deep fly. Be sure to catch up to the ball.”
Carlyle salutes him, waiting for the hike. As Honeycutt drops back, he waits a moment to allow Carlyle to accelerate through his stride, running in a straight line. Honeycutt lets it rip, the ball picking up steam as it arcs higher into the sky. Fife stares at it, pulling on his chinstrap. He’s pretty sure what everyone else is thinking: Oh no. We’re going to have to pull him out of this mess.
Sure enough, the ball pegs Peters in the neck, knocking him down. Being three yards behind the ball, Carlyle has no time to slow down. The man flies and soars through the wall of Packers, knocking a few on their behinds, causing Carlyle to crash face first into the ground. Without hesitation, the remaining Packer players swarm, lift him to his feet, and proceed to drive him to the sidelines.
Fife sprints fifty yards, his brothers in shoulder pads following the charge. It dawns on him that he’s the first to react and wonders if Coach Strawman will blame him for causing the riot. Sure, the coaching staff specifically said, “Don’t fight,” but you don’t just allow the other team to punish and hold your teammate hostage.
Cutting into the crowd, Fife pulls Carlyle out of the pile. Other Chief and Packer players grab at each other’s jerseys, trying to power drive one another by locking hands underneath their shoulder pads. Some take wild swings with closed fists, but before one lands, both coaching staffs separate their teams, canceling the planned scrimmage.
As cameramen move past the barricade, trying to get closer to the action and hoping to capture a few choice words—since HBO encourages cussing and slips of the tongue—Fife notices Honeycutt laughing fifty yards away, chatting up fans more interested in his presence than the fight. When Coach Strawman and Coach Roman order Carlyle to grab his gear and head to the locker room, some loose cannon Packer player clubs his helmet at Fife.
While falling down, Fife’s chinstrap bucks, the ringing within white noise blocking out everything else.
Fife says, “I’ve got to play, doc.” Concussion protocol is something the NFL takes very seriously, ever since ESPN began bringing stories about CTE to the spotlight. It didn’t help that the Will Smith movie, Concussion, singlehandedly tried to destroy the NFL, too. For a veteran that a franchise heavily invested in, a concussion meant that he got a vacation from the rest of training camp and his only focus is to be ready for the regular season opener, but for undrafted rookies like Fife, a concussion could be an instant career killer.
“We’ll see about the results,” says Om Nigari, the team’s head physician.
Fife scooches the rolling stool closer, his hands pressed in prayer. “Please. I can’t afford to miss another preseason game. They’ll cut me once they get word about the concussion.”
Nigari jots a note into a folder, closes it, and says, “You’ll know on game day. Keep calm and don’t put too much stress on yourself. If it’s a concussion, you’ll make it worse.”
A sharp pain throbs through Fife’s head, but he refuses to grit his teeth or show signs of trauma; however, how could he not stress about this? Nigari leaves him next to a cold table alone. Fife thinks of Whitney’s words from their phone conversation—You better get on the field and earn game checks. Just like that, the image of the quaint starter home shrivels into the Covington basement; the smiling faces during his wedding evaporate into empty seats at the courthouse.
Later that night, Fife reads articles about concussions online. According to a study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, twenty-six out of every twenty-seven concussions found in college football players go unreported, and during Blaine Fife’s time at Southern Utah State University, there was at least one time he played through it.
In a playoff game against Western Nevada University, Fife’s team was down 24-20 with forty-two seconds left on the clock with no timeouts when a blitzing linebacker popped him in the earhole. Fife released the football just in time, but his body jerked sideways and replays would show his knees buckling, as if he experienced whiplash. For a moment, he blacked out, but when he snapped out of it he felt his linemen releasing him in shotgun position, telling him just to hurl the ball fast to the running back. A few seconds later, the ball snapped, hitting him in the chest. Everyone appeared in the daze and Fife’s first read, the tight end, flashed in triple vision. When the pocket collapsed, Fife threw the ball without looking. A replay would show him launching it in the end zone, where his receiver was double covered. The cornerback cut off the route, deflecting the ball. Up it went, end over end, into another receiver running an underneath crossing route. Southern Utah State University scored a touchdown with fifteen seconds left.
In the field of play, Fife didn’t remember much. Only replays from the game filtered in the cold reality regarding what happened. Had Fife experienced another blow on the field, he was sure that he’d be in a coma eating out of a vegetable tube. How he made it back to the sidelines and was not questioned by a doctor often confused him.
Some sports writers claimed that it was the single greatest play ever in Southern Utah State football history, but Fife never really questioned the price until talking with Dr. Nigari.
Though the test results show no major head trauma, the Chiefs decide to keep Fife out for the 49ers game. To make matters worse, Whitney travels to Santa Clara to watch the game and while they drive out to dinner after the 49ers won 17-7, she raises questions about why Earl Jackson played the entire second half.
“All he does is run the ball,” she says, jerking the wheel. Her tiny Buick Regal weaves in and out of traffic. The way Whitney drives has always made Fife nervous and the night lights amplify what he assumes is a lingering migraine.
“If anything, they drafted him for his athleticism,” says Fife, rubbing a thumb against his temple.
“Baby, what’s wrong?” asks Whitney. “You keep tugging at your head as if you’re removing a tumor.”
Fife hates that he hasn’t told Whitney about the injury that he suffered from the mysterious Packer player. It was not an official concussion, so Fife wants to believe that he’s not lying to her, but he knows better. Her parents don’t have a HBO subscription, so he thinks the chances of them seeing his appearance on Hard Knocks is slim—no need to worry her.
“I just want to have a nice dinner,” he says, leaning over to kiss her. “You have no idea how much I’ve missed you.”
“When do you fly back to Missouri?” Whitney asks. “Do you think that I should fly out to Kansas City to watch you next week?”
Fife envisions an empty suitcase, aside with a red jersey with the number five on it. Only his fiancé would wear it, since no one really knows him outside of being a camp arm, but after missing two games, he wonders if he’s somehow downgraded below that title.
“We can’t afford it,” says Fife. “You barely had the dough to drive down here.”
“Utah’s not far. It’s the closest we’ve been since you attended voluntary rookie camps.”
Once they enter a Logan’s Roadhouse, Fife gains some sense of clarity. The headaches ease a bit and he focuses on her long, red dress and how the neckline plunges a bit. Her lipstick matches, outlining the curves of her mouth without a single splotch. She wears small pearl earrings, something that her mother gave to her back when their bakery was prosperous. When Fife glances at the menu, he wants a steak and feels guilty about mentioning money earlier. He thinks Whitney will order a salad and drink water.
“Do you want an appetizer?” asks Fife. “Perhaps a glass of wine?”
Whitney smiles, fanning herself with the menu. “I don’t want to drink alone.”
Fife smiles. “Just because I can’t? You need to have a good time.”
Whitney reaches across the table, holding his hand. She rubs her thumb over his knuckles, a little quirk that makes their love a bit unique. “I’d think Joseph Smith would want you to speak words of wisdom, now, not to tempt me.”
Fife laughs lightly. “I can’t go another week without you. Come to Kansas City and we’ll go house hunting on my day off.”
“Window shopping,” says Whitney. “Do you think we should really move away from Utah, with the way the bakery is and all?”
The waiter arrives, and though Fife wants to ecstatically say yes to her, he clears his throat and says to the waiter, “We’re ready to order.”
Coach Strawman shouts, “Now this is what I’m talking about!” as he rewinds the tape. “What in tarnation is going on when our undrafted rookie quarterback is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, pulling one of our own out of the trenches, but you veterans just stand around, lollygagging as he falls to the ground?”
As a result of what happened at the joint practice and his inability to catch a single pass in the second half, Carlyle was one of the week two cuts. Fife finds Coach Strawman’s use of “one of our own” ironic, meaning that any one of them could be cut, except the one who started it all—Thomas Honeycutt, NFL MVP. Coaches claimed that Carlyle didn’t represent the organization well and the theory was that someone had to sacrifice their spot because of this. As a sixth round pick, Carlyle was an easy target and the press would not question it much, but it didn’t take long for him to be claimed off waivers. The Minnesota Vikings invited him to their mini-camp, probably as a way to mess with the Packers psychologically leading up to the opener.
In the third row, Thomas Honeycutt chuckles as the video tape acquired by the Hard Knocks crew shows the Packer player clubbing Fife upside the head with the helmet. The crowd mutters, “Ugh,” when Fife’s body plummeted to the ground, dropped like a bag of beans.
“Something funny there, Honeycutt?” asks Coach Strawman.
“I mean, come on, coach,” says Honeycutt, raising his hand flat palmed. “I went to college with that sack of shit, Peters.”
“And this all started with you throwing a missile where it didn’t belong,” says Coach Strawman. “What? You’re really that insecure about a couple of dumb-dumbs fucking their helmets? I told you that tomfoolery you do after touchdowns is going to come back and haunt you.”
“He had it coming, coach!” says Honeycutt.
“But this sends a message to the rest of the league. MVP or not, they’re going to be talking queer jokes and threatening to toss your salad just to get a rise out of you. You’ve got to be above it and stay focused. Speaking of which, cut the tape, Coach Roman. Flip to reel five.”
The projector cuts and everyone begins squirming in their chairs. Everybody knows what’s coming, but Pinkerton and Fife press their pencils to their notepads. As the reel flickers, the offense is lined up in I-Formation Right, Tight Squeeze, 84 Bomber. The 49ers defensive line overloads the middle as outside linebackers creep up to the line, showing a blitz. Honeycutt points to the right, instructing the fullback to pick up the rush. Once the ball hikes, the offensive line loses traction. The fake handoff to the halfback fools no one and Edelman misses his first step, allowing the strong-side linebacker to whiz right by. Though the weak-side receiver blows past the corner, Honeycutt decides to force the ball to his first read, heaving it into double coverage. As the ball is intercepted by a swarming safety, the linebacker who beat Edelman delivers a devastating block to Honeycutt, propelling him three yards. A hip thrust came from the linebacker, followed by slapping a teammate’s hand. Honeycutt picked up a wad of grass and threw it at the defenders. The projector pauses.
“What the hell was that?” asks Coach Strawman. “You’re lucky a ref or the league office didn’t catch it.”
Honeycutt waves it off. “It’s just preseason, coach. You know that I’ll get it together in a real game.”
“And did anyone say something at the line?” asks Coach Strawman. “It seems like this petty crap is getting under your skin. There’s no reason to panic. Step up in the pocket and deliver the ball to the open man.”
Honeycutt nods. “Kind of hard to step up with the pocket collapsing. I wanted to take off, run for the first down, but even you said it’s preseason, so no need to risk injury.”
Coach Roman folds his arms over, clearing his throat. “You can’t get beat like that, Edelman. Though Honeycutt’s interception is inexcusable, you almost got our franchise quarterback killed. He didn’t even have three seconds to make a decision before he took a shot.”
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” Coach Strawman asks Edelman. “You’re around because of your blocking and can you imagine what’d happen if our franchise quarterback got injured and placed on IR?”
Edelman sinks in his seat, a pout bursting from his lips. He twiddles his thumbs, entertaining that scenario. Fife tries to make eye contact, but Edelman remains quiet.
“Well, say something, dumbass,” says Coach Strawman.
“It won’t happen again,” says Edelman.
“Sit up, son,” says Coach Roman. “No need for crybabies today. We need to have a great week of practice. Honeycutt will be playing more than a quarter this week.”
In preseason football, the third game is the closest thing that fans will get to a simulated real game, mainly because the starters play an entire half to build chemistry and momentum two weeks before the season. When Coach Roman mentions that a good week of practice is needed, he really means it. Veterans who wear out their welcome are usually cut based on their performance in this game.
“Lay off him, coach,” says Honeycutt. “It’s my fault. I should have read that the weak-side corner was playing man and threw the quick slant. It’s clear that the linebackers weren’t going to drop in coverage.”
Fife feels the hairs on his arms stand up. He had lost some respect for the league MVP over the past week, but he appreciates how Honeycutt comes to Edelman’s defense.
“So quit fucking around and get your head in the game,” says Coach Strawman. “Look, I don’t give a rat’s ass who y’all screw in the offseason. I care about execution, Xs and Os, and winning football games. Kansas City hasn’t had a Super Bowl in years and we need to get on the same page to bring one back.”
After forty more minutes of film study, featuring the highs and lows of the 49ers game, the coaching staff dismisses them for lunch. Everyone gathers their bags and notes, filtering out the doors. Fife waits for Edelman to move, but he cries, hands covering his eyes.
“For the love of Lombardi,” says Edelman. “Get the hell out of here.”
“We’ve got to work on our timing routes,” says Fife. “You’re not getting cut—not this weekend, nor the next.”
Edelman unveils his bloodshot eyes. After a sniffle, he mutters, “No one needs to see this.”
Fife walks over to him, patting him on the back. “Let it out, big guy. I’m not going to judge.”
After fifteen seconds, Edelman stands up, saying, “Can you stay after practice tonight? I need to work on my blocking technique.”
“That, too,” says Fife, leading him out of the auditorium.
When they march down the rounded corridor, a large sheet of sun plasters the dark wall, showing the reflection of a man who just walked outside, his whistle spinning. The metal clasp of a door jamb clicks shut.
Things do not get easier for Edelman during afternoon practice, and Fife accepts most of the blame. After weeks of discussing Double Tight, Z-Wide Split—the play that requires Edelman to run a skinny post or in cut, depending on the defensive formation—Fife gets to run it with the reserves in a live drill.
As instructed, Fife drops back five steps. Coach Simpson and Coach Roman say that receivers need the extra second to get open, but every time, Edelman is well into his cut, messing up the timing. Since Edelman hits the post within five yards, Fife agrees that a quick three step drop would help him deliver the ball and decrease the likelihood of being sacked.
After the fifth step, Fife plants his foot, launches a tight, spiraled ball toward Edelman, and hits him over the shoulder in order to prevent being whacked by the free safety. However, Edelman loses his footing, bobbling the ball. The pigskin thumps the ground, kicking up grass.
Coach Roman blows his whistle, instructing everyone to huddle. He questions Fife on why he threw to Edelman and not Worthy on the curl route. The truth is that the cornerback played Worthy tight, so forcing the ball increases the likelihood of an interception, but despite the logic, Roman feels he’s open.
“As long as you fit it past his outside shoulder, there is no way the cornerback picks it, but you have to find that window.”
“But the tight end is the safer route,” says Fife, knowing he should shut up. Again, he wants to take the criticism, but Edelman is his hot read.
Roman throws down his clipboard. “Son, I’ve been an Offensive Coordinator in the NFL for eight years. When I say the outside shoulder is open, it’s open. To make it as a quarterback in the NFL, you need to see the windows and have the talent to fit the ball in it. Let’s say the safety cheats up after the ball is snapped. If the tight end runs the skinny post, you’re going to get him hurt, clotheslined, and maybe killed.”
Fife opens his mouth, but decides to nod. He hasn’t earned the right to question the intricacies of what defines “open” in the NFL and only game experience will help him realize this. Edelman has broad shoulders and wide hips, making him a bowling ball in space. Put simply, he’s Jason Witten meets Rob Gronkowski. Fife scratches his chin, unsure about why no one else on the coaching staff can see this.
“And how many times do I need to tell you, Edelman,” yells Coach Roman. “You don’t hit that post within five yards. Take it ten, then cut. If you’d ever get it through your head that you need to give the quarterback an extra second, maybe you wouldn’t put yourself at the risk of a safety closing you off.”
In the huddle, players bend over, some whispering the same thing that Fife’s thinking. The playbook clearly indicates a skinny post at five yards if the safety plays a zone, but instead of complaining, Fife tells them to be quiet and run the play again.
“It’s his playbook,” mutters Fife. “He can change anything about it at any time, so let’s get it together and do better.”
With seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, Coach Simpson calls Fife over and tells him to get ready. The Lions are leading the Chiefs 20-10. As he grabs his helmet, he searches the stands for Whitney, who sits in the right corner of the end zone twenty rows up. His heartrate is jacked and he suddenly hears the cheers and roaring from the Arrowhead crowd. Someone yells, “You suck,” and Fife wonders if this person watched any of his game tape from Southern Utah State.
“Got that?” asks Coach Simpson.
Fife shakes his head, blinking. “It’s a bit loud.”
Coach Simpson pulls him closer, saying, “Coach Roman wants I-Formation, 42 Plung. We’ll work on some short stuff before throwing the package at you.”
The offense runs onto the field, the ball placed at the Chiefs’ forty-four yard line. As they break the huddle, Fife scans the defense. A linebacker claps his hands, saying he’s hungry and that a rookie sandwich is on the menu. A jittery three-technique defensive lineman shifts to the two hole, right where the halfback is supposed to run. Though it probably isn’t wise to audible during your first NFL play, Fife shouts, “Red, Bright Star Wig! Red, Bright Star Wig!” As Fife stomps his foot, Worthy motions four yards in. The ball is hiked, so Fife fakes the handoff. On a bootleg, Fife rifles the football to Worthy on a seven yard in. The cornerback slips, so the pass is complete. Worthy sprints past a linebacker and leaps over a free safety before tripping at the Lions’ thirty-seven yard line. The ref blows the whistle, signaling first down.
In Fife’s helmet phones, Coach Roman says, “Nice read, Fifey, but don’t make a habit of changing the plays.”
On the next play, the defense loads up the front, gambling on a run play, but Fife sees the middle linebacker cheat to the strong-side, way out of position. Edelman runs a quick slant, so after a three step drop, Fife fires the ball into the open zone. Once the strong safety squares up off the route, Edelman catches the ball. They collide, but the safety tumbles off, much too small to handle Edelman himself in open space. Three defenders converge, tackling him just past the first down marker.
“Great rhythm,” says Coach Roman through the helmet speakers. “Now they’ve got to respect your arm.”
In the huddle, the offensive linemen begin clapping hands and nodding their heads. Everyone is in sync and momentum is felt. Over the next three plays, the Chiefs run an iso, sweep, and a plunge to earn a first and goal.
With 4:21 left on the game clock, Coach Roman calls for a play action pass, with Edelman fading to the corner of the end zone. Since the defense is getting worn down by the run, they load the box again and the corners squeeze in. The cones in the back of the end zone are wide open, no one within five yards of them.
As the ball is hiked, Fife sells the counter, pulling the ball back from the halfback’s chest. Sure enough, the safety rushes the line, trying to plug the hole. Edelman runs the fade, so Fife lofts the ball out, hitting him near the right cone. His tight end pulls down the ball, both feet inbounds. The ref raises his arms up, signaling touchdown. Every fan in the stands go wild, raising their beers and waving their souvenir towels. When Edelman hands Fife the ball, telling him, “Nice throw,” Whitney points down to the field, shouting, “That my fiancé! That’s my man!” Fellow Chief fans embrace her with high-fives.
Fife has watched enough preseason football to understand that the offense will try for a two-point conversion, since no one wants to play an unnecessary overtime where the chances of injury lurk. Roman calls for a fullback dive.
When the offense breaks the huddle, Fife sees that there are seven defensive players loading the box. Though Fife is tempted to audible out of this, wanting to play hero ball, he knows better. The coaching staff has not given him enough reps to change the play in such a high stakes scenario, so he calls time out.
Inside Fife’s helmet speakers, Coach Roman says, “Great call, there. They had that stuffed before the ball was hiked.” As Fife sprints to the sideline, Coach Roman pops his first joke, saying, “Didn’t you earn a genius score on the Wonderlic? Someone should have drafted you for just that.”
The Chiefs go on to lose the game 20-18, since the kicker, Sam Langford, misses a thirty-six yarder with the game on the line. However, sports writers crowd the locker room, wanting to ask questions to Blaine Fife, the unknown product who had a big day against practice squad players. Fife finishes the game with seven completions on nine attempts, one hundred twenty-six yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions. In fact, he does most of his damage in the final two minutes, running a no huddle offense and getting the team in position to win. If it had not been for two dropped passes, his quarterback rating would be near perfect.
As Fife throws on a button down shirt, a staff writer for the Kansas City Star asks, “Can you convince the coaching staff to carry four quarterbacks? I mean, most teams only carry two, but it’s kind of difficult seeing Honeycutt, Pinkerton, or Jackson getting the boot.”
Fife nods his head, trying to find the right choice of words. “I’ve just got to go out there and get better. It’s my job to make the decision difficult, but we’ve got good depth here, I’m learning a ton from Honeycutt and Pinkerton, and my teammates helped me make plays.”
Edelman steps in front of the press, patting Fife on the shoulder, and says, “Natural born leader. He’s got my vote of confidence.”
Suddenly, a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch steps up, shoves a microphone in Fife’s face, and says, “Coach Strawman likes to rest the starters and veterans in the final preseason game. Is there any word on whether he’ll start you or Jackson against the Cowboys?”
Fife has not considered it, but smiles and says, “You’ll have to ask coach about that. I’ve just got to be ready when my number’s called next week.”
Though there is little doubt Fife would survive the third round of cuts given his game against the Lions, nothing is sure, but it eases the pressure of house hunting on his day off. Fife and Whitney cruise down a quiet neighborhood in Kansas City, three blocks away from a park that has swing sets, monkey bars, foursquare, and a wide open field where kids play touch football. The house they look at is a quaint, two-story wooden home, painted daisy yellow with a porch swing and a small oak tree in the lawn. A chain-linked fence outlines the edge of the sidewalk.
Whitney plops on the porch swing, giving it a kick. It squeals and yawns, rocking back and forth. In the street, smalls boys and a girl in a goalie mask skate down, banging their hockey sticks. A few cardinals chirp from the oak tree.
“Feels kind of perfect,” says Fife. “Well, perfect in the sense of how it could be ours.”
Whitney smirks, wiping off chipped paint from the wood. “This would be a nice neighborhood to raise children. Do you think we’ll want kids anytime soon?”
Fife sits on the porch swing, wrapping his arms around her shoulders. “Whenever you’re ready. You know that. We’ll have four, five, maybe even six kids.”
Whitney shrugs, kissing Fife on the cheek. “Even on an NFL salary, do you think we can afford four kids?”
Fife lets go of her, the whoosh of roller blades etching on his brain like a child doodling over sandpaper. “How can you question that? People raise children every day with much less than what we currently have.”
“But what about my parents? What if they lose their business? I’ve just been thinking a lot about how life can be great one moment, and suddenly, it can all be taken away. How does someone prepare for such a thing?”
“At some point, we’ve got to make our own family. It’s not healthy to live your life for your parents. We’re supposed to leave the nest. That’s what adults do.”
Whitney stands up and walks off the porch. She kicks the oak bark, which only cause the cardinals to bounce around the limbs, singing more. “Just because you want to escape who you are, doesn’t mean that I want to.”
“What? That’s not true.”
Turning around, Whitney clasps her hips and says, “Really? How many times have you read scripture since training camp? Don’t lie.”
The truth is that The Book of Mormon has become purely a decorative item in the dorm room, and even Edelman had joked about it before, saying it’s collecting holy dust. Fife is not willing to admit this to Whitney, since telling the truth would add logic to her argument. He says, “I’m not sure how avoiding scripture changes anything.”
“Just admit it. You don’t want to be a Mormon anymore. If you become an NFL star and you didn’t attend BYU, it’s frowned upon. Do you remember what they told you and other players at Southern Utah State? Use football as a platform, not as an escape.”
“What platform? I’m still just trying to make this squad, honey. If it helps, I’ll do some reading tonight.”
Whitney sighs, rolling her eyes. “The NFL is not always going to be there. Heck, it might not even be there next week. I’m just saying that we need to stop thinking about buying a house and having kids until we’re more financially and spiritually stable.”
As Whitney walks to the car, Fife chases after her, a bit angry that she has little faith in him making the Chiefs. Fife asks, “Since when did you start caring about spirit? Do you still want to marry me?”
Pouting, Whitney mutters, “Being Mormon is part of who you are, and I don’t want to move away from Utah. It’s our home. It’s who we are.”
They drive away from the neighborhood, the house fading away like an afterthought. Both avoid making eye contact while cruising down several blocks, until Fife finds a Church of Latter-day Saints. They pull in and attend an evening service.
It is the first time Fife has attended a house of worship since being invited to an NFL training camp.
The Chiefs cut Worthy, despite three receptions against the Lions. Fife learns about it through Twitter because he was spending all of Sunday evening in Kansas City with Whitney. According to Edelman, Worthy didn’t say goodbye to anyone. He just grabbed his stuff and left. Out of curiosity, Fife checked to see if anyone claimed him off waivers, but no one nibbled.
While walking to film session, Fife stops by Coach Simpson’s office, wanting to ask a few questions about new plays that the coaching staff want to try out at practice. Right before Fife reaches the door, he hears a private conversation between Coach Simpson, Coach Roman, Head Coach Strawman, and the GM—Doug Milner.
“The kid’s got something,” says Coach Roman. “I mean, he got that clown Worthy to shut up a few times.”
“The guy’s a leader,” says Coach Simpson. “He led the charge to save that wide out we cut. What’s his name?”
“Carlyle,” says Coach Roman. “Looks like he might steal a roster spot in Minnesota.”
“The guy’s a malcontent,” says Coach Strawman. “So was Worthy. We had to cut bait and it cost us nothing.”
Doug Milner scooches a chair back, going to the dry erase board. “Why is there a camp battle for quarterback? Honeycutt’s a no-brainer, and so is Jackson, unless you plan on cutting every player we drafted.”
“Don’t give me that old sock him with a pillow, passive-aggressive shit,” says Coach Strawman. “It’s only two draft picks we’ve cast away.”
Milner clears his throat. “Do you really want to cut Pinkerton to save cap space, and what sense is there to keep three quarterbacks on the roster? That spot could go to a special teams player or an extra lineman.”
“How much does Pinkerton count toward the cap?” asks Coach Strawman.
“Four million to stay on the roster, but only 1.7 million if we cut him,” says Milner, punching his calculator.
Fife gulps, backing away from the door. His feet buckle, though his brain is warning him to move. He shouldn’t be hearing this, but wants to. Does he have any true allies in that room?
“Going into the regular season without a veteran backup is suicide,” says Coach Strawman. “If Honeycutt goes down, do we really turn over the reins to Jackson or Fifey? Boy wonder hasn’t had many snaps.”
“I’m telling you, the kid’s got potential,” says Coach Roman. “He audibled and read the defense with ease last game.”
“But that was against guys who will be free agents or on a practice squad next week,” says Coach Strawman. “I could train my wife’s cat to read players who are out of position. I know you like this guy, thinking he’s like Tony Romo or Tom Brady, but can we risk it?”
“Or risk him getting picked up on waivers?” asks Coach Roman. “He’s a positive presence in the locker room and a developmental quarterback is good for that.”
“So Jackson’s spot is assured,” says Milner. “Rest Honeycutt and start him next week to get the reps, but put Fife out for several series. Let’s see if last week was a fluke. The league’s got some game tape on him now.”
“I’ll start Jackson to give the press something to chatter about, but regardless, giving Pinkerton some reps is important,” says Coach Strawman. “At his price tag, we need to see if he has anything left in the tank.”
“Why?” asks Coach Simpson. “We already know what Pinkerton brings. He’s had eleven years to prove it.”
Blinking, Fife sneaks down the corridor, his playbook rattling between his fingertips. Is it true? Could I have an honest shot to make the team? As Fife imagines this, his smile neutralizes, understanding that Pinkerton—an eleven year veteran who had a great camp—might lose his job to him, not due to merit, but because of cap space. It got Fife thinking about Whitney’s concern about NFL careers, that they can end at any time.
During special team drills, Honeycutt signs autographs for fans and shakes hands with children wearing his jerseys. Off the far side, some spectators drinking beers shout, “Pride represent,” but no one thinks anything of it. Down on one knee and squirting Gatorade in his mouth, Edelman mutters that they’re discussing Chiefs pride; however, if it is what Fife suspects, these guys must be members of the LGBT community.
“Sure, those guys love him, but they also liked pretty boys like Tom Brady,” says Edelman. “Who doesn’t?”
“Brady married Gisele,” says Fife. “Can’t complain there.”
“Listen, I don’t care if Honeybuns is gay,” says Edelman. “As long as he wins us games and stays limp during showers, he’s cool in my book.”
Fife giggles. “You’re as ugly as a grizzly bear, man. I wouldn’t count on anyone getting fresh on you.”
Edelman hands the Gatorade bottle to a staff hand. “Try telling that to my wife. She can’t get enough of this.”
When the whistles blow, the punt team forms around the returner, just patting him. The drill is meant to prevent injury, but a gunner collapses near a hash mark, so Dr. Nigari’s staff sprints over. Nigari motions for the cart, unwilling to allow the player to put pressure on his leg. The Special Teams Coach, Donald Renharris, hurls his sunglasses, cursing God for sacrificing yet another one of his prospects.
“Milner’s not going to like this,” says Edelman. “Another fringe player probably lost to IR, counting against the cap.”
As Coach Renharris puffs and adjusts his shirt collar, he yells, “Anyone want to soldier up and make the team? Make a play on special teams.”
The problem in the NFL is that everyone feels they’re too good for special teams and most understand the risk of injury is at its highest during these plays. Due to the medical expenses and sustained careers of such players, rumors have swirled about the commissioner taking kicking out of football completely. Since no one flinches, Fife steps off his knee and runs onto the field.
“Seriously, a quarterback?” asks Coach Renharris. “You sorry sacks of shit ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Let’s see if you can make a tackle.”
Coach Simpson and Roman wave their hands, objecting to allow Fife to even run play. Roman points at a reserve running back, ordering him in, but before anyone else buckles a chinstrap, Edelman charges onto the field.
“I got this, boss,” says Edelman.
“Really, I can play a gunner,” says Fife.
“Not today,” yells Coach Simpson, wiping sweat off his neck. “We need that cannon live for Friday.” He grabs Fife, walks with him to the sideline, and whispers, “Way to light a fire in their asses, but seriously, we can’t have you injured before your big day.”
Fife tries to decipher what that means. Sure, if he gets hurt, he’s cut, but secretly, he knows that the team does not want to dress Honeycutt for the final preseason game, being down a quarterback. Fife unbuckles his helmet.
“I would’ve done it,” says Fife.
“I know you’d do anything we ask you, but I’m more intrigued by how you command an offense, not getting blown up on special teams.”
“I’d lay the lumber, coach.”
Coach Simpson pats him on the shoulder and says, “Sure you would,” and then starts sprinting.
Over at the barricade, fans waving a rainbow flag gather around Honeycutt. One shoves a cellphone in Honeycutt’s face. His fists are balled up, shaking, though he’s smiling and saying, “That don’t mean nothing.”
One of the fans wearing a #12 jersey tips his Coors forward, some of the beer popping out and landing on Honeycutt’s jersey. He says, “Your house boy loves entertaining guests at your home. Look at the massage he’s giving that dude.”
Honeycutt swipes the beer out of his hands, so everyone takes out their cellphones, ready to video the confrontation. Fife sprints across the lawn and finds the drunk fan fumbling the cellphone, which flips over the fence. Honeycutt tries to kick the phone, but Fife slides, finding the images. Sure enough, the photo shows Honeycutt’s roommate—the assumed gay lover—half naked with another man on the couch, their hands rubbing each other’s chests. Without much thought, Fife quickly hits the back button, opens the photo gallery, highlights a folder called “Honey’s Butt Buddy,” and deletes it. Before Honeycutt attempts delivering a blow, Fife pulls his arm back, and tosses the phone back to the guy.
“Hey, you destroyed my phone!” yells the fan wearing #12.
“You made backup copies, dumbass,” says his associate.
“Just admit that you’re one of us, Honeycutt,” says the fan wearing #12. “Quit denying who you are!”
“I don’t swing your way,” says Honeycutt, hyperventilating. He begins wiggling. “Get off of me, Fifey.”
Fife reclutches Honeycutt’s arm and drags him further from the hostile crowd. Some are now using stronger, more derogatory terms. Fife whispers, “Pull yourself together. They didn’t have any incriminating photos of you, and if you had punched him, the league sure as heck would’ve suspended you.”
“Man, I’d appeal that shit,” whispers Honeycutt, walking away. “That guy’s been following me all offseason. Some gay paparazzi trying to increase Twitter followers.”
“What’s going on?” asks Coach Simpson. “That guy says that you deleted some family photos, Fifey.”
“No,” says Honeycutt. “He deleted photos of my cousin. Guy’s as gay as Lady Gaga being a candidate for the twenty-dollar bill, but he’s blood.”
Coach Simpson cupped his hips. “And how do you explain this once the press digs deeper?”
“He lives with me, okay,” says Honeycutt, shrugging. “My uncle disowned him, and it ain’t anyone’s business why I took him in. The media needs to back off.” He forms a fist. “Good looking out, Fifey. Way to have my back.” They give each other a pound.
At AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, also known as “Jerry World,” Fife enters the game to begin the second half. His eyes glue on the platform where Ford pickups are, or where Jerry Jones’ indoor dealership is located. The Chiefs are beating the Cowboys, 28-3, and he is certain the Chiefs want to milk the clock by handing off the ball.
Earlier in the game, Earl Jackson went down on the first series after scrambling for fifteen yards, clutching his ACL. The Chiefs decided not to dress Honeycutt, and though Pinkerton had limited practice reps, Coach Strawman inserted him into the game. His decision whether to cut him, given how much Pinkerton counted toward the salary cap, must have weighed heavily on his mind. Fife stayed close to Coach Simpson on the sidelines and watched Pinkerton dictate why he shouldn’t be kicked into retirement. On four long drives, he moved players in formation, hit open receivers with pinpoint accuracy, and never forced a pass into double coverage. He finished the first half connecting on fourteen of seventeen attempts, two hundred thirty-three passing yards, three touchdown tosses, and no turnovers.
Edelman claps his hands, trying to snap Fife back into reality. Cowboy fans head down the aisles as the stands clear, calling it a game. Coach Roman orders them to run a counter, warning Fife that they’re going to play ball control.
“Let’s shove it down their throats,” Coach Roman says through Fife’s helmet speakers.
Over the course of five straight plays, this is exactly what the Chiefs do. At the Cowboys’ twenty-five yard line, the ref throws a flag, calling holding on the Chiefs’ right tackle. A jolt of adrenaline passes through Fife’s body, knowing that he’ll actually get to throw the ball on 1st and twenty. Peering over the huddle, Fife notices the free safety planting his hands behind his helmet, slightly hunching over.
“Double Tight, Z-Wide Split,” says Coach Roman through Fife’s speakers.
Fife smiles, patting Edelman on the chest. “Listen to me. That safety is going to vomit. He’s spieling doubt. Are you ready to blow him up?”
Edelman rubs his hands together, saying, “Now we’re speaking the same language, my man.”
“Tighten this huddle,” Fife orders the offense, so everyone scrunches together. “We’re professionals, not some sixth-grade choir. Double Tight, Z-Wide Split. You got that, boys? Double Tight, Z-Wide Split. On two. On two.”
The offense claps their hands together and the defense shows zone coverage, just like Fife wants. The defensive tackles twiddle their fingers, a middle linebacker cheats everyone to the strong side, and the cornerbacks back off six yards from the line of scrimmage. Fife flaps his arms like a seagull, trying to disguise an audible.
“Green eighteen,” says Fife. “Wigglers worm. Wigglers worm. Bring heavy, seabass. Set. Hut!”
As Fife yells the first count, a defender jumps into the neutral zone, but tries to hop back in place. The center snaps the ball and a ref throws a yellow flag. Fife understands that defensive offside will be the call, so this a free play. When he drops back five steps, he sees Edelman overextend his route, hitting the post ten yards out. The pocket collapses, so a defensive end barrels down the blindside. Quarterback’s intuition warns that Fife has half a second before impact, so he throws off his back foot, unplanted, receiving a blow to the back of his head so devastating that his helmet flies off. His teeth eat grass and nose bleeds, but suddenly, all the noise dies down.
Dazed, Fife squirms around, trying to grasp anything. Then the ringing of electricity trapped in space rattles within Fife’s eardrum.
The defensive end stands up, slapping his chest. Once Fife gets to his knees, only the white noise continues, but his teammates gather in the end zone, the free safety still flattened on the ground. On his feet, Fife sees triple vision of the Jumbotron, replaying Edelman plucking the football out of midair and lowering his shoulder pads into the safety’s chest. Some Cowboy fans wave off the display and head for the exits.
Once at the sidelines, Dr. Nigari pulls Fife aside, snapping his fingers. Like scratched vinyl from a record player, the noise warps back in, gradually bringing consciousness back to Fife. Nigari snaps his fingers three times near Fife’s irises.
“Where are we at?” asks Dr. Nigari.
“Jerry World,” says Fife.
“Be more specific. Which city?”
“You want me to say Dallas, but that’s a trick. It’s Arlington.”
“Which half is this?”
“Second. I’m good to play.”
“Who just scored?”
“We did. I need some Gatorade.”
“Stay with me. Who did we play last week?”
Fife pauses, really having to force himself to think. He pictures that house in Kansas City that Whitney doesn’t want to live in. A flash of his pullout bed in the Covington basement pops up, following The Book of Mormon. His mind lapses to the playoff game in college against Western Nevada, where he threw the miracle pass and was whiplashed by a defender.
Dr. Nigari snaps his fingers again. Fife jolts his head forward.
“What state are we in?”
“Fuck, take a seat.”
After getting a cranial CT scan, Fife sits down and sees Coach Simpson flipping through a folder atop a metal table. The florescent light buzzes above, and Fife wants to note that he can hear it, but it’s useless. He prepares for the inevitable of being cut before Sunday, but is surprised by what Coach Simpson has to say.
“I told you to step into your throws. Protect yourself at all times.”
Fife shrugs. “Rookie mistake.”
Coach Simpson throws the folder on the table, pushes away, and paces. After grunting, he says, “This shit can kill you, Fife. Living’s more important than winning and losing.”
“Sacrifice is living, coach. I’ve got to make plays for not only the team, but for my fiancé. I’ll correct this. You know this.”
“Have you ever had a concussion before? I mean, in college. Be honest with me.”
Fife drops his head, lips quivering. “I might’ve, but the doctor never diagnosed me with it.”
“Shit, son. You thought that you were in Utah. That’s what Dr. Nigari says. I didn’t see any history of concussions in your scouting report.”
“It wouldn’t be in there,” says Fife.
“The NFL’s dirty little secret is that CTE exists.”
Fife shakes his head, a bit baffled that a football coach would admit this. Many other players on the Chiefs must have a history of concussions—Fife believes. Surely they wouldn’t be telling a superstar player, like Honeycutt, about this.
“I guess this means I’m being cut,” says Fife. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to explain this to my fiancé.”
“You were a longshot to make the team,” says Coach Simpson. “You know this, but I saw something in you that the workout numbers don’t measure, and that’s heart and leadership. It’s my hope that I can get you onto the practice squad, but this concussion complicates things.”
As Fife mutters, “I don’t want to quit football,” Coach Simpson tells him to rest and exits the room.
On Sunday, Coach Strawman and Coach Roman deliver Fife the bad news that he didn’t make the fifty-three man roster. They give him the same hammed response they tell every dismissed player: you’re a hard worker, you’ve got potential, you’ve got my recommendation if another organization inquiries about you, and to not give up.
Fife says nothing. He nods his head, letting the sick reality of returning to Utah sit in his stomach. As they all shake hands, Coach Roman says that it is unfortunate how concussions limited his in-game reps.
Right before Fife reaches the threshold of the office, looking at a big poster of Paul “Bear” Bryant, he wonders if cutting people comes easy. Perhaps if you’ve coached as long as Bear Bryant did, you become immune to such sentiments.
Coach Strawman clears his throat, saying, “Not to get your hopes up, but Jackson might be on IR. He might have torn his ACL. Once you make it through concussion protocol, maybe we’ll offer you a spot on the practice squad. Coach Simpson says you’ll give the defense good looks on the field.”
Fife thanks the staff and waves goodbye, his eyes welling with tears.
Fife clears his locker, feeling goosebumps along his arms from observing the emptiness of the top shelf and lack of pads hanging on the hooks. The picture of Whitney holding a bouquet of roses is no longer pinned in the middle. It’s tucked inside his wallet, waiting for the next locker Fife would fill his stuff. Maybe it never occupies a space in Arrowhead. Maybe it will never see any NFL venue.
Zipping up the suitcase, Fife leans over a bench, sighing. What’s next? A CFL tryout? Worse—maybe an Arena League Football tryout? Even worse—pounding dough at Covington Bakery, wondering if I’ll be unemployed. Fife stands up, feeling his shin pain spike. His bruised knee that flared off and on no longer exists and given the many other minor injuries, plus the concussion, Fife suffered, he wonders when exactly that healed.
Fife enters the parking lot, waiting for an Uber to pick him up. He sees a huge man with dreads running out of the facility, jumping in mid-air, yelling, “Praise Jesus and the luck of Joseph Smith!” Fife smiles, knowing Edelman made the roster.
Fife claps, proud of his teammate, but it dawns on him that this could be their final encounter. “Like there was any doubt, man!”
Edelman sprints across the sidewalk, wrapping Fife up like a lineman about to eat half a calf. “I owe it to you.”
Gasping for air, Fife mutters, “You’ve been here. You know the system.”
“Coach wants to work me into the receiving game,” says Edelman, releasing Fife. “These past few weeks gave Coach Roman more confidence that I can make plays in space.”
“I’ve been saying that you’re a bulldozer, like a Rob Gronkowski.”
Edelman waves off the comment. “I don’t know about that. I just do me, my man. But I’ve always known that I can do more than block.”
Fife’s cellphone buzzes. It’s Whitney, but he hits ignore. He doesn’t have the stomach to say that he’s cut and probably flying out to Utah once a second doctor diagnoses the concussion, gives him a remedy, and the Chiefs can officially let him off the hook.
“You earn that big contract. I’ll be watching you on the tube.”
“Fuck that,” says Edelman. “You’ll make our practice squad. Keep the faith.”
Fife shrugs. “Concussions are like death sentences for guys like me. No one’s going to offer me anything until I’m medically cleared.”
Edelman takes a seat on the bench, nudging his head toward the cellphone. “What’s that mess about?”
“I think you know.”
“Just call her back, man. You still have a wedding to plan. You’ve got more important things to handle than dwelling about a concussion. It takes time, but this is now. Come with me and get her on that phone.”
A 2008 Chevy Silverado pulls near the facility, right in front of the bench where Fife and Edelman sit. The driver asks, “Is a Blaine Fife here?”
Fife grabs his bag and extends his free hand toward Edelman. “That’s my Uber. Crush them, man.”
Edelman pulls out a twenty-dollar bill, hands it to the Uber driver, and thanks him for his time. The man salutes him and drives off.
“You’re not getting off that easy. I’m driving back to Kansas City and my wife cooks a mean roast. She wants to thank you.”
“So you’re going to make me say it?” asks Edelman. “Fine. If it wasn’t for you, I’d be unemployed. I have a family to support, so you saved my ass. Now let’s get in my Tundra and celebrate.”
At first, Fife remains as still as a statue, much like many NFL pocket passers. What Edelman says makes a lot of sense, about how there are more important things in life than worrying about making a NFL roster.
Once they climb into the Tundra, Edelman blasts some old-school rap—Tupac and Biggie. They cruise without saying a word, just allowing the beats to help them escape the present while hitting the open road. Fife counts every exit sign they pass on the highway, every possible road they could detour, every possible new experience. Maybe the concussion works like a fork in the road, a new opportunity. Then again, people enter your life for unintended reasons and life falls into place the way God demands.
Fife imagines his wedding. People will fill a Church of Latter-day Saints, Mrs. Covington and Whitney’s extended family on one side and Fife’s parents and sisters on the other. His high school coaches will sit in the second row, giving thumbs up. Every person will smile as the church doors swing open. Mr. Covington appears decked out in a smooth, black tailored suit as he walks Whitney down the aisle, and she wears a long, pearl white dress with an angelic veil over her face. Here Comes the Bride plays over the organ and Fife’s body will glow with warmth, his blood rushing like players scrambling into formation to execute a play, and in this case, it’s to give the vows, say “I do,” and begin a marriage with a kiss. By Fife’s side will be his best man, who raises the roof and hoots while everyone else uniformly claps. It suddenly dons on Fife about what really matters.
Fife grins, pulling out his phone. He turns down the music before making the call.
“What’s up?” asks Edelman.
“Want to be my best man?” asks Fife.
Edelman blinks and extends his hand. “My man.”
by Sean Trolinder
Sean Trolinder received his MFA in Creative Writing – Fiction from Texas State University – San Marcos, where he was a W. Morgan and Lou Claire Rose Fellow. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Louisiana Literature, Map Literary, Deep South Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, The MacGuffin, MARY, Temenos, and many other journals. Currently, he teaches IB English Literature at Celebration High School in Florida.