There is a touch of the Homeric about this breathless story of the football field
THE great floodlights had been switched off, mercifully hiding the cleat-slashed stadium from mortal eyes; and the turf must have cringed from the. clammy touch of the swaths of raw November fog that poured noiselessly, weirdly, down into the horseshoe-shaped amphitheatre. Here men had drilled bitterly—muscle-torn, bruised and battered, blinded with sweat and fury. And the last few rugby players who shambled wearily up the steps into the fieldhouse at the open end of the arena, looked like wavering ghostly phantoms in the faint orange smudge of light that was the doorway.
Then there was silence, save for the squelching boots of the three amateur coaches who trudged disconsolately across the sodden gridiron.
Dr. Todd Sheridan, brilliant back of the team of ’19, the dour engineer, McAllister, a flying wing who had become a tradition, and Gayley, another medico, crack linesman of palmier days: these three had audaciously volunteered to coach the team of a universityjrçhich for eight years had trailed in the ruck under a professional coach. They were on trial—a doubtful innovation. Despite which they had performed a miracle with mediocre material and one star, eliminating Queems from the race and snatching a scant victory from the Blue on its own field. And at what expense!^ Seven players under doctor’s orders to put theni?ffip^m -moth balls for the next twelve months, and the rest fit'för an old man’s home. That is, all except young Barnes.
Barnes, with his astounding drop-kicking, had been nursed and kept in wadding for those rare occasions when the Crimson quarter had been able to manoeuvre his team to a point where the posts were within reach of Barnes’ miraculous toe. Then in went the wonder, only tp be jerked out again as soon as the three points were chalked up. Todd had built his entire offensive around this lone potential scoring threat.
1 Now, however, the pretty scheme was shattered. Even Barnes must go the entire route on Saturday, come what might in the shape of injuries to the star. And unless the Crimson won, clinching the title, its chances in a play-off were more hopeless than at present, if that were possible.
All three of the coaches, brooding on adversity, were silent as they ploughed through the sludge toward the wan lights in the fieldhouse windows that faded as the murky fog came down.
Gayley it was who broke the silence; and the others looked at him almost reproachfully. They were beyond speech. “Come to, you grave-diggers. I’m not pretending we’re in clover. But there’s no use tying crêpe on the goalposts already. We’ve done all we can. Now let’s use our heads, and leave the rest to the gods. One bright spot—I’ve taught Barnes to clip like a fiend . . .” “Angel!” cut in McAllister sourly.
“What do you mean?”
“Why, when I was in Boston on business last week, I ran up to Harvard where the coaches have annexed the term for any kid like Barnes, who is coddled and petted for one special job because that’s all he knows. They all fall sooner or later, because they’re useless otherwise —no rugby brains.”
“But young Barnes
* “Can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Barnes is it an English rugger player.” McAllister’s scathing tone ’¿portrayed most convincingly his disdain for the OldCountry game. “Down in the Maritimes they taught the kid to kick drops,—beyond which he hasn’t the faintest notion what it’s all about.”
“Maybe. But it doesn’t require brains to clip a lineman. And he has it down to perfection now. He’ll clip McBride to a fare-you-well. And if he stops McBride, he’s stopped the best line plunger Blue has.”
“Too light,” was McAllister’s dogged rejoinder. “While you were knocking Barnes, Mac,” put in Todd very quietly, “I was just figuring up how many points he had kicked this fall. Twenty-one out of thirty-three isn’t so bad for a freshman.”
“Angel!” muttered McAllister scornfully.
“All right! But at least give him credit for keeping his héad about it. I never saw so much adulation heaped on one youngster in my life.”
“Oh, I know he’s a good kid,” compromised McAllister. “But I’m thinking of the school, that’s all. And I maintain you’re making a mistake. If one man on the line cracks, they all go. You know that as well as I do. You’d have been far better off polishing up one of the second team that you’ve brought up for subs.” “Worse than useless. And too late in any case. Barnes it is, with the best of luck!”
“What’s the matter now?” enquired Todd.
“I was just thinking—let the poor little devil pull one bonehead, and see him get the royal razz from the crowd that’s been idolizing him all fall. The old game. Hosanna today—and crucify ’em tomorrow.”
“Huh!” commented Todd, remembering unpleasant experiences in his own embryo days. “Well, let’s go and have a last look at „’err..”
TN A dressing-room, reeking with the savage stench of heated bodies, sodden canvas and arnica, they took a “last look” at a dozen and a half naked bodies gleaming under the showers, or on the rubbing-table coated in greasy acrid liniment. Todd shook his head grimly at the myriad black and green bruises, the muscles grated till they looked like raw beef, the ankles, wrists and fingers strapped up in tape—ominous evidence of agonizing sprains. A more hopelessly battered crew he had never seen. He went over and sat down beside Barnes, a dark, curly-headed, ruddy-faced youngster with a smile bred in sea air; perhaps the only member of the team who .wasn’t crippled with injuries.
“I suppose Gayley’s told you you’re going the whole route on Saturday, Barnes?”
“Yes, sir. Thank the Lord for that,” with a grateful smile. “This sitting on the bench—a rotten business—” “There was a reason.”
“I know, sir. I’m sorry. But you know what it’s like. You’ve been through it.”
Todd nodded sympathetically. “Gayley tells me you’re clipping like mad. Hope he’s impressed you with the difference between tackling and clipping—it’s important,” he cautionedg¿regiembering that McAllister had imputed a lack ^:feïïp|s in this likable kid. “Because you can’t tackle or nollPa man when he hasn’t got the ball, you clip him’ ihsütd, that is, you go through all the motions of tackling without using your hands. It’s your weight that dpçs the trick—”
“Yes, I know,” .eagerly.
Todd went on" as though he hadn’t heard the interruption, “Understand that it is legitimate interference. And if you stop your man it doesn’t matter much how you do it, as long as it’s clean and decent.” “Yes, sir. Gayley’s way is to dive for your man so that your neck and shoulder clip him behind the knees, if possible—”
“All right. But if you can’t do that, throw yourself at his feet. Now just one thing more. Remember that outside your kicking, you’ve got just one big job of work—clip McBride !” Todd bit off the last two words as though he were driving a spike into Barnes’ head, and left him.
Wentworth, sitting on the bench near by, watched with good-humored tolerance the grateful stare that Barnes let linger on Todd’s retreating figure. Wentworth was just a middling back, but had been made captain in his third year more as an honor than for any special merit. And he knew the truth of it—knew only too well that he was about the most colorless member of the team. Todd, on the other hand, valued his steady, useful game more than Wentworth was aware of; which did not help, however, the sorry comparison that he made with Barnes in the eyes of the fans. Not that he begrudged Barnes his place in the sun. They were too good friends for that—both Bluenoses, what’s more. He reached over and slapped Barnes on his naked shoulder.
“Come out of it, Barney.”
Barnes blinked, then ejaculated, “Jeez, he’s going to let me play through the whole game! Todd’s a prince.” Wentworth nodded, “So’s Gayley. But McAllister’s a pain in the neck.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Just his way. Seems to have a special grudge against me, though. Don’t know why.” Wentworth, knowing McAllister’s distrust of Angels, was silent. He changed the subject, “Gosh, but this ankle’s sore!”
“Here, stick it up here, I’ll rub hell out of it for you.” “There’s a lot of hell in it,” grinned Wentworth complying. “Easy now, you old Indian. Wow! All right, go to it.”
And all the time that Barnes massaged him, he was unconsciously thinking in the same strain as Gayley. How would this lovable kid take it if the crowd went sour on him?
THE Furies didn’t keep him long in suspense.
On Saturday afternoon, Barnes pulled him to a window in the fieldhouse, as the Blue supporters roared a crashing welcome to their team when it trotted out on to the stadium.
“Isn’t that McBride?” he asked, singling out a tall lumbering youth.
Wentworth screened his eyes and replied, “Yes, that’s your meat,Barney. Boy, look at that crowd.
Must be close to fifteen thousand.”
There was. Such a host that it seemed it must shatter the concrete bowl with its ear-splitting cheering, co-ordinated by a crew of marionette leaders affecting cream flannels and blazers on a glowering raw November afternoon.
Not only the weather glowered. Todd and his henchmen, watching from the bench as the Crimson team came down the fieldhouse steps, frowned at the sprightly contrast the Blue offered.
And McAllister turned a supercilious eye upon Gayley as the crowd bawled, “Good old Barnes— attaboy, kid! You kick ’em, we’ll count ’em.” Helpful !
When the referee’s whistle trilled, calling the teams to centre, the six Crimson substitutes, who eventually limped over to the bench, nearly broke Todd’s heart.
They seemed actually craving the mothering touch of the blankets!
Only McAllister betrayed his feelings, however, with a muttered,
For a few moments the crowd was silent as the band played “The King.” Then it was that Todd’s attention was attracted to Barnes, as the lad snatched off his helmet and stood stiffly to attention in his place on the line. How long? speculated Todd. To the bitter end, big boy, determined Barnes, measuring the towering McBride twenty paces away . . “Go-od Save Our King!”
BARNES replaced his helmet, watched the kicker, and was up on his toes as the whistle blew ; then away like a deer to bring down, if possible, the Blue back destined to catch a beautiful kickoff that must drop at not more than thirty yards out from the Blue posts. But Barnes never got anywhere near it. A thunderbolt in the person of McBride clipped him neatly, and sent him flat on his face to count a constellation of stars. It was while on the ground that he heard a frenzied crowd screaming, Crimson ball ! Crimson ba—a—all ! !” Lord, did they fumble? He scrambled to his feet, smirked a “My turn next! at the grinning McBride, and ambled down to the tangled mass of players; not a little shaken at the jolt he had received. .Before he reached the heap, the referee waved the yardsmen on toward the Blue line. Holy smoke! Our ball rieht enough.
Several derby hats came sailing down from the stands.
From the bench Todd signalled his quarterback, and Barnes was no sooner crouching before McBride than he heard his number called for a drop kick. Wentworth, coming up to fill the gap, encouraged him, “Take your time, old boy!” Barnes, waiting for the snap, was breathless—and a little groggy. There it came. The crowd held its breath. Turf first, then boot, remembered Barnes. But in the next moment he forgot the turf and kicked too soon—overanxious, and nerves somewhat overwrought from the shake-up. He had kicked into his own line of scrimmage; and the Blue secured.
The crowd for the most part groaned. A few magnanimous souls called “Never mind that. That’s all right, Barnes. Y ou can afford to give away three points.”
Perhaps. Barnes went back to the line bewildered. For all that, his scattered wits were irrevocably strung together on one line tougher than ox hide—the words of a coach, “Clip McBride.” So that by the time the Blue snapped the ball, he shot through the air diagonally at his antagonist as though from a catapult. The big fellow went down like a house of cards. And when he arose he looked at the diminutive Barnes in frank astonishment tinged with chagrin. To make matters look worse for McBride, a Crimson man had charged through the breach and narrowly missed nipping an end-run which advanced the ball about six yards. Second down. Again Barnes clipped perfectly, notwithstanding McBride’s caution. Barnes had taken him from a different angle. This time it was Wentworth on the secondary defense, who tore through to tackle the Blue ball carrier for a loss of three yards. Coming back through the line, he slapped Barnes on the shoulder, panting,
“That’s the stuff, old son. Give him socks !”
Wentworth failed to notice his friend’s face wince with pain at the slap on the shoulder. Clipping the mountainous McBride was like giving yourself a rabbit punch in the nape of the neck. As a result of his last charge, the nerves at the top of Barnes’ spine were numb from crunching against those raw-boned knees.
But he kept it up. “Hoick,” leap, crunch! “Hoick!” leap, crunch! Until McBride’s team mates began to chaff him for his futility against a “whiffet;” chaffed him at first, then castigated him roundly. For a lot of their players were being smothered before they were well under way. And the hole through which the Crimson players leaped was accounted for by Barnes, with McBride sprawled helplessly on the ground.
By this time his spine was numb, and his mind almost a blank except for the monotonous drumming of Todd’s order. So that when his signal was called again, he fell back stumbling somewhat. The cagey Crimson quarterback had once more manoeuvered his team so as to capitalize on Barnes’ drop-kicking. Wentworth, coming up, eyed his swaying friend narrowly and encouraged, “Your turn, old son—you’re good for three points this time.” And it was practically a sure thing—less than thirty yards out—sure, that is, if Barnes weren’t so unsteady. He fumbled the pass out, recovering it by the skin of his teeth just as half the Blue team swarmed in on top of him. The crowd was silent for a moment. Then a few jeers went up.
A more or less fresh sub tapped Barnes on the shoulder, and the latter, slowly shaking his head, made for the sidelines. Relieved! Ignominiously he shrank under the blankets on the sub’s bench, his head in his hands.
Todd, watching the substitute’s work, was perturbed to see McBride smash through twice in as many downs to break up Crimson plays. When it happened the third time, Todd had had enough. He motioned Barnes out to finish the period, and was astounded at the wan smile of delight that faded into the youngster’s face.
Once in the scrimmage again, and Barnes’ dull smile increased when the jeers that had been his recessional, were changed to shouts of joy as Wentworth kicked to the deadline for a single point—the only score of the first half.
T 7P IN the fieldhouse during half time Wentworth found his pal flat on his face on a bench, his teeth chattering, and his hands curved protectingly over the nape of his neck.
“What’s the matter, Barney?”
“Clipping McBride. Just leave me alone. I’ll be all right,” pleaded Barnes miserably.
Wentworth, wise for his years, steered Todd off, and sent a trainer over to minister to Barnes. So that when “All out !” was called, the lad rose to his feet somewhat refreshed, though mentally disturbed at the ominous numbness that now seemed to diffuse his whole body.
But just the same he clipped McBride who was following up the Blue kick-off, and muttered to himself, “Some of my own back.” Vaguely he saw Wentworth make a perfect catch to return a long high spiral, allowing his wings plenty of time to get down under the punt. And Barnes could scarcely believe his eyes when he saw the same Blue back fumble again just as he had at the beginning of the first half. One of the Crimson wings fell on the ball ! Barnes trotted down to the scrimmage to face his anathema again— to clip him on the first down—to clip him on the second, when the Crimson had failed to gain anything against a Blue line rejuvenated every five minutes with virile subs. The Crimson quarterback, thinking rapidly, decided to take no more chances with Barnes’ dropkicking, and was about to stake everything on an outside kick with Wentworth back, when he caught another signal from the bench. He shrugged his shoulders and called Barnes’ number.
Todd, knowing that only brains could make his tottering team hold its slim margin now against the Blue, was gambling wildly on the psychology that Barnes, having let his team down twice, would rise to heroic heights if given another chance. That is, if Todd read anything in that weak but expressive smile in the kid’s face when he had sent him in again just before the rest period. Moreover, hadn’t the trainer whispered that he was O.K. after his ministrations?
Said McAllister, “You bally fool, Todd!”
Watching, McAllister nearly wept. On a perfect pass-out Barnes scarcely seemed to raise his left arm to catch the ball; seemed to be trying desperately to snatch it out of the air with one hand. It caromed off to one side, and McBride, who had bowled Wentworth over, tore through and scooped it up without changing his stride. Down the field he raced with long galloping strides, gradually outdistancing the madly pursuing Crimson pack, whose weary bodies were no match for his tireless energy. He went seventyfive yards for the first touch-down to put his team four points ahead of the Crimson. Blue missed the convert.
The coterie of Blue supporters wrenched mufflers from about each other’s necks to wave them in abandon; bashed in each other’s hats, executed bear dances; and bellowed and whooped their voices into a feeble huskiness that left them exhausted and futile for the rest of the game.
With many of the Crimson crowd their comments would have been dirgelike if they hadn’t been so scurrilous. Quite openly they sneered, “How much were you paid for it, Barnes?”
On the bench, Gayley said quietly, “Another fallen angel.”
“Take him out, Todd,” demanded McAllister fiercely.
“No—o. I don’t think so, Mac. Tell you why. He’s fighting more furiously than any man on the line. And they’re weakening every minute. What they need is a moral example. Remember the game we played in ’19—how you tackled yourself almost into unconsciousness. You won that game, Mac, pulling a crumbling line together by your own example.”
SO BARNES stayed in, coming up from each scrimmage to stagger into place and clip again—one more white-hot dagger stabbed into his shoulder. Even Wentworth was beginning to see the truth of it now, and once or twice his eyes were moist. In the last quarter, Barnes’ dogged fight so unnerved him that he found himself gulping hysterically, “Come on, you pack of old women! There’s only one man on the line worth a cent. Look at Barney!”
Blinded with sweat, racked with pain, they stole furtive, shamefaced glances at him till a new fury seemed to seize them; and they hacked and tore their way madly through the Blue line till they backed them up on to their twenty-yard line, only to lose the ball on a penalty.
By this time Barnes was almost out on his feet; so much so that he actually didn’t know who had the ball. But he clipped McBride as savagely as ever. The Blue had decided to kick themselves out of danger. And Wentworth, cutting through the hole that Barnes made, crashed the secondary defense, and blocked the kick to fall on the ball ten yards out.
Two of his team mates had to pull Barnes to his feet.
The Crimson quarterback kept his eyes steadfastly averted from the bench. No signals from that bungling crowd again. He called a conference huddle, and was concerned to see in Barnes’ eyes a dumb look of rage like that of a young bullock that has been soundly thrashed and gored. But there was something in those stark eyes that said, “Not licked yet!” At that the quarterback took heart. And when they went back to the line, the Crimson knew who was going to carry the ball, and where. Where the Blue thought they’d be crazy to send it. So they concentrated on the end-run that the Crimson faked, spreading themselves to cope with the threat. And instead, on a delayed play, the quarterback gave the ball to Wentworth—even showed him the gaping hole.
Barnes had clipped again.
But he didn’t hear the vicious smack of canvassed thighs and arms as Wentworth careened through, over his and McBride’s prostrate bodies; or the thud of Wentworth’s stiff arm, as he threw off two tacklers to place the ball between the posts; or the crazed and madly screaming crowd. In fact, he didn’t even see the perfect convert that Wentworth made to win the game seven to five. For they carried Barnes off on a stretcher to the tune of:
“What’s the matter with Wentworth?”—“He’s all right!” “Who’s all right?” — “Wentworth !”
“Who says so?”—“Everybody !” “Who’s everybody?’’ — “Crimson !”
But when the final whistle blew a few minutes later, Wentworth lurched into the fieldhouse well in the van of the rest of the team to find Barnes naked on the rubbing table: just a flicker of recognition in his dull eyes.
Tears streamed down the captain’s grimy cheeks as he stumbled toward his friend, his arms outstretched to cradle the tired curly head in them and sob, “I know, Barney—oh, Lord, I saw!—who won that game!”
And McAllister, who with Todd and Gayley came close on Wentworth’s heels, faltered this confirmation in abject humility—“An angel!”