The Penalty for Holding
His name was Quinton Day Novak, and as he stood in the dizzying heat that enveloped the New York Templars’ summer training camp high above the Hudson – thick, glossy black curls clinging to his neck from beneath his helmet– he wasn’t sure where he was going or even really where he had been.
He knew, of course, where he was immediately headed – or at least where the bullets he was drilling were immediately headed – downfield into the sinewy arms of wide receiver Greg Moll. But whether the ability to send missiles arcing into the air would ultimately translate into the starting quarterback’s job was anybody’s guess. Certainly the signs from head coach Pat Smalley weren’t good.
“Well, boy,” he had said, “let’s see what you can do.”
Now, you see, right there, he knew Smalley shouldn’t call him, or any man for that matter, “boy.” That was pure gesture politics, and the gesture said: You’re not my guy and you never will be.
Quinn – who had already known many Smalleys in his young life – chose instead to focus on the task at hand, sending the leather egg spiraling 20, 40, 80 yards into various teammates’ fanning hands. When Smalley tried to pull a fast one, Quinn again was ready. As defenseman Carl Knowlton came up on his right while he prepared to throw, Quinn anticipated the move and, having feigned right, broke left. He charged down the field with the ball, dodging teammates first left, then right as he ran into the end zone, reveling once more not only in a touchdown but in the sheer joy of running, nothing but the wind at his back as he broke free, heading for the goal line, heading for home. He took a knee then and quickly crossed himself, touching his fingers to his lips.
As he rose, he saw Smalley chatting and laughing with starting quarterback Lance Reinhart at midfield.
“Well, that was real impressive, Quinnie,” Lance said with a smirk. “I can see why you won the Heisman as a Stanford sophomore and why Mark was so high on you.”
“Was” being the operative word here. As the Temps’ general manager, Mark Seidelberg had signed him. Mark had believed that he could challenge for the starting QB job. And Mark was gone – another whim of owner Jimmy Jones Jefferson. So far Quinn had encountered him just once, after an initial phone conversation that went something like “Triple J here, Quinn. Heard great things about you and expect great things from you,” blah, blah, blah. It occurred to him then that Triple J – a distant relative of the third U.S. president – was more mercurial Caesar than steadfast Founding Father.
“Thanks, sir. I intend to do everything I can to help the Temps become Super Bowl champs” was all Quinn had to say. He knew he could be cut from the roster tomorrow. Best to stick to the program – and not get your hopes up.
As he entered the locker room after practice, Quinn thought he was right to be wary. His teammates, long tethered to the starting QB, certainly were, keeping to themselves and their cliques. And that QB himself, the aforementioned Lancelot Reinhart, was in turn tied to a glamorous New York lifestyle. They weren’t about to upset that carefully piled Big Apple cart for a newbie – Stanford, Heisman and Rose Bowl champion be damned.
A DVD of last year’s Super Bowl was playing on a big-screen TV. The Philadelphia Quakers were once again pitted against the San Francisco Miners and just as inevitably were their respective quarterbacks. Rumor was they hated each other as much as their teams did. It was understandable. As far as Quinn could see, the quarterbacks had nothing in common except that each was, in his own way, brilliant – and beautiful.
Quinn felt a stirring in his groin, blushed and, looking around quickly to make sure none of his preoccupied teammates noticed, forced himself to concentrate on the one thing that was certain to dampen any ardor – Smalley’s banal words.
“Listen up, people. See this here video.”
“It’s a DVD, Coach,” Greg Moll said.
“Hey, maggot, whatever,” Smalley went on. “This here video is one we’re going to study the rest of the year. And you know why? ’Cause at the end of the coming season, it’s gonna be us in the video, us everyone’s talking about and studying. Now hit the showers.”
“Question is,” Greg whispered to tight end Derrick Muldavey, “are we the Quakers or the Miners, the winners or the losers?”
Derrick laughed. Quinn couldn’t help but laugh, too. What would they do without what passed for wit in the Temps’ locker room?
“Novak, a word in my office,” Smalley said. “Close the door and take a seat.”
Quinn clenched and unclenched his left hand. He wondered why coaches’ offices always resembled cinder-block bunkers and why people who seemed so perfectly average – round features, crimson coloring, incipient beer gut – could be so spectacularly mean.
“It says here that you had a 4.0 average at Stanford, majoring in classics. You lettered in baseball and football and speak several languages, including –“
Here Smalley stumbled.
“Bahasa,” Quinn said.
“What is that?”
“It’s the official language of Indonesia. I grew up there.”
“You’re family’s with one of them big corporations, right?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, well. Looks like I got myself a regular Renaissance man here.”
Don’t, Quinn thought, the color rising in his burnished cheeks. Don’t.
“I prefer to think of myself as a man of many interests,” he said. Here he paused before adding, “Coach.”
He was trying, really he was. But Christ, you didn’t have to be a classics major – indeed you didn’t have to know Homer from Homer Simpson – to see what was going on. OK, but if you were and you did, Smalley was Agamemnon, the boss from hell, and he himself was Achilles, not the type to knuckle under to a bad boss. What for? It was the same old same-old – starting out as eager to please as a newborn pup, only to be dropped from a 10th-story window, your brains dashed against the pavement by someone’s capricious detachment or out-and-out hostility. Really it was Jakarta 2.0 and he couldn’t go back there – wouldn’t go back there – when he had put that Pandora’s box so carefully on a shelf.
“You think you’re smart, don’t you?” Smalley was saying. “Well, then, understand this, boy,” and here his broad, gap-tooth grin turned icy, “you ain’t ever going to be starting quarterback of the New York Templars.”
Quinn met that grin with one of his own: “Guess we’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we?”
He kept that smile tightly in place as he emerged from Smalley’s office, but it was no use. His stomach plunged as his heart rose. His mind raced, a jumble of emotions led by those well-traveled twins, rage and fear.
I am who I say I am, he thought. But he knew that wasn’t true, not entirely, knew the Smalleys of the world still had the power to hurt him, because he let them – which made whatever indignity he suffered that much worse.
Alone in the shower room, he turned on the faucet and, leaning against the cool tile, pounded it with his left fist. As he let out an animal cry, the water caressed the creamy dunes of his muscular back like a warm Jakarta rain.