Call the Ball

My older sister Wanda picked me up at the bus stop, she had a tear in her eye. I couldn’t tell if it was a tear of joy or a tear of relief. I didn’t care, I was just happy to see her. She stood on her tip-toes to rustle my stubbly hair, she laughed nervously and wrapped her arms around me. I could have cried too.

The drive from Dodge City to Ulysses takes about an hour; in that time she filled me in on everything that had changed in my hometown in the four years since I’d been home. That took her about five minutes. Afterward we sat in silence for most of the ride, not an uncomfortable silence, but peaceful, thankful silence.

As the speed limit changed from 55 to 35, just on the outskirt of town I noticed a man walking along the highway. He was carrying two grocery bags and had on a black backpack. He wore a blue football jersey with the number 80 in bold white. I could not see his face clearly, but he looked very familiar to me.

“Who is that?” I asked.
“Calvin Jaynes.” Answered Wanda. I recognized the name.
“He’s the one from that game back in the day, right?” I said. “Didn’t you two date for a bit?”
“That was a long time ago.” Said Wanda “I haven’t talked to him in years now.”

We arrived at my parents house and I spent the next four hours eating so much I could barely move, hugging my mother, drinking too much Michelob with my dad and laughing at his bad jokes. I took it all in, soaked up like a sponge what I had been missing for so long, and I was happy. Eventually I retired to the guest room.

I laid in bed, the room began to spin slowly, as if the house had a notion to rock me to sleep. It was there in the tranquility and security of my parents home, on the cusp of sleep that my thoughts returned to Calvin Jaynes walking along the road. It did not take long to recall why his name had stuck with me all these years.

The Ulysses homecoming game of 1992 was arguably the best game to ever be recorded in the annals of mid-western football lore (division three anyway). Under a crisp clear sky on a cold night in October the Ulysses Tigers took on their fierce rivals, the Lamar Warriors. I was in the forth grade; Wanda took me to the game. I remember she wore a black beret and a tweed poncho. She made me sit with her on the bleachers right behind the players. I objected because I could barely see, but she was under strict orders to keep me with her at all time, so I had no choice.

I noticed the player at the end of the bench kept turning around and waving at my sister. She would wave back and giggle with all her silly friends. I was annoyed, I had come to watch football, not bear witness to some third stringer flirting with my sister all night. He and my sister were in the middle of their flirtation when the crowd on the home bleachers let out a collective gasp. I tried to see past the huddled players and coaches, but could not tell what had happened. Then I saw the medics run out with a stretcher and return with our star quarterback, Paul Nagel strapped to it.

A current of despair passed through the crowd as they hauled Paul away. Coach Ralph Stewart paced up and down the sidelines as the second string quarterback, Todd Maple, ran to the huddle. One play later Todd was being helped off the field with a sprained ankle. Even from my terrible seat I could see the blood leave Coach Stewart’s face. Just then assistant Coach Chris Mcgee went over to Coach Stewart; what they said nobody knows, but they kept looking in Calvin’s direction. Calvin was unaware of this because he had been preoccupied flirting with Wanda.

As it turns out, Calvin was third string quarterback for good reason. He could not run fast or scramble. He barely knew the playbook, and really had no intention of playing. He only joined the team because it sometimes entailed late night bus trips home with the cheerleaders. He was third string quarterback none-the-less because he had the unbelievable ability to throw a football the length of the field with pinpoint accuracy and the velocity of a hunting rifle.

Calvin entered the game with only a minute and change left on the clock before halftime. Coach Stewart only called running plays in an effort to run out the clock. Calvin was sacked three times in four plays, and as the clock ran out people in the stands began to make their frustration heard. As the team headed to the locker room Calvin was met with jeers as he entered the tunnel.

The home crowd sat in utter silence during the halftime show. Mr. Jenkins led the marching band up and down the field as they squeaked and chirped their way through a barely recognizable rendition of “Love Shack”. As the band teacher at a school that spends most of the budget on it’s football program, Mr. Jenkins was used to lackluster responses to his bands efforts. But this night was particularly dismal. The visiting crowd on the other hand was ecstatic with the thought of embarrassing their rivals in what would surely be a blowout.

As the players made their way back to the field, I noticed my sister tense up. She seemed more nervous than Calvin, who jogged back on field carrying his helmet under his arm. I watched as Coach Mcgee took Calvin aside, and as he spoke Calvin responded by either nodding or shaking his head. Coach Stewart was last to return to the field, he was deathly pale and looked like he wanted to vomit.

Levon Sanders returned the kickoff to the 23 yard line. Calvin led the offense back on the field, ran two running plays that failed to gain a yard, and was sacked on the third attempt to hand off up the middle. Calvin pounded the ground with his fist, and yelled at his offense to huddle. Coach Stewart sent the left tackle in with the play, another attempt at a run. But, when the players broke from the huddle they lined up three receivers deep and Calvin fell back into shotgun formation.
“What are you doing!” Coach Stewart yelled from the sideline.

The ball snapped, linemen collided, linebackers charged at Calvin; he stumbled and was barely able elude his tacklers, wide receiver Kenny Sanchez took off like a bullet down the home sideline. Calvin was leveled by the Warriors’ middle linebacker, but not before he unleashed a tight spiral that shot forty yards down field and hit Kenny right in the chest. The crowd erupted; Coach Stewart threw up his arms and looked to his assistant coach.
“We’ve got to do something.” Said Coach Mcgee. “Running the ball was getting us nowhere.”
“Call the ball, Calvin!” Coach Mcgee yelled.

The two quarters of football that followed were arguably the most exciting ever played amongst the wheat fields and tumble weeds of Southwest Kansas. Calvin either threw an amazing pass, or was sacked for a loss. The Warriors seemed to score at will, but Calvin and the Tigers’ offense had to battle for every yard, and kept the game close only through miraculous plays.

Calvin refused to run the ball, instead he threw brilliant pass after brilliant pass. He hit his receivers all over the field with tight spirals traveling so fast the ball seem like a blur. He released every pass seconds before he was leveled by a linebacker or defensive end. He had bruises on his forearms, clumps of grass in his face mask and blood trickling down both shines, but he did not stop. His offensive line was exhausted having fought off blitz after blitz from the relentless defense who pounded Calvin into the ground every chance they could. Just when it looked like Calvin’s luck had run out he would find an opening, no matter how narrow, and fire the ball down field earning a first down.

In the end Calvin was unable to pull out a victory. No matter how much the home crowd willed it from the bleachers, or the coaches and players prayed for it on the sidelines, it just wasn’t meant to be. The final score was 31-35 Warriors. Calvin’s last chance to win the game came on a fourth down play with just over a minute left on the clock.

The ball was snapped, the receivers ran short routes in an effort to pick up a quick first down, but before Calvin was able to throw the ball he was sacked. The Warriors recovered the ball on downs, and ran out the remaining time on the clock. Calvin’s hand was caught between his helmet and the helmet of the linebacker that sacked him. The collision fractured his hand in two places, and marked the end of his football playing days.

The next fall Calvin sat next to my sister in the bleachers as the Tigers football team took to the field. Even though the Tigers won the homecoming game that year, it failed to live up to the excitement the year prior. In early June Calvin and Wanda graduated, then she went to college and he went to basic training in Georgia.

I woke up in my parents guestroom just before sunrise. I walked into the kitchen to find my Mother already sitting there with a cup of coffee. She always got up to see my dad off to work before he retired and I guess old habits die hard. I spent the next two days making the rounds and catching up with old friends who still lived in the area. A couple days later things had quieted down; I was happy to find myself spending a lazy afternoon talking to my Mom on the porch swing.

“I thought I saw Calvin Jaynes walking along the road the other day.” I said.
“He lives in that trailer park on the other side of the grain elevators.” Said My Mother “I think he had a rough go over there, he’s not the same.”
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“I don’t know what it is, he just seems quiet I guess. He’s always been polite, and still is, he just keeps to himself mostly.” Said my Mother.

The next day I drove out to the trailer park. I idled along the narrow dirt road between the trailers hoping to see Calvin out working in his yard or sitting in a lawn chair. At the end of the road I saw a silver sided Airstream trailer with an umbrella clothesline in the yard. Hanging next to work clothes and a bed sheet was a blue football jersey, number 80.

I knocked on the door and after a minute Calvin answered. He was older, a little grizzled, but I could still recognize the same young man who hung out with my sister all those years ago. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he recognized me too.
“Well, don’t just stand there.” He said with a smile. “Come in and have a beer.”
“How you doing these days, man?” I asked as I walked through the door.
“I’m getting by.” He said. “How’s your sister? Does she still have that black beret?”