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Authors: Matt Christopher

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BOOK: Catch That Pass!
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Jim Nardi depressed the plunger of his controller all the way to the bottom for a split second, then quickly let up on it
as the
Lotus 30 reached the curve on the left side of the track.

“Two more laps to go,” he said after a quick glance at the counter. “Guess you’ll win this race.”

“Well, I have more experience than you have,” Chuckie said, sitting forward in his wheelchair with a wide grin on his face.
“You know what I’m going to be when I get out of this chair, don’t you?”

“What?”

“A race driver!”

Click
!

“There’s the counter!” cried Chuckie. “Ten laps! Want to race again?”

“Sure. Why not?”

They stopped their cars. Jim lifted them off the track and placed them on the starting line. The track was on a platform in
Chuckie’s room. It had two lanes, a grandstand, pit stops, mechanics, spectators, and
trees and shrubbery that made it look real except for its being miniature.

Model car racing was Chuckie’s favorite sport. He was always calling up Jim to come over and race with him. Of course Chuckie’s
brother Dil raced with him, too. And so did Hook Wheeler. But of all the guys, Chuckie liked Jim the best, and Jim liked him.

Chuckie had become crippled from a car accident when he was five. He was sure that someday he was going to get out of that
wheelchair and walk. And maybe he would. He did exercises every afternoon at the clinic, and his muscles seemed to be getting
stronger.

They had just started the race when someone came into the room. Jim glanced over his shoulder, and all at once his spirit
melted like butter on hot pancakes.

“Hi, Dil,” he said. “Hi, Hook.”

The boys greeted him and then exchanged
greetings with Chuckie. Jim jiggled the plunger up and down with his thumb to slow down the Lotus 30 as it completed its first
lap and headed for the first sharp curve. Chuckie’s Porsche Carrera 6 was only a foot or so ahead of his Lotus.

“Who’s winning?” asked Hook.

“We’ve just started our second race,” replied Chuckie. “I won the first one.”

“That’s nothing to brag about,” said Dil. “Maybe you’ve got Jim shook up.”

“Sure, that’s why you beat him,” Hook joined in. “Jim doesn’t like contact. He might’ve been afraid you’d crash into him.”

“Will you guys pipe down?” cried Chuckie irritably. “Who can race with you guys shootin’ off your mouths?”

The controller was hot in Jim’s hand. Weren’t those guys ever going to get over his dropping those passes yesterday? Darn
’em, anyway.

The little red car twisted around the curve at the right, shot up the wall and then along the short straightaway, its tail
wagging as if it were trying to shake something off. Chuckie’s Porsche Carrera 6 came speeding up behind it, gulping up a
big gain on the straight.

The Lotus 30 looked fuzzy as it headed for the overpass. Jim blinked to clear away the fuzz. He was thinking of Dil and Hook
watching them, of what they had said about him, and of the terrible feeling that had come over him just after he had intercepted
the passes. The controller was hot, and he was sweating. Man, that terrible feeling. He could remember it as if it had happened
only a little while ago.

The Lotus 30 tore through the overpass and up the short straightaway to the curve. It was going fast.
Too
fast!

Jim let up on the plunger. But too late. The car jumped the track. It crashed against
the white fence, tore loose a post, zoomed over the edge of the platform, and plunged to the floor.

Jim stood paralyzed. A long minute passed before he could unglue his feet from the floor. Then he went and picked up the car.
The front axle had broken loose from the chassis. The front end of the car was split open. And the windshield had come off.

4

D
on’t worry about it, Jim,” said Chuckie. “I can fix it.”

Jim wiped the sweat from his upper lip. “No, I’ll take the pieces home. It was my fault. I’ll fix it.”

Chuckie glared at Dil and Hook. “It was you guys’ fault!” he cried. “You kept shooting off your mouths!”

“We’re sorry, Chuckie,” Dil apologized. “We really didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Sure,” said Hook. “We were just kiddin’. Are you sure you can fix it, Jim? You got tools?”

“My dad has tools,” replied Jim quietly He was holding the car body in one hand, the pieces in the other. “I’ll bring it back
as soon as I finish it, Chuckie.”

“Take my tube of epoxy,” offered Chuckie. “It’s good to cement stuff.” He wheeled around to the left side of the track, lifted
a yellow tube off one of the shelves on the wall, and handed it to Jim.

“Thanks, Chuckie,” said Jim.

No one said a word as he walked out.

He thought about football all the time he worked on the model racing car in the garage. He knew the big reason why Dil and
Hook were on his back. They were sure that the Vulcans would’ve won the game yesterday if he had hung on to those intercepted
passes. Well, maybe they would’ve and maybe not. So what? Was it a crime to have lost? It was only a game. And their first
one, at that.

Darn! He was only looking for an excuse! Of course the game would’ve turned out differently if he had hung on to those passes.
But he’d been scared—scared stiff of being tackled and getting hurt. He had tried to do something about it, hadn’t he? He
had tried not to be scared. But he had failed. That scary feeling just grabbed him like electrified steel fingers.

Somebody came in. It was his little sister, Karen. Her hands were tucked up inside the sleeves of her green sweater. “Isn’t
it cold in here?” she said. “Brrrrr!”

“I turned on the electric heater,” answered Jim. The heater was on the bench beside the tools, warmth pouring from the twin
circles of coils.

Karen came forward and stood in front of it. “Whose cars that?”

“Chuckie’s. I was racing it and it jumped the track and landed on the floor.”

He had cemented the split front end together and was putting the axle back in place.

“I just saw Hook leaving the Gormans’,” said Karen. “Was he there when you were?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s a worm,” she said.

“Aw...”

“Aw, what?”

“Aw, nothing.”

“Aw, nothing, my eye. You know what you should’ve done when he yelled at you? You should’ve socked him one.”

“Yeah. And get kicked out of the game. Oh, sure.”


I
wouldn’t have cared. I mean I wouldn’t have cared if I’d been in your place and he’d yelled at me and I’d socked him and
got kicked out of the game. After all, anybody can miss a pass.”

Jim looked at his sister. Man, it was a good
thing Hook wasn’t here. She looked mad enough to follow through with everything she said. “Karen, you don’t understand.”

She glared at him. “I don’t understand? Just because you’re older than I am and I’m a girl, you think I don’t understand?”

“Look, I had the ball. I’d already caught it. I got scared and dropped it when I saw the tackier coming at me. You just don’t
know how I felt—” He swallowed hard and turned her around to face the door. “Look, leave me alone, will you? Go into the house.
Maybe you can help Mom with something.”

She spun and looked at him hotly. “You mean you admitted it to that … that worm that he was right and you were wrong?”

Jim shrugged. “I didn’t admit anything. But he was right, Karen. I do get scared, and I can’t help it. Don’t you see? I just
can’t help it!”

Her voice softened. “Does Doug know?”

“I—I think so.”

“Don’t you think he can help?”

“How could he? I’m the one playing out there. I’m the one who gets the chance to intercept a pass.”

“Why don’t you ask Doug to let you play quarterback? Or halfback?”

Jim shook his head. “I’m not going to ask him anything. I don’t want the guys to think that just because the coach is my brother
I’m asking for favors. Anyway, Doug knows his stuff. He wants to develop Chris Howe in the quarterback position so that Chris
will be broken in when he gets into high school.”

“Don’t you care about playing football in high school?”

“Sure, I do.”

“Then why doesn’t Doug put you somewhere else?”

“Because he thinks he could make me a good middle linebacker, that’s why! For crying out loud, Karen! Please don’t bother
me anymore, will you? I—I just don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

He finished repairing the model car, turned off the heater, and went into the house, taking the car with him. In his room
he touched it up with paint and put it on a shelf to dry.

On Monday there was football practice after school, and Doug had the team scrimmage. Bill Clark, Doug’s assistant coach, worked
with the defensive unit and Doug with the offensive. After a few routine one-on-one plays, in which each defensive man covered
his offensive man, Coach Clark suggested a new tactic.

“Let’s try red-dogging ’em,” he said. “You
linebackers break through the line and grab the ballcarrier before he has a chance to do anything. Okay?”

The teams lined up at the line of scrimmage. Chris Howe, quarterbacking for the offensive team, called signals. The bail was
snapped. There was the thudding sound of helmets striking helmets, shoulder pads brushing shoulder pads.

Jim Nardi bulldozed through the narrow gap between center and right tackle. At the same time, he spotted right halfback Ken
Morris taking the pitchout from Chris and starting to sprint toward left end. Jim’s rubber cleats dug into the turf as he
wedged through the line after the fast-running back. He caught up with Ken and tackled him a yard behind the scrimmage line.

Coach Clark grinned when Jim returned
to the defenses huddle. “Nice work, Jim,” he said. “I think Doug’ll have a man on you the next time.”

Three plays later, Bill Clark had the linebackers red-dog again. This time a man blocked Jim two yards beyond the line of
scrimmage. Chris fumbled the ball in his hurry to back away from the other plunging linemen and linebackers, and it was recovered
by Marv Wallace, the right tackle.

Coach Clark kept the defensive unit in a huddle until the offense broke out of theirs. “I’m trying to make ’em think we’re
changing our pattern,” he explained in a voice that wasn’t supposed to carry beyond the U-shaped huddle. “But let’s try the
red dog again. It’s working pretty good!”

Chris Howe barked signals. He took the snap, rushed back, faked a handoff to Ken Morris, then flipped a short pass over the
line of scrimmage. Jim, charging through the line, saw the ball sail in his direction in a slow, crazy wobble. He stopped,
leaped, and caught it. Just as his feet touched the ground, he saw Roger Lacey, the chunky right guard, rise from his knees
and dive at him.

He was unprotected and had no time to move. Nothing was going to stop Roger from tackling him, tackling him
hard
. At that instant he was gripped with fear. His head got fire-hot. Rogers shoulder struck him just above the knees, and he
went down like a chunk of lead. His shoulders and head struck the ground. Stars flickered and he clamped his eyes shut. From
a distance he heard a whistle. He felt a weight lift from his legs. He looked up and saw Rogers grinning face.

“You okay?” asked Roger.

“Yeah,” he answered automatically. He didn’t know whether he was or not.

He started to get up and saw Ronnie Holmes, the fullback, grinning at him too.

“Hi, Jim,” he said. “Look what I found.”

He was holding the football.

5

A
fter supper Jim took the Lotus 30 back to Chuckie. The paint had dried, and the car looked brand-new.

“Looks great,” said Chuckie, smiling. “Thanks, Jim. Want to race awhile?”

“No, thanks, Chuckie. I have homework to do.”

“How are you feeling?” asked Chuckie.

“I feel fine. Why?”

“Dil said you got hurt practicing football. He said you might quit.”

Jim’s face colored. “I didn’t get hurt. And I’m not going to quit.”

A warm smile spread over Chuckie’s face. “That’s what I told him, Jim. I said you wouldn’t quit. I said that you and I were
a lot alike. You won’t quit football and I won’t quit trying to walk. Heck, Jim, what fun is it if we don’t try? You’ve got
to try, you know it?”

If there ever was a guy who could buck up a fellow, it was Chuckie Gorman.

Jim tried to keep Chuckie’s encouraging words in mind during the game against the Astrojets the next day. But it wasn’t always
easy.

“You’d better check your pants,” said Bucky Hayes to left end Ben Trainor. “I think you’ve got both legs in one pant-leg.
You were running too much in one spot.”

“Listen to roadrunner here,” replied Ben,
buckling his chin strap as he got into the huddle.

“Pipe down and listen,” said Hook Wheeler, the right safety man and captain of the defensive unit. “They’re on our seventeen-yard
line and might want to try another pass. Let’s red-dog ’em.”

They broke out of the huddle and hurried to the line of scrimmage. The ground was a little soft, but the game was too young
yet for either team to have gotten their uniforms soiled. Only Tom Willis, the Astrojets’ quarterback, had smudged his shoulder,
spoiling the neatness of his black and white uniform.

“Seventeen! Thirty-two! Hike! Hike! Hike!”

The ball was snapped. Jim charged. He zipped past Bucky, who was trying to push his man aside, and saw the start of a crisscross
play. The two halfbacks were running
toward the middle where they’d meet Willis, from whom one of them would take the ball. Jim sprinted to reach the quarterback
ahead of the halfbacks.

An Astrojet fell in front of him. Jim leaped. At the same time, he saw the right halfback take the handoff and scissor toward
the left side of the line. Jim reached out for him, hoping to grab the guys shoulder. The halfback looked his way, and Jim’s
fingers circled the top bar of the face mask. The guy’s head jerked, and Jim let go. But it was too late. The whistle shrilled.

Jim stopped dead and stared at the ref. The ref was showing the foul: grabbing the face mask.

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