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Authors: Mike Lupica

Game Changers

BOOK: Game Changers
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Ben McBain, eleven years old and nowhere near five feet tall, had always thought of himself as a quarterback even though most grown-ups didn't see it that way.

Mostly the grown-ups who had coached him in football so far.

It was because they thought he was too small to play quarterback. He got that. He did. Got that he didn't look the part, didn't look like a quarterback to them, even the ones who had actually taken the time to notice the way he could throw a football before they told him he was going to play another position.

Running back.

Wide receiver.

Kick returner.

Just never quarterback.

He kept trying, every season. But somebody else always beat him out. Two years ago it had been Steven Moore, before he moved out of Rockwell. Last year it was Shawn O'Brien when his family moved
to Rockwell.

Both bigger. By a lot.

Both looking the part.

Ben knew in his heart that he had all the skills needed to be a quarterback, not just the arm. More than that, he knew he had the ability to do the one thing that was supposed to count the most in sports:

The ability to make a play.

It always came down to that, whether you were playing in the schoolyard at Rockwell Middle School at recess, or in the small park across the street from your house, or even on the real football field behind their school, the field they all called The Rock.

Ben still thought of himself as a quarterback even knowing he was barely big enough to play
position in Pop Warner football, that he was just going to make the minimum requirement for weight this season in the Midget Division of the Butler County League for eleven-year-olds.

The limit was one hundred pounds. Ben was one hundred and one, he weighed himself every morning to make sure he hadn't dropped a couple while he was sleeping.

Sometimes he couldn't help himself, he imagined they'd named the division for him, that
was going to be the midget on his team and in their league.

But when he'd say something like that to his dad, Jeff McBain would look at him and say, “So play bigger, big boy.”

“When it's football season,” Ben said, “I just want to

Of course his dad was 6-2 and weighed two hundred pounds, which is what he'd weighed when he'd been a
defensive back at Boston College. It was Ben's mom who was the small one, about 5-2 and half his dad's weight. The family pediatrician, Dr. Freshman, had done all these projections and said that Ben might grow to be 5-8 someday. Probably not more than that.

Making it sound like a good thing. His father liked to joke that Ben lucked out getting his mother's looks, but he got her short legs, too.

Size didn't bother Ben in the other sports he played. It didn't. Didn't hold him back or slow him down. He was a pitcher in baseball when he wasn't playing just about every other position on the field, even catcher sometimes, though catching equipment seemed to swallow him up the way pads and his helmet did in football. He was a point guard in basketball who could pass like a pro and already knew how to create enough space to get his shot when he wasn't beating guys off the dribble with his speed.

And he could always beat people with his speed in football, no worries there, could do that carrying the ball from the backfield or catching it or returning punts and kickoffs.

But there wasn't a single day he'd ever played Pop Warner, from the time he started playing in the third grade, that he didn't think he was playing out of position.

“I'm trying out for quarterback again,” Ben had said to his dad in the car on the way to tryouts.

“There's a shocker,” his dad had said.

“I won't get it,” Ben had said.

“You don't know that before the tryouts even start.”

“Yeah, Dad, I do.”

His dad had dropped him off behind Rockwell Middle School and left, because none of the parents were allowed to watch the tryouts, it was a league rule, only the coach and the three evaluators from the town football committee were allowed to be there. So Ben was on the field now with three dozen kids who'd been separated right away by position. When they asked who wanted to try out for quarterback, only three raised their hands: Shawn O'Brien, Ben, and a new kid in their grade, Barry Stanton.

Ben had watched Barry warm up, saw he had a decent enough arm. But he was going to have no chance to beat out Shawn. Shawn O'Brien was trying out tonight the way everybody else at The Rock was. But by next week, when real practices started, he was going to be the starter the way he was last season, the way he probably would be all the way through Rockwell High School.

He wasn't always consistent, was more like a streak shooter in basketball. Last season he'd have these streaks where he couldn't miss, even though they didn't come so often the second half of the season. But when he would get on one of those rips, showing off his arm, it was all anybody wanted to talk about when the game was over.

Now Ben knew there was no point in saying the job was Shawn's to lose, because he wasn't losing it.

Shawn had it all. He was big enough to be a tight end, he could run like a wide receiver in the open field, he was strong enough to shake off tacklers, he had that strong arm going for him.

And if that wasn't enough, Shawn had one other thing going for him that no one else at The Rock had:

He was the coach's son, his dad coaching him this season for the first time.

Ben hoped it would make Shawn O'Brien easier to be around. Last year he had been too much of a hothead, had seemed stuck-up to Ben and Sam Brown and Coop Manley — his best buds — and just about everybody else on the team. Sometimes the only talking he did to the other players at practice was calling the signals. And if somebody made a mistake on him, missed a block or dropped a pass, he had this way of acting as if the kid who did it had stolen his lunch money.

Maybe he was going to change now that his dad was around. Sam didn't think so, had decided that Shawn was going to be more of a knucklehead than ever, said there was always a different set of rules for a coach's son, even if coaching dads never seemed to realize that.

“Guys always say it's tough to have to play for their dad,” Sam said. “Dude, you know better than that.”

And it wasn't as if Matt O'Brien was just
coach. He was the best football player to ever come out of Rockwell, had gone on from Rockwell High to being a college star at Maryland, that he'd even spent a couple of seasons backing up Peyton Manning with the Colts.
in town knew about all that.

Matt O'Brien had moved back to Rockwell the year before last, in the process of selling a chain of restaurants he'd started after he left the NFL. According to Ben's dad, Mr.
O'Brien ended up making such an insane amount of money in the deal he decided to retire. He was still too busy with the sale to coach last year's team. But when he offered to coach the Midget Division team this season, the people running town football acted like Peyton Manning himself had applied for the job of coaching the Rockwell Rams.

It was perfect, if you weren't trying to beat Shawn out of a job. The dad had been a quarterback. The son was a quarterback. Like
was their real family business.

Ben still had to try out.

“Of course you're trying out, you wouldn't be you if you
try,” his friend Lily had said to him at school that day.

So Ben was trying as hard as he ever had at the end of the first night of tryouts, finally his turn to play quarterback against a real defense. Shawn had already had his turn, making all his throws, running for a first down when he got flushed out of the pocket one time, only muffing one exchange with a running back. So maybe you gave him an A-instead of an A.

Now it was Ben's first shot at making this year's coach see a quarterback instead of the littlest guy on the field, one hundred and one pounds exactly.

Only Ben's first play had turned into a busted play. It was why he was running hard to his right now, being chased by what felt like half the players Coach O'Brien had lined up to stop him.

Ben was always the star of schoolyard football — “greatest recess QB ever,” Sam liked to say — and it felt like the first night of tryouts had turned into schoolyard football now.
Ben buying himself some time and trying to make a play, even if it wasn't exactly the one Coach had called for him in the huddle.

It was supposed to be a simple buttonhook to Sam, the best and fastest receiver on the field behind Rockwell Middle School, and the one with the surest hands.

Sam was supposed to take off like it was a straight fly pattern, stop, and come back for the ball. If he ran the pattern right and Ben delivered the ball, the play would be a solid ten-yard completion. Or more, if Sam broke a tackle.

Only when Sam came back for the ball the middle linebacker, Justin Bard, was sitting there like a big old crow on a fence.

No chance to get the ball past him. No time for Ben to dump the ball off to his receiver over in the left flat.

And no fun in that, anyway.

Go big or go home
, Ben thought to himself.

When he ran out of room at the right sideline, Ben was the one who came to a sudden stop now, spun around, back to the action, running toward the middle of the field. Looking
field the first chance he got, his eyes trying to pick up where Sam was.

But after all the football they'd played together in their lives, Sam Brown had picked
up. He was running in the same direction Ben was, like they were on parallel train tracks, waiting to see what Ben's next move was going to be, knowing that was always the fun of being on Ben McBain's team:

Finding out what was going to happen next.

So Sam probably wasn't blown away when he saw Ben reverse his field again, running
toward the sideline. He could throw a ball just fine running to his left. But he was right-handed. When he really wanted to put something extra on the ball, wanted to bring the heat and go deep, he was better moving to his right.

Sam took off down the field then.

Ben gave one last quick look over his shoulder, just to make sure nobody was gaining on him. They weren't, because they were running out of steam now, tired of chasing.

Ben set himself and let the ball go.

Not throwing it as far as he could because he didn't need to throw it that far. Just putting it in Sam's hands when he was clear of the cornerback covering him, watching as Sam caught the ball at the five-yard line and breezed into the end zone from there.

Coop, the center who'd snapped Ben the ball what felt like about twenty minutes ago, came over to stand next to Ben, casually high-fived him.

Then Coop — whose real first name was Cooper — tipped his helmet back and grinned. “That's what
talkin' about.”

“Just the way we drew it up,” Ben said, grinning back at him.

“Yeah,” Coop said, “if we were playing Angry Birds.”

The other guys trying out for quarterback had made some good plays tonight. Some great throws. Just not like this one. Not off the kind of busted play that Ben had turned into pure money.

It was why Ben couldn't help himself now, had to steal a look over at Coach, see what his reaction was.

Only there wasn't one.

Coach O'Brien was over on the sideline, back turned, showing Shawn the proper way to pivot away from center and make the handoff he'd messed up earlier.

Coop saw where Ben was looking.

“He didn't see,” Coop said.

“They never do,” Ben said.

BOOK: Game Changers
13.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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