If you would have told me in September that my college football career would end in a sparsely-attended bowl game sponsored by a sausage company in Central New York on December 19th, I would have told you to just shoot me in the head and get it over with now.
Still, it’s what we deserve. The 6-6 Emperors of the Northeast America Conference versus the 6-6 Warriors of the Midwestern 10 Conference in Syracuse, NY to determine who is the greatest .500 football team from a mid-major conference. Once and for all.
The lead-in to the game wasn’t any less absurd. The local flavor leaves a little something to be desired. Miami it’s not. Hell, El Paso it’s not. At least that bowl game last year came with heat, even if it was the sweltering, melt-your-face-like-that-drooping-clock-in-that-one-painter’s-painting kind.
As if the sick joke wasn’t un-funny enough, we got into town the same day as that salt mine explosion. Who knew there were even salt mines up here? Not active, of course. Old timey salt mines, long since shut down. God knows what was down there, or what caused the explosion. And what those weird reports ever since are all about. I barely paid attention to them, had to focus on the game. Didn’t want to let the good people at Heitzman Sausage down.
That didn’t stop reporters from asking what I thought about it, if the reports of lunatics randomly biting people around town would be a distraction or something. That’s when that media training kicks in though. "Just putting on blinders out there," I said. "Gotta keep my focus on the field," I added. "Only concerned with helping the team prepare for Western Ohio," I responded. I’ve gotten pretty good at deflecting dumb reporter questions. I’ve certainly had the practice.
Gotta move the chains. I look over at Anderson and...what the hell is he doing? He’s looking behind him. Dude, focus! This is why he never saw meaningful snaps. Great arm, head in the clouds. Turn around, you dummy!
I realize a whole bunch of people on the sidelines are looking in the same direction as him. I look up at what’s so damn important and...well, that’s weird. A big crowd of people in the upper deck swarming out of the stadium. Screaming? Yeah, screaming. I didn’t hear it before. You get so used to blocking out the noise it all just blends together. But now that I’m focusing on it for a second, yeah, definitely screaming.
Gotta focus. Can’t say we lost the game cause some drunk rubes in the nosebleed were acting like idiots. Anderson’s still turned around. I peep Gardner in the coaches box, banging on the glass, waving his arms trying to get the play-caller’s attention. Or is he trying to get someone else’s attention? He’s not even looking in the direction of the field. Dude, those ushers don’t get paid enough to help you call bubble screens all day.
Fine. I’ll do it myself. I call everyone in for a huddle. Macafee speaks first, "What the fuck’s going on up there, man?"
"I don’t know and I don’t care. Neither should you," I bark at him. "We’re on our own, apparently. So let’s take care of our business." A mix of deliberate and barely-noticeable nods greet me. Fine. "Trips Left Gamma Nine on three. Break!"
We clap, break and get into formation. For the first time today, it’s getting hard for the receivers to hear me. Weird noises, man. Shrieks, almost. I step up to the line.
"Blue Eighteen Sky," I blurt out. I tap my right foot back and West goes in motion behind me. His defender follows. Gamma One, hut. Hut. Hut!" Ball snapped, I fade back. Finley is crossing into a linebacker zone, no dice. West is well-covered, same for Freeman. Last option, I dump it out in the flat to Macafee.
Run, you subpar sonofabitch. Run!
The sonofabitch does. Eluding one man and spinning through the arms of another, though that guy catches his foot as Macafee goes down after an eleven-yard gain. First down at our 46 with :58 seconds left. Getting closer.
Still nothing from the sidelines. Anderson has his headset off. He, along with a good chunk of the team, coaches and staff are fully engaged with what’s happening in the upper deck. Mezzanine, too, now. I can see some people running full-speed through the seats. Others just kind of lumbering. Only a handful of people just sitting. Almost looks like they’re sleeping, all slumped over. What the hell?
Clock’s tickin’, gotta move. I look up at Gardner and...he’s gone. The box is empty. Except for some kind of dark smudge across the glass. Is it...chocolate? Why are we falling apart over a little crowd noise?
I hurry everyone up to the line, signaling for a spike. We gotta stop this clock! Quick snap and I launch the ball into the ground. Clock stops at :53 seconds. Burned a down but what choice did I have?
I call everyone over to the huddle. Tired and confused, they all just stare at me through their facemasks. Except Macafee, who keeps glancing up at the crowd.
"Mac! Eyes here," I yell. He turns, and I see fear in his eyes. Not born of me, but what’s going on out there.
That visceral reaction in his eyes forces me to look beyond him. For the first time, I really take in the entirety of the stadium around us. It’s not just the upper deck or that one section of the mezz. It’s the entire place. Every section, every row...it’s chaos.