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First and Ten

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First and Ten




  First and Ten

  Jeff Rud


  Copyright © 2007 Jeff Rud

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

  Rud, Jeff, 1960-

  First and ten / Jeff Rud.

  (South Side sports ; #3)

  ISBN 978-1-55143-690-6

  I. Title. II. Series: Rud, Jeff, 1960- . South Side sports ; #3

  PS8635.U32F57 2007 jC813’.6 C2006-907052-0

  Summary: Matt is trying to make the football team while getting to know his long-absent father.

  First published in the United States, 2007

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2006940597

  Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program and the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.

  Cover design: John van der Woude

  Cover photography: Getty Images

  Orca Book Publishers

  PO Box 5626, Stn B.

  Victoria, BC Canada

  V8R 6S4

  Orca Book Publishers

  PO Box 468

  Custer, WA USA


  Printed and bound in Canada.

  010 09 08 07 • 4 3 2 1

  For my brothers, Barry, Tim and Mike,

  and their families.




  chapter one

  chapter two

  chapter three

  chapter four

  chapter five

  chapter six

  chapter seven

  chapter eight

  chapter nine

  chapter ten

  chapter eleven

  chapter twelve

  chapter thirteen

  chapter fourteen

  chapter fifteen

  chapter sixteen

  chapter seventeen

  chapter eighteen


  The author would like to thank Orca publisher Bob Tyrrell for his continued support of the South Side Sports Series, as well as Orca associate publisher and editor Andrew Wooldridge for his keen eye and sound judgment. The author would also like to thank Lana, Maggie and Matt for providing their love, support and plenty of peace and quiet.

  chapter one

  His thighs ached, his lungs burned for oxygen and his entire body was coated in sweat. Lined up with fifty other huffing kids wearing shoulder pads, white midriff jerseys, shorts, helmets and cleats, Matthew Hill tried to raise his own knees as high as Coach Reynolds was demanding from his spot on the grass ten feet in front of the players.

  “Come on, you guys! Drive up those legs,” the coach shouted as he raised his clipboard toward the cloudless blue sky. It was four o’clock, and the hottest part of the afternoon had already passed, but it was still uncomfortably humid.

  Mid-August was normally the time when Matt would be playing hoops at Anderson Park or swimming out at Long Lake. But this year was different. This year, he had decided to go out for middle-school football. And football, Matt was quickly discovering, was not a sport for wimps.

  “Okay, bring it in,” Coach Reynolds ordered. The boys trying out for the South Side Middle School varsity team seemed to groan collectively as they gathered in front of the coach, some gasping for air with their hands planted on their thighs. After a couple of months of summer holidays, this was a rude awakening for everybody.

  Matt thought he had kept himself in decent shape over the summer. It hadn’t been that long since baseball season ended, and he had been playing pickup hoops at Anderson on an almost nightly basis. But this was a different kind of workout. He was finding Coach Rick Reynolds, a short, balding man in his mid-fifties who wore a matching maroon golf shirt and long-cut coach’s shorts with a silver whistle around his neck, to be a slave driver. The main point of his drills so far seemed to be to show the players that they were in no shape to play a “man’s game” like football.

  “I hope you guys enjoyed your summer, because it’s over now,” Coach Reynolds said, grinning slightly. “We’re going to have to whip you into football shape in just three weeks. Anybody who’s not ready for that knows where to turn in his practice gear.”

  Several players groaned again. It was either a reaction to the workload ahead or, more likely, Matt guessed, a reaction to Coach Reynolds’ hard-nosed style. There had been only two practices, but already Matt found himself missing the more even approach of Coach Jim Stephens, for whom he had played baseball and basketball at South Side as a seventh-grader.

  “We’ll do some more conditioning later, when it cools down a little,” the coach continued. “But right now we’re going to work on positional play. I’ve got a coach stationed for quarterbacks, receivers, backs, defensive backs and linemen. So head on out to the station where you think you fit in best. We’ll give you a shot at that position and then maybe move you around a bit before we decide where to put each of you.”

  Matt had been waiting to actually touch a football. Through the first practice the previous afternoon, the coaches hadn’t even taken the balls out of the large duffel bags dutifully packed around by the team’s half dozen student managers. The South Side prospects had simply worked on stretching, calisthenics and running for the entire ninety minutes before heading for home, sore and exhausted.

  That sort of experience wasn’t what Matt had in mind when he had decided, against his mother’s protests, to go out for football. He had pictured himself as a wide receiver, streaking down the sidelines and gathering in long passes, scoring touchdowns and spiking the ball in the end zone as the fans in the stands cheered wildly…

  “Hill! Are you going to join us?” Matt’s thoughts were interrupted by Kevin Stone, an assistant coach and the offensive coordinator for the Stingers. Embarrassed to be caught daydreaming, Matt hustled over to the fifteen or so kids who all wanted to be receivers.

  It was a curious assortment of size, age and body type. At about five-foot-eight, Matt was in the middle of the group in terms of height and probably skinnier than most of the kids there. The tallest was Nate Brown, a ninth-grader who was already about six-foot-one and a blur in the open field. The shortest was five-foot-four Phil Wong, one of Matt’s best friends who had also decided to go out for football as an eighth-grader.

  “I know a lot of you kids have played football for a few years already,” Coach Stone said, addressing the group. “But for the benefit of those who haven’t, I’m going to go over a few basics of the receiver position.”

  Matt and Phil were among those the coach was referring to. Both had played organized basketball and baseball and even soccer, and both had thrown around the football plenty and played in pickup touch games in the neighborhood. But neither had strapped on football pads before, and their next real football tackle would also be their first. So far for these summer practices, they were wearing only shoulder pads, helmets and shorts, but even just having the pads sitting on his shoulders felt cumbersome and unnatural to Matt.

  The coach explained how every receiver must run his “route” as if he was going to get the ball on every single play. If not, the defense eventually wouldn’t bother cover
ing him. Coach Stone showed the hopefuls how to get a quick start from a three-point stance off the snap of the ball. He then demonstrated how to catch the ball with the fingertips, absorbing the force of the pass before it hit the chest and securing the ball with two hands. Most of this just seemed like common sense to Matt. Somebody threw it and you ran fast and caught it. How hard could it be?

  After watching the players catch passes from the coaches for fifteen minutes, Coach Stone blew his whistle. He motioned for Coach Reynolds to bring over the small group of quarterback prospects. There were only five boys in this group and they had all played football before. You had to be pretty confident in your abilities in order to go out for that position, Matt thought. The quarterback was the leader on offense and every play began with him. It wasn’t a spot for somebody who wasn’t absolutely sure of himself.

  “Okay, guys,” Coach Reynolds said. “We’re going to have you run a few routes for the quarterbacks. Nothing fancy, just simple ‘out’ patterns. Let’s do ten-yard routes, three-quarter speed. Quarterbacks, I want you to concentrate on footwork and form. Receivers, just try to run direct routes and make clean catches.”

  Matt felt his heart race. He had caught hundreds of footballs messing around with Phil and his other friends. But he had never touched the ball in a real practice before today. Looking at the drill lineups he realized that he would be paired with Ricky Jackson, a seventh-grader who was just entering South Side this fall. Jackson wasn’t big, but he was muscular and he had a swagger that Matt thought was unusual for a rookie. Ricky Jackson had a sizable reputation. He had been the star in Pop Warner football during his elementary school days at Hillside and had won the regional Pass, Punt and Kick competition, getting to perform in front of thirty thousand fans during halftime of a college game at Eton last fall.

  Matt also recognized Ricky as the younger brother of Grant Jackson. Matt and Grant had had plenty of conflict the previous winter. Matt was relieved that Grant was moving on to South Side High and wouldn’t be around this year. But he wondered whether Jackson’s little brother would be trouble too.

  Matt and Jackson were paired in the fourth group of the drill. Following Coach Reynolds’ instructions, Matt blasted off his three-point stance, ran ten yards downfield and cut sharply out to the right. Just as he made his move outside, Ricky Jackson delivered the ball on a perfect, tight spiral. Matt gathered the pass in full stride with his fingertips, pulling it into his body, the way the coaches had shown them. It felt great to catch the ball like this with everybody watching.

  “Nice job…Hill, is it?” Coach Reynolds barked. Matt nodded. So far, so good, he thought.

  The passing drills continued for another fifteen minutes, with Coach Reynolds changing the routes of the receivers, from a ten-yard out, to a five-yard buttonhook, in which he directed the receivers to run straight ahead for a few steps, spin around and catch the ball in a play designed for short-yardage situations. Matt was paired with each of the quarterback prospects during these drills. He was most impressed with ninth-grader Kyle James, a lanky, six-foot left-hander who delivered the ball on a powerful line to his receivers. Matt knew James had shared the starter’s job the previous season with ninth-grader Dave Tanner, who had since graduated. James was just about everybody’s pick to be the South Side starter this year too.

  Finally, Coach Reynolds called all the receivers into a huddle with the quarterback hopefuls. “Let’s see how much speed you kids have,” the coach said. “Now that you’re warmed up, I want you to run a straight fly pattern at full speed. That means explode off the snap, and just keep running straight down the field. The qbs will hit you at about twenty yards. Everybody got it?”

  The players nodded. Although they had been mixed with different quarterbacks throughout the drills, Matt did a mental count and noted he would be paired with Ricky Jackson once again for this drill. When it came their turn, he again shot off the line and headed downfield at full speed. About eighteen yards into his route, Matt slowed a tad as he turned his head backward, looking for the ball. Bad idea. Jackson had thrown the pass hard, trying to hit him on the dead run. The football was coming too high. Matt leapt as far as he could to grab it, but it wasn’t even close. The ball landed beyond him, bouncing harmlessly down the turf.

  Jackson removed his helmet and shook his head. Then Matt watched as he turned and glanced toward the chain-link fence that lined South Side’s practice field.

  Leaning over the fence was a large heavy-set man with graying hair, a reddish face and a maroon South Side cap, just like the ones the coaches wore. He was kicking at the grass and appeared to be muttering under his breath. Matt couldn’t tell what he was saying, but it was pretty obvious he wasn’t happy.

  “Hill, you have to run the pattern right through,” Coach Reynolds yelled. “You slowed down. That’s an incompletion. Worse yet, it can cause an interception. Always finish your route.”

  Matt nodded. He knew he had made a mistake. The quarterbacks and receivers came together as the coach called for a final huddle at midfield. Matt glanced at Ricky Jackson, whose spiky black hair was soaked with sweat. “Sorry, man,” he said to Jackson. “I should have kept running on that.”

  “Don’t sweat it,” Jackson replied, his dark eyes meeting Matt’s across the huddle. “It’s just a practice…No matter what my old man thinks.”

  Suddenly it all made sense to Matt. The man at the fence was Jackson’s dad. And now Matt remembered him too. He had seen him in action a couple of times last basketball season. In fact, Coach Stephens and Mr. Jackson had had a loud run-in during practice after the coach had suspended Jackson’s elder son, Grant, for shoplifting. “Jackson, looks like your dad is already in mid-season form,” joked Nate Brown. A couple of the other older players laughed. Jackson’s face turned crimson. He said nothing and looked down. It was obvious the seventh-grader was embarrassed.

  Matt knew Ricky was uncomfortable, but he couldn’t relate to what he was feeling. His own father had left his mom when Matt was just three years old. He had often thought about how great it would be to have a dad come to all his games and practices, to take a keen interest in how he was doing in sports, maybe even to give him some pointers. But he had never even considered the possibility that having your father around could be embarrassing. Not until today.

  chapter two

  Before he even opened his eyes, Matt felt sore. His legs, arms, shoulders, even his feet, hurt. It was Thursday morning of the first week of full-contact football practice, and he was feeling it. Coach Reynolds had been right. This game wasn’t for wimps.

  Matt grimaced as he pushed the sheets off and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Even that simple movement was painful. He had never felt this way before, not from baseball or basketball or any of the other sports he had played.

  Three days of drills and scrimmages with full pads and equipment had meant three days of taking hits from the South Side defensive team, each of whom was trying to win a spot in the starting lineup. So as Matt had caught the ball on various patterns, he had been like fresh meat to a pack of tigers. He had taken his fair share of hits and then some over those three days.

  Fortunately he began loosening up even as he went downstairs into the living room and opened the door to grab the Post off the front steps. It was the first thing he did every morning—find the newspaper and turn to the Sports section, lay it out on the kitchen counter with his breakfast and get himself up-to-date. It was a morning ritual that had started when he was in fifth grade. He couldn’t get enough sports, either playing them or reading about them.

  By the time his mother emerged from her bedroom, Matt had forgotten about his earlier aches.

  “How’s my boy, today?” She smiled, wrapping her arms around him and kissing him atop his wavy brown hair. Matt felt the soft fabric of her peach-colored housecoat on his ears and squeezed her left hand with his right. “I’m okay,” he said.

  “So, how’s football practice going?” she asked. “A
t least you still look like you’re in one piece.”

  Matt laughed. His mom had been dead-set against him going out for the South Side football team this year. It was a dangerous sport, she said. She had worried he would break an arm or a leg, or worse. But, as she had always done ever since he could remember, his mom had supported his decision and allowed him to try out.

  “It’s going pretty well,” Matt replied. “You know, Mom, it’s not much rougher than basketball. And you have all those pads on. It’s fine. You’ll see tomorrow.”

  “Tomorrow?” she asked. “What’s happening then?”

  Matt was surprised. He had been talking about the Maroon-and-White game all week at the dinner table with his mother. It was the South Side Stingers’ annual pre-season intra-squad game, the last chance for prospects like Matt to prove they belonged on the team. It was only the most important moment in his football career.

  “Mom, it’s the…,” he began.

  “I’m teasing.” She smiled. “I know, I know, it’s your inter-team game, or whatever they call it.”

  Matt laughed. Just like Mom to screw up the name of something. “Intra-squad,” he said slowly. “It’s called that because we play against one another to show the coaches what we can do in a game situation. Are you coming?”

  “I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t make it. I’ve got an open house to do at the same time. I’d love to be there, though, to watch you score a run.”

  Matt groaned again. His mom actually had pretty decent knowledge about some sports—she had even played a little basketball in high school. But she knew absolutely nothing about football. Maybe that was why she wasn’t keen on him going out for it. Her idea of the game was like something out of the International Wrestling Federation. She thought it was all hitting and punching and kicking and violence.

  “We’re only having a team meeting today,” Matt said. “Coach says we have to rest our bodies after three days of contact.”

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