In "Game Changers," acclaimed sports writer and bestselling author Mike Lupica tells the story of two young football players on the same team whose ambitions to succeed become intertwined. Here's an excerpt.
“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.Video: Mike Lupica on how kids can be star athletes (on this page)
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 any 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. Everybody 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 that was their real family business.
Ben still had to try out.
“Of course you’re trying out, you wouldn’t be you if you didn’t try,” his friend Lily had said to him at school that day.
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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 downfield 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 him 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 back 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 I’m 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.
From GAME CHANGERS by Mike Lupica. Copyright © 2012 by Erica Read. Used by permission of Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive