IN OUR PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS . . .
Each November for the past sixteen years, a group of twenty-two men has convened at a hotel off Interstate 95 to reenact a gruesome milestone in football history: the 1985 play (known in the Washington Redskins playbook as the Throwback Special) in which New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor sacked Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, shattering his leg and ending his career.
As always, Friday evening is devoted to the lottery, the elaborate process by which the men learn which players they will enact the following night. (This year the role of Theismann falls to the exquisitely fit “Fat” Michael.) Now, in the sleeping hotel, the men prepare for a ritual that—like them-—has begun to show its age.
The defensive backfield was in room 212 (Vegas). The defensive line was in 256. The touchers were in 324. The offensive line was in 432 (the Sty). The receivers and tight ends were in 440. The linebackers were in 560 (the Fracture Compound).
Gear exchange was a chaotic and inefficient and lengthy and primitive process. Over the years there had been several sensible, even elegant, proposals for a more orderly exchange, but each had been ignored. As they did every year after the lottery, the men now roamed hallways with helmets, shoulder pads, and uniforms, searching for the men who required their gear, as well as for the roaming men who had the gear that they required. The cumbersome burden of the equipment was essential to the rite, as was the notion of quest, as was the act of bestowal, as was the inebriated sociability among fellow wanderers. “I hate to say it about my own kid,” Nate told Vince in the stairwell, “but he’s about the sickliest little thing I’ve ever seen.” In the fifth-floor hallway, Robert, having received downstairs the pristine Jeff Bostic gear from Randy, bestowed his Harry Carson gear upon Nate. “Carson,” Nate said, wiping his palms on his pants. Robert could hardly expect Nate to notice the mended chin strap. In fact, if Nate noticed the chin strap, it would probably mean Robert had not repaired it well. And he had repaired it well. When Robert was a child, his father had told him that there is never a need to draw attention to one’s own accomplishments. People notice a job done well, his father had said, but in Robert’s experience that had not been true. What people notice is tardiness, failure, moth damage. Robert’s father had been a corporate whistle-blower who was pilloried in the press. He now lived alone in rural Illinois, where he sat erectly in a folding chair, listening to police scanners. He carted around an oxygen tank but still had the power to humiliate Robert.
Nate pinched the Carson jersey at the shoulders and extended it in front of him. Then with both hands, he held the jersey to his nose and inhaled. He nodded, tossed the jersey over his shoulder. Robert handed Nate the shoulder pads, which Nate clacked twice with his knuckles and placed on the floor. Next, Robert extended the pants, the interior pockets of which Nate examined for knee, thigh, and hip pads. Finally, Robert handed Nate the helmet, upside down, the chin strap curled inside like an hors d’oeuvre in a bowl. The long hallways seemed somehow not to be uniformly lit. There were, along the corridor, small patches of darkness. Around a corner came the grave murmurs of bestowal, the clacking of pads. The vending alcove clicked and hummed. The elevator rumbled. Nate peered down into the helmet. He gripped the chin strap, rubbing its soft interior with his thumb.
Startled, Robert began to back away. “What you’ve got to keep in mind, Nate,” Robert said, imitating Steven, walking backward rapidly toward the elevator, feeling, for reasons he did not fully understand, shame, “is that Harry Carson is from South Carolina.”
JEFF SAT ON THE FLOOR of the vending alcove, talking on the phone to his son.
“Is this the one where you’re trying to escape the frigid caverns?” Jeff said.
“Dad, no,” his son said. “This is the one where the mutated zoo animals have escaped.”
“And you try to catch them?”
“They seek dominion, Dad.”
“Bam! You—oh, no, my boots. What?”
“Do you catch the animals?”
“They’re mutants, Dad. You shoot them with lava.”
“So you’re pretty good?”
“Oh, God, I hate this parking garage.”
“What are you—do you have me on speakerphone?”
“That is not good.”
“Who else is there?”
“That right there is the very worst one.”
“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”
“I think Mom’s taking us—crap! Uh-oh.”
“Taking you where?”
“What about Christmas?”
“Shit. Gored again. You messed me up, Dad.”
“What about Christmas?”
“Dad, I told you, I think we’re going to Grandma’s.”
In the machines there were rows and rows of snacks and candy. There they were, in full sight, bright and satisfying and 25 percent larger. The vending alcove operated by the honor system. Jeff was bound by his honor not to tip the machine over and smash it open with his Gary Clark helmet.
THE FIGURE AT THE FAR END of the fourth-floor hallway seemed inhuman in its shape and movement. It was Myron. Chad had bestowed upon him the Rick Donnalley gear, but Myron had yet to bestow his Leonard Marshall gear upon Vince, whom he could not find. Thus Myron was one of several men who trudged a long hallway with two bulky sets of gear and a faraway look in his eyes. When he slowly emerged from silhouette, the men in their doorways could see that his face had a startled look, and that two helmets hung like decapitated heads from his hooked fingers. After some confusion and misinformation, Steven explained to the tight ends that a Gorgon was a type of monster, and that Medusa was the name of a specific Gorgon. Also, that Perseus had beheaded Medusa, though Perseus had not beheaded Medusa in a giant maze.
And where was Fat Michael?
He was in the stairwell between the second and third floors, hiding from Peter, who was searching for him.
To give him the Theismann gear.
No, why was he hiding?
It’s difficult to say.
Was it unusual for the man selected to play Theismann to hide in the stairwell?
Did hiding remind Fat Michael of anything from childhood?
There was a boy he used to hide from with some frequency. The boy had a metal leg brace, and Fat Michael could always hear it creaking and thumping as the boy climbed the front porch of the foster home. He hid beneath his bed as the boy rang the doorbell.
Why did he hide?
He didn’t want to see that boy.
Did Fat Michael like his nickname?
No. Would you?
How was Fat Michael passing the time in the stairwell?
He was lining up the bodies of dead ladybugs. There were nine. Then some light stretching.
Would Fat Michael have come this weekend if his missing dog had not returned late last night, smelling like garbage?
It’s difficult to say.
Would Peter ever find Fat Michael?
Yes, Gil would eventually tip him off.
What would Peter say to Fat Michael?
He would say that everyone should play Theismann once. He would say it’s hard to explain, but it’s an intense experience. What he would mean was that it’s powerful to relinquish control, particularly for those men, like Fat Michael, who are determined never to relinquish control.