Of the two quarterbacks on our team, I was the one who could throw, and maybe if I had been a couple of steps faster, I could have given Brad Jennings some real competition for his job. But that was a big maybe. In the first place, I was only a sophomore and I'd never heard of a sophomore beating out a senior. It just doesn't happen. What's more, for the past season and a half, Coach Bracken hadn't had a true quarterback. What he'd had were runners and he had developed an option offense to take advantage of that. Brad Jennings was the best runner we had at Pennville. He was fast and deceptive and at six-four and two-twentyfive, he was hard to knock down. He'd also been named to the all-state team for our division. My chances had been made even slimmer because in our offense all he needed to throw was an occasional short pass to keep the linebackers from moving up close to the line and bottling up our backs. He didn't throw many passes, but because they were short he had a very high completion rate. Finally, I'm a drop-back passer and I work best out of a pro set, which we didn't use. There was only one mystery. Brad couldn't throw any pass more than fifteen yards and hit his receiver. But at least I was moving up. As a freshman I'd been the third string quarterback. I knew I might get in for a few plays here and there, but mostly, I'd be riding the bench. Not an option. I had to play, so I also tried out for free safety. I don't have any idea why I chose that position except that there's a lot of action and one of the neat things about playing defense is that you have to think all the time, you have to keep your head in the game, and that makes it a lot like playing quarterback. Guys who play in the defensive backfield need to be fast and I may have given you the wrong impression earlier. I can run. I had the fourth fastest time in the trials but I am not a running back. I'm a pure drop-back passer who can scramble when the pocket breaks down in front of him, but I don't have that first step ability to explode forward and that's what defines a running back. Still, it was hard knowing that when the offense was on the field, I'd be standing next to Coach, watching and learning an offense I wasn't suited to play. I'm six-four and growing and I weigh two-thirty. On the depth chart I'm listed as the second quarterback and that means that at least in practice I get to run plenty of plays and I get to throw, too. I may be only a sophomore but I am an elderly sophomore because I turn sixteen on the first of December. And I can throw a football really well. When you spend as much time with a shotgun as I do, hunting upland birds and ducks, and shooting on the range, and your father knows all there is to know about shooting, you learn fast. What he taught me and what he taught my sister was how to become a wingshot. What that means is that instead of leading a target in the air, you pick a spot where the shot and the target will collide and you shoot to that spot. It can only be done by instinct. If you think about it, it won't happen. I learned with a BB gun shooting at dragon flies. It took a long time, and thousands and thousands of packs of BB's, but it worked. The thing is, it also works with a football because it allows you to lead your receiver by throwing the ball to where the guy is going to be and not where he is when you look at him. I've also spent hundreds and hundreds of hours throwing footballs through an old tire that hangs in front of the back wall of our barn. In practice, I hit my receivers in the hands nearly every time and when I don't, it's because the receiver isn't ready or doesn't get to the spot when he's supposed to. It takes great timing and you establish that in practice. Some days I spent a lot of the practice working with the wide receivers while Brad and the rest of the team practiced the pitchouts that make an option offense potent. It's a matter of getting the timing right. All that said, I was not going to replace Brad. He's broken every running record we have. He's also the offensive captain and a straight up good guy. I'm saying that because of what I'm going to say next. In football people get injured and the back-up has to be ready. Let me be really clear on this. I was not sitting around hoping that Brad would get injured. I hoped he'd play every single game. If I had to make a name for myself, it would have to come from playing free safety, and that was fine with me. I'd be on the field. I'd be in the game. I'd contribute. It's like Dad always says: make the best with what you've got and take advantage of every opportunity, even if it's not what you've got your heart set on. It helped that I discovered early on in practice that playing in the defensive secondary is a lot like playing quarterback, only backwards. I'm used to throwing the ball to a receiver so I turned that around in my mind until I could see the game as if I were a receiver and that gave me a couple of steps before the ball was thrown to focus in and either step in for the interception, or knock the pass away. In practice and in our two scrimmages no one had gotten past me and twice I'd gotten there early enough to intercept the ball and each time I surprised myself by picking up about twenty-five yards on the runback. I had also thrown three touchdown passes in our last scrimmage. Coaches don't miss stuff like that, especially Coach Bracken. That didn't change his mind about who was starting at quarterback but it absolutely nailed down my spot at free safety. All week I‘d been feeling pretty cocky about being a starter on the defense so it sort of bummed me out to discover on Saturday morning that I was as jumpy as a frog crossing a busy highway. And when the whistle blew on Saturday afternoon my knees were knocking. Redbank always has good teams. Nobody seemed to know where they found so many good players, but they did, and one entire wall in their gym is covered with state championship banners just in football. Pretty much everyone had hung their hopes on Brad, thinking that maybe, this year, the Pennville Red Raiders would finish at the top. Last year we'd lost two games, both to Redbank, first in the league and then in the state semis by a field goal. So we came out pumped, and way too tight, knowing that if we could knock off Redbank or even keep the score close we had a chance to beat them in the championship round. Redbank won the coin toss and elected to receive. They got a good runback out to the forty and I trotted onto the field with the defense and then watched as their offensive line jogged out. They were huge. They were Samoan. Not one guy was under two-eighty or less than six-three. It looked like a string of John Deere bulldozers coming onto the field. Last year they hadn't had any Samoans so somebody in Redbank had come up with jobs and gone to Samoa to recruit. Heck, they'd have been crazy not to. Because I'm a quarterback, I knew what was gonna happen. Any quarterback with a line like that to protect him, completes a lot of passes because he has time to find an open receiver. At safety, my job was to keep those guys from getting an open shot at the ball. I knew from the year before that the guy to watch was a tall, thin wide-out. All he'd done was set the state record for receptions in his junior year. He was fast and tricky but I was three inches taller and I had great ups. So I keyed on him because if I'd been their quarterback, looking at the first play of the season against a team that had come within a field goal of beating us, I'd want to make a quick score to take the air out of them. On the snap, the Samoans went to pass blocking and set up the pocket as the wideout faked to the outside and then cut inside of our outside guy and I picked him up as the quarterback pulled back his arm and fired. I opened up, running as fast as I could, not going for the interception because if I missed and he caught the ball, there was no one behind me to stop him. He was looking back left and I came at him from a sharp angle on his right and he never saw me until I leaped, got a hand on the ball, and knocked the pass away. Man, you could hear our fans cheering a mile away. On the next play they went with a short pass and got five yards before the receiver went out of bounds. Suddenly, instead of nervous, I was pumped. If they didn't make it on the next down, they'd have to punt and we'd have stopped their first possession. Our coach signaled for us to close up the defense, figuring it was gonna be another short pass or even a draw play. It made sense but so did a long pass and I kept my eyes on the tall rangy guy and now the question was whether he'd run a slant into the middle of the field or whether he'd go long to draw the coverage back and open up their other receivers. I knew when the quarterback took the snap and made a four-step drop that he was going long and I turned and picked a spot where the ball would most likely end up. I have no idea how I knew the skinny guy was the primary receiver but there was something in the way the quarterback never looked at him that made me suspicious. He had me in the speed department but I had an angle on him and he had to stay on his pass route because that's where the ball was gonna go. But I played as if I didn't see him, keeping track of where he was from the corners of my eyes but never turning my head toward him. He was headed for the corner of the end zone but I waited just in case he and the quarterback had a signal of some kind that would allow him to cut to the middle and get behind me. I knew from the angle of the quarterback's arm as he drew the ball back that he was throwing it high and that meant long and I ran for the spot where the runner and the ball had to meet. I closed on the rangy guy, coming in fast and watching him carefully. I didn't have to look back because I knew from the time the pass left the quarterback's hand where it would come down and I got there a step ahead of the receiver, looked up at the ball, leaped, and got my fingertips on it enough to push the ball away and out of his reach. I trotted off the field, thinking that I might never have a streak like that again if I played for a hundred years. Guys were whacking me and throwing high fives and the fans were going crazy. Coach came over and congratulated me. "That was the best pass defense I ever saw," he said. "Way to go, Rossiter! Where did you learn to do that?" "I played quarterback backwards." I pulled off my helmet as our run-back squad took the field for the punt. "What? Backwards?" I nodded. He seemed to think for a second or so and then he got it. "Sure. Why wouldn't that work? Great job!" I stood on the sideline to watch the punt and, surprisingly, we did all right. Bobby Gray, who is also our tailback, took the kick at our ten and ran it out to the thirty. He is fast and solid and he bounces off tackles, but all that yardage came as the result of two outstanding blocks, the first by our big tight end, Antwan Johnson, and the second by our right tackle, Tank Jones. Redbank's defensive line was smaller but they were very fast and they were ready for us. We ran three plays and punted after gaining only eight yards. The next time Redbank's offense got the ball, they were not throwing in my direction. Instead their all-state quarterback sat back in the pocket and picked the rest of our secondary apart with flat rifle-like passes. By halftime they were up twenty-eight to zip. Our offense had gained a grand total of thirty-two yards. In the locker room, Coach hammered us pretty hard, pointing out what we had done wrong and what we needed to do in the second half. Nothing he said was wrong. But nothing he said was going to work against Redbank. Of course I knew what might work, because while their defensive line was big and fast, they were not overly tall, which meant that Brad could see over them. So could I. Short quarterbacks have a hard time picking out their receivers over a tall defensive line. We got the ball first in the second half and Brad ran an option right and kept the ball, trying to cut back through their line and it would have worked if their tackle hadn't taken out our right guard, who had pulled to make the key block that would have let Brad get into their backfield. Instead Brad was left to make what he could and he ended up taking a really hard hit. You could hear it all over the field and he was still down as the rest of the players got up. Coach rushed out onto the field and without anyone telling me, I grabbed a ball and a guy to throw to and began warming up my arm. Sure enough, Coach waved me onto the field and I pulled on my helmet and ran to where Brad sat on the field with his head in his hands. "Hey, man," I said. "You gonna be okay?" He looked up slowly. "Yeah, yeah," he rubbed his head. "Just got my bell rung." Coach helped him up and off the field and only when I got to the huddle did I realize that he hadn't called any plays. So, there I was on the field as a quarterback for the first time and I was calling my own game.
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