“…simple: in the football game, you've got two…”
“…and we lost the football game.”
“…and that's it. I mean, it's simple: in the football game, you've got two football teams. Both trying to get the most points on the board. At the end of the football game, the one with the most points wins. We didn't do that today, and we lost the football game.”
Lee Brandon's face screwed up in distaste.
“Andy?” he shouted over his shoulder. “What is this crap? I can't put together a decent ten minutes here, let alone an entire show! Do we have anything that's not crap?”
Lee's assistant, Andy, quickly walked around the console with two trays, loaded with cassettes, DATs and minidiscs.
“I've got a few good things,” he said. “Some scouting, couple of Heisman maybes, Les Wilkins’ thoughts on the murder trial, some USC updates…”
Lee glanced at his hamburger, half-pulled from a wax-paper wrapper. He wasn't hungry, but took a bite anyway. The burger was cold.
“Okay, okay. Look, flag some stuff for me, a Heisman clip, one of the damn murder things—Andy?”
“Too many handicappers for sponsors. Get me a resort, maybe a search engine, something.”
He dreaded the first day back after a week off. He locked back into his routine though, and ticked through his show prep by rote. Bill Cater appeared at the console beside him, though they no longer co-hosted a show. Each man now helmed his own production. Bill kept Lee close, though, and maybe a little closer since he'd watched his friend absorb the blow delivered by first his daughter's pediatrician, then her oncologist. Lee Brandon had crumpled numb and wet into that afternoon, but he was here. Sometimes work gives you a space to safely glaze yourself over. On this particular morning Lee snapped to, clapped on his headphones and glazed himself with his board op's dropped hand.
“Good morning, good morning,” he played out. “This is Sportsline, I'm Lee Brandon, all right, we've got a lot to get to…we'll kick it off right after this.” He hit a good rhythm only toward show’s end but then it was over, and he was back in the saddle. He dropped the headphones onto the console and stepped out into the coolness of the hall.
A producer named Jill appeared at his side, arms full.
“What,” asked Lee, shorthand for “What do you have?”
“Mostly wire stuff, a couple of papers—you’ve been after the Hartford Courant—and a few startup magazines.”
“Here, walk,” said Lee. Time to head back to the office or he'd never make it back. He swooped inside and sat. Jill had one further item.
“This press release from Steubing? They’re wondering if you'll be able to get over there some time.” Lee thought for a moment. When had he first heard from the school? Had it been a month? Jill handed him the envelope.
“The guy was nice,” she said. “He was just, I guess, following up.”
“Sure. Yeah, I can find a minute. Anything else?” After a moment’s hesitation, Jill spoke.
“Jenkow is worried about KLOM. Their new show’s supposed to be called “NFL Focus,” I believe.”
“That’s all. He was just blowing off a little steam yesterday. I overheard.”
“Hm. What do you think?”
“Honestly? When KLOM is pulling a 26-share, maybe then we can worry. Gotta go.”
“Thanks,” said Lee. He appreciated the producer’s candor. She was a good troop.
Lee rubbed a finger over his brow a couple of times, then shifted in his chair with a little grunt. He tore open the envelope’s flap and emptied the contents onto his desk. The press release sat atop a sheaf of paper. It was a slick production, nicely printed. The school had spent a little money on it.
He rolled his shoulders, then crossed a leg over his knee to read.
Steubing Elementary School
Home of the Fighting Jack Russell Terriers
Athletic Excellence Since 1994
In only five short years, Steubing Elementary has risen above its peers and established a record that's the talk of the Mile High State.
At Steubing we produce champions, and continually seek ways to improve our organization. We've crafted a program of intensive and focused discipline, and set for ourselves several continuing goals.
Of the greatest importance, of course, is the competitive spirit, which Steubing fosters through concentrated, proven, and individualized attention to performance. Each athlete within the Steubing family is expected to meet us at this plateau and gear themselves toward excellence.
We also cultivate the kind of teamwork that gets results, and strive for an environment where talent and training equal success. It's a standard we're rightfully proud of.
Let's not forget to keep an eye toward the future. Today's fullback will be tomorrow's executive, and Steubing keeps this in mind: after all, what real difference is there between the field or court and a boardroom?
One rising star on our gridiron is TreShaun Smith, who's slated to break a Front Range Junior League record this season. The feisty Smith, 9, has brought a depth and subtlety to his slot at running back that Steubing has seldom seen, and we're expecting…
The kid’s numbers followed, some bio, a few game shots. It had to be a hoax. A fourth-grader? A quick call confirmed the writeup, though. It was for real. Lee pulled a bottled water from a plastic-ringed six pack, took a couple of aspirin from his desk and headed across town to the school.
He pulled up to an imposing congress of buildings that had been finished in blank apple green and set off by winding, sinewy landscaping. It was a deliberate, proud edifice, more like a university, really.
No, that wasn’t quite right. What was the word? Perhaps closer to “compound.”
There’d be no drab expanse of parking, either, no bus-lane semicircle or corrugated sidewalk rain shelters held aloft on slender I-beams. Lee parked on the smooth black asphalt lot against a space divider done up in the school’s colors of red and white. The mailer made sense when seeing where it came from.
The right side of the school was adjacent a small wooded area, so Lee started around the left. As he rounded the buildings he was dumbstruck. The entire back acreage of the school was sectioned off into playing fields: football, soccer, baseball (and by the looks of a crew of tiny, flushed girls) lacrosse.
At the edge of the football field a short, compact man directed scrimmage drills. Lee approached him.
The man hadn’t heard, and pulled several players toward him with gestures and blasts of his whistle.
“Coach Whitacre?” Lee tried again.
The fellow turned. “Hm? No, Tess Wilbert, Offensive Coordinator, good to meetcha…Coach Whitacre's down midfield.” He immediately turned back to his assemblage. The next uniformed gesturer wasn’t Lee’s man, nor the one after. On the fourth try Lee got it right.
“Coach Whitacre? Lee Brandon, KLMS,” he said, extending a hand. “How goes it today, sir?” Paul Whitacre, a pink-skinned GGGGGGG under a tousled blonde crown smiled in recognition.
“Lee Brandon! I'm doing well, we've got a good practice underway…we're working out a lot of things. Glad you could make it!”
Lee looked back over his shoulder, down the field's length, and wondered if and how he should ask why an elementary school football team needed four coaches.
“There they are,” beamed Whitacre. “They're about ready to wrap up anyway; you can catch Tre.” The coach's eyes scanned the field.
One of the boys turned toward the voice and began to lope over, a wiry kid with big ears and bigger eyes, his frame obscured by layers of pads.
“Tre? This is Mr. Lee Brandon, from KLMS ‘Sportsline’,” said Whitacre.
“Hi, Tre,” smiled Lee.
“Hi, Mr. Brandon.”
Lee produced a notebook and began with a few questions which leaned toward the boy's sudden splash of visibility. Whitacre half-listened, half-watched his receivers run routes. Tre was an affable kid who carried himself with a demeanor that was equally childlike and pragmatic. His face mixed credulity with a calculating and already well-developed gravitas. Steubing had a desirable commodity and they knew it.
Lee could see that. He knew the path Tre would probably take, and it apparently began here, on a field where his pads and helmet caused him to list under their weight. Yet he was anointed, and if he was later destined for a junior high, a high school, a college that had become a diploma mill, it was okay. TreShaun Smith would come out on the other side with a low draft number, high profile, and reservoir of perfect postgame aplomb.
A machine. A producer of yardage.
Lee's subject gathered his thoughts.
“We've been trying to work on our offense…Coach calls it ‘total offense’,” said Tre. “Our passing attack is okay, but in a successful run-and-shoot you need to esse…essec…”
“Execute,” prompted Whitacre.
“Execute,” repeated Tre. The coach suddenly broke away toward the field, barking refinements. Lee felt a prickling of absurdity at the nape of his neck. He put away his notebook.
“Does Steubing have a nice library, Tre?” he asked. The boy glanced away, distracted by a ripple of shouts.
“Do they have a nice library?” he repeated. “The school?”
“I don't know, Mr. Brandon. I haven't been to it.” Lee thanked his diminutive friend, who scampered away to the locker room, practice over. He exchanged small talk with Whitacre, shook hands again, then headed to his car in a fog.
Lee was due back at the station to punch up a report on the NFL’s restructuring. He stared at his keys, turned one in the ignition, and turned the radio on and off, twice, nothing on, nothing really. The AM band of not so long ago was gone. No music, not anymore. There was only incessant talking, a hemorrhage of words, voices like his.
These things flitted over Lee's mind alongside the conviction, deep inside himself, that there was zero chance he'd return to the studio. Not today. The hell with it. The hell with it.
He was almost home. The trip had been automatic, and it was 30 years behind the wheel rather than active attention that steered the car toward his neighborhood. It was only as his vision blurred and the sheen of tears in his eyes spilled over that he snapped back into the seat. He made the block, feeling over the front seat for fast-food napkins to swab at his face. After a few minutes at a side street's curb he was at his front door and surprising Michelle.
“Daddy!” she yelled, seeing him as she passed through the front hallway, then hugs. The tears almost began again, but with a quick snuffle and a smear at his eyes he held them back and reached down Michelle’s back to tickle her ribs.
Sharon wanted to talk that night, and Lee fell in comfortably. She began to fade at nine, and against her protests Lee packed her off to bed with a deep kiss.
“If you try that tomorrow night I might not be responsible,” she said, fatigue gone for a moment as she slowly, happily breathed in her husband.
Lee picked up their suddenly materialized dog, Brownie and, walked toward the kitchen, restless. He poured a tall glass of water from a pitcher in the refrigerator and then, with the writhing and licking dog in the crook of his right arm, wandered into the laundry room. Might as well put in a load or two.
On the top of the pile was a “Bill & Lee” jersey from KLMS that his daughter wore as all-purpose loungewear. His and Bill’s likenesses mugged over the station’s logo. He considered for a moment dropping it into the trash, but thought better of it. Michelle cared nothing for the show, she only cared that the shirt depicted her old man.
Lee loaded the washer and scrunched Brownie's ears.
Saturday was an off day, but only in theory. It was certainly a working day when two major sports seasons overlapped, and both featured a number of critical contests. Lee would only end the morning driving up to the office, especially after skating out of most of yesterday. Before the office, though, breakfast.
“Daddy,” chirped Michelle. “Brownie woke me up again! He licked my face and woke me up again!” She climbed up into his lap and tucked herself into a cozy ball against his chest. Her slippers—scuffed pale lilac and white—were worn and frayed but she'd never relinquish them. He held her, enveloped her in his arms. Lee had a two-day beard growth but the girl never seemed to mind. It was something to lightly graze her fingers and buff her nose. Brownie skittered in, Dachshund toenails clacking, and searched out the girl's ankles.
“Sweetie…what would you say to pancakes?” he asked her.
“That's a good idea, Daddy.”
He brushed debris from her booster seat and sat her in it, with a kiss atop the head, and gave her a stack of paper and some crayons. Sharon padded in, gave him a hug, and poured coffee.
“Are you going in?” she asked.
“Not until you guys are full of pancakes,” Lee answered.
Michelle’s first picture featured Brownie in tall grass, holding watch over an ornate doghouse spangled with brilliant flowers.
The NCAA’s Division I drummed up some long-needed upsets, as Nebraska, Notre Dame and Stanford all suffered setbacks with playoff implications. Lee groaned to himself as he pulled together a particularly absurd piece. A tiny southern college had traveled to the fearsome home turf of an SEC powerhouse and been drubbed 57-0. The shellacking was mitigated by the loser’s purse of $200,000, and for such money they’d do it again. Lee exhaled in fatigue over the digital audiotape deck, reverse, fast-forward, over hours of pregame confidence pumping followed by postgame adrenaline dribbles:
“When we got out there, I mean: we just knew what we had to do…you can’t go into a Texas A&M situation halfway…”
“I’ll tell you what—it was like the K State of the Terry Hacker years…”
“…Lawrence Mackie for the Heisman, but we haven't heard anything about…”
“…less of a Jim Taylor program, more of a, say, Billy Wells program…”
“This is not the demoralized Oregon State of only two short years ago…”
Bill was at the door with a styrofoam container, two cans of lemonade and Lee’s coffee mug.
“Pizza,” he said.
“Thanks,” replied Lee. He grimaced at the mug. He’d have to switch. As much as he enjoyed coffee, he’d developed a sensitivity to its acidic sting. He leaned back, eyes closed.
“Should I nuke it?” he asked Bill.
“No, it's still warm. You okay?”
“Give or take.” The intricacies of Michigan's current rushing difficulties washed into his ears like grey dishwater. “What time is it?”
“Ten-thirty. You need a new watchband.”
“I know, I know. When I get a chance.”
Ten-thirty at night? Christ. First Saturday was gone, now Sunday. Another daytime and night as well. Michelle was bathed, tucked in, and long asleep with Sharon soon to follow. Lee, on the other hand, sat next to pyramided stacks of clangor…intros, bumps, filler segments alongside spiral notebooks filled to bursting—crossed out, hatched through, then filled again on the pages’ backs, a stack of newspapers, trade journals, AP printouts with blurring columns of statistics which marched forth as from buzzing inkjet anthills.
“Eat, okay? I'll see you in the morning.” Bill was gone.
The night guys were preparing a discussion of the day’s NFC games, but tomorrow he’d hash them out afresh with Bill.
The moon, he supposed, was high and clear.
He’d meant to drop all this today, to spend the day doing absolutely nothing in particular, but doing it with his family.
What he had done was buck up for another day as an apologist, a drum-beater, for grim packs of warriors that ran up and down the courts and fields that spattered the country’s patchwork landscape: talk and talk and talk to the enthusiastic, well-intentioned throngs who obediently kept the stadium turnstiles in motion, the vendors bustling, the hawkers of eight-dollar beers trudging up and down the steps, throngs clad en masse in costly Malaysian sweatshop jerseys, caps, shoes…and really, really—what did any of it matter?
Lee felt the tug of familiar, fond memories. He considered the years of his own fandom, then of his beginnings in the business, the surge of being in the thick of the reportage. He made the news, his words helped form the opinions of others. Yet the walls were claustrophobic, stifling, and even if they were papered over with today's stats, printouts, scribblings, it would all be less than junk tomorrow. The machine would not, could not, rest. By its nature, it could not.
And for his part, Lee realized with remarkable clarity, the treadmill was stilled.
It was over.
For Lee, Monday's show served up unease. How to make a two-hour show from nothing but disaster? The sports world had in the last three months been sent reeling by a string of events that weren't just negative, they were awful.
Leading the list was the murder trial of Vancouver forward Peter Sobigny who, after a
4-3 Red Wings win had rocketed up behind Gilles Perrault in a rage and checked Perrault hard enough to cleanly detach the man’s lower jaw. Perrault died instantly. The story led for a solid month but was now, thankfully, cooling down.
The callers dissected the case at length, again, yet were tempted by other fiascoes as well.
The two hours had never seemed longer, and at the show’s end Lee pulled Bill into an empty production room and sat him down.
“Bill, I’m leaving,” he said simply.
“Yes. The show,” answered Lee. Bill leaned forward in the chair, having been about to stretch his legs. He got up quickly and began to walk the short, narrow length of the room, trying to decide whether to pocket his hands or leave them free.
“Why are you springing this on me?” he asked Lee in a restrained voice more confused than angry. “How much thought have you given it?”
“Considering the implications, probably not enough,” said Lee.
Bill wondered if the cumulative effects of weeks of jarring developments hadn’t simply burned his friend out for a while. Or maybe he felt like it was a swell, a current, something carrying him along…
“C’mon…everyone thinks that the whole thing’s going down,” offered Bill. “That things aren’t ‘the way they used to be’, but is that any reason to bail out on the whole deal?”
“Let’s go next door and get a drink,” said Lee. They headed out into the damp, cold afternoon. Thank God the station’s adoptive bar was only two buildings down.
Bill sat and marshaled his thoughts, then slowly spoke.
“Lee, sports is like almost every other aspect of human activity. It’s had the knife put to it by money…and incredible cynicism and ambition.” He paused for a swallow of his drink. “Sometimes…sometimes it swims in stupidity, but come on—how is it different from monitoring the boards on Wall Street?” Bill struggled to keep the thread of his thought, and was unsure of what he was trying to say. Lee listened, spinning a coaster slowly between his fingers.
“It’s a job, okay?” said Bill. “And it can be fun sometimes. And then there are some, eh… for lack of a better term, ‘redeeming’ moments…”
Jeez, thought Lee. You’re doing a helluva job selling it.
“Look, I’m not going as far as some people do, honestly,” he said aloud. “There are those out there, and not just soreheads and cranks either, who see sports—and by that I guess I mean organized, especially pro sports—as a sedative. Something to take peoples’ minds off of how bad they’re being shafted by the system…the powers that be, or whatever.” He finished his drink and asked for a glass of ice water.
“I see what people like that are talking about, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to adopt such a viewpoint,” he continued. “Something so severe.” He looked Bill in the eye now.
“It's just that it no longer has any weight for me. It’s saturated with something that I can’t find any meaning in anymore. I’ll tell you…” he began, then, continuing around an ice cube, “…the suddenness of it is a little, um, it’s shaking me up somewhat, but God, it seems natural. You know what, Bill?”
“What’s that?” his friend replied.
“It’s like I’m wearing another man's suit.”
Saturday arrived with a slight break in the chill, and trip to the Museum of Natural Science was on the Baranston family’s newly flexible itinerary.
Baranston. Leland Baranston. A name he’d all but discarded 20 years ago was now retrieved, dusted off, rejoined with himself. It felt good. He felt good.
Leland stood in the foyer, half in a rush, before he realized he had no rush at the moment. He’d finished dressing Michelle, who was now upstairs supervising his wife’s dressing. He stepped into his study for a moment and idly switched on the old clock radio on his desk. Ten o’clock.
He listened to the introduction of the show and heard Bill’s voice leap into action. Leland dragged the edge of a fingernail along the desk’s edge absent-mindedly. “Pace yourself,” he said to Bill. “or at least get an intern.” Bill had a torrent of match-ups to get through before the first break.
The teams, the fragile shifts in the balance of yardage, of power…soon would come the tidal push-pull of the basketball courts with their driving, panting cadres.
Bill stayed with it. Best to him, Leland supposed.
He caught the radio's power switch under his fingernail and switched it off.