Patriots Game

By: Neal Thompson

Friday night, August 26

In the corner of the blue carpeted, concrete-walled room, a giant floor fan whines, pushing around sweat-odored air. The locker room stinks, but at least it's air-conditioned. Sort of. It's better than being outside in the late-day, late-August New Orleans sun. So, the Patriots of John Curtis Christian School, more than a hundred of them, hang out in this dank room with missing ceiling tiles and funky smells. It barely contains them all.

The floor is littered with broken shoulder pads, socks, spools of athletic tape, Adidas sneakers, and the bright red or blue rubber Croc moccasins the players wear in the showers. A quote hand-painted on a scrap of plywood that's duct-taped to the wall reads, Winners Concentrate on Winning, Losers Concentrate on Getting By.

They're trading gossip, razzing each other about girls, or arguing about what to expect from tonight's opponent, all fired up for a new season and the start of a new school year on Monday. A multiracial, multicultural gumbo of kids from all over the city and the suburbs, they're sons of the wealthy and the just scraping by, they're scrawny ninth-grade third stringers and oversized, muscle-bound starting seniors, and they're all united in determination to bring the mighty John Curtis Patriots to yet another state championship this year. A few boys sit alone on stools, headphones blocking out the roar. Others are curled up in a corner trying to nap, while a few enact pregame rituals, getting their heads ready to play.

Offensive guard Andrew Nierman, a bruising six-foot-one, 300-pounder, ties the shoes of his good friend, 325-pound defensive tackle Jonathan "Tank" English. Tank earned his nickname in fourth grade, when he and Andrew dressed as army guys for Halloween. A snarky janitor told Jonathan, nearing two hundred pounds even then, that he looked like an army tank. In grammar school, he developed a bad habit of never tying his laces tight enough, so Andrew always tightens them for him before games.

Tank and Andrew are both the ambitious, determined sons of hard-working single moms. Tank's father died of a heart attack two years ago, after a decade of battling heart disease, high blood pressure, and kidney problems. He was only forty-nine. Tank and his mom, Althea, who runs a day-care center, live in mostly African-American section of Kenner, a suburb just west of River Ridge, and Tank has attended Curtis since the third grade. Andrew, who has contended with growing up biracial in a still strongly segregated New Orleans, commutes from thirty miles away, where he and his mother live alone. He has no relationship with this father, who left years ago.

Andrew and Tank, both juniors, anchor the Patriots' front line -- Andrew on offense, Tank on defense. They're both savvy, physical players who run faster than 300-pounders should, and the coaches are relying on each of them to play leadership roles this year. Off the field, their demeanor is more preacher -- Tank -- and teacher -- Andrew -- than bone-breaking tacklers. Tank is a warm, happy-go-lucky man-boy with a deep laugh and a melodious voice as smooth and sweet as jelly. He leads his teammates in prayer before games and is a great motivator on the field. Andrew is thoughtful, studious, and serious, with dark, intense eyes; a beefy bookworm in shoulder pads. He's one of the smartest kids in the school and dreams of attending a top academic college, maybe even Harvard.

Linebacker Mike Walker and quarterback Kyle Collura practice their pregame handshake, a hand dance of high-fives, low-fives, and a fist-to-fist punch. They plan to do it after every touchdown this year. Mike and Kyle are also juniors, getting their first shot at full-time varsity this year. Mike has a linebacker's stout body but a face that's pure teenager, with braces, faint freckles, wisps of facial hair, and spots of acne that look like they've been digitally transposed there from a seventh-grade school photo. He's chatty and a bit of a clown who loves to crack jokes in class. Mike joined Curtis only three years ago, commuting from Metairie, east of River Ridge, so that he could join the Patriots. He's worked hard to impress the coaches and has just learned that he's been made a starter this season.

Kyle is lean and loose-limbed, with droopy, Nicolas Cage-like eyes. He always seems half asleep, with slouched shoulders and a laconic, jazzy way of dropping words out of the side of his mouth, as if he couldn't care less where they land.

Kyle was third-string quarterback last year, but was thrust into the starter's job five months ago when the Patriots' rocket-armed quarterback Johnnie Thiel unexpectedly left the school in a huff. Kyle knows he's no Johnnie Thiel, who was all handsome and slick and funny and stylish, confidently strutting his stuff on the field and off.

Johnnie had attended John Curtis since the third grade, and was the Patriots' great hope for this season. In 2003, he had started a few games as a freshman, even playing in the state championship game, a 12-7 heartbreaking loss that left him crying on the sidelines of the Superdome, where the state's high-school championship games are played. Last year, Johnnie split time with a senior quarterback and helped bring the Patriots again to the championship. Johnnie scored twice in that game, leading the Patriots to a 29-14 victory -- and their tenth undefeated season -- and was named the game's most outstanding player.

He was in line to take sole possession of quarterback in 2005, but his desire to make dazzling runs and hurl touchdown bombs that made the highlight tapes conflicted with the school's old-fashioned, grind-it-out offense. What he really wanted was to be a star, and to catch the eyes of college recruiters. But Curtis is no place for that kind of star, favoring only hard-working, obedient, team players. So, he transferred to East St. John High School in the town of Reserve, twenty miles west but closer to his home.

That's how Kyle, a virtual nobody on the 2004 championship squad, was tapped as the new starter. To make matters worse, shortly after taking over the job, Kyle fell on a tackler in a spring scrimmage and snapped his own collarbone. It has since healed, though still a bit lumpy, and Kyle returned to practice only a few weeks ago. He still seems protective of his collarbone in practice, and the coaches worry that he may not be ready for tonight's game, mentally or physically.

Kyle's well aware that all the fans in the stands tonight will be wondering, This is our new quarterback? This quiet third-stringer? This is who's going to lead us to the championship? He's anxious to prove he can carry his team, nervous, but eager to play.

Equally anxious is the team's speedy, all-purpose playmaker, Joe McKnight, who's in the trainer's room getting his ankles taped. Joe has commuted to Curtis from Kenner since he was eight years old. A moody, sometimes stormy young man, he is mad at the world for sticking him with an absentee father and a mom who struggles to put food on the table. Joe and his mother have a complicated relationship and he's been living in and out of their home, staying with friends and extended family members. Coach J. T. Curtis has offered him a room in his home repeatedly, but Joe always says no; he feels awkward about living with his coach, and about how it would look for an African-American kid to be living with a white family.

Joe is six feet tall, just shy of two hundred pounds, and combines the lightning speed of a Jerry Rice with the explosive power of a Barry Sanders, one of his heroes. Each of his biceps is covered in tattoos, one of which reads JOE above a picture of a tiger.

Joe and Johnnie Thiel were a daunting duo on the field last year, each making weekly headlines on the sports pages of the Times-Picayune. The coaches mainly used Joe as a defensive safety and on special teams, occasionally putting him in at running back, which is where Joe really wants to play. Last year, he made a strong case for that job by returning forty-three punts for 872 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging twenty-plus yards per return. On kickoff returns, he averaged thirty-one yards and scored three touchdowns. In the state championship game, when the Patriots were stalled in a 14-14 second-half tie, Joe broke free for a long punt return, which set up a go-ahead quarterback sneak by Johnnie.

Joe and Johnnie were also close friends, and when Joe decided -- not for the first time -- to move out of his mom's house for a few months last year, he moved in with Johnnie's family. The two boys shared a bedroom, the walls covered with football posters, and always drove to and from school and practice together. They considered themselves as much brothers as friends, and Joe was looking forward to two more years of Thiel-and-McKnight headlines. Johnnie asked Joe to come with him to East St. John, but Joe wasn't up for that, and was deeply hurt by Johnnie's transfer. A few weeks later, he moved out of the Thiel's home and temporarily back with his mom. He's since been in and out of her house, spending most of his nights on the couches of friends or relatives.

He hasn't let any of that affect his playing, though. In fact, Joe worked harder than anyone in practices through the spring and summer. He is the team's best all-around player, ranked among the nation's top high-school prospects. Already he's being wooed by USC, Miami, Notre Dame, and others, whose coaches have gasped at highlight tapes showing Joe accelerating past tacklers on one after another rocket-fast, touchdown-scoring punt or kick return. Joe is a beautiful, graceful runner, but also a bruiser who can make split-second decisions look easy: Should I hurdle this guy or plow into him?

Joe has a handsome face with a dark, intent gaze. Unlike most jumpy teens, who look everywhere but in your eyes, Joe makes hard, unflinching eye contact. He's quiet, with a surprisingly sly, mischievous wit, but he rarely smiles, not even at his own jokes, not even when he scores.

As the trainer tapes up his ankles, Joe listens to a recording of a speech Al Pacino gives in Any Given Sunday, about how football, like life, is a game of inches, and how fighting and clawing for the extra inch can make the difference "between winning and losing, between living and dying . . .

"I'll tell you this, in any fight it is the guy who is willing to die who is going to win that inch," Pacino tells his team. "That is what living is. The six inches in front of your face . . . That's football, guys. That's all it is. Now, whattaya gonna do?"

The 2005 season begins tonight, and game time is just two hours away.

From HURRICANE SEASON by Neal Thompson. Copyright ? 2007 by Neal Thompson and J. T. Curtis. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Author
Neal Thompson is a veteran journalist who has worked for the Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, and St. Petersburg Times, and whose magazine stories have appeared in Outside, Esquire, Backpacker, Men's Health, and The Washington Post Magazine. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books, Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, America's First Spaceman and Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels and the Birth of NASCAR. Thompson and his family live in the mountains outside Asheville, North Carolina.

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