Wild Card CHAPTER ONE
SAVING THE DAY
“THEY’RE GOING LONG, RONDE!”
Ronde Barber heard the warning, shouted by his twin brother, Tiki, from the sidelines.
Like he didn’t know. He was already backpedaling as Harrison Hochberg, star receiver for the Jefferson Junior High Panthers, ran straight at him.
Hochberg’s red number 99, outlined in bright yellow, stood out from the black of his Jefferson Panthers jersey. 99—as in “miles per hour.” Ronde knew he had to keep pace, because this kid was fast. Really fast.
Was he going to deke first, or would he just put it into high gear as he got by Ronde? To stay with his man, Ronde would have to guess, and guess right.
Just like that, Hochberg’s eyes flicked back toward the line of scrimmage for an instant. Most cornerbacks would have taken it as a signal that the ball was about to be thrown.
But Ronde was too smart for that. He knew it was third and long, with only ten minutes left in the game.
He knew that the Panthers, with only a two-point lead, would be looking for a big gainer.
He didn’t jump at the bait, and when the receiver kicked it into high gear, Ronde stayed with him step for step.
He didn’t look back for the ball—not yet. He remembered Coach Wheeler saying, during one of their team video sessions, “You can’t keep up with someone fast if you’re looking behind you.”
Ronde kept his eyes squarely on number 99. He waited till Hochberg turned his head to find the ball. When the receiver’s eyes grew as wide as saucers, Ronde finally turned, knowing the ball was about to arrive.
His hands and the receiver’s hands reached out together. There was the ball! Ronde reached even higher . . .
Suddenly his feet were caught up with the feet of the receiver! They both went down in a heap, tumbling over and over each other.
“Interference!” number 99 yelled, getting back up and pointing at Ronde as he hopped up and down in frustration.
“No way!” Ronde said. “I was going for the ball!”
But the bright yellow flag was already sailing through the air, the whistle was blowing, and the ref was pointing straight at Ronde.
“It was incidental contact!” Coach Wheeler yelled from the Eagles’ sideline. “No foul!”
Of course, it didn’t matter what Coach Wheeler, or Ronde, or any of the Eagles said. The ref was the law, and he was motioning to the kids with the chains to come fifteen yards downfield.
“First down, Panthers!” the ref said. He blew his whistle again, and pointed to the Eagles’ end zone.
Ronde sniffed back the hurt and bit his lip hard. It was so unfair! He’d known what was coming, he’d played it perfectly—and how did he get rewarded? With a flag!
“Come on, come on!” shouted Mr. Pellugi, the defensive coach. “Get back in the game, Barber!”
Ronde jogged back to the huddle, but his heart was still out on the field, where it had just been stomped on by the ref.
“Bad call, yo,” said Bill Reeves, the Eagles’ other corner, patting Ronde on the back. “Never mind. Let’s stiff ’em now.”
Ronde nodded, shaking off his emotions. It didn’t matter how bad he felt. He had a job to do, and he meant to do it, no matter what.
He watched his man line up, and thought, I’m gonna bump him right out of this play.
But the Panthers’ receiver never came past the line of scrimmage. Instead he waited until the quarterback faked a handoff, then rolled out. Hochberg got into blocking stance and came straight at Ronde.
Now the tables were turned. Ronde tried to avoid the
hit, get by his man, and reach the quarterback. But just as he was about to make a tackle, he was slammed to the ground with a hard hit from his right!
He was still lying there when the roar went up from the Panthers and their fans.
Ronde just lay there for a minute, panting. He was in pain, but his pride was hurt worse than his body. Now the Eagles were behind by nine points—30–21—with less than ten minutes left to play, in a game they had to win!
The truth was, they were all must-win games from here on out. The Eagles had already lost twice this season—in the first two games. One more defeat and it would take a stroke of incredible luck to get them into the play-offs.
If they wound up missing out on the postseason, it would be the first time in seven years that a Hidden Valley Junior High team didn’t make the play-offs.
The shame of it would be hard to bear, Ronde thought, dragging himself over to the sideline and practically falling onto the Eagles’ bench.
“Get back out there, Barber,” Coach Wheeler barked at him. “Kickoff’s coming. Or are you too out of breath to return it?”
“No, no, I’m okay,” Ronde assured him, forcing himself to get back up off the bench and into the game.
“’Cause I can get someone else to run back the kickoff . . .”
“I’m going! I’m going!” He swallowed hard. “Coach, I didn’t—”
“I know you didn’t foul him, Ronde,” Coach Wheeler said. “But that’s how it goes sometimes. You don’t always get the breaks.”
Ronde sighed, and nodded. He knew it was true.
“But, hey—on this team we pick each other up,” Wheeler said. “Keep the faith, son. Let’s get us a win here.”
Tiki came up to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, no worries, Ronde. We’re gonna pull this one out. You’ll see.”
Ronde looked back at his twin. It was the same face he saw in the mirror every day—they were so identical it was hard even for their close friends to tell them apart.
But there was a difference right now. There was hope in Tiki’s eyes. Ronde had never felt more defeated in his life.
“Come on, man, give me the handshake.” Tiki held out his hand, waiting for the secret ritual shake they’d made up over the course of the season.
Ronde just sighed.
“Come on, come on!” Tiki demanded. “No time for losing!”
Ronde nodded. Tiki was right. There were still nearly ten minutes left. Plenty of time to make up for that penalty—plenty.
“Go get ’em!” Tiki told him as they gripped fingers, tapped knuckles, then snapped their fingers twice before slapping five low, then high.
Ronde ran back out onto the field, buckling the chin strap of his helmet. He waited for the kickoff, ready to do something to turn the game around. Tiki’s right, he told himself. We can still win this thing. And we will.
Up went the kick, low and end-over-end. It hit the ground, then bounced off to the left, far away from Ronde. He ran after it in a panic, and got hold of it just in time to get piled on by the entire Panthers kicking squad.
“Great. Just great,” Ronde muttered to himself as he trotted slowly back to the bench. The ball was spotted at their own fifteen—a long way from the end zone.
Now the Eagles lined up on offense, and Ronde tried to catch his breath on the bench.
All day the favored 5–2 Eagles had been trading scores with the 3–4 Panthers. The Eagles, after those first two losses, had been on a roll, winning five games in a row—three of them over highly rated opponents.
Two weeks ago they’d gone over to Martinsville and beat the always-dangerous Colts for the second time in three weeks, 34–17. And last week they’d stomped on the mighty Blue Ridge Bears, 30–10.
On top of that, Ronde reminded himself, the Eagles were the defending district champs. Jefferson hadn’t made the play-offs in three years. The Eagles had every
reason to be confident about today’s contest.
But, as Coach Wheeler liked to say, “That’s why they play the games.” Statistics meant nothing. The past was the past. Only today mattered. Only now. Only this game . . .
The Eagles’ quarterback, Cody Hansen, took the snap, and quickly handed off to Tiki. He sliced through the Panthers’ defensive line, made a quick cut, and took the ball all the way out to the forty-yard line before he was dragged down from behind.
Ronde let out a whoop and stood up, clapping and pumping his fist. “Yeah!” he shouted. “That’s how we do it!” He could feel the momentum shifting like a tidal wave.
On the Eagles’ next play, Tiki took another handoff for fifteen yards, crossing into the Panthers’ territory.
Tiki looked unstoppable! Ronde and the rest of the defense cheered, and jumped up and down excitedly. But all the while they kept nervously glancing over at the game clock as it ticked down the minutes.
The next play was a pass to Fred Soule for a gain of seven. “Give it to Tiki again!” Ronde shouted, and he wasn’t the only one yelling for number 2 to get the ball.
Cody must have heard them, because on the next play he faked a handoff to Tiki, then found him in the flat for a quick completion. It looked like Tiki would be tackled, but he turned the play into a big gain by slipping the
grasp of his man. Tiki took off like a rocket, heading for the end zone.
He almost got there too, but the Panthers’ free safety, who was playing deep, managed to stop Tiki from notching the score.
It didn’t matter, though. Two plays later Tiki dove over the wall of defenders and hit pay dirt. Touchdown, Eagles!
Kicker Adam Costa made the extra point look routine—which it was, for him. Adam had the best record in the league, for the second straight season. And to think, as a seventh grader he’d barely made the team!
Now the Eagles were down by only two, with six minutes still left to play. Adam kicked off to the Panthers, and Ronde, the bird dog on special teams, sped down the field like he’d been shot out of a cannon.
He saw the ball tumble into the arms of number 5—his own number, except on the opposing team. Ronde flew at the ballcarrier, and hit him so hard that the ball came loose!
Too bad it went straight into the arms of another Panthers player.
Still, the Eagles now had their opponents pinned deep in their own territory. If the Panthers wanted to run out the clock, they’d have to either run for a couple of first downs or risk throwing the ball downfield. If they failed either way, they risked stopping the clock and giving the
Eagles time for a desperate comeback drive.
After a running play that went nowhere, the Panthers tried to pass on second down. Ronde bumped his man coming off the line, and the receiver stumbled and fell.
Now the quarterback had to scramble. He spotted a receiver on the other side of the field, and was about to throw to him, when Eagles’ defensive end Sam Scarfone tackled him for a sack!
Sam was a ninth grader, but he looked like one of those huge linemen over at the high school. He was a leader on the Eagles, and for a while early in the season he’d sided with Cody Hansen against Coach Wheeler.
But ever since he and Cody had come around, the Eagles had been winning. And now Sam had made a game-changing play.
On third and long, Ronde knew the Panthers would be throwing downfield. He decided not to bump his man this time, but to keep pace with him step for step. He was sure he could do it.
They ran down the field, and Ronde stuck with number 99 like a barnacle on a rock. As they both leapt for the ball, their feet got tangled again—just like before! Hochberg went down as Ronde batted the ball away.
He got up and looked around for the yellow flag, hoping the refs wouldn’t make the same bad call as before.
No flag. Thank goodness! Ronde blew out a relieved breath and clapped his hands.
“Interference!” the Panthers’ coach yelled, pointing right at Ronde.
The official shook his head and said, “Incidental contact. No penalty.”
But the coach didn’t see it that way. He called a timeout and walked over to the ref. Ronde couldn’t tell what was happening, but before he knew it, Coach Wheeler walked over too.
It seemed like forever until the ref called, “No penalty.”
The dismayed receiver trudged over to his own sideline. His coach and teammates came over and gave him pats on the back for support.
Ronde smiled as he lined up to receive the punt. He’d been lucky this time. He knew the call could just as easily have gone the other way. But that was the nature of the game. Sometimes you got the calls, and sometimes you didn’t. Either way, though, everyone had to play by the same rules, and the ref’s word was the law.
Here came the punt. Ronde grabbed it cleanly, and took off running. The first two Panthers who grabbed at him came up with nothing but air. By the time he was brought down, by the punter, Ronde was at the Panthers’ forty-three-yard line!
He looked up at the clock. Only fifty-four seconds left to play! Still, it was plenty of time for the Eagles to make up the two points they needed. A field goal would do it,
and Adam was already warming up his golden foot on the sidelines.
On first down Cody took the snap, faked a handoff to Tiki, then rolled out right, looking deep. Fred Soule and Joey Gallagher were both well covered, so Cody looked short and found Tiki at the thirty-five, hitting him right in the numbers. Tiki wheeled around and fought for another seven yards, down to the twenty-eight.
“Wow!” Adam said to Ronde. “Did you see him carry those two mega-thugs with him? Your brother is mad strong!”
“Not as strong as I am,” Ronde said coolly.
Adam laughed. “Right. I’m sure. We’ve got to set up an arm wrestling challenge one of these days.”
They turned their eyes back to the field. On second down and three Cody handed off to Tiki, who slashed through the huge hole carved out of the defense by Tiki and Ronde’s old pal, center Paco Rivera.
First down, Eagles, at the Panther ten!
Too bad they were out of time-outs, Ronde thought as he jumped up and down in a panic. Coach Wheeler was frantically signaling to Cody to stop the clock. At last, with only six seconds left on the clock, Cody realized what was up and saved the Eagles from disaster by spiking the ball.
“Okay, Costa,” Coach Wheeler said, patting Adam on the back. “Get out there and win us this game!”
Adam trotted onto the field and got into position. Joey Gallagher, the holder, kneeled down at the seventeen to take the snap. Paco snapped the ball, and Adam drilled the kick right between the uprights, with plenty of leg to spare! The Eagles screamed for joy and ran out onto the field as the final gun sounded. They’d saved their season with a last-second win, 31–30!
“That’s about the fourth time in the past season and a half that Adam has saved our bacon,” Ronde told Tiki as they high-fived each other. Meanwhile, the rest of the Eagles were carting Adam off the field on their shoulders.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Tiki said. “Remember when we thought he’d never even make the team?”
“Uh-huh,” Ronde said with a laugh. “Worst athlete in the history of our Peewee League—but of course, that was before we found out he could kick!”