Read Playing for Pizza Page 2

  Walking out, he nonchalantly tossed the newspaper on Rick’s bed. As soon as the door closed behind him, Rick grabbed it, and soon wished he had not. The police estimated a crowd of fifty had staged a rowdy demonstration outside the hospital. Things got ugly when a TV news crew showed up and began filming. A window was smashed, and a few of the drunker fans stormed the ER check-in, supposedly looking for Rick Dockery. Eight were arrested. A large photo—front page beneath the fold—captured the crowd before the arrests. Two crude signs could be read clearly: “Pull the Plug Now!” and “Legalize Euthanasia.”

  It got worse. The Post had a notorious sportswriter named Charley Cray, a nasty hack whose specialty was attack journalism. Just clever enough to be credible, Cray was widely read because he delighted in the missteps and foibles of professional athletes who earned millions yet were not perfect. He was an expert on everything and never missed a chance for a cheap shot. His Tuesday column—front-page sports—began with the headline: “Could Dockery Top All-Time Goat List?”

  Knowing Cray, there was no doubt Rick Dockery would top the list.

  The column, well researched and savagely written, was structured around Cray’s opinions about the greatest individual chokes, screwups, and collapses in the history of sports. There was Bill Buckner’s booted ground ball in the ’86 World Series. Jackie Smith’s dropped TD pass in Super Bowl XIII, and so on.

  But, as Cray screamed at his readers, those were only single plays.

  Mr. Dockery, on the other hand, managed three—Count Them!—three horrible passes in only eleven minutes.

  Clearly, therefore, Rick Dockery is the unquestioned Greatest Goat in the history of professional sports. The verdict was undisputed, and Cray challenged anyone to argue with him.

  Rick flung the newspaper against the wall and called for another pill. In the darkness, alone with the door closed, he waited for the drug to work its magic, to knock him out clean, then, hopefully, to take him away forever.

  He slipped lower in the bed, pulled the sheet over his head, and began crying.



  It was snowing and Arnie was tired of Cleveland. He was at the airport, waiting for a flight to Las Vegas, his home, and against his better judgment he made a call to a lesser vice president of the Arizona Cardinals.

  At the moment, and not including Rick Dockery, Arnie had seven players in the NFL and four in Canada. He was, if he could be forced to admit it, a mid-list agent who, of course, had bigger ambitions. Making phone calls for Rick Dockery was not going to help his credibility. Rick was arguably the most-talked-about player in the country at that dismal moment, but it wasn’t the kind of buzz that Arnie needed. The vice president was polite but brief and couldn’t wait to get off the phone.

  Arnie went to a bar, got a drink, and managed to find a seat far away from any television, since the only story still raging in Cleveland was the three interceptions by a quarterback no one even knew was on the team. The Browns had rolled through the season with a sputtering offense but a bruising defense, one that shattered records for yielding so few yards and points. They lost only once, and with each win a city starved for a Super Bowl became more and more enthralled with their old lovable losers. Suddenly, in one quick season, the Browns were the slayers.

  Had they won the previous Sunday, their Super Bowl opponent would be the Minnesota Vikings, a team they shut out and routed back in November.

  The entire city could taste the sweetness of a championship.

  It all vanished in eleven horrifying minutes.

  Arnie ordered a second drink. Two salesmen at the next table were getting drunk and relishing the Browns’ collapse. They were from Detroit.

  The hottest story of the day had been the firing of the Browns’ general manager, Clyde Wacker, a man who had been hailed as a genius as recently as the preceding Saturday but was now the perfect scapegoat. Someone had to be fired, and not just Rick Dockery. When it was finally determined that Wacker had signed Dockery off waivers, back in October, the owner fired him. The execution was public—big press conference, lots of frowns and promises to run a tighter ship, et cetera. The Browns would be back!

  Arnie met Rick during his senior year at Iowa, at the end of a season that had begun with much promise but was fading into a third-tier bowl game. Rick started at quarterback his last two seasons, and he seemed well suited for a dropback, open-style offense so rare in the Big Ten. At times he was brilliant—reading defenses, coolly checking off at the line, firing the ball with incredible velocity. His arm was amazing, undoubtedly the best in the upcoming draft. He could throw long and hard with a lightning-quick release.

  But he was too erratic to be trusted, and when Buffalo picked him in the last round, it should have been a clear sign that he needed to pursue a master’s degree or a stockbroker’s license.

  Instead, he went to Toronto for two miserable seasons, then began bouncing around the NFL. With a great arm, Rick was just barely good enough to make a roster. Every team needs a third-string quarterback. In tryouts, and there had been many, he’d often dazzled coaches with his arm. Arnie watched one day in Kansas City when Rick threw a football eighty yards, then a few minutes later clocked a bullet at ninety miles an hour.

  But Arnie knew what most coaches now strongly suspected. Rick, for a football player, was afraid of contact. Not the incidental contact, not the quick and harmless tackle of a scrambling quarterback. Rick, with good reason, feared the rushing tackles and the blitzing linebackers.

  There is a moment or two in every game when a quarterback has a receiver open, a split second to throw the ball, and a massive, roaring lineman charging the pocket unblocked. The quarterback has a choice. He can grit his teeth, sacrifice his body, put his team first, throw the damned ball, make the play, and get crushed, or he can tuck it and run and pray he lives for another play. Rick, as long as Arnie had watched him play, had never, not once, put the team first. At the first hint of a sack, Rick flinched and ran frantically for the sideline.

  And with a propensity for concussions, Arnie really couldn’t blame him.

  He called a nephew of the owner of the Rams, who answered the phone with an icy “I hope this is not about Dockery.”

  “Well, yes, it is,” Arnie managed to say.

  “The answer is hell no.”

  Since Sunday, Arnie had spoken with about half of the NFL teams. The response from the Rams was pretty typical. Rick had no idea how completely his sad little career had been terminated.

  Watching a monitor on the wall, Arnie saw his flight get delayed. One more call, he vowed. One more effort to find Rick a job, and then he would move on to his other players.

  · · ·

  The clients were from Portland, and though his last name was Webb and she was as pale as a Swede, they both claimed Italian blood and were keen to see the old country where it all began. Each spoke about six words of the language, and spoke them badly. Sam suspected they had picked up a travel book at the airport and memorized a few of the basics over the Atlantic. On their previous trip to Italy their driver/guide had been a native with “dreadful” English, and so they had insisted on an American this time around, a good Yank who could arrange meals and find tickets. After two days together, Sam was ready to ship them back to Portland.

  Sam was neither a driver nor a guide. He was, however, very much an American, and since his primary job paid little, he moonlighted occasionally when his countrymen passed through and needed someone to hold their hands.

  He waited outside in the car while they had a very long dinner at Lazzaro’s, an old trattoria in the center of the city. It was cold and snowing lightly, and as he sipped strong coffee, his thoughts returned to his roster, as they always did. His cell phone startled him. The call was from the United States. He said hello.

  “Sam Russo please,” came a crisp greeting.

  “This is Sam.”

  “Coach Russo?”

  “Yes, that’s me.”

bsp; The caller identified himself as Arnie something or other, said he was an agent of some sort, and claimed to have been a manager on the 1988 Bucknell football team, a few years after Sam played there. Since they both went to Bucknell, they quickly found common ground, and after a few minutes of Do-You-Know-So-and-So they were friendly. For Sam, it was nice to chat with someone from his old school, albeit a total stranger.

  And it was rare that he got calls from agents.

  Arnie finally got to the point.

  “Sure I watched the play-offs,” Sam said.

  “Well, I represent Rick Dockery, and, well, the Browns let him go,” Arnie said.

  No surprise there, Sam thought, but kept listening. “And he’s looking around, considering his options. I heard the rumor that you need a quarterback.”

  Sam almost dropped the phone. A real NFL quarterback playing in Parma? “It’s not a rumor,” he said. “My quarterback quit last week and took a coaching job somewhere in upstate New York. We’d love to have Dockery. Is he okay? Physically I mean?”

  “Sure, just bruised a little, but he’s ready to go.”

  “And he wants to play in Italy?”

  “Maybe. We haven’t discussed it yet, you know, he’s still in the hospital, but we’re looking at all the possibilities. Frankly, he needs a change of scenery.”

  “Do you know the game over here?” Sam asked nervously. “It’s good football, but it’s a far cry from the NFL and the Big Ten. I mean, these guys are not professionals in the true sense of the word.”

  “What level?”

  “I don’t know. Tough to say. Ever hear of a school called Washington and Lee, down in Virginia? A nice school, good football, Division III?”


  “They came over last year during spring break and we scrimmaged them a couple of times. Pretty even matchup.”

  “Division III, huh?” Arnie said, his voice losing some steam.

  But then, Rick needed a softer game. Another concussion and he might indeed suffer the brain damage so often joked about. Truthfully, Arnie didn’t care. Just another phone call or two and Rick Dockery was history.

  “Look, Arnie,” Sam began earnestly. Time for the truth. “It’s a club sport over here, or maybe a notch above that. Each team in the Series A gets three American players, and they usually get meal money, maybe some rent. The quarterbacks are typically American and they get a small salary. The rest of the roster is a bunch of tough Italians who play because they love football. If they’re lucky and the owner is in a good mood, they might get pizza and beer after the game. We play an eight-game schedule, with play-offs, then a chance for the Italian Super Bowl. Our field is old but nice, well maintained, seats about three thousand, and for a big game we might fill it. We have corporate sponsors, cool uniforms, but no TV contract and no real money to speak of. We’re smack in the middle of the world of soccer, so our football has more of a cult following.”

  “How did you get there?”

  “I love Italy. My grandparents emigrated from this region, settled in Baltimore, where I grew up. But I have lots of cousins around here. My wife is Italian and so on. It’s a delightful place to live. Can’t make any money coaching American football, but we’re having fun.”

  “So the coaches get paid?”

  “Yes, you could say that.”

  “Any other NFL rejects?”

  “Occasionally one passes through, some lost soul still dreaming of a Super Bowl ring. But the Americans are usually small college players who love the game and have a sense of adventure.”

  “How much can you pay my man?”

  “Let me check with the owner.”

  “Do that, and I’ll check with my client.”

  They signed off after another Bucknell story, and Sam returned to his coffee. An NFL quarterback playing football in Italy? It was hard to imagine, though not without precedent. The Bologna Warriors were in the Italian Super Bowl two years earlier with a forty-year-old quarterback who’d once played briefly for Oakland. He quit after two seasons and went to Canada.

  Sam turned the car heater down a notch and replayed the final minutes of the Browns-Broncos game. Never in his memory had he watched one player so completely engineer a defeat and lose a game that was so clearly won. He himself had almost cheered when Dockery was carried off the field.

  Nevertheless, the idea of coaching him in Parma was intriguing.



  Though the packing and leaving was somewhat of a ritual, the departure from Cleveland was a bit more stressful than usual. Someone found out that he had leased a condo on the seventh floor of a glass building near the lake, and there were two shaggy reporter types with cameras loitering near the guardhouse when Rick wheeled through in his black Tahoe. He parked underground and hurried up the elevator. The phone in the kitchen was ringing when he unlocked the door. A pleasant voice mail was left behind by none other than Charley Cray.

  Three hours later the SUV was packed with clothes and golf clubs and a stereo. Thirteen trips—he counted them—up and down the elevator, and his neck and shoulders were killing him. His head ached and throbbed and the painkillers did little to help. He wasn’t supposed to drive while drugged, but Rick was driving.

  Rick was leaving, running away from the lease on the condo and the rented furniture therein, fleeing Cleveland and the Browns and their awful fans, scampering away to somewhere. He wasn’t quite sure where.

  Wisely, he had signed only a six-month lease on the condo. Since college he’d lived a life of short leases and rented furniture and learned not to accumulate too many things.

  He fought the downtown traffic and managed to glance in the mirror for one last look at the Cleveland skyline. Good riddance. He was thrilled to be leaving. He vowed to never return, unless, of course, he was playing against the Browns, but then he’d promised himself that he would not think about the future. Not for another week anyway.

  As he raced through the suburbs, he admitted to himself that Cleveland was undoubtedly happier with his departure than he was.

  He was drifting west, in the general direction of Iowa, not with any enthusiasm, because he was not excited about going home. He’d called his parents once from the hospital. His mother asked about his head and begged him to stop playing. His father asked him what the hell he was thinking when he threw that last pass.

  “How are things in Davenport?” Rick had finally asked his father. Both knew what he was after. He wasn’t curious about the local economy.

  “Not too good,” his father said.

  A weather bulletin caught his attention. Heavy snow to the west, a blizzard in Iowa, and Rick happily turned left and headed south.

  An hour later his cell phone buzzed. It was Arnie, in Vegas, sounding much happier.

  “Where are you, kid?” he asked.

  “I’m out of Cleveland.”

  “Thank God. Going home?”

  “No, I’m just driving, going south. Maybe I’ll go to Florida and play some golf.”

  “Great idea. How’s your head?”


  “Any additional brain damage?” Arnie asked with a fake laugh. It was a punch line Rick had heard at least a hundred times.

  “Severe damage,” he said.

  “Look, kid, I’m onto something here, a spot on a roster, guaranteed starting position. Gorgeous cheerleaders. Wanna hear it?”

  Rick repeated it slowly, certain that he had misunderstood the details. The Vicodin was soaking a few areas of his tender brain. “Okay,” he finally said.

  “I just talked to the head coach of the Panthers, and they will offer a contract right now, on the spot, no questions asked. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a job. You’ll still be the quarterback, the starting quarterback! A done deal. It’s all you, baby.”

  “The Panthers?”

  “You got it. The Parma Panthers.”

  There was a long pause as Rick struggled with geography. Obviously it was
some minor-league outfit, some independent bush league so far from the NFL that it was a joke. Surely it wasn’t arena football. Arnie knew better than to think about that.

  But he couldn’t place Parma. “Did you say Carolina Panthers, Arnie?”