A driveway, still wet from an afternoon shower. I’m halfway up to the mailbox when I notice an earthworm writhing its way back over to paydirt. I pick it up.
“Don’t ever get excited about spring games,” the earthworm says. “They don’t mean anything.”
A cardinal lands on a nearby dogwood branch. “He’s right,” it chirps. “The most vanilla defenses in existence, played by walk-ons and third-stringers. Getting your hopes up because of something any player did in that setting is dumb. And I’m a bird.”
“Everyone knows it,” a junebug says as it buzzes by. “Spring games are worthless.”
“Everyone,” the earthworm adds. “Even me. Don’t be stupider than me.”
I cock my arm back to wing the worm into the bushes, then decide otherwise. I cup it in my hands, bring it close to my face.
“You can tell me that. It’s OK. The whole world can,” I whisper. “But you can’t make me listen.”
I set the worm down beneath the hydrangea and finish walking up to the mailbox. I open it to three bills, and a flyer for a house remodeling service I can’t afford.
“Mommy, Mommy,” a begoggled and bewater-winged child interrupts as his mother chats up a friend by the pool. “Can I go swim in the deep end?”
She looks up. Braden Smith, Prince Tega Wanogho, Austin Golson, Darius James, Wilson Bell, Casey Dunn, Mike Horton and Marquel Harrell are sitting along the other end of the pool with their feet in the water. They wave.
The mom pauses, and waves back.
A set of polished steel elevator doors open on the lowest level of a secret underground bunker. The (actor playing the) President strides out, accompanied by two Secret Service agents and a white-coated scientist. At the end of a metal-lined corridor the President enters a glass-walled observation room. He looks out at a two-story concrete vault, its steel doors inexorably closing around a golden cylinder covered in gauges, blinking lights, and cables. The words “KAMRYN PETTWAY HAMSTRINGS” have been stenciled in black on the cylinder.
“They are secure, sir,” the scientist says.
“Good,” the President says, as the doors lock shut with an echoing bang. “I don’t think I need to explain to you, Doctor, why they must be preserved at any cost.”
11 gladiators wearing orange-and-blue breastplates walk from the dark tunnel into the blinding light and deafening noise of the Colosseum. They squint, their eyes adjusting, and learn they are surrounded on all sides by roaring caged tigers. The Emperor signals from his balcony, and the cage doors begin to slide open.
“Again?” one gladiator asks. “We just did this five weeks ago.”
A 1930s archaeologist brushes away dust and cobwebs from the ancient stone doors at the bottom of a crypt. His torch reveals an inscription chiseled into the surface, written in a long-forgotten runic alphabet. He mouths the words as he reads them.
“What does it say?” whispers the beautiful woman behind him.
“‘BEHIND THIS DOOR LAY THE TROPHIES OF DREAMS, BUT ONLY A DEFENSE BEARING THE PASS-RUSHER FORETOLD MAY UNLOCK IT,” he says. The archaeologist bends his face to the door and uses his pocketknife to pry away a clot of dirt. A keyhole. He and the woman turn their heads at the sounds of footsteps in the tunnels behind them.
“The book, Alana. Quickly.”
She opens her canvas satchel and hands him a book bound in cracked, centuries-faded leather. He opens it to its midpoint and pulls an ancient iron key out of the hole cut into its pages. The key has a picture of Jeff Holland carved into its handles.
“Let’s hope this works,” she says. He nods, pushes the key into the door, and turns it. They look at each other for a brief second as nothing happens, then brace themselves against each other as the walls shudder, the floor shakes, and the doors grind their way open inch-by-inch.
An old VHS home movie: Chip Lindsey, age 8, shrieking with excitement as he tears the wrapping from gift after gift on Christmas morning.
A fedora-wearing Daniel Carlson reads a newspaper in a smoke-filled cafe in 1940s London. A dark-haired woman walks in, looks around, smooths the front of her dress and adjusts a hat labeled “Lou Groza Award.” Carlson puts his newspaper down and waves her over.
“About damn time,” he growls, offering her a cigarette and a light as she sits down. “Five more minutes, I was out that door.”
She takes a drag off her cigarette and exhales, smiling. “The world past that door’s a crazy one, Legatron,” she says. “Patience is the same virtue it’s always been, though. You’ll see.”
A freshly-plowed field under a staggering sun, long ago. A boy and his father, both in overalls, walk along the furrows. The father takes great fistfuls of seeds out of a burlap sack, scattering them in arcs across the field. The sack is adorned with the local feed store’s five-star logo.
“Papa,” the boy asks, “will all of these seeds grow?”
“No, not every one,” the father answers. “But if you’re working with quality at the start” — and he gives the sack a shake — “you can take your day’s rest knowing things’ll work out all right at the finish. We’ll have ourselves a bumper crop of wide receivers this year, don’t you worry.”
Carlton Davis and Javaris Davis walk into the impossibly bumping Halloween party from this year’s most popular teen movie, dressed as the Wonder Twins. They bump fists.
“Mommy! Mommy! MOMMY!” the child yells from his darkened bedroom. The silhouette of his mother appears in the doorway. “What is it, sweetie?” she asks.
“I’m scared. There’s a monster in my closet,” he says. She starts to tell him there isn’t, but he interrupts. “There is, Mommy, I saw him! Last year! And the year before that! He had green skin, and purple eyes, and couldn’t complete a pass more than four yards downfield! He told me he was going to eat me, just like he ate the end of last season!”
She walks over and turns on the closet light. “See? No monster.”
“But he was there! He could come back as soon as you turn the light out! Or there’s a injury! One play, Mommy, one play and he could come right back. He said …” the boy continued through a whimper, building into hot tears, “he said … he said we’d lose to Georgia again! He’d make sure of it! I hate that monster, Mommy!”
His mother comes over, turns on the bedside lamp, and strokes his hair. “I got you something,” she says. “I was going to wait for your birthday, but maybe you can have an early surprise. I’ll be right back.” She leaves, and comes back with a blanket. She pulls the boy’s old blanket off the bed and unrolls the new one over him, the boy sitting up just enough to see the picture of Sean White printed across it, head-to-toe.
“This can be your security blanket,” she tells him. “Whenever you feel scared of that monster in the closet, just remember you’ve got this to keep you warm, and safe, and monster-free. As long as you’ve got this, that monster can’t bother you.”
The boy snuggled down under the blanket. She was right — everything felt OK again. He could go to sleep, and everything would be all right. “This is nice,” he says. “I’m so glad I have this, Mommy.”
“Me too,” she says. “Good night.”
Two animal control officers walk into a darkened basement, flashlights on.
“Refresh my memory: how big this thing supposed to be?” the first says to the second.
“Doc says about the size of a poodle. Still just a freshman. Not sure how it broke out of its cage.”
“You ask me, buncha eggheads lose their science project, oughta be the eggheads down here looking for it.” He swings his flashlight around. “Where you at, buddy? Let’s go, little guy, game’s on.”
And that’s when the 12-foot-tall, three-ton Derrick Brown roars out of the shadows.
You open up a YouTube video on your computer. It’s me, speaking into the camera and wearing a “Debbie Downer” t-shirt.
“Look, this point is too complicated to convey via dumb metaphor, so I’m just going to say it,” I say. “Obviously any team with Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson is doing pretty well for itself at running back. But I’m not sure that unit’s as loaded as the consensus seems to believe. Both those top two guys have meaningful injury history, for starters. Johnson took a step forward in 2016 and should have a big year as a receiver under Lindsey, but he needs another step forward to if he’s going to be a difference-maker in Auburn’s biggest games — he averaged 4.2 yards a carry against Power 5 teams last year. (Pettway? 5.5.) You’d expect someone from the list of candidates behind Johnson to emerge as a threat, but Kam Martin’s the only one whose shown flashes during actual competition, and are those anything other than flashes? Is Devan Barrett ready already? Malik Miller? I dunno.
“What I do know is that worrying about an issue this minor — scratch that, a potential issue this minor — tells me how much confidence I’ve got in the rest of this roster. I’d like to think they won’t give Pettway 39 carries against Mississippi State again, and that it’ll matter. And Lord knows I’d expect any running back with a functional set of knees and ankles to be productive behind this particular offensive line, coached by this particular offensive line coach. But for Auburn to beat the teams I want Auburn to beat this season, they may need a back that’s more than ‘productive.’ And if Pettway’s not healthy, I’m not 100% sure they’ve got one.
“The good news: I worried about the state of our running backs last year, too, and one of them rushed for 1,224 yards in 10 games. End transmission.”
The video stops, and you get annoyed with YouTube for making you click to prevent the follow-up clip from playing automatically.
Admiral Ackbar is on stage with Truman, both looking over sheets of paper. He turns to the empty theater.
“Do I really have to do this?” he yells, brandishing the paper.
“Yes,” I say into the microphone at the director’s desk. “Just follow the script, please.”
Ackbar sighs, turns towards Truman. He makes a sweeping gesture in his direction, then looks out over the future audience. “It’s … a trap!” he says, unconvincingly.
A metronome ticks its way across the wee hours on a sleeping man’s nightstand. The pendulum arm has the words “Tre Williams and Deshaun Davis” written along it.
An old woman lifts her glasses with one hand to peer at the jigsaw piece in the other, then leans forward to inspect the nearly-completed puzzle spread across her kitchen table, then gently taps the piece into place.
“Grandma, what jigsaw are you doing?” a pigtailed 8-year-old asks as she bounces into the room.
“The 2016 Auburn Tigers,” she says. “But there’s one piece missing. Could you help your grandmother out and look under the table for me, sweetie?”
“I think I see it,” the granddaughter says, dropping to her hands and knees and crawling forward. “It’s here, right under the center.”
Jarrett Stidham is pulling on his socks in the pregame locker room. We hear voiceover: it’s Gary Danielson.
“Jarrett, it’s Auburn, vs. Alabama, for the SEC West title, for the trip to Atlanta. For more than that. They’re calling this one of the biggest Iron Bowls that’s ever been played. What does it feel like to know you’ll be playing in a game like this?”
Stidham is pulling his shoulder pads and navy blue jersey over his head, adjusting straps, buckling buckles. Danielson’s voice repeats itself, speeds up.
Stidham ties his cleats, pulls on his wristbands, adjusts his belt.
He laughs at a teammate’s comment we don’t hear. He goes over one or two things with a wide receiver, nods.
He bows his head for the pregame prayer. He looks straight ahead as Malzahn begins to deliver his final words before the game. Nessler’s voiceover continues to blur.
“jarrettitsauburnvsalabamaforthesecwesttitleforthetriptoatlantaformorethanthattheyrecallingthisoneofthebiggestironbowlsthatseverbeenplayedwhatdoesitfeelliketoknowyoullbeplayinginagamelikethis jarrettitsauburnvsalabamaforthesecwesttitleforthetriptoatlantaformorethanthattheyrecallingthisoneofthebiggestironbowlsthatseverbeenplayedwhatdoesitfeelliketoknowyoullbeplayinginagamelikethis jarrettitsauburnvsalabamaforthesecwesttitleforthetriptoatlantaformorethanthattheyrecal—-”
Stidham pulls on his helmet and the voiceover stops. Malzahn is done. Silence as Stidham and his teammates march out of the locker room and down the Jordan-Hare tunnel behind Malzahn. Silence as they holler at the ceiling, clap hands, tap the back of each’s other helmets, jump in place. Silence even as the shakers peek over the railings at the end of the tunnel and the green of the field beckons.
Silence until Jarrett Stidham steps through the chemical smoke onto Pat Dye Field for the Iron Bowl, when we hear the loudest noise of his life.
Gus Malzahn is reading the January 2015 Field and Stream in an office waiting room.
“Mr. Malzahn,” a woman’s voice says off-camera, “it’s time.”
Malzahn nods, sets the magazine on the end table beside him, pats his knees, stands up, and walks purposefully past the edge of the screen.