On the same Saturday game day morning that
Jack Alexander’s alarm awakened him with band music, Arly Hockrood’s fake video
Sooners sang the praises of their campus artists and scientists, and Nancy lay
beside the snoring George and listened to the sound of Chuck’s tuba inside her
head, an alarm also went off in the bedroom of Sam Bangham and his wife Dolores.
But instead of a cheerleader, or trumpets, or University of Oklahoma
academicians, Sam’s alarm showed a calm, dignified, grandfatherly gentleman who
radiated warmth, even over the television screen.
“Think, Sam, think,” said this man quietly.
And Sam Bangham lay there for an hour, listening to Dolores breathe, and
thought about every possible offensive play a football team could run. Then he
thought about all the plays he’d ever seen run on video, all the history books
he’d ever read and all the plays described in them, then about the same vast
number of plays but run with all the different players he’d known in the past
thirty years. Sam Bangham was the Tuskers’ defensive backfield coach. Today’s
game was his last on the home field; he was retiring after the bowl game. But
the Tuskers needed to win this last one against the University
of Oklahoma. And a rumor was out to the effect that the Sooners had come up
with an ultimate weapon: a quarterback who could throw passes with either hand.
Sam hated the thought of playing the
obnoxious and creative Sooners. The Tuskers were between a rock and a hard
place, and had been for several years, ever since they’d won their third
national championship in a row. If they won the conference title, they got to
go to the Orange Bowl. But Miami in January
wasn’t the fun it used to be when Nebraska
winters were cold and bitter. Now, New Years night in Miami was so hot and
humid, the Big Eight had agreed to consider a flag game so the players wouldn’t
have to wear helmets and shoulder pads. Sam wasn’t sure he wanted to play flag
football in a major bowl.
Sam Bangham agreed with the general philosophy
that it was better to play than not to, but the flag techniques were unfair and
largely indefensible. He hoped the NCAA would act on a proposition to keep flag
creativity out of real college football. But in the meantime, his job was to
hold the explosive Sooners to less than fifty points. He felt confident the
Tuskers’ offense could score at least sixty. If his assessment was correct, Nebraska should win, and
the Winning Decade would go into the record books as a feat never before, and
never likely again to be, accomplished.
Sam had worked out his defensive schemes
based on the assumption that while the entire OU backfield could, and did,
throw everything from tracer bullets to intercontinental missiles, they only
threw with one hand. He didn’t have enough time to work out plans based on an
ambidextrous quarterback. Furthermore they couldn’t practice a defense against
one, because the Tusker scout squad had no such weapon. But by the end of the
week, before the big game, Sam was beginning to see in the videos the kind of
subtle hand movements that had led the brilliant Arly Hockrood to ask, at
Monday’s Quarterback Lunch, a most embarrassing question:
“What are you guys going to do if their
quarterback can pass with either hand?”
The head coach had responded not only with
tact, but also with caution.
“We’ve studied the videos and think
there’s only a small chance Finney can throw left handed. But we’ve been
working on that possibility.”
Then he looked over at Sam and smiled. The
kindly visage, the smile, posture, tone of voice, reassured the Monday
Quarterback Lunch audience. Confidence flooded the room, except for three
chairs that remained high and dry. Arly Hockrood sat in one; his skepticism
kept him safe. Jack Alexander occupied another; ignorance and fear kept his
nose above the confidence level. Jack thought, if Finney might be able to throw
with either hand, why not Tillard, McIlheny and Sanders, the rest of the OU
backfield? He shuddered; it was such a stupid question he would never have
asked it in front of all these people; yet the specter of four ambidextrous
passers in the Oklahoma
backfield filled him with terror. The third person immune to the confidence was
Sam Bangham. He knew his coach was lying. Nobody on the staff had even imagined
the Sooners might be two-handed.
Sam lingered in bed longer than usual for
a game day. He reviewed his entire life, his playing days, coaching career,
marriage, and the disappointing fact that their son and daughter-in-law had not
drawn a child permit. Thus Sam and Dolores were the last of their genetic line.
Of course the social changes that had taken place in the past thirty years made
the Bangham’s lack of a grandchild somewhat easier to accept. But looking back,
Sam didn’t see the kind of life he’d thought he’d have, when he was a young
man, peering into his future.
As a linebacker at the University of Nebraska,
Bangham had earned the nickname “Slam” for his clean but devastating hits on
opposing runners. He’d been big enough to move up into the line, fast enough to
fake a blitz then drop into pass coverage. Sam and Dolores had met during their
sophomore years at NU. He was drafted in the tenth round by the Chicago Bears. “Slam”
Bangham turned out to be one of those diamonds in the rough, a true nugget that
once in a while surfaces in professional football. He made the Pro Bowl each of
his first three years at Chicago. Then a crushed pelvis ended his days on the
field. He still walked with a pronounced limp.
Sam had coached in high school before
being called upon to help his alma mater, the ailing Cornhuskers. The University of Nebraska experienced a long string of
losing seasons, and the coach, whose name is mercifully relegated to the
obscurity of a Tusker Trivia card, had been fired. He was only the latest
victim in a long series of men who’d tried to fill the legendary shoes of the
almost god-like duo that guided NU to the top of the college football heap
during the last part of the 20th Century. Each of the would-be
successors came to the job confident and rather innocent; each left a loser. The
Cornhuskers routinely went 7-4, 6-5, for nearly twenty years. When the Huskers
were not invited to a bowl game, it was the first such ignominious event an
entire generation of Nebraskans could remember. Very old people sat around and
talked about the 1950s, but young businessmen scoffed at the talk. They’d heard
about the Great Depression, too. Suddenly all the talk became real.
coach who was hired before Christmas was fired before spring practice. The
belligerent fans thought the new recruits were of low quality, and the fans
turned out to be right. “If he doesn’t have to get ready for a bowl game, at
least he ought to have the time to get out there and recruit!” went the local
logic. One lighting-footed running back from Omaha signed with the Kansas State Wildcats. A
year later as a freshman, the kid shredded the NU defense for 352 yards
rushing, including two 80- yard punt returns, in a 56-3 romp.
The psychological climate began to
deteriorate. A faculty sociologist commented, in a learned journal, on the
history of Nebraskans’ will to be mediocre. In the subsequent rounds of
editorials, public pulse letters, and radio call-in shows, the citizens,
starving for a winner, or at least someone who wanted to be a winner even if he
was a loser, bashed one another unmercifully.
It was into this atmosphere, heavy with
scorn, hostility, aggressiveness, anger, and self-flagellation, that Sam “Slam”
Bangham was called by a man named Billy Boy Peebles, a man whose fame was
destined to eclipse even that of the most hallowed pair of coaches in Nebraska history. At the
time, the Regents had not only fired the coach, but they’d also swept the
entire football program clean from the top right on down—Athletic Director to
the student tutors. The Chancellor at the time, Elmer Steinacher, former
agronomy professor and long-time football fan, went immediately to the alumni
office and asked for a printout of all former players who were heads of large
corporations. As a bright kid in school, he’d read all of Lee Iacocca’s books
and thought he’d discovered the key to victory: find a successful corporate
executive. If you could run a business, he reasoned, you could coach football,
especially if you were given lots of money and freedom.
Unfortunately the short printout revealed
no latter day Iacocca-type tycoons. In his frustration, Steinacher succumbed to
what is now known in psychiatric medicine as the “Iacocca syndrome.” The Chancellor appointed himself Athletic
Director. This act, of course, put him on the lecture circuit among alumni
“We’re going to solve this football
problem or die trying!” said Steinacher to an alumni association party in Grand
Island. “We’re going to get the Huskers back in the Orange Bowl!” There were about a dozen people at this
party, including an ancient couple celebrating their seventieth wedding
anniversary. This old couple sipped on their corn slime prune juice, looked at
one another, then over at the large table heaped with uneaten corn slime
crackers and corn slime cheeses and undrunk bottles of corn slime Chablis.
“What’d he say?” yelled the man into his
“He said we’re gonna die before the
Huskers get back in the Orange Bowl!” she shouted back, causing him to begin
hyperventilating. His biggest disappointment in life was that none of his
children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren were fighting over his football
tickets the way he remembered doing as a boy. This product of The Good Life
dreaded dying and not being remembered as the man who left his family a pair of
Cornhusker football tickets.
“Well you tell that son of a bitch he
ought to hire Billy Boy Peebles!” he screamed back at his shaking wife. “Billy
Boy Peebles is the only smart kid ever played for those goddamn losers! Tell that son of a bitch to get a smart
coach! Tell that son of a bitch to bring
in Billy Peebles!”
“I think he heard you,” she answered.
“Who’s Billy Peebles?” Steinacher asked
the president of the alumni association.
“I don’t know,” replied the president,
irritated because he was the Husker All-Sports Trivia champion of all time and
should have known. “But I can find out.”
He pulled out his pocket computer and called up the association files. “Billy
Boy Peebles was a third string offensive guard walk on about fifteen years
ago,” said the president after watching the little screen for a few seconds.
“What’s he doing now?”
“Best I can tell he’s designing computer
viruses to use as vectors for cloning computer genes so they can be inserted
into computer bacteria. He owns his own company.”
“He’s an engineer.” Steinacher worshipped engineers.
The president of the alumni association
“What’s he worth?”
With a few more commands, the president got into the
association’s financial records.
“Peebles’ net worth is about three and a
half billion dollars.”
“I want to see that man tomorrow morning!”
The president of the alumni association
called Billy Peebles first thing the next morning.
“Chancellor Steinacher is looking for a
Lee Iacocca to save the Cornhuskers,” he said.
Peebles answered with a long laugh.
“Chancellor Steinacher wonders if you’d be
willing to come to town and at least give him some advice.”
“When?” asked Billy Boy, almost curious. He’d
made so much money in the computer virus business that he was bored, but he
remembered football players and coaches as monumental bores. All they ever
talked about was football. At least that’s how he remembered them.
“Now,” replied the president of the alumni
Why not? thought Peebles. He was rich,
right in the middle of his mid-life crisis, and a widower as a result of a
tragic accident, with no children, or for that matter, no child permit. He
didn’t know what to do because everything he tried he did well, except play
offensive line. Although he didn’t know how low the Cornhuskers had sunk, and
didn’t much care, he looked around his office and said to himself, yeah, why
not? He was the sole employee of his company and all he provided his clients
was a silicone card about an inch long and a quarter of an inch wide.
Basically Peebles’ business consisted of
buying these card for $2 each, writing his viruses on them, and mailing them to
his clients. His office contained a computer terminal, a box of cards, and a
box of envelopes. Peebles worked about one hour a day. The rest of the time he
spent looking out a gigantic picture window at the birds around his private
lake and reading good books or listening to classical music. What the hell, he
said again to himself, maybe I’ll meet some interesting people.
Billy Boy Peebles locked up his office,
drove to the airport, and chartered a small plane. An hour later, as the plane
banked for a landing, Billy Boy gazed down over the vast fields of slime corn,
the herd of elephants, and the State Capitol of Nebraska standing like a
gargantuan erect penis with its metaphorical statue, The Sower, casting its
symbolic seeds into the prairie wind.
The scene brought back a flood of truly
miserable memories. He’d hated sitting on the bench through thirty straight
games without a victory. He’d hated practicing in the hot weather. Most of all
he’d hated having been born so big he’d felt obligated to play football. He
felt sorry for the baby mammoth romping around happily in the pasture below. He
felt sorry for all big smart animals locked into stereotyped life roles that
they couldn’t get out of. Suddenly as the wheels touched the runway, Billy Boy
Peebles made up his mind. He’d be the coach of the Cornhuskers, he decided, and
we’ll win with brains. This is going to be the most intelligent football team
in the history of the game.
But it wasn’t a very
rewarding experience to be a smart football player if you were also a loser,
Billy knew well from his own career. So when Chancellor Steinacher and the
president of the alumni association met him at the gate, Billy Boy loosened his
tie and said
“Gentlemen, you have yourselves a coach. Now,
locate Slammin’ Sammy Bangham and pay whatever it takes to get him here as
“Yes, sir!” said Steinacher and the
president in unison. Then the Chancellor added “but Mr. Peebles, we haven’t
even talked salary.”
“I don’t need a salary,” said Billy Boy,
“but I do need an office in addition to my football office. I need a secretary,
a computer, two hours a day free from coaching, in a very private place,
isolated, with a big window that looks out over beautiful scenery.”
“We got just the place!” said Steinacher. “The
top floor of the biotech building. In fact, you can have the whole
building.” Corn slime had been a hard
act to follow and one by one the biotech scientists had wandered off into
“Great,” said Peebles.
“Hey,” said the Chancellor, “where are you
“Back to get my stuff,” replied Billy Boy.
By “stuff” he meant his virus cards, envelopes, and mailing lists.
“Don’t you want to meet the team?”
“No. I’ll be back on Monday. Just have
Slammin’ Sammy here by then.” He paused
out on the runway as his chartered plane engines whined, and called back to
Steinacher. “If Sam Bangham’s not here on Monday, then I resign.”
As the jet screamed off into the western
sky, the president of the alumni association said “I hope his office view is
“Should be,” said Steinacher, “it looks
out over the mammoth pasture.”
And an hour later, the telephone began to
call for Sam “Slam” Bangham.
All these events happened years ago. Beside
him in bed, Dolores stirred. Her hand sought his. Sam Bangham, now the most
successful defensive coordinator in the history of the game, on the morning of
his last appearance before a home crowd, where they faced the unpredictable
Sooners in the Game of the Winning Decade, smiled, closed his eyes, and thought
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