Friday, September 22, 2017

A chapter from TUSKERS, the sci-fi novel about Nebraska football's winning decade


     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.
     One 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 organizations.
     “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 wife’s ear.
     “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 shrugged.
     “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 association.
     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 defensive coordinator.”
     “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 business.
     “Great,” said Peebles.
     “Hey,” said the Chancellor, “where are you going?”
     “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 beautiful enough.”
     “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 about football.

TUSKERS is available on all e-readers and as a nice paperback from amazon.