Home > Playing for Pizza(15)

Playing for Pizza(15)
Author: John Grisham

They made lengthy, even rambling introductions as the players took turns greeting Rick. Each little intro required at least two insults, often with Franco and Nino tag-teaming against their fellow Italian. Rick was embraced and gripped and fawned over until he was almost embarrassed. He was surprised by the amount of English used. Every Panther was learning the language at some level. Sly and Trey were close by, laughing at him but also reuniting with their old teammates. Both had already vowed that this would be their last year in Italy. Few Americans returned for a third season.

Coach Russo called things to order and welcomed everyone back. His Italian was slow and thoughtful. The players were sprawled on the floor, on benches, in chairs, even in lockers. Though he kept trying not to, Rick couldn't help but flash back. He remembered the locker room at Davenport South High School. It was at least four times larger than the one he was now in. "You understand this?" he whispered to Sly. "Sure," he said with a grin. "Then what's he saying?"

"Says the team was unable to find a decent quarterback in the off-season so we're screwed again."

"Quiet!" Sam yelled at the Americans, and the Italians were amused. If you only knew, thought Rick. He'd once seen a semi famous NFL coach cut a rookie for chatting in a team meeting during camp. Cut him on the spot, almost made him cry. Some of the most memorable tongue-lashings, dog- cussings, verbal bloodlettings Rick had seen in football had happened not in the heat of battle but in the seemingly safe confines of the locker room. "Mi displace" Sly said loudly, causing even more chuckles. Sam continued. "What was that?" Rick whispered. "Means I'm sorry," Sly hissed with his jaws clenched. "Now will you shut up."

Rick had mentioned to Sam earlier that he needed just a few words with the team. When Sam finished his welcoming remarks, he introduced Rick and handled the translation. Rick stood, nodded to his new teammates, and said, "I'm very happy to be here, and looking forward to the season." Sam threw up a hand--halt-- translation. The Italians smiled. "I'd like to clear up one thing." Halt, more Italian. "I've played in the NFL, but not very much, and I have never played in the Super Bowl." Sam frowned and rendered. He would explain later that the Italians take a dim view of modesty and self deprecation. "In fact, I've never started a game as a professional." Another frown, slower Italian, and Rick wondered if Sam wasn't doctoring his little speech. There were no smiles among the Italians. Rick looked at Nino and continued, "Just wanted to clear that up. It is my goal to win my first Super Bowl here in Italy." Sam's voice grew much stronger, and when he finished, the room erupted into applause. Rick sat down and got a bruising bear hug from Franco, who had slightly outmaneuvered Nino as the bodyguard. Sam outlined the practice plan, and the speeches were over. With a rousing cheer, they husded from the locker room and over to the practice field, where they fanned out into a somewhat organized pattern and began stretching. At this point, a thick-necked gentleman with a shaved head and bulging biceps took over. He was Alex Olivetto, a former player, now an assistant coach, and a real Italian. He strutted up and down the lines of players barking orders like an angry field marshal, and there was no back talk. "He's psycho," Sly said when Alex was far away. Rick was at the end of a line, next to Sly and behind Trey, copying the stretches and exercises of his teammates. Alex went from the basics--jumping jacks, push- ups, sit-ups, lunges--to a grueling session of running in place with an occasional drop to the ground, then back up. After fifteen minutes,

Rick was heaving and trying to forget last night's dinner. He glanced to his left and noticed that Nino had worked up a good sweat.

After thirty minutes, Rick was sorely tempted to pull Sam aside and explain a few things. He was the quarterback, you know, and quarterbacks, at the professional level, are not subjected to the same drills and boot camp banalities required of the regular players. But Sam was far away, at the other end of the field. Then Rick realized he was being watched. As the warm-up dragged on, he caught more glances from his teammates, just checking to see if a real pro quarterback could grind it out with them. Was he a member of the team, or a prima donna just passing through? Rick kicked it up a notch to impress them. Usually, wind sprints were put off until the end of practice, but not so with Alex. After forty-five minutes of bruising exercises, the team members gathered at the goal line, and in groups of six sprinted forty yards downfield, where Alex was waiting with a very active whistle and a nasty insult for whoever brought up the rear. Rick ran with the backs. Sly easily raced away, and Franco easily thundered in last. Rick was in the middle, and as he sprinted, he remembered the glory days at Davenport South when he ran wild and scored almost as many touchdowns with his feet as with his arm. The running slowed considerably in college; he was simply not a running quarterback. Running was almost prohibited in the pros; it was an excellent way to get a leg broken. The Italians chattered at each other, offering encouragement as the sprints dragged on. After five they were breathing heavily and Alex was just warming up.

"Can you puke?" Sly asked between breaths.


"Because he runs us until someone pukes."

"Go ahead."

"I wish I could." After ten forties, Rick was asking himself what, exactly, he had been expecting in Parma. His hamstrings were on fire, his calves ached, he was straining and gasping and soaked with sweat, though the temperature was hardly warm. He'd have a talk with Sam and get some things straight. This wasn't high school ball. He was a pro! Nino bolted for the sideline, ripped off his helmet, and delivered. The team yelled its encouragement, and Alex gave three quick bursts on the whistle. After a water break, Sam stepped forward with instructions. He would take the backs and receivers. Nino had the offensive linemen. Alex had the linebackers and defensive linemen.

Trey was in charge of the secondary. They scattered around the field. "This is Fabrizio," Sam said, introducing the rather slim receiver to Rick. "Our wideout, great hands." They acknowledged each other. High-maintenance, high-strung, God's gift to Italian football. Sam had briefed Rick on Fabrizio and suggested that he take it easy on the kid for the first couple of days. There had been no small number of receivers in the NFL who'd had trouble with Rick's bullets, at least in practice. In games, the bullets, though beautiful, had too often sailed high and wide. A few had been caught by fans five rows up. The backup quarterback was a twenty-year-old Italian named Alberto something or other. Rick threw soft sideline routes to one group, Alberto to the other. According to Sam, Alberto preferred to run the ball because he had a rather weak arm. Weak it was, Rick noticed after a couple of passes. He threw like a shot putter, and his passes fluttered through the air like wounded birds. "Was he the backup last year?" Rick asked when Sam got close enough.

"Yes, but didn't play much." Fabrizio was a natural athlete, quick and graceful with soft hands. He worked hard to appear nonchalant, as if anything Rick fired to him was just another easy catch. He big- leagued a few catches, snared them with too much cocky indifference, then committed a sin that would have cost him dearly in the NFL. On a lackadaisical quick-out, he snatched the ball with one hand simply to show off. The pass was on target and did not need a one-arm grab. Rick simmered, but Sam was all over it. "Let it go," he said. "He doesn't know any better." Rick's arm was still slightly sore, and though he was in no hurry to impress anyone, he was tempted to gun one into Fabrizio's chest and watch him drop like a rock. Relax, he said to himself, he's just a kid having fun. Then Sam barked at Fabrizio for running sloppy patterns, and the kid sulked like a baby. More patterns, longer throws, then Sam brought the offense together for a review of the basics. Nino squatted over the ball, and to prevent jammed fingers, Rick suggested they practice a few snaps, slowly. Nino agreed that this was an excellent idea, but when Rick's hands touched his backside, he flinched. Not a radical jerk of the rear, nothing that would cause a referee to flag him for illegal procedure or offside, but a distinguishable tightening of the gluteus maximus much like a schoolkid about to receive licks from a thick wooden paddle. Perhaps it was just a case of new-quarterback jitters, Rick told himself. For the next snap, Nino hovered over the ball, Rick bent slightly forward, eased his hands just under the center's rump, as he had done since junior high school, and upon contact Nino's glutes instinctively tightened again.

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