Red, orange and gold leaves swirled in tight circles and the sky was dotted with low-flying water fowl and high-flying footballs on that cool fall Friday evening. Thanks to a dry summer and even drier fall, there was very little turf left on the field, and Gray and his fellow officials toed at the dust and watched it spin high into the wind as they waited for the game to begin.
Gray was more pensive than usual about this game. Since his crew had not been selected to work the upcoming playoffs, this was going to be their last game of the season. That, coupled with the assumption that a blowout was imminent, made it difficult for Gray to get focused.
The home team, North Jefferson, hadn’t won a game in over two years. Their opponent that night was their perennially obnoxious neighbor and defending 2A state champion, South Jefferson. In the last decade and a half, this “rivalry” game had devolved into nothing more than an annual massacre of the beleaguered boys from the less-fortunate northern sections of the county. For most of the ‘70s and ‘80s, North Jeff had been every bit the equal of South Jeff, and this game usually decided the conference championship and frequently eliminated the loser from playoff contention. Fights were fought, bets were won and lost, and hard feelings were hardened even more over this annual contest among young men.
But a succession of misfortunes had crippled the economy and dampened the spirit of the folks in the north. The closing of the appliance factory in nearby Springville, the estate sales of many of the long-time family farms, and the tornado that leveled almost half of Rock River, were the recent major events that convinced many residents to move to larger, more prosperous cities in the state.
The football team suffered most of all, and the once-mighty North Jeff Vikings had become a sad gridiron joke. Being a part of another chapter in this story was not the way Gray and his crew wanted to end their season.
Thirty minutes before kickoff, the South Jefferson fans had already arrived en masse and were filling their half of the small, sad stadium. For many years they had complained about the rickety, splintered set of bleachers on the visiting side, but the North administration had neither the money nor the desire to do anything about them. So the South fans made it an annual ritual to arrive early for this game and encircle the stands with caution tape and post huge homemade signs – clearly visible to the fans on the home side – with slogans like “Condemned,” “Hazard-ass,” and “Danger: Do Not Sit, Climb or Stand Here.” North was powerless to do anything about this affront, since the Jefferson County sheriff and both of his deputies were former standouts at and current staunch supporters of the South Jeff juggernaut.
As head linesmen, Gray would be on that sideline packed tight with players and fans from end zone to end zone all night. While South Jeff fans were legendary for their braggadocios chants and taunts aimed at their opponents’ players and fans, he felt – given how this game would surely transpire – that they would have very little reason to give him a hard time. He was wrong.
As they received the opening kickoff, the much bigger, much faster South Jeff boys mowed down the oncoming Vikings and easily escorted the ball carrier into the end zone untouched. But during the return, Gray saw something he couldn’t let go – a low, hard block by a South Jeff player aimed right at his opponent’s knees – and he tossed his penalty flag high into the air. He reported the infraction to Stan, the referee, and as Stan signaled the penalty, the crowd erupted on Gray. In his five years as an official, Gray had become used to the occasional verbal taunts, complaints and whining from fans and coaches, but nothing could have prepared him for the verbal assault the South Jeff contingent unleashed on him. He couldn’t pick out complete phrases; it was more just an onslaught of individual harsh words and profanity hitting his ears one after the other. Gray did his best to ignore the insults as he took his place on the sideline in front of the South Jeff bench, but he had to launch his flag again when an assistant coach suggested that his call had originated in the intestines of a horse. As he reported the unsportsmanlike conduct foul to Stan, the rest of the crew joined them in the middle of the field.
“Nice job flagging that,” said Mack, the umpire. “They’ll shut their holes now.”
But as Stan signaled the penalty and Mack started marching off another chunk of yardage against South Jeff, the crowd’s wails and howls made the reaction to the first penalty sound like a mild protest.
“Maybe not,” Mack smiled and said as he set the ball down at the five yard line.
Evan, the back judge, also chimed in with a light comment for some moral support. “Hey, I think you brought rain with that flag!”
Gray was legendary – among his crew, anyway – for how high he threw his penalty flag. This wasn’t a conscious attempt on his part, and most of the time he didn’t even realize how high a flag went until someone mentioned it. But Gray surmised it was just a combination of adrenaline and a strong snap of the wrist that sent his flag soaring on the occasions he had to throw one.
Sure enough, Gray noticed that it had begun raining as he took up his post again, and the crowd continued to pound him with a varying degree of slights and slurs even as they were carting the victim of the low block off the field on a stretcher. The assault only diminished when the first meager drops of rain quickly turned into a torrential downpour. As he looked over his shoulder and saw the South crowd getting drenched – some scurrying for what little cover there was – he was glad he had thrown his flag that high.
The field that had been covered in dust only minutes before was already slick with a thin layer of mud by the time South Jeff ran their first play. As their quarterback executed a perfect fake handoff and ran seemingly into the clear around the left end behind a mammoth blocker, they slipped simultaneously, went to the ground with sloppy thuds, and skidded about three yards – with no North players even in the vicinity. A sure touchdown was turned into a one-yard gain by the impenetrable defense known as Mother Nature.
The rest of the first half went much the same way as the condition of the field worsened with every play. The high-powered South Jeff offense was no match for the buckets of wind-whipped rain and the thick, slick mire that the field had become. The Vikings couldn’t move the ball either, but it was really no different for them than any other game. They botched a couple of punts and fumbled several times, like usual, but South Jeff was powerless to take advantage. The South Jeff frustration reached a pinnacle on the last play of the first half when, looking like they were finally going to punch in a touchdown, their star running back fumbled the grimy ball away on the Vikings’ one-yard line.
As Gray and his crew ran off the field into the locker room, they were pelted with still more abuse from the South side that hit them harder than the driving rain, even though they hadn’t thrown a flag since the opening kick.
“I guess they think you really did make it rain with that flag,” Evan joked with Gray.
As rainwater dripped steadily from the brims of their caps and mud oozed from their cleats onto the concrete floor, the crew conversed briefly in the locker room about what to do about the second half. Their knowledge of the rules regarding unplayable conditions once a game was under way was admittedly vague. They decided that they probably did have the power to postpone the game if there was a danger to players, but while conditions were certainly miserable, they determined that the second half should be played.
By the time everyone was on the field for the second half, the rain had diminished to a gentle shower, but the damage was done. The field was pocked with deep divots made by large young men smacking face- and backside-first into the muck, and spotted with small, brown pools of rainwater. Only a few splotchy, white remnants of the field markings were visible.
The South Jeff kicker slipped as he kicked off the second half and created a new crater as he splashed down on his back at the 40 yard line. The ball barely made it over the first line of Viking players and stuck nose down into the mud at a perfect 90 degree angle about five yards into North territory. A maelstrom of players and mud that resembled a pen full of hogs battling for their first breakfast after the apocalypse ensued. Gray and the crew moved in and surrounded the pile of flying mud and bodies, but, well-versed in the golden rule of officiating to never blow your whistle unless you see the ball – no one did. And this ball was going to take a while to find.
Gray, Mack, Stan and Evan all moved into the pile and started trying to pull players back. In the confusion, Gray happened to look up and saw that Dave, the line judge on the opposite side of the field, was slowly backing up and moving away from the pile. He briefly made eye contact with Dave and realized that he knew something that everyone – almost everyone – didn’t know. Gray then followed the direction of Dave’s eyes and saw what appeared to be the ball – or was it just a clump of mud? – sitting in a puddle about 35 feet away from the scrum toward the North bench. The largest Viking on the field, number 77, slowly moved toward it, picked it up, and cleverly wedged it between his right arm and hip to shield it from the pile and from the South Jeff bench, and started walking toward the end zone. As he took his first few steps, only he, Dave, and Gray could see what was going on, but then a few players on the Viking sideline noticed and started whispering to other players and the coaches. Soon everyone on the that sideline, who had all been screaming just seconds before, were now completely silent watching the ball carrier, careful not to divulge the secret with any kind of cheering. A few people in the stands began to notice, and as word spread, the entire Viking contingent went eerily silent.
No one on the chaotic South side noticed as number 77 and Dave walked slowly toward their end zone. Coaches were screaming at their players to find the ball, players were screaming at themselves, “Where is it! Where is it!” and fans were screaming at the officials to “Blow your ‘blanking’ whistle!” A South Jeff player emerged from the pile screaming, “I got it! I got it!” and held aloft a large muddy object. Everyone on the South side started cheering, but as it became evident that the prize was only someone’s size 13 shoe, Dave’s shrill whistle pierced the night and he threw up his arms to signal a touchdown. Number 77 held up the ball in the South Jeff end zone and the North side erupted. Everyone on the South Jeff side went into stunned silence for a few seconds before the fans began their violent, vocal protest.
Gray knew he’d have trouble explaining this one to the South coach, but he walked over and did his best. The ball was never dead; a North player picked it up unseen and walked it into the end zone; touchdown. To Gray’s surprise, the coach didn’t even offer an argument, but only stood silent for a moment and then asked, “Are you sure?” The South fans, however, continued in their vehement disagreement with the ruling, peppering Gray with a wide array of insults. Gray had had enough, so he tossed his flag high into the air and said to the coach, “I’m flagging your fans for unsportsmanlike conduct,” not even sure if he could legally do that. The coach shoved his way through his players and into the crowd that was now pushing their way even closer to the sideline. “Shut up!” he shouted. “Shut the hell up!” Some did; some didn’t; but Gray appreciated the effort.
The Vikings failed on their two-point conversion attempt, but with a 6-0 lead on an almost unplayable field, the undeniable underdogs suddenly had control of the game. With the benefit of the 15-yard penalty, they were able to pin South Jeff deep in their own end on the ensuing kickoff. The conditions thwarted the frustrated South Jeff team on that drive, and continued to do so for the rest of the third quarter. Switching sides for the fourth quarter did nothing to help. The entire second half was played in South Jeff territory. Punting was out of the question for either team, so both sides ran four sloppy, fruitless plays and turned the ball over to the other. That pattern, mixed with a few fumbles, repeated itself several times as the clock gradually wound down. With the ball carriers only able to take slow, choppy, unsure strides before being taken down in sloppy heaps, another score looked almost impossible, and what might be the biggest upset in state high school history was starting to look like a possibility.
The noise and tension on both sides of the field grew as the game wound down. The North side was screaming ecstatically as they sensed a true football miracle was about to occur. The South fans were aghast at the abomination that they were witnessing, while the players’ frustration was boiling over. The South head coach tried to calm them as best he could as he called his team over after their last time out with just 11 seconds to go in the game. Gray stood close to the huddle in order to hear the call so he would be prepared. The play was going to be a reverse toward his side of the field, so he would be sure to stay back on the sideline and not get in the way.
Gray never knew there could be so much noise from just a few hundred people, but the din that erupted as both teams came to the line for the last play was electrifying. Maybe his crew wouldn’t get a playoff game this year, but this was better.
The play developed perfectly for South Jeff. The quarterback pitched the ball to the tailback, who headed around the right side of the line. Most of the Viking defense followed him, and many of them slipped and fell as they tried to stop when they saw the handoff to the split end, number 11, who came trudging toward Grays’ side of the field with the ball. As he turned the corner around his left tackle, the ball carrier had nothing but 76 yards of thick mud and treacherous puddles between himself and a tie game.
He took short, quick and careful steps through the slop and kept his head forward and eyes focused on the end zone. The Viking defenders that were still standing began pursuit when they noticed the trickery, but almost all of them had slipped and fallen by the time number 11 had reached midfield. Only one Viking, number 6, had a chance to catch him, and mud was flying from his cleats in his desperate pursuit. Gray slogged along about ten yards behind the ball carrier along the eroded sideline, and watched as the gallant Viking player slowly gained ground on the ball carrier. Near the North 25 yard line, just as it looked like he was going to catch the runner, number 6 began to lose his footing. He made a desperate lunge, and as his left arm slid down the ball carrier’s back, his right hand briefly grabbed his face mask. By the time Gray lofted his flag for the offense, number 6 had gone face first into the muck and the South Jeff runner continued toward the end zone. The players were leaping and screaming with joy and the fans were unleashing their pent up frustration with excited howls of happiness and relief.
But the cheers quickly turned into a collective gasp, then painful groans as something very large came crashing out of the sky right in front of number 11. With no way to avoid the object, he tripped over it, splashed down at about the 10 yard line, and slid to about the three. There was no time left on the clock as Gray blew his whistle and waved his hands over his head. He stood at the spot where the ball carrier first hit the ground and looked back at the object that had fallen from the sky. There was a large, mangled Canadian goose twisted into the mud.
The North fans were screaming joyfully and the players started pouring onto the field and giving each other muddy hugs. Gray gave his whistle loud, short bursts to signal the crew that he had thrown a flag.
Mack had caught up to the play and was in the middle of the field looking toward Gray. Gray yelled over to him, “Spot the ball!” as he pointed to his feet. Evan retrieved the ball from a disgusted and perplexed number 11 and tossed it to Mack, who then set it down at the 10. The South Jeff coach yelled, “What is it? What’s the call?” as Gray carefully ran to the middle of the field to convene with the crew.
“What do you have?” Stan asked calmly.
“Well, I have a 5-yard facemask on the defense,” Gray explained, “and I have a goose over there that gave its life for a tackle!”
“That was a goose?” Mack asked. “I saw something, but – what the…”
Evan laughed as he blurted, “Gray, you hit it with your flag! There were five or six flying over and you took one out – hit it right in the head and, BAM – it came straight down!”
Everyone laughed except Gray, who merely shook his head and said, “Uh, uh. Couldn’t have.”
“Yes!” confirmed Evan.
“Well, I have seen it all now,” said Mack. “I thought that goat crapping in the end zone during the Cedar Junction game last year was it. But – killing a goose with a penalty flag?”
“Dropped it like a rock!” said Evan, who couldn’t quit laughing. “Gray and his mortar shell flag!”
Even Gray had to laugh.
“Maybe this is a bad time to ask this, Evan,” Stan interjected, “but what were you doing looking up in the air?”
“I fell on my ass! Didn’t you see me?”
Everyone laughed again, but then quickly tried to stifle the mirth when the South Jeff coach started marching toward them screaming, “What is the freaking call, guys?”
Stan held up his hand to halt him and said firmly, “Just a second, coach.”
The North players were still celebrating, but the coaching staff had noticed the flag and was trying to get them back on the sideline.
“Alright, so this game isn’t over,” said Stan, trying to get everyone re-focused. “The ball’s on the 10, so we’re going to assess the penalty and spot it on the five and play one untimed down.”
“We should probably flag North for excessive celebration,” said Dave, sounding like he didn’t really want to do it.
“Well, we’re not going to. They thought the game was over,” said Stan, and he turned to Gray and added, “If the coach gives you any crap about it, I’ll talk to him.”
As Stan signaled the penalty against North, the South side cheered wildly, yet still managed to mock the officiating with various sarcastic shouts like “’Bout time, zebra!” and “Hey, you finally got one right!” aimed at Gray. In contrast, the North fans offered no complaints, only groans of disappointment.
As Gray trotted sloppily back toward his position, he was a little stunned to see the Jefferson County sheriff and one of his deputies standing over and looking down at the expired goose. As Gray approached them, the sheriff said, “It ain’t huntin’ season yet.” Gray laughed at the apparent joke, but ceased immediately when the men raised their heads and sent icy stares right through him. Another deputy walked up to the scene with a large, plastic bag and started to stuff the bird in.
“Nope. Goose season starts tomorrow,” the first deputy said ominously.
“Well…thanks for picking up the bird,” was the only reply Gray could think of. The lawmen eyed Gray as they moved away from the field slowly and silently. Gray felt the six eyes burning on his back as he turned toward the field for the next – and hopefully last – play of the game.
The South Jeff quarterback conferred briefly with his coach, slogged to the huddle and called the play. As both teams approached the line of scrimmage, the din rose. The North fans had recovered from the call that extended the game and were screaming wildly for their boys to hold the line one more time. The South fans countered with even louder urgings for their side to push the ball across the goal line.
The center snapped the ball to the quarterback, perhaps earlier than he expected, because the ball hit his hands and dropped straight to the ground. Both lines smashed into each other with muddy thuds and the quarterback went to one knee, grabbed the ball off the ground, and quickly pitched it back to his tailback. The big runner moved faster than anyone had all game long around the right side of the line away from Gray. The North Jeff defenders went down in heaps from the force of the renewed South Jeff blockers and the tailback scored easily.
At first, only the North Jeff coach noticed Gray running toward the middle of the field and frantically waving his hands over his head, and he was pointing and yelling, “Wait! Wait!” As the South Jeff players celebrated the apparent tying score, Gray’s repeated whistle blasts were finally audible over the cheering, which then died down quickly.
Stan ran up to Gray and asked, “What do you have?”
“The quarterback’s knee was on the ground while he had possession of the ball,” Gray explained. “He was down. I killed the play but nobody heard my whistle.”
The rest of the crew had gathered around Stan and Gray.
“Okay. So you have him down?” Stan confirmed. “Before he pitched it?”
“Okay. He’s down at the six. No touchdown. Game over.”
Everyone nodded in agreement, or at least in moral support of the decision that was sure to unleash hell.
The entire congregation had gone silent in anticipation of the result of the official’s brief summit. Stan wisely decided to call the coaches together on the field to tell them what happened instead of making his announcement to the crowd. The South coach offered no argument; he had seen the same thing Gray had; while the young North coach tried to conceal his excitement for the moment. After the quick meeting, Stan suggested, “Let’s get the hell out of here,” and the crew ran as quickly as conditions would allow toward their locker room. As they were just leaving the field, simultaneous screams of joy and fury erupted as both coaches announced the news to their respective sidelines. The officials quickened their pace to the locker room; stumbling; sliding; hopping their way to the door. They whipped it open and shoved their way in so fast that Gray and Mack slipped on the hard floor and went down.
None of the others had the energy to even laugh at them, but Dave asked, only half-joking, “Does that door lock?” Gray and Mack pulled themselves off the floor and joined the others on the long wooden bench in front of the green metal lockers, and everyone sat in dazed silence for a moment.
Stan confirmed what they were all thinking, “Well, that wasn’t pretty. But we got it right.”
Everyone nodded, and Mack added, “Yep. And I, for one, am glad that’s over.”
Then everyone looked toward the door as the North Jeff athletic director had burst in and said, “It’s not over yet, I’m afraid.”
“Steve. What’s up?” Stan asked.
Steve, the long-time coach of the Vikings in the glory days who was now “semi-retired” and the interim AD, was breathing hard, and had an expression on his face that was part exhilaration and part distress. “The sheriff…and his deputies. They’re looking for you,” he said as he pointed at Gray.
“Me? Why?” Gray laughed, just a little.
“They’re going to arrest you for killing that bird. Goose season starts tomorrow.”
“You mean, like in two more hours?” Mack asked sarcastically.
“Yes! I heard them down on the field. They’re coming this way.”
The crew looked at each other in disbelief for a moment, and then Gray laughed nervously and said, “Come on! They can’t do that. You’re kidding, right?”
“I’m not kidding – and those guys can do pretty much anything they want in this county,” said Steve. “They’re looking for you.”
Stan suggested, “Maybe we’d better just go.”
“Definitely!” Steve said. “Where are you parked?”
“The east lot,” said Mack.
“Grab your stuff and let’s go. We’ll take the shortcut.”
The crew grabbed their street clothes and shoes out of their lockers and stuffed them in their duffle bags, not even bothering to zip them as they threw them over their shoulders.
“Follow me,” said Steve.
“Gladly,” said Mack.
“Yeah, I didn’t bring enough cash for bail money,” Evan said as he elbowed Gray, who could only manage a fake laugh and a smile.
Dave tried to keep things light as well, and added, “Don’t worry. If they start gaining on us, Gray can just chuck that killer flag at them.”
They all laughed, quietly, and Stan said, “Hell, let’s all get our flags ready. We’ll hit them rapid fire!”
They chuckled again as Steve led them out a door on the opposite side from where they had entered the locker room into a long hallway. They took a right turn, then a quick left, occasionally looking over their shoulders, and made their way through a large, dark room that must have been the cafeteria. Steve pointed at a door that had a red “exit” light over it and said, “Right over here.” They went through the door and Mack’s minivan was right in front of them.
“Hey, that was a helluva shortcut,” said Mack as he opened the tailgate. As they threw their gear into the back, he added, “And this, boys, is why I always back into the parking space – to facilitate a quick getaway.”
“I never thought we’d actually need one,” said Gray.
“Yeah, Mack,” said Stan, “we’ll never give you crap about it again. Let’s go.”
“Just keep your heads low,” Steve suggested. “They may be right behind us.”
They waved at Steve and thanked him quietly as they piled in. Mack started the engine, stepped hard on the gas pedal, and pulled the minivan out of the parking lot onto a gravel road. At the end of the road, just as they were turning onto the highway, Mack said “Get down! There they are.” The passengers got below window level and Mack dipped as low as he could, eyes fixed on the rear view mirror. “They just walked out the door we came out of.” He hit the gas, but not too much to draw attention, and carefully looked back over his shoulder. “They don’t see us. We’re home free.”
“Yep. They’re clueless,” added Dave, who had been peeking out the back window the whole time.
“I’ll feel better when we hit that county line – what, about 15 miles?” asked Gray.
“What’s the matter?” said Stan as he slapped Gray on the back, “Don’t want to go to jail tonight?”
“Well, I am dressed for it, I guess,” said Gray, pulling on the collar of his striped shirt. “But – no.” Gray took one last look over his shoulder, and, satisfied that he was not going to jail, turned back around and pondered aloud, “Do you think if this would have happened tomorrow that I would have gotten to keep that goose?”