Not long after Principal Shaye’s accident, the locker room of the Springwood Bulldogs varsity football team sat quiet. The entire team was taping up, lacing up and getting ready, but nobody said a word. The tension was so thick it could have been cut with a knife. Every player knew what was at stake in the next couple of hours. They didn’t need a pep talk at all, and Coach Reynolds and his staff knew it. The murals painted in gold and silver on the walls said it all. On one side, it said “Play Like A Champion Today” a la Notre Dame, and on the other side, in the infamous words of football legend Vince Lombardi, “The Harder You Work, The Harder It Is To Surrender.”

Mike sat in front of his locker, shirtless and tightening his pads. He reached back into his locker and applied some black anti-glare under his eyes, while Quinton was nearby tying his cleats. The tall, lanky wide receiver then began to tape his wrists with white athletic tape when he glanced over at Luke Swanson’s locker. His jersey, kelly green with the number 44 etched in white, hung with care in the center. A roll of tape sat unused on each side of it, with a bottle of Gatorade and some talcum powder on the right. Quinton didn’t say anything. He just looked up at Mike, and although they both knew what the other was thinking, neither one opened their mouth. They heard some players ask about Luke as they came in earlier, but Coach Reynolds told them he was sick in the hospital with a viral infection. Yeah right, they thought.

So Swanson’s locker sat dormant, and nobody mentioned him again as Coach Reynolds and his staff made their way toward the center of the room. Almost immediately, all the wrapping of tape, adjusting of pads, and tying of shoes ceased. This was Coach Reynolds’ team. They were his warriors, and it was time to go to war.

“Listen up fellahs,” Coach Reynolds stated. “I’m not going to stand here and sugar coat some fancy Disney story for you. That’s a waste of my time and yours. You guys know what’s at stake tonight, and you don’t need me up here fucking with your emotions. All I can say is that ever since two-a-days, you guys have been my family. I’ve poured every ounce of energy I had into you men, and I’d do it all over again in a second if I had to. So when you go out there tonight in front of your family and friends, remember that you’re not only representing Springwood, but you’re representing me, Paul Reynolds. Now let’s bring it in.”

And on that, the group of grid-iron grinders huddled together in the middle of the room, each surprised at Coach Reynolds’ outpouring of emotion. Mike and Quinton both pulled their jerseys over their shoulder pads and joined them. Then, with their hands extended high in the air, Coach Reynolds shouted, “What are we gonna do tonight?” The team collectively yelled back, “Win!” Coach continued with another shout, “Who’s the enemy tonight?” The team responded, “Collins!” Coach asked, “Who?” and the team yelled back even louder, “COLLINS!” Then Coach Reynolds delivered his final address. “Alright, men, let’s go out there and win this one for Swanson, for me, but most importantly, go out there and win it for yourselves. Win on three, ready?” And then the team banded together that instant, yelling “1, 2, 3, WIN!” like they never had before, then started marching out toward the exit tunnel. Mike and Quinton, the team captains, lagged behind. Those two had to get to the front of the pack before the team could take the field, but they weren’t anywhere near ready. The whole Swanson/Apryl/Krueger dilemma had their heads all screwed up, but at the same time, they realized what this night meant for everyone, and knew they couldn’t fail. Mike, wearing his gold cross necklace underneath his jersey, tapped Swanson’s jersey as he passed toward the exit. Quinton did the same, and before long, they caught up with Coach Reynolds and the rest of the team, who were now hopping up and down in excitement.

A moment later, Mike and Quinton charged out onto the field, sending the large crowd into an uproar. The rest of the team followed close behind as they trampled a large paper sign that said “Stomp Collins” in bright green tempera paint. At the same time, the Springwood High band started to play the school’s fight song and the cheerleaders, eager to get the excitement going, sprinted down the sidelines, waiving their pom-poms with jubilation while carrying two big green-and-white flags emblazoned with the school’s logo. The team got into a huddle and got fired up, barely noticing the Collins Mustangs emerging on the far side. Donned in their white jerseys with navy blue trim and helmets, the Mustangs trotted together very businesslike to the opposing sideline like an invading army entering hostile territory.

Back on the Springwood side, Mike and Quinton threw the ball back and forth while the rest of the team loosened up, jogging in place and stretching. Mike turned around and winked at Lexi, who gawked back at him. He couldn’t help but think how hot she and most of the other cheerleaders looked in their shiny green and white outfits. They were tight, white, and short, just how the average guy would like them. Lexi grinned from ear-to-ear when she saw Mike come out of the tunnel, knowing this night would be her escape from all her problems. With glitter sprinkled across her pretty face and her hair in a ponytail, Lexi beat her pom-poms together and raised her arms high in the air, ready to perform to the best of her ability. It wasn’t too long before Quinton spotted Tash in the stands, and she waived cheerfully as Quinton pointed at her.

As the warm-ups commenced, the public address announcer introduced the starting lineups for both sides. When Quinton was announced as the starting wide receiver, all the fans starting yelling “Q” as if he had some cult following. When Mike was announced as the starting quarterback, a loud chorus of high-pitched girls screamed their lungs out, and Lexi just smiled.

Everything seemed so perfect. With the exception of Luke and Apryl, and Principal Shaye’s accident (which they wouldn’t hear about until the next day), everything seemed to be a typical Friday night of football. The temperature was about 50 degrees, the skies were clear, and the stands were packed. The players could smell the food emanating from the concession stands, and the marching band certainly helped make the place loud. The feeling in the crowd was that tonight was finally going to be the night for Springwood. After all the sadness and adversity the town had to endure over the years, this one night alone would help bring them out of it. The parents, Mike’s and Quinton’s included, could feel the change coming as they impatiently awaited kickoff.

Both teams ceremonially lined up on their sidelines as the band performed the national anthem. An American flag waved proudly just outside the far end zone, and light winds blew it just enough to stand out in the dark night sky. Once the anthem concluded and the alma mater was played, the referees jogged down to the 50-yard line for the coin toss. Mike and Quinton took off their helmets and sprinted out there to represent the team. Collins’ two captains were out there as well, and it was Mike’s call. “Heads,” he said. In what seemed like an eternity, the coin landed on tails initially, then at the last second, flipped back over to heads. The referee then announced to the crowd, “It is heads. Springwood has won the toss and has elected to receive. Collins will defend the north goal, and Springwood will defend the south goal.”

Mike and Quinton then shook hands with the Collins captains and sprinted back toward the sideline with their arms raised in the air. “Time to go to work,” Mike told him. “It’s on, motherfucker!” Quinton fired back joyously as he put stick-em on his receiver’s gloves and pounded them together. The crowd then got into a frenzy as the referee blew his whistle to start the play clock. Collins got into their formation to kickoff, and Springwood sent out their return team, led by Quinton, who stood one yard deep in the end zone.

A moment later, the entire Collins formation took off in motion, led by the placekicker, who boomed the ball deep down the field toward Quinton, who anxiously waited to receive it.

After all they had been through, it was now time to put up or shut up. All the hoopla and all the bullshit was now over. The big game was finally underway.

Proceed To Chapter 14
Back To The Lair Of Horror