John scans the cars lined up along the curb while his wife Laura tries to smile. She’s been dreading this all week.
“You look like your dog just died.”
“You know this is torture for me. I’ll try. I promise. It’s just … not my thing.”
“I know. I know you don’t like football.” Her husband takes her hand. “But just keep your eye on the prize. I told you I’d go to Aida at the opera house with you in January. No complaints. It’s a tradeoff.”
“Is the opera really this painful for you?”
John raises an eyebrow. “Are you kidding?”
“Hey, John,” yells the large man in the bright orange sweat shirt emerging from the SUV in front of them. “Should be a great game! Go Bulldogs!”
“No contest, Big Sam! We’re on our way to 8-0,” John yells back.
Sam hefts a third 12-pack of beer out of the backseat. His wife, wearing a denim jumper with a huge bulldog embroidered across the front, comes around the SUV carrying a crockpot.
“Bulldog balls,” Sam laughs, nodding toward the crockpot. “The best meatballs you’ve ever tasted!”
As the couple walks two houses up to the football party, Laura makes no move to get out of the car. She slowly runs a comb through her shoulder-length auburn hair.
She sighs. “I know I keep saying I want us to spend more time together, but I wasn’t thinking about football games when I said that.”
“Be careful what you wish for. Togetherness isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.”
“Okay,” she says, steeling herself. “I’m going to try to enjoy it. Really I am. At least the food at these things is pretty good.”
“Those Bulldog balls sound interesting,” John laughs. “Ready to go? I’ll carry your wine. Why don’t you grab the potato salad.”
“And I’ll get my book.”
John frowns. “Not your book.”
“I have to have something to do, John. It lasts three hours!”
“You read your book last year. It was a real downer. Everybody else is partying and having a good time, and you’re sitting there reading like you want everybody to be quiet.”
“John, it’s so boring. And the people are so loud.”
“Marilu is coming this year. You two always seem to have a lot to talk about.”
“She is? Oh, thank God. She’s the only woman in this group who’s not that into it. All the other women are so rah rah – almost worse than the men.”
“So, the book stays here.” John says with relief, straightening his Bulldog cap.
“Okay. The book stays here.”
A petite woman with short blonde hair wearing green Capri pants and a sparkly orange t-shirt greets them at the door.
“John, welcome! So glad you could make it!” says Amanda. With less enthusiasm she adds, “Oh, hi, Laura. Wasn’t sure if you were coming this year. Didn’t bring another book did you?”
“We’ll turn Laura into a football fan, yet,” says Larry with a warm smile, wrapping an arm around his wife’s shoulder. “Come on in. The game’s about to start.”
Laura looks past the hosts into their large living room with the tall stone fireplace and adjoining dining room. About twenty guests are mingling, drinking beer and nibbling on snacks. All are dressed in some combination of bright orange and green from their shoes to their jewelry to their hats. Laura glances down at her brown pullover and tan slacks. She can never bring herself to dress up like everyone else.
At the dining room table she places the potato salad between two casserole dishes with toothpick signs labeling them “Touchdown Tacos” and “Chicken Wingbacks.” John scribbles “Pile-on Potatoes” on an empty sign and sticks it in the potato salad.
“I don’t think I want to know what that means,” Laura says, as she spots Marilu in the kitchen.
“Marilu – Thank goodness you’re here! How are the kids?”
“Laura! Oh, the kids are fine. But the sitter has to leave early so we can only stay until halftime.”
Lucky you, thinks Laura, wondering how her own eight-year-old twin daughters are doing with their new babysitter.
“Since you’re only here for awhile, want to catch up out on the patio? I have merlot.” Laura grins, displaying the bottle.
“Perfect. The guys won’t even know we’re gone,” Marilu says. “I’ve spent enough time the past month watching men watch football! Let’s grab some food and go.”
Laura signals to John that she is going outside with Marilu. He waves and settles into the spot on the sectional couch closest to the big screen TV.
On the other side of the TV, Big Sam balances a beer and a full plate of nachos in one hand while tugging a leather armchair into prime position with the other.
“Won’t miss a play here,” he says with a huge grin, looking like he’s just entered the gates of heaven.
He turns to the room and roars, “Are you ready for some football?!”
An hour and a half later, the sliding glass door to the patio slides open and John steps out.
“You two look pretty comfortable.” The women are stretched out on lounge chairs, sipping wine.
Laura looks up and laughs. “I think we’ve solved most of the world’s problems, don’t you, Marilu?”
“Just about – except maybe what they did to ruin those meatballs!” Marilu grimaces. “They’re awful. Too much salt.”
“How’s the game?” Laura asks John.
“Tied 10-10. It’s halftime.”
“Halftime already?” Marilu stands up. “I better get going.” They chat a few more minutes, and Marilu says her goodbyes.
“You two really put away some wine,” John says, holding up the oversized bottle, as they go back into the house.
“Just enough for one more glass.” Laura giggles, filling her wine glass. “Since it’s halftime, let’s go watch the band. That’s the only part I like.”
“Go ahead. I’m going to get something to eat.”
Across the room, Big Sam gets up from his armchair and heads for the beer cooler to restock. Seeing the empty chair, Laura goes over and sits down.
She remembers the balding, middle-aged man in the chair next to her from last year’s party. He’s Larry’s out-of-town friend, Don. Everyone calls him Don Corleone. It seems like they all have nicknames.
“Why isn’t the band on?” she asks. “Did you change the channel?”
“The band?” Don asks dismissively. “They don’t show the band. They always show the sports update. Gotta find out what’s happening at the other games.”
“Oh, it’s such a shame they don’t show the band. Those kids work so hard. They practice every bit as hard as the football players.”
“You gotta be kiddin’.”
“No, I’m not kidding.”
Don glances at the TV screen. “Jeez, I missed the score of the Nebraska game.”
A commercial comes on and Don gulps his beer. John takes his seat back on the couch, munching on a sandwich.
“Well,” says Don, “THE BAND does not bring in over $4 million a game to the school.”
“What are you talking about?’ Laura asks.
“TV revenue, ticket sales, sponsors – does your precious band bring in that kind of money?”
“I had no idea.” Laura considers the information for a moment. “How much of that goes to academics?”
“Academics? None of it. It all goes back into the athletic fund, where it should go.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. Tuition keeps going up. Professors are being let go. Most of it should go into the academic programs.”
The commercials end and the football players line up for the kickoff to begin the second half.
“Game’s back on!” Big Sam cries out, coming into the living room with a plate piled high with chicken wings. He’s holding two beers in the other hand.
His jaw drops and he comes to a dead halt when he sees Laura sitting in his chair.
“What the …” He looks around not sure what to do. He takes a step forward as if to say something, but then retreats to stand behind the couch, mumbling under his breath.
Laura doesn’t notice and takes another sip of wine. A chorus of “Goooooooooooooo Bulldogs” goes up around the room at the kick off of the second half.
She asks Don, “Well, wouldn’t you want some of the money to go into your academic area? What did you major in?”
“I, uh, didn’t go here,” he says, reddening. “Went to community college for a year down state.”
“You didn’t go here? Then why do you care so much? I went here and I don’t care.”
“Yeah, well, maybe they should revoke your diploma.”
“They don’t revoke ….”
“YEAHHHHHHHH!!!” The room erupts in pandemonium and all arms are stretched to the ceiling as the sportscaster announces a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a school record.
“Damn, I missed it,” hisses Don. “All this blabbering about academics.”
“They’ll replay it in a minute so you can see it,” Laura offers.
“I KNOW they’ll replay it. It’s not the same,” Don says, crunching his empty beer can in his fist.
Laura decides to stop talking to Don and settles back in the armchair. She curls her legs up under her and takes another drink of wine. She’s feeling a nice, warm glow and doesn’t even mind watching the game.
A few minutes later, a Bulldog defensive player sacks the Tigers quarterback in a savage tackle, causing the quarterback to fumble. Several players jump into the fight for the loose ball.
“Bam!” “In your face!!” The yells come from around the room.
“Oh my God,” cries Laura. “That was totally unnecessary. Somebody’s going to really get hurt. They’re only students for heaven’s sake! They could be injured for life.”
“Awww. Did the poor little quarterback get himself hurt?” says a male voice.
“Hopefully that’ll put him out of the game,” says another.
“Those Bulldog players are mean … and so are their fans!” Laura retorts.
“Damn right we’re mean. That’s why we’re so good!”
A few people laugh. “Good one, Don Corleone!”
Amanda tries to make her guest feel better. “Don’t worry, Laura. The players are in great shape. And they wear a lot of padding. They can take it.”
As the uniforms slowly lift from the pile, the Bulldog player who sacked the quarterback clutches the ball. Before standing up, he moves the ball a foot closer to his goal line. The referee picks up the ball and moves it back.
“Oh my God! Not only is he mean, he’s trying to cheat!” Laura exclaims.
“They all do that,” Amanda instructs. “It’s just part of the game.”
“Well, I don’t know how you can cheer for players who are so mean and cheat.”
“Yeah, like the Tigers are a bunch of boy scouts,” Don says sarcastically.
“Well, they have to be better than the Bulldogs,” Laura responds, adding, “I’m going to cheer for the other team.”
She’s met with several surprised glances from around the room.
“You’re what?” asks Big Sam from his position behind the couch.
“You heard me” she says, raising her wine glass. “The Bulldogs suck.”
The room goes quiet. John winces. He stands up and goes over to whisper in his wife’s ear.
“Honey, how about if I run out to the car and get your book?”
She waves him off. “No, no. I’m into it. Go Lions!”
“Whatever. Not Bulldogs.”
He tries to take the wine glass out of her hand.
“Let me get you some coffee.”
She tightens her grip on the glass. “No, no. I’m good. Can you move out of the way, honey. I can’t see the game.”
John gives up and starts back to his place on the couch, but Big Sam has taken his spot. Sam shrugs his shoulders and gives him a guilt-free smirk that says, “You married her.”
John looks around the room but, seeing no empty seats, sits on the floor next to his wife. She seems entranced with the game.
Eight plays later, the Tigers score to tie the game.
“Yes!!!!!!” Laura screams. She jumps up from the chair and does a little dance.
All eyes glare at Laura. Oblivious, she puts her hand up to high five her husband.
He catches her arm and gently lowers it. “Let’s just calm down, Laura.” He turns sheepishly and mouths “Sorry” to the rest of the room.
“You know, football is kind of fun,” Laura says. “I’m actually starting to like it.”
“Lucky us,” deadpans Don. “I need another beer.” Four men follow him to the cooler.
The fourth quarter begins with the Tigers making a field goal to lead 20-17. Laura screams and cheers, while everyone else tries to ignore her.
The Bulldogs struggle the rest of the quarter until, with one minute left, they march down the field to the 30-yard line. But three incomplete passes later, it’s fourth down.
As the Bulldogs break their huddle, the living room goes quiet. The game is on the line. The quarterback avoids two tackles and throws a Hail Mary pass into the waiting arms of a Bulldog receiver near the sideline.
“IT’S GOOD!!!!!!” the fans shout, jumping up and down and high fiving everyone in arm’s reach.
“Oh, no!” Laura says emphatically. “His foot was outside the line.”
She jumps out of the chair and points her finger at a spot on the screen. “His foot was right there. Definitely out!”
“That’s not where he landed. You’re nuts!” Don screams at her. “Get outta the way. I can’t see the replay.”
John turns and looks Don in the eye. “Hey, calm down. It’s just a game.”
“Just a game! You’re as crazy as that loony wife of yours.”
The referee comes back on screen and crosses his arms in front of him. “Incomplete pass. The receiver’s foot was out of bounds. Ball Tigers.”
“NOOOOOOO!!!” everyone screams, realizing that with less than a minute to play, the game is over. Disgusted, some people are already heading for the door.
Laura says softly to no one in particular, “I told you he was out of bounds.”
Red-faced, Don points an accusing finger at her.
“It’s your fault! You’re bad luck! You jinxed us.” He grabs his jacket and storms out the door.
Laura is stunned. “My fault? He thinks I’m the reason they lost the game? What’s wrong with him?”
“Don’t worry about it.” John sighs. “He’s just upset because we lost. We all are.”
They look at Big Sam who is still on the couch, head down, weeping into his hands.
“I can’t believe he’s crying,” Laura whispers to John. “I’ve never seen a man cry like that outside of a funeral.”
“Men take their football seriously, honey.”
“A little too seriously if you ask me.”
John and Laura gather their belongings and head for the door where Amanda and Larry are standing, bidding their guests goodbye. When Laura approaches, Amanda crosses her arms in front of her.
“Well, Laura, I hope you’re happy.”
“It’s not my fault they lost,” Laura says defensively.
Amanda shakes her head. “I didn’t mean that. I meant I hope you’re happy your team won.”
“Well … kind of. Thanks for everything, Amanda.”
“Sure. It’s been real – again.”
John takes Laura by the shoulders and aims her out the door. “Thanks, Amanda, Larry,” he says. “Great party. Can’t win ’em all.”
“Glad you could come, John,” Larry says, shaking hands. “Don’t know if we’ll be doing the party next year.”
“I understand. Thanks again!”
Laura and John walk in silence to the car. When they get into their seats, John finally turns to her.
“You couldn’t just relax and enjoy the food, could you?”
“The Bulldog balls were lousy.”
“You know I’m not going to the opera, right?”