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Original Issue

Friday Night Plight

High school football giveth, and taketh away, sometimes all too suddenly

WE OFTEN playcatch with a football in our yard, Zack and I. Well, the yard is too small, sowe play on our driveway, and a bad throw means the ball will hit the blacktopand be gouged. But recently this old high school quarterback hasn't been ableto sling a ball the kid couldn't catch or at least stop. At 17 he's a wiry6'4", with a 6'7" wingspan, hands like pie tins. And he can sky. Injunior high he finished fifth in Illinois in the high jump. He's fast, too—hadthe fastest 300-yard shuttle time on the football team this summer—and agile.He started on the sophomore basketball team, still owns club swimming records,was a terrific diver and has thrown a baseball 260 feet. Last spring he madeall-conference in lacrosse.

But football issomething he loves with a passion, and, after playing cornerback, safety andquarterback, this was going to be his bust-out senior season as a varsity widereceiver, the position he was meant to play. I called him "White RandyMoss" when I threw to him. "Dad, I can't wait to score atouchdown," he'd say. "I can't wait."

All winter helifted weights, and all summer he worked with the team, honing routes, catchingpass after pass from strong-armed junior quarterback Tommy Rees, snaring ballsthat were nearly silent as they nestled in his hands. The season opener wasapproaching, and the excitement was building in Lake Forest. Never before hadour high school team played at home under lights. But after more than a year offund-raising by the sports moms and the booster group, the lights had beeninstalled and the switch would be thrown on Friday at 7 p.m.

Then on Monday,while running sprints at practice, Zack went down. The kids running next to himthought he'd had a heart attack. It was his right knee. The MRI wasinconclusive, but the leg was locked in a slight bend as if it were welded thatway. I had ridden my bike over to practice earlier that day, sitting far up inthe empty stands, out of sight, as I like to do. I had left when the sprintsstarted. Boring stuff, and I had a long way to ride. But when I got home, Zackwas already there, on crutches, a haunted look in his eyes.

The surgery cameon Thursday, and Ed Hamming, the orthopedic surgeon and a family friend, saidit went well. Zack's torn and buckled meniscus was sewn back together, a smallpart was removed, and now, in a straight-leg brace, he would begin to heal. Howlong? A couple months or so. The football season would be over.

Just thatmorning, Aug. 28, a full-page article had appeared in the suburban paper with aphoto of Zack catching a ball in practice under the headline: TELANDER WILL BETOP TARGET IN LF'S PASSING GAME. The writer had mentioned that I used to playball, and had asked Zack if his dad had given him any advice. Zack answered,"He said there is nothing better than high school football or high schoolsports, and that one should never take any moment on the field forgranted."

On Friday morningZack and I went to a pancake restaurant. Zack sat in the backseat of the car,barely fitting from door to door. "Dad," he said, "is my knee goingto be O.K.?"

I assured him itwas. What dad wouldn't? He had taken a shower—that was an effort—and theSteri-Strips on his knee had fallen off the three single-sutured holes,revealing the inked word Yes on his kneecap, written by a nurse so the doctorwould know which leg to cut.

After a time hesaid, "I think I had a life experience a couple years ago when I saw thismovie called Outside Providence. Have you seen it? It's kind of a kid'smovie."

I told him Ihadn't.

"The narratoris this guy who says, 'My younger brother Jackie had an accident when he was akid. We were playing touch football, and he fell off the roof.'" Zacklaughed at that, and so did I. "But the brother doesn't cut Jackie anyslack. No pity. He's in a wheelchair, but his brother's always yelling at him,'Come on Jackie, hurry up! We're gonna be late!' Feeling sorry for somebodyonly makes them feel worse."

"You'reright, bud. That is so true."

There are manytragic things in life. What is a missed season? A wounded limb? A chance lost?I told myself those things were inconsequential. That even if they weren't,they were blind bad luck, nothing you could do, move on. A large, hand-letteredsign had appeared on our front doorstep the night before. It read, GOOD LUCKZACK! GO SCOUTS! BEAT THOSE PIRATES. It was signed, THE VARSITY CHEERLEADERS.They didn't know.

At the game Iwatched my son stand on the sideline as his teammates rallied to a 30--15victory over Palatine. He wore his jersey, number 13—was that the cause?—and hetried to stay up with his pals. But when they jubilantly left the field, he wasalone, moving awkwardly on his metal crutches.

I thought back tomy senior season. Wasn't it yesterday? Under my hometown lights in downstatePeoria, we Richwoods Knights rained down hellfire on those who dared enter ourhouse. There were the seven noble stitches in my chin, the cheerleaders inforest green and white, the white-booted Royalettes, my wise-guy buddies in thestands, the kids in the band, the tubas, the flutes, the swishing pom-poms,parents up high where adults should be, neighbors there too, even dumb-assteachers. And then there was the football arcing through the velvet sky, underthose Friday night lights, a bright, flickering orb of danger and unimaginablejoy.

I stand away fromthe large exiting crowd now, in my blue TURN ON THE LIGHTS T-shirt and think ofmy son. And for a moment it's almost more than I can bear.

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As his jubilant pals left the field, MY SON ZACK WASALONE, moving awkwardly on crutches.