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Home > Playing for Pizza(13)

Playing for Pizza(13)
Author: John Grisham

"They haven't called yet."

Franco was on the edge of his seat, hyper with the presence of his new quarterback. "Let's have coffee," he said, jumping to his feet, and before Rick could answer, he was at the door, barking instructions to one of the girls. He was stylish--snug black suit, long pointed Italian loafers, size 14 at least.

"We really want a Super Bowl trophy here in Parma," he said as he grabbed something from his desk. "Look." He pointed the remote control to a flat-screen TV in a corner, and suddenly there was more Franco--pounding through the line as tacklers bounced off, leaping over the pile for a touchdown, stiff-arming a Cleveland Brown (yes!) and ripping off another touchdown, taking a handoff from Bradshaw, and bowling over two massive linemen. It was Franco's greatest hits, long, punishing runs that were enjoyable to watch. The judge, thoroughly mesmerized, jerked and cut and pumped his fists with each great move. How many times has he seen this? Rick asked himself. The last play was the most famous- -the Immaculate Reception--Franco's inadvertent catch of a deflected pass and his miracle gallop to the end zone in a 1972 play-off game against Oakland. The play had created more debate, review, analysis, and fights than any in the history of the NFL, and the judge had memorized every frame.

The secretary arrived with the coffee, and Rick managed a bad "Grazie." Then it was back to the video. Part two was interesting but also a bit depressing. Franco the judge had added his own greatest hits, a few sluggish runs through and around linemen and linebackers even slower than himself. He beamed at Rick as they watched the Panthers in action, Rick's first glimpse of his future. "You like?" Franco asked. "Nice," Rick said, a word that seemed to satisfy many inquiries in Parma. The final play was a screen pass that Franco took from an emaciated quarterback. He tucked the ball into his gut, bent over like an infantryman, and began looking for the first defender to hit. A couple bounced off, Franco spun free, kicked up his legs, and was off to the races. Two cornerbacks made halfhearted attempts to stick their helmets into his churning legs, but they bounced off like flies. Franco was soaring down the sideline, straining mightily in his best Franco Harris imitation. "Is this in slow motion?" Rick asked, a half effort at humor. Franco's mouth fell open. He was wounded. "Just kidding," Rick said quickly. "A joke." Franco managed to fake a laugh. As he crossed the goal line, he spiked the ball, and the screen went blank. "For seven years I play fullback," Franco said as he resumed his perch on the edge of his seat. "And we never beat Bergamo. This year, with our great quarterback, we will win the Super Bowl. Yes?"

"Of course. So where did you learn football?"

"Some friends." They both took a sip of coffee and waited through an awkward pause. "What kind of judge are you?" Rick finally asked. Franco rubbed his chin and considered this at great length, as though he'd never before thought about what he did. "I do lots of things," he finally said with a smile. His phone rang on the desk, and though he didn't answer it, he did look at his watch. "We are so glad to have you here in Parma, my friend Rick. My quarterback."

"Thanks."

"I will see you at practice tonight."

"Of course." Franco was on his feet now, his other duties calling him. Rick was not exactly expecting to be fined or otherwise punished, but Romo's "complaints" needed to be addressed, didn't they? Evidently not. Franco swept Rick from his office with the mandatory embraces and handshakes and promises to help in any way, and Rick was soon in the hall, then down the stairs and into the alley, all alone, a free man.

Chapter 8

Oam passed the time in the empty cafe with the Panther play book, a thick binder with a thousand Xs and Os, a hundred offensive plays, and a dozen defensive schemes. Thick, but not nearly as thick as the ones handed out by college teams, and a mere memo compared with the tomes used in the NFL. And too thick, according to the Italians. It was often mumbled, in the tedium of a long chalkboard session, that there was little wonder soccer was so popular throughout the rest of the world. It was so easy to learn, to play, and to understand. And these are just the basics, Sam was always tempted to say. Rick arrived promptly at 11:30, and the cafe was still empty. Only a couple of Americans would arrange a lunch at such an odd hour. Lunch, but only salads and water. Rick had showered and shaved and looked far less criminal. With great animation, he relayed the story of his encounter with Detective Romo, his "non-arrest," and the meeting with Judge Franco. Sam was highly entertained and assured Rick that no other American had received such a special welcome from Franco. Sam had seen the video. Yes, Franco was as slow in the flesh as he was on the film, but he was a punishing blocker and would run through a brick wall, or at least give it his best shot. Sam explained that to the best of his limited knowledge, Italian judges are different from their American counterparts. Franco had broad authority to initiate investigations and proceedings, and he also presided over trials. After a thirty-second summary of Italian law, Sam had exhausted his knowledge on the subject, and it was back to football.

They picked through the lettuce and played with the tomatoes, but neither had much of an appetite. After an hour, they left on foot to handle some business. The first item was the opening of a checking account. Sam chose his bank, primarily because a certain assistant manager could thrash through enough English to resolve matters. Sam pressed Rick to do it himself, and helped only when things were at an impasse. It took an hour, and Rick was frustrated and more than a little intimidated. Sam would not always be around to translate. With a quick tour of Rick's neighborhood and the center of Parma, they found a small grocery with fruits and vegetables stacked along the sidewalk. Sam was explaining that Italians prefer to buy their food fresh each day and avoid stockpiling groceries in cans and bottles. The butcher was next door to the fish market. Bakeries were on every corner. "The Kroger concept doesn't work over here," Sam said. "Housewives plan their day around shopping for fresh food." Rick gamely tagged along, somewhat engaged in the sightseeing but not interested in the notion of cooking. Why bother? There were so many places to eat. The wine and cheese shop held little interest, at least until Rick spotted a very attractive young lady stocking reds. Sam pointed out two men's stores, and again dropped rather pointed hints about ditching the Florida garb and upgrading to the local fashions. They also found a cleaners, a bar with great cappuccino, a bookstore where every book was in Italian, and a pizzeria with a menu in four languages. Then it was time for the car. Somewhere in Signor Brun cardo's little empire a well-used but clean and shiny Fiat Punto had become available, and for the next five months it belonged to the quarterback. Rick walked around it, inspected it carefully without uttering a word, but couldn't help but think that at least four of them would fit into the SUV he'd been driving until three days ago.

He folded himself into the driver's seat and inspected the dash. "It'll do," he finally said to Sam, who was standing a few feet away on the sidewalk. He touched the stick shift and realized it was not rigid. It moved, too much. Then his left foot got caught on something that was not a brake pedal. A clutch? "Manual, huh?" he said. "All cars here are manual. Not a problem, is it?"

"Of course not." He could not remember the last time his left foot had depressed a clutch. A friend in high school had a Mazda with a stick shift, and Rick had practiced once or twice. That was at least ten years ago. He jumped out, slammed the door, and almost said, Got anything with an automatic? But he didn't. He could not show concern with something as simple as a car with a clutch. "It's either this or a scooter," Sam said. Give me the scooter, Rick wanted to say. Sam left him there, with the Fiat he was afraid to drive. They agreed to meet in a couple of hours in the locker room. The play book had to be addressed as soon as possible. The Italians might not learn all the plays, but the quarterback was required to. Rick walked around the block, thinking of all the playbooks he'd suffered through in his nomadic career. Arnie would call with a new deal. Rick would take off to his newest team, terribly excited. A quick hello at the front office; quick tour of the stadium, locker room, and so on. Then all enthusiasm faded the instant some assistant coach marched in with the massive playbook and dropped it in front of him. "Memorize it by tomorrow" was always the command.

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