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Home > Playing for Pizza(5)

Playing for Pizza(5)
Author: John Grisham

"I don't want to hear it, Arnie. Look, let's talk later. My head is killing me."

"Sure, kid. Sleep on it, but we need to move fast. The team in Parma is looking for a quarterback. Their season starts soon and they're desperate. I mean, not desperate to sign just anybody, but--"

"Got it, Arnie. Later."

"You've heard of Parmesan cheese?" sure. "That's where they make it. In Parma. Get it?"

"If I wanted cheese, I'd go to Green Bay," Rick said, and thought himself clever in spite of the drugs. "I called the Packers, but they haven't called back."

"I don't want to hear it."

Near Mansfield he settled into a booth in the restaurant of a crowded truck stop and ordered french fries and a Coke. The words on the menu were slightly blurred, but he took another pill anyway because of the pain at the top of his spine. In the hospital, once the television was working, he'd made the mistake of finally watching the highlights on ESPN. He cringed and even flinched at the sight of his own body getting hit so hard and crumbling to the ground in a heap.

Two truckers at a nearby table began glancing at him. Oh, great. Why didn't I wear a cap and some sunglasses?

They whispered and pointed, and before long others were looking, even glaring at him. Rick wanted to leave, but the Vicodin said no,

take it easy for a while. He ordered another plate of french fries and tried to call his parents. They were either out or ignoring him. He called a college friend in Boca to make sure he had a place to stay for a few days. The truckers were laughing about something. He tried to ignore them. On a white paper napkin, he began scribbling numbers. The Browns owed him $50,000 for the play-offs. (Surely the team would pay him.) He had about $40,000 in the bank in Davenport. Due to his nomadic career, he had not purchased any real estate. The SUV was being leased--$700 a month. There were no other assets. He studied the numbers, and his best guess was that he could escape with about $80,000. To leave the game with three concussions and $80,000 was not as bad as it seemed. The average NFL running back lasted three years, retired with all manner of leg injuries, and owed about $500,000. Rick's financial problems came from disastrous investments. He and a teammate from Iowa had tried to corner the car-wash market in Des Moines. Lawsuits had followed and his name was still on bank loans. He owned one-third of a Mexican restaurant in Fort Worth, and the other two owners, former friends, were screaming for more capital. The last time he ate there the burritos made him sick. With Arnie's help he had managed to avoid bankruptcy-- the headlines would've been brutal--but the debts had piled up. A rather large trucker with an amazing beer belly drew near, stopped, and sneered at Rick. He was the whole package--thick sideburns, trucker cap, toothpick dangling from his lips. "You're Dockery, aren't you?"

For a split second Rick thought of denying it, then he decided to simply ignore him. "You suck, you know that," the trucker said loudly and for the benefit of his audience. "You sucked at Iowa and you still suck." There was heavy laughter in the background as the others joined in. One shot to the beer belly and the dude would be on the floor, squealing, and the fact that Rick even thought about it made him sad. The headlines--why was he so concerned with the headlines?--would be great. "Dockery Brawls with Truckers." And, of course, everyone who read the story would be pulling for the truckers. Charley Cray would have a field day. Rick smiled at his napkin and bit his tongue. "Why don't you move to Denver? Bet they love you there." Even more laughter. Rick added some meaningless numbers to his tally and pretended as if he heard nothing. Finally, the trucker

moved on, with quite a swagger now. It's not every day that you get the chance to berate an NFL quarterback.

He took 1-71 south to Columbus, home of the Buckeyes. There, not too many years ago, in front of 100,000 fans, on a gorgeous autumn afternoon, he'd thrown four touchdown passes and picked the defense apart like a surgeon. Big Ten Player of the Week. More honors would certainly follow. The future was so bright it blinded him. Three hours later he stopped for gas and saw a new motel

next door. He'd driven enough. He fell on the bed and planned to sleep for days when his cell phone rang. Arnie said, "Where are you now?"

"I don't know. London."

"What? Where?"

"London, Kentucky, Arnie."

"Let's talk about Parma," Arnie said, crisp and businesslike. Something was up.

"I thought we agreed to do that later." Rick pinched his nose and slowly stretched his legs. "This is later. They need a decision."

"Okay. Give me the details."

"They'll pay three thousand euros a month for five months, plus an apartment and a car."

"What's a euro?"

"That's the currency in Europe. Hello? It's worth about a third more than the dollar these days."

"So how much, Arnie ? What's the offer ?"

"About four thousand bucks a month." The numbers registered quickly because there were so few of them. "The quarterback makes twenty thousand? What does a lineman make?"

"Who cares? You're not a lineman."

"Just curious. Why are you so testy?"

"Because I'm spending too much time on this, Rick. I've got other deals to negotiate. You know how hectic it gets in the postseason."

"Are you unloading me, Arnie?"

"Of course not. It's just that I really think you should go abroad for a while, recharge your batteries, you know, let the ole brain heal. Give me some time stateside to assess the damage."

The damage. Rick tried to sit up but nothing cooperated. Every bone and muscle from the waist up was damaged. If Collins hadn't missed the block, Rick wouldn't have been crushed. Linemen, love 'em and hate 'em. He wanted linemen! "How much do the linemen make?"

"Nothing. The linemen are Italians and they play because they love football." The agents must starve to death over there, Rick thought to himself. He breathed deeply and tried to remember the last player he knew who played just for the love of the game. "Twenty thousand," Rick mumbled.

"Which is twenty more than you're currently making," Arnie reminded him, rather cruelly. "Thanks, Arnie. I can always count on you."

"Look, kid, take a year off. Go see Europe. Give me some time."

"How good is the football?"

"Who cares? You'll be the star. All of the quarterbacks are Americans, but they're small-college types who didn't get near the draft. The Panthers are thrilled that you're even considering the deal." Someone was thrilled to get him. What a pleasant idea. But what would he tell his family and friends ? What friends? He had heard from exactly two old buddies in the past week. After a pause, Arnie cleared his throat and said, "There's something else." >From the tone, it could not be good. "I'm listening."

"What time did you leave the hospital today?"

"I don't remember. Maybe around nine."

"Well, you must've passed him in the hallway."

"Who?"

"An investigator. Your cheerleader friend is back, Rick, quite pregnant, and now she's got lawyers, some real sleazeballs who want to make some noise, get their mugs in the paper. They're calling here with all sorts of demands."

"Which cheerleader?" Rick asked as new waves of pain swept through his shoulders and neck. "Tiffany something or other." "There's no way, Arnie. She slept with half the

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