If you ask me what I love most, the answer would be football. Hands down. Not the whole game—the running, blocking, and tackling parts. Those things are all right.I'm talking about playing quarterback. Calling the play in the huddle and then leading a team up to the line of scrimmage. It feels like the entire world is hanging on my voice. And when "Hut, hut," springs from my vocal cords, twenty-two football players start flying in every direction. Sometimes the play's moving in fast forward, difficult to see. Other times, when I'm in the zone, the game moves in slow motion. That's when everything comes easy and natural.
Don't get me wrong. There's pressure in playing quarterback too. Lots of it. Pressure to read the defense for a dozen disguised blitzes, to find the hot receiver, and to deliver a tight-spiral pass into the smallest of windows. Never mind the pressure to win—whether that comes from inside myself or from other people.
The center snaps me the ball, and I feel for the leather laces, getting the best grip possible. Then I take my three-step drop, with a protective pocket of offensive linemen forming around me. Sometimes I don't see an open receiver. A clock ticks down inside my head. It's a warning that I can't hold on to the football forever, not without getting sacked. As the defense closes in and the pocket begins to collapse, I feel myself getting smaller, shrinking inside my shoulder pads. But I scramble for a seam or hole to escape through, to keep that precious play alive. Even when a defensive lineman—as big as a house—blocks out the sun in front of me, I wouldn't trade playing my position for anything. Because after I take that hit, as long as I get back on my feet, I'm still the quarterback.
My name is Travis Gardner. If you follow football, you've probably heard about me. Two years ago, while I was still in the seventh grade, I met Elvis Goddard, the head coach for the Gainesville Fightin' Gators. He'd come to recruit my older brother, Carter, who was a senior tight end at Beauchamp High School. And in case you didn't know, Coach Goddard, The King of College Football, had won two national championships at Gainesville University.
My family lives in a small city called Alachua—pronounced a-latch-u-a, like the latch on your front door lock. It's just a twenty-minute drive from the university's campus, with the shadow of Gator football hanging over everything here.
One April afternoon, Coach Goddard actually stepped across our welcome mat. Just being close to him felt incredible. Before that, I'd only seen Coach G. on TV or from seats in the top tier of the Gators' stadium, whenever Carter and I could save up enough money to buy tickets.
Coach G. stood with his wide shoulders arched back. He was tall and lean, with his right leg a little stiffer than his left after suffering an injury during his pro career in Dallas. On his feet, he wore a pair of silver snakeskin boots that came to a sharp point at the toe. Galaxy, our black lab, launched into a barking fit, getting down low and beginning to growl.
"Sorry, Coach. He gets this way with strangers sometimes," said Carter, grabbing Galaxy by the collar and dragging him away into the bedroom we shared.
"He's protecting his territory. That's all. Or maybe it's these boots. They're diamondback ratt-lers," Coach G. said in a southern drawl and then started to grin. "You know, I actually prefer gator skin. But I suppose they'd run me out of my job in Gainesville if I ever covered my feet in that."
Coach G. was in his mid-forties, with a smoothed-skinned face that made him look much younger. I didn't think anyone could be more impressed by him than Carter and me, until I noticed Mom breathing faster than normal and smiling at every word out of his mouth.
Coach sank into the red cracked-leather recliner, the one that used to be Dad's favorite chair. My parents had been divorced for almost two years. Dad was living in California with his new wife and her teenage son. Mom didn't date much. After cleaning people's teeth all day as a dental hygienist, she came home to what she called, "the most important unpaid job of my life." That was taking care of Carter and me.
Carter and Mom sat on the sofa opposite Coach, with a small glass table in between them. There was enough room on the sofa's cushions to sit three across. But I parked myself on the sofa arm closest to Coach G.
"Now, Carter, I know we've been late in recruiting you. I understand you've had a few scholarship offers already, some from other schools in Florida. But my staff and I were recently watching video of another player on your team. And every time he broke off a big run, it was you throwing the key block. I told my assistants, ‘Forget about the ball carrier. Who's that tight end clearing the way?' And, well, here I am," Coach said before taking a bite from one of Mom's homemade walnut brownies.
My eyes stayed glued to the two huge national championship rings Coach wore. The one on his right hand was gold, with blue sapphires forming a football in its center. The number 1 sparkled in the middle of those sapphires, set in diamonds. The ring on his left hand was silver, decorated by the head of an emerald green gator, grinning with a mouth full of jeweled teeth.
"That's probably the thing I do best, clearing the way for whoever's coming behind me," Carter said. "I've been practically living in the weight room, getting stronger. And I've been practicing my pass routes too, working on my hands to become a better receiver."
"I sense that hunger in you. It's exactly what I'm looking for in a recruit. You're not satisfied with your game and striving to achieve more," Coach said. A loud clap of his hands sent Galaxy into another barking fit from the bedroom. "So, Mom, wouldn't you like to have peace of mind, knowing your son is attending a top university just a short car ride away? A four-year scholarship with living accommodations, books, and food is worth almost two hundred thousand dollars. That can be quite a burden on the budget of a single-parent household. But that's what a commitment to Gator Football can get Carter."
"And you'll look after Carter while he's there?" Mom asked, resting her coffee cup on a chipped saucer. "He's never really been away from home before, not even to sleep-away camp. He's still a boy in lots of ways."
"Not true, Mom," Carter protested, blushing.
"I watch over all of my players as if they were my own flesh-and-blood. So don't give that a second thought," said Coach, slapping Carter on the knee and giving him a wink, as if to let him know that's how all mothers acted.
After a short pause, Coach lifted up his hands, letting a stream of sunlight pouring through the window shine across his rings. "Carter, how'd like to come to Gainesville? Help me and your future teammates earn a third one of these?"
Then Coach took the ring from his left hand and put it onto Carter's finger.
I jumped up off the arm of that sofa wanting to scream, "Yes! Yes!"
Only Coach wasn't asking me.
"I'd like it more than anything, to be a Gator," my brother answered. "I've wanted it for a long time."
Carter and Mom nodded to each other, and then my brother hugged her tight.
"I'm so proud of you, Carter," she said, with her eyes starting to tear up.
Coach rose from the recliner and stuck his hand out to Carter, who, at six-foot five, stood a couple of inches taller.
At five-eleven, I was already the tallest boy in my class. I had a bet with Carter too: one day, I'd be even bigger than him. We were super competitive that way, battling over things like whose hair would turn blonder during the summer.
"Congratulations, son. Glad to have you aboard," said Coach G., as the two of them shook on it. "You can file your official paperwork tomorrow."
While he was still wearing Coach's ring, Carter and me exchanged high-fives, low-fives, and fives at every level in between. And I didn't pull a single turkey on him—planting the bottom of my fist on his open palm with my thumb sticking out.
"You should see Carter's hands, Coach. They're like flypaper now. The ball just sticks in them. I've been throwing to him every day in our backyard," I said. "I'm quarterback on my Pop Warner team. I've played that position ever since Pee-Wee football, and made the all-star team every season."
"A quarterback, huh? All right, go grab a ball. Let's see," said Coach G.
For me, that was like Christmas coming in April. So I raced into our bedroom for a football.
There wasn't much space out back. We had maybe twenty yards of length and fifteen yards of width for Carter to run patterns, mostly buttonhooks and quick outs.
I was pretty nervous to throw in front of Coach G. He'd sent a pair of my favorite quarterbacks to the NFL. One of them had even won the Heisman Trophy as the country's top college player. My first two passes sailed over Carter's head, with Galaxy spinning in circles from behind our bedroom window, trying to bird-dog each one.
"Just lower your release point, Travis," Coach said, mimicking my throwing motion. "You're letting go of the ball too high in your arc. You probably have too much adrenaline pumping. Calmness and execution—those are the things I preach to my quarterbacks. It's how I played the position."
Calmness and execution, I repeated to myself. So I gripped the ball a little looser, took a deep breath, and focused on my release. After that, I must have hit Carter with thirty straight passes, right on his jersey number.
"Nice hands, Carter. I recruited the right player today," said Coach G. "And Travis, you've got a lot of zip in that left arm. Keep at it and you might be a Gator one day yourself. Send me some video of one of your games. I'll point out some things for you to work on."
Hearing those words put a smile on my face that didn't wipe off for a while.
A few minutes later, Coach Goddard's SUV pulled away from the curb in front of our house, with us all waving goodbye. Then Mom swiveled her hips and said in a deep voice like an announcer's, "Ladies and gentlemen, Coach Elvis has left the building."
Back inside, Carter and me almost fought over who'd sit in the recliner first. I think we both wanted to sink into the same spot where Coach G. had been. That's where Carter was stationed when he called Dad on his cell. Only my brother had to leave a voice message when Dad didn't pick up.
"Big news! I picked a college. You won't believe which one. Call me."
Hours went by without a reply from Dad. I knew Carter wasn't about to leave a second message. We'd both been there too many times, waiting and waiting on him, like everything else in his world was more important than us. Dad finally called at about ten o'clock that night—seven o'clock California time. Carter was stretched out on his bed with his laptop, looking at all the different subjects you could major in at Gainesville, when he answered.
"I'm going to be a Gator. We've been celebrating big time here," Carter told Dad, before I stepped into the bathroom to wash up for bed.
Carter gave him all of the highlights, except for the one I wanted to hear. So I took the toothbrush from my mouth and called out to Dad, "Ask Carter who played quarterback for him in the backyard!"
Carter listened to Dad's response and then said, "No, no, Travis threw great. Coach Goddard even said so. Of course, I'd already accepted the scholarship. But I still wanted to show off my receiving."
I normally talked with Dad once a week, usually on the weekend. He hadn't been back to Florida in over a year. He'd been busy with his job as an insurance salesman and, I guess, his new family.
"All right, I love you too," said Carter. "Yeah, I'll tell Travis. Bye."
Carter buried his phone inside the pants pocket of his sweats and went back to his laptop.
"So?" I asked. "What are you supposed to tell me?"
"Oh," said Carter, looking up from the computer screen. "Dad says it's hard for a lefty to make it at quarterback. He thinks you should find another position."
"What?" I said, slamming a handful of dirty clothes down into my hamper. "No coach ever said that to me."
Carter just shrugged his shoulders and clicked his mouse pad. Coach G. didn't care that I was left-handed. And Dad didn't know a thing about football compared to him.
Travis is constantly trying to hitch a ride on where I'm going, on anything I've earned. He's always finding some built-up reason why he contributed to my success.It gets really annoying sometimes. But whenever Dad's involved, I try to cut Travis some slack. I took a big hit when Dad left. I guess Travis, being younger, took an even bigger one. I could see that Dad's comment about lefty quarterbacks bothered him. That was my fault. I should have never even told him. So I sucked it up and said, "Hey, Trav—good job. You really did hit me right on the numbers with most of those passes." And I felt better when his face broke out in a half-smile.