by Rick Beck

Chapter 1

Dropping Bombs

It was at lunchtime on Monday when Coach Winger went to his office to prepare for that afternoon's practice. After putting his things where he could get to them, he was off to the cafeteria.

It was spaghetti on Mondays and it wasn't half bad. With a half dozen extra pieces of garlic bread, Coach Winger was ready to return to his office, where he had a thermos full of his wife's sun tea waiting to wash the meal down with.

On the way he decided to check his school mailbox in the main office. He'd duck in without fear of being waylaid. Everyone would be at lunch at that time of day.

There was always information he failed to get on time because his mind was mostly on football during football season. Everyone knew if they wanted to talk to him, they'd need to catch him on the football field or during one of his U.S. History classes, but they were forever shoving special events notifications into his mailbox.

He often ended up a day late and a dollar short, literally, concerning most of these events, even the ones that specified, 'All teachers need to attend.'

Since he hasn't checked the box in a week, he checks to see if there is something he needs to beg his way out of doing. His mind is usually on football and only football this time of year. With Grant on its way to their best season ever, no one is going to argue with him about some mundane task he doesn't have time to do.

Football and his U.S. history were all he had time for.

Entering the season, with Casterbrook as his returning quarterback, Scott and Carlos as returning running backs, and Johnson and Taylor as receivers, Grant was expecting to have a good season, and they'd done better than that.

Grant rolled over Western in the first game of the season. The offense performed up to expectations and Coach Winger felt as though he finally had his dream team.

It crossed the coaches mind more than once, the Grant Lions may be on the way to a championship for the first time. Between the Grant Lions and a league championship stood the Woodruff Eagles in the same division Grant was in. They'd play each other in the final game of the regular season. The winner would go on to play in the league championship game.

Woodruff, defending league champions, would be the toughest test. Grant hadn't won against Woodruff in the past five seasons, but Grant had half the team from last year returning as seniors. If they didn't win the championship this year, he didn't know if they'd ever be able to win it.

Being the coach at Grant High for twelve of its fifteen football seasons, Coach Winger didn't head a football program bathed in glory. With only two winning teams in the last ten seasons, he didn't see a future for him at Grant. Even with Casterbrook leading the charge, Coach Winger figured his coaching career was on life-support.

That's how it looked to him at the start of the season. Now his team was riding an eight game winning streak. He was the envy of the league.

He put away his resume to enjoy the attention that came with being a winner. It was all new to him.

There was one sealed envelope in his school mailbox. It was just a slot with his name under it. He pulled it out and it felt like one sheet of paper inside.

He ripped it open.

Luckily he'd set his tray down, because he would have dropped it if he hadn't.

He looked around. Everyone was at lunch. He would return to his office before reading it again. Maybe it wouldn't sound so threatening the second time he read it.

He was halfway down the hall before he remembered his tray. He had to go back for it, even though he'd lost his appetite. Someone would wonder who left his tray next to the mailboxes. The cafeteria cashier could tell them who it was that had six slices of garlic bread piled on his plate.

He didn't want anyone wondering how he managed to forget his lunch in the office next to the mailboxes. He cursed the note and he cursed his decision to check his box.

Coach Winger looked both ways before he entered the gym. No one had noticed him. He walked to his office, went in, closed the door, and he sat his tray down on the small table near his desk. He sat down and placed the open envelope in front of him. He removed the sheet of paper.

Coach Winger read the note again. Not only was the season in jeopardy, his career was too. This could ruin him. He carefully examined the note and then the envelop. There was no name on either item. The note was anonymous. Someone wrote him a note that could bring the Grant football program crashing down around him and he didn't have the balls to put his name on it.

He thought he could ignore such a note. Why say such a thing about Bonner?

It was a hoax. He'd heard of such things before.

The coach opened his desk draw and he took out a pack of Marlboros he'd confiscated from one of his players. He remembered that there was a pack of matches with them. He struck a match and lit the corner of the paper.

It began to burn. He watched as the fire reached the words on the page. He was putting an end to a controversy before it was allowed to spread.

That's when he had second thoughts. Coach Winger quickly put it out before the fire could destroy the words. This was evidence. He might want to keep it. He put the half burned sheet of paper back into the envelope and he opened his file cabinet and he placed it behind all the files at the back of the top drawer.

Why should he let some crackpot upset the Grant applecart? It was the best team he'd ever coached.

That's what it was. Someone wanted to derail Grant's season. As coach, he couldn't allow that. He would do anything to prevent it. His boys had earned every win. They had yet to get a shot at Woodruff, and if they beat them, they'd go on to play for the league championship.

The coach went to the file cabinet and he fished around behind the files until he found the note. He took it back to his desk. He'd tried to burn the evidence. He couldn't show it to anyone without them seeing what he'd tried to do. He'd need to say he didn't get the note.

Was that the right thing to do? More importantly, what was he going to do with a perfect season on the line? He'd never had this kind of success with any team he coached.

Bonner's skills were perfected and his head was always in the game. Why would anyone say such a thing about him. As the Grant quarterback, he'd led the team to one victory after another. He did it with a good team and players who had come into their own that season.

The note was a prank or it was meant to disrupt Grant's preparations for Woodruff. That had to be it. No signature on the note meant he didn't need to give it credibility and he didn't believe the note anyway. He refused to upset his team by revealing what the note said. They needed to keep their minds on football and the note had nothing to do with football.

The season was every players' and coaches' dream.

What was the right thing to do?

What would Coach Winger do?

He put the note in the top drawer beside the Marlboros. He opened the door to his office before going to sit back behind his desk. He got up to retrieve his tray. He unscrewed the top of his thermos to poor out his wife's sun tea.

He'd eat his lunch and forget the note.

That's what he'd do.

Coach Winger sat remembering the day Bonner walked onto the summer practice field. The boy carried his pads and his helmet. He'd recently moved into the Grant school district and he wanted to play football.

Except Bonner was too small to be a quarterback in their league and he lacked experience. Most of the teams Grant would play that season had full sized lineman who would salivate at an opportunity to rush a 150 pound quarterback. The new kid wouldn't last the first quarter if Winger dared to put him into a game.

That's all there was to it and that's all the thought the coach needed to give to the new arrival. He doubted the new arrival would play a single down in a Grant game. The risk of him being injured was too great.

Bonner spent his time throwing passes to the second and third string receivers. On the days the starting team practiced on the high school football field, Bonner sat in the bleachers and watched the plays. It wasn't a complicated offense and Bonner memorized the quarterback's moves.

Bonner was quicker, more agile. He was accustomed to having his brothers, football players all, in his face all the time. They didn't let up because he was small and Bonner didn't expect them to. He knew what it felt like to be hit by a 220 pound lineman. His brothers saw to it.

Because Bonner wanted to be like his brothers, he took the hits. That's where he learned to play football. He'd never been on an organized team, but the neighborhood boys who played football behind the Boys Club all were on football teams at school or for local football clubs. He learned from them until he was good enough to play as quarterback.

Coach Winger would pay the price for ignoring Bonner. An injury to his only quarterback, Casterbrook, had Coach Winger looking down at his mangled leg in only the second game of the season.

It was his heart breaking as a promising season seemed to be lost when his quarterback went down and he didn't get up.

Bonner sprang up, put on his helmet, and he readied himself to go into the Central game toward the end of the third quarter. There was no thought involved. He was Grant's only other quarterback and he had memorized the plays that Casterbrook ran in practice. Of course he'd play.

Only the coach still held onto the belief that Bonner was too small. Casterbrooks injury changed the dynamics of Grant's season. He didn't have another quarterback. Putting someone in to take snaps was possible, but that too was a risky proposition.

Looking at Casterbrook, waiting for the stretcher to carry him and his football hopes away, Coach Winger thought it was the end of a season he was sure would be his best ever. This was the best team he'd ever coached.

It was a clean hit. Casterbrook held onto the ball for too long, and he knew better. Rather than dumping it out of bounds and risk a penalty, he turned to distance himself between him and the charging defense. As he turned, he was hit. the side of his knee took the hit. The ACL was torn.

To make matters even worse, Casterbrook fumbled when he was hit and an alert Central player scooped up the ball and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown.

Coach Winger had to decided what he was going to do for a quarterback. Bonner, helmet on, waited for instructions.

After the extra point, which Central would make, the subsequent kickoff would come to Grant with the score Central 14 and Grant 7.

After Casterbrook was removed from the field, and the extra point was made, Coach Winger stood on the sidelines calculating what to do after the kickoff. He had to gather himself together, accept the loss, and move forward.

The coach ignored Bonner, who stood at his elbow. He'd ignored him since he'd walked on at summer practice. He'd seen Bonner throw 10 out of twelve passes through the center of a swinging tire.

A tire wasn't going to rush him. It was a cute trick.

"I can do this, coach. Let me take the snaps," Bonner said with more confidence in his scratchy voice than he felt.

Neither of them thought Bonner would ever quarterback a game. Originally Bonner's game was to make the Grant football team. This was way different from that.

The coach looked at Bonner closely for the first time. He didn't know what he was going to do. He didn't want to play Bonner. If he played Bonner and he got hurt, no one would miss that he was too small to be on the field with boys a hundred pounds heavier than he was.

Bonner had his helmet on and the refs were blowing their whistles and then the kickoff was in the air as the coach watched Scott run under it and maneuver his way to Grant's 40 yard line.

Coach Winger's time for vacillation was up.

He could put in some athletic kid to replace Casterbrook, Scott or Johnson could take snaps, but that was a dead end and he wasn't going to give up. His defense could hold against any team and they deserved the best chance he could give them.

Maybe Bonner could hold his own until the end of the game. Being behind, his offense had little chance of scoring against even Central, but his defense would hold and maybe they'd force a fumble and somehow Grant could get out OT there with a tie.

"Coach, you need to get your offense on the field. I know losing your quarterback is rough, but I'll give you a minute and then I'll have to penalize you for delay of game."

The head linesman ran back onto the field.

"OK, Bonner, you're it. Hold on to the damn ball. Don't put it on the ground. Run Scott, Carlos, Scott, and if by some miracle we get a first down, run Scott, Carlos, and Scott. God help us all," Coach Winger said.

As quick as the snap was in Bonner's hands, Central's all out rush knocked him down for a five yard loss. Coach Winger held his head. The second play was a repeat of the first play, and the third play mirrored the second play. It was forth and thirty-three yards for a first down.

The remarkable thing about Bonner being sacked three times in a row. He got up after ever sack. He endured the beating he took well. Maybe they wouldn't kill him after all.

Winger didn't want to watch, but like with a train wreck, he couldn't look away.

His defense held Central to a gain of seven yards in their three downs and the ball was about to be punted back to Grant.

Bonner had his helmet back on and was ready to run onto the field with his offense. Coach Winger held Bonner back.

"Bonner, you sure you want to go back out there?" Coach Winger asked.

"Yes, coach."

"If you can avoid being sacked by throwing the ball out of bounds, go ahead and do that. Just don't toss it to a Central player for Christ sake."

"You said to keep it on a ground. I could have rolled out and avoided being sacked, but you said to keep it on the ground," Bonner said. "The offensive line isn't blocking, coach. I would do a lot better if they give me some time."

"I know what I said. Now I'm saying, if you can't make a clean hand off to Scott or Carlos, roll to your left and throw it out of bounds. That way we lose so many yards."

After three straight sacks, Bonner seemed none the worse for wear. He had guts.

Bonner was only sacked twice on his second set of downs. He threw one pass out of bounds and Grant was punting to Central from their twenty-eight yard line. That was an improvement of eleven yards from his first set of downs.

It was clear that the offensive line did not have their heads in the game. Before Casterbrook's injury, they had little trouble holding Grant's defense out of the back field on most plays. They were not doing that for Bonner.

Bonner barely got the ball before Central was on him.

Winger didn't know if Bonner could move the ball. He had managed to survive two sets of downs, which was remarkable but Central's defense was overpowering Grant's offensive line.

Coach Winger understood what was happening. He'd seen it enough times to recognize the symptoms. A key player goes down and players lose focus. They are no longer able to execute without the missing player.

The line had to hold if he was going to find out what he had in Bonner. With Central's defense constantly in Bonner's face, he couldn't see down field. The line had to hold.

As the offense was ready to take the field after another three downs and out by Central, Coach Winger called the offensive line to come over to him.

He should have done it immediately after they took Casterbrook off the field, but like his offensive line, the coach was unable to execute because his mind was on the injured player and not on the game.

"I want my offensive line over here. Take a knee," Coach Winger ordered.

His players circled him beside Grant's bench.

"Casterbrook is gone. He won't be back. We've got Bonner. You aren't protecting him. Unless you hold their defense, and it's a crappy defense, Bonner doesn't have time to run a play. He's too busy running for his life. Letting Central kick your asses won't bring Casterbrook back, but if you protect Bonner, he might be able to move the ball. Gentlemen, we could still win this game, but you need to play like you play for Casterbrook. It's up to you. Go out there and show me what you've got," Coach Winger said.

Bonner heard it. He followed the offensive line onto the field. He'd been told what to do and if he had a couple more seconds each play, he knew he could do it. Central's defense wasn't as big or as aggressive as his brother's were, and Bonner could play pretty good football with his brothers in his face.

Bonner played football with his brothers and their friends since he was twelve. He was the quarterback because his brothers were too big and too clumsy to be the quarterback. He'd been knocked down a lot but as he grew, he learned how to move, dodge, and get the ball down field.

Central's defense came back on the field with confidence. They'd been chasing Bonner around in his backfield for two sets of downs and they were sure they could keep doing it. They were in the lead and they didn't intend to give it up.

Bonner was in the middle of the huddle with Coach Winger's words fresh in everyone's heads. He would hand off to Scott, after faking a hand off to Carlos. If his line didn't keep Central's defense off him, he'd be sacked before he ran the play.

"OK, block those sons of bitches and let's win this game," Bonner yelled, his scratchy voice loud enough for Coach Winger to hear.

He expected to be sacked again, but he did his best to sell what they needed to do.

When the snap was made, he dropped back, turned toward Carlos, reversed to turn toward Scott, and by the time Scott hit the line of scrimmage, Central's defense was on its collective ass. Grant had not only held, they ran over top of the defensive line with Scott following them.

Scott ran for twelve yards. His longest run of the day.

"Yes!" Coach Winger yelled. Thrusting his arm in the air and turning in a circle.

Bonner wasn't sacked again that day.

"You want to win this game," Bonner asked in the subsequent huddle.

"Yes," the offense yelled.

"We need to tie it first. Then we'll win it," he said. "We can run three plays before the end of the quarter. No huddle. Next play I'll hand off to Carlos, and then I'll hand off to Scott. The clock will be running. Line up fast. Johnson, on the third play, go to the left sideline. On a two count, let Central blitz me. I'll step up and throw to Johnson. He can out run anyone on the field."

Grant was penalized five yards for delay of game.

On first and fifteen, Carlos ran for six yards. With second and nine, Scott ran for eight yards. With the clock running, Grant lined up without a huddle. On the snap Bonner started back. On a two count the line stopped blocking Central out and they flooded the backfield.

Bonner stepped up and hit Johnson on the Central 40 yard line. Johnson didn't stop running until he set the ball down in the end zone. The kick was good.

Grant 14, Central 14.

Coach Winger had his tie and he thought that was the best they were going to do without Casterbrook. As long as the defense played up to its potential, Grant might get out of Central with a tie.

The fourth quarter started. Grant kicked off to Central, after the coach talked to his defense.

"You've dominated them defensively all day. A tie is as good as a win today. Hold them. Don't give them an inch," Coach Winger said.

Grant held Central short of making a first down and the ball was punted back to Grant with eleven minutes left in the game. Bonner handed off to Scott, Carlos, and then Scott.

Central went back to blitzing on every play. They weren't going to give Bonner time to pass the ball and Grant was unable to make a first down. The two defenses were fired up and determined not to let the other team score.

Bonner kept the ball on the ground. After getting the snap, he turned right or left to hand off. He was creating a rhythm, a pattern, something Central could shoot at, while the offensive line held them long enough to avoid a sack.

Bonner had a plan.

Central increased the number of players they sent after Bonner on each play. They calculated that the offensive line was going to tire and when it did, they'd get to Bonner for a big loss.

Central didn't have anything to lose. Grant was the superior team and a tie was a win to them in a season that they weren't expecting to win many games.

The blitz came predictably the next two plays. Bonner backed away from the line with the ball, sticking it in Scott's arms as he dropped back. Scott moved as though he was part of the fake. The Central defense passed Scott on their way to Bonner. They were sure they had him this time.

Bonner wasn't sacked. He got rid of the ball and stood with his hands down and Central's rush let up.

Scott broke free for a ten yard run. Grant had a first down. The clock ran with the two minute warning close.

Bonner ran Scott for three yards and the clock was stopped by the two minute warning. It would be second and seven when play resumed. Grant was on Central's thirty-eight yard line.

In the huddle Bonner said, "I'll run Scott up the middle on the next play. With the clock running there won't be time to huddle. We'll line up immediately on third down. I'll fake to Scott and then step up. Johnson, break to your left. Once the defender bites, I'll throw you a pass down the middle at the thirty yard line. With them blitzing every play, there won't be anyone there who can catch you. Got it?"

Johnson said, "I got it. You guys give him time to get me the ball. We can win this game if you do."

"A tie is like kissing your sister," Bonner said. "Let's win this game."

Scott was knocked down after he gained a yard. Central's defense was expecting Scott to run the ball.

When Grant didn't huddle, Central was caught off guard. As Bonner was calling signals, they hurried to the line to avoid a penalty, but they were ready. On the snap Bonner dropped back, faking to Scott, and he ran straight at the line of scrimmage where eight Central defense men waited for him.

As Central focused on Scott, Bonner stepped up and passed the ball to Johnson.

Johnson ran under the ball at the thirty. He ramped up to full speed, taking the ball into the end zone.

The score was Grant 20 and Central 14.

Bonner had done it.

On a wing and a prayer Grant won the game and Bonner made a lot of new friends. The wary football team was among them.

The Casterbrook era at Grant was over.

The era of 'Bonnerball' had just begun.

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