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This was always the best of it for Nate Brodie, when he felt the slap of the ball in his hands and began to back away from the center, when he felt as if he could see the whole field, and football made perfect sense to him.
Sometimes when you were thirteen nothing seemed to make sense, and the world came at you faster and trickier than flying objects in a video game.
It was never like that for him in football.
Nate had been having more and more trouble figuring out his world lately, especially with everything that had been happening to his family. School was schoolhe tried hard, but there were times he just felt lost, in search of answers that wouldn't come.
And no matter how hard he tried, how hard he could try, he was never going to make sense out of what was happening to his friend Abby.
But on a Saturday morning like this, underneath all the sun and blue sky, with the guys in the line already into their blocks and Nate feeling as if he had all day to throw the ballfeeling that weird calm he always felt in the pockethe had all the answers.
Football was like this for Nate Brodie.
As he scanned the field now, he recognized one of those answers he instinctively knew. Pete Mullaney, his favorite receiver, was about to break into the clear. Once he did that, Nate knew Pete was going to run all day.
When it was just Nate and Pete and some of the other guys on the team playing touch football in the empty lot next to Nate's house, they called this play "Hutchins-and-Go." One day Nate had told Pete to fake toward the Hutchins' house, the one on the other side of the lot, fake like he was running a sideline pattern in that direction, and then, as soon as the guy covering him bit, Pete was supposed to plant his outside foot and spin and take off down the sidelines.
The play had just always been called Hutchins-and-Go after that.
Nate watched as Pete sold his fake now, sold it like he was selling candy, didn't rush, even turned and looked back for the ball. That was when the defensive back on him committed, turned, and looked for the ball himself.
Only Pete was gone.
And the ball wasn't coming, at least not yet.
Now it was just a question of what kind of throw Nate wanted to make. Because with the kind of arm he hadhis buds and teammates always called him "Brady," knowing that Tom Brady was Nate's all-time favorite playerthere were a couple of ways he could go. Nate could put a lot of air beneath the ball, really hang it up there and let Pete use those jets of his to run under it. Or Nate could gun one right now, throw one of those dead spirals that was the same as one of his football fastballs, put so much sting and hurt at the end of the pass that Pete sometimes said he wished he was allowed to wear a catcher's mitt.
Nate decided to put this one way up there.
He rolled to his right now, feeling pressure coming from his left, a right-handed quarterback's blind side, without actually seeing it. But just to make sure, to know exactly how much time he had, he shot a quick look over his shoulder and saw that the Hollins Hills' nose tackle had cleared Malcolm Burnley, Nate's center and the best blocker Valley had, on an outside route and was coming hard, thinking he might have a shot at getting his first sack of the day.
Nate knew he didn't.
In no hurry, Nate kept moving toward the sideline, toward the Valley bench, almost feeling as if he were floating. Having cleared the pocket completely, a nice patch of open green waited for him a few yards in front of Coach Rivers.
He stopped now, planting, making sure to square his shoulders so he didn't drop his arm angle and sidearm the ball, setting himself on his back foot, carrying the ball high. The throwing mechanics that Coach said you pretty much had to be born with.
And he let the ball rip.
Knowing that the cornerback who had been covering Pete was never going to catch up with him and that the Hollins Hills safety had no chance of getting over to the sideline in time. He watched the ball like it was on a string, like one of those perfect casts his dad used to make across the water when the two of them still had time to go fishing together, before his dad began working all the time.
He hoped his mom was getting this on the video recorder that was on its last legs and had been for a while, because his dad working a double shift on Saturdays nowwasn't here to see it in person.
The ball came down into Pete Mullaney's hands, Pete in perfect stride, just crossing the Hollins Hills 10-yard line. Pete pressed the ball to the front of his white uniform with those sure hands of his and crossed the goal line.
Then he turned and just tossed the ball to the referee, because if you played on a team with Nate Brodie, if he was the one throwing you the ball, you knew enough not to do some kind of crazy touchdown dance afterward.
You could be happy, just not happy enough to show the other team up.'
Nate was running down the sideline now, almost as fast as Pete just had. All the things that were confusing about his thirteen-year-old life latelythe things that made him sad and just plain mad once he got away from a football fieldNate had left them all in his dust.
By the time Nate got to Pete, the little wide receiver was on the Valley sideline, waiting for him with his arms stretched wide. Nate, taller than Pete by a whole helmet, grabbed him, picked him up, put him down just as quickly, as much celebration as he was going to allow himself, mostly because there was still some game left to play.
Pete said, "That throw was legit."
"You always say that," Nate said.
"No, Brady, this time I really mean it. That throw was, like, righteous."
Nate laughed now, couldn't help it. "I had the wind behind me."
Pete Mullaney shook his head, smiling from behind his face mask. "Dude," he said, "as far as I can tell, your arm is pretty much where the wind starts."
Nate ran over to Coach Rivers then, to get the play Coach wanted them to run on the conversion. Then he ran back on thefield and told his teammates he was faking to LaDell and then taking it in himself, on a roll to his left.
Nobody touched him. Valley was up 22Ð7. They all knew the game was over, even with the clock showing two minutes, straight up, left.
He and Pete ran off the field together, knowing that the fortyyarder they'd just hooked up on had put this one in the books.
When Nate got back to the bench, Coach Rivers gave him a simple handshake.
"A Brady throw all the way," he said.
"I wish," Nate said.
"I'm serious," Coach said. "Biggest throw of the season."
For now, Nate thought.
The big news was that after more than a year of saving up birthday money from relatives, Christmas money, and allowance money, Nate finally had earned enough for his share of the football.
And not just any football.
This was the signed Tom Brady ball that he'd spotted in the trophy case at SportStuff the summer after he'd finished sixth grade.
Nate was smart enough about collectibles to know that this wasn't the only signed football from Brady in the world. He knew from asking the man at the store that this particular ball was part of a new "limited edition" from Brady, and it came with a certificate of authenticity.
"How many are in the limited edition?" Nate had asked theman at the store, and the man, smiling, had said, "Enough for us to charge what we're charging."
Five hundred dollars, plus tax.
Nate read about money in sports all the time, read about the money the top athletes, including Tom Brady, were making. Some of them, like LeBron and A-Rod and Tiger Woods, earned up there in the hundreds of millions. But since he'd had his eye on this ball, it wasn't their salaries that seemed like the biggest number in sports.
It was just the cost of this one signed football.
When he told his mom and dad about it, they told him that if he was willing to save up, if it was the present he wanted the most, they would pay half. It would be a way of earning something off the field the way he always had on it. Or earning a good grade in school, which they always told him should mean even more to him, because they all knew school came harder to him. And his parents had stayed with the promise even though things were different now in their house than they had been when he'd finished sixth grade. Everything was different now that his dad was working two jobs after losing the only one Nate had ever known him to have, at the big commercial real estate company he used to work for.
His mom had gone back to work, too.
"You don't have to do this," Nate had said to his dad one day.
"I can wait and save up the whole five hundred myself, even if it does take longer."
"Actually, I have to do this more than ever."
"I don't understand," Nate said.
"A promise is a promise," his dad had said, "even if it's one you make only to yourself."
For all Nate knew, his parents had been saving up for the Brady ball right along with him, waiting for the day when there was finally enough money in the top drawer of his desk to make the trip to SportStuff he'd been dreaming about for what seemed like forever.
SportStuff had become one of the biggest sporting goods chains in New England. They didn't just sell the usual "stuff," sneakers and spikes and jerseys and T-shirts, basketballs and hockey sticks and gloves and bats and balls. The thing that set SportStuff apart was a section of every store known as "The Hall"as in Hall of Fame. That's where the coolest stuff in the place really was.
The collectibles, all the signed balls and jerseys and memorabilia, all authentic. Signed sneakers, some of them looking as big as a bathtub to Nate. Baseball and football cards, some real old, some real valuable, perfectly preserved behind or under glass.
But nothing was more valuable, at least to Nate's eyes, than the Brady ball.
Tom Brady had been Nate's guy from the time Nate first started playing organized football in the fourth grade and started watching pro football games with his dad on Sunday afternoons. In fact, the first game Nate really remembered watchingor caring aboutwas Brady's first Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams. That was the day he'd driven the Patriots down the field at the end of the game even though he was basically a rookie. Brady had driven them down the field against a Rams team Nate knew from his dad was a two-touchdown favorite, got them close enough to the end zone that Adam Vinatieri could do something he would do again a few years later for the Patriots: kick a field goal to win the Super Bowl as time ran out.
Vinatieri got to make that end-of-game kick again because Brady drove the Patriots down the field again in Super Bowl XXXVIII, this time against the Carolina Panthers.
The first time, though, was the one Nate knew he would always remember best. He didn't understand everything that was happening in the game, didn't understand everything the announcers were saying, no matter how patient his dad had been explaining things. Nate just understood in his heart that there was magic in the room that night, not just because he was getting to stay up later than he ever had to watch the ending of a game, but because he was sharing this night and this ending and this one amazing football game with his dad.
Ever since there had been the same kind of magic for Nate every time he watched Brady play quarterback for the Patriots. There was that kind of magic even after Brady hurt his knee and lost that time from the prime of his career. The two of them had shared something important with that first Super Bowl, even if Tom Brady had never known it.
"Anybody can do it when the pressure's not on," his dad would say when Brady had turned into Two-Minute Tom again. "It's when you're under pressure, when the whole world's looking at you and your teammates are looking to you, that's the measure of a champion in sports."
Now, that day in September at SportStuff, Nate was going to hand over his money and take home the Brady ball and put it in the case his mom had bought for him on his birthday, the one that was waiting for him back in his room on his desk.
He had called the store right before they made the drive over, just to make sure that he hadn't miscalculated on the tax. His mom was carrying the envelope with the money in it in her purse. And there the ball was when they got to the store, right where it always was, directly behind the cash register in The Hall, high up on a shelf between a Kevin Garnett basketball and a bat signed by both David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez of the Red Sox.
"I'd like to buy the Brady ball, please," Nate said, pointing up at it.
The man said, "Sorry, kid, not for sale."
But he must've seen what happened to Nate then, Nate actually feeling his legs buckle, as if somebody had brought him down from behind in the open field. So right away the man said, "Sorry. Bad joke."
Abby, standing next to Nate, said, "Just a bad joke? You're being way too easy on yourself, Mister."
The man laughed. "Who's she, your bodyguard?"
And Nate had said, "Something like that. Just a lot tougher."
It was when the ball was in Nate's hands, a ball that Brady had to have handled if only long enough to sign it with a Sharpie, that Abby had noticed the entry forms.
The man was still counting out the money at the time. While he did, Abby got right up on top of the little poster on the counter and started reading out loud. That was how she and Nate found out that SportStuff was sponsoring a promotion called "The SportStuff Million-Dollar Throw."
The winner of the contest was going to get the chance to make one throwfrom thirty yards away, through a twentyinch holeat halftime of the Patriots' Thanksgiving night game against the Colts.
Whoever made the throw would be handed a check for one million dollars.
The poster showed a picture of the Patriots' home stadium, Gillette Stadium. At midfield, they'd set up a billboard with "SportStuff" written in gigantic letters across it.
Only the place in the middle where the two words should have connected was empty. That's where somebody would try to put the million-dollar throw on Thanksgiving night.
Abby was right on top of the poster now, squinting, somehow managing to read the contest rules.
Nate said, "What do you have to do, go through some kind of tournament like you do in Pass, Punt and Kick?"
"Nope," she said.
Then to the man she said, "Borrow a pen, please?"
"What are you doing?" Nate said.
"Getting a pen for you to sign up with."
Abby looked at him, smiling her best smile, and said, "You could make a throw like that with your eyes closed, Brady." Always the eyes with her. Her favorite expression, one she used all the time, was about the eyes being the window to the soul. Nate wasn't sure he totally got that one, but he tried to act like he did, even used it himself sometimes, never wanting Abby to think he was a step slow keeping up with her in what he called "the smart world."
"I'm not signing up," he said.
"Yeah, Brady, you are," she said. "It says right here that all you have to do to qualify is make a purchase of more than five hundred dollars, which I believe you've just done. And be thirteen or older. There it is, game, set, match."
The man behind the counter said, "But if you're under the age of eighteen, you need a signature from a parent."
Nate's mom said, "He's got one of those right here."
She signed. Nate signed. The man told them that at the end of the month the winning number would be drawn on the CBS football pregame show, the one hosted by James Brown. It would be like one of those jackpot lottery drawings you saw all the time on television.
"You've got about the same odds as winning a lottery," the man said. "But good luck anyway."
Nate had taken his ticket home and put it in the trophy case with the Brady ball and hadn't taken it out until the day of the drawing, watching with his parents and Abby as James Brown called out the winning numbers, one after another.
Every one of them the numbers on Nate's ticket.
They stopped dancing around and hugging and screaming only when Nate's mom told them to hush so they could hear the representative from SportStuff say that the winning numbers belonged to a thirteen-year-old from western Massachusetts by the name of Nate Brodie, that a boy who was now the most famous thirteen-year-old in America would get a chance on Thanksgiving night to make the throw of a lifetime.
The man from SportStuff said, "A million-dollar throw from a one-in-a-million kid."
James Brown had said, "Hope he's a quarterback."
And Nate said to the television, "I am."