Win or Die
We leave the field and the disappointed hometown crowd behind and descend the long staircase to the locker room.
Adam, my closest friend and backup quarterback for the Mayberry Miners, grabs my shoulder. “I’m screwed,” he says.
“No you’re not, man. You’ve been waiting for a moment like—” I start before Adam cuts me off.
“Shhhh dude,” he says.
“No, I’m not being insensitive to Steve. God rest his soul,” I say.
“He’s not dying. He broke his arm, drama queen,” Adam says.
We join the rest of the team in the locker room and Adam and I take our regular seats near the back.
“You know what I mean—this is your chance to show the world what you’re made of,” I say.
Adam brushes me off and diverts his attention to the front of the locker room where Coach takes his position.
Coach puts his hands on his hips and looks the room over. “Listen boys, we’re only down by ten. That’s nothing. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.”
The team is exhausted and in poor spirits. Not only are we down ten in the Central Utah 3A High School Football State Semi-Final, but Steve Sandecki, our starting quarterback and only college prospect on the team, broke his wrist on the final play of the first half.
Coach continues. “Now, I’ve got someone here who wants to say a few words before we go back out there—something to put a little pep in your step. Some of you may recognize him, but I expect you all to listen and be respectful. Mr. Warner, the floor is yours,” he says and steps out of the way.
A tall man in a black suit and crimson red tie steps forward. He is bald with gray scruff on his thin face. He clears his throat and takes Coach’s position in the front of the locker room.
“Thank you, coach,” he says and sets his hand on Steve Sandecki’s shoulder. Steve cradles his splintered arm, trying his best to maintain composure.
I nudge Adam. “Warner as in Warner Field? As in Warner Industries?” I whisper. Adam nods, eyes fixed on the man.
“My name is Morris Warner. You may recognize my name from around town. I’m Chairman of the Board of Warner Industries, a company my grandfather started eighty-five years ago.”
Adam and I exchange glances, he raises his eyebrows.
“I’m here to tell you about the two greatest moments of my life,” Mr. Warner says. He makes his hand into a fist and brings it to his chest. “The second greatest moment of my life happened right out on that field fifty years ago. The moment I caught a touchdown pass with four minutes on the clock in the state semi-final—much like tonight. We went on to win that game and play in the state final.”
He paces around the locker room for a moment in silence then returns to the front. “And the greatest moment of my life was again on that field out there. The moment time expired on the clock a week after my touchdown catch. The moment the Mayberry Miners were named state champions for the first time.”
The locker room nodded in encouragement, smiles all around.
“I’ll keep this brief,” he says and reaches a hand in his suit coat pocket. “These football games may not mean much to you. Maybe they do. I don’t know. But they mean the world to me.” He looks down at Steve and his chin starts quivering.
“This is the closest we’ve come to winning a state championship since that year fifty years ago. We’re so close I can taste it,” he says and pulls a sleek silver pistol from his pocket.
Some of the team gasps, most stay silent.
“Not many people know this, but I have stage four lung cancer,” he says and begins fastening a silencer on his pistol. “I won’t be around for much longer.”
Where the hell is he going with this?
“I would love nothing more than to taste sweet victory one more time before I pass,” he says and looks at his gun carefully.
An intense pit grows in my stomach.
Coach steps forward. “Uh, Mr. Warner, I think you’re making the boys a bit uncomfortable with that firearm there.”
Mr. Warner continues, ignoring Coach. “I know all of your families, I’m pretty sure. Most of your parents work for me, in fact.” He coughs violently for a moment before continuing. “I have a deal for you all, something that I hope will give you the boost you need to pull this off.”
He caresses the side of Steve’s shoulder with the backside of his hand, then snaps his head up abruptly. “If you win this game, I will give each of you $100,000.”
“Oh, hell yeah!” Someone shouts from the back.
The room murmurs excitedly.
“Are you shitting me?” Adam whispers to me.
“But, if you lose,” he says and looks at Coach. “If you lose, you die.” He places the gun against Steve’s temple and pulls the trigger.
The muted pop followed by the thud of Steve’s body hitting the floor plays in slow motion.
Nobody screams, nobody yells. The life—along with Steve’s—is sucked from the room. Blood begins pooling beneath Steve’s head on the cold, magenta tile floor.
The room stews in silence.
Coach clears his throat and steps forward, glancing at Steve’s lifeless body on the floor. “Mr. War—” he swallows hard. “You can’t—well, this is only the semi-final, uh, sir. Even if we do pull off a win tonight, we’d still have the final next week. Not to mention—"
“Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it,” Mr. Warner says calmly.
The referee whistle blows in the distance, giving us a two-minute warning.
“I’m sorry boys,” Mr. Warner says stepping closer to me and Adam. “For the dramatics, I mean. Just put it all behind you and go have a great second half.”
Adam’s face is drained of color, his lips quiver.
“You could walk away from tonight a lot richer. Remember that,” he says.
Some of the team stands and begins gearing up.
Is everyone really going along with this?
The whistle blows again and the hometown crowd cheers.
Coach looks at Steve’s body again, then Mr. Warner, then around the room. “You heard the man, let’s get out there and have a great game!”
“That’s the spirit! Go Miners!” Mr. Warner says.
I follow the rest of the team like a lemming, gearing up and taking the field in a daze. The world has taken on a grey, lifeless tinge.
As I take my place on the field for kickoff return, I make brief eye contact with a hopeful Mr. and Mrs. Sandecki cheering in the stands, unaware of their son lying dead in a puddle of his own blood in the locker room.
The whistle blows and the opposing team kicks the ball.
It soars through the air toward me. I take a trembling breath in and assume my power stance, bracing for the impact of the falling football.