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Bodies clashed beneath the sun of an unseasonably hot day in Morgan City.

The air echoed with the sounds of grunts and groans. Muscles heaved. Sweat mixed with a dash of blood dripped onto the ground as twenty-two teenagers performed the ritual rumble of male aggression known as football.

Paul watched from the bench as the Morgan High Hawks battled the Banning High Raccoons.

I gotta get more into the game, thought Paul Tyler, knowing that as a wide receiver he was a vital element of play, especially with the score tied at 14-14 in the fourth quarter. I gotta get my spirit up, get the old team gonzo gutsiness singing in the veins. We gotta win this game, he thought to himself, trying to echo in his heart the wild cheers bellowing from the bleachers. We gotta slaughter those Raccoons! We gotta go home wearing Coonskin caps, dammit!

This game was a grudge match.

There was nothing that the goons on the Banning High School football squad wanted more than to humiliate the Morgan City High football team, to chew off their noses and spit them into the dust, to stomp their bodies to bloody bits with their cleats.

Paul Tyler knew this. He knew also that the game was a play-off, and that the winner of the match would go on to the county championships, something that had eluded Morgan High for more than a decade. But for the life of him, as he sat on that hard bench—draped in shoulder pads and football jersey, clutching his helmet like a talisman—all he could think about was one of the cheerleaders.

And there she was, only ten feet away, a flash of red and blue, and pink thigh. Her name was Meg Penny, and Paul had been watching her do this rah-rah routine all season, but still he couldn’t get enough of it.

“Go, Hawks, go! Remember the Alamo! Try, Hawks, try! Make the Raccoons cry!” they chanted. Incredibly stupid, yes, but that magnificent female body squeezed into that skimpy outfit was nothing to laugh at. Paul especially liked the way her long chestnut hair bounced over her shoulders and back, a curly fall of joy framing an incredibly cute face.

And those beautiful deep-brown eyes.

And the bright pink of her cheeks, the white gleam of her teeth, the way her uniform would ride up over her rump when she performed her cheerleading contortions!

And then, wonder of wonders, all of reality seemed to fade away from Paul Tyler—Meg Penny turned and she smiled at him!

Paul turned away, embarrassed that she had caught him staring. He didn’t want her to think that the only thing he did was drool over the way she bounced about in cheerleader’s garb. Of course, he found her physically attractive—incredibly so, in fact—but he also liked a lot of things about Meg, like her spunky personality and her constant, sunny optimism.

His reverie was broken by a nudge from a teammate. “I’m telling you, man, she wants your bodily fluids.”

Droplets of water splashed Paul’s dirt-smudged face. Annoyed, he turned to the guy sitting next to him, who had just taken a squeeze bottle of water from an ice chest and was busily squirting the cooling stuff all over his grubby face. Scott Jesky had been ribbing Paul all month about his infatuation with Meg. Paul tried to ignore his friend’s remarks, as he turned his gaze back to the playing field where the Hawks’ defensive team were lining up again.

Scott and his one-track mind, however, just wouldn’t let go. “You gotta ask her out!” he yelled. “Can’t you see that she’s just begging for the kind of satisfaction only a lusty football stud can provide?”

Paul turned and glared at his friend. Scott was shorter than Paul by half a head, and sometimes he seemed dumber by ten times that amount. But what Scott Jesky lacked in height or intelligence, he more than made up for in sheer obnoxiousness.

“I told you, man. She’s dating Polver!”

Scott shook his blond head and grinned. “I got the official word, pal. That relationship’s going nowhere. It’s zeros-ville.” His small blue eyes darted furtively, quickly searching to make certain Polver wasn’t within earshot. “Take a shot, for Chrissakes!”

Paul took the water bottle from Scott and splashed his face. God, he knew he must smell like a zoo by now; three and a half hard quarters of kissing dirt was no preparation for asking a stunner like Meg Penny out on a date.

Goodness knew he had thought about it long enough. He’d even rehearsed a number of lines, consisting mostly of clever quips and jaunty witticisms. He’d scrapped them, however, deciding they just made him sound as smart-alecky and horny as Scott. But as many times as he’d almost approached Meg, just as many times he’d chickened out. Oh, sure, he’d talked to her. All the guys joked and partied with the cheerleaders to some extent. But he’d never even taken her aside for a one-on-one chat, much less asked her to a movie or a dance or even for a harmless ice-cream soda.

Again Scott intruded on his reverie, his insinuating tone growing ever more irritating. “It grieves me to see you think so small,” Scott whined. “It really does, Paul. I’m seeing opportunity knocking, and you’re just not answering!”

“Gimme a break, will ya, Scott! I’ll ask her out! I’ll ask her out!” The words were spontaneous, unplanned, but as soon as they dropped from his lips, he knew that he’d made a decision. Yes, by God, he would ask Meg Penny out. People said that he was handsome, with his long face and his short nose, his straight short brown hair and his green eyes. Paul didn’t think of himself as handsome, and he’d always felt awkward around girls. But maybe, just possibly, Meg wouldn’t mind being around him for just a short date or something.

This pronouncement of intention, however, wasn’t enough to stifle an immediate-gratification man like Scott Jesky. “Bullshit! When?” he demanded to know.

“When the time is right,” countered Paul. “Timing is everything!”

Just then Phil Owens, a defensive linebacker, intercepted a wobbly pass and made a quick dash of a whole nine yards before getting yanked down. Whoops and cheers erupted from the bleachers, and Meg Penny and company started their leaping and cavorting again.

Coach Evans, constantly stalking the sidelines like a hungry tiger, stopped, watched his defensive boys pick themselves up and brush themselves off, then spun to his bench with an emphatic gesture. “Okay! Offensive line in!”

“Yeah, sure, bozo!” said Scott tauntingly as he and Paul jogged out together for the huddle. “When Ronald Reagan skies down Old Windy naked, that’s when you’ll ask her out!”

“You’ll see,” said Paul, pulling on his helmet and forming up with Ricky Tees, the quarterback.

“You sure can catch a pass. Too bad you can’t make one,” Scott taunted.

“Hey, shuddup, lard heads,” said Tees. “Listen up!”

The play was called; the lineup was formed. Every muscle in Paul’s body seemed to ache as he looked over the scrimmage line into the scowling faces of the Banning Raccoons. Somehow these clowns seemed lots bigger than the Hawks. Especially when you knew all they wanted was to dig a hole with your face guard, and then stuff your body in it.

“Hup!” cried the quarterback, grabbing the ball and then backpedaling.

Paul, despite his misgivings and occasional lack of confidence, was a natural athlete. Responding to the call, he went into action, heading hard to one side toward the sidelines, feinting one way to fool his cover, and then charging at breakneck speed to the targeted spot where he had a chance of being open to receive.

The Raccoons surged in toward the quarterback, who did a little skip, danced a little dance, then had about a third of a second to see if his boy was open.

Paul ran along the white chalked line, just where he was supposed to be. The quarterback’s arm cocked back, sprang. The football sailed up into a sweet, perfect arc. Paul put on the necessary speed to be in the right place at the right time, and as the football sailed down toward him, he was aware of a mighty huffing and chuffing behind him. His cover. Well, better behind him than in front of him!

He reached out, and almost as though by magic, the ball slapped down directly into his hands.

He caught it. He pulled it into his chest, but in doing so he had to slow down.

By the time he was ready to pick up steam again he realized that he wasn’t alone anymore. In fact there were five guys zooming in on him, looking as if they were ready to kill.

Paul tried to dodge, but it was too late. The surge hit him like an express train without brakes. He was flung to one side, over the boundary mark and out of bounds.

The sky seemed to spiral over Paul’s head as he clung obstinately to the ball while the Raccoons pulled him into his own team’s bench area.

The next thing Paul knew, he was being slammed into the team table. Gatorades spilled. Towels flew. Clipboards scattered.

Somewhere a whistle blew and the referees were suddenly yelling. Paul was aware of heavy weights slowly lifting from his body. The tacklers, having brought down their prey, were reluctant to leave it.

Dazed, Paul just lay there for a moment, staring up.

And then, like an angel peering over the edge of a heavenly cloud, Meg Penny stared down at him with a horrified expression.

“Say Peg,” said Paul, trying a wobbly smile, “do you have any plans this evening?”

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