Chapter 9

The Thanksgiving Game against the Hawks would basically mark my one year anniversary with John Thomas. That's when we first started talking and that's how we ended up at this point.

He was JT back then – standing in line at the snack shack to get a coke in the freezing cold and not paying for my hot chocolate! I knew nothing about him but now he was about to play his 10th – and final – game of his high school football career.

I think that was a good thing. Maybe if he had stuck with the piano none of this would have happened and maybe if I hadn't used my football recruitment obsession on him we never would have gotten to know each other and he never would have found the inspiration to go out for the football team in the first place.

There was a fun rally the night before the big game – the players did some skits in the gym for the students. John Thomas played the piano while some of the players sang gag songs and it was great.

I realized that it was the first time that John Thomas played the piano in public although I don't think most people realized how good he was on the keyboard until they actually listened to him play, some of them awestruck.

After the rally, the four of us went out for ice cream.

"So, tomorrow is my last time in uniform," John Thomas remarked. "I've been thinking all week how awesome this has been."

"You excelled beyond all expectations," I said. "You created a culture of commitment and determination and what it means to be a teammate. You set the standard on and off the field. You were an inspiration to all of us."

"It's been fun," Lonnie said. "The best season I could have imagined."

John Thomas held me back when the others started to leave Friendlys when we were done. "I owe it all to you," he said. "I never would have attempted any of this if you hadn't challenged me."

Are you finally going to kiss me? I thought to myself. But all I said was: "It's been a joy to watch you."

I wanted to cry driving home with Lonnie after saying goodnight to John Thomas. I was in love with a football hero who didn't have a clue.

I didn't sleep well that night, tossing and turning with nervous worry. I wanted John Thomas to have a good game and go out on a high note.

The Greenville News and Dispatch wrote a great preview article of the Hawks-Saints game. Coach Phillips had some nice things to say about John Thomas.

"He's been a key contributor on both sides of the ball. He was thrust into a bigger role carrying the ball due to injuries and he responded well and defensively he's been a leader at linebacker, leading the team in tackles and interceptions. He was a walk on as a senior and proved that he is a true football player, one of the most dedicated players I've had the pleasure to coach. He's a valued teammate, a natural leader, and he'd do anything for the team. He took pride in setting the blocks and running the ball. On defense, everyone knew where #44 was on the field."

I felt my eyes tear up as I read Coach's praise. Who could have imagined that John Thomas Stevens would be a better football player than he had been a piano player. And I knew the reason: he had a passion for the game instead of a resentment of the piano.

Lonnie had left the house early for the team breakfast. He was confident about their chances of beating Tech. The team was 6-3 – already their best record in years, but if they could win today and go to 7-3 it would be the best Saints record in twenty-two years. But Tech was also 6-3 – ironically having lost to the very same three teams as we did (Hens, Giants, and Hurricanes) so it was most likely going to be a tough battle.

Ryan Harwig was doing the punting and Webby the kickoffs. Hen Harrison was out with an ankle injury and DE/TE Willy Dyson broke his wrist in the Crusader game so Freshman Clay Morris was playing for him. Also, Jonathan Stedman had been dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons so we were down to fifteen available players.

I went to the game with my parents, Dottie, and Patty. The last thing I did before leaving the house was paint blue #44's on my face underneath my eyes.

We sat with Mark and his parents who also came to cheer on John Thomas.

"Am I a traitor to be sitting on the Saints side when I'm a Tech alumni and former player?" Mark wondered.

It wasn't as cold on this Thanksgiving as the previous one. Chilly – in the forties – but the sun was out and there wasn't a breeze so the weather shouldn't be a factor.

I could barely focus on all the pre-game ceremonies and celebrations and when the Saints ran onto the field for their warm ups I once again got emotional watching #44 go through the paces. I'd never see him doing that again. I sniffled when John Thomas and Tommy T went out for the coin toss and I felt my stomach summersault when the game started.

So here's what happened: John Thomas scored two first half touchdowns. He also intercepted a Hawk pass on the goal line to keep them from scoring and it was 12-0 Saints at the half.

Wow! I was giddy with excitement and hopeful for a big win. I couldn't wait for the second half to begin and it didn't take all that long for us to score again – John Thomas on a pass from Ryan.

"Wow, JT has a chance to be Game MVP!" Mark remarked. "This is unbelievable.

John Thomas recovered a fumble down near the goal line to stop another Hawk drive and with a little over four minutes to go in the game, the Saints were up 18-0!

"JT is definitely Game MVP," Mark determined. "What a performance."

I was so happy for John Thomas. He had been a person of character and leadership. I couldn't think of anybody who deserved the honor more and I was very proud.

Then Pup Marsh – our best lineman – went out with a shoulder injury, replaced by untested freshman Andy Martinez. Not long after, Ryan shanked a punt to set up the Hawks with great field position. Two plays later, on a trick Hail Mary toss on 4th and 19, the Hawks scored and got the two point conversion and all of a sudden it was 18-8 and the Saints were looking a little tired. The Hawks had more players so they were fresher coming down the stretch.

We went three and out and had to punt and this time the Hawks broke it for a 45 yard punt return. They scored on a two point conversion and just like that it was 18-16!

The Saints fans grew quiet. The momentum had shifted. For most of the game we had been screaming and yelling and cheering and laughing and now not only were we teetering on losing the game but John Thomas' MVP recognition was on the verge of being wiped away.

The Hawks went for the on-side kick but we recovered the ball in excellent field position.

"Need a couple of first downs," Mark said.

There was 2:47 left on the clock.

We went three and out again but Ryan got off a great punt to back up the Hawks deep in their own territory with 1:33 left to play.

I'd never been so nervous in my life!

John Thomas got a sack!

But on fourth and 16 the Hawks completed a fourth down do or die pass for a first down to keep the drive alive. Without Pup and Willy Dyson on the defensive line we were vulnerable and the Hawks were moving the ball, the secondary forced to make the plays after giving up yards.

On another fourth down play, John Thomas stuffed the receiver for an incomplete pass but Cornerback Marv Brown got called for pass interference and the Hawks stayed alive with a first down.

Lonnie almost had an interception in the end zone that would have saved the game but he dropped it ("The sun was in my eyes," he'd later tell us) and the Hawks were still alive – slowly killing us in the stands!

The Hawks scored a running touchdown with 13 seconds left to go up 22-18. They went for two and made it and it was 24-18 and I hate to admit it but I started to cry. John Thomas went from Game MVP to an asterisk and I knew Lonnie was going to be beating himself up for dropping that INT.

"Come on, let's go greet our conquering heroes," My father said and we left the bleachers.

"Whatever you do, don't say it's just a game," Mark warned.

The Hawks kicked off a squibbed kick that we recovered. We desperately tried to throw the ball down the field in a hopeless attempt for a miracle but time ran out and just like that the Blue County Hawks had snatched victory from us.

I was crying again as the Saints congratulated the celebrating Hawks and I watched as my hero walked off the field. Some of the players were teary eyed and devastated but John Thomas looked oddly calm, cool and collected as he took off his helmet and left the field.

Overcome with emotion, I ran out onto the field and gave him a hug and a spontaneous kiss right smack on the lips. I wasn't about to wait for him to come to his senses and I was relieved when he wrapped his arms around my waist and gave me a squeeze.

"You're still my MVP," I whispered through my sobs.

"Thanks," he said warmly.

"You okay?" I asked, breaking the embrace and looking into his eyes.

"Sometimes life is defined by lasts," John Thomas theorized. "Your last piano competition. Your last high school football game. Today, the door closes on my football experience but I know I'm better for it. Now we move on to the next challenge."

"We?" I asked tearfully.

"You and me make a pretty good team, don't you think?" He smiled.

"Yes," I said happily, kissing him again and then letting him hug me.

"Thanks for letting me be with the guys," John Thomas said. "But now we'll have plenty of time to spend together," he vowed.

"No regrets?" I asked.

"Coming here and doing this and meeting you were the best decisions of my life," he said.

"I can't say I disagree," I smiled.

"Says the girl who painted my football number on her face," John Thomas remarked.

"Happy Thanksgiving, John Thomas Stevens, Supreme Court Justice.

"Happy Thanksgiving, Chrystene Dawson, Savior of Piano Players."