The private high school in Georgetown had been founded a century earlier and was a feeder school to the Ivies and other elite colleges across the nation. Its alumni sat in both chambers of Congress, on the boards of directors of numerous Fortune 500 companies and were found among the top ranks of the military. Never content to rest on their laurels, the administration, faculty and student body of the school always looked for new worlds to conquer.
In two months, on May 8th in New York City, the school had every reason to expect it would collect a new accolade the likes of which few secular private high schools in the country could match. Hal Walker, Winstead class of 2010, Stanford class of 2014, starting quarterback of the Cardinal football team, was expected to become the first player selected in the National Football League draft.
An NFL contract measured in the tens of millions of dollars was sure to follow.
An NFL contract measured in the tens of millions of dollars was sure to follow.
Product endorsement income would dwarf his football compensation.
Barring catastrophic injury, a Hall of Fame career was anticipated.
In the men’s locker room that morning, the first day of spring football practice for the Winstead Warriors, Head Coach Don Russell, who’d played three years as an NFL quarterback himself, had shown his players a video Hal Walker had sent to the Winstead team. To say the Warrior players were pumped up would be the understatement of the century. Hearts pounded. Adrenaline rushed. Nobody on the team could sit still as the video began to roll.
“Winning football games is pretty simple,” Hal Walker said. “You play smarter and harder than the guys across the line of scrimmage. You play with more focus and discipline. You work just as hard in the classroom as on the practice field because you have to develop good study habits to succeed at football — and everything else in life. You respect everyone who’s trying to make your life better: your parents, your teachers, your coaches, your teammates. You never underestimate or belittle your opponents or they’ll hand you your ass gift wrapped.”
The team laughed at that, until Walker followed with, “And if I ever hear any of you aren’t living up to Coach Russell’s expectations, doing all the things I just told you, I’ll be paying you a visit with some of my new NFL teammates. You won’t be happy to see us because we’ll be coming to knock heads. Now, get out there on the practice field, work as hard as you can, learn as much as you can, do what your parents, teachers and coaches tell you, and one more thing. Never back down from any challenge you face on a football field or anywhere else.”
Coach Russell threw open the locker room doors and forty-two high school boys — Warriors in their minds — roared out onto the gridiron.
Chief Assistant Coach Bill Eccles patted Russell on the back.
He said, “I think this’ll be a year nobody here will ever forget.”
He was right, but not in a way anyone ever could have imagined.
McGill Investigations, Inc. — Georgetown
McGill sat in his office alone. He’d worked his way through the print edition of the Washington Post and was now reading the Chicago Tribune online. The White Sox and Cubs were at spring training in Arizona. No serious sportswriter gave either team a chance of making the playoffs in the coming season, much less going to or winning the World Series. McGill, who followed the home teams for story content more than exhibitions of sporting prowess these days, thought it was possible the Sox could surprise. The South Siders had good pitching and had acquired some young power hitters who just might pan out. And Boston had gone from worst to first over the previous two years. If the Cubs were to win the World Series, their first in over a century and counting, that just might be the precursor to the Second Coming.
He’d have to check with Sweetie to see if there was any scriptural reference.
McGill had been circumspect about the cases he’d taken so far that year. They were all routine matters easily resolved. Neither the celebrity media nor the president’s political opposition had been able to work themselves up about any of them. The work was too mundane; the clients were too obscure.
That didn’t mean adversarial motormouths couldn’t have embroidered dull facts or lied outright to stir up trouble, but the fact was McGill scared most of Washington’s chattering class. They’d all seen the video of him taking on Harlan Fisk as the militia leader stood at the head of his ragtag army. He’d waded in barehanded and left the bully writhing on the ground.
Getting on the wrong side of someone like McGill was not to be chanced lightly.
On the other hand, if the payoff, professionally or politically, was big enough there would always be those willing to take the risk.
Several times during the cold, snowy doldrums of the past several weeks he’d wondered if he shouldn’t … he’d be damned if he was going to say the word retire. Maybe go on hiatus. That was what a former movie star like Patti would have said, right? But he wasn’t sure he could twiddle his thumbs for the remaining thirty-four months of his wife’s presidency, and he didn’t know what else he could do besides being some sort of cop.
Sweetie was out of the office much of the time these days. She was embarking on the great challenge and adventure of being a good mother. As McGill knew she would, Sweetie was winning over little Maxi Shady bit by bit. Some name that kid had. Just thinking about it made McGill smile. Almost as much as seeing Sweetie and Maxi walking hand-in-hand down the street.
Sweetie had told him she would have taken over the business, if he’d really intended to stay away for the remainder of Patti’s time in the Oval Office. But she would have kept things going by hiring other good coppers and letting them carry most of the load. She’d have done much of the case management from home.
Not that she foresaw such a necessity.
Sweetie had told McGill, “You’ll figure it out, how to keep working without embarrassing Patti.” McGill had lent a gun to Odo Sacripant when he and Yves Pruet had been in town last year, and wound up spending a weekend in jail as a result. But as Sweetie had also said, “You’re not ready to let go or even slow down yet.”
Too true, McGill thought.
He’d even started coming into the office for a half-day on Saturdays.
Something he’d never done before.
Something completely unproductive, too, until that morning.
A woman named Zara Gilford had called, saying she needed his help urgently.
But she was already fifteen minutes late for her appointment.
Then Deke, who was manning the outer office, poked his head in. McGill thought it would be to announce Ms. Gilford’s arrival. He put the sports section of the Trib into his computer’s dock.
“Ms. Gilford?” McGill asked.
Deke shook his head. “Roger Michaelson.”
McGill heard Michaelson say, “Good manners call for the use of my former title, Special Agent. Senator Michaelson.”
Deke rolled his eyes.
Winstead School Football Field — Georgetown
Don Russell, in addition to being the football team’s head coach, was also the team’s offensive coordinator. Bill Eccles, who’d played middle linebacker at Boston College, was also the defensive coordinator. The Tripartite Athletic Conference (TAC), composed of Winstead and McKinley in DC and four other private high schools in neighboring Maryland and Virginia suburbs, allowed their football teams to have five coaches and a scout.
The additional slots were quarterback and special teams coaches. George Knox handled special teams at Winstead.
As a former NFL quarterback, Russell took on the quarterback coaching job, too. He was paid an additional 50% for doing three jobs. Nobody begrudged him the money. He was the man who developed Hal Walker into a star quarterback — and it looked like the new kid at the position, Jarius Niles, a recruit from a District public school, had even more raw talent.
Truth was, Jarius, though only a sophomore, might be an even better bet for the U.S. men’s track and field team at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. He had speed that was already being compared to that of Usain Bolt. But he also had an arm like a cannon, and he longed to learn the most important position on the football field.
When Russell had talked to Jarius and his mother about coming to Winstead, the precocious athlete told him, “I don’t just want to run, Coach. I want to be a leader.”
Mrs. Niles said, “I told him leaders have to be smarter than followers. He raised his grades from a C to a B average, but I know he can do better. My son can make A’s. But will he get the help he needs at your school or will all you have him think about is football?”
Russell took his phone out of his pocket and called Hal Walker. “Hal, would you mind talking to a mom who has a few questions about sending her son to Winstead.”
The coach explained that the young man was a Winstead graduate, quarterback and captain of his high school team and now attended one of the finest universities anywhere.
Mrs. Niles took the phone and introduced herself and spoke of her concerns.
Whatever it was she heard eased her worries, made her smile and then laugh.
Jarius, who knew all about Hal Walker’s football career in both high school and college, started bouncing up and down in his chair. His manners were too good to interrupt his mother, but he looked at Russell with imploring eyes. He wanted to talk to his idol, too.
The coach made a gesture, advising patience.
In a quiet voice, he said, “Jarius, I promise you, come to Winstead or not, I’ll set up a call with Hal just for you.”
Mrs. Niles caught that just as she was saying goodbye.
She handed the phone back to Russell.
“Other than my son, that was the nicest young man I’ve ever spoken to. He was so polite, but he answered me straight on every question I had.”
“What tickled you, Mama? What made you laugh?” Jarius asked.
She smiled again, “He said from what Coach Russell has told him you might be even better than he is … but he didn’t think his mama would agree with that.”
“God bless mothers everywhere,” the coach said.
“The good ones anyway,” Mrs. Niles said, turning serious. “You’ll make sure Jarius does his best at his schoolwork? I want him to be an important man if he never plays a minute of football again.”
That idea almost provoked a remark from Jarius.
But his mother held up a forestalling hand and her son respected it.
Coach Russell said, “Mrs. Niles, I promise you this. Winstead will provide more to Jarius in the classroom than I’ll ever be able to give him on the football field. He works hard at his academics, and I know you won’t settle for less, he’ll go on to study at a top university. No question in my mind.”
Elda Niles looked into Coach Russell’s eyes a good long time.
He didn’t blink once.
She extended her hand to him and he took it.
Jarius jumped out of his seat with a cheer and touched his palm to the ten-foot ceiling.
That Saturday morning on the Winstead football field, coaches Russell, Eccles and Knox looked out on their squad for the coming season. To a man, their players were already in game-shape. You couldn’t compete on the athletic teams at the school without maintaining a B average. All of their athletes had done that and more and they still had the drive and dedication to hit the gym and show up at the first team practice strong, swift and lean.
The coaches stood on the sideline and watched the offense run ten plays Russell had scripted for them. The defense had to react, just as they would in games.
Knox said to his colleagues, “Would you look at how fast Niles is out there? I haven’t said anything to you, Coach,” he said to Russell, “but he asked me if he could play special teams.”
Russell looked at his assistant. “What? Run back kickoffs and return punts?”
The head coach smiled. “I doubt anyone would lay a hand on him. It might almost be unfair to the other teams. I doubt any player in the whole league is within half-a-second of him in the forty-yard dash.”
Eccles, the defensive coordinator, said, “I’ll bet Ricky Mitchell is.”
Mitchell was an unexpected bonus to Jarius Niles’ recruitment. He was Jarius’ best friend since the time they were little kids and another starter on their public high school team. Mitchell and his mother came to Russell and asked, please, could he come to Winstead, too?
The request was supported not only by Ricky’s mother, Nola Mitchell, but also by Jarius and Elda Niles. It wasn’t a take-my-friend-or-else situation. Russell could see that. But it was a heartfelt plea. Trouble was, Ricky was only a C-student. Russell talked to the headmaster at Winstead about the situation. He came up with a solution.
Ricky would be allowed to audit a Winstead course — take it without official credit. If he pulled a B or higher grade, on his own merit, he would be admitted. With Jarius and both mothers urging him on, Ricky got his B, was admitted to the school and projected as a starting defensive back on the football team.
“You may be right about that,” Russell said to Knox. “If anyone’s speed is close to Jarius’, it’s Ricky’s. We’re going to have a great team this year.”
Eccles was about to agree when he saw a big man walking their way.
The defensive coordinator had a bad feeling and said, “Oh, shit.”
Don Russell had a no-profanity rule for his players and his coaches.
No cussing in the locker room or on the field. You never got penalized for what you didn’t say. So Eccles’ vulgarity took him by surprise. Then he saw the reason for it.
Abel Mays, the head coach of the public school team that both Jarius and Ricky had played for, was coming their way, and he looked anything but happy.
Knox said, “I don’t think he stopped by to say, ‘Have a good season.'”
Eccles added, “Not after we took his top two players.”
Russell took a step forward, saying, “Let me handle this.”
Then Mays brushed back the right side of his coat.
And they all saw how much trouble they were in.