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This Time of Year 

One of them was sitting behind me on the school bus.

And behind him another and then two more in the seat behind that and then two more, all the way to the back door.

It was like narcolepsy had taken over the bus. There was no sound but the noisy hum of the highway. Most of the riders slept with their heads in their hands. In the front seat, a couple of coaches bent over some absurdly accurate map, the printout of some satellite reading. A cop car cut in front of the bus and turned on its flashing light. A water tower loomed, with the town name painted on, black on silver. "Albany."

It smelled fall. The buses from the city rolled into the stadium grounds, past a row of large signs singing local hymns. "Pop" Russell, Building Contractor. B&D Trucking. Pea Gravel and Fill Dirt.

The team tumbled out their buses and wordlessly checked out their opponents. The home side of the stands had started to fill already, and some in the crowd were shaking empty bleach bottles with marbles inside. The Albany team, all in maroon, were warming up, yelping "A-Town!" every few seconds. Burgers and franks simmered on a large grill near the concession stand, and smoke hung over the field like incense.

The visiting team began to warm up. An assistant coach moved through their ranks, saying over and over in a low voice, "All right, King! Bring the intensity. All or nothing." The home band marched single file into the stadium to a steady drumbeat. The King assistant repeated, "Bring the intensity. All or nothing."

All too soon, it looked to be nothing. King kicked off and just failed to cover the onside kick. Sixty-six seconds later, Albany scored on a long pass, the receiver seeming to run straight at a sign proclaiming, "Albany Hornets. Whatever It Takes."

Mere minutes later, a Hornet tailback tiptoed around the right end, inexplicably found himself alone and rode a wave of small-town fervor to glory. 14-0, Albany.

The next time they got the football, Albany started yet another drive. The PA announcer in the tiny press box was getting pretty excited, his sense of enthusiasm shading even the announcements that filled the airtime between plays: "A nifty 50 for Darryl. Happy birthday, Darryl!" and "Don't forget tomorrow. Vote for number 53, Willie Graves, sheriff."

The excitement mounted until, at last, Albany could seem to take no more. Their quarterback fumbled and lost it. On the first play, the King halfback broke through the middle and ran 90 yards to pick up much abandoned hope.

But the extra point was missed, and King trailed 14-6 at halftime. As the teams straggled from the field, the PA announcer invited everyone to the "Fifth Quarter" at Bethlehem Baptist Church after the game. "Good food and good fellowship. Just follow the construction tape."

The King head coach exhorted, "We've got a game to win!" But he was hoarse and sounded like an asthmatic sea lion trying to be heard over the Rod Stewart tape that paved the way for the halftime routine of the Albany dance team.

When things don't go so hot, there are existential choices to make -- and they were made. After another fumble recovery, King scored again and cut the lead to 14-12. But then nothing much happened; the teams were learning about the hurry and the crawl of time. The King defense knew they had to get the ball back. Each play was launched after an uncertain gazing at the sidelines, a kneeling, a crouching, a clash.

And then King got the ball back, but there were two-and-a-half minutes and 80 yards to go. They sent out twins to the right; the widest one ran a post, and the inside kid ran a wheel and dragged outside and then turned it up field. He was wide open, and the brown ball went up and came down to meet him in the clear, cool night. The Albany side went as quiet as if someone had hit a mute button, and the small town Friday night dreams of a community were going away, yard by churning yard.

As the receiver went down the sideline on the King side of the stands, you felt a tipping of the scales. Then he crossed the goal line, as beautiful and fleeting as a butterfly wing.

After the game, the winning head coach told his team how proud he was that they had faced adversity and spit in its eye. He warned them not to be swept away by praise from fair-weather classmates: "Remember you only really have the guy next to you."

On the long ride home, the headlights of a following car cast shadows of the whooping boys. And sitting in the front seat, you felt like you had jumped out of a plane and were enjoying the float for a fine few moments before getting back to earth.

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