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Thomas had lost his television remote yet again, this time in the folds of the afghan on the sofa. He was desperate to turn the volume down to zero, as a form of superstition if nothing else. But on this occasion the soundbar was blaring to the point that he couldn’t concentrate. Whenever there was a crucial play Thomas craved silence, zero external babel subverting his absorption of the moment. Besides, analysts rarely understood Iowa’s funky big play mindset, so why be subjected to any analytical platitudes that had nary a kernel of relevancy to his beloved Hawkeyes?

Ironically, on one occasion his nervousness was so great he forgot his volume-down ritual, which resulted in one of his favorite descriptors ever of a crucial Iowa play. Big Ten Network football analyst Chris Martin set the scene of Marvin McNutt’s touchdown catch with no time left on the clock, in a thrilling game in East Lansing that Iowa needed to stay undefeated in 2009. Then after brilliantly setting the stage for the moment, Martin closed it out by stating that “seven got six” and that sent chills down his spine and Thomas often relived that call on YouTube. But that proved to be an outlier and on nearly every other occasion before or since where Thomas listened to the broadcast, the play-by-play or color analysts usually just crushed his enjoyment with poppycock and so Thomas always preferred to turn down the volume.

“Jesus Christ! Where the fuck is it?” Thomas was desperate now, rummaging through the afghan, burying the remote deeper within it. The play-clock continued to wind down.

“Iowa calls timeout.”

“Thank god,” Thomas muttered as the remote finally fell out of the shaken afghan.

“It appears the Hawkeyes and Kirk Ferentz have changed their minds. They will punt and put this game on the defense.”

Twenty minutes later Thomas was blowing leaves off the lawn. Iowa’s defense had done all it could to preserve a small fourth quarter lead, but it wasn’t enough.

Getting over losses had become easier for Thomas with age. Frustration and grief that used to take days to expunge, now took about an hour on many occasions – one notable exception being the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis. That one took awhile. Then when Stanford buried his Hawkeyes in the Rose Bowl several weeks later the combination was almost too much, but since the season was mercifully over at that point it allowed the breathing room Thomas needed to return refreshed the following season.

“Hey dad, are we still going to the game next month?” Elijah knew the drill.

Whenever Iowa lost it always imperiled the annual pilgrimage to Iowa City he and his father would take annually as far back as he could remember. Not that he cared. He was only a fan of Iowa football by osmosis, and still only casually so and only because it helped him connect with his father. Elijah mostly looked forward to the Iowa City trips because of all the hoopla that surrounded it. Mainly Elijah loved the travel — the airports, the rental car counters, selecting cars, finding edible fast food, and even the rigamarole of the security checks — far more than the actual games. Elijah liked the travel so much so that Thomas predicted on numerous trips, usually while mid-flight, that Elijah was destined to become either “a pilot, a flight attendant, or one of those backpacking bums.” For his part, Elijah knew he wasn’t intellectually disciplined enough to become a pilot, because he assumed there was probably a required test, and he certainly wasn’t the kind of person who’d enjoy serving people dry deli meats at 40,000 feet, so that probably meant his destiny was to be a hobo (a term, by the way, that he had hilariously misunderstood until 5th grade as “homo,” when it all got miraculously and thankfully cleared up over Chinese food at a friend’s house).

Elijah did love the prospect of avoiding real work though. Backpacking in a foreign land, cobbling together odd sleeping arrangements, procuring exotic nourishments, living moment-to-moment, free of schedules, expectations, and responsibilities all sounded awesome to this high school student. Elijah had developed some half-baked ideas on what this might be like watching MTV and down-the-dial survival shows.

“Yes, son. Still going.”

For Elijah, going to Iowa City was always better when Iowa was a winning team. That momentum added zest, in the form of lavish spending by his father, to the whole affair. In years where Iowa underachieved, the trip felt like an annoying obligation, like an automatic 18% gratuity on a restaurant bill for a party of 6 or more, despite terrible service. So yeah, when Iowa sucked the trip sucked.

“Oh, okay. And dad, what year did you graduate again?”

“Why?”

“I’m doing a family history paper for social studies. Was it in the 70s or something?”

“Ha! It was 1984. Year of our Lord… Chuck Long.”

“Thanks!”

Thomas had seen a lot of Iowa football over the years. Maybe too much, and this was forcing an annual reflection, a question that maybe had no answer but needed to be confronted anyway. What, at this point, was the purpose of fandom? Why invest so much emotional energy and hard earned money into “this”? Thomas asked that question with increasing seriousness with each passing seven-win season. There had really only been one season of late in which he felt it was just right, where the ends justified the weekly means, and that was the 2009 season. That season was like Jaws, his favorite movie of all-time, where every scene, every plot twist, each character, and of course the ending, was just perfect. Last minute wins, moral and decadent victories alike, and ironclad justifications for the losses. “That Orange Bowl game was a masterpiece in Ferentzian domination,” Thomas liked to say, and he was right. But lately Thomas was feeling as if the football seasons were playing out like a movie franchise that had gone on way too long, with ever fewer plausible sequels. No longer was he expecting another complete experience, just a memorable moment here or there, spawned from the overly recognizable tropes of Iowa football under Kirk Ferentz, to make it worth sitting through.

+++

The rain was incessant and that meant Thomas would be housebound for a while. He’d targeted this day for a jog and then some light yard work, but both were now washed out. Thomas flipped open his MacBook to see how long this weather delay was to be for, but, strictly out of habit, first checked in on his favorite Iowa sports information news site to see their take on the loss.

“TOP 30 NATIONAL RECRUIT DOWN TO IOWA AND NOTRE DAME.”

Thomas read the headline and despite his ambivalence on recruiting news he was intrigued, perhaps this was a worthy exception because Iowa never ever, it seemed, was a serious finalist for elite recruits. So, Thomas clicked on the link.

Iowa was recruiting a killer athlete named Kris Winston, the top recruit in the state of Colorado, an area Iowa seemed to never recruit, and a kid who had been offered a scholarship by every blue blood football program in the country, with many recruiting him since as early as ninth and tenth grade.

“Ha! He’ll never come here.” Thomas blurted it out so loud his wife came downstairs to see if he was calling out to her.

“Yes, sweetie. What do you need?”

“Oh. Nothing. Nevermind.”

The accolades of this kid were insane to Thomas, but the thing that stuck in his craw was the kid’s last name: Winston. It seemed vaguely familiar to Thomas.

“Winston. Winston. Winston.”

Thomas repeated the name to himself for what might have been a dozen or more times while reading the article before it hit a few minutes later as he was looking out the sliding glass door at the raindrops that were killing his day.

“Brian Winston? No way. No goddamn way.”

Thomas had lived in Kansas for a few years as a teenager and his best friend at the time was a kid whose last name was Winston and now Thomas was scrambling back to his MacBook, logging onto Facebook to see if it was possible that his old buddy was living in Colorado and if by any miracle of chance he had a son named Kris.

+++

In junior high school Brian Winston lived in a quirky ranch-style house right next door to the nondescript house Thomas’s dad bought for his family, in Topeka, Kansas. The first day Thomas ever saw his new home was moments after he and his sister got out of a car on the heels of a seven-hour drive from their grandmother’s mobile home in Oklahoma, where they had been parked as their parents initiated the family move. As Thomas surveyed the landscape of his new neighborhood Brian Winston walked right up, unnoticed, seemingly out of nowhere, tapped Thomas on the shoulder and asked him bluntly, “Do you play golf?” Thomas did, and well. Within two weeks they were inseparable for the next three years. Golf, interestingly enough, was not even Brian’s game. Football was. He was the fastest kid in Topeka by a wide margin and Thomas, who was no slouch of an athlete himself, had never seen such brutal and violent speed and agility before (or since). Brian eventually became a Topeka high school football legend, accepted a full ride scholarship to Kansas University, then promptly blew his knee out, dropped out of college, and joined the Navy.

Years later, around the time that Facebook became a thing, Thomas received a friend request out of the total blue from Brian even though they’d not spoken face to face or even over the phone in years. Thomas accepted the friend request and little came from it after that. Brian never posted much of anything other than new profile pictures and his page was empty of any personal bio information. At the time Thomas naively assumed it would be the first exchange of many more to come, but none more came about. Thomas was disappointed and yet relieved by that fact.

“Brian Fucking Winston,” Thomas thought as he gazed at one photo in particular on Brian Winston’s still mostly barren Facebook page. It was of Brian proudly standing next to a shirtless, cherub-faced adolescent with perfect abs, on a football field with a mountainous background.

CLICK! As the photo expanded to fill his computer screen Thomas could see clear as day that this was indeed Kris Winston, the Top 30 Iowa recruiting target, and he was in fact the offspring of his childhood buddy, Brian Winston.

+++

When Thomas and Brian were 13 years old they’d plotted to destroy a tractor, for no good reason. It was not the first or last stupid idea they had shared but when the police canvased the neighborhood questioning people about the damaged tractor it was revealed that the repairs would be north of $17,000. The boys knew if anyone found out it was them who had shoved all those dirt clods down the gas tank they would be in some seriously deep shit. Brian was particularly nervous because his parents owned a dry cleaner that was not doing especially well at the time. A $17,000 repair bill would likely be catastrophic to the family. Thomas was more sanguine about the whole affair. He was certain no one had seen them, and besides he was a prolific liar who for years had gotten away with anything he put his mind to getting away with. He passionately convinced Brian nothing would happen.

Two weeks after the police had knocked on Thomas’s door, Tractorgate thankfully died down. The police stopped asking around about it, and, more importantly, the tractor was repaired and working again — digging out a new foundation for an expanded driveway in the neighborhood. Thomas relentlessly bragged to Brian that they were free and clear. But, this incident and, more specifically, their fear of getting caught, gave birth to an unhealthy social dependency that ensured they’d never go too far afield of each other. Brian’s mother was always fond of saying to the two boys that they were “thick as thieves,” and little did she know they had, in fact, been engaged in copious amounts of thieving. The boys had robbed as a tandem everything from disregarded bicycles off of neighborhood driveways, candy and other junk from 7-Eleven store shelves, money from friends and enemies alike out of school lockers left unattended, and pretty much everything in between. Several years later after moving from Topeka, Thomas made new friends which brought about some reflection on his friendship with Brian Winston as a dysfunctional mess, and he was forever relieved they had been separated by his dad’s latest move of the family to Minneapolis. If he hadn’t moved, he thought, the two of them might’ve drug each other into the gutter for good.

+++

After high school Thomas attended the University of Iowa. In truth he was following his girlfriend, Linda. She was an Iowa legacy, and not just any Iowa legacy. Her father had won a National Championship in wrestling in the mid-1950s before becoming a highly successful and well-known real estate developer in Minneapolis. Thomas heard dozens and dozens of stories about Iowa City at the dinner table inside her lavish home and the stories never disappointed. Linda’s father was a tall, lean, chiseled-from-stone Norwegian blond. Linda’s girlfriends openly swooned over his shirtless physique when he played driveway basketball with her brother. Linda’s father openly talked up his sexual escapades in Iowa City, often right in front of his wife but with his son as the target audience, making the place sound more like a ClubMed than a institution of higher learning. Sure, it was awkward as hell to hear his stories in mixed company, but Thomas loved hearing them nevertheless. Linda and her mother on more than a couple of occasions just left the table in what amounted to feigned disgust, but the Norwegian never took the hint and thus it never broke his stride.

It was understood that Linda’s brother would be following his father to Iowa City, but everyone was in shock when Linda informed the family of her own desire to take a campus visit. Linda was a brainiac who seemed destined to go to any elite college she wanted. As for Thomas, he was ostensibly set to attend Winona State with the hope of playing on the golf team. But when Linda expressed interest in Iowa he asked her if he could tag along on their campus visit. She was delighted to be with someone other than her father on the trip, and Thomas was going with an open mind.

Upon arrival they predictably received white glove treatment thanks to her father’s status as a former star athlete, and more importantly, as a very charitable giver to the University. Thomas started to hedge on Winona within hours of being on the Iowa campus. He was initially struck by a well-attended student protest on The Pentacrest, then when he saw Kinnick stadium he started to get very excited. The visit to the business school, one of several that Linda arranged in advance of their arrival, gave him intellectual grounding for the first time ever. A professor had described what it was like to be a finance major and Thomas gelled with this idea.

Halfway through the weekend, while Linda’s dad was meeting with the development folks, Thomas and Linda strayed from a walking tour of some of the dormitories after they’d peeked inside an empty dorm room. They were debating the pros and cons of dorm life and once they returned to the hallway the small group had forged well ahead without them. Assuming they’d gone unnoticed they returned to the empty dorm room, closed the door, and made whoopee. At about the halfway mark of coitus Thomas had forsaken Winona State, golf, and the state of Minnesota. By the time he zipped up his pants he’d become, for all intents and purposes, a Hawkeye.

They returned to the tour in the cafeteria without anyone the wiser. Thomas found the weekend totally exhilarating and within 36 hours of returning home he had called Iowa to request an application, and that following April he received a notice of acceptance. He certainly endured his fair share of ribbing from friends that he was following his girlfriend to college. Linda’s father was especially relentless in his teasing. But Thomas was clearheaded about this decision and took it all in stride. Then, about two weeks removed from freshman orientation he and Linda suddenly broke up. It wasn’t due to some dramatic disagreement or infidelity or anything along those lines. They just realized that their interest in each other had waned. Then, by the end of freshman year he and Linda had totally diverged socially, and soon she was seriously dating a wrestler, who she’d marry after graduation. In their remaining time in Iowa they saw each other only once more, in passing, at which time they awkwardly smiled.

+++

When Brian Winston received the news from the Kansas team doctor that he would never play football again, he was all of two weeks into classes, and told he might have a noticeable limp for the rest of his life. Brian asked if his knee would ever be healthy enough to join the Navy. His doctor thought it could be possible with proper rehabilitation but warned him desk duty was likely in his future. That was all Brian needed to hear. He immediately dropped out of Kansas, went home to Topeka to work at a local sporting good store, and for the next six months he manically rehabbed his knee in a makeshift gym in his basement. Before too long he was walking as if nothing had ever happened and like clockwork, at six months he was running at 80% of his previous speed. Then in June the following year his father drove him to the The Great Lakes Naval Training Center boot camp, just outside Chicago.

With Brian now in the military and Thomas in college it seemed nearly impossible that the two would ever connect again yet they briefly crossed paths years later, in California of all places, in San Louis Obispo, where Brian had secured a job after a four-year stint in the Navy. He was working for Delta operations at San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport and making decent money for a young adult, and was in a condo a few hundred yards from the ocean. Meanwhile, Thomas had made a spontaneous move, similar to his shift to Iowa from Winona State, right after graduation. At the behest of a college roommate Thomas moved to Ventura, California, just to see what it might be like to live out West. Armed with a degree in finance, Thomas was nevertheless selling bundled long distance for commission only to small businesses in the area, when one day he and Brian ran into each other in a dive bar in Santa Barbara. They laughed their asses off at the quirky predilections of Californians and after many beers agreed to keep in touch, which they did with a couple visits back and forth over the next year, before Thomas returned to Minneapolis for grad school, and really for good. It was at this point they’d lost touch for what Thomas assumed would be forever.

+++

After reading about Kris and stewing on the idea of such an elite athlete choosing to play football for Iowa, Thomas had an idea. He sent a direct message to Brian over Facebook Messenger. He thought it was likely Brian would never read it, or if he did, he would ignore it, but what the hell.

“Hey Bri! Just finished reading a story about your bloodline, you stud. Saw that Kris is looking at Iowa. That would be crazy… right? Hope all is well and if Kris ever wants the 5-star inside dope on life in Iowa City, just let me know. Ha ha! All the best!”

Thomas, who rarely checked Facebook more than once every two or three days, was now checking it almost by the hour. A week later Brian finally responded.

“Hey Tommy. Thanks for checking-in my man. All is OK. Kris is doing really well. This college stuff is crazy tho. Is your son looking at colleges yet? If he’s thinking about Kansas tell him NO! (kidding) Be good.”

It was not the response Thomas had envisioned, but then again, Thomas was unsure what he wanted to happen. On the one hand he was happy for Brian because he had privately wished his own son would have become a mega athlete. Yet, he didn’t really want the outcome of his outreach to be some kind of full-scale reconnect with Brian either. It was one of those half-baked ideas that seemed to only emerge in the age of social media. Thomas decided to not to reply… for now.

+++

“COLORADO’S WINSTON MAKING ANNOUNCEMENT IN A WEEK”

Thomas kept reading updates on Kris, mostly because it was unavoidable. The Iowa football press was presenting Kris as a football God, who could take Iowa to previously unknown heights. The discussion of Kris was at a fever pitch, and now Thomas was grinding with curiosity. It was killing him that his childhood friend’s son was considering his alma mater and yet he had no insider insights whatsoever. With each passing hour Thomas could not clear his mind of the situation. At one point he began having full-scale movie-like daydreams about recruiting Kris to Iowa, Kris becoming a superstar player, and the press crediting Thomas.

Eventually, he worked up the nerve to call Brian on the phone. Only, he didn’t have a phone number. If he sent him another Facebook message, Thomas thought, knowing Brian, he wouldn’t read it for weeks and his son would have made his decision and ARGHHH! So Brian found a website where you pay to find out someone’s personal information, and after $29.99 he had what he wanted.

Now Brian had a phone number, but no cogent plan. He started playing it out in his head. He decided he would call in the mid-morning, on a Saturday. Not so early that he might wake Brian up but not so late that he would miss him either. The perfect time would be 9:05am and if Brian didn’t pick up he would leave a provocative message to ensure Brian called back. Something like, “Hey Brian, it’s Thomas. This is my blast from the past call for the day. Hey, call me back I have a question. Not urgent, but urgent. Ha! Thanks dude. Talk to ya!” If Brian answered the message with a callback he would pretend to be hunting down a mutual friend from their Topeka days, Ted Mazure. Thomas would claim to Brian that he’d heard Ted was now a financial planner (which he was) and that he thought Ted may know something about Bitcoin, of all things. It was sketchy, but the $29.99 came in handy for Ted’s info too, and besides it was the best bullshit he could come up with. It was a plan, albeit a shady one.

“Hello?”

It was Brian, in person, so no need to leave a message.

“Hey Bri, it’s Thomas you fool! How’s it going buddy?”

“Tommy? Wow. What’s up man? Everything alright?”

“Totally. Yeah, everything’s fine. I hope you don’t mind me calling you? You’ve been on my mind ever since I read that your son was looking at my alma mater as a football landing spot.”

“Yep. He is. So what’s up?”

Brian sound mildly annoyed but Thomas forged ahead.

“Bri, my son is not nearly the athlete your son is, and he’s very early in all this, but I’m calling because I wanted to get your take on all the recruiting stuff. I figure you and Kris are experts by now.”

Thomas tried to be as insouciant as possible knowing that if Brian were like him he would do a simple internet search and see that Elijah’s athletic exploits, or even participation, was nowhere to be found. And, God forbid if he did that, it would be awkward as hell going forward. But, Thomas had become obsessed over the past week about Kris and he was unable to contain himself.

“I’d hardly say we’re experts. I mean, I’m not. In fact, I’ve let Kris and his coach run this whole thing. I don’t know if I ever told you this, but my dad pushed me into KU and that’s always bothered me. So the second I realized Kris might be good enough to play D-1 I vowed to stay out. I want him to have complete ownership of this process. I even told him not to tell me his final decision. I want to find out like everyone else. I couldn’t even tell you who all has recruited him. Can you believe that? But it’s true. I mean, I have an idea but we discuss almost nothing. We will someday though, I guess. What position does your kid play?”

Thomas was disoriented. He had fantasized about how he was going to recruit Kris to Iowa, by way of Brian, and then Kris would take Iowa to the promised land and all of it would be because of him. Sure, it was preposterous as hell, but Thomas had obsessed over this so hard he’d come to believe it possible. Now, here he was making up gargantuan lies about his own motivations for calling a childhood friend and was making his soon-to-be hippy world traveler son complicit in it all with a story whose cover could easily be blown with a simple click on Thomas’s Facebook page, where there were several photos of Elijah, all five feet-seven inches and 135 pounds — none with a football anywhere in sight.

“He’s…” Thomas paused ever so slightly, but long enough for any amateur detective to hear the prevarication unfolding, “…a kicker.”

“Wow. No kidding.”

Thomas was hopeful he’d sold it. He’d seen plenty of diminutive kickers, although most of them had well developed calves and thighs and Elijah had neither. “Well, we might be kidding ourselves. He’s still learning the position, but you know me. I’m a planner. By the way, I understand and really respect your process with Kris. Very admirable! But, do you think he may want to talk to someone who attended Iowa? I mean, I’d be happy to discuss anything about Iowa with him. If he wants. You know, I go to a game every year. I’m in deep with the athletic department too, and I know the campus in ways no recruiter would ever tell him or show him. So, if I can help, I want to. You know, assuming he is even thinking seriously about Iowa. Right?”

Thomas had forgotten to breathe during this soliloquy and toward the end was nearly gasping for air. It was weird. And now it was Brian with the pregnant pause, and had it gone another second it might have given birth to a newborn. Thomas was now 100% certain Brian knew this whole phone call was bullshit.

Then….

“You know, he might. Are you around later today? He’s dead asleep right now.”

“Are you kidding? Of course! Anytime today. Here’s my cell…”

+++

Thomas spent no less than two hours writing notes for the phone call from Kris. Pros of attending Iowa and trumped up cons of attending Notre Dame, just in case their conversation veered into a compare and contrast. Thomas had worked with a Notre Dame grad and super fan for a number of years and they talked passionately about their respective football programs. For his presentation Thomas was going to focus on something his work buddy had admitted to him once, that Notre Dame was not as much fun as he would have liked it to be because the Catholic culture of the institution felt stifling to him. Thomas seized on this in his notes, and that was convenient because he actually despised Notre Dame as a college football fan. But Thomas didn’t want to be heavy handed. He wanted to make a case FOR Iowa that would ideally lure Kris there. The last thing he wanted to do was sound like some blind homer being overly critical of Notre Dame.

Then Thomas wondered, “Why Notre Dame?” Thomas did not recall Brian being Catholic or his family even going to church. Had he converted in the Navy? Maybe the best high school football to develop Kris’s athletic gifts was played in a parochial private school conference in the area? Or, maybe of all the programs that had recruited Kris he connected with the Notre Dame staff the most? Or, mom… what about the mom? Maybe Brian’s wife was Catholic! Wow, thought Thomas, better tread lightly on Notre Dame.

+++

The phone rang and Thomas saw the Colorado area code. His throat constricted immediately. He strategically waited another ring or two, then answered.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Thomas? It’s Brian. I got Kris here. You got a second?”

“Oh, yeah, of course. Thanks!”

“Hello?” Kris’s voice caught Thomas off guard. He was a 17-year old with the voice of a jazz radio station deejay. It was deep, it was calm and it was cool. It was also terrifying. After manufacturing a slew of lies to get to this point, and then studying up to execute some bizarre recruiting strategy, Thomas was voice-to-voice with the number one recruit in Colorado, the player who he’d convinced himself was destined to become the difference between good and great for his beloved Hawkeyes, and the voice on the other end of the line sounded like anything but a confused kid.

“Hey Kris! Good to talk to you buddy. Your dad and I were talking and of course the conversation turned to you and I thought I could be of help, maybe. I know you are considering Iowa and I attended Iowa back in the day.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Yeah. So, anyway, I follow Iowa football very closely, I go to games in Iowa City, and sometimes road games and have been to several bowl games. So, if I can be of service and maybe talk to you about Iowa as a trusted ally, I’d love to do that.”

“Oh, okay. Thanks.”

Maybe Kris had just woken up. Or, maybe Kris didn’t want to be the phone with a complete stranger discussing his recruitment. After all, he didn’t even discuss it with his own father. Either way, Thomas knew this was all very surreal and strange and his blood pressure had to be through the roof, but he pressed forward.

“So, I’m sure you’ve had a campus visit, right?”

“Yes sir. I’ve had several actually.”

Thomas was suddenly through the roof with excitement. SEVERAL CAMPUS VISITS! He has to be going to Iowa! But, little did Thomas know Kris had no serious intentions of going to Iowa. He had told the media that the Hawkeyes were a finalist merely as part of a strategy his coach had implored him to use. While Notre Dame was his dream school, Kris was using Iowa as a form of insurance against something weird, like a coaching change. The Notre Dame head coach had been discussed early in the season, although not very seriously, as a long-shot candidate for an NFL opening. Or, what if Notre Dame were cited out of the blue for violations of any NCAA rule or, more likely, what if Notre Dame recruited over Kris and brought in a glut of recruits at his preferred position? Yeah, always have a back-up plan and Iowa was the perfect back-up plan because they would honor his offer until the end if he met the modest conditions of the offer and their fans would not be weird and crowd him on social media like other fanbases might.

“So, let’s talk about Iowa City!”

Kris gave out a big sigh, and then replied, “Okay. Sure.” But Thomas was in full throat now and couldn’t read the situation or Kris and his unenthusiastic reply. Thomas proceeded to sell the city, the campus, the football team, the football culture, you name it. He spoke without hesitation for probably 10 minutes. Not once did he ask Kris a question or allow him to say a word edgewise. Finally he stopped.

“I really like Iowa. I do. Thanks for calling and filling me in. I appreciate it.”

With his heart beating like a rabbit Thomas then got pushy. “Do you think you will commit to Iowa? I mean, where is your head at this time?”

“I’m not saying. I hope you understand. My coach told me to keep everything quiet with people until I officially announce. He warned me that people will try to say and do things to sway me and that this is the one decision in my life I have control over and should be true to myself about. I know it sounds awkward but if I don’t talk about it then people will be more likely to leave me alone. I mean, I hope you understand?”

“Sure. Oh, of course.” Thomas was simmering but heating toward a boil. “Listen, I’m just here to help. I’m gonna give you my number and if you ever have any questions call me, day or night. Listen, your dad is almost like family to me, and that means you are too, even though we’ve never met.” Thomas then recited his cellphone number at least three time before finally letting the poor kid go.

+++

Elijah was wiping the sleep out of his eyes as he heard his dad humming classic rock riffs in the kitchen.

“Dad? You okay?”

“Abso-damn-lutely!” Thomas had turned the house into an IHOP and a mess, making a massive breakfast of pancakes, biscuits, eggs, bacon and sausage. What disturbed Elijah is that he’d never seen his father make breakfast before. Not even once. Thomas was a microwave man — Jimmy Dean Sausage Breakfast Sandwiches from Costco — or he ordered out from one of two restaurants in town.

“Elijah, we’re not going to an Iowa game this year after all. I’m thinking we gotta mix it up.”

“Wait. Really? What do you mean?”

“I was thinking, you’ve never seen the Rockies. The Rocky Mountains. Right? So what do you say we do that?”

“Are you joking? YES!” Elijah was ecstatic and immediately envisioned an Instagram post from high above, and hiking and camping and…

“We’re gonna go to Colorado Springs. An old friend of mine lives there. I want to surprise him with a visit. Sound good?”

“Can we go up in the mountains? Can we do some hiking and stuff?”

“Of course! Absolutely we can. Of course we can.”

Then there was an eerie silence between the two as Elijah cut into an undercooked sausage.

“But, listen. We’re mostly we’re there to visit my friend.”

Elijah had a strange knot forming in his stomach. Maybe it was the sausage, but more likely it was that this sounded a bit too whimsical and unplanned for the man he’d known as his dad. What would become of the Iowa football tickets he knew his father had killed himself to get at the perfect price in the perfect area of Kinnick.

“Dad. So…no Iowa game…at all?”

“Nope.”

“But, what about the tickets.”

“StubHub! I’ll just sell them to the highest bidder. It’ll be fine.”

There is nothing that generates more fear in a child than when they look at a parent and do not recognize them. This was happening to Elijah. He had awakened to a ghost in the kitchen. Here was a man short-order cooking breakfast for the first time ever while detailing a trip to, of all places, the Rockies—a destination he’d never discussed as a place on a map, much less a vacation spot. None of this had ever been foreshadowed to Elijah in even the slightest way. Elijah could maybe imagine an indiscriminate last-second trip to Disneyland or the Caribbean or Mexico; but the Rockies? No.

Elijah had always viewed his dad as a guy who was very predictable, guided by his beloved habits and rituals. He was the kind of dad who gave advice at predictable intervals, making use of tattered cliches within the same set of over-relied upon anecdotes which always started as, “I don’t know if I ever told you this but…” But, in spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, he was a solid dad. Elijah’s friends liked his dad. Elijah was grateful that he wasn’t an embarrassment like Mr. Dudek, his best friend’s dad, who too often told jokes about masturbation and was always erupting in bursts of uncontrolled anger over meaningless things, like a TV remote working too slowly.

Suddenly Elijah was reflecting on things because he was sincerely jarred by the idea of this last minute trip. He had known his life to be steeped in predictability. He had existed in but one house with a father who had only had but one job, one wife, one son, and one passion, that he knew of — the Iowa Hawkeyes — and in his entire lifetime Elijah had only ever known of one car (a Honda CRV with nearly 200,000 miles that looked like shit but ran like a top). Sure, the notion of traveling to a part of the United States he’d always dreamed of going would be thrilling, but Elijah couldn’t help but feel like this was such a hastily conceived trip that something strange was up, and so now instead of enjoying the prospect of this trip he was instead consumed with a sense of dread about the whole thing.

+++

Colorado Springs is a nifty 1.5 hour drive from the Denver airport. The sights along the way are B-roll Colorado mountainscape and Elijah feigned interest in that view all along the way, but in truth he still couldn’t understand what was going on, why he was in Colorado, and what was the reason — the real reason — for this trip. He had tried his best during the flight to engage his dad in a conversation what this trip was all about, but the conversation was stilted and ambiguous and proved more confusing than clarifying. Thomas, for his part, was distracted the entire flight by his growing obsession to get face-to-face with Kris Winston and turn him into a Hawkeye.

“Son, plug in this address on your phone.” Thomas recited an address to the Winston’s home. It was surprisingly close. Then, for the umpteenth time he counseled Elijah.

“So, listen. My buddy’s name is Brian Winston, Mr. Winston. He has a son named Kris, with a K, who’s also in high school. He’s a little older than you though. Think you can get along with him?”

“How should I know.” Elijah was annoyed now. The prospect of chatting it up with a total stranger while his dad yucked it up with a childhood friend was off-putting.

+++

“Dad, what was that?”

It was dark as the two drove down the city streets of Colorado Springs, Colorado and toward their hotel.

“What was what?” Elijah was persistent as Thomas was pretending to not care. But, Thomas knew they had just spent the most awkward two hours of their lives together.

“That was the weirdest thing ever. That kid was weird as hell. Your friend was weird. And you were weird! The whole thing was weird. What was that?”

“Lighten up. It was a little awkward. I’m sorry you didn’t hit it off with Kris.”

“Nobody hit anything off. Why were they so surprised to see us? Didn’t you tell them we were coming? I thought the whole reason we were coming here was to see them?”

“I…uh…” There really was no plausible explanation to be shared, so Thomas just went quiet.

The meeting had been a disaster. Rather than being pleasantly surprised, Brian was palpably upset by the surprise visit and asked Thomas in a dozen different ways why he was in Colorado Springs, to which Thomas had no rational answer. Thomas had spent most of the hour just ignoring Brian’s inquiries by changing the subject. With each tangent the room just became more tense, until Brian finally asked Thomas to leave by using an obviously made-up excuse about having work to do.

“Whatever.” Elijah still didn’t know what was going on, but now he didn’t care. He just wanted to go home.

+++

Thomas didn’t know what else to do. He’d sent Kris and Brian several unanswered emails. He’d tried calling Brian at least a half dozen times but they all went to voicemail immediately. He began to accept that he he’d probably gone too far. He held out a sliver of hope that Kris would just decide, on his own, that Iowa was the best fit for him. But those hopeful feelings were often overtaken by the sense that his surprise trip had been stalkery, too weird, and may left Kris with a sick feeling about Iowa and their goofy fans. To make matters worse, Elijah had told his mother the whole story of their visit and for a week neither of them talked to Thomas.

+++

Thomas closed the garage door and brought the groceries inside. “Elijah! Groceries! Give me a hand, will ya?”

Elijah came downstairs and found the bags with the frozen food and began filling up the freezer.

“Hey Dad. I got a message from Kris.”

“What?”

“Yeah, he and I follow each other on Instagram and he just DM’d me.”

“No kidding? You never told me that.”

“I know. So, he DM’d me. About an hour ago. He’s going to Iowa. He’s doing some sort of announcement tomorrow. He asked me to tell you.”

+++

The next couple of seasons Thomas was glued like never before to the television when Iowa played. Between games he read all the Iowa blogs. He was desperate to get as much insight as he possibly could as to who was doing well, who was going to play and who was getting close. For the first time ever he was studying depth charts. Mostly, though, he was looking for Kris. But, Kris never would play a down at Iowa.

Kris started out with enormous fanfare as a slot receiver, but he ended up redshirting after some injuries set him back. But, he was healthy enough to dress out for the spring game, but he never saw any playing time. Thomas had read somewhere that Kris had “the dropsies.” Then in fall camp Thomas read that Iowa was experimenting with Kris as a running back, but after the first few games it was apparently decided that Kris was too small. So, he never played a down there. For one game he was listed on the two-deeps as a kick returner, but Thomas never saw him get into a game on any of the special teams. Thomas then heard from a friend that during preparation for their bowl game Iowa had Kris at safety, and that seemed exciting. But by the time his redshirt freshman season was over Kris hadn’t sniffed the field at any position.

“He’s just a freshman,” Thomas thought. “He’s got plenty of time.”

+++

“FORMER MEGA RECRUIT TWEETS THAT HE’S TRANSFERRING TO NORTHERN COLORADO”

Thomas stared at the headline for several seconds and then closed his laptop. He wasn’t interested in the details but he couldn’t help but to ask himself, “How was this possible?” Kris was that ultra-rare 5-star recruit who’d been offered scholarships by Notre Dame, USC, Michigan, Alabama, Texas, and practically every blue blood football program in the country, yet he chose to play at Iowa. IOWA!

“Hey, dad. Did you read?”

“Yeah son. I read.”