FEAR AND LOATHING IN FORT WORTH
We were somewhere on the edge of Bedford, howling down the Tom Landry Expressway when the drugs began to take hold. As enormous bats, big enough to take a man's head in a bite, swooped and glared and revealed dire promises in fiery eyes, I shrank back in the passenger seat and screamed, "Sweet Jesus - what are those monsters?" Pachall only laughed and stomped on the gas, goosing that monstrous purple convertible up to an easy 120 as the bats tumbled and snarled in our wake.
How in sweet hell had it come to this?
It's an effort to clearly recall the early days, the good, clean days, before the Fear had settled in and I'd gotten a long look at the dark heart of the Beast. I was a fresh-faced BC correspondent - God, the hope I still had in my heart! - strolling in to the Man's office for another assignment. It seemed that Texas Christian University had fled the burning wreckage of something called the Mountain West and come home, as it were, to the Big XII. Or the Big X, or had made the Big XII from VIII to X with their coming, or something. Even when all my faculties were intact I never had the knack for numerology so the whole thing was a bit vague. Nonetheless, their arrival meant nothing would do but to perform some in-depth journalism and acquaint the BC readership with our long-lost, new-found conference kin.
"You're going to get in there and do some real first-hand reporting," the Man said, shiny size-14 Tony Lamas crossed on the desk in front of him, "some real embedded journalist stuff." The Man's got a big head, an arresting head, the kind the Spanish refer to as a cabeza and the Australians call "a big fucking head, mate." But the countenance stretched across it held no warning. If he had any inkling of what I was in for - or if that inkling spawned any remorse - it didn't find its way into his voice or his eyes. This lamb would go all unsuspecting to the red, red slaughter.
"I've got it all set up," he said, "Patterson's itching for some good pub for the squad and he's giving you full access. Great, All-American story that a little school in Fort Worth can hang with the big boys and do things the right way. Purity. Truth. American Dream - that sort of thing." I was vaguely dubious that even someone with the Man's connections could pull this off with a big-time college coach known for his hard-line ways. But he pulled the strings, and soon the clickety-clack of the marionettes' limbs became the meaty thwack of a handshake inside Coach Patterson's office.
"Welcome to Horn Frog Country," said Coach Patterson, "we're really glad you could come out here to write up our program. Bunch of fine young men on this squad, I'm sure you'll agree." He was the type that gets very stretched at the seams when forced to be avuncular, but at least he was making the effort. I followed him out to the practice field, and from there it was a week of blissful idyll. I watched the young men go through their paces, making notes on their performance like any sports journalist would. I managed a few quick interviews and the players were polite, but distant. So far it was all very affirming of that apple pie, American dream sort of vibe, but I was getting a bit concerned that the final piece would lack the punch, the pizzazz, that these things were known for. As Friday's practice would down, the Frogs' starting QB Casey Pachall clapped me on the shoulder. "We've all been working hard this week," he said, "so why don't you come chill with us at a party tonight." I gratefully accepted, sure that things wouldn't get too wild but hoping that some of these All-American types would at least loosen up a bit.
The music was loud and the revel in full swing as I crossed the threshold of the off-campus shindig. I was soon directed upstairs, where Pachall stood in a semicircle with team leaders Tanner Brock, D.J. Yendrey, Ty Horn and Devin Johnson. They nodded in recognition as I approached, then their eyes darted to each others' and they seemed to reach some unspoken consent. Brock produced a hand-rolled cigarette, lit it and offered it to me. I had the strong suspicion that there might be a bit of the Hindu Kush inside, but I wasn't naïve enough to think this sort of thing didn't exist in even well-heeled college culture. And what the heck - I'd even partaken a time or two in the past. I brought it to my lips and took a toke - the edges of my vision shut down like I'd been sucking on a car's exhaust pipe. I heard the word "laced" being uttered as I tumbled down a well and awoke to...
Madness. Terrible things were happening all around me. The players had morphed into lizards, terrible, purple-hued lizards that swung from the rafters and gnawed on the severed limbs of sorority girls. I sank into the hardwood floor and scrabbled along the ceiling, desperate to escape these horrors. Pachall suddenly loomed over me, his jaw pulsing and swelling and resolving into the face of a Moray eel. I shrank back from the deadly venom dripping from his fangs, but he caught me in a strong grasp and hissed, "Crash at my place."
I awoke on his couch, my head a throbbing wreck and my soul in tatters. I made ready to drag myself to my car and flee for good, but then I thought back on last night's madcap scene. It was wracked with hallucination and horror, sure, but it seemed like even amidst the limb-gnawing the participants had been having a fine old time. Maybe this WAS the American Dream - and I by-damned needed MORE of it. I reached for the pills on the table...
(Ed. Note - At this point, our correspondent became more or less unhinged. Extracting a coherent narrative that included a profile of the actual team was next to impossible, so where possible we've incorporated player-specific notes from the practices he attended prior to the assignment going totally off the rails.)
Highway. I gripped the door handle of Pachall's massive purple and white convertible - dubbed the Purple Shark - and prayed that we'd keep those bats from catching up to us. Roaring alongside us was a van filled with the TCU secondary, and they took turns clambering out onto the roof and posing. Cornerback Jason Verret [Editors' Note from practice observations: A scrappy junior who's a willing tackler and good at keeping the play in front of him] did some standard surfing, and fellow corner Kevin White [5'10" sophomore with good speed who can struggle with the physical game] attempted a handstand to nickel corner Keivon Gamble's [5'10" JUCO with so-so speed but who isn't afraid to mix it up] applause. Safety Sam Carter [A willing hitter with a tendency to bite on play-action] jerked the wheel a bit to add some levity to the proceedings on the roof, while free safety Elisha Olabode [Fast kid who brings a good bit of center-field range] recorded the action on a Handi-Cam and howled with laughter.
"You fools," I screamed, barely able to watch through interlocked fingers, "that's just where the bats want you! You'll be damned hors d'oeuvres up there!" No one heeded my warning, which just elicited giggles from the wide receiver trio in the back seat. Josh Boyce [Legit All-America candidate whose size, speed and hands helped him haul in 15 TDs in his first two seasons] punched Pachall in the shoulder and yelled, "Your boy be trippin', Case!" as Skye Dawson [5'9" with track-quality speed, who's a downfield threat as long as he's not running track-quality routes] and Brandon Carter [A rail-skinny sophomore who had a big-time coming-out party in TCU's defeat of Boise State last season] failed to contain their mirth.
Thoughts of bats turned to thoughts of swine - we were booming at a solid hundred and ten, and police tend to take a dim view of that sort of practice. I turned to Pachall and said, "Shouldn't you ease the throttle back a bit? The pigs will be all over you at this speed." Pachall rolled his eyes and laughed.
"We run this town."
Practice. I squinted into the light as Pachall popped the trunk on the Shark and let me out. They'd taken to locking me inside when I became obstreperous, and I'd been near-mummified by the Fort Worth sun during the one practice when they'd forgotten to release me. Today I was more fortunate, though, and I made my way to the sideline to watch the linemen drills. I figured I had a good five minutes of note-taking before the blotter I'd swallowed kicked in.
In one on one drills, the defensive ends were beating up the tackles. DE Stansly Maponga [A 6'2" junior that's quick and active who could easily improve on last year's nine sacks] bull-rushed LT Tayo Fabuluje [Big 6'7" transfer from BYU with a great wingspan but who can have trouble with leverage], then fellow DE Ross Forrest [Hard-working 6'4" senior with more guile than athleticism] used a hesitation move to beat RT Eric Tausch [Versatile junior who can play outside but who may be more at home at guard], who in fairness might have been distracted by a swarm of tiny pterodactyls. Dammit, was the blotter kicking in already?
The TCU interior OL had a better time of it. DT Jon Lewis [Raw sophomore who can struggle to get off blocks but who battles] fought to a standstill with C James Fry [Athletic 300 pounder who moves well] despite the latter's crablike claws tearing his flesh, while G Blaize Foltz [Freakishly strong and athletic at 6'4" and 310, he can hold his own with almost any DT in the conference] anticipated DT David Johnson's [Smaller nose tackle who uses speed and leverage to shoot gaps and disrupt] swim move and drove him sideways before opening his jaws and immolating Johnson with a blast of purple fire.
Things got stranger from there...
Couch. I dozed fitfully as Pachall jostled me awake. "Time for Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," he said, beckoning me out to the Shark with a convoy of other players' vehicles humming nearby. As we boomed down the highway I looked about fitfully, but the damned bats were nowhere to be found and the cars' occupants had only the vaguest reptilian tint to their features. Was I finally getting a handle on this?
It was 4:00 AM as we skulked in to the darkened arena of the huge and hellish hillbilly hideout known as Billy Bob's, famous in those parts for its Friday night bull ride fandango. God knows how they'd rounded up one of the beasts from the holding area at this hour, but there it was - a long ton of pissed off beef thrashing in the chute. The running backs Matthew Tucker [A talented back with a good size-speed combo who should hold down the between-the-tackles role] and Waymon James [A shifty runner with compact Ray Rice-style build and the Frogs' top returning rusher] sat astride it, back to back, each clad in pieces of the Super Frog mascot costume. The tight end corps of Corey Fuller [A 6'6" senior with good size who's more of an edge blocker than a passing threat], Walker Dille [A 240 pound senior coming off injury who could threaten the seam in the pass game], and Dominic Merka [Promising freshman who has a ways to go in the blocking department but could see some time flexed out from the formation] capered in the arena, done up as rodeo clowns. Their face paint was hastily applied, but damned if it didn't echo the darkest clownscapes of Stephen King and Todd McFarlane - or was it just that blasted acid having its way with me? Yendrey sat manning the gate while Pachall and Brock wheeled up what appeared to be an industrial Shop-Vac. They tilted a baggie full of white powder into its guts, pressed the nozzle against the bull's muzzle, reversed the suction and blew what must have been an ounce of un-cut yayo into the poor bastard's nostrils as Yendrey shot the bolt.
Out it came in a whirling bucking stamping howling frenzy, its bellows of pain and rage mixing with the hoots and shouts of the players to echo in the empty rafters. James cartwheeled off its back and into the air and Dille caught a hoof to the temple and went down like he'd been pole-axed, but Tucker hung on like grim death. As the bull careened through a belly roll eight feet off the ground, its eyes locked with mine in a moment of recognition - two dumb beasts hopped to the gills and caught up in a madness neither of us could comprehend. Then its heart detonated with an audible thud and it collapsed to the dirt.
Couch. We'd all been up for two days - or was it three? - and someone had dropped Apocalypse Now into the Blu-Ray. A challenging watch in the best of times, it was a terrible match with my frayed nerves and spastic neurons. Each bead of sweat that dripped down Kurtz' menacing dome was in itself an entire lifetime I had frittered away, now gone, melting into his chest hair.
As Brando slaughtered the ox I crouched behind an ornate bong and gibbered in fear, while Pachall simply leaned back and closed his eyes, a smile of pure contentment easing across his features. Why was the Fear, the pure and unreasoning vileness of this moment not affecting him? How could I be so strung out and wrapped up in "The horror...the horror..." and him sleeping like an angel? Was I the only one overwhelmed by this madness?
Turns out, no. When I staggered in late to practice with a dessicated mouth and wild red eyeballs, I found the whole shebang in an uproar. Turns out Pachall hadn't been dozing off last night in the moment my trip turned sour - he'd just been listening to what Brando was telling him. And Brando told him to head straight away to the practice field and dig punji traps to teach those swine a lesson.
The linebackers Hasley and Heiss were down, tearing the grass with their hands as they rolled in agony, sharpened stakes protruding from their calves like a picador had been at work. The tight end Bryant had one driven entirely through his palm and stared at it in mute fascination, turning it this way and that and completely forgetting to scream.
Pachall, still streaked with camo paint and a dung-smeared stake clutched in his fist, looked up at his coach with an expression of placid innocence and expectation. Patterson sighed, patted him on the shoulder pad and muttered, "Boys will be boys."
Bust. Brock, Yendrey and I were weighing and measuring bags when the door exploded inwards in spray of splinters. Gun-toting cops in black with ‘FW SWAT' emblazoned on their chests burst in, demanding our surrender. I leapt atop the couch and screamed, "We'll take no guff from you, swine - you'll never take us alive!" before being knocked completely out the window as Brock struggled with two of them on each massive arm. Picking myself up from a pile of busted glass, I lept into a hedge, burst from the other side and then ran, ran, ran...
Air Vent. I'd been two, maybe three days on the run. Through snippets of news reports and snatches of conversation I'd heard while skulking in the shadows, it sounded like the pigs had nabbed eighteen altogether. This alarming news led me to swallow the last handful of pills I'd been hoarding, but as they kicked in it became abundantly clear that the police had enlisted the help of some mole people who could burst from the ground and apprehend me at any moment. As I had wandered back onto the campus and was close to the athletic building, I swiftly shimmied up a drain pipe and forced open a nearby A/C vent, clambering inside to relative safety. I shimmied through the duct until I came to vent that looked down into the main coaches' meeting room. Several of the assistants were there, along with a soft-spoken dandy with the air of a PR flack about him. The flack was making notes on a piece of paper. "Let's change ‘surprised' to ‘shocked'," he said, making marks with a red pencil, "and add something about ‘young people's lives' being ‘more important than wins or losses'. ‘Zero tolerance' always sounds good, too."
My eyes drifted to the massive whiteboard that hung on the far wall. Atop was scrawled ‘TEST RESULTS', and beneath the board was divided in two. On the right side, a group of names were written in green below a number 30. On the right, a larger group of names - too small to make out individually, but so many of them - in red, surrounding the number 55.
A door opened and Patterson walked in. He snatched the paper from the flack's hand, scanned it, and muttered, "This'll do." He then turned to the board, stared and shook his head. Seizing an eraser and a marker, he set about erasing almost all of the red names and one of the big red 5's. He then applied some deft marker work to change the ‘30' into an '80' and turned towards his staff, eyes questing for a hint of dissent. Finding none, he nodded and strode from the room and headed to his presser.
Normalcy. Sort of. It had been a few months since the madness had gone down. With my narrative a mess and my journalistic rep in tatters, The Man had cut me loose to fend for myself. I had knocked around the town, doing some odd jobs and the occasional freelance piece, and had finally scraped together the coin for a dinted and battered Chevy. I was flipping through the radio channels on the way back from a morning fry cook shift when I heard a Sports Break-style announcer cutting in after the traffic report.
"Despite a failed drug test and admissions of using marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy, TCU quarterback Casey Pachall will not be suspended from the program..."
Something snapped inside of me and I yanked the wheel. Before I knew it, I was screeching to a halt outside the TCU practice facility. Maybe my internal circadian rhythm had brought me there just in time for practice, as I saw Coach Patterson and his staff moving towards the field as I sprinted from my car.
Before I could reach him, two burly grad assistants caught my arms and arrested my progress. All I could do was yell out.
"Coach," I called, desperately, as he strode towards the practice field, "how can you do this? What about zero tolerance? What about what's right and pure and true and the American Damned Dream? How can you live with yourself!!?!??"
He didn't stop, exactly, but there was a brief chop in his stride. Though he just half-turned his head, I felt those eyes - unerring, despite being so blind to so many things - zero in on me and as he said:
"He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."