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December 31, 2008 > The Catch: A Holiday Story

The Catch: A Holiday Story

By Richard Medugno

R.J. Jones prowled angrily through the city streets with the bitter memory gnawing at his soul like a rat on a rotten piece of meat. This recollection was always on the sidelines of his mind, often leaping out illegally and unexpectedly to trip him up just when he felt like he was breaking free of it.

"Been over a year," he hissed. "Gonna haunt me the rest of my life!" he shouted out to no one and everyone. Fellow walkers gave R.J. a wide berth as he stopped abruptly to spit in a gutter puddle. Splat! Before he moved on, he paused to stare at his reflection in the filthy dark water. It was not a cheery face that looked back at him in this pothole pool.

He quickly returned to hustling down the busy avenue. A light, wet snow began to fall as he crossed the street, tired of dodging jolly holiday shoppers and to get as far away as possible from them. He had no plans on where to go, he just needed to get out of the house, get out of his head. Sometimes he found it helpful to go outside like this, even though it was a cold, damp night.

R.J. halted after a brisk 15-minute walk north. He stared through a barbershop window at a poster on the wall. At first he actually didn't recognize is own image in the faded team photo. He and his teammates were all smiles back then - a year and a half ago - before the drop.

His eyes moved to the little, fake Christmas tree on display under the team poster that hung precariously by some yellowed cellophane tape. R.J. shook his head and snarled, "The man shouldn't even bother with trying to decorate, if that's the best he can do." He didn't like barbers or the holidays. His father had been a barber, though he called himself a "hair stylist." As he felt the anger start to percolate up, he darted away from the barbershop and continued his journey to nowhere-in-particular.

Last Year's Disaster

This had never been Reginald James Jones' favorite time of year. Couldn't be. Especially now, after last year's disaster. "Forget about last year!" he heard himself yell out. His dislike of the holidays went back many years though - about 25 years. He remembered when he was six and Santa had brought him a football. He shuddered as he recalled the cold morning when he went out to play catch with his father without gloves.

J.J. Jones threw hard passes at the boy and each time his son dropped a pass, he threw it harder. When R.J. caught one brutal throw, more with his gut than his hands, he fell to the pavement, rolled over and threw up on a parked car's tire. Where the point of the ball had hit him in the stomach, he was bruised for weeks.

A few years later, just before the holidays, J.J. left his wife, son, and daughters for good. R.J. never saw him again, though he did hear from him once. Right after he signed the big contract to play pro football.

"Congratulations, son," said the slightly familiar but very intoxicated voice on the other end of the line. There was a long pause as R.J. tired to figure out who had called him. "It's your father," said J.J. filling the dead air with his words. R.J. slammed the phone down. "Loser!" he yelled at the memory.

A Good Career

R.J. had a good pro football career, but his playing days had been cut short by an unusual injury. The damage was not to his knees, as is common, but in his hands - well, more accurately, the injury was to his confidence in his hands. This led to a lack of self-confidence. When that goes in a player, it's worse than blowing out a knee. With a lack of confidence on the professional level, you not only can't compete, you can't play. They won't let you...at least, not for very long. Without self-confidence, you might as well be on the field without pads and a helmet. You will get hurt. His old team was right to cut him before that inevitability.

What killed R.J. confidence was one small misjudgment, one time. That's all it takes and then it can snowball. He dropped one pass. He had done it before. Everyone does. One problem was this one drop could have been a game winner. It turned out to be a season-ender...and, if you look at the big picture, a career-ender, too. That's why he kept replaying it over in his head.

He had run a great route and was wide open. His team was down by five points with only seconds left in regulation. Fifty million TV fans joined the seventy thousand live bodies in the stadium watching R.J. leave two defenders behind.

"Faked them out of their jocks," said R.J. to his reflection in the parked car's rain-spotted window. All he had to do was leap a bit and pull down the oblong object spiraling towards him. "Baby, was right there..." It was a tad overthrown, but R.J. got both hands on it. He had made tougher catches under worse conditions before, but no catch was as important to his team, to the fans, and, ultimately, to himself, as this one.

70,000 People Groan

For a moment, he thought he had made it. He fell backwards, concentrating on keeping his feet in-bounds, when the ball slipped from his grasp. He desperately tried to regain control of the pigskin as both he and the ball fell towards the earth. R.J. got his hand under the ball, but when he smacked down against the ground, the ball squirted out.

He heard seventy thousand people groan. He screeched in agony as a zebra stood over him, arms waving and yelling, "Incomplete! Incomplete!" R.J. echoed with the tape playing in his head, "No!" He saw the beaten defensive backs dancing a jig and congratulating themselves. R.J. shut his eyes tightly. He pounded the ground with his fists.

R.J. scrambled up off the wet pavement, just like he did off the field that day. He recalled the walk of shame to the locker room entrance, feeling alone though surrounded by thousands. He avoided eye contact. A few teammates half-heartedly tapped his shoulder pads. Opposing players that passed on their way to celebrate shouted with glee, "Way to go, bro'!" and "Thanks, R.J.!"

As he got closer to the entrance, beneath the stands, disparagement rained down on R.J., along with full cups of beer and, of course, snow balls. "Jones, you're a loser!" He remembered the chant: "You suck! You suck! You suck!" The last thing R.J. heard as he felt the football field for the last time wearing a professional uniform was: "Happy New Year, loser!"

R.J. decided it was time to head back to his empty, cold apartment. The fall of an athlete can be dramatic and fast. A year ago, R.J. lived in a nice house in the city's most affluent suburb with his beautiful wife. Now, he was living alone, getting a divorce, without any idea what he was going to do with the rest of his life. He had been in a sour mood for seven months...and that was before he was cut in preseason. His wife Lana, saw nothing but a lifetime of gray clouds ahead.

R.J. didn't blame Lana for leaving. "Hell, I wouldn't want to live with a loser either," said R.J. to friends. When the tape in his head of the dropped pass started again, R.J. began to run. He wanted to escape but he didn't know where to go...so he just dashed down the streets of the city. All he wanted to do is get away from the damn dropped ball memory that haunted him multiple times a day.

Stopping In Exhaustion

Several miles from where he started, R.J. collapsed to the ground. As he panted, he spoke softly to the heavens, "I need one more chance. I need a chance at redemption...After a moment of silence, he bellowed "Do you hear me, God?!" He voiced echoed off the tall apartment buildings. As R.J. continued his loud conversations with the Higher Power, individuals came to their windows and out on their balconies to look down on the crazy man. Finally, someone yelled down, "Hey, man, shut up!"

"You shut up!" R.J. hollered back. Then he whispered. "God, it's R.J. and I want another chance to make an important catch. Give me one more chance, Lord. Give me one more change. I can't spend the rest of my life like this..." He sat on the curb and sobbed. Tears ran down his cheeks, splashing on the dirty cement. "Stupid..." said R.J. when he thought about how it must look, a grown man weeping because he wanted a do-over.

As R.J. stood up and wiped away tears, a small boy climbed onto a chair on his family's apartment balcony. The child was enjoying the view of twinkling lights. When the boy's mother came upon the scene of her two-year-old precariously balanced on the chair against the rail, five floors above the ground, she shrieked. The boy was startled and this caused him to slip and topple over the railing. The mother lunged and caught hold of the tot's shirt, but the buttons popped and the fabric ripped apart. She screamed in horror as her child fell away.

R.J. heard the woman's shriek and looked up to see the boy tumbling through the air. Instinctively, he was in motion. He hurdled a short fence and dove over a hedge that blocked him from getting to the spot where the child was headed. He rolled on the ground and looked up again to see the terrified child's face coming down fast, seemly still out of his reach.

R.J. stretched his body out to its full extension with his hands prepared to receive. The mother's screams of agony were echoing against the surrounding buildings, bringing numerous neighbors to their windows and balconies. Many couldn't believe their eyes as they saw R.J. with his huge, experienced, soft hands catch the boy. Then he twisted his body so that he was between the ground and the child, hitting the dirt shoulder-first with a thud and a groan.

A Collective Gasp

For a moment there was only silence, then the child with his eye shut-tightly, squealed, "Momma!" This sound was followed by a collective gasp for air by the many people who had witnessed the most amazing display of athleticism.

R.J. looked at the stunned child who just started back at him. When the child began to cry, R.J. realized what he had done. He hugged the child and whispered, "I did it. I caught you. I did it!" When he stood up with the child in his arms, R.J. heard cheers and applause liked he'd never heard on the football field.

People where shouting, "My God, that was incredible! It's a miracle! A kid fell off that balcony and that guy caught him! Man, you saved that little boy's life" The cheers grew louder and the commotion became greater when the boy's parents arrived and R.J. handed them their son. They wept and thanked him repeatedly.

Someone from a window two floors above, yelled out, "Hey, man, what's your name?" Before he could answer, someone on the ground shouted, "It's R.J. Jones!"

"You the football player, R.J. Jones?"

"Yeah, that's me," said R.J.

"You the same dude that dropped that pass last year?"

"Yeah, that's me, too," said R.J.

There was a quiet moment. Then an unseen person's deep voice was heard from above said, "Well, I guess you made up for that tonight, didn't you?" There was laughter, hooting, and clapping. R.J.'s eyes welled up. These weren't tears of joy, but tears of relief. He felt like the weight of two linebackers had been lifted off his back.

When the police car appeared with siren and lights flashing, they were followed closely by a TV remote reporting van. R.J. had a crowd around him and he was signing autographs and shaking hands. As more people joined the celebration, the witnesses excitedly recounted "the catch" to the newcomers.

A few hours later, R.J. sat on his couch watching television, with an ice pack on his shoulder. When the local news program came on, he suddenly saw himself on the screen, speaking into a microphone. "I just reacted like anybody would. I didn't think. I reacted. I can't believe I saved somebody's life."

The TV reporter stupidly asked, "Do you think this makes up for that dropped pass in that big game last season?"

R.J. laughed, looked into the camera, and said, "Happy New Year, everyone!" His smile was broad and he appeared ten years younger. The report ended with archival footage of R.J. in uniform doing his famous end-zone victory dance. R.J. smiled as he recognized his old friend on TV - himself. He clicked the TV off when the phone began to ring.

The end.

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