Wilson & Wilson, The Tenderloin. 2:47 am, September 30, 2015.
A man sits alone in the center booth of the bar-within-a-bar, waiting patiently for his appointment. From the Bayou to the Bay, it had been less that 17 hours since his colleague (well, former colleague these days, he supposed) called and asked that he get to San Francisco as soon as possible. Never a fan of the big city — and even less of air travel — the man was happy to answer the call of one of his most respected peers. A Christian man and a professional in his craft, when Kurt Warner asks you for a favor, the man knew, you answer.
He had arrived at 8pm and was drinking alone at his table by 9. The car, the drinks, the location — it had all been set up. Kurt had not elaborated on the details of the visit but, in essence, it seemed to boil down to, “I just need you to talk to the kid.” Typically such urgent conversations didn’t require the man to wait in a closed bar for nearly six hours entertaining himself with only the shadowed figures of the patrons through the frosted glass on the outside — basic, he pondered his daughters might call it — bar, with no knowledge of his exclusive purpose within these walls.
Still, all things considered, he could not complain. His flight was first class; the town car was comfortable; and the establishment owner had shown up to mix his drinks by hand (and boy, could the owner/bartender do some amazing things with little more than some bitters and bourbon) as well as order him dinner from a nearby restaurant. Most of the entertainment had been watching the owner directing the delivery men to place copious amounts of alcohol — in pallets, crates, and even barrels — behind the bar without damaging existing stock.
Plus the young lady who had been standing at the hostess station since his arrival was just fine to look at by him. He’d been chewing on an unlit cigar all night and never once considered lighting it. Gorgeous young women did that to him. And, for the umpteenth time since his arrival, he checked his pocket watch, waved at the owner to mix another, and looked over his shoulder to see if the gorgeous hostess had moved.
She was not there.
He looked to the back of the bar and saw the exit door open as a tall, slender, young man — not just a quarterback, but an athlete, the man could see — was escorted in by the hostess. The man moved smoothly as we walked with the gorgeous young lady. They were clearly familiar. She smiled and tossed her hair as they spoke. It reminded the man of how it used to feel to be the big man on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus. He didn’t long for those feelings anymore though. His time had passed and he was at peace with that.
The young man passed him without making eye contact and sat in the next booth, back to back with the visitor. The man did not long for the highs of the NFL any longer, this was true, but he never got over the discomfort of discussing the lows. He appreciated that Kurt — regardless of the reason he gave the young man — would allow the conversation to take place in this less conventional manner. It was one of the things about Kurt that bonded them — neither had an NFL career that could be considered conventional.
The hostess walked to the bar to retrieve two fresh drinks. She would be playing the role of waitress now that all the parties had arrived.
“Good evening, Colin.”
“7777 7777777, 777.”
“I know this method of conversing is not typical but please understand that I am not an eccentric. Rather, avoiding eye contact simply makes it easier for me to speak of my experiences. And I understand, from talking to Mr Warner, that may be what you want to talk about the most. That said, it’s already pretty difficult to hear, could you speak in less slang please?”
“Yes sir. Thank you for meeting me. Mr Warner suggested I talk to you after my performance on Sunday.”
The now-waitress returned and placed a beaded pewter cup in front of the man. He sipped it. It was the best Mint Julep this side of the Mississippi (not that this was saying much). She continued and placed a bottle of beer in front of Colin. He thanked her by name — Lin Sue — and the man could feel her glow as he stirred his mint julep with its mixing stick. This young man was special indeed.
“Tell me about Sunday.”
“It was surreal. Not just the statistics, either. The way it felt. For the first time, I felt like I let down the team. I lost it for us.”
“Well, you know, we all lose games. I lost the Super Bowl. Kurt lost the Super Bowl — threw the longest pick-6 in the history of it.”
Colin sighed. He twisted the top off his beer and threw the bottle back to take a strong swig. The brew poured onto his shoulder.
“I’ve lost a Super Bowl too, sir.” Colin patted his shoulder with a napkin. “I get losing. I don’t get this new feeling of being out of control. Of having the confidence and the mind to execute the game as the athlete that I am — but having a body that seems to be half a step behind.”
“You’re not very old, Colin. And you’re a lot more accomplished than I was at your age. I started out on a practice squad, then was a backup, a World Leaguer, and a backup again before another man’s injury gave me my shot. You went and took the control of a Super Bowl squad halfway through your second season and have never looked back. The ceiling is high for you, no doubt about it.”
Colin stared at the bottle as he turned the cap in his hand. He saw the waste basket next to the hostess stand and side-armed the cap at the receptacle about 30 feet away. The cap floated through the air before landing in the grasp of a taxidermy badger on a nearby shelf. The young man sighed.
“Mr Warner taught me so much in the offseason. I know I used to rely on my speed too much and I was so grateful to have the opportunity to learn about reading defenses, making my progressions, and work on my throwing mechanics. And I did! I know these things. I break down film as well as Manning or Rogers or Flacco. But on the field it’s so — ” he balled up the beer soaked napkin and winged it at the badger statue. The rubbish briefly arced before landing five feet in front of his target. He sighed.
“I know the frustration.” The man put down his head. “The meltdown game. Six turnovers — five on picks — to Arizona.” He felt Colin’s pain. His frustration. His fear. The red jerseys swarming to everything he had thrown up that day scarred him for the rest of his career. Rage filled him and he crumpled up his own napkin, throwing it with all his anger at the exit door 45 feet away. It wafted, not at all dramatically, to a spot on the floor near corner of the bar, some 25 feet away from his target. He sighed.
“Forgive me, Mr Delhomme, but I’ve always kind of thought of that game as a ‘beginning of the end’ moment for your career and, to be blunt, I just don’t want this to be the same thing to me.” Colin sat tensely, fearful that he may have offended a man who had flown in the same day simply on the request of his mentor. Staring at the table, he noticed a ladybug crawling in front of him. He picked it up and flicked it gently towards the next table. With the flick, the ladybug was ejected wildly from Colin’s had, jetted across the room, and exploded to a noticeable bang as it collided with the frosted glass window. He sighed.
“It was,” Jake Delhomme finally admitted, “but I’ve always felt part of it was that I was slowing down anyways and stewing through an offseason didn’t help me. A nationally broadcast home playoff game versus a regional televised Week 3 road loss to a team that, frankly, was going to beat yours regardless of how well you played, should give you a leg up. I know it sounds cliche but the best thing for you to do is get back in there, practice, study, and prepare. Short memory. Just remember – winning cures everything.” He was proud of himself for offering this sage advice. He grabbed a peanut from the bowl in front of him and flipped it to his mouth. The peanut bumped his chin and rolled down the inside of his shirt. He sighed. “Anyways, who do you play next?”
“Green Bay.” Colin was not feeling any better. “And what if it happens again? What happens when I stay in the pocket, make the progressions, throw the strike perfectly and still….you know.”
Jake downed the rest of his julep and, studying the bumps and scratches on the cup, said with the confidence of an old southern veteran, “Well, maybe you’ll just have to learn how to play the slice.”
Play the slice? Colin had spent the entire offseason studying to be a pocket passer so he could be a more complete quarterback. Be a leader. Be a threat. Now the advice was, effectively, ‘just roll with it?’ In a moment of red haze, Colin wound up and threw the bottle as hard as he could towards the front door. The bottle drifted about 3 feet and landed so softly on the cushioned seat opposite him that it did not even bounce. He sighed.
“Please. Are there any other options?”
Jake was tired now. He struck a match, lit the cigar with three long soupy puffs, and pulled the ashtray in front of him. He held his hand steadily over the ashtray and unpinched his fingers, releasing the burning stick. The match swept across the room, diving under nearby tables, looping around the hostess stand, buzzing by the badger, as it darted directly towards a barrel on which Ms Lin Sue had been sitting while she checked her phone. It was simply stamped Absinthe: No Open Flame.
“Well, how do you feel about Cleveland?”