Lone Stars by Mike Lupica

Lone Stars by Mike Lupica

Lone Stars by Mike LupicaLone Stars by Mike Lupica
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Clay is a quarterback’s dream. When he zips across the field, arms outstretched waiting for the ball to sail into his hands, there’s no denying him the catch. Like most Texans, Clay is never more at home than when playing football. And his coach, a former star player for the Dallas Cowboys, is just like a second father. But as football season kicks off, Clay begins to notice some odd behavior from his coach. The conclusion is painful, but obvious: Coach Walker is showing side effects of the many concessions he sustained during his playing days. As Clay’s season wears on, it becomes clear that the real victory will be to help his coach walk onto that famous star logo in the middle of Cowboys Field one last time—during a Thanksgiving Day ceremony honoring him and his former Super Bowl-winning teammates.

Clay’s coach said you can’t play football scared. Well, that wasn’t exactly the way Coach Monty Cooper—Coach Coop—said it in his South Texas accent. He said you cain’t play football scared, and to never forget that, because he never had.

Coach Coop said a lot of things, about football and life and Texas, mostly about his playing days with the Dallas Cowboys and how much he missed those days, every single damn one of them. When he’d say that, the last part, he’d apologize for swearing and tell them all over again that they ought to have a swear pot for him. Clay always thought that if they did, they’d be on their way to buying the Cowboys.
And Coach Coop had all these expressions, some of them Texas and some of them—at least to Clay’s twelve-year-old mind—just plain weird. But they were all just plain Coach, who liked to joke that a lot of people he’d met across the years, from his time play­ing college ball at TCU and then with the Cowboys, said he acted as if he’d played without a helmet.
“I really should’ve been born in another time,” Coach said after practice one day to Clay and his buddy David Guerrero, the quarterback for the Alamo Stars. 
“What time would that be?” Clay said. 
Coach Coop looked at him and said, “Thought I told you never to ask me what time it was.” He laughed and turned his head and spit, something he did a lot. “A lot of ’em when I played were smarter than me,” he said to Clay and David. “Heck, most of ’em were smarter than me. But not one I ever played with or against was ever any by-God tougher.” 
He had been born in San Antonio and played his high school ball here before he went to TCU and then to the Cowboys. And because he had finally come back home and was living in San Antonio again, he was always referencing the Alamo when he’d give them a pep talk, telling them that those good ol’ boys hadn’t gotten beat, that old General Santy Anna—which is what Coach called him—had just been allowed to have way too many men on the field. 
But as big as Coach was with all his expressions and all his stories about his playing days, the expression he kept coming back to was the one about not playing scared. He made doing that sound like some kind of sin. Or a crime against football. 
Coach Monty Cooper said that once you put on those shoulder pads and strapped on that helmet, you could be a lot of things. Smart or dumb. Fast or slow. Step ahead of the action or step behind. 
You just couldn’t be afraid. 
Not of the other team. Not of making a mistake, or losing. Especially not afraid of getting hit, of taking a good lick, as Coach liked to say. 
And that had never been a problem for Clay Hollis from the first time he’d put on pads and strapped on a helmet. 
Until today.

Clay was a wide receiver, the best on the Stars, probably the best in the Pee Wee Division—there wasn’t a player on the team who didn’t hate that name—of San Antonio Pop Warner, the division for kids between ten and twelve.
In the words of David Guerrero, whose job it was to get the ball to him, when it came to football, Clay Hollis was serious.
He wasn’t the biggest receiver they had. But he was big enough, with hands and speed to match, and with the gift that Coach Coop said the best receivers had to have: the ability for finding a seam in the defense a couple of steps before it opened up for him. Coach Coop had been a wide receiver at TCU himself, then drafted as one by the Cowboys, even though he’d become more famous later—Clay knew by reading up on him—for being a total maniac on special teams. But he knew that sometimes it took more than speed and good moves to get you open down­field. You just had to be born with the ability to see the field; see things that were about to develop before they actually did; see even the smallest patch of green waiting for you, whether it was in the middle of the field or a place on the sideline, where you’d have enough room to make a catch and keep your feet inbounds. 
Sometimes that meant busting a pattern when Clay would look back and see that David Guerrero was scrambling away from a pass rush, something David could do with the best of them. 
It was another thing Clay had going for him. He knew where he needed to go when he had to make up a brand-new pass pattern on the fly, like when he and David were playing touch football on the big stretch of lawn behind Clay’s house. Clay knew where he needed to be, and David knew where to look for him. From the time they’d first started playing catch together, it was as if they were able to hack into each other’s brains, no problem. 
But the problem today wasn’t fixing a busted pattern. It was a simple crossing pattern over the middle, third and eight, first quarter of a still-scoreless game against the River Walk Lions. That was when Clay got hit, and his day changed, just like that. He loved reading about sports and sports history, not just football, and remembered reading one time about how Mike Tyson, the boxer, said everybody had a plan until they got hit. 
Bobby Flores, a friend who’d moved out of the east San Antonio school district last summer, was guarding him. But Clay had made a neat inside move as soon as he’d cleared the line of scrimmage and gotten a step on Bobby. All he needed. 
That wasn’t Clay’s problem, either. 
His problem was that David Guerrero, with all the time in the world in the pocket, led Clay by too much with his pass. Not a lot. But it didn’t take much to blow up what should have been a simple completion, make what should have been an easy-as-pie completion—and a sure first down—into something harder. 
A whole lot harder. 
Hard, as Clay had heard plenty of times already this season, as his old coach’s head. 
When the ball was halfway to him, Clay started to think it wasn’t just a bit of an overthrow, but might be completely out of his reach. Unacceptable. Totally. You wanted the ball or somebody else wanted it more. That was something else he had heard from Coach Coop plenty of times. So at what he thought was the exact right moment, Clay extended his arms and himself as much as he could, almost as if he were diving for the ball without his feet leaving the ground, just because he thought he might have a better chance of collecting the ball and holding on to it if he didn’t have to worry about coughing it up when he hit the ground. Or the ground hit him. 
Somehow, he was able to reach the ball. 
And he was so happy to have the sweet feel of the ball in his hands, the feel of him pulling it in, that he never saw the safety coming at him from the other direction. 
Antrel Vance was the kid’s name. Clay remembered him from last season. He was big enough to be a linebacker then, had only gotten bigger in the last year. He was at safety because of how fast he was, fast enough to return kicks, and even play some wide receiver. And even though the ball was clearly out of Antrel’s reach now, and he hadn’t gotten to it in time to make an interception, he did the next best thing: 
Put a lick on Clay and tried to knock the ball out of his hands.
Totally legal. Totally clean hit. No intent to injure. Antrel didn’t lead with his helmet, which would have gotten him ejected from the game, same as it would have in high school or college. He didn’t come in too high on Clay, or too low, just dropped his shoulder and went plowing into his midsection. 
Lot of things seemed to happen at once. 
Clay felt all the air come out of him as he started to fall to his left. But he wasn’t thinking about that, about air going out but not coming in or the sensation he had that he was flying now. All he was worrying about was holding on to the ball—which he did—even when his left shoulder and elbow and his helmet was hitting the ground at about the exact same moment. 
When he did hit, he felt the way you did when you weren’t paying attention and picked something up off the kitchen floor and then hit the back of your head on the counter when you straight­ened back up. 
But as much as his head and his elbow hurt, somehow he had the presence of mind to get to his feet as quickly as he could, as if the hit he’d just taken was no big deal, because he knew that if he didn’t, his mom would already be moving out of the stands behind Holy Cross High School. She’d done it before. She was one of those football moms, watching every move he made like a hawk, especially if she thought he’d taken any kind of shot to his head. And the last thing you wanted if you were a twelve-year-old football player—one who played his home games in the shadow of the Alamo and who prided himself on being as tough as his coach—was to have your mom down on the field seeing if her little boy was all right.
When he was halfway up, still holding on to the ball with his left hand, Antrel grabbed his right hand, right before Clay tossed the ball to the ref. 
Clay could feel the ringing in his ears. Knew he’d gotten his bell rung good. But he wasn’t going to let Antrel know that. Or show him how happy he was to suddenly be able to take a good, deep breath. 
“You good?” Antrel said. 
“Am I good?” Clay said. “I’m great, now that I know that’s all you got, dude.” 
Antrel smiled, as if knowing that if Clay were giving him a little chirp, it meant he was all right. 
“Long game,” he said. “We’ll see about that.” 
He leaned forward then and touched helmets, Clay hoping that Antrel didn’t have any more hurt in him than that. Antrel or any­body else on the Lions. 
Because being in the air that way, not knowing how he was going to land or how hard he was going to land—and then land­ing as hard as he did—hadn’t just knocked the wind out of him. It had scared him. 
But he jogged casually back to the huddle while the first-down chains were moved, keeping his head down, but feeling his mom’s eyes on him. So he gave a quick look up to where he knew she was sitting in the stands. She wasn’t sitting. She was standing, staring straight at him. 
So he gave her a thumbs-up, hoping that convinced her that he was okay. She nodded and gave him a thumbs-up sign back. 
But are you okay? Clay asked himself. 
His head was still ringing. He could still feel the burn in his left elbow. But it was funny. He was more scared of taking himself out of the game than he was about getting hit the way Antrel had just hit him anytime soon. 
Before David told them what the next play was, he turned to Clay and he was the one asking him, “You good?” 
“Perfect,” Clay said.

This was such a great book. I love football books so much and love them even more when there is a great message told in the story. Lone Star is heartwarming story about the love and loyalty a player has for his coach and the impact that they make on young lives often without even knowing it.

Mike Lupica has been called “the greatest sports writer for middle school readers.” He is the author of multiple bestselling books including HEAT, TRAVEL TEAM, MILLION-DOLLAR-THROW, THE UNDERDOGS, QB 1, FANTASY LEAGUE and FAST BREAK. As a sports columnist for New York’s Daily News, he has proven he can write for and speak to sports fans of all ages.




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