The Winning Touchdown/Chapter 6

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There was a crisping tang in the air. The wind had in it just the hint of winter, but the sun shone bravely down and glinted on the green grass of the football field a field—marked off in white lines, so meaningless to one not familiar with the game, yet so full of meaning to a player.

Soon what a struggle there would be to cross those same white lines—especially the last, whereon were the goal posts, and to gain which every last ounce of strength, every atom of breath, every nerve and sinew that could be urged to lend speed to the runner would be called upon to do the utmost that the ball might be shoved over for a touchdown.

Now, however, the gridiron of Randall College lay peaceful and quiet under the October sun. The grass seemed to shiver in the breeze, as if in anticipation of the struggles it would soon have to bear.

The silent grandstands were but waiting the cheering, yelling, singing, sport-maddened and enthusiastic throngs that would shortly occupy them, to cause them to sway as in a gale with the stress of their applause, to echo to the thunder of thousands of stamping feet.

But now the gridiron was deserted. It was like a battle-field whereon had taken place many a conflict, but which, like the arena of old, had been swept and garnished with sand, effacing the marks of strife, that those who came might not see them. It was all ready for the next battle of brawn, practice for which would soon take place.

Out from the gymnasium came rushing a crowd of lads—in canvas trousers and jackets, and in sweaters, the shoulders of which bulged with great leather patches. Some of the warriors had on leather helmets, and others swung rubber noseguards from their arms by dangling strings.

"Lineup! Line up!" came the cry.

"Come on for some punts!"

"Hey, Phil, send out some drop kicks!"

"Pass the ball!"

"Fall on it! Fall on it!"

The lads were racing about, leaping and jumping. Some were punting, others sending the ball swiftly around by a quick arm and hand motion. Still others, in the excess of their exuberance, were wrestling or tackling.

For it was the first day of practice with the newly-organized team, and everyone was anxious to see what the result would be. Kerr had gone from Randall, after an affecting good-bye to his classmates, bearing with him their sincere wishes that his father would speedily recover, and that Ed would return.

Bricktop, for the first time since the season had opened, was without his football togs, and he felt it keenly. But once he had made up his mind, he decided to forget practice, though he consented to stay on about a week, and help Mr. Lighten coach Snail Looper in his work behind the line.

"Here you go, Tom!" called Sid, and he sent a puzzling spiral down the field. The plucky left end was down after it like a flash, extending his arms to gather it in. So swift was it, however, that it went right through his grasp, and bounded on the grass. Tom, like a flash, fell on it.

"Good!" cried the coach, who seemed to be watching every preliminary play, though regular practice had not yet been begun. "That's the way to do it."

There was, some warm-up work, while Mr. Lighton and Dan Woodhouse consulted, and while the captain of the scrub was getting his men together. Then came the cry again:

"Line up! Line up!"

"We'll play a ten minute half," said the captain, and he glanced at a list in his hand. "Here's how the 'varsity will line up," he added. "Tom Parsons will play at left end, Bert Bascombe at left tackle, Sam Looper at left guard, Holly Cross at centre. Billy Housenlager will be right guard. I'll play at right tackle, as usual. Joe Jackson will be at right end, and his brother can try it at full-back, only I wish he'd put on more weight. Phil, you'll go to quarter. Pete Backus will play right half-back, and Sid Henderson at left half. Now, I guess that completes the team. Get in line and see what we can do."

"And remember what I told you about fast, snappy playing," cautioned the coach. "I'm going to have the scrub do its best to make a touchdown on you, so watch out. Line up!"

The ball was placed in the centre of the field, and, as the 'varsity wanted to get into offense as soon as possible, the scrub was to kick off.

"All ready?" asked Ned Hendrix, who was captain of the scrub, as he looked across the field to see how his own players were bunched.

"All ready," answered Kindlings.

Ping! That was the nerve thrilling sound of the toe of Hendrix's shoe making a dent in the side of the ball. Straight and true it sailed, and into the arms of Jerry Jackson it fell.

"Now, fellows, come on! Make up some interference for him! Don't let them get through on us!" yelled the captain of the Varsity, as the Jersey twin tucked the ball under his arm, lowered his head and started back with the pigskin.

Before him ran his fellows, and speeding toward them came the eager scrub, thirsting for tackles. Jerry managed to run back twenty yards before he was downed, and as the two teams lined up for the first scrimmage, the coach shook his head rather dubiously.

"The scrub is a bit quicker than the 'varsity, I'm afraid," he whispered. "I've got to whip them into shape. Well, now to see how they tear through the line."

Phil Clinton was kneeling down behind Holly Cross to receive the ball. He gave a quick glance behind him, and decided to try out the mettle of Pete Backus.

"Seventeen—eighty-four—ready now—twenty-two—four—sixteen—eighty-three," counted Phil, but before he had called the last number he had given the signal for the ball to come back.

It was for Pete to take the pigskin in between tackle and guard, and, as he received the leather, Pete made a spring through the hole that was opened for him. He gained two yards, seeing which the coach murmured:

"He's got the strength, but he needs to be a bit quicker. Well, we've got time enough to get speed out of him, I guess."

The piled-up players slowly emerged from the heap, and Kindlings whispered to his new man:

"Good work, old fellow. That's the way to tear through them."

Phil was already calling off the next signal. He had found that quick, snappy work in beginning the signal, even though it was not quite yet time for the play, had the effect of somewhat demoralizing the other players, and also hastened the actions of his own men. Once more the ball went to the Grasshopper, but he failed to gain, and was thrown for a slight loss, for the scrub players were eager in breaking through.

"That won't do," objected the captain, gloomily.

"I—I didn't know he was going to give it to me so soon again," spoke Pete, pantingly.

"You must always be ready," was the comment.

Phil was calling for a kick now, on the last down, and Joe Jackson dropped back for it. The ball was sent out of danger, but coach and captain shook their heads. The 'varsity had not gained as much ground as they should have done.

"Better luck next time," said Kindlings hopefully.

"Your men need it," responded Mr. Lighton.

It was now the turn of the scrub to see what they could do, and they quickly formed over the pigskin, while their quarter-back called off the signals. At the sturdy line of the 'varsity, they plunged, trying to tear a hole between the left guard and tackle. They had quickly found the weakness of Pete, and Bert Bascome was not a tried warrior of the gridiron. The scrub penetrated for a couple of yards, and then, seeing what the danger was, the other players massed their strength there, and stopped the advance of the man with the ball.

Again the scrub hurled themselves against the line, trying on the other side this time. They could not gain, and Joe Jackson dropped back to receive the kick he expected would come.

But the scrub's quarter gave the signal for a fake punt, and when the 'varsity had spread out, the right half-back was sent forward with the ball. But they did not gain what they expected, for Kindlings, ever on the alert for a play like that, was watching, and, cleverly dodging through the interference, he downed the man with the ball in a fierce tackle. The scrub had gained their distance, however, and still had possession of the pigskin.

"Hold 'em this time!" begged the captain, as he got rid of some dirt that had been ground into his mouth under his nose-guard.

And hold the 'varsity did after that. Not an inch could the scrub gain, for the wall in front of them was like stone, and they were relentlessly hurled back. Twice they tried it, and on the third down they kicked—no fake affair now.

The 'varsity had the ball again. Phil did not try Pete this time, but gave the leather to Sid, who, like an old time warrior, lowered his head and plunged into the line for three yards.

"Come on! Come on!" yelled Phil, pushing and pulling on his chum to help him through. There was a mass of crowding, struggling players all about Sid. The scrub, with desperate energy, tried to stem the progress of the human tide. Still Sid worked on, worming to get every inch, and he broke through the scrub line, staggered on and on, and when he was finally downed, with half a dozen of the players clinging to him like hounds to a stag, he had gained three yards, through a hard defense.

"Wow! Wow!" yelled Bean Perkins.

"That's what I ought to have done, I suppose," murmured Pete, regretfully, as he saw what a gain Sid had made.

"Oh, you'll do it yet," said Tom consolingly. "It takes a little practice. Those fellows are out for blood to-day. A lot of them are hoping to get on our team."

"Well, they won't!" declared Pete, and when he was given a chance with the ball a little later, he tore through for a two-yard gain in great fashion.

The 'varsity was now playing fiercely, and had the "measure" of the scrub. Those unfortunate lads tried in vain to stem the human torrent. The first team had the ball, and were not going to give it up. Down the line they rushed, shoving the second lads to one side—bowling them over.

"Touchdown! Touchdown!" came the cry when the five-yard line was reached. "Touchdown!"

And a touchdown it was, Sid being pushed and dragged over the line. It took eight minutes of play to make it, though, and the scrub felt in their hearts that they had done good work, as indeed they had.

There was another line-up, after a kick-off, and the scrub had another chance to show what they could do, but they failed to gain in two trials, and kicked. Then the 'varsity once more had the ball, and in the little while remaining to play, for the half had been lengthened to fifteen minutes, they rushed it up the field. A forward pass was tried, but did not work well, nor did an onside kick, and Mr. Lighton wisely decided to defer these plays until the team worked together better in straight football.

"Well, what do you think?" asked Kindlings, as he walked to the gymnasium with the coach.

"It might be worse," was the non-committal answer. "But they all mean well, and as soon as Sam and Pete get more confidence, they'll do better. But—oh, well, what's the use of crossing a bridge until you get out of the woods, as Holly Cross would say. We have a game with Newkirk in two weeks, and if we can't beat them, even with the team we have——"

"We'd better go out of business," finished Dan.

"Exactly," agreed the coach, with a shrug of his shoulders.