I’m not sure which surprised me more, the earliness of the hour or the beating on my bedroom door by the tiny fist of a creature for whom being hard-to-find is an art form.
The dogs, of course, love him. As soon as I opened the door, they bounded out, knocked him to the ground and flipped him high, his colorful sleeping attire spinning in the air like a parrot in a hurricane.
The dogs headed for the backyard and I did my best Carson Cox imitation, catching the odd little man before he crashed through the coffee table.
“Dr. Pick ‘Em!,” I said. “How nice to see you before noon, you old fustilarian.”
“Borrowing from the Bard, are we?” said Pick ’Em, a failed English major before obtaining his Ph.D in pick-it-ology from USS (the University of Screwball Sportswriters). “Dost thou hear, Hal? Never call a true piece of gold a counterfeit: Thou art essentially mad without seeming so.
“Here’s a nugget for you to put in your safe,” he added. “Pleasant Grove is going to beat Graham.”
At this point, I had to take pause. I’m not always fond of Pick ‘Em, my semi-permanent houseguest who is prone to late night parties, a little voodooo on the side and draining my cooking sherry and refilling the bottle with iced tea (do you have any idea what that does to a good shrimp scampi?). I’m not sure where he came from, whether he’s my Moriarity, my alter-ego, my inner child, or what.
But the sucker is usually right. About football games, I mean.
“Whoa, whoa, hold on there, Doc,” I said, expecting to take the wind out of his sails as I played devil’s advocate. “Graham has the ultimate pinball offense. These guys scored 751 points – the old school record was something like 600 – and their quarterback is another Joe Montana, with some Peyton Manning and Doug Flutie tossed in.”
“Do tell,” replied the good doctor, as he brewed himself one of those mysterious island teas.
“Tucker Horn is his name, and he’s being recruited by Ivy League schools. Ivy League! He’s thrown for more than 4,000 yards and has 53 TD passes and only five interceptions. Last week, in a 69-41 win over Bushland, he threw for 590 yards and seven touchdowns. And Bushland, like PG, plays man coverage. There were Steers running wild behind the secondary. All. Night. Long.”
“Uh-Huh,” I bet they can run it, too,” said Pick ‘Em, as he poured a foul-smelling potion into his tea. It was labeled, “Prognostication Power.”
“Darn right they can run it,” I said. “They average 300 passing yards a game, and they run for 200 more. “The offensive line is almost all seniors and the only time their tailback, Chase Gilmore, hasn’t rushed for more than 100 yards is when they took him out before halftime.”
“Sounds unstoppable,” Pick ‘Em said softly, a sly smile spreading across his face as he slowly stirred his tea. He took a sip.
“Defense any good?”
“Heck, yeah,” I said as a suspicion that I was being baited began to enter my mind. “They’ve only allowed 273 points all season. That’s less than 20 points a game, pretty amazing these days.”
“You know, of course,” he said, his eyes slowly rising to meet mine, “that PG has only given up 226, and the Hawks have played against some pretty good quarterbacks, like Decorian Phillips at L-E, and that Poppy Brown fella down in Gilmer.”
“So, you’re saying, unstoppable object meets immovable force,” I said. “It’s the old defense wins championship argument?”
“Not really,” said the master forecaster. “This is going to be a shootout. Pleasant Grove’s offense is going to have to control the ball, makes plays and put points on the board to keep pace.
“Graham is good, and the defense is going to have to find ways to get some stops. Like Pleasant Grove, Graham’s 7-on-7 team helped it gel. The Steers won the state title last summer, but PG won 17 games before falling in the semifinals. PG’s secondary knows how to play against this type of offense. It may give up a big play or two, but it’s not going to let Graham run free all night, the way Bushland did.
“The secret to Graham’s passing game is the short, possession routes. Don’t be surprised if those little fellas get knocked off those routes by linebackers pretty regularly.”
“The Hawk Headhunters will be the difference in this game?”
“They’ll acquit themselves well. They have all year,” said Pick ‘Em, “but I’m going with PG because the Hawks have the secret weapon.”
“The Fat Boy Gang,” he said, his face breaking into a wide grin. “Bill Parcells used to say that football teams are built from the inside-out. This is a game played by big men, and I haven’t seen anyone handle Nick Gavriel, Zach Winkler, Drake Fowler, Hunter Druhan and Austin Toler this season.
“Those guys crashing the middle, plus Xaxier Benson and Landon Jackson coming in from the edge to chase the quarterback all over the ball bark can turn an offense’s best-laid plans into an upside-down pinball machine.”
“This one gets decided In the trenches, then, eh?”
“In the trenches,” proclaimed Dr. Pick ‘Em. “Hawks 45-31.”