Not again. Frank Cignetti's chest begins to burn, a vise crushing his heart. What can he say this time? He sits in his office, the football coach at West Virginia, the Mountaineers' final word on everything. He feels helpless. Here comes the boy—sure; he's a senior, but look at that baby face—stubby as a thumb, slow as pitch, armed with numbers that mean nothing. Here comes Terry Bowden through the door, insisting again. You have to start me, Coach. lean do it....
Five years Terry has been at West Virginia, begging for his chance. No one has given more of himself, worked harder, studied longer, listened better. No one has less to give. Who in Division I plays a half-pint running back with no quickness or power? His daddy, Bobby, sure didn't. Bobby left West Virginia in 1976, after Terry's second year, without the boy playing a down. It hurts Bobby still: The time Terry was knocked cold in practice, laid out on the field with blood pouring from his nose and mouth. Bobby wanted to hug his boy, wipe away the hurt. He couldn't. He had to treat him like any player.
"Growing up, you're always encouraging your kids, 'You can do it,' " Bobby says. "And there was Terry—five-foot-six, 170 pounds—and I was still encouraging him: 'You can do it.' I knew he wasn't fast enough, big enough. I knew he wasn't good enough, but...."
Look, today in practice I had 27 more yards than Walker.... Look, I should be playing. Why aren't I playing, Coach? Why?
How much of a beating can a boy take? Season after season some new talent would come in and pass Terry by. He had a 3.65 academic average, he was married; he had a life. But this was the thing Terry wanted to be: a football player. Every season he would come back, and sooner or later he would be back in this office.
Cignetti shakes his head. How much of a beating?
One spring afternoon a runner went down, and an assistant coach named Joe Pendry rasped, "Get me a back out here!" And Terry, four years on the scout team and just waiting, bulled out before anyone else could yank on a helmet. Pendry saw him coming and yelled, "No, give me a good back!" And there Terry was, frozen at midfield. "You do one of two things: Quit or fight," says Terry's older brother, Tommy, a two-year starter at West Virginia. "He fought. He played on special teams, and he was cold-blooded, a killer."
Cignetti tries: "You just can't make the play, Terry. You don't have the speed you need...." But it's useless. Terry stares at him, eyes wide, pleading. Cignetti knows what's coming. Terry asks, "Why?" and the room quiets because there is nothing words can do. And Terry's eyes fill with tears, and Cignetti wants to cry, too, because this is what a coach seeks, forever, the player who dies for the game.
"Terry...." Cignetti begins, but that's all he has. "Terry."
He loves to sing. Sometimes, after a win, the customers down at DeNaro's will look up from their plates to see Coach on stage, warbling Sister Goldenhair or some other such mush-pop from his youth. But not tonight. Out of the Lexus Bowden pops, the same way he shoots through doorways or shakes an offered hand on the sidewalk—always with an eye edging on to the next thing—moving like he was hurtled out of some fiery gun, Mr. Cannonball on an unstoppable roll.