"Don't misspell it," somebody whispers to Matuzek, whose hand is unsteady as he takes up the pen and writes his name on a small souvenir football.
After Brown's boys finish in the bathroom, he leads them back across the field and directs them to a corner of the end zone. Each boy takes a knee in the bright, pulsing light of the scoreboard: 23 boys surrounded by 23 school employees. Brown has to shout to be heard above the P.A. announcer, whose voice throbs with admiration as he lists the accomplishments of this year's homecoming queen.
"You boys had some tough breaks in life," Brown says, lifting a finger for emphasis. "You had judges who locked you up. You had parents who kicked your behinds and didn't give you the love you wanted. But let me tell you something: What happens to you tonight is up to you. You're the only ones out here who can change yourselves for the better. But first you've got to do something." Brown hesitates a moment, his eyes moving from one boy to another. Then he says, "You've got to stand up. Do you hear me? You've got to stand up and be a man, or you bow your head and be a loser. There ain't no difference between them boys and us except for what's right in here." Brown thumps a fist against his chest. "This ain't just tonight. It's about the rest of your life."
The coach brings his finger back up and lets it roam among the boys, searching each one out. "Are you a man? That's all I want to know. Are you a man?" When Brown finishes, the team lets out a roar. The boys seem eager to prove that their performance in the first half was an anomaly, and some squeeze their helmets on even though the Trinity Christian homecoming court is just now taking its spin around the track.
"I want you to remember something," Ward yells when it's his turn to speak. He waves a finger of his own as shiny convertibles roll past him. "You won't have to go to court for hitting somebody tonight. You can do that legally out here. You can hit all you want, and nobody's taking you to jail."
It's not only the Trojans' passing attack that befuddles the Indians. Giddings can't stop Trinity Christian's running game, either. "Disgusting," Nash grumbles as he trots off the field. "Just disgusting." The final score is 39-20. The outcome has less to do with heart than with talent.
Matuzek stands in a crowd on the sideline, looking off at the lights of the big scoreboard, his eyes reflecting the numbers. "I know we let this one get away," he says, "but I still think we're going all the way. We'll see them again in the state finals, and next time it'll be different."
The Indians come together to form one last line and march out to shake hands with the victorious home team. "Make sure you thank 'em," Brown says. "Thank 'em for the chance they gave you."
A long bus ride awaits the Giddings boys. They'll stop for burgers on the outskirts of Dallas, then journey south through the black, unforgiving night. At the end of the road there is a prison with a fence. On the other side of the fence there is the hard truth of who they are. Now, though, they're ballplayers no different from the Trinity Christian players who have homecoming to celebrate and who later will sleep in homes without armed guards, snug in their lucky innocence.
As he walks off the field, stealing one last glance at the big stadium and the big everything that is the world outside Giddings, Texas, Matuzek can hardly believe the direction his life has taken. "That was the first autograph I ever signed," he says, shaking his head at the notion. "It gives me this feeling I never had before. Kind of a proud feeling. It's hard to believe, but some little boy out there has a little ball with my name on it."