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WE OFTEN play catch with a football in our yard, Zack and I. Well, the yard is too small, so we play on our driveway, and a bad throw means the ball will hit the blacktop and be gouged. But recently this old high school quarterback hasn't been able to sling a ball the kid couldn't catch or at least stop. At 17 he's a wiry 6'4", with a 6'7" wingspan, hands like pie tins. And he can sky. In junior high he finished fifth in Illinois in the high jump. He's fast, too—had the fastest 300-yard shuttle time on the football team this summer—and agile. He started on the sophomore basketball team, still owns club swimming records, was a terrific diver and has thrown a baseball 260 feet. Last spring he made all-conference in lacrosse.
But football is something he loves with a passion, and, after playing cornerback, safety and quarterback, this was going to be his bust-out senior season as a varsity wide receiver, the position he was meant to play. I called him "White Randy Moss" when I threw to him. "Dad, I can't wait to score a touchdown," he'd say. "I can't wait."
All winter he lifted weights, and all summer he worked with the team, honing routes, catching pass after pass from strong-armed junior quarterback Tommy Rees, snaring balls that were nearly silent as they nestled in his hands. The season opener was approaching, and the excitement was building in Lake Forest. Never before had our high school team played at home under lights. But after more than a year of fund-raising by the sports moms and the booster group, the lights had been installed and the switch would be thrown on Friday at 7 p.m.
Then on Monday, while running sprints at practice, Zack went down. The kids running next to him thought he'd had a heart attack. It was his right knee. The MRI was inconclusive, but the leg was locked in a slight bend as if it were welded that way. I had ridden my bike over to practice earlier that day, sitting far up in the empty stands, out of sight, as I like to do. I had left when the sprints started. Boring stuff, and I had a long way to ride. But when I got home, Zack was already there, on crutches, a haunted look in his eyes.
The surgery came on Thursday, and Ed Hamming, the orthopedic surgeon and a family friend, said it went well. Zack's torn and buckled meniscus was sewn back together, a small part was removed, and now, in a straight-leg brace, he would begin to heal. How long? A couple months or so. The football season would be over.
Just that morning, Aug. 28, a full-page article had appeared in the suburban paper with a photo of Zack catching a ball in practice under the headline: TELANDER WILL BE TOP TARGET IN LF'S PASSING GAME. The writer had mentioned that I used to play ball, and had asked Zack if his dad had given him any advice. Zack answered, "He said there is nothing better than high school football or high school sports, and that one should never take any moment on the field for granted."
On Friday morning Zack and I went to a pancake restaurant. Zack sat in the backseat of the car, barely fitting from door to door. "Dad," he said, "is my knee going to be O.K.?"
I assured him it was. What dad wouldn't? He had taken a shower—that was an effort—and the Steri-Strips on his knee had fallen off the three single-sutured holes, revealing the inked word Yes on his kneecap, written by a nurse so the doctor would know which leg to cut.
After a time he said, "I think I had a life experience a couple years ago when I saw this movie called Outside Providence. Have you seen it? It's kind of a kid's movie."
I told him I hadn't.