The first time Michael Knight heard God’s call he was in the end zone of Ozark College in Ozark Falls, Missouri. His team was down by three points and there was less than thirty seconds left in the game. Todd McBride, the Ozark College Rams’ starting quarterback and Michael’s best friend, hurled the ball deep toward the end zone. It was either score or go home.
Already downfield, Michael could see the moment Todd cocked his arm backward to throw. He spun past his defender and locked his eye on the spiraling ball. The entire season now hung on his ability to make the grab. His abdominal muscles tightened into a knot. He sucked wind, long and hard. The entire crowd stood to its feet with anticipation. The visiting team counted out loud with the game clock, “Five, four, three . . .”
Michael dove. In an instant his six foot two inch frame had crossed the goal line. Todd’s perfect spiral was in his hands. Victory! Michael had made the winning catch. The local fans exploded with shouts and cheers. The Rams were now in the Division Three Finals for the very first time. Michael’s closest family members embraced each other, jumped, whooped and kissed. Some of them almost fell out of the stands. It was the Rams’ finest moment and their boy, Michael, was right at the heart of it.
Still holding the ball, he rolled over onto his knees. His defeated defender, now five feet or so to his left, was bent over clutching his knees. Michael could hear his slow, labored breathing. In the distance the Rams’ bench had emptied and all of his teammates were running toward him. Michael bowed his head to thank God for the win before the impending pile-on when he clearly heard the words: “Before I made you in the womb I knew you and I have called you to preach to thousands and to thousands times ten-thousands.”
Michael snapped his head to the left and to the right. There was no one there. His defender was walking away from him, head bowed to the ground. Despite the noise from the bleachers, the voice had been so clear, so near; almost audible. Before he could think another thought, his teammates were on top of him.
After two minutes of pounding and being pounded by his team, Michael stood to his feet and screamed out loud. In the distance, he could see his girlfriend Abby and his parents not knowing quite how to cut through the throng of football players, cheerleaders and others. He began to make his way toward Abby when Todd walked over and gave him an intense embrace.
The two co-captains had been together since they were cub scouts. Michael wasn’t sure what Todd was thinking but he could remember every peewee football game they had ever played. Beneath the bright night-lights and surrounded by the jubilant crowd, the young men silently acknowledged that their playing days were almost over. After a few seconds, they let go of the embrace and Todd said, “We’re going all the way baby.”
Michael laughed out loud. Ozark College would play for the Division Three Championship in one week. Everyone knew they were a long shot to win. Tonight’s victory had come at a huge cost of will power, endurance and concentration. It would be difficult to regenerate that intensity within a week.
Their opponents, the Springfield University Running Rebels were big, tough and undefeated. Todd often joked that Springfield football players ate cows for breakfast. Whatever the odds, Michael would worry about Springfield later. Right now he was holding the winning football and he was feeling unbeatable.
“Damn right,” he yelled back to Todd when he felt the hand of his father, Reverend Jeremiah Knight on his sweat-drenched head.
“Dad,” he said, startled, wondering if he’d heard the damn right comment. Even with Michael dressed in full football gear, Reverend Knight was an inch taller and more than a few inches wider than his son. The Reverend was a big man, with a voice that could roll like thunder. He had also played college ball, but as a 250-pound defensive lineman. If Reverend Knight had heard Michael’s comment, tonight was not the time or place to discuss it. He beamed happiness and pride in his boy. He held him tightly and whispered, “Way to go Michael.”
Standing behind the Reverend was Michael’s mother, Kathryn. Through his dad’s bear hug, he could see her standing with an arm around Abby. Both women were teary-eyed and dwarfed by the two much larger men. He choked back his own tears and pulled them into a sweaty hug. His dark hair lay pasted to his skull. His blue eyes reflected the bright fluorescent lights. Kathryn stepped back and allowed Abby to give Michael a hug of her own.
She whispered in his ear, “You are my champion Michael Knight” and then kissed him on the cheek. Michael stared into her face. She had never looked more beautiful to him. They hadn’t won the Championship, but he was Abby’s champion. There was something about the way she said the words. He had never heard a sweeter sound. He stared into her eyes and mouthed, “I love you,” under his breath.
Years later Michael would realize it was at that precise moment he’d fallen in love with her. Reverend Knight also observed the moment. He squeezed Kathryn tight. Michael and Abby grew up together. Her parents were members of his congregation before either of them was born. For the parents, wedding bells were not far off. Jeremiah and Kathryn sparkled. Their boy was becoming a man. Jeremiah spoke first.
“We're so proud of you Michael. You boys have worked hard for this and you all really deserve it.” Kathryn chimed in. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack on that last play.” They all laughed together. Kathryn took his hand and squeezed. From the time Michael was a baby, the two of them spoke an inside language. Kathryn motioned her head to the left.
“Your sister came to watch you play tonight.”
Michael turned toward the direction of Kathryn’s gesture. His older sister, Cindy, was standing twenty feet away with her boyfriend, Ramon Sanchez. She gave Michael the thumbs up and twirled her fingers hello. Michael glanced at Jeremiah, who now had one arm around Kathryn and was looking down at his shoes. Michael turned toward Cindy and Ramon. “Excuse me, guys,” he said and walked toward the couple.
Cindy grabbed Michael’s neck. “Great game bro.”
Ramon, who had been patting Michael on the back added, “That was awesome Michael. Highlight film material.”
“Before you call Monday Night Football, we have a little assignment called the Springfield Running Rebels next week.”
“You guys will cream ‘em.”
“Your words to God’s ears, Ramon. Your words to God’s ears.”
Cindy had heard enough football small talk. She had no idea about the mechanics or importance of the game, but she was glad to have been there for Michael. It was easy to forget that in a town the size of Ozark Falls, population 11,945, a Division Three Football Championship was a big deal. Now that the big game was over, Cindy felt like having a Big Mac.
“Let’s grab some munchies on the way home Ramon.”
Ramon nodded in agreement and stuck out his hand. “Good job, Michael. Jerry Rice would be proud.”
Michael shook his hand and laughed. “I’m sure he was watching.”
The couple turned and headed toward Ramon’s Harley Davidson motorcycle. It was the first thing he bought when he ended his tour of duty in the Marines. He’d been in the same class at Ozark High as Michael’s older brother David. He met Cindy in his senior year when she joined the cheerleading squad of the basketball team. Ramon was the best point guard to ever play at Ozark. He still held the school’s assist and scoring records.
In his senior year, his father blew his brains out with a shotgun. He withdrew from his teammates and from sports. Before long, he was skipping school and getting drunk with friends. Ramon’s mother Elsie also took it hard. She drank with him and with many men who moved in and out of their lives.
Cindy stuck by him and convinced him to leave town. She’d read somewhere that the Marines could provide a new start in life. He took her advice and fought his way through boot camp and memories of his parents. Now he was back in town, having received an early discharge for reasons he hadn’t shared with anyone.
Ramon knew that Cindy’s family, and Reverend Knight, in particular, didn’t like him. Not to mention the star quarterback, Todd McBride. Ramon was tired of his nasty looks, every time he rode by with Cindy on his Harley. Even Todd’s parents, who owned a chain of fast food restaurants in the area, gave him funny looks when he occasionally dined in one of their eateries.
Michael, at least, was always civil. His holy-rolling, older brother David and his friends were all two-faced. Although they were classmates, David never bothered to tell him about the God he seemed to want everyone else to know about. Maybe he wasn’t good enough for David’s God.
From across the field he could see McBride and his parents, the Reverend and wife talking with Head Coach, Ray Parker. How cozy. None of the coaches had seemed to care about his parents and what he’d gone through several years before. They also didn’t give a rip about his pain. If he couldn’t produce a championship, they weren’t interested.
He would show this town that he was not a loser like his parents. He would show them that he could be better than Michael or Todd– better than any of them. Tonight was Ozark’s night, but one day he would have his time under the lights.
Ramon kept walking slowly, Cindy trailing slightly behind. He’d had enough of the family scene. It was already dark, but he slipped on his sunshades. “Hypocrites,” he muttered under his breath.
Nevertheless, he had to admit the Reverend’s daughter was proving to be useful in more ways than one. Perhaps he would keep her around a while longer. He enjoyed seeing the town squirm.
Michael watched the couple walk away. They seemed so alone. For the first time that evening he felt sad. Cindy was living with a man outside of marriage and Jeremiah Knight would never accept it. He didn’t know how to choose between his sister and his father, so he just kept his mouth shut.
Ramon seemed decent on the surface, but Michael knew about his past struggles with alcohol and with life. He wasn’t convinced that the Marines had straightened him out because he looked like a man that wanted trouble. Michael focused on Cindy and let out a sigh. He couldn’t tell her what to do, but he knew his dad was right about one thing—men who go looking for trouble always find it.