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VII. Lakeland

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Tim sighs, stands up from his desk. Powers off his computer. Picks up his bag.

This might be the last time for this routine, he knows. He's off to talk to Jim Mitchell. Jim might be a fan but Lakeland Properties is definitely not.

He turns off the lights, goes outside, and is about to lock up when a sudden motion catches his eye. He reacts instinctively: it's in his blood, it's like breathing, it's all he knows to do.

The ball is coming at him strong, a good kick, but it's wide right, and he has to move, quick feet, quick hands. He's fast enough.

"Good catch," says the guy running up to him. "Thought you just threw."

"Did a little of everything in Canada," Tim says, warily. He doesn't like to mention Canada anymore.

"Yeah, me too, eh?" says the guy and Tim's heart stops and then explodes and this guy is Canadian, and he knows football, and he knows Tim Tebow.

"Played in the NFL a long time though too, eh," the guy says. "Vanderjagt. Mike." He puts out his hand.

Tim doesn't want to put down the football, so he tucks it under his left arm and shakes. The way his heart is beating the football starts vibrating and it's like a second heart right there.

Vanderjagt smiles, looking at the football, looking at Tim. "So Ricky Williams sent me to you, eh? Ricky Williams, imagine that shit! He says you need help with this football studio. Says you aren't moving on, so might as well move up. So, I'm gonna teach kicking for you, eh? Might be getting on in years but a kicker can always kick."

Tim can't quite figure out what, to put it politely, is going the fuck on.

"I played for the Colts forever, eh?" Vanderjagt says. "Peyton Manning, bless his soul, called me his idiot kicker, eh? And there I was, a Canadian walking amongst them and they never knew, so who's the idiot now, huh? Sorry, that was pretty rude, no disrespect, Peyton."

"Oh yeah," Tim says. "I didn't know you were Canadian."

"Take off! Of course I am. Remember that first day in America like it was yesterday, eh? Doors, man. Still not sure they're real."

Tim laughs, relaxes. "You did pretty well. Didn't know any Canadians had played in the NFL."

"Oh yeah, some of us, we're trained by the RCMP, eh? To try to understand America?" At that, Vanderjagt opens his coat to reveal his full Mountie dress uniform.

"Nice one," says Tim.

"Beauty," Vanderjagt says.

They stand and look at each other.

"Ricky Williams, though?" says Tim, confused. "He's up in Gr- uh, that place. That place he lives in."

"Yeah, it was a confidential video chat," Vanderjagt says, nodding happily. "But he sent me down here. Save the football studio. Man, America, eh? Can't even appreciate the best thing you've ever had."

"Okay," Tim says. "Let's go talk to Jim. I'll tell him we've got a pro kicker on staff. But what's with the way you're talking? No one in Canada said 'eh', and it's best not to stand out as Canadian here."

Vanderjagt suddenly looks determined, steely. "We suppress it around Americans. But I've had enough. Are you asking me to give up my Canadian heritage? Are you asking me to assimilate? I put up with doors for you. I am occasionally rude. I can barely keep my weight up since you don't use bags for any of your food, which is disgusting, I'm sorry, that was too rude, I'll be better."

Tim grins. It feels just a little bit like being home. And he knows too well what it's like to have beliefs and actions that are outside the norm, that stand out. "Never, my friend," he says. "Never."

*

*

They get two new clients the next day.

That makes two clients total, but what the hell.

*

The day after that, there's this little old guy, big smile, waiting outside the studio with a football in his hands.

Vanderjagt's eyes light up. "Flutie!" he says.

"Hey man," Doug Flutie says, because Tim knows who he is, that's Doug Flutie right there.

"Another Argo?" Tim asks. He suddenly wonders if he should be doing a little research into this.

"Argonauts forever," Flutie says, and he grins. "Hey, go long!"

Vanderjagt starts running flat out, his tongue out, panting like a puppy. "He's going to do it, eh? He's going to do it!"

Flutie drops back, sets. Maybe his arm strength isn't what it used to be, and you couldn't call his style pretty, but the throw itself, the throw is a thing of pure beauty. Vanderjagt catches it a good sixty-plus yards away.

"Ricky sent me," Flutie says, turning to Tim as Vanderjagt happily stages his own Hail Flutie celebration.

"Happy to have you here, man. Heisman winner handshake?"

They perform an intricate handshake while Vanderjagt's not looking. At the end, they each grin.

"I was too short for the NFL," Flutie says. "Too small. Too college. But I did it. And you did too, Tim."

Tim shrugs his shoulders, embarrassed. He's not in Flutie's league.

"You are," Flutie says, as if he's a damn mind reader on top of everything. "Twelve years, wow. Unbelievable. So much integrity. Did you know I was a scab?"

"Huh?" says Tim. He's having trouble keeping up.

"Scab, strikebreaker. Started for the Patriots in '87. My first real opportunity. And I got it by breaking the rules."

"Oh," says Tim. "But you wanted to play." It's so simple, to him. You can play, you play.

"Everyone wanted to play, Tim," Flutie says gently. "Everyone wants to play. You get football inside you and you want to play forever. But I've never forgiven myself. So Ricky, he told me I could come here, help you, help football live on. Figured it was a good deal."

"I can't really pay you," Tim says, sheepishly, "but I'd love to have you on board."

"No problem," Flutie says. "You paying Vanderjagt?"

"He never asked, to be honest."

"Fair enough," Flutie says. "Come on, let's get to work."

*

*

Three more clients sign up that day. They seem really excited.

*

Tim's just waiting to see who shows up the next morning.

He's not really expecting the 80-year-old man walking slowly across the parking lot, limping slightly.

"Heard there was an Argos reunion going on here," the man says. "A football reunion."

Tim waits while the man collects his thoughts. He has always been respectful to his elders.

"Joe Theismann," the man says after a bit, holding out his hand. Tim gasps, and shakes it carefully.

"Got my start in Canada," Theismann says. "I'll never forget it. Weird place. But nice."

"You've just summed it up exactly," Tim says, laughing. "So, did Ricky send you?"

"That whippersnapper? Sure did. We made our peace," Theismann says. "He's a real football player, but I still don't want any of that hippie marijuana bullshit. You guys here, you don't smoke, right?"

"Never, sir," says Tim. "It's all about football, here. We've got five clients and we're really having fun. People have forgotten football, but we're helping them remember."

"Sonny," Theismann says, "I've forgotten more about football than you've ever known. Now hand me that ball. I can still teach a grip and a spiral. I've got the football spirit inside me, and I'm not giving up until I'm cold in the ground."

Tim smiles. He's forgotten this very important thing, he thinks. He's forgotten that other people love this sport as much as he does.

*

*

They're up to fifteen incredibly eager clients before someone mentions the signs to Tim.

He doesn't have the heart to take them down.

"They're very enthusiastic, but a little...rough?" Tim says carefully.

Vanderjagt looks like a wounded puppy, and Tim knows he'll be hearing apologies for a week.

"No, it's fine, it's fine!" Tim says, backpedalling furiously. Heaven knows he knows not to criticize a Canadian's labor of love. "I'll just do the next one, okay?"

*

*

Jim Mitchell and his bosses from Lakeland Properties visit two days after that. There are twenty-five paying clients of all ages and shapes and sizes out on the field, enthusiastically running into each other and falling over a lot.

"This...looks like a lot of old guys, Tim," says Jim. "I just don't know."

Across the field, Theismann is yelling at a kid and shaking his cane.

"They're amazing guys," Tim says, his heart sinking. Just when things were starting to work, starting to click, they were going to take it away.

"They sure are," says a new voice from behind him, and it's not so much a voice as a chorus of angels, a trumpet and a revelation and Tim is almost certain that when he turns around, he will meet the son of God.

"Hey," says the man, the smile on his face so radiant Tim has to squint. Huh. He was pretty sure Jesus wasn't going to be a small black man, but he's been wrong before.

"I'm not Jesus," says the man gently, putting a hand on Tim's shoulder. "But I am an Argonaut. Michael Clemons. Pinball, to my friends. And you're all my friends here." He smiles again, and Tim thinks of solar eclipses, of stars, of love.

"Friends," Pinball continues, waving his hand expansively, "there's something miraculous going on here. Look at all these people. The ones on the field. The ones clamoring to join in."

Tim looks around, and there are so many more people at the field now - easily a hundred or more.

"They are drawn here by the love. They are drawn here by our collective shared memory, a cellular understanding that sports are life." When he says that last part, there is a roll of thunder and Tim feels himself shaking.

"Is football as we knew it over? Perhaps. But it's not for Tim. And Lord, you have never known a man who believed in football like our Tim Tebow. He doesn't know it, but he is blind; we will show him the light. He believes in football, and he will show you all glory and salvation through the effort, the determination, the ecstasy and the agony."

Tim falls to his knees. "Thank you," he says. "It's not enough, but thank you."

"Stand up, my friend," Pinball says. "Stand with me. This studio will keep going. It will grow and live and in this little corner of your world, you will say: enough. Football lives here. Football stays here."

And now who does he see on the field but his oldest friends, his best friends. St-Hilaire. Means. Volquez. He can't see the rest for the tears in his eyes.

"Timmy," they all say, filing past, shaking his hand and nodding their heads respectfully before Pinball.

Tim's face is wet and he doesn't even care. The tears are good.

*

The studio is flourishing. If it keeps up, they might even try to apply for an NFL franchise, get a team going. The rent is paid for the foreseeable future, at least.

Tim throws every day. He finds that's enough; soothing and peaceful, his old janky throw lobbing balls up in the sky. He's showing and teaching and guiding others to the light.

Pinball left after a few days. When he told Tim he was going, Tim cried all over again.

"Where are you going?" he managed to ask, wincing from the pain in his heart.

"I am everywhere, my friend," Pinball replies, smiling more beatifically than ever. "I am there for those who need me. And I rest, and I watch."

"I watched all the game tape I could find," Tim says. "You were amazing. College, NFL, CFL."

Pinball shakes his head. "Football is amazing. I merely channeled its power. You were amazing too, my friend. Enjoy your studio, and your friends, and accept the love they give you. Go in peace."

And, from then on, Tim finally does.

*