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Next Man Up

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When you win, nothing hurts.
~Joe Namath

It's two days of bright lights, impeccably pressed suits and piles of legal papers, two days of people clapping him on the back, 'Welcome to the Cowboys, Jared,' and 'You're going to be a remarkable asset to the team, son,' and 'Jared, we're looking forward to investing our future in your talent.'

It's exhilarating and exhausting, a maddening circus of which he can barely make heads or tails, too caught up in the midst of it all to really know where the ride is taking him or whether or not he's even enjoying it. He just smiles and shakes hands as he's told, tries not to think too much about the weight that has suddenly dropped down on his shoulders, settling there by the faith these men have in him. A faith of which he has yet to prove he's worthy. They smile and grip his hand and whisk him off into yet another photo-op and interview and Jared can feel the undercurrent of 'Don't you fuck this up, boy, don't you disappoint us,' that nobody needs to say out loud to be clearly understood.

Some part of him had expected this, had dreamed of it since the day he'd thrown his first spiral. But nothing he'd ever imagined had come close to this reality, not with Jerry Jones on his left and John, his agent, on the right. Not later with his parents, his father cautioning him to not sign anything until first speaking with both his agent and his lawyer, his mother straightening his tie and smoothing his suit jacket and making him promise to autograph rookie cards for all the kids in her classes.

Back in Austin, he still has interviews to give with the Statesman and KVET and KVRX and, of course, The Daily Texan. They all consist of the same ten or twenty questions and Jared does his best to answer each one like they're new and original.

"Do you think the Cowboys are hoping to make you a replacement for the faltering Jensen Ackles in the new season?"

This is the fourth sports writer Jared's talked to just today. The guy, whose name is either Dan or Dave, looks remarkably like every writer before him.

"Uh," he replies, shifting in his as he scratches a finger along his jaw. "Well, I kinda doubt it," he says honestly, trying not to show his discomfort. It's been the most frequently asked question so far, though there are several variations. "Ackles is a great quarterback, great overall player, and I think... well, I hope to learn a lot from him. I certainly don't think I'll be starting right away, but I'd obviously like to eventually."

"So, you don't think you're as good as Ackles?"

Jared laughs, shakes his head. "I know I'm not. The guy's been a pro for, like, five years. I was-- y'know, I was still in high school then. I haven't even been through minicamp yet."

"But what about pure talent and athleticism? Style and arm strength? You have youth on your side, size..." the guy continues, lips twisted in a half-grin. "Not to mention the decreasing confidence in Ackles' ability to win big games and his past performances in December."

"He still has the experience and respect of his teammates," Jared counters, "which, I think, are just as important, if not more important, than pure athleticism. And it's not like the guy's on his way to the grave, he's not even thirty and still an incredible ballplayer. He's got a lot left to give."

"But you spent your first year learning from Vince Young, arguably the best quarterback to come out of UT--"

"It's not the same," Jared interrupts, smiling despite himself. "I mean, yeah, Vince is great and I learned a lot from him, no question, but it's still a college team with college opponents. We're not playing against the Pittsburgh Steelers or New York Giants every week, you know? I don't have Ray Lewis running me down or Lito Sheppard threatening to intercept me. Jensen Ackles does and has for years. Quarterbacks always get more credit than they deserve when a team's winning, but they also get more criticism than everyone else when they're losing. It's not an excuse or anything, but it's true and I think Ackles is a truly great quarterback. I really do."

It's probably more than he should've said, certainly more than this guy had expected, but he only smiles at Jared, gives a tilt of his head. "Sound like a fan."

He doesn't know whether the guy's genuinely amused or being vaguely condescending and figures it doesn't matter either way. "Guess you could say that. I mean, I'm a Texas boy, been a Cowboys fan pretty much since birth, so it's not like I haven't been watching him. He's a good player, a good guy. I'm looking forward to being on a team with him."

"You don't think there'll be any animosity between you two given that Jerry Jones has made no secret about eventually making you the franchise quarterback?"

"Well, I hope not," Jared says, his smile open and genuine. "Just wanna be part of the team, you know? I think it'll be good."

When the guy still doesn't look convinced, Jared gives a shrug and adds, "I'm not worried."

:::

In between interviews and soundbites and posing for photo shoot after photo shoot after photo shoot, Jared still has actual schoolwork to worry about. Papers to write, tests to study for, a degree to earn. His decision to go to UT had been based on their engineering program as much as their football program and he'd made a promise to his mother and himself before even enrolling that he wouldn't leave without a degree. After further investigation into the program and talks with the coaching staff, Jared had decided to redshirt his first year, thereby extending his eligibility and starting after Vince Young's departure. He'd led the Longhorns to four straight bowl games, including the BCS National Championship his first year. There had been pressure for him to enter the draft as a junior where he would be a shoo-in as a first round pick and almost certainly receive a lucrative contract, but, as tempted as he might have been, Jared had kept good on his promise.

And now, a signature away from being a Dallas Cowboy, feels like he's truly reaping the benefits. In all honesty, he'd have been happy getting signed by any team in the league, but he can't deny that being signed by the Dallas Cowboys is like fulfilling every single childhood dream he'd ever had. He'd grown up idolizing Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, can still remember the thrill of watching them make and break records left and right, remembers every step of them becoming the first team in NFL history to win three Super Bowls in four years.

And now he's one of them, a part of that legacy.

But he still has to worry about graduating first.

He sits hunched over his mechatronics textbook, yellow highlighter between his teeth, pen tapping idly against the pages. His eyes scan over the words, none of them making any more sense than they had hour ago, his mind too busy imagining where he'll be a year from now, the trip he's about to take, how quickly he'll have to cram in his term papers before rookie minicamp, make sure he still has time to study for his exams before heading into OTAs. It sounds overwhelming and impossible, thrilling and terrifying. Like everything he's ever wanted dangling mere centimeters out of reach.

The touch of a cool hand to the back of his neck snaps him out of his thoughts, breath catching as 110 pounds of perky girlfriend settles into his lap.

"So, I've been thinking," Sandy says, hooking her arms around his neck.

Jared grins around the highlighter and rests his hands on her hips, his mind dragged out of the clouds and back to earth. Sandy's always been good for that, at keeping him grounded and level-headed. Putting him in his place. Jared's pretty sure he doesn't know what he'd do without her. "Thinking?"

"Yeah. Thinking maybe I should become a cheerleader," she says with a sway of her hips, leaning in enough that the tip of the uncapped highlighter lightly brushes the end of her nose.

Laughing, Jared wiggles the highlighter between his teeth, swipes a faint streak of yellow against her cheek before reaching up to pull the pen out of his mouth. "A Cowboys cheerleader? That'd be pretty hot."

"I bet I'd make it," she continues, clearly joking, though Jared's enjoying the idea all the same. "Put those fifteen years of dance to good use and I bet I can wear those cute shorts and vests no problem. My legs look amazing in boots."

"Mmm," Jared agrees, sliding one hand down over the back of her shorts.

"We'll be the hottest couple in town and make everyone jealous. And," she adds, leaning in to bump her nose against his, eyes crinkling at the corners, "at the end of the year, you can take me to prom!"

Jared pulls back with a laugh, reaches his other hand up to tuck a strand of her dark hair behind her ear. He leans in for a kiss, chaste but lingering and Sandy smiles into it.

"You know I'll be comin' down here as often as I can," he promises her, because that's what this is really all about and they both know it. They've talked about Jared's transition to the NFL before and where it might take the both of them. But there's been no time to talk since his return from New York. It had always been hypothetical before, a whole lot of what-ifs that sometimes felt like little more than pipe dreams. Now it's actually happening.

Of course, getting signed by the Cowboys makes it easier with Dallas only a three hour drive from Austin. More manageable than if he'd been signed almost anywhere else.

She laughs softly, brushes another kiss against the corner of his mouth. "You better," she teases, fingers dropping to smooth over the front of his shirt. "I'm clinging to this ship until you make your first couple million. Aiming to land me a goldmine in the divorce settlement."

"That make me your sugar daddy?" Jared laughs, tugging her close to nip at her bottom lip.

"Mm-hmm," she replies and pulls him into a kiss.

Later, with Jared's homework long forgotten and Sandy naked and curled up against his side, he can't help thinking she really would look amazing in those boots.

:::

Due to a contract hold-out, Jared misses rookie minicamp. While disappointed, he spends the time forcing himself to focus on finishing his exams and getting through graduation and on enjoying a few more uninterrupted weeks with his girlfriend. It works for the most part, though he feels bad for calling John nearly every other hour to find out if anything has been settled.

It's the Monday after commencement and Jared's having dinner at his parents' house when he gets a call from Stephen Jones. Jared remembers the name, remembers meeting the man during the whirlwind of the draft and, while the face is unclear, the drawl is familiar, a comforting Texan twang as Jared excuses himself from the table and walks into the living room with his phone.

"Looks like we got it all settled, Jared. You talk to John yet?"

"No, sir, I haven't heard from him."

"My guess is he'll be callin' you real soon then."

"Yes, sir."

"What'll you say to comin' down tomorrow mornin' and gettin' all these papers here squared away? Get you out on that field."

"Yeah, absolutely," Jared says, blood pounding in his ears. "Yes, sir."

He barely hears anything else Mr. Jones tells him, but he keeps saying 'Yes, sir' and 'Thank you, sir' and promises to be there first thing the next morning. After he hangs up, he has to take a minute, pulse a rapid stutter under his skin.

Three sets of eyes greet him when he walks back into the dining room and Jared tries to play it off as casually as possible, calmly sitting down at the table as he slides his phone back into his pocket. Picks up his napkin, sets it on his lap.

"I need to be in Dallas tomorrow morning."

There's nothing but silence for a moment before his father sits back abruptly and lets out a whoop and gives a single loud clap. His sister drops her fork onto her plate with a clatter and kicks Jared's shin under the table. Jared barely flinches, already beaming at her, his momma grabbing his hand, squeezing like she's afraid he's going to leave right that second.

"Did he say...?"

"Fours years for eleven-point-seven with four million upfront," Jared says, the figures still sounding foreign. Unreal. "John's gonna fax everything over tonight."

"Oh, my good Lord," his momma gasps, clutches Jared's hand even tighter.

Megan kicks him again. "You better be buyin' me a car for Christmas, JT. A Mercedes. Convertible."

"You better start kissin' ass then, squirt."

Megan tilts her head upward, lips puckered. "You're the best brother ever."

Jared only laughs, plunges his fork into his mess of mashed potatoes and thinks about how big a house he can buy his parents with that amount of money.

:::

Prior to the draft, Jared had been flown all across the country to feel out various teams and coaches, given V.I.P. tours of a dozen practice fields and stadiums. Wined, dined and pampered like an incredibly expensive hooker. Dallas had been the easiest commute, though they'd really gone all out with it, putting him up in a five star hotel downtown and providing him with transportation both to and from Valley Ranch and Texas Stadium as well as anywhere else he had the desire to wander.

Growing up a Cowboys fan, Jared had heard the name Valley Ranch tossed around all the time and it had somehow always sounded less like a practice facility and more like an enclosed fortress hidden behind thick, opaque trees or carved into a wayward mountain, sheltered from the scorching Texan sun and prying enemy eyes. So he'd been a little surprised to find it nestled within an ordinary suburban area on the outskirts of Irving, just a small collection of buildings at the end of a winding road.

Now, only a couple months later, it looks exactly the same, albeit with a few more leaves on the trees and the grass a touch greener. After getting cleared by security, John drives them on through the entrance and, from there, it's a short stop at the receptionist desk. Minutes later they're ushered into Jerry Jones's spacious office, all smiles and warm 'Good to see you, Jared, welcome to the team,' once again. Jared's given a pen and a camera light flashes as he signs his name, another when he shakes Mr. Jones's hand.

"This mean I can practice now?" Jared asks, still beaming like he's won the lottery.

Mr. Jones laughs, claps a warm hand on Jared's shoulder. "Sure thing," he says. "Go out there and show us what you got."

He finds the locker room with little difficulty, though his stomach tightens the closer he gets, nerves crackling as he grips the strap of his bag. He takes a slow, calming breath before opening the door, the low rumble of voices quieting to a hush when he steps in.

"Well, well, well. Looks like we got some fresh blood up in here," an absolutely enormous guy near the back says and it takes a second for Jared to recognize him. Flozell Adams. Holy shit, Flozell Adams is actually talking to him. "You lookin' to pose for GQ, boy?"

Jared laughs, a quick, nervous sound as he steps further inside. "What, already?" he asks, trying to appear as casual as possible. Like he's already used to this, like the Dallas Cowboys locker room is nothing special.

"You thinkin' you got a free pass 'til training camp, boy?" another guy says and Jared glances over, recognizes him immediately as Patrick Crayton. The eyes are pretty unmistakable, dark and beady, head shaved bald. "N'aw, man. Fun starts today. To-day."

Jared smiles to himself and hitches his bag up higher on his shoulder as he scans the nameplates for his own. "Well, don't be too hard on me, guys," he says. "I'm delicate, you know."

That gets a few howls of laughter and a few dangerous-sounding promises as Jared finds his spot on the other side of the room, drops his bag to the floor. There are two practice jerseys waiting for him already, one dark and one light, both emblazoned with the number fourteen, along with two pairs of practice shorts and shoes. There's a helmet too, displayed proudly in the top cubby hole with his name written on a strip of masking tape across the front.

The tightness in his gut turns warmer for a moment as he reaches up to touch it, a finger outlining the star before he can think to stop himself.

"Hey," someone calls out from a few feet away and Jared quickly pulls his hand back, starts to unbutton the cuff links of his shirt. When he glances over, Jensen Ackles is watching him. The guy's already dressed in his practice clothes, broad shoulders filling out his jersey, grey undershirt peeking out beneath. There's an upward tilt to his chin, eyes narrowed, like some kind of silent challenge that Jared doesn't understand. "Welcome to the team, man," he says, and there's something in his voice that makes Jared question his sincerity.

Still, he flashes a smile, shrugs out of his shirt. "Yeah, thanks."

Ackles watches him for another few seconds and then gives a quick nod before grabbing his helmet and leaving the room.

Jared watches him go, curious and oddly disappointed both at once.

"Don't worry about him none," someone says and Jared looks over, eyes darting to the nameplate above the guy's head. Courtney Brown. It's a name and a face Jared doesn't immediately recognize. "He's had a big ol' stick up his ass since December. Nothing personal, man."

Smiling a little, Jared nods, though he has the nagging feeling personal is exactly what it is.