It was a hospital bed, that much appeared certain, though certainty was coming and going. It was narrow and hard and there were shiny metal railings standing sentrylike along the sides, preventing escape. The sheets were plain and very white. Sanitary. The room was dark, but sunlight was trying to creep around the blinds covering the window. He closed his eyes again; even that was painful. Then he opened them, and for a long silent minute or so he managed to keep the lids apart and focus on his cloudy little world. He was lying on his back and pinned down by firmly tucked sheets. He noticed a tube dangling to his left, running down to his hand, then disappearing up somewhere behind him. There was a voice in the distance, out in the
hallway. Then he made the mistake of trying to move, just a slight adjustment of the head, and it didn't work. Hot bolts of pain hit his skull and neck and he groaned loudly. "Rick. Are you awake?" The voice was familiar, and quickly a face followed it. Arnie was breathing on him. "Arnie?" he said with a weak, scratchy voice, then he swallowed. "It's me, Rick, thank God you're awake." Arnie the agent, always there at the important moments.
"Where am I, Arnie?"
"You're in the hospital, Rick."
"Got that. But why?"
"When did you wake up?" Arnie found a switch, and a light came on beside the bed. "I don't know. A few minutes ago."
"How do you feel?"
"Like someone crushed my skull."
"Close. You're gonna be fine, trust me." Trust me, trust me. How many times had he heard Arnie ask for trust? Truth was, he'd never completely trusted Arnie and there was no plausible reason to start now. What did Arnie know about traumatic head injuries or whatever mortal wound someone had inflicted? Rick closed his eyes again and breathed deeply. "What happened?" he asked softly. Arnie hesitated and ran a hand over his hairless head. He glanced at his watch, 4:00 p.m., so his client had been knocked out for almost twenty-four hours. Not long enough, he thought, sadly. "What's the last thing you remember?" Arnie asked as he carefully put both elbows on the bed's railing and leaned forward. After a pause, Rick managed to say, "I remember Bannister coming at me." Arnie smacked his lips and said, "No, Rick. That was the second concussion, two years ago in Dallas, when you were with the Cowboys." Rick groaned at the memory, and it wasn't pleasant for Arnie either, because his client had been squatting on the sideline looking at a certain cheerleader when the play came his way and he was squashed, helmetless, by a ton of flying bodies. Dallas cut him two weeks later and found another third-string quarterback. "Last year you were in Seattle, Rick, and now you're in Cleveland, the Browns, remember?"
Rick remembered and groaned a bit louder. "What day is it?" he asked, eyes open now. "Monday. The game was yesterday. Do you recall any of it?" Not if you're lucky, Arnie wanted to say. "I'll get a nurse. They've been waiting."
"Not yet, Arnie. Talk to me. What happened?" "You threw a pass, then you got sandwiched. Purcell
came on a weak-side blitz and took your head off. You never saw him." "Why was I in the game?" Now, that was an excellent question, one that was raging on every sports radio show in Cleveland and the upper Midwest. Why was HE in the game? Why was HE on the team? Where in the hell did HE come from? "Let's talk about it later," Arnie said, and Rick was too weak to argue. With great reluctance, his wounded brain was stirring slightly, shaking itself from its coma and trying to awaken. The Browns. Browns Stadium, on a very cold Sunday afternoon before a record crowd. The play-offs, no, more than that--the AFC title game. The ground was frozen, hard as concrete and just as cold. A nurse was in the room, and Arnie was announcing, "I think he's snapped out of it." "That's great," she said, without much enthusiasm. "I'll go find a doctor." With even less enthusiasm. Rick watched her leave without moving his head. Arnie was cracking his knuckles and ready to bolt. "Look, Rick, I need to get going." "Sure, Arnie. Thanks." "No problem. Look, there's no easy way to say this, so I'll just be blunt. The Browns called this morning-- Wacker--and, well, they've released you." It was almost an annual ritual now, this postseason cutting.
"I'm sorry," Arnie said, but only because he had to say it. "Call the other teams," Rick said, and certainly not for the first time. "Evidently I won't have to. They're already calling me."
"Not really. They're calling to warn me not to call them. I'm afraid this might be the end of the line, kid." There was no doubt it was the end of the line, but Arnie just couldn't find the candor. Maybe tomorrow. Eight teams in six years. Only the Toronto Argonauts dared to sign him for a second season. Every team needed a backup to their backup quarterback, and Rick was perfect for the role. Problems started, though, when he ventured onto the field. "Gotta run," Arnie said, glancing at his watch again. "And listen, do yourself a favor and keep the television turned off. It's brutal, especially ESPN." He patted his knee and darted from the room. Outside the door there were two thick security guards sitting in folding chairs, trying to stay awake. Arnie stopped at the nurses' station and spoke to the doctor, who eventually made his way down the hall, past the security guards, and into Rick's room. His bedside manner lacked warmth--a quick check of the basics without much conversation. Neurological work to follow. Just another garden-variety brain concussion, isn't this the third one?
"I think so," Rick said. "Thought about finding another job?" the doctor asked. "No." Perhaps you should, the doctor thought, and not just because of your bruised brain. Three interceptions in eleven minutes should be a clear sign that football is not your calling. Two nurses
appeared quietly and helped with the tests and paperwork. Neither said a word to the patient, though he was an unmarried professional athlete with notable good looks and a hard body. And at that moment, when he needed them, they could not have cared less.
As soon as he was alone again, Rick very carefully began looking for the remote. A large television hung from the wall in the corner. He planned to go straight to ESPN and get it over with. Every movement hurt, and not just his head and neck. Something close to a fresh knife wound ached in his lower back. His left elbow, the non-throwing one, throbbed with pain. Sandwiched? He felt like he'd been flattened by a cement truck.
The nurse was back, holding a tray with some pills. "Where's the remote?" Rick asked. "Uh, the television's broke."
"Arnie pulled the plug, didn't he?"
"Who's Arnie?" she asked as she tinkered with a rather large needle. "What's that?" Rick asked, forgetting Arnie for a second. "Vicodin. It'll help you sleep."
"I'm tired of sleeping."
"Doctor's orders, okay. You need rest, and lots of it." She drained the Vicodin into his IV bag and watched the clear liquids for a moment. "Are you a Browns fan?" Rick asked. "My husband is."
"Was he at the game yesterday?"
"How bad was it?"
"You don't want to know."
When he awoke, Arnie was there again, sitting in a chair beside the bed and reading the Cleveland Post. At the bottom of the front page, Rick could barely make out the headline "Fans Storm Hospital."