The first time I saw Jesse Smoke throw a football I knew she was going to be a miracle. I never saw anything like it, and I’d been in the game, professionally, more than thirty years; I saw John Elway, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady. Hell, I remember films of Johnny Unitas and Sonny Jurgensen. I’d been a scout, an assistant, and even for a very short time, head coach. (Interim, for a failing team, but still, head coach.)
I was working at my natural position the first time I saw her, as an assistant. I wasn’t scouting. I was on vacation, traveling in Central America on a brief cruise between the end of the first minicamp and the start of the scouting combine, in February. I wasn’t even thinking about football.
It was on a beach, in Belize. That part of the story everybody tells about us is absolutely true. I was watching some hotdog jet skiers skewer the water in front of the beach, hopping over their own waves, throwing plumes of white water in the air. And then I noticed her, standing just out of the water, on dry sand, in a one-piece bathing suit.
She was tall, for a woman—about six feet one or two maybe— lithe and wiry, small breasted, and not too wide in the hips either, but definitely a fine-looking woman. She was mixed race maybe, a little on the brown side, maybe some Spanish or African in her background. Maybe even some Indian. She had long, powerfully built legs and wore a yellow bandanna around her neck that bounced when she ran. Her hair was black, curly in a wide variety of ways—I mean she had waves, and small twists and little curlicues that made her whole head look like some fully blossomed, half-tended garden. And she could throw a football a fucking mile.
I mean it. She stood on one end of this beach, in a small turn of the shore, and she threw a full-size football across the water to the other side, where a young man about four inches taller than she was caught it. He didn’t try to throw it back, he just came running around the turn, howling his approval. She’d done it to prove she could, it seemed. I swear that football hadn’t even arched that much—she heaved it on a line about fifty or sixty yards. A perfect spiral.
Others there wanted to see her do it again. So the hell did I. See, she was standing in sand. Sand! You can’t get enough footing on sand to whip a ball that far. She didn’t even take much of a stride in the direction of her throw, either. Not that her form was bad. She released the ball quickly—snapped it off the end of her arm is more accurate—and she leaned into it the right way. I know it was only the first throw from her I’d ever seen, but I noticed everything about it because it was so amazing. I can’t believe she didn’t fall down, or recoil in the opposite direction from the throw, given the velocity with which the ball had left her hand; something about the laws of motion, of action creating an equal and opposite reaction.
She was with a lot of young men her age. They surrounded her and it was hard to tell if she was among them or they, too, had just discovered her. The guy she threw the ball to was with her, I could see that, and he was waving everybody off, shouting out something about betting money she could throw it even farther.
I would not have gone over there, but I was by myself as usual and had nothing better to do. Besides, I thought they might be impressed to meet the offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins. Forgive me if that sounds like pride.
I didn’t announce myself right away. A couple of the men wanted to challenge her. All of them wore bright-colored Speedo outfits, their muscular, oiled bodies looking positively shellacked in the glare of sand and sunlight. In my khaki shorts, sandals, purple-and-yellow Hawaiian shirt, and Panama hat, I felt middle-aged and bloated (so much for pride). I approached, stepped a little to the side, and watched from under the shade of a scruffy palm tree a short distance away. Nobody would have noticed me anyway, except perhaps to remark that even older people liked this little beach.
“I bet she can’t hit a moving target,” somebody shouted. She held the football in both hands, flipping it up and down a little, catching it in front of herself, without ever throwing it more than a few inches in the air. I noticed that each time it left her hand it spun exactly one revolution so that it always came down with the laces in her right palm. She knew what she was doing with that ball.
“Give me something to hit,” she said.
One of the men picked up a piece of driftwood. “I’ll put this over there on the other side.”
“That’s nothing. Come on,” she said.
“Like you could see that thing lying in the sand all the way over there?” the guy protested. Then somebody else had the bright idea that she should hit one of the jet skiers.
She scoffed at that, too.
“Can’t do it, huh?” another said. “Too far away for you.”
“Oh, I can do it. Long’s I know where he’s going.”
“Hell they don’t know which way they’re going,” the big guy with her said.
“You could guess,” the first man said.
She looked at him, letting the ball sit still a moment. Then she turned and watched the jet skiers. The men around her didn’t take their eyes off her, but she studied the jet skiers a while, until she picked out one that was doing figure eights, way out in the water. She sort of limbered herself, and let the ball down a bit, and the men all backed away. Then she pointed at this guy—I mean he was at least sixty yards out—and her big companion said, “That one?”
“Exactly,” she said.
“Get back,” the big guy said to the rest of them.
She took a few steps back, pointed her foot exactly as a quarterback should, even though the terrain was slightly downhill, and whipped the ball across the water on a line toward the jet skier. He moved through the water and the ball became a smaller and smaller black shadow of a dot as it moved in a slight arch to a point at which the jet skier would be when the ball got there. It zipped past just to the right of the guy’s shoulder and hit the handlebars in front of him. Scared the living shit out of him, you could tell, and he lost control for a moment, but it was a perfect pass. If he’d been running down a field and looked back, he could have caught the ball with one hand; the ball zipped just over his neck and his shoulder. Sixty yards.
The men surrounded her, cheering and screaming. That’s when I walked right up to them and took off my hat. A couple of the men quieted down when they saw me, but the general ruckus around her continued until she looked at me and put her hand up to the rest of them. Sure enough, they all stopped.
“Hello,” her big boyfriend said to me.
“I’m Skip Granger,” I said. It didn’t seem to make much of an impact. “Ever hear of the Washington Redskins?”
“Well, I coach for them—I’m an assistant.”
“Really,” the big boyfriend said. The others started whispering.
The girl just stared at me.
“I wanted to tell you, that was one hell of a throw.”
“Thank you,” she said.
Somebody had gone out to retrieve the ball and brought it back. I heard laughter about how unhappy the jet skier was; how he’d threatened to beat somebody’s ass until he saw the crowd standing on the beach, waiting for the ball. He wasn’t about to challenge what looked like an entire football team. The fellow who retrieved the ball threw it over a few heads and she caught it.
Her boyfriend told me her name. “She’s a great quarterback,” he said.
The men started crowding in closer to hear what we were saying. Some of them were whispering. I heard the word “coach.”
“Where’d you learn to throw a football like that?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I always knew. Played for my father when I was in school.”
“He coached high school there, on the base.”
“So you’re military.”
“He was. Coached for the American high school.”
“So you played on the high school team, then?”
“Not with the boys,” she said. I’d never heard of a girl’s football team anywhere, much less in Guam, but I didn’t tell her that. I was curious to know if she played tackle football and asked her if she’d ever worn a helmet and equipment.
“Nah,” she said. “We played flag football. Didn’t need a helmet. But it was pretty rough anyway.” “Well, it’s really something the way you can throw that ball. Can I see it?”
“You want to see me throw it again?”
“No, the ball. Mind if I take a look?”
She flipped it to me. An NFL football is eleven inches long and twenty-eight inches around the middle; it weighs between a pound to a pound and a half, depending on the weather. In cold weather it’s a bit light. In wet weather it can be almost a pound heavier. The ball she was throwing had been dry before she threw it at the fellow on the jet ski, and it was definitely a regulation ball. “
Play anywhere now?”
“She’s going to try out for the Divas,” her boyfriend said.
“What team is that?”
“You ever hear of the IWFL?”
He scoffed a little, clearly pleased to know more than an assistant coach for the Washington Redskins. “The Independent Women’s Football League.”
“Hunh,” I said. “Not familiar with it.”
“It’s professional football. Jesse’s going for a tryout next week.”
“Well, I expect she’ll make the team,” I said.
“Where do the Divas play?”
“In Washington,” she said.
She nodded. I couldn’t believe my luck.
“I don’t know. I think at a park or sports complex?”
“They’re having tryouts this time of year?”
“They play eight games a year,” her boyfriend said.
“From late April to June.”
“How can I find out where they play? I’d like to catch a game, maybe.”
“Go on the Internet,” Jesse said. “That’s how I heard of them.”
I turned to her boyfriend. “What’s your name?”
“Nate. Everybody calls me Nate. We’re on vacation.”
“She’s your wife?” I asked.
She laughed. “Ah, no!” she said.
He was laughing too. “We’re just friends,” he said. He was a little taller than she was—built very sturdily, solid as a jeep, and none of it fat. But he couldn’t throw the ball nearly as far, he admitted, or as accurately.
“Jesse,” I said. “You think you might come to a Redskins tryout?”
“Right,” she smirked, flipping the ball over to Nate.
“Not a proper tryout, I mean, but a minicamp. Sort of a practice session the team puts on every year.” I had the craziest idea right then, see—the craziest idea I ever had in my life, and the most creative. Whatever it cost me, it would be worth every penny. I had plenty of money at the time; we got paid very well in this profession. I was single, with no obligations of any kind except to Coach Jonathon Engram and the team, and I always, always enjoyed a good practical joke. I had this instant picture of showing up at minicamp with all the undrafted rookies, and a player named Jesse Smoke. I’d figure some way to get her throwing a ball in front of a few of our more “primo” players. And when I say “primo,” I don’t mean “prime,” I mean primodonna.
Are you beginning to figure it out? I recruit players on the spot for tryouts in my job, so I’d just claim I’d invited this new guy. Then I’d figure a way to spring Jesse on them. I could already imagine their faces when they saw her throw a football. I might even be able to make them all believe I’d actually signed her. It would kill Coach Engram. It really was just a whim.
“I’ll pay you,” I said. “Just for fun.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Put it this way: There’s a few players at your position in this game I’d, ah, like to humble a little bit.”
She had nothing to say to this, and we stood there quiet a moment.
Nate said, “And what’ll you pay her?”
I put my hands on my hips, screwed up my face a little to think. “When do you try out for that women’s team?”
“She’s got to be there next Tuesday.” He put the ball back in her hands.
And then she smiled at me, a broad, innocent show of white teeth. Everybody on earth knows that smile now, and it was just as disarming and pretty back then, scrunching up those brown freckles spattered across her broad, flat nose. She was definitely striking to look at with those white teeth, those large, sea-blue eyes.
“Can you throw a ball with somebody in your face?”
“She’s a scrambler,” Nate said.
“Ever been knocked down?”
“Sure. Lots of times. That’s how you play flag football. You tackle the ball carrier and then pull out the flag.”
“You want to have some fun?”
They both waited. A few of the men standing around, getting impatient with this little interview of mine, started urging her to throw at something else.
“You’ll be in Washington anyway.” I took a card out of my wallet and handed it to her.
“I get back in town on Monday. Soon as you get in, call me.”
“I’ll pay you for your time.”
“What is it you want, exactly?” She tilted her head. Nate moved a little toward me, waiting for my answer.
“I’d just like a few of the players and coaches on the team to see you throw a ball. And I really will pay you.”
“You tell me.”
I laughed. “Honey,” I said, “you got a deal. And let’s call it seven.”
“All right, then,” she said. I grabbed her hand and she gave me a very firm handshake. I couldn’t help feeling like I’d hit some sort of jackpot.
I had no idea.
From THE LEGEND OF JESSE SMOKE. Used with permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2016 by Robert Bausch.