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Playing for Pizza(8)
Author: John Grisham

"Sure, Coach."

Chapter 5

The Stadio Lanfranchi is in the northwest corner of Parma, still in the city proper but away from the ancient buildings and narrow streets. It's a rugby pitch, home to two professional teams and leased to the Panthers for football. It has canopy-covered grandstands on both sides, a press box, and a playing surface of natural grass that is well maintained in spite of the heavy traffic. Soccer is played at the much larger Stadio Tardini, a mile away in the southeast section of the city, and there larger crowds gather to celebrate Italy's modern-day reason to exist. There's not much to cheer about, though. The lowly Parma team barely clings to its place in the prestigious Series A of Italian soccer. The team still draws its faithful, though--about thirty thousand long suffering fans show up with Cubs-like devotion year after year, game after game. That's about twenty-nine thousand more than generally show up for Panthers games at Stadio Lanfranchi. It has seating for three thousand, but rarely sells out. Actually, there's nothing to sell. Admission is free. Rick Dockery walked slowly across midfield as long shadows fell, hands crammed in jeans pockets, the aimless stroll of a man in another world. Occasionally, he stopped and pressed hard with a loafer to check the turf. He had not stepped onto a field, or a pitch or whatever the hell it was, since that last day in Cleveland.

Sam sat five rows up on the home side, watching his quarterback and wondering what he was thinking. Rick was thinking about a training camp one summer not too long ago, a brief but brutal ordeal with one of the pro teams, he couldn't remember exactly which. Camp that summer had been at a small college with a field similar to the one he was now inspecting. A Division III school, a tiny college with the obligatory rustic dorms and cafeteria and cramped locker rooms, the type of place some NFL teams choose to make training as tough and austere as possible. And he was thinking about high school. Back at Davenport South he had played every game in front of more people, home and away. He lost in the state finals his junior year in front of eleven thousand, small maybe by Texas standards but still a heckuva crowd for Iowa high school football. At the moment, though, Davenport South was far away, as were many things that once seemed important. He stopped in the end zone and studied the goalposts, odd ones. Two tall posts, painted blue and yellow, anchored in the ground and wrapped with green padding that advertised Heineken. Rugby. He climbed the steps and sat next to his coach, who said, "Whatta you think?"

"Nice field, but you're missing a few yards."

"Ten to be exact. The goalposts are 110 yards apart, but we need 20 for the two end zones. So we play on what's left, 90 yards. Most of the fields we play on are meant for rugby, so we have to make do." Rick grunted and smiled. "Whatever."

"It's a long way from Browns Stadium in Cleveland," Sam said.

"Thank God for that. I never liked Cleveland, the city, the fans, the team, and I hated the stadium. Right there on Lake Erie, bitter winds, ground as hard as concrete."

"What was your favorite stop?" Rick grunted out a laugh and said, "Stop. That's a good word. I stopped here and there, but never found a place. Dallas, I guess. I prefer warmer weather." The sun was almost gone and the air was growing cooler. Rick stuck his hands into the pockets of his tight jeans and said, "So tell me about football in Italy. How did it happen?"

"The first teams popped up about twenty years ago and it spread like crazy, mainly here in the north. The Super Bowl in 1990 drew twenty thousand, a lot less last year. Then it declined for some reason; now it's growing again. There are nine teams in the A Division, twenty-five or so in the B Division, and flag football for the kids." Another pause as Rick rearranged his hands. The two months in Florida had given him a dark tan but a thin skin. His tan was already fading. "How many fans watch the Panthers?"

"Depends. We don't sell tickets, so no one really counts. Maybe a thousand. When Bergamo rolls in, the place is packed."


"The Bergamo Lions, perennial champs." Rick found this amusing. "Lions and Panthers. Do they all have NFL names?"

"No. We also have the Bologna Warriors, Rome Gladiators, Naples Bandits, Milan Rhinos, Lazio Marines, as well as the Ancona Dolphins, and Bolzano Giants." Rick chuckled at the names.

"What's so funny?" Sam asked.

"Nothing. Where am I?"

"It's normal. The shock wears off fast, though. Once you put on the gear and start hitting you'll feel at home." I don't hit, Rick wanted to say, but thought better of it. "So Bergamo is the team to beat?"

"Oh yes. They've won eight straight Super Bowls and sixty one straight games."

"The Italian Super Bowl. Can't believe I missed it." "A lot of people missed it. On the sports pages we go last, after swimming and motorbiking. The Super Bowl is televised, though. On one of the lesser channels." Because he was still horrified at the thought of his friends learning that he was playing intramural ball in Italy, the prospect of no press and no televised games was quite appealing. Rick was not looking for glory in Parma, just a small paycheck while he and Arnie waited for a miracle back home. He didn't want anyone to know where he was. "How often do we practice?" "We get the field Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, eight o'clock at night. These guys have real jobs." "What kinds of jobs?" "Everything. Airline pilot, engineer, several truck drivers, property agent, contractors, one guy owns a cheese shop, another runs a bar, a dentist, two or three work in gyms. Two stonemasons, a couple of auto mechanics." Rick considered this for a while. His thoughts were slow, the shock was wearing off. "What type of offense?" "We keep things basic. Power I, lots of motion and misdirection. Our quarterback last year couldn't throw, so it really limited our attack."

"Your quarterback couldn't throw?"

"Well, he could, but not very well."

"We got a runner?"

"Oh yes. Slidell Turner. Tough little black kid from Colorado State, drafted late by the Colts four years ago, got cut, just too small."

"How small?"

"Five eight, 180. Too small for the NFL, but perfect for the Panthers. They have trouble catching him here."

"What the hell is a black kid from Colorado State doing here in Parma, Italy?"

"Playing football, waiting for the phone call. Same as you."

"Do I have a receiver?"

"Yes, Fabrizio, one of the Italians. Great set of hands, great feet, great big ego. Thinks he's the greatest Italian footballer of all time. High maintenance, but not a bad boy."

"Can he catch me?"

"I doubt it. It'll take a lot of practice. Just don't kill him the first day." Rick jumped to his feet and said, "I'm cold. Let's make a move."

"You wanna see the team room?"

"Sure, why not?" There was a clubhouse just beyond the north end zone, and as they walked toward it, a train roared by, a stone's throw away. Inside, the long flat building was adorned with dozens of posters advertising the corporate sponsors. Rugby occupied most of it, but the Panthers had a small room packed with lockers and equipment. "Whatta you think?" Sam asked. "It's a locker room," Rick said. He tried not to make compar isons, but for a moment couldn't help but remember the lavish digs in tlie newer NFL stadiums. Carpet, wood-paneled lockers big enough for small cars, leather recliners built for linemen, private stalls in a shower room bigger than this. Oh well. He told himself he could endure anything for five months.

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