Here is the first chapter of Willard Manus' "THE PIGSKIN RABBI,"
a comic novel about a young drop-out rabbi who becomes quarterback of the
New York Giants. Published recently by Breakaway Books, the book was hailed
as "a vastly entertaining fable" by the S.F. Chronicle. "Manus's
irreverent humor and fluent style will tickle the funny bones of sportrs
enthusiasts of all creeds, and will ignite the enthusiasm of defenders of
the underdog," said the Arizona Republic.
To order either hdbd ($23) or ppbk ($15) copies of THE PIGSKIN RABBI, click on Marketplace.
|The Pigskin Rabbi - Chapter 1|
See Shrdlu. See Shrdlu run. See Etoain Shrdlu, the Albino placekicker, boot a 54-yarder and win the game in the last three seconds.
See Homer Bloetcher, the 64-year-old, 267-pound scout for the New York Giants, nearly go bananas.
Homer had journeyed all the way to Holland to look Shrdlu over. That's Holland the country, not the tunnel. Homer had flown across the ocean to a foreign country in search of a kicker with a name like a Transylvanian curseword, an unknown kid whose background was equally bizarre, having snuck out of Albania and reached Amsterdam by clinging to the underbelly of a freight car for 72 hours. After they thawed him out and hosed him down, the Dutch police asked him his name.
"Etoain Shrdlu," he replied, adding: "I keek, I keek"
I Keek had been given asylum and a tryout with the Amsterdam Canallers of the new Intercontinental Football League, who discovered that he could indeed kick. He was able to punt and placekick with equal skill, driving the ball downfield with homing-pigeon accuracy. News of his golden toe had reached the Giants' head office and Homer was dispatched to find out if the stories were for real.
Homer had bitched mightily about the assignment, feeling it was a wild goose chase, but the club was desperate for a kicker, having lost their number one man, an Argentinian, to a groin pull (too much sex), and numbers two and three to cocaine and shotgun wounds, respectively. The Giants had tried out just about every available kicker in the country: prospects cut by other teams, former players now selling computers or tending bar. The club had even given a prisoner on Ryker's Island a try, a safecracker whose warden was willing to let him out on weekends.
None of these free agents could hack it though and the club had lost its first three games because of fickle feet. Homer had been ordered to find a kicker fast, no matter what his story was or how he spelled his name.
Homer was an ex-kicker himself, the last of the straight-ahead, American-style fieldgoal specialists. He had lasted l6 seasons in the NFL, playing defensive tackle as well until that infamous day in Chicago when the Bears mouse-trapped him ten straight times. It left him not only crippled but punchy, unable to remember the days of the week.
In light of his serious physical and mental deficiencies, there was only one thing Homer could do: become a coach.
He'd soon be out on his ass, though, if he didn't find a kicker. The Swiss conglomerate HEN (Helvetia Enterprises Network) which had bought the Giants from the Mara family in the early part of the 21st century for a ton of francs, despite the team's four straight losing seasons, did not have much patience with failure. The Gnomes of Zurich expected the franchise to start winning and winning big or everyone running the show would have to go.
It was kinda loony (Homer thought) to pin your hopes on an albino placekicker playing in Holland for 175 guilders a week and all the herring he could eat. The big man's spirits sank even further when he got to the Canaller's ballpark, a shabby stadium with open seats on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Back home in Oklahoma they had high-school fields that were nicer spreads than this one.
Homer sighed plaintively as he limped his way to a seat, leaning on his hand-crutches as the warm September rain pelted down on the skimpy crowd. He sat under an umbrella, sipping Jack Daniels from a plastic cup as he watched a bush-league game played by U.S. army boys and NFL rejects, guys who couldn't even catch on in Canada.
Then he saw the albino go into action. The kid not only kicked off, punted and booted point-afters, but played quarterback as well, throwing passes with power and precision. Homer couldn't believe his eyes. The kid seemed like a natural--big, fast and strong, moving with ease and grace, completely comfortable out there, in command of the game, unbothered by the rain, enjoying what he was doing.
Homer put the duty-free bottle away and leaned forward, studying the albino intently. He felt his skin tingle, his heart kick over like an old diesel engine as the game went on. The kid was a magician. He threw bullets, kicked cloud-breakers, ran draws with sudden, explosive speed. And he was tough. The other team started pounding him, trying to hurt him, but he kept bouncing up, a big grin on his face, defiant and highspirited as ever. It made his opponents angry and wild, weaknesses which he exploited time and time again, coolly picking them apart with his passes and runs.
Shrdlu was a one-man team. He was playing with a bunch of stiffs who ordinarily wouldn't have stood a chance against the other guys. But the albino kept them in contention, valiantly and skilfully. Where in hell had he learned to play quarterback like that? Homer sat there marvelling, caught up in his spell.
Then came the last seconds of the game, the kick that made Homer go ape. With the Canallers two points down and half the field away from the goal-line, Shrdlu stepped forward and calmly drilled the ball through the uprights. It wasn't just the distance that impressed Homer, or the fact that the game was on the line. What really got him was the way the ball was kicked, with the clean, sweet, authoritative sound that only true kickers, born kickers, got.
Homer leapt up as soon as he heard it, watching transfixed as the football took off over the outstretched arms of the onrushing linemen and soared high in the sky, describing a long, graceful arc as it carried toward the far end of the field, splitting the open, waiting thighs of the goalposts like a rampant lover.
"You like football more'n you like sex," his late wife Myrna had once said. "You make more noise watchin' somebody kick a fieldgoal than you do when we're makin' love."
It wasn't quite true. Homer did not get that excited over any old fieldgoal, just one that was kicked with that clean, sweet sound, the sound of perfection.
In celebration, he pulled his cowboy hat off and swung it around overhead, yelling "Ah-haaah!" and "Soo-weee!" at the top of his lungs.
The Dutchmen in the stands gaped at him, a fat, red-faced Okie from Finokie making a fool of himself.
* * *
Homer cornered Shrdlu right after the game, surprised once again at the kid's size. Most kickers today were runty things with pot bellies and wishbone legs, but this one was about six four and two forty, with dark, curly hair and striking good looks. He had a Mona Lisa-type smile, as if he never ceased to find life faintly ridiculous.
Homer introduced himself and made his pitch.
"The Giants are looking for a kicker and I think you might be it," he said. "But I'm supposed to have you take this test before I make a firm offer."
Homer dumped a pocketful of small blocks and plastic shapes on the locker room table. He also dangled a beanbag and a pair of goggles before Shrdlu.
"Some damn fool sold the team on the idea that you can measure a prospective player's capabilities off the field, the old hand-eye coordination thing. Do you know what I'm talking about?"
Shrdlu shook no.
"Good, 'cause neither do I!" Homer swept the blocks away with a contemptuous wave of his hand.
"I know you can kick, son, I know it in my heart. But the team ain't gonna give you a contract on my say-so. You're gonna have to go to New York for a three-day tryout. No pay, but a per diem. If you pass muster, you'll get a one-game contract," he explained.
"Basically you're getting one shot at succeeding in the NFL. Make it and they'll sign you for the rest of the season. Blow it and you'll be back here playing in the boonies again."
Homer peered at Shrudlu. "Did you understand what I said?" he asked. "Do you speak English or just Albino?"
Shrdlu, who appeared to be about 23 or 24, smiled his enigmatic smile again.
Homer nervously pulled out a plug of tobacco and bit off a chaw.
"Hell, you must speak English; you were calling signals out there. How'd you learn to play quarterback in Albania, son?"
"From library book," Shrdlu replied. "Sid Luckman: My Story,"
"What? You learned to play quarterback from a book? You amaze me, boy, you just knock me out. Are there any more like you back home?"
"No ca'peesh. Understand only leetle English," the albino--rather, the Albanian--said.
"Never mind, it ain't important. We don't need you to play quarterback, just kick."
"I keek, I keek!" the kid suddenly shouted.
"I know you keek. I'm a keeker myself--takes one to know one."
Homer put his arms out wide and flapped them up and down. "Will you fly to New York and try kicking for us?"
Shrdlu made like a bird in return.
"Fly in sky?"
"Yeah, to New York."
"Big city. Too many people," Shrdlu grumbled.
"Pay much money, though, if you keek. If you make it," Homer pointed out.
"Make keek," the big man on crutches pantomimed. "Make fieldgoal."
"I make keek today," the albino crowed.
"I saw. But what about New York? Can you make it there?"
Shrdlu suddenly dropped his eyes and contemplated his shoes, frowning.
He's scared, Homer realized. The kid is scared shitless to try his luck in the U.S. of A.
* * *
It was true. Shrdlu was scared, but not for the reason Homer assumed. Other factors were involved.
His name was not Shrdlu. He was not an albino or even an Albanian.
His name was Ezekiel Cantor, known to his friends as Ziggy, and he was an American, from the Bronx. And he was a rabbi.