It was fourth down and fourteen to go. Hank Clough tugged at his large jersey as he barked out the signals. "Eighty-three!! Twenty-four!! A plus B equals See, Seen-yore!! Boogedy, boogedy, boogedy boo!! Yoo-hoo, yoo-hoo, forty-two!!"

He took the snap and spun around, but before he could take a step backward, the brute tackle had him flat on his back and, eyeball-to-eyeball, was breathing down on his face with a rancid stench that could only be interpreted as that morning's breakfast of raw meat and Malt-O-Meal.

The Buttering fans went wild. It was their ball on their own 45-yard line. Clough picked himself up and grumbled through his gritted teeth. "Dadgum," he complained to nobody in particular, "I told you it wouldn't fool 'em. It didn't fool 'em before, and it sure wadn't gonna fool 'em this time."

Coach Marvis shook his head in disgust. "Here it is the champ-ship playoff," he muttered, "and the best player this conference ever seen is sittin' in his dom-itory room problee listenin' to the fool game on the radio as we sit here on the verge of gitting our helmeted heads handed to us by a bunch of straw-chewing farmboys."

Although he had started his statement quite calmly, by the end of his announcement, he was screaming like a banshee. He glanced up at the scoreboard. It read, "Buttering U.-6; Lapel Tech-0."

Elbows Nilden came off the bench. Behind them the Tech cheerleaders desperately tried to rally the crowd. "Go-o-o-o-o, Mammals, go!!! Fight!!! Gr-r-r-r-r-r!!!"

"At least our defense is holdin' 'em, Coach," Elbows said as he put on his helmet. "This game would be a lead-pipe cinch if Jimmy was out there." Behind him, however, there was an understated gloom of silence in the stands.

Meanwhile, in a Tech dorm room on the other side of the university campus, Jimmy Ringley sat silently listening to the static-y radio. He chewed on a bright yellow pencil as the broadcast wafted in and out of the almost-empty dorm. "Well folks, it's Buttering's ball, third down and two," the announcer chirped. "There's the snap--it's a short pass--complete!!! First down for Buttering University, and there's a timeout on the field. Yes, folks, it looks like we got ourselves a ballgame! And, yessir, it's a beautiful day for football here at Mammal Stadium. Buttering is leading Tech six to nothing. But this game hasn't been without its dramatic twists and turns, and it's far from over. As every one of you within the sound of my voice probably knows by now, Tech is playing under an extreme handicap without their star player, Jimmy Ringley. Ringley was suspended this week for cheating on a pop quiz. Lapel Tech president Ralph Flushing commented on the suspension earlier this week, saying…"

Jimmy jumped up and turned down the radio. "Darn it, Brains," he said to his friend, "If I could just prove that I didn't cheat on that silly test." But Brains was deep in thought and didn't appear to hear him. He was totally focused on examining a green vial at the mini-laboratory they had hastily set up in the corner of the room.

"Hold on, Jimmy," Brains said carefully, "I've almost got it. Just one more ingredient…"

"Then what?" asked Jimmy.

"Well, to be exact, just one more mixture, and we'll successfully prove your innocence. We'll prove--beyond a shadow of a doubt--that it wasn't your fingerprints on that cheat sheet. In fact, it's a scientific impossibility that you were cheating!" Brains looked out from behind his too-big glasses and arched his thin neck. "Here, hand me that test tube."

"Aw, Brains, it's no use. It's too little, too late." Jimmy leaned back and turned up the radio.

"Yessir, folks," the announcer sputtered, "Buttering is really moving the ball. They've got their eyes on that goal, folks, but they're running outa time. There's only six seconds left to play in the first half…three, two, one and there's the gun! Be sure you stay tuned for the halftime fun as our own Beebow Charles gives you a blow-by-blow on the fancy footwork of the incredible Mammal Marching Band. Plus, we'll have some gardening tips from our ol' buddy…"

Jimmy snapped off the radio, but before he could say anything there was a brief "Poof!" and a wisp of smoke from the makeshift lab in the corner. "Eureka!" screamed Brains, "And this just in from the Office of Redundancy Office--I found it!"

They were interrupted by a tentative knock, and when Jimmy opened the door, Eddie Scath cautiously peered inside. "Anybody home?" he asked.

Brains glared at him. "What do you want, you villainous rat? You've certainly got a lot of nerve showing up here…especially today. Hope you're satisfied, getting Jimmy in trouble and all!"

"Look, guys, I'm sorry," Scath said sheepishly, "It wasn't Jimmy that was cheating. It was just a big dumb misunderstanding. I just came from the game. It's halftime, you know. Jimmy, they need you out there. I mean, they really need you."

Brains snapped his fingers. "Hey, it's halftime! President Flushing always leaves the game at halftime to go home and wind his grandfather calendar clock. Maybe, just maybe...Quick!! To the Jalopy!!"

President Flushing had already finished winding the clock and was scratching around the umbrella holder when the boys arrived. Mrs. Flushing answered the door, and Brains spoke first. "Mrs. Flushing! Is the president about?!"

"In here, boys!" President Flushing waved from the den. "How about a cup of tea?"

"Thank you, sir, but no sir. Go ahead, Eddie, tell him," said Brains forcefully.

"Well, uh…it's like this, President Flushing. I think we’ve made a terrible mistake. Jimmy wasn't the one who was cheating. It was just a big dumb misunderstanding."

Brains joined in. "Exactly, President Flushing. I was watching Jimmy all through that quiz, and, in fact, I saw him not cheating. And, I have the proof. I have gleaned fingerprints from the notorious cheat sheet that was used to try, convict and condemn Jimmy. Would you like to see the results?"

"No, no, Brains, that won't be necessary. Jimmy, we've got to get you to that game!"

But as they ran out of the president's home to jump into the Jalopy, they all stopped in their tracks. "Someone has let the air out of all of the tires!" they moaned in unison looking back at President and Mrs. Flushing.

"Maybe you'd better re-think that cup of tea," said President Flushing.

It was late in the fourth quarter. Incredibly, the Tech defense had held. Coach Marvis, however, had lost all hope of winning the game. He had been vaguely optimistic even after Elbows fumbled twice on the five. He lost his remaining optimism when Hank Clough took a handoff on the one yard-line, spun around and pitched the ball to a Buttering lineman. Marvis quietly put down his clipboard and sat down on the bench with his head between his hands.

Hank trotted off the field muttering, "I told you it wouldn't fool 'em. It didn't fool 'em before, and it sure wadn't gonna fool 'em this time."

Buttering completed three twenty-yard passes and bulldozed their way to the Tech's fifteen yard-line.

Suddenly, Jimmy emerged from the shadows onto a sunny patch of the field at the far end of the stadium. He walked slowly, but deliberately over to where Coach Marvis sat on the bench and calmly announced, "I'm going in, Coach."

Brains quickly followed on his heels. He handed Coach Marvis a sealed envelope. "It's the fingerprint proofs, Coach."

When Jimmy ran out onto the field, a confused hush came upon the crowd. The quiet was immediately followed by a joyous thunder. The clocked showed less than a minute left in the game, and Lapel was still down six to nothing.

"It's Jimmy!" screamed the crowd. "Jimmy, Jimmy, Jim-mee-e-e-e-e-e! Go-o-o-o-o-o-o, Mammals, go!"

The Buttering quarterback took the snap, faded back, and passed into the end zone. Within a fraction of a second, however, Jimmy came from out of nowhere, pulled down the ball and was happily galloping toward the opposite goal.

The noise inside the stadium was deafening. As the clock ran down to a single second, Jimmy dove into the end zone. The game was all tied up.

When Jimmy ran over to the bench, Coach Marvis was busily scanning his playbook. "Jimmy, have you ever tried to kick an extra point?"

Jimmy smiled as he trotted back onto the field. "First time for everything, Coach," he said looking up at the clock. There was one second left.

The center snapped the ball to Hank who was holding for Jimmy to kick the extra point. The ball was snapped perfectly, but when the single second remaining in the game rolled down to zero, the final gun when off, and Hank, startled, juggled the ball uncontrollably. Jimmy, however, was unflappable. With his eyes closed, his foot connected perfectly with the spinning ball in Hank's hands. The ball sailed smoothly through the air, hit the goal post, bounced three times and balanced perfectly on the bar.

The Buttering coach ran out onto the field. "It didn't go over, Ref! It didn't go over!" he yelled frantically.

"Mister Referee,” said Jimmy, calmly, "The ball did not fall short of the goal. Isn't that right?"

The ref looked over at the Buttering coach. "The boy's right…it didn't fall short."

The referees conferred and then walked over to Jimmy. "The best we can do is give you a half a point."

Jimmy removed his helmet and looked around. "Well, I don’t know."

A loud drone of anxious anticipation from the crowd whirled around the stadium, and the referee began to look around nervously. "Okay, okay!" he said, "Three quarters of a point, and that's our best offer."

Jimmy kicked at the ground. "Well…okay. It's a deal."

The referee signaled the press box, and one of the officials climbed up onto the scoreboard with a piece of chalk and carefully drew a big "3/4" after Tech's score. As the Tech fans spilled out of the stands onto the field with reckless abandon, Coach Marvis looked over at Jimmy. "Thanks, son," he said, "I don't think we could have done it without you."

"Thanks, Coach," Jimmy said, smiling. As he turned, he saw the massive wave of the oncoming fans. Brains was in the middle of the onslaught, his big glasses bobbing on his shiny nose. He was grinning and yelling something that was hopelessly indecipherable. Brains held up a hand-drawn poster with a football and an elaborate mathematical equation with directional arrows, and Jimmy responded knowingly with a thumbs-up.

And then he saw Doris.

She was running toward him, still holding onto her megaphone, laughing and crying at the same time. "Oh, Jimmy," she mouthed. When she threw her arms around him, a tiny bright reflection of the late afternoon sun followed her hand and caught his eye.

She was wearing his ring again.

©Copyright 2003 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.