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Residents of this neighborhood once shared a gleeful contempt for the Jesuits, but after a slumber of one hundred years, the reclusive priests started to buy up the crowded shacks and cavernous industrial plants that encircled the school like the deteriorating fortifications of some ghastly dystopian city. The local government, an ineffectual crew of villains mired in corruption, took little interest in halting the widespread unemployment and subsequent foreclosures that, for the past decade, spread through the streets like an epidemic. Only the priests, who controlled the school's massive endowment, possessed the power and political clout to heal the neighborhood and to resurrect it from the grave possibility of further decline.
Most residents accepted the fair market price for their homes and escaped from under the monolithic tenement buildings and the long shadows cast across the glass-strewn lots. Others were less cooperative. A group of aging and sanctimonious bohemians, unsuccessful at its own piddling attempts to gentrify the neighborhood, went before committees of weary aldermen, insisting that a number of structures in this district were important historic landmarks that should be preserved no matter the cost. The Jesuits attended these public hearings. Though outraged by the insolent tone of these peevish urban pioneers, the priests were not overly concerned. The school was blessed to have hundreds of gifted alumni who were partners in prominent law firms, distinguished men who successfully argued high profile cases before juries in courthouses across the country and who, with great aplomb, could decimate any frivolous lawsuit that used, as the basis of its claim, the tired cliché "historic landmark."
After overcoming the obligatory legal hurdles, the attorneys drew up the necessary documents and had them signed in triplicate by judges and county commissioners, most of whom were graduates of the school as well. A few weeks later, as television news reporters and a small number of dejected protesters watched from behind police barricades, a demolition crew arrived with excavators and bulldozers and a wrecking ball that came arcing across the sky like the pendulum of a celestial grandfather clock ready to strike the death knell. No one put up a fight for very long, and the structures were razed without further incident. The conquest of the neighborhood continued until enough space was cleared for a football stadium, a magnificent new temple for the modern man, a holy of holies that glittered in the night and drew riotous spectators who worshiped at this wellspring of myth and legend and who atoned for their own lack of athletic prowess through the purchase of indulgences—pennants and jerseys and overpriced refreshments.
In recent years the school has earned a reputation as a football powerhouse. Consequently, enrollment soars and fundraising doubles. Impressed by the team's success, philanthropists agree to finance other projects—a science lab, an auditorium, a state of the art fitness center. Now there is pressure to win a state championship. Coach Kaliher recruits heavily, makes promises he has no intention of keeping, ridiculous guarantees of fame and fortune. With the possible exception of the players and their hopeful parents, everyone understands the illegality of these practices, but should some misguided individual raise an objection or leak even the most innocuous bit of information to the press, the Jesuits will gladly unleash their attorneys, who will sort things out with characteristic speed and discretion and hound the traitors to the gates of hell as though partaking in a marvelous blood sport.
This season the star quarterback is Frank "the Minotaur" McSweeney, a strapping 17-year-old senior whose shaved head and icy stare intimidate friends and enemies alike. At six feet, three inches tall, he strides across campus like an invincible Goliath, eager to rip the head from David's scrawny shoulders and swing it from his fingertips like a lantern. No one can topple him. College scouts phone his house on game day to wish him good luck; on Sunday they call to find out if he has sustained any serious injuries; on holidays they call to make sure he has received the enormous gift baskets of exotic fruit and French cheeses and big tins of creatine. Local sportscasters, mesmerized by his agility and "monster right arm," feature slow motion footage of his 50-yard passes; from high atop the bleachers, thousands of inebriated fans watch him scramble outside the pocket, eluding a phalanx of defensive linemen, to make another incredible play; and in the blustery autumn night, the dreamy-eyed cheerleaders whisper words that have a certain storybook quality to them—Notre Dame, National Football League, lucrative endorsement deals.
Things are going his way, everyone says so, but Frank is starting to have doubts. The team wins its first four games of the season, routing its opponents with ease, but during the fifth game, his offensive line is decimated. The right guard's femur snaps during a routine play. Frank has never heard anyone scream like that before, a highpitched shriek that continues to echo in his mind at unexpected moments and makes him rub his own leg to make sure it is still intact. During the fourth quarter, the left tackle's fingers are horrifically mangled under a cavalcade of bloodthirsty boys in cleats. More screams. Frank is sacked half a dozen times and the team loses by three points. The next game is a total catastrophe. Without an adequate offensive line to protect him against a blitzing defense, Frank is clobbered, his ribs bruised, his nose bloodied. Another tough loss, and now there is a real danger that the team will not make a post-season appearance.
Lately he has trouble sleeping at night and has even lost his appetite for members of the opposite sex. A passing phase, that's all it is; 17-year-old boys are prone to episodes of this kind; it's quite natural, or so his confessors repeatedly assure him. The important thing is not to become distracted. He must concentrate. Tomorrow night is the big game, a rivalry known throughout the city as the Holy War, a must-win situation. The game happens to coincide with the Feast of All Saints, a day of holy obligation for Catholics, an irony not lost on the priests who assure Frank that the faithful will be praying for him. "With God's grace you will lead our team to victory." But before absolving him of his transgressions, the priests advise Frank to say three Our Fathers and a Hail Mary, and though this is not part of their usual prescription for spiritual health, they dole out a handful of black and white pills—the school colors—to help "focus his mind."
On Friday morning the P.A. system snaps on, and the principal's voice, a solemn, disembodied baritone that thunders through the hallways, makes an unexpected announcement: "Men, as you know we face a great challenge tomorrow night, and I would like us all to take a moment to pray for the team and for our quarterback. He is perhaps the most gifted athlete our school has ever produced. In order to set the proper mood for the game, I ask you to keep an all-night vigil. From this moment on, remain absolutely silent. Speak to no one. Save it for the game. At kickoff time I want our opponents to hear you erupt with school spirit. Calm before the storm, gentlemen, calm before the storm. Let us begin our vigil by bowing our heads and saying the words our Lord taught us... Pater noster, qui es in caelis: sanctificetur Nomen Tuum..."
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