The Finals (part two)Usually, I know what to say.
Eli 14.7 has been talking about Michigan for two years, and this year, it's been with more and more frequency. His entire life, to a degree, has been structured around getting ready for tryouts. So to hear him say "I don't want to go" was the one thing I wasn't prepared to hear.
I had no idea what to say. So instead, I hugged him tightly and we said nothing for a few seconds.
"Buddy, if you don't want to go to Michigan, I understand," I said. "Don't worry about a thing. I just want you to go out there and enjoy this moment. Don't forget to be happy out there."
He smiled weakly. "I won't forget," he said.
Then he walked off, slumping under the weight of everything he was carrying.
Two years ago, I would have walked him around the building and we would have talked it out together. He's older now, though, and even though I wanted to guide him, I trusted him to somehow work through what he was feeling and be ready to play. He had been so composed and so strong all season.
What it did, though, was turn me into a nervous wreck.
How could he play with those kinds of emotions roiling around inside him? What if he played terribly? What if he was the reason his team lost the state championship?
After a moment where he seemed so fragile, it was so, so hard to push those thoughts away. I fought with them for an hour, feeling like I was eating broken glass all the time.
Stare at a clock for an hour and you'll know how quickly time passed for me.
Then, in a second, it was all happening.
The first shot he faced was from San Antonio's superstar, and it was one of the hardest shots I've ever seen from a junior player. Eli trapped it against his stomach.
I didn't know how he could be clear in the head--I know I wasn't--but he looked so strong, so quick. San Antonio couldn't get anything, not even a rebound.
Then, we scored. 1-0.
Ten minutes later, we scored again. 2-0.
And again. 3-0.
And one more time. 4-0.
With ten minutes left in the game, we were firmly in control. And took a stupid penalty.
Then, we stopped skating.
Within thirty seconds, Eli was alone against their star, and he had the puck only a few feet above the crease, seemingly with no one from our team within thirty feet of him.
Eli waited, and waited, and after what seemed like forever, he went for the poke check. Immediately, the puck went right over his lowered shoulder.
Two minutes later, a breakaway. A backhand shot, Eli didn't have the post totally sealed, and it went in.
Three minutes later, another defensive breakdown, and a pass from behind the net led to a wide-open shot from just above the crease.
And now, for whatever reason, I'm switching to present tense.
I'm basically in end stage renal failure at this point, even though my face is still blank. There are still five minutes left, and we've done absolutely nothing in the last five minutes to make me think that we can even get to overtime, let alone win.
Well, it's on his shoulders now.
With less than three minutes left, the superstar comes down on another breakaway. He makes move after move, and then he goes to Eli's right side and slides the puck in.
Except it's not. While he turns away to celebrate, Eli somehow extends an impossible distance and grazes the puck with his right skate.
That is just enough.
The puck winds up under his pad, somehow. No goal.
There's a split second where everyone in San Antonio's crowd is celebrating, because it looks like a goal, and while they are still cheering, our fans realize that Eli made the save, and they go wild.
And in that moment, somehow, we wake up.
San Antonio pulls their goalie, and there is ninety seconds of us not being able to clear the puck, but finally the puck is in the corner with only a few seconds left, and we have it pinned.
The clock never stops moving.
Then the buzzer sounds. 4-3. Game over.
In what seems like a single second, kids are wrapped so tightly around Eli that I don't know how anyone can breathe.
That's a few seconds after the tightest scrum, but you can still barely see Eli's white helmet in the background.
Eli holds up the handshake line, like he always does, because the goalie is first in line, and he talks to almost every kid. Hugs quite a few.
Then they skate off the ice, and Eli wraps me in a huge hug. "We did it," he says, laughing. "Can you believe it?"
It's later, much later, and we're in a convenience store to get drinks on the way back to the hotel. "Hey, about that Michigan thing--"
"Oh, dad," he says, laughing. "That's not what I meant. I'm desperate to go to Michigan. I just didn't want this season to end. We only had one game left, and we were going to win. I knew when I walked into the arena, it was for the last time. That's why I said I didn't want to go."
"Are you sure? No doubt?" I ask.
"Just try to stop me," he says, and he puts his arm around me.
He puts his arm over my shoulder now.