Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Nashville (part two)

"I feel a little better."

It's 9 a.m., Friday. Eli 12.7 has slept for twelve hours. He looks like a ghost, but that's still better than yesterday. Gloria takes his temperature. No fever.

He wants to eat, so I get him an order of pancakes from the restaurant downstairs. No butter, no syrup. He eats half of one, and it stays down.

We do nothing. Staying in the room, watching conference basketball tournaments. Our hotel room has a living room area and a separate bedroom, so I can text from the living room without him knowing. While he watches basketball, I'm texting coaches, letting them know that Eli probably won't play.

How could he?

Our backup goalie is one of our best skaters, and his experience in goal consists of twenty minutes of 4x4 one night as a lark a few weeks ago.

Not good.

He has a light lunch, but it stays down. "I don't feel sick anymore," he says. "Just really weak."

"Do you want to walk over to Target with me?" It's one, and I need to pick up a few things from a Target that is about a hundred yards from the hotel.

"I'll go," he says. He hasn't walked more than fifty feet since early yesterday.

It's cool and windy, very windy, and I put my arm around him as we walk to the store. "I hurt," he says, with a little laugh.

"I can't imagine why," I say, laughing back.

We find some hockey cards at Target, pick up the other things I need, and head back. "My knees hurt," he says. "My legs feel better, but my knees are so stiff."

"I think that's from not walking for a day," I say. "Can you imagine what it's like to have surgery and not walk for weeks?"

"Not good," he says.

When we get back to the room, he goes to bed. At two, he gets up. "I want to play," he says.

"I know you do," I say. "That is the least surprising thing ever. Are you sure?"

"Yes," he says.

"You have to be able to play the whole game," I say. "If you start the game, there's no one to replace you."

"I know," he says. "I can do it."

The team they're playing--we think--is a team from north of Dallas, a team that was in the lowest division of travel, two levels below Eli's team. In theory, they should be able to handle them fairly easily, and might even keep the shots below fifteen.

If they can do that, Eli might survive.

I start texting people. He's in.

We leave for the rink about three. As soon as his teammates see him in the lobby, he's mobbed. It's a bunch of good kids, and Eli likes all of them. They feel the same way.

One of the parents walks up and hugs him. "How do you feel?" she asks.

Eli shrugs. "Good enough," he says.

When we get to the rink, he slowly walks in with his stuff. Half-speed. His team has a dry land workout before they get dressed out, and he leads them, but without doing any of the exercises.

On the way back in, he stops when he sees me. "I don't think we're playing the team we thought we were," he says. "There was another team with the same name in the league right below us. I think that's who we play. Can you check?"

I do check, and it's even worse than that. Not only did this team make the finals of the division just below Eli's team, but there are high-level kids from several of the other teams in the division on this team as well.

It's an all-star team. Great.

After Eli puts on his skates and goalie pants, he comes out of the locker room, and we talk as I help him with his pads. "Did you check?" he asks.

"I did," I say. "You're right. They're good." He shakes his head.

"But this is a no-lose situation for you," I say, and he laughs. "No, seriously. If you have a terrible game, no one is going to blame you, because you can hardly stand up. You're a total baller just going out there. But if somehow you do have a good game, you're an instant superhero. This game will get talked about for years."

He smiles. "Superhero," he says.

"All right, here are your three keys," I say. He still gets his three keys before a game. He doesn't really need them anymore, but we both like the tradition. "One: control rebounds. You can't afford to give up any second shots, because it will drain your energy. Two: efficiency. Don't move an inch more than you have to. Three: aggression. It may sound like a contradiction, but the way to save energy is to attack. Sitting back and waiting for things to happen means more things will happen."

"I get that," he says.

"Take a knee when the puck is at the other end," I say. "Don't stand up unless you have to. And your coach said you can use the time-out." Teams get one time-out, and usually it's at strategic moments, but his coach was happy in this game to use it as needed so that his goalie wouldn't keel over.

"I was already going to take a knee," he says. "Saving energy."

"And remember Sebastian Coe," I say. "He set a world record in the 800 meters with a terrible cold. And he's not the only one--I've read a ton of stories about guys who played great when they were sick. It forces you to focus on only what's essential. Does that make sense?"

"It does," he says. "I'm already tired," he says, and laughs.

"I know," I say. "But if anyone can pull this off, it's you. And we both know that."

He nods. I hug him. He slowly walks back to the locker room, leaning against the door to push it open. Then he's gone.

Tomorrow: the game.

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