Worst Case

Slow time, the moment stretttching with crazy elasticity. The hours of training, the years of experience, the muscle memory and quick-twitch fibers tuned to an ultimate, unconscious peak…

The kicker's cleat rose smoothly past the tumbling tee, body levitating above the grass for a fraction of a second with the muscular effort poured into the kick. The ball rose, well struck, punching a tunnel through the humid air as it climbed towards apex, glistening in the lights as water coated its spinning form.

On either side of the green rectangle, the kickoff teams were shifting frantically, bulky assassins stoked with adrenaline and aggression, rocketing towards each other with the kinetic potential of medieval jousters tweaked out on crystal meth. The gunners from the opposition darted down either sideline ahead of the others; the rest of the enemy team formed a loose moving cordon stretched across the breadth of the field – the kicker lagged behind the advancing line, assuming a rear-guard position more suitable for his tackling prowess.

Flashbulbs, a detonation of sound from the vast ring of humanity drowned out by the heavy rhythm of his pounding heart, the woofs of breath from his laboring lungs. Dots of moisture streaked across the surface of his eyeshield as he bolted for his position in front of Shin, coalesced drops falling into his gasping mouth. Guard. Protect. In perfect coordination, exactly as drawn up on the white rectangle of the coach's board, the other members of the Saber return team took their planned positions. The more agile men at either end of the larger group detached and went for the gunners, attempting to intercept and impede their progress, block them, drive them out of bounds… any seam, any crease caused by an enemy player being blocked out of position, exponentially increased the chances for a long kickoff return.

Sena reached his spot, legs dancing in place, body vibrating and unable to stay still in the sweep of the moment; his helmet on a swivel, watching the grimacing faces of the enemy eating up the yards as they approached, and then attempting to discern the shadow of the ball traveling through the amorphous, illuminated vapor undulating above his head, and then trying to keep track of the statuesque figure Shin, frozen in concentration, body tense and arms extended, eyes nearly igniting with the concentration necessary to accomplish this task, catching the falling bomb of wet leather.

The Sabers and their opposition made contact, at speed – the heavy air was filled with the car-wreck exclamation of plastic hitting plastic, the meaty slap-thwack of colliding limbs, and the screams, swears and prayers that a war-veteran might dread from his nightmares. No microphone could accurately communicate the cut-throat cacophony to an ear not present on the grass. The gunners and their blockers were engaged to either side of the field and the battle was a draw, no advantage as the men grappled. The initial wedge of Sabers impacted on the moving line of attackers, each man laying hands on his counterpart and attempting to flex the enemy's spine in a direction opposite from what God had intended.

Sena's head swept through its evolution: the return teams were engaged, the descending shape of the ball was growing larger, and Shin was ready to catch it. Everything else, non-pertinent, seemed to phase into grayness.

And again, the sweeping glance: a Saber on the second wedge had lost his footing and the enemy attacker was pushing forward, the ball was almost in Shin's hands. Sena automatically shifted his stance in preparation to block the free man.

Again: the attacker was almost there, just several yard-lengths away, teeth clenched and little streamers of spit being pushed out between them by his desperate lungs, the man's big hands flexing, tape covering the flats of every finger; the ball was nearly in Shin's hands… and a reassuring thud came to Sena's ears, audible above every other noise. Shin had the ball.

Sena exploded into the enemy, a light-speed attack that closed the gap in an eye-blink, catching the man off- balance by its rapidity. The shock of contact translated through the flexing muscles of his arms as his palms impacted the chest of the other player, and his bent his knees and pushed through the engagement with every ounce of power – not a "Spider-poison," Japan-league attack, but very similar. The man shifted backwards, cleats slipping in the wet grass, and Sena worked one hand across the bumpy topology of his chest, managing to get the hand into the player's armpit and grasping his shirt surreptitiously – the leverage of this quasi-legal grip made the opposition player even easier to turn, and Sena took full advantage, redoubling his efforts, his cleats digging trenches in the ground with every push. The man was taller than Sena, but the Saber player's lower center of gravity was a beneficial thing in this situation. The two exchanged grunts, as engaged as two ancient phalanxes might be.

Something changed, in an instant. The enemy player straightened slightly, and his eyes widened as he looked past Sena's shoulder. Sena chanced a peek over his shoulder, then did double take.

The ball was on the ground.

Shin had slipped. Shin had fumbled.

The crowd let out a collective shriek.