Authors Note: Sorry for the lag in between chapters. Feeling inspired again so hopefully the next one will come out a lot quicker. Thanks for reading! Reviews valued and greatly appreciated :)

Chapter 14

Coach Eric Taylor stood outside the Panther field house, his hands shoved in the pockets of his khaki shorts. It was ten minutes till the start of the state championship ring ceremony to be immediately followed by the kickoff and first game of the season. Hermann Field was buzzing with the energy and excitement only a high school football stadium in the state of Texas could bring on a humid Friday night at the end of August.

Eric's Dillon Panthers championship ring was nestled on the ring finger of his right hand, the expectation he wear it made clear by a voice mail Buddy had left him with a "Don't forget that state ring Eric!" the night before they flew to Texas. It felt strange to slide it on his finger after years of sitting in a corner of the bottom drawer of one of Tami's old jewelry boxes. Frankly, he never thought he'd ever have a reason to put it on again unlike the East Dillon Lion's state ring he still sported on his finger to this very day. He wore it not only to feel that comforting connection to Texas, the place he still viewed as their true home even after settling into life on the East Coast, but also as a reminder that it was possible to build something incredible from scratch, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places.

As for the Dillon Panthers, it took years, but he could honestly say that he had made his peace with the past. Maybe enough time had gone by and maybe it was even the distance, but despite the bitterness that accompanied his unjust firing after his third season with the team, there was no denying how special that first state championship was. He never envisioned the tragedy, pressures, and adversity he'd have to face his first year as a head coach. He would always remember the way his boys stepped up and pushed through it all, especially since a few of those boys still in his life had become men he was extremely proud of.

Buddy pulled up in front of the field house in his behemoth black SUV and greeted Eric with an enthusiastic wave. The first football game of the season was like his grown-up version of Christmas morning.

"Come on!" Buddy shouted as he hopped out of his car and waved Eric over. "I want to introduce you to the the coach."

William Jamison had been the the quarterback coach over at Arnett Meade for the past four years. When Buddy's plan for stealing the head coach over at West Cambria fell through, they went after the young Arnett Meade coach and made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Eric didn't know much about him except that they came from similar backgrounds. Coach Jamison had been a personal quarterback coach to a young phenom that boosters and scouts alike were already comparing to Jason Street and JD McCoy, who had just happened to move into the Dillon Panthers education district a few months before school started. His name was Brett Anderson and Eric had met him briefly at the barbeque and had heard his name mentioned more times than he could count from the chattering boosters and parents. He seemed like a good kid from what Eric could tell and prayed that this town wouldn't ruin him.

Once they were inside the building, Buddy hustled Eric quickly through the locker room and yanked the door to Coach Jamison's office open.

"Shouldn't we knock?" Eric muttered under his breath as Buddy put a hand on his shoulder and shoved him inside.

"Billy, I want to introduce you to Coach Eric Taylor," Buddy announced excitedly.

Coach Jamison looked up from his playbook. He placed it on the desk and stood up to shake Eric's hand. The office still looked pretty empty. There were a few knickknacks scattered on the desk but the majority of the Coach's belongings still sat stacked in a brown box on the floor. Eric didn't blame him for not getting too comfortable right away.

"Coach Taylor, it's a pleasure to meet you. You're a legend around here in Dillon you know," Coach Jamison said.

Eric laughed, a little embarrassed. Compliments always made him mildly uncomfortable, especially from strangers. He cleared his throat. "Well I don't know about that, but thank you. It's nice to meet you too. Good luck. Y'all go get em' tonight!"

Coach Jamison adjusted the blue Panther hat sitting on the top of his head. "Any advice you could be so kind to pass on?"

He looked at the young coach, the stress and nervousness written all over his face and glanced over at Buddy who was now outside the office busy talking up another booster who had wandered into the field house.

Eric leaned in and looked Coach Jamison in the eyes. "You just worry about that game and don't let them get in your head." He shook his hand again and turned to leave. Eric grabbed the knob to the door and turned back around. "After all Coach," he said with a grin, "It's only football."

{***}

"This is so fun!" Tami exclaimed brightly passing a small box of popcorn over to Gracie who was seated between herself and Julie.

Julie giggled and rolled her eyes. "Oh yeah mom, it's a real blast. I'm five months pregnant sitting on uncomfortable metal bleachers watching a high school football game in ninety three degree heat." She reached back to pull her long blonde hair into a messy bun on top of her head and fanned herself dramatically with her hand.

"Well you're fortunate you aren't a football wife then," Tami said. "I remember being at one of your dad's games back when he was just an assistant quarterback coach and the wife of the head coach's water broke at halftime."

Julie shook her head in disbelief. "That's completely insane. I should probably consider myself lucky my birthday fell in the off season, otherwise I probably would have been born in the back of a locker room somewhere."

"Oh honey," Tami said knowingly, "It really has nothing to do with football. It's about supporting your spouse. What if you were extremely pregnant but otherwise healthy and Matt had some huge art show. Wouldn't you be there for him if you could?"

Julie looked at her mom thoughtfully as she grabbed a handful of popcorn out of the box on Gracie's lap and tossed it into her mouth. "Okay, point taken. I would want to be there for him, although Matt would probably be the one to beg me not to leave the house in that situation. He's so protective and it's starting to drive me a little crazy."

"Cut him some slack Jules. He worries about you because he loves you," Tami reminded her softly.

"I know he does, and I love him for that, but sometimes its just a little much. The other day he forced me to dump out my cereal because the milk I put in it was one day away from it's expiration date. He was convinced it was going to somehow poison me."

"Well maybe that's a tad extreme," Tami agreed with a laugh, "but I think based on the way he takes care of you, he's going to be a great dad."

"I wish you guys lived closer," Julie said smiling at her mom sadly. She loved the fact that she and Matt had built their own life out in Chicago but with a baby coming she was finding herself missing her parents and wishing they lived closer to family.

"We'll try to visit as much as we can," Tami promised giving her older daughter's shoulder a squeeze, "you know once that little one is born pictures and Skype dates just aren't going to cut it."

{***}

A photographer from Sports Illustrated that was doing a profile on Smash for the next issue had been lurking around the Panthers sideline where Matt, Smash, Tim and Street were congregated waiting for the festivities to start.

"Mind if I get a shot of your and your buddies?" he asked Smash holding his camera up.

"What do you say fellas?" Smash asked, his megawatt grin taking over his features, "you ready for your fifteen minutes of fame?"

"I have news for you Williams. I've actually been in Sports Illustrated like seven times already, so this really isn't that exciting," Tim cracked as the guys gathered around and smiled for the flashing camera.

When the photographer was done snapping his shots, Matt pointed up into the crowd and elbowed Riggins in the side.

"Check that out," he said pointing to a busty brunette in the third row of bleachers. "That girl is holding up a sign with your name on it but I can't make out what it says."

Street wheeled himself closer to the fence separating them from the stands and squinted. "It says...Tim Riggins...have..my...baby."

Tim rolled his eyes but there was a small smirk dancing on his lips.

"Timmy Riggins," Street chided, "still driving the ladies crazy."

Smash put an arm around Tim. "I've got lots of eligible fine women coming to this party later. You better bring your A game."

Tim looked down at the ground. "I'm all good Williams."

Matt grinned. "What does that mean Riggs?"

"It means," Street explained, "that Tim's got a secret girlfriend."