Russell Wilson turns 34 today

Denver Broncos v Carolina Panthers
Getty Images

It would be fair to say that the career of Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson is at a crossroads. Yes, the new contract he signed in late August gives him significant financial security, and it forces the Broncos to try to make it work for a few more years. Even then, it’s unclear where it goes from here for a guy who won a Super Bowl in his second NFL season, and got to a second one in his third.

Today, Wilson turns 34. (Happy birthday.) He has said repeatedly that he wants to play until he’s 45. Before this year, it wasn’t a crazy proposition. Now, some are wondering whether he’ll be playing when he turns 35.

It’s an unraveling that surely will spawn various think pieces and #longreads and maybe even a book or two. (And, undoubtedly, a chapter in Playmakers II. Buy Playmakers I now and get a free signed, personalized bookplate, by the way.)

Has Wilson suddenly lost his ability to play at a high level? Are the Broncos failing to use him the right way? Were the Seahawks simply crafting the best possible offense to maximize his skills, and to minimize his flaws? Was the trade that sent Wilson to Denver one of the great football grifts of all time?

And why would Wilson, if he had any inkling that Pete Carroll was propping him up, want to go somewhere else and allow everyone to figure out that he’s not capable of being a franchise quarterback through whom an offense runs?

It’s likely a combination of factors, exacerbated by the fact that Wilson has lost some of his mobility. And maybe he has lost just enough faith in his mobility to make him just a little too tentative.

Regardless, Wilson has slid from the top 10 of the league’s quarterbacks. Actually, he’s no longer in the top half. He’s arguably not even in the top 20.

The Broncos will have every reason to try to get him back into the top 20, the top half, and ideally the top 10. It going to require major changes, probably including a new head coach. Someone with a plan to get the most out of Wilson, and with the confidence that he can do it.

The Packers now have a different kind of Aaron Rodgers problem

Green Bay Packers v Philadelphia Eagles
Getty Images

After the 2020 and 2021 seasons, the Packers had one very specific Aaron Rodgers problem. As the 2022 season works its way toward a conclusion, the Packers have a different kind of Aaron Rodgers problem.

Previously, the concern was that Rodgers would retire or try to force his way to a new team. Currently (or, more accurately, soon), the Packers will have to worry that Rodgers will stay.

His current contract was negotiated to give him the power to walk away without financial consequence after 2022 or 2023. It wasn’t written to make it easy for the Packers to choose to pull the plug on the relationship.

Although the contract is complicated, the simple reality is that Rodgers will be gone only if he wants to be. If he wants to stay, he’s staying. And he’ll be getting paid a lot of money, whether he’s playing or not.

Nearly 15 years ago, the Packers (I believe) nudged Brett Favre to retire in February by telling him that they needed a clear and firm answer about his plans at a time when they knew, if he was forced to make a decision, he’d retire. With Rodgers, it becomes much more delicate.

Rodgers would have to retire on his own. If he senses that the team wants to turn the page to Jordan Love, Rodgers could become more determined to stick around.

And if he’d like to try his hand with a team that may be better equipped to contend for a championship, he could much more easily leverage a trade, if the Packers secretly hope to find a way to pivot as gracefully as possible from Rodgers to Jordan Love.

Where would Rodgers want to go? The 49ers could be a short-term option. Ditto for the Jets. Or maybe the Giants. Or wherever Sean Payton ends up, if he returns to coaching in 2023.

The point, for now, is this. The Packers spent two years fearing that Rodgers would want to leave. They may soon be fearing that he’ll want to stay, at a time when they’d be more comfortable moving on to the player they traded up to draft in the first round more than two and a half years ago.

In 2008, they wanted to move on from Favre. But dealing with Favre is like dealing with a dog. Rodgers is much more like a cat.

And he’ll find a way to stay a step ahead of the front office in whatever plan they may have to tun the page. Even if he’s ready to go, there’s real value in acting like he isn’t. If nothing else, he could finagle a little (or a lot) free money to retire, even if he was planning to retire anyway.

Rams try to avert Christmas Day disaster by urging season-ticket holders to donate seats to charity

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams
Getty Images

The Rams have had a disastrous season, and it’s going to get worse. Over the final six weeks, four games land in nationally-televised, standalone windows.

Only one (Week 17 against the Chargers) can be flexed. One game that can’t be consists of a Christmas Day visit from the Broncos.

The Rams fear a largely empty stadium for the game that will be televised by CBS. To minimize the number of vacant seats on Christmas Day, the Rams are trying to get season-ticket holders who would stay home to give the tickets to someone who would happily go.

Via Ben Fischer of Sports Business Journal, the Rams want those tickets to be donated to one of 28 eligible charities. Those who make the donation will be eligible to win prizes from various Rams sponsors.

As long as the prize isn’t more Rams tickets, this could work.

Also, the folks who get the free tickets will have to actually want to go to the Broncos-Rams game on Christmas Day. For most, that “gift” falls far closer to lump of coal than official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time.

And for those of us watching that game on TV, we might be inclined to shoot our eyes out.

Jerry Jones: Odell Beckham Jr. plane incident has no impact on Cowboys’ interest

New York Giants vs. Dallas Cowboys
Getty Images

Four days before his scheduled trip to New Jersey to meet with the Giants, free-agent receiver Odell Beckham Jr. tried to fly from Miami to L.A. It didn’t go so well, regardless of where the blame belongs.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones places no blame on Beckham. Jones was asked during his weekly Tuesday morning visit with 105.3 The Fan in Dallas whether the situation impacts the team’s interest in Beckham.

It did not,” Jones said, via Jon Machota of TheAthletic.com. “His overall team compatibility, his judgment, his behavior is not an issue with him. It is with many, but not with him.”

The bigger concern should be whether Beckham can really make a difference for the Cowboys in 2022, given that he hasn’t played since February, when he tore an ACL in his knee. Jones made it clear that the team needs Beckham to make an impact right away.

“We have to have this year,” Jones said. “It’s very important, the things we do to have him impact this year. This year has to be a big part of it. We have six regular-season games and the playoffs, we have, in my mind, almost the whole show ahead of us. We got to have a situation where he can really contribute now.”

But Beckham wants more than a Band-Aid deal. To get anything from Beckham in 2022, the Cowboys likely need to be ready to commit to him for 2023, and possibly beyond.

Although Jones downplayed the fact that Beckham will visit other teams (at a minimum, the Giants and Bills), the fact remains that Beckham and his representation have done a very nice job of creating leverage. Especially with the Giants being one of the finalists for Beckham’s services. The question becomes whether any of the teams Beckham visits will put real offers on the table, and whether it will spark a bidding war for his services.

“As to other teams, we don’t have anything to take a step back on that,” Jones said. “And then of course, I know what this area is. I know what the Dallas area is. I know what football means to this area. And I do know that we’re the most visible team. From that standpoint, there’s a lot of interest in it. And everybody likes to be part of something that’s substantive, and that’s the Cowboys.”

It sounds a lot like the argument Jones has made in the past, as to players like Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. That there’s an inherent value to playing for the Cowboys that supersedes money.

It didn’t really work with Prescott and Elliott. We’ll see if it works with Beckham. At this point in his career, the cash in his bank account may mean a lot more than a blue star on his helmet.

PFT’s Week 13 2022 NFL power rankings

Los Angeles Rams v Kansas City Chiefs
Getty Images

1. Chiefs (9-2; last week No. 1): They sometimes make it look so much easier than it is.

2. Eagles (10-1; No. 2): They sometimes made it look harder than it needs to be.

3. Cowboys (8-3; No. 3): Although they got a win, the 40-3 version of the Cowboys won’t be showing up every week.

4. Dolphins (8-3; No. 4): TuAnon has become Tua-Second-to-None.

5. Bills (8-3; No. 5): Their games are far closer than they should be.

6. 49ers (7-4; No. 7): The defense is so good, it doesn’t matter what they do on offense.

7. Vikings (9-2; No. 8): They’re not giving up yet on the possibility of being the No. 1 seed.

8. Bengals (7-4; No. 14): They’ve managed to stay under radar despite going to the Super Bowl. That likely won’t last much longer.

9. Ravens (7-4; No. 6): Good teams that blow two-score leads to bad teams have a hard time remaining good teams.

10. Giants (7-4; No. 9): It feels like it’s starting to come apart at the seams, a little bit.

11. Patriots (6-5; No. 10): Thursday night’s game against the Bills becomes the biggest of the year for this team, so far.

12. Seahawks (6-5; No. 11): Introducing the Legion of Room (to Run).

13. Titans (7-4; No. 12): They need someone to step up on the rare days when Derrick Henry gets bottled up.

14. Jets (7-4; No. 16): Mike White is playing the way Zach Wilson should have been.

15. Commanders (7-5; No. 15): The schedule takes a very sharp turn, starting now.

16. Chargers (6-5; No. 18): They make not make it to the postseason. Without Sunday’s walkoff win, they likely would have had no chance.

17. Buccaneers (5-6; No. 13): The division remains in their control, but they’ll have a hell of a time against the No. 5 seed, when the time comes.

18. Falcons (5-7; No. 17): They just keep hanging around.

19. Lions (4-7; No. 19): These truly aren’t the same old Lions. And the next two games will be critical to proving it.

20. Browns (4-7; No. 23): Things suddenly have gotten very interesting in Cleveland.

21. Steelers (4-7; No. 27): Never, ever write off Mike Tomlin and company.

22. Panthers (4-8; No. 28): Steve Wilks has done enough to earn the full-time job. Will he get a fair shot at it?

23. Raiders (4-7; No. 29): Yes, they should have picked up the Josh Jacobs fifth-year option. But would he be doing this if he wasn’t in a contract year?

24. Jaguars (4-7; No. 30): They’re the kid who brings home straight A’s once per year, while otherwise struggling to pass all his classes.

25. Packers (4-8; No. 20): It’s time to see what Jordan Love can do.

26. Cardinals (4-8; No. 21): I’d pay a lot of money to see the outtakes and deleted scenes from Hard Knocks.

27. Colts (4-7-1; No. 22): It’s almost as if the person responsible for managing the clock late in the game has hardly any experience doing so.

28. Saints (4-8; No. 24): Is it crazy to think they should offer Sean Payton $30 million a year to come back?

29. Rams (3-8; No. 25): They have four more nationally-televised standalone games this year.

30. Bears (3-9; No. 26): If they can’t win with their best player in the lineup, they’ve got little chance without him.

31. Broncos (3-8; No. 31): They were No. 19 back in Week One, and plenty of Broncos fans were pissed about that.

32. Texans (1-9-1; No. 32): Absent new ownership, does anyone see this changing any time soon?

On Our Way Home: Chapter One

Anthony Zych

Staying up late sucks.

When I was a little kid, staying up late was a bonus, a luxury. A treat. There was an unpredictability to it. That made it even more exciting when it actually happened. 

Most of the time, Baby Michael and I would get a “no.” Not even a “no,” just that look from Mom or Dad. Usually Dad. The one that made it crystal clear we shouldn’t even bother to finish asking the question.

Bedtime was an obligation that applied even when there wasn’t anything to get up for, because our house was too small for parents to properly sleep (or periodically not go to sleep right away) if their two young boys wrestled and argued and argued and wrestled deep into the night. Not that we ever made a lot of noise when we got to stay up late. Neither of us were all that smart, but we were bright enough to know that breaking glass or smashing furniture after midnight would result in fewer chances to ever do it again.

I don’t remember much about the things Baby Michael and I actually did when we stayed up late, because I’d quit thinking about those nights. I’d quit thinking about those nights, because I’d quit thinking about Baby Michael. I’d quit thinking about Baby Michael, because I’d become extremely and permanently pissed off at Grown-up Michael.

For Grown-up John, staying up late is the exact opposite of bonus, luxury, or treat. I need my sleep. And there’s nothing fun about being awake after eleven o’clock. Not anymore.

Staying up that late now means I’ve got a trial starting soon, or I’m in the middle of one. It also means no sleeping in on the other side of staying up. I never did sleep deprivation well. I’ve gradually learned how to live with it. It’s a debt that eventually gets paid off, at some point when life gets back to normal.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever fully reconciled those deficits. Maybe I’ll finally balance out the ledger when I’m in the old folk’s home, when there will be nothing else to do other than smear pudding on your bib or dump crap in your pants. Or both. Maybe at the same time. Maybe that’s when I’ll finally pay off that sleep debt. Just in time to go to sleep for good.

The accounts payable had spiked again lately, thanks to the double whammy of a trial coming to an end on Friday and Christmas Eve landing two days later. With three kids—fifteen, twelve, five—things that as of the morning of December 22 I didn’t even know had been bought by my wife would have to be some-assembly-required in that sliver of time between the lights going out upstairs and the youngest one springing awake to a non-stop, jabbering frenzy of activity. To make things worse, Macy (whose full-and-complete-assembly-required bike was hidden in a large cardboard box under the workbench in the garage) had already begun hounding Linda about going to midnight mass, a legitimate occasion to stay up late even though the girl would transform into a sweaty clump of eye boogers well before I heard the term from Isaiah 9:6 that never made much sense to me.

Wonder-Counselor. 

Whatever it meant, it was what I needed to be that morning. The trial had started on Monday. The lawyers representing the company had asked for a delay on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I’d given the maximum contribution to the judge’s two campaigns exactly for times like this. They’re not supposed to know who gives what and how much, but the full list of donations becomes public record, and it’s way too easy to give in to the temptation to check. So I gave to the limit, Linda gave to the limit, her parents gave to the limit, and mine would have given to the limit, too, if they both hadn’t been gone for more than two decades.

We all gave to the limit so that, for example, a random collection of local residents would get to decide two days before Christmas Eve whether one of their own had her rights violated by a rich, powerful, and faceless corporation. Sure, the company provides jobs for hundreds in the area. It also fires people from those jobs without regard to the law. And it sucks tens of millions of dollars in raw profit out of the state, every month. 

The idea of handing a wrongful termination case to a jury on the 22nd of December sounded very good, in theory. I’d always wanted to do it, but I could never get the dominoes to fall the right way. When the judge held a scheduling conference sixteen months earlier, I could see the other dates and deadlines for the litigation were pointing toward the end of the year. I suggested with deliberate nonchalance December 18 for trial. The low-level, billable-hours-churning, fresh-from-law-school underling who’d been given the lead partner’s calendar didn’t realize that starting a trial on that day would result in the jury getting the case dangerously close to Christmas, and that I’d then spend the entire week clanging a bell next to a red kettle, a Robin Hood who had swapped his green hat for a red cap trimmed in white.

I know how that sounds. I do. But that’s the way it works. Good lawyers secure every possible edge for their clients. If there was any way I could nudge the process toward the jury returning a big verdict in the matter of Matherson vs. U-Sav-Plentee, Inc. et al. so close to Christmas, I wouldn’t have been representing my client the right way if I hadn’t at least tried to do it.

I’d succeeded. I got the date, and I fought off the motion for a continuance. I probably was a little too much of a jerk when pointing out that if Mr. Anderson had planned to go out of town for the holidays on December 20, he shouldn’t have allowed his junior associate to agree to start the trial that week—or maybe he should have participated in the scheduling conference himself. But here’s the thing. Proper representation of a client in litigation requires being a little too much of a jerk, pretty much all the time.

So that’s how it went. In the months before the trial started, I questioned thirteen U-Sav-Plentee employees in the conference room of my law office. The company’s lawyers produced more than fourteen thousand documents for me to review, since they always bury a handful of needles as deep in the haystack as they can. They eventually filed what’s known as a motion for summary judgment. It forced me to put together a twenty-page legal brief that turned over just enough of my cards to show there was more than enough evidence of wrongdoing to support a jury verdict for Sandy Matherson. Along the way, we attended a court-ordered mediation session that made no progress at all toward a settlement because the manager of the local store barely had the power to go to the bathroom without first calling corporate headquarters for permission. After all of that, the case went to trial as scheduled.

Being at trial can be exhilarating. Getting ready for trial blows. It takes hours and hours and hours of focused effort, usually at night and on weekends because the rest of your practice doesn’t take a hiatus. Trial prep requires focus, resilience, perseverance. It needs a careful eye, scanning every relevant piece of information, over and over and over again for anything that can be used to support the arguments being made on behalf of the client, and to avoid a sawed-off shotgun of attacks being fired by the other side. It’s much more than knowing how to present your own case; it’s about understanding how their case will unfold, while also being ready to swing at any and all curve balls that may or may not be heading directly for your temple. 

They might dig up dirt on your client from years before she even got the job. They might pull a key document out of nowhere, after hiding it from you for months. One of the jurors could bow out, because a kid suddenly has the flu. In comes the alternate juror, and the whole dynamic of the group changes. 

I had to be ready for anything and everything, all the time. I had to have a plan for dealing with any and all wrinkles. If I didn’t have a plan, I had to come up with one. If I couldn’t come up with one, I had to act like I had one. And I had to do it all while staying up late and getting up early, night after night after night.

Why was I still doing this? I started off working for a big law firm that represented employers. I became a partner. Impressive title. More money. I didn’t care. I wanted to handle cases I believed in. Lawyers who work at big firms have to handle the cases that get filed against their clients, no matter how good or bad those cases may be. 

For me, more often than not, they were bad. I didn’t believe in them. So I’d work on the case until the time was right to explain to the client why the case should be settled. That alone was an art. Telling the client that it needs to write a check to make a case go away too early in the process comes off as weakness. Waiting too long invites questions like, “Why didn’t you tell us this sooner?”

The business creates an incentive to keep a case alive as long as possible. Lawyers who represent corporations get paid for their time. If a case goes way too quickly, there’s much less time to be spent and, as a result, much less money to be made. The goal, even with a stinker of a case, is to let enough of the litigation play out before telling the client the time had come to broker a deal. Legal fees fully earned, problem fully solved, justice fully done. Or whatever. Regardless, I got no pleasure from handling dying-dog cases that, sooner or later, would be put out of their misery, and mine.

Now that I hung a shingle and practiced alone, I got to screen the cases. Pick the cases I believed in. Accept the cases that felt like they were rooted in truth and righteousness. The cases also had to carry a good chance of kicking out some cash. Practicing law is still a for-profit enterprise. Fighting for principle never kept the lights on or the kids fed. The cases I took needed to include rights that were violated, financial losses that were real, and a defendant that could pay without blinking an eye. Otherwise, it just wasn’t worth the time, the effort, or the money required to get a case ready for trial. 

In Matherson vs. U-Sav-Plentee, Inc. et al., the numbers made sense. U-Sav-Plentee was one of the biggest companies in the world. It had billions on the balance sheet. It made millions more every day.

For the company, this case was a one-winged gnat, not even rising to the level of gently mild annoyance. Whatever the verdict might be, it’d fall far short of the interest earned in a single day on the loose cash the company kept in its worldwide bank accounts. But U-Sav-Plentee still fought Sandy Matherson aggressively and zealously, because that’s what companies like that do. If they didn’t, every employee with any complaint of any kind would line up for their own chance at what the company viewed as a lottery prize, and not as fair compensation for the misbehavior of its poorly-trained, randomly-supervised, and/or badly-intentioned local managers.

At trial, I had to show that U-Sav-Plentee fired Sandy Matherson not because she had a habit of clocking in more than fifteen minutes late (she did, but plenty of others at her store did, too, and none of them got fired), but because she’d been targeted after complaining about the store manager having an affair with one of the other employees. That person was receiving favorable treatment, such as better shifts and more pay than her colleagues. Predictably, the manager denied everything. His mistress denied everything, too. The company paraded a stream of witnesses into court. They all testified under oath they’d never seen anything, never heard anything, never suspected anything. I cross-examined each one with questions that made it clear how much they liked their jobs, needed their jobs, hoped to keep their jobs. That they wanted to get promotions and raises and other benefits, and that toeing the company line wouldn’t hurt those prospects, at all.

I couldn’t just turn to the jury and say, “Trust me, folks, this is how they do it.” I had to weave together evidence that would help lay the foundation for a closing argument where I tied everything together. I had to show other employees had been late or had broken other rules and hadn’t been fired. I had to hope the jury found my client believable and, more importantly, likable. At the end of the day, it wasn’t enough for the jury to generally want to rob from the rich and give to the poor. It had to want to rob from the rich and give specifically to my poor client.

Again, that’s how it goes. In every single case like this. Even if the evidence proved that the company had blatantly violated the legal rights of the employee, the jury wouldn’t give a penny to someone it just didn’t find appealing, or deserving.

Judges tell juries over and over again to not make any decisions until they hear all the evidence. But jurors start making decisions from the second the lawyers open their mouths during jury selection. Heck, jurors start making decisions from the instant they see the people sitting at either of the two tables, plaintiff and defendant and the lawyers for each side. The jurors have to like the plaintiff, to root for her. They also have to like me, or to at least think I’m not too much of the asshole that, frankly, I am. On one hand, I want them to think they’d want me fighting for them or their spouses or their children or their siblings or whoever they cared about. On the other, if enough of them decide they don’t like the client or the lawyer at some point after the trial begins, the rest of the case is a waste of everyone’s time, especially mine.  

No one knows whether a case has already been lost before the closing arguments begin. I had to hope enough of the jurors saw things my way. It was my job to load the believers up with the nuggets and explanations they would use to sell the case to the others. It would help to appeal straight to the jurors I thought were most likely to become the foreperson, because the opinions of the juror who gets elected team captain quite often become the opinions of the entire group.

That was my challenge on the morning of December 22. Mine and only mine. Alone on a high wire. Without a net. I had to bring it all home. To get the ones already on my side ready to sell the case to the others. To put enough doubt in the minds of the ones who were leaning against Sandy Matherson’s cause. 

I had to talk to them in plain and simple terms. No big words. No legalese. No mumbo. No jumbo. 

I had to make them choose to dress up like Santa Claus for one afternoon, and to slide down the chimney with a big, fat sack of someone else’s money and a tag tied to the bow that said Sandy.

I’d slow-played the trial just enough to nudge the closing arguments to Friday. The judge would start the day by reading pages and pages of convoluted and boring instructions to the jury. Then, I’d make the first part of my closing argument. Next, the lawyer for U-Sav-Plentee would do his entire presentation. I’d get the last word, with whatever time was left from the sixty total minutes I’d been given.

The final chunk of the closing argument would be critical. It was my last chance. I had to get them on my side. I had to get them revved up and ready to get to work on concluding that my client had been wronged. So that they’d begin crunching the numbers for her lost wages, for the emotional distress my client experienced after losing a job she’d had for more than eleven years. Then came the up-or-down, yes-or-no question of whether the mega-company with a strategically folksy lawyer should pay extra money as punishment for what it had done—and as a warning to other companies to not do ordinary citizens of our quiet, God-fearing, law-abiding county this way.

All of this rattled through my brain that morning as I forced myself awake after the fifth straight night of barely four hours of sleep. The shower didn’t snap me out of the gray haze carved by the dull knife of fatigue. I reminded myself that I was forty-five years old. I wondered how much longer I’d be able to fight these battles on my own, against the small army of lawyers that companies like U-Sav-Plentee assigned to the cases filed against it. I loved feeling like David versus Goliath. I wondered whether it was actually Don Quixote versus windmill.

The lack of sleep pressed hard against the curves along the inside of my eyes. I blinked into the mirror to focus on getting ready. Truth-tellers have a face that’s properly shaved. Truth-tellers have hair that’s properly combed. Truth-tellers have a suit that properly fits. Truth-tellers have a tie that’s properly tied. Truth-tellers with active sweat glands also wear a moisture-wicking T-shirt under the dress shirt to prevent soaked and stained armpits in the suit jacket.

It was during the drive to the office that I remembered I’d forgotten to put on the damn T-shirt. I cursed. I tried not to think about the clanking radiators in the old building, how the steam heat would combine with my stress and anxiety and a frame carrying about twenty-five more pounds than it should have. I glanced at the clock on the dashboard of the car. I didn’t have time to turn around and go home to put on the T-shirt.

What I saw when I looked up made me forget all about the T-shirt.

(On Our Way Home continues on Friday, November 25, with Chapter Two. It’s being posted free of charge. If that makes you feel guilty in any way, shape, or form, you can buy a copy of Playmakers. Do it from November 25 through December 11, and get a free, personalized bookplate.)

On Our Way Home: Chapter Two

Anthony Zych

Cars whizzed along each of the four lanes connecting the suburbs to town, two moving in each direction. Three inches of snow from a week or so earlier had melted, and the ground had mostly dried. Up ahead, an old, oversized Chevy sat crooked on the shoulder. The tip of its back left corner stuck out into the right lane. A small figure in a flappy brown overcoat hunched over the open trunk. I could see both of his arms trembling their way toward getting whatever it was he was trying to remove.

I noticed the front end of the Chevy sinking into the gravel berm. The car had a flat tire. The man standing at the rear end of the vehicle was too old to be changing it by himself. A sigh started deep in my lungs and blew past my lips. I pulled behind the Chevy with my flashers on so that other cars would move to the left lane or at least not plow into the protruding corner of a chrome bumper attached to the kind of sharp-angled steel body the folks in Detroit hadn’t made in decades.

I checked the mirrors. Another car sped by, sustained horn blast letting both of us know the driver didn’t appreciate the impediment along the path to wherever he was going. Coast now clear, I got out and headed for the old man. He continued to fumble around inside the trunk. The lid was opened wide, looking like the unhinged mouth of a hippo.  

“Having a little trouble?” I said.

“Having a lot of trouble,” the old man said without turning around.

“Flat tire?”

“She blew out on me. I have a spare. I just need to get her out of here and on there.”

“Do you have triple-A or anything like that? They’ll come out here and take care of you.”

The old man’s arms stopped moving. He steadied himself on the opening of the trunk with his right hand and turned around. He had deep grooves running down his cheeks, one on each side. Flaps of skin hung from his jaw, swollen rivers of dried wax from a squat candle that someone had forgotten to blow out before going to bed. His skull carried glasses with wide black frames. Gray eyes studied me through the haze of thick lenses. The brim of a charcoal fedora cast shadows over a nose that had one curly white hair spindling from its tip.

“Why do I need any of that when I have you?”

“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I’m late. For court. I have a trial.”

“What, did you get in trouble?”

I shook my head, slight grin stretching against a face that tried to resist it. 

“No. I’m a lawyer.”

He turned to look at my Subaru. Blew air through his nose. The wind caught a droplet of snot and threw it back against his overcoat. 

“Not much of a car for a lawyer,” he said.

I didn’t have the time or desire for banter, even though the old man was holding his own nicely. I started back toward the car.

“Was it something I said?” he asked.

“I’m getting my phone.”

“You have a phone in your automobile?” 

I turned back toward the old man, opening my mouth before deciding to just grab the phone and get this over with. I plucked it from the passenger seat and returned, scrolling through my contacts for Lou Rizzoli. 

“That thing-a-ma-jig is a telephone?”

“Yes,” I said without looking up at him. His confusion sparked my curiosity, but the goal at this point was to bring the interaction to an end and get to court. I could already feel the sweat collecting in armpits not lined with a moisture-wicking T-shirt.

I found Lou’s name and pressed my thumb onto his number. I held the phone against my ear.

“I guess it is a telephone,” the old man said as I waited. I grinned as politely as I could.

“Lou,” I said when he answered. “I’m out here on Route 32, about a half mile from the Main Street exit. . . . There’s a man with a flat tire. Can you have your cousin come out and change it for him? He can bill me. . . . It’s an old Chevy. Light blue. . . . The model doesn’t matter. It’s the only old light blue Chevy on any stretch of Route 32 today, I can promise you that. . . . OK, thanks.”

I ended the call and wrapped my fingers around the phone. Cars continued to zip past us every few seconds. Nearly all of them had moved to the left lane. I worried that it would continue after I drove away.

“You should put your hazard lights on,” I said to the man.

“It’s a 1977 Impala.”

“Excuse me?”

“The car. It’s a Chevy Impala. 1977. Lou, that man you called, he wanted to know. You could have just asked me.”

“His cousin’s coming,” I said. “He’ll find you. But you need to get inside the car and wait. You should put your hazard lights on, so the other cars will see you here. Do you need me to help you find them?”

“I was hoping you’d help me change my tire.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t do that. Someone is coming.”

“You’re already here.”

“I know. But I really have to go.”

“Can’t you wait with us until he gets here? Now that you mention those other cars, it would be nice to have yours back there. If someone hits it, maybe you can get something nicer with the insurance money.”

A short burst of laughter escaped my mouth, even though I could otherwise feel my mood turning more sour as I felt the precious minutes and seconds ticking away. 

“I’m sorry, but I can’t. Do you need me to help you turn on your hazard lights?”

“I know where the button for my flashers is.”

“OK then,” I said, waiting for the man to return to the car. I went to the trunk and began to close it for him, hopeful he would get the hint.

“You need to push it down good,” he said. “It doesn’t want to latch.”

I put my left palm on the lid and gave it a firm shove. It snapped into place fairly easily. The old man’s bushy white eyebrows raised and the corners of his mouth curled down. 

“You’re stronger than you look,” he said.

I laughed again, and I kept waiting for him to go back to the Chevy and climb inside, or at least try to.

“Do you need help getting in your car?” I said.

“I need help changing my tire.”

“He’ll be here soon. I promise. I have to go now. I wish I could stay.”

He looked at me as I said it. 

“You don’t mean that.”

“Excuse me?”

“You said you wish you could stay,” he said. “You don’t mean it. Why would you say something you don’t mean?”

“Really, sir, I have to go. I’ve tried to help. I’ve done everything I can. I just have to go.”

“You have that telephone, you know.”

“Excuse me?”

“That telephone. You called the man to tell him to have his cousin come fix the tire. You could call whoever you’re supposed to go see, the judge I suppose, and tell him you’re going to be a little late.”

I lifted my right hand toward my face and pondered the phone. 

“Yeah, I could. But I don’t want to. I want to be on time.”

“He’d probably understand. You’re being a good Samaritan.”

“Sir, I am. I’m paying for someone to come out here and fix your tire.”

“But you’re not staying until he gets here.”

At this rate, I thought, he’ll be here before I leave.

“Like I said, I’m sorry. That part I definitely mean. You need to get in the car, put the flashers on, and wait.” I turned away from him and went back toward my car.

“Do you want to see her?”

“Her who?” I said without stopping.

“My wife. She’s in the car. She’ll be upset that she didn’t get a chance to thank you for not changing our tire.”

I laughed again. 

“Tell her I’m sorry. And turn on those flashers. The truck will be here before you know it.”

“I wish you would say hello to her. She doesn’t get to see many people.”

“Please tell her hello from me. And tell her I said Merry Christmas. Where are you heading, anyway?”

He smiled at me for the first time, flashing a hint of dentures that were carried just a little too loosely in his mouth. 

“We’re on our way home,” he said.

I got inside the Subaru and watched the old man shuffle back to the Chevy. Once he finally got inside—it crossed my mind that he was intentionally dragging his feet to annoy me—I turned on the engine, waited for an opening in the flow of traffic, and pulled away. I turned off my own flashers once clear of the Chevy. I could see in the rearview mirror two heads, sticking up barely above the dashboard. I noticed the outline of the old man’s fedora.

I pressed my foot onto the accelerator, glided onto an exit ramp, and began making my way through town. I drove as fast as I could under the circumstances, which included just enough other cars to require the kind of zigging and zagging I didn’t want to do, not with the police station adjacent to the courthouse. I found a parking spot on the street, grabbed my briefcase from the back seat, scooped up my phone—my telephone—and hustled toward the main doors, once again forgetting to drop a few quarters into the parking meter.

I would have jogged and possibly even run, if I’d known the inevitable perspiration would have been sucked away from my softly jiggling upper body by the magic of modern sportswear technology. I opted for modified race-walking, the kind of aggressively brisk movement that possibly cries out “asshole” to anyone in the immediate vicinity who is moving at a more socially acceptable pace. I realized a bit too late that one of the people who seemed to react to me that way was one of the jurors in my trial. I cringed when I noticed I’d potentially pissed off someone who would be deciding Sandy Matherson’s case later that day. 

I wondered why that person was moving so slowly. If I was late, he was late, too. Why wasn’t he in a hurry, like me?

I pulled my phone out and pressed the button to check the clock. I turned it off and on again, to confirm the time it was showing. I tried to do the math in my head. I’d wasted at least ten minutes on the side of the road with the old man. It didn’t add up.

I should have been late. Somehow, I wasn’t.

(On Our Way Home continues on Saturday, November 26, with Chapter Three. It’s being posted free of charge, with all chapters here. If you feel like paying for it, buy a copy of Playmakers instead. Do it from today through December 11, and get a free, personalized bookplate.)

On Our Way Home: Chapter Three

Anthony Zych

I sat at the rectangular wooden table, next to Sandy Matherson. I fought the temptation to review the twenty-seven pages of large-font notes I’d printed and three-hole punched and placed into the black binder in front of me on the mahogany surface covered with a half-inch of smoked, tempered glass. It was more important to act as if I were listening intently to the judge reciting the instructions to the jury, even though I already knew what every single word would be. To nod at the right times. To steal glances in an effort to figure out which jurors were paying attention, which ones were just pretending to do it, and which ones seemed to be thinking about something else, like everything they had to do that weekend, given that Christmas was coming on Monday. 

Prior to the start of any trial, the lawyers give to the judge dueling versions of the various specific legal explanations that cover every point of law relevant to the case. After the jury hears all the evidence, the lawyers stick around in a half-lit courtroom for two or three hours and haggle over a Frankenstein monster of paragraphs and principles to be placed in logical order and read to the jury, with the expectation that any of it will truly register with them. Little of it ever does.

Plenty of judges, including the Honorable Donald T. Robertson, refuse to send a copy of the instructions with the jury as they deliberate. This raises the stakes. But it also gives the lawyer an extra opportunity to build credibility. By explaining in plain and simple terms what they’d just heard, the lawyer becomes part of the process of educating the jurors. By setting out the sometimes complex concepts in a way that makes sense and seems reasonable and believable, I could build a stack of chips that would come in handy when trying to get the jury to accept my version of the many conflicting and confusing facts they’d heard. What was important, what wasn’t important. What they should listen to. What they should ignore. 

I’d have forty minutes to make my initial presentation. Gunther Anderson III, an older man with homespun charm and a voice not quite as deep as Sam Elliott’s but every bit as pleasing to the ear, would speak for up to an hour, if Anderson chose to use every minute of the time he had. I’d then have twenty minutes to get the last word.

I didn’t like overwhelming the jury with technology. Lawyers paid by the hour love to use projectors and slickly produced video clips and computer-generated charts and graphs. I’d tell the jury this was all a way to try to distract them from the truth, of impressing them with bright, shiny objects instead of the dull, stubborn reality of cold, hard facts. For me, it was important to make a personal connection with each of the six jurors (only criminal cases use twelve), and to speak to each one of them as if I was in their living room, or as if they were in mine. Bells and whistles that interrupted this connection would make it harder to re-establish it.

That didn’t mean I relied only on the words that came out of my mouth. I had a whiteboard on an easel. Old school. I’d write key words on there, just two or three at a time. I’d leave them up there so they’d sink in while I talked more about them, and I’d wipe them clean when moving on to the next point I was trying to make. I’d converted some of the most important documents into large cardboard posters that I’d prop onto the fold-out hooks of another easel when discussing how U-Sav-Plentee’s own paperwork helped show that the company had screwed Sandy Matherson.

Proving that an employer fired a worker in violation of applicable state laws becomes a little bit of a magic trick. The lawyer representing the fired former employee needs to systematically peel away every plausible reason the company has thrown at the wall for making its decision. When they’re all gone, there’s only one explanation left. The company actually fired the employee for an illegal reason, even though none of the company’s witnesses would ever admit it.

It gets tricky. The lawyer representing the company will argue it’s impossible that each and every one of those fine, hard-working people got on the witness stand and committed perjury when they supported the company’s version. That’s when I’d explain it’s not about deliberately choosing to lie under oath. It’s about locking into a story months before coming to trial, and sticking to that version, no matter what. That the lie is never made up on the witness stand. That the tall tale gets spun when the decision get made, and from that point forward the lie keeps getting repeated and repeated and repeated until it feels like it’s the truth. 

Those thoughts popped around inside my brain, exploding kernels of ideas and reminders causing the perspiration to begin to gather in my armpits and along the top of my back well before I had to stand up and perform. I knew the structure and the flow of the instructions well enough to realize the judge was nearing the end. His voice had become more raspy as the week went on. He mentioned at one point he’d been developing a cold. I spotted him from time to time unwrapping lozenges and discreetly popping them into his mouth. As he worked through the instructions, his voice was getting more hoarse than it had been.

He was explaining how to calculate Sandy Matherson’s financial damages, if any. The other lawyer had managed to work a few extra if anys into the instructions, and I found myself wondering whether Judge Robertson was pausing on purpose before saying if any as a way to stick it to me, subtly. The campaign checks had long been cashed, and he had six years left on his term. He could get away with something that would be impossible to ever prove, something I could never accuse him of actually doing without potentially screwing up every other case of mine he’d handle. Or maybe it was just the cold he was catching. I couldn’t tell, no matter how hard I tried.

I then tried even harder to push those ideas out of my brain. None of it would help me deliver the kind of closing argument I’d need to take advantage of the possibility that the four men and two women of the jury would be inclined to grant a tie to the runner, in the spirit of the season. Or maybe even to give Sandy the benefit of the doubt on a close call. Either way, it was time to roll out that red kettle and start clanging away with the bell. 

“Are the lawyers prepared to make their closing arguments?” Judge Robertson’s words rumbled through what remained of his voice. He seemed relieved to be finished speaking. He’d have not much more to say, unless squabbles occurred during closing arguments. And that becomes a very high-risk proposition. If a lawyer interrupts the opponent’s closing argument with an objection, the arrow had better hit the center of the target. Otherwise, it looks like the lawyer who made the objection was trying to keep the jury from hearing something extremely important to the point the other lawyer was trying to make.

I pressed my hands against the glass top of the table. It was cool to the touch. I wished I had panels of that same glass taped against my chest, my back, and my armpits. I looked down at the binder. For the longest time, I wanted to have enough confidence in my knowledge of a case to pitch the notes. I’d always be in awe of lawyers who could deliver their remarks without this crutch, to touch on every point that needed to be made from memory alone. I’d told myself that, one of these days, I’d be able to do it. 

I don’t know why or how I did it, but I decided then and there that today was one of these days. I picked up the binder, and I stuck it down on my chair. I pushed the chair back under the table. It all made me think of the time I found my dad taking the training wheels from my first bike and throwing them in the garbage can. 

“You know how to ride this damn thing,” he’d said to me. “Now, just go ride it.”

I knew I might have been making a mistake. But something pushed me forward. I’d never been much for deliberately self-destructive behavior; I preferred digging my holes without realizing it. It felt as if I was floating over myself, peering down at what I was doing and urging myself not to risk coming off as a babbling idiot in the most critical juncture of a case on which I’d spent so many hours and so much money. But I couldn’t stop myself. I’d left the old man and his wife alone out on the highway. I knew I shouldn’t have done it. I suppose I was inflicting a punishment, making myself feel the way I’d made them feel, unprotected and alone and exposed to whatever may happen next.

I could sense Judge Robertson shifting in his robe from the perch above the rest of the courtroom. I knew he was about to say something along the lines of, “Mr. Persepio, are you ready to proceed?” I also could see Sandy Matherson fidgeting in the chair next to me as she surely wondered whether she should have listened to her husband and hired the guy with the TV commercials who morphs into a poorly-generated computer animation of a Rottweiler, and then calls himself a bulldog.

I noticed a trash can tucked to the side of the table just in time. I bent down and scooped it up just as the Frosted Flakes and cup of coffee with two packs of Equal and a splash of the same two-percent milk I’d poured into the bowl of cereal escaped quickly and violently from my stomach.

(On Our Way Home continues on Sunday, November 27, with Chapter Four. It’s being posted free of charge, with all chapters here. If you feel like paying for it, buy a copy of Playmakers instead. Do it through December 11, and get a free, personalized bookplate.)

On Our Way Home: Chapter Four

Anthony Zych

Upper lip lined in sweat and lower lip coated in something else entirely, my mouth continued to hover over the opening to the can. I braced for a second wave. Judge Robertson instructed the bailiff to take the jury back to their room. I tried to ignore the sounds filling my ears, first the gasps and then the guffaws. They came from every direction. Opposing counsel. A smattering of onlookers. Maybe even some of the jurors. My main concern continued to be preparing for the next blast, if there was going to be one.

There wouldn’t be, at least not yet. After the jury exited through the door to the right of the bench and the bailiff pushed it shut with something close to a slam, the next phase of the trial—an unexpected one—began almost instantly.

Already on his feet, Anderson started to speak, without being invited by the judge to do so. 

“Your Honor, this is highly irregular,” Anderson said. “Mr. Persepio clearly is not well. Under the circumstances, my only option on behalf of my clients is to request a mistrial. Without prejudice, of course.”

“Mistrial?” I said, jerking my head up from the plastic tub I now enveloped in my arms like Pooh with a honeypot. “He wants to pull the plug and start this thing from scratch? I’m fine. I’ll be ready to go in a minute.”

Judge Robertson tilted his head and stared at me from over his reading glasses. I finally became conscious of the fact that I had a trash can hovering under my head. A giant feedbag. In reverse.

“Mr. Persepio, you’ve got a little something on your chin,” he rasped under flaring eyebrows.

I felt blood pulse and flow even more strongly through and across the flesh of my cheeks. Sandy Matherson, God love her, held out a napkin she’d been toting around in her purse. It smelled like stale cigarettes. I rubbed it over and along my jawline. I placed the trash can full of my puke back onto the tile floor, dropping the napkin atop a mess that was already sending stray hints of a foul stink into the air.

“Thank you, Your Honor. And I truly appreciate Mr. Anderson’s concern. But I’m fine.”

“You didn’t seem fine two minutes ago,” the judge said.

“Well, yes. I know. I’m sorry. It happened. But I’m fine now.”

Anderson seized the opening. 

“Your Honor, if I may. We can’t expect the jury to focus appropriately and completely on Mr. Persepio’s presentation if they are in constant fear that he may vomit on them.”

“Again,” I said, “I truly appreciate Mr. Anderson’s concern. Although I’m not sure why he’d want the jury to be focusing appropriately and completely on my presentation. As I see it, that would help his clients, if the jury isn’t listening to me. Of course, it would help his clients even more if they could avoid having this case go to a verdict three days before Christmas.”

“Let’s close the record for now,” Judge Robertson said, glancing at his court reporter in a signal to turn off the audio recording and to stop pressing the nondescript keys that generated a series of letters and spaces making no sense whatsoever to the untrained eye. “I’d like to see the lawyers in my chambers in twenty minutes, sharp. Mr. Persepio, I suggest you take advantage of this opportunity to get yourself some fresh air. I prefer that the receptacle in my office remain filled only with paper.”

I had nothing else to say. I steadied myself against the table as Judge Robertson exited through the door directly behind his seat. I turned to Sandy Matherson, who seemed confused and horrified, but also genuinely concerned.

“Honey, are you OK?”

“I’m fine,” I told her. I turned to her husband. He sat in the front row of the gallery, arms crossed tightly against a red flannel shirt that had dried egg yolk or something that looked like it on the left side of the collar. “I’m fine.”

Earl Matherson worked as a coal miner. I avoided his grip whenever I could, since he always seemed to save a little extra squeeze just for me, a possible reminder that he wanted Sandy to hire someone else to handle her case. Then and there, I wished she’d listened to him.

“What’s happening?” Sandy said to me.

“I’m not sure. We’ll talk to the judge and figure out how to proceed. They want a mistrial. That means they want to start over again, from scratch.”

“Well, I don’t want to do that,” she said. The twisting expression on Earl’s face made it clear he didn’t want to do that, either.

“That won’t happen,” I said. “I mean, I’m pretty sure it won’t happen.”

“So what’s going to happen?” she said, genuinely curious and without a hint of frustration or impatience.

“I don’t know,” I said.

I told Sandy, loud enough for Earl to hear, that I’d take Judge Robertson’s advice and get some fresh air. I didn’t think I needed it, but nothing would be happening for another twenty minutes (eighteen and a half, at this point), so I decided to take a quick walk.

I opted for the steps instead of the elevator, just to get my juices (other than gastric) flowing a little bit. The staircase was wide; if I got woozy, I could just collapse sideways. Maybe just roll down to the next landing.

Fortunately for me, and for the two or three people who were climbing the stairs across from me, I didn’t wipe out on the way from the third floor to ground level. I turned toward the light coming through the opening at the front of the courthouse, a deep and sweeping revolving door with traditional rectangular glass entrances on each side. I pushed my way through the spinning exit, hoping to make it outside before the security guards who may have heard about what had happened could say anything to me.

The weather continued to be far better than seasonal. Global warming or whatever, I didn’t mind not having to traipse around in puddles and piles of gray slush during the final days of the calendar year. I took a left and began to stroll down Main Street. It felt good to hear my heels clicking against the concrete. With nearly all of the storefronts long since vacated, I was mostly alone with my thoughts and the Christmas decorations lining the street, along with the tinny chimes of Silver Bells coming through small speakers mounted on the street lamps. I remembered being eleven years old and singing in a deliberately irritating voice “silver bells, my butt smells” in order to get a rise out of my parents, along with a laugh out of my brother.

I breathed the town’s still and open air deep into my lungs. It was clean for the most part, thanks to the relative lack of cars rolling down the one-way street pointing back toward the courthouse. I felt better already. I’d overcome whatever it was that had caused me to surrender my breakfast at an extremely inopportune moment. I wanted to get back to the courtroom, to deliver my closing argument to the jury. To get Sandy Matherson the justice she deserved. And to secure for myself the thirty-three-percent chunk of the verdict as the fee.

I checked my phone. I needed to get back to Judge Robertson’s chambers in eleven minutes. I kept moving farther down the long blocks of the largely deserted downtown, happy that none of the random folks who saw me realized I’d just endured the biggest embarrassment of my professional life. Still, I wanted to immediately face those who had seen (and heard) me throw up in open court. I wanted to get back on that horse, to commence a closing argument that would soon have them forgetting that Sandy Matherson’s lawyer had puked in their presence. Maybe they’d view me heroically, like Michael Jordan in that game where he supposedly had the flu, but actually had either food poisoning or a hangover.

The fact that I already felt fine made the incident seem even more confusing. Was something wrong with me? I resolved to get a physical after the holidays. A good one, not from the guy I’d call whenever I needed a no-questions-asked prescription to be filled over the phone but a real, honest-to-goodness, needle-in-the-arm, finger-up-the-keister examination. I reminded myself that I was fewer than five years from fifty, the birthday that provided the ultimate line of demarcation between “my God, he was so young” and “well, I guess he had a pretty full life.” I think I heard a comedian say that before. I’m half of a decade away from not finding it very funny.

I pivoted on the concrete sidewalk with eight minutes left until it was time to plead with Judge Robertson to let me continue. The wind started to blow against my face on the way back to the courthouse. It buffeted my cheeks, tickled my nose. It kept me alert and sharp. I’d need it, especially with Anderson already pushing for a mistrial. The thought of doing this all over again from scratch would have made me nauseous, if I hadn’t already rid myself of anything that could be ejected from the upper reaches of my digestive system.

I tried to clear my head as I moved, preparing for whatever may happen. Steeling myself for whatever tack I may need to take in order to persuade the judge that, no, I won’t spray bits of last night’s mostly digested chicken all over the front row of the jury box. I’d worked too hard to get the dimpled ball perfectly situated on the tee, and I’d already missed it and fallen down with my first swing. I had every intention to ease back into position and pound it three hundred and twenty-five yards, straight and true.

As I approached the main doors, I noticed my car parked on the street along the far side of the building. I hadn’t dropped any coins in the parking meter, and I wondered whether I’d already gotten yet another ticket that would end up in the glove box until I remembered to get them all paid. That’s when I spotted a dull orange contraption had become attached to the right front wheel. A clamp. A Denver boot. Well, screw you Colorado. This was the last thing I needed to see.

I broke into a light jog, for no real reason. The boot clung to the rim, inseparable from the structure. It was going nowhere, like that facehugging spider or whatever it was that planted the original alien that exploded out of John Hurt’s stomach. (Baby Michael and I had watched that movie late one night, and we both couldn’t sleep right for a week.) As I got closer, I noticed another car parked crookedly in front of mine. It was the same blue Chevy from the highway.

The old man stood there, his back to the rear bumper of his car. He was studying the Subaru, for some reason. I called out to him.

“Sir?” I said. “Mister? I see you got your tire fixed.”

He kept his eyes on the front end of my car.

“I think I may have run into you a little bit when I was parking. Just a little bit.”

I entered the space between the two cars, getting a little too close to the old man, but it was the only way I could see what was going on. I checked the Subaru. Everything seemed to be in order.

“Did you hit it? I don’t see any marks.”

“I think so. I don’t know. I heard a sound when I was backing up. Maybe my wife broke wind. She does that sometimes. She thinks just because she’s hard of hearing I am, too.”

“I think that probably sounds a little different from running into a car.”

“Well, you haven’t had her cooking.”

I remembered that I needed to get back to Judge Robertson’s chambers. I decided to worry about the bumper and the boot later. 

“I need to go,” I said to him.

His eyes absorbed my face from behind the milky lenses of his glasses. 

“You’re always in a hurry. Why is that?”

“It’s a busy day. I told you before, I need to be in court.”

“Why aren’t you in there, then?”

“I’m on my way back in,” I said. “It’s a long story. But I’m glad you got your tire fixed.”

“Did you see you’ve got something on your wheel? I don’t know what that thing is. I think I have a screwdriver in the trunk. I can try to pop it off for you.”

“That won’t be necessary,” I said to him, fighting off a smile. “But I do need to go.”

He motioned toward the car. 

“Do you want to see her? I told her I saw you.”

“I have to go,” I said, and I started toward the front door to the courthouse. “I really am glad your tire is fixed. I thought you said you were on your way home.”

“We are,” he said. I could feel him watching me as I spun around and made my way back inside.

(On Our Way Home continues on Monday, November 28, with Chapter Five. It’s being posted free of charge, with all chapters here. If you feel like paying for it, buy a copy of Playmakers instead. Through December 11, you’ll get a free, personalized bookplate.)

On Our Way Home: Chapter Five

Getty Images

I passed through the metal detector at the entrance to the courthouse. Two older men in burgundy jackets, white dress shirts, black slacks, and black ties saw me. They exchanged glances. 

“Hey, Ralph,” one said to the other, “it’s Chuck.”

“What’s up, Chuck?” Ralph said. They both cackled.

I performed an exaggerated bow for their continued amusement. 

“You should have been there,” I said. “It was the most memorable moment that courtroom has seen in years.”

“Sounds like the best thing since the time Jerry Branson’s wife found love letters from his girlfriend in the bottom of the closet,” Ralph said. “Mrs. Branson showed up during a trial and started whacking him against the head with an umbrella, right when he was questioning a witness. I was the bailiff then. I seen it happen.”

“What did you do?” I said.

“I enjoyed the show. I figured if I tried to get in the middle of that, she’d start whacking me, too.”

“I bet old Reggie didn’t try to get between your face and that trash can today,” said the other guard, whose name was either Paul or Phil. I could never remember which one it was, and it was far too late to ask.

“Will you be starting up again?” Ralph said.

“I’m about to find out. We’re meeting with the judge. I need to get up there.”

I started for the steps back to the courtroom. Ralph called out to me. 

“Hey!” he said, and then he waited until I had twisted back in their direction. “Bye, Chuck.” Their raucous laughter echoed into the entrance to the stairwell.

I checked my phone, expecting to be right on time or maybe even a minute or two behind schedule. It showed I was five minutes early. I shook my head and dropped the thing back in my pocket.

Once on the third floor, I made my way through the hallway leading to the entrance to Judge Robertson’s private office. Anderson stood there, tugging with his hands at the lapels of a tailored suit that was expensive enough to not seem expensive at all.

“Feeling better, Counselor?” Anderson said.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I’ve been fine. It was a fluke thing.”

“Well, fluke things happen. When you’ve done this as long as I have, you see everything. After today, I guess I can now say I truly have seen it all.”

“I’m glad I could help you finish up your bucket list,” I said.

“And I’m not even the one who needed the bucket today.”

I held my tongue, because I didn’t have a particularly good response. Which meant there was a decent chance my next comment would have included a profane remark or two. The last thing I needed after puking in court was to start an obscenity-laced shouting match with the opposing lawyer on the threshold of Judge Robertson’s chambers, three days before Christmas.

“Should we let him know we’re ready?” I said.

“He stepped out. I saw him go. He said something about running down to get the title renewed on his truck, since he had a few unexpected minutes.”

I tried not to let myself get paranoid over whatever else Anderson and Judge Robertson may have discussed. The rules prohibit direct communications between the judge and one of the lawyers about any case. But what would have stopped Judge Robertson from making a sarcastic remark about my performance that morning? Even if it had nothing to do with the actual trial itself, the thought of becoming a shared punchline among my peers made me feel queasy all over again.

We heard Judge Robertson approaching before we saw him. He was talking on his phone, giving someone instructions with that raspy voice about where to be and what to bring for whatever it was he’d be hosting that night, maybe a Christmas party. If so, my family’s contributions to his campaigns weren’t sufficiently robust to secure an invitation. Not that we would have gone. Linda had cajoled me into having a party of our own that night. I’d forgotten all about it. I wished I hadn’t remembered.

“Gentlemen,” Judge Robertson said, nodding once in the general direction of both of us. “Follow me.”

He led the way. Anderson followed. I stopped at the threshold, holding the doorknob.

“Would you like me to close this?” I asked.

“Ordinarily, yes,” the judge said. “But if you think you may need to be making a mad dash to the bathroom, perhaps we should leave it open.”

My eyes shot toward Anderson, who didn’t make a sound but who had a self-satisfied grin pushing the thickened flesh of late middle age away from the corners of his mouth.

“I guess I’ll leave it open, just in case,” I said.

Judge Robertson walked behind a large desk, full of impeccably polished dark wood. Not a scuff or a smudge anywhere on it. He had piles of paper in different heights neatly stacked on the surface, six or seven of them. I assumed each corresponded to one of his most active cases. He sat down. The lawyers continued to stand.

“Take a load off,” he said, motioning to a long table in his office with several chairs positioned around it. The largest of the seats pressed snugly into the space under one end. Anderson and I both knew that one belonged to the judge, regardless of whether he currently chose to use it. I took a spot on the side closest to Anderson and me. He moseyed toward the other, easing his imported suit that looked not-imported into a space directly across from where I sat. At least if I threw up again, it would be aimed right at him.

“Your honor,” Anderson said, once again leveraging his age and experience to speak without express invitation to do so, “I must renew my request for a mistrial. This is highly unusual. Mr. Persepio is clearly not feeling well. And given the looming holidays, the idea of having these jurors set the evidence and the instructions aside for two weeks and then start up again after the first of the year would be unfairly prejudicial to my clients.”

“I don’t know how many different ways I have to say I’m fine,” I said, speaking directly to Anderson. “It’s been a half hour. We can start the closings, take a lunch break, and the jury can deliberate after that.”

“What if they haven’t reached a decision by five o’clock?” Anderson said, ignoring me and directing his words to the judge. “When would they return? The day after Christmas? The day after that? They should be allowed to enjoy their holiday without the burdens of unresolved legal business.”

“He has a point, Mr. Persepio,” the judge said. “I never know how long a jury will be out in any of these cases. I was already a little nervous about giving it to them this morning. And it’s not fair to either side if they rush to a decision because they want to put this behind them. I thought they’d start deliberating yesterday afternoon. If I recall correctly, Mr. Persepio, you told me on Monday you fully expected that to be the situation.”

“I was,” I said. “I mean, I did. I thought that would happen.” The implication of his remarks put me on the defensive, especially since it was accurate. Without thinking, I blurted out a lie.  “I didn’t want them to get it today.”

“Of course you did,” Anderson said. “You were hoping for an early Christmas gift from the jury. We’re all adults, John. We know what you were trying to do.”

“Well, if you’d handle the scheduling conferences for your cases directly and not assign someone fresh out of law school to grind the file while you’re off golfing with Senator Jacobson, this week wouldn’t have been picked for the trial.”

“That’ll be fine, Mr. Persepio,” Judge Robertson said. “I know how difficult the week of trial can be, especially when you’re practicing alone. No sleep. Constant activity. It’s exhausting. It’s stressful. But I still expect the lawyers to treat each other with respect, no matter how out of sorts they may be feeling.”

“I apologize, Your Honor,” I said. “For everything. Yes, I wanted to try the case this week. Who wouldn’t? And we did. And the jury is here and we’re here. And we should go ahead and finish this up right now.”

“And I renew my motion for a mistrial,” Anderson said, “without prejudice.”

Anderson and I glared at each other, neither saying another word. Judge Robertson remained silent, pensive. I was holding my breath without realizing I was holding my breath. That’s all I needed. To hyperventilate and then get sick all over again.

“Here’s what we’re doing,” Judge Robertson said. “We’re reconvening on Tuesday, January 2. I’ll read the instructions again, and then you’ll make your closing arguments.”

“What?” I blurted out with a tone that was involuntarily petulant. “Are you joking? You seriously expect these people to remember all of this eleven days from now?”

“Mr. Persepio, I’d prefer not to commence the proceedings on the second of January with a contempt hearing. I assume you’ll agree with me on that?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, sensing the smugness ooze from the pores on Anderson’s oversized nose. “I note my objection.”

“We’ll do this on the record in the courtroom,” the judge said, “and you can note your objection there. If you hope to pursue an appeal because I pulled the plug for a week and a half after you expelled into a trash can at the outset of closing arguments, well, I suspect the parties’ legal briefs will provide me with some significant entertainment value.”

I had nothing more to say, lest I actually end up in jail for Christmas morning. Anderson had nothing to say for different reasons. He hadn’t gotten what he’d asked for, but he probably asked for a mistrial in the hopes of getting exactly what he got.

The judge stood and motioned for us to do the same. 

“Let’s bring the jury back in and I’ll explain it to them. Then we can send everyone home for the holidays.”

Anderson and I pushed out of our seats as well. He started for the open door. I waited for him to move toward the exit before following. I heard someone talking to me in a low voice. It was the judge.

“Mr. Persepio,” he said, “are you sure you’re OK?”

“I feel fine. Why?”

“During the break, I was downstairs. I saw you out on the street, by your car.”

“The boot,” I said. “I’ve had some parking tickets. I need to get them paid.”

“Not that. It looked like you were—I don’t know how to put it—talking to yourself.”

“There was another man out there, next to me. He’d backed his car into my bumper. We were checking for any damage.”

“Well,” Judge Roberston said, “I didn’t notice any other man. And I definitely didn’t notice any other car.”

(On Our Way Home continues on Tuesday, November 29, with Chapter Six. It’s being posted free of charge, with all chapters here. If you feel like paying for something, buy a copy of Playmakers instead. Through December 11, you’ll get a free, personalized bookplate.)

On Our Way Home: Chapter Six

Anthony Zych

I couldn’t tell whether the jury received the news with relief or disappointment. Sandy Matherson wasn’t happy to learn she wouldn’t be having her own December to remember, but she stifled her reaction, since both she and I knew Earl would be pissed enough for both of them. I talked to her about the situation after the bailiff had once again led the jury out of the courtroom so that they could start their very extended break in the trial. Earl’s face already had developed a shade of red that nearly matched his flannel shirt. He pressed his forearms so hard against his torso that with one good squeeze his head would have been launched into low orbit.

I fiddled with the contents of one of the boxes of paperwork that would stay in the courtroom until we resumed. The judge had said no other business would be conducted there during the week of Christmas, so we could leave everything where it was. I moved slowly while pretending to organize the files in the hopes that Sandy and Earl would leave. They didn’t. Meanwhile, Anderson and his minions had packed up the gadgets they planned to use during their presentation and embarked on a long weekend that wouldn’t entail licking six-, seven-, or maybe even eight-figure wounds. I tried not to think about the possibility of a verdict that large, especially since it would have been tied up for months on appeal. Still, having a major award tied up on appeal is a lot better than not having one at all.

Soon, three people remained in the courtroom: Sandy, Earl, and me. Sandy checked once more to her left and to her right to confirm we were alone. She nevertheless whispered. 

“Was there any talk in there about, you know, settling this?”

“Nothing more than before,” I said. “They’ve been pretty firm in their position. It makes it a lot easier to go forward when we know we don’t have that bird in the hand.”

“What was it before?” She knew the answer. I could tell she wanted me to say it in front of Earl, that maybe he didn’t believe her.

“They offered ten thousand dollars before trial,” I said. “That’s nothing. It’s peanuts. It wouldn’t even cover my costs.” 

“Now, what does that mean?” Again, she already knew the answer to the question. Maybe if we won she should go to law school. After first going to college. She was definitely sharp enough to do it, if Earl would simply allow her to.

“I’ve paid for everything so far. I get that money back from whatever we recover. That’s money I’ve paid out of pocket, money that’s not coming back if we lose.”

“And we don’t pay you that if we don’t win, right? Because that’s not what that letter you sent says.”

“I know,” I said, eyeing Earl carefully since he was actually the one asking these questions. “Technically, I can’t say in advance that you won’t owe me the money. But if we get nothing, I’m not going to ask you for a dime. I took this case to try to make things better for you. The last thing I’m going to do is make things worse.”

That’s when Earl could no longer help himself, even though he’d likely been told by his wife to not say anything to me. 

“You sure ain’t made nothing better yet,” he said. “You said we was getting an answer on this today. We expected an answer on all of this before Christmas. Now that there judge is saying we gotta come back after New Year’s Day? Well, that sure don’t seem fair to me.”

“I don’t disagree with you, Earl.”

“The way I see it, you’re the one that’s supposed to keep unfair shit from happening to my wife.”

Sandy’s eyes flashed at him. 

“Earl, he’s trying the best he can.”

“Well, then he should have been trying not to puke all over himself.” 

I tried my best to stay calm. I wanted to lash out at anyone and anything over what had happened that morning. I had real skin in the game, just like they did. More than they did. I’d spent more money than I wanted to calculate chasing U-Sav-Plentee on this one, and it was as good of a case as I was ever going to take to trial against a company that big. The truly strong claims settle, because the lawyers don’t want to have their names attached to a horrible outcome at trial. So they make the plaintiffs an offer they can’t refuse. To get the planets to line up just right for a massive verdict, the company and the lawyers had to think they had a clear winner. Most of the time, they did. Once in a while, they found out the hard way they didn’t. 

The best thing going for Sandy, Earl, and me in this case was that we wanted the jury to take what would amount to pocket change from a beast that swallowed up money on money on money, especially when their stores were at maximum earning capacity during the holidays. Already that morning, three days before Christmas, U-Sav-Plentee’s worldwide operations likely had cleared in profit more than a hundred times the amount we would have won, even if I’d been allowed to ply the jury with tequila and cocaine during their deliberations. My ace in the hole, the proximity of the deliberations to Christmas Day, would dissolve into dust by January 2. And it had happened because, for whatever reason, I had a rapid bout of nausea that had resolved itself faster than I could even realize it was happening.

“Folks, I’m sorry about this. I’ve said all along we have to play the hand we’ve been dealt. That’s really all we can do at this point.”

“Why don’t you call that other lawyer and see if they want to settle?” Earl said. “He sure seems smart.”

I was smart enough to pick up on the implication. I kept fighting to not take the bait.

“That won’t work at this point. They’ll sense weakness. They’ll refuse. If they didn’t do it before this morning, they’re definitely not going to do it before we come back.”

“Well, I hope you and your family have a nice Christmas. And I hope you’ll be thinking about the kind of Christmas my family will have because of this.”

Sandy continued to glare at him. The fact that she hadn’t stopped him told me, deep down, she felt the same way. It also told me, no matter how many times I’d explained it in plain terms to Sandy, they didn’t fully realize they wouldn’t have been presented with a giant ceremonial check by the CEO of the company that same day, if we’d won.

“I ain’t asked you for nothing through all of this,” he said. “But I’m asking for one thing. And I ain’t really asking. I want you to come to our house on Tuesday. I want you to pretend I’m that jury. I want you to tell me exactly what you would’ve said to convince them to make this right, if you would’ve got up there and done it today.”

That was the last thing I wanted to do, the last thing I planned to do. At that point, however, I just wanted to get out of there. So I agreed to do it. I’d figure out later how to get out of it. Not that I’d have a lot of time in the coming weekend to devise a plan that would have a chance of working.

I told them, given Earl’s request, I needed to gather a few things to bring with me on Tuesday, which prompted them to finally go. After they did, I went back to the table, pulled out the chair, and sat in it for a long time. I stared at the seats where the jurors had been sitting all week. Ready to hear my closing argument. Perhaps ready to change Sandy’s life and mine, just by writing a number in a box on a sheet of white paper. And now, just like that, the moment was gone forever. 

Ho ho ho. Merry Freaking Christmas.

(On Our Way Home continues on Wednesday, November 30, with Chapter Seven. It’s being posted free of charge, with all chapters here. If you feel like paying for something, buy a copy of Playmakers instead. Through December 11, you’ll get a free, personalized bookplate.)

Kyle Shanahan thinks a lot of illegal hits against Jimmy Garoppolo are missed

New Orleans Saints v San Francisco 49ers
Getty Images

After Sunday’s win over the Saints, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo complained about a low hit that he took. The blow to his surgically-repaired knee did not draw a flag.

On Monday, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was asked by reporters whether he believes Garoppolo gets his fair share of calls.

“No, I don’t,” Shanahan said. “I think a lot gets missed on Jimmy.”

So is there a reason behind that? Are some quarterbacks protected more than others?

“I don’t think so,” Shanahan said. “I think it’s just coincidence, but I’m not sure. Each ref and crew is different, each game’s different, so you try to adjust and feel it out during those games, but I do feel like Jimmy has had a number missed on him.”

There are definitely differences from officiating crew to officiating crew. But it’s also a factor of who the quarterback is. The more “important” the quarterback is to the game, the more likely he is to be protected. As quarterbacks important to the league go, Jimmy doesn’t have a high spot on the pecking order.

Nathaniel Hackett: “Nobody is as frustrated as I am”

NFL: NOV 27 Broncos at Panthers
Getty Images

The Broncos are struggling. That’s nothing new for the team, based on recent years. But it was supposed to be very different this year.

The hiring of a new coach, the trade for a franchise quarterback, and the arrival of a money-is-no-object ownership group combined to create unrealistically high expectations among a fan base that thought the clock would be reset to the Peyton Manning days.

Instead, the franchise remains stuck in quicksand. The Broncos, after starting 2-1, have lost seven of eight games to slump to 3-8.

While much of the criticism has been directed to Russell Wilson, the team traded for him. The team signed him to a long-term contract when it didn’t have to. And coach Nathaniel Hackett has become the most obvious target for fans who want something to be done.

On Monday, Hackett was asked by reporters what his message would be to fans who are sufficiently frustrated to want him out.

“Nobody is as frustrated as I am,” Hackett said. “This is not where we wanted to be at this time in the season. None of us thought it was going to be like this and that responsibility is fully on me. I want to be the one that can do everything to help this football team because we, as a group, have to come together and find a way to win a football game. We can’t play the way that we played yesterday and expect to win a football game. It starts with me from practice preparation and every single thing that we do. I’m the most frustrated. I think that our fans are great. They want to win, just like we all do. I don’t blame them for being frustrated. For me, all I know is to work and put my head down with our staff. I believe in this staff, and I believe in these players. We have to get better plays and better execution across the board.”

They have six more games to show that they can get it done. As explained last night on Football Night in America, it’s highly unlikely that Hackett will be fired before the season ends. After Week 18, however, all bets are off.

“Our fans mean the world to all of us,” Hackett added. “We work hard because we want to put a great product out on the field. We know that hasn’t been there, especially from offensive side of the ball. Everybody in that room, both coaches and players, are doing every single thing we can to try to put a better product out there. We have to prove it. We have to prove it to our fans and that’s what we’re going to continually try to do.”

Obviously, they’re trying. But they’re not succeeding. Over and over again. While it’s still not over, there’s no reason to expect a sudden and dramatic change.

And when the season ends, the change that seems to be coming will be neither sudden nor dramatic.

Tom Brady would rather lose than not play

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Cleveland Browns
Getty Images

The 2022 Buccaneers had something going, until they didn’t. But playing a game in Cleveland that Tampa Bay should have won and losing it is, to quarterback Tom Brady, better than the alternative.

“Look, losing is hard for all of us, but I’d rather lose and play than not play at all,” Brady said on the latest episode of his Let’s Go! podcast, via JoeBucsFan.com.

“I love playing. I love competing. I love trying to be a little bit better every day. I love going out there with a sense of purpose to try to get better. And ultimately, I love trying to play at a championship level for my teammates. . . .  And obviously there’s challenges every year. Everybody has unique challenges, you know, on and off the field. You work as hard as you can with the circumstances that are presented before you. We’re just going to keep fighting ’til the end and we’ll be measured by, again, by what happens over the course of a long season.”

Even at 5-6, the Buccaneers remain in first place in the worst division football, the NFC South. Winning the division results in a ticket to a home game in the wild-card round, and the No. 4 seed. (Two years ago, the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl as the No. 5 seed.)

It gets no easier in the coming weeks. The Saints come to town next Monday night. Then, it’s a short-week, long trip to San Francisco. After that, the Bucs host the Bengals.

Even if they lose two or three of those, it may not keep them from ultimately winning the division. And all that matters, if they get there, is where they are as of the wild-card round.

Do some quick and easy shopping on Cyber Monday

PublicAffairs

Black Friday is over. Cyber Monday is here. Whatever names are given to the specific days on the calendar, it’s the Christmas shopping season.

So it’s time to do some shopping.

Why not do a little shopping right now? It’s your first day back to work after a long weekend. You don’t really feel like doing anything, until after lunch. (Or until after your nap after lunch.) And you’d like to knock a few names off the list. And you surely know a few NFL fans, if you’re reading this.

So if you’re reading this, maybe someone you know would like to be reading Playmakers, a book of essays about the true workings of the NFL, told through a variety of essays and anecdotes. For a very limited time, anyone who buys Playmakers and fills out the appropriate online form (it’s quick and easy) gets a signed, personalized bookplate that can be pasted into the front of the book.

Or buy one for yourself. Or send the link to someone you want to buy it for you. Or, if all else fails, print the offer and stick it inside a copy of LOOK magazine.

Do it now, and you’ll have both the book and the bookplate by December 23.