Pemberton's Fluke by Ralph Henry Barbour
For an hour and a half Yale and Princeton had been battling on the gridiron; for an hour and a half the struggling lines had advanced and retreated from goal line to goal line; for an hour and a half the ball had gone arching up against the blue November sky, had been carried in short, desperate plunges or brilliant runs to and fro over the trampled white lines of Yale Field; for an hour and a half twenty-five thousand persons had watched the varying fortunes of the contest with fast-beating hearts, had waved their flags, sang their songs and shouted their cheers; and now, with the last half drawing toward its close, the score board still proclaimed: "Yale, 0; Opponents, 0."
Pemberton had found the contest exciting, breathlessly so at moments, but disappointing. Being a freshman, as well as a 'varsity substitute of a week's standing, he was intensely patriotic, and the thought of a tie game was unbearable; to a youth of his enthusiasm a tie was virtually a defeat for the Blue; and a defeat for the Blue was something tragic, inconceivable! Pemberton was a sandy-haired, blue-eyed, round-faced chap of eighteen; in height, five feet nine; in weight, one hundred and sixty-eight; neither large nor heavy, but speedy as they make them, a bundle of nerves, endowed with a fanatical enthusiasm and a kind of brilliant, dashing recklessness that often wins where larger courage fails.
At Exeter he hadn't gone in for football until his senior year; the Physical Director couldn't see the thing from Pemberton's viewpoint; physical directors are narrow-minded souls; Pemberton will tell you so any day. With three years of lost time to make up, Pemberton had put his whole mind into football with the result that he had made the team in time to play for five short, mad minutes against Andover. This fall he had distinguished himself on the Freshmen Eleven, and the game with the Harvard youngsters, if it hadn't resulted in a victory for Yale, had, at least, made the reputation of Pemberton, left half back. In that somewhat one-sided contest he had shown such dash and pluck, had eeled himself through the Crimson's line, or shot like a small streak of lightning around the ends so frequently that he had been called to the 'varsity bench. And on the 'varsity bench, one, and quite the smallest one, of a long line of substitutes, he had sat since the beginning of the Princeton game, with an excellent chance of staying there until the whistle blew.
He wasn't a fellow to accept inactivity with gracefulness. That "they also serve who only stand and wait," he was willing to accept as true; but that wasn't the kind of serving he hankered for; Pemberton's ideal of usefulness was getting busy and doing things--and doing them hard.
On opposite sides of the field rival bands were blaring out two-steps, the strains leaking now and then through the deep, thundering cheers. Down on Yale's thirty-five-yard line Princeton was hammering at right guard for short gains, edging nearer and nearer the goal, and thousands of eyes fixed themselves expectantly on Princeton's left half back, dreading or hoping to see him fall back for a kick. On the thirty yards Yale's line braced and held. Princeton tried a run outside of left tackle and got a yard. The ball was directly in front of goal.
"Sturgis is a dub if he doesn't try it now," said the big fellow on Pemberton's left.
"But he couldn't do it from the forty-yard line, could he?" asked Pemberton.
"Search me; but from what he's done so far to-day I guess he could kick a goal from the other end of the field. Nothing doing, though; they're trying right guard again. There goes Crocker."
Yale's line gave at the center and a Princeton tackle fell through for two yards. The Princeton cheers rang out redoubled in intensity, sharp, entreating, only to be met with the defiant slogan of Yale. Pemberton shuffled his scarred brown leather shoes uneasily and gnawed harder at his knuckles. Princeton was playing desperately, fighting for the twenty-yard line. A play that looked like a tandem at right guard resolved itself into a plunge at left tackle and gave them their distance. The Yale stands held staring, troubled faces. The Princeton stands were on their feet, shouting, waving, swaying excitedly; score cards were sailing and fluttering through the air; pandemonium reigned over there. Pemberton scowled fiercely across. His left-hand neighbor whistled a tune softly. Princeton piled her backs through again for a yard.
"Oh, thunder!" muttered Pemberton.
The other nodded sympathetically.
"Here's where Old Nassau scores," he said.
A last desperate plunge carried the little army of the Orange and Black over the coveted mark. The left half walked back; there were cries, entreaties, commands; the cheering died away and gave place to the intense silence of suspense; Pemberton could hear the little Princeton quarter back's signals quite plainly. Then, after a moment of breathless delay, the ball sped back, was caught breast high by the left half, was dropped on the instant and shot forward from his foot, and went rising toward the goal. The Yale forwards broke through, leaping with upstretched hands into the path of the ball, yet never reaching it. The field was a confusion of writhing, struggling bodies, but the ball was sailing straight and true, turning lazily on its shorter axis, over the cross bar.
Over on the Princeton side of the field hats were in flight, slicing up and down and back and forth across the face of the long slope of yellow and black; flags were gyrating crazily; the space between seats and barrier was filled with a leaping, howling mass of humanity, and all the while the cheers crashed and hurtled through the air. Well, Princeton had something to cheer for; even Pemberton grudgingly acknowledged that.
"Have we time to score?" he asked despondently.
His neighbor turned, stretching out his long, blue-stockinged legs.
"There's about five or six minutes left, I guess," he answered. "We've got time to score, but will we?"
Pemberton didn't think they would. Life seemed very cruel just then.
"Hello," continued the other, "Webster's coming out! I guess here's where your Uncle Tom gets a whack at Old Nassau--maybe." He sat up and watched the head coach alertly. The next moment Pemberton was peeling off his sweater for him.
Princeton ran Yale's kick-off back to her forty yards. The Blue's right guard was taken out, white and wretched, after the first scrimmage. Princeton started at her battering again, content now to make only sufficient gains to keep the ball. But with a yard to gain on the third down a canvas clad streak broke through and nailed her tackle behind the line. Pemberton, shouting ecstatically, saw that the streak was his erstwhile neighbor, and was proud of the acquaintance. Then Yale, with the ball once more in possession, started to wake things up. Past the forty yards again she went, throwing tackles and full back at every point in the Tiger's line for short gains, and showing no preference. But, all said, it was slow work and unpromising with the score board announcing five minutes to play. The Yale supporters, however, found cause for rejoicing, and cheered gloriously until there was a fumble and the Blue lost four yards on the recovery. Time was called and the trainers and water carriers trotted on the field. The head coach and an assistant came toward the bench, talking earnestly, the former's sharp eyes darting hither and thither searchingly. Pemberton watched, with his heart fluttering up into his throat. The head coach's gaze fixed itself upon him, passed on up the line, came back to him and stayed. Pemberton dropped his eyes. It isn't good form to stare Fate in the face. Was it a second later or an age that his name was called?"
"Go in at left half; tell Haker to come out. And--er--Pemberton, here's a pretty good chance to show what you can do."
Pemberton peeled off his white jersey with the faded "E" and raced into the field. Haker looked down uncomprehendingly at him from the superior height of six feet when he delivered his message. Pemberton repeated it. Haker shoved him aside, mumbling impatient words through swollen lips. It was only when he saw the head coach beckoning him from the side line that he yielded and took himself off with a parting insult to Pemberton:
"All right, Kid."
Pemberton's eyes blazed and his fists clenched. Kid! Well, he'd show Haker and everyone else whether he was a kid! Then he looked at the score board with sinking heart. Only four minutes left! Four minutes! But he took heart; after all, four minutes was two hundred and forty seconds, and if they'd only give him the ball! He had run a mile in 4:34 1-5! Suddenly the whistle blew and the players staggered to their places. It was second down now, with nine yards to gain. The tandem formed on the left, and Pemberton ranged himself behind the big tackle disapprovingly. Where was the use, he asked himself, of wasting a down by plunging at the line? What had they put him in there for if not to take the ball? Then the signal came and the next moment he was in the maelstrom. When the dust of battle lifted, the ball was just one yard nearer the Princeton goal.
Princeton expected Yale to kick, for it was the third down and there was still eight yards wanted, and so the Princeton right half trotted tentatively to join the quarter. Yale placed a tackle, full back and left half behind her tackle guard hole on the left. Her right half fell back about six yards to a position behind quarter. It might mean a kick or a tandem, or a run around left end; Princeton's right half hesitated and edged back toward his line. Pemberton, puzzled, awaited the signal. Of course the ball was his, but why was he placed so far away from it? The only play from just this formation that he was acquainted with was one in which he merely performed the inglorious part of interference. However, maybe the quarter knew his business, though deep down in his soul he doubted it.
Now, for an understanding of the remarkable events which followed, it is necessary to take the reader into the confidence of the Yale quarter back. Despite Pemberton's misgivings he really did know his business, which was to get that pigskin over the Tiger's goal line in the next four minutes, taking any risk to do it. And the present play was a risk. As planned it was this: at the snapping of the ball the head of the tandem, the tackle, was to plunge straight through the line between tackle and guard as though leading a direct attack at that point; full back and left half were to turn sharply to the left before reaching the line and clear out a hole between end and tackle; right half back, standing well behind the quarter, was to receive the ball on a toss and follow the interference; quarter was to stop tacklers coming around the right end of his line; in short, it was a play apparently aimed at the left center of Yale's line, but in reality going through at the left end. But the Yale quarter had reckoned without Pemberton.
The play started beautifully. The ball was snapped back into quarter's waiting hands, tackle plunged madly ahead into the Princeton's defenses, the quarter swung around back to the line, ready for the toss to the right half, who was on his toes, waiting to dash across to where the hole was being torn open for him. And then something went wrong! A figure sped across toward the right end of the line between quarter and right half just as the ball left the former's hands. The ball disappeared from sight; and so, in a measure, did Pemberton.
His excited brain had confused the 'varsity with the freshman signals. Starting on the supposition that he was to receive the ball, the numbers had somehow conveyed to him the idea that the play was around right end. The fact that he was to be practically unprovided with interference did not bother him; if he had had time to consider the matter he would probably have decided that they knew his ability and were not going to insult him by offering assistance. But Pemberton wasn't one to be worried over details. What was wanted was a touchdown, or, failing that, a good long gain. So, with the rest of the back field plunging toward the left, Pemberton started on his own hook toward the right.
He was glad the quarter tossed the ball so exactly; otherwise he would have had to slow down. As it was he was going like an express train by the time he swept around the Princeton line outside of end. Pemberton could not only run like the wind, but could start like a shot from a rifle. That he got clean away before the opponents had found the location of the ball was partly due to this fact and partly to the fact that Yale's backs were messing around in a peculiarly aimless manner which, to the Princeton players, suggested a delayed pass or some equally heinous piece of underhand work. So Princeton piled through Yale's line to solve the difficulty, thinking little of the absurd youth who had shot around her left end without interference.
From Princeton's center to her right end everything was confusion. It was a glorious struggle, but futile. For the ball was snuggled in Pemberton's right elbow, and Pemberton was down near the thirty yards sprinting for goal. In front of him was the Princeton quarter back; behind him, racing madly, came a Princeton half. To his left was a long, dark bank splotched and mottled with blue; from it thundered down a ceaseless cataract of sound that held as a motif entreaty and encouragement. Pemberton saw the waving flags from the corner of his eyes; and the chaos of cheers and shouts drowned the thumping of his heart and the pat, pat of his feet on the trampled turf. Pemberton was enjoying himself immensely, and was grateful in a patronizing way for the coach's confidence in him. Then the quarter back engaged his attention. He glanced back. The foremost of the pursuers--for now the whole field was racing after him--was still a good ten yards behind. Pemberton was relieved. The twenty-yard line, dim and scattered, passed under his feet, and the Princeton quarter was in his path, white and determined, with fingers curved like talons in anticipation of his prey. Pemberton increased his speed by just that little that is always possible, feinted to the left, dug his shoes sharply in the turf and went by to the right, escaping the quarter's diving tackle by the length of a finger. The quarter dug his face in the ground, scrambled somehow to his feet, and took up the chase. But now he was second in pursuit, for the half back had passed him and was pressing Pemberton closely. If the latter had been content to make straight for the nearest point of the goal line the result would never have been in doubt; but Pemberton was not one to be satisfied with bread when there was cake in sight. Nothing would do but the very center of the goal line, and for that he was headed, running straight at top speed.
There the pursuing half back found his advantage, for he held a course nearer the center of the field. It was a pretty race, but agonizing to the friends of Yale and Princeton alike. At the ten-yard line the flying Yale man was a yard to the good; at the five-yard line the Princeton. player had him by the thighs and was dragging like a ton of lead.
Pemberton's fighting spirit came to his rescue. Did that idiot whose arms were slipping down around his legs think that he was going to be stopped here on the threshold of success? Did he know he was trying to hold Pemberton? Gosh! He'd show him! Every stride now was like pushing his knees into a stone wall; one, two, three, four, and still the line was three yards away. And now the tackler's arms had slipped down about his knees, holding them together as though with a vise. For an instant Pemberton fought on--a foot, half a foot--then further progress was impossible and he crashed over on his face, midway between the goal posts, the ball held at arms' length, his knuckles digging into the last streak of lime. Some one thumped down on to his head and strove to pull the ball back. But he locked his joints and strained forward until somewhere behind him a whistle shrilled. Then he rolled over on his back, closed his eyes and fought for breath.
Few could have missed that goal; certainly not Yale's quarter back. Once more the ball went over the exact center of the goal line, but this time above the cross bar; and wherever one or more Yale men were gathered together there was rejoicing loud and continued. For the figures on the score board told a different story: Yale, 6; Opponents, 5.
A few minutes later, in the car that was to take them back to town, Pemberton allowed the head coach to shake him by the hand, and strove to bear his honors becomingly. Congratulations roared in his ears like a torrent until he was moved to an expression of modest disclaim:
"Oh, it wasn't anything much," said Pemberton. "I ought not to have allowed that Princeton chap to get near me. But the fact is"--he addressed the head coach confidentially--"the fact is, you see, I didn't quite understand that signal."