Vol. 2, No. 3: The Goal Line Extends Through Infinity photo

Call It in The AirMatt Leibel

The teams assemble at the 50. The ref points to the visiting team captain: Call it in the air. The visiting team captain calls “tails”, and waits for the coin to hit the turf. But the coin hovers, spinning at the top of its arc—suspended first a second too long, then three, then ten. The players stand watching it, mesmerized. This is not a trick of the wind. This is not some drone quarter, operated by remote control. This must be, the visiting team captain thinks, a breach in time. The ref doesn’t have a rule in the book for this; he’s satisfied to let it play out. It continues for several minutes. The fans grow restless. They hurl things onto the gridiron: trays of nachos, souvenir drink cups, bobblehead replicas of the home team’s quarterback, a giveaway for the first 15,000 lucky fans. Hours pass; games in other cities reach halftime, the fourth quarter, and enter the books with a winner and loser (excepting the tie in Pittsburgh). Fans file out, cursing their ruined Sundays. Players return to locker rooms to wait for updates. They keep warm, riding stationary bikes, lifting weights, booting kicks into nets, slamming bodies into blocking sleds. The commissioner stops by to say there’s nothing to be done: each game must, per league bylaws, start with a coin toss. Once the process has begun, it can’t be interrupted. It’s like giving birth, the commissioner adds, strangely. By the following week, a new crowd has filed in, a new visiting team has arrived—but the visiting team captain refuses to leave. The league has halted all play until the situation can be resolved. On television, an ex-ballplayer and a newspaper columnist pontificate about what the hovering coin might mean. The show is designed to draw ratings through fireworks, so the discussion is conversation by combat. The newspaper columnist is convinced the coin is emblematic of everything wrong with the sport: players are too coddled and greedy, games too boring and bloodless, and this “interruption” is a form of “karmic punishment.” The ex-ballplayer disagrees, saying that the coin is just “one of those things” and the columnist suggesting otherwise wouldn’t understand because “he’s never played the game.” The columnist takes umbrage at this; he makes a huge show of repeating that word, “umbrage”, until it almost appears to float on-screen in a giant, cucumber-shaped cartoon bubble. The two nearly come to blows, which might have goosed ratings to network-pleasing levels. Instead, the show, as well as the remainder of the season, is canceled. Thousands of people—stadium vendors, administrative staff, assistant coaches—are laid off. But the visiting team captain still hasn’t left the complex. He hasn’t shaved, he hasn’t showered, he hasn’t changed out of his uniform. Most of his meals are delivered by his team’s official fast-food sponsor—until finally, the notorious conglomerate runs out of burgers and/or patience, and reneges on their endorsement deal. The visiting team captain’s family wants face time, but he tells them he needs total focus for the coming resumption: he can’t risk the distraction of seeing them. Two full seasons go by like this. The visiting team captain is forced to confront the reality that the short window of his sporting life may be closing: time may have finally caught up, and sacked him. But soon, the inevitability of this ceases to bother him much, if at all. He stares at the football he holds in his hands: the oblong shape of it feels suddenly alien, and he seems to have briefly forgotten its function entirely. He imagines the pigskin has some ritual or ceremonial use, as in the life-or-death ball games played by the ancient Mayans, and he gets down on his knees to worship it. On the phone, his wife challenges him to recall the names of their children. When she puts them on, he calls them Lampshade and Aluminum Foil. They choose to believe that he’s joking, but are never quite sure. More years pass. When the visiting team captain falls ill, he refuses to be transported to a hospital: he must be treated in the locker room, by team trainers, some of whom have to be flown in, mobilized out of happy retirements. On the day the visiting team captain dies, his protective pads are all in place, his helmet is still banded to his chin. In the decades that follow, the sport he once played becomes a distant memory, as do all sports: the rapid warming of the planet has rendered athletic competitions essentially impossible. They’ve been replaced by convincing video simulations, indistinguishable from the real thing, and likely more addictive. But soon, there are few folks left to participate even in these events. Mitigation efforts fail. The icecaps melt. The oceans move inland. The stadium floods. Finally, the coin decides it is tired of hovering, and begins to fall. Just before it sinks to the turf, a fish swims by—one of the last who hasn’t choked to the gills on a diet of plastics—and snatches the coin up into the receptacle of its waiting mouth. With no wasted motion, the fish continues swimming—past the 40, the 30, the 20, the 10—and into what was once the end zone. But there is no celebration. No refs to raise their arms and signal the points. The visiting team captain is not there to witness this, and the home team captain isn’t either. There are no fans to scream obscenities between bites of nachos. There are no sportscasters to overhype the moment. There are no more coaches, no more journalists, no more cheerleaders. There are no more lost careers to lament, no more families to forget. Now, there is only time—and plenty of it.