Chris Conlan is the coolest kid in sixth grade—the golden-armed quarterback of the football team, and the boy all the others look up to. Scott Parry is the new kid, the boy with the huge brain, but with feet that trip over themselves daily. These two boys may seem like an odd couple, but each has a secret that draws them together as friends, and proves that the will to succeed is even more important than raw talent.1
#1 New York Times bestseller Mike Lupica scores from downtown with this new series for young middle-grade readers.
There were a lot of bad parts that came with being the new kid.
Scott Parry was already used to eating by himself at lunch, having nobody to talk to yet at recess.
And after just four days in the sixth grade at Bloomfield South, he pretty much expected to be sitting by himself on the short bus ride home.
He had always been shy, even in his old school, in his old town. And in the school and town before that. He just hadn’t realized that his new school was going to be this shy back.
It wasn’t that Scott wasn’t trying to fit in.
When they broke off into discussion groups, he tried to get with a new group of kids every time, hoping that at least one of them might want to talk to him when they were finished. And he knew better than to raise his hand every single time he knew the answer in class. But that was hard for him, because he basically knew the answer to any question his teachers asked.
It had been the same way for him at all his schools.
Sometimes he wished he weren’t so smart, because it seemed to make the other kids mad. What he really wanted was to be a little less good in class and a lot more good at sports, football especially. But that’s not the way things had worked out for him.
He knew teachers always liked the smart kids better, despite how they tried to act like they were treating every student the same. But he didn’t want the teachers to like him. He wanted the other kids to like him. Girls or boys. So he tried not to act like he was showing off, even though his hand still shot up more than anybody else’s in sixth grade.
It’s true that Scott felt alone most of the time, like he was hiding in plain sight, but he knew he could handle being the new kid one more time. What he couldn’t handle was what happened to him every single day while he waited for the bus home.
Because Jimmy Dolan, one of the biggest kids in his class and easily the meanest, was always waiting, too. Which meant that Jimmy had plenty of time to rag on Scott every day.
Scott wanted kids at Bloomfield South to talk to him.
Just not this kid.
The only kid in the whole school that Scott didn’t want talking to him or hanging with him wouldn’t leave him alone.
“Hey,” Jimmy Dolan said now, “here comes the brain.”
Just by watching the pickup touch football games at recess—nobody had picked Scott yet, not one time—he knew Jimmy Dolan was a good football player. At recess that day, Scott had overheard a couple of the teachers talking about how Jimmy’s dad was going to be the coach of the sixth-grade town team this season. Mr. Burden, their science teacher, had said, “Maybe his father can control him.” Just then one of the smaller sixth-graders had caught a pass and even though it was supposed to be two-hand touch, Jimmy had managed to send the kid flying.
“I wouldn’t count on that,” Mrs. Graham, their math teacher, had said.
Waiting for the bus now, Scott tried to ignore Jimmy, tried to act as if he were searching for something really important inside his backpack.
But he knew he was wasting his time, that you had about as much chance of ignoring Jimmy Dolan as you did a stomachache.
“What’s the matter, brain? You don’t want to talk to me today?”
Scott had his backpack on the ground and was kneeling over it. But Jimmy was right over him, blocking out the sun like a giant black cloud.
Scott leaned to his right a little, trying to see past Jimmy’s legs, hoping the buses were starting to board.
“What’re you looking for in there?” Jimmy said. “Maybe I can help you.”
“No,” Scott said. “I’m fine.”
Jimmy reached down and scooped up Scott’s backpack like he was trying to beat him to a dollar he’d seen on the ground. And before Scott could do anything to stop him, Jimmy had dumped everything out on the ground.
Scott didn’t care about any of the school stuff in there, his pens and notebooks and textbooks, so much stuff that his mother always asked if he was carrying bricks.
None of that mattered.
The picture mattered.
The picture of Scott’s dog, Casey. Jimmy Dolan spotted it right away.
Scott tried to reach down and grab it, but once again Jimmy was too quick for him.
“Who’s this?” Jimmy said. “Your girlfriend?”
“Give it back,” Scott said, quieter than he wanted to.
“You carry a picture of your dog with you, brain?” Jimmy said, loud enough for every kid still waiting for a bus to hear. “That’s like something the little nerd in that Lassie movie would do, right?”
Scott felt like this was some kind of assembly now, and he and Jimmy were up on stage in front of the whole school. If the other kids at Bloomfield South didn’t know the new kid before this, they sure would now.
If I’m such a brain, Scott thought, how come I can’t think of a way to get myself out of this?
As a last resort, he actually tried being nice, as hard as that was.
“Can I please have my picture back?” he said.
Jimmy smiled and shook his head no, waving the picture back and forth in front of Scott’s face.
Scott lunged for it, trying to catch Jimmy by surprise.
Only he wasn’t big enough. Or quick enough.
As he landed, Jimmy stuck out a leg and tripped him, giving him a little shove on the way down for good measure.
Scott went down hard, landing on knees and elbows.
All he could hear now was laughter.
Until he heard this: “Cut it out, Dolan.”
Not a teacher’s voice. Not a voice belonging to any grown-up. A kid, definitely.
Scott picked himself up and saw that it was Chris Conlan.
You only had to be at Bloomfield South for one day to know that even though Jimmy Dolan was one of the bigger football players in the sixth grade, Chris Conlan was the best.
Chris Conlan wasn’t just the quarterback, he was the boy all the other boys in their class wanted to be.
“What’s the problem, Chris? I was just playing—”
“Give him back his picture.”
Scott could see by the look on Jimmy’s face how much he didn’t want to back down. “Why’re you standing up for him?” Jimmy said, sounding whiney all of a sudden. “You don’t even know this guy.”
“I know you, though,” Chris said. “And I know you’re acting like a tool. Now, for the last time, give him back his picture.”
And, to Scott’s amazement, Jimmy Dolan did just that.
It was like a play Chris had called in the huddle.
Jimmy handed the picture back to Scott, saying, “Whatever. Take your stupid picture.”
Then he walked away shaking his head, maybe for once knowing what it felt like to look bad in front of the other kids.
“I’ve got a dog, too,” Chris said to Scott. Then he grinned and said, “But pictures sort of don’t do him justice.”
“Thanks for doing that,” Scott said. He stuck the picture of Casey inside his math book, started putting the rest of his books back inside the pack.
“Don’t worry about it,” Chris said. “He was acting stupid.”
Scott smiled for the first time since school had let out. Maybe the first time since he’d showed up at Bloomfield South on Monday morning. “I don’t think he was acting,” he said.
Now it was Chris’s turn to smile. “He’s actually not such a bad guy,” he said.
“Could’ve fooled me.”
Chris said, “It’s just that the only thing he’s really good at is knocking people down, like in football. And sometimes he forgets the game’s over. Or hasn’t started yet.”
Then, as if he’d remembered something, Chris stuck out his hand.
“I’m Chris,” he said.
It felt funny, and Scott was sure it looked funny, a couple of sixth-graders shaking hands, but they did it.
“I know who you are,” Scott said.
“And I know who you are,” Chris said. “The smartest kid in our class.”
“Way,” Chris said. “Like way the smartest. I watch you in class sometimes when
somebody else is answering, and I can just tell you know the answer.” Scott said, “Maybe that makes you the smart one.”
Chris gave him a funny look.
Just then the bus line finally started to move. Scott said he’d better get going, thanked Chris one last time.
“Dolan won’t bother you anymore,” Chris said.
Chris grinned. “You’re cool now,” the coolest kid in their class said. “I got you.”
“Well . . . cool,” Scott said, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say. He started to walk toward the bus, and Chris walked with him, saying, “Hey, maybe we could hang out sometime, or whatever.”
“Yeah,” Scott said, “anytime.”
He said it like it was no big deal, but what he really wanted to do was yell “Yeah!” and pump his fist windmill-style, the way Tiger Woods did after he sank a big putt in Tiger Woods PGA Tour ’07.
“See you tomorrow then,” Chris said.
“Yeah,” Scott said again.
He had to keep himself from running up the steps to bus number three.
Just like that, he had a friend.
His mom was waiting for him when he got home.
This was the third time they had moved in the past five years. His dad worked as a salesman for Titleist golf balls, and the more he sold, the bigger his job seemed to get. Every time it got bigger, they moved.
But no matter where they were living, one thing hadn’t changed:
Scott Parry couldn’t think of a day in his entire life when he’d walked into whatever house they were living in and his mom hadn’t been there.
And ever since they’d gotten Casey, his golden retriever, as a pup two years ago, Casey was right there with her.
It was Casey who greeted him first today, jumping on him the minute he came through the front door, as if to say, Where have you been all day?
His mom was right behind, asking how school had gone, the way she did every day, the way she probably would until he stopped being the new kid.
Whenever that was.
Usually he’d just tell her fine and go straight to the cookies. But today he surprised her.
“Crazy,” he said.
“Good crazy or bad crazy?” His mom was small, the way he was, and smart about practically everything. If that wasn’t enough, people said Scott looked like her, too.
They were in the kitchen. It wasn’t a special occasion that Scott could think of, but there on the table was what she called her Amazing Chocolate Cake.
“Both,” Scott said, and then told her everything that had happened with Jimmy and Casey’s picture and Chris Conlan.
“You’ve mentioned this Chris before,” she said, “right?”
“Mom,” he said, “he’s the man.”
“And he stood up for you this way in front of all the other kids?”
“Like I said, crazy, right?”
“Doing the right thing is never crazy,” his mom said. “Young Mr. Conlan doing what he did, well, that just says to me if he hadn’t, that would have been crazy.”
“Mom,” he said, “you’re the brain around here.”
She smiled at him. “Don’t tell your father.”
“Maybe it’s going to be okay at this school after all,” Scott said.
He was already tearing into the huge piece of Amazing Chocolate Cake she’d cut for him. When he looked up, she was still smiling at him.
“You think?” she said.
Then she said, “You know, if you want, I could call Chris’s mom . . .”
“No,” Scott said. “No, no, no.”
“A mouthful of cake and a mouthful of no,” she said.
“No,” he said.
“Sorry,” she said. “Got carried away there.”
“Runaway Mom,” Scott said.
“Leaving the kitchen now,” she said, backing away. “You and Case going out to play ball when you finish eating?”
Scott smiled at her now. “If the dog doesn’t practice,” he said, “how’s he going to get better at football?”
“You make a good point,” she said, smiling.
There were woods behind their house and a pond on the other side of the woods. But between the trees and the water was a small clearing that Scott’s dad made sure was mowed with the rest of their lawn.
“Got to take good care of your field of dreams,” his dad would say.
It was Scott Parry’s field of dreams.
This was where he would go with Casey and pretend he was a football player.
That he was one of the guys.
His dad had measured out the distances, painted an outline for an end zone, painted perfectly straight yard lines across the field that stretched out thirty yards. He’d even used the kind of chalk roller they used on tennis courts and baseball fields, so that Scott could make the lines white again when they started to fade.
The best part was at the back of the end zone. That’s where the goalposts were, the ones his dad had put up himself, and the big old tire hanging from the crossbar.
The tire was Scott’s target.
He would drop back and pretend he was throwing from the pocket. Or he’d roll out to his left or right, pretend he was being chased by some crazed guys on defense—a whole gang of Jimmy Dolans—and give himself points if one of his passes connected anyplace on the tire.
But the biggest victory, the pretend-the-crowd-goes-wild victory, was reserved for when he somehow threw the ball through the opening without touching anything, like a game-winning swish in basketball as the clock runs out. It didn’t happen very often, but Scott kept trying. He blamed his lack of accuracy on the size of his hands. They were too small to get a good grip on the ball or to throw a tight spiral except by accident.
He kept practicing, anyway.
“It’s what you do in sports, whether you’re the star of the team or somebody at the end of the bench,” his dad always told him. “You keep trying.”
“Even if I grow,” Scott would say to his dad sometimes, “I’ll never be as good at football as you were.”
“Be as good as you can be, kiddo,” his dad would say, “and I’ll be one happy guy.”
Scott would throw until his arm got tired, and Casey, who never got tired, would keep tearing after the ball and bringing it back to him, holding it by one of the seams that had come loose.
And then it was time for Scott Parry to get around to the only thing he was really good at in football.
He might not have the hands, or the arm, or the size.
But Scott Parry could really kick.
He’d start at the ten-yard line, which meant a twenty-yard kick, because the goalposts were ten yards deep in the back of the end zone, just like in real football, and put the ball down on the practice tee he always brought out here with him. He’d swing his leg, try to kick the ball through the uprights, pretending as hard as he could now, pretending that time was running out and the game was on the line.
Pretending that he was the best and most famous placekicker in the National Football League.
Sometimes he would put the ball on his plastic tee and pretend there were only a few seconds left in the Super Bowl.
“So it has come down to this,” he’d say, like he wasn’t just trying to win the game, but announce it on TV at the same time. “The whole season is on the foot of Scott Parry.”
He’d take two steps back from the ball, then one long step to the left of it, take a deep breath. Then he’d stride forward and kick with everything he had, following through the way the kickers on TV did. Sometimes he’d see how many he could make in a row from this distance, his all-time record being six.
But no matter how many he made in a row, no matter how dark it was getting or close to dinner, Scott still wasn’t done for the day.
Always saving the best until last.
He had been watching with his dad the day Doug Flutie of the Patriots had made the first dropkick in the NFL in what the announcers said was like a hundred years or something. It was the last game of Flutie’s long career. Scott’s dad, who’d played football at Boston College with Flutie, explained how great Flutie had been when he’d played quarterback for BC, even though he was only listed at five-nine and was really shorter than that. How he’d won the Heisman Trophy, how he’d thrown one of the most famous touchdown passes in all football history against the University of Miami when he was a senior. After that, according to Scott’s dad, Flutie had spent more than twenty years in pro football, in just about every league there was. Even the one in Canada.
Now Flutie was about to retire. And because it was his last game, his coach had let him try to drop-kick an extra point. It turned out Flutie loved football history almost as much as he loved playing. He knew that guys used to drop-kick all the time in the old days and had taught himself how to do it. Not only taught himself how, but gotten really good at it.
So Bill Belichick, the Patriots coach, put him in at the end of a game against the Dolphins, and Flutie drop-kicked the extra point right through. And even though that point didn’t win any championships for the Patriots, his teammates had acted as if it had. So had the people in the stands that day.
“They said he was too small his whole career,” Scott’s dad said. “But every time anybody ever gave him a fair chance, he played as big as anybody on the field.” That was the biggest dream of all for Scott, down here behind his house, in his secret place between the woods and the water:
Someday he was going to get the chance to do something big in football.
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