Opening line: “If you were a high school quarterback, a Texas high school quarterback, this was the moment you imagined for yourself from the first time somebody said you had some arm on you.”
I don’t know why I keep being surprised by the fact that I love middle grade sports fiction. I never pick one up unless it’s on a state awards lists, and yet, I am always happy I do.
Jake Cullen starts the football season as third-string quarterback, a position he is very familiar with. His whole life he’s been playing third-string behind his older brother Wyatt and, before him, his father Troy, the man the football stadium at Granger High is named after. The Cullen name means quarterback gold. And here Jake is, freshman at Granger after brother Wyatt has finished his four perfect years as QB 1 and recruited as starter to the Texas Longhorns. Jake is comfortable with his reality, ready to wait his turn, to do the work and put in the effort. But in the first game of the season, the first-string quarterback tears his ACL. And suddenly QB 1 is wide open.
It’s a sort of classic underdog story. But in this one, it’s not so much about Jake overcoming the odds. The odds are stacked graciously in his favor. He’s been living and breathing football since infancy, he’s got a head for tracking plays and seeing outcomes, and he’s even taller than his brother, even at 14. Instead, it’s about Jake finding his one place, his place outside the Great Cullen Shadow.
Plus, it’s got great football action that is not dumbed down for us novices out there. (I felt like I could totally talk football now after reading this.) The author reminds the reader (or perhaps explains to the non-sports-aficionado reader) why we keep coming back for more:
“This was why you played. This kind of night, this kind of opponent, stakes like these. Didn’t matter if you grew up in Granger or Redding, Laredo or Huntsville or Abilene. This was the kind of game you grew up seeing somebody else play at the same time you were dreaming about playing it yourself… This was the town in the stands, families, friends, and strangers alike, every one of them feeling like they were a part of something, that they were going to somehow help you win tonight.” (p. 199)
That’s the thing about sports stories. They make fans out of non-fans, they bring the readers, the characters, the author, that moment all together, cheering for the same thing. They make us all a part of something. And that’s what reading stories is all about, isn’t it?