Tiki and Ronde were the stars of their Pee Wee football team, the Cave Springs Vikings. But middle school is much bigger than elementary school and it’s a whole different game—on and off the field. When Coach Spangler takes a job coaching for the high school team and Tiki’s old science teacher Mr. Wheeler is tapped for the middle school coaching job, the beginning of the school year and the football season is off to a bumpy start. But through working together, the boys discover that the whole team is bigger than any of its parts.
Ronde Barber stared back at his identical twin as they faced each other across the line of scrimmage. “In your dreams, Tiki.”
“Don’t blink, or you’ll miss me,” Tiki shot back.
Ronde let out a big yawn, patting his mouth like he was bored. “I’m so scared.”
Then came the “Hut! Hut!” of the quarterback, Matt Clayton, and Tiki took off like a shot. Ronde backpedaled a few steps, then turned and matched his brother stride for stride.
Ronde did not look back for the ball. He kept his focus on Tiki, waiting for him to make his move. Ronde watched his eyes, knowing they would widen just before the key moment.
Ronde had learned this trick last season. It was part of his education in how to cover wide receivers. But it sure helped when that receiver was your identical twin.
He and Tiki knew each other inside out, backward and forward. They didn’t just look alike, they thought alike. Ronde could have covered Tiki with his eyes closed.
Sure enough, ten yards downfield, Tiki’s eyes widened for the briefest instant. On cue, he faked to the outside, then cut to the inside, straight across the field.
Matt Clayton had already let the ball fly, a bullet speeding toward its appointed meeting place with Tiki’s chest.
But Ronde was one step ahead of them both. He cut in front of Tiki, leapt into the air, and with his outstretched fingertips, knocked away the ball!
He landed hard on the grass, but it was worth it to hear Tiki’s disappointed groan.
“Oh, man! You’re a pest, Ronde!”
“I try,” Ronde replied, grinning as Tiki reached out a hand to help him up.
“Man, I’m glad you’re on my team,” Tiki said, shaking his head.
The boys trotted back to the line of scrimmage, where their friend and practice partner, Matt Clayton, was waiting for them.
“Awesome coverage, dude!” he told Ronde. “Did you spy on us in the huddle?”
“No way,” Ronde said, still smiling. “I just knew.”
“He finishes my sentences for me all the time,” Tiki told Matt.
“No, you’re the one who does that!” Ronde protested.
“You both do it,” Matt said, laughing. “I’ve heard you. It’s weird.”
All three boys were wearing their old blue Hidden Valley Eagles uniforms from last season. Tiki wore number two, while Ronde had number five.
Ronde wondered if the school would retire the number nine now that, starting tomorrow, Matt, last year’s Roanoke Reporter All-World quarterback, had graduated and was moving on to Cave Spring High School.
In Ronde’s opinion, Matt deserved the honor of having his number retired. He’d broken every Hidden Valley record for passing. During the Eagles’ run to the District Championship this past season, college scouts had come around to see Matt play—and the ninth-grade wonder hadn’t disappointed them.
This would be their last practice together for two years, until the twins made it to high school and they were all reunited.
And starting tomorrow, for Tiki and Ronde, it was back to school—back to the Eagles for another season, this time without Matt as their leader.
“Why’d you have to go and graduate?” Ronde asked Matt. “Now what are we going to do for a quarterback?”
“You guys’ll be fine,” Matt assured them. “The Eagles are even better and deeper this year. And if you’re worried about Cody Hansen, don’t be. He’s a great athlete, and he’s got a great throwing arm. I saw him play Peewee League, back when he was in sixth grade.”
“He didn’t play so great last year when he was subbing for you,” Tiki said.
“Don’t worry,” said Matt. “He just couldn’t handle the pressure of coming off the bench. He wasn’t prepared to be a starter, that’s all. He’s much better than he showed last year. You’ll see.”
Ronde had to admit it was true. He and Tiki had been subs last year too. And when they’d gotten their chance to play, they’d had their moments—but they’d also made bad mistakes.
This year would be different. As eighth graders and second-year men, the twins would be key starters—Tiki at halfback, Ronde at cornerback. The team would be counting on them—and Ronde was sure he and Tiki had the talent to carry the team to victory.
He just wasn’t so sure about Cody.
“Trust me, it’s going to be fine,” Matt said as they lined up for another pass play. “I mean, just think—last year, you two guys barely played! That alone is going to make the team so much better. And remember, we won the District Championship last year. So . . . can you say ‘State Champions’?”
“Man, don’t jinx us,” Tiki said. “It’s bad enough you’re gone, and we have to put up with that hot dog, Cody Hansen.”
“Tiki, he’s just immature,” Matt said. “I was the same way in seventh grade.”
“Like fun you were,” Ronde said. “You were never like Cody, so don’t even go there.”
“True, he’s got better hair.”
“Dude, you never say anything bad about anybody!” Tiki complained. “Stop being so nice. Cody is a ball hog, and that’s all there is to it.”
“If that were all,” Matt argued, “Coach Spangler wouldn’t have made him the starter this year.”
Ronde had to admit, there was truth in what Matt said. Coach Spangler was really smart, and he knew what he was doing with his team.
“I’m telling you,” Matt assured them, “as long as Spangler’s in charge, the Eagles are going to win. His teams have made the playoffs seven out of eight years since he became coach. He can get the best out of anybody.”
“Even Cody?” Ronde asked.
“Even Cody,” Matt said. “He’s talented. He just needs to get some experience.”
“And a better attitude,” said Ronde, rolling his eyes.
“Man, you got that right. Cody’s a head case,” Tiki complained. “He thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips.”
“I saw him the other day in Kessler’s, bragging about how we’re going to dominate this year,” Ronde said. “I hate to hear that stuff, you know? It’s bad luck to run your mouth like that.”
“Don’t worry so much,” Matt said. “Hey, think about me—I’m losing the coach who taught me everything I know!”
“Aw, man, I pity you,” Tiki said, pretending to play the violin.
“I’m about to start crying,” Ronde joked. “Come on, yo—let’s play some football! Show me something I haven’t seen, dude.”
“All right, now you went and made me mad,” Matt said, smacking the football between his hands. “Let’s go. You’re toast, Ronde.”
Matt put his arm around Tiki and whispered the play into his ear. Tiki lined up, and Ronde saw the corner of his mouth curl up into a secret smile. They’re up to something tricky, he said to himself.
“Hut! Hut-hut!” Matt dropped back as Tiki took a darting step forward.
Ronde dropped back into coverage, but Tiki was only faking a forward move. With Ronde back on his heels, Tiki stopped and turned to face Matt.
Matt tossed him a quick lateral, then raced downfield, and before Ronde could recover, Tiki threw the ball into Matt’s waiting arms!
“Touchdown!” Matt yelled, spiking the ball and doing a crazy little song and dance in the end zone. “Oh, yeah—go Ma-att, it’s your birthday . . .”
Ronde wasn’t thrilled about being beaten on the play. But Matt’s celebration was so corny, he couldn’t help laughing.
Hotdogging wasn’t Matt’s style at all. He never got into that sort of thing, like so many other players did. When he threw a touchdown pass, Matt just raised his arms in the air and yelled “YES!”
Ronde admired that about him. Unlike some people, Matt Clayton was a class act.
“I’m hungry,” Tiki said. “My stomach’s talking to me. It’s saying, ‘Let’s go get some lunch!’”
“I’m in,” Matt said. “Kessler’s?”
“Yeah, baby,” Ronde said. “I’m up for a burger and a double-thick shake.”
“Trying to bulk up?” Matt teased.
Ronde and Tiki were small for their age—at least compared to the rest of the football team. Matt, already over six feet tall, towered over them.
Someday, Ronde thought, he’ll be a star college quarterback.
He and Tiki would be stars too—but only if they kept getting taller, bigger, and stronger. Burgers and shakes might not be health food, Ronde figured, but they were a sure bet if you wanted to gain weight.
Kessler’s luncheonette was an old-fashioned soda shop that had been there for over fifty years. It was only a block from Cave Spring High School—Matt’s new home.
The twins had come over here to practice with him on the high school field—even though it was also the home field of Cave Spring Junior High, one of the Eagles’ main rivals.
The three friends sat on swivel chairs at the counter and made fast work of their food and shakes. They were just about done eating when the front door swung open and in walked Cody Hansen.
“Yo, gentlemen!” he called out to them, raising a hand in greeting. “What’s shakin’?”
“We are,” said Tiki, lifting up his shake to demonstrate.
“Hey, are you guys psyched for this season or what?” Cody asked, high-fiving the twins. “We’re going all the way to the State finals this year, dudes.” Looking at Matt and raising an eyebrow, he added, “We’ve upgraded at all the skill positions—like quarterback.”
It was a dig at Matt, and Ronde and Tiki both knew it. Ronde winced, feeling for Matt. But he needn’t have worried—Matt Clayton was not the type to take an insult lying down.
“Cody, my friend,” he said, “you’ve got all the skills, but you’ve still got a lot to learn. Why don’t you win a game or two for the team first, before you start shooting your mouth off?”
Cody turned away from Matt and back to Tiki and Ronde. “Hey, you dudes want to throw it around? The field’s empty.”
“Uh, no thanks,” said Ronde. “We just got done—”
He was going to say that they’d been practicing with Matt, but Matt interrupted him.
“That’s a good idea,” he said, and took one last sip from his shake, draining it to the last drop. “You guys should get used to playing together.”
He clapped Ronde and Tiki on the back. “See you guys around. Say hi to Coach for me, huh?” He dropped a few dollars on the counter and left, shaking his head.
“Cody, man, why’d you have to diss Matt?” Tiki asked.
“Chill, Barber,” Cody said, frowning. “Matt Clayton is ancient history. This year, I am ‘the man.’”
Ronde sighed, rolling his eyes. He’d seen Cody Hansen act like this before. Cody wasn’t exactly modest—and he could be totally impossible when he got going.
Maybe it was because his uncle Sven was once the backup quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, and his cousin Nels was a linebacker for Clemson. Cody had several family members who were well-known athletes, and he was always, always bragging about them.
“That’s right, from now on, I am the straw that stirs the drink,” Cody went on. “In the Eagles’ nest, I am the Big Bird. It’s all in the genes, my friends. All in the genes.”
Sure, he was hotdogging it, more to be funny than anything else. Just like when Matt Clayton did his little touchdown dance earlier that day. But for some reason, Ronde didn’t find Cody’s act the least bit funny.
“You finishing that burger?” Cody asked him.
Ronde looked down at the remains of his lunch. “No, man, I’m full,” he said.
“You mind?” Cody asked. But even if Ronde had minded, it would have been too late. The rest of his burger was already stuffing Cody’s left cheek. “Mmmm! Good! How ’bout you, Tiki?”
“Don’t be touching my food, man,” Tiki said, drawing his plate closer to him and farther away from Cody’s reach. “This burger is mine, understand?”
“Whatever,” Cody said. “Come on, let’s get out on the field and toss it around.”
“Forget him, will you? He’s yesterday’s news. I’m the guy you’ve got to work out with. This is our year, remember?”
Ronde couldn’t argue with that. It didn’t matter that he liked Matt Clayton better. Cody was the leader of their team now, for better or for worse.
Ronde just hoped it wasn’t for worse.
• • •
“AAAAHHHHRRRRGGH! Put me down, Paco!”
They were all at the bus stop, clowning around while they waited for the bus to take them to their first day of classes. Paco Rivera, their old pal, was practicing his tackling techniques on Tiki and Ronde, who were much smaller than he was.
Paco released his death grip on Ronde, who collapsed to the ground. “There’s got to be a penalty for crushing,” he said, rubbing his sore ribs.
“Man, have you been pumping iron all summer?” Tiki asked.
“My dad’s been working me out on the free weights,” Paco said. “Feel that muscle.” He made a muscle, and his biceps popped up about three inches.
“Whoa,” said Tiki, feeling it and making a face like he was touching a cockroach. “That is just sick.”
“We’re gonna have a monster team this season,” Paco said, grinning and nodding. “Can you spell ‘undefeated’?”
“Hey, man, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Ronde warned him. “We’ve still got to get out on that field and prove we’re the best.”
“It’s a done deal, brother,” Paco assured him. “Did you hear that Cody Hansen went to his uncle’s football camp over the summer? He throws a perfect spiral now, every time—and he can throw it fifty yards!”
Ronde would have bet it wasn’t true—probably just Cody bragging again—but he didn’t argue. The bus had arrived, and it was time to get on board for another year of school.
They rode the five miles in what seemed like five seconds. By the time they’d finished saying hello to all their bus-mates from last year, they were already there!
“Hey, you guys,” Paco said as they got off the bus. “There’s Coach! Let’s go say hi.”
Coach Steve “Spanky” Spangler was standing near the steps that led up to the school’s main entrance. He was talking to Mr. Pellugi, his assistant coach, who was also a Phys Ed teacher.
It looked like they were having a pretty serious conversation. “Maybe we’d better wait till after school,” Ronde said, holding Tiki and Paco back.
But Paco wasn’t listening. “Yo, Coach!” he yelled, raising his hand for a high five as he approached.
Coach Spangler looked up, seeming startled. He didn’t smile—just gave a little half wave and turned back to Mr. Pellugi, resuming their conversation.
“Whoa,” said Paco, backing away and joining the Barbers as they headed up the stairs. “That was weird.”
“They must be talking about something important,” Ronde said. “I guess it just wasn’t a good time to say hi.”
“I guess not,” said Paco, but he didn’t sound convinced.
Tiki was looking back over his shoulder at the two coaches, a worried expression on his face.
Whatever it was they were talking about, Ronde thought, it definitely wasn’t something happy. Coach Spangler had his hand on Mr. Pellugi’s shoulder and was talking intensely.
Ronde sure hoped everything was okay. It was way too early in the season for trouble to raise its ugly head.
Ronde Barber is a record-holding cornerback who retired after fifteen seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He is one of only two cornerbacks selected to the Pro Bowl five times. He is married with two daughters.