All he ever wanted to do was sling the football. To drop back, set his feet, lock eyes on that tiny spot where he knew it would go, and hurl it with immense force over and over and over until he was the best, and everyone knew it.
Don Blake came home from Korea with a tortured soul and a drive to leave a legacy. He picked right up where he’d left off before going to war and took over duties on the family ranch as his father was eased into retirement by an ailing heart. He bought a neighboring parcel with the GI BIll. He economized and modernized; brought in a new breed of cattle and planted alternating feed crops. In 1956 he married a kind and gentle schoolteacher from the next town over and the following year their son Paul was born.
Childhood on the blackland prairies of Central Texas in the 1960s was a world of simple pleasures. Paul would roam the gentle rolling lands of their 2,000 acres and beyond for hours: scouting and swimming creeks, roping stoic and patient cattle with his toy lariat, and throwing rocks. The rocks were his favorite. Once discovered, this passion would not lie dormant. He began by throwing at fixed objects: trees, fenceposts, a boulder sticking up out of the water. He became bored with his proficiency and quickly devised moving targets: an old glass jug tied to a string swinging from a branch or a homemade raft on the eddying waters of the river nearby. When he’d startle a rabbit out of the brush on his wanderings he was quick and ready with the perfect-sized stone. When he brought his first one home at age eight his mother was shocked but his father was impressed. He started watching Paul throw and the next spring drove him 60 miles each way four times a week to play little league baseball. Don watched his son’s developing talents with a growing pride.
This was good for Paul, as it soon became clear that he very little aptitude for--and no interest in--the running of the family ranch. He could perform his chores adequately when instructed, but he lacked the initiative and zeal that Don had had at that age. It frustrated the father, but he tried not to push too hard, and besides that he enjoyed the thrill of watching Paul’s performances and experiencing with him simultaneously the thrills of athletic achievement he’d never had a shot at growing up in rural Texas during the Depression and World War II, and it kept him distracted from the occasional dark nightmares he still suffered.
On his fourteenth birthday he surprised the boy. He’d put in some extra work when he could and rigged up a dummy target roughly the size and shape of a football player. A sturdy wooden pole with a crossbeam and a piece of two-by-twelve nailed to it, an old and tattered sweater for a jersey and a battered wood bucket for a helmet. It was set roughly 25 yards away from the fence in a field that would lie fallow for some time and along with that he gave his son a football and did nothing else but stand by and watch as Paul proceeded to hit the target in the chest on nine of his first ten tries. The last one knocked the bucket off and Don just chuckled when Paul acted disappointed because he knew he was just showing off.
High school was an absolute dream. He became the starting varsity quarterback three games into his freshman season. 3A schools were certainly not powerhouses like the city districts boasted, but still a freshman starting at QB on a respectable team was virtually unheard of. They narrowly missed the playoffs that season, and made deeper and deeper runs each year under Paul as his prowess grew and his game was polished and refined. He was confident and able while leading the team, but never prideful. He encouraged his teammates and respected his coaches, and every night after practice he still went and threw the ball with his dad for a few minutes.
They altered and improved the target dummy over time: got it a real jersey and helmet, reinforced the crossbeam to withstand increased velocity. The summer before his junior season, they dug a ditch and ran a live cable from the base to a switch on the fence and devised a trap setup with braces and a spring recoil so that whenever you flipped the button at the fencepost the dummy would shoot up out of the tall grass and Paul would try to hit it as quickly as possible, knocking it fully flat before it feebly bounced back up and wobbled, awaiting him to come and snap it back into place for the next release. One of his favorite things to do was to jump off the tractor after a couple hours’ worth of mowing or plowing and go grab the ball and flip the switch while the tingling vibrations from the machinery were still affecting his balance. It made him feel invincible to strike the dummy on the chest each time and it became his impetus for riding the tractor. Don was just pleased that his son was finally working the ranch.
His senior year was a dream. A whirlwind of blistering hot practices that bled into cool autumn nights under the lights. Ice cold beer on the tailgate out in the fields after. He wanted for nothing as the wins began to pile up: he walked as a god among boys as he shattered record after record and the team's prowess grew. Radio and newspaper reporters met him after practice. Girls left notes in his locker, his truck. Fumbling steamy makeout sessions after hours in the stadium parking lot, the cool droplets of mist drifting at an angle in the halogen glow of the fieldhouse floodlights.
The air grew cold and the first frosts killed all the grass on the practice fields and they were still playing football. Hollican High in the state finals at Texas Stadium in Dallas (hard to believe that Suzanne had been there too, cheering on the other side; he'd broken her heart already without ever meeting her by the time they met sixteen years later). Paul was divine: five touchdowns, nearly four hundred yards. Unheard-of in 1975, the era of I-formation option play. College scouts lined the sideline and arched their brows at this lanky small-town farm kid with the cannon. The one who'd traveled the furthest had flown in that morning from Pennsylvania.
Walter Riggendorf was a pure-boiled football coach: just past forty, his hair was just beginning to gray and his stomach was just beginning to spill over the front of his tight jeans. He was craggy and tanned with a voice like gravel from countless whiskey-soaked film sessions and he was desperate for a quarterback. He was a journeyman coach and this was his last shot to keep his job under Paterno. He was a good coach but a difficult subordinate and he liked coaching at a big school, which was why he'd called and groomed and courted this Texas kid; and sprung for this final trip on his own. Also to sniff around for SWC jobs over the holidays in Texas just in case Blake backed out.
It happened in late July, just weeks before Paul was to drive up to State College to start fall camp. Heart attack for Don, just keeled over lifting a bale of hay in the barn. No one saw him sink slowly to the dry summer dust grasping his chest, but they felt the emptiness immediately. Mrs. Blake went a few years later, quietly in the night, but she'd never been the same. Paul came to live with their ghosts and was only lonely when he stepped outside in the dark first thing in the morning to start the chores.
He didn't leave. He couldn't. Death was just his final justification for nagging doubts that had eaten away at the corners of his dreams that long hot summer. He was afraid of new terrain and new surroundings and scared that he wouldn't be able to harness the strengths inherent in that new land, so he stayed and ran the ranch. His great-uncle lived an hour away and was a lawyer. His high school coach's brother was the bank president. That's all he needed from anyone else. For himself he needed to love that land as much as his father did because he knew he'd never appreciated it when he was alive.
Yields on the land were decent. He ran cattle and grew small crops of cotton and spinach on the few irrigated acres he had. Broke horses for side money and spent it all on upkeep of the farm's buildings. He'd help coach baseball in the summer and helped his cousin fix windmills the odd occasion. Fourteen months as a roadie for Willie during the droughts of '81-'82. A few photo shoots as an underwear model in Dallas in '84. A bumper crop of grass in '86 that almost went south when he split up with the Sheriff's niece. He never went near a football field. He never stopped throwing.
His twenties were a whirl of sweat, small profits, callused hands, and the occasional fling with the local young teacher or nurse. He grew a deep tan and a wiry frame that lent to his throwing motion an odd gait that no one saw for years and years and years as he dropped back and fired alone in the fields each evening in the fading sunlight.
Then one day he was thirty. Getting up on the horse was more difficult. He felt the fourteen-hour days and the hangovers were harder to sweat out. Hard-worked joints popped and creaked on cold winter mornings as he stood on the porch blowing plumes of breath into the halogen-tinged porchlight as his coffee slowly warmed his hands through a battered tin mug. He thought more. He remembered less. He began to harbor the first nagging stirrings of doubt and restlessness and imagined where he'd have ended up if he'd loaded up that old Dodge after the funeral and driven northeast for a couple days without a backwards glance. He grew irritable with his temporary farmhands and would find himself in the evenings sitting in the old easy chair with a book in his lap just staring at a page with no recollection of reading it. Crow's feet at his eyes distracted him when he searched his reflection for meaning.
One sunny winter morning in 1991 he walked out to his truck to find a rattler coiled up right below the driver's-side door. He stopped in his tracks and inched backward slowly until he was a good thirty feet from the snake and ten from the front porch. He ran up the steps and inside and returned with his 20-gauge and sidled up parallel to the truck to minimize any damage from the shot radius, inching his way carefully until he was ten feet away and crouched and fired, taking the head clean off as the snake sensed a change in surroundings and raised himself. It was five feet and change even without the missing piece and nearly as thick as a Dr. Pepper can in the middle and he counted fourteen buttons. He hung the snake over the barbed wire fence by the barn and put the shotgun in the rack behind the driver's seat and drove into town, late for an appointment at the bank. He felt unlucky and knew the snake had been a bad sign.
Sure enough, that afternoon unloading the trailer after making a round of the south pastures a gaudy white convertible bumped along the winding driveway trailing a thin rooster-tail of pale dust in the weak afternoon light. Paul did not stop working, but he did take it in and he recognized the craggy features of the old coach even from a hundred yards out. When the car pulled into the yard and Rigg got out, Blake still did not stop working. He didn't know why, but he still thought if he ignored the man it wouldn't be real.
We know what happened next.
Now a 1-8-1 record was not setting anyone's pants on fire, not even in the world of the early '90s Southwest Conference. But the upset of the #1 team gave Coach Generro a boost in recruiting, and Paul's star was suddenly on the rise as he approached thirty-five and suddenly realized he had three years of eligibility remaining.
Generro went all-in and built the team around him. He pulled in a couple of JuCo linemen and landed the #3 running back in the state. Rigg snagged enough playmakers to field a decent defense. Paul and his head coach traveled to College Station the following spring and met with R.C. Slocum and Bob Toledo and implemented the Gulf Coast Offense the following season with some success. Paul had a semblance of a pocket to work with and no shortage of precise route-runners and a home run threat in the backfield. They eked out five wins that season, but Paul was second-string all conference. His junior year they won eight and went to the Copper Bowl. In '94 they won 10 games and Blake was a consensus All-America and finished fifth in the Heisman voting.
Then he disappeared again. He had his degree and had been living with Suzanne, splitting time at the ranch in the summers as his cousin's family had moved in and taken over the operations. To NFL pundits he was radioactive: a bad boy who didn't know he was too old to play the game, and he'd proven enough to himself already. By the time the '95 season got gearing up and reporters started looking for the famous Arm of the Armadillo for a quote, he hadn't been seen at either household for months. His shell is escape, and he wears it naturally.
The dawn of the Internet was the ruin of his anonymity. After reported sightings as a long-haul driver in Australia in 1997 and a tug captain off Crete in 2000, he was finally tracked down by an intrepid sports journalist in Finland in 2002. He was coaching youth soccer and playing bass in a death metal band and was fresh off the heels of a divorce from a 22 year-old Swedish supermodel.
He moved home to Texas and embraced his role as a legendary statesman of the game with grace. He called regional broadcasts on Fox Sports Network from 2004 to 2010 and was a regular guest on Big 12 TV and radio programming. He spoke at banquets and shook thousands of hands. He played golf.
One day the cowboy walked away again. In early 2011 he bought two hundred acres of scrub between Sonora and Del Rio, built a modest but comfortable home out of stones hauled from the Devil's River, and opened the most exclusive QB camp in the country in 2013. He accepts only three pupils a year and they are never blue chip recruits. They're the scrappy kids from small districts who don't play games on TV or have tens of thousands of Twitter followers. They're the kids he seeks out via word of mouth through the high school coaching network he's always kept in tune with: lanky farm kids from The Valley or stocky Hill Country kids who grew up cutting cedars. Sometimes they improve their stock, sometimes they don't; but they always make the team and they always impress the coaches. He does it for free and lets any media who wants to make the drive down there come and watch anything they want. It's mostly just him standing around in the sun-blasted sand and brush barking out Naval-grade profanity at the kids running drills and sweating buckets in the June sun. But they don't mind; they're used to it.
I finally made the drive out to see him last month, announced but uncertain, as he does not ever respond to any communications. I surprise him when I show up at 8:00 AM, as I have a shorter drive than most gawkers. The final few miles remind me of a camping trip I took with some friends in high school in the area. We drank beer and climbed into caves with Indian drawings and at night we went spotlighting for tarantulas with a .22. I recount all this fondly after a short introduction and he laughs, warming to me: I'm not City, so the first barrier between us is comfortably down.
He's nearing sixty now, but there are elements of the football player that stand out still. The crow's feet are deeply pronounced and his knuckles are knotty with hard work. He's as tan as a saddle with just the hint of a paunch but his graying hair sprouts wildly from under his feed store cap and his eyes still have a glint of wildness and humor.
"Why here?" I ask.
"It's quiet. People leave me alone. You live somewhere no one wants to go, people generally stop trying to follow you."
"How long you plan to stay out here?"
"Long as I have to, I guess. What else do I have?"
"What about getting back into it? The game."
"What...you mean coaching?!?" He grunts with disdain and pulls out a hand-rolled smoke from his breast pocket.
"Tell me you don't miss it," I say. He looks at me over the flame of the lighter and then nearly chokes as he starts laughing, streams of pungent blue smoke coming out of both nostrils.
"You're gonna quote my own line at me?"
"It worked on Andre."
"Yes," he says quietly, smoking, "yes, it did."
The sun is nearly at its apex and high in the robin's-egg blue sky a single buzzard is wheeling lazily out over the vast and dry river plain. He opens the small ice chest that sits on the ground between our two lawn chairs and hands me a Lone Star and then cracks his own open and takes a long swallow, then a deep breath before answering.
"I do miss it. Always did, still do. But I went back once already and that was plenty. Besides, I still work in football. Get my fix."
I'm privately chuckling at the phrase "work in football" because it's so Blake but I feel like pushing just a little harder. "Yeah, but a few weeks out of the year...can't feel the same."
A defiant mien has clouded his face but his eyes still hold a hint of playfulness as he says "who says that's all?"
"What...what, you mean you still throw?" I ask.
Quick as lightning, before I can really process it, he's stood up in one fluid motion and picked up a football from behind the ice chest. He takes a quick stride forward and steps on a conspicuous flat rock. Instantly a dummy in a football jersey and helmet pops up thirty yards out and Blake is already into his throw: shoulders perpendicular to the dummy's chest, a light tap on the ball before he draws his arm back, then an audible wisp as it hums out of his grasp, tracing the slightest arc in the still summer air before popping the dummy directly between the eights on the jersey, sending it springing back in a sharp jerky motion to lurch back up drunkenly and sway briefly before coming to rest slightly off-plumb from straight up.
"Goddamn right I do," he says. The gleam in his eye is borderline defiant now and his words are slightly muffled. The cigarette still burns in his mouth. "Just don't tell anybody, OK?"
I glance back out over the plain, the can of beer cold in my hand and the smoke sweet and acrid in the hot breeze. The dummy still rocks slightly on the wind and the buzzard is nowhere in sight.