The Reapers’ Playbook
Before you is a tale best left forgotten.
It is a story of cheating and death and all things rotten.
But if you must read, do so with care.
Listen and learn and above all beware …
Coach Mike Dickson sat in his dimly lit office at half past midnight, a pile of failed trade deals and declined job applications serving as poor company. His hands absentmindedly reached for the loop of coarse rope resting just a few inches away in an opened drawer of his cold, metal desk. Soon the maintenance staff would turn the lights off and go home for the night, leaving him in the dark with his failures. His team, the Smithtown Reapers, had finished at the bottom last season.
Again, he thought numbly, staring at stacks of offseason hopes and dreams that amounted to nothing. Five seasons as head coach. Each one of them worse than the last. The franchise sputtered and dwindled as a result. The fanbase, on the other hand, was dying. Literally.
The majority of fans were bony 70-somethings, brash old men who couldn’t remember their wives’ names but somehow still remembered the glory days of the original Reapers some 50 years before. They were called Grim’s Reapers then, known and feared for their physical defense and deadly offense. Those days were gone, but not forgotten. He twisted the rope tight around his hands until his skin was hot and sore.
Charlie O’Rourke’s total yardage from the 1943 championship season.
The 42-3 blowout of ‘44.
The Catch from the final game in ‘47, their last appearance in the playoffs.
Each stat, score, and past personality did nothing but plague him in the present. Every failed season just another reminder that the good ol’ days were not only gone, but had instead been taken out back and shot.
If I could just win one. One game and everything would change, he thought. His eyes lifted to the pile of dirty clothes slumped in the corner of the office. The coach hadn’t always taken to sleeping in his office, but after his wife left him, the office became home. It was either that or an overpriced apartment downtown.
One win and I’ll get everything back. I’ll—
“Excuse me? Coach Dickson?” A soft voice called, snapping him out of his stupor. The doorknob to the office door clicked as it turned, swinging open under its own weight. Dickson quickly tossed the rope in the drawer and slammed it shut. Turning his attention back to the door, he was annoyed to find a white-haired man in a soiled blue zip-up jumpsuit waiting for him.
“Is now a bad time?” the old man asked, his small smile a collection of broken teeth and black holes. A maintenance worker by the looks of him, he had a slumped, impish stature. Dickson finally placed him as one of the retired equipment managers that still hung around the hallways, despite his career and those he served being long gone. There was an air of familiarity about him, but for the life of him, Dickson couldn’t remember the man’s name.
Ben? John? Jim? He thought it best not to guess. A quick glance to the side of his desk, Dickson felt a flare of panic as the drawer laid open once again, the length of rope staring up at him like a coiled viper. With one hand behind his desk, Dickson slowly shut the drawer, feigning a cough to mask the clang of metal on metal.
“Yes, what is it?”
“Well I, uh …” the man started and stopped. “I was cleaning out the retired weight room and came across something I think you might be interested in.”
You mean you were snooping around looking for old shit to sell on Ebay? the coach thought in tired frustration. But instead of asking the old man to leave, he relented.
“Oh, yeah? What is it?”
The man reached into the folds of his jumpsuit and pulled out a large book. It was thin and wrapped in cracking leather. “I think it belonged to the original Reapers. Back when we were win—” Dickson shot him an icy glance and the old man stopped short. “I mean back before the accident in ‘49.”
“Accident?” he muttered. “Oh, right.” The Reapers had been on a 21-game win streak, dating back to the previous season, the longest in league history. But before they made it to the final game of the ‘49 season, the hotel they were staying at across the city caught fire. Almost a whole city block went up in flames. The entire team and staff, burned. “What’s in the book?”
“I didn’t look at it, sir,” said the old man through another toothy smile. “I just thought you might like to see it. Maybe get some of the old team back before the new season starts.”
Dickson took hold of the book, its black leather binding feeling strangely warm against his skin. The cover held the flaking remains of a pressed gold skull. Must be the original Reapers logo, he thought as he ran a thumb across the weathered surface.
“Thanks,” the coach said, looking up from the book and seeing only an empty room and a closed door. Where did he go? The question lingered for a moment as he dropped his eyes to the book once more.
“Some of the old team back …” Dickson repeated as he flipped open the leather panel, landing on the last page of the book. He found it blank. Puzzled, he fingered through to the front. All empty. He finally reached the first page and felt a pang of short-lived excitement at the sight of jagged ink strokes. The coach read the words to himself.
If it’s winning you crave and fame you desire,
Here lies the answers to your unquenchable fire.
Beware that victory will cost you your best,
But should you continue, just say “yes.”
Dickson looked at the strange words, the scratches of ink working their way into his mind, imprinting themselves on his retinas. He knew all too well the desire that the poem spoke of. It had kept him awake at night for the past five years, it gnawed at his soul like a rabid dog. The word yes danced on his lips, before gently waltzing from his mouth.
A moment passed and nothing happened.
What am I doing? he scolded himself, tossing the black book onto his desk. It landed with a thunk and the leather-bound cover splayed open to reveal the cryptic poem. Then, as if a phantom hand had turned the page, a second page covered in ink revealed itself. How did I miss that one? Walking back over to his desk, he read the words at the top of the page. “The Reapers’ Reverse: 1943.” With fixed eyes, the coach scanned the markings, drinking in the ink-black tactics that sprawled out before him.
“Time out!” Dickson called with under a minute left in the season opener. Somehow the team had clawed its way back from a 21-0 deficit. It was now 21-17, and the Reapers had the ball on the 30-yard line. They needed a touchdown to win. Grabbing a small whiteboard and a marker, he quickly scribbled out the play that the black playbook had given him.
“We don’t have any timeouts left, so we only have one more shot at this,” he said over the huffs and puffs of the kneeling men in front of him. He turned his attention to the quarterback, jabbing the capped end of the marker in his direction.
“Jimmy, you’re going to fake it to the slot receiver on the jet sweep, then pitch it out to Thompson on the right, who’s going to take it toward the sideline. Then you leak out to the left and run like hell.”
Thompson slowly looked up. “Coach we’re gonna get fucking railed!”
Coach leaned in, narrowing his eyes at Jimmy and making it a point to ignore Thompson. “Run. Like. Hell.”
The players nodded and trudged their tired legs back out onto the field.
This will work, he told himself. It has to. Dickson kept his breath captive as the play unfolded. Somehow the defense bit hard on the fake handoff, and the quarterback managed to sneak through the scrum of wrestling behemoths barreling down on the fullback. Flipping the ball out to Thompson, Jimmy took off down the left sideline.
This is it!
Thompson swung out around the scrum, ball in hand. The defensive end caught on to the faint and was now making a murderous run toward the ball carrier.
“Throw it,” Dickson urged from the sidelines, as the play began to break down. “THROW IT!”
The defensive end was airborne now, ripping through the last few yards between him and his prey. Thompson stretched his arm back then slung the ball forward just as the 240-pound mass of enemy muscle slammed into him.
The football soared down the sidelines, a sprinting quarterback tearing underneath.
Catch it. Catch it!
Jimmy cocked his head back in time to see the prize, his hands cradling the ball as it fell. The end-zone referees raised their arms, igniting a firestorm of celebration in the stands. Coach Dickson and the rest of the Reapers erupted as well. Jumps and cheers and hugs ensued. Jimmy the quarterback continued with speed into the endzone, his head still turned over his shoulder as the awe of victory took over. The rest of the team collapsed on top of him, screaming with a force that would lose one’s voice.
The cheers then turned to gasps as the attention of the stadium moved toward Thompson’s place on the field. His hips contorted like an action figure that a child had twisted around. He lay there quiet and motionless.
Cost you your best …
The words echoed in his mind, as Dickson broke out into a sprint. The team doctors made it to the player before the coach did, the look on their faces already grave enough to silence the crowd. It was only a matter of moments before a stretcher was deployed and Thompson’s limp body was carted off to the locker room, then the hospital, then the morgue.
Dickson sat in his office late into the night, the black book opened to the second page. The play … killed him? He sat in disbelief. Surely it was a coincidence. People get hit hard every game. It is football after all? That is what is supposed to happen. Just not … like this. I just picked a play and ran it. There just happened to be a terrible accident. That’s what it was. An accident. He tried to reassure himself, but failed badly. The book had warned that it would cost me my best … I … I killed him.
A player was dead.
But he won.
I won, he said to himself, a small ugly grin spreading the length of his stubbled cheeks. I finally won. And … Dickson’s eyes glossed over as he flipped to the next set of plays, inked out across the pages of the book. I plan to win again.
And win he did.
But as the wins piled up, so did the bodies. Each win more epic than the last, each death more gruesome than the previous.
A 14-10 nail-biter win over the Mad Hounds. Demarcus’ windpipe was ground into soup by a rogue cleat in a dogpile.
A 17-14 overtime win against the Red Electric. Right after kicker Travis Boyd nailed the winning field goal, his head emptied itself of blood like two broken faucets while his body quietly collapsed from apparent internal bleeding.
A 38-3 sweep of the Vultures, which ended in a grand celebration. Only to have that celebration soiled later that evening by the discovery of Marcus in the parking lot, dragged across the asphalt by a hit-and-run driver.
An unreal 24-21 victory over the Southern Smash. The mascot “Riley the Reaper” made a mess when he slipped and fell from the third level of the stadium to the bottom, bringing his inflatable sickle and drum down with him. The children were not pleased.
Eventually the players began to see a pattern and some chose to leave, either storming out in a scared fit of rage or simply vanishing. No one could really blame them, but Coach made sure it was known they were cowards. The ones that did stay were under Dickson’s spell. They had drank from the “championship Kool-Aid,” as one newspaper had put it.
Despite it all, as the wins poured in, so did the fans. People were flocking from everywhere to either pay their respects or to get a chance to see the gore with their own eyes. Talks of the old days were revived, brought back from the death of back-to-back-to back-to-back to-back winless seasons. But along with the fame came rumors as well: The stadium is cursed. The team is cursed. The town is cursed.
There was a rumor for everyone and everything, except for Dickson himself. And that’s how he liked it. He couldn’t get caught. Not yet. Not before winning it all.
Toward season’s end, Dickson had gone through the entire starting line up. He had to call in backups from all over just to have enough players to make it to the upcoming championship game. But he didn’t care. It didn’t matter who was on the field. He was just one win away from the ultimate prize. If he could win the championship, then nothing would matter anymore. Not the black book, nor the dead players, nor the winless seasons that plagued his middling career.
Just one more win, he told himself as he sauntered down the hallway to the locker room, black book firmly in hand. Out on the field, he heard the familiar rat-a-tat of the aging sprinklers. Stopping at the door to the team room, Dickson took a deep breath. Just one more—
He turned to see a familiar old face huffing and puffing up an adjacent hallway. The old equipment manager … what was his name again? Dickson tried to think back to their first meeting.
Before the wins. Before the deaths …
“Uh, good to see you again,” Coach said “But now isn’t a good time. I’m about to—”
“Yes, yes, the game is starting soon,” the old man waved his hand. “Congratulations on the season! Seems you got some of the old team back!”
Taking a sideways glance down each hallway, he then leaned in close. Dickson took a concerned step backward but felt the gentle bump of the the door behind him, trapping him in.
“Did you ever end up using the … you know.” A puzzled expression was Dickson’s only reply. “You know,” the old man whispered. “The book.”
Sudden panic gripped him. He’s the only other person that knows about the book. If he were to say anything … Before thinking twice, the coach grabbed the old man by his sweaty blue collar and swept him into the empty locker room.
“Who have you told about it? The book? I know you know something, old man.” His hand found the impish man’s throat, paranoia in full flare. “And I can’t lose … not yet …”
The veins in the old man’s eyes swelled as he scanned the crazed coach. Dickson tightened his grip. If he knows something, he’ll tell. And then I’ll lose everything. I can’t. Not now. I’m so close. I’m—
Suddenly the old man broke into a low cackle.
“What’s so funny?” Dickson asked, his anger spilling into his paranoia, his hands tensing, trying to squeeze the laughter out of the man.
“You are, Coach Mike Dickson,” the old man choked.
Dickson squeezed harder, trying to stop the man from laughing. But the more he tightened, the harder the man laughed. “Stop it!” he screamed. “Stop laughing! Shut up!”
“What is your plan, coach?” the old man hissed through purple lips. “Kill me in front of your players?”
Oh no …
Dickson released the man and spun on his heels. A lone man sat in the middle of room, his torso swirled like the top of an ice cream cone, the head barely attached and hung at a sickening angle.
Dickson’s breath caught in his chest, but not before the fluorescent light overhead sputtered, and a second player appeared next to Thompson on the equipment bench. It was Demarcus, his throat was shredded into ribbons. Another flicker and a third player appeared, a gallon’s worth of blood leaking from his face. Travis. A tsunami of horror washed over the coach, their coach, as his fear crescendoed. The locker room slowly filled with corpses, each one a victim of a page from the playbook.
“W-what’s going on?” Dickson managed through the shock. This can’t be happening. Not now. Not yet. Not before I — the black book slipped from his fingertips, the old man snatching it on his way to the center of the room. “Who … who are you?”
The haggard man quietly reached into his jumpsuit, and like a magician, pulled forth a long familiar rope and heaved it over the beam that stretched across the ceiling. But this time it was tied in a grisly loop.
“This is my team. It always has been my team,” the wrinkled thing chuckled, tapping the gold seal on the book.
And suddenly, they were on him fast.
The unnatural structures of their hulking bodies collapsing onto him one by one. A growing collection of cold, damp hands made his resistance futile. Coach Mike Dickson’s last cry was cut short by the sound of a coarse rope and a creaking beam.
The Reapers went on to win the championship game, 32-3.
So now you know the tale of the cursed playbook.
Should you come across it, resist the urge to look,
Or you’ll rue the day you saw old Grimm grinning
Always remember: there is more to life than winning.