The News-Sentinel sports writer Blake Sebring knows a little something about underdogs.
During more than 30 years covering sports for the newspaper — including 22 seasons of Fort Wayne Komets hockey — Sebring has seen young players come of age. He's seen great plays redeem mistakes. And he's seen amazing feats accomplished by players who believe in themselves and in their teammates.
Sebring weaves all that and more into “Homecoming Game,” a 255-page sports novel being published Saturday.
“It's basically there are two kids leading their new team to play their old team,” a Midwest football powerhouse, Sebring said. “They (the two players) have a lot to prove.
“I wanted to write something you could have fun with, and with people you can root for,” he added.
Sebring said he woke up one morning about 18 months ago with the book idea fully formed in his head.
At the time, he was working on a book about Fort Wayne sports history. But this new idea had such a strong pull on him, he knew he had to push the history book aside to get this one done.
The words “flew out of me” in about two months, he said. He spent about another six months rewriting it, then let it sit for a few months before going to back to do final changes.
Sebring said he tried to ensure the story is accessible to all ages.
Sebring has written five books previously, but this may have been the most fun to write.
One reason is the way he named his characters.
In the past, Sebring said he has struggled occasionally to decide on appropriate names and traits for characters in his books. This time, he named the main characters after his godsons and close friends.
He also offered to work into the book the names of anyone who donated to his bail when he participated in the Muscular Dystrophy Association's lockup fundraiser. As a result, he had many names to use, and each came with physical and personality traits that could help shape book characters — and provide a steady stream of inside jokes for the author.
A retired local educator, for example, shows up in the book as a college president. Co-workers, members of his church and other donors show up in various other roles.
“It just made it so much more fun to write,” Sebring said, grinning.
He works in plenty of other humor, too, such as having the visiting California football team greet chilly Indiana October weather dressed in T-shirts and shorts.
He can't contain his laughter while describing a scene in the book where the California team's quarterback, a native of this area, sets up two hulking teammates to go “snipe” hunting. Of course, there are no snipe here to hunt.
Sebring said he hopes people enjoy the story. There's opportunity in the story for him to write a sequel if they do.
Despite being one of the busiest and most-productive writers on The News-Sentinel's staff, Sebring said he can't imagine not also writing books in his spare time.
“It is such a different style of writing,” he said. “It is so much fun. It's a stress relief.”
Here is the first chapter from Blake Sebring's new sports novel, "Homecoming Game":
JUNE, THE PRESENT
"Time out! Time out, Ref!'' I yell.
I didn't want to use our last time out, but five seconds are all that remain on the clock so I have no choice. My team trails 8-6, and we are down to our final snap on our opponents' 25-yard line. Normally in this situation, the coach sends out the field goal unit, but our kicker can't kick the ball 5 yards. That might be because he's only 8 years old.
This is the wind-up day of the UC-Camarillo Thunderbolts football camp and after four days of drills and teaching and encouraging (mostly it's like herding cats, actually), we're down to the final play of the day's last scrimmage. The two-a-day sessions ended with our awards ceremony this morning, and then the kids play games in the afternoon with one of the college players as a teammate in seven-on-seven contests.
They love these games because it makes them feel like they are part of our team. Plus, they can show off what they have learned all week to Mom and Dad sitting in the stands. It can be a chore for the varsity players, but you forget that pretty quickly when looking at the kids' faces. Everybody is smiling and happy and excited like it's the last day of school before Christmas. It's easy to suck energy from the munchkins.
Plus, these kids are the only people who can talk more than me.
Since I'm the Thunderbolts' senior quarterback, I'm everybody's favorite player and I've already played in five of these games today and have a 4-1 record. My opponent this time is ``Big Dummy'' Jordan Eichorn, UC-Camarillo's starting linebacker who can run like Michael Vick, hit like Dwight Freeney but is as smart as a puppy. Eichorn has so far dominated the scrimmage, forgetting we are supposed to let the kids be the stars. He probably figures the kids on his side are happy because they are winning.
The point is, the kids are supposed to be the ones dominating, and we are supposed to play a supporting role.
``It's hopeless, Lars,'' center Kenny Wiegmann says to me on his way back to our huddle after ``Big Dummy'' knocks down my pass.
``No, it's not, Kenny, because I've got a trick or two left. It's never over until the clock runs out. You wanna hear my trick? Then everybody huddle up.''
All the players look at me, a few reaching up to grab their facemasks and shove them up so they can move the helmet back and see me. Finding the correct size helmets for 8-year-olds is pretty tricky. Even though I'm kneeling down, some of them are still looking up at me.
"Any of you guys hear of 'the cheese touch' play?'' I ask.
"You mean like from 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid?'" Hunter Sosenheimer says. He's one of three brothers on my team and loves playing sports even more than video games. Yes, he's that one kid in this generation. He even reads books. Someday he'll be my boss.
Wearing pads, all the kids look the same, but luckily, their names are written on masking tape across their helmets so I can tell who's who.
"That's right, Hunter. We only use this in the most dire situations, though. Like touching the cheese, it's a last-ditch, miracle play that can end in disaster.''
"Like a Hail Mary?'' Cole Foreman asks.
"It's better than one of those, Cole, but everyone has to trust me and do exactly what I tell you to, OK? Can you do that?''
Everybody nods, and again, five kids move to shove their facemasks back up.
"OK, here's what we're gonna do. Kenny, how far can you snap the ball?''
"I dunno. Pretty far, I guess. How far do you need?''
"I'm going to line up like a punter so you have to snap it to me pretty deep. Hunter, you, Kedrick and Drake have been arguing like brothers all week ...''
"Yeah, and Kedrick keeps getting us in trouble for it,'' Drake interrupts.
"Which is why this is going to work, and this time you won't get in trouble for it. Here's what we're going to do ...''
After I finish explaining the play, we clap to come out of the huddle, I turn to the one referee – who just happens to be my buddy Max Curry – and tell him no matter what, don't blow the whistle until the play is really dead.
"'Don't touch the cheese' is your strategy? Really?'' Max says. "Lars, that hasn't worked the first four times you've tried it. It didn't work when we were 8 and we used to call it 'The Flubber play.'''
Before we started the second grade, Max's family moved to my hometown of Talbott, Indiana, and we became neighbors and quickly friends. Maybe it was because I talked a lot and Max never said much. Actually, I never really gave him much of a chance. Now he's my favorite wide receiver with the Thunderbolts and my roommate so I still don't give him much chance to talk.
"Shut up, Max,'' I say with a grin, "I'm working here. If this works, you cook dinner.''
When everyone is lined up on both sides of the ball, I set up Hunter and Drake beside each other 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage on left end. Then I start my cadence.
"One Mississippi, SpongeBob is yellow, two Mississippi, Huckleberry Hound, Carmen Sandiego!''
Of course, the guys on the defensive side think this is hilarious, especially when I start waving my arms like the world's worst dancer, which there is little doubt I am. My favorite dance move is The Sprinkler where you put your right hand by your ear and then sporadically wave your elbow around in a halting motion like a sprinkler going off. At least everybody laughs at it intentionally instead of unintentionally at my usual dance moves.
I'm finally done stalling and yell "Hut two!'' and Kenny's snap comes looping at my face with only a little bit of wobble.
That's when Hunter and Drake start yelling at each other as only brothers can. As they move toward each other and it looks like they are about to throw punches, on the other side of the line Isabelle Miller drops down to one knee on right end like she has slipped. Standing next to her is Kedrick Sosenheimer who turns to look at his brothers arguing in the backfield.
"C'mon, guys, this is getting old,'' Kedrick yells at his brothers. All week he's tried to play peacemaker with no luck. Someday he'll be Secretary of State.
"Butthead started it!'' Hunter yells, but Drake immediately yells back, "I'm not a butthead, and I didn't start it! You did!''
Can you tell these guys are experts at this? It's a wonder their parents haven't thrown them into military school. Just as Kedrick approaches his brothers to step in, Hunter pulls back his right arm like he's going to swing at Drake. I stop my dropback, visibly relax and flip the ball to my left hand and hold the ball toward the ground and stand up straight – just like the play has been blown dead for an offsides call.
As everyone else is looking at the Sosenheimer boys, Isabelle gets up slowly and starts skipping down the field. Everyone on the defense is standing up, hands on hips as if they think the play is over – as they are supposed to. I hold the ball in my left hand and look like I am trotting forward to interject myself into the situation and stop the Sosenheimer boys from really going at it.
"Hey you guys, stop fighting,'' I bellow. "Big Dummy" even falls for it, standing up out of his linebacker stance to start walking toward the line of scrimmage to break up the fight – just as Isabelle skips by him. "Guys, stop it!'' he yells loud enough to be heard above the noise.
The whole situation with the brothers looks and sounds much more serious than it is. Because of his red face and killer glare, you'd swear Drake is about to snap and really throw a punch! For his part, Hunter just stands right there jawing at him, sticking his chin out as if he's daring Drake to let fly.
That's the whole plan. No one on this field knows I can also throw with my left hand. It's something I used to mess around with in practice during high school, but I have never thrown a left-handed pass in a game before. Maybe it's a leftover from my basketball days when I always worked on my off-hand dribbling and shooting, but it's also something that my best friend Max and I often goofed around with growing up. We'd play catch that way in the back yard when we got bored. We could always come up with a new game by making up rules for existing contests.
Now Isabelle is the key to the entire play. She's one of only five girls in the camp and the smallest player on the field, but her daddy is a booster so what the heck? These are 8-year olds and we are just having fun anyway. Though nobody knows that because she's a girl and all the boys pretty much ignored her all week, Isabelle is one of the best athletes on the field. Despite her size, she can run like the wind and she's one of the smartest kids around.
Once "Big Dummy" turns his head, she skips right by on his blindside and then takes off sprinting for the end zone. Even if someone turns their head to see her, there's no way they could catch up with her in time because she has a 15-yard head start – and again, she's really fast. As soon as I get to the Sosenheimers, I stop, lean back and flip the ball left-handed toward Isabelle who is wide open in the middle of the end zone. She's almost too wide open because I'm a little afraid of under- or over-throwing her. It's not the prettiest pass I've ever thrown, kind of a wobbling shot put actually, but it floats all the way there easily. Just like we taught her all week, Isabelle catches the ball in her stomach and gathers both arms below the ball.
Touchdown! And ballgame! We win 12-8.
She's not the only one who is surprised.
"Hey, wait a minute!'' "Big Dummy'' roars when he's finally able to close his mouth and turn back toward me. "That's cheating!''
"How?'' I say back with a huge grin on my face. "What was illegal? Were we offsides? Just because you fell for it doesn't mean it's cheating.''
Max, the referee, blows his whistle and signals touchdown so the game is over. By then, all the players on our team are running down to Isabelle where I pick her up and swing her around in a big hug.
"You did it!'' I yell. "I knew you could do it. Nice job!''
Just like their pro heroes on TV, everyone is jumping onto me to form a puppy pile, slapping Isabelle on the head. Only problem is they never show the guy who ends up on the bottom of the pile getting the worst of it, and that's where I am, discovering that 8-year olds have very sharp knees and elbows. Plus, I have to kind of hold up the whole load so we don't crush Isabelle who is laying on the ground giggling.
Even the Sosenheimer boys' faces show big smiles, and maybe they are the happiest players out of all of the kids because they realize for once they aren't in trouble.
"You guys see how much fun you can have when you work together instead of fighting?" I say after climbing out from under the pile and tapping each of them on the helmet.
They just nod and then reach up to push their facemasks up over their grins.