Fandom: Stargate Atlantis
Wordcount: ~27,000 words
Summary: AU. After the sudden heart attack of Coach Sumner, Pegasus High School needs to find a new football coach. But will Coach Sheppard be able to hold the Atlanteans together? And can he bring them to the State Championships? Football, ferris wheels, and a grouchy physics teacher who talks faster than two hundred miles per hour ensue.
Notes: This was heavily inspired by Friday Night Lights. You don't need to see the show to understand any of this, but those of you who have will find that some things will look very familiar. I would like to thank zulu for being with me every step of the way and for her incredible job bringing my football up to par, roga for poking me into writing this when it was just a wee bunny and for calling me on my laziness, and savemoony for audiencing and listening to me bitch when I needed it most. This would not be here if not for them.
John likes that on the first day, the principal smiles at him over her large, imposing desk and says, "I know you've got a few spots on your record, but you've done good work in the past, and we're glad you're here." Her lips curl up at the corners, and John thinks that she genuinely means it, that she's not just telling him what he wants to hear. It had been hard, finding someplace that would take him in after Greenville. He kept Holland in for the last quarter of the semi-final playoff game, even though his playing had been off for most of the other three, a decision that cost John his job when he was just an assistant coach.
Now they're giving him an entire team. The Pegasus Atlanteans, to be exact.
"Thank you, ma'am," he says, smiling back.
"I just wanted to welcome you here on your first day, so I won't keep you here any longer." She hands him a blue and black baseball cap, PEGASUS FOOTBALL stitched above the brim, and it's strange, feeling the weight of an entire season in his hands. There's a hint of amusement on her face as he turns the cap in his hands before sliding it on, like she knows, like she can tell. "Go get 'em, Coach."
There's something stuck in his throat, and he's not sure what to say, what he can say, but he manages to get a "Yes, ma'am," out before he leaves.
His assistant coaches, Teyla and Ronon, accost him in the locker room an hour and a half hours before practice starts, while he gets lost trying to find his office. He's met them a few times before, when he was in talks with the school, but he hasn't gotten a chance to know them that well yet, too caught up in the move and the settling in.
They're incredibly different. Ronon's huge, huge enough to make John uncomfortable, and Teyla's small, small enough that John could almost think she's fragile. From what he's heard, they're good, and he can believe it.
"Coach," Teyla says, "we've been looking for you." John has seen the Atlanteans play before, back before Coach Sumner's heart attack, and he remembers being impressed at the utter serenity Teyla manages to project at all times. Even when they were down by twenty points, closing in on the fourth quarter, she had been calm and smiling, not fazed in the slightest. She's like that here, patient with the the new guy, and John's wondering how she manages to keep the guys in line game after game, practice after practice, if she's like this all the time.
"Hey, guys," he says. "What's up?"
Teyla raises an eyebrow and says, "We simply wanted a word with you before today's practice, to bring you up to speed."
"Yeah, sure," John says. Everything feels too new, too overwhelming, and it's hard to keep everything straight. He's never been at the top before, and there's just so much he has to know, has to care about.
They stick a roster in front of his face, names and numbers he doesn't recognize, but this is it. This is his team.
Ronon starts with the defense, pointing out Stackhouse and Sherman, their two largest guys, their most experienced seniors. The rest of the line is solid, too, with some of the newer guys performing well.
The offense is spottier. "Laura Cadman?" John asks. She's starting for the first time this year, and there was some hoopla when she joined the team last year. Not everyone in town was comfortable with girls playing football. Not everyone two towns over was, either.
Ronon shrugs. "She's fast and she's tough."
Teyla gives him a look that says that she could break his balls if she wanted to. "Ronon and I felt that she was well-suited for being a wide receiver."
John nods, figuring he'll trust them for now, at least. From what he's heard of her, he can believe it.
There's Lorne, the new starting quarterback, who'd shown promise the year before; Ford, their tailback, younger and almost untested; Bates, their battle-hardened center. They're not cohesive, not yet, but John can see the potential here, in these stats, in these names. He just hopes he can get it out of them in the end.
It's the middle of summer, and practice starts when the sun is high in the sky, the hottest it's going to be all day. John makes sure to wear his aviators, his baseball cap, and his most smart-ass smile. The team's in front of him in full gear, minus helmets, and he thinks they look wary, defensive, not ready to trust the new guy yet. John doesn't mind to much. He wouldn't trust himself either.
"I think you all know who I am," John says, "so I don't need to introduce myself. I want ten laps. Right now."
There's some muffled groans from the team, but they seem to catch Teyla's glare and quiet down. John snaps his gum and smirks as they trot off. "I think I'm going to like it here," he says, hands on hips, a little drunk on the power. He'd missed this. He really did.
"I believe they will eventually come to be fond of you, too," Teyla replies, her tone neutral, and John can't tell if she's joking or not.
They split off after that, Ronon taking the defensive line, Teyla taking the offensive. John watches them work, trying to get a sense of them here, with the guys (and girl), how they interact with the team.
Ronon's terse and to the point, solid, grounding everyone around. Teyla's calm and tranquil, not fazed by anything. The newer guys don't seem to think much of her, but the second someone (Reed, John thinks) says something about her ass under his breath to Markham, she smiles and tells them to do fifty suicides without even raising her voice. They settle down after that, and no one questions her authority again. John's actually pretty impressed.
Practice winds down, and John likes what he sees. He can trust them, he thinks, these coaches, this team. He just hopes that they can trust him in return.
At the end, John pulls Lorne aside before he goes into the locker room. "This is your first year starting, is that right?" he asks.
Lorne's a good-looking kid with an easy smile and a good arm, and John thinks he's got potential. "Yeah, Coach," he says. His hair's plastered to his forehead with sweat, his eyes bright with adrenaline, and John understands the expression on his face, because he loves this game, loves it.
"Look," John says. "I may be the coach, but you're going to have to be the one that leads this team."
Lorne nods, nervously biting his lip. It's a lot to put on him, but John thinks he can handle it. "Sure, Coach."
"You think you can do it?" John asks.
Lorne shrugs, projecting a good deal of uncertainty, but also some resolve. "Probably, sir."
"Good man," John says, slapping a shoulder pad.
He meets Rodney for the first time in the faculty lounge, on a rumor that it has the best coffee in the entire building (though that wasn't saying much). John notices the shoulders first, broad and strong, as they're hunched over a cheap wooden table. The next thing he notices is the way the guy is muttering under his breath, a red pen tucked between his fingers. He's a teacher, John figures. Can't really be anything else.
"Hey," John says, meaning to introduce himself, but that seems to startle the guy, causing the table to rock on uneven legs, a pencil spilling to the floor.
"Do you mind?" the guy says, taking in the blue windbreaker. "Some of us have actual work to do. Work that does not involve yelling at overdeveloped jocks and fueling the testosterone crazed delusions that a stupid game actually means anything."
"I was going to introduce myself," John replies, drawing out his words, "but I see that's not really necessary."
The guy rolls his eyes (and John notices how blue they are, clear and sharp) and sticks out his hand with an edge of reluctance, a put-upon sigh. "Rodney McKay, physics. I'm mostly filling in for my sister while she's out on maternity leave, and believe me, when I can get my ass out of football-worshiping Podunk, USA, I will."
"Nice to meet you, too, Mr. McKay," John says, shaking his hand. And if he lets it go on for one second too long, he can just convince himself that it's just because the exaggerated irritation that flashes over McKay's face is too priceless to pass up.
"That's Dr. McKay to you, Sheppard," McKay snaps, and John laughs, because he thinks he likes this guy and his big mouth, his expressive face.
"Sure thing, Doc," John says, pouring himself a cup of coffee from the machine in the corner and taking a sip.
It's actually pretty good.
John's been playing football since he could walk. In the summers, he'd play catch with his dad in the back yard, the sun low and the sky orange, his father's sleeves rolled up to his elbows after a long day of work. John knew the perfect technique to throwing a football before he could even fit his hands properly around the damn thing, and it was one of the few things he and his dad really shared, that they never lost, even when they went through the rough patch of his teenage years.
He played on teams for pretty much all of childhood, from peewee all the way up through varsity, but he was never good enough to play college ball. For those years, he was out on the stands, just part of crowd, and that had its own charms. No pressure, just the rush of the crowd all around him, like they were a force of nature, like they could do anything, anything at all, if they just shouted loud enough, if they just wanted it badly enough.
When he got his degree (in English, oddly enough), he wandered around the country a bit, odd jobs here and there, and when he ended up back home, his old peewee coach, now coaching for the middle school, asked him if he ever wanted to work for him. They'd needed another assistant coach, after their previous one took a job offer elsewhere, and John remembers the way it felt, being out on that field again, how he hadn't realized he'd missed the game until he had a chance to get it back.
Summer passes quickly enough. The team shapes up pretty well under Teyla and Ronon's careful eyes. They're tougher, faster, stronger, and they're still getting better. They're learning the plays, the moves, the skills. Their heads are where they need to be when they show up day after day, practice after practice. It's an amazing thing, watching something come together like this, the way the team learns to trust each other, learns to trust themselves. They're not perfect, not by a long shot, but they're doing better, and that's all John can really ask for.
He's not sure if he actually knows what he's doing or if he's managed to perfect a type of bullshit that's almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Teyla and Ronon haven't called him on it yet, but they might just be humoring him. He guesses he'll find out during the first game.
In the mornings, he makes sure to visit the faculty lounge, hoping to catch McKay. He can't pay for entertainment that good, and John actually likes him, besides. At first, it's a hit or miss proposition, McKay only showing up a couple times a week in no real consistent order, and McKay doesn't seem to like him much. But John's one of the few people (apparently) who is willing to listen to McKay when he gets going, and eventually McKay starts showing up every day, looking sleepy and downing half the pot before starting up on rants about public education, the weather, and the food. After a couple weeks, John learns that Rodney's doctorate is in astrophysics, that he usually teaches at the University of Toronto, that he hates the United States, and that he's not entirely sure why he's here, either.
They usually sit by the window, and John half-listens and eats his morning bagel, watching the way Rodney's hands move in the morning light, the animation of his face, as he moves from one smug satisfaction to irritation to wistfulness.
If someone were to ask, John would probably say that the mornings are his favorite part.
The school year starts too soon, and suddenly, the hallways of the school fill with students. The air gets cooler. The days get shorter.
Rodney's rants turn more to the stupidity of the students ("It's one thing in summer school. I expect them to be the moronic flunkies, but this is an AP class."), and it becomes rare, finding him without his red pen in one hand, some student's gross incompetence in the other, a frown on his face. John ends up meeting some of the other teachers in the faculty lounge, like Radek, who teaches math, and Carson, who does Bio. John likes them well enough, and they like him well enough back.
The team is raring to go for their first game, giving their all in the scrimmages. Stackhouse's tackles are harder and better, Lorne's passes hit every time, Ford moves like a demon possessed. Cadman, in one memorable incident, nearly dislocates Sherman's shoulder while breaking a tackle. Afterward, Teyla chews Sherman out for going easy on Cadman, just because she's a girl, and John's grateful, because he didn't want to have to go through that talk himself.
Even though they're good, they're not quite up to par with Greenville's team, but maybe they won't ever be, maybe they don't need to be.
The pressure's beginning to mount from other places, too. People start randomly coming up to John in public places, like the supermarket, the gas station, asking him about the team, about their game. John knows how people get about this sort of thing, but he's never seen it from this side before. He'd never thought of himself as a figure before, but people recognize him on the street. People want to talk about Genii's offense, NanoTech's defense, the way the Wraith Devils have taken the State Championship for a decade running.
All the attention is beginning to really get on his nerves, so if he seems more snappish during practice, if he gets quieter and more sullen at times, he's pretty sure no one can blame him.
The day before their game, Principal Weir invites him over to her house for dinner. "You could probably use the distraction," she says, smiling with that odd, knowing air. "And Simon's been dying to meet you."
John says yes, because he thinks it'll be easier than putting up a fight, and at 5:30, he tosses on a suit and a tie, combing his hair to try to make it look presentable, even though it doesn't seem to like that.
He rings the front doorbell five minutes before six, and on the other side of the door, there's the sound of barking and a man saying, "I've got it, honey."
The man who opens the door is friendly-looking, middle-aged, holding back a dog by its collar with his left hand. "Hey," he says, warmly, holding his free hand out. "You must be the Coach. I'm Simon Wallace. It's a pleasure to meet you."
John shakes his hand, and slides inside, doing his best to avoid getting dog slobber on his nice suit. "Nice meeting you, too," he says back. His smile feels a bit plastered to his face.
Dinner is rather pleasant, and John does have to admit that it's nice to have something he didn't cook himself, for once. Elizabeth and Simon are good company, warm, friendly, even if the conversation does entirely revolve around the upcoming season.
"So, this Lorne guy," Simon asks, "he any good?"
John always hates when people put him on the spot like this. There's no way he's going to talk shit about his players, not even in private. "Yeah," John says, glad he doesn't have to lie at all, "Lorne's good. He's got some real leadership potential."
"How about tomorrow, Coach?" Simon continues, pressing on. "How we looking there?"
John shrugs. To be fair, he has no fucking clue on how it's going to go. "Dagan's a pretty solid team, and we'll just go out there play our best against them, see how it goes."
Simon chuckles. "How about this season? You think we've got a chance at State this year?"
John shrugs again. "We'll see what Wraith have got up their sleeves this time around. I wouldn't get my expectations up." That's the single most-common question he gets whenever he ends up in conversations like this, and he's already got his standard response down pat.
"That's the good thing about being the underdog," Elizabeth says, amusement lurking in her voice, "there's nowhere to go but up."
It's dark when John finally leaves, golden light spilling from their windows, the evening air crisp and cool.
Athletes are a superstitious lot, and John's not really any different. They all have their pre-game rituals, some of them odder than others.
After he leaves the Weirs', he makes his way down to the stadium by the school, because he knows it's quiet at this point and time, practically silent. He's been doing this one since high school, after the first time he started JV and spent the entire game freaking out.
The school's mostly dark, with one exception, and in the first floor window he sees a familiar figure, hunched in front of a computer. Because he can, John sneaks up and taps on the glass, smirking as McKay nearly jumps out of his seat.
"Jesus, Sheppard," McKay says, sliding a window open. "What the hell are you doing here at this time of night?"
"I could ask you the same thing, Doc," John replies, deflecting the question. These sorts of rituals are awfully private, and the only other person who knows about John's is his dad, who passed it down to him when he was thirteen and needed something to keep him focused during games.
McKay sighs, and all of a sudden, John notices that he looks tired. "I'm staying with my sister while I'm here, and it's not bad, per se, it's just that I'm used to living by myself, and well, I'm having trouble concentrating with my niece and brother-in-law underfoot, too, both of whom are entirely too annoying for their own good. Seriously, he's a vegetarian English professor. Can you believe that she gave up theoretical physics research for this?"
"I was an English major," John says, mildly, resisting the urge to wind McKay up some more.
"Of course you were," Rodney says, dismissively. "And you still haven't told me what you're doing out here, Sheppard."
John shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot. "Um, I was just here to see the field."
McKay rolls his eyes and a huffs out a breath. He turns back to his computer screen, rubbing his face. "If you don't want to tell me, you don't have to."
"It's just," John starts, because all of a sudden, he wants to tell McKay about this, wants someone else out there with him. "It's just something I do the night before a game."
"Annoy physicists while they're trying to write up their papers?" McKay snorts. "Look, Sheppard, I'm not going to tattle to anyone about your freaky pre-game rituals, okay?" He pauses for a moment. "Unless it involves sacrificing virgin cheerleaders to the football gods. It doesn't, right?" McKay looks genuinely worried for a second, and John smirks.
"Nah, we only do that before playoffs," John says. He doesn't wait for McKay to start on some other tangent. "Come on," he says, nodding toward the field.
John's not sure whether or not McKay will actually say yes, so he breathes a sigh of relief when McKay sighs and turns off his monitor. "Fine, fine, fine. But if I go home with bug bites, it's all your fault."
John grins and grabs a football out of his truck. (There's always at least one there, not really by design. It just sort of happens.) Rodney's already out of the building and grumbling, but it's a gorgeous night, a cloudless sky, pinpricks of light overhead.
John makes his way out into the middle of the field, right at the center of the fifty yard line, Rodney lingering on the sideline. John curls his fingers around the ball, his fingers finding the laces out of instinct. He closes his eyes, and he can pretty much feel Rodney get impatient. "Shep--" he starts, but John lets out a "Shhhhhh," and he can hear Rodney's mouth snap shut.
There's a slight breeze that tickles the hair on John's arms, and in the distance, the faint rumble of a truck. It's so quiet, empty of sound, and John takes that silence into him, memorizes every bit of it. The first time, his dad had said, "When you're out here tomorrow, there's going to be a lot of noise, lots of people yelling at you, Johnny, lots of people trying to distract you. But all you have to do is carry this moment with you, remember the way it feels to exist right here, right now."
When he opens his eyes, Rodney's still on the sidelines, looking pale and unearthly in the moonlight. "That's it?" he yells, and John can see edges of an incredulous expression on his face.
"Yeah," John yells back, feeling thirteen and sixteen and eighteen all over again, all of those other pre-game nights folded back up into this one. "That's it."
Their first game goes like this:
Lorne wins the coin toss and chooses to receive the kick-off. The wind's in Dagan's favour, but Cadman runs the ball for thirty yards, sidestepping tackles and using Bates's blocks like an artist, and Pegasus starts their possession with excellent field position.
Dagan comes back, though, taking down the Pegasus offensive line not with brute force, but with some sneaky moves that somehow manage to get them to Lorne around the pocket before anyone can stop them. Lorne ends up eating turf more than once, and while he doesn't bitch about it, the way John's seen other quarterbacks do, there's a frown that seems semi-permanently attached to his face.
Dagan gets a quick touchdown on their first possession, their quarterback somehow finding a clear path to the endzone after a fake-out carry. The Atlanteans manage to catch up when the coverage on Ford doesn't realize that he doesn't actually have the ball and lets their fullback, Griffin, slide right past them. Dagan manages to get another touchdown in with a long-shot pass when Sherman can't cover the receiver. Going into the half, the Atlanteans are barely hanging on, one touchdown behind, the score 14-7.
At this point, John's voice feels scraped raw from yelling, and his shoulders feel tense from the weight of everyone's expectations, so he just spouts some platitudes about getting their heads in the game, and how they can actually win if they try hard enough, but he doesn't quite feel it himself. The team nods, their expressions determined and set, but John thinks that maybe he's just made it worse.
The second half goes better, but not good enough. Ford pushes through the line of scrimmage on a third-and-inches play to get them another touchdown, so they tie, which gets a huge roar from the Pegasus side of the field, a wave of blue standing up and cheering.
In the last quarter, however, they call offsides on Cadman during a fourth down, despite the fact that she was still a good three inches behind the line of scrimmage. The penalty puts them back ten yards, and they lose the ball on downs. John manages not to get into the ref's face too much, but that's mostly Teyla's doing, a calming hand on his shoulder. Dagan takes that opportunity and runs with it, quite literally, and John resists the urge to throw his hat onto the ground in frustration as the Dagan running back sails into the endzone.
They do manage to strike back, getting a field goal from behind the thirty-yard line, because at that point John's willing to take their points where they can get them, but their final gambit gets shut down at the ten-yard line, Cadman not managing to spin off the safety's tackle, so close and yet so far.
The game ends like that, Dagan winning 21-17, and John tries not to think about what this means from the sidelines, as he watches the other team celebrate.
The team takes the loss hard, and John does, too. All he can say to them, on the bus ride back to Pegasus is, "Good game, you guys."
It's dim inside the bus, only the fleeting glow of streetlights, and John can't see their reactions, but they're quiet, really quiet. "We'll get them next time," John continues, lamely, knowing that there's really nothing he can say to make this all right.
He sits back down, slumping into the uncomfortable seat. Across the aisle, Teyla smiles warmly at him, and John's thankful for the support, but it's not enough. He presses the heel of his palm against his forehead, trying not to think about the next week. No one likes losers, and even though Pegasus doesn't have the same sort of record as some of the other teams John's worked for, it's a real downer, not starting out the season with a win.
He spends the weekend sleeping and eating cereal out of the box, not really willing to venture out into public. Ronon drops off game tapes mid-Sunday and says, "You should probably shave."
John rubs his hand over a couple days' worth of stubble and says, "Yeah, I probably should."
That's the pretty much the extent of their conversation. After Ronon leaves, John stacks the tapes next to his television and doesn't watch them. He's got a week, plenty of time.
Monday morning, he slides into the teacher's lounge, hoping that it'll be mostly empty. He's not really ready or willing to deal with the fallout, not before coffee, anyway. Thankfully, it's just Rodney, Radek, and the history teacher, Peter Grodin. Rodney and Radek were having a loud argument, the sort no one should be having at nine AM on a Monday.
"Look," Rodney says, "they've got to know derivatives for the AP material, and it's definitely not my job to teach basic calculus to them, so--"
"Good morning, Coach," Radek says, interrupting the tirade. "Please tell me you're here to take Rodney off my hands."
John grins at the glare Rodney shoots at the other man and nearly laughs out loud at the way McKay hisses, "Just because you don't want to actually hear about your deficiencies as a teacher," just before John grabs him by an arm and drags him over toward their usual window seat.
He half-expects Rodney to start bitching about coaches who stick their noses into other people's businesses, a welcome distraction from the rest of John's life, but Rodney just shifts uncomfortably for a few moments.
"Um," he finally says, "I'm sorry about Friday. I wasn't really paying attention while Jeannie was explaining the rules, but her husband assured me that those refs were being incompetent and it looked like you were playing, uh, well, adequately, so you probably deserved a win."
John was kind of hoping to spend time around Rodney because he was pretty much the only one in this town who didn't really care about football, but the sudden outburst from him doesn't actually make John feel weird or uncomfortable or anything like that. In fact, kind of the opposite, a warm, gentle feeling spreading across his chest. "You went to the game on Friday?" he asks.
Rodney's expression takes on a bit of a deer-in-headlights look. "Uh, yes?" He blinks a few times before he snaps back into himself, and says, "Well, Jeannie insisted that I should get the whole small-town experience, and it wasn't like anything was anything to do, what with everything shutting down for the game, not that I usually leave the house on Friday nights or anything like that, but just in theory, if I needed to go to the convenience store for batteries or something, I wouldn't be able to, though I guess the supermarket would still be open. I wonder why I didn't think of that earlier."
At this point, the conversation's entirely derailed, but John doesn't really mind. He could ride this high for the rest of the day, if he wanted.
His good mood only lasts until lunch, when he overhears the radio announcer (Kavanaugh, John thinks his name is) as he starts going through a litany of complaints about the team this year, starting with "the new coach" and going all the way down to "the new coach playing a girl as wide receiver", and by the end, John wants to strangle him, just a little. What makes it worse is that every once in a while, one of the points is actually valid, which makes John wince and feel like something someone scraped off the bottom of their shoe.
During practice, there's something lackluster in everything they do, like they've been drained of everything, or almost everything, just going through the motions. John gets how they feel.
Teyla spends most of her time frowning disapprovingly, and Ronon may look just a hair bit more irritated than usual, and John thinks he might be giving off bad vibes or something, because people are shooting him weird looks.
In the end, it's Ford who explains it, during a water break. He looks a little confused. "Uh, I think we're mostly just waiting for you to scream at us for sucking and how we really need to do better next time." He pauses. "That or give us a speech about how we're all winners on the inside."
John blinks. "You are all winners on the inside," he says, automatically.
Ford grins brightly at that. "Uh, thanks, Coach."
"You also need to stop sucking and do better next time."
"Right, of course, Coach." Ford nods, expression suddenly flipping to serious, and then jerks his head toward the rest of the team. "Um, I'll just let them know that."
"Thanks," John says.
He pulls out the game tapes that night, because all of a sudden he has this voice in his head telling him that he's being a moron and he should get over himself and watch the damn tapes already, and weirdly enough, it sounds like Rodney (not that Rodney knows anything about football, much less anything about coaching football). John's got a semi-used couch from the previous owners, a good-but-not-great TV he bought when he moved here, and a VCR he half-stole from the school, because for some reason, the football team has two VCRs and one TV. As he settles in to watch tapes for the night, he thinks about making popcorn before rejecting the idea. No need to get butter stains all over his notes.
It's not any easier, watching them lose again, but this time, he notices the way there's a hole, right between Sanchez and Miller, not as obvious on the ground, not that big, but wide enough to get a ball through every once in a while, something quarterbacks are trained to see from the first time they take a snap. He makes a note on his pad to get Ronon to train it out of them later, feeling a sense of purpose now.
There's the way Lorne takes way too long to make his passes. It's good in the sense that he's not rushing things, not blowing downs in his attempts to get rid of the ball, but he needs to be quicker on his feet, needs to get better at trusting his instincts.
Ford's a little too hesitant with the ball, not willing to run through people, force his way through the defense. John's going to have to get Teyla to work with him on that, get him to be more aggressive.
It's somewhere in the second quarter that he starts getting caught up in the game, even though he already knows how it ends, losing himself in the snaps, the passes, the handoffs. He slides to the edge of his seat without realizing he's doing it, caught up in that perfect play where Lorne's fakeout works exactly as planned, and he jumps to his feet as Griffin leads a couple of Dagan's defenders down the field, nipping at his heels.
John forgets how beautiful the game is, sometimes, when he's too caught up in the rest of the bullshit, the front he has to put up in public, the way there's always someone just waiting to see you fail. But there's none of that here, on the tape. It's just... football, the game John fell in love with when he was five, and even as he's watching them lose, watching Dagan kick their asses, he's falling all over again.
The next day, he gathers the team into a circle before practice. "You may have already heard this from Ford," John says, as conversationally as you can while yelling, "but you all suck and you need to do better next time. We've got a game against NanoTech on Friday and you're not going to screw this one up, got that?" He's probably ruining the hardass effect by grinning all the way through, but he feels alive and ready, prepared. They can do better. They will do better, if John has anything to say about it.
The team's grinning back, shouting affirmatively, and John can feel their energy, practically taste it. He needed a chance to remember this, to remember that he does this because he loves this game, to remember that losing once doesn't mean you're going to lose again, to remember that winning doesn't have to mean everything. He thinks the team's realizing that too.
"They are doing better today, I think," Teyla says mildly, during a break, and John has to agree. He's been keeping tabs on the things he's noticed, making the necessary corrections where he needs to. But no one gets annoyed or angry. They just grit their teeth, dig in their heels. There's a sense of gusto, everyone working harder, working better, and John's been there. He knows what it's like to push yourself to the limit for your coach, for your school, for your team.
"They're sucking less," Ronon says, drinking some water from a small plastic cup.
John's still grinning. "Yeah," he says.
There's been a sudden heat wave, the temperature rising to late-summer levels again, and they're all sweating like pigs under the hot sun. But no one complains when John ends their break by calling out for some blocking drills.
They just pull on their helmets and bite down on their mouth guards, lining up and waiting for John to bark out his next instructions. It's quiet for a moment, just the sound of equipment shifting, bodies arranging themselves, and John takes the time to appreciate the way they're shaping up, better than he could have hoped.
They look good, he thinks. They look ready.
After practice ends, he and Ronon and Teyla camp out in his office, watching tapes of NanoTech's first game last week, trying to hash out a strategy. NanoTech's a fairly new MAGNET school in the area, only a couple years old, but their team, the Bots, have already positioned themselves as a strong contender, kicking Pegasus' ass in both of those years.
Watching them play, John can tell why. They don't have the biggest or the fastest players, but they have some of the most stunning plays that John has ever seen, intricate chains of handoffs, fake-outs, and laterals, and it's hard enough following what's going on from the tape. There's almost no chance in hell for anyone on the ground.
From the displeased frown on Teyla's face, he can tell she's thinking the same thing. Ronon's expression is slightly more irritated than usual, which probably amounts to full-on annoyance. John's been keeping them as in the loop as possible, since from what he's heard, Sumner liked to do things unilaterally, not really listening to what they had to say, which is probably why neither of them got offered the top spot, even though there were rumblings amongst the various coaches that they were being wasted at Pegasus. John doesn't want to waste them.
"This does not bode well," Teyla says.
John just nods absently. He's staring at the screen, chewing his bottom lip, because there's got to be something here. Something that they can use.
"We've got to shut down their offense," Ronon says. "Their defense sucks."
It's true. The Bots don't have the sheer size and strength for a really fierce defense, so they make do with being merely competent. They're pretty good at stopping runs, but they fall apart with the passes. John nods and continues watching. They've got something. They just need more.
"They like to run with the ball," Teyla observes, her expression thoughtful. "Their passing game is not very strong. We may be able to take advantage of this."
John's nodding again, because he can see that, too. Their quarterback has shitty aim, every throw something of a Hail Mary, and John wonders how the game would look with more pressure on the ball, blitzes to keep the quarterback off balance and uncertain.
He glances at Ronon, seeing if he's seeing it too. "Think we got a shot?" John asks.
Ronon nods. "Yeah," he says. "Think we do."
The next practice is all about getting their defense into shape, preparing them for what they're going to face on Friday. He's tag-teaming with Ronon, trusting Teyla to get their passing up to par. John's beginning to feel more comfortable with where he fits in the scheme of things, what he has to do to get them actually ready. It's a good feeling.
They're usually not this aggressive with their defense. Ronon prefers a more laid back style, but that's not going to stop the NanoTech offense, not by a long shot. The line's rising to the challenge, at least, asking "How high?" when John tells them to jump.
After Teyla's done with them, John grabs their offensive line and sets them up for a scrimmage. "All right," he shouts at their defense, "when I blow my whistle, they're going to try to run the ball down the field. Your job is to make sure no one crosses the twenty yard line. No one. If Cadman and Ford manage to get one inch past it, we're doing it again. You are going to do this until you've got it right ten times in a row, got that?"
There are shouts of confirmation from the defensive line, and John blows his whistle when he thinks they're ready.
In the end, it takes them twenty-seven tries, but by that last one, they're solid as a wall. Cadman doesn't even make it past the forty.
The night before the game, right after the sky goes more black than blue, John drives out to the field, because rituals are rituals, and he's never skipped out on this one.
The school's dark again, and John tries not to get too down about the fact that Rodney's light isn't on, because it wasn't like they had a deal or anything like that. It was just an accident, last time, a coincidence. Rodney's got better things to do with his time.
It's gorgeous out again, though partly cloudy in a way that occasionally obscures the moon, cool and a bit windy. John zips up his windbreaker and breathes in the air. People are still asking about the game coming up, about the loss of a possible undefeated season, about whether John's still planning to play Cadman this coming game, and while John's not any less annoyed about the constant interference, he's gotten pretty good at smiling and saying that they're just going to take things one game at a time. Because that's what they're doing.
When John steps onto the field, he sees that he's not the only one here. There's someone else up in the stands, a hunched figure in the first row, right over the fifty yard line. It's too dark to really tell who it is, and John hesitates for a moment, because there's things he's comfortable letting other people see, but this isn't really one of them, as innocent as it is.
But he needs this for the game tomorrow, needs the calm it gives him, so he sets his shoulders and continues.
He makes it to the forty before the figure looks up and sees him there. "Sheppard," it yells in a familiar voice, "about time you showed up. This lighting is horrible for my eyesight, and let's not even get started on my back. Isn't there some sort of set time for these things? You were here half an hour ago last week."
John finds himself grinning. The earlier tension drains out of him entirely. "Heya, Doc!" John shouts back, jogging over to where Rodney's sitting. Rodney's still rolling his neck when John gets there, a displeased grimace on his face. "Didn't think you'd be here," John says to him, tilting his head up because the first row of bleachers is a good five feet above the ground, a railing separating it from the field.
"Well, um, I figured that uh, you invited me along last time, so maybe you would be okay with me coming, but if you want me to leave or something, I can do that." McKay's hands are moving twice as fast as usual, matching the nervousness in his voice.
John almost wants to place a hand on Rodney's shoulder, let it drift down his back, calming him down, but he just leans against the railing and says, "It's okay. It's okay," watching as a brilliant, relieved smile lights up Rodney's face.
"Good," Rodney says, nodding. "That's good."
Before the game, John gathers the team together in the locker room and says, "Win this one for me, okay?" It's a home game this time, so everything feels more comfortable, more familiar, and all the more important. This is their turf.
"Sure thing, Coach!" Griffin yells back. "Just for you!"
That gets some laughs and cheers, and John's smirking as he points to Griffin and says, "Good man. You better give me another touchdown."
"You got it, Coach," Griffin says, getting another round of cheers.
Lorne takes them through the pre-game chant, repeating their motto, "Faster, farther, higher," in a building chorus of voices until John's sure that the people outside can hear them, and when they run out onto that field, John thinks they look unstoppable.
He takes a quick moment to surreptitiously scan the stands for any sign of McKay, but there's too many people, too much going on, and after a while, Teyla taps his shoulder, asking him who he's looking for. John does his best not to look guilty.
The game goes like this:
Lorne loses the coin-toss, and Hermiod takes the kick-off. John doesn't know the kid that well, since he seems a little weird during practices, but he's got one hell of a kick on him. It gives them some room to work with, and while the Atlanteans' defense isn't holding up to NanoTech's onslaught the way John had hoped, Sherman manages to blitz on a fourth down for a change of possession.
After that, Pegasus pushes forward with passing plays, grabbing whatever yards they can get, and Cadman catches a beautiful pass into the endzone for their first touchdown. She gives the finger to Kavanaugh, who's up in the radio booth, as she walks off the field, and John does his best to pretend he didn't see it.
They go into the second half without managing to score again, not managing to gain any more ground (or lose any more, for that matter) in the meantime. John lets Teyla grill the offense on getting past the surprisingly determined NanoTech defense, because that's her thing, and John doesn't want to get in the way.
They pull off another touchdown in the third quarter, Griffin managing to live up to his promise on a long-shot pass, and John is almost tempted to hug Lorne for nailing that. Their defense gets complacent afterwards, though, Miller just missing a tackle which lets a NanoTech running back through, into the endzone. He apologizes profusely during their time out, and John doesn't yell at him as much as he was originally planning on doing.
Ford scores another touchdown in the fourth quarter on a amazing lateral from Cadman, and the defense pulls themselves together well enough to put the right amount of pressure on the NanoTech offensive, forcing their quarterback to throw hasty passes that miss far more than they hit.
The game ends like that, the Atlanteans winning 21-7, and there's that usual post-win rush amongst the team, gathering out on the field, raising their helmets, a mass of blue, but John stays on the sidelines, content to just watch.
John sees a lot more happy faces after that, but some people are always looking for a reason to hate you. John doesn't let it get to him.
Even Kavanaugh has to concede that the team did well that Friday (though he does have some choice words about Cadman), and John grins all the way to the high school while listening to him over his truck's radio.
Monday morning, Rodney slurps his coffee, gets into another argument with Zelenka, and tells John that he was a little conflicted at first about who to root for at the game on Friday, what with being a geek and all, but in the end, he was glad they won, and how it's almost kind of disgusting that he actually has something vaguely resembling school spirit these days, when he's in his thirties for Christ's sake.
John just smirks and starts Rodney's second argument of the day, over whether or not geeks can actually play sports.
(The third is over whether or not chess counts as a sport.)
Everyone's hyped up during practice, and John does his best to make sure their victory doesn't go to their heads, but he's sure he mostly fails at that. He lets it go after a while, and focuses on making sure the defense doesn't get sloppy on them.
Halfway through practice, Teyla comes up to him, looking like she wants something, and John's not entirely sure what that is.
"I do believe that you have not congratulated Hermoid for playing well this Friday," she says, her tone pleasant on the surface.
It's not that John has anything against kickers; it's just that they freak him out a bit, and Hermiod's got his own sort of extra-strength freakishness going on. He doesn't really talk to anyone else on the team outside of the other kickers besides Teyla, though John's seen him trade a couple words with Lorne, once. "Um," he says, glancing over to where Hermiod's practicing his kicks on the other side of the field.
"Coach," Teyla says, and there's a more obvious threat in her eyes this time.
John kind of likes his internal organs where they are, so he goes over to where their kicker is practicing, trying not to feel too weirded out by the way Hermiod stops and stares as he comes nearer. "Hermiod," he says, his arm wanting to reach out and pat the kid on the shoulder and his brain telling him that it's a bad, bad idea. "Uh, good game on Friday. Nice kicks."
Hermioid blinks at him through his helmet, his eyes big and dark, before nodding in acknowledgment. After that, John takes off as fast as he can without it getting too awkward, giving a half-hearted wave as he leaves.
When he gets back to Teyla, she gives him a smile that vaguely reminds John of his mother, right after he handed her a crayon drawing he made of her in first grade. He does his best not to think about that too deeply.
At the end of practice, John ends up inviting Teyla and Ronon over for dinner on Wednesday, because they do spend an inordinate amount of time together, which in John's mind counts for something. It's getting kind of boring, eating by himself, anyway.
The next morning, he debates it for a moment before inviting Rodney, too, because he's not sure Rodney will say yes, but Rodney's eyes go bright and eager when John asks, right before they turn sharp and focused. "Teyla and Ronon," he says. "They're your assistant coaches, right?"
"Yeah," John says, even though he doesn't know why it matters.
Rodney seems to think it over for a bit, but he never elaborates, and John doesn't really think about it again.
Autumn's in full swing, the air cool and crisp and soothing. John's never really been one for the heat of summer or the cold of winter, but autumn's always been just about right, and this is the perfect sort, brown and a little soggy.
On Wednesday, it drizzles all through practice, gray sky overhead, and Lorne slips on the muddy ground, after taking a snap, staining the red of his QB jersey, but he comes up laughing, wiping ineffectually at the smudge on his cheek. The entire team's in high spirits, because this it football, dirty and messy and exhilarating. John almost wants to jump in himself, though he's pretty sure he'd just get his ass kicked really hard, so he just tilts his head up to feel the rain on his face.
He leaves the kitchen window open as he cooks dinner. It's not loud enough to hear the pit-pat of rain, but he can smell it when it drifts in, fresh and clean.
Ronon's the first to arrive, and John blinks a few times because he's not used to seeing Ronon out of his usual coach gear, a leather coat instead of the windbreaker. He's holding a plate wrapped in tin foil, and it smells vaguely of chocolate. "Brownies," Ronon says.
"Cool," John says. He points Ronon to the coat rack and hands the man a bottle of beer, leading him to the dining room table.
John's always loved large windows. They make him feel less like he's been caged in, less like he can't reach out to touch the sky, and though he can't afford the kind of house he wants (big, wide open rooms, high ceilings, windows that take up entire walls), the dining room's next to the porch with a clear sliding door, letting in the evening light.
They don't really talk, he and Ronon, they just sit back in a comfortable silence, waiting, and John watches the clouds shift over the trees.
Teyla's next, of course, her hair piled neatly on her head instead of her usual messy, casual ponytail. She greets him with a kiss on his cheek and smiles as he blinks in surprise.
They make small talk about Teyla's family. Her brother runs a farm at the edge of town, and her twelve-year-old nephew wants to one day play for the Atlanteans. "He is actually quite good," she says, settling into her chair with her usual grace. "Perhaps he will show show up to try outs when you least expect it."
Her smile is gentle, teasing, and John can't stop his own answering one. "Just hope I'm around then," he replies.
"I have a feeling you will be, John," she says, simply.
Rodney's four minutes late (not that John's really counting or anything), but he's smiling as he steps inside, a little fidgety and nervous, but still easy and happy, and as much as John likes it when Rodney's being annoyed and bitchy and combative, there's nothing like Rodney when he's like this.
"So," he says, by way of greeting, "the game isn't completely moronic from a strategy point of view, but it's got an overly complicated scoring system, and really, the Canadian version's better."
"Canadian version?" John asks, feeling like he's just missed half of a conversation.
"Well," Rodney says, "its scoring is hardly any less complex, but if you're going to make it that confusing, you might as well go all the way. Do I smell brownies?" He grins brightly at John, and John's considering asking Ronon for his recipe. Not that John bakes or anything, but it's got to be a useful skill to have.
"Uh, yeah," John says. "Ronon made them."
McKay starts making a beeline toward the dining room, apparently following his nose, and blinks at Teyla and Ronon when he finds it.
"You must be Doctor McKay," Teyla says, offering a hand, and for a moment, John's almost afraid that Rodney's going to say something horribly offensive by accident, but Rodney just shakes it and stutters out a, "Yeah, um, that's me. You're Teyla, right? I recognize you from games, not that I've ever had that good a seat or anything, but uh, yeah."
"Hey," Ronon says, without moving an inch.
Rodney looks a little terrified, but he gives Ronon a little wave. "He's not going to kill me in my sleep, is he?" he hisses to John, not nearly quietly enough.
Ronon's answering grin is a little feral, and John raises an eyebrow at him, trying to clearly convey, Hey, you should go easy on the new guy.
Ronon's eyebrow arches in a way that says, Fine, if you say so, before he starts digging into the food.
The steak's overcooked, if John does say so himself, and the vegetables are too limp and soggy, but thankfully, Teyla's too polite, Ronon will eat anything, and Rodney actually likes his food bland and tasteless. Dinner conversation, predictably, turns to football, and at first, John's afraid that Rodney's going to just be left out, but it quickly becomes apparent that he knows all the rules, basic strategy, and oddly enough, the entire Pegasus playbook, though it's equally obvious that even though he knows the theory, he doesn't really understand exactly where the fine line between theory and practice is.
It gives them something to talk about at least, and even though John knows Rodney can hold entire conversations by himself, it's more fun to push back, more fun to watch Rodney sputter and argue, flailing against Teyla's serene calm and Ronon's bland disinterest. John shoots back sarcastic comments, just to give Rodney more ammo.
"Where'd you even get our playbook, anyway?" John asks, after Rodney makes a disparaging comment about the on-side kick and how utterly stupid it is.
"It was on your desk," Rodney says, with a casual wave of dismissal.
"And you just decided to steal it?" John's actually a little concerned about Rodney's kleptomania at the moment, because seriously, that probably means he needs to start locking his office from time to time.
"Well, yeah," Rodney says, and John can't quite resist the urge to reach over and smack him in the back of his head. Rodney scowls at him, but then he plunges forward to talk about how the rouge just makes sense, which gets a frown from Ronon and a smile from Teyla, and John can't remember a time when he's ever felt more content.