“He said he was going to try to steal the ball and run it back for a touchdown and point up here as if to say, ‘That was for you, Winnie!’ just because I teased him in the smoothie shop.” Winnie sighed, waving her hand in front of her face like she was fluttery inside.
From her seat in their reserved box at The Big House, she could see the entire University of Michigan football stadium, all one hundred and seven thousand seats of it. All she really cared about was the cute defensive cornerback down there on the sidelines wearing the lucky number thirteen jersey.
“Sounds like you kind of like this guy.” Her dad’s statement sounded more like a question. Warren LaFleur was a no-nonsense kind of guy. If he wanted to know about a guy who was trying to date his only daughter, he wouldn’t beat around the bush.
“Well, yeah, I mean, Joel’s really sweet. I think you’re going to like him, dad.”
“And how long have you been dating this guy?”
“Technically?” Winnie hesitated. “Just one actual date, unless you count the time he carried me from the smoothie shop all the way across campus to the trainer’s.”
“Carried?” Her older brother, Marshall asked. “What do you mean by that?”
“Well, I had a sore knee and so he offered to give me a lift so I didn’t have to hire an Uber.”
“What did you do to your knee, sweetheart?” Her mom, Teri asked from where she sat at one of the high tables near the windows of the box. Her perfectly coiffed hair and manicure contrasted with her attempt to look like just another football fan. Her Navy cashmere sweater was accented by a maize and blue striped knit scarf and gold jewelry. The country club look made her seem like she was at the stadium to show her status in society rather than because she was a die-hard fan of the game.
“Nothing, I’d just overdone it and needed some ice and anti-inflammatory treatments.” Winnie waved off her mom’s concerns. “With only two weeks until my performance, we weren’t taking any chances.”
“Who’s we?” Why did her dad sound suspicious?
“My ballet instructor and me…” Winnie raised her eyebrows. “Why?”
“You and this boy aren’t making plans together, are you?”
“Dad… no. We went on one date. What kind of plans would we be making together?”
“Some men like to control their girlfriends.” As if that explained her dad questioning their involvement. “Young, impressionable girls can be prey for big guys like him.”
“Twenty-one is hardly young, I have a mind of my own, and he’s not my boyfriend.”
“Turnover,” Gage called from his place by the window. Her younger brother had binoculars pressed up against the window to view right down onto the field. Box seats in the largest stadium in the United States were prestigious, but pretty far away from the action. “Defense is coming onto the field.”
“Ooh, is Joel out there?” Winnie hurried over to stand beside her brother, holding out her hand for the binoculars. “I never thought I’d be so excited for us to lose the ball.”
“Yeah, it does kind of seem counterintuitive, doesn’t it,” Gage said. “Here.” He handed over the binoculars and Winnie pressed them against the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of his jersey.
“And she says he’s not her boyfriend,” Marshall mumbled in jest.
“Well, he could be someday.” Winnie shrugged. “I have to make sure I can say I attended all his games.”
“Is he going to attend your performance?” her mom asked.
“I don’t know, Mom, that’s two weeks from now.”
“If you’re still dating by then, you should invite him.”
“I’ll be sure to do that.” Winnie and her younger brother rolled their eyes at each other. She wasn’t sure if she was more annoyed about her mom’s assumption that they may not still be dating by then or because she insinuated that Winnie needed to be reminded to invite her boyfriend to her performance. Wait, didn’t Winnie just insist to her family that Joel wasn’t her boyfriend? Whatever. She smiled a secret smile and continued watching the game.
After a few plays, the defense successfully stopped the Bronco’s progression and brought possession back to the Wolverines. Darn. Wait, what? This whole cheering for the defense thing was a little confusing. She should be impressed with their ability to stop the opposing team rather than disappointed that he was coming off the field.
They had the opportunity to take the field again after Michigan scored a touchdown and Western got the ball back. There were a few uneventful plays and then suddenly number thirteen was running toward the end zone. He’d done it! Joel had stolen the ball and run it back for a touchdown, just like he said he was going to do.
Joel took a moment in the endzone, palming the ball in his right hand and holding it up as if to throw it right up to the line of box seats. He wouldn’t know which one she was in, so he basically just pointed in the general direction.
Winnie almost melted. He was so hot wearing his full uniform. She kind of hoped this fledgling relationship did last long enough for him to attend her performance. He’d like to have him see her in her finest hour just like she was seeing him.
Two hours later after the Wolverines had beat the Broncos, Winnie and her family waited near the exit to the locker rooms so that she could introduce them to Joel.
Joel walked out of the locker room talking to his best friend, Shane, the guy Winnie had dubbed football player number one. Joel’s smile broadened when he noticed them, and he told Shane he’d see him later.
“Mr. and Mrs. LaFleur, what a pleasure to meet you.” Joel reached out a hand to her father first and then her mother.
“You can call me Warren,” her dad said.
“And I’m Teri,” her mom said.
“Joel, this is my older brother, Marshall. He’s twenty-three, and my younger brother, Gage. He’s nineteen and is the traitor attending MSU.”
“Michigan State’s a great college,” Joel acknowledged. They made small talk around the group about what everyone was studying and then Winnie’s dad surprised them by inviting Joel to join them for dinner. Joel glanced at Winnie and raised his eyebrows as if to ask if she thought that was okay.
“Sounds good to me.” Winnie shrugged with a grin. “I’m game if you are.” With Joel at the table, everyone would be focused on him and she could eat as little or as much as she wanted without the spotlight. Her mom was almost as obsessed about making sure Winnie put some meat on her bones as her ballet mistress was.
Winnie didn’t see the big deal. She wasn’t that much underweight. She planned to increase her calorie intake after her performance when she no longer had talent scouts in the auditorium. Until then, she was quietly controlling everything that went in her mouth.
Having Joel with her at dinner was just the distraction she needed to avoid questions from her mother. She draped her hand through his outstretched arm and led the way to the parking lot.