Playing football in the Rose Bowl was one of the busiest, most exciting, and most exhausting days of Joel’s life.
The team was expected to ride in the Rose Parade, show their faces in dozens of media staged moments where the team members were either listening to their coach’s motivating words, dressing for the big game, bouncing on their toes as if excited and anxious to get on the field, stretching in synchronized patterns, or lifting their gazes to the American flag in focused contemplation of all the flag represented while a Grammy-award winning vocalist belted out a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem.
All throughout the morning, Joel’s focus was split between his duties and his concern for his bride knowing she was still weak. Winnie would face her family and friends for the first time since getting sick after their wedding. Her acting skills needed to be perfect since she still wasn’t feeling well. Joel wanted to be by her side yet knew that the worry and tension that existed between them would likely cause others to question their relationship.
They were solid in their love for each other, and Joel had no question in his mind that he’d done the right thing in marrying Winnie. But their intimacy hadn’t developed beyond holding one another while sleeping. As sick as she’d felt, and as busy as Joel was with all things relating to the big game, neither of them had even broached the subject.
That night they’d likely fall into bed with exhaustion and the following day they’d be moving into his parents’ house for four days before flying home to Michigan. Joel was excited to spend time with his family, but looked forward to getting moved into their new apartment in married housing back in Michigan,
Once the game started, Joel forced himself to focus on that and that alone. They lost by one missed field goal, but that was okay. The game was more than the score. The Rose Bowl was special, iconic, almost regal. Just playing in the Rose Bowl was enough to set his team apart as one of the great leaders in American college football.
There wasn’t even any anger or frustration in the locker room after the game, just a general excitement to go find their friends and family and continue celebrating life and the new year.
Joel and his best friend, Shane hurried from the locker room to head up to the box where the rest of the wedding party had been seated together to watch the game. They intended to enjoy a catered meal together in the box rather than attempt to find a restaurant nearby with availability for a group their size.
Winnie met him near the door to the box and Joel pulled her aside, away from eavesdroppers, gathering her in his arms and lowering his face near her ear.
“How are you feeling,” Joel whispered. “Have you been able to eat anything today? Did the caterers bring you the soup we requested?”
“Yes, they did. And that helped. I feel okay. No one has mentioned that I look sick.”
“You actually look a lot better this afternoon,” Joel said with a thankful sigh.
“I’m ready to be done for the day. But I can handle a little while longer. Make an excuse for us soon, okay?”
“Absolutely.” His voice drew low and husky. “I look forward to getting you alone anyway. Might be too tired to do anything other than hold you in my arms, but alone nonetheless.” They both chuckled and took the opportunity to press his lips to hers briefly before they received jabs and whistles from their friends and family.
“Looks like the bride and groom have been apart too many hours,” Winnie’s older brother, Marshall called across the room and everyone laughed, holding up whatever bottles and cans they were holding for a collective toast to the newlyweds.
“Yes, and if the rest of you don’t mind, we’ll take our leave now,” Joel said, and everyone laughed again. “No, seriously, guys, thank you all for coming to California to celebrate with us. I know most of us are here for the big game, but you came early and made it a point to gather with us and congratulate Winnie and I as we start our new life together.”
Winnie wrapped her arms around Joel’s waist and lifted her gaze to his. He winked down to her and smiled. When he looked up at the group of friends and family gathered in the box, he made another jest he knew to be mildly deceptive.
“Now let’s eat. I need to replenish my depleted energy from playing football so I can be up late tonight.” They all laughed along with Joel and held up their drinks in a toast one more time.
With an easy excuse to duck out early, Joel escorted his bride back to their hotel suite where they climbed into bed together and slept in each other’s arms, content and satisfied with that alone. As Joel drifted off to sleep, he wondered how much longer this would be enough.