1:40 PM EST on January 9, 2024
He leaned forward in his chair and put his elbows on his knees. His eyes fixed on two pieces of confetti that sat between his feet, their color pristine and bright against the gray carpet. Maize and blue. He must have carried them in on his pant leg, or in his hair. He ran a hand over the top of his head, just to see if anything else would shake loose.
He sat up and looked over his shoulder at the empty room behind him. Just a few hours ago, this had been a makeshift command center filled with agents and analysts, all under his command, all looking to him to explain why they'd been pulled from their stations and sent to Houston. He looked over the empty workstations at the nine video screens on the far wall. The few that were still linked to the stadium surveillance feeds showed nothing but empty seats and deserted concourses. The screen in the corner had frozen. Harbaugh's face still filled the frame, a chunk of closed-caption text (THOUSANDS OF CONFETTI— IT TELLS A STORY) splashed over it.
Just as he turned his eyes back toward the door, it opened and Michaels stepped into the room.
"Still here?" Michaels said as he claimed an empty chair for himself.
He kept his eyes fixed on the door, and waited a beat to respond while Michaels fiddled with his lanyard.
Another moment or two of pained silence, followed by a long exhalation of air from Michaels's lips.
That was one way to put it. An op like this is never guaranteed to work—too many moving parts, too much left to chance—but he wouldn't have come all the way out here if he didn't believe in his own ability to get results. If Connor Stalions was ever going to show his face again, it would have been here, tonight. That was what the intelligence told them, anyway. Everything else was simple. He'd run a dozen or so of these snatch-and-grabs before, never with this many moving parts, sure, but the size of this one offered its own advantages. They could run everything quietly from a room in the bowels of the stadium that nobody ever thought about, and his analysts would have a solid three-and-half hours to run surveillance footage through the facial recognition software. Teams of two walking the concourses, eyes on both sidelines, a fire team waiting down the block in case things went sideways—he'd been given everything he needed to catch Stalions.
Michaels cleared his throat. "What should we do about the dentist?"
"The guy we have in the box. I called it in on my way back from the field."
"Tell me again."
"He's nobody. Just some bald guy in a J.J. McCarthy jersey that one of our contractors spotted going into the bathroom at halftime. You know how these guys are, fucking cowboys in suits. He got excited, followed the guy into the john, banged him around a bit, and dragged him to the box."
"How badly did they rough him up? What's he saying?"
"Well, he's not happy."
He leaned forward again, running both hands over the top of his head. Maybe if he stared at the floor long enough this conversation he didn't want to be having would end itself.
"You know I met him once." He was surprised to hear himself say it.
"No shit. When?"
"Before the surveillance program, before the vacuums, before the girl, before the CMU op. We didn't know who he was at the time, of course. It was the summer of '08. Rich Rodriguez was wearing the headset, and the Big House was in pieces on the floor. Donor networks were being rolled up across the midwest, 700-page forum threads were being locked or purged wholesale, and alumni were seized by a collective paranoia. Our job back then was pretty simple: find the ones who had ended up in the wilderness and offer them a way back. Impress upon them that they only had two choices: sign on with us or go back to the Great Lakes and face another 3-9 season.
"Stalions seemed like a good candidate. He'd left Ann Arbor in a hurry that summer, and got himself detained in Tuscaloosa. The Tide spent a few days working him over, and then decided they didn't have any use for him. They offered him up to us, in exchange for what I wasn't told. I was put on a plane, and went from the airport straight to where they were holding him on campus. It was an awful, stale room. The heat was unbearable. I wasn't in there but a few minutes before I started to feel sick.
"He didn't say anything when they brought him in. He just sat in the chair across from me, his hands placed flat on the table. He never moved or spoke. He sat there and stared beyond me as if he was all alone, not even flinching when another bead of sweat ran from the top of his head down his cheek."
"He never spoke?" asked Michaels.
"Never. Two days I was in that room with him. On the first, I ran the same plays I had a hundred times before. I talked to him about how nice the weather in Columbus was, how we could arrange season ticket packages at The Shoe for our friends, how consistent the recruiting classes were. But the more I talked the more inscrutable he became. He sat there like a piece of marble, and the heat was getting to me. God, did I feel strange.
"So I asked him about Rodriguez. I asked him: Is this really the coach you want to put your faith in? The one who somehow put the program in a worse place than it was the day after the App State disaster? Do you think a national championship is anywhere in his future? It was a question I dearly wanted answered about Tressel. He gave no reply but I thought I saw a hint of revulsion flash across his face. I thought I'd found a way in. You must make a new life, I said. There was no other way. I put it to him that going back to Ann Arbor would do nothing but doom him to watch helplessly as the Wolverines became the ghost of the Big Ten. I could hear myself running on, starting to ramble, but I couldn't stop. Perhaps I didn't want to. I was really thinking of leaving the Buckeyes, you see. I thought the time had come. I told him that going back would be of no material value to him.
"I could have sworn I was getting through to him, but of course all I was doing was revealing the chink in my own armor. Eventually one of the graduate assistants came in the room and broke the spell I was under. I had slipped him $50 on my way in. He put a phone on the table and left the room without saying a word. I motioned for Stalions to pick it up. I told him it had all the latest info from MaxPreps loaded onto it, and that he could take it if he wanted to see how Michigan and Ohio State's recruiting classes were shaking out. He just turned his head and fixed his eyes on the grad assistant that was standing over his shoulder, making it known that he'd like to return to his dormitory."
"And that was it?" Michaels was leaning forward in his chair now.
"No. Like I said, I spent two days with him. I slept awfully that night. Hardly ate. By the time I was back in that blistering room with him the next day, I was starting to feel a fever coming on. I brought a box of Detroit style pizza with me, and placed it on the table in front of him when I arrived. He didn't reach for it, let alone look at it. I tried to encourage him by putting a cold bottle of Bell's Two Hearted on the table. I pulled my own commemorative Buckeyes bottle opener from my pocket and slid it across the table.
"I figured he had spent the night deciding if he could face another winter in Ann Arbor, watching the Wolverines suffer through another season of humiliating losses while Tate Forcier threatened to throw more interceptions than touchdowns. One look at his expression told me that he had decided he could. I still had two hours before his plane back to Michigan left. In those two hours I tried to summon all the reasons I could think of for him not to return. I was still holding onto that look that I had seen on his face the day before. I believed I had seen something in him that was superior to mere fandom, not realizing that it was my own reflection. I had convinced myself that his mind was open to hearing ordinary arguments from a fan who shared his age and conference loyalty. I didn't promise him undefeated seasons and Heisman Trophies; I accepted that he had no use for these things. I was smart enough, at least, to steer clear of all that.
"I took the line of kinship. 'Look,' I said. 'We're getting to be old men, and we've spent our lives rooting against each other's programs. I can see through Ann Arbor pomposity just as easily as you see through Columbus boorishness. Both of us, I'm sure, have spent more money than we'd like to admit on decals of Calvin peeing on each other's logos. But now your own team is 3-9. Don't you think it's time to recognize that there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?' I urged him to just answer me this: did it not occur to him that he and I by different accidents of birth might well have lived in each other's shoes? That he might have ended up with a Buckeye tattoo on his shoulder and a few citations for public urination, and that I might today be a fussy lawyer making jokes about Ohio State being a 'safety school' at alumni mixers? Did he not believe, for example, that college football was meaningless? That in the hands of athletic directors and NCAA administrators and boosters it achieved nothing but economic exploitation and misery? That we were wasting our lives, season after season, rooting for outcomes we had no control over, and letting those outcomes decide whether or not we lived a happy life? And that therefore his life, the saving of it from another miserable crawl towards a meaningless bowl game, was more important—morally, ethically more important—than any sense of duty towards the program that had given him nothing?"
"And?" Michaels asked the question as quietly as possible, as if he was taking great pains not to startle an animal.
"Nothing. He looked at the graduate assistant again and indicated he wanted to leave. He left the pizza untouched, but when he stood up he grabbed the beer and the bottle opener and took them with him."
"Do you think he ever really thought about coming over?"
"I'm sure he never gave it a thought. I suspect he spent the night working out how he was going to stand up his network once he got back to Ann Arbor, and how he was going to stick the knife in Rodriguez. He was fired two seasons later, incidentally, and Stalions fell off our radar as he went about reactivating all his old agents. Harbaugh was among them, no doubt. It's strange to think that all that time I was in that awful room, babbling at him and revealing my own weaknesses, his thoughts were completely beyond me, already resolving around Harbaugh and new surveillance techniques and the game that we just lived through. He knew this night was coming, even back then. I couldn't properly make him for a fanatic then, but he made me for what I was."
He leaned back in his chair and slid his hands underneath his glasses to rub his eyes. He realized that he was trying to savor the last few moments he had in this room, now empty of noise. He knew that as soon as he stood up and walked through the door, the next phase of his life and career would begin. The blowback would come swiftly. He'd have to explain why his sources were wrong. He'd have to explain why the most wanted man in college football was still in the wind. He'd have to explain the dentist.
He stood up suddenly and jammed his hands into his pockets, staring at the door. He let out a sigh.
"Boss?" Michaels was standing now, too.
"Time to go."
"What about the denti—"
"We'll handle it."
He took four steps from where he was standing to the door and gripped the handle. Before he turned it, he looked at Michaels. A beat passed.
"He still has my bottle opener."