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I passed the drive time listening to a few of my favorite CDs, trying not to think about Jude, failing, and then giving myself an early Christmas present and writing myself a hall pass to think about Jude as much as I wanted to today.

It was less than a half hour to kick off, which meant I had to park a mile away and trek in. I loved a football game‌—‌I always had. Even as a toddler plucking grass on the sidelines at John’s games, I’d loved it.

I loved the roar of the fans, I loved the clash of helmet hitting helmet, I loved the energy in the air, I loved the hot dogs. I loved it all.

But most of all, I loved watching Jude play. He played with the heart of a player who truly loved the game. He would have played every day even if it wasn’t in exchange for a college scholarship or, one day soon, in exchange for millions of dollars a year.

Jude played because he loved it.

And I loved watching him play.

Making my way up to the ticket window, I immediately wished I would have picked another.

“If you don’t just get prettier every time I see you, young lady,” the elderly man behind the desk said with a smile. His name was Lou, and he reminded me of my grandpa. “I haven’t seen you the past couple games. Mr. Jude hasn’t been messing things up with you, has he now?”

I smiled back politely. “No, Mr. Jude hasn’t been doing anything to mess things up,” I said, folding my arms over the counter.

“That’s good to hear, Miss Lucy. I wouldn’t want to have teach him a lesson on how a man’s supposed to treat a woman.”

“I don’t think any of us would want that.” I smiled and waited for Lou to wrap it up. The old man loved bantering back and forth with me and I was usually happy to play along, but this time was different. I doubted that if he knew how I’d hurt Jude, he’d be teasing me good-naturedly now.

Skimming through the stack of tickets, he pulled out two. Jude always left one for me and an extra in case I wanted to bring a friend. “I was wondering if these tickets would go unclaimed again today,” he said, sliding them through the window. “If I wasn’t certain Mr. Jude would have marched off the field to physically remove me, I might have slipped into one of these seats.”

“Why don’t you take them today, Lou?” I said, pushing them back towards him. “I just want a general admission ticket today.”

“Why would you want a general admission when you’ve got front row seats on the fifty, honey?” The frown lines deepened on his face.

“Please, Lou?” I asked, biting my lip. I didn’t want to explain to him what I couldn’t quite explain to myself. “Just one general admission ticket?”

He sighed, tapping his fingers over the counter. “Okay,” he said, “but only because I can’t say no to a pretty face.”

Stacking a GA ticket on the other two Jude set aside for me every game, he slid them back through the window at me. “It’s on the house, but you have to take these two with you. Mr. Jude would have my job if he found out you were here and I didn’t at least give them to you.”

“Thanks, Lou,” I said, taking the tickets. “Maybe one of these games you and I can use these together.”

Lou’s brown eyes softened. “That would be a real honor, Miss Lucy.”

Tapping the tickets on the counter, I turned to head inside the gates. “Thanks again.”

He nodded his acknowledgement, looking at a loss for words.

Weaving through the tunnel, the roar of the crowd amplified. Syracuse was taking the field. I hurried, not wanting to miss it. This was one of my favorite moments of the game. When Jude came sprinting onto the field, leading an army of men, all of them looking like they were as invincible as they believed they were, I got goose bumps every time.

Jude was only at the twenty when I made it within view of the field. Right then, watching him charge the field with his teammates, I knew I’d made the right decision in coming. The weight I’d had strapped to my back broke loose the moment my eyes found him. I could fill my lungs again, I could form a smile that didn’t feel forced, I could feel my heart beat like it wasn’t a chore any more.

I stared at him until the team had settled into pre game warm-up before making my way to my seat. Squeezing by a very pregnant girl inspecting her tickets with what I assumed was her husband dressed in an Army uniform, I glanced back at them again. Gazing up into the stands, their eyes fell into the back as she took the first step up.

I stopped, watching her take a second step. If being pregnant meant stair climbing at one per five seconds, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it very much.

“Wanna trade?” I asked suddenly. I couldn’t watch her suck in another breath as she attempted another step. “They’re pretty good seats.”

The husband looked at me, confused, then studied the tickets I was holding out for them. His eyes widened.

“Don’t get me wrong, miss, because I’d sell my first born for tickets like these,”‌—‌he shot his wife a sly smile as she smacked his arm‌—‌”but see that row, way in the back, right where a few spectators’ noses are bleeding? Those are our seats.”

I liked these two already. “How’s the view from up there?”

“It sucks,” he answered, helping his wife down the two stairs she’d just scaled.

Shoving the tickets into his hand, I smiled. “Well, the view from these seats doesn’t,” I said, backing away.

Kick off wasn’t going to wait for me to get my butt into my seat. “Just do me a favor and make sure to give number seventeen a hard time.” Turning around, I kept walking, smiling the whole way to my seat.

Lou had scored me a solid general admission ticket. Especially since I’d arrived late and didn’t have a reserved ticket. There were two empty seats at the end of the row; mine was the one second in. Smiling over at the family in the row in front of me, the littlest boy turned in his seat to stare at me. He had an orange number seventeen jersey on.

“I like your shirt,” I said. “I’ve got one just like it.”

His appraising eyes widened. It was good to know I could impress a five year old boy. “Do you want to be just like Jude when you grow up too?”

This boy with a smattering of freckles and a cowlick was going to make me cry. For the damn hundred and one too many times this past month.

“I sure do,” I said as he swung around in his seat.

“Me, too,” he said as his mom threw me an apologetic look. I waved it off. “I shouldn’t be telling you this since you’re a stranger and a girl, but Jude’s a superhero in disguise,” he whispered, looking from side to side.

“He is?” I said, glancing down at him on the field, warming his arm up. Tossing the ball, he glanced over to the stands, studying the front row. “Doesn’t the orange and white spandex kind of give his superhero status away?”

The boy’s face scrunched up, puzzling over that one. Two seconds later it cleared. “No,” he said with confidence. “Anyone can go out and buy some orange and white spandex. But no one else can be like Jude Ryder.”

Pulling a pack of Red Vines from my bag, I offered him one. It was the least I could do for Jude’s number two fan.

“Since I’m a girl and all, and am not on the up and up with the superhero circle,” I said, grabbing my own piece of licorice, “what puts him in cahoots with the likes of Superman and the Wolverine?”

“Danny, are you bothering this lady?” his mom called across the row of what I guessed were his older siblings.

He shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said, looking at me. “Am I bothering you?”

“He’s fine,” I called down to his mom. “He’s keeping me company.”

“Okay,” she said, giving Danny the mom look. “Manners, okay?”

“K, mom,” he answered, propping up on his knees and sticking his chin on the back of the seat. “Your dad and mom haven’t explained it to you yet?” he asked, his freckled nose wrinkling.

“Explained what to me?”

“Superheroes aren’t real,” he said, looking a little sad for me. “They’re make believe.”

“But I thought you just said Jude was one,” I said, chewing the end of my licorice.

The boy rolled his eyes and sighed. “Comic book superheroes aren’t real. Jude’s a real life superhero.”

“Oooooh,” I said, nodding my head. “I get it now.”

Danny’s head spun around as the teams lined up on the field for kickoff.

“So what qualifies Jude as a superhero?” I said, leaning forward and watching the field with him. The visiting team kicked off as Syracuse charged down the field.

Danny glanced back at me, looking like this question was my most insulting one yet. “He’s strong, he’s fast,” he began, counting items off on his fingers. “He can throw a football, like, ten miles. He’s going to marry the most beautiful girl in the world and they’re going to make little superhero babies.” He paused; I wasn’t sure if it was because he was done with his list or catching his breath.

“Anything else?”

“And one day, he’s going to be President of the United States of America,” he said, twisting in his seat as Jude led his offensive line into position at the sixty.

“So all those things make him a superhero, huh?” I said, continuing to make conversation. Partly because the kid could keep pace with me on a couple of my favorite topics: football and Jude. And secondly, because it felt good to talk. To someone. Even if that someone was a pint-sized, freckle faced, superhero worshipper.

“Well, yeah, that and…” He stared down at the field as Jude pulled one of his notorious quarterback fakes and ran that ball into the end zone before the other team had figured out what the hell was going on. “That,” Danny said, jumping in his seat and waving his hands towards where Jude had scored six points in the first minute of the game.

Once the cheering died down to a dull roar, Danny spun back around in his seat, grinning from ear to ear. “Now do you believe me?”

It would have been impossible to argue. “I believe you.”

And that’s how the first half of the game continued. Danny and I would banter back and forth in between hollering our heads off when home team got another ball into the end zone. I couldn’t have imagined a better Christmas present for myself.

Like every game Jude had played, he played this one like his life was hanging in the balance. He was good because he had the talent. He was the best because he believed he was and played accordingly.

And every one of us in the stands recognized that we were witnessing a legend in the making. Jude’s name wouldn’t fizzle into college football record books; it would be eternalized by the young boys like Danny who would tell stories of Jude around the dinner table to their sons.

I knew I might be sensitive to it, but it seemed like Jude couldn’t stop looking up into that front row whenever he was on the sidelines. I was probably just imagining it, hoping he was looking for me and wondering who the people were in my seats, but this was my Christmas present and I had carte blanche to jump to whatever conclusion I wanted.

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