The Bad News Bulldogs

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As the deficit builds in the third and deciding game, the Bulldogs are in disarray. Jason is yelling at everyone else for missing shots. Lisa is pouting. Andrew is completely flustered. Though he's one of the best players, he's begging to come out, which means that Austin wants out too. Everyone on our side of the court is moping. The Spikers smell blood. They win the third game 25-12.

We have another match the following morning, and since it's a best-of-three series, we need to win to play again that night for the state championship. But as the Tamarac Bulldogs limp back to the hotel, optimism is scarce.

"The second-place team are still champions!" Eddie announces, shattering the funereal silence of the minivan. As noted, he's a far better actor than a volleyball player. And it's easy for Eddie to be cheerful. The highlight for him isn't the competition; it's the pageantry. Opening ceremonies are slated for that night.

I find that sharing a hotel suite with Anthony and Eddie reminds me of my college apartment, minus the alcohol. We argue about the first round of the NBA playoffs — they're Heat fans, and I like the Bulls. There's locker-room humor, as Anthony considers what romantic leads he'll pursue and Eddie interrupts his own speculating to say, "I completely forgot. I can't talk to ladies. I'm getting engaged!" (He's in a long-distance relationship with a young woman in Albany, New York, named Brea. "Like the cheese," Eddie likes to add.) In a development that seems astonishing at first, then inevitable, I discover that Anthony and Eddie are both fans of the heinous early '90s sitcom Full House.

I'm not surprised when one of the two forgets to put the shower curtain on the inside of the tub — I've made the same mistake. But I am a little surprised when the next guy lays out our entire supply of towels to soak up the puddles, then takes his shower while also forgetting to put the curtain on the inside of the tub.

Predictably, Eddie is mobbed at that night's opening ceremonies. He honors each and every request for an autograph and recites his Ringer catch phrases on cue. Flashing cell-phone cameras follow his every move. When a local TV crew shows up, Eddie gives his second televised interview in as many days.

Though neither one of us has slept much lately, Eddie and I stay up late to watch his television appearance. Eddie proves himself a worthy ambassador of the Special Olympics, telling the reporter, "There's a sense of camaraderie and friendship and how we all become one big team." But that's the extent of his sound bite. "How about my movie?" Eddie asks the TV, accusingly. "They cut my movie!" (Eddie gets a share of the residuals from The Ringer, so promoting the film comes naturally to him by now.)

The next morning, the Bulldogs seem refreshed and focused for their rematch with Brevard County. In our pregame huddle, I exhort the team to trust one another. If you can't hit it over the net, keep the ball alive for your teammate. "Remember," I say, "we're all on the same team."

In our first game, everything is clicking. Lisa's serve is racking up points. So is Kerri's. Andrew, still bothered by his back, also keeps the Bulldogs on serve. Jason is staying in position and actually cheering on his teammates. We're tied at 16 before, suddenly, we lose our composure. Austin foot-faults on his serve. The Brevard servers have discovered a weak spot in our return game — the middle, where either no one calls for the ball or everyone collides. We lose the first game 25-17.

At least we played them close, and the team's confidence is high. Midway through the second game, though, disaster strikes: Jason limps off the court with a skinned knee. By the time we get it cleaned and bandaged, the Bulldogs are down 18-4. Jason rallies with his serve, but the damage has been done. We lose 25-11.

In the third game, Brevard again serves straight at the Bulldogs' soft middle. Now Lisa is drifting that way, and her prayer technique sends the ball flying in every direction — except over the net. It takes a late rally even to get our score into double digits. The Tamarac Bulldogs again fall in three.

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Thomas Francis