Wrapped in an ankle length parka with his hands stuffed into his jock, Nose Tackle Rich Strum was witnessing a massacre.
After a scoreless first half, the Yellowknife Yetis had put up three touchdowns, a field goal, and a safety in the first five minutes of the third quarter. Finally, Strum and the Thunder Bay Barons defense forced a stop, but a muffed punt at the fifteen yard line set up an easy bootleg and seven more points for Yellowknife. Three plays later, again with the ball, the Baron’s quarterback – a stout, farm-grown boy from Tulsa – got planted and was on the far end of the bench, doing his best to list breakfast cereals while following a trainer’s pen with his eyes. The backup, McGinnis, was a sophomore nobody who had only taken three snaps since college. Down by thirty-three, his main concern seemed to be running down the clock and getting his ass back to the bus; the crowd was beginning to turn on him.
With only one win on the season, Thunder Bay was dead last in the Canadian Outdoor Arctic Football League. It was the bottom rung for mediocre talent like Strum, whom they signed after failed stints in both arena ball and the CFL. The league marketed the cold; temperatures at kickoff averaged three degrees Fahrenheit, and the players and fans alike were offered no protection from the elements. The COAFL’s inaugural season had been a disaster; three players lost digits from frostbite, and one fan sued for negligence when he nearly choked to death trying to get drunk off frozen beer. The league responded by shortening the season to nine games and shrinking quarters to ten minutes apiece. In a disastrous turn, they also replaced all beer sales with schnapps, and packaged tickets with a voucher good for a complimentary shot. This was scrapped early in the season when removing frozen vomit from the stands stopped being cost effective.
On the field, McGinnis was facing third and long after a brutal sack to start the fourth quarter. Even from where he was sitting, Strum could see snow packed into the kid’s ear holes. Reluctantly, he shed the parka, crammed his head into his helmet and began pacing the sideline, ready to head out for another go on defense. Behind him, Thunder Bay’s own fans were giving McGinnis the business; Strum picked out three or four insults that might have been funny if he wasn’t hypothermic. The quarterback pointed out the middle linebacker and screamed his cadence before taking the snap in the shotgun. For a moment, it looked like he had managed to connect on a thirty-five yard fly route, but the ball was bobbled and dropped, bringing up another punt. After a booming kick, Yellowknife took over at their ten yard line.
On frozen feet, Strum took his three-point stance at the line, sinking his gloved hand into two inches of snow. The Yetis ran a simple offence – a pass-happy attack that didn’t allow many sacks. Strum was on auto-pilot, focused only on stopping the bleeding. He beat his man on first down, and was bearing down on the quarterback before he connected with a man in the flats for a seven yard gain. The second snap was bobbled on the transfer, and the Yeti quarterback was forced to fall on the ball; Strum was there to pile on him to end the play. The tingling cold in his arms and legs was beginning to fade, and his breath made thick clouds in front of his face mask. Yellowknife lined up in the shotgun for third and three, trying to go deep down the field along the sideline, but it was swatted away at the last second by the Baron’s third-year cornerback. In the stands, boos were beginning to fade and new life was trickling into the Thunder Bay crowd; it was only the second fourth down forced by the defense since halftime.
The Yetis decided to go for it, eager to run up the score. Their quarterback stomped and barked, desperately trying to draw the defense offside as the play clock wound down. Finally, he called for the snap and fell back into pocket. Strum crashed ahead into the center, catching the man’s hands square in the chest. The two giants heaved at each other for ages while the quarterback searched downfield for a receiver. Finally, the center’s cleats slipped, sending him to the ground while Strum thundered over him with a clear path to the quarterback. The crowd roared as the big man bore down on the scrambling passer. Panic took over, as he fell back into his own end zone. His eyes flared as he reared back and threw the football as hard as he could at the oncoming defender. The ball drilled Strum directly between the eyes, stopping him in his tracks as it somersaulted straight into the air. End over end, it seemed to float above the stunned nose tackle as 14,412 people watched in silence, each of their hearts screaming, “Look up, you idiot! Look up!”
The COAFL folded after the season. With no money left for the playoffs, the Yetis took home the league championship by virtue of total points scored. A few of the Barons found roster spots in other leagues; some even went on to the NFL. Rich Strum never played another snap, and retired with only one interception.