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One of the best aspects of a shaggy dog story is the innumerable versions that can be told. The purpose of a shaggy dog story is not the punch line. In fact, one criterion of a good shaggy dog story is that it has a horrible punch line; the type of "line" which would be hilarious to a seven- or eight-year-old kid, but which will elicit groans or even curses, in lieu of laughs, from adults. Instead, a good shaggy dog story is a masterpiece of detail, and it is by customizing the details that an individual can stamp his or her own personal twist upon an old, oft' repeated tale. By the time the punch line is delivered, the listeners should be so wrapped up in the story that they actually feel cheated by the manner in which the joke ends.

For my first node on E2, I offer here my version of a shaggy dog story I heard as a teen. I remember who told it to me, but I have never once heard it or seen it in print since then (25 years ago), although I'm sure it has been circulating somewhere. I have told it myself probably less than 10 times. Each time I tell it there are differences, mainly because I don't remember the details from my previous rendition, and each time it is probably longer. As with all shaggy dog stories, a written version cannot do justice to an oral delivery-- I deliver this with much animation and arm waving, but you'll have to imagine that part for yourselves.

***** The Story *****

IT WAS A HOT FALL AFTERNOON on the African peneplain. It was so hot that all of the animals were just lying around, lazy with the heat. Creatures that would normally be eating one another, or attempting to eat one another, or at least voicing detailed threats involving eating to be carried out later upon one another, were instead lolling together in peace in the dust and sunburned grass. It was out of this atmosphere of bored inter-species tolerance that a since forgotten member of the crowd suggested that they relieve the tedium with a football game. And so they did.

They had available to themselves an unusual array of talents, for not only were the normal local animal residents present, but many of them had friends visiting from other distant locations. The group quickly selected the elephant and lion to be non-playing captains of the two teams and began to determine the rosters. However, whereas humans would at this point have the team captains make alternating selections of players, thus ensuring an equal opportunity at talent and increasing the likelihood of evenly matched opponents, these were animals, and regardless of their abilities to understand and enjoy football, they still had some animal tendencies. One such tendency was a herd mentality, so before the elephant and lion had a chance to make individual selections, the playing animals simply congregated into two groups and gathered around the two coaches. This worked out well in terms of the number of players on each team, but it did not result in a very even distribution of talent. In fact, it wasn't even close.

The lion's team was overflowing with speed, strength, and ferocity. He ended up with the cheetah, the rhinoceros, the baboon twins, the hippopotamus, the giraffe, and other such beasts as could dominate a football field. The elephant's team had a handful of good players, such as the chimp (smart, and good hands), the ostrich (a real speedster), and the kangaroo (great kicker), but he also had players like the sloth (slow and stupid), the rabbit (a real hare-brain), and assorted bovines and other creatures of questionable value. The elephant looked over his team with dismay and thought to himself "This is going to be a long afternoon."

Still, everyone agreed to give it a go, and the lion's team won the coin toss and elected to receive the opening kickoff. The elephant gathered his kicking team on the sideline and quickly sketched a kickoff coverage plan in the dust, and then just before his players took the field he turned to the kangaroo and said "Whatever you do, don't kick the ball to the hippopotamus! He's their best player!" The kangaroo said "Right!"

The players lined up, making sure they were behind the ball, and then the kangaroo ran up to the tee and WHAP! he kicked the ball waaay up into the air, and it ended up going about three yards deep into the end zone.

Right to the hippopotamus.

The hippopotamus caught the ball, put his head down, started charging straight up the middle of the field, and he ran 103 yards for a touchdown, right through all of the elephant's team members, who were left strewn in his wake. The giraffe missed the extra point, but this was hardly of any solace to the elephant's team, since they were only 13 seconds into the game and they were already trailing 6 to 0. The elephant did a quick calculation extrapolating the scoring frequency through a full sixty minutes and came up with a potential final score of 1656 to 0, and while he didn't really expect that the final result would be that bad, it reinforced his opinion that this was going to be a looooong afternoon.

As it turned out, though, that didn't happen. Oh sure, the lion's team dominated the game. They pushed the elephant's team backwards north and south on the field, the direction depending only on the quarter. They stomped the elephant's team players into the ground. They prevented elephant's team first downs, and put together long drives of their own. But the lion's team couldn't manage to score again. Every time they had advanced far enough down the field to be assured of a touchdown or field goal, something would happen that resulted in a turnover, and the elephant's team offense would take over the ball.

Unlike the lion's team, the elephant's team didn't even come close to scoring during the game, but because of the lion's team's bad luck, the elephant's team found themselves still in the game, trailing only 6 to 0, late in the fourth quarter. Their position was unenviable: they were backed up into their own territory on the 27 yard line, with 4th and 31, and fourteen seconds left on the clock. The situation called for drastic measures, and everyone knew it was going to be a pass play. When the elephant's team came to the scrimmage line to set up, the ostrich trotted way out to the left of the sloth, who was the center. In the lion's team secondary, the cheetah moved over to his own right, expecting that there would be a pass play to the ostrich. The baboon twins were at the lion's team linebacker positions to cover anything that came through the middle, and the rhinoceros tucked into a three point stance at right defensive end and grunted curses and observations regarding the chimp's parentage. On the elephant's team the chimp lined up in the shotgun position behind the sloth, trying to ignore the rhinoceros, and prepared to call for the snap, with the rabbit positioned to his right in the backfield.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the elephant's team had not run very many plays from scrimmage during the afternoon. For the vast majority of the game they had been on defense, and of the small amount of time they were on offense, the bulk had drained off the clock while the chimp ran screaming in circles in his own backfield with assorted lion's team members in close pursuit. A typical offensive play for the elephant's team could last 20 or 30 seconds and yet have a net yardage change of only two or three yards, usually in the negative direction. So it turns out that this particular play was in fact only the 27th snap the chimp had taken all game. It was also, as it turns out, the 27th time that the sloth had forgotten the correct snap count, and whereas on the previous 26 snaps he had delivered the ball one count later than he should have, on this particular play he erred in the other direction and delivered the ball into the chimp's hands one count earlier than he should have.

The result was that the chimp called out "HIKE!" for the third time without realizing that he had been holding the ball ever since shortly after he had said "HIKE!" for the second time. Unfortunately for the chimp, the sloth's delivery of the ball on count 2 had not gone unnoticed by the baboon twins, who had been planning on blitzing on this play anyway. They timed their charge perfectly and crossed the line of scrimmage somewhere between the second "HIKE!" when the ball was actually snapped and the third "HIKE!" when the chimp thought the ball would be snapped.

The chimp saw that the sloth did not snap the ball on the third count, and assumed it would be delivered one count later as it had been all game. He was just getting ready to call "HIKE!" for the fourth time, when he happened to glance down and was astonished to see the ball already clasped in his hands. Then he felt the ground trembling a little and looked up to see four red eyes very rapidly getting larger as the baboon twins vectored in on final approach. The chimp screeched his loudest wail yet for the afternoon and in a fit of pure panic and desperation turned to his right and with both hands thrust the ball out away from his chest with what looked to be a hard shovel pass.

On the left side of the field the play was progressing as planned. As the cheetah had surmised, the play had been designed to be a Hail Mary pass to the ostrich. The ostrich had been lined up so far to the left of center that he couldn't really hear the chimp's count, and so he had instead been watching the sloth to see when the play started. As a result, the ostrich was the only player on the elephant's entire team who began the play immediately after the second count when the ball was actually snapped. The instant the sloth fired the ball back through his legs the ostrich began streaking down the field as fast as he could run. His job was to run straight for four seconds and then look back over his right wing for the ball to already be in the air and coming in his direction. Back in the lion's team's secondary the cheetah let the ostrich come to him, backing up slightly, but mostly juking back and forth from one side to the other so he would be ready to respond if the ostrich should suddenly slant or post from his current straight-ahead path.

Despite appearances to the contrary, the chimp's quick shovel pass to his right in the face of twin baboon adversity was not a brilliantly improvised recovery from a badly deteriorating play, but rather an instinctive attempt at self preservation. He had no idea where any of his teammates were when he pitched the ball to his right, and had he not immediately been buried under 150 pounds of baboon he would have been amazed to see that he was not throwing the ball away after all, but instead making a perfect dish to the rabbit. The only player who would have been more surprised at this outcome than the chimp was the rabbit himself, who did not have any assignment on the play, since he was the right halfback and the play was supposed to be a Hail Mary pass down the left side of the field, and who consequently was so startled at the sudden appearance of the ball that he stood frozen while it ricocheted off of his face straight up into the air for 5 or 6 feet. This dope-slap shocked him to alertness, though, and when the ball came back down he caught it, and when he saw the rhinoceros charging through the left side of what remained of the offensive line, as well as the baboons starting to arise off of the newly-flattened chimp, he turned around 180 degrees and ran straight across the field, determined to reach the safety of the right-hand sideline out-of-bounds area.

Meanwhile, by this point the ostrich and the cheetah had both figured out that there was no Hail Mary pass headed in their direction, so they had stopped running their pass pattern and defense and were now standing 40 yards downfield, just inside the left boundary line, and facing back toward the line of scrimmage to see what was going on. A huge cloud of dust prevented clear observation of the backfield, but both players had heard the chimp's shriek, and as they could now see what looked like chimp's feet sticking out from under the baboon twins, they each made the same rational guess as to the outcome of the play. Then the cheetah noticed that the ball seemed to be suspended in the air a few feet off the ground to one side of the chimp, spinning slowly end-over-end before gradually settling toward the ground. The ball disappeared from his sight as it came down behind the battling players on the offensive and defensive lines, but the cheetah saw the rhinoceros heading toward where the ball landed and assumed he would either recover the ball or deal appropriately with any elephant's team member who beat him to it.

This was not to be. The rabbit had gotten a good jump on the rhinoceros and the baboon twins, and even though his only concern was his own safety on the other side of the out-of-bounds line, he had instinctively tucked the football securely under his armpit. He was halfway to the boundary and feeling more confident that he would reach it intact when he saw the elephant jumping up and down ahead of him on the sidelines and making rapid circular sweeping motions with his trunk in the downfield direction. As the rabbit got closer to the sideline he could hear the elephant screaming "SCORE! SCORE! SCORE!" This was the first it had occurred to the rabbit that the play was still going and that he was carrying a live ball, and just in time before he ran out of bounds he turned ninety degrees to his left and began tearing down the field about six inches inside the boundary. In an instant he had passed the original line of scrimmage, where most of the players were still battling, and he broke into the open. There was no one between him and the goal line 73 yards away.

Over on the left side of the field the ostrich and cheetah were standing and chatting, each believing that the play had ended in the backfield with the recovery and downing of the loose ball. Neither player noticed a couple seconds later when the rabbit zipped past the line of scrimmage on the opposite side of the field, but the lion, who was standing on the sideline behind them, did, and he roared in dismay and shouted an alert to the cheetah. The cheetah whipped his head toward the opposite sideline in time to see the rabbit hitting full speed as he crossed the 50 yard line into lion's team territory. There was no lion's team player in position to have any chance of catching the rabbit before he scored.

But cheetahs are fairly speedy critters, and this one thought he still had a slight chance of stopping the rabbit, even though he would have to cross the entire field to do so. The ostrich saw that the cheetah was going to take off, and he made a valiant effort to kick the cheetah's back legs out from under him, but the cheetah had expected something like that and deftly hopped over the attempted leg whip. Then he lowered his head down closer to the ground and began to run.

The scrimmage skirmish had wound down when the players on both teams realized that the play was still going but had passed them by. Even the lion's team members in the shallow secondary had not noticed the rabbit until he was past their positions, so they also had no chance of catching him, and made no attempt. All of the players on the field were now standing and watching the rabbit run for the goal line, with the exception of the chimp, who was still lying on his back and thought he was looking at hummingbirds and butterflies flying a couple feet above his head. Oh yes, and except for the cheetah.

Everyone could see it was going to be close. The cheetah had underestimated the rabbit's speed, so instead of coming in from the original angle across the field, he ended up curving in somewhat from behind the rabbit, but even with this extra distance he had a chance of catching him and making the tackle. The rabbit knew he had a cheetah in pursuit and put on a burst of speed. The cheetah lowered his head even further as he closed in. The rabbit stretched his neck up and saw the approaching goal line. The cheetah lengthened his stride and began planning his foot placement for the take-down. The rabbit thought he could feel the cheetah's rasping breath on his heels. At the five yard line the cheetah made his leap and slashed his right paw across in a right-to-left hooking motion, intending to sweep the rabbit's back legs out from under him. But the rabbit bounded into a high hop at just the right moment and the paw passed harmlessly under him, and he came down on the two yard line and then crossed into the end zone for a touchdown.

And the kangaroo kicked the extra point.

The elephant couldn't believe it. His team had been pushed all over the field for the entire afternoon, and yet here they were, leading the lion's team 7 to 6, and there was only enough time left on the clock for the kickoff and return. The elephant called his kickoff team players together on the sideline and said "Hey! There's only enough time left on the clock for the kickoff and return!" He turned to the kangaroo and said "Whatever you do, don't kick the ball to the hippopotamus!" The kangaroo said "Right!"

The players lined up for the kickoff. There was a slight delay while the chimp was dragged off of the field by his feet, and then the kangaroo came running up to the ball and WHAP! he kicked it even higher than he had the first time. It didn't go quite as far as his opening kickoff, but it was only about three yards shorter, and came down right at the goal line.

Right to the hippopotamus.

The hippopotamus caught the ball, put his head down, started charging straight up the middle of the field, and got to about the 30 yard line when suddenly one of the elephant's team members put a shoe-string tackle on him and tripped him up. The hippopotamus slammed down flat on his face, and all the other animals from both teams immediately piled on top in case there was a fumble. But it didn't matter. Time had run off the clock. The game was over, and the elephant's team had won 7 to 6.

The elephant was ecstatic. He couldn't believe it-- they had won! He went bounding across the field toward the pile of players, and when he got there he started digging down through the pile, pulling players off one at a time and tossing them, somewhat gently, to the side. He wanted to get down to the bottom of the pile and find out which one of his players had made the tackle. Eventually he worked his way through the heap and got down to the bottom, where he discovered that his player who had made the game-saving tackle was the centipede.

The elephant was positively effusive in his praise. He congratulated the centipede on his athletic prowess, on his timing, on his perfect positioning, and most importantly, on the take-down. "That was the most incredible tackle I've ever seen!" gushed the elephant. "If you'd been playing at the beginning of the game, you might have been able to prevent their initial touchdown. How come you weren't out on the field for the opening kickoff?"

The centipede said "I was taping my ankles!"