The Mighty Johns: A Novella


By David Baldacci

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From a #1 New York Times bestselling author comes a gripping thriller novella about a college football player's investigation into the unsolved disappearance of a local legend who seemingly vanished into thin air.

Forty years ago, Herschel Ruggles, the most legendary player on the Mighty Johns football team at Draven University, disappeared after scoring a record-breaking touchdown.

Instead of tossing the ball to the referee after his near-mythical athletic feat or celebrating with the nearly 25,000 spectators in the stands, Ruggles continued running, ball in hand, into a passageway that led deep underneath the field to the Mighty Johns’ locker room—and was never seen again.

His disappearance has mystified the community for decades . . . until another player—Merlin North, a brilliant physics major—helps break Ruggles’s record for kickoff returns. After that, North turns detective and becomes fixated on discovering what happened to Herschel Ruggles.

Investigating Ruggles’s mysterious disappearance, however, will prove unexpectedly dangerous for North, as evidence of murder—and ghostly visions—reveal the truth to be far more stunning than he ever could have anticipated.

Includes a teaser for A Gambling Man, David Baldacci's second Archer novel—​available now!


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I wrote The Mighty Johns nearly twenty years ago, and the story is set in 2002. At that time, it was published only in hardback, in a collection of sports-related short stories. After the story came out I didn’t think much about it until a few months ago. Then I got the idea to revise, update, and add to the tale, and have it published in an ebook format for the first time. I loved reading sci-fi and time-travel books growing up. That love was transferred to the story you will find in The Mighty Johns. I had fun writing it. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Chapter 1

YOU KNOW,” SAID MERLIN NORTH, “if one really thinks about it, this football field is logically comparable to the cortex surrounding the brain. The cortex, as I’m sure you know, is one-tenth of an inch thick and has vertical columns running from top to bottom that are roughly two-thousandths of an inch in diameter.”

North bent down, plucked a few blades of grass, and showed them to the uniformed young man next to him, whose name was Jimmy Swift. An east wind careened over the unique topography that surrounded the pair, wrapping the two young men in an unpredictable embrace. And it carried the foul smells of the nearby manufacturing plants and mining operations into the lungs of the folks here.

Swift studied this visible air current. It was easy to see that the young man respected the east wind and understood its potential for deceit.

North continued, “Now, those cortical columns could be the blades of grass on this field, Jimmy. Each column contains one hundred and ten neurons. There are six hundred million such columns and thus there are roughly fifty billion neurons in the cortex.” He eyed his friend closely to gauge his interest and understanding for what lay ahead. For Merlin North something inevitably lay ahead of one of his science-charged homilies.

“So what are you trying to say?” said Swift, who had other things on his mind as his gaze caught and held steady on the flagpoles due west of him. “Left to right,” he muttered to himself. He did a silent calculation and marched two steps to his left and next took one long stride back. Just in case.

“Aren’t you listening?” asked North, who then followed his friend’s gaze to the flagpoles. He added in an impatient tone, “The wind’s fine. I calculate about six to eight knots, roughly east to west, not that significant really, though it is swirling, but then it always swirls. And he’s got a strong leg, and you’re very fast. You’re aptly named. So what do you think about my theory?”

Swift glanced at North, and the expression of confusion was more weary than profound. And, at least to Swift, North held forth on the most impossibly useless subjects at the most inappropriate times. Last week, during a particularly rugged practice drill, North had grilled him on Carl Jung’s theories on individuation, synchronicity, and the existence of archetypes when weighed against modern string theory and neuron consciousness, with a dollop of quantum psychology thrown in for no apparent reason other than to befuddle Swift even more.

“I’ll be sure to look into that,” Swift had replied at the time, and just to make North shut up. Now he looked blankly at his friend. Quantum theorizing obviously did not jazz Swift’s motor to any appreciable degree. In his defense he had many other things on his mind, the wind for one. It was swirling, and swirling was not good. It also was gusting, and gusting was even worse than swirling, as far as he was concerned. He was about to be called on to perform a very difficult task, and North was distracting him.

North let the blades of grass drop to the ground. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” said North. “Come on, think, Swift!”

If they hadn’t been such close friends, Swift might have decked North. Yet the timing was no good. Right now he really needed his friend and teammate for a very special task.

“Not to me it’s not,” said Jimmy, and he licked his fingers, just as he did every few seconds, to improve the traction there. “Look, I need to clear my mind, okay? Not fill it up with stuff I’m never going to use once in my life.”

North tapped the bottom of his cleats clean and said, “Let me spell it out for you then. We could be standing on an intellect perhaps surpassing our own and we’re stomping all over its neurons, Jimmy; the delicate yet critical canopy over its nuclear engine. Do you truly believe that such a profound concept has nothing to do with you?”

“Looks like grass and dirt to me, Merl, but then I’m just a dumb poli-sci major.” Swift looked up into the bright lights and stiffened when he saw what was coming. “Forget the cortex, Merl, time to go to work.” Swift performed a little jig to get the circulation going in his legs and licked his fingers a final time. He cast one last look at the flagpoles, which were barely visible now, what with the low cloud cover and the rapidly failing natural light. Then he set himself to wait as the screams plummeted down upon the two men like August hail, and the ground shook like an earthquake barreling their way.

A smile eased across Swift’s face. This was his time to shine. And like any young man gifted with extraordinary ability, he meant to let it rip.

North looked up, saw what Swift saw, strapped his helmet tight, inserted his mouthpiece, and squatted to lower his center of balance. His heart rate had nearly doubled with the adrenaline spike, and he knew Swift’s had, too. And yet North had a relative calmness about him that came from the most basic of all endeavors: preparation. In fact he was never more ready in his life. And he was about to do something that, if it played out as perfectly as it had in his mind the last week or so, would literally rock the world.

Chapter 2

T​HE FOOTBALL DESCENDED upon them from out of the murkiness of the stadium lights. Overcast skies pregnant with rain had further aged a gloomy Saturday afternoon into an early, melancholy dusk. It would have been difficult to see a plane coming at them from out of the blinding crest created by the banks of thousand-watt stars that ringed the stadium. Yet, as usual, Swift fielded the blob of leathery pigskin that plummeted from the sky with an athletic grace he possessed in enviable quantity.

For his part, the blocky, slower-footed, and yet extremely capable North eased back on his right foot and established a firm center of gravity on the possible cortex of a potentially large intellect lying beneath them. He silently counted to three as he eyed screaming, barbaric young men charging at him and Swift. This fanatical—some would say infantile—group had been transported into the civilized world for four quarters every Saturday in the fall across the length and breadth of America’s college football empire.

The cries from the stands echoed the brutes’ battle hymn as blood-lusting spectators, now mere ghostly outlines in the diminished light—silhouettes of Johnny Rebs or Union Blues hunkered at the fogged tree line moments before the deadly clash—leaned forward and awaited with glee a violent collision of young, strong bodies that was bare seconds from occurring. Not even patrons of the Roman bloodbaths snorting their fix of human pain and cruelty had ever witnessed anything quite so spectacular in its potential for glorious mayhem.

With an explosive burst, North took off running. He said not one word, uttered not a single reciprocal scream, for he was saving every ounce of energy he had in order to transfer it on to others. As Newton’s Third Law of Motion dictated with a majestic certainty, when an object exerts a force on a second object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite force on the first. And, at least for now, E did approximate MC squared, though North was working on alternative theories that were holding some promise. Yet, for his purposes right now, all that mattered was angle, speed, and weight displacement, and the use of power against itself to maximize effect beyond all reckoning; for the individual parts were very often not so great as the entire throbbing whole. What was rushing headlong at him and Swift was a living, breathing physics experiment, and North did not intend to screw up such a magnificent display of scientific possibility.

North had studied his opponent’s kickoff techniques all week. Teams usually had players remain in their running lanes so all paths of escape were blocked off, but this unit had the tendency to congregate half a dozen men in the middle of the field where they would use their collective speed to pursue tackle angles to the outside if necessary. Well, North was going to take that technique and ram it right down their throats.

With Swift dancing and juking behind him, awaiting any crevice he could slide through, North counted off his steps, simultaneously calculating axis rotation, curvature of the earth, mass, speed, and, possibly most important for his purposes, angle of impact. When he reached the count of five North hit the compact wall of men at what seemed like the speed of light, or, as North would later say in his inimitable way of pedantic embellishment, at the speed of a subatomic particle tunneling under a quantum barrier, or at approximately four point seven times the speed of light. So fast, in fact, that the particle would exit the tunnel before it even entered it. North had tried explaining that to Swift once, only to see his friend’s eyes glaze over. Then, if you pointed out that at the speed of light time stands perfectly still, like, fittingly enough, the hands of a stalled clock, and that traveling at a rate faster than that of light would actually carry one backward in time, one would see the comprehension of the casual listener approximate that of a cinder block.

Well, not today. Today it was going to knock the socks off the crowd of screaming Mighty Johns fans, because North took out the wall of screaming men with his masterfully placed flying body block that dropped his opponents like dominoes in exact accordance with the formula of mass displacement at a precise angle of collision. He had worked it all out the previous week in between his science labs.

True to form, Jimmy Swift exploited this enormous gash in the kickoff team’s heart, flashing by as North lay in the grass, his face mask bent, his mouthpiece knocked out, and a spot of blood on his cheek. All around North sprawled a sextuplet of young men in orange-and-black uniforms stunned by the impact of a quantum tunneler who had exited before he had entered.

Not one opposing player had a good shot at Swift until he was at the opponent’s forty-yard line. A very fast cornerback named Brady—who had given Swift fits for three years—had selected a decent angle of attack as he raced after his streaking opponent. However, this time, Brady had underestimated Swift’s speed and determination. Right as the cornerback went in for the kill, his target kicked it into a higher gear, and Brady ended up eating a mouthful of grass, or billions of neurons, if you believed North.

Swift sped untouched into the end zone to complete his 103-yard trek, and then respectfully tossed the ball to the waiting official and jogged to the bench, where he was mobbed by his frantically delighted teammates.

North rose among the bodies of the fallen and trotted off the football field at Draven University. The school sat in a drab, manufactured valley of perpetually darkened hues among the squat, hollowed, and stripped coal hills of western Pennsylvania, and was home to the Mighty Johns football team. As North gazed at the berserk crowd, the metal-and-concrete stands shaking under their collective mass times energy, he knew these emotionally charged plebeians hadn’t a clue as to what really had just taken place on the field.

North had only displaced the almost century-old blocking stratagems of X’s and O’s by using the principles of modern quantum theory that most people would never be able to comprehend to any measurable degree. Still, North had to smile at the mad party going on over at his team’s bench. What could be better than an extravaganza of science coupled with the exuberance of raw, young men in all their beastly pomp and pageantry that coexisted for at least sixty violent minutes on Saturday afternoons in the fall at the universities housing the best and brightest all across the land? Where else could you watch smart, educated people physically wreck one another for a nominal cost that included food, drink, and even a place to sit?

He jogged to the bench and slapped hands with Swift. His teammate also whacked him on the helmet. “One for the old cortex,” Swift said, and the two friends sat down next to each other. Then it was dramatically announced over the PA that Jimmy Swift’s run was actually one yard longer than originally thought. The rollicking, delirious crowd grew still and quiet at this momentous and stunning proclamation, for the truly unthinkable had just occurred.

Jimmy Swift had just broken the forty-year-old record for kickoff returns held by the immortal Draven alumnus Herschel Ruggles.

Swift, at the prompting of his coaches and teammates, was persuaded to run out onto the field to acknowledge the crowd’s applause, which cascaded down like towering waves of blue as men, women, and children, many of them weeping uncontrollably—the sight of men with large beer bellies heaving was particularly memorable—and flicking their Mighty Johns aquamarine towels back and forth to show their undying gratification at being a part of this once-in-a-lifetime occasion. At least a half-dozen God-fearing and married women in the stands would gladly have sacrificed themselves by engaging in a monstrous orgy with Jimmy Swift right there on the playing field, with the complete blessing of their tearfully joyous husbands.

Here, college football was not just beloved by these folks; it was their faith.

Swift took North with him to acknowledge the crowd’s appreciation, despite his shy friend’s protest. “Like you didn’t get it for me,” replied Swift as he pulled the far larger North out with him. They both took awkward bows at the fifty-yard line while a stretcher crew carried off the six young men who had had the misfortune to wander into Merlin North’s laboratory at the Mighty Johns’ twelve-yard line.

North and Swift returned to their seats on the bench as play resumed. Swift hunkered down and ostensibly began going over in his mind the wonderful run that had just made him a legend.

North, motivated perhaps by being a part of this record-breaking feat, started contemplating, for the hundredth time or so, the mysterious disappearance of Herschel Ruggles all those years ago. It had happened right on this very field, in front of 24,612 rabid Mighty Johns fans, including North’s father, Peter North, who had been a teammate of Ruggles’s. While a man vanishing into thin air during a football game was not a physics conundrum per se, it was still a problem, a solvable problem, North thought.

He was a scientist, but, as strange as it seemed, North was something of a superstitious one. This shattering of the record was an omen, a signal of unmistakable importance. It was finally time to tackle the mystery that had bedeviled Draven University, the county of Allegheny, the town of Crucifix, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the entire country for four decades.

What in the hell had happened to Herschel Ruggles?

Chapter 3

A​FTER A PRACTICE THAT HAD left him drenched in chilly sweat, yet not very tired, North walked out onto the Mighty Johns’ football field. There was no crowd, no opposing team seeking to crush him, no Jimmy Swift and his complete indifference to the logical ways of science. Now, North could think even as the wind nudged him here and there, like a fox lazily trolling the underbrush for easy prey. Other than the wind and the university, there wasn’t much of interest this secluded western wedge of the Keystone State had to offer.

North had always found the town’s name rather odd. There was a Crucible, PA. There was also Leechburg, PA, Jim Thorpe (named after another athletic wonder), PA. Intercourse, Holiday Pocono, and Bird-in-Hand, PA. There was also Egypt, Mars, Mexico, Moscow, Oklahoma, and Paris, PA. There was even a Virginville, PA, which North meant to visit at some point, if only to see if there was some monument in the town square that would explain things.

Yet, to him, Crucifix, PA, seemed a little much.

However, North had come to Draven University because it offered an excellent science program at a location not all that distant from his hometown. Swift had come here because the school had offered him a full football scholarship and overlooked a high school academic transcript containing nothing but mediocrity. Through the odd ways of the world, these two very different men had become good friends and supportive teammates.

Swift had chosen political science as his major and then ascertained, too late, that it involved far more reading, writing, and thinking than he had expected. He had tried to switch to history, but then discovered that discipline had similar if not even more onerous academic requirements. He decided to stick it out with poli sci until better prospects happened along. They never had, and he had decided to await graduation and then determine what he wanted to be. In private, Swift had shared with North his desire to one day play in the NFL.

North hated history, though he had read far more of it than most. And yet he had once thought seriously of becoming a scholar in that field, until he started to delve more deeply into what was often passed off as history. He had found most of it to be revisionist drivel, intentionally misleading at best, outright fraudulent at worst. He came to despise those elitist folks who sat around with their gold-tipped nibs and their bow ties and their smug attitudes and their bags of clichéd and altered facts, and wrote of the glorious exercise, the indescribable ecstasy of war, for example, blithely ignoring each and every diary or journal of any hard-luck soldier who had actually fought in such terrible times, where not one passage could be found to validate the Bow Ties’ outrageously romanticized testimonies of man killing man. Yet from much of the recorded history of warfare, one could draw no other conclusion than that young men regularly fought each other to determine who got to die a more glorious death. In that regard, it was a lot like college football, mused North, minus the dying.

North could never be part of such a franchise of the callous and ignorant. He had, instead, turned to science, where equations and formulas of exacting precision could be relied upon and pursued alongside an opportunity for new discoveries at a level that had absolutely no peer in the universe. For instance, every scientist knew what mass was, yet no scientist had ever seen energy, only the effects of it on mass. The possibilities were so great that North nearly wept every time he thought of them. Therefore, it was upon science and not upon history that North had decided to wield his massive intellect. It was actually the best of both worlds for him: a foundation of iron upon which to plant his feet, and a sky without limit for which he could reach.

North knelt in the grass and studiously surveyed the exact spot where Herschel Ruggles had fielded that kickoff forty years before while playing the Howling Cougars of Appalachian Valley Tech. Long before he and Swift had broken the record, North had read every available account of the incident, and there were many, of varying reliability and specificity. North had spoken with anyone he could find who had actually been in attendance on that unforgettable day, including his own father. From all these sources, North had pieced together the events leading up to Ruggles’s vanishing. North also had Ruggles’s entire touchdown run diagrammed in his mind.

Ruggles had fielded the ball three yards deep in the end zone. The Howling Cougars kicker at the time had possessed quite a leg and actually went on to play professional ball, first with the Packers and then with Johnny Unitas and the Colts. He routinely kicked the ball into the end zone, and he had never had one taken back all the way on him.

Carrying the ball as he always did in his right hand, Ruggles had cut to his left, picked up his blocking wedge, and ridden it to the Johns’ thirty-one-yard line, where his protection finally had broken down. At that critical point Ruggles did something that had characterized his entire football career at Draven. Tightly scripted offensive schemes went out the window and pure instinct took over.

Ruggles reversed field, running naked, for all the Johns had committed to the left side. The fact was most of them were down on the ground already, having sacrificed their bodies for what had been a respectable return. Given the time on the clock and the Johns only down by four, thanks to a missed two-point conversion by the Howling Cougars, things were looking pretty fair for the Mighty Johns and their high-powered offense, headed up by tailback Herschel Ruggles, their only bona fide All-American gridiron legend. Yet what was respectable to ordinary mortals was far from acceptable to a man of Ruggles’s ability and drive.

It was known across the football conference that Ruggles’s ambition, if not obsession, was to score on every single play. And while of course he didn’t, some Saturday afternoons it seemed like the man accomplished this lofty goal. Yet he had scored at least three touchdowns in every collegiate game he had ever played, and once had scored six times in a single half. Against Nebraska! Fully two-thirds of the season ticket holders at Draven were there solely to watch him perform. And Ruggles well knew it. From everything North had been able to discover, Herschel Ruggles was not a man who lacked confidence. It was often that way with demigods, reasoned North, particularly those of the athletic kind.

North stood and then started to pantomime the remainder of Ruggles’s legendary run into the records book. He cut from the left sideline and began a race to the middle of the field near the thirty-five. Before he got there, however, an ambitious Howling Cougar had launched what should have been a successful ankle tackle on Ruggles at the left hash mark. Truth was, he should have had Ruggles dead to rights, according to a fan who had seen it, and whom North had interviewed. What he ended up with, said the now very elderly man, was an armful of nothing but crisp Pennsylvania air as Ruggles leapt right over him. Leapt right over him! By a good two feet, declared the man. Not even Michael Jordan could have done that, the old-timer added, not with all the bells and whistles athletes these days got.

Back then, after a game, all the players would sit around smoking and drinking beer and eating fattening food. There were no strength trainers, no weightlifting rooms, no dieticians, not one shoe contract, just towering men who played the game with all their enormous hearts because they loved it more than they loved their own mothers. Herschel Ruggles was just such a man, pronounced the old fan. Hell, he had leapt over that Howling Cougar by a damn good three feet!

North attempted such a jump himself, and though there was no opponent seeking to take out his legs, he almost fell. Agility had never been a strong suit of his. The next player who had had a shot at Ruggles was a starting middle linebacker carrying thirty more pounds than his target and who also had decent wheels. A stiff arm, the likes of which no one had seen outside of a Bronko Nagurski bone-crushing jaunt, had left the determined linebacker flat on his back and the crowd stunned, according to several other fans North had spoken with. North also had succeeded in tracking down the former Howling Cougar who actually had been the recipient of this violent if legal blow. The fellow had remembered every second of it, he had told North with seemingly bountiful pride. Indeed, the man had remarked that it was one of the high points of his life. The former Howling Cougar linebacker was now a successful automobile dealer just across the state line in Ohio, so the man presumably had had his share of triumphs in life. Yet being pounded into the earth by Ruggles apparently ranked right up there with all of them.

North belted his imaginary foe and kept right on going. The next two obstacles were a pair of Howling Cougars who had been slow coming down on the kickoff and thus, ironically, were in a position to make the key stop on Ruggles. The mightiest Mighty John, however, had other plans. Ruggles had thrown a damn near perfect Crazy Legs Hirsch scissors move, split the pair of defenders, and then was gone like a flash of ship’s light in a vicious, unforgiving fog.

The two Cougars ended up colliding, and probably each one thought he had made the tackle on Ruggles. After that Ruggles burst through two more tacklers, knocking both men unconscious with the ferocity of his attack, because even though he was carrying the ball and was the presumptive target, that was not how Ruggles played the game. When it was your task to stop him, you


On Sale
Jul 13, 2021
Page Count
128 pages

David Baldacci

About the Author

David Baldacci is a global #1 bestselling author, and one of the world’s favorite storytellers. His books are published in over 45 languages and in more than 80 countries, with 150 million copies sold worldwide. His works have been adapted for both feature film and television. David Baldacci is also the cofounder, along with his wife, of the Wish You Well Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting literacy efforts across America. Still a resident of his native Virginia, he invites you to visit him at and his foundation at

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