Kickoff is a weird title. On one hand, it’s a Bayport-based mystery that uses the Hardys’ chums and supporting cast. Those kinds of mysteries are really my favorites. The book also makes a concession to reality — more than one, really, as not only does Frank leave the football team to take an advanced computer course, but someone outperforms a Hardy on an athletic field. I approve, and if either of those changes would have stuck, I’d have overlooked all the book’s problems.
On the other hand, too many supporting characters are introduced; it would be OK if I expected to see any of them again, but Kickoff will likely be the only appearance for various school personnel and students. And sometimes Kickoff portrays recurring characters all wrong. For instance, Biff Hooper goes along with what the popular kids are doing, which isn’t too out of character, but what the popular kids are doing is bullying everyone else in the school, and Biff participates, even when the bullying involves ganging up on Chet Morton. Iola Morton doesn’t appear in the book despite Chet being accused of whacking Biff in the head with a coal shovel. A subplot in which a meek teacher is run out of school goes nowhere. In another scene, Frank and Callie discuss football like people who have heard of the sport but are unsure of the terminology. Given that it’s debatable whether the kids speak like real teens (or real humans) in the first place, though, maybe I shouldn’t dock a Hardy Boys book for its dialogue.
What pushes the book into “good book” territory is the violence and a random bit of Hardy Boys continuity. For the former, Biff gets whanged so hard with a coal shovel that he’s put in a coma, and later on, someone gets very close to killing him. The two incidents give a bit of extra weight to the events of the book, even if it’s strange the events go from bullying to assault to attempted murder.
The bit of continuity that is dredged up is that Seneca Tech is Bayport’s cross-county football rival. Do you know what book originally revealed that Bayport vs. Seneca Tech is the big game for both squads? The Sinister Sign Post (#15), published way back in 1936. (Kickoff was released in 2001.) And how did that game turn out? Bayport won, with Joe out with an arm injury. Frank was not on the squad at all — just like in Kickoff.
Kickoff begins with Callie and Frank commiserating over the difficulty of trigonometry. (The “commiseration” extends to physicality, as Callie ruffles her boyfriend’s hair. So that’s what they’re calling it these days!) Both are planning on college; in fact, Frank is taking a toughie of a college computer programming course, which is why he isn’t playing football. The course seems to have removed all of Frank’s fun circuits too, as he calls a football player who jumps off a loading dock on his way to practice a “clown” (4). While watching Joe practice, he spells out the plot to Callie: new student Terry Golden is awesome at the footballs, is getting scouted by college programs, and is a giant jackhole whose entourage wants to be the same as he is.
Callie’s reaction? She’s sad because she “liked dating a football hero” (7). You should have thought of Callie, Frank! It’s not every boy who has a girlfriend who will ruffle his hair, if you know what I mean, and I think you don’t.
After practice, Golden gives a puff-piece interview with the Beacon, the school newspaper; after the reporter leaves, he and his cronies bully Chet, snapping their towels at him. Biff helps them, which takes all the fight out of Chet. The next day, Chet’s still feeling the effects — after Golden steals his dessert at lunch, Chet throws in the towel and tries to get in good with the Golden Boys.
After deciding not to head to Mr. Pizza to see Tony Prito, Frank runs into the aftermath of the rivalry that will drive the book: he finds Dan Freeman, debate club champ and Beacon photog, after he has been pantsed by the Golden Boys. Freeman refuses to rat out his attackers, though. The next day, the Golden Boys shove other students around, and they nearly push Phil Cohen down the stairs; only the quick reactions of Joe and Biff save him. (This is Phil’s only appearance in the story, so all you Cohen fanatics better appreciate it.)
Frank and Joe approach the football coach to have him talk to the unruly athletes, but he refuses, which sets the scene for “tragedy.” After a big win vs. Seneca Tech, the Golden Boys stage an elaborate prank in which they steal the debate team’s backpacks; when the debate nerds follow the thieves into the basement, other Golden Boys are there to pummel them. Chet, who thought he was in on the joke, gets beaten too, and when Frank and Joe follow the chaos, they find Chet with a black eye and a coal shovel in his hand, standing over Biff’s unconscious body. Joe considers violating the rules of the Fentonian Mysteries by wiping the fingerprints from the shovel, but Frank — steady, faithful Frank — chastises his brother for his weakness. The evidence is preserved, and surely those who have kept it holy shall be blessed.
Biff is taken to the hospital, and the Hardys learn he was trying to foil the assault on the debate team. (He did a poor job of it, though.) Chet’s taken to police headquarters, and his name is released on the evening news. Mr. and Mrs. Morton come by, in a panic; additionally, Mr. Morton is in a “blue velour jogging — or rather, leisure — suit” (66), which is inexcusable. Honestly, man, have more pride than that. Also: You should shave our head, since you’ve “lost almost all the hair on the top of his head except for a little tuft just over his forehead” (65-6). You’re going bald. Own it.
Fenton gives the Mortons good advice — get a criminal defense lawyer, not a real-estate lawyer — but he gives the information in a jerkish, “haven’t I done enough for your family?” sort of way. The Mortons are not pleased, and Laura calls her husband on his bedside manner.
The school is useless in the investigation, the TV news has no interest in finding another suspect, and the Bayport Police Department is, after all, the Bayport Police Department. Frank and Joe feed Con Riley a lead — the coal shovel should have been filthy, but it was wiped and had only Chet’s fingerprints, meaning someone else had used it and wiped his / her fingerprints — but that goes nowhere. It’s up to Frank and Joe to investigate! They suspect Golden whacked Biff, although they should have suspected one of the nerdlingers: A shovel is a tool, and intelligent creatures use tools, not knuckle-dragging morons.
They are immediately threatened with a shunning, although a weak-minded Golden Boy reveals his co-conspirators by flinching when Joe guesses their names. Coach Devlin belatedly tries “discipline,” although his version of discipline involves — as it often does for middle-aged men physically in charge of young men — yelling and making the boys run. This doesn’t stop one of the larger Golden Boys from taking a swing at Joe; in response, Joe uses “that move [Frank] taught … where you catch the guy’s wrist when he throws a punch and use that to twist his arm” (95), then tries to stuff the attacker into a locker. (The guy won’t fit, sadly.) Nice move, Joe!
But retribution comes: someone throws a 2x4 at the Hardys’ van, shattering the windshield and nearly hitting Callie. After taking Callie home and securing Con’s help, they randomly accuse Golden Boy Wendell Logan. He cracks, admitting tossing the caber at the van, but he knows little else. And he doesn’t know much about the attack on Biff, either. Frank and Joe are convinced the law would be useless against Logan, so they don’t press charges. They could at least sue the jerk-o for damages!
On the way home, an SUV tries to bump the Hardys off the road repeatedly. After a narrow escape, they learn the SUV was stolen from near Golden’s house. Fenton complains about the repair costs, but we all know the Hardys have SUPER INSURANCE — it’s the only way they could afford their destructive lifestyles — so they should be OK. Nobody files any charges with the police, although Joe does let Con know over the phone.
The next day, Frank ditches a chance to see Callie, instead going with Joe (who is skipping football practice himself) to see Biff at Bayport General Hospital. Frank “silently promis[es] to make it up to her later” (128). No, you won’t, Frank. You never do, you non-football hero.
At the hospital, the Hardys find Dan Freeman battered in the bushes and a fire alarm blaring at the hospital. Freeman tells the Hardys that Golden pulled the alarm and is using the confusion to slip in and attack Biff. While Joe fruitlessly attempts to get hospital security interested in a possible murder — they will be struck down by a righteous, Fentonian god for their inaction — Frank and Freeman go to rescue Biff. Freeman admits he whanged Biff; in the dark, he didn’t know who he was hitting. But Golden worked Freeman over after Freeman backed out of his own plan to kill Biff. Freeman tries to pass his murder scheme as a, you know, thought experiment, but really, once you’ve started thinking about murdering somebody, you’re on thin ice.
Thankfully, Frank prevents Golden from putting an air bubble in Biff’s IV, then beats him up before he can physically assault Biff. He keeps him down until the guard assigned to protect Biff can return. And that is that! No one mentions what Golden is going to be charged with, just that his football career is down the tubes. Freeman is suddenly less attractive to colleges, but no one expects him to serve any jail time for his conspiracy to murder Biff. Joe gets in a dig about “NFL” standing for “National Felons’ League” (147), and Biff is forgiven for his heel turn. We will never speak of this again!