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Hometown legend, p.4
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       Hometown Legend, p.4

           Jerry B. Jenkins
 
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  “Sawyer,” he said, “I preciate that, I really do. But the truth is I didn’t know how bad things were here and I didn’t know you had to cut the labor force and all. I couldn’t ask you to do that—”

  “But I want to.”

  “I understand, but it wouldn’t be good for either of us. I don’t need much. I’ll manage. I was just checking possibilities and you seemed to be the place to start.”

  And then it hit me. I may not be the brightest bulb in life’s marquee, as that guy Garrison Keillor says on the radio, but this one finally banged me so hard I had to smack myself in the head. Unless you’re dumber’n dirt, you’d thought of it before me and probably did.

  • • •

  When I hit Buster Schuler with the obvious, he sat straight up, laid his palms on his knees, and looked me full in the face.

  “Fred Kennedy’s still school board chairman? Don’t toy with me, Sawyer,” he said, his voice suddenly strong and clear. “This isn’t funny.”

  “I wouldn’t,” I said. “It’s a one-year deal, you’d have to teach, and there’s no way—no matter what—that Athens City High stays open past the next school year.”

  “Not even if you and I coach em to another state championship?”

  I held up both hands. “Don’t include me. This is all on you.”

  “No, huh-uh. No way I’d do it unless you did it with me.”

  “I can’t, Coach. I—”

  “Then neither can I. The game has passed me by anyway. People were saying that when I was still coaching. Kennedy for one. I haven’t been to a live game since, you know …”

  “You haven’t?”

  “How could I? The memories, the, the—”

  “I can’t imagine. Did it spoil the whole game for you? No interest?”

  “Oh, no.” He was coming alive. “I sneaked a peek on TV now and then, but it wasn’t the same. You want the truth, Sawyer?”

  “Course.”

  “I still strategize, plan, play with lineups, relive old games.”

  “Coach! Do this! Take this!”

  It was as if it was too much for him, like a gift he’d never even dreamed of. “What would people say? I couldn’t even let Helena know.”

  I invited him to the Rock Hill game that night and he threw a hand over his mouth, sucked in a breath, and began to sob. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Forgive me.”

  I didn’t know what to say or do. Had I made bad memories rise, offended him? “You don’t have to, Coach. It was just a thought. You just think about the job.”

  He grabbed my arm and wiped his face with his other hand. “That’s not it, Sawyer. I want to go. You don’t know how bad I want to. Thing is, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. You’d really take me?”

  “Nothing I’d rather do either, Coach. Meet me at the high school at six, we’ll get us some dinner, and you can ride up with me.”

  “Whoo-boy!” he said, with a rush of air. “You are without a doubt!”

  I sat there waiting for him to complete the thought like I hadn’t heard him use that crazy expression a million times when I played for him. I was, without a doubt, what? But I knew he never finished the line, and he had used it when he was happy, mad, or whatever.

  “I got some work to do,” I said, “and I guess you got stuff to do too, eh?”

  He stood and thrust out his hand. “This is better’n I could have hoped.”

  “I’m putting you down as our head coach for next year,” I said.

  “No you’re not.”

  “Just tell me when I can let people know.”

  “When you’re ready to be my assistant.”

  “Now, come on, Coach. You know I can’t do that.”

  “That’s the price,” he said.

  “You were willing to work for me, and now—”

  “And now you gotta agree to work for me if this has a prayer of happening.”

  • • •

  I couldn’t keep it from Rachel. “Daddy! You’ve got to do it!”

  “You can’t coach unless you’re on the school staff, honey.”

  “So teach geography. You were good in that.”

  “Who told you that?”

  “You did. Were you lying?”

  “Course not. But teaching?”

  “The kids would love you!”

  “Ah!”

  She was rustling around in her room. “Take me to the school, would you? Just for a minute before church?”

  “I guess,” I said. “I got to get a key to the field house anyway. I want to give Coach Schuler those game films.”

  She came out of her room with her plastic football and the old newspaper. “Where’s the garden trowel?” she said.

  “Garage. What’re you up to?”

  6

  When they parked at the school, Rachel took her armful of stuff and headed for the football field while her dad walked to the small field house at the other end.

  She knelt in the end zone under the ancient weather-beaten scoreboard with the now white-on-blue sign beneath it reading, “Home of the Athens City Crusaders.” A smaller wood sign hung from that one and read, “In memory of Jack Schuler, #7.”

  Rachel used the hand trowel to remove a thin strip of sod, then dug a few inches into the moist, dark soil. She pressed into the earth the old Athens City Courier with the headline “Coach Schuler Retires.”

  “Dear Lord,” she whispered, placing her tiny plastic football over the paper and replacing the dirt, “we need a miracle. Grandmaw used to tell me there was three things worth believing in: God, cattle, and football, in that order. I look around and see everything’s changed. Folks have a hard time believing in anything. This town has one foot in the grave and the other in a pile of cattle dip, and if You don’t do something soon, there ain’t gonna be nothing left.” She paused and laid the strip of sod back in place.

  “Rachel!” Her dad’s voice from across the field. She loved him in his windbreaker and a cap that covered his almost gone hair. He looked just like a coach. “We gotta go, sweetheart!”

  She waved and nodded, and he strode toward the parking lot. “So, God,” she continued, “what do You say? It’s about time You show up and show off.”

  Hearing her dad’s car, Rachel stood and pressed the grass down with her boot. He was going to take the assistant’s job, she just knew it. That meant Coach Schuler would be back.

  7

  I swore Rachel to secrecy, which is probably the only reason the Athens City stadium was empty when Coach met me. It was getting dark as he stood there, hands deep in his pockets. I told him I had the keys. “You wanna see it with the lights on?” He shrugged, but I knew he did so I flipped em on.

  “Place has fallen into disrepair,” he said, but I think he was just talking to cover his emotion. He looked over the whole place and walked slow down to the scoreboard with its faded blue and the sign for Jack. “I hate the new colors,” he said. “And I really hate that scholarship deal.”

  “Me too.”

  “To give money for playing for yourself …”

  I made a face and couldn’t hide it. To me it sounded like he was putting down his own son.

  “No,” he said, “I just mean—”

  “I know. Wanna take time for a peek into the field house?”

  He followed me to the other end of the field and around the fence where the place, barely big enough for the varsity, stood next to the concession stand and bathrooms. The double metal doors opened into a concrete-floored free-weight room that took up two-thirds of the space. The rusty bars and bells were strewn about. “Nobody supervises these boys?” Coach whispered. He stared at the long row of dusty team pictures hanging cock-eyed on the wall. “They quit shooting em after ’88?”

  I shrugged.

  A short corridor led past the showers and a wall-mounted first-aid kit and stretcher and into a small, dull, cream-colored room filled with white wire-mesh lockers and walls covered with a big green chalkboard, a bul
letin board, and various signs. One read, “T-E-A-M.” Another that had been there at least twenty years said, “Play Like a Champion Today.” That had to mock the last dozen teams that changed clothes in there. The stench brought back memories.

  Coach was silent when he noticed above the drinking fountain a glass case displaying his son’s jersey. The shirt had not been cleaned or mended but it looked somehow noble and, I have to say it, too good to be looking down on the guys that had followed Buster’s last team.

  I figured that ought to be an alone moment, so I busied myself peeking into the training room and the coaches room, separated from the lockers by a window and Venetian blinds.

  I moseyed on out under the “Pride” sign over the door frame that players had slapped on their way out for years. Coach soon followed. “Just the way I remembered it,” he said.

  • • •

  Rock Hill didn’t have much trouble with Beach that night, but it was sure fun sitting there with Schuler and seeing him come alive. On the way up into the stands he kept his head down, probably to keep anybody from recognizing him. Once we got settled in, he never took his eyes off the field. And he talked the whole time. He dissected every play, groused about the Beach Bearcat coach, his strategy, the laziness of his players, their lack of discipline, and Rock Hill’s showboating, taunting, boasting. “ I mean, they’re good, maybe as good a high school team as I’ve ever seen, but what’s with all that?”

  “Wanna leave?” I asked him.

  “I never leave early,” he said. “Past your bedtime?” I laughed and shook my head. “Good, cause I’m up for more football tonight. I wanna see those game videos a yours.”

  “They aren’t videos,” I said. “We’re still using the same movie camera from when you were here. Anyway, I saw the games. Believe me, you don’t want to see those.”

  “How much worse can they be?” he said, gesturing toward the Bearcat side of the field.

  “Coach, we made those guys look like pros.”

  “I’d like to take charge of either of these here teams for ten minutes.”

  I knew what he meant, but if he felt the same about Athens City after watching the films, well, maybe he’d been away from the game too long.

  Late that night upstairs in my house, I fought to stay awake as Buster watched film after film on a clacky old projector. “Tell me who the seniors are,” he said, and every time I pointed one out, he said, “Good. Glad he’ll be gone. Couldn’t play for us anyway, could he?”

  “Couldn’t play for you.”

  “Us,” he said, not looking at me. “I’m not doing this without you, Sawyer, and we both know it, so I don’t want to hear another word about it. There! Him! Is he returning?”

  “Nope.”

  “Good! Lazy. Never’d learn the wishbone.”

  Except for Yash Upshaw, a speedy black receiver, and Sherman Naters, a rough-and-tumble linebacker, I thought the underclassmen looked as bad as the seniors. Coach kept shaking his head every time one of em either made a bonehead play or celebrated a good one. “First guy who so much as raises his fist cause he makes a sack will sit the rest of the quarter. Agree?”

  “Course.”

  “That junior quarterback, number 40, who likes to launch the ball all the time—that’s my nephew, right?”

  I nodded.

  “He’s not gonna like the wishbone.”

  “None of em are, Coach.”

  “They’ll like winning.”

  “He wants the scholarship,” I said.

  “If I know my no-account little brother, his kid needs the scholarship. He won’t win it playing like that.”

  “Your brother know you’re in town?”

  Coach nodded. “He’s the one renting me a room.”

  “He’s making his own brother pay?”

  “I told you. They need the money. I’d just as soon pay.” I was drowsy and rubbed my eyes, then looked at him. The flickering images reflected off his eyes as they darted about the screen. “Give me some speed and teachable kids,” he said. “That’s all I ask.”

  “It’s a caretaking job, Coach,” I said. “I’d be a liar if I said different. It’s about putting one last team on the field and seeing one more kid get the scholarship.”

  I had finally got his attention. “How do you turn this blamed thing off?” he said.

  “Just crank that to the left.”

  The room went dark. I turned on a light and we squinted till we got used to it. “You know I’m no caretaker, Calvin. If I’m gonna do this thing, I’m gonna do it with all my might. We’re going out there with one objective. We’re gonna win and keep on winning until we’re state champs.”

  I couldn’t muster a look that said I believed him, and you know he was searching my face for one. “I’m with you, Coach,” I said lamely.

  “You’ll come around,” he said. “You coach the way you played and you’ll see.”

  “Well, I gotta admit, there are a couple of interesting things going for us. First four games are at home, and I guess somebody pities us for the end of our school, cause we get to host the state title game.”

  “Let’s be rude hosts, what do you say, Sawyer?”

  I just nodded and smiled. He wouldn’t have wanted to hear what I had to say.

  • • •

  By Monday the whole town knew what was going on, and Coach Schuler liked to have drove me nuts. He was given a couple of hours of health to teach and allowed to putz around the field house and start planning for the next season. Fred Kennedy thanked me for my work and the school board let me off the hook on teaching geography till the next fall.

  A few days after The Athens City Courier ran the headline “Coach Schuler’s Back!” the national sports magazines picked it up. We’d never been so popular, and I worried that people would have so long to get excited about it that Coach Schuler would never be able to satisfy em. Course he thought we were gonna win one more state championship and wouldn’t settle for less himself, so it was like I was the only one feeling the pressure.

  Before you know it, he’d dolled up a new playbook he wasn’t allowed to show any players till the next summer, but I got to read it every night, give him feedback on every idea, and work with him on the field, the stadium, everything cept the field house, which, as he said, needed to stay just like it was.

  Rachel asked me one day, “Is he the miracle we need, Dad?”

  I could never bring myself to tell her anything but the truth. “Sweetheart,” I said, “this may do more for Coach than it does for us. The only thing that’ll save this town is business improving, and I don’t see it.”

  8

  Buster sat with me in church that Sunday cause I probably looked lonelier than a skunk at a picnic. Rachel always either had choir or her class of girls to teach or her own friends to sit with, so I was glad for the company and of course a little proud to be seen with him. I asked him was he excited and could he hardly wait till next summer, but before he could answer I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Bev sitting behind us with her friend Kim.

  “Am I gonna have to separate you two?” Bev said. “Now hush!” We chuckled, but we also obeyed.

  I’m usually pretty good about paying attention in church, cause I need it. But something was bothering me and when I finally got it surrounded in my brain, I realized it was Kim. She’s a kind of a severe-looking woman, dark-haired and usually serious. She had a reason. She’s in her late fifties and had raised a couple of boys by herself cause her husband left her years ago. And I know the church had prayed for her dad, who’d had Alzheimer’s, for about ten years before he finally died.

  But still, Kim kept her faith and she and Bev socialized a lot. She came in and met Bev for lunch now and then at the factory and they often sat together in church. I always tried to get a smile or a laugh out of her, cause that was so rare.

  That morning, though, when Bev had teased us, it seemed to me Kim hadn’t been amused. It was just a small thing, but it was
like she was looking the other way and pretending not to hear. Maybe it was just my imagination, but it bothered me enough that after the service I made sure to greet her.

  She nodded. “Calvin.”

  “You taught me in Sunday school when I was a tiny kid,” I said. “You can call me Cal.”

  “As you wish.”

  I was having trouble keeping her eye. “Kim, you okay?”

  “I’m fine.”

  I threw my arm around her and pulled her close. She was stiff. “C’mon, you’re out of sorts. Tell me what’s up. Kids okay?”

  “They’re fine.”

  So I wasn’t making it up. “Kim, you mad at me?” She pursed her lips and shrugged, backing away. “Kim! C’mon! You know I’d never do or say anything to bother you.”

  Everybody else was clearing out of the sanctuary. Kim stood there with her arms crossed, looking like she wished she could join em. “You really want to get into this right now?”

  “Course! What is it?”

  She studied the floor, then looked around as if to see if anyone else could hear. “You’re a wonderful person, Cal,” she said. “But sometimes you can be oblivious.”

  “Oblivious?”

  “Blind to things.”

  “I know what it means, Kim. But what am I blind to?”

  “Bev,” she said.

  “What’s wrong with her?”

  “Nothing.”

  “You’re mad at me cause I’m oblivious to Bev, but nothing’s wrong with her?”

  Kim looked madder than ever and just shook her head.

  “Talk to me, ma’am. I’m listening.”

  Finally she looked me in the eye. “Would you just try to be more sensitive to her? Could you do that for me?”

  I raised my eyebrows. This wasn’t the first time somebody’d said that. Lee Forest, my famous football turner and the oldest guy on the line, had told me more than once that I needed to look after Bev more. Lee’s a crusty old guy with good ideas and loyal as they come, but I’d passed off what he said cause I figured he just didn’t know better. How would he know how I treated Bev? She never showed me any attitude, and she’d got a couple of raises a year ever since she started working for me. Now Kim thought I wasn’t treating her right?

 
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