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Hometown legend, p.7
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       Hometown Legend, p.7

           Jerry B. Jenkins
 
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  “Guess I’m growing up,” I said.

  “Seems to me like you’re not. You’re regressing, or at least stuck.”

  “Really?” I sat up and put my feet on the floor.

  “Listen to yourself, sir. You’re like a teenager all goo-goo over a pretty girl. She sounds nice, but she’s too young for you. She’s gonna want a family, she’s—”

  “Bev! I’m not talking about marrying her. I just wanna get to know her.”

  “For what?”

  “Well, yeah, okay. I wouldn’t mind being in love again.” I blushed, but Bev was too nice to tease me about it.

  “You act like you’re out of choices,” she said. “It’s not like she’s the only eligible woman in town.”

  “Yeah, but—”

  She sat forward and put her cup on my desk. “Yeah, but nothing, Boss. You haven’t even dated. Find yourself a—”

  “It’s not like people haven’t tried to set me up.”

  “You don’t need that. Women round here know you. They know your history, your character. Find yourself somebody your own age who won’t want to be out and about in twenty years when you’d rather sit on the front porch and read the paper.”

  “I hope that’s not me at sixty, Bev.”

  “I’m just saying …”

  Well, I had asked. I had thought she would be excited for me, tell me to go for it. Now what was I supposed to do? What if I showed up at church with Jacqui after getting Bev’s advice?

  “Thanks,” I said, with maybe not enough enthusiasm.

  “For nothing, eh?”

  “No, I appreciate it.”

  “Wasn’t what you wanted to hear.”

  “No, but if I wasn’t prepared to think about it, I shouldn’t have asked.”

  She nodded. “You got another minute?”

  “Course.”

  “Still open to ideas to save the business, keep people on the payroll?”

  “Always,” I said. “You know that.”

  “You want to know what Lee Forest and the people on the line are saying? Most of it’s critical or crazy or at least impractical. But some of the old-timers have it in their heads that there might be another market segment we could compete in.”

  “Market segment?” I said. “Lee is using management lingo now?”

  She admitted he hadn’t used exactly that term. “But he and some of the others believe they can do more than make footballs. They’d be willing to learn new procedures and see part of the plant retooled.”

  “To do what?”

  “Manufacture baseball gloves.”

  I sat back. “I like that they’re thinking,” I said. “But think of the cost of new equipment, of training, not to mention trying to compete in a new market. How can I lay off dozens of people and then announce a new kind of operation a few months later?”

  “I’m just telling you what I’m hearing,” she said.

  “You know most of the companies with the ball glove accounts are having their manufacturing done overseas.”

  She shrugged. “What else is new?”

  “Better get me an appointment with Les.”

  “And his cronies? Those four with seniority tend to hang together.”

  “Sure.”

  She stood. “Well, I figure you’re on your way to school to ask for a date.”

  “What, you think I don’t take you seriously? Tell you what, I won’t do anything today, and that’ll give me the weekend to really think about it.”

  • • •

  I gotta admit Bev kept me from doing something stupid. I go to school, excited cause I’m gonna see Jacqui but kinda relieved I’ve decided not to make any bold move yet. I’m also thinking how much fun practice has been this week.

  So I get there a good half hour before my class and go to the copy center and trade smiles with Jacqui. She’s got my job finished and seems free to talk, so we shoot the breeze and I start thinking that if I was gonna get brave and ask her to join me at church Sunday, today would be the day. And then she up and says, “You know, Mr. Sawyer, I really like talking to you.”

  “I really like talking to you too,” I say.

  And she says, “It’s so good to have an older person to bounce things off of. I get a fresh perspective when I realize that someone like you has been through what I’m going through, only so many years ago.”

  My smile froze and I acted like I was glad I coulda been some help, but my cotton, how old did she think I was? It hit me that I had never told her. Either she thought I was another ten years older’n her or she thought ten years was plenty anyway. All of a sudden I’m feeling like grandpaw the sage and thanking God I didn’t ask her out. What in the world would she have thought, or said?

  Oh, it wasn’t my imagination. She had been so nice and smiley to me—because I was an old man. I felt like an idiot the rest of the day.

  • • •

  “Dawgs,” Coach began at practice, “Athens City football lives by Schuler’s three commandments. Commandment one: thou shalt run the wishbone offense. Commandment two: thou shalt never fumble my football. And commandment three: thou shalt do it my way, all … the… time.”

  As we ran the boys through the paces, forcing them into a shape they’d never been in, Coach kept preaching. I could tell by the looks on a lot a faces that specially the veterans were wondering how in the world anybody could be MVP and win a scholarship under a coach so hung up on selflessness and teamwork.

  “For the next four months,” Coach hollered between whistle blows, “your lives will consist of two simple activities: you will crush with apocalyptic force anything that moves, and you will sprint like dawgs until you sweat blood!”

  During one drill, Abel Gordon worked so hard getting that big body a his going that he threw up all over Schuler’s pant leg. The Shermanater busted out laughing until Coach grabbed his shoulder pads and pulled his face toward the mess. Then Sherman vomited.

  “The wishbone runs on gain and maintain, gentlemen! Gain yards, maintain position. Now go hard, or go home. You think you’re gonna make the playoffs with this blocking I see before me? You got about as much chance as spit in a hurricane. You are without a doubt!”

  Elvis Jackson stood out if anybody did, darting around the field with those fluid strides, able to change direction seemingly without stopping. You don’t expect a running back to hit as hard as a linebacker, but he did. You’d never have guessed Coach noticed. He didn’t favor anybody. I knew he liked the Shermanater and expected him to lead the defense. And I believe he thought he could rassle his nephew into running the wishbone from quarterback, even though it meant cutting out that awful passing he’d done the year before.

  We ran the guys through the gauntlet, hollering for everybody else to not just attack and bang and tackle but to also try to strip the ball from the runner’s grip. “ Make that ball carrier violate my second commandment!” Coach would yell. “Make him earn the right to move that ball or give up his position to you!”

  The guys were hitting and smashing and spending more time on the ground than on their feet.

  “Dirt and dust, dawgs! That is the marrow of the bone!”

  During a water break, Brian Schuler picks up a ball and nods to Yash Upshaw to go long. Yash takes off and Brian fires a half-decent pass, maybe slightly behind Yash, who drops it right in front of Buster. Coach picks up the ball, smiles, hands it to Yash, and says, just like I knew he would: “Only three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of em are bad. Any odds worse than a coin toss, I don’t play.”

  We went on to Bull in the Ring, a drill I love. It’s where us littler guys can show what we’re made of. Basically everybody’s in a circle with one guy in the middle. The coach calls out a number, and that player comes charging the guy. Whoever’s left standing is the bull in the middle for the next call.

  Eventually, Coach’s nephew is in the middle, and he proves to be a tough kid, taking and giving pretty good till number 40 is called. Jack
son comes flying in and just levels him. Brian jumps up and it’s clear he’s stunned.

  Coach was thrilled. “Did y’all hear that sound?” he said. “That’s the first big bang I heard all day! That’s the sound of percussion! You a tough guy, Jackson?”

  “No, sir.”

  “Say again?”

  “No, sir, I just want my chance in the middle.”

  “You floss with barbed wire and gargle with gasoline, boy? You’re in the middle now!”

  Coach calls Sherman’s number. This oughta be good. He charges. Jackson stays still till the last instant, then shucks the Shermanater into two other players. Schuler calls three numbers at once, and Elvis somehow handles em all. I’m liking this kid, and I know Coach can’t ignore him. He calls a number from either side of the circle at the same time. Elvis drops one and sends the other flying into Brian, knocking him over.

  “Awright, ladies, that’s enough!” Coach says, and he and I start walking to the next drill area. I turn to wave the guys along with us, just in time to see Brian blindside Jackson, spearing him right in the back. Course they wind up on the ground, fighting. Coach hears the commotion, and we hurry back to break it up.

  “Can anyone here tell me why two of my players are in a head-on collision?” Coach says. I know enough to say nothing. I been here before.

  “Elvis started it, sir,” a lineman says. “He—”

  “Why, thank you, son,” Coach says. “You can go home.” The kid shoots him a double take. “You are off this team!” He shoves the boy. “Go on now.”

  Stunned, the boy staggers away. The other players look at each other scared.

  “Anyone else wanna tell me what happened?” Schuler says. “Come on, now, fess up. Tell me the truth or I’ll make you run from here to eternity.”

  Another boy raises his hand. “Brian speared him from the back.”

  “Son, thank you. Now we’d appreciate it if you’d get off our field. Get out!”

  The team is frozen. “Any more traitors? No one? Is that the game we’re gonna play? Silence is a lie, dawgs. It’s a crime of omission. And in Alabama, crimes get punished. Follow me. Everybody!”

  In his coat and tie, Coach jogs to the parking lot, puts me behind the wheel of his Mustang, and stands on the backseat. I slowly follow the team as they jog through town. And the strangest thing happened. The kids were mad and I’m sure feeling unfairly treated, but people in town didn’t know they were being punished. They musta thought this was another drill by a tough coach, and they cheered as we cruised by. The kids enjoyed that, a course, and ran taller, faster. When we neared the school again, Coach had another idea. “Shut it down and mash the clutch,” he told me. The guys had to take turns pushing the car the other way, but again, to the cheers of the townsfolk.

  By the time we finally got back to the parking lot, it was dark and everybody was dragging. Coach and I hurried past the boys to the field, where we began picking up the gear. The kids straggled one by one through the tunnel and past us toward the field house, most not even looking at us. I couldn’t blame em.

  When Jackson jogged past, carrying his shoulder pads, Schuler called out to him. “Son! We both know why you’re here, so why don’t you save us both a lot of time and energy and limp on out of here.”

  Elvis stopped and stared. “I came here to play for you.”

  “No you didn’t! You came here to play for you. That’s why you view every man on this team as a threat. Every time I turn around, you’re in somebody’s face. You’ve got one thing on your mind, and we both know that’s the curse, and that requires playing time. Let me make it crystal clear for ya. You are not gonna play one minute for me.”

  Elvis’s face went red and it looked to me like he was determined not to be drove off. He turned and headed for the field house.

  Brian jogged up and hopped over the fence. “Coach!” he called. “Uncle Buster!”

  Coach got nose to nose with him, pointing. “Listen to me! Nephew or not, you get treated the same as everyone else!”

  “Coach, are you really gonna just run the old wishbone all the time? How am I gonna get a chance at the scholarship if I don’t get a chance to throw the ball?”

  “Never mind the scholarship!” Coach said. “Your last name is not more important than this team. If you didn’t learn that from your cousin—”

  Buster turned away, and when Brian ran off, I said, “Coach, your nephew would have been only six when Jack—”

  “Not now, Cal. Please.”

  • • •

  Later, when the players were gone, I heard the faint squeak of cloth on glass and poked my head out of the training room. Coach Schuler was polishing the trophy case that held his son’s jersey.

  He put his fingers on the glass real gentle and stood quiet for a minute. Then he pulled away, rubbed off his prints, and left without saying a thing. I waited about a half hour and then tried to call him, but his little brother’s wife told me he was at the rehab center. “Miz Schuler,” I said, “I’m just wondering, do you think I should offer to go with Coach sometime?”

  “Go with him?”

  “To visit his wife.”

  “What’re you, kidding?”

  “No, ma’am.”

  “She doesn’t even want to see him, Mr. Sawyer.”

  “I know, ma’am. I mean just to be with him, maybe sit in the waiting room or even in the parking lot.”

  “You’d have to ask him.”

  “Well, have you and your husband been to see her?”

  “Excuse me?”

  “No?”

  “Not on your life.”

  I wanted say I was sorry I asked but I just thanked her. No wonder he never talked about them. I just wished he’d talk about his wife once in a while and tell me how she was doing.

  • • •

  I was falling behind at work and so stopped into the office for a couple of hours. I tried calling Rachel, but got no answer. When I finally got home, Bev Raschke was parked out front and Rachel was getting out of her car. I pulled next to Bev and rolled down my window.

  “These kids today,” she said. “Find em wandering the streets and ya feel obligated to bring em home.”

  “I can’t keep track of her anymore,” I said, smiling. “You wanna come in a minute?”

  She hesitated like she maybe wanted to, but she said no. “Better call it a night.”

  So much for not taking an interest in her. I walked Rachel in. “Where were ya?”

  “Just out. Bev gave me a ride home.”

  “I noticed. Got homework?”

  She shook her head, looking puzzled. I never had to push her on her studies. She was a way better student than I’d ever been, which wasn’t saying much. Rachel was one of those who does most of her work in study hall and the rest at home before she does anything else and gets straight A’s. Obviously got that from her mama.

  Just before I turned in I came out of my bedroom to get something to read and, not trying to, overheard Rachel on the phone. “He didn’t even ask,” she was saying. “I wouldn’t lie to him, but I’m glad he had other stuff on his mind.”

  It was all I could do to not try to hear more. Rachel’d never given me cause to worry. And I trusted her. I didn’t need to know everything. Course I didn’t.

  17

  Sunday morning Coach and I were sitting at the end of our favorite pew when Bev came and stood right next to me in the aisle. “Got a date for this morning?” she said.

  “No, ma’am,” I said. “Right now I’m following your advice.”

  “Well, who’da believed it?” she said. “You boys scoot down a little and let me in here. I don’t want you bellyaching about having no one to sit with in church cept a broken-down old football coach.”

  “What?!” Buster whispered as we made room for her.

  “I never said any such thing,” I said.

  • • •

  The following Friday, September 7, my geography class was so hard to cont
rol, I could tell the students couldn’t concentrate. I said, “You’d think we were opening football season tonight,” and everybody whooped and hollered. That didn’t help.

  The stadium was full when Coach and I showed up that evening. The Beach Bearcats’ bus was already there. I didn’t know if Coach needed anything more to psych him up, but all he could talk about was Beach’s smart aleck new coach and something he’d said in the paper. “Did you read it, Sawyer?”

  “No, sir.”

  “He said he wasn’t worried about an old has-been who hadn’t coached in twelve years.”

  I smiled. “He’s got a point.”

  “What’d you say?”

  “He got to you, didn’t he?”

  “You honestly think I care what some rookie coach says about me?”

  “Looks like it.”

  He waved me off. “Agh!”

  The guys were so juiced that Buster told them, “Most coaching is done on the practice field, so there’s really nothing more for me to say except execute the plan or the plan will execute you. You know what to do.”

  The guys hesitated, then jumped and yelled “Crusaders!” They charged out of the field house, touching the Jack Schuler display case, then reaching to slap the “Pride” sign over the door frame. Coach and I followed, and as we jogged together, I said, “What were you going for there, Mr. Lombardi?”

  He said, “What is that thing about planning to fail?”

  I laughed. “You mean ‘If you fail to plan you’re planning to fail’?”

  “Yeah, that’s what I was going for.”

  “You needed a ‘Get out of platitude free’ card, didn’t you?”

  “I sure did,” he said. “And I had one in my wallet.”

  Probably cause I was nervous I couldn’t quit jabbing him. “Use it next time,” I said.

  “All right, Sawyer, focus. You weren’t cutting up like this when you were a white-knuckled young Crusader.”

  “Yeah, well, my coach didn’t look like he was about to throw up either.”

  “It shows?”

  “Does it ever.”

  “In fact, scuse me a minute.”

 
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