Episode 1: Coach Nix

Sat. April 16, 2016

“Baby girlsth.”

“What?”

“A newborn baby girl, that’s the anthswer.”

The question Shawn asked me was, “What’s the most beautiful sight a man can see?” He didn’t actually have a daughter of his own, but he had held his former teammate’s newborn baby girl, and presumably had an epiphany.

I first heard his name only a month ago, when Principal Goodlove announced that Coach Shawn Nix would be joining the faculty as St. Ignatius High School’s first head football coach. Living in Louisville, it’s surprising that an all-boys school has been around for 75 years and never had a football team. There have been different reasons over the years why a team was never established, but the most recent one was funding. That all changed when John Pendleton, our most generous donor, showed up with a plan to channel all future donations from his foundation to the establishment of a varsity football team.

I was hired as St. Ignatius’ music teacher ten years ago, just out of college, and four years ago I took over the baseball coaching duties. I loved sports as a kid and played the big three in high school: football, basketball and baseball. I never saw myself as a coach, though. Coaches are leaders, and I’ve always tended toward the middle of the pack. But when the baseball team was thrusted upon me, I couldn’t say no to those kids who needed me. I’m not a great coach—we have yet to have a winning season—but I am proud that we have steadily improved each year, going from two wins, to three, to five and this year we’ve already won five games with five more left on the schedule.

When Mr. Pendleton approached me with Principal Goodlove and asked me to join Shawn Nix’s coaching staff, I was hesitant. I was a third string player who only saw playing time during the last few minutes when the game was in hand or out of reach. I remember once, the coach called my name with two minutes left to go in the first half. The score was tied 7-7 and it was an important game. I was so nervous, but so determined to do a good job for the coach. “Now what I want you to do Gary, is to run into the pile, grab your knee and lay on the ground like you’re hurt,” the coach told me. We were out of timeouts and he wanted to stop the clock while they strategized.

“I’ve never coached football before,” I said to Pendleton and Goodlove.

“And these kids haven’t played before,” said Principal Goodlove. “They are going to be scared and need a familiar face to guide them. Besides, you said the same thing when we asked you to coach the baseball team, and they are playing better every game. Coach Nix will train you in the areas you’re weak, and you will have the full support of the St. Ignatius board of trustees and the Pendleton Foundation.”

“Does it come with a pay increase,” I said jokingly.

“Yes, it does actually,” Pendleton chimed in. “A 25% increase, funded by the Foundation. We understand it will be slow-going at first, but we are are completely invested in making the dream of varsity football a reality at St. Ignatius.”

I didn’t expect extra financial compensation for a position I was completely unqualified for, but that was enough to make me join Coach Nix’s staff. I asked Mr. Pendleton who would be filling out the rest of the staff. “You’re it. Just you and Nix,” he said with a smile, probably pleased he got me to accept the position before revealing this little tidbit.

“But surely Coach Nix will need a full staff to make this work,” I said, hoping they had a good reason for expecting two coaches to do the job of five.

“We want to wade into the water before we dive,” Mr. Pendleton replied, “And since Coach Nix won’t have any teaching duties, he will be devoting all his time to coaching.”

In hindsight, I should have met with Coach Nix before accepting this position, but had I not accepted, Coach Nix would be going it alone, since no one else on the faculty was willing to coach a brand new, sure to be terrible, football team. The kids who signed up to play are excited about this opportunity, even though the rest of the school seems indifferent. I wouldn’t have bailed on the kids like that, so I guess it wouldn’t have mattered had I met Coach Nix.

Sun. April 17, 2016

Mr. Pendleton asked me to pick up Coach from the airport, so “we can get to know each other,” the short, bald man told me. I had no idea what he looked like so I made one of those goofy signs that said “Coach Shawn Nix.” This was unnecessary, I would learn, because Nix came out of the gate wearing a custom-made velvet track suit in St. Ignatius colors of emerald and white. The man that approached me was the size of a small bulldozer, and looked about as tough. He had a permanently furrowed brow from years of playing football in college and even a stint in the Pros. On his right shoulder he carried a dufflebag that could have fit a person inside, and under his left arm he carried a life-sized Spartan battle helmet, complete with a green nylon mohawk.

“Nicethe to meet ya, I’m Shawn Nicksths,” he said with a lisp and a thick Southern accent.

“Nice to meet you too, I’m Gary Cole. What’s with the helmet?”

“We’re the Sthpartans aren’t we?” he replied congenially.

“Uh…yes, we are the Spartans.”

“Well this is a Sthpartan helmet, Einsthtein. Aren’t you sthupposthed to be a teacher?”

Everything about Shawn oozed bravado: his macho strut with chest pushed high in the air, his animated head turns and arm gestures when talking, even the brow he couldn’t unfurrow had a certain, “don’t mess with me” vibe. It was obvious that this guy was a Spartan already, and since he saw me as a Spartan and his only assistant coach, that made me his partner in coaching. I was simultaneously embarrassed that this gaudy behemoth was my partner and relieved that I was on his team.

I had learned before his arrival that he had played football at Clemson University and had somewhat of an illustrious career there. He bounced around the pros for a while before landing this job, which was his first head coaching job, ever.

“So I guess we’re both treading into uncharted waters with this football team,” I said, trying to keep the camaraderie going.

“I ain’t worried one iota, Gary. When this opportunity knocked, something struck a chord deep inside, and I knew this was where I was meant to be. Helping coach these young men to navigate life and play football—that’s what I was put on this Earth for, and I’m as sure of that as I am that you and I are going to make one hell of a coaching duo. You want offense or defense?”

“Well..I thought that since you played linebacker at Clemson, you would want the defense,” I said slightly puzzled.

“That’s fine by me, but I want to be involved with the offense too. What kind of offense were you thinking about running?”

“Oh,” I said, “I haven’t had much time to think about it, but I assumed that since most of these boys have never played before, that we should keep things as simple as possible.”

“That’s what I’m talking about, simple and gritty…nitty gritty, if you know what I mean.”

I didn’t. And this was true of many things he said. Coach Nix, he spoke in half idioms, sometimes making them up on the spot, and he said them so confidently I dared not ask him to clarify.

“We’ve got an opportunity to do somethin really great here Gary. If we can build a program here, and I ain’t sayin it’s gonna be easy either, but we can make a real impact in these boys lives. And that’s what it’s all about, ain’t it?”

“Yes sir” is all I could get out. The bravado clad gentleman I met had managed to sound sincere.

Tues. April 19, 2016

I was sitting on the stage with the rest of the faculty for the assembly that was called to introduce Coach Nix to the student body. Mr. Pendleton took the podium and introduced me as the Assistant Coach. I stood up and waived, then sat back down. St. Ignatius being a small, private, Catholic school without a football team, the concept of “pep rallies,” where all the students give sustained shouts and cheers for an entire school period, is a foreign concept. But that didn’t stop Shawn from trying to will it into existence. It was the most awkward scene I’ve witnessed at this school, and I once walked in on two boys masturbating each other in the locker room.

Mr. Pendleton started to introduce Nix. His intro sounded vaguely reminiscent of Bruce Buffer announcing a fighter in the ring. “Please welcome 2-time All-American Clemson Football player, Winner of several defensive awards, and the new Head Coach for Spartan Varsity Football, Coach Shawn Nix!”

Nix burst from behind two artificial pillars that had been erected for this purpose, and high stepped as he ran to the podium. I found out later that there was supposed to be accompanying music, “Eye of the Tiger,” but technical difficulties stymied that aspect of Nix’s showmanship. He gazed out over the auditorium of about 300 students, waiting at least 15 seconds before he spoke, again wearing that flashy green track suit.

“My name is Coach Shawn Nix, and I’ve come here to bring football to St. Ignatius! I know ya’ll don’t know how to act because you’ve never had a football team before, but football is a game of passion and excitement, and I think its worth celebrating. So get up on your feet St. Ignatius, as I give you the 2016 Spartan Varsity Football Team!” For a brief moment, it appeared that Coach Nix managed to find the pulse of the students. They stood up and clapped on his command, and I even heard a whistle from the back. Just then all of the students who had signed up only a week prior (there were only 30 students who signed up, so no need for try-outs), came jogging under a Spartan banner hung between the pillars. They were all wearing the same custom-made velvet green tracksuits that Shawn was wearing. I was wondering when all these tracksuits were made and distributed, and why I didn’t get one, when I was blinded by a tower of sparks shooting from just in front of each pillar.

Unbeknownst to me, Principal Goodlove, the players, or anyone else that wasn’t named Shawn Nix or John Pendleton, Coach Nix had set up two firework cannons that spit sparks 15 feet into the air and set them by the two pillars. Clearly, Coach had underestimated the size and power of these fireworks, because what started out as players jogging through the pillars turned into a sprint for dear life. One of the cannons fell over on its side and started sliding through the auditorium. Sparks were spitting everywhere! Jason Bull, the new kid who transferred at the beginning of the school year and the only player with any high school football experience whatsoever, was showered with sparks that caused his plush new green velvet track suit to catch fire.

Before anyone else had time to react, Coach Nix had already barrelled his way through the horde of players, found Jason, wrapped both his massive arms around him, picked him up and bodyslammed him. It wasn’t completely obvious, but Shawn was trying to put out the fire that covered most of Jason’s backside. After throwing him to the ground, Shawn jumped on top to smother out the fire. It was a heroic action to be sure, one which unfortunately looked more like a student being humped than being saved. Jason was taken to the hospital for minor burns on his butt, and, after some persuading, decided to stay on the football team.

One thing we can say about Coach Nix thus far. He makes one hell of an introduction.

Mon. April 25, 2016

Coach Nix called me into his office two hours before our first spring practice was set to start. He had drawn up a pretty ambitious plan on his dry erase board. His first practice included: stretching, warm-up drills, agility and awareness training, position work, team scrimmage and team conditioning. I cautioned Shawn, saying, “most of these boys don’t know what these terms mean, do you really think we can accomplish all this today.”

“We want these boys to be football players don’t we?”

“uh…yes, but—“

“Then we have to treat them like football players. I don’t expect to have a great first scrimmage, but I do have expectations, and these boys need to learn to live up to them. I want to see them challenged.”

“I think the challenge of this schedule lies with us, coach.”

“hahaha, you’re right about that, ole Gary.”

He often laughed at jokes I didn’t make, and he had recently taken to calling me “ole Gary,” as if we were life-long friends and I was behaving in a classic manner. This started last Thursday when Theresa and I hosted Shawn for dinner. “Ole Gary likes the parmesan don’t he,” he said with a wink to Theresa. “Ole Gary married above his station,” with another wink, this time at me. All night I was referred to as, “Ole Gary.” It was odd that he was so chummy less than a week after meeting me, but there was something endearing about it. It seemed like in Shawn’s mind we were already best friends, and had a few years of experiences under our belts.

Back in his office, Shawn started to go over my duties at practice. “I want you to take over the wide receivers and the tailbacks, I’ll handle the linemen and quarterbacks.”

“Ok,” I said. “What do you want me to do with the receivers and backs today.”

“Today, I want you to teach them one passing route: the 5 yard hitch.”

“Coach, I haven’t run a hitch in probably 15 years, do you think we could go outside and you could go over it with me step-by-step. I don’t want to teach these kids the wrong way.”

We went outside and for about 20 mins he went over the basics of running a hitch route. There had been times when I was unprepared for a music lesson, but I could always rely on my talent and my ear to make it through. This was different. I was learning this stuff just minutes before practice was to begin. I’ve never been in this far over my head before. But Shawn was un-phased. He was happy to coach me, and everything he said was bursting with positivity. I actually began to feel the team was in good hands with Shawn, even if I had to learn everything from scratch before each practice.

That feeling didn’t last long, though. Practice was delayed because Shawn and I had to teach the kids how to put on the equipment. This took almost an hour. Four different kids had taken the flat cushion that goes in the rear, the butt-pad, and placed it sideways, half inserted down the length of their cracks like a credit card in a swiper. By the time we got onto the practice field it was already 5:15, which according to the schedule was when the team scrimmage was supposed to begin.

I never had the chance to teach the receivers the hitch route I had just learned. The entire practice was split between teaching basic stretches and warm-up exercises. I was feeling disheartened when I returned to the coaches' office. Shawn wasn’t there, though, he was in the locker room giving a post-practice speech to the kids.

“Ya’ll may think that today was a waste, but I don’t. I played football at every level, and the same was true for me was it was for everyone I played with. At one time in our career we were just like all of you, couldn’t tell a football from an asshole in the ground. Maybe all we accomplished today was stretching and warm-ups, but that’s a first step we had to take. I’m proud of all of you for showing up and taking that first step. Tomorrow, we’re gonna take another step, and then another, and another. By August 26th, we’ll have enough steps behind us to give those Whaller Pirates a hell of a match. Heads up gentlemen. We have a long road ahead of us.”

As I sat in the coaches' office, listening intently to Shawn’s speech, I found myself inspired. He was right. Even though we didn’t make it halfway through the schedule, we did accomplish something, and we did have a good group of kids who trust us enough to put themselves out there on the field. The burden of responsibility I had accepted when I took the job became real at that moment, and I didn’t want to let down Shawn, Mr. Pendleton, or these kids. The door opened and Shawn walked in and said, “Well that was the most chicken-shit practice I’ve ever been a part of.”