Episode 10: Bern Notice

Sat. October 15, 2016

We played our final conference game and our penultimate game of the season last night, and it was a poor effort. Shawn was sitting in the stands because he had been fired only a few days before. The players were feeling down without Shawn there to get them riled up. Cherice was the interim head coach and did as good a job as she could, but it was an impossible situation to succeed in. With everyone feeling hopeless, the result was a foregone conclusion. We lost to the Lafayette Tigers 45 - 9. Enrique had 3 field goals, but without the ability to score a touchdown even those were cheerless points.

The most devastating part of the game occurred in the 4th quarter. The game was already out of reach (it was 38 - 9), but we stayed true to Shawn’s coaching style and never gave up on the game. The players were getting restless, probably wishing the game was over. I noticed some backbiting happening in the huddle a few times, but I couldn’t tell who it was between or what it was over. On 3rd and 13 we ran another option behind Big Bern. Sal was running with the ball toward our sideline and Hairy Perry was the blocking back. Hairy’s job was to run around the left end and find a linebacker to block. He did just as he was supposed to, but when he had the linebacker in his sights he suddenly moved out of the way in what football players call an “Olé block” because it isn’t a block at all, but rather the movement a matador makes when a bull is charging at him. Hairy Perry was sabotaging the play and leaving the ball carrier, Italian Stallion Sal Medrano, defenseless in the path of Lafayette’s 220 lb linebacker.

Sal was crushed by the blow, which made a loud crack that silenced the crowd. As the linebacker reached his feet, I could see that Sal was not moving and rushed out onto the field. “Sal? Can you hear me? Sal? Sal!” I started screaming his name in a panic, but to no avail; he was unconscious. The medical trainers, who are present for every game, arrived to Sal’s side moments after I did.

“Don’t move him, Don’t move him!” one of the trainers yelled as she was still running. It was such a horrifying sight. He might as well have been dead he was so still. My emotions were already running high, but sitting on my knees out there next to an unconscious Sal, I couldn’t hold it any longer. I began to cry uncontrollably. I didn’t want the kids to see me bawling, but at that moment I couldn’t think on anything but Sal. As I cried I heard some shouting behind me that pierced through the silent crowd.

“Get the hell out of my way! Move! I’m coming Sal! I’m coming Sal!” I thought it must be Sal’s father, but when I turned my head I saw it was Shawn, hurdling the fence and falling on his face on the sideline. I caught Shawn as he sprinted over to keep him away and let the trainers do their work, but he pushed right passed me and knelt down beside Sal, grabbing his hand. I could see tears streaming down Shawn’s face. The ambulance arrived quickly and the paramedics loaded him into it. There were only 2 minutes left in the game, which made the injury feel all the more unnecessary. Shawn went with Sal and his parents to the hospital while Cherice and I stayed behind to finish coaching the game.

There was no more coaching to be done, however, because even though Lafayette had recovered the fumble caused by the massive hit on Sal, they refused to run another play, just taking a knee in three straight plays. After the game was over I drove to the hospital to check on Sal. He had regained consciousness in the ambulance ride, they told me, but was talking incoherently. He also had a broken collarbone. The doctors expect he will recover quickly, but he’s done with football until next year.

Mon. October 17, 2016

We have another week without a game and we will need the extra week—both to recover from the emotional and physical toil of last Friday night and to prepare for St. Paul’s. They compete every year with St. Mark’s to be the premier football power in the state of Kentucky, but this year they’ve proven their mettle with an impressive 30 - 20 win over St. Mark’s earlier in the season. This is pretty intimidating for the players, since we lost to St. Mark’s 59 - 0. If they are that much better than St. Mark’s, and we are without injured Sal Medrano, there seems little chance we can compete. Moreover, we are without our head coach because Shawn was fired last week, and we are without Hairy Perry Grimes because we suspended him after purposely allowing a defender to hurt Sal so badly. It was an egregious act and he had to be punished for it, even though he had no idea it would result in such a catastrophe. So, to sum up, we are without our leading rusher, Sal, without our best running back, Hairy Perry, and without our head coach, Shawn.

I decided to go over to Shawn’s tonight to report on practice, which was lackluster, and to ask his advice moving forward. “You’ve gotta keep their spirits up, it’s the most important thing,” Shawn said as he dished a delicious looking fillet of Chicken Kiev onto my plate. “You can’t let them get down on themselves, and you have to make them believe they can win,” he continued. “We probably can’t beat St. Paul’s, but if they are sure they will lose, then we definitely cannot beat them and it could be a clobbering.”

Shawn’s positive attitude was inspiring. He seemed more upbeat than I was about this game, and he was the one fired for assaulting a parent. “How are you coping? Have you started making plans?” I asked.

“No, no plans yet. I’m going to contact some old teammates and see if I can get a lead on another coaching job. I still believe I am meant to coach high school boys, and I was pretty sure St. Ignatius was my destiny, but if it’s not then that’s ok.” He paused for a moment. “There are plenty of boys out there that need me.”

Part of the reason I had come over was to see if he needed some encouragement after the week he just had, but I was lost on how to encourage the man who had encouraged me and our team all season.

“What do you think about lifting Perry’s suspension for this last game. We need him real bad if we’re going to move the ball against St. Paul’s defense,” I said.

“No way! You can’t dodge a block like that, let one of your brothers get hit, and then expect to play like you did nothing wrong. That boy has to learn that there are consequences for his actions,” Shawn said without hesitation.

Shawn was still invested in St. Ignatius and the mission he started there. Even now, without a job or any prospects, he still cares more for our boys than John Pendleton ever has.

Thurs. October 20, 2016

Today Cherice and I had a meeting with a college representative. I assumed that they were here because of Enrique’s phenomenal kicking streak. Only one missed kick all season with kicks from over 40 yards might give him some looks by football recruiters, even though he is just a sophomore. But I was wrong, the University of Louisville rep was here to talk about Big Bern. We called Big Bern in to talk with the recruiter.

“I’m the offensive line coach at the University of Louisville, Big Bern. I’ll get right to the point; I want you to come play for me.” the recruiter said.

Big Bern was speechless. It was such a momentous occasion, but I found myself saddened that Shawn wasn’t there to share in this. Just six months ago this mountain of a person could barely move for how big he was, had no football experience, and was too passive to be threatening. Now, thanks mostly to Shawn’s efforts, he was sitting across from a recruiter from the U of L. I didn’t deserve to be one of the coaches in the room.

Big Bern was hesitant at first. He told the recruiter about his problems passing his classes, but the recruiter didn’t seem worried. “St. Ignatius has a very good academic reputation. A C- at St. Ignatius is as good as a B- at most schools,” the recruiter added. He was right too, St. Ignatius has long been recognized for its academic achievements and has never been recognized for its sports programs. “I don’t know,” said Big Bern, “I never planned on going to college.” “You’ll do great at college, Bern. You’ll get so many opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise. You can get a degree and become anything you want. And you get to keep playing football.”

That last part made Big Bern perk up. “I do like playing football,” he said. The recruiter said he’d be in touch and left Big Bern, Cherice and me to have a mini-celebration in the office. “I wanna call Coach Nix,” Big Bern said.

I dialed Shawn’s number and put it on speaker phone. “Coach,” said Bern, “I’m going to college! We did it, I’m going to go to U of L to play football.”

“I knew you could do it Big Bern!” Shawn said. “I knew it since I saw you in the spring. I remember I said to that radio host, ‘We’ve got a boy who is 6’5” and 315 lbs, we oughta be able to do something with that’.”

Big Bern’s emotion faded from his face. He hung his head down a little lower. “Yeah, thanks coach, bye bye,” Bern said, hanging up the phone. Bern started to shuffle his feet toward the door.

“You know you’re a lot more than just a football player, Bern. You’re about to be a college student,” I said.

“Yeah, I know.” Bern said without much enthusiasm.

I saw Cherice was starting to get emotional. After Big Bern left she looked at me and said, “Just think. John Pendleton wanted me to fail this boy so he could play for another year. How in the hell could someone be so indifferent toward a young man’s future. This boy’s life just changed today, and it doesn’t matter how many football programs JP starts and how much money he pours into it, he’ll never know the satisfaction that we’re feeling right now.”

I wasn’t feeling satisfied though. Maybe I should have been, but I wasn’t. I could see Bern was hurting, that he didn’t want to just be an athlete. I can tell he loves football, but since last spring, that’s been his only identity. His value had been completely consumed by his performance on the field. That must be a hard thing to get your head around. Or maybe he wasn’t thinking of any of that, but something stole his energy when talking to Shawn.

Mon. October 24, 2016

Our week without a football game has given the players some much needed rest. Sal has recovered from his concussion and is wearing a sling for his broken collarbone, but he’s been at every practice since his release from the hospital. It has been a blessing too because without Shawn at practice, I am struggling to teach quarterback Jason Bull how to run the option offense we installed after we made the switch to Sal. But Sal has been very helpful, showing some coaching skills himself, teaching Jason the footwork involved and the reads he needs to make. After practice finished I drove home, only to find Shawn sitting on my front stoop. “Come on, Gary, put on some black clothes and get in the car.” I let Shawn in the house and offered him a beer, which he declined because “we’ll need our wits about us,” he said. Before I had a chance to ask what it was we were actually doing, Shawn pulled a device out from his inside jacket pocket. “You see this, Gary, it’s a two-way radio with an earpiece. If you wear this earpiece then I’ll be able to talk to you while you’re coaching. I’ll be in the stands with the other radio and can talk you through it.”

Maybe I was getting used to Shawn’s schemes, or maybe I was just terrified at the thought of coaching without Shawn, but it seemed like a pretty good idea to me. Even though Cherice is technically the interim head coach, I’m the offensive coordinator and as the play-caller I have much more responsibility over the outcome of the game. I’m also taking over the defensive play-calling since Shawn’s dismissal. “So where we going, Shawn?”

“St. Paul’s.”

“Oh no,” I said. “What do you have in mind?”

“We need to figure out what they’re going to be doing, then we can focus on stopping that. Imagine, if we know which formations and plays they are going to be using, and we focus all our energy on stopping just that, then we might have a chance.”

Shawn was delusional. We had no chance to beat St. Paul’s. It will be as if an NFL team played a pretty bad college team. It won’t be close. But this is what Shawn does. He makes people buy into what he’s selling, and he’s selling optimism.

We pulled up to St. Paul’s as practice was finishing. They were running their defense against a wishbone formation, practicing for our offense just as we practice for theirs. “See that, Gary, they think we’re going to run the wishbone.”

“We are,” I said.

“But what if we run something else? Jason Bull is not an option quarterback. He doesn’t have the speed. What harm is there in changing things up? They won’t expect it and it can’t be much worse than trying to run the option with a quarterback who runs like a crippled ostrich.”

I chuckled at the imagery. He had a point, though. “But what about teaching a new offense to the kids at the end of the season. We’ve been over this before coach, it just can’t work.”

“The option was a new offense,” Shawn said, “And we installed it in the middle of the season." Again, he had a point.

After he said this, I heard a tap on my window. The man, one of the assistant coaches for St. Paul’s, gestured for me to roll down the window. “Ya’ll can leave now, or leave when the police get here,” he said.

“We’ll leave now,” I said, and rolled up the window as Shawn sped away. After some negotiations among the coaches, it was decided that some adjustments should be made to our existing wishbone option offense. Cherice had a great idea to switch to a double wing offense because it is different enough from the wishbone to cause the St. Paul’s Eagles some problems, but not so different that we couldn’t learn it in a week. The adjustment simply moves the two running backs from behind the quarterback to the wing position on either side of Jason Bull. This has the advantage of turning our running backs into receivers that can also run the ball. This style suits Jason more as a quarterback, who can throw better than Sal but is not as mobile. Hopefully these running backs will be better at receiving than the receivers have been. We must be the only team in Kentucky that has not completed a single pass all year, and despite what Shawn says, that is not an achievement.

There is an added advantage, much to the liking of Coach Nix, in that by spreading out the running backs we can run more crossing and misdirection plays, which are “trick” plays according to Shawn. Traps, bootlegs, reverses, all of these tickle Shawn pink when they work. I called Shawn after practice, as I do every day since his firing, to report on how the players took to the new offense. “They took to it real well, coach,” I said. “I underestimate them too much.” “Do you know why we coach life and football, in that order, Gary?” “Because life is more important than football in the big scheme of things.” I replied.

“Yes, but also because if you can get a group of kids to trust you with life, then trusting you with football is easy.”