Episode 2: Ruckus over Butkus

Thurs. June 2, 2016

I generally think it best practice to steer clear of the teenage social drama at St. Ignatius, but as teacher and especially coach, it sometimes becomes impossible to ignore. Two football players were caught throwing punches at each other in the weightroom. It was Sal Medrano, whom Nix calls “Italian Stallion” and is of Mexican heritage, and (Hairy) Perry Grimes, the team alpha male. After breaking up the fight, Coach Nix dragged them both to his office and asked me to sit in as witness.

Nix straightened his posture, stood tall and loomed over the two boys. He held this intimidating posture before hiking up his pants and squatting so that he was at eye level with them, breathing loudly through his nose. “What the hell is all this!” Coach screamed. “Ya’ll are on the same team, you know. Hell, teammates is meant to be be brothers.”

Soon as they were given the opportunity, they told us the whole story. Apparently Perry had “hooked-up” with Sal’s current girlfriend during Spring Break. Sal found out because his girlfriend couldn’t take the guilt of cheating and wanted to come clean. We couldn’t really blame Sal for reacting the way he did, and wanted to sort out the incident quickly and quietly. What struck me most about the whole thing was how emotionally charged Coach Nix became. That was the maddest and reddest I’d seen him up to now. He was yelling and incidentally spitting at them, “Brothers don’t fight, and brothers don’t play tiddlywinks with each other’s chickadees!”

After he sent the kids back to the locker room he closed the door to the office with me inside and I saw him welling up. He waited a few seconds and just said, “It breaks my heart.” I just stood there and did nothing, not reacting at all except to look away from his teary eyes. He wiped his face and walked out to his truck.

The next morning Coach Nix called a team meeting before morning workouts. He walked in to the office and said, “I’ve got a plan.” He then proceeded to brief me on what I thought was the worst idea a coach has ever had. At this point I tried to dissuade Shawn from going forward, but he was convinced it was a brilliant idea, and ignored my protest.

Shawn announced to the players that for one week, starting next Sunday, players would be assigned to live with a different player’s family. It was meant to be, as Shawn described, “just like that wife-swap show, but with teammates.” Before detailing this he gave a lecture, more of a sermon really, about the team as a family. “Ya’ll is like brothers here,” he said. “And I love you like you’re my own kids.” After laying down that groundwork he went on to speak about what it means to be in a family. “We don’t have to agree on everything, and we may get mad at each other, but we save all our real hits for the other team!” Eventually, he explained that this exercise will bring us closer as a football family.

It was hard to read the kids’ reactions. There was some grumbling, lots of eyes on the floor, and a few confused faces but no one dared to ask a question. That didn’t phase Shawn though. He carried on, waving his hands in the air, moving from one side of the room to the other, and making dramatic pauses. He could have been speaking to a stadium or a mirror. At the end of his talk he announced that we would host a potluck dinner for all the parents and he would answer all their questions about our little experiment.

Sat. June 4, 2016

The potluck was an overall success and actually made me doubt my resistance to Shawn’s family-swap idea. Everyone brought delicious plates of food. Even Coach Nix brought a Shawn-sized bowl of beef stroganoff, and it was the best dish there. I could tell it wasn’t stroganoff from a box, but I was shocked to learn that even the pasta was made from scratch. I never would have guessed Shawn to be much of a chef, but little surprises like this have been trickling down since I first met him.

Not all surprises were pleasant though. Shawn’s prayer to bless the food was unlike any I’ve heard. “Dear St. Ignatius,” he started. More than half the parents in the cafeteria raised their heads slightly. “We love you and thank you for giving us this food, and for sending your son to die on the cross for our sins,” he continued. It seemed he started his prayer to St. Ignatius—why I’m not sure—and conflated the namesake of our school with God himself.

After stacking my plate with all the delicious foods, I sat down across from Shawn, who was sitting next to Sal’s parents.

“We are so embarrassed by Sal, and we appreciate you so much not taking this up with Principal Goodlove,” Mrs. Medrano said.

“That’s alright. A boy shouldn’t be expelled over a squabble about a girl. Besides, I prefer to deal with problems in house, amongst us, and I think this family swap will give the players a new appreciation for our football family,” Coach said confidently.

Mr. Medrano leaned in and said, “Well, we can assure you that Sal won’t be fighting anyone anytime soon. We’ve arranged for Sal to stay with Linda Grimes, Perry’s mother, and Perry can stay with us. That ought to nip this little grudge in the bud.”

“That makes me so happy to hear. I’m glad ya’ll are working this out,” Coach happily replied. The parents were much more receptive to this plan than I anticipated, and I had to eat crow for trying to dissuade Shawn from introducing it. When he got up to get a second helping, I followed him to the potato salad.

“Coach, I’m sorry I doubted you on this one. I just couldn’t imagine this working out as well as it is.”

“Ole Gary, having a change of heart is he?”

“Yes Coach, I’ve got to hand it to you, the parents seem on-board and the kids haven’t raised any serious objections,” I said.

“You’ve gotta do this stuff early Gary, so it becomes the norm. If I just came in here and ran this program in the same old boring way, then that’s the way the program would always be,” Shawn said, scooping a whopping ladle full of potato salad onto his plate.

Thurs. June 9, 2016

Though we had an even number of players, we had an odd number of parents—Cliff and Chance McWhorter are brothers. To settle this Shawn suggested that Cliff stay with him and Chance stay with me and Terri for the week. I knew better than to accept without checking with Terri first, but Shawn didn’t really ask me if this was ok. Rather than confronting Shawn I thought it better to talk to Terri first, who happily agreed to take Chance in.

Chance has been great. He helps around the house and keeps his room neat. He didn’t complain that we didn’t have a bed in the guest room and he would have to sleep on an air mattress. He loves everything Terri cooks and is very respectful in how he talks to both Terri and myself. The worst moment of the week came on Monday when Mr. Pendleton called me to find out the details of the fight. I didn’t ask who had told him that there had been a fight, but it seemed that he hadn’t spoken with Shawn. I thought this was odd because they were so close. Shawn had been Mr. Pendleton’s golden boy, his man to win trophies, esteem and respect in Louisville. The fact that he called to get my version before talking to Shawn was not only strange, it was suspicious. I downplayed the event when talking to Pendleton, of course. “It was just two teenage boys being teenage boys, making a ruckus over a girl, as usual.”

“Well we can’t have that. I know teenagers get themselves into this kind of nonsense, but we’re trying to build a program here. People are looking to us for inspiration and as an example. We have to live up to the narrative,” Pendleton said.

“What narrative is that?” I asked.

“That a small, family-oriented school with no experience can build a successful football program from scratch.”

After Pendleton mentioned family I felt a knot in my stomach. I suddenly realized I was being played. John Pendleton knew all he needed to know about the fight before dialing my number. He must have called for some other reason, but I’m still not sure what that reason is. His call wasn’t the only one I received this week. A few parents have called to complain about how much food their adopted player is eating. I didn’t take these too seriously, except for the call I received from Dale Berry’s mother. She and her husband traded kids with the Huxley’s, meaning that they were lodging Big Bern. I’ve personally watched that kid eat 3 whole chickens, rotisserie mind you, two baked potatoes, a bowl of mac’n’cheese, and wash it down with enough sweet tea to put out a moderate house fire—and he asked to stop for a milkshake on the way home from the dinner. He’s not the brightest player on our squad, but he is certainly the biggest and most powerful. Thankfully Shawn is not well read, otherwise he might have nicknamed him “Lenny” instead of “Big Bern.”

Apparently, Big Bern has been waking up in the middle of the night and going to raid the fridge. The next morning he denies the whole thing, causing some tension in their home. I advised the Berry’s to set up a hidden video camera aimed at the fridge, and to call me after they get the evidence. I said I would confront Big Bern so they wouldn’t have to. They called me the next morning and I drove over to have a look at the tape. As I watched the tape with Clair and Holman, it became clear that Big Bern was sleepwalking to the fridge and stuffing his face with whatever his hands touched. At one point he squirts mayonnaise into his wide-open mouth. He followed this up with cracking an egg, then shoving the yoke, white and cracked shell into his mouth. It was quite a show to watch. The oddest thing about the video was that it showed Big Bern cleaning up after himself. I suspected that he was waking out of his stupor halfway through stuffing his face, but then became so embarrassed about it, or just plain forgot about it, that he denied it the next morning. I told them that we should call Big Bern in and let him know about his condition, but they declined. They thought it would embarrass him too much, and now that they know he is not doing it on purpose, they figured they could tolerate it a few more days. I called Ms. Huxley to inform her of her son’s condition, to which she replied, “Oh no, is he doing that again?” This had been a recurring problem that shows up every time Big Bern goes through a significant change in his routine.

Otherwise, the week has been pretty smooth sailing. Coach Nix has Cliff McWhorter on a special diet and health regimen. Chance told me that he wakes Cliff up every two hours at night to feed him a protein bar. Shawn also tried to increase Cliff’s flexibility by making him sleep with his legs folded at the knee, with belts strapped around his quads and ankles. Apparently this was one of Shawn’s home remedies to increase flexibility. The only thing it did, though, was to make Cliff walk around like a duck for the next two days.

Mon. June 13th 2016

With a full week of living with the families of other players, and with an hour to go before workouts this morning, again Shawn and I had to break up a fight between Sal Medrano and Perry Grimes. This time it was Perry who was getting the better of Sal. He was a bright red all over his upper body and clearly the aggressor in the brief exchange of punches. Shawn and I both grabbed Perry and lifted him off the ground to carry him out of the weight room and into the locker room.

“What’s goin on?” Shawn asked Perry, surprisingly calm. Perry’s eyes welled up, “That son of a bitch slept with my mom.” Linda Grimes was an attractive single woman who hosted Sal for the past week. It was possible.

“How do you know Sal isn’t messing with you, to get you back for making out with his girlfriend?” I said hopefully. Perry’s intensity dialed down two clicks.

“Of course Sal would say that—it’s not true Perry,” Shawn said, catching on to my strategy. I left Perry with Shawn and went back into the weight room to find Sal. I took him into my office, but before I could question him Shawn burst through the door.

“Here’s what happened Sal,” Shawn said. “You made the whole thing up to get back at Perry. I don’t want to know what happened between you and Perry’s mom, and you are going to go out there and tell the whole team that you made it up to get back at Perry for messing around with your girlfriend. End of story,” Shawn said inches from Sal’s face. Shawn’s eyes were intense and he was clearly mad, but not as red or as emotional as he was after the last fight. Sal’s eyes grew big and he was visibly shaken by having that big man in his face. As he got up to follow Shawn’s instructions, he sheepishly turned to me, as if for help, but I just stood there, united with Coach Nix.

After he left the office Shawn turned to me and said, “Gary, that was some quick thinking in there. Its best if we don’t get to the bottom of this, and create our own bottom. It didn’t happen, that’s the story we all heard. Monkey see, monkey do; monkey don’t see, monkey don’t doodoo.”

I was happy that it was over, but I was becoming nauseous at the thought of it actually being true. What if Sal really had slept with Ms. Grimes? A scandal like that could doom this program before it gets off the ground, not to mention my career at St. Ignatius. And how could Shawn be so casual about covering the whole thing up? If this really happened then there could be charges filed, maybe against us, I don’t know. I’m sure, though, we would be held responsible for some of the blame. After workouts finished I waited outside by the cars. When Sal came out I motioned for him to come get in my truck. “Tell me what really happened, Sal,” I said.

Sal then went on to tell me that nothing happened between him and Ms Grimes. The real story is that Sal found a private folder on the Grimes family computer. This folder contained a private video of Ms Grimes with a former boyfriend engaging in consensual activities. I asked Sal if he brought it up with Ms Grimes, but he said no and that I’m the only person he has told. I put on a stern face and told him, “If you want to stay on this team, it better stay that way.”