Episode 3: Coach Miss

Sun. August 21, 2016

Summer workouts have been a series of struggles with some successes thrown in. I’m happy to say, after many toilsome practices, we have an offense that the players seem to understand, albeit with a very small playbook. Coach Nix loves to talk about toughness in general, but he especially loves to talk about “grit.” All summer it has been, “Get some grit about ya,” or “Let’s get down to the nitty gritty,” or even once, “Suck on that grit and ask for more!”

With this in mind I proposed we run a wishbone style offense, known for being old school, tough and, most importantly, simple. “I love it,” Shawn said when I mentioned it to him, “but that means these boys will need to get some grit about ‘em.”

The wishbone offense is a power running offense and ill-suited for many pass plays. Even though Sal has really shone during the summer at the lone wide receiver position, and he is the fastest player on the team with the best hands, Jason Bull is just not a throwing quarterback. He has an ok arm but struggles with any throw longer than fifteen yards. Also, Sal’s the only reliable receiver to emerge from the group. Jason has shown good leadership as the quarterback and seems to have the best understanding of the game. Coach has taken to calling him “Bullstein” because he’s “so smart.” If he only pronounced it to rhyme with Einstein, instead of “Bull-steen,” it wouldn’t seem so racist.

Our biggest asset in more ways than one is still Big Bernard Huxley Jr, the 300lb offensive tackle who occasionally eats in his sleep. He managed to lose 15 pounds over the summer, despite all the sleep-eating, and seems to move better because of it. Our entire offense centers on giving the ball to Perry Grimes and running behind Big Bern, and though it lacks versatility, I believe it has potential to be effective.

Coach Nix struggled early in the summer to manage the entire defense by himself. This was partly because he had to oversee the offense too, due to my incompetence. After a few weeks he realized that this coaching duo needed a third. I urged him to ask Mr. Pendleton to hire another full-time coach, but Pendleton only agreed to pay the 25% bonus to an existing faculty member to take on coaching duties.

As it turned out, only the English teacher, Cherice Youngblood, came forward and asked for the opportunity. She is known as an excellent girls' softball coach, and looks like what you’d expect an excellent girls' softball coach to look like: short hair, short and robust stature, and a face that is frozen in business mode. She has led the Immaculate Conception Ladies’ Softball team to multiple state championships. Immaculate Conception is the all-girls Catholic school just a few miles from St. Ignatius.

I suspected Shawn would be resistant to a female coach on his squad, but again, I was wrong. He was absolutely giddy when he heard the news. I thought maybe he had a crush on Miss Youngblood, but instead he was over the moon that, in his words, “Football gives us so many opportunities to impart knowledge and teach lessons.” He went on to say, “I’ve been rackin my brain to figure out a way to teach these kids about feminism.”

I didn’t think I heard him correctly. “What? Why do you want to teach them that?” I asked.

“As great as it is to be on a team of guys, we need to be reminded that the rest of the world isn’t as full of all this testosterone as our locker room is. I’ll consider myself a failure if we win all our games but these boys go on to treat women like dogs.”

I was flabbergasted. I had to agree, even though I never once considered it a duty, or even appropriate, really. I thought I would have to talk him into taking on a woman coach, and he’s talking me into teaching kids about feminism. Coach went on to tell me that he took a women’s studies course at Clemson and it was his favorite course. He learned about the struggles against sexism and discrimination that women endure, and felt inspired to do his part to end such oppression. As macho as Shawn is, and with his constant insensitive remarks, I never would have imagined that Shawn even knew what feminism was, much less be a supporter of it. I would later discover, however, that despite his support for it, he really knew very little about feminist concepts. His knowledge of feminism goes about as far as bra-burning, and even that he doesn’t understand very well.

Cherice joined practices last week and has been a great addition to the coaching staff. She is tough and doesn’t let the boys run all over her. Right now she is coaching the defensive backs and special teams, and doing a much better job than I was when I first started coaching the wide receivers. She grew up in a football family and loved the game from a young age. Her father had her running football drills in the backyard as a kid and taught her how to kick. They always buy season tickets to watch the University of Louisville’s games.

Coach Nix is so happy that she’s coaching with us, but I think this is mainly because he can use her as a prop to teach “life lessons.” For some reason he keeps calling her “Coach Miss Youngblood,” which I imagine irritates her but I don’t think she’s said anything to him about it.

I had a chance to sit and talk with Cherice a few days ago. I asked her why she wanted to coach boys football. She said things like, “I love coaching and the game and want to support the students.” Those were fine reasons, I suppose, but they would have still been true last spring when Principal Goodlove asked me and a few other teachers to help out with the football team. “Why didn’t you volunteer last spring, when Principal Goodlove and Mr. Pendleton were looking for coaches?” “I did,” she said, “but they suddenly became all cagey and said that since you had volunteered they had enough coaches already. It was only when I mentioned something to Shawn that Mr. Pendleton changed his tune. I suspect they assumed Shawn wouldn’t be able to coach with a woman, and changed their minds when he went to bat for me.”

Mon. Aug 22, 2016

Game week “kicked off” with Coach Nix throwing out a challenge on Coach Youngblood’s behalf. On the “Coach’s Corner” radio show Shawn claimed that Coach Youngblood could out-kick any man that was sexist enough to believe otherwise. We had seen Coach Youngblood kick field goals from 40 and 45 yards with great accuracy, but Shawn still should have checked with Cherice before volunteering her to compete against half of Louisville.

At 3:00 today about 25-30 young men showed up to see if they could best Coach Youngblood in field goal kicking. Coach Nix had managed to get Cherice to agree to this little stunt, saying it would be good publicity for the program and put a spotlight on women coaches in male sports. She couldn’t argue with that, so she agreed to a best-of-five field goal competition from varying distances and angles. A man from the local paper was there to write up the story.

The first challenger, a 27 year old kid who used to place-kick in high school, made 3 of the 5 attempts. Cherice easily made all 5 of hers. Then came another former high school kicker, though he was even younger at 20. We didn’t know it at the time, but he is the current backup kicker for the University of Cincinnati Bearcats. He quickly and easily made all 5 attempts, as did Cherice. To settle the tie they backed up to 50 yards for a sixth attempt. Cherice’s kick hit the horizontal post and bounced back toward her, while Toby sailed his through with a few yards to spare.

Coaches Youngblood, Nix and myself were pretty disappointed by the bad press we were sure to get for this, but our players, who had come out to watch the spectacle, were over the moon. Shawn had said publicly that were Cherice to lose against any person, he would wear high heels on the sideline while coaching the first game, and the players were ecstatic that Shawn had lost the bet. Walking back toward the coaches’ office, I saw the kids jumping around and acting like idiots, all because they wanted to see Coach Nix in high heels. I don’t think this was part of Shawn’s plan, and I don’t think he thought there was a chance he would have to make good on his promise to wear high heels. But seeing the kids in such high spirits before our first game, I reflected, “Maybe Shawn is actually a genius.” Then I came back to my senses. “No, he’s not.”

Tues. August 23, 2016

After practice today I went to the office to enjoy some air conditioning before going home. Coach Nix was at his desk, looking over some note cards.

“What’s that,” I asked, thinking it was some offensive or defensive schemes.

“Oh, nothin, just my EMSKs”

“EMSK?”

“You know, things that every man should know, EMSK. I keep a running list of things that every man should know, and I write them each on a notecard.”

“Is this where your life lessons come from?” I asked.

“Some of them, well most of them I guess,” he replied.

“What sorts of things do you write on the cards?”

“Well this one says, ‘How to cook’ on it. And this one says, ‘How to talk a person off a ledge,’” he said confidently.

“Do you really think every man should know how to talk a person off of a ledge?” I asked.

“I know most men will never have to, but when you’re in that situation you sure as shit wish you knew how,” he said staring me in the face, holding his sober expression for a few seconds before looking back down at his cards.

At this point I felt a little queezy. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer to my next question. “Have you ever been in that situation?” I asked timidly, with my eyes to the floor.

“No,” he replied. “But I realized it would be good if everyone could talk someone down that is dangerous or suicidal after I watched that movie, The Negotiator with Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey.”

I had become so used to Shawn’s little surprises that I was sure he was about to tell me some heart-wrenching story of losing someone to suicide. Even when I’m expecting to be surprised by Coach Nix, I’m still surprised. Before leaving the office I noticed one card with the words, “Deliver a baby” on it. Dear God I hope he doesn’t try to teach this team how to deliver a baby.

Thurs. August 25, 2016

Today’s practice was horrendous. You could see the players were already rattled. Tomorrow is the first high school football game any of them (except for Jason) has ever played. Today we practiced with just helmets, shorts and t-shirts and it was meant to be a light day. I knew something was amiss when they started stretching in complete silence. Normally there is a lot of joking around during stretches, and warm-up drills are quite lively. Today it felt like we drafted 30 mimes to come practice football.

Sal Medrano dropped almost every ball thrown to him, and he’s our “soft-hands” receiver. Jason Bull, our quarterback and, according to Shawn, the resident genius, couldn’t remember how to execute half the plays we called. The defense looked just as bad. The linebackers didn’t know where to line up, the defensive tackles kept stunting the wrong gaps, and there were several cases of blown coverage by the defensive backs.

Worst of all was Brett “Cobbler” Cobb. Just half an hour into practice he took off his helmet and vomited water from his mouth. I rushed over to find out if he was sick, but Shawn met me there.

“What’s wrong Brett,” I said. “Did you eat something wrong?”

“I feel light-headed. I think I’m just hungry. I didn’t eat lunch,” Brett managed to get out before spewing water and energy drink on the grass again.

Coach Nix sent him to the shade to have a seat and rest. “This is probably my fault,” Shawn said to me. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I didn’t think this far ahead.”

“What are you talking about, Coach?” I asked.

“Well Brett has been too soft. I needed him to get mad, to get hungry, to get gritty. So I told Bullstein to put some sand in his sandwich at lunch. I thought that would make him mad when he bit into that gritty sandwich, and he’d be hungry at practice. I guess the metaphor didn’t carry over.”

I didn’t have the energy and it was far too hot outside to engage with that nonsense. I just walked over to the shade and, gave Brett a couple of bucks for the vending machine, and told him to go inside and eat something.

Meanwhile the team was trying to scrimmage. The only part of the game that didn’t look held together by thread was the special teams. Granted, the kicking game is a relatively small, but important, part of the game, but Coach Youngblood has done a tremendous job with the special teams. Her first day on the field were spent auditioning place kickers, but none of them could consistently make a field goal from even the extra-point distance. After this practice (two weeks ago) the coaches met in Shawn’s office to troubleshoot the kicking situation.

“We’ve had kids practicing kicking and punting all summer long, and I’ve tried to help, but I know my limitations,” Shawn said.

“Well, we have to do something,” Coach Youngblood replied. “Big Bern will work as a punter. His kicks aren’t pretty but the power in his legs are enough to give us pretty good field position. But if we can’t find a place kicker then we will be going for two after every touchdown.”

“Can’t you just take the best of all the bad kickers and teach them the mechanics of it,” I chimed in.

“Yes, but we don’t have time for that,” Cherice quickly replied. “If I had a soccer player I might be able to teach him how to kick in two weeks, because they are halfway there already with their soccer kicking technique.”

“We do have lots of Mexicans at this school,” Shawn said, “too bad none of them want to play football.” Now I was sure no one had informed him that “Italian Stallion” Sal Medrano was of Mexican descent. “If I could get one of those Mexican soccer players to join the team would you be able to teach him to kick?” Shawn asked Cherice.

“Possibly good enough for extra points, but it’s no guarantee,” Cherice replied. “But any soccer player will do, he doesn’t have to be Mexican.”

I’m not sure if Coach didn’t hear that last comment Cherice made or chose to ignore it, but for some reason it became stuck in Shawn’s mind that only a Mexican would be able to kick for us.

Three days later Shawn called me, saying he had found “a Mexican” who could kick a soccer ball 3/4 the length of the field, and wanted me to go over to the kid’s parents home with Shawn to try and convince the parents that their son would be a football star. The boy’s name was Enrique Rodriguez, a tenth grader at St. Ignatius, and his parents spoke no English. Enrique had to translate.

As it turned out, Enrique’s family had immigrated from Guatemala, and I think Shawn was slightly disappointed by this. He did, however, make a great sales pitch to Enrique’s parents. He told them that this could be an avenue to go to college, and that delighted the Rodriguez’s, especially Enrique and his mother. Even though it was true, I didn’t think it wise to put expectations and hopes in the mind of a kid who, for all we knew, had never touched a football before. But Shawn spoke with such confidence and sincerity that Enrique would be a star, it didn’t feel like he was swindling anyone.

Shawn’s instinct was right in this case, though. After just one week of training every day with Coach Youngblood, Enrique could consistently make extra point field goals, and even make 50% of his kicks from the 15 yard line. His accuracy needs work, but he certainly has the leg to kick it 40 or 50 yards in the air, which is great news for our kickoff team.

Our opening game is tomorrow at Whaller, and we are far from ready. Whaller isn’t expected to be a great team either; they’ve had four consecutive losing seasons. Our second game, however, is against St. Mark’s, one of two outstanding and well-funded Catholic football programs in Louisville. St. Mark’s and St. Paul’s have vied for Kentucky state championships for the last decade. They are not even in our division and shouldn’t be on our schedule, but I suppose Catholic schools stick together.

If when we play Whaller tomorrow our offense can just move the ball close enough to give Enrique a chance to make a field goal, then that may be our only chance to put points on the board. After practice I walked into the office and Shawn was sitting in the chair opposite his desk, holding his head in his hands.

“What’s wrong Coach?” I asked.

“Rodriguez can’t play tomorrow. He has to work at his dad’s restaurant. I pleaded with the boy and even offered to go talk to his dad myself, but it’s no use. Our most valuable player won’t be with us.”

After dropping this bombshell he put his head back into his hands. Then I noticed a notecard on Shawn’s desk. At the top was written “EMSK” and below that said, “How to kick a goddamn football.”