Episode 4: Game On

Sat. August 27, 2016

Last night’s game was a disaster on all fronts, beginning with the walk from the locker rooms to the field. True to his word, Coach Nix was wearing sparkly red high-heeled shoes. He, Coach Youngblood and I were in the front of the pack, ready to lead the Spartans onto a football field for the first time in school history, and the man leading us all was wearing his trusted emerald and white velvet tracksuit and a pair of Dorothy shoes from the Wizard of Oz. But credit where credit is due, he wore them with confidence.

That confidence lasted less than 30 seconds. Leading us to the sloping ramp down to the field, Shawn decided to stop at the top of the hill and take in the beauty of his first high school coaching appearance. He did this unannounced, which caused someone in the back to bump into the player in front of him, which caused another player to crash into the player in front of him, and so on and so forth until eventually I was shoved right into Shawn’s back. Shawn’s heels slipped from beneath him, causing him to land awkwardly on his hip and roll 5 or 6 feet toward the field.

Coach Nix popped back up to his bare feet with a heel in each hand and threw them at the pack, one of which hit me in the forehead and drew some blood above my left eyebrow. “I don’t have time for this bullshit,” he said angrily. He coached the first half in bare feet.

Without Enrique to kickoff, Big Bern had to take over all the kicking duties. He opened the game by kicking a line drive directly at their first row of players on their kickoff return squad. The ball bounced off the helmet of their number 56 and went careening through the air, in the wrong direction, and landed twenty yards behind where Big Bern had started. Had it been planned, it would have been a beautiful onside kick. As it was, it was an easy touchdown for the Pirates, as their front row ran right past our boys, scooped up the football and returned it for a touchdown. Number 56 was left lying on the field, unconscious, while his teammates scored. Seven seconds into the game and we were already down six points and gave a concussion to a ninth grader from Whaller.

Then it was our turn to receive the kickoff. We caught the ball on our 20 yard line and made it to our own 28-yard line. The first play was a bust, Jason Bull turned around to his right to pitch the ball to Perry Grimes, but Perry had run to his left, so the ball sailed into the backfield with no one to catch it. Jason quickly fell on the ball, giving us a loss of 5 yards on our first offensive play. The next several plays looked better, with Perry gaining 7 yards on two tries. Had we gained yards on first down we would be in good position, but as it stood we had to punt.

Big Bern went back into the punting position, received the snap, and put his massive tree-trunk leg in motion. He absolutely crushed the ball, kicking it further than I had seen him, or anyone, kick a football in the air. The ball had no chance to be returned and rolled all the way to the Whaller 10-yard line, a 60-yard punt. It was an amazing kick and our sole highlight from the game.

After the initial nerves calmed, the offense managed to put some good drives together. Running Perry behind Big Bern was consistently giving us 4-5 yards a carry in the second quarter. Twice in the game we made it inside the opponents 30-yard line, threatening to score, but each time there was a turnover, either because of a Perry fumble or a turnover on downs. If only Enrique would have been there, we may have been able to put a few points on the scoreboard behind his foot, and with that maybe add a little confidence to our boy’s spirits.

Whaller’s offense also ran well on our defense. The entire first half they threw three passes, all of them incomplete. But this didn’t matter because their tackles pushed “Stormin’ Jerry Schwartzkoff” and Herman “The Shocker” Vance all over the field. The Pirates led 26-0 at halftime and our boys were utterly demoralized.

At halftime Coach Nix pulled me aside before we entered the locker room. “I want you to go pick up Enrique from his father’s restaurant,” Shawn said. “Take Chance McWhorter with you, I’ve already spoken with him about it. Try and see if Enrique’s dad will let Chance takeover for Enrique so he can come kick for us.”

“Coach,” I said, “Can we do this? What about Chance?”

“Chance is fine with it, he knew he wasn’t going to get any playing time tonight anyway” Shawn replied. “It’s just this once and after the game we can work out a better plan, but right now we need Enrique.”

“But Coach, we are in Whaller, that has to be a 15 minute drive from here,” I said.

“Then you better get your butt in gear. We’re caught between a rock and two bushes here, we need a game-changer.” Coach said with no hint of a joke in his voice.

I loaded Chance in my truck and went to Sabor Nuevo to find our kicker. On the drive I asked Chance if he was ok with Coach Nix’s plan, to which he replied, “I just want to help my team,” Coach. I had really grown to like Chance, especially after Terri and I housed him for a week during the family swap.

When I got there I found a busy restaurant with Latino’s running in and out of the kitchen so fast I could hardly flag one down to ask about Enrique. “He’s in the back,” one of the waiters said. I went to the kitchen and found Enrique washing dishes, told him our plan and asked him to take me to his dad so we could make our proposal.

“We really need Enrique, Mr. Rodriguez,” I pleaded. “The game is going very badly, and Enrique’s kicking can help us.” Mr. Rodriguez just stood there, stone-faced. “Chance is a hard worker, and it will only be for a few hours.” Mr. Rodriguez sighed heavily, then uttered a single word,

“No.”

I turned to look for help from Enrique, who was translating, but when I turned back Mr. Rodriguez was gone. I took Chance back to the Stadium. When we arrived there were 3 minutes left in the game and we were losing 33-0. I could see from the top of the hill that they had already put in their younger players and were just trying to run out the clock. “What a waste,” I said to myself.

After the game the only thing Coach Nix said to the team was, “Keep your heads up, boys.” After most of the players left we held a short coaches meeting in Shawn’s office. I really didn’t know what to expect. Shawn had been on edge the entire game, to the point of sending me to a Mexican restaurant in a futile attempt to avoid a shutout.

Cherice and I were sitting in the office while Shawn was outside talking to a few parents. “This is ridiculous!” Cherice said. “He’s got no right to ask a player to go work in a restaurant so another player can come play, and if he wanted to do that he should have thought of it long ago and talked with us first. We can’t win games with actions like that.”

I just nodded my head slightly. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be feeling and to whom my feelings should be directed. It was a bad loss, but it shouldn’t have been totally unexpected. We had some rough practices this week, and let’s not forget that these kids haven’t played a game before. Coach Youngblood had a point, but was it a point worth fighting over? I wasn’t sure.

When Shawn entered the office Cherice stood up to meet him at the door. “What the hell was all that nonsense with Chance McWhorter? If you wanted Enrique here so bad you should have made a plan instead of sending one of our players to go wash dishes. Besides, it was too late anyway. And you sent our offensive coordinator with him! He was the one calling plays! Do you have any clue how to run a football program?”

Shawn just stood there and took it. After Cherice’s rant she just walked out of the office and left. Shawn moved behind his desk, sat down and let out a big sigh. “Well, that went about as bad as it could,” he said morosely.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I replied.

The door suddenly burst open and standing in the doorway was John Pendleton, and he was holding a red high-heeled shoe. To say he was unhappy would be an understatement. He was fuming. He marched into the office, ready to tear Shawn and I to pieces. Shawn had just been dressed down by an assistant coach, and I couldn’t bear to see it happen again.

“I was just leaving,” I said getting up from my chair.

“Sit down,” Pendleton instructed.

Shawn stood up from behind his desk and positioned himself between Pendleton and myself. “Hold on there John,” Shawn said calmly. “If you’ve got a problem with the way this game was coached then you talk to me about it. That’s the chain of command. If mistakes were made by any other coaches then that’s my problem to deal with, not yours.”

Shawn, who was in more trouble than I was, was standing up for me. Or maybe he just didn’t want to lose face in front of me. Shawn turned to me and said, “You can go on home now Gary, I’ll call you in the morning.” After I walked out the office door I hung around for a minute to hear what was being said. I’m not sure why, exactly, because I didn’t really want to hear Mr. Pendleton yelling at Shawn. It made me queezy. Even though his coaching was awful that night, and I believe he can do better, it wasn’t for lack of effort. Shawn is a classic “try-hard” to the point that it frustrates us all, but there is something to admire about a person who is always trying their hardest. I just wish he would occasionally try his smartest.

“I don’t expect you to win every game, but we can’t get embarrassed out there. We just can’t,” I heard Pendleton say to Coach. “And these shoes are not the most embarrassing thing about that game.”

“Those are nice shoes, and I had to wear them because I gave my word,” Shawn said.

“Well you also gave your word that you would win football games, and next week we have St. Paul’s and they are 10 times better than Whaller is. They’ll score 100 on us if we play like that!” Shawn didn’t say a word. I imagined he just sat there and took it, as stone-faced as before. I felt bad for Shawn. I had been so preoccupied with the pressure I was under that I failed to realize that Shawn was under much more than I.

I suppose all this pressure is what spurred Shawn to ask me to go pick up Enrique mid-match. The truth of it was that Enrique wouldn’t have made much, if any difference. Maybe we would have lost 33-3 or 33-6, but the score wouldn’t have looked much better than that. Shawn was in desperation mode since the opening kickoff. Of course, it was the most disastrous opening kickoff I’ve ever witnessed.

Sun. August 28, 2017

Coach called me last night and asked me to come watch the film at his house. “I’m cooking burgers,” he said. When I arrived Shawn greeted me with an apron that had a bikini-clad woman’s body printed on it. “Yeah, this is the feminist alright,” I thought to myself. His burgers were out of this world, though. He used ground Kobe beef he picked up at an exotic foods shop and stuffed them with camembert cheese. He even used homemade radish pickles and sandwiched it in a brioche bun. It was heavenly.

Before we turned on the tape, we sat outside to eat and talk about the game. “I’m sorry about making you leave the game, Gary. That was wrong of me and I can see that now.”

“That’s alright Shawn, I know you were desperate for a game-changer, but I don’t think Enrique was it. We could barely get close enough for his range,” I said.

“I know it. I just wanted to win so badly, you know, for the kids. They trusted us and worked really hard. What does that Bear Bryant quote say, ‘If you believe in yourself, have dedication and pride, and never quit, you will be a winner.’ Well, those kids did all that and they deserve to experience the feeling of being a winner. That’s the lesson I wanted them to learn last night.”

It was a tender moment, and Shawn was vulnerable. “Why do you care so much about teaching life lessons, coach?” I asked.

“Because I had to learn my lessons the hard way. My dad left my mom right after I was born, and I was raised by a single mother who worked all the time. No one was around to teach me how to become a man. I’m proud of what I have become, but I could have saved a lot of heartache and misery if someone would have been there to teach me life lessons.” I was surprised that Shawn had a thoughtful answer to that question. From the moment I met Shawn, he struck me as a person who speaks and acts according to instinct, flying by the seat of his pants. He seems to have so little self-awareness, I couldn’t believe he had allowed himself to be so introspective and come to conclusions like this.

“It sounds like you’ve thought a lot about this,” I said.

“When you’re single you have a lot of time to think about things,” he replied. That’s when I realized that Shawn was lonely and needed a companion, but I was far from willing to be his cupid.

Tues. August 29, 2016

Practice on Monday was a cheerless affair. The kids and the coaches were still recovering from the blow to their egos last Friday. The disappointment was palpable in the air on the practice field. This was, however, temporarily suspended when Coach Miss Youngblood (now everyone calls her Coach Miss Youngblood) started menstruating in the middle of practice. Shawn saw her bloodstained white shorts and failed to realize what had happened. “Coach Miss Youngblood, you’re ass is bleeding,” he blurted out. He quickly realized that he had put his foot in his mouth, and you could argue that I was partly to blame for noticing the blood splotch on her shorts but being too embarrassed to tell her about it.

After she went and changed into some athletic shorts, practice was almost over. The boys were running sprints as part of their conditioning when Shawn saddled up to Cherice. “I think it would be real good if you could teach these boys about menstruation. I don’t mean the medical side of it, I’m talking about the practical side—like can you get sick if you have sex with a girl on her period, that kind of thing.”

Cherice stood there incredulous for a second, then replied, “I don’t really feel comfortable doing that, Coach. Besides, I want the kids to think of me as a coach, not a woman coach.”

Shawn thought for a moment and replied, “You’re probably right about that. Maybe I could ask you some questions and then teach the kids about menstruation myself.”

“What kind of questions do you mean? Like the getting sick during sex on the rag question you just asked?”

“Yeah, but also just general questions about how girls manage menstruation. That’s a big thing that women have to deal with that boys don’t, so most boys grow up without learning anything about it. I grew up with a mom, a grandma, and two sisters, so I was fortunate.”

Cherice gave a look at Shawn that said, “you know nothing about it.” “Well,” she said, “you can ask me questions and I’ll answer them but I am not giving a presentation on menstruation to a group of high school boys, that’s the health teacher’s job.”

Shawn said he would think about it, then blew his whistle to end practice.