Episode 5: Wishbone Suicides

Sat. September 3, 2016

We all knew St. Mark’s was going to be the toughest team we face all year, and I don’t think many of us had hope of keeping the game close, especially after what we saw against Whaller. But Shawn’s positivity and confidence did wonders for the spirits of our players. The week started with players moping around after our big loss. By Tuesday, though, thanks mainly to Shawn’s efforts, the kids’ attitudes had turned around. A few times in the last week I heard players say things like, “We’re gonna give those Knights hell!” and other things of that nature. Shawn’s positivity was contagious, and thankfully so, because next week’s game against the Lincoln Bears is a conference game.

We lost to St. Mark’s 59-0 and it was never competitive. They were bigger, stronger, faster and better organized than our team in every aspect. St. Mark’s is in a higher division and they compete for State Championships every year, but based on the players’ high morale this week I almost began to think we could keep it from becoming a blowout. I can’t blame the Knights for running up the score either, because their second- and third-string players came in halfway through the first quarter and played the remainder of the game. Herman Vance was ejected from the game for throwing a punch at a St. Mark’s offensive lineman. Enrique was working at his dad’s restaurant again, but it still wouldn’t have mattered. We didn’t move the ball into their territory once and were never close enough for him to kick a field goal. It was just a good ole fashioned beat down.

The only positive note from the game was that no one was injured, and considering the skill level St. Mark’s was playing at, and the size of their players, that is almost miraculous.

After the game, John Pendleton caught up with me to talk about starting a school band. “Well, its a nice idea,” I said, “but who would direct it? I’m the music teacher and I’m already overloaded with the coaching duties.”

“I thought about that,” said Pendleton. “What if we had a stripped down, bare-bones band that didn’t march. You could convert your little Jazz band into a football band and one of your Seniors could direct the band from the stands. That would be a good experience for them. What do you think?”

“I’ll have to think about it, and Principal Goodlove would have to sign off on it.” I said. It wasn’t the worst idea I’ve heard at St. Ignatius, and the way Pendleton presented it wouldn’t require any real extra work for me. I didn’t like, however, that John felt he had free reign to meddle with duties or my students.

“I’ve spoken with Goodlove and he’s on board. He thinks a band in the stands would really give a boost to the team and the fans,” John said. I also didn’t like that he was running ideas related to the Music department by Principal Goodlove without talking to me first though.

“I’m not sure about this, John. Even if the kids were interested, and I’m not sure that they are, we wouldn’t be able to get a band in the stands for this season. Football music is a pretty far cry from Jazz.” This was the first time I’ve called Mr. Pendleton “John” to his face, and his little round face reacted in a way to let me know it wasn’t appreciated. In truth, I thought that the Jazz band could learn football band music easily, but I wanted to push back on John’s idea. I know he’s the big donor keeping this football program alive, but the Music department is not included in that deal.

John Pendleton relaxed his shoulders a bit. “Well, you think on it and we’ll talk about this again,” Pendleton said. The way he tilted his head when he said “we’ll talk about this again,” made me think he already knows the outcome of this future conversation.

Just then I felt two massive paws on my shoulders squeezing hard. It was Shawn, not realizing his own strength. “Ole Gary and I need to get some vitality in this offense. Start thinking of a plan and at the coaches' meeting on Sunday we’ll figure this out.”

Sun. September 4, 2016

When we met this morning I noticed Shawn and Coach Miss Youngblood were both wearing church clothes, which wasn’t unusual other than I hadn’t seen either of them “dressed up” before. Maybe I had seen Cherice in a dress at graduation or awards ceremony before, but what struck me about her attire was that she was wearing the very same high heeled shoes that Shawn had briefly donned before falling on his ass and throwing them up the hill toward the locker rooms. I assumed Shawn had gotten them from someone because they were entirely too small for his fat feet, but I didn’t suspect they came from Cherice.

The air was downcast in Shawn’s office as we went over the film of our thrashing at the hands of the St. Mark’s Knights. Things lightened somewhat when we looked at the film of our next opponent, the Lincoln High School Bears. “I know St. Mark’s may be the best defense we face all year, but we have got to figure out what to do with our offense. What do you think about it Gary,” Shawn said.

“I think the basic idea is solid, get the ball into the hands of a Perry Grimes and run behind Big Bern,” I said.

“But if that is the only thing we can do, then it won’t take long for any defense to stop it. We’ve got to get more weapons in our arsenal. For example, all Bullstein is doing is turning around and handing the ball to Hairy Perry, now that seems like a waste to me,” Shawn said.

As I sat there thinking about ways to get our quarterback more involved in the offense, Cherice spoke up, “If we’re a running team, then shouldn’t we have a running quarterback? Sal is the fastest player on our team. What if we put him at quarterback and run the triple option?”

It was the first time Cherice contributed to the offensive side of things, and I had to admit that it was a killer idea. It would give us another threat to run the ball and the option is notorious for making undersized and under-skilled teams look better than they are. If run perfectly, some coaches say it is unstoppable. The problem is to get a team to run it perfectly. Every player has to know his assignment and be in sync with their teammates.

“That’s it then,” Coach Nix said. “From now on, we’re an option team. We’ll keep the wishbone formation and run the triple option out of that.”

I was hesitant about installing a new offensive scheme with the season already in motion, but our offense does need a reboot of some kind. Our best weapon is Enrique, who says he will be able to play starting from next week, but will be useless to us if we can’t move the ball within field goal range. “So what do we do with Jason Bull?” I asked, but no one was paying attention to me. Coach Nix and Coach Miss Youngblood were giddily talking over the details of a wishbone option. It was the first time I felt ignored by Shawn, which is a testament to the focused attention he normally gives. I just pretended I hadn’t said a thing, said goodbye and went home to Terri.

Tues. September 6, 2016

Two practices are in the books with our new wishbone triple option offense. It’s still simple and also “gritty” enough to have Shawn fully on board. I must say, it is working beautifully. I’ve spent the last couple of nights studying up on the triple option, but I’ve been relying on Shawn and Cherice pretty heavily to craft this new offense with a new quarterback, Sal Medrano. Sal is perfect for Grit and Spit because he has great speed and is not easy to tackle. When I approached Sal about moving to quarterback he seemed excited, “Hell yeah, I’ve been waiting for you guys to give me the ball.” Apparently Shawn’s confidence is spilling over onto the players.

Wed. September 7, 2016

Today Coach informed me that before practice we were going to be learning the basics of CPR. “But I’m licensed,” I said.

“It’s not for you dumdum, it’s for the kids. Didn’t you listen to my radio show last Saturday?”

Now he’s referring to his Saturday morning coach’s corner as “his” radio show. “No coach, I must have missed it this week.”

“I said I wanted everyone on my team certified in first aid and CPR. Today we’re doing CPR.”

I didn’t listen to the radio interview, but the entire school had heard about Joshua Miles’ sister and the attempt she made on her life. Joshua Miles is a freshman at St. Ignatius. He’s not in any of my classes and doesn’t play any sports, but the faculty were pretty shaken up over it. The Miles family has already sent two other boys through St. Ignatius and Tori, the sister who tried to hang herself, was a student at Immaculate Conception and a softball player coached by Cherice. I heard Shawn talking with Cherice about Tori, so I was partially aware of what was going on.

Before practice Coach paired everyone up and Cherice, who is also licensed in CPR explained the mechanics of the chest compressions and giving mouth to mouth before telling the kids to practice on each other.

“Just keep a steady quick rhythm when you press on his chest. Don’t press too hard or you could break a rib.” When I walked in I could see the kids not taking it seriously. They were twisting each other nipples, thumping each other’s sternum, and Hairy Perry Grimes was amusing himself by repeatedly karate chopping his partner, Freshman Gilbert Muncie, in the throat. Shawn was sat in the corner, just observing, but I could see from the other side of the room that he was about to boil over with anger. “Hairy!” he yelled out. “Goddamn it! You better take this seriously, it may be you who needs CPR one day.”

“Sorry Coach,” Perry said with a grin. Less than a minute later, he was at it again, torturing poor Muncie as he lay there helpless. That’s when Shawn really lost it.

“Alright, Perry, you and Muncie come up to the front. Now Coach Miss Youngblood is going to demonstrate mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on me. There’s nothing funny about it, and it could save a life one day,” Shawn said coldly. Cherice seemed hesitant, but she proceeded to explain, very professionally, the mechanics of giving mouth-to-mouth. She then put her mouth over Coach Nix’s mouth and blew deep breaths into his lungs.

Shawn sat upright and said, “Alright Perry, let’s see you—.”

“Hell no!” Perry cut him off.

“This is an educational requirement for playing football. Everyone needs to know how to give CPR.” Shawn’s anger subsided into candor.

“The reality of the game we play, boys, is that it is dangerous. People get hurt bad playing this game. Every year in December, no matter where I am, I go to Rock Hill, South Carolina and visit my dear friend, Dwayne Carter. He works in a factory down there, but he was ten times the player I was and should still be playing in the pros. He never got to the pros because he broke a rib and it punctured his lung. He almost died on the field. We all play this game because we love it, but we’ll all hate it soon enough if one of you gets seriously hurt or even worse.”

Shawn had gotten through to them. He became a little emotional talking about Dwayne. It was my first time to hear this story too. Shawn paused for a moment and then said in a calm but serious tone, “Now put your mouths on each other and blow.”

There wasn’t a single snicker when Shawn said those words. “Now that is power over a room,” I thought to myself.

Thurs. September 8, 2016

The other part of Shawn’s plan was to take a few players to the Jefferson County Suicide Prevention Center and operate the suicide hotline for a few hours. It was unfeasible to bring the entire team, so we decided to take a few players tonight and, if it goes well, bring a few more players next week. Tonight we took Perry, Jason, Blake Rogers, III and Herman Vance. We all squeezed into Shawn’s extended-cab truck. The entire way there Shawn was giving advice about how to talk to someone who is suicidal. “You got to stay positive. If they’re being all negative about life, you’ve got to show them the positive side of life. What’s something that you boys like?”

“Perry likes Sal’s girlfriend,” Jason Bull said. That made Shawn chuckle.

“No, I’m serious boys, what makes life worth living?” It was silent for about thirty seconds before Shawn broke the silence.

“Well, I hope football is on that list for you boys. For me, its coaching you boys that makes me want to get up in the morning. Hell, if I didn’t have a team to coach or play for, I might think about killing myself too.” Just a few sentences in to Shawn’s lesson on being positive about life and he’s already found motivation for suicide. We got there and thankfully there was someone to train the boys how to speak to someone contemplating suicide. They gave much more practical advice, such as “Be yourself,” “listen,” and “be sympathetic.” The muscular gentleman tutoring us on how to speak to a suicidal person then suggested, “offer them hope of some kind.”

At that point Shawn couldn’t hold it in any longer, “Yeah, give them hope with stuff like football or babies or something nice like that,” Shawn said interrupting.

“No, more along the lines of reminding them that feelings are temporary, and even though they feel this way now, no one knows how they will feel the next day, or even later the same day,” our tutor told us.

After about a half-hour of instruction the boys, along with Shawn and myself, took over the phones for two hours. Thankfully, it was slow. There were only a few calls that came in. Each of the boys took one and so did Shawn. The boys did ok, though you could tell they were out of their depth. Shawn, on the other hand, was horrendous.

“So, what’s making you want to kill yourself?” he started off his conversation with Jill, a 25 year old girl suffering from severe depression. I couldn’t hear her side of the conversation, but I couldn’t imagine she said much, because Shawn rambled incessantly, asking pointless questions along the way. “How many kids you got?” he asked. “1, that’s good. A boy or a girl? A girl, that’s beautiful. Baby girls are the most beautiful thing to ever come out of a human body,” he said, though I wasn’t sure what was in the running for that title. He was certainly positive and uplifting, though he wasn’t being a good listener.

“So, how did you think you’d do it?” Shawn asked Jill. “No, that’s terrible. Go poke yourself with a needle or a pencil. Go ahead, I’ll wait. You did it? Now imagine that times 1000, that’s what slitting your wrists will feel like.”

Gene, our tutor, was listening in and ran immediately to Shawn’s station, grabbing the phone from him. “We never discuss methods, Coach,” Gene said.

Shawn sidled up to me and said, “I don’t know why Gene’s panties are all in a bunch. I was telling her how awful her idea was, hoping that would make it less attractive to her.”

“I think the idea is to get their mind on life, not on suicide,” I said.

He looked me up and down, then said, “Ole Gary’s got some smarts on him. Well I hope you can use some of those smarts on our suck-ass offense.” That shut me up real quick.