Episode 11: Finale

Sat. October 29, 2016

Last night we played the final game of the season in an emotional downpour that didn’t let up even when the game was over. Shawn was coaching from the stands into a radio that fed into an earpiece I wore the entire night. Sal was watching from the sidelines, Hairy Perry from the stands. I tried my best to act like I was in charge of things, and so did Cherice, but neither of us wanted to be in this position. I thought it would be helpful to have Shawn’s voice in my ear, and it was to some degree, but I didn’t anticipate how loud and exclamatory Shawn would be. He gave some strategy notes in between the plays, but during the plays he was commentating the entire time. “Look at that hole! Come on Jason! There it is!” All night long things of this nature were shouted into my ear.

But there was good reason for Shawn’s exuberance. We played our hearts out last night. I never would have thought it possible, but we looked like a top football team. Each player left all they had to give out on that field, and I don’t think we could ever again play as well as we did last night. Jason Bull, who has always been a bit of a prima donna, played one of the grittiest and hardest fought games I’ve ever seen in high school or beyond. He’s not our fastest player, but he ran the option like his pants were on fire, darting in and out amongst their defense and carrying defenders for a few yards before going down. They weren’t big gains, but they were hard-won gains. Big Bern, who was not the biggest player on the field this time, outplayed their entire defensive line, taking out at least two defenders on every play. Even Percy Locke, our third best rusher, was making the defense fear him as he fought his way forward, hoarding inches.

Following Shawn’s advice, we pulled out all the stops. We converted 3 fourth down plays in the first half, one of which was a “trick” play. We ran a halfback run-pass option on 4th and 9 from the opposing 36 yard-line, a distance from which Enrique has become quite consistent kicking field goals. I thought it was ill-advised to go for it on fourth down when we have Gold Toe ready to give us an easy 3 points, but I was wrong. We scored on that play late in the second quarter to go ahead 7 - 6 just before halftime.

During halftime I radioed Shawn to meet me by the back entrance of the locker room. I told Cherice to keep JP out and escorted Shawn in. The kids all gasped as he walked in. “Boys,” he started. “Wait…I don’t mean boys. Ya’ll are men now. Ya’ll became men this year. You did all we asked of you, and it was a lot. We’ve suffered some hard losses and celebrated one spectacular win, and some thought that was all we were. But like men, ya’ll showed them something out there in that first half that they didn’t expect. No one expected it.” Shawn paused for a few seconds. “But you believe in yourself, you have dedication, you have pride, and goddamn it you are all winners!” The players all shouted in agreement; I felt the tingles.

Our home crowd was ecstatic and when we came out of the locker room at halftime, it looked like the crowd size had doubled. Apparently, word of our halftime lead spread and everyone in the tri-county area had come see this little ole St. Ignatius, who never had a football team until this year, upset the number one team in the state in division 6A. The second half started much like the first, with every yard hard-fought, with slow gains and hard stops. Neither team could really get the edge on the other. We might move the ball a little, even get a first down, but then their defense would tighten up and force us to punt. They had made the necessary adjustments at halftime to stop our double-winged offense. Our defense came together to stop their fierce running attack, too. Brett Cobb had a career night, with 3 sacks and 24 tackles. Herman Vance and Jerry Schwartz played the defensive ends tough, not giving up any ground to their opposing blockers. Hilton Speight showed why we call him “Speight the Hate,” knocking down passes and coming up quick to make tackles. Speight the Hate hits hard, and every tackle he made had an authoritative ‘clack’ that echoed in the stadium and made Shawn yell something unintelligible into my earpiece. After a full quarter of stalemates, their offense finally started to overwhelm our defense. Their linemen were just too big and too strong for our defensive tackles. They also had more players so they could keep their starters fresh. By the 4th quarter our boys had almost nothing left. With 5 minutes left in the game they put together a game winning drive, marching down the field like a regiment, eventually scoring the final touchdown. We lost 12 - 7.

We were all overcome with emotion. I cried, Cherice bawled, even Sal, who was watching intently from the sideline, had tears in his eyes. When it was finally over Shawn started crying into the radio, but then quickly turned it off. Big Bern came running off the field in my direction yelling, “I’m sorry, Coach, I’m sorry! I wanted to win this one for you and Coach Nix.” He embraced me and cried on my shoulder. I pushed him back slightly so I could look him in the eyes.

“Bern, it’s alright. We didn’t win the game, but you proved tonight that you’re a winner. And I could not be prouder than I am right now, even had we won this game.” Then I embraced him again and let him cry on my shoulder a little more. As I stood there I noticed that Hairy Perry had come down from the stands and was embracing Sal Medrano. Cherice was hugging Shawn, everyone was hugging someone. Only JP stood at the top of the hill by himself, arms crossed and wearing a disapproving scowl. I hated him when I saw his little bald head. I hated him for how petty he was, for how egotistical he was, but most of all, for firing Shawn.

Mon. October 31, 2016

I walked into the weight room around 2:30 to find all the players gathered together. Sal Medrano had called them all together to talk about Coach Nix. “We all know how much Coach Nix means to this program. He is this program. He’s helped all of us. Hell, Big Bern is going to college because Coach Nix sent his tapes to coaches at Louisville. Coach Nix deserves to be our coach. He is our coach.”

I stood in the doorway and just listened. Ideas were being thrown out, such as talking with Principal Goodlove, protesting outside John Pendleton’s mansion, getting a petition signed by the community and the like. I thought it was touching that the kids are trying to get Shawn’s job back, but as they were talking I realized, This is what I want, too. Since Shawn was fired I had done nothing. I hadn’t even voiced my frustration to anyone. How was it that these kids, who are more concerned with kicking each other’s crotches took the initiative to bring Shawn back, and I’ve done nothing but grumble under my breath.

This was my opportunity to help. I stepped up and spoke frankly with the kids. “Pendleton will never hire Shawn back. Shawn threatens him. We need the school to hire Shawn, and that can’t happen because of lack of funding.”

A thick silence washed over the players. Eyes started drifting to the floor. I could tell that, despite my intention, I had deflated their enthusiasm. Gilbert Muncie broke the silence, “What about a fundraiser to pay for Coach Nix’s salary?”

“We’ll never be…” I stopped myself before shooting down his idea. It was true that a fundraiser would never be enough to bring Shawn back. But maybe that’s not the point. Action is what is needed now. Any action is better than inaction. After a few seconds contemplating, I continued, “That’s actually a great idea, Gilbert. We can have a car wash, bake sale, and all the other usual fundraisers and we’ll all work together. What matters most is not the amount of money that we raise, but that we let the community and the school know that we are united and resolute in keeping our coach.”

The doors to the weight room flung open and John Pendleton entered in a haste. “Where is he, is he here? I know he’s around here somewhere,” Pendleton said in a rage.

“Who are you talking about JP?” I asked.

“Don’t you dare call me JP, that’s reserved for friends and you’re no friend of mine. And neither is that son of a bitch, Shawn Nix. Where is he?”

“I don’t know where he is, I talked to him Saturday on the phone but I assumed he was at home. Have you been to his house?”

“Yes,” said JP, “I’ve been to his house but he’s not there. Did you listen to his little radio interview on Saturday? I’ve been trying to find him ever since but he’s not taking my calls and he hasn’t been home all weekend.”

I didn’t know where Shawn was. When I spoke to him on Saturday he was in good spirits, asking about the players and who were banged up from the night before. He did say, however, that I should be on the lookout for JP, but I thought he was just speaking generally. I didn’t even listen to the radio interview on Saturday. I thought he had stopped doing them since being fired and Friday was such a draining night that I slept in until almost noon on Saturday.

“What did he say in the radio interview,” I asked Pendleton.

“Only hung me out to dry is all! He went on about how invested he was with the kids and had the gaul to say that all I cared about was wins and losses.”

I stood there silent for a few seconds, face to face with Pendleton, with the entire team behind me watching. I turned my head away from JP and saw Gilbert sitting on the edge of the bench press. That boy had been through so much in the last couple of weeks. He’s constantly abused by his asshole father, and it was his father’s aggressive and inappropriate behavior that lured Shawn into a fight, which provided the reason for his firing. Yet, there he was, trying to save Shawn’s job.

Feeling emboldened, I turned back to Mr. Pendleton. “All you care about is yourself, John. Shawn realized that this program was bigger than anyone person, he realized that it was about these boys right here. What Coach Nix has done here is nothing short of miraculous. Who else could have inspired a group of kids to strap on pads for the first time and go out there in front of the entire community, without knowing what the hell they’re doing, and to play their hearts out every week?” JP was stunned. He wasn’t used to people saying these things to his face. “Well, what about Gilbert, how can he play for a man who attacked his father, in front of God and everybody?”

Gilbert stood up. “My father deserved what he got. And to tell you the truth, it was the best thing that’s happened to my family. My dad is still upset and still a mean son of a bitch, but he’s left me alone ever since Coach Nix stood up for me. Coach Nix is the only person who has ever stood up for me. He did what my own mother didn’t have the guts to do!” He sat back down and looked at the floor, wiping his eyes. Big Bern stood up next. “I’m going to college because of Coach Nix. If it weren’t for him, I’d be getting ready to work at the trailer plant with my dad next year. That’s alright I guess, but now I have a real chance to do something special. My whole life people have told me, ‘you’re a big boy, you ought to play football’. Mr. Pendleton you gave me the chance to play football, and I’m grateful to you for that. But you didn’t make me into a football player. That was Coach Nix. You didn’t help me get into the University of Louisville. That was Coach Nix. And when you and everyone else knew that Mr. Muncie was being rough with Gilbert, you didn’t help him. That was Coach Nix. St Ignatius Football may be your idea and it may be paid for with your money, but you didn’t make it. That was Coach Nix.

JP’s eyes scanned the faces of the players, gauging reactions. After a few seconds, he turned 180 degrees and walked out the door, murmuring something to the effect of, “Ya’ll don’t know what you’re are talking about.”

Wed. November 2, 2016

Shawn showed up at my house with Cherice after I came home from school today. He was waiting in my lounging chair in the living room when I walked through the door, with Cherice in his lap. When he saw me he jumped up, lifting Cherice as he rose, and held her in his arms. “Better get used to this sight Ole Gary, we got hitched!”

“Huh? Really?” I said incredulous, “that’s wonderful! I’m so happy for you both! How did this happen?”

“Well,” Shawn started, “It all came together after the St. Paul’s game. We did our usual and went to Waffle House after the game to talk it out, but when we got there neither one of us wanted to talk about the game. I looked over at her while she was sipping her coffee and I said, ‘There’s only one thing I want to talk about…when are we gonna get married?’ She just looked at me for a second and then said, ‘As soon as we can,’ and that was it.”

“What do you mean, ‘that was it’?” I asked, puzzled.

“I mean that was it. We drove through the night to Alabama so Cherice could meet my mother and my sisters. We stayed there til Monday morning, when the courthouse opened, and made it official.”

“Well, I’m happy for you, and I’m so happy you two found each other. This is really great.”

Shawn and Cherice looked so happy together. Shawn had put Cherice down but she nestled right into his side, placing her hand gently on his massive chest. Shawn saw me looking at her hand. “No ring yet, but as soon as I get another job I’ll go out and get one.”

“About that,” I said, not knowing where to start. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but the kids and I are going to do our damndest to get your back on staff. Gilbert had the idea to do some fundraisers for your salary. At first I thought it was silly, because there is no way we can raise enough money for a coach’s salary, but then I thought better. Maybe it will be enough for the school board to see all of us united behind you as our coach. If they see how determined we are and how much you mean to us, perhaps they could find some wiggle room in the budget.”

“There’s nothing I’d like more than to coach at St. Ignatius next year.” Shawn stepped forward and embraced me, bringing Cherice along for the hug. He whispered, “thank you, Gary” into my ear. He pulled back to look me in the eye, “Ya’ll are my family, and you’re my brother Gary.”

Thanksgiving, November 24, 2016

The season is done and dusted. The St. Ignatius Spartans finished with a 1-7 record and no invitation to the Kentucky State Football Playoffs. By any outsider’s account, it was a disappointing season. I would have liked to win more games, but I’m not disappointed. It has been a hell of a ride and there are several things to be proud of. Big Bern has a football scholarship offer from the University of Louisville, something unthinkable less than a year ago. Everyone of our players gained something from playing football this year. They learned how to work as a team, to think with a team-oriented mentality, and how to put the team ahead of themselves. They learned some valuable life-lessons, such as how to encourage someone who is suicidal, what a baby looks like when its being born, and how to perform CPR. Gilbert Muncie has become more confident and assertive at school, and his father, Paul, joined a local church that is helping him with sobriety.

We also have much to look forward to for next year. The most exciting news on that front is that Coach Nix will come back in January as the Head Varsity Football Coach of the St. Ignatius Spartans. It turned out that marrying Coach Miss Youngblood, who is Coach Mrs Nix now, was what saved Shawn’s job. There was a vacancy in the science department for a new faculty member, and since Shawn has a master’s degree in education and his wife is also faculty at St. Ignatius, it was easy to make a case for Shawn to join the faculty.

We should be a better team next year, even though we will be without JP’s money (he pulled all his support from the school just a week after the players and I confronted him in the weight room). It will be difficult, or impossible, to replace Big Bern, but our leading scorers, Enrique Rodriguez and Sal Medrano, will return as seasoned players. Also, John Pendleton should have no reason to interfere, since his relationship with St. Ignatius has been formally severed. I have mixed feelings about JP these days. He was an all around asshole who wanted a legacy he could buy. But if it weren’t for him I never would have had this opportunity, and I wouldn’t have met Shawn, who has become a dear friend. No, more than a friend. He’s become a brother to me.

Personally, I have something else to look forward to: the birth of Terri’s and my first child. We found out just last week that we were having a baby, and I couldn’t be more excited or scared. I was just as scared when I found out I would be coaching football, and I somehow survived and even think I learned a few things. I did have help. I couldn’t have done it without Shawn’s guidance, even if it was bizarre and occasionally inappropriate. Oh God, I just realized that Shawn’s going to want to help me raise my child. He’s probably got a satchel full of notecards with EMSK written at the top and some note about how to raise a child scratched below. Here comes a gritty adventure.