Home Town Heroes by Mac McStravick - HTML preview
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And she did. She never missed an opportunity to teach my something about people. She always made me feel welcome, and periodically she would invite me outside her room where the teachers’ picnic benches were to eat her home made fried chicken, or chicken fried steak for lunch. She was one of those people who could acknowledge the difference between students and teachers. If a teacher smoked on campus, they took their chances. But if a student smoked on campus he was a “flippin degenerate”. The same applied to possession of a knife. A teacher/coach is an adult with many types of jobs to do, and a knife is just a tool for cutting. When a student was caught with a large knife, his parents made a big deal of Holes having a pocket knife during a football game on school grounds cutting tape off a player. Mrs.Koreneke, stood up at the facility meeting and laid the logic out for us.
“ To start with, Holes is a grown man, and not some teenage adolescent with something phallic to prove. Second of all, he has to cut items daily as part of his job, including tape, mouth pieces, and jerseys. This little jackass and his cow of a mother should realize that the only tools the mule headed one needs are paper, pen, textbooks and brains. “ And with a grin, “No offense, Muley”.
“ No kidding”, Holes responded before I had an opportunity to, “ if only we had the tools to make more touchdowns as easy as cutting tape”.
That was the end of the meeting, but it left me with a fond memory. My own mother was back home in Louisiana, and Ma Koreneke treated me like one of her own-with love and care.
When Ma Koreneke found out I was dating Anne, she made sure I dressed nicely, and knew the best places to eat out when we were out on a date. I even took Anne on a long afternoon date to San Antonio, where a former student of Ma’s had taken up residential and financial success in that rare picturesque city by opening a restaurant near the River Walk. The lunch had been wonderful after visiting the many Missions that dot the landscape throughout the city, and when I opened my pitiful wallet to pay for the meal, I was told the bill had been paid in full. Someone else had paid. I was glad Anne had not been present to see my relief at the news, but when pressed, the manager had looked me in my eyes and told me he had taken care of it as a gift to his favorite teacher, Ma Koreneke. He also told me that there was no way he could truly ever repay her for all she had done for him, and therefore this was a token of his esteem. I never forgot that. As a teacher, one never knows how far into another’s life we have crept. Whether on cat’s soft feet the memories flow into their thoughts, or like an elephant roaring in with the rough surf, demanding an accounting of why a decision was made, and how can one be so stupid! I remember both types of teachers in my own life, but only one type fondly. Mary Belle Koreneke was one of these to both students and rookie teachers. Chapter NineteenThe Kitty and Old Henry ****
I cannot begin to explain the things that moved Skipper, but a few items stick out in my mind when I look back over the years with an eye tuned towards understanding his motivations.
First, Skipper had a knack of being a bit of a hypocrite when he was trying hard not to be one. This maybe hard to understand but just thinking back I can think of a few examples which still brings a chuckle to my throat. Those red Folgers coffee cans were a bit odd looking when I first arrived, sitting on the coaches desks as dirty, rusty symbols of some long ago wakeful triumph. Sometimes the coaches would put the lids back over the red, dented cuspidor so as to keep the contents from pouring out should the can be hit by someone in haste to leave the office or caring balky equipment to and from the field. This was the state of the office spittoons when I arrived.
Now Skipper did not believe in using profanity around his Boys, and he stuck to it. He made the rest of us walk this same line, and all of us had to make a quick apology to the Boys when in a rare moment we might slip and let an unflattering word get away. I had grown up in Catholic schools when I was younger, and had lost the habit of using impolite words in polite society after an incident with Sister Mary Margaret and a bar of Ivory Soap. As far as the other coaches, they fought their own battles over this issue-including Skipper.
Holes contribution to this rare event came after he attended a play put on by the high school drama department. He not only attended, but every year he would slip into a play and have a minor part, which he claimed generated more revenue for the school due to an increase in ticket sales the night he was performing. I doubted it, for the drama department never let me see the ticket sales results.
It seemed that during the months the play was in rehearsals a “kitty” was used to help keep profanity off the stage and out of the theatre. A “kitty” would seem to be like a purse, where when you screwed up and used foul language, you had to add a dollar to the purse, or “kitty”. This money was then used to have a party after the play was over and splurge for food or entertainment. Holes came in with this idea one day after Skipper had a firm talk with all coaches after a particularly hard day in the off-season. Holes took one of the dented Folgers coffee cans, walked over the bathroom and rinsed it out, before making the declaration that the can could be used as the “kitty” to hold a dollar each time we swore or cursed around the Boys. We all laughed about it, but agreed to use it and talked about how small a party we would have with the amount of money we would raise due to foul or profane language. Even Skipper liked the idea and agreed to keeping it in the coaches office. But, I had not counted on the Henry and Mr. Smith incident.****
Henry was seventy odd years old, and had seen many sights in his lifetime besides being the janitor for the field house. He had gone overseas with General Pershings Rainbow Brigade during World War I, and had survived the Ardennes and numerous mustard gas attacks. How he had survived so long after these attacks and his habit of chain smoking , I do not know-but he had. He had worked as a cowboy, a policeman, a logger, and now a janitor. His most interesting short lived jobs included working as a security guard and body guard in Hollywood during the 1940„s. I think this was the main reason Henry and Skipper seemed to be such good friends. Skipper enjoyed spending time talking about movies and actors with Henry, and Henry enjoyed sharing insider information about the people he had meet.
Every once in awhile after hours, you could find those two enjoying a beverage in Skippers office: scotch for Henry and a small bottle of soda for the Skipper, laughing and talking about their love of movies and gossiping about the people they knew in Rocin. There was not too much to do in Rocin in the evening if you were not working, as the television stations in Houston and San Antonio had a hard time reaching Rocin in those days. Every so often though, Henry seemed to lose his focus on reality and his light hazel eyes seemed to dart about with a paranoid agitation, looking for the enemy or a surprise mustard gas attack. When this happened, the coaches or teachers ran to get Skipper so that he could calm Henry down. This dementia is what caused Mr. Smith-the Vice Principal, and Henry to butt heads.
Henry had an old military cot in the laundry room hidden to the left of the washing machines, where he could lay down if he needed to rest. He usual needed to rest sometime after ten in the morning and before one in the after noon. Sometimes the nap lasted from ten to twelve , but Henry always got the P.E. and athletic clothes washed and the dressing rooms cleaned up prior to football practice. The Boys loved to come into the field house and see him working with his stained coveralls, and Rocin baseball cap placed on his head at a precarious angle. Because Skipper treated him with respect, the boys, and the rest of the coaches treated him the same way. A couple of students over the years had even interviewed him for school reports over World War I. He loved telling a good story, and Skipper loved hearing them.
The day Henry s problem become general knowledge was much like any other Spring day in our high school world. Henry had started the clothes in the dryer that morning after mopping the dressing rooms floor, and had fallen asleep in his cot, keeping warm while enjoying the rhythm of the dryers. Soon though, he began to feel slightly cold during his restful slumber, and awoke to find the pilot light off on one of the two dryers, and the startling rank smell of natural gas filling the air.
Before Henry could make a through investigation of the problem, Mr. Smith, on the prowl, had come into the field house and was making a quick inspection of the problems in the athletic department that he would addressed when next he spoke with Skipper. Besides, it was a well known fact that Mr. Smith did not like Henry and could not wait to catch him sleeping on the job. Henry, for his part, returned the feeling with similar vigor.
Like a full bellied pot-stove in his dark suit, Mr. Smith waddled into the laundry room, and found Henry on his ancient knees, looking into the bottom portion of the dryer trying to find the problem.
“ Henry,“, he demanded, “ what have you gone and broke now?
Henry just pointed, and grunted, “Pilot light is off.“
Mr. Smith, who loved his polyester and wool suits, and hated dirt, throw a clean towel onto the floor and knelt down beside Henry, nudging him out of the way with and elbow and a look of contempt.Now, the way Skipper told me the story, may not have been the way Mr. Smith saw it, but I prefer Skippers version probably because it always made me smile.
It seemed that Mr. Smith, with dripping disdain, turned to Henry and asked for a light to get a better look at the problem under the dryer. Henry with a gleam in his eye, reached into his shirt pocket and took out a box of matches, and with deliberate care took one single match out of the box, shut the box and looked into the frightened bi-speckled eyes of Mr. Smith not more then six inches away from Henry„s green eyes. For Smith, the world must have gone into slow motion as fear took hold of his senses. Unfortunately, his rotund little body did not move as well as it once did, and as he moveded to get out of the way of the impending destruction of the field house, he jumped up and dove out of the way, hitting his foot on the edge of mop pail while his short stubby legs tangled up with the mop itself, tripping and trapping him into a pile of filthy, sweaty athletic uniforms.
When Mr. Smith finally came up for air, he saw the match had not been struck, and the slight smile that was on display across Henrys face he became livid as he realized the joke that had been played upon him.
“You son-of-a-biscuit”, Smith shouted, only he used the correct term for a female dog.
Henry light the match.
The sight of the corpulent, squatty figure of Mr. Smith running out of the field house in cowboy boots, and dark suit with the brightly colored polyester tie, shouting “GAS!” should have been strange enough, had it not been for the old man with silver white hair, coveralls, and a Rocin baseball cap who was following Smith and closing ground rapidly with a pronounced limp. The race was on.
Skipper caught sight of this peculiar race on his way back to the field house and watched in amazement as Henry tackled Smith to the ground. Skipper swore the only words Henry keep repeating, as he pulled Henry off of Smith, were“these damn Krauts”. He was suffering from what would become known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, orwhen he felt threatened- flash backs.
Chapter Twenty The School Board
After the incident, the old janitor was relieved from his job for two days, and a special session of the school board was called to hear his case and consider his dismissal. Skipper, as a follow veteran and friend, went to help represent Henry and his feat in the school board session. After an impassioned plea by Henry, the Board left and returned in an hours time with a verdict of guilty, and sentenced him to be fired from his janitorial duties within the district. This would be a crushing blow to an old man who had very little left in life but his time with the coaches and Boys of Rocin.
Skipper stood up in his slow measured way, cleared his voice and asked to speak to the school board. He was a tall man made taller by the old and dejected man sitting beside him. I was there for this part, as was most of the town of Rocin. The school board was made up of men from around the town and area of Rocin. Encouraging smiles and acknowledgements came from some of these men who had had sons play football for Skipper and thought the world of him, plain faced were those who had not.
“ Gentlemen”, he began, “ when I first came to the town of Rocin in 1952, I was greeted by a man who was out cutting the grass around the football fields. He was not so gray or so old, but he was very kind to a strange man in a strange place, and asked me to share his lunch with him. I spent a wonderful afternoon listening to stories about the town and people that would become my home.”
Every eye in the room was either on Skipper, or Henry as they sat their listening. Skipper paused and scanned the school board members from left to right checking their eyes for understanding.The Coachs eyes stopped at one of the members on the right side of the table.
“ Say Ben, he even asked me to say a prayer for your mother who was sick with pneumonia at the time.
Skipper looked to Bens left.
“And Paul, he was so happy with you and Linda on the birth of your new son, he almost sounded like he was the new grandfather. I can even remember when Randall there threw up in the locker room after a tough days practice, and Henry mopped it up without complaining, patted him on the shoulder and went and brought him a glass of water to rinse out his mouth.”
“Folks, this man who sits in front of you has nurtured and prayed for you people for more years then I care to remember, and now you are making the decision to send this good and righteous man away, and never allowing your children a chance to be loved by this man.”
Skippers eyes took on the all to familiar look of flint, while his squint and voice betrayed his deep feelings about what Henrys friendship meant to him. Henry keep his eyes lowered to the floor, looking like the old frail man he was.
“ My friend Henrys only fault was having being a veteran during W.W.I, and during a moment of crisis, reliving a memory where he had to fight or die. We can not blame Henry for this experience, even if he did volunteer to fight and die for his countryyour country.”
“And now, as he has reached the twilight of his remaining years without his cherished wife, or children- except for those of us who look on him like family- we are sending him out with nothing going nowhere? We owe this man more then that! He did not mean to attack Mr. Smith, and he has apologized. What else will we have him do?“
Some of the heads around the table were slowly beginning to nod in agreement as Skipper continued.
“Many of you fought in World War II or Korea, or knew people who did. We watched brave men cry, and young men die. The dead are forever young, but the ones who survived are old and gray. Henry survived World War I. He survived and taught our youths the skills he learned as a young man defending our country. He has taught them respect, honor, valor, and honesty. And how do we show him our thanks and give him respect -by firing him because of one forgetful and stressful moment?
“Because if we must judge him on one moment or action of his life, let us use his act of volunteerism for the First World War, or the loss of breathe he suffered in the mustard gas attacks he endured, or even the Silver Star he earned at the Ardennes.” Skippers voice had risen with his feelings during this discourse to the school board. Now, he returned to the quiet yet commanding voice, which held long pauses to control feelings.
“I am asking that you, the school board, give him another chance. Give this brave veteran the chance do the job he has done for all these many years, and influence the lives of another generation of young men as they pass through this school on their journey through life.”
Henrys eyes lifted off the floor, he raised his head, and squared his shoulders. The years dropped off, and there in the chair next to Skipper sat the man who had fought the Germans and lived to roughly enjoy old age. One who had treated the boys under his care with kindness and fairness. Rather at opposites with the way Mr. Smith had treated an old man in the laundry room. Henry did not ask to speak to the board himself, but the effect of Coachs words had made a difference in his appearance. He had heard in public what Skipper thought of him. And, with the esteem he felt for Skippers opinion, he looked on himself in a new light. Whether he got the old job back or not, he was still a man with dignity and pride. Nothing could change that.
I watched and admired this change in Henrys demeanor, while he stood up, and thanked the school board for their time. Then, he turned around and walked away from the table he had shared with Skipper, and with all eyes on him, proudly walk down the aisle and out the door. The admiration I had felt a moment ago was now lost in sorrow and veneration as I watched Henry leave, so much so, that at first I did not hear the crackle of a clap as one set of hands pounded together to create a rhythmic noise of approval. This one set of hands was joined by another, and then another until the whole group was standing up, looking out the door that had just been vacated by Henry.
I had been sitting with the other coaches throughout the proceedings, and I knew who had started that clapping. It had started right next to my right ear. The only person who had been right next to me was, my nemesis, Killer Bob, who had begin the standing ovation. And picking it up from him was Holes, who seemed not just proud of Henry, but defiant after Skipper„s gallant speech.
The school board upheld their ruling. Henry would no longer be employed by the Rocin School District. It was the general opinion around the field house that the school board had to take the side of Mr. Smith to let him save face. The older I have gotten , the more I understand politics. I understand it, but I do not like it, and I wish that common sense or a sense of righteousness had taken hold of the school board on that day, but it was not to be.
Should Henry have been given another chance? The unanimous consensus in the field house was - Yes! The School Board had got it wrong.
The coaches returned to their office, and threw themselves down at their desks with nods of disbelief. Skipper did not say anything, but that did not stop Holes. He began to curse and swear, until Harry reminded him of the Kitty, and the payment of a dollar for each swear word that had been uttered, that would have to be placed in the red coffee can on his desk. Holes reached into his skin tight coaching shorts, and only came out with a small pouch of Redman chewing tobacco and a ring full of keys. At this point, due to his exasperation with the situation, his language reached a new level of flowing, similar to the profane rappers that share the air waves with religious and political talk shows today.
Holes keep this up until Skipper got up from his chair, left his office, and moved towards Holes desk. Once at the desk, Skipper opened the coffee can lid, and reached into his pocket. He then pulled out one twenty dollar bill, and then a ten dollar bill, and put the money in the can without saying a word, never taking his eyes off of Holes. The Coach then turned around and left the field house without saying another word.
Harry, smiled at his old friend Holes, who had stopped speaking after Skipper„s actions, and said:
“ Looks like Skippers O.K. with your word choices. I guess you can keep it up.”
Holes looked at him in disbelief, and then back at the coffee can in disgust.
“Harry, this is the „Kitty”, Holes exclaimed, reaching over to my desk, grabbing a different dented red coffee can.
“The coffee can Skipper put the money into was my spittoon. Now, before I say another word, get your butt over here so that we can clean the money off. I have not gotten Skippers money worth yet.”
Killer Bob stared in stupefied disbelief at the two of them gingerly picking the money out of the tin can, and tipping the brown, lumpish contents out into the sink. Chapter Twenty One A peaNutty Buddy ****
There were other things about Skipper that were not hypocritical. One of these events was the peanut-butter event. Never let it be said that anyone coming to Skipper needing food was turned away.
Harry had told me of the Steptoe boy who always found himself with Skipper at lunch time. Johnny Steptoe was the son of a gas pipeline meter reader, who spent much of his hard earned money on booze. Johnny had neither money nor food for his dinner, and would make his way out to the field house so no-one would see him go hungry, or he would not have to suffer while watching the other students eat.
According to Henry, before he left his position as janitor, during one of these lunch interludes, Skipper saw Johnny sitting on one of the benches outside the door going into the locker room.
Skipper stopped by the corner of the field house and studied the young freshman before he spoke to him gauging his age and reason for being there. He had not seen him out for football, or track, and he looked way too short for basketball.
“ Hey there, Young Man“, Skipper started with a growing smile,” You new or something?”
Johnny just shook his head and looked away embarrassed. The old pine plank he was sitting on sat there just as quietly as he did.
Coach , standing up in the doorway, leaned an elbow on the door sill, and cocked his cap back over his head and thought silently. He had seen this look before over the years, and he was guessing the boy was hungry. Maybe that explained why he was so small and puny.
“You know, I was fixing to eat my dinner, how about sharing it with me?”
Johnny looked back toward Skipper hesitantly
“There is way too much for me, and I would not be able to finish it all today, and a portion of it would have to be thrown out“. Now, Im not doing you any favors, and actually, you would be doing one for me.”
Johnny thought this over, smiled and gently nodded his head.
“Well”, Skipper declared, “lets go to my office and have a look. “
This was just the beginning of the many shared lunches between the two. Ever day after that Johnny could be seen in Skippers office sharing lunch with him. It was a heart warming sight the big white man and the little black boy. Though he never played football Johnny would be one of Skippers boys. And when Johnny wrote his first book, he dedicated it to the man he shared lunch with his freshman year.
Even Harry would find some spare coins to buy Johnny a candy bar now and then.
What Skipper did not know was that Johnnys dad , though a drinker to excess, loved his wife very much, and proved it five times over six years. And, though Johnny was the oldest, he was not the hungriest. Therefore with each year another Steptoe would enter the high school, and another mouth to feed. When Skipper finally figured this out, he changed plans. He could not stop feeding Johnny and the others, he would just have to change their eating patterns.
Once there were two Steptoe kids in high school, Skipper gave them their own locker in the field house: Locker Number One. Then, he gave them a combination lock with the combination to allow them to get in when needed.
And finally, he gave them a large jar of peanut butter and honey, and supplied them with a new loaf of bread every week. This changed to a new loaf every three school days, once there were four Steptoes in the school at the same time.
I had a hard time believing“Handsome Harry”, who told me this story after it was told to him by Henry, until the day I took off from school for a much needed Rest and Relaxation day, and having slept in, made it to school in plenty of time for lunch and to prepare for off-season that afternoon. Since I was on my own time and in no hurry, I went down to the field house and into the locker room looking for evidence of the famous locker, Number One, next to Skipper„s office. There before my eyes were three students eating peanut butter and honey sandwiches while sitting on the blue painted wooden benches neatly placed in front of the lockers. I could not believe my eyes.
They looked at me as an intruder, and I very much felt the part, as I had nothing to hide me from their enquiring and suspicious eyes. I had come looking for them, had found them, and could not think of anything to account for my being there.
Harrys entrance into the locker room helped me make an excuse and gave me an opportunity to leave. He nodded after me with a knowing smile, which allowed me to turn red, as I turned left to leave the building.
But, I was soon to find out this was not unusual among teachers, supporting their students. Ski supported one of his players, and even Harry supported one of his players whose mother , no surprise here, was an attractive divorcee. The difference was Skipper did it in the open, with more then one student. It was school gossip and with gossip there is always an ear for the hearing, that was Mr. Smith.
A directive came down from Mr. Smith, that no students could leave the cafeteria, and go down to the field house during lunch for any reason. A point had been earned by Mr. Smith, but counter-point was not too far away. Skipper, upon hearing this decree took his concerns for the Steptoes to the high school principal. A new directive came out from the principals office the next day making the Steptoes boys, Students Assistants, to the coaches during the lunch period. In this way the boys go to eat, and Skipper added more fuel to Mr. Smiths fire concerning the conspiracy to get him in the coaches office.
I have often viewed Skipper and the other coaches through bits and pieces of memory. They stood by each other and their Boys, whether players or just adapted students. They armed me with the knowledge how to share and care deeply for our Boys, our school, and our town.
Chapter Twenty Two People Do Change ****
There were a couple of more interesting things that happened during that first year at Rocin. David Shepard returned from boot camp and Military Police training in February. The first place he came to visit was the field house , and the first person he came to visit was Coach OBryan. He meet Skipper right before off-season practice, as it had taken him about a day and half ,coming by bus, from Alabama. He did not look the same: he looked better. He had always been tall and muscular, but, now he held himself ram-rod straight, and looked you directly in the eyes as a man should. Even his grip was firm with strength, and, in my case, seemingly with genuine warmth. I was surprised at how glad I was to see him, and see him looking so well. I guess the military life had appealed to him after all. He had won some honors coming from his schooling, and had been made a rank similar to that of corporal. If I appeared glad to see David, then Skipper was ecstatic.
He not only gripped his hand readily, but pulled him into a bear-hug in front of all the boys scattered around trying to re-energize after a stout work out. This collision of tender paternal bonding surprised all of us, as could be witnessed by the look of astoundment on the players faces. I do not know why I was surprised, but I was. I look back with the advantages of time, and believe it was because of the depth of emotion that surfaced on Skippers face. I saw moisture build up in his eyes and begin to over flow, dropping over the rim of his eyes skipping down his face as a pebble skips across a pond with bold and brave jumps.
I felt the lump in my own throat, growing large and tightening up my windpipe with tender emotion.
Davids response to Skippers greeting was one of surprise, at first, but he returned the paternal greeting with such affection as to end any ideas of impropriety. His tears could not be stopped, and could only be compared in duration to his huge smile, which would not, or could not, leave his face. The only problem I had with this reunion was the fact that it took Skippers attention away from working on my offensive game plan I was putting in during the off-season after the boys had gone home. At Skippers insistences, all coach were excepted at these meetings in the field house. None seemed to mine the extra hours put in after work, except maybe Harry, as it limited him to a date nearby, instead of foraging further a field for feminine companionship.
At that time in my life, I am sure I was a little envious of the Coachs success and friendship with the boys. He had years of experience doing this, and all I had was months. The only word I could use to describe this relationship he had with them was Love!
I wondered then if Skipper had any children of his own. I knew he had been married sometime in the past, and he lived by himself now on a little five acre plot of earth he called his ranch. Holes would know the answer, and I resolved to ask him when we were alone after the work out today.
After the meeting, which Skipper had missed to take David out to lunch, I tried to Holes alone to ask questions about Skippers early life. But, Harry and Holes were cutting up and I could not get Holes alone. I chose not to waste any more time and I asked them both about Skippers children.
“ Skipper had one son,” Holes said, “ but they were never close.” Harry nodded in agreement. “ He left when his mother left Coach.” Holes and Harry looked at each other with a kind of telling glance. “ Skippers son died in a car accident five years ago.” Holes delivered these
“ He was a real ring-tailed cat. “ He continued.
“ A wild man.” Harry agreed
“ He had numerous run-ins with the law before he was fifteen years old and
I felt miserable. Why did I not know this? Why had I not asked earlier? There was nothing I could have done, but still, I could have walked more gently if I reached these rocky paths of inquire.Skipper had said nothing to me about this area of his life. “ Muley, Skipper thinks these kids are his, if you havent noticed yet.” stated
“ I sometimes think he believes if he loves them, disciplines them and helps them,
he is making up for not being there for his own son.”
Holes agreeing with Harry,” It is his penitence. And though he loves them, I
believe it is his guilt that drives him.” But, there was absolutely nothing he could have
done for that boy of his that he didnt try, short of forcing his wife to come back to him.” “She left him because of all the time he was spending coaching and scouting
football.” he added.
Harry looked over at me and winked,” thats the reason I wont get married.” he
Holes shot Harry a look that could have said,” shut your mouth,” but didnt. With this reprimand, Harry quieted down and let Holes finish.
“ There was only one kid, but its part of the reason he is who he is, and why he
does what he does. I know he turned to alcohol for awhile, and maybe for a little while it
helped, but it did not last long. He put the bottle behind him, well, I think he put it behind
him. I havent seen him drink in years.”
I thanked them for sharing this information. Because of this trust we shared, I now
had a little more information to shed light on Skippers life and what made him tick. I do
not think I could have handled the death of my son as he had. If he had chosen this
mission of helping others to justify his guilt, then so be it. It was a worth whiled mission
and one to be proud of. This fact had been exhibited by the look on David Shepards face,
and the look in Skippers as they meet in the field house that day; I did not begrudge that
feeling one bit- at least, not after that.
February was an interesting month that year with another sudden appearance, only this time it was the missing link for my offense. Jimmy“ Aussie” Knowles entered my life ,and later, into the record books of Rosin High in the same year. His parents had moved to Australia seven years before to work for Esso and the off-shore oil exploration. He had had to learn to fight to be accepted by the youthful Australians, and being a good athlete, he had been accepted after a few wins ,and some painful loses. His dad had been a high school quarterback growing up in Texas, and loved to throw the football, therefore Aussie was his constant throwing companion while in the Land Down Under. And Boy, Aussie could throw that pigskin. The only problem I had with Jimmy was his long, free-flowing hair. Though I was highly impressed with Aussies throwing and athletic abilities, what I was not impressed with was his rather take-it-easy attitude towards life. But Skipper just smiled, and asked me to give him a chance. This was easy for him to say as I was the quarterbacks coach, and Aussie had just slung his long golden locks around and out of his face, and stated that he wished to try out for quarterback in an accent the girls found adorable, and the boys found a bit effeminate. I was ready to just say no, that is until he picked up the ball and lofted the prettiest dang pass I ever saw about one hundred yards down field off his back foot. But when he threw off his front foot, and drilled one of our better receivers, with a pass that could have gained five yards more based on velocity alone, I was excited. Needless to say, I was impressed and with a haircut, this Australian was my type of football player-a good one!.
I almost lost out on coaching one of the two best quarterbacks I have ever seen in high school football. I was ready to make Aussies hair an issue. I told him he could not come into the off-season program without getting a decent haircut. He just looked at me, nodded and walked off. He was not rude or disrespectful, just decided. Every day during last period, for this was his Student Aide period, he would come out to the stadium and watch our boys go through the off-season program. And, every day I would see Skipper, stop and spend a few minutes chatting with him. I do not know what was said, but they always seemed polite to each other. Me, on the other hand, I was angry at the Aussie for not following directions and choosing not to become part of our football program. My feelings were hurt, and I would refrain from talking to him until he did what he had been told. In other words, I would ignore his existence, I would shun him. The other coaches followed suite, except for Skipper. All Skipper every said to me was, “give me a little more time, he is softening.”
I waited. And, I waited some more. I was on pins and needles, and feeling betrayed by Skippers since of warmth to this disloyal Hippie from Down Under. About week three, I found Aussie dressing out and I hit the roof. I went and sought out Skipper. I told him, I would not abide Aussie coming in here and making a monkey out of me, by dressing out with his long hair still on his head. On the athletic field, it was still the time of crew cuts, and no hair on the collars or over, the ears. I also told Skipper, if Aussie went on that field with his long hair flying, I would needed a letter of reference because I was going looking for a new job!
Skipper gave me a serious look of consideration with his chin held in his cupped hand.
“ Are those your final words on this subject?” he asked in a serious tone.
I nodded that they were.
With a light smile betraying his intensions, Skipper told me,” Knowles is suiting up as a manager today, and tomorrow he will join us as a freshly sheared recruit for our football team.” he smiled even wider when he saw the look of disbelief on my face.
The wind was out of my sails, and I felt the relief of nervous energy. I was not sure how to leave the room. I guess I was in a minor state of shock. I hesitatingly smiled back at Skipper, and turned to leave, but stopped to ask him what had made Aussie change his mind.
Taking a moment to enjoy his response to my answer, Skipper finally told me the secret.
“ I told him, with that amount of hair, it is my professional opinion, that it would be unsafe for him to play football and risk injury or the loss of hair. I also told him we needed him to make the state play-offs and I was tired of watching him hold up the fence over by the field. So basically the old poop or get of the pot line. He is getting off the pot.”
I looked at him in disbelief, “ Is that all you said to him?”
“ You basically told him it was unsafe, and we needed him?”
Skipper just smiled and nodded again.” Some times just letting them know they are special, and that you need them is enough. It was for Aussie. Now, you get to training and grooming your quarterbacks outside there, and I will show our new manager around.”
Chapter Twenty Three The Fight
As my first year at Rocin drew to a close, May brought another example of Skipper„s philosophy to fruition This was the time of the school year when nerves are on edge and tempers flare. The second week in May, Skipper held a meeting to discuss fighting with all his male coaches. I was told that each year, during the last two months of school, young men take every insult and witticism uttered by another to heart, and are ready to engage in battle. I looked on this, my first year, as so much talk, but I was to find out it was true.
Rico Vasquez was a barrel shaped offensive tackle, who handled the taller defensive linemen with a great center of balance and bull strength. He had the smallest legs you ever saw, but what they lacked in length, they made up for in strength. He had no length to his stride, and therefore went without speed, but his quickness would have made him a great boxer. I was just thankful he was not the center, because the quarterbacks would have had to squat down real low, or get on their knees to receive the snap at the line of scrimmage. The only problem I could see concerning Rico was his fierce loyalty towards the team. No one could say anything against the team in his presence. Especially anyone who would not play football, but instead choose to play basketball, and was taller then him by a foot. This someone had a name, and an aloof style that drove those on the football team half crazy with his condescending attitude: James Stuckey the III.
Stuckey was the center for the Rocin basketball team the past three years. He was 66” that year, and the local papers were proposing him to be All-District again, and perhaps an All-State candidate this, his last year at Rocin High. I just knew him as the tall kid that wouldnt play football for us, even though he was a gifted athlete and an intense competitor. I dont think he would admit to it, but his parents may have been part of the reason he did not play football. They did not want him playing a collusion sport like football so that it would minimize his chance of getting hurt, and increase his chance of getting a scholarship to play basketball in college. Not that his family would admit they needed the help financially, but every little bit helps when you are from the country, and a scholarship would give them bragging rights within the community of Rocin.
James on the other hand, had to build up his defenses as to why he did not play football, and therefore, chose to look down upon those who did. With this prideful attitude on James part and Ricos fierce loyalty towards the team, these two were bound to come into physical conflict. And conflict they did.
It was during my lunch duty on Tuesday afternoon, and I was nodding hello and chatting to some of the students and players from my classes, when I first heard there was a problem. The rectangular lunch room tables were arranged in a scattered pattern around the cafeteria.
Rico sat with the football players and their girlfriends, while James sat with a table of up-and-coming socialites. The identifying terms that are used today might be Jocks verses Preps, but whatever the terms, they were at odds: Rico representing the Jocks, and James the champion of the Preppies. These two group sat back to back, and had enjoyed humorous exchanges all year long without troubles until today. Things had reached a volatile point between the two groups, and I found myself in the midst of it.
James had taken it upon himself to talk about the brutish sport of football, and how the weight training had begin to make them look like gorillas, and in some cases, “thick necked bulls and short, stout legs“, turning around and looking directly at Rico.
That stung Rico, and he barked back, “ At least I am not afraid to play football!”
The gauntlet had been thrown, and both young men stood up to retrieve it; ready to do battle there and then. I felt the adrenalin start pumping in my body, and into my head, and faced with a fight or flight response myself, I closed in on these two. I would not have them fight in here while I was on duty in the lunch room, and I took it as an affront that they would even think about fighting here. But, I was not quite fast enough.
James, under pressure this year after an injury, to play with pain, attacked with a straight jab to Ricos face. Rico took the punch like an oak tree takes a dull axe stroke-unflinching, and caught James hair in his left hand, twisted it up, and landed a hard right handed punch to the left side of James face. That is when I got there.
I grabbed Ricos right hand, and yelled at him to stop. His eyes and grip were rock hard on winning this battle, and I could not get him to focus on me. He just keep twisting and pulling James hair, trying to work his right hand free of my grasp. James was throwing some wild punches, with a a couple of them landing harmlessly on Ricos upper body and my back. I realized after a few yells, Rico was not responding to this noise level, and changed tactics. I got near his face, and quietly asked him to stop. His eyes finally focused on me, and with recognition, came obedience. He let go of the hair and backed off. James stood there holding his hair and the right side of his head. Rico stood there with blonde hair strands in his hands-a lot of hair! Instead of taking them both to the principal, I took them to the Athlete Director for the school: Skipper. He would know what to do.
Skipper was eating his own lunch with Johnny Steptoe when we arrived. A roast beef sandwich wrapped up in wax paper. I was feeling a little hungry myself, and wished I had remembered to bring my lunch kit from the cafeteria. That could wait. I was ready for Skipper to light into them, but if this was my expectation, but I was way off base.
Skipper dismissed Johnny, waited for him to leave, asked them both what happened. He listened quietly as they both took turns giving their own versions of the incident, listening with his eyes and ears, squinting when he needed clarification, and nodding when he understood. He then asked James to leave the room, and he spoke with Rico.
“ Rico, he started, “I trust you to make good decisions. You are one of the best leaders we have on the field. But, I cannot have you engaged in a fight in the lunch room in the middle of the school day.”
Skipper looked deeply into his face, until Rico blushed and looked uncomfortable. Then Skipper spoke.
“ You are one of my Boys. I am so proud of you, and all the hard work you have accomplished this year. Just this one little episode, and you could have ruined the reputation you have so carefully built. You wanted a chance for a football scholarship, so that your parents did not have to worry about paying for your college. You have that chance of getting out of the fields and becoming an engineer, but I cannot guarantee you that opportunity if you continue to behave recklessly. The head coach at Sam is too busy to put up with this nonsense. I need your word that you will leave him alone, no matter that he had it coming. I want your word that , for the rest of the year, you will put this matter behind you, and make an effort not to fight. “
“Your word”, Skipper repeated again. Rico sorrowfully and respectfully gave it to him, and they both shook hands in the solemn ritual that men have when they trust each other. I knew Rico would keep his word, he had given it to Skipper.
But Skipper stopped him at the door with by calling his name.
“Rico, he said and Rico turned around, “if you have to fight, and I am not telling you too, mind you, but if you have too, you get two pairs of gloves and come back here to the field house. I will referee, and you two can get this out of your system.”
Rico smiled, nodded his head, and left with a bounce in his step.
I was a little surprised, but Skipper did not bother to enlighten me, and told me to call in James.
James came in a bit tentative, yet surly, and waited to be told to sit down. The Boss invited him to sit down right away, but sized James up in silence for a time before beginning to talk with him.
We had all agreed, we being the coaches, that we could sure have used James on the football team, but no one else had bothered to talk with him since Killer Bob struck out with his parents. I waited expectantly to hear how Skipper would start off this conversation.
“James”, Skipper started,“ you are a fine young man who has an opportunity to play basketball in college. That sure is something. Most folks around here have yet to shake the hand of a young man who has played college ball-any type of college ball! I am very happy for you. But I cannot have you and Rico fighting in school. You are both leaders in your peer groups, and on your teams. This will only lead to trouble for both of you and the school. I want your word this will end here and now. “
This last statement Skipper delivered with a hard and intense look. I hoped James would catch on quick. He did not.
“No, Coach. He attacked me, and its not finished. I am going to get him. Today, tomorrow, the next day, I will get mine!”
I was surprised James was this vocal to Skipper, but the Coach just waited, and so did I.
“ James “, he explained, “ I will do whatever it takes to have your scholarship offer revoked, if you chose this route. But, I am going to offer you this one, and only one alternative.”
I could feel the stress set in for James as Skipper let his face do the talking. His eyes took on the hue of ice berg blue, with an intensity that would have pierced rock. His small framed glasses sat on the base of his hawk shaped nose, and with the sharpness of his face gave him the appearance of that same said bird hunting prey. James was the prey, but what was Skipper hinting at, I did not know. I waited.
“ James”, he delivered, “ if you want to really fight him, I will call Rico back. I will let you both suit up in your gym clothes, and duke it out with gloves on wearing a mouth piece, with one condition, that whoever loses after three rounds, they are the loser and that is where it ends. There will be no retaliation by either parties- agreed?”
That six foot, six inch basketball center sat there in his chair in front of Skipper s desk and slowly began to nod his head, and then to gently smile. He had made up his mind, he was going to slug it out with Rico. He knew he had the longer reach, and he believed he was quicker. Rico wouldnt stand a chance.
Skipper called in a student aide and gave him a pass to find Rico and bring him back from class, or lunch if there was any time left in the period.
James looked confused.
The Boss sat at his desk and kept his gaze on James finally inquiring of him,
“Well, James are you ready to get changed?”
James hesitatingly uttered, “Coach OBryan, you want us to fight now?”
“Right now, he replied, “hurry it up and get dressed. We will meet in the gym in five minutes.”
James almost sprinted out the door to get dressed , and in doing so almost tripped over Rico on his way in the field house.
Skipper barked at Rico as he came through the door, “Get dressed you line Hog, you are boxing James in five, no, make that four minutes!”
There was no time for James to rally his group, or Rico to rally his. Both got dressed in their respective dressing rooms, and met in the gym, eyeing each other like gun slingers at high noon, yet keeping their distance as if realizing their time would come.
Coach OBryan marched into the gym with two old leather boxing head protectors, and two pairs of gloves. He gave James first choice of both items and then gave the other three items to Rico with a wink. Rico just smiled.
He then grabbed a sand bag that was holding down one of the P.E. volleyball standards, took out his pocket knife, popped a hole in the sack and used the small trickle of sand to mark a modified boxing ring. I watched with amazement and then self pity, as I realized someone would have to be in charge of cleaning it and that would probable be me.
Skipper gave each of the Boys a new football mouth piece after he had cut off the hanging part of it, and the gagging part that rode past the teeth and into the back of your throat and always made some of the Boys gag and wretch. When I was young, I too suffered through this cruel time until I could take my new mouth piece home and cut off the gag reflex part. Here was Skipper taking care of this for both of them.
I listened as Skipper told both boys that each round would be 90 seconds, and when he blew the whistle both parties had to stop or he would enter the ring and finish the fight. Both boys seemed to understand, as they nodded their head and flashed peeks out towards their adversary. I felt the excitement building. The student aide who had gone to get Rico, had let Killer Bob and Holes know something was up in the gym. When Holes realized the situation upon seeing the combatants, he strode over to the coaches office grabbed the chains and , handing one to Ski, chained the doors to the gym shut in case Mr. Smith made one of his unannounced inspections.
James and Rico had been informed of and adjourned to their respective corners when Skipper blew the whistle. I am not sure that James knew how to fight, but Rico did. While James came at Rico like a young colt full of life and vigor; Rico came out like a pistol slug,: coiled and lethal with elbows tucked and face protected. There were three punches thrown: James throwing a round house from the shoulder, that missed; Rico throwing a tough jab that stood James up straight, and Rico hitting with number 2 punch that took James down for the count.
Skipper took the count up to ten as James laid on the basketball floor lifeless. Skipper then put his hand on James throat feeling for a pulse. He must have been satisfied, because he smiled up at Rico and told him to get dressed and back to class. Holes had disappeared into the dressing rooms and had come back with a bucket of water from the shower. He wanted to throw it on James but Ski stopped him as it would be hard to get all the sand and water up off the floor without ruining part of the wood floor finish. Instead they just threw towels into the bucket and put them on James face. He awake quickly as his nerves must have still been on fire from all that nervous energy from the beginning of the fight. He looked around for Rico, then slowly realized he was alone, and therefore, he must have lost the fight. He shook his head a couple of time to get rid of the cob webs, we now would consider it a concussion, and keep his eyes on Skipper.
Skipper had not left his side after the knock-down, and just looked at him with a gentle gaze, quite unlike the ice hard look he had fixed on him as they sat near his desk prior to the fight.
“I always wanted to play for you Skipper.” Tears brimmed James eyes as he spoke these words.
“I wanted too , but my parents wanted that basketball scholarship. Yeah, I act like we have money, but we have nothing. Without that scholarship I couldn„t go to college, I would be nothing, just another kid trapped in this town. Then I would be an old kid trapped, and then just old.”
The tears that had brimmed James eyes now cascaded down making rivulets on his face as they ran.
“ I am sorry Skipper.” He stated quietly as he got up and walked off to get dressed. Ski stayed with him while he changed to evaluate him , and after a positive report, escorted him back to his class.
“What was that all about with James?” Holes asked
“He use to tell me when he was younger, that one day he would play for me. I wish he had.” Skipper stated as he turned and walked away, back to his lunch and his office.
I knew I had to ask Skipper a question before he left.
“Coach, did you know Rico could box.“ I asked
Without turning around Skipper nodded his head, and replied:
“I taught him in junior high when he use to get picked on for being fat. He is one of my Boys, you know?”
The light that blinded me came from Skippers departure as he exited out the back gym door with the strong mid-day sun beaming through. I thought I had almost made it, when a voice came from that blinding light.
“Muley, dont forget to clean up that mess on the gym floor. I would hate to see the gym floor finish ruined.”
As I turned, Holes and Ski were hurriedly exiting though the formerly chained schools doors that lead back into the side central hallway.
I turned back towards the door Skipper had exited, and with the door drawing to a close, I realized that with its closing, it also stopped the blinding light and my idiotic remark that was geared up, but not discharged from my mouth.
Later I asked Skipper about the boxing match between the two athletes; why had he let them fight, what did he expect the outcome to be?
He was sitting at his desk, looking over his magnifying granny glasses, thinking about my questions.
“There are times boys, really men, need to get physical with one another. They need to put their strength on the line, and challenge others. We are becoming a society trapped between men and women. Most women would rather have a good verbal exchange, and that fits their needs of one upmanship.”
“But, men, I believe”, he said with a smile, “ have a biological need to be physical. Maybe, a need to dominate one another using their strength. Just like two bulls in a pasture need to go at it sometimes or even two dogs to decide who is the better one.
I found myself nodding my head in agreement as I pictured his words, and remembered, from my past experiences, the dog fights I had seen over the years.
He continued his train of thought into the future, “ There may come a day, our society limits our Boys on how to get out their testosterone; penalize them for doing what comes naturally, and then, when they cannot get a physical release for their anger, they turn inwards and plan not just vengeance but deaths.”
This last part scared me for the aftertime of our Boys. But, I never thought it would happen, not in the rough and tumble atmosphere of the early seventies. I left his office soon after that exchange with a depressed feeling, as I attempted to mentally prepare for my date with Anne that evening. But, I realized as I pointed my Chevy towards home, I had learn a valuable lesson: if there was to be another fight while I worked at Rocin, I would make darn sure I brought string or rope to outline the boxing ring, and hide the sand bags.
Chapter Twenty Four In Love ****
The school ended with very little fighting after the Vasquez and Stuckey fight. Word had traveled through the teachers and students ranks about the fight, but Mr. Smith had not been able to obtain an eyewitness. Rico and James had even taken up working out together in the weight room after school in preparation of strengthening their own particular athletic scholarship for the next scholastic year. We, coaches, were off for the summer.
I had asked Anne to marry me in March, we decided on a summer wedding, and we settled on early August as the time frame before school or football started. A two night honeymoon stay in Corpus Christi would be the limit of our meager travel budget, we had decided.
The only problem was, which church? This was no problem for Anne. Though her parents may not have liked it, after talking with Father Tom, she agreed to convert to Catholicism, and my Catholic family could not thank her enough. This charming women, who had made the VD information seem frighteningly casual, would become my best friend, and wife by August. I was overjoyed.
Holes agreed to become my best man after some prodding. I had wanted my brother Louie, but he had joined the Army Rangers program and would be out on maneuvers, and not available till after training.
Mid June brought me to Anne s house, and, after a quick inspection by Mr. Beckindorf and hand shake, down to the business end of the marriage. Anne too scrutinized me when she opened the door, making sure I had on the proper scent, one that she had bought at the store.
Anne and her mother asked me to help address the cards for the wedding and the reception. My penmanship had a mind of its own, going in and out with fine lopes, but lopes that looked very much alike and seemed to merge into the same shape no matter the letter„s form. I knew my presence was expected by the engagement team: Anne and her Mother, and I joined in the obligation of addressing the cards, thinking of it as a working date: a time to share with Anne after a long day of idleness and reading.
We spent days working on those invitation and glorious but tedious moments together. Glorious in the delicious way that young couples bask in their time together; eyes only for each other, thoughts of the time they will spend together, and mostly, from a bachelors state of mind, because there was always superb food in the house. I do not mean junk food, or left-overs, but Annes mother knew how to cook, and was always pleased by my appreciation of a fine home-cooked meal. So, while my stomach was full, so were my eyes: my stomach full of fine cuisine, and my eyes filled with the loveliness that was Anne. To top things off, once my future mother-in-law saw my horrid hand writing skills, she would not let me address any more letters, at least not any letters going to their friends or family. And since the majority of my family had to work in Louisiana, and the distance they would have to drive to Texas was too far, I did not have to many envelopes to address. This put me in the unusual situation of having to be there but, with hands free to eat.****
Food may not have been my life, but the joys and sensation of eating good food with pleasurable companionship holds a special place in my heart. This is the time of friendship and family. With this in mind, I had planned to have a memorable rehearsal dinner, since I had found out three days before the end of July that this was my responsibility as the groom. We had talked about it, and I had listened to suggestions from my future mother-in-law, but I had not known , even with all my agreeing, that the job was all mine to finance. This information came painfully to me as I had not greatly improved my finical situation since I had moved to Rocin.
I counted up my miserly holdings, and opened my coin jar from my dresser, but find the situation somewhat lacking. I had given up the garage apartment, and the small house I had just rented for both of us had taken up too much of my saving. I was in trouble. And when in trouble I had learned to turn to Holes. He knew how to embarrass me, and tease me, but he also knew how to help a friend out. A true gentleman, perhaps not, but a trusted friend- yes.
Holes suggestion was to hold a beer and barbeque rehearsal dinner, provided my in-laws where not planning this for the wedding reception. I knew Anne wanted something more then a country wedding reception, and therefore I was safe if I took the easy route for the rehearsal dinner. Safe from Annes reception hopes, but not from Holes special brand of humor.
The phone number Holes hooked me up with was for one “Tiny Joe” Martinez. Holes claimed Tiny made the best barbeque in Southwest Texas. He was of German-Mexican ancestry, and all American in ability. I went and visited Tiny at his place on Dubina Road, just west of town. Tiny Joes place was a medium sized independent building which served as both a meat market and restaurant. The meat market portion was run by his cousin Ignacio “Iggy” Martinez, and the business consisted of holding portioned frozen beef for those people who did not have the space or freezer unit at home, and would pick up the beef as needed. Deer venison processing and sausage making was also a part of the meat market business in this part of the country and it involved both cousins: one to make it, and the other to smoke it. Undoubtedly it was The Martinezs best moneymaking venture besides the smoked meat department near the restaurant. The wood smoke smells were incredible as I stepped out of the car and looked at the distressed wood building. My mouth began to water as I perceived the wood smoke smells- mixed between pecan, oak, and a half measure of mesquite- tingling in my nose reminding my brain of the flavors and sight of the smoked meats and sausages of years from years past, and the acknowledgement from my stomach, as I stepped onto the porch, that I was hungry.
For those who have never seen an old-fashioned meat market or butcher shop, it was a treat to venture in there and view the surroundings. Two large screen doors would swing open and allow the customers in and out , while keeping the flies at bay. The interior was lighted by both natural light from the large front windows and two valleys of regular light bulb fixtures overhead. The man behind the counter used either a large wicked looking knife, or a fearsome cleaver to cut, chopped or butcher a side of beef, lamb, or pork. Should the butcher and the counter clerk both be wearing a white coat, patches of blood, and specks of red would be wedded to one of them, and, therefore, these sanguine decorations would keep you from having to guess which one was the butcher. The building itself would be chilled from the coolers and freezers where the meat was keep. But the one constant for each butcher shop that I was ever in, was the smell and sight of saw dust which was keep on the floor to absorb the blood and grease which would cascade around the butcher as he swung the cleaver separating the pieces of animal flesh. Tinys was such a place.
I looked in the window of the butcher shop, but proceed into the small restaurant attached next door where I had been told Tiny would be waiting. The meat line was not a help yourself, but a tell-them-what-you-want line. All types of smoked meats sat waiting in warming pans to be chosen and eaten by ravenous customers. On the right side table there were loaves of bread, where you could grab however many slices you might need, and eat with your meal of smoked meats. The ever present onions and jalapenos were keep next to the bread to add spice to your choice of meats. Although it was late morning, and I had eaten breakfast late, I found myself a bit peckish and ready to consume a hefty sample of all the meats making an appearance behind the counter, that is, until I saw Tiny.
Tiny was not tiny. He was huge. A bear of a man well over 6 5”, and probable topping the scale at well over 350 pounds. A dirty white felt hat rode dangerously high on the back of his salt and pepper melon shaped head. Although the day still held the coolness of a Texas morning, he was already perspiring with the droplet zigzagging across the hairs on his for displayed upper chest and soaking his blue denim work shirt underneath. He was chewing tobacco as if it were a wad of chewing gum, while he sat back in his groaning, gasping wooden chair. He was staring at me, and when my eyes focused on him, he smiled a brown tooth smile and nodded. Not wanting to make any mistakes on identity, as I did when I met Skipper, I questioned him about his name, received confirmation and introduced myself.
I told him about my wedding, and the need for a inexpensive rehearsal dinner, and my thoughts on a beer and barbeque for the rehearsal dinner. He listened, smiled, suggested meats and side dishes while he spat into an old can on the floor near his table. I was almost sold on his presentation until he pulled out an old blue bandanna out of his hip pocket of his faded jeans, and slayed a fly in front of me with it. Killing the fly was one thing, but what bothered me was when he stood and used it to wipe a dirty table next to us, polishing the old table with the remains of the fly. I found myself imaging little wings and legs being smeared back and forth around the table. If he had then proceeded to wipe the sweat off his face or chest, the deal would have been called off. The price we had discussed was right, but the revulsion that incident invoked and, what may awaited my in-laws and guests for the rehearsal dinner, was throwing me off this track of choice.
I left there feeling dirty, and unsure of my choice. I called Holes and spoke with him. He let me know that Tiny had a dramatic flare, and not to worry; the food would be wholesome and sanitary. I felt better and called Tiny to set-up the date and time for the dinner. I then called up Anne and told her of my arrangements. She did not seem overly pleased with my choice, but, with a few silent reservation on my own part, I brought her around to my way of thinking through a forced enthusiasm.Chapter Twenty Five The Rehearsal Dinner ****
The night of the rehearsal dinner arrived in haste. I was nervous, and called Tiny to confirm everything was on track for the dinner, even the beer. Catholics and Lutherans do not seem to have a problem with drinking beer, therefore I was hoping I would have enough of a supply on hand to tackle all thirsts. I keep thinking about that darn blue bandana, and the flies. I said a prayer to St. Anthony for help, and left it in his hands.
The wedding rehearsal went off with only one or two small hitches. Anne and I giggled throughout the practice ceremony ,and we almost caught the church on fire when we went to light the Unity candle together, which represented our new life together, and Anne lost her grip on the candle. I was lightly holding her hand and could not catch the candle as I watched it fall and settle on the yellowish hued church carpet. I had the presence of mind to stomp on the flame before any real damage had occurred to the carpet. During the flight of the candle, I had heard a“Damn”, explode from somewhere directly behind me, quickly followed by an apology. Later that night Harry told me the priest had let that fly, and the Catholic side of the church had been deeply embarrassed, while the Lutheran side exchanged knowing looks.
A major issue concerning my lack of knowledge of the rehearsal dinner was, it had not left me enough time to reserve the Catholic churchs hall. Therefore I had to reserve the Baptist churchs hall for the dinner, and luckily, it was only two blocks down on Harper„s Way. After the wedding rehearsal, we all jumped into our cars and drove the four block to the First Baptist Church of Rocin-the first and only Baptist church in our town. The wedding rehearsal had been finished by 6:45pm, and Tiny was to meet us with his crew for the rehearsal dinner at 7:00pm. He was late, and I was nervous. Holes patted me on the back and informed me that he and Harry would look around and see where Tiny might be.
When I went back into the hall, I saw Skipper looking over at me. He smiled and nodded, as he was want to do, and then he shook his head back and forth in a slow exaggerated way. That alerted me. Something was wrong.
Holes! It had to be Holes. He was the one who had suggested Tiny, it was he who had offered to go look for him, and now something was up and Skipper knew it!
I searched the room for Anne and spotted her in a group of people who were engaged in happy, animated conversation. I could not help but notice how pretty she looked in her light white dress with blue floral prints; buffonted hair-do. I was not going to let Holes, or Harry ruin my rehearsal dinner. I continued to search the room while visiting with our guest, as my eyes made sweeping searches of the party area, with a sense of desperation my nervous companion.
As my thoughts turned towards protection of my domain and party, someone turned on a record player, and the music coming out was like a burlesque strip-tease number. All eyes were now turned towards me. Though I tend to tan rather easily, red is not my primary pigment color, but I was beginning to look a lot like the fire hydrant outside on the curb. Right then it would have been hard to tell us apart, except for the size, if we were standing side by side.
I do not believe I could have turned an even deeper shade of red when a large cake came out from the kitchen pulled by Harry and Holes. I looked around for Anne, but she was nowhere in sight. She was probable so embarrassed for us that she had taken off to the Ladys Room to hide. I could not blame her. I wanted to run myself but instead, as the host, I waited for the impending disaster to present itself.
Holes and Harry pulled the cake right up next to me, and began to sing, “For Hes A Jolly Good Fellow”, with everyone joining in, they gave me three cheers, and at the end of the third cheer Anne popped out of the cardboard, plaster cake laughing and smiling and full of good cheer. Holes announced to the crowd, as I would not have time, money -or friends- for a bachelors party, they wanted to present me with a girl in the cake, and that they had. It was the most fitting, proper, beautiful girl a man could hope for and she was all mine!
The beer and beef were excellent, and quickly served by Tiny Joe who had been in the kitchen all along- thankfully without his blue bandanna- he had just kept his truck hidden further down the street. I made my way over to the beer keg, and was pumping the keg up when I happened to look across the room and see Skipper.
I had not been sure Skipper would come when I had invited him. He was not in the wedding, and he was not a family member, but in the time I had known him he felt like one. I wanted and needed his approval in all things. A smile and a slight wink from him was all that was needed for me to feel like I had been given the“go-ahead “ sign. In life there are few times you feel absolutely right about a decision, a smile and a nod from those you trust adds wings to your momentum.
My mother, grandmother, and grandfather would be there the day before the wedding, so it was nice to have someone around you could think of as family. Skipper had become the father I wish I had had. And anyways, it was he who had introduced us in his office concerning a topic usually indelicate to new couples.
He was dressed in his tan suit, with a green bow tie accompaniment. He was drinking sweetened tea which Tiny had provided with the barbeque. After I had finished pouring my beer I went over and sat down with him.
“ You knew about the cake, didnt you?” I asked
He smiled and nodded, casually eyeing my beer.
“Holes and Harry just wanted to do something special for you, and Anne was
We were quiet for a minute, and I could feel the joy and happiness that permeated throughout the room. Now, I also felt a bit uncomfortable with the beer in my hand in front of Skipper, but he made no comment. I took a good look around my surroundings with the dark wood paneling, a copy of a picture of Jesus at the Last Supper to my front, an old ceiling fan above my head, and the stale smell of old cigarette smoke awakened me to the irony of my location.
“ Can you believe it, I am to marry a Lutheran girl, in a Catholic church, and I am having my rehearsal dinner here in a Baptist church. Can you believe that?” I asked with a laugh.
“ Muley, it does not matter which church you go to, or which one you are married into. All that matters is that you have chosen each other in the sight of God.”
I liked his answer. But I had a question for him.
“Which church do you feel you belong to, Skipper?”
He looked at me for a moment, and I waited.
“I think I told you, I visit most churches around here from time to time, but I do not go every Sunday and I may skip a month or two. I am comfortable with my faith Muley, many arent, but I am. I know there is something or someone greater then me“, he rejoined.
“I dont think God treats you any different because you changed the name on the label.
“You know Skipper, I always thought you were Catholic, what with that Notre Dame cap, and you being Irish and all.” I asked this question with a laugh knowing I was getting personal.
“Muley, I was raised an Irish Catholic from the mid-west, who else should I root for? I seem to remember a quote: „If God is for us, who can be against us. I expect the Fighting Irish to win- they„ve got God on their side.” He said with a laugh.
He was silent for a short period, looked over at me.
“You know Muley”, he started, “ I do not believe in praying to God before a game for victory, I believe in praying for protection for our Boys.”
Holes joined us about the end of Skippers sentence and coalesced into our conversation.
“There is a prayer”, he blurted out, pickled with the smell of free beer as he sat down, “ that has always fascinated me over the years. Tell me what you think.”
I had not idea were he was going, but waited, looking forward to a bit of Holes insight on the subjects of God and games.
“It comes from a famous Texas Ranger in the early eighteen hundreds. His name was Captain Jack Coffee Hayes, and he was a heck of a man. Here goes..I think..
„ Oh Lord, we are about join in battle with vastly superior numbers of the enemy, and Heavenly Father, we would like for you to be on our side and help us; but if you cant do it, for Christ sake dont go over to the enemy, but just lie low, and keep dark, and youll see one of the damndest fights you ever saw in all your born days. Amen.
“ How about that for a prayer, calling upon God with one hand of the prayer, and then ask him to remain neutral if he could not?” Holes barked as he laughed.
About this time Anne came looking for me, she walked over and joined us at the table. In a most pleasing and protective manner I found myself placing my arm around her waist.
Skipper looked at us, stood up, and raised his tea glass as if to make a toast. Holes and I followed suit reaching for our glasses as we did. I placed my arm back around Anne and waited.
“To my assistant coach and his beautiful fiancée, may your children be many and your troubles be few. Best wishes to you both, and thank you for the wonderful dinner. I must say the dessert was the most appetizing about the whole evening.” This was said with a wink, as he smiled broadly at Anne.
He started to leave and then he stopped, turned around and walk slowly back towards me, and with a bemused look in his eyes stated: “By the way Muley, did you think to ask the minister about the use alcohol on the Baptist churchs premises?“
And with that statement and a chuckle he was gone. The party ended soon after that, with myself, Anne and her family quickly picking up the cups of left over beer, loading the keg hurriedly onto Holes truck, and mopping down the floor with Pine-sol in hopes of getting rid of the odor. I had forgotten the Baptist where not drinkers and no one had thought to mention it to me. As we were cleaning I had an odd sensation of being watched, and every time I looked up I found Annes dads eyes were boring into me with his malevolent looks of disgust. Another choice plume to add to my hat of misfortunes when visiting Anne and her family. Finally, Anne and I made our way back to the car holding hands and laughing embarrassedly about serving beer in the Baptist church hall. As we walked and laughed I noticed Harry out in the parking lot, but he was not alone. I did not recognize this woman, but Harry was not one to stay long with one woman. I hoped one day he could be as happy as I know I would be with Anne.
Chapter Twenty Six Wedding Preparations ****
I had heard a bit about John and Jackie Kennedy s wedding, but Rocin was not Camelot, and I was not JFK. Anne wanted me to wear a powered blue polyester tux to match the powered blue dress she had found in San Antonio. I really did not care what I wore as long as I could have Anne as my wife. But over the years as my grand children have taken out our photos of the wedding, all I see is a beautiful woman in a powered blue dress and a clown in light blue polyester and ruffles.
With my brother Louie still finishing up Ranger school, Holes was my next choice for the job as the Best Man. Looking back, I guess I thought of Holes as a crazy uncle, or demented older brother, whatever he was, he endeared himself to me with acts of kindness, and acts of mental torture. I did not feel I could have asked Skipper to be the best man. And, Harry was busy chasing the young women between San Antonio and Houston; a secondary reason may have been my own insecurity that his body and blond locks may make Anne reconsider her decision to marry me. There was no way I would have asked Killer Bob. If he had found something to like about me, he did not let it get in the way of acting like he hated me. I had followed up my best man question by asking Holes to keep the practical jokes out of the wedding as I would be nervous enough without having to worry about him, Harry, or his own sons. I should not have been worried.
“ Muley”, he began with a flash of a smile, “ you and Anne have earned a break from me, especially after the cake episode.” He laughed. “ I promise to leave you two alone, that is, until the wedding is over.I thought about that for a minute.
“ Alright Holes, but I want you too say that again, and this time with yours hands were I can see them.”
He laughed, held his hands out, and said it again. It was that easy.
Harry was happy for both Anne and I, but he was keeping his eyes focused on improving the symmetry of both of his biceps muscles while wearing his new Bausch and Lomb aviator sunglasses. He still enjoyed the view of himself in Skis sun glasses, which is perhaps part of the reason symmetry added a new dimension to his work-out program. Harry was now adding mirrors to our weight room for our Boys to look at their new parts as they were developing, but those same young men would have been hard pressed to get Harry out of the mirror when he was in their working out with them after school.
Ski on the other hand kept a cool and aloof attitude, which at times seemed frosty. I placed his invitation on his desk when he was not there, so that I would not have to deal with his sneer and my own partially scared reflection in his glasses.
I hand delivered the rest of the invitations to the other coaches, and felt a tad self-conscious before I handed it to Skipper. The Coach wore his usual school khaki pants and white t-shirt. He took the card with a smile, ripped it open, and read it. He nodded, smiled, allowing more teeth to show, and said he would be there. I was very grateful that he came to both the rehearsal dinner and the wedding. His approval was important to me. Perhaps, the disappearance of my Dad gave me a greater need for a older males approval.
My Dad had left the family when I was ten, and Louie had been eight. It had not been easy on Mom, but my Dads parents had helped. They were determines to be apart of our lives, even if Dad was not going to be. My Dads father, Papi, never missed a hunting season without Louie or me. Also, he never missed one of our football games. He did not talk much, but everything he touched was done well. He had been a carpenter for many years, working with his brother and their helpers to build custom homes for oil executives. After he retired from carpentering, he farmed a small plot of land near his house, and sold the produce he had grown from a couple of galvanized coolers he left under his car port next to an old cigar box. He used the cigar box to hold the change customers left or made from the produce he had raised when he was not there. He had grown older since I had left home to go to college, and had a hard time going hunting anymore by himself.
My Abuelita, on the other hand was still a fireball. She was Irish and French, and all emotive as those two Gaelic people can be. One minute she could be happy and singing in French, and the next minute she could favor the wolfs anger right before she sprang with a switch in one hand and a belt in the other. The weather might change quickly in Texas, but it had nothing on my Abuela. But, no matter her sensitivity, she was always there for us, whether swinging a wooden spoon in anger, or swinging a spatula full of frosting, ruining our dinner - or so Mom said. She like to cook, and cooked more Cajun and Creole food then Mexican food, for that was the food she had been raised on. Grandfather Sanchez claimed he would be glad to come to my wedding as it had been a long time since he had had good Mexican food.
My Abuelita wanted to know if the Anne had any insane, or retarded people in her family. Back then the fear was it would pass down from generation to generation. I had not thought to ask Anne, but I also realized I was not going too. It did not matter to me. Nothing mattered but marrying my Anne.
My Mother was a wonderful women, who could say more with a look then any women I have ever met. When I told her over the phone I was planning to marry, she did not ask many questions. She waited till she saw Anne and I together and just observed. I saw her intensely watching the two of us together when she came down to visit. I was not sure what she was looking for, but she must have seen it, because she never questioned my choice, or asked me about any second thoughts. She had a quality about her, that was unique and rare. In my romantized mind she was a noble women among commoners, with qualities that expressed this very idea. Why my father had left , I have never known, but he had left and things could have been rough for her except for my Dads parents. Her own parents had died many years ago in a car crash near New Orleans. Louie and I were very young ,and we had seen her cry when she had heard the news, but she never complained to us, her family, about the death of her parents being fair or unfair. Her belief in God was absolute.
Perhaps, it is because my Mother did not complain, or comment about my Father, was why I never felt like I could hate him. His own parents, my grandparents, were good people, and worked hard to be apart of our lives. Rumor had it, my old man, had skipped to Mexico and done well in the oil business. Rumors usually have a way of being wrong. I did not peruse it. If he wanted to find me, he knew where his parents lived. I would not hate him, I had been well raised.
Over the years, thinking on this, maybe this is why Skipper meant so much to me. Maybe his acceptance gave my the fidelity and sentiment I needed to feel worthy, and needed. The difference between a love for a man and the love for a women is this: I lusted for Annes love, but I needed Skippers love to feel worthy of being loved and protecting those around me.
The day of the wedding found me in a powder blue tuxedo with white patient leather shoes that caused blisters when I walked, therefore I sat down as much as possible, or so the photos from our wedding show. Anne had wanted to have four bridesmaids and her maid of honor, therefore I had to have four groomsmen and a best man. Holes stepped in as the best man, and Harry stepped in as one of the groomsmen, but I still had to ask two friends from college, and one friend from high school. I had asked Skipper and , at the last minute, asked Killer Bob, but both bowed out. Skipper claimed it would be an honor, but it was not a time for old men, but for the young ones to stand up there at the altar. Killer Bob, whose invitation I had left on his desk, just looked at me through those darn mirrored glasses, and stated that he might be going out of town on that weekend but appreciated the offer. I could not tell form his mirror masked eyes whether he was telling the truth or not, but, I have to admit it, I was a bit glad he had turned me down. Duty had lead me to ask, but I felt relieved with his negative reply.
The whole day was dream-like and whimsical as I look back in retrospect. Except for the magic of seeing Anne for the first time in her wedding dress, and being told by the priest to hush, and quiet laughing, I only remember the disconcerting false notes that came from the area behind the soloist and organ. This was the area that Holes and his family used during the regular Mass. From somewhere behind the soloist a pair of quivering falsettos rose up and matched, somewhat, the pitch of the soloist on one of the songs we had planned for the wedding. I do not remember which one, but I hesitated to look at Father Tom who was already on, what looked like, his last attempt at marrying Anne and me this day. I do not know what was the problem with Father Tom, but he had run out of patience with the two of us. Each time I started to look out of the corner of my eyes towards the soloist, Father Tom would move in that direction, and with a stern look and a quick, savage head shake attempt to bring back my eyes to front and center of the alter. I never actually saw Holes successful attempt of quieting this adolescent attack on our sense of hearing. First, he bowed towards the alter and descended the steps, marching with precision movements, in the direction of the soloist and his own family, who were seated directly behind the music area there in the church.
The sound of the falsetto mocking the soloist was not too bad, but it was awkward as the soloist wanted that position of attention all to herself, plus her competition was not up to par. The soloists voice soared up to amazing heights, and hit every note with perfection, but there was a nasal reflection of her song following each advancement on the scale. I did not know how long this song would last, but I hoped it would end soon and Father Tom could relax his vigilance. All of the sudden, at one crucial moment, there rang out a slight scream from behind the soloist along with a loud bang as if something had hit the pew, this neatly ended the echoing falsetto, soon followed by the end of the soloists song. When Father Toms eyes had fled the scene of Anne and my sacrament of marriage at his alter to check on the disturbance behind the organ, my eyes searched out Holes, ready to laser him with my reprimanding eyes, because I knew it had to be him behind this ruckus.
Holes came walking back from behind the soloist as if he was one of the bridesmaids, in a slow measured step, with a huge smile on his face. As he drew closer to me, he gave me the thumbs-up sign like he had a flower bouquet, and a fierce triumphant look. I was unsure what this meant until later, at the time, I was waiting for something large and awful to happen, as if the sky might fall with a sign from Holes to the cosmos and I waited with darting eyes and a flinching attitude. The humor had left the wedding for the time being, but nothing else happened. We were married and the world was a brighter, more beautiful place then it had appeared that morning, and I had one of Gods most special creatures- Anne.
Holes kept his word and nothing happened that during the wedding. Even the reception was went off without a hitch. I was so happy, so happy until we were leaving the wedding reception and someone threw rice right into my eye. Some slight matter must have entered with it, and I could not get it cleared. My eye hurt and I could not open it to see. I was ready to blame Holes. Anne saw my discomfort and tried to get me to come back and rinse the matter out, but I took a stronger hold on her hand, and with a most determined state of mind, pushed my way to the car using my one good eye to scan the area for more assaults on my personage as I approached the vehicle.
We made it! I pushed Anne into the car, bunched her dress and train up, and threw it into the car, shutting the door and sprinting to the drivers side to complete the post-marriage ritual of leaving. While running to my side of the car, I had almost tripped over the cans which were tied by ribbons onto the back of the bumper. No big thing I thought. But when the car was placed into gear and started to move forward there was a horrible sound coming from, what sounded like, undercarriage of the car. The sound was of something heavy being dragged and rolled over and over until I thought about stopping the car. I was in no mood to stop, using my one good eye to stay on the road and keeping away from the people surrounding our car. As I continued to search the area while creeping forward, my eye made contact with Holes. He was standing there with a sign, that read:
“Congrats! The wedding is over. Take the rocks out at the next stop. Love, Holes.” As we continued to move away from the church with a grinding and rolling sound , I realized Holes must have put rocks in the hub caps. He had kept his promise, and I was almost blinded by the love I felt for Anne..
Chapter Twenty Seven
Corpus Christi had lent itself to be great fun for the two nights we had decided to stay there. My dating period jinks should have ended when I got married, but, unfortunately, it stayed until the honeymoon was over. The first day there, I turned to throw a suitcase into the hotel room, and my back went out. That afternoon, as I shuffled to the beach, leaning on Annes strong shoulder and weathering her gentle, caring attention, I cut my foot on a piece of glass wading in knee deep water. As I prepared to leave the water to take care of my one and a half inch long wound, I was, not once but twice, stung by a jellyfish. I limped and shuffled my way off the beach and back to the hotel room, in a Qusimoto sort of way, using my one good eye- uninjured by the rice-, hoping I could get into my room without going through the lobby and leaving a blood trail in my wake. As usually, luck was not on my side, and a bellhop followed me from the back entrance off the beach, through the main lobby- to the disgust of the other guestto the door of my room using a bottle of club soda to blot out the crimson foot prints I was leaving on the carpet. But, our time was so pleasant there, I did not even mind changing the tire on my way back home. Thank goodness Anne was there, and strong enough to lift the tire for me, as my back and foot had not quite healed yet.
After we had returned home to our small rented house, I decided to enjoy my new head of household title after my marriage to Anne, by growing a mustache, and taking up the art of projectile spitting by dipping a form of ground up tobacco called“snuff”, or Copenhagen. I had chewed loose leaf tobacco before but this snuff was different. Ground snuff was not new to me as my grandmother had used powered snuff around her plants to kill the grub-worms. When she was not looking, I would sneak into the shed, and liberate some of that powered stuff in a brown glass bottle, put it in my mouth in front of my teeth, and sucked on the brown powder, trying to make spit like the young men I had seen down the street from our house.
I am not sure what really happened the first time I tried it in my youth, as the world began to spin and tilt, and I fell to the ground striking my head , and momentarily, blacking out. When I came to and rejoined the world, I decided I would forgo the pleasures of tobacco, for awhile as I did not enjoy the effects it had on me or my head. But, I was a man now with a wife, and I would enjoy all the pleasures of this good fortune.
Anne did not enjoy my new found pleasures. At first, she did not seem to mind the bulging lower lip, the repetitive clearing of ones throat and the spitting, but after awhile, she grew resolute, and tried to do everything short of divorcing me to get me to stop spitting and shave. I , on the other hand, became obstinate and tried to enforce me ideas of free spirit. Because we were new to the marriage, I did not realize just what a hold she did have on me, and when I did, I allowed myself to learn the art of compromise. I quite dipping that night, but I told her I wanted to try this mustache thing out a little longer, as I thought it made Burt Reynolds handsome, and some people believed I looked a lot like him in certain lights. Well, I was dark headed anyways.
I had spent part of that summer with the school districts maintenance department, mowing the grass fields and painting the insides of the schools buildings. In a way, it was nice sitting on a tractor or pushing a hand mower up and down the fields, quietly in tune with your own thoughts, while adjusting to the smelly output from the mowers exhaust.
Each morning after I had showered and dressed, Anne would have made me breakfast, and would be finishing putting my lunch together. She was a hard working girl, who never seemed to mind taking care of me. My weight became a bit of a problem in those early years, as far as my pants were concerned, but never as much as each one of our pregnancies. Whereas Anne would gain thirty to forty pounds with each pregnancy and then loose it, I would gain twenty-five pounds with each pregnancy and never loose it. With twenty-five pounds put of my frame with each pregnancy, clothes have a way feeling a tad uncomfortable. Perhaps manufacturing male pregnancy clothes should have been the route I could have taken to fame and fortune, but, alas ,I loved football.****
The daily drive to work that summer was quick, and I did not have to have anyone there to tell me what to do, or how to get started. The first part of the week was mowing the fields, the second part of the week was painting. The mowing part started by lubing and fueling up the tractor or mower I was to use that day. On the drive into the school area, I could see where the grass was high and start my mowing there. There was nothing romantic or exciting about going around in rectangular circles. My mind would sweep through football plays, classroom lectures, and cowboy scenes with me in the lead roles. This continued to be my boring existence until the day I ran over the cat. Holes can think what he wants, but that cat attacked the mower.
I was driving the old riding mower on an area they called the “sidelines”, it was the area between the two main practice fields which was rather large and cool with some very nice sized oak trees planted by the high schools first principal and football coach many years ago. The trees keep the area cool, and were far enough away that no one ran into the trees when they were tackled out of bounds. The cat in question stayed near one the trees in the middle of the “sidelines”, and would come out and , it looked to me, attack the mower as I want by. At first, in my solitude, the attack frightened me. Later, as I got use to it, I looked forward to these moments as a relief from the boredom, and would try and guess when the cat would come out. The cat attack was quite an event for me, and I hastened each week towards the“sidelines” and the attack by the killer cat. Week after week, the white and black spotted cat would spring out of her nesting spot and run at the small tractor, as if to ward off the mechanical bull infringing on her area. She would spring out, then bat at the machine with her paws, as if she was trying to box it with a one two punch. I did not waiver from my mowing path after the first attack. I always thought if I did move wrongly, I might accidentally run over her: let her decide the path to take. I am not sure what made her attack the machine, as I never saw any kittens she might be protecting, therefore, I think it was a game to her. The game ended in a loss for her side.
Something went horribly wrong the last time she attacked the mower. This was to be my last mowing before my football duties took over. I do not feel I can take credit for what happened as I did not vary my speed or direction, but it happened non-the-less. Spots, as I named her, attacked the mower as usual as I came down the path towards her tree. The only difference was she moved in much closer then in past attacks and placed a paw under the mower carriage, and to my horror, got pulled or sucked into the mower carriage where the blades are located. One second she was there and the next second she was gone. There were unmistakable noises that came from the mower: surprised screams from the cat, a thunk- thunk noise inside the mower carriage following the blades rotation, and the sound of rushing wind followed by Spots ejection, or what was left of Spot, out of the side of the grass discharge.
I had been caught by surprise, and did not stop the mower until the discharge of the cat form the mower carriage. This was a shock to me, and I could not believe what had happened. Was it my fault, the cats fault, could I blame the mower? I did not know what to think. I decided to drive the riding mower to the out buildings where the field equipment was held and get a shovel to bury the cat. As I drove the mower towards the building, I began to wonder about life and how quickly it could be taken away. Who would know that cat was gone but me? Who would care? I buried the Spots by her tree, and always thought of her whenever I mowed the “sidelines”. I also thought about my dreams; was I following them, and did I really know what they were? Life was too short not to be following my dreams. I needed to plan now.****
I had also had the pleasure of seeing Aussie Knowles work out in the evenings during the summer. He had thrived down here in Texas. As August drew to a close, he looked primed and ready. With about ten to twelve extra pounds of muscle filling up on his body, he looked ready to play on the offense side of the football. Free weights were coming into vogue in the high school football programs around the country, but many parents were afraid that the use of heavy weights would stunt their childs growth, but I didnt think so. How many times had I met farm boys who lifted heavy weights daily in their work routine, and still were giants? This always amused me, but when it comes to someone elses child, the parent of that child knows best. Aussie, though was not afraid to use the weights. He and Harry seemed to hit it off, and Harry was a good teacher, especially when he could point to his own body as a reference point. And speaking of Harry, the rumor was, could not show his face in Austin County after a certain unnamed rehearsal dinner as there was a certain husband who had made a date for Harry with the point of his shotgun.
Harry acted like it was nothing, but for awhile, loud noises made him jumpy, and, at times, he could be found hiding under his desk. This lead Holes to incorporate many teaching devises into his Civil War summer school activities that made thunderous and earsplitting sounds. The grenade simulator was the worst as it detonated in the coaches„ office , and lead to Harry chasing Holes out of the field house and down the crushed shell road. Poor Holes had taken off his shoes moments before the explosion and, after the explosion, Holes found himself running for his life with Harry in hot pursuit, out the door and into the crushed shell parking lot. It was there his bare feet had taken a beating with jagged cuts and tears, and with this accidental beating, Harry decided Holes had paid his dues for setting off the grenade.
And though I enjoyed the antics of Harry and Holes, it was Aussie I found most interesting, as he had this air of non-chalance about him. He was not overtly intense, and did not lead with loud shouts and curses. But when he was around, the other boys listened, and did what he asked. His leadership was not forced, but seemed a part of him and natural. In the cool of the evening, as the linemen danced their summer runs, I watched him throw to his receivers from the fence near the football field, and saw his Dad look on with pride from the opposing bleachers. At that time, I could only imaging what he was feeling.
Chapter Twenty Eight
Skipper was Skipper, as the summer drew to a close, watching everything ,and seeming
to know everything. He did act a little more tired then usual, but he used his fatigue to take the time to get his Boys to run errands for him, and then he could talk to them and make them feel special. I just chalked it up as one of his ploys. He once told me he used the Knute Rockne approach to individuals. He made it a point to tell players that, “ they are the piston that runs the engine”, and without them the engine, team, could not function. It worked. I saw it work, and later, used it myself. Others may say they use this approach, but Skipper meant every word he said, at least I think he did, when he said it to our Boys and to me.
He also took to keeping a bottle of Pepto-Bismol around for stomach aches. Holes thought it was an ulcer, but Harry thought he just needed to exercise more often. Ski would not comment. He would just stare at us with those mirror sun-glasses, seemingly daring us to continue. He was loyal to Skipper, and, I think, felt it a betrayal to discuss him in front of each other. Holes had no problem, and paid no attention to Skis dramatics. Harry was different. He would just stare back at the glasses without expression, and then start to flex his muscles in their reflection. At other times he would pick his teeth, or clean his eye snot in the reflection, upsetting Ski, and grossing out all who were present. There were even times Killer Bob was human, and would laugh with us at this coarse humor, but those times were rare.
Another thing that struck me as peculiar was the numerous times Skipper changed pants during the day as we were thrust together each day for long stretches at a time with the beginning of school and football practice. He was a man of comfortable habits and enjoyed his school khaki trousers, but sometime during the day, after I had seen him in the mornings, he would have changed. I only noticed this because of the times he changed to blue jeans. Blue jeans were not allowed as facility apparel even in summer for our administrators, and Skipper , by wearing them was either in need of a change of pants, or flaunting the administration. Knowing Skipper, he was in need of a change. This probable did not occur to Mr. Smith the Vice-Principal.
I remember the afternoon he caught Skipper in jeans. He stormed into the field house right before the start of football practice, acting like he was the overseer, and we were the slaves who could not please him. His stomach preceded him, but his little legs caught the rest up fast. He was angry at the condition and smell of the field house, but what caught his eye was Skipper in jeans. He leapt on this issue with relish, and demanded to see the Boss alone in his office. The look in Skippers eyes were as hard as flint as he passed me on the way to his office. Skipper went in first, followed by Smith. I do not know what words were passed at the beginning of the conversation, but I know what was said moments later when Skipper opened his mouth and roared back.
“ I am not doing this to prove a point”, he roared, “ I am wearing jeans because I needed a change of pants, but I could not leave my post here at school, and these were all I had in my truck in the way of a change of clothes. So, if you want to write me up, start writing. I am sick of your attitude, and sick of your presence here in my office. Now, I have work to do, whether you think it is important or not. My Boys and my coaches are waiting for me, I have nothing more to say to you. Whatever I have to say to justify these pants I will say to the Principal. So, get the Sam Hill out of my office and out of my business!”
Smith started to sputter and bluster, but he left Skipper s office in an angry hurry to inform his boss of Skippers indiscretion, and to lick his wounded pride. Holes kinda looked at me in a quizzical way, but then he shrugged his shoulders and followed Harry out to practice. The rest of us followed, in a confused dazed, trying to figure out what had happened. Even Ski looked a bit preoccupied under those reflective lenses. Skipper came out later in shorts to start practice, but said very little to the other coaches.
That was not the only strange behavior I saw from the Coach, I also remembered him coming out of the bathroom, with a spray of water across his pants. This happened more then once, and each time he asked us to get the schools plumber out to fix that “darn jet” of water that had attacked him when he turned on the water faucet.
I even went in the bathroom once after he had made this excuse to check on the water flow that came from the tap. It was medium pressure without much push to it. I guess Skipper was just zipping his pants too soon after he went to the bathroom, and things were getting a little messy. He had come up with a pretty good excuse, but it would not work forever. I was not looking forward to getting older.
Officially the summer ended with our annual meeting in the field house and Skippers concern or comments in the middle of August, but we had been working on and off all summer with meeting and equipment issues. After the first official meeting we met everyday at nine oclock and worked on personal, practice plans , and housekeeping. We built the lockers, and added shelf space in the equipment room. We painted goal posts, the mascot sign, and the even the large“R” in the middle of the stadium. I dont think the old stadium could hold more then 1000 people, so the “R” was not too toilsome, and it was a tradition, therefore the coaches did not mind.
Killer Bob continued to stay away from me so the time I spent in physical labors were either done with Holes, or Harry- I considered myself in good company.
Throughout our labors I would see Skipper walking back and forth between the school and the field house. I guess most of that times was spent talking to the administrators about the schedules: both football and the Boys. I was worried that he had gotten into trouble over the blue jean incident, but he never mentioned it. But, he did not seem to have the spring in his step he had had when I first met him last year. I thought I noticed a limp, and, perhaps, a wince in his expression when ever he had to step up onto the an elevated area. Again, I should have seen the beginning of a problem when he would come out of the bathroom, angry and red from exertions, of what I do not know- I would find out later.
The boys showed up for two-a days on August the 20th. We were ready. The balls were all aired up, the uniforms were issued-we had done that days before, and the coaches were rested. Skipper told us to keep up the positive energy and attitude, but stay on top of them. He reminded us, we are not drill instructors, but his Boys needed to be reminded from time to time who was in charge. They needed to feel good about being here, but they needed to obey orders without questioning them. Holes asked him, “ like good little marines?”, Skipper just smiled.
The Boss took a few minutes before practice and after practice each day to re-focus the boys, and let them understand the mission for this year. It was easy to see he loved them, and it was just as easy to watch their faces and understand they felt the same way about him. I never could read much on one of our Boys„ face, named Billy, but when he watched Skipper, he watched with his eyes and ears, which was a good indicator of understanding and respect. Although, if Ski caught them looking down, they would pencil roll after practice. To roll meant to lay down on ones stomach, with your hands out in front of your head, and your feet behind you. Then, starting at the goal line, begin to roll continuously without stopping until one gets to the opposite goal line, and then starting over again towards the other goal post where they started. The usual distance for a first offense was 500 hundred yards. This was also a tradition, but one none of the boys wanted to volunteer again after once having attempt it, especially if one had to roll through their own vomit.
Skipper would walk up and down during the breaks speaking with the Boys and encouraging then to do better. The action caused the rest of us coaches to follow his example. It worked for me for over twenty-five years; I watched many head coaches use it.
Some people believe that the football players have changed over the years, and that is not true. They have not changed, our society has though. We give them too much, and empower them to be different. All this while parents are telling their kids that their coach is an idiot. Sounds like an argument I heard of fathers being put down on T.V. and in the movies. Neither the coaches or the fathers are idiots, but both have lost a lot of ground since I started coaching. I guess moms and dads read more, or look up things on the internet and feel they are now a professional based on what they have just read, and not what they have learned through the sweat and hard work of the real professional who has been in that position for years. Coach OBrien was a true professional, and his calling was a vocation, and not just a job.
And, even though I am not in the medical profession or a doctor, I knew there was something wrong with Skipper without the aid of a medical degree, or the internet. The pain seemed to have grown into his lower back, and into upper legs, as he was always holding his back and messaging it through the shirt he was wearing in the field house. He would not rub his back around his Boys, it would seem unmanly. He tried to hide it from everyone, but all of the coaches saw it, and pretended to look the other way whenever it manifested itself. He was a prideful man, and I think we all recognized ourselves in him during this time. He even took to keeping extra pants- khakis this time- in his office in case he needed them after an accident. He needed to see a doctor, but I did not have the courage to confront him-yet.
The coaches were not the only one who noticed there was something wrong with Skipper. Homer “Hal” Halichek of Rocins Fan Stand Hamburgers, gave me an inquiring look from underneath his greasy hair do and white stained T-shirt as I walked in for a quick bite to eat for lunch one afternoon. He leaned his U.S. Navy tattooed arms on the counter, looked around at the almost deserted lunch room, and stated in conspiratorially:
“What is going on with Skipper?”
I shrugged, “ What do you mean?” I quire.
“Somethings bothering him. He doesnt come around here as much, and when he does, hes quiet and, I dont know, maybe thoughtful, or something.”
“Hal it is going to be a big season for us”, I answered, “ he is proable worried about everyone doing their best.” I smiled. “Hes O.K.
“Good, Muley. I cant wait to avenge that rock throwing assault you guys took from those rednecks last year in _________. And, this season,” he declared,“ we are all following the bus home! Mark my words, Muley!”
Hal left me to flip his frying burgers, and give my own personal reflections a time to cultivate Hals deduction about the Coach. No, it did not take a doctor to see something was wrong with Skipper.
One of the benefits of summer life for a coach is going to one or two of these new ideas called coaching schools. This is where you or your group of coaches report to a college campus near you, or as near to you as can be found, and spend the day or weekend listening to winning coaches form around the state tell their tales of success. I have attend to quite a few in my days, first as a spectator, and later, proudly, as a speaker.
Harry begin telling a story one afternoon that concerned he and Holes and a coaching school held at Texas A and M College in College Station, Texas. This use to be a sleepy little cow town that catered to expectant farmers, ranchers and engineers at a Boys Only ROTC college. These Farmers, proudly calling themselves “Aggies”, drew on such traditions as The Twelfth Man. The Twelfth Man legend keeps the faithful standing at every game in case someone from the crowd is needed to play and finish the game. By the early seventies the school board had figured out that they needed women to attend the school if they were going to keep functioning and survive. The Waggies- Women Aggies- were born.
For me a “Boys Only” institution was a necessity. Each of the two genders needs a little something to call their own, making them feel special and full of pride. When you take that away, both groups feel injured: one group believes something has been stripped away, and the other has nothing else to rail against. I feel the same with football. I know girls can physically do it, and some are more then a little aggressive, but because of the way we men are built- mentally and physically-, we love to test our strength against someone elses strength. We love to collide, hit, and smash one another to see who is stronger, and worthy to be called the winner. Their have been some games we did not win when I was growing up, but when that opposition left the field, they knew they had been in a ball game: bloody and battered. I was proud of my part in this combative endeavor ,and I left the field feeling compensated for the loss we had suffered.
But Harry and Holes endeavor left them feeling dirty and sordid, or ,at the very least, unclean. It seemed after a long day of listening and note taking at the A and M coaching school, the two decided they needed to unwind and have a bite to eat at a local restaurant before they returned home. The story continued, that while eating pizza at the local restaurant, Holes and Harry started drinking pitchers of beer and swapping war stories. Before they knew it, they both had to admit they were feeling pretty good, and decided they had had enough, paid their bill and staggered out to the car.
Holes took an inordinate amount of time looking for the key hole in the door, while Harry keep checking out his imagine in the passenger car window. By the time they got in the car, and tried to put it in Drive, only to figure out they had not started it, they knew they were in trouble. They decided they needed a game plan.
During the course of their planning on how to get home, Holes automatically and unknowingly turned the key in the ignition, fired up the car, and began to back out of the parking lot in what only could be called “slow motion” without looking backwards and talking to Harry.
After finding the ditch near the road with ease, Holes made an attempt to get on the road by crossing the ditch. This lead to some rough driving and slinging of mud and gravel onto cars located in the parking lot. Harry noticed a lot of faces at the windows of the restaurant, right before his head hit the dashboard and snapped back and hit the head rest on their way down the road and out of town.
After a few miles of driving down these country roads at thirty-five miles per hour, and the loss of sunlight, Holes could not remember if this was the right road or not. He therefore pulled off the road and talked it over with Harry. They both decided they needed a place to sleep this alcohol off and turned the car around and headed back the way they came. As they tooled around enjoying the cool air that came in through the cars windows and the sweet smell of the honeysuckle vines on the lonesome fence rows, Harry had an idea: Why not pull over and let him pick some of the honeysuckle vines and put them in the car to make it smell good?. This seemed like a good idea at the time, as Harry had tried to make an oral deposit from his pizza and beer enriched stomach out the window, only to be hindered by the half opening the window provided.
Since they were not in a hurry, and the car was only going about thirty, Holes agreed and pulled over. By the light of the cars lights helped on by the summer sun„s resent to go down , Harry grabbed handfuls of the vines and staggered back with his bountiful treasures, which he threw onto the bench seat between the two of them. As the car continued on its path back to town, Harry had another idea brilliant idea. This time he wanted to make wreaths for all the coaches at the office, much like the Greeks would have done with the laurel wreaths when winning the races at the Olympics. Holes liked the idea, as he thought about the coming football season, and encouraged Harry, promising to wear his as soon as it was made.
By the time they had made it to town, both of the men had a crown made of twisted vines with pretty blossoms dispersed between them on top of their heads and garlands around their necks. Each one was commenting on how good the other looked when they came across a small motel on the outskirts of College Station, with more neon in the architecture then boards, and turned in after reading the signs “Vacancy” and “Hourly Rates Available”.
Holes and Harry made quite a sight as they entered the motel giggling like school girls, helping each other stay upright by holding elbows and, at one point hands. One can only guess what the night clerk was thinking, who could only stare in open mouth wonder at the sight before him. Harry sat down a little ways away from the desk on a plastic covered couch and stared happily at the picture of the nude women on the wall behind the counter. Holes approached the desk clerk with forced equilibrium, and asked gently, but with forced sobriety, for a room. The clerk, taking in the appearance of the two large men with floral wreaths attached to their heads and necks in a rakish manner, and the affection they seemed to have had for each other while entering the building, knowingly asked: “ One bed, or two?”
Holes was stunned. He blushed a dark red, and looked to Harry with indignation at such a suggestion. Harry, in his happy trance, felt Holes look at him, and not hearing the question, sheepishly smiled and gently shrugged his shoulders, and then, with great gaiety, nodded his head, Yes. Holes turned a almost maroon shade in his embarrassment, which was the appropriate color at Texas A & M, marched back to Harry, grabbed him by his arm and propelled both of them stumbling through the door, and out to the car. They spent the night, devoid of floral wreaths, in their car on the side of the road as close to their own doors as possible, sleeping off the effects of the numerous pitchers of beer, and the embarrassment of being suspected of being a couple.
Chapter Twenty Nine
The season started with a win against San Seba High School. San Seba had a good program structured around the Power I, but more importantly, it had a set of twin running backs who liked to run. Most modern day football offenses use a variation of the Wing T offense, with the quarterback taking the ball from under center and all the running backs lined up in the back field. The Power I was no exception. The reason it is called the Power I is because all four backs are lined up behind the center, including the QB, with your most dominant back the last one. In football terms, he dots the “i “. This was a good start, and a good omen- if one believed in them. Skipper had been worried about the start of the football season against this school, as we had only seen them once before, and the film we had received on them was not of very good quality.
We had lined up in wishbone and punished them, but had not really hurt them with our dive option that is until we unleashed Aussies arm. The Dive Option in the Wishbone offense is a multiply option attack, lead by a QB who can read the defense. The QB , after opening up, attempts to hand off to the dive back, but begins his reading of the defense at this time. If there is no opening, he pulls the ball out of the dive backs stomach and proceeds down the offensive line preparing to read the unblocked defensive player, usually located near the end of the defensive line. If the defensive player takes him, he will pitch it to the other running back who is keeping a pitch alignment with the QB. As the QB reads the numbers on the defenders jersey and prepares to get hit, he will pitch the ball. Should the defender take the back on the pitch path, the QB will keep the ball and turn up field. Our offense was providing loose change numbers, much as could be found in a bum pants pockets after a Saturday night. Two to three pennies every offensive play was not going to cut it against San Seba, that is until Aussie, who could run well, but throw even better, aired us out with a couple of passes to our strong side end, Dale “Clydesdale” Schrick.
With San Seba concentrating on the backfield action and assigning offensive positions to there defenders, Dale became wide open any time he released down field. Once released, and with Aussie throwing the perfect spiral, the Clydesdale became a lumbering tower of power. Out in the open field, Dale looked like a lightening rod, he was so much taller then the San Seba defensive secondary. Aussies passes looked like the lightening, the rod was trying to capture, and once combined and energized, the horse galloped along with frightening strength. When the defense turned its eyes and ability upon Schrick, our offense stretched our far side end, making him a wide receiver, and completed the series with a sprint-out pass to our wide-receiver and our first touchdown. Aussie had cleaved them open with those three passes and the score. He ended the game with three scores off his good right arm. The team ended the game with four touch downs total. I was so proud of Aussie, I was almost forgetting his formerly long hair, and who had made the passing adjustments and called those well chosen plays. Skipper was not.
He sought me out on the last play, and enthusiastically hugged me. Looking back, this meant more to me then the victory. His faith in me had been rewarded with this win. I felt a , not so humble, sense of jubilation.****
The victories did not stop. We went through the Confederate strong holds of Lee, Jackson, and Hood highs schools without too much trouble. Lee High School was undersized that year. According to Skipper, four years before that, they had dominated the offensive side of the football and made a run at the state play-offs. They had been the district champions four out the last seven years. This year, they would fight hard just to stay in every game. They did, but the score reflected our dominating backs. Edward “Zippy” Zipalac, and Jay“Juking” Jones were a loaded pair of dice, who, in this game, could roll no number lower then five whenever they received the ball.
The next week our opponent was Jackson High School, whose game strategy was to hold onto the ball offensively as much as possible. They were a strong force to be reckoned with as they run the ball well from the T offensive formation, using misdirection and counters. The counters hurt us the most at the beginning of the game. The prettiest counter has the backs starting one way, selling the direction of the play, while the play side of line moves in the opposite way preparing the new direction the young Olympiad running the ball, as he cuts back to follow them. The hardest things were to keep your linebackers from being over aggressive, and leaving their assigned areas too fast. Mincemeat Menitz, in the first quarter was almost beside himself, and needed Ski to calm him down and redirect his energy. This was done. We won by two touchdowns plus the two extra points, with off-tackle holes being opened by the Dale and Hog Curtis on the right side of the football.
The forth week into the season, John B. Hood High School took center stage as our nemesis. From the film, we had exchanged at five oclock on Saturday morning after the Jackson game, we knew they were a throwing team, and a good one at that. Ski and Harry worked hard with our defensive secondary that week, forcing them to learn how to properly cover a two receiver, or twin set, and using our Monster position- free safety- as the question mark, we set-up stunting defensive sets. Even our linebackers took a free-wheeling part in this train wreck. That is what made the difference. Zippy Zipalac was not only one of the running backs, he also was our Monster, and fearless in the face of adversary. On the last play of the game, Zippy, hit the offensive back field so quick from the outside, he took the hand-off from the QB as he was sprinting out for a play action fake. We won by a touch down earned by Zippy on that play. Things were going our way. We looked unbeatable.****
Where there were a strong concentration of loyal Germans during the Civil War, their Union named high schools of Sherman and Grant proved no much for our juggernaut. But Cleveland High was next. That year Cleveland High School was riding a tidal wave, much like our own, of success off of its two dominating backs in the back field, and one of the most dominating running QBs I had ever seen in high school football. On the black and white grainy film we had secured of Cleveland, Otis Jenkins, the QB, had plunged up the middle of the line, and taken on the strong side “Sam” linebacker one on one. The linebacker himself was no ball room dancer, and the collision they made at the line of scrimmage was intense. But the sheer power of Otis was incredible, with the linebacker crumbling at Otiss feet. But, while he may have crumbled, he did not give up, and wrapped his arms around one of those piston for legs of Jenkins. I watched Jenkins pummel the linebackers head repeatedly with his knees as he drove up field for ten more yards. I keep replaying his celluloid image over and over the night before the game, wandering what we would do to stop this monster. The defensive side of the ball was not my responsibility, and there was no actual thought of talking to Killer Bob, just the pretend imagery of doing so in my head.
Cleveland had a dominating team with its Veer type offense , and the two splendid backs who forked on either end- besides the awe inspiring Otis Jenkins. Clevelands coach had prepared for everything but Aussies arm. He had heard about it, but only keep their team in a pass coverage with two defensive backs, using his corners hard on the ends. It keep our front offensive line busy, and did not allow us as many double teams, but we could put three receivers down field if we switched from the bone to twin backs formation. The Wishbone offense gave us two quick backs in the backfield on the left and right side, while in front of them and in the middle behind the quarterback we had a strong blocking back, or dive back, who liked to run with the ball when we took it up the middle. This usually worked well when we were successful on the option play. The option play itself was designed to force the defensive end to make a decision on who to tackle when we ran to his side. If he took the Quarterback, the QB was to pitch it too the running back. If the defensive end took the running back, the QB was to keep it and turn it up field. This worked best with teams that were not ready for their defensive ends to make decisions. After they shut down our run game, we opened up the passing game, and they spent the rest of the game applying run game band-aids to passing punctures. There was no tourniquet to shut us down. Once we let blood, Aussie acted as the butcher, cutting and slicing with a professional swagger.
We beat Cleveland by one point, with Otis and Aussie battling each other on both sides of the football. Otis played the quick-side linebacker when he was not on offense. Aussie played the Strong Safety. Both came to play. The gun-slinging did not start until near the end of the half, as both QBs tried to throw deep to gain a desperation touchdown to be in the momentum seat prior to the end of the half. Otis drew first on a play action pass to the right, while his back side receivers drove down filed on a direct route for the goal line. He threw the ball up, with strength, but not skill, with 38 seconds left on the clock. Aussie, as the strong safety, was playing the secondary in quarters, and as the ball went up, read the arch and strength of the ball, broke on it, then cradled it into side chest at the Cleveland ten yard line. He hit the fifteenth yard line with 27 seconds left on the clock, and was stopped at the seventeenth yard line by devastating blow from Otis Jenkins. Aussie, shook off the hit, set-up the offensive huddle, called the play sent in, and set up the formation. We took our fullback out and put in a wide receiver for him to the offensive right. Dale had also set at the offensive right, and on the snap of the football, our two best receivers took off in a direct line towards the prize. They never made it, Jenkins, on a blitz, hit a hole between the guard and tackle, and took his aggression out on Aussie with a blind-sided, rollem up, layem out tackle. I thought we had lost our Aussie. He had had two hard tackles back to back, but he neither laid there, nor acted liked it hurt. He got up, shook it off, and joined the Rocin Bulls headed to the field house for without a word or whimper. It was this quiet leadership and example that made him well liked by all on the team.
After half time, Aussie showed the quiet determination and pugnacity he became known for around Rocin. His first play from scrimmage was not the dive I had expected, but a return to the option Cleveland had stopped so many times that game. It was a speed option with the fullback hitting the defensive end and the QB taking the ball to daylight. Only Aussie did not run to daylight, he sought Otis, who was coming down hill from the linebacker position trying to take a shot at Aussie. He never made it. Aussie found him. There was an explosion near the line of scrimmage, one made manifest by a formerly long haired individual making actions talk louder then words. Aussie lowered his shoulder and rammed through with his head striking the upright Jenkins before he could get into a tackling position. Jenkins flew through the air on contact only to find he had not broke contact with Aussie, who was not seeking positive yardage but annihilation. Once Otis had landed in a spry of dust on that hot Texas field, Aussie landed on top, driving his body into Jenkins in hopes to take his breathe away. I could not see Knowles face, but the linemen closest to him pronounced it as scary.
The tide had turned. Otis was helped off the field, and remained there for a couple of series, only to return a more cautious human being. Aussie was pulled out of the bottom of the dog-piled by Dale and Hog, a pile that had ensued after the tackle, with a purposeful smile on his face. The Aussie air show began, and a parade of touchdowns ensued. The Royal Australian Air Force would have been proud of this display of air power. Cleveland and Otis Jenkins lost their only game to us that season, thirteen to twenty. We were one game away from winning the district undefeated, and making the first game of the state playoffs. The dream catcher Skipper had created was working.****
The offensive line had played outstanding football the whole season. Skipper and Holes offensive line, now that Rico Vasquez was gone, was anchored by the Hog Curtis. He had developed muscles on his large personage, and all those miles he had put in during the summer were paying off. I do not think other coaches from around the district would have believed this once over weight lineman was now dominating their athletes on the defensive line, but he was. Skipper, was so proud of him, he spent hours it seemed in his office after the games just shaking his head in wonder. We all were in shock, as our line gave Aussie the much needed time to throw the ball ,or read the defense. Skipper gave much of the credit to Holes, and you could see it both embarrassed him, and flattered him at the same time. He would blush, stammer and try to change the subject with a joke, but the rest of us could see how it was with him. Therefore we kept it up, until he could stand no more and found an excuse to leave. I took a rather perverse pleasure in this action because of all the practical jokes that Holes had played on me the past year.
The town of Rocin took notice of this team, who could not seem to lose, as we marched through the football schedule. They decided to have a pep-rally at the old metal and wood stadium the game of the first play-offs, they were that confident. It sounded kind of strange when the principal told us about this event. We were one game away from making the play-offs, and preparing for our game against Marshall, not really expecting anything out of the ordinary. I was afraid it might break our concentration, and perhaps, our streak of wins. I wanted to ask Skipper, but he seemed a little distanced from events. I did not know why, because in the past Skipper heard all the noise and gossip before us, now he appeared preoccupied and hardly interested in the town or schools daily events. It was quite like an animal who is injured, and gives no attention to anything but the pain it feels. It was a bit worrying.
Holes seemed the obvious choice to ask what was going on, but he was dealing with his own problems. Our working hours were long, and his wife was tired. The boys were becoming hard to handle. Holes oldest was hanging out with a rough crowd, who were known to smoke and drink a little when they could find it. His interest in football had waned, and Holes had been called to the junior high to talk about his truancy. Holes was getting home as fast as he could to help out with his wife, and I do not believe he was noticing as much as usual the things going on with Skipper. Ski was not my favorite person to talk to about anything, much less talk about Skipper. He might have noticed things , but he would not share them with others. It went against his outward show of loyalty.
There was always Harry, but due to our success, he had met a pretty divorced women from the nearby town of Cloverville, who would waited after our games for him. He had seen her after a game waiting on her son and had invited her to wait in the bus, as the wind had picked up outside and a chill had added to its strength and determination. While she and Harry waited on the boys, they found an instant affection for one another. She rode the bus home to Rocin, he drove her back that night, and came in late for the Saturday morning meeting and film exchange that next morning. To ask Handsome Harry a question while he was in love or lifting weights was like asking a pretty young women looking in a mirror what time she had: it was down right stupid, she would not be able to tear her eyes away from her own perfection. I would just have to keep my silence, or ask Skipper myself. I choose the least path of resistance, and waited.
The game against Yancey was one sided - our side. They had had a hard year losing most of their games in the first quarter, and trying desperately to keep the score down, not even considering the chance of possibly winning. Their offensive coordinator was a young coach like myself at the time, and would grow from this humbling experience to win two state championships. He was not a quitter, but back then the thought of leaving would not leave his mind until his first winning season as the offensive coordinator at Yancey; that is what he told me later. The pressure is always on for you to succeed, both from your own Boys, and the fans in the stands. No finer coaches exist then the ones behind you in the stands who do not have your stress nor their pride on the line. I knew that feeling well. So did Skipper. He played his second teams as much as possible, and would not let Aussie air out any passes. He would not embarrass the head coach or the offensive coordinator. I wanted to let Aussie loose and work on some plays in a game time situation that we had only run in practice. I was disappointed, but I made a mental note of the kindness that was Skipper.
Doug Wohl was one of our defensive lineman who had too much muscle and not enough brains. At least we thought so at the time. Doug would later on prove us wrong with his investments in Computers in the early eightys. But at this time he was barely getting through with his core classes in high school.
And, he was enjoying the attention of a sweet young thing named Miss. Gloria Nugent. Gloria worked at the Dairy Queen down the road from the high school, and every day after practice Doug made the stop there to get a cold drink or ice cream on his way home. She had quit school at the young age of sixteen, and had a reputation for being easy. I dont think she was easy, just lonely, and in search of a way out of this life, and perhaps, this town and the rumors that followed her around. Doug on the other hand, wanted a pretty girl by his side, and felt the urge to defend and protect. All this added up to keeping Doug from passing, and showing up for practice. I do not believe Doug thought he was that good he could skip practice, but he was in love. The team knew Dougs problem was love, and that time spent with her was magical and, made him lose his senses and track of time. Time spent with the team was fun, but dirty, sweaty, and achingly, without Gloria. Skipper put him on probation.
According to Skipper s rules if a player was not at practice the day before the game, he did not play. Well, to be honest, if he was not at practice and he did not have a good enough reason, such as sickness, death in the family then he did not play. Wohl, did not have a good enough reason , and all the boys knew it. Skipper had no choice. He benched Doug for the game against Toro. This was to be the first game into the play-offs. The El Toro Bulls were a redundant team of our own, both in name and talent. Having watched them on film that week, I knew they had more then their fair share of athletes. Four backs, three possible quarterbacks, and a stable of linemen who knew how to get the job done.****
It is always surprising how people react to bad new in small towns. Word gets around so fast, you can start a rumor on one end of town, and by the time you get to the other end, someone is calling you over to let you in on it. People felt that Skipper was too hard on Doug- the Lover-boy, and that he should be allowed to play. As usual, Skipper said little on the subject unless directly confronted, and then he would smile, shake his head, and state Doug knew the rules, and knew what would happen if he broke them. He let them know, it did not matter who the players were or where they played on the field, they would all be held accountable. And, if that was not enough, he also sat Aussie out for failing a math test. Aussie was a genius at math, but his last two test had been almost failing. Skipper had warned him, as a courtesy to the math teacher, that if he failed another test, he would have to sit out a game. When Aussie failed the next test, Skipper felt he had to keep his word; he did.
On the day of the suspension, Skipper called me into his office, and let me know what was going on. He wanted me to know before it became public at the town pep-rally that evening. He would handle the principal, and the parents, but I would have to handle preparing a new quarterback the day before a major game. I did not think it was fair of Skipper, and my manner towards him gave me away. Skipper looked at me for a long moment.
“ Muley , I do not have a choice. I told him what I would do, and he failed me, he let me down. He let the team down. The whole team and the teachers were aware of our talk. He knew what needed to be done. He is not a stupid child, he is our leader, the one all our boys look up too, and the younger ones in the stands worship.
“ This I know“, he added, “every boy who walks through this door has to believe I will keep my word. And, every boy who plays for me better keep his. Knowles did not. He has let us down, and we will have to pay the price. “
I looked at him, and heard him talk ,but all I could think of was the certain fact we were going to lose this game against Toro High tomorrow. Does he not understand we needed Aussie to win? Does he think this is the moral high ground? Is his pride greater then the teams destiny? I could not find the words that would help me make sense of this inside my head. But, Skipper was not through.
“ Coach, Aussie will not play tomorrow,” he intoned,” and all of our Boys: the ones now, and the ones in the future, will understand that when you give your word, and your are told to do something, you do it. Emile, “ he said solemnly, surprisingly pronouncing my first name properly, “ I hope you can understand my decision. It was my decision to make, and I have made it. In the long run, the only thing our Boys will have will not be their athletic ability, but their word and their brains. If we can teach them to keep it and use it, we are doing the work that really matters, not winning the most games. And, the team will know, if I will take this position with the greatest of them, then I will take this position with the least of them also.”
I told Skipper, I would not make this same decision if I was the one in charge. I also told him he was making a big mistake. He just nodded the way he normally did when he was listening. His physical appearance had changed since I had first met him a year and a half ago. He was older looking; more haggard with a grayness about his coloring I had not noticed before. His shoulders now sagged, where they once had been squared and prideful.
He repeated himself again, never breaking eye contact with me to demonstrate his determination to his position. I repeated myself again trying to make an argument about Aussies situation, but with no takers I left. I felt horrible. At that moment, more horrible for me and Aussie then the decision Skipper had had to make. I went to find Aussie and give him the bad news.
By the time I reached Aussie he had already heard the news. I was angry, hurt and upset. I said some things I might not have about the Coaches decision otherwise. Aussie just looked at me and gave one of his signature smiled.
“ He did the right thing you know.”
I was a little surprised at these words.
“What are you talking about?” I said in disbelief.
“ I left him no choice. “ Aussie responded. “If he did nothing the others would not have
I had had no time to go home and change, but I had worn my school clothes earlier that day, and they were still at the field house waiting for me to get dressed for the town pep-rally. I walked into the coaches office, and saw Skipper looking pained and unwell in a chair nears Holes desk. He was holding his stomach, and looking down at a stain in his khaki trousers near his crotch. I waited a moment before going in. I did not want to disturb him.
He looked a little surprised to see me. Perhaps, surprised and a little relieved. “ Muley, Im hurting, and I„ve had an accident.”
“Alright Skipper, what can I do?” I asked.
“ Just help me up and into my car. Im going over to see Doc Woods at his office. I just spoke
with him on the phone and he s waiting for me there.”
“Skipper, Im going to take you.” I demanded. “And,”, I added, “we have plenty of time to get
back before the pep-rally.”
Skipper thought it over, and after a time agreed.
He did not moan, but breathed rather coarsely through his mouth. You could tell when he was
in a great deal of pain by the way he caught his breathe, and clenched his teeth when times seemed
rougher then others.
We only had a short distance to go to Doc Woods office, and we made good time using my car
instead of Skipper„s truck. I helped Skipper move past the door and into the waiting room. Woods met
us and helped us get Skipper back to a back room. A few of the towns people were waiting their turn
to see Doc Woods, and were surprised to see Skipper and I move ahead of them in the waiting order.
Once they recognized Skipper, there was a gentle mummer of noise in the room, one of concern and
Doc Woods himself, looked concerned and began to ask Skipper some questions about pain,
and then about the light discoloration on the front of his pants which I had noticed earlier. I was
leaving the room when I heard Skipper say it came from his need to go to the bathroom, the pain he
had been experiencing, and the trouble he had controlling it.
I waited for Skipper in the patients waiting room, reading some month old hunting magazine
and wishing there was something I could do for him. Most of the people had left by then, and I was
alone with my thoughts. We had arrived at the doctors office at 5:00 that afternoon, and it was 6:00 by
the time Skipper came out. He sat down, looking relieve and less pained. I later learned he had been
given a shot of morphine for the pain he was suffering.
I felt a sense of relief. Doc Woods came out and sat down by Skipper and me. He was not
looking very cheerful, but I figured it was the late hour we had spent in his office.
“ Coach Sanchez,” he started, “ Someone on Skipper„s staff needs to be aware of the problem
he is having. I realize“, he continued looking at Skipper in a concerned manner, “ that he wants no one
to know of his condition, but there is a time and place to bite the bullet, and this does not have to be
one of those.”
At this point, I was a little confused. What was clear was there was something more wrong then
a little stomach ache.
Doc continued, “ I have found a rather substantial growth on Skippers prostate. I am not sure
whether this growth is malignant or not. He needs to go into the Houston Medical Center and have it
checked out. I am afraid this is very serious, and may require a surgery to remove the prostate and the
I was not sure what he was talking about, as my degree was in history and social studies and
not health, as was the majority of coaches in this part of the world. I looked over at Skipper, and I saw
him nodding his head in affirmation of Docs words. He seemed to have heard these words before. I was scared for Skipper. I had not known Doc Woods too long, but had seen him at every
home game championing the cause for victory. He had always seemed a happy and cheerful sort, and
now I was seeing his serious side. Skipper was quiet, and pensive. I could not tell what was going
through his head, and I was afraid to ask.
The pep-rally was to be held in less then an hour. I was not sure what Skipper wanted to do. I
was not sure whether I was suppose to ask. I left that in his hands. Whatever he wanted to tell me was
Skipper thanked Doc Woods, and I walked with him to the car. I opened the door for him,
closed it and went over to my side trying to figure out what I should do. Should I take him home; to the
pep-rally; or just let him decide?
He made the decision for me. He asked me to take him home, and then he wanted me to go to
the pep-rally and represent him and the team, making apologies for his absence. I deferred, but he was
I left him at the door waving goodbye to me, with his long arm gentle waving in a weak and
feeble state. I had never seen Skipper look so old and weak, and I felt terrible as I drove off down the
dusty road back to the stadium and the towns excitement over Skippers dream catcher. Chapter Thirty One The Pep Rally
Even today as I sit in this new stadium here in Rocin, I feel the old pain and sorrow washing
over me. I did not know it then, but Skipper was dying.
I went to the pep-rally that night, and made the excuses for the Boss. I told them he could not
be here tonight because of sickness, but he wanted to thank them and let them know how much we, the
team, appreciated their pride, love and attention.
The other coaches just looked at me, especially Ski. We had not had time to talk prior to the
event starting. I had just had enough time to change into my school clothes, before walking out with
the last notes of the National Anthem being played by the Rocin band. The boys and the coaches were
lined up on a platform, facing the crowd, and the large“R” we had repainted this past summer. I joined
the other coaches on the wooden platform, taking the last seat to the right near the steps. There was one
other seat open, next to Mr. Smith, and I realized it had been left open for Skipper. I have never
enjoyed pep-rallies, but this one seemed to be what every pep-rally should be: loud, fun, and
community building. But thoughts of Skipper sick at home did not allow me to enjoy the moment as it
should have been enjoyed.
As I started back to the field house, trying to inform the other coaches what was going on,
Aussies folks stopped me. The decision to suspend Aussie had not been my decision to make, and I
had not felt good about it anyways, but I would abide by Skipper decision of Aussies suspension of
the game. Instead of yelling at me, they thanked me for setting Aussie straight. They were a handsome
couple, and dressed more like affluent people from Houston then the farmers and ranchers from Rocin.
They also wanted me to thank Skipper for coming over to their house this morning, and talking with
them about the situation. They told me it was good to know that Coach OBryan was a man of
principles, and that he would follow them no matter the cost, even the play-offs. I was shocked at this
turn of events. Where I had expected anger, they gave understanding. This was new to me. But I could
tell Aussies folks were special. They must have been, with this type of reception for the coaches who
had suspended their golden haired son. Skipper had made the right decision. We spoke a little longer, I
thanked them and left headed toward the field house.
Back at the field house the other coaches were waiting for me to explain Skippers absence. I
told them what had happened , and what Doc Woods had said. All the coaches looked surprised at the
news of Skipper sickness. I also told them I expected Skipper to go to Houston tomorrow morning.
Holes offered to take off from school and drive him, but Ski would not hear of it. It was his duty to
take care of Skipper, and , in the lights of the field house, and without those mirror glasses, his eyes
expressed his desperate need to take care of Skipper. For all of the coaches it had been a long day, and
we wore the effects of the day in the dirt, grime, and sweat that had accumulated on our clothes and
bodies. We sat around and spoke of little else but how tough Skipper was, and how nothing could keep
him down. Speaking as if, by our own words, we could wish Skipper well and cure him of what ailed
I went home and shared what I knew with Anne. She was, as usual, genuinely sympathetic.
How lucky I was in finding her on the river that day of the race was made even more apparent by the
meal the beautiful woman had prepared for me this night. Perhaps it was not luck but Providence,
Divine Providence: the day at the river, Skipper intervention, the wedding, even this meal. I do not
know if it was her nursing back ground or the way she had been brought up, but I always ate well
balanced and delicious meals. Her mother would have been proud. Tonight was no exception. I was
particularly pleased as we ate our ham, grits, and greens on the new-to us- kitchen table I had found at a garage sale in Agua Dulce the past weekend after the game with Marshall. It was a bright red farm-house Formica table top with chrome legs, and I felt like a prince in his castle when I was not troubled by thoughts of Skipper.
I could not sleep at first, as I worried over this game with , the twin losses of Doug and Aussie, and Skippers sickness. Sleep must have found me, as the alarm yelled at me five“get up“- oclock. I felt as if I had just gone to sleep. I got up quickly, as is my habit, and went into the bathroom to shower and shave. I had not quite finished shaving when the phone quickened my heart rate with a loud obnoxious ring in the kitchen. I ran to get it so Anne would not waken, but she joined my in the kitchen as I picked up the phone.
It was Skipper. He was feeling a little better, but was wondering if I wouldn t mind picking him up on my way to school that morning. He did not want to talk about going to Houston this morning, or about his problem. I picked him up at six am, noting his color and disposition. He looked a bit white, but mentally ready to play.
We talked a little about the game today, and what adjustments we might need to make without Aussie out there on the field. Little Sean Hennessey was Aussies back-up. What he lacked in size he made up in attitude. He was the John Paul Jones type of player that would never give up. His leadership style was more vocal then Aussies but he knew how to lead.
I asked Skipper how he was feeling and what I could do to help him. He smiled at me and asked me to stop at the connivance store near the school so he could pick up his pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco and his normal large cup of coffee. I nodded in agreement and we drove in silence the rest of the way to the store.
The wind had picked up last night, and made for a cold morning. Skipper had on a military parka, or field jacket, and sat hunched next to me in the passenger seat. The weather stripping around the door of the car was partially gone, and the heater had to work extra hard to keep up with our frozen fingers and toes.
After leaving the store, and reaching the high school, we meet that morning with all the coaches and discussed our pre-game duties. The assignments were routine by now, but Skipper went over them any ways. He sat in Holes chair behind the desk as he gave us our marching orders. For the past two seasons I had been put in charge of game jerseys: hand out, wash and pick up, and dreaded this duty. I would rather of had Holes duty of checking on the footballs and the kicking gear, but he was adamant about not giving away a good thing without something in return- I had nothing to offer.
Skipper continued with our pre-game ritual by checking with each coach about the condition of his players, personal, and the adjustments necessary when there was to be a change in personal. For me, Aussie was this adjustment. Hennessy would get the job done, he could hand off, but his delivery when throwing the ball from a discharging hand to receiving hands left the fans in suspense, holding their collective breathe until a wobbly ball was cradled into the hands of the intended receiver; which was fifty percent of the time, the other fifty percent of the time we hoped the unintended receiver gained only five yards or less.
The rest of the day was a blur with the handling of classes, uniforms, and game preparations. I had decided to give a test that Friday to keep myself from teaching distractions but it seemed that many of the students had not studied enough, and a few of the girls began to cry as they realized how it would effect their final grade. I tried hard to be a callous teaching professional and not care, but the truth is, that it is just a myth, all teachers care and the degree in which they care can be seen in the curve they give, or how they are willing to re-teach the material and then re-test. I cared enough to let them retake it on Monday after they had had a chance to see it, and study for it over the weekend, but I would not tell them that till the end of the school day and only to my last period class. They had a wonderful ability of spreading the news and good cheer to all the students without any help from me.
Skipper stayed down at the field house, and though I checked on him twice, I saw very little of him throughout the day. The day had worn long on me, as I waited for our chance to play against the El Toro Bulls in the first game of the play-offs. What with the test taking, the crying, and worry about our quarterbacking problems I did not know how to respond: Should I be up and happy about making the play-offs, or worried and bitter about Skippers decision that that could make us lose our first shot at the play-offs? Skippers health kept me ambiguous in this process. Since I could find any answer, I would just keep shifting gears feeling both, and hoping the best response would win out. I could not show any of this to the team, therefore I kept a happy, positive attitude around them. After all, good leaders are suppose to be good actors, at least, that is what Gen. Patton said.****
We lost the toss, but the game started off with an on-side kick by Ski s kick-off team, which we recovered. Ski always played his hand close to his vest, and I was not sure what he had seen on film that lead him to make this chose on the kick-off, but we recovered it and the offense took to the field with a roar of approval from the side-lines. Skipper turned and smiled his thanks at Ski, which made Skis face beam as if a headlight had reached a dark corner of a country road. It was an amazing sight, one I had not seen very often since I had come to Rocin High.
As usual, Skipper threw a wrench into the nerve racking few moments of the game, as I sent in my first offensive play from scrimmage. He sent in Nacho Rios. Nacho Rios is a friend of Hales and when they run, it is at almost the same pace- with one difference: Nacho comes in last! Sure, I realized his mom made tamales for the coaches and the team on game days, and sure I know she came and talked with Skipper in his office last Tuesday, but why was he on the field? I could not for the life of me understand this decision, to send in a back-up offensive guard in what would be a hotly contested first game of the play-offs. I looked out in disbelief as Nacho took the field in his slow lumbering way, with a rolling gait, much as a ship would use out on the ocean. I hurriedly walked toward Skipper to confront him, and to prepare myself for the next offensive down call.
He saw me coming, turned towards me, and stoically awaited my arrival.
“Skipper,” I ranted, “what is going on here?”
“ Emile“, he pronounced looking old and gray in the stadium lights, “I just made a decision on
the starting offensive guard. I apologize for not telling you sooner, but, with all that has been going on, I just remembered that the boys grandparents are in the stands tonight, and I owe that kid. He comes to every practice, he stays after to work-out, and he never asks for anything: no special favors, or demands. And, by God, he will play today and get the job done, I have faith in him.
I looked at Skipper in disbelief, shaking my head back and forth- No.
“Coach Sanchez, “ he exploded, “he has to believe that all the work he has done the past four years has been for something. I spoke with his mother this week…Coach, I will not let him, his mother, or his grandparents down. He needs to know I trust him…. Hes one of my Boys.” The last two statements he roared with great strength.
The voice inside my head screamed, “ Weve lost Aussie, Doug, and now our starting offensive guard, are we trying to lose?”
But, before I could speak I realized Skipper had not called me “ Coach Sanchez” but a handful of times since I had come to the school last year. And, he had only used my true first name but once before. His use of both of them now, got my attention, and my understanding as to who was in charge and what had been decided. I had been brought up short in my surprise and anger.
I heard the crowd before I realized we had just run our first play from scrimmage. I had run a lead play up the middle of the offensive line, right behind my new guard. And, I had played football long enough to realize we had done something well for the crowd to cheer like that. I looked back over at Skipper in his game clothes, with his Khaki dress pants, button up white shirt with tie, and his fedora hat. His grin was poised, but prize winning as he noticed me looking at him.
“Muley, he exclaimed in jubilation, in a more humorous voice” we just gained six yards running behind Nacho, lets try this next time to get at least four more for a first down- Call the next play Coach, we cant win without you. Let„s get this done, Muley!”
Surprised as I was, I knew Skipper had made up his mind, and I had an offense to run. Chapter Thirty Two The Pain ****
Behind Hennessy s hand-offs and Nachos blocking, we played El Toro to a draw until the forth quarter. With the remaining four minutes left to play in the forth quarter Toro went ahead by three points with a field goal at our twenty-five yard line. I found myself looking for excuses for the loss of this game even before it was over. I was upset with Skippers decisions. At the time I wanted to blame him, but I still had a game to call, and I needed to believe we could win. In practice, I had watched Mike“The Vise” Vacek, the other line backer besides Meintz, playing around in practice throwing the football, and doing it well. We had been running the dive and option all night, and I knew the defense would come hard at either side of the line if we went at it strong with what would look like a sweep or pitch. I decided to risk it. After we recovered the ball on about our twenty-seventh yard line, I called for our last timeout with Ski looking at me apprehensively. The line took a knee on the field, while the backs ran over to us to discuss the next three plays. Skipper walked over along with the rest of the coaches to hear my offensive plan. I knew he could over ride me if he felt it was necessary, but he never had. I told them to ran the pitch to the left side on the first play, and then I wanted to run the pitch to the right side, but I wanted Vacek, in as the runing back, to run a little deeper, and chunk that ball as far as he could to our right side wide receiver and tight end headed down field on a T.D. route.“ Does everyone understand?“ I enquired hastily.
All the sweaty and dirty heads nodded their understanding, and looking back into their trusting eyes, I knew we could do it. Hennessy, with a face full of dirt, and a no-quit attitude was shaking his head purposefully. Their faith had energized me. As they prepared to run out onto the field, Skipper spoke: “ Tell Nacho to pull and seal the end around the tackle. Tell him, he has any wrong colored jersey, and Hennessy,” Skipper added, “ tell him Skipper knows he can do it.”
Hennessy looked at Skipper, smiled and said: “ Aye, Aye Skipper!” around his rubber mouth piece. Then, he turned around and headed back to the battle field with his bruised lieutenants, the running backs, following in his wake
It felt right. I knew we could do it. The first pitch from scrimmage took us out to the left hash with a gain of four yards. Not enough to stop the clock for a first down, but good enough to worry the opposition. We lined up for our second play on the left hash. I found myself holding my breathe, and looking around me, I was not alone. I breathed out slowly, took a deep breathe, and, with the snap of the ball, we were off.
Sean took the snap, stepped back, pivoted, and opened up for the pitch. Vacek was already running deep to the right, while Mientz, in the fullback position, sealed the defensive end with a type of sting block. By the time the ball was pitched, and caught by Vacek, he looked like a crumb being invaded by ants at a picnic, with the corner and linebacker on the way. Within my head, time slowed down and I had the ability to watch the play develop. I watched in disbelief as the defensive corner froze for a moment, and then came like a bolt of lightening at Vacek. The feeling that all would be alright ended right there with my stomach in knots.
I felt my feet turn towards the defender, and my body become ridged as if I, myself, could take the field and block him. It was at about this point that I saw the our Nacho. I do not know where he came from, I do not know where he was the second before, all I know was he was there and he was the only thing between Vacek and the corner.
If Vacek had not stepped up and behind Nacho, I do not believe Nacho would have made contact, but contact he did. It was as if the corner had hit a slow moving freight train, one that was heavily loaded yet built for power. Upon contact, the only thing that corner hit was the ground. When my eyes left the scene of the derailed defender, Vacek had already launched his pass. It was a thing of beauty in my slow motion world. We had two receivers down field to the play side, and only one defender, who was just fast enough to catch the Clydesdale at tight end, but not our wide receiver. “Juking“ Jones had step out of position from the backfield, and taken the wide receiver spot, with his sure-fired hands. The bomb of a pass was caught, on their eight yard line and delivered to the touch line along with six points. My slow motion vision ended on the reception of the pass, and my hearing returned along with pats on the back from Holes and Harry. By the time we had lined up and kicked the extra point, we had fourteen seconds left to play. I looked over at Skipper, expecting to see his smiling face beaming at me. This expectation was short lived. When I looked for him, I found him sitting on the bench, scrunched over, holding his side. I left the game in Skis defensive hands and went over to Skipper. When he saw me, he motioned me over and asked me to help him to the field house. As we walked off the sidelines toward the field house, people began calling out to Skipper and congratulating him. He continued to hold onto me, but held himself a little straighter, forced himself to smile and wave through the pain.
By the time we got to the office, the game was over and the boys were filing into the locker room with joyous enthusiasm. I was at once so proud of them, and yet worried about Skipper: rather a bitter-sweet moment.
Even though all the boys were excited, there was one face that radiated more then any of the others. Nacho Rios walked by the other boys receiving pats and good natured punches, and made his way to Skippers office. Skipper had gone in there to rest up.
Nacho stopped and knocked on the door. Skipper gingerly opened the door, looked at Nacho, smiled and opened his arms. They hugged as only men can hug, with strength and brotherly emotion. Both of them had tears in there eyes, and I can still hear Skipper say, “ I am so Proud of You, I knew You could do it!”
In that moment I knew why Skipper had done it. I would not forget this lesson. I now knew why all these Boys - no, Men- reached out to him; they sought his affirmation that they were good men, and that he was still proud of them. Each time he greeted them, with a smile, a wave and a kind word they felt vindicated; he had not forgotten them, and still loved them. I knew how they felt, I felt the same way.****
Skipper s pain had increased after all the boys had gone. He was not getting any relief, and needed to the urinate, but could not. Luckily Doc. Watson had been at the game, and had stayed to help Skipper gain some relief and medical help for the pain. Doc also informed him he needed to get to Houston as soon as possible: tonight would not be soon enough. Skipper sent the other coaches home. He told Ski, he needed to talk with me, and therefore he wanted me to drive him to Houston. Ski took this news sullenly like a small spoiled child who had been told no, but Skipper took pains to let him know how proud he was of the defense and the on-sides kick we had recovered to start the game. With a hand on Skis shoulder and another shaking his hand, the eye contact and touch was enough to help Ski through this disappointing moment. Killer Bob was also given the task of running the Saturday morning film and stretches here at the field house. Skipper left Holes in charge of cleaning up and picking up after the game while Harry was to work on the film exchange with whoever won the game between out next play-off opponent.
I was both surprised and pleased to be given the assignment of driving Skipper to Houston. Doc Woods had recommended Houston over San Antonio, what with the emerging medical center, therefore we decided to go there. I decided to take my car so that Skipper did not need to step up into his truck and increase his pain. I left Doc Woods with Skipper as I ran off to gas up, and I let Anne know where I was going, I did not want her to worry.
Chapter Thirty Three
The pain which had taken hold of Skipper s back, thighs and abdomen was, at first, keeping him from getting comfortable on the way to Houston. The hour was late, and I knew we were headed for the emergency room, but the distance between feelings-the satisfying win, and Skippers pains-were driving me a little crazy. I could not feel happy, but I could not feel depressed either. I just sat and drove in a floating neutral state.
Before we left, Doc Woods had given Skipper some pills for pain. After taking them, Skipper, rode in a semi-conscious state. He moved to get comfortable, but he did not seem to be in as much pain. This made the driving bearable, without him feeling the pain, the urgency seemed less pressing. My mind wondered, back through the first meeting with Skipper and the coaches. I was so proud of what we had done; tonight and every Friday night. I could not wait to have my own team, and be the head coach. I felt I had proven myself on the football field, but now I needed to prove myself molding my own team. I had had the luxury of the team already existing with a leader intact who knew them and loved them. I wanted my turn.
Because it was dark I could not enjoy the scenery on the way to Houston, therefore, I had to roll down the window and keep the cool air on my face to stay awake. I was reliving the game in my mind when I was startled to hear a voice addressing me.
“ Muley”, He said, “ Could you roll up the darn window a bit, Im cold!”
I agreed quickly. He was in no mood to discuss my sleepiness.
After a bit, he stated, “ I was with the First Marine Division in Korea. Now, that was cold.” I just sat there and listened, he was in a mood to talk.
“ I was at the Chosin Reservoir- one of the“Frozen Chosin”- I did not think then, I would make
it home alive. I did not think any of us would make it home. It was damn cold! ”
“All gave some, some gave all.”….that was one of those saying from Korea, you know?” “ I gave some……”
After a moment he continued.
“The dead bodies were loaded like cord wood onto trucks, and there were a lot of bodies- a lot
“ I looked up from pushing one of those trucks, and my eyes met the eyes of the man next too me. It took me a minute, but I realized it was General Puller- he was a colonel then. I could not believe it, General “Chesty” Puller was right beside me doing the grunt work with me. In the semi-darkness, I could just make out his eyes as he moved beside me, not scared, but pensive as if the scene around him might change at any time. He had to be ready to take care of us, at any time. He wasnt worried about his own health- if that was the case, he could have stayed in his own jeep and out of the snow- no, his worry was for all of his boys he had brought to the Chosin Reservoir.
Skipper looked like a tired old man as he talked. The pills made him relax and let his mind unwind from the coiled up pain that had been hissing for some time in his abdomen.
A light from a store near the highway flashed by as Skipper continued.
“ I believed that man loved us, and he would suffer the same fate as us. He was honest and brave and I would follow him anywhere.” There was another short pause as if Skipper was thinking.
I felt the hypnotic power of the dark freeway, as my eyes watched the white lines pass by, blurring into one continuous white ribbon, even with the Coachs voice providing breaks from this numbing trance. I pulled my tired mind back to Skippers words when he broke the quiet again.
“Thats the type of man I wanted to be. I wanted to lead bravely, and honorable sharing whatever fate my men would have. I believe the General loved us.”
Skippers voice had begin to crack, and emotion choked his words.
“Muley, I love those boys…my Boys. I am worried I may not be there for them when they need me. You got to love them for me , Muley. You may be young, but you have that leadership quality that inspires, all you need to know is… they dont care how many games you win, just how much you love them and care for them. When all is said and done, the only thing that matters in the hearts of those boys is knowing that we loved them, we respected them, and we were honest with them.”
“But“, we have a chance to go all the way in the state playoffs this year. We have the chance to give them the best of both worlds: our love and a state victory. I owe them this chance. I owe the whole town this chance. They have waited patiently on me the past twenty years.”
“And Muley“, he rasped through emotion, “Muley, you are going to help me bring this title home to Rocin whether I am on that sideline or not!”
I was wide awake now. I wanted to say to him,” Skipper, you will be fine!”, but I knew from his statement, he must have known more then I did about the state of his health.
There was a stillness within the car, that was not from the late night or the quality of the ride. Skipper, looking towards my face, reached out his left hand and placed it on my shoulder.
He spoke these last words with watery blue eyes.
“I need you Muley...the Boys need you. I know you can do it.”
A confession of trust had just been handed to me, as it had been handed down to each of his players whenever the going got tough; as it had been handed down to him in the Chosen Reservoir. He believed in me; he trusted me.
I was silent. I just nodded my head. There was nothing to say. Skipper had summed up what he needed, and I understood. He did not need any false utterances of “things will be alright”, and such. I was numb from the game, Skippers problem, the late night and the drive, but I felt the emotion start to take hold of me, and so must have Skipper.
“Muley“, he muttered, “if I dont stop blabbering now, I will probable start crying.”
And with that he turned over, covered himself with a blanket we had kept at the field house for emergencies, or Henrys naps, and seemed to go to sleep.
The rest of the ride I drove in silence with me thoughts. The numbness was gone, and I rode with fears and thoughts of the future: the boys, the town, and Skippers.
We made it to Houston by 1:00am, and into the emergency room at Methodist Hospital. Skipper was starting to feel some pain as the pills he had taken were wearing off, so they gave him some new pain medication, and off he went to sleep again. But, before he went into a deep sleep, he told me to go home, and if I was too tired, to sleep in that chair in the corner, and go home in the morning.
I choose to go home. I made sure Skipper was alright, and knowing that we had films in the morning and Ski would need my help to lead it, I wanted to be there early enough to help. I drove home with the window rolled down all the way, and the cold air giving me an ear ache which helped irritate me into wakefulness. The AM radio keep me up with static country music which I sang with when I knew the song. I followed all the road directions, but once again I was not sure how I made it home. The car made the turns and the stops without pauses or comments.
My house was down the street from the high school and stadium, and as I drove down the street I noticed the lights on at the stadium and some movement in the bleachers. I just wanted to go home, but I could not, my duty was not through yet. I turned around, and cursing the other coaches for neglecting their duties, drove back toward the stadium and parked.
After unlocking the outside entrance into the stadium, I entered and made my way up the stands to the scouting booth where the lights were located. I had not gone very far when I noticed a figure up high in the stands. The figure in question was a man, surrounded by little brown bottles placed neatly on the bench in front of him. I was not sure, but the mirror glasses were a clue to the mans identity.
I walked towards him slowly, I do not know what I anticipated, but I was unsure of my welcome since I was inheriting the leadership position from Skipper. When he looked towards me, I did not think of his name as Ski, but as Killer Bob. He stared at me pug-ugly. I was glad I could not see his eyes, as I am sure my death was being appraised in them. I sat down, staring at him, and waited. The numbness was partially gone, replaced by a caution.
“Why the hell are you here,” he started, “ and what is going on with Skipper?” I answered his question about Skipper first: what little I had to tell.
Killer Bob kept staring at me through those mirror glasses. I just left him in silence, waiting for his response. I was too tired to try anyways.
He took another swig from a bottle that had been by his feet in the bleachers.
“ I hate you Muley, you are a son-of-a-bitch. You come in here pretty as you please, and took over my job. I am sick to death of your offensive genius, and boy-scout attitude.”
“Before you came“, he ranted, “when Skipper retired I was next in line to take over the team. But, you come in here and took over as if youve earned it. I hate you.”
The heat from Killer Bob was building as I sat there, isolated from those I loved in an empty stadium. But Ski was not through.
“ You came here, made friends, got married, and have even taken Skipper away from me.” He spouted off at me.
And, with that he threw the bottle at me. It was an off balance throw, and more of a gesture then a pitch, but I was feeling like it was time to go. I started to get up, but Ski stopped me with his words.
“I am sorry, Muley”, he took off his glasses and continued, “I am so gawd-damned sorry!” And he began to cry. I was uncomfortable with his drunken tears, but made no effort to leave.
“ Muley, did you know Skipper was my high school coach?”, he asked,” I joined the Army after high school and went to Vietnam. I thought it was going to be an adventure, we would win every battle and no one would get hurt. I saw people: men, women, and even children killed, maimed, and burned. I was a medic, and I couldnt handle it. I began to drink myself to sleep, and even then the night mares followed me into my sleep. Faces of friends mixed with villagers burned, and killed called to me to for help.”
Ski was finally human- the sunglasses were off-a scared little boy, who was running from his dreams.
“ I could not help them,” he acknowledged with tears streaming down, “ I couldnt even help myself. I drank and smoked whatever I could to help me forget.
Ski calmed down, and so did his words as he continued.
“When I got my discharge, I did not know what to do, where to go. I was lost in my mind and soul. There was a blister there that hurt whenever I tried to move one way or another. Too much effort made the blister open and blinded me with pain. The only way to find peace was through dope.”
I could not believe this was Killer Bob. Killer Bob, who I had only see drink orange juice, and milk. I was more then a little surprised.
“Yeah, I was a doper,” he declared, “ and I was sinking fast. That is until this man came back into my life, put me up in his house, watched over me through withdrawals, and helped pay for the rest of my college. That man was Skipper, and I have a debt I can never repay. I love him.
With that Ski quickly stood up, and almost fell. He caught his balance just as quickly, and looked at me.
“ I am sorry Muley, youre the Boss now, …that is until Skipper gets back. I will work for you because of Skipper; I dont agree with all his decision, but I owe him and I will do whatever he needs me to do.”
I nodded my head in agreement. Fair enough, I thought.
“Now“, he announced, “ lets get some sleep, we have some game to win.”
At that crack of time, Killer Bob looked almost human, and my fear of him started to abate. He was just another human being who had needed someone to care enough to believe in him. Skipper did, and I did too.
“I dont hate you Muley,” he started seriously, “ so…if you would be kind enough to help me down from the bleachers, and into the coaches office so I could sleep some of this off , and be ready for our meeting tomorrow, I would appreciate it.”
We both smiled. Ski had made a stab at healing our relationship. Whether it was only because of Skipper or not, we now shared common ground, and that is enough to start a friendship. I helped him down and into the coaches office. I turned the lights off and I headed home to my soft warm bed and Anne. Two hours or more of sleep would be a welcome reprieve from this long and emotion filled night I had just had.
I gave the boys off on Thursday, and we just practiced during the athletic period, before the playoff game with Carter High. They were a strong team with a great passing game for that period of high school football. The four of us coaches got into Holes station wagon, and rode into Houston to check on Skipper.
He was in a double room divided by a curtain, but so far, he had not had to share the room with anyone. When we got there he was sitting up in bed reading the daily sporting news. His face was newly clean shaven, and his granny glasses rode precariously on the tip of his nose. Though he had taken the time to groom, his color was almost a gray-white, and he looked a little shrunken. I was not sure what test had been done on him since his arrival last Saturday morning. Doc Woods stopped by on Monday afternoon to talk with all of us coaches after practice. He had been in touch with Skippers doctors in Houston, and they had confirmed his belief that it was cancer. Skipper was in trouble.
Skipper smiled when he saw us, and teased us about slacking off when we had to play Carter tomorrow. Holes joined in the teasing, and blasted Skipper for staying in a immaculately clean hotel with room service when we were all out there working outdoors in the cool weather. It was nice to see everyone laughing. Holes and Harry went out to get some more reading materials for Skipper, and Ski and I stayed.
The Boss was giving us some pointers about the game and his offensive line, when a doctor came in. We all could see Skipper was getting tired, and losing interest in the conversation a little before that, and the doctor suggested we let him rest. Skipper did not put up much of a fight, so we went outside with the doctor.
He was a young man, a bit older then Harry, and we started talking football. He was Skipper s doctor. He and Skipper must have spent some time talking because he was aware that Rocin was in the playoffs and how much it meant to the town of Rocin.
After the small talk about football, he turned serious. He asked if any of us were family. I looked at Ski, and he at me. Finally, Ski shook his head yes, and his family waited expectantly.
This doctor did not question us again about our genealogy. He nodded. He must have had some experience at this sort of thing, because he did not flinch as he proceeded to give us the news on Skipper„s health. He looked right at us and made this statement:
“ Coach OBryan has an advanced state of prostate cancer. I do not know how long he has to live. He is aware of this, and is making plans accordingly. You two as family members may want to help him. I am sorry for your family.”
He left us, and we just stood together alone in our own thoughts. I wanted to cry.
After all these years, when his hopes for victory would come true he was going to die. I felt as if a fist had hit me square in the chest. But, I know I was not alone, tears had come to Skis eyes as he tried to erase them existence by forcible wiping them away.
Harry and Holes joined us, and saw right away there was a problem. We told them what we had heard. Harry just looked down and away, Holes reached over and smacked the wall. I knew how they both felt.
Before we left the hospital, that afternoon, I went back into the room to say goodbye to Skipper. He was awake, and just lying there in the semi-darkness.
“Well Muley, I guess you heard?”
I just nodded. Words would not come.
“ I am making all the arrangements , so you folks do not need to worry about that.”
Again I nodded, and looked at him through blurry eyes.
There was a silence between us for some time as we both contemplated life and death. I am sure we were thinking much the same thoughts as Skipper finally turned his face towards me, and fixing me with a penetrating stare asked: “ Do you believe there is a God?”
It was a funny type of question coming from a man who I knew to be a man of God, but I knew the correct answer. He was looking for reassurance, and if that was all he needed, I could darn well give it too him.
But, before I could speak, he spoke again:” Do you think He really cares whether I am a Catholic or a Protestant?”
I spoke softly fearing my voice would give away my emotions, “ Skipper, I said, I truly believe there is a God and a heaven, and based on the way you have loved and nurtured His creations here on earth, I am of the belief you will have made the “A” team when you finally get up there.”
He smiled at me, and gave a soft, throaty kind of chuckle.
“Skipper”, I started, “ is there anyone I can send over to see you?”
I was really asking about ministers or last rites, and Skipper knew it.
A generous smile broke across his face. “You know Muley, I use to be Catholic, I wont be Baptist, therefore I may be Lutheran by default.” There was a pause while I figured out this was a joke.
Skipper started again. “ Ask them all to come, this way I have covered all my bases. One of them has to have a good word to put in about me.”
Again silence took over.
“You know, if I lean forward enough, I can look out the window and see that blue sky. Because of that, I know there is a God and He is good. I lived through Korea, when others didnt. I found a job and came to understand my mission in a town that I proudly call home.
“That mission wasnt winning the state play-offs,” he informed me, “ it was watching my Boys grow up to be good men. And, they are, you are.”
Skipper leaned back in his hospitable bed to make himself more comfortable, after having sat up painfully to look at the sky out the window.
“I have spent some time reading a good book here in Houston, and it may sound sorta funny, but, I guess, it is my time to decrease, and your time increase. Thats part of our job Muley. We have to teach the next generation what it is to be men, and then, they must grow older and wiser and teach the next. You knew what I mean?”
I did. I also seemed to recall that the semi-quote on increasing was from the words of John the Baptist words about Jesus- but I also knew I was no Jesus.
We were out of time, and I knew all of us coaches had to leave soon, the others were waiting. I did not know how to end this intimate meeting between us. Skipper did.
“Muley, his voice becoming emotionally hoarse,” Get the team there. Take my Boys all the way.”
With a pain in my throat the size of Harrys bicep, I responded,” Aye, Aye, Skipper.”
Skippers eyes brimmed with tears, and a smile spread across his face as we both remembered our first meeting and my words about this type of affirmation.
There was nothing more to be said. We just nodded at each other. I wanted to hug him, tell him how much I had learned from him, and come to love him, but I was frozen with a deep uncertain feeling. Would he reject me?
I started to leave, almost made it through the door, and made a decision. I turned back, walked over too the bed and took his hand.
I whispered, “ I love you Skipper.”
He grabbed my hand and pulled me into an embrace, “ I love you too, Muley”, he choked through a hoarse whisper. As he released me, he reassured me he was still in charge by the bravado power in his voice.
“ Now, get the hell out of here, you have a game to prepare for tomorrow.”
That was the last time I saw Skipper. I could barely make myself look into the coffin and see him laying there in his gray suit and red bow tie, with the sun-faded Notre Dame cap resting by his head at the funeral home. There is something final about using the word “dead”. He has “passed”, “departed“, “left us”, these word seem to suggest a temporary separation; his death did not feel real, or final. Something of us lives on in others once we have pasted through this life. If we are lucky, the death of those we respect and love places a higher burden on those of us who remain; the burden is light, yet severe in its requirements:“I have come to serve, not to be served.” It was now my turn. Chapter Thirty Four Faith ****
The coaches had returned form the hospital late on Thursday night. We had talked openly of our sorrow when we first left the hospital, but had journeyed west in selfish anguish on that way back from Houston. We all left Holes station wagon at the field house and dispersed to find our own waiting vehicles in the crushed parking lot. The light from the field house, surrounded by the encroaching darkness, was a sad reminder of how we all felt; empty and hollow, with just enough energy left to get home.
As I made my way to my car, Holes drove up on his way out of the parking lot, and made a tentative suggestion.
“Muley, how about we meet early in the morning, about 6:30, here at the field house, to say a decaed of the rosary for Skipper?”
I liked the idea, both for Skippers soul, and for any action, on my part, I thought could help Skipper.
“Thats a great idea, Holes.” I looked at him and smiled. “ Youre not so bad when you put your mind to it.” I was in the process of beginning a laugh, when he said.
“ I love him too, Muley.” That stopped my laughter before it had left my mouth. And, he drove off in a gentle, slow acceleration of a man in deep mourning.
When I got home, Anne told me that Ma Koreneke had called and I was to call her no matter what time I got home. I called.
I told her the news and how Skipper had looked when we saw him that night. She sounded sorrowful for Skipper, but not willing to give up yet.
I told her of my meeting with Holes at the field house to say the rosary. She told me she would try and make it.
I made the six thirty meeting with Holes, surprised to find Ski there also. He nodded at me as I came in and sat down opposite him. Holes had been using the bathroom, and came out shaking his hands to throw off the water that had beaded up from his hand washing.
I saw Ski take out his rosary, and followed suit, taking mine out, which was contained in a small leather bag. The rosary was the only thing of my fathers that I owned. It had been in our family a long time, my Abuela had told me, and I looked upon it with a sense of family pride.
Holes lead us in the prayers, while Ski lead us to our knees.
As my fingers traversed the worn brown beads, I perceived a sense of tranquility and comfort, both for Skipper and, selfishly, for myself. I was doing something for him.
Harry appeared early that morning in the coaches„ office, but since he was not Catholic, no one had thought to invite him to our prayer session. He saw us praying, and without interrupting us, went back out the door shutting it quietly while we continued our Hail, Mary„s.
He reappeared a couple of minutes later with four towels, folding each one in half, and half again. Then he put one towel in front of each of us praying on our knees. He also putt one on the floor between Ski and Holes, and joined us on our knees. It was then that I realized the towels were for all of us to kneel on to keep our knees from aching.
Harry did not try to say or mumble the prayers, he kneeled there quietly, with his eyes closed praying with us in spirit. This man was made up of more then just show; there was more to Harry then met the eye.
I had closed my eyes at one point to devout myself to Gods will for Skipper, and not my own, when I heard the door open. I was not too surprised to see Ma Koreneke come in, I was surprised to see the office fill up our Boys: Hennessy, Nacho, Vacek, Aussie, Whale and Clydesdale. The thing that got to me the most were the non-Catholics who joined us such as: Johnny Steptoe, Mentz, Hog Curtis, and even Doug Wohl who had been suspended for two games earlier in the season. Ma had told them about it this morning, and they had come to join us on their knees to pray.
I am glad Holes was leading prayers because by this time, I was too moved to speak.
Who would have ever thought, the country would remove teachers and players from praying together, and for each other.
Dwight D. Eisenhower High School, located west of San Antonio, had a lot in common with its name sake: they were well coached and their coach was called the General. They were next on our radar screen after the victory over Carter High School.
We had won the play-off game against Carter that past Friday, and we were now officially in the run for the state title. Carter High had lost a player two weeks before we played in a traffic accident that had killed him and his girlfriend in a head on collision. The surviving players had thoughts of winning the state play-offs for the two students from their school. We were playing for Skipper; both worthy causes but someone had to lose.
Their team tried too hard, and we took advantage of their mistakes: fumbles, bobbles, and miss-ques. The game was a lopsided victory fro us with tears on both sides being openly shed by fans and players alike.
After our win against Carter, I ran errands that Saturday morning after the team meeting and films. Everywhere I went people were asking about Skipper. I had never heard so many nice things said about a person. Karl Schmidt, the butcher, told me how Skipper had helped his son through a tough time. Joey Jones, one of the mail room clerks, spoke about the loss of his father and what Skipper meant to him. This was just the beginning of the amount praise we received on Skipper„s behalf. I just smiled, nodded, and listened. I began to wonder what people would think of me later in life; how would I be remembered?
News of Skipper s death reached the town of Rocin after our victory against “the General“ and Ike High School. The whole town went into mourning that Monday afternoon. Men and women took to wearing black arm bands as they carried on with their daily lives. Even the team had a black arm band sewn onto their jerseys to show other teams their deep feeling of loss for their beloved coach.
Holes and Harry clinched and cried when they heard the news from Doc Woods prior to the towns own informant. I watched Ski, knowing how deep his feelings were for Skipper, but his tears were not for public consumption. He would drown his tears in his own good time.
The coaches gathered the team together to let then know of Coach O Bryans death. With youthful enthusiasm, and a lack of many of the Boys to have experienced the intimacy of close grief, their sorrow was much more animated then I would have expected. Many sought out others to show them how to react, others, with the reactionary and violent minds of youthful football players, had a tendency for the need of a physical relief.
Holes stepped up to the center of the team, after the initial hurt had broken upon them. He had in his hand a piece of well-worn typing paper, that seemed to draw his attention. Much of the noise seemed to abate as he cleared his throat, and waited for the rest of the grieving commotion to cease.
“ I found this on Skippers desk the other day as I was looking for a scouting report on the defensive line for the Longhorns. I found this piece of paper laying on top of the report, as if it was part of the report he had wanted to share with you if we got this far in the play-offs. I would like to read it. It is from a poem or saying written by General Douglas MacAurther, who was in charge of the Pacific Theater during World War II. It is called, „Build Me A Son„- I think…..?”
“ Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak, and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid; one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat, and humble and gentle in victory.Build me a son whose wishes will not take the place of deeds; a son who will know Thee-and that to know himself is the foundation stone of knowledge.
Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenge. Here let him learn to stand up in the storm; here let him learn compassion for those who are in jail.
Build me a son whose heart will be clear, whose goal will be high, a son who will, master himself before he seeks to master other men, one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past.
And after all these things are his, add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously. Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom and the meekness of true strength.Then I, his father, will dare to whisper, „I have not lived in vain„.”
How Holes read this without breaking down, I do not know? His acting abilities came in handy that day, as he paused and enunciated each word with the proper amount of delicacy. Holes had just summed up our job in that MacArthurs prayer. He had just summed up what Skipper had tried to do. Each one of those Boys was our son, to be molded and shaped by us, until they could go off on their own, and, one day, take our place as the molder and shaper of others.****
Skipper and his coffin were placed onto a platform at the Rocin High School football field the day before his burial. The ceremonies, for that is what they were, began with the Irish Society of Rocins lone piper taking the field in a placid silence. I have heard Highland bagpipers before, but on this occasion it reached an emotional depth I have never encountered. The sound of“ Amazing Grace” held the stadium as if everyone there was hypnotized awaiting a sound to make them wake up . No sound interrupted the harsh , yet haunting melodies of the lone piper. The hair on my neck stood up, and I felt a tingle run up my spine and flood my head with emotion. Annes presence and her hand helped me hold onto my composure. She was my rock, and I was lucky- no blessed- to have her, especially at this moment in time.
It seemed at the time like each Christian denomination s leader had an opportunity to speak at Skipper funeral. Most of the speakers were seated on the raised wooden platform that held up Skippers magnificent walnut casket. Each one spoke on the substance of life after death, and how Skipper was in Heaven or Purgatory, shining like the sun, and feeling no earthly pain. I , still selfishly, felt earthly pain at my loss of Skipper. I was not alone.
The one speaker who reached out and struck me with his words in my reprieve, was Reverend Hope of the First Baptist Church of Rocin. He may have lost the river race, but he was out distancing the other speakers as my mind begin to register his words.
“ You young men”, speaking to the players, and perhaps others “ do not go forth from this funeral of your beloved and treasured coach, with the pain so intense in your heart that you fell the need to make it emanate into something more tangible. Do not harm or mark yourself to show your grievous pain, but let Your Life be a testament for what he has done for You. “
That struck home with me. As I stood to sing the ending song, I kept repeating those words of Rev. Hope over and over in my head...Your Life be a testament for what he has done for You!, as I watched the dormant casket with expectant eyes.
No matter where I am, or what I am doing, the song, Taps, is a reminder of those who have gone before us. I took Annes hand after the sad song, and watched Holes approach Skippers casket and place an American flag over it on the now emptied platform. It was if they were all alone.
This was not the first chance each of the coaches got to spend a few moments alone with Skipper after his death. There was a tradition of sitting up with the dead in this country many years ago.
The day Skippers body had returned to Rocin in the ambulance, all four of us coaches got together and bought his casket at the Hennessy Funeral Home. We had not looked into how much money Skipper had in his back account, this casket was a parting gift from all of us in tribute to him and what he had done for us. We also agreed to take turns keeping Skipper company through the night. Ski volunteered for the first shift starting at four o„clock pm, then Harry, Holes and myself took our turn every fourth hour. I prayed throughout my time on duty for Skipper„s soul, and got to see the sunrise with Skipper one more time.
The night of the stadium funeral as I was entering, I had seen Mrs. Koreneke, with tears in her eyes and the ever present cigarette in her hand, headed towards her seat. She saw me watching her, and waved a soft slow motion hand towards me in recognition. Later, as I was leaving she came over and gave me a big hug, and a brushed kiss me on my face. She held onto my shoulders, looked me right in my teary eyes and stated:“Muley, Skipper loved you so much. He told Lester , my husband, how proud he was of you.
How much you had grown, and how happy he was for you and Anne. “
“And Muley”, she intoned, “ he knows you can win that game against Marshall, and so do I.” With a quick second hug she and Lester were gone. I was left with the husky smell of
I have attended other funerals, I have heard many speeches shared, but that moment with the bagpiper has stayed with me all these years: watching the casket, hoping for change, yet not expecting one. I cannot forget, and nor do I wish too.
Chapter Thirty Five
Marshall High School was located in Roughstock, Texas. A town associated with horses, cows, and oil. The only true difference between the two schools in the states football playoffs, was Skippers spirit. A black stripe had been painted around the middle of all the school buses which took part on our journey north to play in Austin.
Even the supporters cars had black ribbons, or black electrical tape affixed to their antennas. It was a somber , serious spirit that drove north with us. Watching the cars and trucks in my rearview mirror tucked in behind the buses in a long line, curving and moving to adjust to the road, made me feel superior as I drove the lead bus pointing the way. Each coach drove a bus, and there was no time to share emotions or game strategy as we drove- no cell phones. Ski and I drove the football team while Holes drove the band. As usual, Handsome Harry took the drill team and cheerleaders, but not so much to look at the young women, but to enjoy the companionship of the mothers chaperoning their daughters on the way to the game and back. Things were slowly returning to normal. Harrys passion for the opposite sex had not been abated, or satiated with Skippers death, or even the single mother from Cloverville. It was good to know some things had not changed.
I was nervous about Marshall. They were a worthy opponent, with a grisly, tough talking World War II Army veteran called “Hap” Horseman in charge. Their offense line was a breed apart that thrived on contact- punishing physical contact. The only contact their quarterback had had all season with their opponents, was when he tripped in a hole on a cow pasture of a football field that they were playing on and landed on top of the other teams mascot. At least, thats what I had been told.
We had not been able to get much film on Marshall from the other schools around the state, but I had talked with enough coaches who lead me to understand how tough they really were. Based on my information, the two defenses would be evenly matched, the difference would be in our offense verses theirs. We seemed healthy enough with Zippy Zipalac, and Juking Jones at the running back positions, Godzilla Godfrey at fullback, and Aussie quarterbacking the game.
Lupe Lopez was snapping at center, and the left side tackle, Krietz, was his only replacement. Hale had injured his knee in practice, and Nacho Rios was the new body taking his place at the left side guard. The left side end was our signal provider, and we rotated between two brothers known as Hurt and Injured.
The right side was our true “run-to side”, anchored by Hog Curtis at guard, and James “and the giant peach” Jarvis at tackle. Jarvis was an easy-going guy, that was until he got mad. He had been one of Holes projects, one of the few that had really worked out well. Clydesdale was the tight end, and with all three working together, there were not many teams we could not move.
If a problem existed for our team, it was offensive personal. The loss of any one of these players would be a key one for us that night.
As these thoughts went through my mind, I realized I was entering the City of Austin. Grabbing the map and the directions I had written down, I began to look for the streets and exits I would need to get to the stadium. I found the stadium with only one wrong turn.
What a sight it was to see this parade of buses, cars, and trucks turning into a parking lot, making a U turn and heading out the same exit in the opposite direction. A police officer saw the problem as it developed, and jumped out of his car and into traffic to keep us all moving together. As we entered into traffic he waved, and I thought I heard him say, “ Go gettem Rocin!”. It was good to know others from around the state were for us.
The stadium was large by seventies standards holding about 35,000 people. Driving up to the stadium out of the daily rush of big city traffic was much like entering into a church from the busy sidewalk, to the hushed, and silent tombs of a city church. Even the sacred feeling one could get in a church was felt that day as we realized we were finally here for the big game- and Skipper.
All the buses piled in one behind the other to let the team, and the other support groups off. After giving the Boys on my bus their marching orders, I exited the bus about the same time as Holes and Ski. Holes pantomimed as if asking me for some directions, then he started shrugging his shoulders while opening up his hands in a questioning manner, as if asking, what was I thinking? I just shrugged my shoulders back at him.
I had expected a sarcastic comment from Ski, but he just looked at me and gave me a small smile while his eyes remained hidden by those mirrored glasses ensconced on his face. Since the night I had found him in the stands, till the death of Skipper, our relationship had been declared neutral; neither hot nor cold. He asked me questions when necessary, but made no other comment either positive or negative. He let me do my thing, and I appreciated that.
Harry on the other hand was standing outside his bus with his chaperoning groupies. Like a Samson of sorts, but unlike Samson, it was not Handsome Harrys his long hair, but his body. I just could not ever see Harry fat, or lonely.
We trailed the Boys into the spacious dressing room at the large stadium in Austin. Inside the dressing rooms we found immaculate and spacious individual lockers, toilets, and even showers. There was even an area located a ways from the lockers so that a person could sit and think by himselfdefinitely something the Boys would not find at home in Rocin. Each wall surrounding the locker room itself, had a large chalk board centered into the wall, and plenty of chalk so that before the game, and during half-time, individual coaches could go through and work with his group of players.
But, this was not all, around the room were four ice cold water fountains. With these types of connivances, I knew I could get use to this type of coaching accommodations. The players had had lunch on the road, hand made by the mothers and sisters of the town of Rocin. Tamales were being traded for sandwiches. chips for popcorn, but no one traded their brownies. Now the players were cleaning up, and preparing for the pre-game warm up.
The pre-game warm up followed the same procedures as usual. The Boys went out without their shoulder pads and helmets, only their jerseys, and did same slow individual or group stretches. Each group went out together and followed the warm up of their offensive position coach. Holes took the line men with the help of a student teacher who had kindly offered his help after Skippers death. I am sure he hoped to get a job in Rocin after his graduation, but being related to Vice-Principal Smith was bound to help him obtain a position anyways. No matter, his help was greatly appreciated.
This type of warm up was a relaxing way to get the players use to the stadium and get their pre-game jitters out and into a physical realm. The early fans from Rocin who had followed the bus up to Austin, sat in their seats watching the work out and their favorite players. Linemen were busy staying locked in their combative embrace and dance within the five yard line. The quarterbacks and receivers with most of the backs, were working their magic ten or more yards downfield going in the opposite direction of the linemen. A cadence, a snap, a roll out, a sprint, and the dramatic dash and grasp that constitutes a reception that enthralls fans and announcers alike. It was during this time of throwing and receiving, that Ski and I came into contact, he with his receivers and me with the backs. We were watching the Boys go through their rounds at this time of warm up, when Ski cleared his throat and made his announcement.“ Muley, the defense is mine.”
I felt like we had had this conversation many times before in the past eleven days since Skippers burial. Perhaps, I had been so worried about this moment in time, I had dreamed the other times, or fantasized about them in my head. Either way, it was a reality now. I knew what Killer Bob wanted, and I was glad to give it to him. It was one less responsibility I needed today. Before I answered, I looked into the stands, as the wind blew through my mesh baseball cap. In the stands, and near the sidelines I saw Anne. She was dolled up for this game with the bee-hive hairdo and the new dress. I enjoyed this vision a few more moments before I spoke.
“ Ski”, I answered, “ the defense is yours. I will not challenge you or override you on any defense decision you make. Even defensive penalties calls well be yours to make.”
I paused a moment and gathered strength looking at Anne in the bleachers.
“ All I ask, is that you give me the same courtesy on the offensive side of the football.”
I waited for Skis response. I did not have to wait long.
“Fair enough”, he replied, “but we have to win this game for Skipper.”
I nodded my agreement, even as I continued thinking on his statement.
I thought about questioning him whether he meant Skipper or the town of Rocin. But to Killer Bob, they were one and the same. I just nodded my head and watched Aussie, and the Clydesdale, our tight end, connect on a pass across the middle. Dale the Clydesdale was a large- quick on movement, but slow on speed individual- who seemed to catch colds more then he could the ball. Today I watched him and hoped we could use him as a weapon against Roughstock. Any load he could take off our ball carriers would be greatly appreciated.
By this time, Holes had brought the centers down to the quarterbacks and receivers for some ball exchanges from scrimmage. After about ten crisp snaps, we were done. Our time was up on the field, and we had the Boys jog back to our dressing room. Holes and I jogged back together. He brought out his Red Man chewing tobacco, and offered me a chew. This seemed to be a habit between Holes and I. Him offering me the communal pouch before the game, and me accepting. He never asked me to return the favor, or teased me about it. It was just a fact. An act of kindness, or community, that I have always appreciated.
He had been less humorous and more serious as of late. He had more responsibility now that Skipper was gone. But, every now and then a fleck of humor
It was also a time when nobody seemed to mind men chewing and spitting on the sidelines. I took a pinch between my fingers and thumb, placed it in my back cheek, and let that tingle roll out my throat and down my neck. I rolled the foil pouch down, and handed it back to him with the same solemnity as it had been handed to me. Ours eyes met as he took the pouch.
“For Skipper and our Boys, right Muley?”
“Right “, I stated.
At least with Holes attitude you got Skipper and the Boys. Skis love of Skipper seemed to have colored his vision. The Boys did not seem to fit Ski„s alliances; Ski only owed Skipper and he would pay him back by victory against Marshall. Looking back I think it was me whose vision was colored by my resentment of Killer Bob. He was a good coach, and the way he treated his Boys, I knew he had studied Skipper well.
By the time the coaches got into the dressing room, the backs and receivers were putting on their gear while the linemen, who were dressed out already, waited on the benches for the coaches to speak before going out and competing in the state play-offs against Roughstock. I knew I should be the last to talk; I felt my stomach give a nervous heave.
I had just put in that large wad of chewing tobacco with Holes outside, and now I needed to spit. I could not just leave while Ski talked with the Boys to unload this mouth full of brown spittle, and nor could I leave to find a ready spittoon. The players were watching, and I did not want them to think I did not appreciate what Ski was saying. There were enough problems going into the game. I would not drive another wedge between myself and Ski, by leaving during his speech. I began to swallow, a little at a time. Just enough to stop the panic from setting in and drowning in my own juices.
I am not sure what Holes and Ski had said to the Boys as I sat there drowning, all I knew was, I had to get this spittle up and out. It took me a moment to realize Harrys turn had come and gone, with him saying as little as possible. All eyes were focused on me. It was at that moment I knew what I was going to do.
I had seen as I jogged in, our trainers had mistakenly taken one of Marshall s towels with their Longhorn logo. Someone had put it one the ground near the lockers so the players could tread on it before going out and playing. I turned towards that towel, and let out the harriest, nastiest, most variegated sting of tobacco juice anyone had ever seen before. The cord of tobacco juice surged forward with all the players and coaches eyes fixed upon its arching course, and with better luck then aim, landed smack in the middle of the Longhorn logo on the towel. Everyones eyes were affixed to the towel and the brown stain that was spreading to cover all parts of the Longhorn.
Now that my drowning worries were over, I opened my mouth not only to talk but breathe, and let the words take their own journey out of my mouth.
“ We are here today,” I thundered moistly, “ because of the vision of the man we all knew affectionately as Skipper. We are here today because he set this course for you and the town of Rocin. We are almost at the end of this journey. Tonight we are stepping out to play in the state playoffs against a school that has been here many times before. “
I paused. I was going to have to spit again, but I needed to wait fro the right moment. I hoped it would not sound like a drowning man as I spoke again.
“ This is our first trip here, and I hope not our last. But, Skipper would not care if we lost today. All he would have asked is that we participate in this old world, and do our best„to be proud and unbending in defeat, and humble and gentle in victory.
I had starting walking towards the now brown Longhorn towel on the floor. Most eyes were either on me or that towel.
“But doing your best”, I continued, “ we will beat“, I spat directly on top of the Longhorn this time,” Marshall, and any other team that dares gets in our way!”
I was now starting to feel the adrenaline flow through me. All eyes were focused on me. I now commanded the floor.
“I want to win this game for Skipper”, eyes began to water, including my own “ I want his game for Rocin, but most of all, I want it for you and all the players who ever played for Skipper. And if we do not win this game, let us leave our blood, sweat, and tears on that field, knowing we gave our best, and leaving with our heads held high, ready to do battle with any and all comers who should challenge us no matter where we go from here.”
The energy rushed through me, and with it was flecks of spittle. I was on fire. If I had been a minister that day, I would have converted thousands. Instead I had thirty-five hard charging teenage football players standing up and spitting on the Roughstock Longhorn towel as I shouted, “ Now, lets go beat Marshall!”
I was ready to take the field myself, except as I turned around I saw David Sheppard entering the room in his military uniform. He entered tall and proud. I was so surprised, I said nothing until he asked me if he could say a few words and lead the team in prayer. I looked around at Holes and then Ski, each one shaking their head yes in turn. I also nodded, and David nodded back in a way of saying thanks.
“ I was not able to make it back to Rocin to say goodbye to Skipper.”
He began this statement while looking at all the players, but ended looking down. With his next statement his eyes were back up again.
“Today you take out on that field all that Skipper ever taught us.. his Boys. You represent all of us. The folks at the city café, the garage, the nursing home, and the stores. The people at the churches, the schools and even those of us in the army.”
His next statement came with glistening eyes and clinched jaws. “ Now, let us go out and win this one for Skipper!”
Again, the team was ready! All of us, even the coached, primed and ready to go, but we were stopped short by Davids words.
“Let us bow our head and pray.”
I had just bowed my head when I realized Pastor Chuck was suppose to give the pre-game prayer for the team. We had tossed a coin between Father Tom, Pastor Chuck and Brother Hope, before we left Rocin. The Lutherans had won, and Pastor Chuck had been with us since we had unloaded the bus. From the bowed head position, I opened one eye and looked in his direction. He was watching me, and he smiled and gently nodded his acceptance of Davids usurping of his role as prayer leader that night.
After the prayer, I felt we had done all we could to get this team here and ready to play football, now it was in Gods hands.
When I say Gods hands, I do not believe God favors one team over another. I do not believe you ask God to grant you victory over an opponent in a athletic endeavor between too teams. No, you need only to ask God to watch over the two teams and keep them from injury. Let the rest of the mattered be settled on the field of strength and strategy. God has enough on his plate without deciding a football game in Texas. Even Holes quote of Captain Jack Hayes at the wedding reception made note of that.
Chapter Thirty Six The Game ****
We entered the football field like Roman Gladiators preparing for the slaughter. People, stood as we took the field, and cheer as we ran through some group warm-ups in full pads. By the end of the stretches, the coin had already been tossed, and we had won. We had chosen to receive. And receive we did, and the game was on.
Both teams battled up and down the green grid, using up three downs and kicking on the forth. Each teams special teams was getting a work out. Harry was in charge of special teams, and took this part of his job very serious. There was no time for Harry to look up in the stands to check out the pretty ladies, nor did we expect him too.
His not on-the-field special teams personnel stood by him throughout the game waiting to be sent in, therefore he did not need to yell each time for a head count of who was missing. Holes was up in the press box watching for defensive opportunities and offensive tendencies. So far that night, Marshall had played heads up football.
This scoreless battle was waged until the end of the third quarter, when Marshall s little scat back took the pitch from the right, and juked and jived his way thirty plus yards into the end zone. I would have enjoyed the run, if I had been in the stands, but coaching against this candy legged back did not make one happy coach. Killer Bob throw his clip board at the bench in disgust and turned the afternoon blue with many choice words intending to motivate players and gain their attention. It did gain their attention and many others in the stands.
After they had scored the touch down, and kicked the extra point, Harry tried to motivate the kick-off return team, and remind them of their duties. He finished by pointing at the black ribbon sewed on their right jersey sleeve, and the black tape that laid across their helmets that represented Skipper. They got the message as they tore off to take the field.
What we had not prepared for was the on-sides kick they booted to us. They used a signal man up front by the kicker, who stood by the ball and would drop his hands as a signal that the kick-off team should take off now, just prior to the contact between kicker and teed up football. Guadalupe “Lupe” Lopez was on the front line next to the Clydesdale when the ball hammered the ground between them and bounced into the waiting arms of the third slowest person on the team-Lupe. The first person to hit Lupe bounced off, the second was blocked by the Clydesdale and driven into the ground, but the third hit the ball, which sprang free and into the arms of the forth man downfield for Marshall. Mincemeat took him down, no they had enviable field position for their first possession. The Marshall fans went wild, and so did their fake Longhorn mascot with puffs of smoke shooting out of his nostrils.
Harry almost lost his polished veneer, as a vein throbbed to life on his forehead, but he made it. The veneer was already back in place when he realized he had not prepared them for this possibility during practice the week before. He spoke to them calmly, almost gently, accepting of the blame and telling them how to handle it the next time they were on the field. He too had learned a lot from Skipper.
The Longhorns were not able score but brought themselves into field goal range, and made the goal from thirty yards out. This ended the third quarter. Killer Bob had calmed down somewhat, and during the quarter change tried to correct the problems on defense where the Longhorns had hurt us the most.
There was no on-sides kick this time, probable because Harry had taken care of the problem, and put a few hands people, like Hennessy and Mentz, up front in case we needed to handle the ball. Hen Hennessey was placed into the second tier of the kick-off return team, to help recover any short kicks and strengthen the front line for on-sides kicks. He was there because he was as near fearless as anyone I had ever met. If on that night, during that play, he had a short-mans complex, than I wish we could have bottled it and given a cupful to each player.
The ball was kicked off by the Longhorn kicker, who had pouched it higher then normal, as to get more players downfield and onto the kick returner then would normally be there for a regular kickoff. His ball traveled high, and upon landing bounced backwards back towards the second tier of the return team and into Hennesseys area.
A middle wedege had been called by Harry, but on the take off of the ball, and the position it had assumed, the middle wedge became a line, or really two lines. The good thing about these two layered lines were, all the Rocin players picked up the onslaught the Longhorn herd as they stampeded down field. Second and third tier picked up the head hunters, the front tier picked off the slower, beefier heads. Hen took one look at that ball, and knew it was his. His grab the ball and ran, ran right in there amongst the stampeding storm. We, on the sidelines, thought he was a goner. I was already pulling Injury over towards me to call the first offensive play, when out of the scuffle shot a familiar bantam figure- Hen! He broke free of the front line hordes, and dashed towards the goal line, with almost a swagger in his fearless abandon.
If there was anyone going to stop him, it was Marshall s kicker, who was the kick-off teams safety; the last line of defense. I found myself moving with the team in the direction of our goal line, as if we could join in the game from our sidelines and block the safety. Hens nick name changed that day, as he never once tried to fake this player out with amazing grace and balance. He went at him.
I look back and think, perhaps, the Rooster, knew what he was doing, because the safety never had time to break down and get a good aim at him. Rooster, formerly Hen, lowered his upper torso at the waist, and, using his neck and helmet as a whip, stuck the safety right in the face, knocking him backwards and onto his kester, rolling head over heels.
The kicker was not without a competitive streak himself, and therefore stretched out a hand, while on the ground and caught Hennessey around the ankle. The hold did not last long , but slowed him down long enough to allow other members of the Longhorn team to gain ground in their own territory. He was nineteen yards to the Marshalls touch line, with the objective will in mind, when the kickers grab made him stagger and over compensate turning his body around, but still allowing him to move backwards in the direction of the goal.
Hennessy s swagger was gone, replaced by a firm desperation, as he watched the oncoming defenders and his own team mates gain ground on him as he continued to move backwards towards the goal line. The All-State linebacker from Marshall hit him a thunderous blow at the four yard line, that was, thankfully dampened by a hard breathing Doug Wohl, who had run stride for stride with Marshalls best giving him a shoulder block at almost the same instance. With Dougs block, I personally would have married Gloria to Doug, that very minute, as the Rooster flew into the end zone, landing one yard over the goal line in an unceremonious heap. The Rooster had landed, and the situation was well in hand.
There was some helmet and back slapping between the players, and a standing ovation for the Rooster when he coolly jogged off the field. The score now read: ten to six, Marshalls favor. We now had an opportunity to score again on the point after attempt. I decided to go for two. We should have stayed with one. Marshall plugged up the middle, as we thought they would, but then they threw in a scissor type stunt on the front line between tackle and defensive end, which blew the blocking assignments off an off-tackle play. The linebacker joined in and made a meal out of Zippy who never crossed the line of scrimmage. The score remained the same.****
With Rooster s score, we were then four points behind Marshall, and the forth quarter was upon us. We kicked off to Marshall, who then went three downs and out , punting the ball deep into our territory. We returned the favor on the next series giving them the ball on about their twenty-forth yard line. Their next push, brought them to about our thirty yard line, and with help from Aussie, we intercepted a pass, and took it to about mid-field.
Holes had left the press box and had joined us on the sidelines after the interception. He made an effort to let me know the two point try was a good decision. The problem was: we could not win or tie with just a field goal, we had to score a touch down -again. Even as he talked with me, he was roaring encouragement and correcting the problems of his linemen as they were snapping on their helmets, headed out for our next offensive series. That man knew how to encourage his players- and other coaches.
Throughout the season, Aussie and I had used a simple method of moving plays in and out. We exchanged our left ends every play. Aussie had settled down and started to read the defense a little more. He seemed to take charge, and from my observations, had given needed encouragement to others on the field. We hit Clydesdale on second down, across the middle for about ten yards, and he dragged about four of them with him for five more yards, giving us a rarity that night- a first down. With a fake dive from the bone, and a little miss-direction in the back field, we took off on our second first down of this series. I was overjoyed. We were moving the ball.
The next two downs were a fizzle, and a punt was considered by Ski and I, but I decide to go for it instead. We play action-ed in the back field, sending our fullback, Godzilla, up the middle for the fake dive, then out into an empty man coverage, and a well-thrown pass by Aussie. Aussie and Godzilla had become so good at the fake hand-off, that I was not always sure who had the ball, and I had been the one who had called the play. They were that good together. This series was our best so far, and with another first down, we were gaining ground fast.
There is nothing comparable to a momentum changer, and the sweeping enthusiasm that comes with success. We were experiencing success and I was being carried by the feeling of joy both from the crowds energy and that energy which was gathering like a storm on the field. I could feel the emotion, and it felt powerfully rich.
I felt that way even as the new offensive play headed out to the field in the hands of Hurt and into the hands of our Aussie football captain. This play called for a double team between the tackle and guard with a kick out block by our fullback in order to take advantage of their secondary which had back off to prepare for Aussies pass.
I watched the snap with the sure acceptance we would push on and persevere. The snap exploded from the center hips and hit Aussie on target but that was the last exchange that would be on target. Aussie took the snap reserved out to freeze the backside backer, spun around and headed to his right. The full back, Godzilla, headed directly towards the defensive end, while Jonesy counter stepped and headed right himself. The double team between Dale and The Peach caved down the defensive tackle, and gave Godzilla an open sight on the defensive end. He sent the end flying, while Jonsey and Aussie made the lamented exchange. Jonseys hands where in the wrong position as he focused his attention on his up-field vision. The ball made contact and then slipped through his fingers before he even reached the scrimmage line. While a moment ago I had felt invincible, I now felt desperate and unbelieving. Skis defense would have to finish the job we had started.
Killer Bob would not make eye contact with me as he passed me on the sidelines talking to the defensive captain, and I felt his blame swirling around me in unspoken waves. We had to get that ball back, again the feeling of desperation was overwhelming as I struggled mentally for the magic formula that could help us win. As any good coach knows there is no magic formula for winning, unless you call good players, good coaches, sound strategy, and a willingness to give of your time, sweat, and family moments a magic formula. I do not. It is hard and, at times, thankless work that is the formula. I learned it again that night.
The stalwart defense limited Marshalls offense to a total of six yards after making two first downs during that series. Ski was turning red and shouting changes in the defense right up until the snap of the football.
We took over the ball on our own sixteen yard line with 36 seconds left in the forth quarter, after their punt. Time was running out on us. I used our last time out to jog down to Ski and asked a question.
“ Coach, if I get us down to their ten yard line, can you hold them down there for me?
He looked at me, as if I had two heads.
“What the hell are you talking about Muley?“He blurted.
“Ski, I do not have enough time to score, I need the defenses help. Can you do it?”
I waited for Skis response. He took his time, and slowly, nodding his head said:
“What do you need me to do, and for how long?”
Holes had joined us and listened intently as I told them what I was planning. The look on Holes face was one of incredibility.
“No way Muley, we cant just punt the ball on first down! The refs will turn the ball over.”
“Right, I said, “ we punt it, allow them to pick it up and plow them into the turf, striping the ball and scoring. If we do not get it back, Ski has got to stop them deep in their own territory and get it back for us.”
“You are crazy Muley….a damn ..stupid ..quick kick!.” Holes responded in disbelief, and turned away in disgust.
Ski thought it over and agreed with Muley.
“ Lets do it, but Muley, I am gonna hold you responsible either way.”
The decision was all mine, and I was scared, yet determined.
The fact was, I was a new coach then, and could afford to take chances, that later in life, I would not make. Youth has it adventures.
I called over the team and told them of our plan. We would line up in a tight formation with our backs and defensive specialist in the line-up instead of our big boys to protect Aussie from Marshalls defense, and also to provide us with the speed to get us down the field and, hopefully, into their end zone. The idea was to let them touch the ball, and then strip them of it. The element of surprise was on our side. The team looked energized again, and ready to go. Holes just stood there staring at me while shaking his head. I knew this had better work or I was going to lose my friend.
Rocin took the field, and huddled up, and then fall out to line up in the tight formation. Aussie never made it under center, he just flicked his hands like a punter, and punted the ball to about the sixteenth yard line and then it bounced forward, and then began a backwards roll towards their goal line.
Marshall s defense, looked shocked as it tried to figure out where the ball was. Everyone except the two secondary member who had a chance to watch the ball take off and land behind their position on the field. The closest defender took off towards the ball as Godzilla, Vacek, and even Aussie along with Jonesy headed down field making a beeline towards the ball. The Vise was the first one to the ball, and paused just long enough to let the defender place a hand on the ball, and then clobbered him. The ball sprung loose, and was laying about so that anyone with gumption could pick it up. That was Aussie.
Aussie picked the ball up and started to run, only to find his path blocked by a Marshall defender who had finally made it down field. Instead of juking him, Aussie ran straight at him and just before they made contact, he rugby tossed it to Godzilla following like a wingback to his outside. Godzilla, caught it, but was caught from behind by Marshalls All-State Linebacker who had made it back down field to help out his team. Godzilla had the presence of mind to toss it behind him to the Clydesdale who had finally appeared on the scene, and was slightly taken aback by that grid iron bounty that landed in his hands. With a host of the Longhorns screaming defenders placed upon his person, Dale rumbled seven yards across the goal line. This was not what I had expected. I turned to look at Holes who was caught up in the moment, yelling and screaming with the best of them. Ski was looking perplexed at the official, and, I realized with trepidation, it was because there was a yellow flag on the field.
The little boy in me wanted to reach out and hide the flag before anyone saw it, but the man in me wanted this win fair and square, and I stood still and awaited my sentence like the condemned man I felt. We all waited for the umpires call. The official called the coaches to the middle of the field, while the fans waited to hear the results. Ski and I both went out and met with the umpire and Marshall head coach. He looked disgusted at both of us, but waited for the explanation of the call. Since this had not happened before, or not in a long time, there was some confusion as to the call. The decision had been made to call the ball dead at the ten yard line with Marshall High School in procession and adding fifteen seconds to the official clock. There was still a chance! All we needed was to strip them of the ball and score.
I had not given up, I was not going to give up, I was going to win this for Skipper. Before we left the center of the field the Hap looked hard at us, without any humor.
“ That was a stupid trick you two pulled, but I knew Skipper, and I know you want to win it for him. But, the tomfoolery stops now. If you want to win this game, you had better do it right- the way Skipper would have done it!”
With that he turned around and stormed off to his sidelines. Ski walked back in silence, and just as we got to our sidelines, he turned to me, and said:
“Skipper would have done the same thing if he thought he could get away with it. You did alright Muley.”
Kind words at a rough time, but I appreciated them more then he could have known.
Killer Bob, yelled out, “Defense”, and his Boys came a running.
The Hap had decided to put some distance between himself and his teams goal line, and ran a lead right up the middle. It was a good , safe call, but Ski had put the Whale at Nose, and when the center and guard could not move him, Vacek and Mentz liberated the ball with a couple of cheap jabs to the carry arm of the running back as they stood him up at the line of scrimmage, and we took position at the nine yard line.
Skis defense, with Whales help, had brought us back to the edge of victory. It was now my turn. We loaded up and powered into the best defense we had come across all year. We gained zero yards, and time was running out. On third down and less then four seconds to the gun, I decided to go off tackle and let Dale, Jarvis the tackle and Godzilla do their damage in hopes we could push it in. The play was run in by a receiver nicked named Injury as his twin brother Hurt came off the field.
As he approached the huddle he began pointing to the black tape which Holes and all the coaches had taped down the middle of all the helmets. When he ran out pointing to his helmet, the rest of the players on the sidelines began pointing at theirs. The Boys on the field finally understood, and they too began pointing at the tape on their helmets. Our fans in the stands recognized the action as a way to motivate the Boys on the field, and the reason they wanted this win so badly- for Skipper.
With the play announced in the huddle by Aussie, and the renewed energy of the Boys, the play took off from the line of scrimmage with the grunting, heaving, pushing, pulling tug-a-war called football. The play developed off-tackle just as I had seen it in my minds eye, and was executed nearly to perfection. I did not realize I was holding my breathe, with a small voice in my head speaking the word “Skipper” over and over, until Jonesy broke through the line of scrimmage and dashed the remaining yards for our second touchdown of the game.
When Jonesy reach the touch line, the voice in me finally yelled “breathe!” and I did followed by a huge yell of victory and elation, not only for the Boys but also for Skipper. The score now read: Marshall 10- Rocin 12, as we made the point after attempt with Aussie kicking off a cup full of sand. We had forgotten the point after tee, and Hap was not of a mind to lend one to us.
We had won! Skipper had won! The town of Rocin had finally won! He had given his Boys and the town of Rocin the victory he felt they so richly deserved. We had won for all of them, all the Boys that had ever played for the Coach, that was what he had wanted. For me, I was happy for our Boys, but I had wanted it for Skipper.
I felt the wind stir my slight hair again, and my thoughts turned again Harry and the large canister of hair spray he had used in the field house. We had changed over the years.
Handsome Harry, left teaching all together, and married a wealthy widow, who set him up as a salesman for a sports drink out in Florida. He is now living in Lake Tahoe off his good fortune. He was not able to make Skis funeral due to a death in his own family.
Holes followed me after leaving Rocin, and retired a few years before I did. I have not lost track of him though, as his sons grew up, cleaned up , they too coached for me, keeping me informed of how he was driving their mother mad at home with his humor and practical jokes. His last coaching assignment had been coaching his granddaughters softball team, until some mother complained of him chewing tobacco all the time around the girls. After a meeting with the parents, they gave him an ultimatum; he countered with one of his own: if he cant chew tobacco, then he would not coach.
Funny thing is no matter where I go in this town of Rocin, all I hear are the praises of Coach Ski, and what a wonderful guy he was and how much he did for their Boys- his Boys… just like Skipper. I guess the Boys are not the only sort of heroes out there on Friday nights. You can see them every Friday or Saturday night in their game shirts, cap and slacks, grabbing their Boys, correcting them, encouraging them, and even hugging them. You can go to any high school and watch them in their hallways or classes, teaching, counseling, and even helping their Boys. I have coached against many of them, and watched them grow old and gray. But the good ones are never forgotten by those who played for them; their legacy lives on in their player or students.
We must lead our lives as a testament for what others have done for us. No, Skipper is never far away from my mind, none of those men are.