Authors: Todd Hafer
This book is dedicated to the life and memory of Tim Hanson, a true athlete, a true friend.
love sports. I have always loved sports. I have competed in various sports at various levels, right through college. And today, even though my official competitive days are behind me, you can still find me on the golf course, working on my game, or on a basketball court, playing a game of pick-up.
Sports have also helped me learn some of life’s important lessons–lessons about humility, risk, dedication, teamwork, friendship. Cody Martin, the central character in “The Spirit of the Game” series, learns these lessons too. Some of them, the hard way. I think you’ll enjoy following Cody in his athletic endeavors.
Like most of us, he doesn’t win every game or every race. He’s not the best athlete in his school, not by a long shot. But he does taste victory, because, as you’ll see, he comes to understand that life’s greatest victories aren’t reflected on a scoreboard. They are the times when you rely on a strength beyond your own—a spiritual strength—to carry you through. They are the times when you put the needs of someone else before your own. They are the times when sports become a way to celebrate the life God has given you.
So read on, and may you always possess the true spirit of the game.
ody Martin prowled the chewed-up turf behind the Raider defensive line, eyes surveying the scene in front of him. His teammates on the D-line were hunkered down in their three-point stances, like attack dogs ready to be unleashed, anchored by Pork Chop at middle guard. Cody noticed a deep bruise the size of a beverage coaster in the middle of his best friend’s bulging, caramel-skinned calf.
“Motion left! Monster left!” Cody barked, his voice ragged and hoarse after three and a half quarters of calling defensive signals. He studied Rick Macy, Central Middle School’s fleet wideout, as he trotted parallel to the line of scrimmage.
“Motion man’s mine!” Cody called, whipping his head around to make eye contact with Brett Evans, Grant Middle School’s left cornerback. “You got eighty-two, Brett!”
Cody shadowed Macy as Antwan Clay, the Grizzly quarterback, called out his snap count. On Clay’s third “Hut!” Macy turned upfield as the Central and Grant lines surged forward, and Cody heard the familiar crack of pads fill the late-afternoon air. While the two lines battled each other for a few feet of turf, Clay faked a handoff to his halfback, tucked the ball in the crook of his arm, and sprinted toward Cody.
A QB sweep,
So that’s why they brought two wideouts to the same side.
Macy was on Cody now, trying to bulldoze him out of bounds. That meant Clay was going to cut inside. Cody raised his hands in front of him and chucked Macy sharply across the chest. Macy’s body straightened, as if he had been hit by a strong headwind.
That was all the opportunity Cody needed. He slipped inside his taller opponent and zeroed in on Clay as the QB planted his right foot and made his cut upfield.
Cody thought, as he lunged for Clay’s legs.
Cody never saw Tucker, Central’s huge fullback, coming up on his right flank. But he felt him. One moment he was flying toward his target—the next, his flight was abruptly redirected.
At first there was no pain, only the resounding bang of Tucker’s face mask against the side of Cody’s helmet. Crumpled on the turf, Cody listened for the shrill ripple of a referee’s whistle. But there was no sound.
Well, either Clay is well on his way to the end zone or that hit rendered me deaf,
He tried to sit up but felt a sharp dagger of pain between his neck and right shoulder.
he prayed silently, desperately,
don’t let me get injured during the first game of the season. I need football right now, more than ever. Please!
Cody tried to smile as the blond kid with a head like a lunchbox kneeled over him. “Hey, Dutch,” Cody said weakly.
“Hey, Code,” the team trainer answered. “Just lie still. Coach Smith is on his way.”
On cue, Coach Smith appeared at Dutch’s side. “Mean hit you took,” he observed. “That’s why I’m always tellin’ you, don’t leave your feet on a tackle. So, Martin, did you just get your bell rung or are you hurt?”
“Huh?” Cody said, blinking his eyes.
“Hurt,” Coach Smith said, impatience creeping into his voice. “You know, pain. Are you in pain?”
Am I in pain?
What a question! I’ve been in pain for almost two months straight. You think football is tough, Coach? Try watching your mom die.
s Cody lay on the field, his mind drifted back to the day of his mom’s funeral.
Cody squirmed in the front pew of Crossroads Community Church, trying to wriggle his way into a comfortable position. He sighed heavily and twisted around to study the scene behind him. He felt dozens of eyes lock on him, then nervously dart away. Except for those of Mrs. Adams, his grade school Sunday school teacher, who gazed at him lovingly. She was five rows back, but Cody could see that her eyes were red and puffy from crying. He tried to smile at her and then turned around. He usually sat in the back of
church—the very back, in one of the metal folding chairs lined against the rear wall of the sanctuary.
“The best seats in the house,” Cody always called them. They allowed him to slip out to the restroom or the foyer without disapproving stares from his mom and dad—or that busybody Mrs. Underwood. And, during the occasional Sunday when he couldn’t follow Pastor Taylor’s sermon, he could pass the time by counting bald spots, then figuring the percentage of follically-impaired men in the congregation. The last time he counted, 23 percent of the Crossroads men were Missing Hair Club candidates.
The percentage was slightly higher if you counted Mr. Sanders, whose sandy toupee always rested atop his head at a jaunty angle, like a dozing badger.
On the rare Sundays when Pork Chop accompanied Cody to church, the duo would slip out to the foyer during the special music—which usually wasn’t very special at Crossroads—and feast on the remaining donuts on the refreshment table.
The good donuts, the ones filled with jelly or crowned with multi-colored sprinkles, were always gone, plucked by those devoted enough to come to the early service. But the remainder, the glazed ones with watery icing beading on them like perspiration, were better than nothing.
“Donuts—at church!?” Chop said once while sucking glaze off his fingers with loud smacks. “Now that’s a heavenly idea! It’s almost worth coming to church every Sunday. Almost.”
Cody leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. Pork Chop was in church again today, but there would be no joking. Chop sat three rows behind Cody, sporting a too tight suit and sandwiched between his father and his mammoth half brother, Doug.
Cody had begged his dad to let Pork Chop sit by him, but had been informed that such an arrangement wasn’t “proper funeral protocol.”
Cody was bookended by his dad and Gram Martin, his paternal grandmother. Cody looked at Gram, who looked older, plumper, and sadder than the last time he saw her, even though it was just two weeks ago. She was sniffling quietly and dabbing at her eyes with a tattered lavender tissue. It was no secret that Cody’s mom and Gram Martin didn’t get along, but the grief seemed genuine.
Or maybe it’s regret,
Maybe Gram is thinking of all the shouting matches she and Mom got into and feeling guilty.
He turned his attention from his grandmother to the coffin at the front of the church, just below the pulpit.
I can’t believe my mom’s in there,
he thought, shaking his head.
But it was true. He saw her in there only twelve hours ago. He had waited patiently in the foyer, pawing at the carpet with his foot as he listened to the choir practice “Amazing Grace,” which was his mom’s favorite hymn during the final weeks of her life. The choir sounded somber, but pretty good—better than he had heard in a long time.
When the singing stopped, Ben Woods, of Woods Family Funeral Home, approached Cody. “You can see her now, if you wish,” Ben said, with a calmness and compassion that Cody guessed had taken years to perfect.
Wish. The word floated through his mind. I wish this whole thing wasn’t real, he thought. I wish I were anywhere but here. I wish Mom weren’t lying dead in a giant box.
Cody felt Ben’s fingers touch his elbow. “Would you like me to get your father, Cody, so you can go in together? He’s in the pastor’s office.”
“No,” Cody said, surprised at how hard it was to make a sound. “I kinda need to do this alone.”
Ben nodded and led Cody to the front of the sanctuary. With practiced ease, he raised the top portion of a two-piece lid and locked it into position.
“I will give you as long as you need,” he said. “I’ll close the sanctuary door behind me when I exit, to give you some privacy. Just come and find me when you’re ready. And, Cody, I am very sorry for your loss.”
Cody felt his head nodding. He had waited until he heard the door latch click before he allowed himself to look at her.
They had done her hair. Wispy honey-colored bangs rested on her forehead, the ends nearly touching her thin eyebrows. Cody noted the thick makeup layered on her face, like frosting on a cake. It reminded him of the makeup the high school thespians wore for their spring musicals.
He heard himself exhale sadly. When she was alive, Linda Martin rarely wore makeup. She used to joke that she wanted people to see a few lines on her face. “Maybe then they’ll let me teach adult Sunday school—not just work the nursery,” she would say.
Cody’s dad had a different take. “You don’t need makeup, Lin,” he told her regularly. “Why cover up perfection?”
But the folks at Woods Family Funeral Home had covered up plenty. Cody remembered relatives talking about funerals from time to time. He recalled snippets like, “He looked so natural,” and “She looked so peaceful lying there in the coffin.”
But his mom didn’t look natural or at peace. She looked empty. He studied her face. Slowly, tentatively, he raised his left hand. It floated toward her, as if under a power not his own.
He let his fingertips rest for a moment on her cheek. The skin felt cool, lifeless. More like rubber than human flesh. He drew his hand back.
I hope I forget how that felt,
That’s not how I want to remember things.
“Bye, Mom,” he whispered. “And thank you. Thank you for everything you did. The meals—the laundry—the help with homework. Coming to my games. I wish I had been more grateful. I’ll try to say something about you tomorrow, but I’m not sure I can. If I can’t, I hope you’ll understand. And I hope that, somehow, you know that I’ll always love you. Please, God, let there be some way for her to know that—and to know how much I miss her already.”
He felt his throat tighten. He turned toward the exit, gazing at the stained glass windows as he walked down the rust-colored carpet that ran down the center of the sanctuary. The last window depicted a sunrise scene, with a white dove gliding across the morning sky. Inscribed above a golden rising sun were the words, I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE.
Before he opened the door leading to the foyer, Cody let his eyes move from the words to the church’s high ceiling. “Yeah,” he whispered solemnly, hopefully. “The life.”
Cody felt himself being led to the sideline, Brett Evans under his left arm, Pork Chop under his right. Both were five foot eight, two inches taller than he was, so his feet glided across the short-cropped grass as they left the field. It felt almost like walking on air. He looked into the stands and saw about half the home crowd standing, rendering a polite smattering of applause. He searched for his dad’s face, but knew he wouldn’t find it.
This is gonna be just like seventh grade ball,
He’s gonna keep blowing off games ’til the season’s over. Only now I won’t have Mom in the stands. I could always count on her. Now I don’t have anybody.
Pork Chop helped Cody lower himself to the bench. “It was Tucker who ear-holed you, right, Code?” he asked.
“Either him or a Mack truck.”
“Well, just watch what happens next. It’s gonna be payback time next time we’re on defense. I’m gonna
hit him so hard that it’ll knock the taste out of his mouth.”
“Don’t argue with me, my brother. Just chill and watch the fun. We’re losing by twenty anyway. I gotta do something to keep myself motivated.”
Cody started to protest and then shrugged his shoulders, which brought the stabbing pain back again.
Coach Smith kept him out of the game’s final four minutes, during which Clay scored again on the QB sweep. On that play, Pork Chop chased down Tucker from behind and rode him to the ground, even though it was obvious that he was a blocker, not the ball carrier. After the referee raised both hands to the sky, signaling the TD, Chop smacked his palms against the sides of his helmet, feigning anger at himself for being duped. Then he extended a thick forearm to Tucker and jerked him to his feet.
Tucker stood, wobbly and disoriented. It reminded Cody of the newborn scene in
The fullback got off the field just in time to avoid Central’s receiving an offside penalty on the ensuing kickoff.
By the Monday morning following the Central game, the pain in Cody’s neck had faded. The pain in his heart, however, still burned. He smiled anyway.
He smiled at Coach Smith, who saw him in the hallway at school and asked, “You doin’ okay, Code?”
He smiled at Robyn Hart, his friend since fourth grade, when she told him, “Good game on Saturday.”
And he smiled at Kris Knight, the new student that Principal Prentiss introduced him to in the school office before first hour.
This is weird,
You don’t even have to be happy to smile. Just like you don’t have to be mean to play football. You just have to act like it, and I guess no one knows the difference.
“Mr. Knight,” Mr. Prentiss was saying, “welcome to the eighth grade at Grant Middle School. This is Cody Martin. This is his second year as one of our orientation mentors. He will be accompanying you to most of your classes, as your schedules are almost identical. He will help you find your classrooms, the cafeteria, and whatnot.”
“Yeah,” Cody said, injecting artificial happiness into his voice, “we have great whatnot here at Grant.”
Mr. Prentiss unleashed a laugh that was as fake as Mr. Sanders’s toupee.
As they headed toward first-period PE, Cody tried to think of a conversation starter. “So,” he said finally
to his “mentee,” as Mr. Prentiss called them, “you do any sports back at your old school?”
Knight had arms like broomsticks, and Cody noticed that his feet splayed out at 45-degree angles when he walked. It was as if his left foot and right foot disagreed on which direction their owner should be going. Still, you had to ask. Polite conversation—that’s what Dad and Mr. Prentiss called it.
Knight cleared his throat. “Nah, I’m not really into sports. I mean, I like them and everything, but I have asthma. I played in the pep band, though. Clarinet.”
Cody nodded. “That’s cool.” He saw Knight looking at his white football jersey, which bore a faded blue
number 7. John Elway’s number.
Cody heard the throat clear again. It sounded like a dirt bike engine revving. “You must play, huh, Cody?”
“Yeah, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing something. T-ball. Y-league hoops. Pop Warner football. Age-group track meets. You name it.”
“That’s cool,” Knight said, unconvincingly.
They entered the gym and sat together on the first row of wooden bleachers. Ten boys, divided into shirts and skins, were playing full-court basketball. Another seven or eight sat on the bleachers near Cody and Knight, awaiting their turn.
Coach Smith, who taught PE in addition to coaching football and wrestling, paced the sideline, wearing a pained expression on his face.
“Come on, ladies,” he chided, his voice weary and sandpaper-rough from the past weekend’s game, “this is physical education. So let’s get physical. Sewing class is third hour. Porter, if Alston beats your entire team down the court for one more uncontested layup, you knuckleheads are doing push-ups until your arms fall off!”
“Who’s Porter?” Knight whispered loudly. “Is he that big dude?”
“Yeah,” Cody said with a laugh, “the one who’s sweatin’ so much he looks like he’s been dipped in baby oil. That’s Pork Chop.”
“Yeah. See, when he was a baby and cutting teeth, his dad used to give him pork chop bones to gnaw on. Drove his mom crazy, from what I’ve heard. Anyway, that’s where the nickname comes from. His real name’s Deke.”
“That’s his real name? What’s it short for?”
“It’s short for nothing. Just Deke.”
Knight nodded. “What should I call him?”
“Well, Chop always says, ‘Call me anything—just don’t call me late for dinner!’”
Knight laughed politely.
Cody leaned back, resting his elbows on the second tier of bleachers. “I probably should tell you one thing about Chop,” he said. “You probably notice that he’s got quite a tan.”
Knight nodded again.
“Well, his dad’s white. His mom was black. Still is, I guess. She bounced a couple years ago. See, we don’t have a lot of, uh, African-Americans in this part of Colorado. It was hard for Chop’s mom. It’s been hard for him too. I’ve been with him when people have driven by and called him—well, you know. You should see his eyes when it happens. I mean, he’s a tough guy, but when people say stuff like that, racial stuff—”