Authors: Jerry B. Jenkins
. Copyright © 2001 by Jerry B. Jenkins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including
information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may
quote brief passages in a review.
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A hardcover edition of this book was published in 2001 by Warner Books.
First eBook Edition: November 2001
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To Shawn Hoffman and Michael J. Patwin Jr.,
whose visual storytelling gifts
served as impetus for this book
Thanks to Bob Abramoff; James Anderson; Bev Bahr; Ron Booth; Rick Christian; Mary Haenlein; Shawn Hoffman; Dallas Jenkins;
Tim MacDonald; Ken Meyer; Charles Musfeldt, M.D.; Michael J. Patwin Jr.; Leslie Peterson; and Rolf Zettersten.
|1913||Paul William “Bear” Bryant born in Kingsland, Arkansas|
|1923||Athens City High School founded in Weeks Bay County, south of Foley, Alabama; football Crusaders finish 7-0—only new school|
to ever rank first in state
|1927||American Leather Football Company founded by Benton Estes in Athens City|
|1935||Elvis Aron Presley born in Tupelo, Mississippi|
|1943||Gayle Eugene Sayers born in Wichita, Kansas|
|1947||Roscoe “Buster” Schuler born in Foley, Alabama|
|1961||Calvin Sawyer born in Daphne, Alabama|
|1969||Buster Schuler marries Helena Myrick of Kansas City, Missouri|
|1970||Jack Schuler born|
|1971||Buster Schuler becomes assistant football coach at Athens City|
|1973||Crusaders 8-1, ranked second in state under new head coach, Buster Schuler|
|1977||Elvis Presley dies; Crusaders 8-1 behind star sophomore receiver, Cal Sawyer|
|1979||Crusaders 8-0-1 ranked first in state for twelfth time; Sawyer all-state|
|1980||Sawyer to Alabama to play for Bear Bryant|
|1981||Sawyer injured; returns to marry Estelle Estes of Athens City|
|1982||Elvis Presley Jackson born in Kankakee Banks, Indiana|
|1983||Rachel Sawyer born; Bear Bryant dies|
|1985||Schuler wins one hundredth game|
|1986||Crusaders 13-1 under new play-off scheme behind sophomore quarterback Jack Schuler; win state title for fifteenth time|
|1987||Crusaders 13-1 behind junior QB Jack Schuler; win state title for sixteenth time|
|1988||Crusaders 12-2 behind Jack Schuler; second in state; Buster Schuler resigns|
|1989||Estelle Estes Sawyer dies|
ame’s Cal Sawyer and I got a story starts about thirteen years ago when I was twenty-seven. Course, like most stories, it
really starts a lot a years before that, but I choose to tell it from Friday, December 2, 1988, when I’m sitting with my kindergarten
daughter Rachel in the stands of my old high school. We’re watching the state football championship in Athens City, Alabama,
almost as south as a town can be without being ocean.
Estelle, Rachel’s ma and my wife, is in the hospital dying of the colon cancer. I’m hoping Rachel doesn’t know while knowing
that she does and wondering what in the world I’m gonna do when the time comes, if you know what I mean and I think that you
do. Rachel’s about to see something just as bad, and even one tragedy is an awful thing for somebody her age. But don’t let
me get ahead of myself.
By the time we were sitting there, I was already a broken-down ex–football player with a blowed-out knee who nobody remembered
but me. Well, maybe not exactly nobody. I suppose some recollect that I played three years under Buster Schuler, the coach
out there that night. I played on one of his state champ teams, made all-state, and even rode the bench for Bear Bryant at
Alabama before tearing up my leg and coming back to marry Estelle Estes.
Yeah, that Estes. Her grandpaw Benton Estes founded the American Leather Football Company in Athens City. I came back hoping
to assistant coach with Schuler, but when you marry into a factory family you work there and coach junior league football
if you have time, which is what I did.
But I never missed watching a high school game. Not with Buster Schuler on the sidelines. He says I was the best he ever coached.
I don’t know if that’s true or he just says it but I know
was the best
ever played for, including the Bear (but they might as well have been twins). Buster played at Bama years before I did, only
he didn’t get hurt and he did well and all he ever wanted to do after that was be just like Bryant.
This was one of those big rivalry games against Rock Hill from up the road. We’d beat em for the state championship at their
place the year before and were fixing to do the same that night at home. Rachel had her little good luck plastic souvenir
football that American Leather passes out to everybody who tours the place, and I had more hair than I’ve seen in the mirror
I love these games. The night air, the concrete stands, the rickety light poles, the ambulance that stands waiting but had
been used only for the broke arm of a visiting player two years before, the band, the cheerleaders, the banners, the scoreboard
with “Home of the Athens City Crusaders” underneath it in white on red.
Schuler wore his trademark fedora, sports coat, and tie. He was smooth-faced with dark, thinning hair and a black mustache,
and this was his sixteenth season as head coach.
All around us sat moms wearing corsages and elementary school and junior high boys whose dream was to play for Buster Schuler
and wear the crimson and white of Athens City High. Coach Schuler’s wife was behind us too, but she always sat alone. I never
saw Helena so much as clap, let alone cheer.
Now here’s why sometimes I think Buster’s only saying it when he says I was his best. Everybody knows he’d lived for the day
he could coach his only son, Jack—his starting quarterback now for three straight years. Number 7 was a beautiful specimen
of a football player, a tick under 6'4", about two hundred pounds, and faster than a wait to face the principal. He could
also throw the ball through a wall, but course he hardly ever got the chance. The whole time every game, Buster would run
the Bama wishbone offense—that’s where the quarterback runs with the ball until he has nowhere to go and then pitches to one
of his two trailing running backs and commences blocking for him.
Going into that game the Crusaders had lost only once each season with Jack at QB. Oh, the boy could run, and he was a leader,
but everybody knew that if ever there was a kid who resented that ancient offense and challenged the old man’s authority,
it was Buster’s own son.
And Daddy wasn’t happy. Jack would behave himself for the first quarter or two, long enough for Athens City to roll up a big
score. But there was no corraling that colt, and Buster would wind up slamming his hat to the ground, benching his own son,
and stomping up and down the sidelines like he was losing instead of winning.
Next game Buster would start the backup quarterback, they’d struggle till Jack was out of the doghouse, he’d come in and get
the big lead, start improvising, and get himself benched again.
Somehow it all worked anyway, but Buster would say, even in
The Athens Courier
, that his son was no example of how he expected his team to play. Jack had his full ride to Bama already sewed up and everybody
knew that the Crusaders and Buster—frustrated or not—would ride to their championship on Jack’s back.
So anyway, we were there and I was amazed as always at Rachel’s attention span. I mean, I was a fan at her age, but by the
fourth quarter I was usually playing my own football game behind the stands somewhere. She always hung in there though, asked
questions, studied the scoreboard, and pretty much knew what was going on. She knew most of the players too.
Rachel even knew a little about the trouble between Coach Schuler and Jack, so when this game got down to eleven seconds to
go and us trailing 28-24, third-and-ten on their 35, she looked up at me when Buster called his last time out.
A field goal wouldn’t do it, and Rock Hill could smell that championship clear as the shrimpy salt air wafting up from the
“We’re gonna hafta throw the ball, aren’t we, Daddy?” Five years old and she’s strategizing.
I smiled at her. “Rachel, Coach Schuler’d sell his first-born child before he’d put that pigskin in the air.” I honestly don’t
know why I said it that way, and don’t think I haven’t asked myself more than once in the years since. Jack was not just Buster’s
firstborn, he was his only-born. But I said it and there it was.
I was nervous as everybody else, and I could hear the crowd whispering the same thing Rachel was thinking. Surely Buster’s
got to let Jack throw that ball into the end zone. Nobody could keep Jack Schuler from throwing a TD in a do-or-die situation
We were all standing, waiting, breathing only cause we had to. Coach Schuler was scribbling on his chalkboard and pointing
at players. I could see from big Jack’s cocked head, towering over the others, that he was upset.
The rest of the team shouted “Crusaders!” and hurried onto the field, but Jack stood there shaking his head as he jammed on
his helmet. Coach Schuler spun and saw his son slowly getting ready to head back out, and it was clear he didn’t like what
he saw. He grabbed the boy’s facemask and pulled him close. I’d been there enough times to know what he was saying. “I don’t
want any fool heroics. This team needs you now. You’re gonna go out and block like a Buick!”
I looked for Jack to give his dad some eye contact and show he was getting with the program. Right or wrong, you do what the
coach tells you and you do it with all that’s in you. But Jack just pulled away. Coach Schuler smacked him on the seat and
shoved him onto the field with both hands.
I shoulda known what the boy was gonna do when a couple of the players looked to the sideline as if what they’d just heard
from Jack in the huddle didn’t jibe with what the coach had said. When Jack stepped up over the center, he sneaked a peek
toward his dad, who was locked on him like he was willing him to stay with the plan.
The ref cues the clock and Jack takes the snap. As the play unfolds I see immediately it’s the wishbone again, Jack leading
the way. He’s supposed to find a hole to run through or pitch to a back and block, as his father always told us, like a Buick.
Jack runs to his right, then drops back like he’s gonna throw. Coach Schuler slams his hat to the ground as Jack spins right
and comes all the way back to the near side of the field, eluding tacklers, not to mention his own running backs. He fakes
a pass then races upfield, switching the ball from right hand to left and stiff-arming Raiders as he turns toward the end
zone. Rachel’s toy football digs into my shoulder as she pulls herself up and stands on the seat next to me.
The clock has run out and the noise is deafening and I’m shouting “Go! Go! Go!” as Jack reaches the 10 and then the 5, where
two Raiders catch him from opposite sides. One hits him high, the other low, cartwheeling him into the air.