Authors: Jerry B. Jenkins
“Yeah, well, my coach didn’t look like he was about to throw up either.”
“Does it ever.”
“In fact, scuse me a minute.”
“Now, Coach,” I said, “don’t. That’s too much like a bad movie.”
“Barfing on the sidelines in my big comeback game wouldn’t give the right impression either. I’ll be right out. Remind the
boys about the refs.”
“That the men in stripes have got a job to do too and all that?”
“You got it.”
“That gonna keep you behaving on the sidelines, Coach?”
But he had ducked into the bathroom.
• • •
On the second play from scrimmage, one of the oldest refs in the league missed an obvious call. Schuler erupted, and I knew
he was back in business.
“How could you miss the face mask?” he screamed, running up the sidelines with the ref. “You are still the worst ref in America!
Your wife and children must be hiding their faces in shame!”
That was all it took—there came the yellow flag. But that didn’t stop Schuler. “Oh, that’s good! That’s the first good call
you’ve made in years! You are without a doubt!”
Coach was totally into the game, but that didn’t help us much. Beach scored on its first possession. “Yo, line!” Schuler screamed.
“The game is football! Let’s act like we know it!” He was red faced and sweating, and the cares of life seemed far from him.
Once while he was pacing he bumped into Elvis Jackson, who stuck his face in the coach’s as if expecting to be put in the
game right then. I gotta tell ya, I wouldn’t have minded seeing that. But Buster has a long memory. He gave Jackson a look
that woulda put a wart on a gravestone, and I knew the kid wouldn’t be playing that night.
So Jackson took to hanging around me. I learned to avoid his pleading eyes. A couple times he mumbled, “Even on defense. Come
on, let me in there.”
We might as well have. Our starters were tight on both sides of the line. The defense was on its heels. Our offense was pathetic.
The wishbone takes patience and requires playing within yourself. Buster wouldn’t, wouldn’t, wouldn’t let Brian throw, yet
the ball spent more time bouncing around in our backfield than in the hands of our ball carriers.
At the half Beach was leading 21-0, and everyone knew it coulda been worse. Our offense smelled worse than the locker room.
As soon as they got inside the door, the team was at each other’s throats. Nothing Coach hated worse than blaming somebody
else for your own failures, so I shouted over their screaming and shoving, “Knock it off! How many times do I hafta remind
you about maintaining your discipline?”
But Buster came in right behind me, madder’n a duffer three-putting from two feet. “That’s all right!” he shouted. “You go
ahead, fight with each other, feed the curse! Go on! You are without a doubt! I have bled every possible drop of sweat out
of your bodies, so there’s only one thing left to do. I’m gonna shoot straight with you.”
The boys dropped onto the benches and hung their heads. “You are a pack of pathetic, curse-infested me-myself-and-I’s,” Coach
began, “and you are gonna have the worst season in the history of football unless a knight on a white horse shows up wearing
He glared at one player after another until they looked away. I’d sat under that gaze. No one asked if there was some strategy,
some adjustment that would put us back in the game.
“Who’s finished?” he said finally. “Who’s done? Anybody wanna go home right now?” Nobody moved. “Then git those heads up and
git em up now.”
One by one they seemed to sit taller, to get the picture, to catch their breath and get themselves ready. But the third and
fourth periods were no better, and we fell behind 35-15 with less than a minute to go and Beach had the ball. Buster told
me to have the Shermanater call time-out.
I said, “Coach, let’s just let the clock run.”
I was wrong and I knew it right away. “Sawyer, we owe it to our opponent to give em everything we’ve got till that gun sounds.”
I got Naters’ attention and had him call a time-out and hustle to the sidelines. The three of us tried to come up with some
defensive solution, but when Sherman raced back onto the field, we were shocked to see Elvis Jackson out there.
“What’s he doing on my field?” Coach yelled. “Get him outa there!”
But as I shouted at Sherman to use our last time-out, Jackson distracted him, screaming, “They called in the cavalry, Shermanater.
Now play some defense, you pansy mama’s boy!”
Naters was so mad I thought he was going to come out of his uniform. He growled and pawed the ground, and the Bearcats snapped
the ball while we were still trying to get his attention. Naters blew past the line and straight at the quarterback. As Sherman
plowed him to the ground, he let fly a dying duck of a pass in the direction of the only clean uniform on the field—Elvis
Jackson jumped higher than I thought a kid his size could and picked off that ball at our 20. With time running out, he started
upfield. I knew this kid was in big trouble. Nobody goes in without Schuler’s say-so, and he was gonna get it.
Well, I’d never seen anything like it. Jackson broke free, and I mean free. He made everybody else on that field look slower
than a classroom clock. He scored the touchdown and came off the field with a big grin, holding the ball over his head. Brian
batted it away. “We lost, idiot.”
Buster and I hurried to the middle of the field where the Beach head coach shook his hand. “Nice try, Schuler,” he said. “Breaks
my heart, specially on your big return and all.”
Coach was smiling too, just in case anybody was watching. “You sanctimonious punk,” he said. “We’re gonna eat your guts with
a spoon in the play-offs.”
Their coach, still smiling, said, “With that Stone Age offense? Not a prayer, you old bag of bones.”
As we left the field, Coach Schuler caught sight of Jackson at the fence, handing his helmet to Rachel. Coach said, “Get that
boy’s tail in my office, now.”
I jogged over there, but Elvis had his back to me and Rachel was seeing nothing but him. “Maybe next time you won’t have to
sneak into the game,” she said. She handed him one of her flyers. “I want you at our meeting Wednesday night, no excuses.”
“Jackson!” I said.
“Am I in trouble?” he said, following me.
I snorted. “What do you think?”
“But I made the play.”
“Don’t be naive.”
I left him in the coaches room and stood behind Coach as he talked to the team. He ran a hand across his head and let out
a big sigh. “Right now I’m too upset to trust myself to say anything,” he said. “There’s twelve more games before the state
championship, and it’s gonna be held on our field whether we’re in it or not. You wanna watch it or you wanna play in it?”
He was still talking state championship? No one even looked up. “I’m gonna study the film,” he said, “much as I can’t imagine
wanting to see this again. And I’d better see a difference on the practice field this week or you’re gonna see some wholesale
changes in the lineup.” He sat on the edge of the table and shook his head. “There’s no substitute for teamwork. Go home and
forget this game. Take tomorrow off. Rest of our season starts Monday at practice.”
When Coach and I entered the coaches room, Jackson stood quickly. “Oh, now you’re eager to please, eh?” Coach spat. “Sit yourself
There was nowhere for me to sit but next to the kid. I wished I could have told him what to say or not say to have a prayer
of staying on the team. Buster tossed his fedora aside and took off his sport coat. He sat behind the tiny desk, looking tired,
and folded his hands.
“Let me tell you something, boy,” he said. “Maybe it’s twelve years away from the game that has me sitting here at all, cause
it sure as shooting ain’t cause you pulled off a miraculous play. Coach Sawyer here’ll tell ya that I have zero tolerance
I nodded, but neither of em was looking at me anyway.
“You act like you never played high school football before, Jackson.”
“That’s right, sir.”
My head shot up, and so did Coach’s. “Where you from, boy?”
“Kankakee Banks, Indiana.”
“Never played the game before?”
“Not since junior league. Our high school was too small.”
“No football there?”
“Um, well, yeah. They had it.”
“But they didn’t have a scholarship or any kinda competition that woulda got a superstar like you noticed, that it?”
Elvis cocked his head and shrugged.
“I’m onto you, ain’t I, Jackson?”
The boy shrugged again and mumbled, “I dunno. Guess so.”
“You keep looking at me, boy, cause this may very well be the last time you see me. I’m gonna give you one chance to tell
me why I don’t ask for your gear right now.”
“I want to play,” Jackson said, a tear in his voice. “I’m sorry.”
you you weren’t gonna play a minute for me until I saw a team attitude in you! You think by sneaking into the game you’re
gonna change my mind? I’m incredulous!”
Jackson had nothing to say.
“I want to know something,” Coach said. “Are you telling me you didn’t play high school football till you got here cause the
program there in Indiana was too small for you? Now, no, I’m not taking your fool shrugging for an answer. Tell me straight
Jackson looked down and mumbled.
“Eye contact, boy! You’re fighting for your life on this team. That is, if you care.”
“Then look at me when I talk to you and answer me so I can hear you.”
“My dad wouldn’t let me play!”
“Well, there you go. What was he, scared you were gonna get hurt?”
Jackson shook his head. “Wanted me to work.”
“Help support the family?”
“Why not now? What changed?”
“I came here.”
“You ran away?”
“I’m eighteen. I left.”
“Your parents know where you are?”
Jackson shrugged but then immediately shook his head, as if he knew he had to tell the truth.
“So you come all the way down I-65 to play here, and you’re totally on your own.”
“Where you living?”
“I have a place.”
Coach pursed his lips and looked at me. I didn’t know what to make of it either.
“So you basically don’t respect any authority at all.”
“I respect you, sir.”
“Don’t start that. Why do you think you’re sitting here? You don’t respect me any more than you respect your dad, leaving
him there to fend for himself when the family needs you.”
“My parents are dead.”
“You got to get your story straight, son.” Coach looked at his watch. “I’m sitting here for five more minutes unless you can
keep my attention longer. You tell me your story, you tell me the truth, and Coach Sawyer here’n me are gonna decide your
Coach sat back in the squeaky chair and put his hands behind his head. Elvis Jackson leaned forward and sucked in a breath.
“My real mom and dad died in a wreck when I was ten. My grandparents were too old to take me and I guess no one else wanted
me. I was put in foster homes, but I was mad and scared and everything, so nobody kept me for long, till this last one where
I stayed four years. We lived in a double-wide and they had a younger foster kid too, a girl who’s ten now.” His voice caught
and Coach and I looked at each other. “I guess they’d had a bunch of foster kids over the years. Anyway, I was fourteen and
I was a year behind in school and angry, but they seemed happy when the county took me there, like they wanted me.
“As soon as the social worker left, though, the mom went in the other room to watch TV and Jenny—that’s the girl—hid out in
one of the bedrooms. The dad told me to follow him outside, even though it was the middle of January and below zero. I can’t
remember everything he said but I got the point. He told me I had one role in my new family and that was to do what he said,
get a job, and give him the money. I thought I was a tough guy and said something like, ‘And what if I don’t?’
“He grabbed my stomach with one hand and squeezed so tight I could hardly breathe. I tried to pull away and he just squeezed
tighter and said, ‘You think I don’t know where to hurt you where it doesn’t show?’ I shook my head and he said, ‘Make trouble
and I’ll tell em you molested Jenny.’”
Coach looked as angry as me. “You told someone, I hope,” he said, his voice thick.
“I told the social worker as soon as I could, but she said my record was so bad no one was going to believe me. No one else
had ever complained about the guy before. Everybody said he was poor but hardworking, a leader in the community and all that.
“Jenny was scared of him, so any time anybody from the county came over, she smiled and acted happy. She was a good actor.
She fooled them like she fooled me at first.”
“So, what about football?” Coach said. “You got some training somewhere.”
“My real dad. Gave me a football for Christmas when I was so young I couldn’t even hold it in one hand. I played junior football
and later read everything I could about the game. I even worked out on my own and ran everywhere I could. The social worker
finally convinced me to keep my grades up, and it was actually the foster mom who put me onto Athens City.”
Coach flinched. “How’d she hear about us?”
“Well, she didn’t exactly know about it, but one day she was watching TV and all of a sudden says to me, ‘Football story’s
on.’ I couldn’t believe it. Usually she just kept to herself. She was scared of him too. I didn’t even know she knew I liked
“I said, ‘I can watch it?’
“She said, ‘If you hurry. My show’s coming on.’ I hurried in there and saw the thing about you coming back. I recognized the
name of the town from my football. I’ve still got it; brought it with me. Anyway, that’s when I started making my plans. The
social worker told me that once I was eighteen, I was on my own. I left a few days early because I knew tryouts started that
day.” He looked down. “I just wish I’d got Jenny outa there.”