Authors: Jerry B. Jenkins
We all fell silent, wondering whether he’d hang onto the ball and if his momentum would carry him into the end zone.
But Jack dropped straight onto the top of his head, his full weight on his neck. In that eerie silence, I swear I heard the
snap of his spinal cord from fifty yards away. Jack flopped onto his back like a Raggedy Andy, the ball slowly rolling free,
and I knew. I knew from the silence of the new state champions and their fans on the other side of the field. I knew from
the body language of Coach Schuler.
I turned to lift Rachel down and hid her head in my chest. The crowd started to murmur and Coach called out, “Jack?” his voice
I glanced over my shoulder to where Mrs. Schuler stood alone, staring, her hands clasped before her mouth.
As the teams gathered around the still boy and para-medics slid a stretcher from the ambulance and waited for their cue, Coach
Schuler ran out from the sideline. Players on both teams made way as he brushed a ref aside and fell to his knees before the
The crowd went silent again, staring, as the coach wailed, “Son?” He unfastened the boy’s chinstrap. “Come on! Jack?”
He felt the boy’s neck, then looked desperately at the stunned players. Shoulders slumping, he scolded his son, as if by challenging
him he could force him to rise and defend himself. “Why didn’t you do what I said?” he cried out, begging with his hands,
his voice echoing. “Why didn’t you do what I told you to do?”
He finally broke down, laying his cheek on his son’s chest. His sobs made us turn our eyes away.
Rachel, still clutching her tiny football, tried to peek through my hands. “Is Jack going to be all right, Daddy?”
I was grateful for the crowd between us and the field, but I had never lied to her. “I don’t know, sweetheart,” I said. “It
doesn’t look good.”
“Is he going to die?”
“I sure hope not.”
The coach’s wife marched down the steps past us, ignoring comments and reaching hands. “Miz Schuler!” I called after her.
But she headed for the parking lot. I pulled Rachel along and trotted up to the woman. “Helena, let me—”
She turned on me, her eyes dark and narrow. “I’ve been a football widow for twenty years. And now, and now— unless you can
change this, Mr. Sawyer, no, there’s nothing I’ll let you do.”
She rushed to their light blue Mustang convertible, slid in, and slammed the door. As the car raced off into the night, Rachel
stared up at me. “She thinks Jack’s dead, doesn’t she?”
I pursed my lips and shook my head, but Rachel was right. And so was Helena Schuler.
he boy woke shivering at dawn in the loft of his parents’ ramshackle house in Kankakee Banks, Indiana. So he had slept! Last
time he’d checked, it was just after four in the morning, and he knew Santa would not come as long as he was awake.
Now he crept to the landing at the top of the stairs, his tiny feet making the floor creak. He leaned over the banister far
enough to see that the tree, which had stood bare in the living room for two days, had magically been trimmed.
At the bottom of the stairs he tiptoed toward the blinking lights, the strung popcorn, the shiny balls, the star up top. He
had asked Santa for only one thing, and while nothing under the tree appeared the proper shape, he believed it was there.
He could smell it even over the scent of the pine.
The boy moved to his parents’ bedroom, a chamber so small they hung their clothes in a hall closet. The door wouldn’t open
all the way without hitting the bed, and he had been warned to never let that happen unless the house was afire.
He carefully pushed the door, and the light roused his father. “What’sa matter, El?” he said, his voice thick.
“Nothing, Daddy. Just Christmas morning, that’s all.”
His mother groaned while his father slowly sat up. “Be right with you, son. Get the Bible.” Elvis not only got the Bible,
but he also found Luke 2, though he could barely read. The boy had memorized the books of the Bible, and he could almost recite
this story by heart. There would be no presents until they heard the real story of Christmas.
He sat staring at the package, the couch cushion scratching the backs of his legs, his feet bouncing inches from the floor.
“Get some clothes on, honey,” his mother said, squinting, enfolded in her long robe. “It’ll only take a second.”
The boy bounded back upstairs and pulled on a sweatshirt, jeans, and yesterday’s socks. Back downstairs his dad ran his hands
through his hair and asked if he couldn’t have a cup of coffee before they started.
“No!” the boy said, knowing his dad was kidding. “Come on, now! Read and let’s go!”
Elvis knew Jesus was way more important than Santa, and he had learned not to complain about how long it took to get to the
presents. His gifts to his parents were crafts fashioned at school, but George and Eloise Jackson acted like they’d never
seen anything so special. “A hanger painted gold,” his mother said. “I’ll use it for my winter coat.”
“Paint wouldn’t stay on till we scratched the hangers,” Elvis said.
He gave his dad a lanyard, perfect except for two twisted loops. George hung it around his neck immediately and said he would
look for his whistle later.
They made the boy save the biggest box till last, and the longer it took to get to it, the more he worried he might be wrong.
Unless he was imagining it, the smell was stronger than ever. But would what he wanted come in a square box? Was Santa trying
to throw him off? Surely he hadn’t misunderstood and thought the boy asked for a basketball.
Finally he sat with the package on his lap and attacked ribbon and paper. “Who’s it from, first?” his dad scolded, and Elvis
searched through the scraps to see.
“Santa!” he said, and kept digging. The corrugated cardboard box had a drawing of an electric space heater on it, just like
the one his mother used in the cellar. But there was no mistaking the smell of genuine leather. Finally he turned the box
upside down and shook it until a smaller box tumbled out of the stuffing, brushed his knee, and hit the floor. This was no
toy. It was a football, the real thing.
Elvis leaped and whooped and hugged his parents, smiling so big he could barely see. His dad helped him remove the cardboard
casing. “Let me toss it to you,” George said.
“Not in the house,” his mother said, so his dad under-handed the ball to Elvis from a few feet away. The boy gathered it in
as he dove onto the couch.
He lay on his stomach and turned the ball so he could read the imprint. “What’s it say, Dad?”
“Let me see,” his dad said, but the boy only tilted it toward him. He wasn’t going to let go of it for a long time, maybe
George Jackson stood over Elvis and read, “American Leather, Athens City, Alabama.” He started to read the fine print, but
the boy had heard enough.
“That’s where Santa got it?” he said. “That’s where they make them?”
“Looks like it.”
The boy kept the ball with him all the time. It rested in his lap at the dinner table. He slept with it. And until he took
it to school in January, he and his dad played catch in the snow every day until their fingers were numb.
y daughter Rachel says she knew when her mom died because I knocked on her bedroom door and nobody ever did that. I was stalling
for time and for God to give me something to say. Time ran out and I’m still waiting for how to say it. Fact is, Estelle’s
mother called from her shift at the hospital—we traded off—and told me to bring Rachel. “She’s gone then?” I said, barely
able to speak. The cancer had won after all.
Rachel made it easy for me. She opened the door and hugged my neck so tight I had to ease her back so I could breathe.
That had happened only a couple of months after Jack Schuler’s funeral, which his own mother didn’t come to. Story was that
the only way Buster could even hope to hang onto his marriage was to follow Helena back to her people in Kansas City, Missouri,
and even then he was never able to keep her sober. He taught some school back there but never did any more coaching. Even
though he wasn’t an old man I guess he just put in his time teaching and fished every chance he got. People say Helena was
in and out of the hospital for alcoholism but that was none of my business and it isn’t like Buster and I were ever friends
enough that he’d report that kinda stuff to me. When you play high school ball for a guy you don’t become his pal. Least that’s
what I always thought until last fall.
I had an idea how Coach must’ve thrown himself into saving his marriage, cause I didn’t know what else to do myself but keep
working and make sure I was always there for Rachel. I didn’t know Estelle had left me the football factory until I had to
know it and I’m sure if she knew the grief it brought me she never woulda done it. But in a way it was good because with me
being in charge I set my own hours. Her people never forgave me for her giving me the business, which I could never figure
out. I woulda given it to them cept it was clear she knew what she wanted to do by the way she worded it, and there was no
way I was going to go against the wishes of a dead woman even if she wasn’t my wife and I didn’t love her with all my heart,
which she was and I did.
That caused more than tension, as you can imagine, so I was pretty much left without help raising my daughter, which turned
out to be a good thing, in a way. Sure, I would’ve liked to have a woman in the house for Rachel’s sake. Not for mine, cause
even though I was still pretty young I couldn’t imagine ever actually loving anybody but Estelle—at least up to recent—but
I had to be both mother and dad to Rachel. Turns out that was good for both of us—well, I shouldn’t speak for her—but basically
I just did what I had to do because I had no choice. I got to be best friends with Rachel rather than just her daddy.
Since I was a young man I’d done every job at the factory from shipping and receiving to cutting cowhide to sewing and turning
and lacing and even molding and inflating, stamping and painting. So except for in-law relations who resented me, everybody
there knew I knew how to make a football and make the place work. They also knew I wasn’t gonna be there till Rachel was off
to school each day and that I would be going home in time to be there when she got back. I never woulda seen myself as a briefcase-toting
kind of guy, but I learned to lug a slew of papers with me so when she was in bed I could keep the business of the place going
and not have to get a baby-sitter.
In the summertime when she was a kid, Rachel came to work with me every day and played with other kids who came with their
parents. I got some kind of award from the state for childcare innovation, but the truth is I couldn’t see doing something
I wouldn’t let other workers do, so I let em bring their kids and made sure they were taken care of. Now if I just coulda
kept my assistant Bev from wanting to spend more time around those kids than in my office … What can I say? You can’t change
a person’s basic bent.
American Leather is one of those small-town factories that’s pretty simple and straightforward. We got one product that takes
a lot a people to produce. It starts out as a pallet of stacked cowhides cut so clean off the animals that they look like
they could be put back on like snug jackets. Our supplier in Chicago does the dirty work, cutting each hide in as big a single
piece as they can, dyeing em and putting the dimpling on em, even embedding that tackiness that will make the ball easier
I’ll never forget the first summer I worked there and learned what “top grain” meant. I’d always thought it described the
outer layer of the hide, but it’s simpler than that. The top grain is the top of the cow, the part that has the fewest blemishes
(which we in the biz call “blems”), cause the side of the animal gets the most barbed wire nicks and parasite holes. Your
best footballs come from top grain.
Cutting machines use a pattern in the shape of a quarter of a football and chop as many of those out of every hide as possible.
Course, the more experienced the cutter, the more sets of four pieces (number-stamped and kept together through the whole
process) we get out of each hide. When all that’s left of the hide are the tiny spaces between the cutouts, a smaller pattern
gets us the little pieces that make keyrings and such.
Those four quarter pieces are sewed together inside out with hundred-year-old sewing machines, then the balls are turned inside
out to put the stitches on the inside. The guys who do that turning—man, they’re the stars. I mean, everybody has his place
in the process, but a man who can turn hundreds of balls a day is a wonder of nature. (Our top guy, Lee Forest, when he was
young and in shape and cooking, once turned a hundred balls an hour for eight hours straight. Bet he slept that night.)
Course after that there’s inserting the bladder, lacing, inflating and shaping, stamping logos, and painting stripes. Like
I say, it’s all we do, but there’s a lot a steps and a lot a people involved. I love the simplicity of it. You can do it cheap
and careless or you can use the best materials and hire people who work with pride. Hiring’s my favorite part. Laying off
people is the worst, and I’ve done enough of that the last few years to last a lifetime.
Doing what I had to do made me grow up quick. Though I was an age when I ought to have been grown up anyway, being a single
father made me serious-minded overnight. I’d always been a churchgoer, a Christian since I was a little boy, and Estelle had
really showed me what faith was—right up until the day she died. But I couldn’t see ever being as devout as she was until
I was sort of forced into it by being sadder and lonelier than a transferred fourth grader. All of a sudden God and church
and other believers went from being something I sorta liked because I was comfortable there to being my very source of life.
I needed Jesus for more than my eternal salvation then, and before you knew it I was praying more, reading my Bible more,
singing like I meant it because I did, and dragging Rachel to church every time the door was open.