Authors: Jerry B. Jenkins
That was nothing but natural to her, because I was now the way her mom had been and Rachel had never known different. I had
gone along before and been happy to do it, but I didn’t know I would do it without living with Estelle’s example until I realized
I was at the end of myself without it.
Rachel, bless her heart, was just like her mama. She believed with everything in her that Estelle was in heaven and that someday
we’d see her again. I wasn’t intellectual enough to be a doubter, but it sure was comforting to know that the more of God
I realized I needed, the more of Him I learned to know.
That’s not to say that either Rachel or I were perfect saints or that we didn’t have our all-night crying sessions. The best
thing my pastor ever told me was that the Bible said we weren’t supposed to grieve like the heathens do— without hope, that
is—but we are to grieve and grieve with all our might. We did that all right and sometimes we still do, all these years later.
But Rachel and me sorta grew up together. She’s my whole life, and she knows it. And, oh, how she’s grown to look like her
mama, dark-haired and dark-eyed with perfect skin and a thin little voice. She’s passionate about what she believes in whether
it has to do with God or with saving her school or our town or the factory.
nd now, a dozen years after we somehow numbed our way through two tragedies inside a few months, the school, the town, and
the factory were in trouble. Most people traced the whole mess straight back to the day Jack Schuler died and Buster Schuler
resigned. When you’ve lost your wife and your little girl’s mama it’s hard to place as much importance on football misfortunes,
but it’s hard to argue with the fact that when Athens City High School football went in the Dumpster, the leading business
in town (now mine) and the town itself weren’t far behind.
Last fall Rachel started her sophomore year and became a Fellowship of Christian Athletes prayer warrior. She also heard the
rumors that with the dwindling school population and the loss of business at American Leather, everything she knew and counted
on was in trouble. I had tried to keep from her my pressures at work, but after a while there was no hiding that I had laid
off nearly two-thirds of the three hundred employees we’d had when I first inherited the company. People without jobs tend
to move away, so businesses were closing, the school getting smaller, and stories floating about what it all meant. The problem
with the stories was that they were true.
Athens City High School was nearing a critical point where if it lost many more students, the county would shut it down and—horror
of horrors—send our kids up the road to Rock Hill, which was closer to the popular retirement community of Fairhope (and its
strong tax base) and closer to Mobile Bay and its seasonal but healthy tourist trade.
Every time we’d drive or walk through town and see more boarded-up storefronts, Rachel would tell me she and God weren’t going
to let the town die. “That so?” I’d say.
“I’m praying,” she’d say.
I’d become a praying man myself, but I wasn’t sure God cared that much about Athens City. Surely He had bigger fish to fry.
But I didn’t tell Rachel that. If her faith hadn’t been crushed by the death of her own mama, I wasn’t gonna try to threaten
it by questioning God’s interest in the things she cared most about now. And it was easy to see what she cared about because
she was a pack rat, a collector, a—what’s she call it?—a memorializer. Her mirror was covered with pictures and pennants and
clippings. And on her dresser, under a yellowed newspaper with the headline “Coach Schuler Resigns,” was the very toy football
she had with her the night Jack Schuler died.
She’d never taken it to another game, but she’d never thrown it out either. We still never missed a home game. But, oh, that
became a sad chore. The crowds faded to next to nothing and the team barely ever strung together two wins in a row. People
talk about how amazing it was that Athens City had more than twice the state championships of any other team in Alabama. But
to me the most miraculous statistic was that up until the Jack Schuler game, in sixty-five years the school had never had
more than three straight losing seasons, and that had happened only once in the 1930s.
In Buster Schuler’s sixteen years as head coach at Athens City, he had never coached a losing team. This previous fall the
Crusaders, under their third hopeless coach since Schuler, had suffered through their twelfth straight losing season. The
county school board had even talked us into changing our colors to blue and white, as if that would erase memories of the
tragedy we’d seen on that field. The worst idea had been the Jack F. Schuler memorial scholarship, awarded every year to the
Most Valuable Player. It paid one kid’s way to Alabama every year, but choosing the best player on awful teams had become
almost impossible. None of em had ever been good enough to make Bama’s football team, but they got the free education anyway.
I finally figured out that the only reason anybody ever came out for football at Athens City High anymore was that long shot
chance at the Bama lottery. I guess it didn’t matter to them how the team did as long as one kid stood out enough to win the
prize. All I could do, Friday night after Friday night, was sit there and shake my head at the absence of team effort. Every
kid with half an ounce of talent was playing for himself.
Rachel didn’t drive yet, so she still rode with me to every game, but she had her own friends to sit with now. Usually she
wound up sitting with Josie, another FCA prayer warrior. Josie’d been going with Brian Schuler, Buster’s nephew, who was the
hot new quarterback. The kid had talent, but he was clearly not a team player. He threw three-fourths of the time and though
he had a strong arm and good speed, his stats were terrible. He was poorly coached, and the only hope I saw on the horizon
was that the head coach, believing what he was hearing around town, had already announced he would not be back.
The search was on for a new coach, but who would take the job for what would likely be just one season? Nobody I knew, and
that included me. I didn’t even have time for junior leagues anymore. It was all I could do to keep the tradition of showing
up for home games while trying to keep American Leather’s business from going overseas and trying to let my daughter go while
still hanging onto her for dear life.
Rachel said she was praying for a miracle for the school, the town, and my business. Well, she wasn’t the only one. I was
already getting signals from our biggest customer, The Dixie States Association of High Schools, that their long-term association
with American Leather might be starting to unravel. That would do us in for good, them accounting for right around 40 percent
of our business. I believed their president, Chucky Charles, was more than a client though. We’d been friendly over the years
if not exactly friends, but that was only because of the hundreds of miles between my office and his in Little Rock.
So the Athens City Crusaders’ 2000 season had been another cesspool in which they’d missed the play-offs for the twelfth straight
time. Even I didn’t know if I’d be able to stomach one more season, and I admit I sided with those on the county school board
who said it might not be worth the expense and the trouble to field one more team, especially if they couldn’t find a coach
But Fred Kennedy, chairman of the county school board, had decided that since I ran American Leather I must know everybody
in the football world, so he’d asked if I’d try to find someone to take the final season. The board gave me till the end of
the school year. All I could think of was to ask the freshman and jayvee coaches of neighboring schools if anyone wanted to
get one varsity year under his belt before testing the waters elsewhere. I thought it was a decent idea, and I figured someone
might bite. The board loaded me down with the films of all the games of the last season, which I thought might be better to
burn or somehow misplace than show anybody.
But I never got the chance to ask around whether some bold young coach was even interested in talking about the job. I guess
you could say Rachel’s and my prayers, at least the ones for the football team, got answered.
o it’s a little less than a year ago now and I’m sitting in my office at the factory with two things on my mind. The first
is sorta never off my mind and if you’ve ever been responsible for a business and more directly lots of people and their livelihoods,
you know what that is. I’m not a neat-desk kind of a guy and even though I own the business the only luxury I got is Bev Raschke,
the kid-loving assistant who answers my phone before I do. (She, of course, really runs the place, which is the joke I tell
every day and which isn’t so funny or far off when you get down to it.) I don’t even have a nice office. I’ve only got one
window and that looks out past Bev’s cubicle onto the floor.
Anyway, I’m sitting there noodling how to keep the place alive and not lay off any more people while still trying to meet
the business we do still have coming in.
My chief financial officer thinks I ought to be spending more time schmoozing Chucky Charles, and she’s probably right cause
Chucky’s told me he’s been getting courted by the competition. Well, I don’t know how we could be doing a better job for Dixie
States, and anyway I think my workers need to see me looking out for them. I’m down to the really old and valuable veterans,
some a which been with us longer than I have. But I’ve already got em overworked and underpaid and now I’m asking for overtime
and they’re taking it cause they know if they don’t I’ll find someone who will. So that’s first and foremost, as old Benton
Estes used to be fond of saying.
Second, I’m thinking about the short drive north to see Rock Hill in their first playoff game. I’d like to see somebody give
em a decent contest. We sure hadn’t. They’d shut us out for the third year in a row, cruising along toward their second straight
state title, undefeated and not even outscored for one half in all that time. I hate em on principle. Maybe their snotty coach
isn’t as bad as he seems, but he sure likes to gloat. He’s been around for twenty years and he’s got to be enjoying his revenge
against so many losses to Athens City in his early days. They’re gonna play Beach, who might be able to give em a game; they’d
beat us almost as bad as Rock Hill had, although that doesn’t always mean much.
I had my eye on the assistant coach at Beach, who had to be looking for some other opportunity because the guy he was coaching
under wasn’t much older than he was and didn’t look to be going anywhere soon himself. I couldn’t imagine a coach in a good
program leaving for the thankless job I’ve got to offer, but stranger things have happened and some guys’ll do pretty much
anything to get a head coach title on their resume.
I probably wouldn’t have gone to the Rock Hill game if I hadn’t wanted to scout this assistant. Rachel couldn’t go cause of
some deal at church and I didn’t really want to go alone. I sighed, looking at another request from some school group that
wanted to tour the plant, wondering if the kids would wind up disappointed at how small the operation had become or whether
they’d be at all fascinated by the process. I still was, but you kinda gotta be to stick with it as long as I had. We’d been
putting off the tours until we had enough requests that we could group em and run em through all in one morning or afternoon.
Bev and I were the only ones with the time to take em through, and I’d just recently dumped assisting the Human Resources
department on her too.
Bev was a handsome woman a couple years older than me who’d been with American Leather since she was in high school. She’d
never married, but somehow we’d been spared too much of the getting-together suggestions that most other eligible ladies and
I get from everybody, cause even though we go to the same church and work together, Bev’s got a way of acting older than she
is and sorta mothering me, so people just don’t see us that way—at least I don’t. Plus she’s got two cats, and that’s about
all I need to know about a woman.
Now she’s heading for lunch. “You want me to pick you up something from Carl’s Jr.?” she asks. I tell her yeah, thanks, the
usual, but she says no.
“No?” I say.
“No, sir,” she says. “You eat one more of them grilled chicken thingies and you’ll be clucking before you know it. Now you
can’t weigh a pound more’n you did when you graduated high school, so it won’t kill you to have a little red meat.”
“It might,” I say, proud to have stayed in shape despite the scrambled knee—and halfway impressed that she noticed.
“Well, what say we find out? I’m bringing you back their biggest, meatiest, cheesiest burger with the special fries and you’re
gonna danged well eat it all.”
“Can I at least have a diet drink with that?”
“You’re hopeless,” she said. “All right.”
“And you’ve got to eat the same.”
“Now, no! I’m only getting you that cause I can’t. I’m up two pounds and just want to enjoy it, whatcha call it, vicariously.”
I didn’t see the two pounds on her but I wasn’t about to say that. I just waved her off. “So you’re gonna watch me eat, is
that it, Bev?”
“No, but I’ll smell it and know you’re enjoying it. Now promise me you’ll ignore the phone. I got it on the machine and the
world will survive without you for a few minutes.”
She was back in less than half an hour, during which I scoped out a new work schedule for the lock stitchers and obeyed her
by ignoring a phone call. She plopped the greasy bag and Diet Coke on my desk, and I said, “There’s one message waiting.”
“I noticed. How’d you manage to ignore it?”
“Learning to obey, Mother,” I said. I took a huge bite of the double cheeseburger while Bev checked the message at her desk.
With the phone to her ear, she spun in her chair to look at me. Course the first thing I thought was Rachel and I was already
kicking myself for not having picked up the phone. I forced the bite into my cheek and mashed the intercom button. “What?”