Authors: Jerry B. Jenkins
The cheerleaders look at each other and scowl, reluctantly beginning to disperse. The crowd in the stands stays seated. The
coach looks up and, with a wide sweep of his hand, says, “That goes for all of y’all too! Thanks for coming, now bye-bye!”
It’s clear people are mad, but nobody’s gonna make waves while their kid is trying to make the team that might win him a scholarship.
They shake their heads and trudge down out of the stands while Schuler watches until the place is empty of everyone but football
players and coaches. He turns to the players, replaces his hat, and hands his clipboard to me. “Coach Sawyer, line em up.”
Once everyone’s in place he unbuttons his sport coat and puts his hands on his hips, striding to the front row of players.
He wrinkles his nose and sniffs. “You smell that?” he hollers. Yash turns his nose to his shoulder and lifts his arm. “What
is that?” Coach says. He squats and pulls up a few blades of grass, holding em under his nose. “Yeah, that’s it,” he says,
rising. “Everybody on your faces!” A few of the veterans and a new kid in a red stocking cap drop to the ground. The others
hesitate, and Schuler shows them who’s in charge. “Down on your faces!” he shouts, and the rest drop. Sherman Naters whispers
to Yash, “Old man’s crazier’n we heard.”
“Now breathe, deep! Do you smell it? That, dawgs, is the smell of death! Over a decade of dead hopes and dreams, buried right
here! The curse of individualism grows like a weed on this field—the curse that we call the Jack F. Schuler scholarship!”
He plants his foot atop a player’s head. “I didn’t say lift your head, son. Keep your face in the grass. The scholarship fosters
visions of grandeur, dreams of personal glory! It guarantees disunity and prideful individualism! And worst of all—worst of
all—losing seasons! Hear this, dawgs! I am the cure to this curse!”
• • •
I didn’t know who was who yet, but course it didn’t matter. Coach whispered, “Let’s see if we can’t get about three dozen
of these pretenders to cut themselves today.”
“I’m gonna cut this group to forty-eight by Monday, and there’s got to be near a hundred here.”
I looked at my printout. “Ninety-nine, Coach.”
“No sense cutting more’n I keep if I can get em to do it themselves. I can spot the druggies and the boozers from fifty yards,
so we’ll start there.”
I knew what he was fixing to do. I’d been there with him and with Bear. You think you’re a football player until you find
out what kinda shape a real coach expects you to be in. We got those boys hitting, running, and whatnot, and before you knew
it, guys were just flat leaving the field. They left with their heads down as if they didn’t want to face us, but Coach didn’t
put em down. He called out to em, thanking them for their time and their effort. “Just leave your equipment in the field house,
and please support us in the stands this season, ya hear?”
Some guys were in good enough shape but just too small. When they went flying from some pretty good licks, Coach would pat
em on the shoulder, thank em, and send em packing. “You play an instrument?” he’d ask. “Band practice is in the gym.” One
guy couldn’t run the tires to save his life. Coach told him, “Soccer team needs help.”
While Coach concentrated on weeding em out, I was looking for guys with promise. I knew Coach wanted tough, fast, hard workers.
One new kid was pale enough to be a Yankee, so I listened for an accent. Only thing that worried me bout him was he looked
a little light. He was cut and tough, but he seemed to take hits personally, his serious, light blue eyes glaring from under
a sticking-out brow at whoever gave him a good shot. I liked the way he worked and sweat and moved, but I kept fearing Coach
would see his size or his attitude and cut him on account of one or the other.
When the guys line up to hit the inflated blocking dummies, they’re sposed to fire off and bang one, then hit the ground,
roll past one and hit the next. Well, the sun was riding high by then and a lot a guys had staggered off to quit, but Yankee
smacked harder’n a guy his size ought to have been able. He made the suckers pop and everybody kinda looked up. Danged if
Schuler didn’t stop the drill and get in the kid’s face. “Son, thanks, but unless you can kick, I don’t want anybody under
one sixty-five.” He turned to the rest. “This is varsity competition. I want boys raised on meat and potatoes.”
As Coach moved away, Yankee grabbed his arm. That’s a no-no sure as you’re standing there, and I figured the kid was history.
“I like my steak rare and my potatoes mashed,” he said. A northerner for sure. “And I weigh one seventy-three.”
As if he’d forgot he had just cut him, Coach took the boy’s hand off his arm and said, “Son, don’t ever, ever stick your paw
in this cage. You’re gonna pay for that in sweat.” He nodded toward the stadium steps, and the boy took off. Far as I knew,
that was the first player Coach ever cut and then welcomed back just so he could punish him. I watched the boy run up and
down and up and down, never losing steam. I couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t six feet tall, but he ran with long, springy strides.
When he rejoined the others, he led the way in push-ups, sprints, and loose ball drills. I got to dreaming we might’ve actually
found us a player.
The sixty-five or so survivors were finally cut loose to head for the field house. “Pads off and don’t get a drink till after
you’ve been weighed,” Schuler said. “I’m not recording no water weight.”
I told the boys to line up in alphabetical order, which might sound kinda dumb when they didn’t all know each other, but if
you think about it, it makes a crazy kind a sense. It forced em to talk to each other and it told us which of em knew the
alphabet. Gotta have smart players.
I read names off my list, and if nobody stepped up, I knew they’d already been cut or cut themselves. It was hard to see Coach
cut boys for just not weighing enough, and I found myself hoping Yankee hadn’t sweat off too much of his 173. I mean, there
was no way a boy that size woulda lost more’n eight pounds, even in the Alabama sun, but there was also no way that guy weighed
When he was next in line, I was past the H’s and I’s. I couldn’t believe the next name on the list. “Are you kidding me?”
I said to Coach. “
“That’s me,” the boy said, hands clasped in front of him at the waist. “And yeah, the middle name’s ‘Presley.’”
“Says here today’s your eighteenth birthday,” I said.
He nodded and stepped onto the scale and I started sliding the bar. “Born on the anniversary of the king’s death,” he said.
“That so?” I said, keeping my eyes on the scale. I wasn’t gonna let him distract me.
“My mama went to his last concert, and when I was born on the—”
“Yeah,” Coach said, “that’s more than we need to know, son. Happy birthday and shut up now.”
I was amazed to see that bar slide into the high 160s and then past 170. “One hundred seventy-one,” I said, raising my eyebrows
Elvis Presley Jackson smiled. “Your scale’s reading light.”
Schuler shook his head and studied the boy. “You are without a doubt.”
Jackson stepped down and headed for a locker. I entered the figure next to his name then glanced up in time to see him pull
a ten-pound barbell from under his shirt. I caught Schuler’s eye and nodded toward the kid. Coach didn’t turn. “I know,” he
said. “Anybody wants to play that bad is worth one more day.”
Several boys later I called out “Sherman Naters!” and Tee’s boy stepped on the scale.
“The Shermanater!” he said, flexing and growling, making both of us laugh. But the boy’s face grew tense as I edged the bar
past 160 and finally to 165. As if we would’ve cut him. He was still the most impressive defensive player on the field. Naters
grinned and breathed a huge sigh. “That’s right, baby!”
• • •
Later, on the way to my car I saw Jackson. “Where you from, boy?”
“Figured that. How far?”
“Daddy get transferred?”
“Uh-huh.” Another gold digger. Well, I for one was hoping he’d be worth it.
By Monday Coach had trimmed the squad to forty-eight, and Elvis Jackson was still with us.
achel sat on the floor with other “lady warriors” at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting. Some were painting fresh
A’s on game helmets, while another helmet was passed, from which the girls each drew a player’s number. This would be the
player each person would pray for during the season.
Josie sat looking miserable. “One small step for Athens City football and one giant step backward for women’s rights.”
“Uh-huh, sure,” Rachel said. They’d been through this so many times. “Nobody’s forcing you to do this. The girls who want
to play sports are playing sports. The ones who want to pray for football players are here.”
Rachel drew number 99 and passed the helmet to Josie.
“Oh, no,” Josie wailed. “Number 40! Mandatory swap. It’s article 3, section 2 of the ex-boyfriend manual!”
Rachel slumped. “So Brian’s your ex-boyfriend again now?”
“I take a backseat to this lame game four months out of every year. I’m not going to do it again.” She sat holding the number
in Rachel’s face.
“I always hated blonde jokes till I met you,” Rachel said, finally trading with her.
he moment has arrived!” I announced in the locker room after the first practice following tryouts. I set the box of game jerseys
on the table and the players cheered as I pulled out the first one—number 88—and fired it across the locker room to Yash,
who snagged it. “Be bout the only thing I catch this year, huh?”
At least he was catching on. I smiled. “That’s the way the bone rolls.” I pulled out number 55. “Shermanater,” I said, and
the boy stood and gathered it in. “Wear it well, son.”
The next jersey in the box was number 40, but as I lifted it out and called “Schuler,” Elvis Jackson pounced, grabbing it
out of my hands.
“Thanks, Coach Sawyer,” he said. And as he moved past he looked over his shoulder, “I look forward to starting for you, sir.”
Cause he wasn’t looking where he was going, he ran right into Brian Schuler, who flashed a phony smile and said, “Well, welcome
to Athens City.” He looked from Elvis to some of his friends for support. “Uh, ever since I was little, I been looking forward
to senior season. And ever since I was little, I been wearing number 40. Tradition is real important round here.”
Jackson kept hold of the jersey. “Do you have any idea who wore number 40?” he said.
Brian shook his head as if he didn’t know or care.
“Gayle Sayers,” Jackson announced. I was impressed. Who would know that about a player who retired long before he was born?
Somebody named after a dead singer, I guess. He told Brian, “The way I figure it, the fastest man on the team should wear
number 40. Tell you what. You prove you deserve this, you can have it back.”
The veterans hooted like they couldn’t wait to see what Brian was gonna do to this brash kid. I thought about making him give
it up myself, but there’s nothing wrong with a little healthy competition, something to shake things up.
“Hang on just a second,” Brian said when Jackson tried to slip past. “You’re new. I’m not. But I am one heck of a nice guy,
so I’m gonna give you a little friendly advice. Don’t tug on Superman’s cape.”
“I don’t have to,” Elvis said, yanking the jersey away as Brian reached for it. “See, I’m the one holding it.”
Brian pressed his lips together and drew back a fist, and I started heading that way just as Coach Schuler stepped into the
locker room. The two boys stood nose to nose as Schuler said, “I forgot to tell you boys to make sure they know at home about
the two-a-day practices this whole month.” He started to turn away, then turned back, smiling faintly at Elvis and Brian.
“And if I hear of any altercations in the ranks, well, Truman dealt more mercy to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
As Coach Schuler left, I stepped between the boys. From the corner, Snoot Nino, our little kicker, called out, “
“Study your history, doofus,” Yash said.
s was their custom on the day the players received their game jerseys, Rachel and Josie and several other FCA girls stood
in the parking lot, waiting to announce to each player who was his prayer warrior for the season. Rachel wasn’t any more excited
about being assigned to Brian Schuler than Josie would have been, but at least they had no romantic history. She was stunned
to see Brian emerge wearing number 12. Abel Gordon followed, wearing the number 99 Josie had traded for. Josie’s eyes lit
And there came Rachel’s number 40. “Who
that?” she asked as Josie grabbed Abel’s hand.
“Elvis Presley something,” Abel said, telling of the jersey confrontation and warming to Josie’s attention. The new kid apparently
didn’t know anyone and didn’t have a car. He hurried past and headed toward town. Since Rachel wanted to try one more time
to get Tee to put a Save Our School flyer in her diner window anyway, she followed number 40 from a distance. When he entered
Sweet Tee’s, she decided to make the rounds of other businesses and come back later. It wouldn’t take long. Almost half the
storefronts were boarded up by now anyway.
lvis found the place deserted except for Tee, who was tidying up before closing. As he moved toward the counter, he heard
a car door slam in the alley behind the diner. In came Sherman. He pecked his mother on the cheek and held up his new jersey.
Then he threw on an apron, giving Elvis a knowing look.
Elvis sat at the counter, and Tee said, “Sorry, son, kitchen’s closed.”
“Can I just get a cup of hot water?”
She raised a brow and poured him one in a coffee cup. He squirted catsup into it and added salt and pepper. “That’s all,”
he said. “Thanks.”