High school is part wonderful, part wrenching for most everyone.
Along the way, for the lucky ones, personal growth occurs.
I look at another section of the trophy case, one I’d looked at when I was a student here. The most recent trophies are in one section. The older ones are in the other.
There’s a smaller trophy from many years ago. It also is for a state-championship football team. There’s a plaque on it that shows all the names of all the players. My dad’s name is one of them. Seeing that reminds me of a story he told me when I was very young, one that had nothing to do with football.
My dad was never much on religion. His parents were both strict Catholics, and as a kid he not only attended their Sunday services but would go to church with his mom on Wednesday evenings as well. When I was younger, probably six or seven, I remember asking him about church, because I’d never been.
I’d hardly spent any time with his parents. My grandfather always seemed angry about something, and my grandmother was very quiet and seemed more severe than she had any reason to be. She certainly wasn’t the huggy, warm grandmother inhabiting so many of the books I had read or that had been read to me. We didn’t visit them often, maybe once every couple of years. I was happy with that. I always felt tension in the air when I was there. My grandparents were only civil to my dad, and they mostly ignored me.
It was after one visit there that I asked my dad about church. “Daddy, why don’t we go to church? Grandpa said only people who go to church can go to heaven.”
My dad grimaced. Then he took me into the living room and sat down on the couch. I sat down next to him.
“Whit, I was forced to go to church when I was your age. I was told what to believe. There was a lot of fear behind what I was told. Like, that you couldn’t go to heaven if you didn’t do this or didn’t believe that. As I got older, I began to have questions about what I was being told. Some of the teachings seemed to conflict with other teachings. And some seemed wrong to me or didn’t make much sense. I didn’t get answers to my questions. Instead, I got punished for not believing what I was told to believe. I was supposed to simply believe, to have blind faith, and not question anything. To my father, asking a question was showing a lack of faith, and that was something he could not, would not, put up with. I was called names and sent to my room, sometimes with a beating if I was persistent in questioning things and not getting answers. So, I stopped asking questions. I didn’t stop thinking, though. I was free to do that. The beatings made it more important to me to think about what bothered me.”
Dad stopped, clearly remembering that time in his life. My dad was the greatest person I knew. He was honest and loving and kind and gentle, but there was steel in him, too. I hated thinking of him being beaten for asking a question. I could ask him anything, say anything, and never be punished. Sometimes he’d get angry, but my being hit? Never! Not Clay, not me.
“So, we don’t go to church because you never got your questions answered?” While he’d been quiet, I’d been thinking, and I’d realized he hadn’t answered my question.
“No, not really.” He put his arm around my shoulders, and I snuggled into his side. “I told you I was forced to go to church, to believe what they believed, and when I had questions they wouldn’t answer, questions I learned not to ask, some of those questions became doubts. I couldn’t talk about them. But I had them. And when you have doubts but are still forced to go to church twice a week, some of those doubts turn into something else, like disbelief—or even anger. You sometimes start shutting out what they want you to hear and questioning more and more of what you do hear.
“I started hating going to church, but going was a big part of my parents’ life. As I got older, the rift between us got bigger and bigger. I wasn’t supposed to have any original thoughts about religion. I was supposed to believe what they believed, what they’d been taught to believe. And I found myself trying to make sense of the world and God on my own—make sense in a way that worked for me.”
He stopped, and I thought about that, and realized he had answered my question. I told him what I was thinking, making it a question just to be sure. “So you don’t make us go to church because you want us to do what you did: figure out what we believe without anyone else telling us what to believe?”
He smiled. “Yeah, that’s a big part of it. Kids learn so much from watching and listening. You’re getting a good grounding in morality at home. You watch how I do things and then copy me with your own behavior. You get different influences at school, but I watch you just as you watch me, and I see you pick and choose your friends. I like the ones you’ve picked. Some people feel the only way you can be a good person and learn right from wrong and good moral behavior is through a church. I don’t think that’s true; in fact, I’m sure it’s not. But if you want to go to church, you can. I want that decision to be yours.”
I thought I’d tease him a little. We rarely touched on just serious matters. There was a lot of humor and gentle teasing in our family. So I said, “So, it’s okay if, the next time we visit your parents, I sit down and talk to Grandpa, just to find out what I should believe?”
I thought he’d laugh. I was surprised when he said, “That’s a good thing for you to do if you want to. You’ll hear what I heard at your age. It’s entirely up to you how much of it you accept or if there’s some of it you want to reject. Maybe it’ll give you questions like it did me. Maybe you’ll find something you like in it. Just remember, you’re you, and who you are is what you believe and how you act. Those are the freedoms you have.”
He may have thought that was the end of it, but I was always a curious boy. We saw his parents again at Thanksgiving that year, the year I was seven. We usually avoided Thanksgiving with them, but this year it was a family reunion with Dad’s brothers coming home, and we went. I did take the time on that trip to talk to my grandpa. Dad was right, he had some very strong opinions on a whole lot of things, and he was happy that I’d asked. I was surprised at the strength of his convictions, surprised by some of what he told me, and when I left I had a lot to think about.
Dad saw I was quieter than usual going home and asked about it. I told him I’d spoken about religion and beliefs with Grandpa. Dad nodded. “What you heard in one sitting, I heard throughout my childhood, and it was over and over again. I see you’re thinking about it. That’s exactly what you should do. Accept and reject whatever you want. That’s what I did. That’s what you should do.”
That’s all that was said about it. We never did go to church. Speaking with my grandpa hadn’t changed that at all.
The large trophy calls me back. My name is on the plaque, the first trophy to have that. My freshman year. My first year with Coach T.
I didn’t understand Coach T. He didn’t understand me, either. I was going to do things my way if his way conflicted with what I’d been taught. It wasn’t so much that I thought I was right and he was wrong or that I knew everything I needed to know about being a quarterback—and certainly more than he did. It wasn’t that at all. It was more that I’d been taught what I knew about football from my dad. He’d taught Clay, as well. Clay had become an All State QB. I didn’t care about that. I cared about playing football the right way—doing what worked best for me and the team: doing what was right and what worked.
I always thought Coach T was more interested in having kids do things as he told them to because of some sort of power trip he was on. You did things his way, and even if they didn’t work, he’d pat you on the back. You didn’t do things exactly the way he wanted them done, and no matter if they worked or not, you were in for a yelling match, a one-sided one because he was the one doing all the yelling.
So, I could do what my dad had showed me—winning ways to do things—or I could listen to my coach and change how I did things and sometimes we suffered as a team as a result.
That made for an easy decision for me. I played football not because it made me a bright light at the school, made me famous, made me popular, and I didn’t like any of that. No, I played football because I was good at it and loved the game. But I wouldn’t have loved it if I had to things Coach T’s way.
It was easy to remember a perfect example of this.
We were playing Endicott. They weren’t very good, and we were. They were undersized and had very few seniors on the team. They also had a new coach, a teacher at their school who was new to coaching. It wasn’t a fair contest at all.
The local paper had written it up that we should win by 50 points. Anything less, they said, and it would show we weren’t as good as we were supposed to be and that our previous wins had probably included a lot of lucky breaks.
Before the game, Coach T told us he wanted to score big that night. He didn’t say why, but we all knew. He loved being the coach of an undefeated team and wanted the reputation he got from that. He wanted to win by more than 50 points; he wanted to show everyone who’d read that newspaper article that we were no fluke. He wanted to show everyone what a great coach he was.
At the end of the first quarter, it was 21-0. We could do anything we wanted. Their defense couldn’t stop us, especially their defensive backfield. They had no one close to as fast as Jake, and all their backs were small.
They had had some minimal success stopping our running plays. Our running backs weren’t standouts, but with our offensive line, they were plenty good enough in this game. We always had an excellent passing attack, however, and that was basically what won most games for us.
You can tell from expressions and body language how your opponents feel about a game. Endicott would have just as soon gone home at the end of that first quarter. Their defense was tired; they’d been on the field most of the quarter because their offense was three-downs-and-out every series. It was hopeless for them, and we all saw it wasn’t a fair competition. It would have been a better game if they’d have played our JV squad than our varsity.
I love football, but I don’t love routs. I didn’t like seeing the defeat in those guys’ eyes. I didn’t like seeing them stop trying.
The coach talked to us on the sidelines during the quarter break. “Okay, we’ve got them where we want them. Let’s step on the gas a little. Jake’s open every play, Whit. You’ve been throwing underneath too much. Start hitting him downfield. And defense, let’s start causing some turnovers. Don’t just tackle them, strip the ball. Every one of you lineman, cause a fumble. Anyone who doesn’t will be running extra laps in practice next week.”
I was shaking my head. Didn’t he see what I saw? They were beaten! Why rub it in? And punishing our guys for playing good clean football?
The start of the second quarter, we had the ball, and Coach sent in a post route for Jake. I hit him in stride. 28-0.
I told Coach T on the sidelines after that that we should let up. He looked at me like I was crazy. And then he reminded our defense that he wanted them to cause fumbles.
He got one on their second play. One of our tackles caught their running back and instead of tackling him, held him upright. Our middle linebacker, who outweighed their running back by fifty pounds, came and simply took the ball away from him. What happened next caused me to smile and the coach to have a conniption. John, the middle linebacker, had the ball, and he looked around, saw open field to the end zone, looked at their offensive players who weren’t even bothering to do anything but look at him, and he turned and tripped over his own feet.
Because of the fumble recovery, I was back on the field. Coach called a deep slant for Jake. I called an audible at the line and handed the ball to our fullback. He got three yards, and Coach called time out.
“What the fu . . . what was that? I called a pass. Jake was open.” I think the people in the stands could hear him, he was screaming so vehemently at me.
I could have made up any sort of excuse, but instead went with the truth. Anything else wouldn’t have felt right. I had a point to make, and I made it, not caring whether he liked it or not. “We’ve won the game. We have two and a half quarters still to play. You want to beat them by 200 points, we can. But I won’t. They’ve stopped playing. You should pull all us starters, play everyone else the rest of the way, and be happy with the win and the experience the guys who usually sit on the bench will get.”
I think only the fact we were out in the open and everyone was watching him kept him from exploding. “Are you telling me how to run my team?” he asked, but in a voice that had become so quiet and so cold I could barely hear him. His face was red enough to cook bacon on.
“Just a suggestion, Coach. But I will say this: you better take me out because I’m not throwing another pass today.”
“Damn right you’re not. You’re on the bench! We’ll discuss your future here after the game!”
So, I sat on the bench. Mark was our only backup, now that Teddy was gone. Mark wasn’t very good and couldn’t throw the deep ball at all. Jake sat out, too. When I went to the bench, he acted like he’d gone lame on the next play and ended up sitting next to me.
We won, but it was a better game with Mark playing. We weren’t so much better than them anymore, and that revived their spirits. They still couldn’t score; Coach never pulled his defensive starters. But we couldn’t score at will any longer. The final: 42-0.
Coach had a dilemma. Bench me or kick me off the team entirely, and his hopes for a state championship would be down the toilet. Let me play, and I’d already shown him I’d do things my way. It wasn’t hard for him. He wanted the championship more than he wanted to discipline me. But play me, and he’d lose some of the control that his ego demanded. He also knew that if he tried something like making me run laps or do sit-ups, the rest of the team would see it, and he might well have a mutiny on his hands. The guys were winning with me behind center, and they liked winning. We had a lot of seniors, and this was their shot. A lot of them were expecting to win college scholarships from their efforts this year. If we were a losing team, many of those hopes would dry up as college scouts stopped covering our games. Besides that, Coach was not popular at all with the other players. So, he was stuck, and other than chewing me out for doing something he didn’t like—which never was effective with me as I had my own idea of right and wrong on a football field—doing nothing about my private rebellion worked out for both of us—except that from then on, he hated me. That was okay; I didn’t have much use for him, either.
We were undefeated and had reached the state championship game. Everyone was nervous. The seniors had been here before—and lost. It was new to everyone else. Everyone was nervous. Somehow, in our heads we’d decided their team was one composed of giant linemen and lightning-fast receivers and defensive backs. We acted cocky, but privately we doubted we’d have much chance. We had a freshman QB, for God’s sake! I could see these feelings in everyone’s eyes.
Coach T was giving us his best inspirational speech before the game, talking about being undefeated, talking about this being our chance to show the world who we were, talking about all the scouts watching and how this was everyone’s chance to make it to the big time. He said we were better than they were, that we wanted it more, and it was time to go out there and prove it.
I couldn’t tell if he believed what he was saying or not. I knew he was nervous. I knew all about him by now from simply watching him all season at all the games. He was so different at games and practices than in the classroom. I’d figured out why. He wanted to be a big-time coach, not a high-school English teacher. Football was his passion. He wanted to succeed, and his way to do that was for us to win. Lose, and he was just another of thousands of high-school football coaches who’d never rise above that station.
Their team was good, very good. By far the best we’d faced. Our lack of really good running backs hurt us. They had a defensive line that wasn’t intimidated by our offensive line, and for the first time this year, our guys were evenly matched. We found out in the early going that to move the ball steadily, we’d have to do so by putting the ball in the air much more than was normal for us. We normally had a very balanced offense. Now, they were taking the run away from us.
I didn’t have as much time to pass as I usually did, which meant calling more slants and screens and quick outs. Even with those I was hurried some, and I ended up taking more hits in that game than I had the entire season up till then.
I didn’t have time to pass to Jake on any deep routes, and when I looked for him going long, he was covered. Finally, a corner back that could run with him! At the worst possible time, too.
The game was close. As much as they were controlling our offense, we were controlling theirs. It became a game of field position, and we were tied in the middle of the fourth quarter: 10-10. We’d made a 22-yard field goal in the third quarter to even the score.
We had the ball on our own 40-yard line with five minutes left when disaster hit. Coach called a draw play; I looked to pass, then handed off to our running back; he was met behind the line by their best defensive tackle who’d beaten our double-team. Their tackle got to our back almost at the same time I handed him the ball, and the fumble that ensued was gobbled up by one of their linebackers. He picked it up and rumbled untouched into the end zone. I tried to catch him, but he was way faster than I was. With the extra point, it was 17-10.
We got the ball back, and while I was connecting on short passes and we were gaining four, five yards a play, time was coming off the clock, and the end zone was still miles away. Then it was about gone. With about 20 seconds left, we were first and ten on their forty. Time for maybe two plays if we were lucky. We were out of timeouts.
In the huddle, Jake spoke, something he never did. “I can beat my man on a deep route. If he is inside me, I’ll break for the corner if he stays outside, I go for the post.”
I called the play, then told the linemen, “Give me some time. We miss on this, there’s only time for a Hail Mary.”
I dropped back with the ball, looked short to freeze the safeties, then checked Jake. His man was running right with him, staying between him and the sidelines, anticipating a pass that Jake could then run out of bounds with to stop the clock.
I knew Jake, I knew the routes he ran, and I trusted him. A linebacker was blitzing; I had no time. I lofted the ball toward the goal post.
I never saw the catch; the linebacker buried me. But I heard the noise from the side of the field where our fans were sitting. They erupted, and I knew Jake had somehow beaten his man.
We huddled at the sidelines, though without a timeout, we had very little time to think about a point-after-touchdown strategy—whether to kick for one point for a tie which would send the game into overtime, or to try to win the game—or lose it—attempting to run or pass the ball into the end zone. Coach was going to call for a kick. Jake had other ideas.
“Coach, we can win this. Believe in us, okay? Call an end-around play for me. We’ll win.”
Coach looked undecided, and the clock was ticking. He obviously didn’t know what to do.
I didn’t wait for him. I called the team back out onto the field and called the end-around, but told the linemen to stay behind the line of scrimmage and block, that Jake would do the rest.
The ball was snapped with only one second left on the play clock to get the play off. I watched as our left wide-out sprinted into the end zone, double-teamed by their defensive backs. Jake, on the far right, took a step over the line, then doubled back and crossed behind our line and behind me, running fast. I lateraled the ball to him, then moved back the way he’d come to block any trailing defensive men.
Everyone on their team, except a single defensive back who’d been assigned to Jake, was running to their right to stop Jake. That single defensive back was indecisive, watching Jake, glancing at me, shifting a bit, wanting to follow Jake across the field.
I faked a stumble and halfway went down; the back saw that and took off after Jake; I trotted into the end zone. Jake had their whole defense closing in on him and was hit just as he stopped and, off-balance, passed the ball in my direction.
It seemed an eternity for it to come down. I stood under it, waiting, while everyone on their team was racing toward me. The ball beat them, however, I cradled it and took a knee, and we’d won, 18-17.
I’m not one for trophies and awards and such. I play the game for the game, the competition, the feelings I get when playing. But that trophy, that one we were awarded for winning the state-championship in my freshman year, means a lot to me. It means I was successful standing up to Coach T, in getting accepted by my teammates, in being better able to accept my status with the other students. I never came to think I was anything special, but if they wanted to feel that way, I wasn’t going to try to stop them. I’d be myself, and that would suffice. I’d come in as an uncertain 14-year-old. I was still 14 when the football season was over. I remember feeling a lot older at that point. I had more confidence in myself than I had as a freshman just entering high school. And I well remember knowing I still had a lot more growing up to do.
I’d soon be 15. And my freshman year wasn’t even over yet.
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My thanks as usual for the work my editors put in pinching and punching this story into shape. A special word of thanks to Colin for supplying the artwork and supplementary material.