High School Hero by Cole Parker

High school is part wonderful, part wrenching for most everyone.
Along the way, for the lucky ones, personal growth occurs.

Chapter 11


I arrived at my university’s fall football camp well before the students were due on campus.  That’s a nice name, fall camp, but what it is, is a test of your manhood.  The coaches—and there are a whole passel of them—are there to get you ready for college football, which means, for a quarterback, getting pummeled by 300-pound linemen and 280-pound linebackers and running up and down a 100-yard field for an hour at a time.  With commercial breaks, of course. 

You have to be in tiptop condition to survive, and surviving wasn’t our goal.  Winning was, and that meant getting in the best shape we could possibly be in.

The time spent in camp was grueling.  Luckily, Dad and Clay had both filled me in, and I came to camp in great condition.  Better than most of the guys, really.  I didn’t mind the exercises and drills; it was the running I didn’t like.  I was 6’ 4” now, a solid 225 pounds, and running never had been my forte.  But I did it.  I ran as much as they asked me to and with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.  Part of what we were doing was building team spirit and togetherness, and all the sweating and suffering and developing the same sore muscles was part of the bonding experience.

Eventually we got down to beginning to install our offensive and defensive schemes.  That was when the coach let us players in on a surprise.  Well, it wasn’t a surprise at all for me but was for many of the others.  The team had been running a mixed pro and spread offense for years.  They’d been good, gone to bowl games, but hadn’t won many, and the team’s record last year was barely over .500.  Not acceptable for a high-level program at a school with a long tradition of winning.  The alumni were restless, which made the coach anxious.  When he had recruited me, he’d told me he was installing an entirely pro-style offense in the upcoming year and wanted me as the heir apparent at QB.  He said I’d probably be on the bench the first year and then have the job as a sophomore.  He told me not to tell anyone that was his plan, that he’d tell everyone when the time was right. 

His plan to keep me on the bench for a year sounded good to me as I wanted a year to get comfortable with university life.

When he gathered the team together and spilled the beans that we’d be running only a pro-style offensive set this year, most of the guys were delighted.  Pro scouts liked players who were already experienced in a system their teams ran.  Too many great spread-offense players flopped in the pros.  If you were good, it was easier to get drafted if you’d been in the type of offense where they could actually see your abilities in the schemes they ran.

The one who didn’t like the announcement the most was our senior QB, Johnny Redman.  He was a spread QB all the way, which meant he passed some and ran more from the standard offensive set.  He was a better runner than passer, and he knew this new offense which would demand he throw more and run less would be a struggle for him; it might well put the kibosh on his getting drafted by a professional team.

We had another quarterback behind our starter, a sophomore.  He had been recruited as a spread quarterback just as Johnny had.  It looked to me like I might be getting more opportunities to play than I’d thought I would.

It became apparent in practices that I had the best arm and accuracy of the three of us.  I didn’t get much time with the first-string receivers, but when I did, I had a lot of completions.  More than either of the other QBs.

Our first game was approaching, and the tempo of practices increased.  Guys were getting excited.  Students had just started arriving on campus, and we were the topic of many conversations I overheard.  Yeah, football was big at our school.

Opening game.  A night game, which was what I almost always played in high school but was less usual in big-time college football.  But we were the last game on a national TV schedule for the opening day of games.  Yeah, we’d be on TV.  Something new for me.  Not that it mattered much; they don’t focus the camera all that often on the guys sitting on the bench.

It was exciting running through the tunnel from our locker room out onto the field.  Exciting to see all the cheerleaders and the band on the field, to say nothing of the 62,000 fans in the stands.  I’d never been part of a game played before even half that many people before.  The spectacle of it all sent chills through me.

We kicked off.  We had a very good defense, and the other team had a hard time moving the ball.  We did, too, when we got it.  Their defense against the run was one of the best in the country, which meant we couldn’t get our running game going at all.  Johnny didn’t have the gaps in the line to run through that he’d had in the spread offense and ended up having to pass a lot.  He was forcing the ball, piling up incompletions and barely avoiding interceptions.  We ended up punting on every possession.  Between his bad throws and their good defense, we ended up with only one first down in the entire first half.

They didn’t move the ball well, either, but did manage some points, while we didn’t.  It was 13-0 against us at the half.

Coach gave us a rousing pep talk in the locker room, reminded us that we’d get the ball first when we went back out on the field and said if we’d put together some first downs and drive down the field and put the ball in the end zone, we’d only be down by six points, and it would be anyone’s game.

He knew how to inspire a team.  Fired up, we were back on the field and had the ball after the kickoff on our 25-yard line to start.  First play was a slant to our halfback over the middle.  Johnny threw it slightly behind him and slightly late, it was intercepted, and the defender ran it in for a touchdown.  20-0.

Coach called me over to him.  “Warm up quick.  You’re going in.”

I grabbed my helmet and threw a few 15-yard practice passes to a backup receiver while the other team was kicking off.  Then the whistle blew, Coach gave me the play, and I trotted out onto the field.

I’d done that a thousand times before.  This was different, though.  All those people, the TV cameras, the lights at least twice as bright as those over high-school fields, the size of the players, the speed of the game—it was all new.  I didn’t have time to think about it, though.  I called the play.

I’m sure the coach was thinking the other team, seeing a rookie in the game, would expect a couple of “safe” handoffs so I could get my feet on the ground.  So, he called two deep routes, one on each side of the field.  I was to throw to whichever guy got open.  The rest of the team was to block for me.

We again had the ball at the 25.  I dropped back, looked right and saw that receiver was practically wearing his defensive back like a bathrobe.  He wasn’t open at all.  The guy on the left was streaking down the field and had a step on his man.  Easy choice.

The receiver was about the same speed as Jake.  A lot of college receivers were.  But that gave me a break, in that I’d thrown this pass many, many times before.  I let it go, trying to put it just in front of the receiver.  It would have to travel about 60 yards in the air, a very long pass.

The ball sailed high and true, the receiver reached out in front of him for it.  I’d thrown it where only he would be able to  touch it.  The receiver caught it in stride.  The defender, a step behind the receiver, did his best.  He tried a desperation tackle, diving at the receiver’s ankles, but my man fought it off and crossed the goal line unimpeded.  With the kick, it was 20-7.

The stands were going wild.  My teammates looked rejuvenated.  I felt like the king of the world.

Rejuvenated they were.  Our defense stiffened to the point the other team was punting on almost every possession, just as we had in the first half, and their only score in the second half was a field goal.  Our offense moved the ball well.  In the end, it was close to a rout.  Even with us only scoring in the second half, the game ended with us on top, 35-23.

After the game, I was interviewed on national TV.  “How were you able to throw five touchdown passes in your first college game?” she asked.  She was very pretty and asked very dumb questions.  I said, “This is a team game.  My line blocked their, uh, heinies off, my receivers got open and never dropped a single pass.  My coaches had developed a great game plan and sent in the right plays and personnel.  That’s how we did it.  As a team.”  I’d heard interviews like that all my life and had groaned every time; now I was doing it! 

I started at quarterback the rest of the year.  Johnny transferred to a school that ran the spread offense.  Zeke, our backup QB who had been recruited to be Johnny’s heir apparent as a spread quarterback, told me I deserved the position and he was happy to play behind me because he was there for the education.  He knew he’d never have a chance at a pro spot.

When you play major college football, especially if you play quarterback, you tend to get lots of emails.  At first, I’d tried to read and answer all of them.  I soon realized there wasn’t time to do that.  It was really difficult for me to just ignore so many of them, though.  I could imagine people writing to me, maybe even kids pouring out their hearts and hopes, asking me questions, wanting some connection or advice, and then thinking what an asshole I was for not replying.  It made me sad.  But I got in the habit of just deleting the ones I got from addresses I didn’t recognize.  What else could I do with the time I had available?  Do you have any idea how much academic reading you have to do as a freshman liberal-arts student?

It bothered me a lot, however, and eventually I asked an assistant coach about it.  He said the school had volunteers who handled players’ fan mail if the jock actually cared about that sort of thing.  He said most just ignored fan mail.  But if I wanted, I could sign up with a service they had, and it would all be taken care of.  So, I went to talk to someone whose name he’d given me.  She was a young girl working in the athletics- department admin office, probably a junior.  She was bright and chirpy, kind of cute, and way smart.  I could see that right off.  I explained the problem and told her quite frankly why I was so bothered: I hated letting people down—especially kids.  Her expression changed as I spoke, and when I was done, she put her hand on my arm for a moment. 

“I do this a lot, Whit.  You’re one of the few who actually cares about who these people are that write you and how they feel.  That means something.  I’ll be as kind as I can.  And the kids?  I can send their emails on to you if you want, the ones who identify themselves as kids.  I can also send you any others I think you’d like to see.  How does that sound?”

That sounded fine to me.  She would start with the next day’s emails.  That was what we ended up doing. 

I only had that day’s emails left to sort through on my own.  There was one on its way to being jettisoned like so many were, but a quick glance at the subject line stopped me short, and instead of pressing the delete button, I opened the email.  I’d read that message so many times since then, I can almost repeat it word for word.

Whit:

I don’t know if you’ll read this.  I guess that’s not what’s important.  What’s important is for me to have the courage to write it.

That’s made easier because of the assignment we have.  I’m sitting here where you once sat, in Mr. Mahoney’s English class.  We’ve been asked to write an email to someone we admire, telling them why we feel the way we do about them.

That’s not easy for most of us.  Boys are still taught by their environment and peers to hold their emotions in check, that revealing them makes us weak.  So expressing them openly doesn’t come naturally for us.  Even for gay boys.  I know how they feel because I am one.

But I probably never would have written this if not for Mr. Mahoney.  Yay, Teach!  As he’ll never see this, I can say that without embarrassment.  And hopefully I can write the rest of this without embarrassment overwhelming me as well and making me chicken out.

Whit, do you know how many kids at Madison had crushes on you when you were here?  Certainly, half the girls, but not just them, either.  It was because of how you were as much as your looks or your performance on the football field.  Sure, you were handsome; no one would dispute that.  Sure, you were a star athlete, a huge persona in the relatively small arena of Madison High.  But that wasn’t what made you feature in so many teenage dreams each night.  It was your personality that attracted everyone.  You were a genuinely kind person and nice to everyone.  You had time for everyone.  How many jocks are like that?  How many really top jocks are?  You were.  So many jocks are narcissistic assholes, expressing their disdain for the little people and doing so openly, uncaringly and arrogantly.

You cared about the other kids here, you stood up for the ones who needed that, and you were genuine.  What people saw in you was your humility, your warmth and that genuineness.  It’s surprising how many high-school kids are acting a part, afraid to show who they really are because they think no one will like that person or they’ll be laughed at.  You were one of the few who said and did what came from your heart.

I saw something else, too.  I saw inside you.  You never saw me studying you, but I did a lot of that.  By doing that, I saw you.   Perhaps it’s that I’m gay and gay kids have some extra sensitivity.  Who knows?  I saw that you were honest and open about everything—everything except yourself.

You’re at a large university now and hopefully in an environment where you’re free to finally be as open about yourself as you were about everything else.  I worry, though, because I don’t know whether the world is ready to accept that perhaps the best college quarterback in the country—which is saying a lot for a freshman, but an awful lot of very smart and knowledgeable people are saying it—is gay.

I also know the reason you haven’t come out yet isn’t for lack of courage.  I know before you can come out to the world, you have to come out to yourself.  I hope you’re finally ready to do that.  I don’t know that you’ll ever be really happy till you do.  For as much joy and kindness as you extended to the rest of us here, you never looked truly happy to me.

I’ve had more than a crush on you since you were here.  I still feel that way, still spend too much time thinking about you.  If you ever want to talk to someone who’s 100% behind you and sympathetic, I’m here, and I’d love to have the opportunity to share just a tiny portion of your life, even if it’s only vicariously through emails; I think I’ll always be at least a little in love with you.  Write back, if you have the time and inclination.  I’ll always be here for you.

He signed it, of course, and it had his email address.  I was surprised by who wrote it.  You really don’t know who people are by their surface.  You need to spend a lot of time with them to get to know what’s underneath.  I knew Beth and Jake and really no one else at that school.  I didn’t really spend that much time with anyone else.  And now this.

I read the email again, and then again.  Then I closed my laptop, dropped onto my bed, and simply existed.  For how long, I really didn’t know. 

He talked about courage!  What about me?  Man, just to think about who I was, that did take courage.  That downtime on my bed didn’t pull me out of the denial I’d been living in so long, not all by itself.  What it did was allow me to really look at myself with wide-open eyes for the first time, to realize, to admit to myself, and to accept that perhaps there was a grain of truth in what that email had said.  Maybe I wasn’t as straight as I’d always told myself I was.  And it convinced me to go talk to a counselor.

But, right then, I bit the bullet and wrote back.  He answered, and that began a long exchange of emails.  More and more, I poured out my feelings, my rationalizations, but also my uncertainties.  It was myself I was pouring into those emails.  It was a time of self-knowledge, and more to the point, of self-realization.  Having to write things down made me look at them in ways I’d never allowed myself to do before.  We wrote back and forth, and in so doing, I not only learned a lot about myself, I did about him, too.  He was open and honest, and what he said endeared me to him.  How many teenagers are really and truly honest with each other?  We all hold things back that we don’t want others to see.  But I wasn’t doing that, and he wasn’t either.  I got to know who he was as much as he did me.  He wasn’t the person I’d thought he was.  There was a depth and intelligence and character in him I’d never known or appreciated.

As I said, I did that something else, too.  The university, like most, had a psychological-counseling program for students.  A lot of students benefit from that.  A lot of them are screwed up to one degree or another.  They are away from home and the support they got there and are facing new challenges, some of which they find overwhelming.  They are looking for answers.  I wasn’t the only one needing help.

It’s hard when you’re suddenly thrown into the deep end and are over your head with the problems involved in being a nationally known figure—well, nationally known to those who watched college football, at least—to do something like that.  I couldn’t just walk into the counseling area and tell them I needed to talk to someone.  I’d already had my picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated; this would be an even bigger story than the one about my initial precocious success playing big-time college football.  I talked to an assistant coach I liked and trusted, my position coach, and he said he’d set it up.  The counselor ended up coming to a private room in the athletic department.  No one ever knew I was seeing him.

What I was looking for from him was to know the reason I’d never allowed myself to contemplate my sexuality, why in fact I’d been in such complete denial.  I had several sessions with the man.  He was really empathetic and good at his job.  I did some crying in those sessions; searching your soul can be painful.  It didn’t embarrass me, though, because letting loose like that is one of the best ways I know for someone to connect with his emotions, and emotions were a big part of this.  He dug deep, and because I was honest, I learned why I’d been so adamant through high school that I wasn’t gay.

When the football team had a bye weekend and the coach gave us a four-day break from practices—a blessing indeed—I flew home.  I needed to talk to my father.  I now knew it was long past the time when I should have done that.  I was scared, sitting on the plane flying home.  I realized that this could be the last time ever I’d be going home.

Dad picked me up at the airport, and we talked about the football team and how I was adapting to college life and what my rooming arrangements were.  That kind of thing.  It wasn’t till I put my bag in my room and joined him in the kitchen where he was starting on dinner that I had a chance to talk.  Now that the time had come, I wasn’t sure I had the courage to do so.

He smiled at me.  “Okay, you’ve got something on your mind, Whit.  Best just start in.  Once you’ve started, you can get it out.  It’s the starting that’s hard.”

“How can you tell I have something to say?”

He laughed.  “I can read your face like a book, Whit.  I know every expression you’ve ever had.  I know when you’re worried or nervous or happy or sad or ecstatic or gloomy or angry or whatever.   Right now, you’re fighting yourself, wanting to talk and reluctant to do so.  I imagine it has to do with your flying home this weekend, so whatever it is, it’s important.”

He was right; he did read me like a book.  Not surprising, seeing how close we’d always been.  I could read him just as well as he could read me.  That’s just how it was with us.  Mutual respect, mutual love.

“Can you sit down?  I think I want you here and your full attention.”

“Sure.”  He turned off the stove and came and sat at the kitchen table with me, sat where he always sat when we ate together, in the chair at right angles from mine.

I didn’t hesitate.  That would have made it harder.  I just started in.  “Dad, do you remember when you took me to meet your family for Thanksgiving?  Back when I was seven?”

“Sure.  That’s when you went in to talk to my father about religion.  I remember you seemed happy meeting your uncles and aunts but were quiet after speaking to my dad and driving home.”

“Right.  Well, I never told you what Grandpa said to me.  It disturbed me.  I guess I sort of buried it, though.  I’ve been seeing a counselor at school.  He’s been helping me dig into my past, and I’ve remembered that whole visit.  Now I’m seeing it, revisiting it, through the eyes of an 18-year-old rather than a 7-year-old.  I want to talk to you about what Grandpa told me.”

Dad was looking serious and studying my eyes.  “Okay,” was all he said.

“We were in his den.  You remember how he always used my full name, Whitley, rather than Whit.  I always wondered why he did that.  Anyway, he was talking about his faith and how disappointing you were to him because you didn’t share it.  He said you were wrong in questioning it and hoped I wouldn’t do the same.  Then he said something that got to me and was probably why I was quiet driving home.  It upset me, and I had to figure it out.”

“What was that?”

I sort of momentarily shivered, thinking about it.  “He told me there was one of the church’s beliefs that you did agree with him on, one that you believed just as strongly as he did.  He said the church condemns homosexuality, and that you did, too, and that in fact you hated gays, and he’d had to stop you from bullying some gay kids a couple of times.  He said it was all right to hate them because the Bible said you could, but you could get in trouble beating them up, and that I shouldn’t do that.

“He also said I should be careful talking to you about gays because you had a temper you kept locked inside you, but it could get the better of you if the subject of gays came up, and I should be really careful not to get you mad.”

I stopped.  He’d been reacting to what I was saying.  He actually looked like he’d been getting pale.  When he spoke, the anger in his voice filled the room.

“That bastard!  That son of a bitch.”

I think I actually pulled back in my chair.  My father never swore.  Never.

“That was all a lie!  He told you that to get back at me.  He was trying to make me look bad to my son and trying to make you hate gays.  I hope you didn’t believe him.”  He looked at me, at my face, and then said, softer, “Oh, my God.  You were seven.  Of course you believed him.  The fact you never said anything and that you buried it, shows that. Oh, my God.”

He stood up and paced a bit.  Then he sat down again.  “Whit, you said you’d been seeing a counselor and that he’d dug this out of you.  He did that, and then you flew home.  There’s more, isn’t there?  What else?”

I straightened my back so I was sitting as upright as I could.  “I talked this through with the counselor.  I’d thought that he, Grandpa, had said it just to make me know you had faults, make me have reservations about you, and that if I acted like I did, it would be a punishment for you.  And maybe that was his purpose.  I don’t really know.  But I never did act like that with you.  It didn’t happen, and it never would.  But I guess I believed him that you hated homosexuals.  I didn’t know.  I can’t remember us ever discussing that. 

I took a deep breath.  “But Dad, I think I’m gay.  No, that’s not right.  I am gay, Dad.  That’s what I want to say.  The thing is, I didn’t know it till recently.  I never did.  But some of the people around me have.  They didn’t confront me.  Well, that’s not entirely true, either.  I keep wanting to change things, or soften them, but I have to face what’s real.   Beth was really the one who made it real to me, who said I was in denial, and said it in a way that should have made me think and realize the truth, but I was so good at denial by then, it had no effect.  But there were others who thought I was gay.  I pooh-poohed it whenever it was brought up or suggested.  I spent my whole high-school years denying it to others and denying it to myself.  Now I know why.  I couldn’t accept it in myself because I thought you’d hate me if I were gay.  So, that meant I wasn’t gay.

“But I was.  I am.”

Dad came over to me, a look on his face of regret I’d never seen before, and leaned down and wrapped his arms around me.  I struggled up out of my chair, and he hugged me even more firmly.  “I didn’t know,” he said.

“But you’re regretting it.  You’re hating that I’m gay.  I can see it in your face.”

He was shaking his head.  “The regret you see is that I didn’t figure this out earlier.  I could have made it easier for you.  Let you know my love for you was unconditional and had nothing at all to do with whether you were straight or gay.  I regret all the time we had to get you used to who you were and learn to face it with pride, and that is time we’ll never get back.  But regret that you’re gay?  Of course not.  Not a bit.  I wish I’d known, but I didn’t.”

I had to sit back down.  The feeling of relief I had right then was overwhelming.  He let me go and I sat, shaking my head.  “Of course you didn’t.  And I didn’t know I was denying who I was because of my fear of disappointing you, either.  I was seven when I heard what Grandpa said, and homosexuality didn’t mean anything to me.  By the time it did, I’d buried that memory so deep, I had no idea it was affecting me like it did.”

He finally released me, and I stepped back.  He took his chair again, so I sat in mine, too.

“I don’t have anything to do with my family for a number of reasons, including that I was far and away the youngest child.  Everyone else seemed a grownup to me and all had left home by the time I was in elementary school.  Most of them I never got to know very well.  They all scattered far and wide and rarely returned home after leaving.  They weren’t any closer to my parents than I was.

“Your uncle Ted was gay.  And of all of them, he was the one I related to the best and the one I was most fond of.  He wasn’t there when I was growing up, but he wrote to me, and I wrote back, and he became important to me.  He showed me that it was okay to feel that my father wasn’t a good man or a good father.  He gave me permission to think that.  He himself was a very good and decent man who was almost ruined by my father.  Ted was strong enough to bear up and leave when he could.  That was when he was only 16.  He’s one of the reasons I never got on with my father and never respected him.  I knew from an early age that hating people for something they had no control over was wrong, even if the Bible had a different slant on it.”

That visit, talking to my father, left me with a feeling of calm that I’d never had before.  Not since I was seven, at least.  I’d been afraid of disappointing him.  Now I wasn’t, and that allowed me to breathe deeper breaths and find a peaceful contentment.  Maybe, just maybe, I could also find the happiness that my emailing friend said I was missing.

Continued


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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.