High school is part wonderful, part wrenching for most everyone.
Along the way, for the lucky ones, personal growth occurs.
I sit in the cafeteria in the dark, the smell of fresh floor wax trying to overwhelm all other senses, and think back to that day when Lanny became a fixture at our table and in Jake’s life, and how Jake had jerked me out of the funk I was falling into by asking me to talk about football practice. Of course, as usual, he managed things so I’d talk about what he wanted me to talk about, which was a meeting I had with Coach T after practice was over. But earlier memories crowd in first.
When I became part of it as a freshman, the Madison High football team consisted mostly of juniors and seniors. There were only a very few sophomores on the varsity team, and two freshmen who weren’t sent to the junior varsity: Jake and me. There was a junior who’d backed up my brother Clay the year before and was a senior now; everyone assumed he had the starting quarterback job locked up. I’d watched him play during mop-up time last year when the Bulldogs were way ahead. He was okay, an adequate high school QB, but not as good as I was. That was my opinion, of course. I might not have had a whole lot of confidence in other areas of my life, but I did when it came to football. I’d practiced with Clay, I’d played on kids’ teams in kids’ leagues, and I had practiced for hours just throwing routes with Jake. We hadn’t called it practice; for us, we’d just been having fun.
So, I knew I was a better passer than Teddy, the presumed QB this year, and I figured I could run as well as he did, too, though running wasn’t my forte. But I was bigger than he was, and if the play the coach called was for a quarterback sneak for a yard or two, I figured being big was an advantage. Still, I expected to back up Teddy this year; I assumed the coach would have loyalty to him and reward him for his time in the program. Besides, he was a senior and good friends with all the other seniors. That mattered.
During the tryouts and conditioning drills while everyone was getting in shape before practices really began—before Coach Tolliver was even with the team yet—Jake and I had stayed pretty much by ourselves. We were younger than most of the other guys, and there was a cliquish camaraderie among upperclassmen that excluded freshmen. Still, walk-ons were welcome during this period, and the assistant coaches got a look at all who showed up and made notes to pass on to the coach.
Once I’d made the team, I’d had a chance to throw to prospective receivers. Many fewer chances than Teddy Maderien, but some. Just like Jake had the opportunity to run a few routes with the other receivers with all three of us QBs in camp passing to them.
On that first day with Coach T in charge, he had us all sit in the stands, collected together on the lower steps. He waited till we were quiet. We had no helmets or pads, just tee shirts, shorts and cleats.
“Guys, I’m your coach this year. You now know Coach Rodgers retired and the school gave the job to me. I asked that the coaching change not be announced early; I didn’t want a bunch of you quitting because you didn’t want to play your last year with a wet-behind-the-ears, never-coached-before newbie. But you’re not getting that, and I wanted to be able to tell you that in person. I played in college, a big name school, and I’ve been assisting at the local junior college; I’ve done that for a few years now.
“I’ve watched Madison’s games the past seven years, which is how long I’ve been teaching here. I’ve seen all you guys play. We have the nucleus of a great team here, even without last year’s seniors who graduated. We should win our conference. State? Well, that’ll be up to you. It’s possible, even without Clay around. After all, we do have his brother.”
Damn it, he was doing it again! Separating me from the herd. Maybe even making a joke of it. Of me. I hated him for doing that. And how did he think that made Teddy Maderien feel?
“So this is the way it’ll work,” he said, continuing. “I’ve already made a depth chart, and it’s now hanging in the locker room; you can check it after practice. It shows who I expect will start and who’ll go in when the starters come out for a blow or an injury. But there’re no guarantees any of these seedings will be the same when the season begins in two weeks. Anyone on this team can beat out anyone else if they’re good enough. Play hard, practice with the right attitude, and if you’re good enough, you can win the position you‘re fighting for. So, you starters, as of now? You have to continue to earn that spot—every practice, every game.
“But, and listen to this, and get it good. You’ll play hard, but you’ll play clean. Any cheap shots, any injuries that could have been avoided, especially in practice, and you’ll be demoted. Moved down on the chart. Lose playing time. That means everyone. Play hard, but play right. Cheap, dirty play causes penalties and retaliatory injuries, and both those will kill us. I want to win. You want to win. We won’t do that with injured players or lots of flags during games.
“Now, just one more thing: I won’t be cutting anyone, unless it’s for grades or breaking eligibility rules. You have to earn playing time, but unless you break a team rule, you’ll be on the team all season. The team rules are on the board next to the depth chart.
“Oh, and you should all check the depth chart daily. How you guys do in practice will affect your position on it.
“Okay, that’s it. Any questions?” Without waiting for any, he said, “Good. No reason for questions. You know the assistant coaches. You know what positions you’re hoping to play. Get with your position coaches now, and they’ll tell you what we’re doing today. That’s it. Go.”
Short and sweet. I kind of liked that. I liked the fairness, too, of him playing the kids who earned their slots. If he’d actually do that. I doubted he would. I also didn’t like what he implied: that the reason he wanted clean play was to avoid flags. Avoid injuries, okay. But I thought he should have said clean play was the right way to play the game. That should have been his objective.
Jake went with the receivers’ coach, I went with the backs’ coach. We had several kids who were running backs, and then me and Teddy and another kid, Marc something or other, a sophomore, who were quarterbacks.
That first day was mainly calisthenics, running, and doing conditioning drills. I was in pretty good shape already but will admit I was merely an adequate runner. I wasn’t fast. I made up for it by being strong. Wiry, I guess, and strong. My strong and accurate arm were my best assets.
My dad was big, Clay was big, and I came from the same gene pool. Although I was a freshman and only 14, I was already six feet tall and 185 pounds. And I was still growing. Clay was 6’ 3” when he graduated. Dad was 6’ 4”. I was taller now than Clay had been at 14. I knew I’d get bigger.
I had a large body frame, broad shoulders, big hands, long arms, thicker thighs than most kids my age, and even carrying 185 pounds, I looked kind of thin. No one could see past the skinniness, though. I was counting on that, being underestimated. I was looking forward to the position competition.
Just before the end of practice, just before we were sent to the showers, Coach T blew his whistle and called us all together. “Guys,” he said, “just for fun, let’s run a few pass plays. No linemen other than a center. Offense will be the QB and three receivers. Defense, we’ll go with five backs. Coaches, pick your guys. We’ll run six plays with each QB. Rotate your defensive backs how you want. Same with the receivers. No tackling!”
Teddy went first. I was expecting I’d go second, but he put in Mark instead. I went third. That was okay. I was a freshman.
All the receivers knew the routes the team had diagrammed. Of course, all the defensive backs did, too, which meant the coverage was pretty tight, especially as the five defenders could double-team two of the three receivers.
Teddy had all senior receivers for his first four attempts. For the fifth, two juniors replaced two seniors. Jake was inserted for his sixth pass.
All in all, he completed four passes. One of his passes that he missed was on target, but the junior it was thrown to dropped it. On Teddy’s last throw, I saw Jake get behind his defender and break free down the sideline.
Jake was fast, as always, and easily faster than his man. But Teddy chose to throw to another senior. He was being double-covered—the pass was intercepted.
Mark only completed two passes. He didn’t have a strong arm, and the coaches were calling mostly downfield routes. I didn’t think that was very fair. Mark sort of hung his head when his turn was over. Not good, that. Not good at all. A QB had to be confident. Ideally, he should have been mad, not defeated.
My turn. The receiver coach was calling out who would be in and what route each would run for each attempt I had. As no one was rushing me, I had all the time in the world, which made it pretty easy. I decided to do my throws in progression. I started with the receiver running the shortest route, which was a quick three steps upfield, then a sharp cut to the sideline. He had two men on him, but the one who was supposed to undercut him was late, and I have a strong arm. I hit my man in stride easily, the ball getting there just after his break. Sideline passes are always long ones, but it was a familiar route that I’d thrown many, many times. You simply have to throw the ball hard, on time, and be accurate.
The next pass would be to a man who should break free over the middle. Except he never did break free, so I had to scan the field and found a man running a deep post route who had lost his cover man. I simply lofted a high, arcing pass he could easily run under. He pulled it in; it would have been a TD in a game.
Then, Jake got called on to come in. He was to run a post route with a fake and then go toward the corner of the end zone. I dropped back, saw the coverage, and saw Jake’s defender right on him, going toward the goal post with him. I smiled. If I knew anything at all, I knew Jake. I’d been throwing footballs to him for years. So, before he even broke for the corner, I heaved the ball to where I knew he’d be. Just as I released the ball, Jake juked a little, then cut for the corner, gaining a single step on his man. That was all he needed. He reached out and collected the ball coming down in front of him. The defender had no chance.
That guy was a senior and had been second-team All-State last year. There was no way he was going to let a freshman beat him. So, when Jake caught the ball and slowed into a trot, the guy was pissed—and maybe embarrassed. He was being eaten up by his emotions, and he let everyone see what those were by tackling Jake. Jake hit the ground hard, and the defender got up by putting a hand on Jake’s back and pressing down hard to help himself as he stood.
The coach blew his whistle and yelled, “That’s it. Showers!” I was already running to where Jake lay on the grass. He was still down when I got there but had rolled over on his back. I looked down at him and saw him smiling. “Got to get my breath back,” he sort of gasped.
The defender was now up, standing looking down at Jake. He was a shorter black kid, all muscles. I grabbed him by the front of his tee shirt and yanked him up to his tiptoes. Me, a freshman. Him, a senior. “What was that shit, asshole?” I was steaming. “No tackling, and he isn’t in pads. You could have put him out for the season. Just because you were mad he was better than you were. You’re an asshole!”
The kid yanked himself away from me. I thought he’d take a swing at me. I wanted him to take a swing at me. He didn’t. He just scoffed, “What? You freshy-pussies don’t like to play rough?” He didn’t step away from me; actually, he took a half-step closer to me, invading my space, and I got ready, setting my feet, waiting for a chance to clean his clock. But the coach was there by then and pushed his way between us.
“Jerome, hit the showers, then come to my office. Go. Get.”
Jerome gave me a nasty look, turned and trotted toward the gym. Coach looked down at Jake. “You okay?”
“Fine, coach. Kid tackles like my little sister.”
“You don’t have a sister, Jake,” I said. I was smiling now, too, though a bit shaky from excess adrenalin.
“I want to see you in my office, too, Whit. When I’m done with Jerome.”
Most of the guys were dressed and gone before Jerome stepped into coach’s office and shut the door. I had to wait because I was next. Jake was waiting, too. He was my ride.
We heard Coach yelling, and the door was closed for a long time. Finally, the door opened, and Jerome walked out. He saw me and Jake looking at him. He almost stopped, but then, picking up his bag, he kept going, his face revealing about as much as a blank wall as he walked out.
I walked into Coach’s office for the first of many meetings alone with the man. He wanted to talk to me about reading the field, going through my progressions, and not just looking for Jake. I didn’t bother telling him I did just that before throwing to Jake on the last play of our practice. I didn’t argue with him; I never argued with anyone if I saw no point in it, especially adults. I did lose a little respect for him, however. Keeping me late to say something like that? Something he’d just seen me do? What was wrong with him?
He also told me standing up for my teammates was very noble, but I’d get tossed out of a game if I got in a fight, and some teams would try to bait me into one. I listened to him but wondered if I’d have that much cool if someone really did hurt Jake intentionally.
I would have a very complicated relationship with the coach during my time there. To say we rarely saw eye to eye on much of anything would be one of the world’s great understatements.
Teddy started our first game. Our opponent, Carrolton, had finished second in our league last year, their only loss coming from us. We’d been undefeated in our league for the past couple years, beating Carrolton both times by sizeable margins. They were looking for revenge and expecting to get it now that Clay wasn’t leading Madison any longer.
They had a pretty good team. With a minute-twenty to go before the end of the first half, the score was 7-0; we were the team with the goose egg. But they’d only scored because we’d turned the ball over on our own 20 on a muffed punt. Our offense had been ineffective all game, and Coach T had slowly, bit by bit, become unglued.
For our last series, with little time left and the ball deep in our own territory, he put me in in place of Teddy. Now we had two guys mad as hell, Coach T and Teddy.
First and ten from our 18-yard line, just over a minute left in the half. Jake was on the sidelines. Coach called a slant route over the middle to our wide receiver with our tight end drawing their middle linebacker off to open up the middle of the field. I put the ball on the receiver’s hands, but it bounced off and was almost intercepted by their safety; luckily, it wasn’t just our receiver who couldn’t catch well.
Coach called a time out, yanked that receiver and put Jake in the game, then called the same play. I looked at Jake, and he smiled. I changed the play at the line of scrimmage, audibling to a deep route with a break toward the goal post, Jake ran it, and I lofted the ball before he made his break. As he crossed their 20, the ball fell into his hands. He easily beat their cornerback to the goal line. That was our only score of the half, which ended shortly thereafter, 7-7.
In the locker room, Teddy was yelling at the coach, and Coach was yelling back. Teddy ended up throwing his helmet at the coach’s feet. It bounced up and hit him in the shin, and Coach T exploded. “You’re done! You’re off the team. Get out of my locker room.”
“You can’t kick me off. I already quit!” Teddy yelled. “Anyone else?” He looked around the room. His best friend, the wide receiver who almost cost us an interception, dropped his helmet, too, as did a defensive back.
The room was deadly silent. “Fine,” Coach T said, regaining some semblance of control. “Don’t be here when we get back after the game.”
That was how I’d become our first-string QB and Jake a first-string wide receiver. As for the game, we scored two touchdowns in the third quarter and a safety in the fourth, the defense shut them out, and we won handily. The offense ran much more smoothly when I was running it.
After the game, Coach had me come into his office again. He chewed me out for calling the audible that had led to our score at the end of the first half. I sat and listened and didn’t say a word. Not arguing with him or looking upset at the reprimand or making the excuse that we’d scored, just sitting their calmly and listening, ticked him off. Nothing wrong with ticking him off, I decided, and I knew that was something that would happen again while I played under Coach T.
Funny how just sitting here in the cafeteria, at this table, brings things back. I remembered clearly another talk that Coach T called me in for after practice one day. We were a winning football team. We hadn’t lost a game yet. Yet Coach T never was satisfied. Something was always wrong, something always had to be fixed. Often, it was me.
I’d showered and dressed, making him wait. I didn’t like these meetings, and if he had to wait for me, maybe he’d get annoyed and not have so many.
I sat down, and he stood up. I think he felt more in control that way, looming over me.
“In practice today, you were taking way too long in the huddle. In a game, you’d have had four or five delay-of-game penalties. I’ve been watching and listening. The problem is, Whit, you don’t take control. You let other guys say things in that huddle, and you should be the only one talking. You have to take charge. Be the man. You’re too soft.”
His voice had been getting stronger as he talked. Now he looked like he was mad. I think he felt more effective when mad. He barked, then waited for a reply.
This was very much like talks we’d had before. He liked how I quarterbacked, how I passed, and even how I would occasionally run audibles instead of the plays he’d called in order to get us out of plays that would have run right into the defense the opponent had called. I knew how to read defenses. Clay and my dad had gone over and over what defenses were being run in the games we watched on TV on Saturday afternoons—college games. They had me calling out the defensive set before every ball was snapped. I’d gotten pretty good at it. It was even easier now because high-school teams didn’t run complicated schemes. If they were going to run a blitz, I knew it before the ball was hiked.
What coach didn’t like, though, when you got down to the nitty-gritty, was me. He didn’t like that I wasn’t a take-charge, loud-mouthed, brash leader of our team. That’s what he wanted, a bigger-than-life, General Patton type out there under center. What he had, though, was me. I got the job done. But I didn’t do it with the panache, in the style, he wanted to see.
I sat there looking at him. Didn’t say a word. That made him madder. I guessed he wanted an argument. He wanted me to get mad.
“You hear what I said?” he asked loudly.
“Sure did. But the guys who spoke in the huddle? They were telling me what they thought would work, whether they could get open, whether they could move their man off the line of scrimmage, stuff like that. Stuff they thought I should know. They were trying to be helpful.”
“That’s not their job to see stuff like that. That’s my job. And yours, but to a much lesser extent. I see what’s going on and call plays accordingly. Your main job is to call the play I’ve sent in to you. They should just be quiet and do what they’re told. I don’t want a noisy huddle and don’t want delay penalties.”
I smiled. “How many of those have we had, Coach?”
That stopped him. We hadn’t had a single one. He had had to call a couple of timeouts because of his indecision about what play to run next and then not getting it in to me quickly enough.
“They don’t say much of anything in the huddle during a game, Coach. They’re getting their breath back and mostly are quiet. It seems to be working.”
He couldn’t argue with that, but he did give me another spiel about being a stronger leader and letting them know when they screwed up. He said they’d respect me more if I did that.
When he finished saying that, I looked at my watch, stood up, said “Thanks, Coach. I’ve got to run,” and left.
When I told the guys at our table how Coach T had said I needed to be louder and more strident in the huddles and not let anyone speak, Jake told them about a game in which he’d told me his man was trash talking to him, and he wanted to beat him. He said the guy was biting on quick out patterns, and he could beat him on a stop-and-go route, and asked me to call it. So I waited till I saw them go into man-to-man coverage, called an audible, and Jake scored, beating his man when the guy tried to jump a quick out that wasn’t an out at all.
Jake looked at me while telling the story. I saw the warmth in his eyes. He had moved on from me in one respect, but we still shared a bond that was unbreakable.
I was still unhappy about how much attention I was now getting at school from the students. They were treating me like I was some sort of a star. That always made me feel uncomfortable.
I couldn’t believe how I was treated after that first game, and it got even worse as we kept winning. I was suddenly something I’d never wanted to be. I didn’t like being in the spotlight, being a celebrity, which I was now even if only in my school. But your school is a big deal when you’re a kid. It’s the society you live in. And I wanted to be just another body walking down the halls, as invisible as everyone else. It was all I ever wanted.
And to my great surprise, it wasn’t just that kids I’d never spoken to were suddenly my best friends—or acted that way. Teachers and administrators were suddenly treating me much differently. They’d go out of their way to speak to me, to ask if I needed anything, if they could help me with anything, anything at all. My history teacher told me I could be late on the paper that was due at the end of the week because of practices and such, and he wouldn’t mark me down for it. I mean, other kids had practices, too. He wasn’t cutting them any slack. I guess if you throw a couple of passes in a football game, you were special. Come on now! And even the janitor got in on it. He was a huge fan of the team and loved winning. He came up to me in the hallway one day and gave me a key to the school elevator. Only staff had keys and not even all of them.
“You shouldn’t be having to walk up and down stairs like everyone else,” he said, sort of forcing the key into my hand. “What would happen if you got tripped and fell on the stairs and couldn’t play Friday night? Damn! No, you should be using the elevator.”
He gave it to me in my freshman year. I never used it at all that year. How could I explain to other kids that I was taking the elevator and they couldn’t? So I never used it. Until one time . . .
I got banged up a little by a late hit in my sophomore year. Bruised my hip as a guy fell on me. It wasn’t that bad, and I finished the game, but the next morning it was stiff, and try as I might, I couldn’t help limping a little. And I found stairs were worse than walking on level surfaces.
I tried using the stairs at school but had to pause going up and down, and that made me feel really silly. Then I remembered the elevator key. It was on my key ring. I’d kept it there to remind me that while I knew I wasn’t special, some others thought differently, and so I was in the spotlight and needed to act as if everyone was watching me, which I suppose might have been the case.
Anyway, I was hurting more than I’d been letting on and had too many stairs to climb and was going to be late to my next class and, well, why not? The service elevator was actually well-located for me just then. There weren’t that many kids in the hall and the ones that were there were all involved with each other. For once, I seemed to be the focus of no one’s attention, and so I headed for the elevator, reaching in my pocket for my key.
It wasn’t needed. The elevator door was open, and Miller, a kid in my year who was a trainee with our team’s trainer, was pushing a cart into it, one containing towels and tape and other supplies. I knew Miller the way I knew most of the kids at school: casually. It was so casually that I didn’t know if Miller was a first or last name. Well, okay, perhaps I knew him just a tad more than casually. During a game the previous year, my freshman year, I’d felt a twinge in my groin area during a game—not much of anything, but still, I’d winced. Coach Tolliver had seen it, and he told me to get with Miller in the trainer’s room after the game.
Miller had me undress, everything but my jock. Then he started to press gently where I said I’d felt a pain. It was right up on the inside of my left thigh near the junction of my crotch. He slid his hand up, pressing the groin muscle, the back of his hand against my jock.
While he fiddled around, pressing and kneading very gently, he said, “A groin strain is very common. These are your abductor muscles. There are five of them and three grades of injury. You have a grade one strain. Really mild. You should take it easy in practice this week—less running, less throwing—and it should be fine for Friday. But if you feel it again, stop what you‘re doing.”
He was still gently kneading the muscle, asking if it hurt at all, and I said no, but I was very aware of his hand up there. Miller was in the same grade I was, and he was smart. He was planning to be a doctor. He was also a good-looking kid. I was well-practiced at noticing attractive boys; he was definitely one of those. And his hand moving around up there where it was, well, it was giving me pause. Actually, ‘pause’ was the wrong word. Substitute ‘hard’ and you’ll get the picture.
He kept kneading, and I kept getting harder. He noticed, and grinned. “Impressive,” he said, as my jockstrap rose up. After that, he ignored my erection, but kept rubbing, his hand continuing to pass across my jockstrap. I managed not to lose my cool. Eventually, he was done. I couldn’t wait to take my shower, alone in the locker room as everyone else was gone by then.
So, that had been last year. Now, back to the elevator.
He nodded when he saw me coming and held the door so it wouldn’t close. I got on and he let the door shut, then pressed three, which was where my class was. He should be heading for the basement where the supplies would go. Did he know my class schedule? Unlikely!
“So, the hip?” he asked as the elevator began its slow climb. It was really meant for freight rather than passengers.
“Yeah. It’s sore, but nothing to worry anyone. I’ll play Friday.”
“That’s what Coach said, but, maybe it’d be a good idea if I checked it out. I could look at that abductor, too, see if it’s okay at the same time. Slip off your pants.”
“Huh? Here? Now?”
“Sure. You can’t get more privacy than this. Here, I’ll guarantee it for you.” He grinned at me and pushed the Emergency Stop button.
The elevator ground to a halt. “The pants?” he said, looking me in the eye.
So I unbuttoned my pants and slipped them off.
“The underpants, too. I can’t look at your hip otherwise. It also makes checking the groin easier.” Then he smiled and said, “Don’t be shy.”
I just looked at him. He shrugged his shoulders and smiled demurely. “Hey, we’re just boys here,” he said, sounding reasonable.
So I slipped off my boxer briefs and stood naked from the waist down in front of him. He nodded, then put his hands on my hips, rubbed them up and down, pressed a little, and asked how it felt. I said, “Sore,” and he nodded and kept up his inspection. What he expected to find, I had no idea.
Eventually he stopped, then knelt down and did what he’d done in the trainer’s room, sliding his hand up my leg, this time with nothing at all between my junk and the back of his hand. After a few moments of doing that, he used one hand to push my junk to the side so he could get a better feel of the groin muscle.
Having a cute boy’s hand on my equipment and the other hand moving around in my crotch, causing movement of my parts in his hand, had the effect anyone would expect it to get. I got hard. And I got hard quickly and completely.
He looked up at me and grinned, then stood up. “You better pull up your pants.”
I remained hard and thus had a bit of difficulty getting everything arranged in my boxer briefs.
He started the elevator again, and we moved upwards. I didn’t know what to say! He just stood there, looked pleased. Should I thank him? What was the etiquette here?
The door finally opened and I stepped out, then turned to look back at him. The door was starting to close. “Uh, thanks,” I said and blushed. The door shut, so if he was going to say anything, I missed it. All I saw was his smile.
Of course, I was late to class, but the teacher didn’t say a word. Sometimes, being a high school hero did have its perks.
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