Matt Rowan: Coaching (Fiction)



My high school is St. Patrick’s Reformed Latter Day Saints Catholic or “St. Pat’s” (it was founded by Irish Catholics who converted to Mormonism, then converted back to Catholicism). We’re the Mad Leprechauns, that’s our athletic team name. The mascot is portrayed by a fiery-redheaded fat guy dressed like a leprechaun. He throws gold confetti at pep rallies, from a miniature molded-plastic pot.
Coach Klaus told us we, The Mad Leprechauns Football Team, were going to do things a little differently this year, in a way nobody before had ever done. He said our opponents would be caught completely blindsided, no matter their scouting report’s forewarning.

He was ultimately correct, but maybe not entirely in the way he’d wanted.

***

I once sneaked a look at my position coach’s formal written evaluation of my abilities while waiting for him in his office. We were scheduled to discuss, in more diplomatic terms than he’d needed write, my progress as a football player.

He wrote (for as much as my memory can recall) the following:

-NO LATERAL MOVEMENT! NO MOVEMENT WHATSOEVER! Statue-esque. Just STANDS there as if WAITING TO BE BLOCKED!!! Put it another way -- Does he stand straight up and square to the line of scrimmage? You betcha! And then usually he is completely demolished by a guard or fullback, sometimes a center, pancaking him easily, and often very apparently painfully. I don’t like to look at it.

-A tackling dummy would be as lifelike.

-Froths does an impossibly awful job of trying to get himself into position to make a tackle.

-WHEN HE DOES MOVE, i.e. when I yell at him to do something, he looks like a crab sidling to the play side, hands like claws up in the air as he comes in non-intensely to, I assume, attempt to wrap up the ball carrier. A thing that never happens: his making the play with a tackle or any other form of considerable takedown.

-Does on occasion accidentally trip the ball carrier. Rarely is how often that happens, and always after he’s been stepped on, which then always requires bandaging, ice, or the trainer’s eyes at least. Verge of tears, that’s how I’d describe how he looks during all of this. Quivering lips and fighting back a fit.

-Inspires pity in some.

WE NEED CHAMPIONSHIP SOMEBODY ELSE!!!!

Final analysis: Jefferson Froths will not be ready to see major playing time in the fall, and might very probably never be ready, ever. Very probably.

Placing him fourth at his position on depth chart, only because have to place him somewhere.

When he finally arrived, nodding a greeting and seating himself at his desk, my position coach, Coach Moffett, was, in terms of general behavior, cordial enough. He asked about my classes and how I was doing with them. “Keeping up with your studies?” – that’s how he put it. He emphasized non-football related activities from that point forward, mostly by never once bringing up the subject of football. “Track and field is a great spring sport. Certain other sports and hobbies are pleasurable, something low-impact like golf or skeet shooting, or ecology club?” he suggested, which was the only time he allowed the conversation to drift to anything athletics or team related. From there it turned into a laundry list of things I could be doing with my time, things which conspicuously didn’t involve his being my coach.

On a whim, knowing full well what my chances were, I asked if there was any possibility of my starting this year, just to see what he would say. Would he try to spare my feelings? Hum and haw? Lie outright? Spout a platitude? I hadn’t plotted it consciously, but looking back, I know deep down I wanted to create a little awkwardness, if possible.

He was completely unfazed. He said there was “No chance.” He said it with the kind of abrupt finality that implies more, implies that there would never be a chance of it happening, either. That he would do everything imaginable to prevent that from ever happening, that he would rather start ten players than risk putting me on the field.

I said, “Thanks, Coach,” and stood to leave. Coach Moffett asked that I shut the door on my way out. He made no joke about not letting it hit me on the way out. He made no joke at all. He did stare blankly at me, wide-eyed and dispassionately watching while I shut the door. His lips curled to a frown.

***

In my defense, our running back, Simon Lance Ceau, had an ass that seemed to power his every other muscle to something beyond human strength and quickness, making him more locomotive than man. Seriously, he was like a human cow-catcher – a steam-engine ass and then, in front of that, cow-catcher. It’s hard to recall how easily he’d blast through my body, passing by me as though I were no more than a sheet of cheesecloth flapping tenuously on clothesline out there in the open field.

I mean that literally, about it being hard to recall, because following our collision there was a flood of white light and then I was involuntarily shaking my head and pitched over on my back, fast-forwarded ten to twenty seconds into the future.

There used to be yells of excitement and encouragement in the ringing din that ensued as I came to, but that ended when it was finally apparent everyone carrying the ball had the same embarrassing effect on me, to lesser or greater extent. I’d felt while scrimmaging that I was at least a quick sidling crab, but I’ve watched enough of our practice tapes to know that’s only how I felt, not the actual case. Have you ever had the false perception of speed? It sucks. It’s like believing there’s a Santa Claus well after everyone else does, then watching video tape of your sitting on a mall Santa’s lap, at age 14. There’s a right time and there’s a wrong time to learn there’s no Santa Claus, I mean.

After one memorably impossible-to-recall hit, I dazedly watched as our team trainer cut up the rusted metal of an old 4-men blocking sled with an electric hacksaw. It was the first thing I was able to focus on, coming to. He eventually got one side sawed  into more manageable parts, the other major pieces already hauled off to a scrap heap, and he set the remainder down on its tripod of old rusted and hacked-up metal extremities. For a moment it looked like modern art. In context it might have meant something. Even in the context of the football practice field it really came close to meaning something. You’re usually not looking for that kind of surrealism on the football field, if you’re any kind of player. I shook off my dizziness and dealt through the pain, because our trainer continued to be preoccupied with the last of the 4-men sled.

Chris Fencik our back-up center told me he was hitting the calcium really hard. He said that was the secret: lots of calcium. “You have to reinforce the infrastructure.” I don’t know how he kept his milk cold out in the summer heat, or kept the coaches from noticing he was drinking milk instead of water. He sure did puke more than usual.

Me, I make sure to drink my milk but not often at practice and for a different reason: I don’t want kidney stones. Available scientific evidence suggests too little calcium can actually cause kidney stones, because it triggers this chemical reaction that encourages oxalate’s build up down there in that organ, and I don’t need to tell you where that kidney shrapnel goes once it finally breaks off. Awful, narrow places.

***

Coach Klaus is changing things this year for one big reason: Coach Vorsch of General John J. Pershing Central High School. This past off-season Coach Vorsch took over head coaching duties for our hated rivals, the Grenadier Cavaliers, after their longtime head coach, Coach Maurie Moriarty, died unexpectedly in a horrible five-car pile up on the interstate. Well, there’s at least one person who might have expected it, and that was his wife. She had had Coach Moriarty’s breaks tampered with in a badly planned plot to kill him for the insurance payout. I say badly planned because she was in the car with Coach Moriarty when his breaks went out, which apparently wasn’t supposed to happen, or so claimed her lover, a Spanish man named Anselmo Grecko, who the police have arrested in connection to the plot. Apparently he was the one with whom Mrs. Moriarty planned the original murder, and he is now being charged with various counts of murder and so many things!

Coach Vorsch has dedicated the season to Coach Moriarty’s memory, and plans to symbolically dump a barrel of ash (not belonging to Coach Moriarty at all in any bodily way) during halftime of our rivalry game. He’ll probably be giving Coach Klaus the finger or some other bad gesture, too. The likely ulterior motive for doing it is the opportunity to fan ash towards our sideline during a game. Coach Vorsch really hates Coach Klaus a lot.

But Coach Moriarty was dead. Of that there can be no doubt. It won’t really affect any of the outcome of the tale of two seasons, ours and Pershing’s, but it’s still true. Well, except for the fact that there are people who swear they saw Coach Moriarty’s ghost shaking his head at the post game spectacle, the aftermath of our two team’s eventual regular-season meeting. But I say it’s possible he just happened to be there and was shaking his head about something unrelated, like how much life his wife had cheated him of.

Coach Klaus hated Coach Vorsch in kind, though. The reason for their mutual hatred was plenty clear enough. They met on opposing sides in the state championship game as prep football players. Things got ugly, although those ‘ugly things’ remain murky still. Coach Vorsch’s team won, in the end. They say there was cheating by both teams but that was never proven.

All I know is, there probably was cheating by both teams if Vorsch and Klaus were participants.

***

We thought Coach Klaus was joking when he told us, “I’ve acquired an actual leprechaun, and he’ll be playing halfback in tandem with Lance.” Especially Jeremy Argo, who was hitherto coach’s announcement the tandem running back with Lance. When we laughed and coach didn’t, remaining as he did, in fact, stone-faced and deadpan, we began to think he was instead losing his mind.

And Coach Klaus was in many ways losing his grip on sanity, but the leprechaun ended up being real, too. I thought they were mythical creatures of Celtic lore but instead they were not, so Coach’s star leprechaun soon proved.

His name was Lafferty, the leprechaun. He emerged before us from a cloud of blue smoke. He laughed in a sharp vitriolic way, as if in laughing he was instead teaching us the true meaning of hatred. His hair was a hypnotic orange and his beard was thin but long. Supposedly, he was tall for a leprechaun at four feet even.

He was pretty loathsome. But he was fast. Magically fast, which many of us speculated would be against the rules, his magical speed. But that was only if they could definitively prove Lafferty was a Leprechaun in the first place. It wasn’t likely. The real source of wonder was, how did Coach Klaus ever get hold of Lafferty in the first place? And what was in it for Lafferty?

From the season’s outset, we demolished the competition, which is what happens when an immovable object and an unstoppable force (with really sweet moves) team up to be our star running back tandem.

Our offensive game plan was simple, we’d ram variants of the Maryland I down opponent’s throats. Jeremy Argo was moved to fullback and paved the way for Ceau and Lafferty. The media chalked Lafferty’s wizened complexion to a skin condition. That was that. He was just ugly and unkempt. There were literally hundreds of kids playing prep sports for whom the same could be said.

We ran isos left and right, up the gut constantly. Challenged linebackers to make plays against the shear power of Ceau or the ginger slaloming of Lafferty amid the fray. You would lose Lafferty. I remember from practice, he’d cut behind his lead blockers, maybe a trap play involving a pulling guard and then the fullback plowing full head of steam right after, and Lafferty, so slight and speedy, would be lost among the legs. The ball gone invisible. Until finally he would emerge down field, onward unruffled to a touchdown. I envisioned him darting around and behind the charging legs of offensive and defensive players alike, hiding playfully, laughing inaudibly to himself. It really was a game to him, a seeming fantasy in a forest of limbs that churned and could not be planted. That was why I wasn’t in the forest. Laffery’s existence mocked those of us who would forever be planted.

Scores like 60-3 were becoming commonplace. We were undefeated and playoff bound, of that there could be no question. Underrated players like Jim Anderson, our star linebacker, though very much overshadowed by our running backs, were making it impossible for other teams to score, at least with any consistency. The only team that looked our equal was Pershing.

Pershing’s offensive line was mammoth. Three of five linemen topped out at 6’7” apiece and none was smaller than 6’2”, their center. What’s more, against odds, their line was quick-footed and very good at blocking beneath the pads of other, much smaller opponents. We had the game footage to prove it.

Then there was there star quarterback. Lonnie “Lion’s Body” McNeil. He had the body of a lion in some ways, non-literal. He also had the arm of a machine gun cannon. That was another of his nicknames, “The Machine Gun Cannon” but administration officials really discouraged its use.

Pershing was always in our periphery. In every team meeting there was a note of the looming showdown. We’d watch video of someone beating a Pershing effigy with a baseball bat. Despite the mixed message of equipment from another sport, the meaning was clear to most of us. Coach Klaus just nodded and spit skoal into his empty diet Mountain Dew bottle.

***

They didn’t wait till the halftime ceremony to start fanning the field with ash. That gave further credence to the idea that Coach Vorsch was doing it because he hated Coach Klaus and everything associated with Klaus, i.e. us and our whole football team. It also suggested ash was never a legitimate part of the planned ceremony and that Vorsch was a huge dickhead.

The Pershing team took the field wearing their uniforms patterned after desert war fatigues. Really stood in contrast to ours, which were green and red, the ensemble limned throughout in gold. When we made great plays we were given round, gold-colored stickers for our helmets. They were meant to resemble gold coins. You wanted all the gold you could get. It looked pretty cool. Pershing had their own version of this, “kills” or something, represented by a skull and crossbones sticker.

The game was nothing if not a constant volley back and forth. From the first kickoff (which we won the coin toss and elected to receive), there were many great moments of the spectacle, of athletes and sport. Cameras took pictures generously, come from the lenses of both professionals and our peers in the stands. Neither defense could stop the onslaught of our high-powered offenses, despite the able players on that side of the ball. The score was tied, ludicrously, 42-42 at the end of the first quarter.

You had on our side of the ball, more of the same from Ceau and Lafferty. One particularly memorable play had Lafferty hoist himself up above the fray and literally bound off the helmets of both opposing and blocking players, star dust or something seeming to trail after him down the sideline till he reached the endzone, yet again.

Meanwhile, the wall of men children protecting “The Lion” McNeil had proven duly formidable. McNeil passed and passed unassailed, as his protectors crouched in protection stances swiveled their heads to catch an errant blitz come from anywhere at the second level, and not even our cornerbacks were fleet of foot enough to escape their massive collective wingspan.

Well coached, too. They gave up not one inadvertent holding penalty. McNeil was free to pass as he pleased, forever ensconced in a fortress of humanity. His numbers were huge before the first quarter had reached its conclusion, 400 plus passing yards and well en route to a state high school record, a perfect 20 for 20 completions.

It wasn’t until the second quarter that things got really out of control, besides.

That was when Jim Anderson, one of the few on defense who’d been doing anything to slow Pershing’s onslaught, went down by hyper-extending his Achilles tendon. Other linebackers continued to fall, one after the other. Until, you guessed it, I was the only one left.

I still wasn’t put in the game. They had one last contingency in mind, in the event that our linebacking core was depleted to the extent that I would have to see playing time. The last several plus minutes of the first half were spent on a scoring drive by our offense, so bought us some time to strategize and implement the required changes to personnel. We headed to the locker room trailing 63 to 55, having to settle for a pair of field goals on the latter two scoring drives.

Coach Klaus gave us a speech that sounded a lot like a mash-up of several movies. I can recall, in particular lines lifted from Any Given Sunday, Gladiator, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I didn’t feel personally psyched much more than I had leading into halftime, but some people say I’m a hard guy to get psyched.

At the start of the second half, Coach Klaus was dressed in a St. Pat’s football uniform, ready to occupy our vacant middle linebacker position (though in high school and college he’d been a defensive end sometimes asked to help cover the option or a back sent up field to receive a pass; regardless, his physical experience defending the open field was minimal, notwithstanding his age and poor conditioning). His gut sagged over his pants belt, and his torso bore resemblance to a misshapen pear, a few sporadic lumps in places they shouldn’t be. People pretended not to notice the fact that an adult male was now playing in a prep football game, hoping Coach Klaus would come to realize the despicable nature of his actions and quit of his own accord. 

He didn’t, though.

The officials were nervous. Play commenced, though, probably against all advisable options, and our defense took the field.

What you probably need to understand is that regardless of Coach Klaus’s being an out-of-shape man, he was still a man. A man who was playing against boys, regardless of their size and strength. The point is, he had a lot of success at first. He was the only one who was able to break through the line on a blitz and terrorize “The Lion” enough to throw before he was reading, thus leading to interceptions and a sudden reversal of fortunes for our team. For our part on offense, we were able to score another touchdown on a crushing goal line score by Ceau, who then did the exact same to convert for two points afterwards. We were tied 63 all.

It was probably around that point, but it’s not like I was paying close attention to this, that Coach Vorsch suited up for Pershing, and moved into position on the offensive line, right tackle to be precise. The effect was immediate. Pershing scored a passing touchdown. Mainly, this was because Vorsch was able to take on two players at once freeing the other interior linemen to combine for a block on the blitzing Coach Klaus.

Our game plan, likewise, changed. The officials were really lacking in backbone. They kind of let all of this happen. We had a leprechaun on our team, for one thing, a leprechaun who’d finally grown uninterested in playing football. My guess, if you’re asking -- Lafferty saw his opening to steal back the gold Coach Klaus had obviously stolen from him and used as leverage to get Lafferty to play halfback.

As said, Coach Klaus was preoccupied with moving to his former college/high school position on the defensive line, at left end. The undesirable result of which was that I was to move into the middle linebacker position. Laughable to anyone still able to keep track. Certainly my position coach, Coach Moffett, wasn’t. He’d more or less tendered his resignation when Coach Klaus took the field. He sat on a bench with a portable white board drawing pictures of stars or squirrels or something.

Before heading out onto the playing field, as I was strapping my helmet on, I saw a brief flash of reflected light and realized it belonged to the pot of gold Lafferty was carting away.

“M’lad,” said Lafferty, realizing I was watching him. “You say nothing about this to anyone and I’ll give you a thing you’ve always wanted.” I nodded. I wasn’t interested in what he had to give, but I did feel it was high time he return to the land of fantasy, unimpeded. It was fair and right, too.

Then he blew gold dust into my face.

When I finally rubbed it out of my eyes, he was gone. The whistle had blown and a henpecked, harried official was setting the Pershing ball down at the line of scrimmage. I hustled out to the defensive side, my team already out of a huddle and lining up in position.

“The Lion” hiked the ball on two and the play was set in motion. I suddenly felt a field awareness like nothing I’d ever experienced, a perfect synthesis of all parts into one clear physical vision. Time slowed down. Football nirvana began. I took off like a gazelle, watching as Coach Klaus and Coach Vorsch wrestled at their positions on the line, aware of the calamity that was to come but uncaring. I hurdled over the defenders, knowing full well the play was a fake and that they were in the midst of running a play action pass. I could not be stopped. I’d gotten to “The Lion” McNeil before he’d begun his passing motion. He tried to dump it off to his running back about five yards up field but that was not to be. I was already to him. I created a fumble. I created an interception. The two became one, impossible to tell apart. The ball was in my hands and I, now, was racing to the end zone in the opposite direction. The crowd soared with me. They exploded in jubilant noise as I crossed the goal line. I turned around to face the playing field where I saw that Coach Vorsch and Klaus had gotten into a fist fight, torn off each other’s helmet and were pounding on each other’s face when the officials finally took action. There were gasps and screams. The scoreboard read 70 to 63, but it was clear both teams would soon be disqualified.

Our seasons, due to gross wrongdoing, soon were forfeited.



I shook the gold dust out of my hair and walked to the sideline, game ball wedged firmly under my arm, content to never play a sport again.



 


Matt Rowan is a writer who lives in Chicago and does not dance often because he does not dance well. His forthcoming story collection, Why God Why, will be released soon via Love Symbol Press. He edits a literary magazine called Untoward. He's been published by Booth Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, Another Chicago Magazine and Necessary Fiction, among others. He prefers to be busy with things.

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