by Bud Finlayson
Vengeance and Glory
Friday morning I arose with purpose. Butterflies tried to stir in my stomach but a cold resolve kept them at bay as I remembered Warren. I slipped into my gray game-day T-shirt that was worn only by varsity, with the blue letters: LAMAR CONS. FOOTBALL emblazoned over the left breast. Consolidated, was abbreviated and it looked like we played for a state prison team. Robert, James, and I had conspired to wear black arm bands to commemorate and protest Warren's death. It wasn't a decision organized by the team, we three just didn't want people to forget of the great injustice that a system of ignorance had inflicted upon him. So before leaving the house, I rummaged through my mom's rag box and found some black cotton fabric that I tore into two inch wide strips for three arm bands.
I drove to James' house and he tied one on to my left bicep and I did the same to him. The other was for Robert but when we got to school, he already had one on and I gave the extra band to Rick. Many had long forgotten about Warren and the arm bands were questioned but by mid-day several others had appeared. To my consternation, even Bobby Lucky wore one, but he flaunted it as fashion, not out of concern. We banded ones were a minority, because the most respectable varsity members dared not deviate from the task at hand of winning football, in any way.
The pep rally was a climactic array of bouncing cheerleaders, shrieking girls, blaring horns, beating drums, and fervent speeches echoing through the gym. We players filed in zombie-like, with our most intense game faces, ignoring all the fervor. We couldn't smile, couldn't show emotion or humanness; for the finality of our mission was destruction and there was a no-nonsense, Texas tradition of high school pep rally etiquette that couldn't be broken. We didn't hear the mumbled speeches promising victory and pleas for fan support because our minds were consumed by what our responsibilities were to be on the field that night. My mind, however was on Warren.
After the rally, we crossed the campus on foot, to the school cafeteria for a pre-game meal of rubber roast beef with tasteless gravy, mashed potatoes, corn, stewed carrots, bread and ice tea. Everybody ate in silence, for the meal was not to be enjoyed, it was to fill our bellies and sustain us through the evening's onslaught on the gridiron. I ate scantily for I knew that my body wouldn't require much nourishment to ride the bench and only punt a few times and my feelings of nervousness, excitement, and vengeance made it hard for me to stomach the bland cafeteria food. Surprisingly, I made it through the pep rally and meal with no reprimand about the arm band from Lucky.
Then we went back across the rear parking lot to the field house and everybody suited up in socks, jocks, football pants and T-shirts to lounge on tumbling mats and think more about the game and get more psyched up during the three and a half hours remaining till kick-off. The locker room was active but quiet. The emotion was there, yet not spoken out; it was too early. It was building inside of each player slowly, like the first puffs of air inflating a balloon that will finally burst when it can hold no more. By game time the anger and hate would be ready to gush forth, but now it was being contained. There was little conversation as we each prepared ourselves.
Some sat stone faced staring into nothing, some lay flat with eyes shut as if sleeping, some sought solitude over in the JV locker room, some less intense players huddled and in whispers planned their post game activities, some pampered starters congregated in the trainer's room as Doc Montoya frantically began taping ankles and knees, and there were the usual guys lined up at the commode stalls to relieve their nervous guts of any excess waste. I was headed for those lines that were already five deep, so I took my time changing.
With the preciseness of a mountain climber preparing his gear to scale a rock face, I disrobed and slipped into my jock strap, straightening every twist and smoothing every wrinkle. Then I pulled the navy blue leggings tightly up over my calves and new white tube socks over them. A gray cut-off T-shirt was all I needed right then, to get in the toilet line, but Lucky spoke from behind me in his office door way, "Bud?," as if I was the last person he expected to see dressing in front of my locker.
I turned to him and he looked upon me with disdain and smirked, "What in the hell do you think your doing, son?" "I'm getting suited up like you told us to." I answered. His face cracked into a sly grin to play his trump card and announced, "Unh-uh baby. Not you. I didn't tell you to suit up. I told you to get that hair cut and you didn't, so you can go watch the game tonight from the stands with the rest of the golden turds and mullets that don't have what it takes to wear a Lamar Mustang varsity football uniform."
He turned to enter his office and I pleaded, "But I did get it cut!" A half chuckle escaped his lips and he said without turning back, "Don't lie to me, Bud." Lucky had circled his desk and was sitting behind it as I followed him into the office and said forcefully, "I'm not lying. My mother cut it last night. Call her and ask her yourself." "Bud, you're a liar. And I don't have to call nobody. Now just get on out of here." he sharply replied. I started to fume, "Don't call me a liar! I'm NOT a liar, and I DID get it cut!" Very matter of factly he looked up to me and stated, "You're not suiting up tonight, Bud, and that's that."
I peeled off my socks, jock and T-shirt in a numbed state, but hurriedly got back into my clothes for I wanted to be out of there even though I subconsciously didn't. My dream was football and that day was the culmination of my dream to play on varsity under the lights and it was gone and I was no longer a part of it. Nobody made a fuss or a protest, my teammates went about their business resting and paid little attention to my departure. Out in the bright sunlight, my head spun as I surveyed the familiar, but now silent surroundings; the weight cage, agility course, and the empty expanse of Mustang stadium, that seemed not to want me either. The coaches office air conditioner hummed away as I felt the separation of myself and the team, me outside and they in there; with great distress I turned to the exit gate.
There, parked just beyond the gate was Coach Lucky's custard yellow, Ford Fairlane station wagon and a vision of myself hurdling feet first through the windshield with it completely crumbling under the force of my leap, flashed instantly through my angry mind. My adrenaline began to stir at the thought of such a criminal act. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that I was still alone, so, I bolted, approaching the car like a broad jumper down the runway. But, a stride before take-off, I cowered and stopped short, only to send shards of amber plastic flying as I shattered the parking light with the heel of my boot. A thought flashed to try again for the windshield, but I didn't. I just walked towards my truck.
Not two paces gone, I nearly jumped out of my skin as I heard Lucky bellow out my name in a shocked tone, from back by the locker room door. I kept walking and he bellowed out again but with anger, and I did an about face to see him rushing over. The redness of his square face indicated rage, but the contortion of his wrinkled brow showed utter astonishment. The guilt of getting caught red-handed drained me of my fight and I submitted. "BUD! I can't believe what I just saw. That ain't like you to do something like that. You know I could call the po-lice and have you charged with destruction of private property," then his tone softened, "What's got into you, son?"
I began to speak. I expressed how important that day had been for me and the anger I felt for him having denied me of my lifelong dream by yet another one of his deceptions. It had merely been the culmination of so many deplorable incidents and I finally cracked. I unburdened myself of every injustice, contradiction, lie, prejudice, and wrongdoing that I'd witnessed over the years, under his administration of the football program. I told him how my early years of dogged determination and dedication had never paid off as he'd promised, while others with little effort had succeeded because of influence and favoritism. I recalled his negligence of Warren's ordeal, his personal attack on me of cowardice, the illegal practices and unauthorized donations of doughnuts and orange drink by meddling parents. I let him know that I'd been raised to believe in fair play and sportsmanship, not in ass-kissing and brown-nosing like he condoned in his win-at-all-cost policy.
Lucky didn't interrupt me, but finally said, "Well, Bud, there might be some truth to everything you say, but that's the way it is and that's the way it's gonna be, and you'll never change a thing; especially not by rocking the boat and kicking out parking lights. You're a senior now and only have a few months left in football, so just let things be. All you got to do is keep your mouth shut, play out the season without any trouble, and get your letter, and it will be all over for you. You won't have to worry about us any more." I retaliated, "But I was taught to stand up for what I believe is right and I can't just ignore it. There's too much that's wrong." "One of these days, Bud, you are gonna learn that life don't always have to be fair," he concluded as he checked his watch.
"It's ten till 5:00. You go find a place to get that hair cut right, and be back before 5:30 and you can suit up," he said. I didn't think long to say yes, but before I departed, I had to agree to fix his parking light lens, too. As I drove off in my pickup, I felt good about voicing all my complaints and being given another chance, but in reality, maybe I had just sold myself out for the first time in order to play football. Morality didn't matter to me then, I would do as Lucky asked, in order to participate against Dulles that night.
Rose-Rich shopping center was just blocks away and it had a women's beauty parlor so I stopped and plead my case for a fast, male, school regulation trim. They managed to squeeze me in before a 5:00 o'clock perm job and outfitted me with a pink apron, but asked me to remove the neck brace to tie it around my neck. It smelled of perfume and hair spray and I felt strange having invaded that all female sanctuary. To my relief they used scissors and didn't shear me like the men barbers in town would have done. The cut was noticeable, but not a drastic change and I hoped Lucky would not accuse me of lying again.
At 5:20 I presented myself submissively to Lucky. He walked a full circle around me, studying my hair carefully and finally said, "OK. Suit up. Punters and kickers on the field in 20 minutes." I stepped into the locker room from Lucky's office and it was then buzzing with activity. Teammates no longer lounged but were up putting on the rest of their uniforms, the sound of shoulder pads clattering and jerseys being slipped tightly over them. Unlike my departure, some close friends acknowledged my return, Marc, James, David, Bearden, Ronald, and Gregg Wenzel. The majority of the team didn't, though, for we weren't that close-knit. I had become labeled as a malcontent doper by the shit-kickers and stud jocks that comprised most of the team, and they'd just as soon do without me, anyway. But I was back and the emotions were building, people were talking, and the yell guys were starting to whoop it up.
I nervously hurried into my uniform, with no time to be meticulous as before, but I tried to savor the moment despite my rush. After my socks and pants I proudly donned the brand new white varsity shoes, something I'd dreamed of since moving to Richmond. My shoulder pads went on carefully around the neck brace and then my jersey, attempting not to bend my neck. The last article before my helmet was the black arm band that unfortunately did not stand out very well against the dark navy blue sleeve of my home jersey, but I knew it was there. I grabbed my head gear and took the field ahead of the rest of the team, with quarterbacks, ends, the second punter, two deep snappers, some return men and Davila, the place kicker.
The time was approaching 6:00 o'clock and the sun still lit the sky from the west. Mustang Stadium was coming out of hibernation. Members of the press, radio, and assistant coaches from both teams were getting set up, as the press box had just been opened. The PA system squealed loudly with static as amplifiers were being connected. Pickup trucks unloaded supplies at the concession stands with the smell of popping popcorn wafting through the stadium. Some very avid fans had already filtered through the gates and mingled in the good seats. Cheerleaders and pep squad members hung signs made from butcher paper, "SINK THE VIKINGS," and blue and gray streamers on handrails and fences. The Vikings had arrived and their specialty men were warming up, too. Early band member arrivals congregated in their end section of the bleachers, signified by an occasional stray blast of a horn or a booming base drum. And we were down amongst it all, the center of all that preparation.
I stretched my legs and torso but the neck would have to stay tight. After a few snaps, I began to punt, but it just didn't feel right. My foot wasn't contacting the ball solidly, there wasn't the deep resonant thud that accompanies a well punted ball. I found the problem to be those new white shoes, they were just too hard and stiff and they fit a hair too long causing my toe to catch the turf during my leg swing. As a brand new, unbroken in baseball glove isn't supple enough to snap shut around a pop fly, those game shoes were too new to punt a football effectively. It was like punting with water skis on. I continued to try but planned to switch to my practice shoes, when we went in for the pep talk.
The remainder of the team took the field. Together we did calisthenics, grass drills, and some hitting to pump the adrenaline and psyche our opponents, then broke up into groups. Offense running half speed through their plays and the defense going over theirs. Emotions were climbing higher and there was lots of clapping, whistling, back slapping, and shouts of encouragement. The sun lowered but the lights weren't on yet and the stadium continued filling as the hour ticked towards seven o'clock and we retired to the locker room.
Inside, we had a few minutes to relieve our bladders and drink some water before the pep talk began, in the central room of the field house that served as a meeting place and the assistant coaches common office. I slipped in quickly to my locker and changed into my black practice cleats. They were not leather but made of canvas that was worn and molded perfectly to my foot. The soles were soft rubber and not hard plastic like the game shoes that were about as pliable as a Dutch man's wooden clog. I felt comfortable and confident that I could punt the ball a mile.
Into the air conditioned meeting room, we jammed our hot sweaty bodies and Coach Lucky began to address us in a cautious tone. "I don't know about you guys. I don't know if yall are really ready to play football tonight. Yall seem more concerned with this black arm band crap than you do about this game. I don't know who started it but I don't like it one bit. You get all caught up trying to avenge somebody's death and it takes your mind away from the game. You forget what you're here for, and that's to beat them Vikings from over there across the river. They don't know or care about yall's revenge, they've just come over here with the sole intent to kick yall's butts like they've done for the last four years in a row. If yall aren't ready to play by now, you'll never be, and if your bellies ain't full of butterflies then your in the wrong business, you don't want to play football. Yall better light a fire under yall's butts or Dulles is going to make it five in a row. But let's get out there and kick their asses instead and send them back across the river with their tails between their legs!!" We headed out the door, knowing full well what our job was.
The stadium lights were on and the stands were filled to capacity. The crowd was buzzing and rocking with excitement, and even the visitor's side was full. As our fans spotted us, every head turned to that west end zone and they stood and gave us rousing applause in anticipation of our break onto the field. With a twelve foot high banner in place beyond the goal posts, the Mustang band struck up the Lamar fight song and our emotional balloon popped releasing our fighting spirit and we went bursting through the paper barricade to the music and cheers and we were pumped up, feeling ready to play. It was a long time in coming, but the exhilaration that I was experiencing at that moment was worth every bump and bruise and broken bone that I'd suffered over the years of frustration. The rush was unequaled by any drugs and if I'd felt it a year earlier, maybe I'd never sought a marijuana high. But I remembered Warren's absence and it sobered me.
I glanced to the sea of people and spotted the pep squad in their blue and gray uniforms and I knew Lori was somewhere up there watching and I felt important. We received the opening kickoff and Macha, the up man, returned it to mid-field. The fans went wild with a deafening roar. Our first play from scrimmage we fumbled the ball and Dulles recovered, and the crowd fell silent. It set the pace for that first half. We even had a 90 yard TD scamper by J Solomon called back because of a motion penalty, and at the intermission, we trailed the Vikings 13-7. It looked like their winning streak against us might not be broken. Our only touchdown came on a pass caught by Bobby Schramme, a junior back up quarterback, substituting as a receiver. I was called on to punt twice and got off two solid but not spectacular punts.
Coach Lucky was livid at half time. He ranted and raved, cursing us unmercifully, while his boiling blood turned his face beet red. The possibility of losing to Sugarland a fifth straight time was too much and he flung chalk and erasers about like a deranged madman. At the top of his lungs, he let us have it, "You guys think you're tough but you're playing like a bunch of pantywaists! Shit! And your stupid mistakes! Hell, all I can do is coach you, but yall got to execute when you get onto the field! I can't go out there and hold you by the hand! And this arm band crap! I told yall it was a goddamned stupid idea! Look at us losing by six points! Yall better get that shit out of yall's heads right now, so you can concentrate on winning this football game, or are yall just going to curl up and die on me. Let me know right now, because if yall don't want to play, I'll just tell their coach we forfeit. There's no sense going out in front of the home crowd and embarrassing yourselves and me, too!" I didn't take his tirade to heart, for I had only been on the field for two punts, and they were fairly decent kicks. He went on tearing into individual players till it was time to return for the second half.
Our loyal Mustang backers were much more forgiving. As we re-took the field they greeted us with a standing ovation and the school fight song, again. We were fired up and we came out sticking. Our defense stiffened and held them to four downs on their first possession. After their punt we drove down the field and tied the game on a TD pass caught by Roy D. With a chance to go up by one, we failed as Davila kicked wide on the extra point attempt. Their offense continued to sputter and in the fourth quarter we went up 20-13 on another TD by Schramme and the successful PAT by Davila. With plenty of time left, they moved the ball deep into our territory, finding themselves first and ten, on our eleven yard line. Two plays later, Ronald David recovered a fumble on our own eight yard line. If a couple of first downs were made, we could run out the clock but after three plays we'd only advanced two yards and were on our own 10 yard line and in a punting situation.
With three minutes left, I trotted onto the field to punt from 5 yards deep in my own end zone. The crowd was standing to see whether I could get the Mustangs out of trouble, for a TD and two point conversion could win the game for the Vikings. A strong 40 yard punt would still give them fairly good field position just inside our own territory, and that's figuring no run-back. I motioned for the snap and the new ball zinged sharply into my hands. Instinct took control and my foot met the ball with a sweet thud and I watched the white stripped projectile shoot away from me in a low spiral between the two opposite rows of shining light standards, into the dark indigo sky. Shielded from watching the ball's final decent, I heard the crowd roar first, then I saw it bounding end over end past the return man with two of our speedsters following it close behind to down it on Dulles' own 40 yard line where it ultimately came to rest. As a result of that 50 yard punt they would have to travel 60 yards to beat us in just a little under three minutes but our defense got stingy and the clock ran out on them. The victory was ours and I rejoiced in that I'd fulfilled my duty to Warren, and felt I was really a part of it.
After shaking our opponents hands, there was a frenzied rush to the victory bell beyond the west end zone, by the field house. The church-type bell, mounted on top of an iron pipe supported by a brick pedestal, was traditionally rung after a Lamar victory. That night, though, it rang extra long and loud to proclaim our prowess over Sugarland. We surrounded that icon of winning like a holy altar, clawing over each other in ecstasy, just to get a pull on the chain. Macha climbed the pedestal to touch the saintly idol, as if it would grant us everlasting power. When I reached the chain, I tugged hard and sent three clangs into the September night, in hope that Warren's spirit would hear and know they were for him.
I showered and dressed quickly, not suffering from the total exhaustion of playing four punishing quarters, and anticipated the dance with Lori. She would be waiting in the parking lot to congratulate me and then we'd go together to the post-game festivities. I decided to not strap on the neck brace, for I was feeling so good right then that I didn't want any reminders that my neck was injured.
Outside the locker room, there was much milling about of our backers, including local press and fanatical dads, and in the center of all the commotion stood Coach Lucky. He posed statuesquely, beaming with the aplomb of a greedy politician after a landslide victory, head tilted back and puffing on a big green cigar. There was laughter and revelry all around him as he basked in the glory of that triumphant hour, accepting all the hearty congratulations and recalling the pivotal plays of the game.
I turned to leave and spotted Lori just beyond the gate with other girls, lined up to salute us heroic players. As I walked toward her I passed Lucky's car and glanced to see the broken lens and remembered how close I came to not being a part of those special moments. She came to me and gave me a hug and told me what a good game I played, I told her it was just four punts, but she praised me anyway. It was a night for dreams to come true, as for the first time, I had a girlfriend meeting me after a game and I felt ten feet tall as she nestled under my arm and we walked to my truck.
The old armory was quivering with loud rock music from a live band. There were colored stage lights, making an intimate low-lit atmosphere. Most of the players and student body were at the dance and for the first time in my life I felt like I belonged, having Lori at my side. I didn't have to hang around the entrance like a hungry buzzard, just looking at the girls walk by without ever approaching or talking to them. I was inside the hall where everybody danced and couples congregated. My inexperience on the dance floor caused me to shy back but Lori coaxed me. I finally obliged and got into it but the slow songs were my favorite. The band played, "Color My World," by Chicago and we embraced closely as we danced. I felt her breasts and thigh rub against me as she kissed the side of my neck and I about came unglued with bliss.
The dance was over about 12:45 and I dropped her off at her house, and got several more kisses before driving home. With the two windows rolled down on my pickup, the first hours of morning's sweet air rushed through the cab as I motored down Farm Rd 359, past hay fields and bottom land and I felt so alive. My mind spun with gaiety, thinking of the day's accomplishments. I'd played varsity and we beat Dulles, for Warren. We were 1-0 and undefeated. I'd gone out dancing after the game and got some female affection and it made me forget that I even had a muscle spasm. My life had never been as good as it was that night.
I wanted to sleep all day, that Saturday morning, but I was up at 10:00am so I could get into town by noon before the Ford agency closed. They had a replacement lens but it was steep, $13.75, and consisted of the complete housing where the bulb fits in. I had to fork it over because I'd promised Lucky to fix it. I made the purchase and cruised over to Marc's house to just see what was up. His dad was cooking and Marc had just risen from bed. We re-counted the game's highlights and fantasized of an undefeated season, all the way to State. Doc Johnson had loaded the table with an excess of food, so I conveniently pulled up a chair and helped dispose of some of it. Cube steaks cooked in gravy, home fries with fried onions, and baked beans. Doc enjoyed watching people eat his cooking and I was always willing to oblige him.
After forcing down seconds, I wanted to go by the field house and see if Lucky would be there to put the new lens on without waiting till Monday. The yellow wagon was right there where it had been parked the night before, along with other coach's cars. I pulled up but didn't make my presence known. It took but a few seconds to back out two long screws, pull the broken pieces out, switch the bulb and socket into the new lens housing, and screw it into place. The car was unlocked so I quickly checked to see if the light turned on, and it did, and I was off without being detected. I only wanted to cover my stupidity without calling more attention to the matter.
I longed to drop by Lori's but might be pressing my luck, so I went on home. College football was on TV, and I watched till late afternoon as I waited for the arrival of the local paper, The Herald-Coaster. It came sometime after 5:30 and I unrolled it as I walked barefooted back up our gravel driveway, and we'd made the front page cover story. "THE DROUGHT IS OVER! PONIES WIN 20-13" the headline read, accompanied by a picture of David carrying the ball, airborne on a 10 yard gain. Inset below the body of the main account of the game was a 2x3 inch box with a quarter-inch, cross-hatched border that read, "Lamar Mustang's Victory Dedicated To Warren Reeves." It continued, "The Lamar Mustangs varsity football squad decided to dedicate Friday nights 20-13 win over Dulles, to the memory of the death of Warren Reeves. Reeves died from injuries received last year during a JV game against Dulles."
Well I'll be damned. What conniving depths of lying hypocrisy has Lucky stooped to now? He was adamantly against us thinking of Warren before and during the game, for fear of losing, but now that the win was in the books, he changed his tune. He used it to his advantage, by making his team look so humanitarian in the public eye, after the fact, for with the win it became appropriate to boast or claim anything. Since the press had not talked to any players, Lucky had to have leaked the story. He became all for it after we made him look good, though he was responsible in the first place for promoting the attitude that killed Warren. Lucky unscrupulously used his dead victim for his own gain. It was sickening.
At the end of the write up I was positively recognized with the statement, "Bud Finlayson punted four times for a forty yard average." However, the magical feeling I acquired Friday night was replaced by hatred and disgust for Lucky and his warped ideals, once again. The basic joy of just playing and winning a sport had come back momentarily, but that show of hypocrisy, just left me that much more embittered. I still was driven by a greater innate desire to succeed at football.
So I entered the next week as a football player but not such as a loyal Mustang. I still had not received the go-ahead to hit yet but I was not so anxious any more to hit. My neck still pained me greatly, and I only wanted to be free of pain for good. I couldn't imagine less pain with more hitting. For that week against the Lufkin Panthers, I would remain solely at punter.
End of Chapter 18
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