by Bud Finlayson
Shame and Expulsion
The Lufkin Panthers were a familiarity from my past. I would be going home to East Texas to face that regional powerhouse, a mere seventy miles southeast of Tyler. As a child, the thought of our R E Lee Rebels playing Lufkin was not a comforting one. Like us being thrown to the lions and devoured alive, all-be-them Panthers, we would assuredly admit defeat before they even hit town. They were still considered a formidable foe in 1973; a possible 4-A state contender, so Lucky had scheduled them as a test. "If we can get by Lufkin there'll be no stopping us in making it to State," he would claim.
I attended that week's practices but distanced myself from the team. I punted when called on but didn't concern myself with the detailed preparations to combat Lufkin's swarming defense or their fleet-footed, blue-chip halfback; my mind was else-where. Despite having tried to accept the daily discomfort of my neck, the child in me screamed with frustration that it wouldn't go away. The psychological support of the brace had worn off so I only wore it to therapy sessions, the doctor, and football practice and games. I showed up at Monday's practice without it and Lucky hurriedly sent me to my truck to fetch the foam collar, worrying about it not looking good to the insurance companies if later they found out that something really was the matter with me.
My dad knew we were playing in Lufkin because I'd called him in Tyler and asked if he could go watch me play; but that I wouldn't be in the starting line-up except as the punter. He said that he'd see what he could do to make it and I was anxious that he would. He hadn't seen me play since seventh grade, and then he only attended two of the games. Riding in an air conditioned Greyhound back to the red clay and pine woods of my youth to battle the Lufkin Panthers in the inaugural game of their brand new stadium and beat them and punt for a 40 yard average with my Dad looking on, would be more fulfillment than I could imagine.
Lori occupied my thoughts as I struggled with when to ask her to the Homecoming dance. Rick had been coaching me and he said it was time to ask her but I didn't understand the rush for it wouldn't be until almost another month. He said it was expected of me as a varsity member to set up my date early to cement the relationship and let it be known to prospective date seekers that Lori was mine, and couldn't be snatched up. Furthermore, he warned that she might stray away if I didn't give her the commitment of being her homecoming date, which is like saying "I do," in a Texas high school romance. The Homecoming dance is the social event of the Fall semester in Texas high schools and anybody that is somebody wouldn't dare be left out. I'd never been to a homecoming dance but one of the school's best looking girls wanted me to ask her to be my date. I had to question my worthiness, for I wasn't well-versed in such grandiloquence.
During Thursday's light workout we'd completed the special teams drills and I was just hanging around while the defense reviewed their assignments. My lack of involvement made me feel lazy and when I noticed Bobby Lucky perched comfortably atop his helmet, I decided to take a load off too, and take a seat next to him, on my own helmet. I knew it was a blatant violation of Lucky's law but I just didn't care. A few minutes passed before Coach Johnson spied me and barked out, "Damn it Finlayson! Get your ass up from there! That's a 30.00 dollar headgear, not a lawn chair!" I got up but I questioned Coach Johnson, "Why don't you tell Bobby to get off of his?" He told me not to worry about it and turned his attention to the defense on the field. I glanced back at Bobby as he remained seated and he met my stare with a sneer, as if to say, "Ha--, how foolish to defy me. I told him, "C'mon man, get up. Just cause your daddy's the---" "I'm just fine the way I am. Thank you," he pompously cut in.
I lost my temper and booted Bobby's helmet out from underneath him, and he went sprawling down hard on his back side. He came up challenging me to come after him, "I'm sick and tired of your shit. Let's settle this right now." We met at arms length, each one of us grabbing a handful of the other ones T-shirt, pushing and shoving. I cocked my right arm ready to let fly with a punch, but I sensed Coach Lucky coming at us and I thought I might just be a fool for wanting to slug the coach's son and risk certain expulsion from the team.
"Hey! Hey! Break it up. What's a matter with you two?!" Lucky snapped. We released each other, and I stated, "I just want to know why your son has his own set of rules to go by, different than the rest of us?" The Simms brothers, Larry and Wesley, who were always ready for a fight, chimed in, "Yeh coach, How come he does?" Bobby stayed silent as his father scolded him, "You sittin on your helmet again? I thought I'd warned you about that, son. And I've warned you about that cussin too. Now, for Pete's sake don't let me see you fighting again. You either, Bud. We got a football game tomorrow; let's do our fightin against them Panthers, not each other."
Lucky's mild reprimanding of his son was to demonstrate to all the onlookers that he was totally impartial; but it was clearly a bogus act. Everyone knew he was given special treatment but Lucky had to make it seem otherwise, on the surface. But Lucky must have known Bobby was guilty and with so many witnesses he couldn't get after me too harshly. The Simms' swore their allegiance with me and proposed that we get him after practice where his daddy couldn't save him, but I blew it off because I'd already proven my point. I stayed in town at Marc's house after practice because the varsity team was to be introduced at the Quarterback Club meeting that night. It was our booster club made up of loyal fans and player's parents. My parents were not members, but I had to attend as part of the team. I just happened to get supper at Marc's and we went together, accompanied by Doc Johnson. Seeing all the dads there made me feel slighted, but I was reassured by the hope that they might know my dad in Lufkin. That he too could enter a triumphant locker room after the game and congratulate everybody. If he would just go.
When it was over, I dropped by Lori's house and we went by the Sonic drive-in for some ice cream. As we waited for the car hop, I asked her if she was interested in going to the homecoming dance and she immediately perked up by answering yes, but that so far she hadn't had any offers by any one to be their date. I figured that was my cue, and I asked her if she wanted to go with me. Without a bit of hesitation she said, "Of course I will; I thought you'd never get around to asking me." She was noticeably excited, telling me about the preparations involved of choosing the right dress, and shoes, and how she wanted the corsage that I would buy her; and that she just couldn't wait till the dance came. When I dropped her by her house, she gave me an extra spirited good-bye kiss and I began to look forward to the homecoming dance, too.
When I arrived home, my mom told me that my dad had called, and that I was to call him back, collect. I did so, hoping for good news, and it turned out better than I'd imagined. Yes, he was definitely going to the game, but would be accompanied by my grandparents, Mom & Pop, and by my Aunt Alice and Uncle Chuck. Two of my childhood football idols and loved ones would be there to watch me; Pop, who played against Jim Thorpe, and Chuck, the Tyler High star and my first punting instructor. Not to mention, Mom, who was the most enthusiastic football fan of them all. I felt so privileged and proud that the whole Finlayson clan from Tyler was to go see me play varsity football. My dad said he wanted to get there early to see me before the game but I told him that Lucky wouldn't allow any such distractions prior to a contest because we players might lose our concentration. He said he'd try to be there early, anyway.
I lay down to sleep but my mind was full of such rapture that I could only lay awake thinking. I'd set up the homecoming deal and Lori accepted me with obvious delight and would be mine for at least another month. My dad had come through for me and would see me play along with Lori, in a game that could put us at 2-0, and keep us on our State bound quest.
It was early to rise on Friday morning to make the pep rally before first period, since we would be dismissed from school at 12 noon. The emotions weren't as intense as the week before, despite the cheerleader's best efforts at rallying pep. It was too early in the morning to get excited about playing a completely unfamiliar opponent that we'd never seen before, twelve hours hence, in another geographic zone of Texas, for the majority of the student body wouldn't be attending anyway. As athletes, we were conditioned enough to merely wake up on Friday with an expressionless countenance, ready for battle.
I don't even know why classes were held on Fridays during the Fall, for everyone including the teaching staff only anticipated "the game" and little learning was ever accomplished. Teachers would gear their study plan around game days and postpone major tests, traditionally given on Fridays, till the following week, so as not to put too much pressure on a player's concentration. That Friday in school seemed like a blink of an eye, for after only three and a half periods, I was walking to the field house with nary a school book under my arm.
A blue and silver, split level, Greyhound scenic-cruiser idled methodically outside the gate of the field house. There was no destination placard in it's windshield; it just said CHARTERED, and that made it seem so important. Inside the locker room it was all business; get your duffel of gear together and get on the bus. The varsity veterans were boarding very matter of factly, as if that extreme level of luxury was the least they deserved, and was not to be gawked at. It was old hat to them but us newcomers couldn't help but marvel at the refrigerated interior darkened by tinted glass and the plush, deep padded reclining seats. Nothing was said outwardly for we were varsity football players and a certain maturity was expected of us to behave as men and think only about the game. Everyone settled in with those thoughts, and leaned back for the 130 mile drive.
I felt a separate kinship from my teammates as we left the gulf coast plains and ventured into the east Texas hills and woodlands. My mind was not on the game as my soul tuned in to the familiarities that rushed past the window; the common things that felt like home, and my heart grew expectant that my father and his side of the family was going to see me. I wasn't changing loyalties or anything, I would be a Mustang to the end, but I couldn't ignore that that bus was carrying me near to my beginnings in life.
After having stopped along the way in a little town to have our rubber roast beef pre-game meal, we re-boarded the Greyhound and would be in Lufkin in half an hour. Things were quiet upon our arrival, at two and a half hours before game time, as we reported to the new stadium which stood majestically behind the school buildings. We walked the field and took in the foreign surroundings. The grand stands were constructed of reinforced concrete with aluminum bleacher benches. The visitor's side was built into a red-clay hillside, and the sunken field ran in a north-south direction. The home fans would be sitting on the west side facing east and not have to battle the setting sun. All in all it was a splendid, spotless, cavernous arena, that had the enclosed feeling of a bowl and made Mustang Stadium seem like an ancient metal and wooden relic. The field itself was not so exemplary, though, for the grass turf hadn't filled in real well for that first season. It grew evenly, but was sparse and therefore it was kept high for appearance sake. I didn't look forward to punting out of that three inch rough.
We retired to the locker room underneath the home stands and lay back to get psyched in our T-shirts and pants. The ritual was the same as before, lines at the toilets, lines to get taped, and solitary searching within oneself for the anger to play. I lay silent asking God for the ability to perform well for my Dad, family, and Lori. The butterflies began to mount as activity could be heard beginning to stir outside, all around us.
Coach Johnson called for the kickers and other specialty men to take the field, so I slipped on my black practice shoes, shoulder pads, and white out-of-town jersey and anxiously headed out to warm up. The loneliness of the stadium was no more as it now crawled with movement. Lufkin's kickers and passers were out loosening up in their gold trimmed purple uniforms. Our band, cheerleaders, and pep squad were getting set up in the stands, along with other fans drifting in. As I punted I kept a hopeful eye peeled for my Dad and family to enter but I never saw them, even though I did see Lori. The high grass was a bother but I was still able to send the balls spiraling, but it was like chipping a golf ball out of a sand trap; my right leg dragging every time. The rest of the squad joined us and we completed our pre-game warm-ups, but as we made our way back to the lockers, I'd seen no trace of my Dad and I began to doubt whether he would show up.
Lucky approached me inside and said, "I seen you got your practice shoes on, you better get changed into your game shoes before we take the field again." I tried to explain that I could punt better with the older cleats and didn't plan to change them, for after all I'd worn them in the Dulles game. He quickly informed me that being a team, meant all its members being equal and united; no room for individualism. "You earn the right to wear a Lamar Mustang varsity uniform, and that includes the privilege of having white shoes that show everybody you're tough enough to make the grade. If you're a part of this team you wear what everybody else on this team wears; and that's white game shoes." he expounded. I didn't agree with his logic, but reluctantly I switched to my ski-like game shoes, and we gathered for the pep talk.
Lucky wasn't nearly as animated as the previous week, for nothing as anarchic as a black arm band had surfaced that he could harp about. We had a chance to be a part of history, he said, playing in the opening game of that brand new stadium. If we went out and handed them a loss, it would always be remembered that the Lamar Mustangs came up from Rosenberg in 1973 and whipped the Panthers in the very first game of their own stadium, built that same year. He reminded us that all we had to do was execute, be aggressive, and play the hard nosed ball that we knew how to, without making mental mistakes and we would humiliate those Lufkin folks in their own back yard and spoil the initiation party of their home facility. We needed that one bad, he concluded, even though it wasn't district, for it would prove we could win on the road against the best and the momentum would take us all the way to State. It just depended if we really wanted it, or not.
The game lights were beginning to flicker on, though the sky was forty-five minutes away from being dark, as we broke through the paper banner and to the sideline accompanied by the Mustang fight song and a standing ovation by our Mustang fans that made up about one-third of the visitors section. The rest of the stadium was filled to capacity with Lufkinites that overflowed to fill the remaining two-thirds of the visitors side. I ignored the earth shaking, ear splitting reception that the Panthers received upon their entrance, for my attention was towards the thousands of faces behind us, hoping to see my Dad's amongst them, but I didn't.
I expressed my dismay to David, as the captains were shaking hands on the field for the coin toss, and he told me that my Dad was indeed, here. He'd been one of the last out of the locker room and had seen my Dad stop Coach Lucky and introduce himself. David said that Lucky was bothered by the delay and answered my dad impatiently when he asked for my jersey number, saying he wasn't sure and that he had more important things on his mind than to remember what everybody's number was. David told my dad that my number was seventy-six.
I turned and looked one more time, knowing then that they had to be there, and there was Uncle Chuck, Aunt Alice, Mom, Pop, and my dad making their way single file along the front aisle walkway. Chuck turned and saw me looking back at them and he stopped right there and waved both arms excitedly, hollered, "Hey #76. Go get 'em," and pointed me out to the others. They all waved and pointed me out to each other again. The elation of knowing that they were truly there made my heart beat a little faster, but I couldn't wave back and show it. I just smiled and nodded and turned my attention back towards the field, for it was considered highly improper to in any way divert yourself from the game; especially if it were to fraternize with someone in the stands. I was then ready to play.
The captains came jogging off the field after having lost the toss and Lufkin elected to receive. We kicked off to a thunderous uplifting of voices, all in anticipation of what was to come that night, but the run-back was routine and they set-up offense at their own 22 yard line. Their star halfback, Tommy Ashe, proved his prowess by running at will as they drove steadily down to our 20 yard line, where we finally stopped him. They were successful at a 37 yard field goal and took an early 3-0 lead. We were undaunted by the quick score for at least we'd kept them out of the end zone.
They kicked off to an even more confident chorus of cheers and we were stopped just short of our own 20. Our offense ran in fired up, going to work achieving two first downs and we looked strong. The drive bogged down though around mid-field and the punt team was sent in. I ran onto the field conscience only of how proud I felt to be performing in front of my dad, family and girlfriend; and how imperative it was to do well, to make them equally as proud of me.
As my team lined up, I swung my leg in pantomime several times to get a feel for the high turf and possibly shred it down some. Everyone became set and I signaled for the hike, caught the ball, started my stride, swung my right leg with all my might and my foot met the ball with a hollow splat. To the home crowd's delight and to my horror, it shot straight upward into the twilight sky, spinning clumsily and when it finally came down, it hit two yards behind the line of scrimmage and bounced sharply backwards at an angle to my right, where Macha pounced on it. The result being a negative 15 yard punt and Lufkin's ball in excellent field position.
I trotted off the field totally numbed by anger and shame and there was Coach Lucky's big square face glaring down on me with wide eyed astonishment. He spit out excitedly, "What in the hell kinda' punt was that, son! That ain't gonna get it! Now c'mon Bud! You can punt better than that!" and turned back to the game. My friends patted me on the back but other teammates showed disgust, not bothering to break their concentration from the field. I tried to mingle in with the other bench warmers and be as anonymous as possible as I felt my family's eyes searching me out. Why had fate been so cruel, not to allow me to please my father?, I agonized. David came and stood by me and said, "Don't worry about it, you'll get another chance to show 'em." He was disgruntled too, having been benched that game, and Bobby Lucky started in his stead, for no particular reason, other than being the coach's son.
We both stood together watching as the Panthers failed to score and that made me feel a little better. The ball came back to us and we drove to their end of the field but a fumble turned the ball over to them. They engineered a long drive behind the running of Ashe and scored a TD as time ran out in the first quarter; widening their lead to 10-zip. We climbed back into the game as J Solomon scooted 54 yards to pay dirt early in the second quarter, but the score stood at 10-6 for our attempt at a two point conversion was no good. With new vigor, we kicked off and our pumped up defense held and forced them to punt.
We received the ball and set up with decent field position, at about our own 40 yard line. Picking up a first down, with yards to spare, found us spotted on their 45 yard line. With first and ten we had visions of taking the lead but the Panthers got tough and held us to only 4 yards over the next three downs. Lucky called out the punt team with hopes of pinning them deep and getting the ball back, for there was plenty of time to score with half the quarter left to play.
Before I left the sideline, Lucky instructed me, "Aim for the corner. You know how. Just like in practice. I don't want a return." So, I jogged into the game, confident to redeem myself by just pooching the ball out of bounds ideally inside the 10 yard line, like I'd done successfully in sub-varsity games and practice, numerous times before. With the ball on the right hash-mark, I would try for the more severe angle in the left corner; for being a right legged kicker I knew if I could direct a low line drive spiral that didn't turn over, it would bounce naturally forward and to the left out of play. These thoughts ran through my mind in the few seconds it took for both teams to line up for the punt; accuracy would be more important than distance.
The snap was true and I caught it, strode forward, swung my leg determinedly and my foot hit the ball off center and it sliced sharply to the right, fluttering hopelessly out of bounds only 14 yards past the line of scrimmage, on the Panther's 27 yard line. Again, to the delight of the Lufkin fans I had failed miserably and I departed the field with the life flushed out of me. Lucky wasn't staring me down but as I reached the sideline he turned abruptly to me and said sarcastically, "You should have worn a purple jersey tonight the way you're helping them out! Just get your ass on the bench and I'll find somebody else that really wants to punt!" His words cut deeply into my already empty soul, leaving me listless, just wanting to crawl into a hole and hide. I knew he didn't mean for me to sit on the bench literally, for no player of Bill Lucky's ever sat anywhere, especially not on the bench, but I didn't even have the spirit to stand and cheer so I plopped down on the bench and hung my head between my legs, wishing that I were invisible. I felt shamefully exposed in front of my dad, family, Lori, and all the Mustang backers, with no way to cover myself; like one feels when dreaming in their sleep of being naked in a public place and looked upon by strangers.
David came and sat beside me and said, "Hey, check out the fine sunset." I lifted my head, gazed up beyond the west side home bleachers and press box and became lost in an exquisite East Texas sunset. I sought refuge in the sun's last rays of light lingering fiery orange and amber, interspersed by dark gray striated clouds. Its overwhelming beauty took me away from the game and my failures, momentarily, until darkness fully consumed the sky; and I was snapped back to reality by Lucky's shouting voice, "Bell! Finlayson! Get up off the God damned bench and give us some help! Let me hear some noise!" We rose, crowded the sideline, clapped and repeated the cheer, "C'MON DEFENSE!" a couple of times but to no use; the Panthers capped off a 70 yard march with a touchdown. The extra point was no good, leaving the score at 16-6, and that's the way it remained at half-time.
Lucky voiced his displeasure clearly in the locker room. He screamed, "The punting game stinks. The offense stinks, and the defense stinks. Apparently yall didn't come ready to play, but yall have done a fine job of humiliating the school's name!" He continued on for the next 15 minutes in a similar manner, and I felt keenly the guilt of letting my team and family down but I tried tuning him out, for he'd already released me of my duties; no longer involving me. The situation wasn't that bad, though, for we'd been trailing Dulles by a similar score and had come back to beat them in the second half. All we needed were two scores to take the lead and everything would be alright, like the previous weeks victory.
The Lamar band struck up the Mustang fight song and our backers made as much noise as they could on our return to the field, trying to offset the home crowds cheers when the Panthers would come out. They kicked off to us but the second half turned into a defensive struggle, with both teams taking futile turns on offense as possession was swapped back and forth by each team throughout the third quarter and into the fourth. Peter Daniels, our quarterback, was sent in to punt two times during those exchanges. His first kick, shanked off the side of his foot for a 15 yarder, and the second one went end over end for 25 yards.
Mid-way through the last period things were looking dismal, with our offense being halted again, resulting in a punting situation. To my astonishment, I was called on to punt. I lined up with no expectations of booming one, I just wanted to get it downfield and keep it in bounds. I collected the snap, swung my leg methodically, met the ball squarely and to my relief it spiraled a fair 35 yards, strait down the field. Their deep man caught it cleanly and headed to his right, where he had a line of blockers set up. I'd drifted over to my left, as the contain man, and saw the ball carrier turn the corner and break free up the sideline.
Forgetting my muscle spasm, I instinctively ran down field in pursuit, lowered my head and shoulders, collided into him head on with a loud pop of leather and sent him flying backwards, out of bounds. The hit felt good, releasing some of my frustrations, regardless of the burning in my neck that lingered from the contact. The renewed pain was welcome, for it was familiar, and helped to blur my mental anguish. My tackle was meaningless though, for the Panthers were destined to win that night and did so, shutting us out in the second half and adding another field goal to make the final score, 19-6.
The dressing room was quiet except for the hissing of showers and clattering of equipment being angrily shed, for after such a decisive loss, there wasn't much to say. We just wanted to get dressed and get out of there. I changed without showering, for I'd not broken a sweat all night and I didn't want to take the time. My dad and family were waiting outside, but I hadn't anticipated such a grim scenario, and I felt embarrassed to greet them. They smiled at the sight of me, but I approached apologetically, not looking them in the eye. They could see my disappointment and gave encouragement. My dad patted me on the shoulder and said, "Aw, don't worry about it. You gave it the ole 'Finlayson' try!" My grandmother gave me a big hug and said, "It's alright honey." They didn't appear to be taking the loss too hard nor did they fault my pathetic performance, but I could not be consoled after failing and losing. To them I'd lost merely a football game but I felt the loss of my self worth.
The Greyhound left the stadium en route to the roadside cafe where we'd have our obligatory chicken fried steaks and my folks followed to catch a bite before returning to Tyler. We, the team, were seated in the separate dinning area for private parties and conferences. There was neon, lots of varnished pine paneling, big picture windows, Formica, fluorescent lighting, and clear oak stained tables and chairs. Our section was divided off from the main dining room by accordion-like partitions, but they were left open. The tables sat four and I was joined by Marc, Bearden, and Flake, who all knew my dad and Chuck. Mom and Aunt Alyce found a table across the room, in sight of ours and Daddy, Chuck, and Pop came over to say hello to the guys. After handshakes all around, they gave their condolences on a tough loss and all agreed that it was. Pop mentioned, "It's not that big of a deal fellas. In Tyler we're accustomed to coming away from a Lufkin game on the short end of the scoreboard."
Chuck, who's looks resemble someone between Gene Hackman and Paul Newman but has a personality more like Red Skelton, added with a boyish grin, "Yea, but when I played against Lufkin, I used to punt the ball clear out of the stadium," and he demonstrated the flight of an imaginary football with his hand motioning in a high arc. That brought out a chuckle from all of us, including me, that broke the funeral like silence of the surroundings, but I felt guilty, because I knew in Lucky's book that losers don't deserve to smile. I was nervous too, for Coach Lucky had to be watching my uncle laughing in the face of his defeat. Two waiters began to serve the plates of chicken fries and Daddy, Pop and Chuck took their leave.
We began eating, again surrounded by the deathly pall, but Chuck began waving across the dining room and arcing his hand through the air to simulate punts leaving a stadium. It was hard not to miss his antics but we didn't want to acknowledge them to each other, for fear of Lucky. We tried to eat and not watch, but all of a sudden we all looked at each other and simply burst out in laughter, and couldn't stop. Well, Lucky didn't see the humor and blurted out, "HEY!! Yall just lost a football game!! You'd 'ave thought we'd WON the way yall are carrying on! It sounds like yall're at a party having yourselves a real good time! I wouldn't be so happy about getting my butts beat, if I were yall! Ya' ought to be thinking about what went wrong and how you're gonna fix it! Now cut the bullshit and finish eating and let's get on to the house!" He instructed the waiter to close the partition and my family disappeared from view.
The bus ride home was every bit as long and quiet as the ride up, only now we were losers, uncertain of ourselves. Everybody reclined back in the darkness, some sleeping, some wide awake in thought, like myself. If beating Lufkin would have paved the way to State, then we now found ourselves on a muddy, rutted, one lane dirt road full of pot holes. Our undefeated record was gone and I had punted worse than a seventh grader, and let everybody down, especially my dad. I couldn't shake the thought of my failures, reliving the blown punts over and over in my mind, and wondering if I just couldn't perform under pressure. Lucky's edginess showed the frustration he was feeling after four years of winning records but not being able to win the big games and bring a district crown to Lamar. Loosing to Lufkin was hard. It was more than just a game, it was his neck on the chopping block, and my mistakes were bringing the ax closer to fall.
Our arrival at the field house was low key. At 2:30am there were no adoring fans waiting to welcome a losing team. We dropped off our equipment in the locker room and everybody headed their separate ways, but with instructions from Coach Lucky to stay out of trouble and go straight home. I dropped James Flake off at his house and headed out Farm Road 359 to mine. The same morning air whipped through the cab as the week before but it stirred no emotion; I saw only the black-top road in my headlights, and felt the twinges of pain in my neck and the guilt of failure in my conscience. Ivan, my blue tick hound met me unconditionally as always in the driveway and I entered the house quietly, not wanting to wake my mom or Miller.
I stripped straight to my drawers and crawled into bed, wishing only to sleep, so the pain would go away. I awoke in a groggy state at one o'clock the next afternoon not wanting to face the reality that the calamity in Lufkin had not been just a terrible nightmare. I stretched feebly, and my neck crunched and ground as had become the norm, and I was reminded of my discomfort and how incompetently I'd performed the night before. I related to my mom how badly I'd played and of the loss and she sympathized, knowing how excited I was to play in front of my dad, but doubted that I could have played so poorly as to bring on such gloomy behavior.
She made breakfast and when I finished, I gave Lori a call. I laid on the self-pity real thick but she wouldn't have it, she said there was no reason for me to mope. Being the athlete she was, she reasoned, "So you had one bad outing. It's not the end of the world, you just take it, learn from it and next week you'll bounce back and have a great game and I know we'll win, too." She also knew about my dad and said, "Your dad must love you to have gone to see you play and I know he doesn't think any less of you now than he did before; I surely don't." She suggested that we go to a picture show and get our minds off of football till next week and I halfheartedly agreed.
We drove into Houston that evening about 7:00, to the multi-theaters in The Galleria shopping mall. The movie she picked out started at 9:15 so we killed some time by getting a sandwich and then walking around hand in hand, window shopping and watching the ice skaters. The movie didn't hold my interest too well, but having Lori sitting by me was reason to endure it till the end. On the way back to Richmond, she admitted that it was boring also. It was 11:30 when I stopped at her house to drop her off, but to my surprise she invited me in, "...to watch TV awhile."
Her suburban, middle-class, house was completely dark inside and I was a bit unsure, but she encouraged heartily, "My parents are asleep, they won't mind." I settled carefully on a couch in the den, as she turned on the TV and went to an adjoining kitchen to bring some cokes. By the light of a Godzilla movie, she joined me on the couch, and began to massage my neck asking me if it made it feel better and I answered truthfully that it did. She got a little more frisky and began to kiss me but I held back, with the thought of her parents being in the next room. "Relax," she urged, "They won't get up. They won't bother us." So, with her persistent coaxing, I submitted and we "Made-out" for the next two hours. I kept one eye on the hallway door that led to the bedrooms, but we were never interrupted.
Again, I drove home down Farm Rd 359 in the wee morning hours as I did the morning before, but now I felt revived. The pain of my neck was not as evident and my heart pounded exuberantly with the thought of Lori's tender caresses but mentally I was still hurting. My terrorized psyche could not be pacified so easily, for that guilt would cling to me for years. Nevertheless, I flew on home listening to my heart not my mind, and I crawled into bed thinking of our interlude and I slept like an angel.
I got up late, but did rise in a brighter mood and after breakfast, I looked for the Saturday evening paper to see how they'd written up the game. Not surprisingly, we didn't make the front page, but back in the sports section, in unspectacular fashion and unaccompanied by photos, it read, "LUFKIN SPANKS LAMAR 19-6." After an opening stating who, where, when, and the score, the second paragraph stated that Tommy Ashe rushed for over 275 yards accounting for the majority of Lufkin's 350 yards of rushing and their total offense reached a respectable 461 yards. Right before the main re-cap of the game, a sole paragraph told all about Lamar's punting woes. No names were mentioned; it merely said "Lamar had a little more trouble with its punting, averaging only 28 yards on 5 punts. The first three going for 0, 14, and 15 yards." (Actually 28 was generous, it was more like 18) Well, now the humiliation was complete. I was being publicly ridiculed and accused for the loss, right there in black and white, for the whole community to read about. No, my name wasn't used, but I knew I was the punter and others did too.
Usually punting averages are listed obscurely at the end of most football write-ups with all the rest of the stats, unless they had bearing on the game, and then they're highlighted early on. There they were posting my shortcomings right in front of the main body of the story. It had to be interpreted, therefore, that the press, manipulated by Lucky, thought my horrendous punting had impacted the outcome and attributed to us losing. I'd felt responsible enough, myself, for letting the team down, but now the whole world was against me, blaming me officially in the paper. Our defeat was all my fault; I couldn't argue that I hadn't failed.
Monday morning in school, I walked the halls with paranoia, feeling isolated, as if everybody knew. They all held me in contempt, all looked down upon me, and I nervously waited for an outburst, "YOU! YOU! YOU lost the game for us! YOU spoiled our chances at State! YOU'RE no good!" The accusations never came right out, but I felt them floating all around me; shiftless looks, sideways glances, and lowered faces, all mocked me with shame. My imagination might have been running away with me but I knew the guilt was real and I couldn't escape that; there's no denying I'd choked. The only thing I could do was accept it and try to redeem myself in the upcoming game against Jersey Village, a north-west suburb of Houston.
I still didn't have the OK to hit, and I didn't feel capable of hitting yet, either. My neck continued to feel like the workings of a gravel quarry, rolling and grinding, and crunching; and if the constant agony wasn't driving me insane, then I was growing to expect it and be lost without it. I wanted only to right my wrong that afternoon in practice, I determined, as I trekked out to the field house that Monday.
Coaches attempted enthusiasm, but the Lufkin loss had been a big one, and their positive spirits were clearly forced. In fact, it had been non-district and didn't effect us in our drive for the district crown, and thus State, but it was a blemish and Lucky would try to use it to teach us the disgrace of losing, so we wouldn't do it again. There was lots of gung-ho hollering to get us on the winning track, but I didn't join in. I concerned myself only with improving my punting.
When the punt team lined up to practice, I hesitated from jumping into the starting spot, but Lucky told me to get in there, "...and see if you can get it past the line of scrimmage." I ignored his remark and with my soft practice shoes on, sent a high spiral, ten yards past the receiver, who stood 40yards down field. The following punts I drove with concentrated, resolute, assertiveness and the footballs sailed perfectly, spiraling and turning over, 40, 50 and 60 yards in the air. I felt good. I'd realized my mistake, and from there on out I was going to control my emotions and punt up to my capabilities. Lucky shook his head as if in amazement, "Son, you could be an all-district punter, hands down, if you could just learn to handle the pressure and punt like that consistently in the games." That's exactly what my plans were. I couldn't wait till Friday to start my bid for All-district punter.
Tuesday morning I woke with only the thought of punting again in practice to see if I continued to excel; to see if my confidence hadn't rubbed off, but I was sure it hadn't. I just longed to re-gain the respect of my team mates along with gaining my own self respect back, because it had felt incredibly good to begin doing so the day before. During my second period trig class, there was a knock on our door, then Lucky stuck his big square head in and told our teacher, Mr. Wallis, that he needed to see me. Mr. Wallis gave his immediate OK and I found myself walking alongside Coach Lucky down the vacant hall, towards the main office, him saying only that he had something to tell me.
Mr. Booher, our principle, was standing unoccupied outside his office door and Lucky escorted me by, asking permission to use his office. He smiled that principle smile and said, "Sure coach. It's all yours. Take your time." Lucky motioned me in and to take a seat in front of Booher's desk, and he stepped in closing the door behind him and sat behind the desk. He breathed deep and announced, "I guess you know why we're here, son." I replied honestly that I didn't know what was going on. He managed a half smile, looked at me matter of factly and said, "You've played your last football game as a Lamar Mustang. You're off the team." A cold chill tingled through my body, as my mind rushed with confusion and a sharp emptiness consumed my soul, instantly erasing my identity, and I managed a weak, "But coach...?"
"No, no, son.," he remarked and then continued, "You're not going to talk your way out of it this time. The time for talking is done. I gave you more than enough chances to straighten your ass up, but you didn't want to conform, so I'm forced to get rid of you. Your no-give-a-shit attitude is hurting the team. I can't produce a winner with someone like you around and I gotta think of the team first. The only reason I kept you around after your injury was cause I needed a punter and I though you could contribute to the team by fulfilling that role but you proved to me that you can't even do that. You out-lived your usefulness to me after your piss-poor performance in Lufkin. You sealed your own fate that night by showing me you didn't care. Sittin on the bench feeling sorry for yourself while your team mates were out there bustin their butts trying to win a football game. See, son, I don't need you anymore. You can't hit and you can't punt; it's as simple as that. You tell me why I should keep a smart-ass like you around that is going to do nothing but drag the team down?"
I couldn't speak. As if numbed by a paralysis, I simply stared blankly into the wrinkled eyes of that man I'd once revered, but now there was nothing. Just a helpless shock, like a sleeping parent abruptly waking to the news of his child's death by the jolt of a mid-night phone call. My doom was the extinction of my dream; football bleeding out of my soul. My body depleted, its will strangled. I was a stillborn incapable of life outside the womb, Lucky had severed the cord that kept me tied to the security of football since my childhood. The sudden, unexpected reality of being out of football held me dumbfounded and I could only reply a hapless, "OK, coach." And he added, "Don't bother showing up at the field house to turn in your stuff, we've already cleaned out your locker. We don't want you hanging around the team either, you're a bad influence, and we are winners, not losers."
Lucky escorted me back to trig class and told our teacher, "Thank you, Mr. Wallis," and departed with a smile. My football buddies in the class, Bearden, Marc, Ronald, and Balusek, all turned my way for an explanation. I told Bearden, sitting directly in front of me, that I'd gotten the boot and whispers quickly spread around for all to know. They all appeared sympathetic, but didn't seem as totally surprised and flustered as I was. The period was coming to its close and it was just as well, for I couldn't possibly concentrate on numbers, logarithms, equations, and formulas, just then.
In-between classes I had a rendezvous with Lori, as had become our routine, and I shared my distressful news with her. She reacted strongly, "What! You can't be kicked off the team! That's not fair. You at least deserve another chance to make up for the Lufkin game." I assured her that it was final and nothing could be done about it. She fell silent, stewing in thought, as I walked her to her next class and I added little more to the conversation myself. We parted company and I backtracked to my third period government class.
I heard nothing the teacher spoke about, nor did attending classes the rest of the day do me much good, for I became wrapped in a cocoon of muddled thought that insulated me from everything around me. When things started to sink in, I became angry. Why had I sat by so passively as Lucky humiliated me? I should have jumped into his face and told him to "Stick it up your fucking ass." I had missed my chance to really give him grounds to accuse me of wantonness. There was nothing wrong with my attitude after the Dulles game; I wasn't a bad influence after that victory, but I was made the scapegoat for the Lufkin loss. Attitude had nothing to do with it. If I would have performed well and contributed to a win, then Lucky would have tolerated any type of adverse behavior that I could dish out. I might have had a free spirit, but I was never insincere about playing football. Only Lucky's lies and corruption had made me doubt myself, but it was all irrelevant for he held the reins and ended my dream by exiling me from football.
What was I to do now without football to guide me? I would no longer be nervously anticipating the coming of seventh period, to rush out to the field house to relieve myself before suiting up to get on the practice field in the allotted 15 minutes. The agenda of the previous six years, to don the pads and a war bonnet, and do some head butting after school, would be no more. What would I do with all my free time now? Granted, I would have come to that reality at the end of the season, but my ousting had been so abrupt, that I hadn't been ready mentally, to deal with it yet. Also, I would have to endure the shame that goes along with being dismissed from the football team.
If being a high school football player in Texas can win a kid notoriety, respect, popularity, prominence, girls, scholarships and money, then being kicked off a team is just the opposite. It labels a kid as being the most deviant, slovenly, conniving, worthless social-misfit on campus. A leper to be vanquished from all popular circles and their privileged affairs. Teachers and administrators watch you cautiously, seeing only an anarchist threatening to destroy the moral fabric of traditional high school values. Would I become all of these things, too?
Something inside of me didn't want to accept what had happened and hopeful thoughts arose. Maybe it was only temporary. Maybe Lucky would realize his error and ask me back on the team. It had happened before to other players. If my replacement, the JV punter, would fail then I could be called back into action. Or maybe my close friends on the team would protest my firing and stage a boycott by refusing to suit-up, as long as I remained a non-member. Or the team could go on a down-slide and lose a couple of games, and Lucky would know that I wasn't the problem after all. These were only frivolous hopes, though, for the reality was that I was off the team, and probably would be off to stay.
When the seventh period bell rang I headed to the field house as usual, but it was only because my truck was parked there, as it had been every school day for the past three years since I began to drive. I had a broken tail-pipe hanger and the baling wire that I'd jury-rigged a substitute with, had worked its way loose, and I had to crawl underneath and tighten it back up. Meanwhile, the football players began to make their way to the practice fields, having to walk through the dirt parking lot and right past me; almost close enough to trip over my feet sticking out from underneath the truck. They either didn't happen to see me or were following specific instructions to ignore me, but whatever, no one acknowledged my presence. I felt a shameful alienation laying in the dirt and as I painfully craned my neck towards the practice field seeing the upside-down view of the blue and white uniformed players readying to practice without me. It hit true that I was no longer part of them.
I drove out 359 towards home feeling guilty, not only of being kicked off the team but it just wasn't right to be idly driving down the highway so early on a Tuesday afternoon in the month of September, knowing that your team mates were back there sweating it out in practice. That uneasiness caused me to detour on my way home, down a dead-end gravel road to the river. It was still another hundred yards through thick hardwoods, so I parked and jumped a few fences and soon I was secluded on a low, sandy river bank, with the thick woods behind me and a high opposite bank covered with underbrush and woods on its upper edge. There were no signs of man or man-made designs and with that tranquillity, I reclined back against a log in the sand and just watched the river go by. The Brazos starts out clear and cool way up in north Texas but when it gets to Richmond it's carrying a lot of silt and has lost its clarity. Its wide girth allows the muddy water to run slow and swirling and that hypnotic current was what entertained me for the next few hours as I tried to understand what was wrong with me.
End of Chapter 19
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