A Dangerous Game II Football, Love, Fear and Death

Part II in a series. A Dangerous Game

The next morning, Cal dropped Rachel off in front of the High School building a little early. She tried to kid with him, to play their game, but the best Cal could do was smile and tell her to have a good day.  She looked at him before getting out of the truck like she wanted to take his temperature. Something was obviously wrong.

“I love you sweetie.”

“I love you too, Pops.  I’ll see you on the field after school.”

Mark was waiting outside his office.  He looked as though he hadn’t slept. Quietly, he sat down in front of Cal’s desk and put his head on his arms. “Coach I’m so sorry, God I’ve never done anything like that.  I swear it’ll never happen again. Please don’t report me. I’m begging you.  You and this school and the team are all I have. You know football is my only shot at going to college.  I can’t believe I’ve messed everything up like this. I’m so sorry. Please Coach, I’m begging you, don’t turn me in. I’ll do anything.”

Cal closed his eyes and nodded. Mark seemed truly sorry. He understood how bad he screwed up.  “Alright, it’s between us, but you’re off the team for the rest of the year.”

Mark’s head snapped up, “What? You can’t do that. I have to play.”

“Mark, I can’t just completely close my eyes. You were selling weed and what ever that pill was to little kids.  I should turn you in, that would be the right thing to do. But I know where you’re coming from and I want you to have a shot at college. We can make it all work next year.”

“No fucking way! You need me! You can’t kick me off the team, you know I’ve got scouts looking.”

Shaking his head Cal tried to control his breathing. ” It’s just for this year. I’m sorry, Mark. but that’s it. You can go out for the team again next year. The scouts will still be looking, but for now, that’s it.”

When Mark stood up, he knocked the metal chair over. “No fucking way!” He screamed, ” You can’t do that. God dammit your talking about my life, my life! I’m not gonna let you fuck me like this. And you don’t have any proof. What will you tell people. No fucking way you’re ruining my year.”

“Son, you need to calm down and sit down. My decision is final. I’m sorry but you made a mistake.”

“Fuck you!” Mark screamed.

Cal stood up. At six three he was four inches taller than Mark and 75 pounds heavier. Cal consciously tried to control the building rage, it was like a heat creeping up his body. He stepped closer and looked down at Mark. Softly he said,  “You’re off the team for good, now get out of my office and stay away from my football field. It didn’t have to be like this you stupid punk.”

“Fuck you! God damn it, fuck you,” he screamed as he slammed the door. “Your going to fucking regret this James. I’m gonna fuck up your life.”

Cal stood for a full minute, then sat back down in his chair.  What the hell just happened? Where did all that come from? He tried to dissect the conversation, if you could call it that.  How had it gotten away from him and so out of control? Over the years he’d had to deal with a lot of really angry young men but this was something else. Cal leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes again. He hated that he’d lost control and called Mark a stupid punk. He shouldn’t have done that. Frustrated, he looked at the ceiling and said out loud, “I swear to God I was trying to do right by that kid.”

# #######

It had been a year but Cal could still hear every word that came out of Mark Greenland’s mouth that day. Opening a bottle of water Cal tried to remember when he’d last actually seen Mark.  It had been at least a year.  Once the season ended, last year, players and fans stopped asking about him. He just disappeared. Cal never saw him or even heard anything about him on campus, which was fine.  He  didn’t want to think about that situation ever again. So why, after a year was Mark back in his weight room? That smart ass grin made him want to take his head off.  Obviously, Mark was trying to antagonize him. But why now?

Somebody was knocking on his office door. “Coach Cal, can I come in?”


Jose Fernandez stuck his head in the door and grinned. He was a freshman and still so excited to be on the team.  “I thought you’d want to know McKenzie made a 45 yard field goal this morning,  Coach D saw him.”

“That’s amazing, Jose! His longest by three yards, right?”

“Yes sir.” Jose was McKenzie’s holder.

Cal stood, slapped Jose on the back of the head and walked into the weight room. “Thanks for letting me know. I needed that.” Most of the guys were gone. He glanced at the clock. 8:05. He’d spent thirty minutes reliving the Mark Greenland nightmare and was late for his first period class. Study hall, no worries.

Classes let out at 3:15 every day and most of the White Deer Destroyers were dressed out and on the field by 3:30. Stragglers ran laps without being told.

Cal and three other coaches, all with clipboards, discussed the plan for practice while the team’s offensive and defensive captains got the team stretched out and warmed up. The team was in full uniform and lined up across the field in three rows.

Cal looked up as they did high knees and then jumping jacks. They were really good boys and he was caught  in a moment of overwhelming pride.  They trusted him and were willing to work so hard. They literally did everything he asked. Then he saw Rachel at the other end of the field, stretching and laughing with some other cross county runners. From that distance he couldn’t quite make out who the other kids were.

When Rachel saw Cal looking at her, she gave him a big silly wave and he involuntary waved back, with the same enthusiasm. Glancing at the other coaches, they knew better than to laugh.

Ten minutes later, as the  team got ready for tackling drills, he watched  Rachel and the three other runners take off.  He thought he remembered her telling him they had to do one mile interval training this afternoon. They would run a mile, rest for five minutes, then run the same mile faster, then one more time after that. The goal was to run as fast or faster on every mile. It was grueling. Cal couldn’t imagine what his players would do if he made them do that.

The track was built around the football field but Cal wasn’t really watching Rachel and the runners anymore.  He was focused on his boys.  They were so close to the playoffs if he could just keep them focused. Forty five minutes into practice Cal looked up as Rachel and another runner, a boy, approached him.  Lord, she was so graceful and long legged.  She made running look easy. Normally, as she ran past him, he would have yelled something silly at her like “Too slow Chicken Butt!” But he couldn’t think of anything clever as she approached. He studied the guy running next to her. His pace was different and he was obviously trying to match her stride for stride.  She looked over at the guy and smiled.

Cal realized he was holding his breath as the two runners sprinted toward him, then just as they passed, Mark Greenland looked over and grinned, not at Rachel but at Cal.

Then they were both gone, already at the far end of the track. Cal watched as the pair left the track and disappeared onto the cross country trail.


It was only six when Cal left the football field.  The players were still cooling down, but Cal needed to be home. After putting the Ford into drive, he found his cell phone and called Tara.

“Hey Honey, how’s it going? Is Rachel home?” He tried to sound normal.

“No, not yet, she called an hour ago and said a friend was giving her a ride.” He could hear background noises. The news was on and something was sizzling on the stove.


“I don’t know, she said a friend from the cross country team. ”

“But who is it Tara? Did she say?”

“Cal, she’s in high school now, we have to give her a little room. She said she’d be home by 6:30. It’s all good sweetie. She’s fine. Come home. I’ve got a dinner surprise for you.”

“I’m on my way.” How was he going to explain everything. He’d never told Tara what happend with Mark. He was too ashamed, to embarrassed, to admit how it blew up in his face. The truth was, he didn’t know how to explain what happend.  Then Tara got busy with a new gallery opening and the subject of Mark never came up. Nobody cared about Mark Greenland. Cal knew his wife would be furious and disappointed in him for not turning Mark in, for not doing what he should have done. For not telling her what was going on, but at the time he was just relieved  it was all over. He didn’t want to bring it up again and he didn’t every want to think about Mark again if he could avoid it.

Twenty minutes after Cal got home he heard a car door slam.  He was at the door before Rachel got to the porch.  He studied the ratty car in the drive way. One headlight was burned out. Cal locked eyes with Mark, then  that kid had the nerve to smile and wave at him, like they were buddies.

Rachel ran up the steps and gave Cal a hug.  “Hey Poppa Bear.”

He hugged her back but never looked away from Mark, “Go inside Rachel, your mom needs you.” He pushed her gently toward the door and started down the steps, but Mark backed up and took off. Cal watched his tail lights disappear and wondered what the Hell he was going to do and how he was gonna stop this little shit.

Tara already had dinner on the table.  The last thing he wanted to do was eat, but he knew he had to act as though nothing was wrong.  He didn’t want some kind of blow up at the dinner table but once again everything was spinning out of control.

Cal put his napkin in his lap and picked up his silverware. For the second or third time today he tried to sound normal. This was new to Cal, he never pretended to be anything but honest. He cleared his throat. “So Bucket Head, who brought you home tonight?”

Rachel was glowing. She glanced at her mother and smiled.  “Mark, he’s on the cross country team now. Pops he used to play for you last year but then he quit, you know him.”

Cal nodded. “Yeah, I remember Mark.”

“Yeah, he said you were awesome.  But now he’s running track and he’s really good.. Fastest time after a week of practice. He cracks jokes while we run, it’s really funny  And he writes songs.”

Taking his time, Cal cut I piece of his pork chop. “Isn’t he a senior?”

“Yes sir.”

“So, he’s too old for you, right?”

Rachel instantly looked at her mom, for support, for reassurance? Cal didn’t know. Women were like that and it confused him. But he knew he had to move carefully or both of them would be mad at him.

“It’s not like were going out or anything. He just gave me a ride home.  Don’t make such a big deal out of it. Please?”

“Sure Kiddo,” Cal said, staring at his plate.  He didn’t’ know which way to move, what to say. But he knew Tara was staring at him, wondering what the story was. Why was this messed up kid giving their daughter a ride home?

“I’ve got to take a shower.” Rachel kissed her mom on the cheek, but she didn’t even look at Cal, before vaulting up stairs.

Once Rachel was gone,  Cal helped Tara clear the table. They were silent and Cal knew what was coming.  The questions, the interrogation.  Why hadn’t he turned Mark Greenland in. Why was that kid still at White Deer, giving her daughter a ride home. Cal didn’t have an explanation.  He knew what he should have done but now it was too late. And  he knew he should have told Tara what happened.  But he didn’t. And now this.  He never thought he’d have a lapse in judgment like that. But he was wrong.

Finally Tara said, “So you didn’t tell the administration?”

“No. And I don’t know how to explain what happened to you.”

Tara started putting dirty plates in the dish washer.  She rinsed each one, carefully and then finally said, “So you never did what you were supposed to do, you never reported this psycho and now he’s driving my daughter home? You lied to me.”

“I never lied to you Tara and I’ll talk to her.”

“And say what? They are friends, she’s obviously got a crush on him. But you’re gonna talk to her? And what exactly are you going to say? How are you going to explain all this. Jesus Christ Cal, I trusted you to do the right thing. I can’t believe this. I trusted you.  How bad is this kid Cal?”

“He’s just a stupid kid, Tara. I can handle him.  I’ll fix this, I swear to God. And think about this,they just met, what a week ago?   It’s nothing.” As he spoke Cal James knew he was lying, in a way he’d never lied before. And he  knew he was simply saying what he desperately hoped was true.












A Dangerous Game….. Love, Fear and Football

There was a senior high football coach in the semi-rural Arkansas community of White Deer. Cal James was probably the most popular man at White Deer High School. He was loved because he won the State three A  Championship two years in a row, and that always makes a coach popular. But he was a ridiculously friendly man. Coach Cal high-fived little kids, hugged grandmothers, taught his players to act like real men and  made up corny names for nearly everyone he met.

Coach Cal had a smart and pretty wife, Tara. She worked at the Art Center downtown, coordinating programs and soothing the egos of high maintenance artists. One of the reasons she fell in love with Cal, ten years earlier was because he was so unlike a lot of the artists she dealt with everyday. He loved life, he loved their family, he loved God and his team. He did not brood or obsess. Even when the team lost, he accepted responsibly, analyzed and created a plan to move forward.

On a sunny Wednesday morning in October, Coach Cal parked his fat black Ford F 250 in front of the high school building and looked at his step daughter Rachel. She was so adorable and bright Cal smiled every time he looked at her. Rachel was in ninth grade so being in the high school building was still pretty new and a little exciting.  He could see that in her blue eyes.

“Alright Bucket Head, get out of my truck and have a good day.”

“Ok Pops,” she smiled at him and gathered up her backpack and flute case.

“Are you running after school?”

“Yes sir, we’ve got practice from 3:30 to 5:30.” She pushed the door open.

“Alright, I’ll see you on the field then. And do me a favor, stop being such a bully. I’m hearing stories all the time.” He grinned at her and she smiled a little.

Just before slamming the big door closed, she pushed her long strawberry blond hair back and let out an exaggerated sigh, “I promise,” as though the request was just too much. It was one of their many running jokes.

Driving up to the football field he said a little prayer.  He thanked God for Rachel. She was still so sweet.  And he knew first hand that wasn’t always the case with teenage girls. She wasn’t snarky or mean or sarcastic.  She was almost a little too naive and that worried him sometimes but made him love her that much more.

Cal was the only father Rachel had known since she was four years old. Her biological father, Jamie, lived down in the Florida Keys. He owned a little beach bar and gift shop. When Rachel was a baby he’d gone to prison for bringing a boat load of weed in to Miami from Jamaica.

After serving three years, he came home.  Both he and Tara realized pretty quickly that he wasn’t going to change and he really wasn’t very good at being a dad. So they split up on friendly terms, knowing it was the right thing to do. Tara moved back to Hot Springs with Rachel.

Jamie called sometimes and came to visit Rachel every couple of years. But he was never a father, more like a silly uncle who tried to win her over with hundred dollar bills and sea shells.

Cal parked his truck in front of the weight room door.  He could hear the clanking of weights before he opened the door.

When he opened to door he bellowed, “Alright. Today is the day!!!!”

The fifteen players in the smelly concrete room hollered back in unison, “Yes Sir!” Then went back to their weights, some in teams others worked alone.

Cal took a second to look around the room, he checked each station one by one then yanked a clipboard off the sign-in table and read the names. Slowly, he walked to the bench press in the back corner of the weight room. He stared at the young man, lying on his back pushing the loaded bar up. Unlike the rest of the players in the room he was wearing jeans, a tank top and boots.

“What are you doing in here Mark?”

The young man slowly returned the bar to it’s rack. He sat up and smiled, “Hey Coach. It’s been a while.” He stretched, intentionally showing off his upper body.

“I asked you what you were doing here.”

“Just, thought I’d get some work in. That’s ok, right?”

“No, not with the team. You need to leave.”

“Oh come on Coach, you can’t still be all jacked up about that shit last year.”

“You need to leave, Mark.”

Mark Greenland shrugged, smiled again and stood up. “Whatever you say Coach, you’re making this a lot harder than it has to be.” The room was still noisy with banging weights, as he slowly walked toward the door.

Cal walked into his office and closed his door, something he rarely did. Looking out the window he could see Mark sauntering toward the high school building.

Cal James had been a football coach in some capacity, for almost fifteen years and he knew Mark Greenland was the biggest mistake he’d ever made.  He regretted the decisions he’d made last year about that kid every day. But there was nothing he could do now. He’d already screwed up. But why was Mark back in his weight room, obviously trying to piss him off?


Last year his team had been so strong. There were two games left in the regular season. The White Deer Destroyers were 7-1. And Mark Greenland had been a big part of their success..  The kid came from a bad family with all kinds of issues,but Mark was a gifted athlete. He was fast, physical and found holes that weren’t really there. It had been a while since Cal had trained a kid who was so much fun to watch and averaged nine yards a carry. And if the Destroyers were having a hard time containing a quarterback, Cal could put Mark in as a defensive end. But some of his sacks were so brutal and violent all the coaches felt a little guilty. They were legal but Mark hit boys with so much obvious rage and hatred, it worried Cal. He’d thought about asking Mark to hold back just a little but couldn’t figure out a way to word it without seeming soft.  All the hits were legal but they still scared Cal just a little.

Three times last year he called opposing coaches the the morning after a Friday night game to check on quarterbacks Mark and laid out.

Scouts from colleges, good colleges were already showing interest.  Cal talked up Mark, sent tapes and worked with Mark and his mom on what they needed to do. It was pretty obvious Mark’s mom was messed up on something but Cal didn’t know what. She was too skinny, with dark hollows under her eyes.  Mark bossed her around or dismissed her completely most of the time. She obviously loved the kid but wasn’t really mom material.

On a Tuesday night the year before Cal was about to let all the guys go. They had worked hard and were exhausted. But he changed his mind suddenly. “Everybody take a knee.”

Some simply sprawled out on the turf, others tried to stretch. “Listen guys, we’ve got two games to go. but I’m telling you now, If I see a  Skol can anywhere, back pocket, truck dashboard, back pack, I don’t care where. You’re missing a full game. If your momma calls and says there’s a Skol can in your underwear drawer. You’re not playing. You understand? So listen, pat your buddy on the butt, pat your self on the butt, just make sure there’s no freakin’ can in your pocket. I’ve got teachers complaining about some of you actually dipping in class. It stops now. That crap is poison. Yes sir?”

“Yes sir.” they answered with the strength they could muster.

After the team left, Cal stayed in his office. He actually had papers to grade from his health class. Sometimes he asked Rachel or Tara to help him but he’d given the class an essay, and he wanted to read the answers himself.  The topic was, “How do we stop tobacco use in high school.” Hopefully, simple threats worked on his players this week.

It was a cold clear night and the Ford was slow to warm up. He drove across campus then turned toward the basketball gym. There were three people in the shadow of the school sign. Mark Greenland was handing a kid, a little kid, maybe fifth grade something. Cal his his high beams and put the truck in park. Mark smiled at him. “Hey coach.”

Cal stared at him, the two boys looked like they were about to cry. One pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head.

“What’s in your pocket.” the little boy didn’t speak.

“Nothing Coach, I was just loaning him some money.”

Cal extended his hand “give me what ever it is in your pocket.”

The smaller kid sniffled and tears started rolling down his face. He handed Cal a wad of tin foil with something inside. He opened it. There was a little pot and a single yellow pill.

“What is this?”

“Nothing Coach, it’s not even their’s. It’s for their dad. He’s got a lot of medical issues.”

“Shut up Mark.”

“Hey Coach, you don’t want to make a big deal out of this. It’s nothing. Just forget about it.”

“Shut the Hell up Mark. And don’t try to tell me what I want to do.”

“I’m just saying Coach, you don’t want to fuck with this.”

Cal stared at Mark.Who was this kid? “You need to stop running your mouth now Greenland, get the Hell out of here. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Do you understand?”

Mark shrugged and started walking across the parking lot, toward Sonic.

Cal focused his attention on the boys. “Where do you two live?”

Both boys pointed to the trailer park across the street.

“Get in the truck, right now.”

Cal didn’t speak again. He left Mark in the shadows of the school sign and drove the boys who were both shaking and sniveling across the street. “Which one?”

They pointed to a dark trailer. There was a beat up pickup outside but no lights.

“You both live here?”

“Yeah, we’re cousins.”

Cal got out of the truck and walked up the sagging porch steps. He knocked on the door but got no answer. What the hell was he supposed to do now? He waved for the boys to get out of the truck. One of them had a key and opened the door. The smell of cigarettes and cat pee hit him hard.

Should he stay and wait for their folks? He looked at the boys. “Do you know who I am?”

“Yes sir.”

“Alright, I expect to see you both on the football field tomorrow right after school. You understand. If you don’t show I’ll be right back here on your porch. You got it?”

“Yes sir.”

“Now go to bed.”

That night, nearly a year ago, was a long and miserable one. Twice Cal had considered moving into administration, maybe accepting a vice principal position. But he knew there would be too many situations exactly like this.

Cal stayed up most of the night thinking about his options. He knew what he should do, what he was supposed to do. Report Mark to the principal.  Because the incident was on school property he would probably be expelled, maybe even arrested. That’s what the kid deserved.

Cal also knew, because of his family situation,  his academic career was over if he was expelled.  He probably wouldn’t finish high school and definitely wouldn’t make it to college. And Mark was really a smart kid.

His second option was to keep it to himself. Not tell the administration. Kick him off the team for the year and hope  he learned a lesson. At least then he’d still have a chance at finishing high school.

Just after midnight, Cal woke Tara up.  He had to tell her, he had to tell somebody.

Curled up in her blue and pink fuzzy robe, she listened, without speaking for fifteen minutes while Cal told her the story, then laid out the options and the pros and cons of each side.

Finally, she said softly, “Honey, you have to turn him in. He was selling drugs to little kids, what if those were our sons. If he’ll do that his capable of almost anything. And if you don’t tell it could cost you your career. White Deer is a little school, we don’t want that kind of kid in there with Rachel. Let me ask you one question. Does Mark seem like the kind of kid who will “learn his lesson” from this?”

Cal thought about Mark’s smile, even when he knew he was busted. And he just kept on lying, it was no more difficult than breathing for him.

He looked at his wife and shook his head “no, he’s not gonna learn any lessons.”

“I know it’s hard, Honey, but you have to turn him in.” She stood up, offered him a hand and pulled her husband off the couch. “Come on. Let’s get some sleep.”

Cal accepted the help, but he felt uneasy. What was he supposed to do? He still didn’t really know. Maybe sleep would help.


I hope you enjoyed Part One.

Part II will be available on Thursday, February 2. Do me a favor, if you enjoyed this share with a friend. Thanks. 





A Pit Bull Decision

A few months ago a skinny white dog with spots appeared on our lawn.  We have a great big German Shepard wolf hybrid who barked furiously at this stray. Our dog, Aries, tried to run the dog off.  Barking and growling constantly. The dog would disappear in the brush, then reappear an hour later.

This went on for three days and finally, on the third day, Aries allowed the spotted dog to come closer to the house. He was painfully skinny After another day or two the dog accepted our food but would not let us touch him.  When we reached, out he cowered and ran away.

Aries acts as though she still disapproves of the dog, who’s big square head seems disproportionate to it’s body.  But they were obviously becoming buddies.  After a week Spots allowed us to pet him, if we were sitting down and very calm.  He had cigarette burns on his head, so we tried not to touch those.

Fast forward three months.  Spots is firmly entrenched in our family.  He’s a joyous dog with a club like tail, that bangs back and forth when he’s happy. And that’s all the time. He’s broad chested with a  a neck as thick as an elm tree. We laugh because he sleeps on his back in chairs with his paws sticking up.  We laugh because he snores and if you hold you hand up in the air and say, “Face Five” he’ll jump up and hit your hand with his nose.

Spots, who probably weighs 50 pounds, is extremely protective.  Aries barks and growls when strangers drive up the drive way, but when we tell her to stop, she obeys.  Spots goes into “mad man” mode.  His bark and growls are terrifying and spit flies from his jowls.  We have to physically reassure him everything is alright before he believes it and calms down.  He feels he has to protect us at all costs.

If Spots wakes up in the middle of the night and need to go out, he comes to the side of the bed and whimpers. If that doesn’t work he puts his front paws up on the edge of the bed and very sweetly licks my ear. He’s that kind of dog.

Here’s my problem. Spots is obviously a pit bull mix. My guess is he’s a Pit Bull/Bull Terrier.

I don’t hate pit bulls but every time I hear a story about a pit bull attack, I’m one of the first to say, “Pit bulls are different than other dogs. They were breed to fight. They turn into savages way faster than other dogs.”  Other dog breeds are abused and neglected but you don’t hear about Hound Dogs and Labradoodles turning into ne cold killers because of the abuse.  In my opinion, there is a  flaw in Pit Bull DNA that makes them more likely to attack and sometimes kill.  It’s rare to hear of a Beagle, Great Dane or Collie attacking it’s owner, mauling a child or killing a stranger. Very rarely. But Pit Bulls do these things pretty frequently, especially when compared to other breeds. There’s a problem with Pit Bulls.

But I love Spots….so what do I do? Am I hypocrite who says, “not my dog”.  I think Pit Bulls are dangerous but I love Spots.