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?”
“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?”
“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.