Authors: David Klass
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For the Black Label soccer team
The scoreboard had been designed in Japan, and our town had bought it a year ago to record Fremont's glorious football victories and track triumphs. From the bleachers where I stood with seven hundred screaming students and four thousand equally crazed townspeople, the giant live-feed LED display and the half dozen digital timers helped us follow all the action on the track far below. Twenty runnersâall eighteen-year-old toned and ripped superathletesâhad turned the final corner and were racing down the home stretch. And the twenty-first runner, a much older man but in terrific shape, was coasting along in the middle of the pack when he happened to glance up at the scoreboard.
That twenty-first runner was Arthur Gentry, the principal of Fremont High for more than forty years and the man most responsible for making our school into a sports powerhouse known throughout the state of New Jersey as “Muscles High.” He was the kind of principal who liked to know everything that was going on in his school, so he was always poking his head into a classroom or chatting with a new student, but it would have been much better for all of us if he hadn't glanced up at that fancy scoreboard right then.
The race was the climax of Graduation Week, which at Fremont High meant as much sports crap as they could cram into five days. It started off with Team Appreciation Dayâa pep rally for teams that had already been appreciated so much it was hard to imagine the star players hadn't gone deaf from all the applause. Then came the New Trophy Ceremony, when the sacred glass case at our school's front entrance was unlocked and gleaming gold cups for the past year's championships were carefully slipped onto shelves next to tarnishing plaques from seasons gone by. And there was Captain's Coronation, when the new team captains for next year were “crowned” by the old ones and showered with confetti while cheerleaders danced around them.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. There's not much at Fremont High during Graduation Week to honor the valedictorian or the president of the French club, but if you happen to be an elite athlete, it's like getting a Viking funeral and entering Valhalla, or being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
WARNINGâthis is not a typical story about the birth of a sports team dynasty, like when Babe Ruth joined the Yankees and belted out fifty-four home runs his first year, or when Vince Lombardi took over the Green Bay Packers and promised them: “You will never lose another championship.” This sports story has little to do with blood, sweat, tears, and six-pack abs. But it has a lot to do with a dental disaster, fast legs, and bad hand-to-eye coordination, plus galloping on horseback at night with a pretty girl across a Mafia-owned golf course, and learning how to make the principal of your high school so mad at you that he puts his fist through his door.
I was not an elite athlete. I'd spent years searching for the sport I was best at and never quite found it. I was a chronic hitter of foul balls, a basketball player whose jump shots slalomed around the rim before deciding to hop down rather than slip through the hoop, and a wide receiver with plenty of speed but “iron hands” that repelled footballs with an almost audible clank.
I'm tall and slenderâmy dad says “scrawny,” and he'd been encouraging me to lift weights since I was twelve. “Bulk up and it'll pay off across the board,” he assured me. “Coaches will see it, girls will notice, and you'll be able to shovel our driveway faster.” I told him thanks for the advice, and I know it worked for him and my two brothers, but I'd just as soon go my own way. And that was my attitude toward our sports-crazed school, tooâlive and let liveâtill that afternoon in June when Principal Gentry glanced up at the scoreboard and everything changed.
I may sound angry, but the truth is I had nothing against pep rallies and cheerleaders dancing around next year's captains. Did I think it was nutty? Sure. But I wasn't trying to fight back or rip anything down. I did my own thing, and my first three years at Fremont I joined the computer club and kept my distance from the superjocks. Except for the fact that, by virtue of my last name, I'm one of the cornerstones of that sports culture, and you can never get far away from your own name.
Which brings me back to the grand finale of Graduation WeekâChampion's Day. The culmination of Champion's Day for fifty years has been the Senior Mile Run. The twenty fastest seniors race four laps around our track while the whole school and half the town cheers them on. The Fremont record for the mile is four minutes and seventeen seconds. I know that time because the record was set by my father, Tom Logan, twenty-seven years ago. Since fewer than a dozen high school runners in all of American track history have broken four minutes, it's a hell of an achievement to have been just seventeen seconds over, especially for a big football player like my father was. It's not likely to ever be broken in our town, but every year the top twenty athletes at Muscles High take their best shot.
That day in early June, twenty-one runners were sprinting through the sunshine for the finish line. Battling it out were four team captains, two hyperathletic girls in orange Lycra, five members of our track team, and a baseball star who had been drafted by the Yankees. But the runner drawing the most attention was old Principal Gentry, a schoolboy champion in his day, then a track letterman at Princeton, and now, at seventy, still a rail-thin specimen and a competitive runner.
“Look at the old geezer go,” my friend Frank grunted. “If he's not careful, he's going to keel over.”
“Have some respect,” I told him. “Let's see you do that when you're seventy.”
“I can't even do that at seventeen,” Frank admitted. “And you know what? I'm fine with that. When I'm seventy I plan to be on my back in a hammock, eating SunChips.” It's not hard to picture Frank with white hair, swinging in a hammock, staring up at the clouds and popping SunChips. He's a gentle giant who loves to pig out on junk food and take long naps, and he avoids all physical exercise with a laziness that a sloth would envy.
Principal Gentry was made of tougher stuff. He was clearly not going to win this raceâAl Flynn, the centerfielder headed to the Yankees, was neck and neck with Ramon Hernandez, the captain of the track team, for that honor. They had opened up a twenty-yard lead over the rest of the field, and the crowd was roaring and stomping so that it felt like an earthquake was shaking the bleachers. Ramon put on a final spurt and crossed the finish line in four minutes and thirty-one seconds, with Al just an eyelash behind. The two gods of sport slapped five and everyone gave them a cheer, and then all eyes swung back to our principal.
These days serious older runners compete in their own track meets, and there are records for every age group. Principal Gentry's best time was twelve seconds off the state record for seventy-year-olds, and I don't think he intended to try to break the record that day.
But forty yards from the finish he glanced up at a digital display and saw that he was seven seconds from the record. This was a man who had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro at sixty, and scuba dived with hammerhead sharks when he turned seventy, and whose motto was “Just go for it!”
The crowd began roaring again as Principal Gentry dug into his last reserves and sped up. His stride was fierce and determined as he churned down the home stretch, passing runners fifty years younger. I can still see his bony elbows pumping like pistons and the sunlight flashing off his sweaty forehead that was half-lowered toward the finish line as if ready to break an invisible tape with the point of his nose.
“GENTRY, GENTRY, GENTRY,” the crowd chanted.
He passed the captain of the basketball team, who broke stride to wave him on.
I spotted my father lower down on the bleachers, near the green turf, chanting, “GENTRY, GENTRY.” Dad is six feet three inches tall and his thick head of black hair tossed in the spring breeze as he stood with his best friendsâmost of them old teammates from his high school daysâand cheered and shook both fists. Dad watches lots of sports events, live and on TV, and he often gets so personally involved with them that my mom and I have to tell him to calm down.
Fifteen yards to go. Gentry was only two seconds off the record. He threw himself forward with guts and willpower, as if to set a shining example and say to each of us: “This is what you can achieve, if you just lower your head and go for it.”
“GENTRY, GENTRY!” The bleachers felt like they were going to collapse at any second. I didn't shake a fist, but I did put my arms out to steady myself. On my left, my friend Dylan Sanders, who is usually far more critical of the jock culture at Fremont than I am, got caught up in the moment and started leaping up and down. It was impossible not to get excited. I found myself clapping and shouting.
Five yards to go. Principal Gentry hurled himself at the finish line with everything he had. He zipped across, nose first, right arm following as if throwing a punch at time itself, and then his trim torso, with his left arm trailing. He raised his arms and turned to the scoreboard, and saw that he had missed the record by half a second.
There was a loud, deflating sigh from the crowd, like the air hissing out of a hot air balloon. Principal Gentry put his hand dramatically on his heart, as if to say, “I gave it my all.” The applause swelled. And then he went down on one knee, as if saying a brief prayer to the Olympic gods, and the cheering got even louder because he looked so noble kneeling there, and he had come so close and fought so well.
And then old Gentry toppled over onto the blue synthetic track that he had helped raise the money for, and the crowd went totally silent. “Oh my God,” I whispered.
The ambulance crew was tending to him in moments.
“I didn't mean for it to really happen,” Frank whispered to me, sounding scared. “I swear I didn't.”
We were all scared, and I saw several people start to pray.
“He'll get back up in a second,” I whispered back to Frank. “He's probably just winded.”