Coach set his cleats firmly into the warm Bermuda turf on the football field to watch his new team run laps around the track. So far, there was not one player on his middle school park team who he could automatically point to and declare a stud. He'd done it many times before, even considered himself an expert at evaluating a player who would lead his team. Not this time, though. Under his breath he looked out at his prospects and declared, “No pop. No swag. No good right now.” Maybe if he made them run faster, he could find what he was looking for. He yelled out, “C'mon, guys. Pick it up a little. Can't you lift your feet off the ground any higher than that?”
Just at that moment a woman approached him from behind. She was black and petite, with a real snazzy short haircut like Halle Berry's. She had on a white silk blouse and a black skirt and didn't mind standing on the turf with her high heels on. “Excuse me. Are you the coach for the middle school team?” she asked.
Coach turned around. He was multitasking now, still looking for that special player and answering her question at the same time. “Yes, yes, I am.” He extended his hand. He gave her a quick glance, then looked back at the team. “Rob Madison, but everybody calls me Coach.”
After she let go of his hand, she said, “Sorry we're late. Busy workday. We got here as soon as we could.” She turned away from Coach and fixed her eyes on her son, who was standing at least seven yards behind her. He was on the track that circled the field, in fact. She said, “My son wants to play on the team.”
Coach moved his eyes away from the woman, over to her son, then quickly gazed at the team chugging along around the track. “You brought him here to play football?” Coach asked to make sure.
The mother smiled. Just the thought of a child growing into manhood and being able to compete made all parents smile. Coach smiled too, because he completely understood. During all his years of coaching it wasn't out of the ordinary for a mother to bring her son out to practice and to introduce him. Coach wasn't judging, but this particular mom looked a little younger than most with a teenage son.
Coach looked over at him. “Why are you standing back there? Come here and introduce yourself.”
The woman turned around quick to face her son with tightened eyes upon hearing Coach's instructions, wavering on whether or not she wanted to backpedal like a defensive back and grab his ear, then drag him over to where they stood. He was about four inches taller than his mom in her heels, but she could probably do it, anyway. “Get over here, Jarques.” Her words and tone were sharp. “I don't know why you're standing way back there, anyway,” she told him.
Coach watched him as he hesitated and then slowly strolled over with his head down. Coach didn't like his body language. Coach watched some of the players make their way past him on the track for another lap. He still hadn't found what he was looking for and let them know they needed to pick up the pace before he walked over to Jarques.
Jarques saw him coming and dropped his head an inch or two more.
“Get your head up. How can I see your eyes when you're looking down at the ground?” Coach wanted to know.
“What did I tell you about that?” his mother said.
Coach sized him up. He was lean, had long arms, and looked to be close to 175 pounds and six feet tall. Coach had read somewhere that Deion Sanders had the same type of build in high school but was not as heavy. He even looked a bit like Prime Time. “You're a nice size,” Coach said to him. “So you want to play football for the Panthers, huh?” Coach now had his hands on his hips and looked his new prospect up and down.
The young man nodded his head yes, and his mother kind of stomped her heels on the turf and put her hands on her hips in disapproval.
“What position?” Coach said.
“Quarterback,” he whispered.
“Quarterbacks talk louder than that, young man.”
Coach reached out to shake his hand. The teen reached out, and when he finally got up the nerve to shake the coach's hand, his handshake was as weak as his body language. Coach felt the pressure of his handshake and tightened his own grip and moved in closer to him.
“Handshakes are firm.” Coach squeezed some more. “You got that?”
was the pounding thought in Coach's mind. It was the next day, and he was on his nine-to-five public relations stint for the police department. Days like this made him wish he coached football full-time. All the time. He was in a meeting with a group of community citizens and two home-owners' associations. Initially, it was supposed to be a meeting of only five or six people, tops, but things had changed. When he arrived at the overflow room of the church, where the meeting was being held, at least two hundred people were in attendance. Within two minutes after he gave his spiel about the police department's commitment to safety to the residents it served, it was time for the worst part of it all, which was opening up the floor for questioning.
There was a man sitting in the front row, on the edge of his seat. He'd been frozen in the same position since the start of the meeting. He raised his hand, indicating he had a question. “What the hell makes these young boys do the things they are doing out here in these streets? I'm seventy-two years old, and the only reason in my life that I want my youth back is to knock one of these assholes out.” He didn't even pause for some of the reaction and laughter in the room. “I have a nice house. I've been there for over fifty years, and I'm not leaving until they put me in the ground. So what makes them think they can just rummage through my mail, take my retirement and Social Security checks?”
“I'm sorry to hear you are going through that, sir,” Coach said to him.
The man replied, “Sorry? I want your department to come out and make some arrests and bust some heads. These guys aren't hard to find. All they do is walk around the neighborhood all day, deciding on what house to break into.”
Coach was also becoming increasingly fed up with the inability of his department to control the break-ins. But he remained the ultimate company man and was well versed in giving the politically correct answer to community members who had requested to speak with the police department. He said, “We have upgraded our patrols, but honestly, sir, there is only so much we can do. I spoke with the commander in the district, and he promised me he would put a stop to all the break-ins in your area. But until then, I would suggest everyone keep an eye out for one another, and when you see anyone suspicious in your neighborhood, call police immediately.”
There was another man in the first row who looked to be in his sixties. He was more reserved. Seemed to be exhausted by this meeting and maybe how life was going in general. Or he needed some coffee or a boost from that energy in a bottle or something. His expression had remained the same throughout the meeting. He said, “Yeah, yeah . . . we all know the drill, but that doesn't stop the break-ins. In my estimation, the mayor needs to push for more jobs for these young folks. In my day we had jobs and didn't have a need to take someone else's belongings by breaking into houses all damn day long.”
The lady sitting next to him stood. She wasn't one of the seniors. She could have been in her forties but looked no older than thirty-three. The outfit she was wearing told everyone she wished she was twenty-one. She had on tight jeans, pumps, and a Lady Vamp T-shirt with more than a few bangles around her wrists. You could hear the bangles every time she moved her arms. “There used to be respect too. Where's our respect?” she said. “When I go out for a walk or ride my bike, it never fails that one of those Lil Wayne or Young Jeezy look-alikes approaches me with the most ignorant talk you'd ever want to hear. I'm a grown woman, and I'm afraid to even imagine what they are screaming out to our younger ladies trying to get back and forth to school.”
The questioning went on and on for another hour, and Coach didn't have a legit, soothing answer they wanted to hear. He couldn't tell them more cops would be on the streets soon, wouldn't tell them the crimes would stop. He dared not say the police force had a plan to find those responsible and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. Because they were right. The community had become a freaking milieu of dark days filled with frequent occurrences of the unthinkable: murders, rapes, abductions, shootings, baby killings by babies themselves because they were forced to watch siblings at an age when they were not equipped as their parents were out chasing a rap career or some shit.
At one point during the conversation he wished he was back on the detective squad, locking up the bastards who were causing the commotion. But in the back of his mind, he knew why going back there was out of the question. All the violence and black-on-black crime had gotten the best of him. Right now, at this moment in his life, he was interested in the community and somehow making it better. Somehow.
“I know things aren't looking good on so many levels,” he told those in attendance. “But let me share something with you that is a good thing.” He was facing stone-faced souls now. And it was quiet as hell now too. He cleared his throat, then said, “Well, it's my football team.”
“Football team?” a woman repeated. It was almost an echo.
He looked in her direction. “Yes, right here in our own community, and we've just started practice for our upcoming season.”
“What's that got to do with us? We can't play,” the same woman's voice rang out. She chuckled at her own question. Then there was some chatter about bad knees, cardio trouble, allergies, and a whole bunch of other shit that sedentary folk had.
He told her, “It's a chance to show your support. I coach these boys and talk with them every day, and one thing I've noticed in the time we have been together is they don't have enough support,” Madison informed them.
“That's their parents' job,” someone mentioned.
That comment caught Coach's attention. He almost got a case of the ass but laughed the comment off. “Really? Well, I remember my father telling me that back in the good days . . . Y'all remember the good days, don't you?”
Someone mentioned Marvin Gaye, and then someone else said that those were the days of love. Then another person started talking about trust and true friends and family. The comments were followed by some amens.
Coach noticed he had finally connected with them, and he was damned if he was going to let it go. “I remember when communities supported their sports teams. I think that if some of the kids playing were supported by those in the community, it would create a more family-like atmosphere around here.”
A few people started to heckle, taking Coach by surprise, because that quick after reeling them in, he was fucking losing them. He overheard someone say they had shit to do right in the basement of the church. He looked out toward the middle of the room.
“Hey, I live in this community too. I want it to be better,” he told them. The heckling stopped. “I do,” he told them again.
“I don't know.... These kids have no respect for anything, and their parents need to start first, not us,” said a lady in a red hat.
Coach was not getting anywhere with this group. They had been worn down by the conditions and the actions of the youth and no action by the police department. They wanted to live their lives in peace without the obligation to give back. The Black Panthers and the civil rights era were long gone, and even if those at the meeting had benefited, they wanted no part of the new digitalized generation. Coach could understand it but did not get it completely, because these kids needed them, whether they realized it or not.
A man standing in the back raised his hand. He was black and had an all-gray beard that was trimmed to perfection. When Coach acknowledged him, the man pressed his hat to his chest after straightening out his overcoat. The first time he tried to speak, his words didn't seem to come.
He cleared his throat and tried again. “I used to play football,” he said. “Played at Capital University in Ohio before I moved down here. Played with the great Albert White in nineteen sixty-two and all those boys who won all those games and were drafted into the NFL, all the while going to a little ole Division Three school and getting a degree in business. I tell you, those were the days.” He pointed toward Coach, who was standing at the front of the room. “But I think he might have something there. When I played, the entire community would come out and support us. We would see them in the streets, and it was like we were old friends, just because of that funny-shaped ball.”
It was quiet for a beat as Coach let the man's words soak in.
The man pointed at Coach with his hat. “So what do you need us to do?” he asked.
Coach smiled and jumped at the opportunity. “Nothing, nothing at all, other than come to our first game. I'll even make sure we have a few police vans come out and pick you up and take you to the game free of charge.”
It became quiet again.
“We're not going to be in the back of those vans, are we? I ain't never been in the back of a police van, and I'm not going to start now,” a man called out, breaking the silence.
Amid the laughter that filled the room, Coach said, “No, no, these are the best we have. They're just like buses.”