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Authors: John Feinstein

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BOOK: The Walk On
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By the time he reached the 10-yard line he was gasping and he could almost feel the pack closing in on him from behind. He put everything he had left into the last ten yards and crossed the goal line somewhere near the front. He was a little surprised when both Gordon and Bilney crossed not so very far behind him.

No one spoke for a few seconds because everyone was leaning over, trying to get their breath back. Alex noticed that one of the linemen was on the ground, holding his leg. One of the trainers was jogging over to him.

“Cramp, Lucas?” Coach Gordon said.

“Think so, Coach,” Lucas answered in a pained voice as the trainer reached him and started to work on his right leg.

Alex noticed Jonas, a few yards away from him, standing up straight, looking like he could run another hundred without breathing hard.

“Ellington, you’re excused from the hundred next week,” Coach Gordon said.

He turned to Coach Raye, who coached the linebackers.

“Jeb, who’d you have in the top five?”

Coach Raye had a clipboard in his hands and he glanced down at it. “Ellington, Washburn, Josephs, Myers, and Eisenberg.”

Alex had finished fourth. Washburn was, like Jonas, a wide receiver, and Josephs was the starting tailback. He didn’t know Eisenberg, which made him think he probably played defense—a cornerback, he guessed.

“Okay,” Coach Gordon said. “Everyone take a knee right here.

“School starts Monday. As you older guys know, we want you taped and on the practice field by three-thirty. That gives you forty-five minutes from your last class, since you are all excused from last-period study hall or club meetings
—as long as you keep your grades up
—to get over here and get ready. If the trainers get behind taping and someone is late as a result, they’ll let us know, but it usually isn’t a problem. Seniors get taped first, then juniors, and so on.

“Monday and Tuesday you’ll meet with your position coaches before we practice so we can give you playbooks and teach you the basic offense and defense. Older guys, there’s a few wrinkles the staff worked on over the summer, so don’t think you know it all.

“On Wednesday and Thursday we’ll be in pads. We need to get the feel of being hit again, so be ready. On Friday we’ll have a scrimmage under game conditions. The following week we get into our regular game-week routines, and two weeks from today we play our first game.

“Everyone got it?”

They all answered, “Yes sir.”

“You gonna be ready?”

“Yes sir!”

“Any questions?”

None.

“Okay, then, let’s get in. Captains …”

Matt Gordon and Detwiler—whose first name was Gerry, Alex had learned by looking at the depth chart on the locker room bulletin board—stood and walked to the front of the group. They put their arms up together and the rest of the team stood and formed a circle around them, everyone putting an arm in the air and leaning into the circle.

“State champs—on three,” Gordon said.

He counted three and they all yelled, “State champs!”

With that, they all headed for the locker room. Next time he made this walk, Alex thought, the first day of school would be over. He wondered if the non-football-players would be any friendlier than the football players had been.

The answer, it turned out, was not so much.

Alex’s mom insisted on driving him to school, even though he would have preferred to ride his bike.

“First day, you let me drop you off,” she said. “After that, we’ll see.”

There was a first-day assembly scheduled for seven-thirty. Alex was out of the car and walking in the front door of the school—which he hadn’t even seen yet since all the athletic facilities were located behind the main school building—by seven-fifteen. He wanted time to find his
locker and to find Jonas, who was also planning to arrive a little early.

As he walked into the building, the first thing he saw was a giant banner that said
WELCOME TO THE LIONS

DEN
!

Not the most encouraging welcome, really, but he was now, he guessed, a Lion. He started down a hallway, glancing at the locker number and combination that had been sent to his house with all the other registration stuff. But the locker numbers here were nowhere near what he needed. He saw a tall, dark-haired girl walking in his direction. She was wearing a bright white button on her shirt that said
ALLY BELYARD—SENIOR CLASS COUNCIL
.

Okay, Alex thought, she should know her way around.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Can you tell me where the freshman lockers are?”

Ally Belyard, senior class council, barely slowed. “Third floor—at the end. Take the steps and turn right.”

Then she was gone before Alex could ask where the steps were. But he kept walking and, sure enough, there were steps about halfway down the hallway. He went up two flights, turned right, and saw a gaggle of kids standing in front of lockers—many of them trying out their locks to be sure they worked.

One of those working a combination was Jonas.

“How long have you been here?” Alex asked as he walked up.

“About a minute,” Jonas said. “Took me three tries to get someone to tell me how to find this place.”

Alex laughed. Turns out Ally Belyard actually
was
helpful.

“Where do you think 194 is?” he asked, looking again at the paper in his hand.

“Can’t be far, I’m 182.…” Jonas twisted the lock one more time and pulled on the handle. The locker swung open and he smiled in triumph.

He took a couple of notebooks from his backpack and put them in the locker. “Come on, I’ll help you find yours and then we can go figure out where the auditorium is.”

“I’m sure,” Alex said, “there will be dozens of people willing to help.”

It turned out they didn’t need any help. They just followed the crowds back down the steps to the first floor. Most of the classrooms were on the second, third, and fourth floors. There were labs in the basement. The auditorium took up a large chunk of the first floor—not surprising since, at least on this morning, it had to accommodate almost two thousand kids, plus faculty and staff.

Alex and Jonas found places near the back, at the end of a row, which made Alex happy because he had Jonas on his right and an aisle on his left.

At exactly seven-thirty, a bell rang and a balding, middle-aged man walked onstage to a small podium with a microphone.

“Returning students of Chester Heights—welcome back!” he said, drawing a response of cheers, hoots, and a few scattered boos that sounded fairly good-natured to Alex.

The man smiled and put his hands out for quiet as if the applause had been too loud to be believed. “New students of Chester Heights—welcome!”

More of the same—probably, Alex guessed, from the same kids.

“For those of you who are new, I’m Joseph A. White, your principal. This is my twelfth year at Chester Heights and I can honestly say I believe it will be our best year
ever
!”

“Why would he think that?” Jonas whispered. “Because we’re here?”

“That’s gotta be it,” Alex said.

Mr. White droned on for a while about how wonderful the teachers were, how proud he was of the seniors who had graduated the previous spring, and how everyone should make sure their parents made it to Back to School Night. Alex felt a twinge at the mention of parents, plural, but then remembered that his father had been working on Back to School Night the last two years anyway.…

“Those of you who are old, help those of you who are new,” Mr. White said as clearly bored students began to whisper to one another. “All of you new kids, freshmen or otherwise, don’t hesitate to ask questions. Everyone is here to help.”

About four people among two thousand clapped.

“And
now
,” Mr. White said, apparently coming to the best part of his speech, “I want to introduce to you the man all of us here at Chester Heights High look to for leadership, the man who is going to lead us to another league championship
and
to the state championship this year, our very own, COACH GORDON!”

Alex suspected that Gordon was one of those coaches who actually believed his first name was Coach. Now, as he watched
Coach
Gordon make his way to the podium, smiling and waving like a politician, he was convinced of it. The room was filled with cheers, and the coach put his palms down for quiet.

“Welcome back, Lions!” he said, causing some of the students to growl like lions.

Again he held up his hands for quiet.

“Last year, as you all know, we
did
win our fourth league title in six years!”

More growling and a lot of cheering.

“This year, that will
not
be enough. This year we
will
get that state championship! I’ve only seen the team practice for two days, but I can tell you we have the makings of greatness! This is going to be a team you can all be proud of!”

“He’s not nearly this enthusiastic when he talks to his players, is he?” Jonas said as more cheers washed over the coach.

“Now, as most of you already know, we open our season a week from Friday, right here at home at seven o’clock against Mercer Academy. This will be a major challenge for the Lions! Which is why we need all of you at the pep rally and at the game!”

This time it was Alex’s turn to whisper to Jonas. “This
isn’t
a pep rally?” he said, causing Jonas to laugh.

“Does everyone hear me?” Coach Gordon asked.

“YES!” came the answer.

“Can I get a roar?”

“ROAAAAAR!”

He put a fist into the air and walked off the podium to a standing ovation from many of the students.

“Get to your classes as quickly as you can,” Mr. White said, coming back to the microphone. “No one gets marked late today. Let’s have a great year!”

Roar
, thought Alex.

Alex managed to get through the first day of classes pretty much unscathed. The halls were crowded, but the rooms were marked clearly, and when he did make a wrong turn, someone eventually pointed him in the right direction.

The only thing that made it difficult was the sheer size of the place. His middle school in Billerica had had three grades and about a thousand students. Chester Heights had twice as many students, was at least twice as big, and had kids in all different shapes and sizes. He had been one of the big kids at Billerica Middle School. Now he was a lowly freshman, and despite his height, he felt like an ant dotting the massive hallways as he moved from class to class.

He had what he figured were the standard freshman classes: Algebra, Geology—better known as Earth Science—American History, English 1, and French, which he had opted for over Spanish back in middle school. His mom spoke good
French and wanted her children to do the same, even though his father pointed out that both Spanish and Chinese would probably be more valuable to them long-term.

“It can’t possibly be a bad thing to know how to speak French,” his mom had said.

That was the end of the argument. Most arguments between his parents ended that way—at least in Alex’s memory: Mom won and Dad threw up his hands and said, “Yes, dear.”

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