Authors: John Feinstein
“Right, Gordon. I know he’s been difficult and I know this thing with his son is a problem.”
“His son’s not the problem. He’s a nice guy.”
“Alex! Let me make my point. You said you
Coach Hillier. So why would you ignore his instructions? He’s absolutely right. You can ride your bike to school in the morning. I shouldn’t have to get up at five because you let your ego get in the way of common sense.”
She turned and walked out of the room. Alex sighed. That was his mom: all common sense, with zero knowledge or understanding of any sport. He thought for a moment about what his dad might say—not that it mattered, since he wasn’t here. He figured his dad would understand why Alex had done it, but he’d tell him it wasn’t a very good idea and he shouldn’t do it again.
Thinking about that, he laughed. “What are they going to do?” he said aloud. “Make me third-string?”
He was out the door and on his bike by five-twenty-five and pulled into the virtually empty back lot of the school by five-forty. As he locked his bike, he saw Coach Hillier come out the back door with a cup of coffee in his hand. Apparently, they’d be heading for the steps before Jonas arrived.
“Come on inside, Myers,” Coach Hillier said, waving at him with his free hand.
Alex followed the coach through the locker room door and then up the steps and down the hallway to where the football offices were. No one else was around this early. Coach Hillier walked into his office and waved Alex to a seat.
“You drink coffee yet?” he asked.
Alex shook his head. “No.”
He had a file open in front of him on his desk.
“I guess you’ve had a tough few months,” he said, tapping the file. “Parents split, you move away from all your friends, start in a new school, and the one thing you’re really good at, you’re stymied because the coach’s son happens to start at your position.”
Alex knew that his reason for moving to Philadelphia couldn’t be in his file. Then again, he hadn’t hidden it from anyone, so it wouldn’t be hard for Coach Hillier to find out about it. He smiled, glad to have a sympathetic ear.
“It’s been kind of rough,” he said. “I’m sorry about yesterday. I just wanted to show people what I could do.”
“I know,” Coach Hillier said. “Trust me, people around here know you’re talented. But you can’t pull stuff like that. I can’t even make a case for you moving up to second team if the other coaches think you’re some kind of troublemaker.”
“I understand, Coach. You’re right. I just feel bad I got Jonas in trouble. He shouldn’t have to be here so early to run.”
Coach Hillier nodded. “Yeah. He made a mistake, but it
says a lot about him that he stuck with you even though he knew it almost certainly meant trouble for him.” He sat back in his chair and sipped his coffee. “So I told him to stay home and sleep.”
He looked at the coffee cup. “This is cold,” he said. “Let me get a hot cup and then we’ll go outside and run.”
For a moment Alex had thought he might get a reprieve. Coach Hillier seemed to read his mind. “I’m glad you know you made a mistake,” he said. “But I can’t let you off the hook. Put on some shorts and a T-shirt. I’ll meet you outside in five minutes.”
Alex understood. “Yes sir,” he said.
He got changed and headed out. The sun was up, but it would still be cool outside—that was about the only good thing about running at six a.m.
As he pushed open the door, he almost hit someone who was apparently about to pull it open.
“Sorry,” he said, stepping back.
“You better be sorry.” The door swung open and there, with a Starbucks cup in his hand, stood Coach Gordon.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Chester Heights’ number-one showoff,” Coach Gordon said when he saw Alex. “Off to run, I hope? Where’s Coach Hillier?”
“He went to get more coffee,” Alex said.
“You owe him an apology,” Coach Gordon said. “Don’t think for a second I don’t know you did that on your own.”
It occurred to Alex that apologizing to Coach Gordon might be a good idea—if only to make life a little easier for Coach Hillier. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. What’s more, he decided, it almost certainly wouldn’t make any difference.
“Well, enjoy your run. Knowing Coach Hillier, he’ll let you off easy—three or four circuits. If it were me, it would be more like ten.”
Alex had a number of responses for that, but he held his tongue.
“Yes sir,” he said.
Coach Gordon looked him up and down for a moment. “Myers, how tall are you?” he asked.
“About six one.”
“Are you fourteen or fifteen? Did you hold back a year?”
“No sir. I’m fourteen.”
Coach Gordon considered that for a moment.
“Well, you might want to give some thought to doing that. Lot of kids do it now, you know. Gives them another year to grow. And, in your case, you’d have three years to play once Matt graduates, instead of two.”
“I don’t think my parents would like that idea,” Alex said. “Being honest, neither do I.”
Coach Gordon shrugged. “Your mistake to make,” he said.
He pushed past Alex and headed for his office. Alex wondered if all successful football coaches were complete jerks. Then he turned and walked toward the field as the sun continued to climb into the eastern sky.
Alex didn’t really mind the running. The hard part of the punishment had been getting out of bed before sunup. Once he was finished, he felt good. His father had told him once that athletes—regardless of their ability—always felt better after a workout because of something called endorphins, which were some kind of enzyme released in your body that energized you.
He felt energized after his fifth lap up and down the steps.
“Problem with you, Myers, is you’re too young and too strong to know this should hurt,” Coach Hillier said. “Next
time I’ll put you on the clock and demand a certain time from you each trip up and down.”
“Won’t … be … a … next … time,” Alex said between breaths.
Coach Hillier put a hand on his shoulder. “Look, Alex, I know you’ve got plenty of talent and loads of potential. Believe it or not, Coach Gordon knows it too. He’s just not going to tell you that anytime soon.”
“It’s not his way.”
Alex took a long gulp of air.
“He just asked me coming out of the locker room if I’d consider staying back a year so I can have three years of eligibility after Matt graduates.”
“What’d you tell him?”
Alex gulped air one more time. The sun was up by now, and even though it wasn’t hot yet, it felt warm after his stair climbing.
“I told him I didn’t like the idea and I didn’t think my parents would like it either. I’m a good student. Why would I want to go to high school for an extra year?”
“It might increase your chances to get a college scholarship.”
“Do you think I’ll need an extra year to have a chance to get a scholarship?”
“It’s hard to tell. You’re just a freshman.”
Alex’s breathing was back to normal now.
He smiled at Coach Hillier.
“Well,” he said. “I think I’ll be okay.”
This time, it was Coach Hillier’s turn to smile.
“Christine was right about you.”
That got Alex’s attention. “Christine?” he said. “As in Christine Whitford?”
“What did she say? When did you talk to her?”
“At our first meeting for the school paper. She introduced herself after the meeting and asked if I would read some of the stories she’d written while she was at Whitman.”
“That’s the middle school a lot of the kids here went to last year. I had mentioned when I introduced myself to the new kids that I was one of the football team coaches. She said, ‘I met one of your new players today.’ ”
“She did? Did she say anything about me?”
Alex wondered if the burning in his cheeks as he waited for the answer had anything to do with his workout. He suspected not.
“She said you were extremely confident.”
“Did she say it like that was a good thing?” Alex said, knowing he was being reeled in but unable to resist.
“Not really …” Coach Hillier turned to walk away. “See you at practice. Run the plays I call.”
He left Alex standing there knowing that the burning in his cheeks had
to do with the workout.
Alex ran all the plays as they were called for the next several days in practice. There weren’t many and none of them called for him to throw deep. Every once in a while as he
stepped into the huddle and called another short pass, Coach Hillier would give him a look as if to say,
Stay cool and do what you’re told
He did as he was told. The more he watched both Gordon and Bilney, the more upset he became that he wasn’t getting the chance to show what he could do. The funny thing was he liked both Gordon and Bilney—especially Gordon. It would have been easier if they acted like jerks, because then he could
get mad. But neither one was like that. In fact, one afternoon after Gordon had taken about half his reps, he turned to Coach Hillier and said, “Coach, why don’t you give Alex a few of my reps? I’m a little bit sore.”
“Sore from what?” Coach Hillier said quietly. “Are you hurt, Matt? Do you need to see the trainers?”
“No, but I just thought …”
“Let your coaches think, Matt. You just play.”
Alex wasn’t exactly sure what to think about Coach Hillier. At times he would stand behind him after a play and offer words of encouragement or suggestions. On occasion he would step in to show him how he could run a play better. He quietly suggested that he slide his thumb slightly upward so he would have more control of the ball, and Alex was amazed at the difference such a subtle change could make. His throws instantly had a tighter spiral and seemed to get where they needed to get with just a tad more zip on them.
Then there were moments when Alex knew he’d made a good play, made an adjustment during the play that the other quarterbacks couldn’t make, and he would be greeted with silence. It was almost as if it were okay for Coach Hillier to encourage him—but only up to a point.