There was something brutal about him. He sat there across the desk from me, in a straight-backed plastic chair, and the frown on his face and the set of his shoulders just screamed primal. Vicious. Like at any second, he might up and knock your head off.
That was good. That was what I wanted to see in my boys. That was what I taught ‘em.
“Coach,” he said. “You don’t understand. I have to quit the team.”
You don’t understand. All of ‘em said that. As if I hadn’t seen every single one of their petty high school problems over and over again in my thirty years of coaching.
“Son,” I said. That’s one of my little tricks. Call ‘em son, instead of their name. In the first place, it helps you out if you’re the type to forget names. There’s nothing to crush a kid’s confidence like forgetting his name. He’ll never play as hard for you again. But also, it sets up the right relationship. It shows that you’re the dad, the boss, the big guy. And it makes it sound like you care. Who doesn’t love their son, right?
“Son,” I said. “I know it seems like everything’s tough right now. I know it seems like you might not make it. But you just got to keep on pushing. Keep on pushing at your problems, like they’re some big ugly mug on the O-line. You can do that, can’t you?”
“Coach,” he said. He was frowning. “I don’t think I can. You don’t understand.”
“Son, of course I understand. You’re having trouble with your classes, right? Happens to everyone—hell, remind me sometime to tell you about my tenth grade math class with Mrs. James. What you got to understand is that classes feel like a burden, but they can help you too. You pass your classes, you get into college. And if you get into college—well damn son, you’re one step from the NFL!”
His frown had eased slightly, but hints of it lingered around the eyes. What was the kid thinking? “I know, Coach. But it’s not just my classes I’m having trouble with. If that was it, I could handle it.”
“What is it, son? Girl trouble?” Another one I’d had my fill of. High school kids and their damn puppy love and getting other kids pregnant and God knew what all. Wrap it up, don’t hit her, don’t get too attached. That was what I always told my boys. I put on my best concerned-father expression—I’d had plenty of practice.
“Well, that’s part of it too, Coach.” The frown was back. This kid ever smile?
“You didn’t get a girl pregnant, did you?” A fatherly frown of disappointment. I always hated pushing abortions on the girlfriends. Undermined my whole character-first shtick.
“No Coach, no! Nothing like that. But my girl, she’s gonna go to college.” There was the smile. So the kid was proud that his girlfriend was smarter than him? This was a new one. “She’s a senior, she just got a letter from UCLA. She got in!”
“That’s great, son, wonderful news, but—”
“She didn’t get the scholarship.” Smile fading. “She’s gonna have to pay, coach. I need to get a job so I can help her out. Get her through college. We’ll live down there, she can get a good job when she gets out of school.”
So that was it. Should be easy enough to knock this one off course.
“Son, you don’t have to do that. Schools got these loans they can give you, they pay for everything, she won’t have to pay till she graduates and gets a good job. I can get you all the stuff you need, help you fill out paperwork. You don’t have to—”
He was shaking his head. What now?
“Yeah, we know about that stuff, Coach. She looked it all up. It’s a lot to pay back.” He went wide-eyed. “She’ll have to get one anyway. But I can give her a little help, make the loans smaller, so we can have a family sooner.” Cute. Picket fences and happy children running around? Way these kids were raised, I wouldn’t give good odds.
“Son, I’m proud of you right now.” Oh, that was a great line. He lit up. “I’m proud of you. That’s a wonderful thing you want to do for your girl. But you don’t have to do it. You don’t have to sacrifice your whole football career. Do you want to look back in ten, fifteen years and wonder what if? Could you have made it, could you have hit it big in the NFL?” This was good stuff. “Do you still have that fire inside?” I looked him right in the eye. Oh, I almost had him.
He was breathing hard. “I do, Coach. I do. But—”
Time to reel him in. I leaned forward, put a hand on his shoulder. “You gotta keep that fire burning. What does it matter how much student loans your girl has, if you’re making NFL money? What does it matter, son?”
“But Coach—I’m not as smart as her. I’m not getting into no college. I could—I don’t—”
“Son, you’re not a quitter. I know it. You know it. You can do this. Listen.” I leaned across the table. Time for the knockout punch. “They asked me to keep this quiet, but I heard from UCLA a few days ago. They’re interested in Jackson—and you.” This was sort of true. I’d had a conversation with the special teams coach, and he’d asked casually about a few of my boys. “I sent them your highlight reels.” Maybe he’d even watch them.
The kid’s eyes were like saucers. “UCLA? I could go to school with my girl? I could get a scholarship?”
“Plenty of UCLA men move on to the NFL, son.” I had him now.
He shifted in his chair. “Coach.” He paused. “Don’t—don’t take me off the team just yet. I gotta think about it.”
I nodded amiably, the proud father once more. “Of course son. You think all you need to.”
He got up and left the room, walking slowly, with a slight smile on his face.
Perfect. He’d infect his girl with dreams of NFL money—these kids were all the same—and I wouldn’t have to fill a gaping hole on the D-line.
There was something brutal about him, but he wasn’t too smart.