Jesse continued to morph, now fully grown physically, standing six-three and two-hundred-thirty-five muscular pounds. Your eye was drawn to his broad shoulders and tapering waist. Not an ounce of body fat covered the bulging, rippling muscles of this seasoned bodybuilder. Though his countenance never warranted it, kids moved over a couple of extra inches out of respect when they passed him.
His emotional uniqueness for a supposed man-child still in high school was perhaps oddest of all. He never laughed, only chuckled occasionally, and only as a way to make a point. He never got mad, at anyone, for anything, only periodically disappointed, and only, seemingly, at members of the twelve.
He made us feel stupid without really trying. We learned from him the hard way.
* * *
It was our senior year, our last year of high school, our last year of football, and for Coach Peppers it seemed inevitable that it was his last year as well. He knew it. He gave his best, but like so many would-be champions of the lost causes, he had lost. The champions of lost causes are numerous on pages of fiction and are easily portrayed on the screen, but in the harshness of real life, the endings are rarely happy.
In the austerity of high school football in north Alabama in the mid-’70s, soon-to-be fired football coaches spend a lot of time on the phone during the offseason. It becomes a time when the words, “I owe you one” from longtime friends are called in. Like most words made at a jubilant moment, they are merely jests.
A winning head football coach has many friends who speak in long sentences when the subject is, I’m moving up the ranks to a bigger, better, more prestigious school. Want to join me?
The sentences become much shorter when the subject is, I need an assistant coaching job. Can you help? Coach Peppers was hearing a lot of short sentences lately.
* * *
Jesse knocked on Coach Peppers’s office door, which was usually open but was shut a lot lately.
“Coach, is this first practice going to be done the usual way this year?”
“Yes.” Coach seemed irritated at the mere question.
“OK. I’ll set everything up for you, Coach.”
“Jesse, wait a minute. I want to talk to you.”
Coach got up from his desk and moved around to the front and leaned against one corner with his arms folded and one foot crossed in front of the other. His body language signaled he had something serious to talk about.
“I’m here anytime you want to talk, Coach. You have but to ask.”
“How close are you to the other black kids in this school?”
“As close as I am to the other white kids in this school.”
“Jesse, I’m in trouble. I need your help. I’m down to my last straw here.” Coach Peppers’s voice had a desperate tone to it. “I don’t know how you do it, but kids follow you around and most of them hang on your every word. The teachers around here are afraid to talk to you.
“I saw something in here one afternoon that has been on my mind, and I can’t shake it. There’s something going on with you I don’t understand. Some power, the shadows on the wall that day, the way Coach Dobbs quit, the way Coach Benefield left out of here without a trace.
“I don’t know who you are; I’m not even sure what you are. But you have something. I don’t know if you have something for me, or not,” Coach Peppers continued, shakily.
Jesse listened, expressionless.
“But I’m scared to get fired. I’m scared to move my wife and kids one more time, and the words ‘This time is the last time’ are wearing thin on them. I’m running out of promises I can’t keep. I’m thirty-five years old.”
The desperate, shaken, and now-broken coach slowly shuffled over to the only window in the office and disappeared into a distant conversation with himself as much as with Jesse.
“I played for Coach Paul Bryant. I worked my way to starting. Me! Look at me! I’m five feet nothing. I’m a hundred and nothing. I worked my way to starting on a national championship team. Me! For Coach … Paul … Bryant.”
“They call him Bear, do they not?” inquired a soft-spoken Jesse.
“His players call him Coach Bryant; that’s how you know who’s a former player and who’s not. A player would never call him Bear. But I played for him. Now look at me—a hapless loser high school football coach that’s about to get run out of town on a rail.
“I had all the answers. My wife believed in me. Hell I believed in me. She was so pretty the day we got married,” whispered Coach to a faraway something outside the window somewhere. “I married over my head, you know.”
Coach turned to Jesse and chuckled, then reassumed his stare out the window.
“You’ve seen her. How do you think guys like me get girls like her? It’s because they think they’re getting the guy that was the champion. What happened to that guy? Where did he go? I know that’s what she has to be thinking. I mean, how could she not?” Coach tapered off until his lips moved without sound, still staring out the window into nothingness.
“So,” said Coach, snapping out of his reverie, “what do you think I should do?”
“I think you are the victim of misplaced priorities. You seem to be under the illusion that your importance as a man lies in the outcome of the stupid trivialities of a child’s game.”
“That’s it! You’ve summed me up—I’m a stupid triviality.” Coach was still looking out the window but lucidly now. Jesse continued to stare at Coach, pondering to himself.
“I think it is time for your lesson. I think it is time for this town’s lesson. Don’t you agree, Coach?”
“Yeah, teach us,” said Coach somewhat sarcastically, still looking out the window.
“As you wish.”
“I wish! I wish indeed, ol’ Jesse,” he said, still discouraged.
“I’m going to talk to the blacks.” Jesse walked out of the office.
Coach, realizing what Jesse had just said, followed him to the door and shouted, “What about?”
“Stupid trivialities, what else?” answered Jesse without looking back.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish