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HOMETOWN LEGEND. Copyright © 2001 by Jerry B. Jenkins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
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A hardcover edition of this book was published in 2001 by Warner Books.
First eBook Edition: November 2001
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Thanks to Bob Abramoff; James Anderson; Bev Bahr; Ron Booth; Rick Christian; Mary Haenlein; Shawn Hoffman; Dallas Jenkins; Tim MacDonald; Ken Meyer; Charles Musfeldt, M.D.; Michael J. Patwin Jr.; Leslie Peterson; and Rolf Zettersten.
Name's Cal Sawyer and I got a story starts about thirteen years ago when I was twenty-seven. Course, like most stories, it really starts a lot a years before that, but I choose to tell it from Friday, December 2, 1988, when I'm sitting with my kindergarten daughter Rachel in the stands of my old high school. We're watching the state football championship in Athens City, Alabama, almost as south as a town can be without being ocean.
Estelle, Rachel's ma and my wife, is in the hospital dying of the colon cancer. I'm hoping Rachel doesn't know while knowing that she does and wondering what in the world I'm gonna do when the time comes, if you know what I mean and I think that you do. Rachel's about to see something just as bad, and even one tragedy is an awful thing for somebody her age. But don't let me get ahead of myself.
By the time we were sitting there, I was already a broken-down ex–football player with a blowed-out knee who nobody remembered but me. Well, maybe not exactly nobody. I suppose some recollect that I played three years under Buster Schuler, the coach out there that night. I played on one of his state champ teams, made all-state, and even rode the bench for Bear Bryant at Alabama before tearing up my leg and coming back to marry Estelle Estes.
Yeah, that Estes. Her grandpaw Benton Estes founded the American Leather Football Company in Athens City. I came back hoping to assistant coach with Schuler, but when you marry into a factory family you work there and coach junior league football if you have time, which is what I did.
But I never missed watching a high school game. Not with Buster Schuler on the sidelines. He says I was the best he ever coached. I don't know if that's true or he just says it but I know he was the best I ever played for, including the Bear (but they might as well have been twins). Buster played at Bama years before I did, only he didn't get hurt and he did well and all he ever wanted to do after that was be just like Bryant.
This was one of those big rivalry games against Rock Hill from up the road. We'd beat em for the state championship at their place the year before and were fixing to do the same that night at home. Rachel had her little good luck plastic souvenir football that American Leather passes out to everybody who tours the place, and I had more hair than I've seen in the mirror since.
I love these games. The night air, the concrete stands, the rickety light poles, the ambulance that stands waiting but had been used only for the broke arm of a visiting player two years before, the band, the cheerleaders, the banners, the scoreboard with "Home of the Athens City Crusaders" underneath it in white on red.
Schuler wore his trademark fedora, sports coat, and tie. He was smooth-faced with dark, thinning hair and a black mustache, and this was his sixteenth season as head coach.
All around us sat moms wearing corsages and elementary school and junior high boys whose dream was to play for Buster Schuler and wear the crimson and white of Athens City High. Coach Schuler's wife was behind us too, but she always sat alone. I never saw Helena so much as clap, let alone cheer.
Now here's why sometimes I think Buster's only saying it when he says I was his best. Everybody knows he'd lived for the day he could coach his only son, Jack—his starting quarterback now for three straight years. Number 7 was a beautiful specimen of a football player, a tick under 6'4", about two hundred pounds, and faster than a wait to face the principal. He could also throw the ball through a wall, but course he hardly ever got the chance. The whole time every game, Buster would run the Bama wishbone offense—that's where the quarterback runs with the ball until he has nowhere to go and then pitches to one of his two trailing running backs and commences blocking for him.
Going into that game the Crusaders had lost only once each season with Jack at QB. Oh, the boy could run, and he was a leader, but everybody knew that if ever there was a kid who resented that ancient offense and challenged the old man's authority, it was Buster's own son.
And Daddy wasn't happy. Jack would behave himself for the first quarter or two, long enough for Athens City to roll up a big score. But there was no corraling that colt, and Buster would wind up slamming his hat to the ground, benching his own son, and stomping up and down the sidelines like he was losing instead of winning.
Next game Buster would start the backup quarterback, they'd struggle till Jack was out of the doghouse, he'd come in and get the big lead, start improvising, and get himself benched again.
Somehow it all worked anyway, but Buster would say, even in The Athens Courier, that his son was no example of how he expected his team to play. Jack had his full ride to Bama already sewed up and everybody knew that the Crusaders and Buster—frustrated or not—would ride to their championship on Jack's back.
So anyway, we were there and I was amazed as always at Rachel's attention span. I mean, I was a fan at her age, but by the fourth quarter I was usually playing my own football game behind the stands somewhere. She always hung in there though, asked questions, studied the scoreboard, and pretty much knew what was going on. She knew most of the players too.
Rachel even knew a little about the trouble between Coach Schuler and Jack, so when this game got down to eleven seconds to go and us trailing 28-24, third-and-ten on their 35, she looked up at me when Buster called his last time out.
A field goal wouldn't do it, and Rock Hill could smell that championship clear as the shrimpy salt air wafting up from the Gulf.
"We're gonna hafta throw the ball, aren't we, Daddy?" Five years old and she's strategizing.
I smiled at her. "Rachel, Coach Schuler'd sell his first-born child before he'd put that pigskin in the air." I honestly don't know why I said it that way, and don't think I haven't asked myself more than once in the years since. Jack was not just Buster's firstborn, he was his only-born. But I said it and there it was.
I was nervous as everybody else, and I could hear the crowd whispering the same thing Rachel was thinking. Surely Buster's got to let Jack throw that ball into the end zone. Nobody could keep Jack Schuler from throwing a TD in a do-or-die situation like this.
We were all standing, waiting, breathing only cause we had to. Coach Schuler was scribbling on his chalkboard and pointing at players. I could see from big Jack's cocked head, towering over the others, that he was upset.
The rest of the team shouted "Crusaders!" and hurried onto the field, but Jack stood there shaking his head as he jammed on his helmet. Coach Schuler spun and saw his son slowly getting ready to head back out, and it was clear he didn't like what he saw. He grabbed the boy's facemask and pulled him close. I'd been there enough times to know what he was saying. "I don't want any fool heroics. This team needs you now. You're gonna go out and block like a Buick!"
I looked for Jack to give his dad some eye contact and show he was getting with the program. Right or wrong, you do what the coach tells you and you do it with all that's in you. But Jack just pulled away. Coach Schuler smacked him on the seat and shoved him onto the field with both hands.
I shoulda known what the boy was gonna do when a couple of the players looked to the sideline as if what they'd just heard from Jack in the huddle didn't jibe with what the coach had said. When Jack stepped up over the center, he sneaked a peek toward his dad, who was locked on him like he was willing him to stay with the plan.
The ref cues the clock and Jack takes the snap. As the play unfolds I see immediately it's the wishbone again, Jack leading the way. He's supposed to find a hole to run through or pitch to a back and block, as his father always told us, like a Buick.
Jack runs to his right, then drops back like he's gonna throw. Coach Schuler slams his hat to the ground as Jack spins right and comes all the way back to the near side of the field, eluding tacklers, not to mention his own running backs. He fakes a pass then races upfield, switching the ball from right hand to left and stiff-arming Raiders as he turns toward the end zone. Rachel's toy football digs into my shoulder as she pulls herself up and stands on the seat next to me.
The clock has run out and the noise is deafening and I'm shouting "Go! Go! Go!" as Jack reaches the 10 and then the 5, where two Raiders catch him from opposite sides. One hits him high, the other low, cartwheeling him into the air.
We all fell silent, wondering whether he'd hang onto the ball and if his momentum would carry him into the end zone.
But Jack dropped straight onto the top of his head, his full weight on his neck. In that eerie silence, I swear I heard the snap of his spinal cord from fifty yards away. Jack flopped onto his back like a Raggedy Andy, the ball slowly rolling free, and I knew. I knew from the silence of the new state champions and their fans on the other side of the field. I knew from the body language of Coach Schuler.
I turned to lift Rachel down and hid her head in my chest. The crowd started to murmur and Coach called out, "Jack?" his voice pitiful.
I glanced over my shoulder to where Mrs. Schuler stood alone, staring, her hands clasped before her mouth.
As the teams gathered around the still boy and para-medics slid a stretcher from the ambulance and waited for their cue, Coach Schuler ran out from the sideline. Players on both teams made way as he brushed a ref aside and fell to his knees before the boy.
The crowd went silent again, staring, as the coach wailed, "Son?" He unfastened the boy's chinstrap. "Come on! Jack?"
He felt the boy's neck, then looked desperately at the stunned players. Shoulders slumping, he scolded his son, as if by challenging him he could force him to rise and defend himself. "Why didn't you do what I said?" he cried out, begging with his hands, his voice echoing. "Why didn't you do what I told you to do?"
He finally broke down, laying his cheek on his son's chest. His sobs made us turn our eyes away.
Rachel, still clutching her tiny football, tried to peek through my hands. "Is Jack going to be all right, Daddy?"
I was grateful for the crowd between us and the field, but I had never lied to her. "I don't know, sweetheart," I said. "It doesn't look good."
"Is he going to die?"
"I sure hope not."
The coach's wife marched down the steps past us, ignoring comments and reaching hands. "Miz Schuler!" I called after her. "Helena, wait!"
But she headed for the parking lot. I pulled Rachel along and trotted up to the woman. "Helena, let me—"
She turned on me, her eyes dark and narrow. "I've been a football widow for twenty years. And now, and now— unless you can change this, Mr. Sawyer, no, there's nothing I'll let you do."
She rushed to their light blue Mustang convertible, slid in, and slammed the door. As the car raced off into the night, Rachel stared up at me. "She thinks Jack's dead, doesn't she?"
I pursed my lips and shook my head, but Rachel was right. And so was Helena Schuler.
The boy woke shivering at dawn in the loft of his parents' ramshackle house in Kankakee Banks, Indiana. So he had slept! Last time he'd checked, it was just after four in the morning, and he knew Santa would not come as long as he was awake.
Now he crept to the landing at the top of the stairs, his tiny feet making the floor creak. He leaned over the banister far enough to see that the tree, which had stood bare in the living room for two days, had magically been trimmed.
At the bottom of the stairs he tiptoed toward the blinking lights, the strung popcorn, the shiny balls, the star up top. He had asked Santa for only one thing, and while nothing under the tree appeared the proper shape, he believed it was there. He could smell it even over the scent of the pine.
The boy moved to his parents' bedroom, a chamber so small they hung their clothes in a hall closet. The door wouldn't open all the way without hitting the bed, and he had been warned to never let that happen unless the house was afire.
He carefully pushed the door, and the light roused his father. "What'sa matter, El?" he said, his voice thick.
"Nothing, Daddy. Just Christmas morning, that's all."
His mother groaned while his father slowly sat up. "Be right with you, son. Get the Bible." Elvis not only got the Bible, but he also found Luke 2, though he could barely read. The boy had memorized the books of the Bible, and he could almost recite this story by heart. There would be no presents until they heard the real story of Christmas.
He sat staring at the package, the couch cushion scratching the backs of his legs, his feet bouncing inches from the floor. "Get some clothes on, honey," his mother said, squinting, enfolded in her long robe. "It'll only take a second."
The boy bounded back upstairs and pulled on a sweatshirt, jeans, and yesterday's socks. Back downstairs his dad ran his hands through his hair and asked if he couldn't have a cup of coffee before they started.
"No!" the boy said, knowing his dad was kidding. "Come on, now! Read and let's go!"
Elvis knew Jesus was way more important than Santa, and he had learned not to complain about how long it took to get to the presents. His gifts to his parents were crafts fashioned at school, but George and Eloise Jackson acted like they'd never seen anything so special. "A hanger painted gold," his mother said. "I'll use it for my winter coat."
"Paint wouldn't stay on till we scratched the hangers," Elvis said.
He gave his dad a lanyard, perfect except for two twisted loops. George hung it around his neck immediately and said he would look for his whistle later.
They made the boy save the biggest box till last, and the longer it took to get to it, the more he worried he might be wrong. Unless he was imagining it, the smell was stronger than ever. But would what he wanted come in a square box? Was Santa trying to throw him off? Surely he hadn't misunderstood and thought the boy asked for a basketball.
Finally he sat with the package on his lap and attacked ribbon and paper. "Who's it from, first?" his dad scolded, and Elvis searched through the scraps to see.
"Santa!" he said, and kept digging. The corrugated cardboard box had a drawing of an electric space heater on it, just like the one his mother used in the cellar. But there was no mistaking the smell of genuine leather. Finally he turned the box upside down and shook it until a smaller box tumbled out of the stuffing, brushed his knee, and hit the floor. This was no toy. It was a football, the real thing.
Elvis leaped and whooped and hugged his parents, smiling so big he could barely see. His dad helped him remove the cardboard casing. "Let me toss it to you," George said.
"Not in the house," his mother said, so his dad under-handed the ball to Elvis from a few feet away. The boy gathered it in as he dove onto the couch.
He lay on his stomach and turned the ball so he could read the imprint. "What's it say, Dad?"
"Let me see," his dad said, but the boy only tilted it toward him. He wasn't going to let go of it for a long time, maybe ever.
George Jackson stood over Elvis and read, "American Leather, Athens City, Alabama." He started to read the fine print, but the boy had heard enough.
"That's where Santa got it?" he said. "That's where they make them?"
"Looks like it."
The boy kept the ball with him all the time. It rested in his lap at the dinner table. He slept with it. And until he took it to school in January, he and his dad played catch in the snow every day until their fingers were numb.
My daughter Rachel says she knew when her mom died because I knocked on her bedroom door and nobody ever did that. I was stalling for time and for God to give me something to say. Time ran out and I'm still waiting for how to say it. Fact is, Estelle's mother called from her shift at the hospital—we traded off—and told me to bring Rachel. "She's gone then?" I said, barely able to speak. The cancer had won after all.
Rachel made it easy for me. She opened the door and hugged my neck so tight I had to ease her back so I could breathe.
That had happened only a couple of months after Jack Schuler's funeral, which his own mother didn't come to. Story was that the only way Buster could even hope to hang onto his marriage was to follow Helena back to her people in Kansas City, Missouri, and even then he was never able to keep her sober. He taught some school back there but never did any more coaching. Even though he wasn't an old man I guess he just put in his time teaching and fished every chance he got. People say Helena was in and out of the hospital for alcoholism but that was none of my business and it isn't like Buster and I were ever friends enough that he'd report that kinda stuff to me. When you play high school ball for a guy you don't become his pal. Least that's what I always thought until last fall.
I had an idea how Coach must've thrown himself into saving his marriage, cause I didn't know what else to do myself but keep working and make sure I was always there for Rachel. I didn't know Estelle had left me the football factory until I had to know it and I'm sure if she knew the grief it brought me she never woulda done it. But in a way it was good because with me being in charge I set my own hours. Her people never forgave me for her giving me the business, which I could never figure out. I woulda given it to them cept it was clear she knew what she wanted to do by the way she worded it, and there was no way I was going to go against the wishes of a dead woman even if she wasn't my wife and I didn't love her with all my heart, which she was and I did.
That caused more than tension, as you can imagine, so I was pretty much left without help raising my daughter, which turned out to be a good thing, in a way. Sure, I would've liked to have a woman in the house for Rachel's sake. Not for mine, cause even though I was still pretty young I couldn't imagine ever actually loving anybody but Estelle—at least up to recent—but I had to be both mother and dad to Rachel. Turns out that was good for both of us—well, I shouldn't speak for her—but basically I just did what I had to do because I had no choice. I got to be best friends with Rachel rather than just her daddy.
Since I was a young man I'd done every job at the factory from shipping and receiving to cutting cowhide to sewing and turning and lacing and even molding and inflating, stamping and painting. So except for in-law relations who resented me, everybody there knew I knew how to make a football and make the place work. They also knew I wasn't gonna be there till Rachel was off to school each day and that I would be going home in time to be there when she got back. I never woulda seen myself as a briefcase-toting kind of guy, but I learned to lug a slew of papers with me so when she was in bed I could keep the business of the place going and not have to get a baby-sitter.
In the summertime when she was a kid, Rachel came to work with me every day and played with other kids who came with their parents. I got some kind of award from the state for childcare innovation, but the truth is I couldn't see doing something I wouldn't let other workers do, so I let em bring their kids and made sure they were taken care of. Now if I just coulda kept my assistant Bev from wanting to spend more time around those kids than in my office … What can I say? You can't change a person's basic bent.
American Leather is one of those small-town factories that's pretty simple and straightforward. We got one product that takes a lot a people to produce. It starts out as a pallet of stacked cowhides cut so clean off the animals that they look like they could be put back on like snug jackets. Our supplier in Chicago does the dirty work, cutting each hide in as big a single piece as they can, dyeing em and putting the dimpling on em, even embedding that tackiness that will make the ball easier to grip.
I'll never forget the first summer I worked there and learned what "top grain" meant. I'd always thought it described the outer layer of the hide, but it's simpler than that. The top grain is the top of the cow, the part that has the fewest blemishes (which we in the biz call "blems"), cause the side of the animal gets the most barbed wire nicks and parasite holes. Your best footballs come from top grain.
Cutting machines use a pattern in the shape of a quarter of a football and chop as many of those out of every hide as possible. Course, the more experienced the cutter, the more sets of four pieces (number-stamped and kept together through the whole process) we get out of each hide. When all that's left of the hide are the tiny spaces between the cutouts, a smaller pattern gets us the little pieces that make keyrings and such.
Those four quarter pieces are sewed together inside out with hundred-year-old sewing machines, then the balls are turned inside out to put the stitches on the inside. The guys who do that turning—man, they're the stars. I mean, everybody has his place in the process, but a man who can turn hundreds of balls a day is a wonder of nature. (Our top guy, Lee Forest, when he was young and in shape and cooking, once turned a hundred balls an hour for eight hours straight. Bet he slept that night.)
Course after that there's inserting the bladder, lacing, inflating and shaping, stamping logos, and painting stripes. Like I say, it's all we do, but there's a lot a steps and a lot a people involved. I love the simplicity of it. You can do it cheap and careless or you can use the best materials and hire people who work with pride. Hiring's my favorite part. Laying off people is the worst, and I've done enough of that the last few years to last a lifetime.
Doing what I had to do made me grow up quick. Though I was an age when I ought to have been grown up anyway, being a single father made me serious-minded overnight. I'd always been a churchgoer, a Christian since I was a little boy, and Estelle had really showed me what faith was—right up until the day she died. But I couldn't see ever being as devout as she was until I was sort of forced into it by being sadder and lonelier than a transferred fourth grader. All of a sudden God and church and other believers went from being something I sorta liked because I was comfortable there to being my very source of life. I needed Jesus for more than my eternal salvation then, and before you knew it I was praying more, reading my Bible more, singing like I meant it because I did, and dragging Rachel to church every time the door was open.
That was nothing but natural to her, because I was now the way her mom had been and Rachel had never known different. I had gone along before and been happy to do it, but I didn't know I would do it without living with Estelle's example until I realized I was at the end of myself without it.
Rachel, bless her heart, was just like her mama. She believed with everything in her that Estelle was in heaven and that someday we'd see her again. I wasn't intellectual enough to be a doubter, but it sure was comforting to know that the more of God I realized I needed, the more of Him I learned to know.
That's not to say that either Rachel or I were perfect saints or that we didn't have our all-night crying sessions. The best thing my pastor ever told me was that the Bible said we weren't supposed to grieve like the heathens do— without hope, that is—but we are to grieve and grieve with all our might. We did that all right and sometimes we still do, all these years later. But Rachel and me sorta grew up together. She's my whole life, and she knows it. And, oh, how she's grown to look like her mama, dark-haired and dark-eyed with perfect skin and a thin little voice. She's passionate about what she believes in whether it has to do with God or with saving her school or our town or the factory.
- On Sale
- Aug 1, 2002
- Page Count
- 320 pages