Hello everyone! As part of Short Story Saturday, I have posted another short story, this one entitled Holding onto a Memory. Please enjoy.
Contrary to what my wife believed, it wasn’t because I blamed myself for the loss. I’m not surprised that’s what she believed. Whenever the topic was brought up, I’d hastily change topics and refused to speak of the matter any further. It was the only logical conclusion she could have reached.
Fear of public speaking also wasn’t the reason why my nerves were shot that night. I admit that I’m not particularly good at speaking in front of others. True, I was never fond of it. Sometimes I get uncomfortable standing in front of others playing Pictionary with some friends. So true, even though the guests were primarily former players of Coach Sloan including some old teammates and friends, I wasn’t comfortable with the prospect of making a speech.
However, that is not why I felt distressed that night. I was more concerned with the inevitability of a certain topic being introduced than anything else.
My wife tried in vain to get me to stop drinking that night. I don’t consider myself a heavy drinker but that night I certainly had more than my fair share. When former teammate and old friend Ty Adams went to the podium to make the penultimate speech of the night in honor of Malachi Sloan, I was already highballing my fifth bottle of beer to the chagrin of the people sitting with us, other former players of Coach Sloan and their wives.
I’ve known Coach Sloan my entire life, though I feel odd calling him coach. I feel much more comfortable calling him grandfather. It makes sense. After all, he is my mother’s father.
You’d probably assume that someone who had a football coach for a grandfather would be a magnificent player but I was mediocre at best. He developed my skills as best he could from grade school on but I lacked the physical capability to truly great. I didn’t lack heart, though unlike what movies show, most players aren’t lacking in heart and even then, heart only goes so far.
In spite of my lack of ability, my grandfather was always proud because of the way I played. He emphasized effort and fair play above all else and hated to see the game be played “the wrong way” which he meant with a flagrant disregard of the rules. Giving the best effort possible while adhering to the rules was my modus operandi though that wasn’t always the case.
In third grade, during a Pop Warner football game, I tripped a player as he tried to run past me. When the ball carrier screamed at the referee demanding a penalty I denied doing anything wrong.
The referee apparently was looking the other way and didn’t see what had happened. When he asked, I told the referee I made a clean tackle and he believed me.
His teammates didn’t notice what I had done. Neither did any of his coaches. My team didn’t notice either. Nobody besides myself and the ball carrier knew what had transpired. Nobody, that is, but Grandpa.
I remember looking towards the sidelines quite proud of myself until I met his eyes. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. His eyes displayed sadness and disappointment that communicated more than spoken word.
Grandfather didn’t talk to me at all that week. I knew why so I wanted to show my grandfather during the next game I played that I had learned my lesson and wouldn’t cheat anymore. I had the opportunity in the middle of the second quarter.
On a long pass play, I accidentally, and this time I really do mean accidentally, pushed the receiver to the ground. I didn’t mean to do it but it was still a foul.
The referee missed it and failed to throw a flag. When I noticed this, I turned around and started arguing that I should have been called for pass interference. I refused to relent. I argued so vehemently and ceaselessly that my coach had to remove me from the game. The entire time my grandfather was guffawing uproariously on the sidelines. He understood what was going on and appreciated the effort.
After the game, he pulled me aside and told me that all was forgiven and then some. He believed I wouldn’t cheat again. He admitted that he should have talked about it with me rather than letting me stew for a week and for that he apologized. My grandfather also told me that while playing the game correctly is a virtue, I didn’t need to go as far as tattling on myself.
The beginning of Ty’s speech wakes me from my reminisces of a bygone day. “Fairness and impartiality is something to be admired. Coach had that in spades.”
Ty and I were part of a freshman class that included three corners, him, me, and Mike Johnson. The three of us got to a rocky start because both of them assumed that I would be getting special treatment with my grandfather as coach. They were wrong.
Grandpa wasn’t one to give his children or grandchildren preferential treatment when it came to matters such as earning a spot on the team. As awkward as it would have been, he would have been willing to cut me if I wasn’t good enough to make the team.
Fortunately, I had some talent so it was easy to justify my spot on the squad. However, I wasn’t good enough to start, not with Mike and Ty being superior players. I’d be involved in certain plays but for the most part, I wasn’t a true starting player.
My teammates teased me about it at first, ribbing me for not being a starter on my own grandfather’s team, but I took the banter with such good humor that I earned the respect of my teammates especially Mike and Ty. The three of us became good friends.
Our team, the Evergreen High School Trout, were the epitome of mediocre. Mike Johnson and Ty Adams were defensive marvels but the rest of the team failed to live up to their talent. We typically lost more games than we won but it was never by much.
For most of my four years, I played sparingly, spending most of the time with my grandfather and other members of his coaching staff trying to learn as much as I could about the sport. I figured what I lacked in physical prowess could be made up with preparation and intellect.
The experience was enjoyable and not just because I was spending time with my grandfather. Learning the intricacies of the sport proved to be a fulfilling experience. At some point, I actually thought about coaching after I graduated.
We had our best season during my senior year though it didn’t start out well. Our season began with an 0-3 record with the third game being a 40 point loss to defending state champion Eastside High, a team that hadn’t lost a game in three years. Even though we were on the receiving end of a large blowout, we didn’t leave the game embarrassed. We were infuriated. Not necessarily because we lost by a large amount. The manner in which we lost made us outraged.
Eastside outmatched us in almost every single way. In spite of that, they still utilized a few, to be diplomatic, questionable tactics to ensure their victory. Illegal chop blocks, failing to set before the snap, and perhaps most egregiously, receivers pushing off, name the violation and they did it and for the most part, got away with it.
Eight of their players would wind up making all-state. Both receivers would actually become second team all-Americans including future NFL rookie of the year Allen Brown and his cohort Don Green. They were playing a team that put together three consecutive losing seasons. They could have beat us cleanly. There was no reason for them to cheat. They did it anyway.
My grandfather after the game was livid. When he met the opposing coach in the middle of the field, instead of performing the traditional handshake he shouted, “Is that how you want to teach your kids to play? To break the rules?”
To which the opposing coach said, “Let it go, old man. It ain’t a penalty if they don’t call it.” Our normally calm and collected coach was incensed. We weren’t used to seeing him this way. He was the most level headed person we knew.
We recognized that there were a couple of layers to his fury. One was he wanted to protect us from malicious play. His players were on the receiving end of these dirty plays and he wanted to make sure the opposing coach knew we didn’t appreciate it.
Second, the entire game seemed like a proverbial spit in the face to his philosophy. Their dishonest play was contrary to everything my grandfather believed in.
Eastside was the best in the state and at the very least loved to bend the rules. We barely could get to .500. Did that mean that his way ultimately wouldn’t work?
We couldn’t allow that thought to even seep into our coach’s mind. For the rest of the season, we were inspired. The team believed that we had to show our leader that his way could work.
“Coach Sloan’s got our back” and “Coach Sloan does it right” became our rallying cries. We wanted to win for him almost more than for ourselves. Perhaps it was due to the relatively weak schedule and a few fortunate breaks or perhaps because we were more focused than ever before. Regardless, we were able to win six straight and continue that momentum through the playoffs until we reached the championship game.
The team we were slated to play? Eastside High, of course. Who else could have it been?
Ty continued his speech from the podium. “Prior to that run, our school had never even won a single playoff game yet here we were in the championship against our hated rivals, Eastside High.” As he said this, bad memories cropped up in the hazy recesses of my mind.
During our first practice in the two weeks leading to the championship game, Mike Johnson slipped during a drill and landed hard and awkwardly on his arm. From the anguished scream, it was immediately clear he had injured himself severely. My grandfather looked deathly ill when he helped him off the field.
The practice was canceled. None of us could concentrate especially not Grandpa. He spent much of the day and most of the night worrying about him.
When the doctors called and told him that it was only a broken arm and there was no permanent damage, he was thrilled. It was a huge relief. Though the news meant that our team would be down a starting cornerback, that was a secondary concern to my grandfather. The man just wanted to make sure his player was okay.
Mike’s absence though did mean there would be a huge hole in the secondary mostly because I would have to start in his place.
That was a herculean task on that I wasn’t sure I could live up to. Internally I felt a lot of pressure but externally my grandfather assured me there was nothing to worry about. All he asked was for me to play to the best of my ability.
Regardless, I spent every night studying film to try and gain any advantage I could. I’d have to cover Don Green. He may not have been quite as talented as Allen Brown who was Ty’s man, Green was still faster, stronger, and more talented than me. I’d have some help in the secondary but our defensive scheme was based around man coverage and there was no time to change the game plan. I had to find a way to rise to the challenge.
“When Mike went down, I admit, some of us thought it was hopeless,” Ty said as he continued his speech. Though my wife tried to take it away from me, I was already downing my sixth beer as the man on stage was about to tell the tale of our championship game.
My grandfather talked to me before the night before the game. He told me that whether we won or lost the championship game, he would be happy and that he was proud of us all, especially me. After years of at or around .500, getting a title shot was something of a minor miracle.
Guys like Eastside coach just don’t get it, he said. They get to a championship so often they become complacent and take it for granted. Not like him. All the times he’s struggled made a moment like that even better. Instead of the championship being something routine, it’s become something special.
He told me he’s getting old and this might be the only time he makes it to the championship but that was enough for him. Becoming a champion was unnecessary.
I spent the rest of the night cramming, studying the best corners of all time seeing what they did to neutralize their opponent’s top receivers. Winners of the last three of four and seven of the last time, I believed that Eastside had plenty of championships. It was our turn.
They didn’t deserve it. Eastside always bent the rules to their favor, whether on the field or off. The team had so much talent that it wasn’t necessary but they opted to do it anyway. It wasn’t fair that a man who prided himself in doing things the right way, preaching this in a time where such an attitude is considered passé, should never win it all.
There was also a matter of personal pride. Mike was a better player than me, no question, but I didn’t like the idea that everyone considered the game lost just because I was starting in his place. For four years I worked at least as hard as anyone else on the team. I wanted to be a champion. If that meant I had to find a way to neutralize Don Green, the third best receiver in the state, so be it. And after watching some old Seattle Seahawk footage, I discovered a way.
“And if it weren’t for a horrifically bad call, we would have been champions.” It was the part of the story I dreaded to hear.
By some miracle, we were up 17-13 with only four seconds left on the clock. To say the defense played better than could be rightfully anticipated would be like saying the Caspian Sea was a small puddle.
My body ached. I wasn’t used to the rigors of playing an entire game. The concrete turf of the Tacoma Dome, where all championship games were held in the state of Washington, did nothing to alleviate my pain. If it weren’t for adrenaline and excitement, I would have collapsed on the ground.
I myself was playing exceedingly well. Using tactics I learned from studying film, I managed to hold Brown to only one catch for only ten yards while keeping up with him step for step most of the game in spite of his speed and strength advantage. Richard Sherman, my favorite player at the time and the reason why I chose 25 as my number, would have proud. To be part of a defensive unit that had only given up to that moment 13 points to a team that averaged over 35 was definitely something special.
Eastside still had time for one more play, though, and they were only twenty yards away from scoring the winning touchdown.
The final play commenced. The Eastside quarterback dropped back and heaved the ball in my direction. A beautiful spiral floats towards Green. I kept up with him but he managed to separate from me slightly at the last second. He was about to make the catch and win the game. In desperation, I extended my hand and dove.
The ball hit my hand and fell harmlessly to the ground. The game was over. We had won!
Or so we thought.
Our jubilant celebration was interrupted by the voice of a referee which echoed throughout the stadium via his microphone. “Holding. Number 25, defense. That’s a ten yard penalty, first down Eastside. There will be at least one more play. We will run an untimed down.” A penalty on me took our victory away. They were granted one more chance.
I pleaded with the referee, explaining as calmly as I could, which is to say, in an overly dramatic, profane and exasperated manner, that I did not hold and his call was, shall we say, erroneous?
My grandfather came to my immediate defense and shouted at him, though admittedly with significantly less cursing, that I was the most honest man he knew and if I said I didn’t hold, then I didn’t hold. Ty also joined to state my case as well and the rest of the team joined the chorus shortly after. Our arguments fell on deaf ears.
Forced to go out there one more time, we were completely demoralized. Eastside, on the other hand, gained something of a second wind. Moments ago they believed their undefeated streak was over. They were granted new life. Momentum was clearly on their side.
A quick slant to Brown along with an excellent throw was all they needed to score the game winning touchdown. Final score was 19-17. We had lost a veritable heartbreaker.
As Eastside celebrated, coaches from both sides met at midfield. I remember overhearing the Eastside coach congratulating my grandfather telling him he coached a brilliant game, and that it was a shame the game had to be decided like that. He then apologized for calling him an old man in their previous encounter.
In response, my grandfather laughed, told him this time he had no qualms about the way Eastside played this time around and explained the old man comment didn’t bother him, he was old. He had no animosity towards him anymore. The referees on the other hand…
Unlike my grandfather, I was practically inconsolable. My teammates did their best to cheer me up but I refused to listen. I told them I sold my soul for this game and it didn’t pay off.
Everyone told me they understood. They recognized I worked and studied diligently before the game. They knew how much it meant to me.
Our ride home was one of the most somber trips I’ve ever experienced. I’d wager that have been livelier funeral processions.
The coaching staff along with my grandfather made several attempts to lift our spirits. They praised our efforts and expressed how proud they were for us to even reach the title game and that in their hearts we were the real champions. They told us we shouldn’t let a bad call dampen what was an excellent season. Bless them for trying, it didn’t work.
Nothing worked. Not the praise from my parents. Not the show of support from my classmates. Not even my wife Evelyn, who was my girlfriend at the time, could console me. It hung over us like a pall for the rest of the school year.
“We were robbed and that the game was an injustice. Coach, the reason I brought all of that up is I know technically you’ve never won a championship but you deserved that one. As far as I’m concerned, we won that game. Even if you’ve never hoisted the trophy, you’ll always be a champion in our hearts.” Ty’s closing statement was met with a standing ovation.
I gave up any idea of coaching after the game. I couldn’t even stand the sight of football. I went to the University of Washington about sixty miles south of Evergreen to study software engineering, the nerdiest major he could think of, to try and avoid the sport as much as possible. I must admit that I discovered quite unfortunately that stereotypes are very rarely true.
Shortly after I earned my degree, I married my high school sweetheart. We moved to Seattle after I found a job in the city and the two of us have lived there ever since.
I kept up with my grandfather, calling him on the phone to catch up on matters rather regularly, even visiting him relatively often. Every now and again, he tried to bring up the game but I managed to deftly avoid and change the topic whenever it was mentioned.
The two of us managed to bond over other things, though, so it wasn’t so bad, though I knew one day I had to confront it. I wanted to delay the inevitable as much as possible.
When my grandfather decided to retire I knew I could avoid it no longer. It was time to confront my fears, albeit very reluctantly. I had to attend, though. There was nothing on earth that could have kept me away even with all of my apprehension.
The school hosted the ceremony. My grandfather invited some of his favorite players over the years including my two friends, Mike and Ty, though Mike regretfully couldn’t make it. Ty and I were amongst those chosen to give speeches on his behalf. Being his grandson, I was chosen to give the closing speech.
“Now here’s the man of the hour. A man Coach Sloan is certainly very familiar with. A man I haven’t seen for, God, five years already? I still consider him one of the best friends I’ve ever had. Give it up for his grandson, Adam Sloan!”
My wife kissed me and wished me luck. I rose from my table and walked up to the podium to the sound of a room full of applause, completely underserved. My palms were clammy and I started to sweat.
“I had a speech written but I think I’d rather speak from the heart tonight. There’s something I have to say. Coach, you are a champion and always will be one to me and every single player who had the honor of player of playing for you over the years.” Another round of applause reverberated in the room. I waved my hands requesting silence from the crowd. They obliged.
“However, the referees didn’t take your trophy away. They didn’t take the game away from us.” I heard an audible gasp followed by a perplexed murmur from my peers.
“There’s something I must confess.” I paused to wipe sweat off my brow. “Coach, I was completely outmatched that day. You were on the opposite side of the field so you didn’t notice. I didn’t just hold Brown on that play. I held him on every play. That was just the only time they caught me.”
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