Stop the Oops!
Whooo—uhhh---wheeet! The shrill blast of the coach’s whistle halted football practice. “Showers!” he yelled.
It was none too soon. The broiling Texas sun and high humidity had turned my brain to mush. I was limp as a cooked frog. Heat exhaustion was moments away for most of us.
Trudging toward the locker room, some were trying halfheartedly to pull a jersey tail from their pants to let fresh air underneath and steam escape. Most just held a bunch of sweat-soaked cloth in one hand and after a few tugs gave up and kept stumbling towards indoor shade.
A trainer had paper cups full of ice beside the door. Grabbing one, I munched a mouthful of life-saving relief and found a wooden bench to collapse upon. Teammates sprawled everywhere, utterly exhausted. Elbows on knees, head down looking at my grass-stained cleats but not seeing them, the energy to shuck my uniform was hiding somewhere. Inhaling deeply, I tried to regain my life.
It was at that moment one of the assistant football coaches came inside. He was tall with wide, powerful shoulders, a narrow waist and skinny hips. Curly golden hair crowded out from beneath the pith helmet he wore. He reminded me of a lion. He was new to our school and would be the varsity basketball coach.
Passing by he grabbed my cup, vacuumed a mouthful of ice and walked away.
“You’re nothing but an animal!” I exclaimed. Oops! Desperately wanting my ice back, I had spoken without thinking.
The hooting laughter of the players sparked anger in the coach’s eyes. Scowling, he stalked away with my ice.
Thereafter he was called “Animal”, mostly behind his back. He hated the nickname. He blamed me for it.
When tryouts for the basketball team were announced, the coach refused to let me attend.
“I want to play” I told him. “I’m better than some you are letting practice.”
“You will never play for me” he said. And, he was right.
To be near the games, I worked in the concession stand. I couldn’t see everything but looking through the window of the gym door, the action under one basket could be watched. And, there were other benefits – I was the only boy working. When the game ended I delivered the concession money to the coach. Girls weren’t allowed in the locker room. I did it so we could leave quicker. No conversation transpired, I just handed him the collection.
The night we played our arch rival the gym was packed to capacity. It was a brutal game with frequent lead changes. Questionable officiating elevated emotions milky-way high. Tempers were past the boiling point and primed to explode. Police officers circulated, trying to control the standing room only crowd with their presence. After we won with a disputed basket at the buzzer, most of the mob did not leave.
After closing the concession stand and counting the money, I elbowed my way through the mass of people. A small, thin-haired male teacher stood in front of the locker room door with his arms crossed, barring entrance.
“I need to give the money to the coach” I said showing him the zippered money bag.
He didn’t move. “You can’t go in there.”
“I do it every game. I’m supposed to give him the money.”
He freaked out, shoving me backward, and then came at me again. His eyes were wild and glazing over. Stumbling back, the crowd halted my retreat. He lunged, grabbing for my throat. Instinctively, I raised the bag full of rolled coins and swatted him on the head. Oops!
He crumpled unconscious like a sack of Idaho potatoes falling off a tailgate. The mother of our rival’s star player stared wide eyed. Eyeball pairs parted like the Red Sea as I turned and walked between them out of the gym.
Taking the money, confused, in deep doo-doo for sure, I went to the Dairy Queen. Classmates trickled into my refuge. Without fail, I would be expelled from school. Everyone said so.
When the principal slid into the booth across from me, any hope I had of graduating vanished. I had never seen him in the DQ. He heard my story, took the money and left. Nothing else was ever said. I can only assume the player’s mother, or someone, had spoken on my behalf.
At year end, the principal autographed his photo in my school annual: “To John…” Oops!
My name’s not John.
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