I should be able to relive it in my imagination, to recount what it was like to be on the field the day Central won their first state championship. Unfortunately, all I can relive is watching The Game.
Pride definitely goeth before a fall, and I fell hard. I didn’t scrape my knee or bruise my elbow, but my ego sure enough got sacked.
Just the year before, I’d led my team onto the field every Friday night as the starting quarterback for the Central High Lions. (My record 32 touchdown passes from that season still stands.) I reigned as Sophomore Class King with my Queen (on and off the field), Alissa Avery. I had it made. I was invincible.
Or so I thought.
It seems Coach doesn’t play favorites, even with his star -- his prodigy player. Even when school’s not in session.
When the rarely-used back door of the school opened that afternoon, and Coach witnessed that cigarette falling behind me to the ground and smoke escaping my mouth, I swear tears came to his eyes.
I covered the butt with my heel. “Coach...” I strangled on the word, on smoke still caught in my throat, on fear.
“My office. Now.” The heavy grey door banged shut behind him, leaving a gust of rage in its wake.
I loathed what was surely to come next.
“The first four weeks? You want me to miss all of pre-season practice?” My careening spirits were sideswiped by a surge of hope. I’d still be starting opening night.
“Oh, no. You won’t miss one day of practice, pre-season or regular. In fact, you’ll be attending an extra, one-on-one, tutoring session every day.” Coach took his feet off his desk and looked me dead in the eye.
“You’re benched for the first four games.”
My surging hope turned to a flood of anger. “You’re kidding.”
“I kid you not. You know the rules. No cigs, no sauce, no sex. No exceptions.”
“But it’s summer, and I was just…”
“You were on school property. End of argument.” He leaned back in his chair, and rubbed the side of his face. “Sorry, Jackson, but you brought this on yourself. I’ll see you next month at practice.”
I got to my feet and stuck out my chest. “No, you won’t. You think you can play without me? Then let’s see how you play without me all year. I quit.” I stared him down, daring him to call my bluff.
At least I thought I was bluffing.
Coach stood and offered his hand. “Sorry you feel that way, Jackson. I had hopes of the scouts getting an early look at you this season, maybe already having you staked out for your senior year.”
I wanted to take it back. I wanted to cry out, ‘I didn’t mean it!’ But pride silenced my heart and held my tongue captive. I shook Coach’s hand and, through gritted teeth, said goodbye. My stubborn pride then turned me on my heel and walked me out of his office.
That’s how I ended up cheering from the bleachers instead of celebrating on the 50-yard line the night of The Game. Like many of the macho players dancing on the field, I shed a few tears, but mine were tears of sorrow over yesterdays that would never be.
Central High’s new quarterback, a senior transfer from Middlebrook, didn’t touch my passing record, but he did lead the Lions to an undefeated season and the Two-A State Championship, The Game of which I was only an observer, one fan among hundreds.
So I sit here now, in the lingering emotional aftermath of The Victory, holding my wounded heart in my hands. I tear my eyes away from its weeping redness and look up at Coach. “So, I was hoping you’d let me .. if I could ... come to practice next season. Maybe start over.” The lump I swallow is surely my pride, on its way to being digested and purged.
"If I let you come back, it’s the same deal. Double practices, and you spend the first four games on the sidelines.”
The lump churned in my gut, threatening to come back up. Before Pride could make an encore, I said, “Ok, deal. You know, I’ve been watching that sophomore second stringer, Willis. He should get the team off to a good start. Then I can take us the rest of the way to our second state championship.”
Author's Note: The line ”Pride definitely goeth before a fall” was inspired by Proverbs 16:18 – “Pride [goeth] before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall." (KJV), and is misquoted herein for effect.”
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