A Player and A Coach

A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be. — Tom Landry, NFL Hall of Fame Coach, Dallas Cowboys from 1960–1988.

Crossing the goal line after his seventh consecutive 50-yard wind sprint, the Player dropped to a knee and puked through his face mask. It wasn’t going to be more than a few seconds before Coach would yell for him to get back on his feet, followed by another whistle to force the next sprint. Panic rose along with the fluid from his gut. Because no matter how badly the Player had refused to quit, his body was done.

He had landed in the doghouse, this the last practice of his senior season and before the biggest game of the year, no less. The indignity of the wind sprints was a fitting end to an inglorious senior year. The Player had gotten spot duty under center last season, enough to wet his appetite for more playing time. And knowing the depth chart would clear out ahead of him, he worked his ass off over the summer, gained weight and buried himself in agility drills. He spent every minute of that summer getting himself ready.

One thing the Player wasn’t ready for, come the first day of practice, was to see an unfamiliar transfer student join his small position group. The Player took the front of the line in every drill, stepping up without hesitation whenever Coach called for the first team offense. Still, the Player’s curiosity about the stranger changed to surprise, when the new player made every read and every throw perfectly. Considering the newbie was a little bigger and faster, surprise soon gave way to worry and jealousy when the new kid got some snaps with the starters.

The Player started to press, not enough to lose his starting spot, but he felt it. And Coach saw it.

When the Player went down in the second quarter of the last pre-season game, a high ankle sprain that would keep him out at a few weeks, self-pity set in, intensified by the team’s response to the new guy’s command of the offense. The team flourished, at a level even better than the already-high expectations the Player had helped establish during the off season.

Coach rode him hard when he returned to practice. The Player didn’t step back in with the first unit, and his reps were few and far between. The Player wondered if Coach was trying to get him to quit. The smallest mistake, the kind he always played through before, brought a whistle, then a comment, sometimes in front of the whole team, sometimes in private.

Wrong read.

Too tentative.

Quit sulking and get your head together.

Your ankle okay? Doesn’t look right to me.

Truth was, the ankle wasn’t right. The Player had rushed himself back, maybe too soon, afraid his dream season would be spent in the shadow of the new guy, all that work over the summer down the drain. Injury-related doubts ruined his flow. And he was running out of time to get it back as the team marched toward a show-down with its arch rival for the league championship.

With only a few weeks left of the season, the Player realized he had a choice to make. He wasn’t going to get another chance to be the best player he could be on the field. Bitterness from that truth would take over if he let it. Instead, he would choose to be the best teammate he could be. After just a few practices, that daily choice became a habit. He shouted support after every play, offered genuine suggestions to his rival, and fought through the pain and stiffness in his ankle as best he could.

Coincidence or not, he started getting more snaps at practice. In the second to last game of the season, he even played a couple of series in the fourth quarter. Still, the Player refused to let himself believe he might actually reclaim his starting role. Time was up. The championship game was this Friday.

The Player thought his heart would break all through the team’s last practice, the Player’s last practice ever. But he kept his chin up and his voice strong. A steady drizzle started to fall from the late afternoon’s grey sky when the Player joined the first unit for work on the Two-Minute drill. He marched the offense over mid-field and called for his favorite play, a deep slant to his top receiver. The Player’s read was perfect, the throw on time and target.

The ball slipped through the receiver’s hands.

Fuck! The Player yelled uncharacteristically. You gotta catch that ball, Jonesy!

Coach whistled, hard and long.

Enough! Squad, hit the showers. We’ll meet together in 30 minutes in the Team Room. Player! To mid-field with me. You owe me ten 50-yard burners for that outburst!

The Player couldn’t believe it. He didn’t deserve punishment for that, much less at the end of his last practice, called out in front of the whole team. But he set his jaw and jogged to the fifty without a look or a word to his coach.

From his knee, hunched over after the seventh burner, he watched bile drip from his face mask and sensed Coach draw near. The Player’s only thought was gratitude for the rain that would hide the few tears that leaked out with the vomit and snot.

Coach mumbled past the whistle in his mouth, How many left?

The Player coughed out, Three.

Your ankle’s holding up.

The Player had forgotten all about it.

Coach bent down, hands on his knees, eye-to-eye with the Player. The whistle fell from his mouth and dangled between them from the lanyard around Coach’s neck.

Hit the shower. Straight away. Hot shower.

Both men, young and old, rose up, the Player still with his hands on his upper thigh pads.

Tonight, take a cold bath at home for recovery. Then another hot shower. You’re starting tomorrow. It’s your game, start to finish, no matter what happens.

Yes, Sir, said the Player as he stood straight.

You ready for that?

The Player nodded. Yes.

I think so too. Meeting room, ten minutes. Now, go!

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