Friday, July 1, 2011

Deleted Chapters #2 (Coach)

In the last week's deleted chapter "Westward Bound" Billy, Dana & Carolyn take a detour to after escaping Operation Anesthesia in upstate NY, and head to Billy's hometown of Johnstown PA. In this week's chapters, they seek refuge at the home of his former football coach, who is referenced throughout the book.

What I like about this chapter(s): Since Coach is mentioned prominently in the book, I like that he was brought to life, and by doing so, more is learned about Billy and what drives him. Coach's interaction with Carolyn also brings out his softer side.

Why was it cut?: These chapters are an extension of "Westward Bound" so the same reasons apply: Speed, pace, and it just didn't make sense to be taking detours when running for life when every second matters.

Note 1: If you're wondering about the choice of photo, All the Right Moves was filmed in Johnstown, and it centered around a headstrong football player and coach who butted heads, which sounded familiar. Although, the big difference I think is that Billy Harper is way cooler (and taller) than Tom Cruise.

Note 2: My HS football coaches were much different than Coach Blake, but that doesn't mean they didn't help shape as many lives. So with that said, I'd like to wish my coach, Chuck Drury, the best as he recently decided to leave my old school after 35 years!



In football terms it was a Hail Mary.

On the second knock a light shot on inside the house.

Billy took a deep breath, then another, before the front door aggressively swung open. Dana stood behind him, holding a still-sleeping Carolyn in her arms.

A man dressed in a bathrobe stood in the door-frame. He angrily put on a pair of glasses as if he didn’t believe his initial finding. 

“What the hell are you doing here?” he screeched. 

His voice, while older, still contained the same veracity that used to peel the paint off the locker room walls when Coach Blake used to let his team have it at halftime. For a brief moment, Billy felt like he was sixteen once again.

“I don’t know if you remember me, Coach, it’s been a long time but…” Billy began, hesitantly.

Coach Blake furiously shook his head. “I don’t have Alzheimer’s, Harper. And even if I did, I would’ve recognized you as the kidnapper I saw on the news. Now I’ll ask you one more time—what the hell are you doing here?”

Billy instantly knew he had made a mistake. He broke his own rule about the rear-view mirror. The last time he saw him was after he quit the team in college. Ohio State called on Blake to “talk some sense” into him. It almost ended in blows when Coach called him a quitter. He responded by telling Coach he was an enabler of a corrupt system, and a “sellout” of all values he had always preached. They hadn’t talked since.

“Over the last few days, sir, I have come to many of those do-or-die crossroad situations you had always talked about. In fact, a few times I didn’t think we’d make it. But the one voice that popped into my head, and it was yours.”

“Are you on drugs, Harper?”

“No, sir.”

“You have a lot of nerve pulling me into your shit after all these years. Now I’ll ask you one final time—what the hell are you doing here?”

“I guess we need a place to sleep until morning.”

“You guess?” he barked, shaking his head. “Will you settle for some advice?”

“I’ll take anything I can get right now.”

“Turn yourself in and get a good lawyer. Then take a good long look at what you’ve become. From my perspective, it’s a pretty pathetic sight. With the path you’re on, jail is the least of your worries.”

“I can’t turn myself in. If I do, then I can’t help get this little girl back to her mother.”

He looked at the sleeping Carolyn, whose arms and legs were wrapped around Dana. It was amazing that she was able to sleep through the tirade. But it did seem to wake a few neighbors, their house lights flashing on.

“I think you’re a lying sack of shit, Harper.”

Coach had dusted off the rust and he was again in top form, spatting as he talked and his crooked finger pointing wildly. “Because if that little girl is in trouble, she will need somebody with loyalty and sacrifice to save her. Not someone who quits when times get tough. And as I always say—once a quitter always a quitter!”

“I stood up for what I believed in.”

“No, you spit on the institution that taught you discipline, loyalty, and sacrifice. I taught those lessons to kids for decades, using football as a canvas. As more and more of those institutions go away from society—family, marriage, church—where are they going to learn it? Football was good to you and so was this town, but you spit on both of them.”

“You were the one with the loyalty problem. You preached about having our backs, and the first thing you did was side with Ohio State. Did they offer you an assistant job to deliver me?”

His face turned cardinal red. Carolyn rustled in Dana’s arms, beginning to wake. More lights went on in the neighborhood. The police would be there soon—Joe Blake was a legend in Johnstown.

Dana tried to step in, “Mr. Blake, we’re sorry, obviously our coming here was a mistake.”

She grabbed Billy's hand and began to lead him back to the car. Before they reached the driveway, Billy turned and delivered his final words, “I'm sorry, Coach, but I need to save this little girl. Dana’s right—I shouldn’t have come or involved you. Have a good night, and please give my best to Mrs. Blake.”

“That would be quite a trick, Harper—she died last year.”

Billy felt an instant mix of surprise and sadness. Mrs. Blake—Penny—was always so alive, it was hard to imagine her dead. She was always the good cop, who had a smile and advice for every player—she was the unofficial team psychiatrist. She was a complete contrast from her curmudgeonly husband—she was a beautiful (a former Miss Pennsylvania), intelligent (graduated Princeton) and cultured woman (on board of directors any local theater or museum worth its salt), who didn’t have a mean bone in her body. Being with her always made Coach seem human. As they would say in football terms, Coach Blake had out-kicked his coverage.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

He cleared his throat. “Almost three hundred of my former players showed up for her funeral,” his volume lowered. “Steve Cox came from Seattle. Jimmy London, who was defending our country overseas, flew thirty straight hours to be here. They shut the goddam town down the streets were so crowded. But Penny’s all-time favorite player didn’t show.”

He briefly paused, gathered himself, then continued, “I used to come home cussing you, Harper. You had an opinion for everything and you didn’t accept teaching without a fight. I didn’t think you were maximizing all that talent God gave you, and you were the most talented player this town ever saw, Harper, no doubt about it. Do you know what Penny would say?”

He paced in his slippers the same way he would pace the locker room, building the tension of his speech. Billy remained silent.

“Penny told me that I was jealous of you. And you know what—she was right. But she said that I didn't envy your talent—it was the fact that you were a better leader than me that I was jealous of. You gave those other kids hope, and with that, they got confidence. That’s when the magic happens. They would run through a wall for you, Harper. That crazy-ass muddle huddle play, the only reason it worked was because you made them believe it would. When belief and hope merge, man can do anything.”

Billy nodded sadly. “She was a great lady—my condolences—sorry to bother you at this late hour.” He then started toward the car again.

“Damn right she was,” Coach's voice pierced the night, forcing Billy to stop in his tracks. “And she always told me I shouldn’t be jealous—I should be proud of you. I have three daughters, and Penny would always joke that I had found my son, and he was just as stubborn, loyal, and courageous as I was. She was talking about you, Harper, but the truth is I failed you.”

“You failed me?”

“All that shit I used to put you guys through. It wasn’t about winning some trophies for a state championship. It was about preparing you for the biggest game of your lives—life. And the fact that fifteen years later you’re standing on my doorstep in the middle of the night, running from the law, tells me I didn’t prepare you very well.”

Carolyn rubbed her eyes and asked, “Where are we?”

Dana whispered in her ear as they moved toward the car.

Coach Blake walked directly toward Billy with his famed bow-legged walk, reminiscent of when he used to roam the sidelines, barking at players and referees. He got right up in his face.

“Are you innocent, Harper?”

“Yes, sir, I am.”

“Are you putting your life on the line to protect this woman and child?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then what are you planning on doing about it?”

“Since we’re royally screwed, I figured we’d relax and enjoy it, sir.”

Coach nodded. “Then I’ll put on some coffee and popcorn.”


Coach’s house appeared exactly as Billy had last remembered it, but it seemed to lack the warmth it once resonated. They moved into the living room, which was a living scrapbook of family, former players, and Penny. But not one picture or trophy related to football. The majority were graduations, weddings, or Coach Blake becoming the godfather again to another child of a former player.

Carolyn was now wide-awake with eyes locked on Coach.

He stared back at her and gruffly asked, “What’s your name?”

“My name is Carolyn, but you can call me Princess. Who are you?”

“My name is Joe, but you can call me Coach.”

“What’s coach?”

“Someone who teaches right and wrong to young people.”

“Coach sure gets to say a lot of bad words.”

He fought back a smile, remaining the rigid drill sergeant. “Do you say bad words, young lady?”

“Billy let me say one in Montreal.”

“Then you are in big trouble.”

She sighed. “He told me I could, but I knew I shouldn’t fall for that.”

“Get down and give me twenty!”

Carolyn jumped to the floor and began to count—she had met her match.

I mean pushups—you know what a pushup is?”

Yes, my daddy taught me.”

Coach clapped his hands to speed up the process, now unable hold back a big smile. Billy had only seen him smile when he was around Penny. “Let’s go—or you’ll be giving me ten more.”

Carolyn got in push-up position. “You drive a hard bargain.”

No talking!”

Carolyn proceeded to do twenty of the worst push-ups in the history of push-ups. Coach then ordered her to do ten laps of the dining room. She giggled as she ran awkwardly, huffing and puffing.

No pain no gain!” Coach shouted at her.

I don’t feel pain.”

You will when I’m done with you!”
                                                                                                                                               Carolyn then turned the tables on Coach. He had also met his match. “Okay, Coach—I’ll be a bee and you try to catch me!...Okay, Coach—you try to catch my shadow!” 
                                                                                                                                                       He chased her around the house as if  he had found the fountain of youth. After the workout ended, Coach, a trained EMT who used to be his own trainer at football games when the school district couldn’t afford a medic, took a look at Carolyn’s wound. He cleaned it, wrapped it, and never asked about what possible disturbing circumstances could have led to a four-year-old girl getting shot. When Coach delivered news of the wound healing properly without infection, Dana showed visible relief.
                                                                                                                                                   After the popcorn was devoured and Carolyn went to bed, Billy and Coach reminisced. They didn’t talk about football or the events that led him to his doorstep. They talked about the all-important game of life. He was especially interested in Billy’s writing.
                                                                                                                                          Eventually, they did talk a little football. Coach explained that he couldn’t go to the JHS games because his presence puts unintended pressure on the current coaching staff. But after each game they delivered him a game tape. Billy and Coach watched the video of the victory over Altoona into the wee morning hours.
                                                                                                                                                       In the pre-dawn hours, Coach switched his station-wagon in exchange for the Camaro, which he hid in his tidy two-car garage. Billy promised that it wouldn’t be another fifteen more years between visits. Coach wasn’t big on sentimental goodbyes and gave him a hearty handshake and manly nod. But couldn’t resist a big hug from Carolyn.
                                                                                                                                                Before they left Johnstown, Billy had one last surprise for Carolyn. He knew the logical move would be to not waste a second in getting back on the road to Dr. Jordan. But he knew he couldn’t outrun the Grim Reaper forever, and wanted to make sure Carolyn made the most of every minute she had. He thought it was anything but wasting time.

He brought her to the old Cambria County War Memorial. Carolyn knew exactly what it was.

Whoa—that’s where the Chiefs play!” she shouted.

He tried to explain that the fictional mill town of Charlestown in Slap Shot was based on Johnstown, and was filmed here. She didn’t grasp the concept of fiction and wanted to go in and see Reggie Dunlop and the Hanson Brothers.

Operation Anesthesia might very well capture her, but they could never take away this moment, or the huge smile on her face.