Glassland is either jubilant or downcast because the Ducks didn’t win on Monday night. The emotional confusion stems from the sadness of losing a championship despite the thrilling honor of being asked to play in the first place. Apparently.
I’m pretty sure they were playing football, but that’s about all I know; I’m not the world’s biggest follower of team sports. I haven’t been since the age of eleven, when I found out that coaches can cry.
The gym coach at our school, Coach Komara, was huge. He had more muscles than I’d ever seen outside a circus, sported a zigzaggy broken nose and his head always looked too small and pointy for his body. He had a big, square jaw and ham-sized fists that airpunched whenever he wanted to make a point.
In fact, he looked more like a gangster enforcer than a teacher. He didn’t walk, he swaggered, and when he turned his gimlet gaze in your direction it nearly took your breath away. He regularly bent unbendable stuff like steel rods with his bare hands and you just flat out didn’t mess with him.
If you were an athlete, he loved you. He took his football guys out for hot dogs and ice cream, had the baseball players and track stars to his house for cookouts. He argued their cases fervently with the principal and teachers and when he talked about “his kids” he got this goofy grin on his face that looked for all the world like a kewpie doll.
“I take care of my kids,” he’d declare.
Of course, not everyone counted as “his kids.” He had no time for the clumsy, i.e., kids like me. I was miserably unathletic, and Coach did his damndest to make sure I knew it.
“Morgan! You call that a SOMERSAULT?” he’d bark, “Everyone! Over here and watch Morgan TRY to do a somersault!” And, in front of 40 pairs of staring, giggling eyes, I’d topple forward, trying to remember where hands, legs and torso went and praying that I stayed on the mat.
If there was a way to fall off the uneven parallel bars and break the supporting strut, I’d find it. If running the wrong way could lose the game, I’d do it. I may be the only soccer player who ever sprained an ankle by extending her foot and forgetting to unextend it after the kick. (Someone ran into it)
“Morgan, were you just born a screwup?” he’d roar, getting out the ace bandages.
Uhm, it appeared so, yes. No matter what excuses I used to get out of gym, Coach saw through me and tossed me to the wolves.
During football season, Coach drilled his boys in the crisp fall air, right outside our classroom window. “If it don’t hurt, you ain’t workin’ hard enough,” he’d yell, and the boys would scream it after him. They’d run, throw and tackle with the purest kidjoy I’ve ever seen, and sometimes I’d watch at the window and sigh.
One afternoon we heard the usual happy shouts, the boys laughed and cheered and called cadence…and then everything stopped. I heard the coach call once, twice…and then someone screamed.
We ran for the windows. Outside, a knot of kids and teachers surrounded the coach. He was on the ground, working frantically at something. We couldn’t see just what.
An ambulance zoomed up, right onto the field, and whiteclad attendants shooed everyone away. They gathered up a limp figure, a boy, stuffed him into the back and drove off.
They didn’t use the siren or the lights, and they didn’t go fast. Teacher said the boy had died.
Rumor mill said the boy had been hit hard in a scrimmage, and he’d asked the coach if he could sit out the rest of practice. Coach had ordered him back into the game.
The boy went, and a few minutes later took a second hit and collapsed. He died, apparently, while the coach yelled at him to stop clowning around and get up.
I don’t remember anyone speaking out loud for the rest of the day, although there were plenty of whispers. The principal let school out early and messed up the bus schedule; while I waited for my bus to be called, I realized that once again I’d forgotten my dirty gymsuit.
You could get detention for stinking in gym, so I had to get that suit. I snuck out of line and into the gym, crept past Coach’s office door…and stopped. The lights were off but I heard strange, animal sounds inside.
I quietly peeked around the door. Coach was sitting at his desk, upright and ramrod stiff as always. Sobbing.
He made no attempt to wipe his eyes or muffle his mouth or put his head down on the desk. His wasn’t a loud cry, more of a prolonged moan, and his lips didn’t move. I don’t know how long he’d been there, but his shirt, the papers on the desk and even his pantlegs were soggy with tears and snot.
If I’d been 13 and a bit more cynical, I might have wondered what he was crying about: A dead boy or the terror of pointing fingers and a dead career.
But I didn’t. All I knew was that the strongest man in the world had been broken. At some point Coach looked up and saw me. He raised a finger, pointed to the exit, never stopped crying.
I took the hint and fled. Coach never said another word to me, ever. Eventually, Dad finished his residency and we moved out of the state.
Intellectually, I understand the difference between a horrible, tragic accident and the joys of honest athletic endeavor.
Yet to this day, whenever I see a bunch of uniforms playing ball, or hear stories about the injured heroes who go back in the game, about the money and the fervor and the rabid need to win at any cost…well, then I see Coach in that dank little office, sobbing over a practice played just a bit too hard.
And I guess I just lose interest.
*Ironically enough, that same year our female gym coach discovered I was brilliant at badminton, not the dainty-dinks-in-the-backyard kind, but the mad, violent slashsessions where the birdie becomes a lethal projectile aimed straight at your opponent’s face.
I could keep that birdie in the air almost indefinitely, sprinting to the back court, diving to the floor, speeding to the net. I rarely missed, even against adult players.
Trouble was, I had absolutely no interest in offense–all I wanted was to play defense. In pairs, where someone else could drive offense, we never lost. I never did win a singles game.