SOCCER PRACTICE was about to start when I noticed a guy all dressed in black walk around the corner of the stadium fence and climb the steps, two at a time. I watched this lone spectator out of the corner of my eye as I squirted water into my mouth, and then all over my face, from my favorite water bottle with the pull-top spout. My best bud, Doug, had given it to me for my birthday last May, and I swear it was the best gift ever because not only did it not leak in my car, but when the top was screwed off, the opening was wide enough to get my hand in to wash it. I took it with me everywhere.
I snapped the spout closed and tossed it in my bag. A casual glance around told me that guy was still there—watching.
As I assessed his ocular trajectory from the way his head was positioned, I realized he wasn’t watching me. He was taking in the whole field. Although the same thing could be said of me as I surreptitiously noted his characteristics while turning my head as if scanning the bleachers and the nearby sandpit. I was the sly, stealthy kind, if I did say so myself. Practice makes perfect, after all. The rest of the team didn’t need to know how easily I could get distracted from the actual reason we were all here at 8:00 a.m. Soccer was life, but in the other three hours of the day—when soccer, food, and sleep were not on my brain—I liked observing people. Guys in particular because I was always on the prowl for that one guy who would grab my soul and melt my heart.
Okay, enough sentimentality.
I mainly noticed this guy because one solitary dude, sitting at the top of the football stadium bleachers, dressed in a black trench coat and combat boots, in August, two weeks before classes started, wasn’t normal. Maryland was freaking hot in August! I picked up on details like that all the time. Things out of the ordinary, juxtaposed against the backdrop of college soccer, were fascinating. His presence was idiosyncratic in this setting and the very definition of my weakness. The oddities of life, the strange and weird, always drew me in.
Why was he here?
Sometimes I hated the way I spotted details, because people often wanted to go undetected when their individual oddity wasn’t popular or pleasant. Scars, for instance, rarely escaped my attention no matter how hard I tried to overlook them.
Case in point: the left wing on the team, Marshall, had a scar on his lip. I’d surmised it was from cleft-lip surgery, though I knew no one else would have given it a second thought. He had a mustache to cover up the tiny scar, which had to have been there since he was a child, yet I’d still noticed it enough to speculate about its origin. There was something in the way he smiled. Normal and bright, yet off-center enough not to slip by my keen observation.
I also had a thing for tattoos, piercings, and Mohawks because I always wanted to know the motivation behind them. Was the hairstyle for attention, or did the person simply get pleasure from the dramatic flair? Did a tattoo have special meaning or was it a random decision? Things like that went through my mind all the time. I had one tattoo on my ribs, which held particular meaning to me. It was a quote from Hamlet, but since I’d had it inked in Latin, most people didn’t know what it said, and oddly, no one ever asked.
The trench-coat guy met the criteria for my fascination.
During the sixty seconds I spent on the sidelines, taking a drink of water and scoping out our unexpected spectator, the rest of the team came stumbling in behind me.
“Chris! Why you always gotta show off and beat the team back?” Preet asked, doubling over and grabbing his sides.
He was a fun guy with a Pakistani father and a Turkish mother who’d both been in the United States since way before Preet was born. He had dark skin and feathery hair that I often thought about touching, except that he was straight. I answered him with a chuckle. “Preet, the captain always needs to lead the team, even if it means running the first three laps the fastest.” I clapped him on the back as my buddy Doug winked at me. “Don’t tell me you’re tired already. Practice hasn’t even started.”
Preet groaned. I suspected he’d spent way too much of his summer in front of the television. Sucks to be him!
Doug knew about me and my ever-so-slight crush on the handsome defensive player. He knew everything there was to know and probably some things I didn’t even know myself. We’d been best buds since elementary school, when I’d dropped my chocolate milk in the cafeteria and he offered me his. Chocolate milk had solidified our friendship and it still worked to this day. If we ever had an argument, all Doug needed to do was buy me a little carton of chocolate milk and I’d forgive him. So far, he’s only had to do that twice in ten years.
“Don’t try to understand him. Preet, just go with it,” Doug instructed.
The other players flopped on the grass all around me, some heaving as if I’d taken them on a five-mile sprint, others sipping on their water bottles as they waited for the next drill. I’d hoped the coach would have shown up by now, but he was late. I grabbed my phone from my bag and checked for any texts.
Coach Marks had been the school’s soccer coach for years and our soccer coach for the past two seasons. I use the term “our” loosely because some of the guys who’d turned up for this first practice were obviously freshmen. The coach had been at tryouts, and these guys were obviously good enough for him, but I was skeptical. But coach… where was he? I was a junior, looking to have another awesome season playing with many of the same guys as the year before, and also with my buddies Doug and Cullen. It was unusual for the coach to be this late. No texts. This was disconcerting. I’d just seen him on Saturday, and he hadn’t said anything.
I glanced up from my phone in time to see the athletic director riding his golf cart around the track and through the gate that encircled the football field. Normally we didn’t play on the stadium field, nor did we practice there on a daily basis. The soccer team had a practice field for sprints, drills, and tryouts, as well as its own official fields to play on, but the coach had made it a tradition to start on this field the first day to give the players a visual of professionalism and grandeur. He had told us in previous years that the team needed to be just that—a team. Without teamwork, the parents and fans who came to fill the stadium seats gathered only to witness a bunch of little boys running around kicking a ball with no purpose.
“Is that why you’re here?” Coach had asked.
In unison we’d answered, “No, sir!”
“Then look around you, boys,” he’d charge us, “and take it in. You must earn your spot with skill, sportsmanship, and teamwork. We come together as a team out there”—he would point toward the practice field beyond the fence and visitor side bleachers—“so we come in here. We dominate our home field as one fluid unit.” He’d also commented about the costs involved in building a brick stadium. If we ever wanted a more prominent place to play, we needed to impress investors.
His words meant a lot to me. They had settled over us as a team, and we’d done fairly well last year even if our record showed eight wins, eight losses, and a tie. Coach had been proud because we played our hearts out. He’d gotten us to think as one, and I was looking forward to pulling the new guys into our flow.
But where was the coach?
I met the athletic director as he stepped out of the golf cart. “Hey, Mr. Mathews,” I greeted him. “Where’s Coach Marks?”
He shook my hand and nodded to the team as they closed in around us. “Hello, Chris. I hate to inform you like this because I know how much Tom Marks means to you boys, but he won’t be coaching you this season.”
“What?” I asked as the others groaned, not wanting to believe him yet seeing his sincerity.
He nodded some more. “I’m sorry.”
“What happened?” I asked. “He’s okay, isn’t he? He was just here for tryouts. What happened?”
“He’s fine. It’s his wife’s family. There was a death, and as far as I understand, they left Westminster for Portland last night. He tendered his resignation and apparently plans on moving the whole family to Oregon. That’s all I know until he e-mails me back.”
I looked at a few of the other players. Their eyes hopped from one to another and back again. It was as if no one really knew what to say to that. I admit, the reason was an odd one. I’d never known anyone to up and move so spontaneously, but then I hadn’t had a family member die that I could remember, other than my grandmother and she was old. But this was plain weird. What would we do? Who would coach us? How would the school find someone before our first scrimmage next Thursday?
I spoke up and voiced what the team had to be thinking. “Um, what about a new coach? Is it going to be you?” I asked, but I was hoping the answer wasn’t yes.
“No, Chris. Not me.” He grinned. “I don’t know enough about soccer to do you boys any good. Golf is my game. No, the school board has been searching for a new coach all day. Don’t worry, that’s why I’m out here. I was going over my e-mails from yesterday before deleting them when I came across one the administrator sent to the new coach, which I was copied on. Good thing, too, because the date was incorrect. He was originally told to start coaching August twentieth.”
Cullen piped in, “But today is the tenth. Our first scrimmage is on August twentieth. What do we do until then?”
“Exactly my point,” Mr. Mathews concurred. “I jumped on the horn right away and told him about the mistake. Ironically, he’d second-guessed the date himself because he had the soccer schedule already programmed into his calendar. He was on campus, setting up his office, and planned to contact me tomorrow. I simply beat him to it.”
“Office?” I asked. Somewhere the details were getting muddled, and I personally liked filling in those gaps.
“Yes. He’s the new English teacher on staff. His office is on the third floor of the English building. Anyway, he was already here and hoping to meet with me this afternoon. When I called, he said he’d drop what he was doing so he could head over to meet everyone. He’s a very exuberant young lad.”
I raised my eyebrow. “Young lad? How young are we talking?” I wondered because most of us were between eighteen and twenty-two. It would be weird to take orders from a guy our age. In fact, if the guy was my age, I think I’d push to coach the team myself. Who was this “young lad” anyway?
“He’s twenty-three.” The murmurs started, and Mr. Mathews held up his hands. “And before you all get up in arms over his age, let me tell you I was a bit skeptical myself. But as it was explained to me, he wasn’t hired to coach soccer. He was hired to take Mrs. Blakely’s position when she retires. His background in soccer was coincidental and convenient. They offered him the position tentatively because Coach Marks left the school in a tight spot. If he isn’t working out within a few weeks, I’ll take over until a permanent coach can be found. He can’t officially start coaching until Thursday because of other obligations, so that leaves you all on your own for a couple days, which I think you can handle. What I want from you all is patience and cooperation. Can you do that?”
I turned and looked at my guys. I met their eyes one by one. I could read their minds even if only by the strength of their expressions. I knew them. My teammates, even the younger newbies, all had one goal on their minds—winning. If winning came at Coach Young Lad’s hand, or at Mr. Mathews’s, or from my leadership through example, we’d all be happy. So yeah, the “young lad” would get his chance in the sun.
I turned back around and held out my hand, and Mr. Mathews shook it. “Yes, sir,” I answered. “You’ve got our promise to do our best. And this new coach, no matter his age, will find he has the best group of guys if ever there was a team to coach.”
“Thank you, Chris. I kind of figured I could count on you. Tom told me you were an outstanding leader.”
“So when’s he getting here?”
“Um, hopefully before practice ends. I caught him fresh out of the shower when I called.”
I turned around and slapped my hands together. “Okay, you heard him, guys. What we want to do is show this new coach what we’re made of. When he gets here, whenever he gets here, we’re going to be full out doing drills and working it hard. No slackers on my field. Coach Marks might be gone, but his motto still stands. We play as a team! We learn teamwork off the field so that when we walk onto the turf of the Green Terror Soccer Complex on game day, everyone watching will know we play as one.” Then I shouted, “Are you with me?”
They all shouted back, “Yes, sir!”
I chuckled to myself. No one called me sir normally, and it was funny to hear it now, but I knew they meant it figuratively. I wasn’t going to gloat or bask in it.
“All right,” Mr. Mathews said. “I’ll leave you to it. He should be along anytime.”
“First things first. We’re going to do another mile around the track. Tomorrow we’re going to do two miles. Wednesday we’re going to do timed laps, and anyone under the coach’s tryout time gets fifty pushups and then has to run again. Got it?”
Then it occurred to me I hadn’t asked the new coach’s name. I turned and shouted at Mr. Mathews as he pulled away in his little golf cart. “You didn’t tell me his name.” But he must have been too far away to hear.
Doug clapped me on the shoulder. “Maybe it slipped his mind. Remember last year when he kept calling me Derek? Sometimes he’s not all in there.”
“So you’re on board with all this?” Doug asked.
I shrugged and encouraged him into a private huddle with my arm around his shoulders. I told him quietly, “I guess I have to be. You know our team needs to be a team. If I lead them into mutiny because I don’t like the terms of Young Lad’s leadership, then I’m not the leader Coach told Mr. Mathews about. I’d be a mutineer, a traitor, and in danger of being thrown overboard.”
“You’re gonna call him Young Lad to his face, aren’t you?” Doug asked with a smirk.
I grinned back and chuckled. “Oh God, I hope not. He wouldn’t get it, and then I’d be that doofus who didn’t know his name.”
“But you don’t know his name.”
I pulled back and gave him a nonthreatening glare. “Of course, you go there. Great. Now you’ve jinxed it. He’ll get here and I’ll be all like ‘Hey, Coach Young Lad. How’s it going?’ Great. Thanks, Doug. You’re a real pal.”
He laughed and we turned around to look at the rest of the guys, who were sitting or standing but all wondering what the heck we were talking about. That was my cue. I knew playtime was over.
I rubbed my hands together vigorously and got down to business. “Okay, team. Let’s hit that track!”
They groaned, and I kind of thought it was from their disapproval of my satisfaction with temporary leadership. I, on the other hand, enjoyed it immensely. Maybe I was born to be a drill instructor. I laughed all the way to the track, and all the way around it, and while I waited for all of my teammates to catch up. Yes, it was good to be king.