Glory Days

Coach Hoover, as a rule, never utters a word before his big pre-game speech. Not even during photography class. Coach Hoover could careless for art! Principal Dewitt didn’t hire him for art! Principal Dewitt hired him to bring home a Section AA Football Championship. So Coach Hoover writes Free Time on the board and sits at his desk, pouring over playbooks with Metallica radiating from his headphones, and if a student attempts to inquire about exposure rates or shutter speeds, they will go ignored. None usually dare, though. Coach Hoover’s pre-pre-game-speech silence is the heavy silence of Planet Earth moments before the Doomsday asteroid.

And rightly so! Despite his diminutive size—short and stocky—Coach Hoover is a highly intimidating man. He’s a gladiator in miniature, his voice a modulating Batman rasp. And what’s worse? He’s unfairly handsome. Woman love him—staff and student alike go weak in the knees and flounder around like newborn fawns, slipping in their own vaginal secretions. He comes highly regarded, this man of all men, with a degree in Sports Theory from SUNY Cortland. Already, four games into his debut season, his record remains spotless, with another victory on the way.

Tonight’s game is against Newburgh Free Academy, Section AA Champions four years running, and only he, Coach Hoover, in all these years, has the testicular fortitude to predict not only victory but total annihilation.

At the final whistle, a buxom female reporter will ask: “Coach Hoover, tell us, what’s your secret!?” to which he will reply, yelling to be heard over the crowd’s deafening roar, “One part Sun Tzu’s Art of War, one part Kill ‘Em All!”

Todd Goldsmith is sitting in study hall, hunched over his Advanced Biology Textbook. While the rest of the student body runs amuck all around him, he remains absolutely still, his eyes fixed. On the page, a cartoon diagrams the organs of the human body, and Goldsmith knows that his homework requires something to do with this information, but his brain isn’t functioning properly. All Goldsmith can see is grey, squished meat. Again, he’s perseverating, again he’s stuck on the topic of death, specifically, his own death, more specifically, the conduit of his death: Newburgh Free Academy. Now no longer is he, Todd Goldsmith, just looking at the human organs on the page, but imaging the damage that can be done to them.

In order to calm himself, he tries implementing his psychiatrist-recommended breathing exercises, but can’t catch his breath. Goldsmith might be the first person in history to suffer a heart attack at the ripe age of seventeen! Fingers pressed to his jugular, he discovers that something is definitely out of whack.

When the bell rings, as the rest of the study body moves into the hallways, Goldsmith remains frozen, a hammering heart trapped in a Greek statue of fear with a looping vision playing in its head: Goldsmith’s limp and bludgeoned body being carried off the field, Goldsmith in the ambulance, the morgue, his funeral, being lowered into a deep grave.

Goldsmith probably would’ve sat there perseverating all day had Earl Johnson, Quarterback for the Washingtonville Wizards, not come up and goosed him. He nearly launched into the sky, the way he jumped. “Ready for tonight, Golden Boy?” says Earl Johnson.

During free periods, Coach Hoover likes to prowl the halls.

In passing, Coach Hoover’s silent presence sweeps the open classrooms like a spell. Pencils snap. Papers rustle. Lectures hang there as if severed. Sweat beads on foreheads as the explosive heat steaming off female nether-parts fills rooms with a tropical humidity. To his team, he offers small, conspiratorial nods of acknowledgement, as if they’re plotting a horrendous crime together.

Which indeed they are! On the field tonight, they will commit felony after felony. To don the Wizards’ blue and gold is a binding agreement to collude in murder and mayhem! He wears one himself, in solidarity, which reads Head Coach across the back. And why shouldn’t he? Coach Hoover is the one who pulls the strings—the team is merely his extension. Every touchdown, every extra point, every tackle his boys make is stamped with his autograph.

Is it not?

Goldsmith certainly doesn’t think so. If Coach Hoover encounters Goldsmith in the halls he will offer him nothing. He will avert his eyes! Goldsmith’s the Wizards’ sole heretic. That boy is entirely obdurate!

Goldsmith!? While the rest of the team suffered through grueling two-a-days in the blazing August heat, Goldsmith went abroad on a family vacation, getting cultured. He plays the French horn in band, for cripes sake! Goldsmith is six-four, athletic, and considering a future in Academia!? He could play in the NFL with all of his natural talent. Yet, Goldsmith refuses to show his face in the weight room or study film. Why!? Why if Coach Hoover had had half of Goldsmith’s abilities, Coach Hoover would still be playing the game today! Goldsmith will not see a second of playing time tonight, Coach Hoover decides.

Coach Hoover can’t even think of Goldsmith!

Now Principal Dewitt’s boy, Bryant, Coach Hoover can think of him. Coach Hoover recognizes the potential in that boy. What Bryant lacks in skill, he makes up for in passion and commitment. Bryant knows, listens, and recognizes!

Coach Hoover can relate to Bryant. Coach Hoover recognizes motivation when he sees it. The young man’s entire collegiate future is riding on a football scholarship. Funds have been arranged accordingly, siphoned from other after-school programs into Coach Hoover’s program of destruction. Principal Dewitt has cancelled chess club, flag squad, and all field trips to George Washington’s Last Encampment to ensure Bryant gets his fair chance. With all that pressure, it’s a commendable feat to just step onto the field!

Goldsmith doesn’t know how easy he has it!

Goldsmith should take notes and learn to appreciate!

Then, smash-cut, it’s almost game time, and Coach Hoover is leaning against the school, shrouded in darkness, watching the bleachers fill. Even now his pre-game speech is a mystery, but Coach Hoover knows that all he has to do is open his mouth and the magical inspiration will pour like gasoline to fuel his war machine.

Wizard is right, thinks he. Already, he can feel the magic banging around inside his hairless chest. As he turns into the locker room door, a slice of light briefly illuminates his silhouette, this future emblem of the sport. His team falls silent and takes a collective knee at once. Yet, Coach Hoover remains silent, sizing up his team.

On average, they’re a rather small group, he realizes. But what they lack in size, they’ll make up for in meanness, he recognizes. As they peer back at him from behind their facemasks, he can tell their ready. Valiantly, he then props his ham-hock leg on a bench, and, capturing George Washington on the helm of that boat, speaks his first words of the day: “This is the truest moment your life will ever know,” he says, his already-deep voice becoming impossibly deeper, gruffer. At such a low frequency, he wouldn’t be surprised if the crowd felt their innards buzz, if a pregnant woman inexplicably miscarried. “Within each of you rages a pent up warrior,” he continues, placing a meaty fist over his heart, “imprisoned for the past hundred-thousand years!” With this, Coach Hoover gestures to the lockers and pop-out ceiling tiles, his lip curling in disgust. “Peace and civilization,” he spits. “All of this has been your prison. But here, tonight, on this field, is your chance to become your primeval self! To get in touch with what will forevermore be taken away from you by sensitive intellectuals!” Here he swings his stink-eye around the room, searching in vain for Goldsmith before going on: “After the final whistle blows,” he says, “you will revert to form and recommence the latest version of force-fed humanity. But right here, tonight, against Newburgh Free Academy, is your chance to unleash the beast! And they’ve come to your field, your village, with murderous intent!—rape and pillaging in on their dockets. They will kill infants! They will impregnate your girlfriend and cuckold you!” Coach Hoover’s neck veins bulge like pipes: “Now are we going to let that happen!?” he screams, spraying his team in white, foamy spittle—“I said are we going to let that happen!?”

“Hell no!” his team responds. “Hell no!” they howl again, crashing over each other this time, smashing facemasks and issuing the bloodcurdling war cries of brothers in arms. And at once, they’re crowding the door like confused livestock, screaming like banshees, shrieking, hollering mad—onwards to victory, onwards to glory!

“Dewitt! Lead ‘em out!” Coach Hoover shouts, ripping his sausage-like thumb toward the field. Then they’re jogging into the Friday night lights, met by an eruption of cowbells and air horns, which to Coach Hoover, no sound is more glorious.

Todd Goldsmith hears the commotion from the bathroom stall where he’s hugging the toilet with a vile taste in his mouth, staring at the oatmeal his doting mother forced on him at breakfast.

He doesn’t want to get up.

If Goldsmith gets up, he might disturb the delicate balance of his life functions. Concussions, broken, bones, contusions, swelling, lacerations—these were all possibilities.

Goldsmith could very well die tonight! His heart could explode!

Just last week, Goldsmith remembers his Biology Teacher lectured on the workings of the human heart. All of the chambers and valves, he thinks. Such complexity! An impossible yet undeniable achievement of the universe!

“How!?” he laments into the toilet. Two billion years of evolution? Goldsmith is unconvinced. How could such a combination of meat and bone produce the reality of human experience? God!? Equally as impossible—yet, he has to agree with Pascal on this one. Goldsmith believes the reward definitely outweighs the risk on God.

He might very well find his answer to the afterlife question tonight! Jesus! How does his heart continue to beat in spite of his impending doom? How his constant worry doesn’t trip it up is a complete miracle!

Even more miraculously, how is it that he can muster the courage to get to his feet and wipe his mouth!? It’s like there’s two Todd Goldsmiths—Goldsmith One and Two. Goldsmith One remains on the floor while Goldsmith Two clops across the buffed linoleum toward the door. No doubt Todd Goldsmith is experiencing a strange form of depersonalization!?

No doubt a symptom of a deeply diseased brain!

The workings of his heart are one thing, but the brain!? Goldsmith doesn’t even want to think about his brain. It hums with a million years worth of fear. His brain is a total traitor—that much is clear—as it steers him along without consent out the door, toward his probable demise.

In their all black uniforms, Newburgh Free Academy is a bad bunch. Even Coach Hoover thinks so. At the coin flip, they tower a head’s length over any of his team. But he’s got all the right spells. Not to worry! As Coach Hoover communes with the assistant coaches on the sidelines, he tells them to take the night off, that he’s got it all under control. “This is why Principal Dewitt hired me!” he boasts.

Then the kick-off whistle blows and after a minor kick return, NFA’s offence takes the field. And as the first series develops, everything begins unfolding according to play. At will, Coach Hoover successfully anticipates and plugs the holes, like he can see every play before it develops.

Off the bat, NFA almost goes three and out—but they’ve got a fullback who can steamroll, tilting the scales at three-hundred, and he picks up a new set of downs by the sheer laws of physics. However, Coach Hoover knows how to deal that problem, and commands his meatiest linebacker to take out the giant fullback’s knee. And then, crack! It sounds like a truck accident, and the three-hundred pound problem comes off the field on a stretcher, reduced to a useless tray of fatty tissue just as Coach Hoover predicted!

NFA set to punt it over to Bryant Dewitt and the Wizard’s offence,” says the tinny voice over the PA system, like music to Coach Hoover’s ears.

Before sending in the first play, he sends Principal Dewitt in the bleachers a wink. Then Earl Johnson hands the ball off to Bryant Dewitt, who’s brought down anticlimactically at the line for a no gain.

Coach Hoover doesn’t despair, though. He keeps the faith, gives another wink. Second play is more of the same, though, setting the Wizards up for a third and short, which the next play, Bryant then fails to pick up, forcing the punt. After that, Coach Hoover cannot muster anymore winks as the crowd groans.

Already he can hear their chant beginning: “Goldsmith, Goldsmith . . . ”

But Principal Dewitt had been clear that the scouts from SUNY were here to see Bryant. “He’ll get his shot,” Coach Hoover promised. When in retrospect, this may have been a grave mistake—as NFA’s offence takes the field, Coach Hoover can already feel the magic hiccupping.

And for good reason! The rest of the Wizards’ half is all downhill—cursed with penalties: off-sides, late hits, and taunting calls plagued his team. His primeval warriors were out for blood, but shaky with violence. Maybe Coach Hoover had given them too much juice with that speech. They were giving up yards, letting NFA catch their rhythm. Not to mention, Bryant failing to pick up the necessary yardage. So that when the half closes, Coach Hoover’s Wizards are down two scores heading into the locker room, where Coach Hoover then attempts administering another round of magic—this time a slightly lesser dose.

Second half opens, and much to Principal Dewitt’s chagrin, Coach Hoover takes to the air via Earl Johnson. Coach Hoover desperately needs to win, and Earl Johnson’s got the arm to do it. Just look! He’s picking the secondary apart with ease, moving the ball. Down after down, he’s really doing it. At least until a hulking defensive lineman brutally sacks him with a helmet-to-helmet collision. Then everyone takes a knee like it’s his funeral while the bleachers go silent with disappointment.

But do not fear! Coach Hoover, among his many talents, is a healer. He sprints onto the field and comes to Earl Johnson’s side. The second he touches him, the quarterback’s eyes quit rolling in his head and snap into focus. “Glory lasts forever,” he tells him, hoisting Earl Johnson to his feet and smacking his butt with gusto. And would you look at that! The very next play, the Lazarus QB throws a Hail Mary and the Wizards come down with it. Touch Down! Coach Hoover raises his fists in glory—at least until he catches the stink-eye from Principal Dewitt.

Then fourth Quarter rolls around, and Coach Hoover’s down one score with time running out! NFA’s controlling the ball, nudging the sticks slowly along, killing time. But Coach Hoover can tell they’re scared, though. He is bringing the suspense. The magic isn’t gone! No! It’s saturating NFA’s muscles and bogging them down. He can tell! And when The Wizards’ D forces a punt, he knows victory is within reach. “Don’t let me down Dewitt,” he says, sending in the play. And as Earl Johnson takes center and starts his cadence, electricity fills the air.

However, it soon becomes clear that Earl Johnson is unable to call hike, and people begin clearing their throats in the bleachers. “Fuck the play?” he calls out, his head popping up like a perplexed squirrel, causing Coach Hoover to burn a precious time out.

In the huddle, Earl Johnson can’t tell Coach Hoover if his name is Earl Johnson or not. He’s slurring his words with hallucinogenic pupils. But Coach Hoover can’t hear his impaired speech over the crowd noise, nor would he care.

“Goldsmith! Goldsmith!” the crowd’s chanting with increasing aggression.

“Dewitt to the left,” Coach Hoover says.

“Dewitt! Dewitt!” he urges.

And against the odds, Earl Johnson manages to get the next play off. But Dewitt gets clobbered at the line, anyway. However Coach Hoover keeps the faith and sends in the next play: Dewitt around the end. But with the same result. Relentlessly, Coach Hoover sends Dewitt up the middle, certain he’ll break this next one, telepathically willing the event. But no such luck—the magic’s gone, all soaked up. Wham! Crack! Coach Hoover’s dwindled his options down to this very last play, with only seconds on the clock!

Here he does a face-palm as he realizes what he must do—the next call has been a brewing cockfight in his stomach for the entire quarter. And when he opens his mouth the vicious cockfight ruptures and the spur-taloned birds fly from his mouth as the next impossible words: “Dewitt out! Goldsmith in!”

And the crowd erupts anew, as if all prior cheer had only been a whisper.

“Me?” Todd Goldsmith croaks where he’s idling near the water jug. His helmet is at his feet and both his thumbs are tucked politely inside the collar of his shoulder pads.

“Get in there!” Coach Hoover shouts again, ripping his thumb through the air like he does. “Veer right!”

Instantly, Goldsmith vomits inside his mouth, but manages to choke it back down as he scrambles onto the field. His legs feel sore and leaden as he jogs toward the huddle. Two liters of water slosh in his gut. But his helmet! Goldsmith has forgotten his helmet! Goldsmith nearly pees himself running back to retrieve his helmet.

“Goldsmith! Goldsmith!” the crowd urges as he finally joins the huddle.

Circled up, his teammates stare at him with a crazy-eyed expectancy, but for the life of him, he can’t remember the play. Snapping his fingers and mumbling, he’s too distracted by what awaits him on the other side of the line of scrimmage, that impenetrable wall of meat. “Veer right,” he finally stammers out.

“Burrrake!” calls Earl Johnson.

As Goldsmith takes his position in the backfield, he’s verging on collapse, an epileptic fit, cardiac arrest, you name it! For Goldsmith, this moment, it’s like waiting for the guillotine to slice down. However, the moment just continues hanging there, and hanging there. Earl Johnson keeps clearing his throat, unable to remember the play again.

“Fucks the play?” he mumbles drunkenly, turning back to Goldsmith.

But before Goldsmith could think to save himself, he hears himself blurt, “Give to the right,” and then Earl Johnson is calling out, “Hiyaaak!”

Then a strange phenomenon occurs: While Goldsmith One remains stooped in the I-formation, the other, more impossible Goldsmith Two version is dropping his shoulder for the handoff. Certainly Todd Goldsmith is depersonalizing again! But the other more impossible Goldsmith Two doesn’t have time to contemplate his worry. The fear is burning off him like rocket fuel while his cleated feet spray turf into the air. Juking, jiving, stiff-arming, Goldsmith Two miraculously eludes tacklers, one after the other fly lamely in his wake, groping at vacant air as he speeds past, into the secondary and beyond, out into open field. Then Goldsmith’s in the end zone, unscathed and surprised, with his fellow Wizards in celebratory pursuit, the crowd going wild.

However, Goldsmith Two barely has the opportunity to share in their excitement. Already, from somewhere at midfield, he can see Goldsmith One rushing toward him, with the fearful heart he’d left behind snug against his chest.

“Goldsmith!?” cries Coach Hoover—watching Goldsmith’s run had been a near religious experience. In all of Coach Hoover’s years! Eek Gad! As the bleachers empty onto the field, Coach Hoover can do nothing but stand there paralyzed, questioning the eternal.

Parents, teachers, and the entire student body rush past him like he isn’t there at all, and as the throng of cheering people storm the field, he remains on the sidelines, a lonely, jilted figure. Where will Coach Hoover go from here? he wonders. Back to his lonely apartment? Will Coach Hoover celebrate with a few beers? Or will Coach Hoover go and stand in front of his special mirror? He’s certainly ashamed enough. Miss Hoover, Coach Hoover calls himself in the mirror, puckering his rouged lips. Joe Namath used to wear pantyhose, he reminds himself. But did Joe Namath wear the panties? As Coach Hoover watches the mob hoist Goldsmith onto their shoulders, he can’t help but hope.

Long after Goldsmith is carried off, Coach Hoover is still there on the sideline, hoping and waiting. And for a long time nothing happens—nobody douses him in Gatorade or pumps his hand, no buxom female reporter appears with a microphone. However, as he continues to wait, a slight smirk brushes across his face, because lucky for Coach Hoover, among his many talents, Coach Hoover can time travel on command, back to his own glory days.  

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