“Remember, Tommy, thumbs together. You catch with your hands, not your body.”
Legacy. It’s only natural. Kids often follow in the footsteps of their parents, from Bushes in the White House to Sanford and Son in the junk yard. Maybe it’s the planting of seeds of interest, or readily available instruction, or perhaps a desire to please. Sometimes it might just be a good shove.
“You should probably get yourself up to the field to run some stairs in the bleachers this afternoon. Building up your calves will help with that first step off the line.”
Tommy’s Dad was all-everything in high school. His D-1 college football career was nipped in the bud with a knee injury, and perhaps he saw Tommy, likely through the lens of excessive optimism, as the rightful heir to his career that never was.
Except for the names on the birth certificate, a casual observer would not immediately see the father/son connection. Tommy’s Dad was tall; Tommy was short. Tommy’s Dad was broad shouldered and stout; Tommy was skinny. Tommy’s Dad was athletic and coordinated; Tommy, not so much. But the mere fact of a last name match carried the unfair burden of high expectations. It wasn’t the pressure to play well. It was the pressure to play at all.
“Sophomores don’t get much playing time, but at least we’ll suit up for the games. That’ll be pretty cool.”
“You don’t sound too enthused about that, Tommy. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, Charlie. Yeah, that will be cool.”
Tommy ran some nice routes, quick off the line, caught a few, dropped a few. He put his heart into it, but no matter how hard he tried, he remained short, skinny, and shortchanged in the hand-eye coordination department.
“Good effort, Tommy.”
“Good effort.” That’s what coaches say when everything else didn’t go so well.
Tommy thought he did ok, but the “good effort” comment stung him as he left the practice field. He knew where that comment fit in a coach’s lexicon of compliments. He was so preoccupied with his analysis that he hardly noticed the old man with the shaggy white hair tucked under a frayed red baseball cap sitting in the bleachers.
“Are you ok, Tommy?”
“I’m fine, Dad.”
“You don’t seem yourself. Maybe you’re just tired from practice.”
Come on, Tommy, say it.
“Uh…maybe I’m…too small for football.”
“You’re only fifteen. You’ve got a lot of growing to do. You’re going to do fine. Just keep working at it.”
Dads aren’t always the best interpreters of kid talk. Subtle hints won’t always get you there. Sometimes you have to spell it out, Tommy.
Tommy was not the most focused kid to ever put on a football uniform. His mind would often drift off to a variety of topics during practice. Who should he ask to the Fall Dance, and more importantly would she go? How long before he could get his driver’s license? Why was he even there? Why was that old man with the shaggy white hair in the stands everyday?
Tommy was in a tough spot. How do you get off a boat when you’re already out to sea?
“Are you ok, Tommy?”
“I’m fine, Mom.”
“You don’t seem yourself. Maybe you’re just tired from practice.”
Oh my God, Groundhog Day for Tommy. Let’s hope for a better result.
“I was just wondering…maybe I’m too small to play football.”
“Don’t be silly. You’re going to be a great football player.”
“Why don’t you just tell them? Your Dad’s not going to beat you or anything.”
“Of course he’s not going to beat me, Charlie. I just don’t want to disappoint him. I know how much he wants me to play.”
“How many times do you plan on living, Tommy?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s your life, buddy. You gotta do what you gotta do.”
“Here, Tommy, I got you these hand grippers. This will help strengthen your fingers and improve your grip for catching the football. I used to do ladders with these things. First one, then two, then three, up to ten, and then back down again. You should do it every night before you go to bed.”
“Gee, thanks, Dad.”
“It will build up your forearms too. That will help you fight through defenders and get you off the line. Keep ‘em on your nightstand and do them every night.”
Great. Good grip. Build up those forearms. The pressure of high expectations coupled with a desire to please. One could almost lose himself in it.
Triangles, squares, areas, and angles. The words were reaching Tommy’s ears, but they weren’t getting to his brain. Tommy’s thoughts were on his Dad, hand grippers, forearms, quick off the line, one life… and that old man in the bleachers.
Tommy didn’t want to let his Dad down, but that comment from his friend Charlie struck a chord. Maybe he just needed one of those shoves, this time in the other direction.
“Hit the tackling dummy with your arms extended, and then a quick slant over the middle. Heads up and look for the ball!”
Tommy’s turn. He hit the tacking dummy, cut hard to his left, tripped over his own feet and went down. As he struggled to get to his feet, the ball smacked Tommy hard in the helmet and bounced high up into the air. The ball was thrown with such force that it knocked Tommy off his feet, and he was back on the ground.
Laughter, the worst kind of humiliation. It was a natural reaction from all of his teammates. Even the coaches had to chuckle. Trip and fall, get smacked in the helmet by the football, and then fall again, the trifecta of high school humiliation. It was an embarrassment of epic proportions, one likely to stay with Tommy for a long time.
Embarrassment is a hard cloak to discard. It weighed heavily on Tommy for the next hour. He prayed the ball wouldn’t come in his direction, and when it did, he dropped balls that should have been routine. His confidence was shot. The final whistle. Practice was over. Tommy just wanted to go home.
High school kids can be cruel.
“Hey, Tommy! That was awesome! You almost caught the ball with your face mask!”
“That would have been cool, to see Tommy running down the field with a football sticking out of his head!”
“That looked like something out of a Three Stooges rerun!”
Why did he have to trip? Why did Jake have to throw a perfect, hard pass? Why was he even there in the first place? Why was he even born? Tommy already dreaded going to school the next day. Maybe he could feign illness, hide in his closet, or catch a steamer to the Orient.
Tommy found safe haven in the shower, so he stayed there. Lather up, rinse, lather up, rinse, lather up, rinse. If there had been a spin cycle, he might still be in there.
Tommy was so down, so depressed, that he could hardly mount the energy to get dressed. He sat alone in the locker-room, head down, reliving those painful moments. If he replayed the events enough times, maybe he’d have a different outcome. Unlikely. Maybe his teammates would forget about the episode and life will go on as usual. Also unlikely.
“I’m closing up, Tommy. You gotta go.”
“Ok, Mr. Thompson. I’m leaving. Sorry if I held you up.”
“No worries, Tommy. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Crap. There would have to be a tomorrow.
The sun had already set by the time Tommy left the building. If not for the lights in the parking lot, Tommy would not have noticed. With his head as far down as his spirits, he first saw the long shadow on the pavement, a person, a healthy crop of disheveled hair under a cap.
“Excuse me young man. Could I have a word with you?”
Even in diminished light, Tommy immediately recognized the man. It was the old man from the bleachers, frayed baseball cap and all. The shock was enough to shake Tommy out of his sorry state of gloom.
“Oh, hello, sure. What is it?”
“I’ve been watching you out there.”
Why would this guy be watching me?
“You look good out there.”
“What? Me? You must be talking to the wrong guy.”
“No, you’re the one I want to talk to. You’ve got a special talent, son.”
“Huh? I stink at football.”
“Football? I’m not talking about football.”
“What are you talking about then?”
“You have a gift, a beautiful, effortless stride. You run like a gazelle. That’s your future, son, not football. Run. You will be a Champion.”
Beautiful stride? A gazelle? Champion? Tommy was trying to digest it all.
“I brought you something.”
The old man raised his hand to reveal a worn paperback book with three large letters across the cover- “PRE”.
Tommy took the book and studied the cover under the streetlight.
“Pre? What’s a Pre?”
“Pre, Steve Prefontaine. Have you ever heard of him?”
“Have you heard of NIKE?”
“Have you ever been to the NIKE headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon?”
“Well, if you ever get there, you’ll see lots of pictures, photos, paintings of great athletes- Jordan, Woods, Williams, Rogers, a boatload of them. But there’s just one statue- Steve Prefontaine.”
“Really? Who’s Steve Prefontaine?”
“Read the book.”
Tommy pondered the encounter and the book as the old man disappeared into the darkness.
And read he did. The lights were on late that night in Tommy’s room. Pre, Coos Bay, short, skinny, not well configured for any sport, but he could run, and run he did. It was a spectacular career as a long distance runner. Pre ran with confidence, courage, and flash, but it all ended tragically in an automobile accident nearly fifty years ago. He was just twenty-four years old. Tommy might not have been able to bring in an underthrown pass, or toss in a three-pointer, or hit a curve ball, but he could run.
Tommy fought to keep his eyes open, and he read, and then read some more.
“I’m going to work so that it’s a pure guts race at the end.”
“No matter how hard you train, Somebody will train harder…Somebody will run harder…Somebody will want it more…I am Somebody.”
“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift."
The “gift”. The old man said he had a gift, a gift to run, and run he would.
The anticipated gloom and doom of the next day at school had vanished in the dust. There was a spring in Tommy’s step, a sparkle in his eye, a burning ember in his heart. He had already discarded the teasing, the “good effort”, the burden of high expectations, and even his desire to please his Dad. His only thought was to not sacrifice the “gift”.
Miss Brandt was talking about Shakespeare; Tommy was surreptitiously reading about Pre’s first National Championship. Mr. Zamzow was explaining the functions of the heart; Tommy was absorbed in Pre moving to the front in the 5000 meters at the Olympic Trials. Mrs. Foster was mixing up some concoction in a test tube; Tommy was sneaking peaks at Pre’s long hair flowing in the wind as he ran the curve on the bell lap with the crowd cheering “Pre! Pre! Pre!”
A determined Tommy strode through the hallway at the end of the school day.
“Tommy! You’re going the wrong way. You don’t want to be late for practice. Tommy, where are you going?”
“To see the track coach. I’ll talk to you later.”
You have to do what you have to do. Time to spill it out.
“Do you know who Steve Prefontaine was?”
“Of course, one of the best runners in our history. He probably would have been the greatest if he hadn’t died at such a young age.”
Tommy pulled the book out from behind his back.
“Dad, I want to be like Steve Prefontaine.”
Tommy’s fears had been for naught. His Dad quickly became his number one fan.
“I want what you want, Tommy. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. Just do your best, whatever it is.”
Tommy would do his best. He would not let Steve Prefontaine or the old man down. He would not sacrifice the gift.
Tommy worked and worked and worked, and then he worked some more. Somebody will always be out there working harder, and Tommy was now that Somebody.
He rocked the running world in that High School, in that town, in that Conference. Tommy made himself worthy of the gift.
He had Steve Prefontaine quotes plastered all over his bedroom walls. He read them every night, a welcome substitute for those hand crunchers. He memorized them all, and the inspiring words floated around in his head as he fell asleep.
He often thought of the words spoken under a parking lot streetlight by an old man he didn’t even know- “You will be a Champion.” Tommy looked for that man. He would stop by football practices and scan the bleachers for that frayed red cap and shaggy white hair. He searched the crowds at all his meets. He wanted to thank him for the book, the inspiration, and that vote of confidence at the time he needed it the most, but he could never find him.
Tommy was relaxed as he lined up for the start of the 5000 meters at the state track meet the following spring. He ran easily for the first ten laps. The pace was slow, slower than Tommy would have liked, but he was the newcomer. He wouldn’t take the lead. He stayed safely tucked in the 4th position.
Other runners moved up. It got crowded up front. The bell lap. Tommy was in a dangerous situation, boxed in as the runners came out of the first turn. He was in the first lane with three competitors in front of him and pinned in by a line of four runners in lane two. He had waited too long.
He could only hope the lead runners would pick up the pace and create a little space for Tommy to make his move, but they didn’t. He was worried, close to panicking. He could only go with the flow of the pack as it moved down the backstretch.
Tommy lacked the experience. He was hopelessly boxed in as the runners entered the final turn. Then he saw it, clear as a bell, an apparition, long shaggy white hair tucked under a frayed red baseball cap. The old man was sitting in the stands, just as Tommy had seen him so many times before in the bleachers back home. The old man extended his hand toward Tommy as if were pointing at him. But he wasn’t pointing, he was drawing. He made a half circle in the air, down, out, and up. Tommy only had that one brief encounter with this old man, but he got the message.
Tommy slowed down, darn near stopped. The runners to his right passed by, and Tommy was free to get out of his lane and move out toward the center of the track. It was a gutsy move. He dropped back to 8th place with just half a lap to go. He had lost all his momentum, and he would be running a longer distance than the leaders. But now Tommy had room to run, and run he did.
Coming out of the turn, Tommy suddenly imagined he was holding something in his right hand. Maybe muscle memory from all those gripper exercises. No, it wasn’t a gripper. It was a baton.
It all went silent. The crowd was cheering loudly, but Tommy didn’t hear a thing. Then the words arrived, softly at first, from a distance, a lone voice, “Pre! Pre! Pre!” It grew louder, “Pre! Pre! Pre!” Tommy ran down the straightaway like a gazelle with that beautiful stride, hearing only the words “Pre! Pre! Pre!” He felt a gentle hand pushing him down the track, his long hair flowing in the wind as he glided past the other runners. He wasn’t Tommy. He wasn’t even that Somebody. He was Steve Prefontaine.
Tommy won the race going away. As the other runners bent over in exhaustion, or dropped to the ground, Tommy kept on running. He cut across the infield and ran back to the far turn where he had seen the old man. He wasn’t there. He scanned the crowd and saw the old man climbing up the bleacher stairs. When he got to the exit, the old man stopped and turned back toward Tommy, now the Champion the old man predicted. The old man stared at Tommy and seemed to be delivering another message.
Tommy stood motionless. He appeared confused. He looked down at his right hand, still in a tight fist as though he were clutching something valuable. He studied that hand and reflected on his miraculous sprint to the finish line. A chill raced through his body, faster than a Prefontaine kick to the finish line. He imagined that shaggy white hair trimmed, brown, and flowing in the wind. Tears welled up in his eyes. He was shaking. Tommy understood. He looked back up into the stands and raised his hand high for the old man to see. The old man nodded his head, gave Tommy a quick wink and a smile, and disappeared through the exit.
The shaggy white hair tucked under that red cap would never be seen again as the old man had done what he came to do. The “Gift” was in good hands.