It is a wondrous thing when two lives intersect at exactly the right time and place to create a meaningful, fulfilling future, or perhaps at least a wonderful memory. It borders on the miraculous when three lives meet at the same time and place to create that one special moment in time. But one crisp fall evening in this small town, they did.
Tommy was a 6th grader at St. Mary’s. Like many young boys, he wasn’t fond of school, but it did present the opportunity to participate in his one passion in life- football. As a “scrub” on a 6th through 8th Grade parochial school football team, his equipment was ill fitting. His knee pads needed to be taped up to keep them from becoming ankle protectors, the shoes were worn and a size too big, and the oversized helmet made him look like a bobblehead when he did his jumping jacks.
He was a speedy little guy, but as a 6th grader, he wasn’t seeing much playing time. He and the other scrubs only got off the bench at “garbage time” when the games were out of hand.
Father Gene, the elderly, kindly, portly priest had been the Pastor at St. Mary’s for twenty-five years. Right behind his love for God came his affinity for the game of football. He never missed a game and often showed up at the practices. Father Gene had a regular spot in the bleachers, top row far north corner. His heart was in every play.
Charlie Jones was the school’s music teacher. He had never participated in any sport unless you count croquette as a child and last year’s regrettable performance at the church’s bowing fundraiser. Nonetheless, through a series of unforeseen circumstances- the assistant coach took a job transfer; the head coach suffered a mild heart attack; all of the players’ dads had job conflicts; Sister Martin was quite persuasive (demanding); and Charlie was a soft touch- he would be the head coach, actually only coach, of the St. Mary’s Wildcats for the season finale.
Those are the characters. The setting was a football field on a chilly October night.
Tommy + Coach Jones + Father Gene + a football field = …well, you’ll find out.
Charlie deferred to Vince, the Team Captain, as to what drills they ran at practice, but there was a change in tone. There was no stern voice, no criticism of performance. Once Charlie took the position, he read up on it, not about the mechanics of the game of football, but on the philosophy of coaching kids. His main takeaway was it has to be fun. Winning was not even a thing in itself, a tidbit of instruction which would soon present a serious dilemma for Charlie.
Over the years, Father Gene had offered a multitude of suggestions of plays the coach could consider. All had been rejected as “too complicated”, “ineffective”, “unlikely to succeed”, or the particularly hurtful “silly” tag which had been ascribed to his super secret trick play. He thought he’d try the old song on a new audience.
“It’s looking good out there, Coach. Are you enjoying your new role?”
“I have no idea what I’m doing, but, yeah, I’m enjoying it. The kids are great.”
“Say, Coach, you know I played a little ball myself.”
“Yes, I know, you’ve told me.”
There weren’t enough fingers and toes on all the kids at St. Mary’s combined to count the number of times Charlie had heard of Father Gene’s exploits on the gridiron.
“Well, I wanted to tell you about this play, a trick play, that might come in handy someday.”
“What is it, Father?”
The eager, if not a little naïve, new coach grabbed his clipboard and pen.
“At the snap, the wide receiver takes a few steps back so he is further in the backfield than the quarterback. The quarterback throws what looks like a bad pass to the wide receiver. The ball hits the ground, and the wide receiver catches it on a bounce.”
“Hold on, let me get this all down.”
Father Gene was downright giddy as he had finally found someone who might take his suggestion seriously.
“The wide receiver looks frustrated, like the pass was incomplete, and he takes a couple of steps back toward the other players.”
“It’s an incomplete pass?”
“No, that’s the trick part. It was a backwards pass, like a lateral, so it’s still a live ball.”
“The defense gives up on the play because they think the play is dead. Meanwhile, the receiver on the other side also acts like the play is dead, but then he takes off. The guy with the ball then throws a long pass to his teammate who is wide open. Touchdown!”
“That’s quite a scheme, Father. And it’s legal?”
“It sure is.”
“It sounds like a lot of things would have to go right for the plan to work. What do they call that, a Hail Mary?”
Father Gene smiled.
“With grade school kids, it would take more prayer than that. Let’s call it “The Rosary”.
“Ok, the power of fifty Hail Mary’s, ‘The Rosary’. I like that. Thanks Father.”
Was it mere coincidence or a sign from above? When Charlie turned back toward the field, the first thing he saw was Willy, the backup to the backup quarterback in a passing drill. Every one of his passes came up short and bounced in front of the receiver. His first errant pass bounced right into Tommy’s arms.
Vince took charge of the drills for the entire week, while Charlie devoted his energies to shouting words of encouragement. He also found time to introduce Tommy, Will, and Ben, a second string end, to Father Gene’s trick play. Will’s ability to consistently throw a pass short of its target without even trying was uncanny, Tommy threw a pretty good ball, and Ben caught almost half the passes thrown to him. The boys loved it, and every day they would practice The Rosary. Bounce pass from Will to Tommy, fakes all around, long pass from Tommy to Ben, touchdown! You can imagine the smile on Father Gene’s face as the boys put his plan into practice.
Charlie loved working with the kids, but he had one nagging concern.
“Listen, Father, I’ve got a little problem. If we win the game this week, we win the league championship. Do I play all the kids, or do I play to win?”
“That’s a tough one. You’re the coach. I suggest you pray for guidance.”
“Pray for guidance? That’s all you’ve got?”
“Never underestimate the power of prayer.”
A music teacher and three 6th grade boys took Father Gene’s trick play seriously. That’s all he needed to feel like the reincarnation of Vince Lombardi. He left the stands and inserted himself into the practices. Many teams have a special teams coach. St. Mary’s had a special play coach.
“Excellent, Will. Get the point of the ball down so it gets a nice bounce off the ground. And Tommy, make sure you take three steps back. You’ve got to be behind Will when he throws it. And the fake is everything. You have to act disappointed. Ben, give it a good three seconds, then take off!”
“You really think this Rosary play would work, Father?”
“Faith, Tommy, faith. Well, that and a little deception.”
Father Gene flagged Tommy down when he arrived at the locker-room to suit up for tonight’s game. He sensed a different coaching philosophy with the new coach, and he thought that the scrubs might just get a little more playing time, perhaps even some meaningful time on the field.
“Tommy, I’ve got something for you.”
New football shoes…that fit.
“Father Gene! Oh, thank you!”
“I know they didn’t have anything that fit you. I wish I would have gotten these for you sooner. I have a feeling you just might need them tonight.”
Sitting on a bench in the locker-room, Tommy stared at his new shoes. He felt a pride and confidence he had never known. The rest of his uniform still cried out for relief, but man, those shoes looked great.
The stands were full, and the American flag waved briskly at the south end zone. In the cold night air, little puffs of white smoke seemed to come out of the mouths of all in attendance with every breath. Tommy could feel his heart pounding as the National Anthem played.
Late in the second quarter Tommy nervously waited for some of the second stringers to get the call, but the recommendations in the book gave way to the excitement of the moment. Charlie succumbed to the pressure to win. If Charlie did what everyone expected, he would be ok, win or lose. If he threw in the scrubs, and they lost, the first string players who worked so hard, played so hard, would be hurt, disappointed…angry. He could expect the same from the parents. After all, Charlie wasn’t a real coach. He would just carry on with the established course set by Coach Jensen. Tommy’s excitement drifted into the wasteland of disappointment.
Tommy sat on the bench through the whole third quarter. At one point he looked down at his new shoes. He felt foolish, embarrassed. He wanted to cover them up. Maybe he could sneak away and surreptitiously change into his old shoes. It would better fit his circumstance, and his brief absence would likely go unnoticed.
The first string stayed in the game well into the 4th quarter. St. John’s had the ball on their own 45 yard line leading 24-20 with 3:25 to go. St. Mary’s had to stop their drive to have any chance to win. Charlie’s thoughts were bouncing around from the action on the field to the turmoil in his own head. However it came to be, he was the coach. Guidance arrived, better late than never. Charlie called a timeout, and gathered his entire team on the sideline.
“Guys, we’re a football team, a team. That means we’re all in this together. I hope you understand. I think someday you will. Second team, take the field!”
The scrubs just stood there, amazed, puzzled, like caged chickens that had just been set free. They would be going into the game at crunch time with a championship on the line. It didn’t seem possible.
“Second team! Get out there!”
Tommy and the rest of the group ran out onto the field looking very nervous, tentative, and exuding a complete lack of confidence.
Shock, dismay, anger. Players, parents, fans alike. Charlie knew the stakes. He might incur the wrath of the entire school community, but in his heart he knew he was doing the right thing. There was one hint of a smile in the stands- Father Gene.
St. Mary’s grudgingly gave up yardage play after play as the clock ran down. It was a dispirited group, losing ground on the field and hearing the grumbling from the first stringers on the sideline. The grousing upset the new coach.
“Captain, your team is on the field.”
Vince got the message. He wasn’t just a player, the quarterback. He was the captain, and in or out of the game, leaders lead.
“Come on you guys! You can do it!”
Tommy and his teammates on the field looked to the sideline in shock. Vince was cheering for the scrubs? They almost forgot to line up for the next play.
All the starters joined in. The St. Mary’s fans began cheering loudly. With their teammates and fans behind them, the fired up scrubs stiffened their resistance and slowed the opponent’s drive.
St. John’s had the ball first and goal at the nine with two minutes remaining. It was a spontaneous outburst from Tommy.
“This is our time, guys. Let’s get tough!”
And to the surprise of Charlie, Father Gene, their teammates and fans, they did get tough. The scrubs buckled down. Three runs, up the middle, left, and then right netted just seven yards. Fourth down at the two. Seven seconds remaining. The quarterback took the snap and went right up the middle. A mass of humanity piled up at the goal line, and Charlie called timeout with one second on the clock.
It took forever for the refs to unstack the pile. The players and fans waited, Charlie hoped, and Father Gene prayed. Finally, the ball was spotted, inches short of the goal line.
The celebration was short lived. St. Mary’s now had the daunting task of going 99 yards+ with one second on the clock. The team gathered around their coach.
“Do you want us to go back in, Coach?”
“No, Vince, this is their game.”
Charlie may have been looking to the heavens for more guidance, but what he saw was Father Gene. What else could it be? Father Gene motioned with his right hand glancing off his outstretched left hand. This was followed by a quick sign of the cross. Charlie smiled and nodded hid head.
“Tommy, Will, Ben, get over here!”
“This is it, guys. A good bounce pass, Will. Tommy, shrug your shoulders, act disappointed. Ben, give it a three count and then take off. Just put it out there for him, Tommy. Look the ball in until it’s in your arms, then take off, Ben. You can do it, boys. Believe.”
An eerie silence took over the scene. Will’s voice pierced the cold night air as he called out the signals. “Hike!”, and the play was on. The ball was firmly in Will’s hands as Tommy took a quick jab step forward and then quickly backpedaled so he was further behind in the backfield than the quarterback. Will turned toward Tommy, raised the ball over his head and for the first time in his life, he fired a perfect bullet pass right into the stomach of the intended target.
The ball hit Tommy with such force it almost knocked the wind out of him. As the ball hit Tommy, Will, in a state of shock, mouthed the words, “Oh shit.”
Tommy’s eyes about bugged out of his head as he had a similar reaction, “Oh shit.”
A competent lip reader, even from a distance, could easily have discerned Charlie’s reaction as he shut his eyes tight in frustration, “Oh shit.”
Fans in the north end of the bleachers were startled when Father Gene, as the architect of the plan gone awry, vocalized his reaction, with amplitude and passion, “Oh shit!”
Tommy stood there, two yards deep in his own endzone, realizing he was out there alone, defenseless, and without the benefit of the element of surprise. The St. John’s defender, smelling a safety, lined Tommy up in his sight, charged and launched himself at him. More out of a sense of self-preservation than employing any kind of a football move, Tommy deftly stepped to his left leaving the would be tackler grabbing at grass. One down, ten to go.
Did I tell you Tommy was fast? Well he was fast in his old, worn out, oversized shoes. He was really fast in the bad boys Father Gene gave him before the game.
The fact that St. John’s had gone into a super-prevent defense, with players spread out all over the field, would work to Tommy’s advantage. He would need to evade one player at a time, rather than being cornered by several of the defenders all at once. With a little room to maneuver, Tommy took off.
He didn’t encounter another St John’s player until he reached the 15 yard line. The flatfooted defender had no chance as Tommy cut sharply toward the center of the field. A St. John’s player dove at Tommy at the 30, just catching the heel of his shoe. Tommy stumbled, nearly went down, but kept on cruising. The other St. Mary’s players came out of their state of shock and sprinted downfield. With Tommy’s zigzags, the stumble, and one impressive spin move, several of teammates were able to catch up to him and lend some assistance. The blocks were not textbook, but several managed to get in the way of the pursuing St. John’s players. That’s all Tommy needed.
Some would say he looked like Walter Peyton out there. Most went with Gale Sayers. With his helmet bouncing around like a walnut in a blender, Tommy was flying. Charlie ran down the sideline waving his arms toward the goal line, screaming “Go, Tommy, go!”, as if he had the power to push him along down the field. Father Gene about jumped out of the stands, and there were later reports that his cheering could be heard in the next county. The St. Mary’s players on the sideline were in a frenzy as Tommy raced by.
Once free of the last defender, Tommy went into glide mode, straight as an arrow, smooth, and fast. He didn’t hear cheers and didn’t feel the cold wind on his face. He was only aware of that football cradled in his arms, and the approaching goal line. Once he was in the end zone, the excitement overtook him. In a very unlike Tommy move, he turned and struck a Rocky pose, holding the ball up high for all to see. The crowd went nuts.
Father Gene sprinted, well hurried as fast as an aging, overweight priest can move, onto the field. He made his way through the celebration of players and fans to reach the coach who was exchanging high fives with Tommy and Will.
“Congratulations, Coach! That was incredible!”
“More like a miracle, I’d say. It didn’t quite go according to your plan, but I’d say it worked out pretty well.”
“What do you mean it didn’t go according to my plan? Didn’t I tell you about the little wrinkle I put in just before the game?”
Smiles all around.