|It’s pouring rain, the crowd is drunk, and the players are mauling Coach Tubby.|
I am watching fall football practice. The players, thick-bodied descendants of Ukrainian-German immigrants, sweat and swear. All is dust and sandburs and the intermittent crash of shoulder pads. A new teacher in the village, I am showing the flag and getting to know the pupils I will greet in a week’s time when school opens for the 1986-87 year. Last season’s 0-9 record is a distant sour spot in the town’s collective memory. The current team is full of promise, armed with an honorable mention all-stater and five savvy seniors. This is the season everyone has been anticipating during the 10 lean years since these boys showed unusual prowess as 7-year-olds on a 6-5 T-ball team.
“Ten laps! Last one in the shower buys the beer!” Coach Tubby Nenzil runs a loose ship. He isn’t joking about the beer. Within the hour, the team will reassemble in the village tavern. Rodney, the day’s slowest player, will buy Tubby a beer. Adoring townspeople, who worship the Roman Catholic church, hard work, and alcohol-not necessarily in that order-will treat the players to as much beer as they can drink.
Two months later, the season is a nightmare. A 55-0 drubbing in mid-September is the most respectable score of the fall. Only last week, a particularly hated rival scored 46 points in the first quarter. Some of the sharper tongues in town have begun to question Tubby’s coaching. Tubby’s normal congeniality has corroded into chronic grumpiness. He chews out the water boy for small miscues. He head-butts the honorable mention all-stater after a fumble. The honorable mention all-stater’s father is president of the school board; local wags put Tubby’s chances for contract renewal at somewhere below zero. Worse, Tubby’s team is on the verge of open rebellion. Sure, he’s a great guy to drink with, but when was the last time he called for a forward pass or changed a defensive formation?
This Friday is homecoming, a final chance to salvage a modicum of self-respect. The visiting team is so dreadful it has not won a game in five years. Tubby had to search a long time and talk even longer to schedule this patsy. Rumor has it that he agreed to split the gate with the visitors to entice them to make the four-hour bus ride. Hope, that most fickle of emotions, flickers.
Thursday after school, I help all four of my 8th grade students decorate their class float. Emily, the only girl, takes charge of planning and order-giving. I find myself alongside the three boys, sullenly stuffing Kleenex into chicken wire. Emily is doing the artistic stuff, painting a goofy-looking face on the dummy that will represent tomorrow night’s hapless opponent. She is proud of her handiwork. I tell her she’s got real talent. One of the boys compares Emily’s artwork to a dead armadillo. Emily bashes him over the head with a staple gun. All the boys quit. By the time Emily, her younger brother, and I finish the float, it is 3 a.m., and my work has become sloppy.
During Friday afternoon’s parade, the 8th grade float, proudly trailing a blizzard of insufficiently secured Kleenex and sporting a vaguely reptilian football dummy in the throes of some sort of epileptic seizure, wins the third-place trophy. Edging out the freshman class, which was content to enter a John Deere tractor bare of decorations save some hand-lettered “Go Team!” signs, makes the trophy even sweeter. Emily accepts the silver-colored plastic cup from the mayor and graciously names her three classmates as contributors. My name is not mentioned, an understandable oversight in the heat of victory.
At all home games, the school board members back pickup trucks against the sidelines. Women, sipping beer and smoking cigarettes, sit in lawn chairs surrounded by coolers and an occasional iced keg. Men, brandishing beer cans, roam the sidelines, following the line of scrimmage as it moves up and down the field. The crowd usually acquires a kind of bleary insolence by half time. Referees and opposing coaches tend to suffer.
This night, things go bad from the start. The patsy visiting team rolls up 35 points in the first quarter. The stunned crowd is barely through the first keg early in the second quarter when it begins to rain. The score mounts. By the time the deluge begins in earnest, with sheets of pounding rain driving the band from the sidelines and pretty well destroying the rest of the Kleenex on Emily’s forlorn float, the visitors have 55 points, and our boys have yet to get past their own 20-yard line.
Tubby and the honorable mention all-stater get into a shouting match on the sidelines. Tubby thinks his team is not giving sufficient effort. The honorable mention all-stater says Tubby is too stupid to live. Tubby grabs the honorable mention all-stater by the face mask. Rodney, lined up at defensive end and trying mightily to remember his assignment, spots Tubby’s grab. Leaving the entire left side of the home team defensive alignment unguarded, Rodney rumbles to the sideline and tackles Tubby. More teammates join in the fun. Soon Tubby is squalling loudly under the combined weight of the entire team. The visitors waltz in for a touchdown.
About then, the wind picks up, and lightning bolts begin to probe the soggy milo field to the west. The referees, soaked to the gills, squint at the scoreboard: Home 0, Visitors 63. Tubby continues to squeal and cuss and threaten under the weight of his outraged charges. The refs blow their whistles. One of them throws the ball in the air. The game has been called on account of rain and riot. At first, the home crowd is puzzled at this premature close of the proceedings. Maybe a late season tornado is headed this way. Maybe the refs are going to rescue Tubby before starting the clock.
“They called the game! Those crooks called the game!” The news ripples through the crowd. As one, 50 berserk inebriates burst onto the field. The season gone, their coach a bad joke, hopes nurtured for a decade trampled in the mud, they make the unanimous, perfectly logical decision to massacre the referees. The refs, abandoning every particle of referee decorum, run like rabbits. The crowd, roaring a deep-throated and beery hunting cry, lumbers after.
Long ago, some prescient, now-forgotten school architect placed a locking mechanism on the inside of the dressing room door.
Long ago, some prescient, now-forgotten school architect placed a locking mechanism on the inside of the dressing room door. “The Lock,” as it comes to be known in the retelling of the events, is not some wussy, five-dollar Wal-Mart lock, something a couple of guys with heft could bust through at will. The Lock, a three-quarter-inch bolt of hardened steel, now set fast in the center of a sturdy, prewar-steel door casing, is more than adequate to keep the cowering refs from a quick trip to the great gridiron in the sky. Some thunderous crashings by drunken shoulders yield nothing more than bruises. There are some profane challenges to the referees’ manhood. Rodney, who has given up pummeling Coach Tubby for a shot at some fresh meat, volunteers to fetch the cutting torch from the Industrial Arts room next door, an enlightened solution, particularly coming from a kid with an undescended brain. But by then, the blood thirst has begun to recede. The idea of destroying a perfectly good door, which is community-owned and -maintained property, goes against everyone’s grain. They’d made the refs run for their miserable lives. They’d made those bought-and-paid-for crooks cower in a tiny dressing room for a couple of hours.
Somebody mentions an untapped keg of beer in the back of someone’s pickup.
By the time the state patrol guys show up at 4:00 a.m., the dressing room door is no longer under siege. The big chore, it turns out, is convincing the referees that it is now safe to flip open “The Lock.”
There are, of course, post-game repercussions. The state activities association historically has taken a dim view of referee lynching. Its officials voice all manner of namby-pamby concerns about drunken school board members, kegs of beer on the sidelines, lack of adequate crowd control, blah, blah, blah.
In the end, the school board reluctantly agrees to ban alcohol from home football games and assents to some kind of double-secret probation. It is understood that future referee harassment will result in the village football field being treated with Agent Orange and strewn with 40 or 50 tons of rock salt.
Life goes on. The basketball team wins a couple of games in December. Coach Tubby buys enough beer for the folks in the village tavern that his job is no longer in jeopardy. And there is this class of 4th grade boys. Some big suckers in there. Some of them can run a little bit. In seven or eight years, we could have a good team again. Might be better than this year’s.