Hometown Legend, p.1Jerry B. Jenkins
HOMETOWN LEGEND. Copyright © 2001 by Jerry B. Jenkins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
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A hardcover edition of this book was published in 2001 by Warner Books.
First eBook Edition: November 2001
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To Shawn Hoffman and Michael J. Patwin Jr.,
whose visual storytelling gifts
served as impetus for this book
Thanks to Bob Abramoff; James Anderson; Bev Bahr; Ron Booth; Rick Christian; Mary Haenlein; Shawn Hoffman; Dallas Jenkins; Tim MacDonald; Ken Meyer; Charles Musfeldt, M.D.; Michael J. Patwin Jr.; Leslie Peterson; and Rolf Zettersten.
1913 Paul William “Bear” Bryant born in Kingsland, Arkansas
1923 Athens City High School founded in Weeks Bay County, south of Foley, Alabama; football Crusaders finish 7-0—only new school to ever rank first in state
1927 American Leather Football Company founded by Benton Estes in Athens City
1935 Elvis Aron Presley born in Tupelo, Mississippi
1943 Gayle Eugene Sayers born in Wichita, Kansas
1947 Roscoe “Buster” Schuler born in Foley, Alabama
1961 Calvin Sawyer born in Daphne, Alabama
1969 Buster Schuler marries Helena Myrick of Kansas City, Missouri
1970 Jack Schuler born
1971 Buster Schuler becomes assistant football coach at Athens City
1973 Crusaders 8-1, ranked second in state under new head coach, Buster Schuler
1977 Elvis Presley dies; Crusaders 8-1 behind star sophomore receiver, Cal Sawyer
1979 Crusaders 8-0-1 ranked first in state for twelfth time; Sawyer all-state
1980 Sawyer to Alabama to play for Bear Bryant
1981 Sawyer injured; returns to marry Estelle Estes of Athens City
1982 Elvis Presley Jackson born in Kankakee Banks, Indiana
1983 Rachel Sawyer born; Bear Bryant dies
1985 Schuler wins one hundredth game
1986 Crusaders 13-1 under new play-off scheme behind sophomore quarterback Jack Schuler; win state title for fifteenth time
1987 Crusaders 13-1 behind junior QB Jack Schuler; win state title for sixteenth time
1988 Crusaders 12-2 behind Jack Schuler; second in state; Buster Schuler resigns
1989 Estelle Estes Sawyer dies
Name’s Cal Sawyer and I got a story starts about thirteen years ago when I was twenty-seven. Course, like most stories, it really starts a lot a years before that, but I choose to tell it from Friday, December 2, 1988, when I’m sitting with my kindergarten daughter Rachel in the stands of my old high school. We’re watching the state football championship in Athens City, Alabama, almost as south as a town can be without being ocean.
Estelle, Rachel’s ma and my wife, is in the hospital dying of the colon cancer. I’m hoping Rachel doesn’t know while knowing that she does and wondering what in the world I’m gonna do when the time comes, if you know what I mean and I think that you do. Rachel’s about to see something just as bad, and even one tragedy is an awful thing for somebody her age. But don’t let me get ahead of myself.
By the time we were sitting there, I was already a broken-down ex–football player with a blowed-out knee who nobody remembered but me. Well, maybe not exactly nobody. I suppose some recollect that I played three years under Buster Schuler, the coach out there that night. I played on one of his state champ teams, made all-state, and even rode the bench for Bear Bryant at Alabama before tearing up my leg and coming back to marry Estelle Estes.
Yeah, that Estes. Her grandpaw Benton Estes founded the American Leather Football Company in Athens City. I came back hoping to assistant coach with Schuler, but when you marry into a factory family you work there and coach junior league football if you have time, which is what I did.
But I never missed watching a high school game. Not with Buster Schuler on the sidelines. He says I was the best he ever coached. I don’t know if that’s true or he just says it but I know he was the best I ever played for, including the Bear (but they might as well have been twins). Buster played at Bama years before I did, only he didn’t get hurt and he did well and all he ever wanted to do after that was be just like Bryant.
This was one of those big rivalry games against Rock Hill from up the road. We’d beat em for the state championship at their place the year before and were fixing to do the same that night at home. Rachel had her little good luck plastic souvenir football that American Leather passes out to everybody who tours the place, and I had more hair than I’ve seen in the mirror since.
I love these games. The night air, the concrete stands, the rickety light poles, the ambulance that stands waiting but had been used only for the broke arm of a visiting player two years before, the band, the cheerleaders, the banners, the scoreboard with “Home of the Athens City Crusaders” underneath it in white on red.
Schuler wore his trademark fedora, sports coat, and tie. He was smooth-faced with dark, thinning hair and a black mustache, and this was his sixteenth season as head coach.
All around us sat moms wearing corsages and elementary school and junior high boys whose dream was to play for Buster Schuler and wear the crimson and white of Athens City High. Coach Schuler’s wife was behind us too, but she always sat alone. I never saw Helena so much as clap, let alone cheer.
Now here’s why sometimes I think Buster’s only saying it when he says I was his best. Everybody knows he’d lived for the day he could coach his only son, Jack—his starting quarterback now for three straight years. Number 7 was a beautiful specimen of a football player, a tick under 6'4", about two hundred pounds, and faster than a wait to face the principal. He could also throw the ball through a wall, but course he hardly ever got the chance. The whole time every game, Buster would run the Bama wishbone offense—that’s where the quarterback runs with the ball until he has nowhere to go and then
Going into that game the Crusaders had lost only once each season with Jack at QB. Oh, the boy could run, and he was a leader, but everybody knew that if ever there was a kid who resented that ancient offense and challenged the old man’s authority, it was Buster’s own son.
And Daddy wasn’t happy. Jack would behave himself for the first quarter or two, long enough for Athens City to roll up a big score. But there was no corraling that colt, and Buster would wind up slamming his hat to the ground, benching his own son, and stomping up and down the sidelines like he was losing instead of winning.
Next game Buster would start the backup quarterback, they’d struggle till Jack was out of the doghouse, he’d come in and get the big lead, start improvising, and get himself benched again.
Somehow it all worked anyway, but Buster would say, even in The Athens Courier, that his son was no example of how he expected his team to play. Jack had his full ride to Bama already sewed up and everybody knew that the Crusaders and Buster—frustrated or not—would ride to their championship on Jack’s back.
So anyway, we were there and I was amazed as always at Rachel’s attention span. I mean, I was a fan at her age, but by the fourth quarter I was usually playing my own football game behind the stands somewhere. She always hung in there though, asked questions, studied the scoreboard, and pretty much knew what was going on. She knew most of the players too.
Rachel even knew a little about the trouble between Coach Schuler and Jack, so when this game got down to eleven seconds to go and us trailing 28-24, third-and-ten on their 35, she looked up at me when Buster called his last time out.
A field goal wouldn’t do it, and Rock Hill could smell that championship clear as the shrimpy salt air wafting up from the Gulf.
“We’re gonna hafta throw the ball, aren’t we, Daddy?” Five years old and she’s strategizing.
I smiled at her. “Rachel, Coach Schuler’d sell his first-born child before he’d put that pigskin in the air.” I honestly don’t know why I said it that way, and don’t think I haven’t asked myself more than once in the years since. Jack was not just Buster’s firstborn, he was his only-born. But I said it and there it was.
I was nervous as everybody else, and I could hear the crowd whispering the same thing Rachel was thinking. Surely Buster’s got to let Jack throw that ball into the end zone. Nobody could keep Jack Schuler from throwing a TD in a do-or-die situation like this.
We were all standing, waiting, breathing only cause we had to. Coach Schuler was scribbling on his chalkboard and pointing at players. I could see from big Jack’s cocked head, towering over the others, that he was upset.
The rest of the team shouted “Crusaders!” and hurried onto the field, but Jack stood there shaking his head as he jammed on his helmet. Coach Schuler spun and saw his son slowly getting ready to head back out, and it was clear he didn’t like what he saw. He grabbed the boy’s facemask and pulled him close. I’d been there enough times to know what he was saying. “I don’t want any fool heroics. This team needs you now. You’re gonna go out and block like a Buick!”
I looked for Jack to give his dad some eye contact and show he was getting with the program. Right or wrong, you do what the coach tells you and you do it with all that’s in you. But Jack just pulled away. Coach Schuler smacked him on the seat and shoved him onto the field with both hands.
I shoulda known what the boy was gonna do when a couple of the players looked to the sideline as if what they’d just heard from Jack in the huddle didn’t jibe with what the coach had said. When Jack stepped up over the center, he sneaked a peek toward his dad, who was locked on him like he was willing him to stay with the plan.
The ref cues the clock and Jack takes the snap. As the play unfolds I see immediately it’s the wishbone again, Jack leading the way. He’s supposed to find a hole to run through or pitch to a back and block, as his father always told us, like a Buick.
Jack runs to his right, then drops back like he’s gonna throw. Coach Schuler slams his hat to the ground as Jack spins right and comes all the way back to the near side of the field, eluding tacklers, not to mention his own running backs. He fakes a pass then races upfield, switching the ball from right hand to left and stiff-arming Raiders as he turns toward the end zone. Rachel’s toy football digs into my shoulder as she pulls herself up and stands on the seat next to me.
The clock has run out and the noise is deafening and I’m shouting “Go! Go! Go!” as Jack reaches the 10 and then the 5, where two Raiders catch him from opposite sides. One hits him high, the other low, cartwheeling him into the air.
We all fell silent, wondering whether he’d hang onto the ball and if his momentum would carry him into the end zone.
But Jack dropped straight onto the top of his head, his full weight on his neck. In that eerie silence, I swear I heard the snap of his spinal cord from fifty yards away. Jack flopped onto his back like a Raggedy Andy, the ball slowly rolling free, and I knew. I knew from the silence of the new state champions and their fans on the other side of the field. I knew from the body language of Coach Schuler.
I turned to lift Rachel down and hid her head in my chest. The crowd started to murmur and Coach called out, “Jack?” his voice pitiful.
I glanced over my shoulder to where Mrs. Schuler stood alone, staring, her hands clasped before her mouth.
As the teams gathered around the still boy and para-medics slid a stretcher from the ambulance and waited for their cue, Coach Schuler ran out from the sideline. Players on both teams made way as he brushed a ref aside and fell to his knees before the boy.
The crowd went silent again, staring, as the coach wailed, “Son?” He unfastened the boy’s chinstrap. “Come on! Jack?”
He felt the boy’s neck, then looked desperately at the stunned players. Shoulders slumping, he scolded his son, as if by challenging him he could force him to rise and defend himself. “Why didn’t you do what I said?” he cried out, begging with his hands, his voice echoing. “Why didn’t you do what I told you to do?”
He finally broke down, laying his cheek on his son’s chest. His sobs made us turn our eyes away.
Rachel, still clutching her tiny football, tried to peek through my hands. “Is Jack going to be all right, Daddy?”
I was grateful for the crowd between us and the field, but I had never lied to her. “I don’t know, sweetheart,” I said. “It doesn’t look good.”
“Is he going to die?”
“I sure hope not.”
The coach’s wife marched down the steps past us, ignoring comments and reaching hands. “Miz Schuler!” I called after her. “Helena, wait!”
But she headed for the parking lot. I pulled Rachel along and trotted up to the woman. “Helena, let me—”
She turned on me, her eyes dark and narrow. “I’ve been a football widow for twenty years. And now, and now— unless you can change this, Mr. Sawyer, no, there’s nothing I’ll let you do.”
She rushed to their light blue Mustang convertible, slid in, and slammed the door. As the car raced off into the night, Rachel stared up at me. “She thinks Jack’s dead, doesn’t she?”
I pursed my lips and shook my head, but Rachel was right. And so was Helena Schuler.
The boy woke shivering at dawn in the loft of his parents’ ramshackle house in Kankakee Banks, Indiana. So he had slept! Last time he’d checked, it was just after four in the morning, and he knew Santa would not come as long as he was awake.
Now he crept to the landing at the top of the stairs, his tiny feet making the floor creak. He leaned over the banister far enough to see that the tree, which had stood bare in the living room for two days, had magically been trimmed.
At the bottom of the stairs he tiptoed toward the blinking lights, the strung popcorn, the shiny balls, the star up top. He had asked Santa for only one thing, and while nothing under the tree appeared the proper s
The boy moved to his parents’ bedroom, a chamber so small they hung their clothes in a hall closet. The door wouldn’t open all the way without hitting the bed, and he had been warned to never let that happen unless the house was afire.
He carefully pushed the door, and the light roused his father. “What’sa matter, El?” he said, his voice thick.
“Nothing, Daddy. Just Christmas morning, that’s all.”
His mother groaned while his father slowly sat up. “Be right with you, son. Get the Bible.” Elvis not only got the Bible, but he also found Luke 2, though he could barely read. The boy had memorized the books of the Bible, and he could almost recite this story by heart. There would be no presents until they heard the real story of Christmas.
He sat staring at the package, the couch cushion scratching the backs of his legs, his feet bouncing inches from the floor. “Get some clothes on, honey,” his mother said, squinting, enfolded in her long robe. “It’ll only take a second.”
The boy bounded back upstairs and pulled on a sweatshirt, jeans, and yesterday’s socks. Back downstairs his dad ran his hands through his hair and asked if he couldn’t have a cup of coffee before they started.
“No!” the boy said, knowing his dad was kidding. “Come on, now! Read and let’s go!”
Elvis knew Jesus was way more important than Santa, and he had learned not to complain about how long it took to get to the presents. His gifts to his parents were crafts fashioned at school, but George and Eloise Jackson acted like they’d never seen anything so special. “A hanger painted gold,” his mother said. “I’ll use it for my winter coat.”
“Paint wouldn’t stay on till we scratched the hangers,” Elvis said.
He gave his dad a lanyard, perfect except for two twisted loops. George hung it around his neck immediately and said he would look for his whistle later.
They made the boy save the biggest box till last, and the longer it took to get to it, the more he worried he might be wrong. Unless he was imagining it, the smell was stronger than ever. But would what he wanted come in a square box? Was Santa trying to throw him off? Surely he hadn’t misunderstood and thought the boy asked for a basketball.
Hometown Legend by Jerry B. Jenkins / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes