“If our fathers and grandfathers settled for mediocrity there would be a swastika on the roof of that gym. Instead of this (hand over heart) you would be doing this (Nazi salute).
I remember him pointing at the wide steel roof that glared the end of the school year sun on us as we itched in the grass, and he scratched his balls.
Coach said a lot more than that, but all I remember is him cocked towards us like he was in the wind up of a pitch, which I suppose he was- and pointing, his index finger bent towards the sky, the spit –stained brim of his ball cap pulled tight down over his eyes.
A veteran of the Vietnam war, he would then inventory his distinctions from the mediocre, the average, the lazy.
“I’ve got a steel plate in my head right here”.
The taut index finger would vibrate away from us and land on his right temple. “Four surgeries to repair this knee”, the finger would pivot over to the left knee.
“Mediocre never would have got me home”.
None of us doubted that Coach was tough, hell, he worked us like prisoners in a Red Army work camp. There was hardly a boy in that class who couldn’t run a sub six minute mile at 12 years old, or do 1200 jump ropes on command. Knowing that he had to let us get on to our next classes; pre-algebra, shop, band, whatever-was the only thing that kept many of us from jumping the fence and running for home, and he was winding up now.
“So who here wants to be mediocre?”
James, who maybe hadn’t been listening, or truly didn’t understand the question, or the more obvious yet unthinkable option- he understood the question quite clearly, cautiously raised his hand.
We look at him like the dead little boy he was. Coach Downs summoned him to the front and catching his shoulder in a vulcan pinch walked James to the fence line and said one word,
For all I know, James is still running for that infraction, that honest response that, OK, mediocre was fine with him if it came right down to it.
Did James know why he was running, or did he just not care?