The week before our annual football showdown with Gretna was traditionally a time of nervous anticipation. However, in recent years that anticipation had veered more toward dread, as the fates of the two teams moved in opposite directions. Last year’s game was nothing short of disastrous, when a laughably overmatched Comets squad was gleefully pummeled by the Hawks 66-0. That year, Gretna went on to win the state championship. This year’s edition was considered even more formidable, with a mix of seasoned seniors and speedy, athletic underclassmen. And this game would be even more important than usual. With a win, the Hawks would be headed back to the state championship game.
But the feeling in our little community was different this year, as the recent clanging grimness was replaced by an odd, warm sensation just short of optimism. Under Ernesto Willis, the Comets had acquired something like a basic competence; his leadership an inspiration to his struggling teammates to work harder and do better. No one was predicting a Comet victory, not even the team’s most ardent fans, but there was real hope that the final score would not reach last year’s depths of embarrassment.
On Sunday, after his opening prayer, Reverend Willis read a list of persons requested to remain behind after the service for a brief meeting. As my father and I heard our names along with a dozen or so others, we slumped down in the pew, wondering what we’d done to deserve excommunication. Reverend WIllis then explained that the meeting’s agenda would be the Christmas play, which his wife would direct, or as he put it: “she’ll be our Cecile B. DeMille.” Reverend Willis selected his wife for the task because he knew from experience that she “loved to tell people what to do.”
A Christmas theatrical was a tradition at our church; a much anticipated annual manifestation of holiday spirit, featuring colorful costumes, festive songs and horrendous acting. Part of the excitement was seeing which local farmer or automobile mechanic, pressed into service as an actor, would forget his lines and go completely blank on stage. On the other hand, some church members reveled in the joys of amateur thespianship. Mr. Adkins, our neighborhood insurance broker, once delivered a performance as Joseph and Mary’s grumpy innkeeper that was so hammy and scenery-devouring he’d been quietly banned from all future productions.
After the service, as my father and I made our way toward the front pew, I wondered if this year I’d be pegged as a shepherd or a wise man. My Christmas play curriculum vitae consisted entirely of these two roles, usually on alternating years. I was secretly hoping it would be a wise man, as the mysterious, dusky chants of We Three Kings of Orient Are perfectly fit the limited wheelhouse of my vocal range. The reliability of which puberty had taken a major toll.
Mrs. Willis handed out scripts to her motley troupe, with each character’s lines underlined in red marker. This year’s production would be a departure from the traditional Christmas play; a contemporary re-imagining of the holiday that included socially relevant elements. The play would be a sort of Baptist Our Town, complete with a folksy, omniscient narrator. The central theme would concern a young boy named Tommy, whose beloved Golden Retriever Buck had been run over by a car and seriously injured. As Buck desperately clung to life at a nearby Veterinary hospital, young Tommy would grow to question God’s providence for our lives, and venture dangerously close to the dark abyss of atheism.
It didn’t sound like there would be much call for shepherds or sultans this year, so I quickly thumbed through the text searching for my red lines. I didn’t appear until page 23, almost at the end, and I’d been assigned the role of Angel #2. I breathed a little easier, figuring a second banana angel couldn’t be too difficult. But as I read closer I discovered Angels 1 and 2 were expected to perform a duet of O Holy Night. I slumped in despair, for the dramatic O Holy Night was an absolute butt kicker, the Queen of the Night of Christmas songs. I wasn’t much of a singer anyway, so me pulling off O Holy Night was about as likely as a crew of chimpanzees successfully constructing a replica of Hoover Dam. After this performance, I’d probably be joining Mr. Adkins on the church’s list of forbidden hacks.
But my trepidation was small potatoes compared to my father, whose ruddy, sun-drenched farmer face had turned a ghostly white. He’d been handed the role of the narrator, and his script contained more red ink than the balance sheet at American Motors. It was a bit of casting against type. Like most farmers, my father was a soft spoken man, given to barely intelligible mutters and mumbles --an annoying trait his son had inherited-- and not at all the sort of person likely to enthrall a capacity-filled venue with powerful and erudite projection.
There was also the matter of memorizing his lengthy monologues. My father could recite cold the unique fertilizer requirements of every square inch of his 80 acres, but the thought of committing all this verbiage to memory left him considering a swift and sudden conversion to Presbyterianism. After the meeting, it was a quiet ride home to my mother’s lovingly prepared fried chicken lunch, as both father and son had been issued herculean challenges that could prove to be their undoing.
Despite a chilly breeze that signaled winter’s icy approach, it was standing room only at Gretna Stadium the following Friday for Comets versus Hawks. As expected, Reverend Hawley’s familiar voice reverberated throughout the facility as he delivered the traditional pre-game prayer. In his time away from us, Reverend Hawley still had not mastered the art of brevity, and his solemn petition seemed to drag on to infinity. He asked God to keep the young men in tonight’s game safe from injury and mindful of the principles of good sportsmanship. He then requested blessings on all those in attendance, and began to list a number of individuals in the community who were ill or infirm. When he started in on political leaders at the local, state and federal levels, mentioning several by name with their full and official titles, a swell of unrest began amid the freezing throng. With Reverend Hawley in mid-sentence, a few people began to utter “Amen”, followed by a few others, until the entire massive assemblage erupted in loud, prayer-ending hosannas. Mr. Hawley had no choice but to abandon his lengthy beseeching and swiftly arrive at his own amen, lest a revolt bodily remove him from the microphone.
Once the game finally began, it was easy to see why the Gretna Hawks were undefeated. The Hawks’ defense was big, mean and quick, swarming to the ball before the Comets could develop any momentum. Ernesto was under pressure from the get-go, his timing and accuracy ruined by Gretna’s disruptive linebackers. The Hawks ran a smooth and efficient offense, with each player executing a clearly defined objective. Their playbook contained a variety of confusing formations, leaving Comet defenders flat footed. In the early going, the Hawks scored virtually at will, and quickly built a 21-0 lead.
If the Gretna side had any deficiencies, self esteem was not among them. As the floundering Comets struggled to mount a comeback, Hawks players milled about on the sideline in a festival of self-congratulation. Several Gretna boys walked the length of the bench, sharing celebratory hand slaps with their smug comrades. Late in the second quarter, when the ball was knocked out of Ernesto’s hand resulting in another Hawks’ touchdown, the 2,000 or so in attendance assumed it was all over but the shouting.
The P.A. announcer read an advertisement from Best Western Hotels promising special rates for Gretna fans traveling to Richmond for next week’s championship game. The dreaded Gretna Hawks Booster Club began handing out preprinted maps of things to see and do in the state capital, along with a signup sheet to reserve space on a special bus they were hiring for the journey. When the whistle sounded ending the first half, most of the Gretna faithful had long stopped paying attention to the game, in favor of an orgy of triumphal back-slapping and congratulatory hugs. The Comets hadn’t beaten Gretna since 1959, and trailing 28-0, that record wasn’t likely to change anytime soon. The big concern now for Gretna fans was next week’s game, and retaining the championship trophy that, by divine right, belonged in the gleaming halls of Gretna High.
But Ernesto, his bleeding nose stuffed with cotton, had learned something about the Hawk’s defense. They tended to be overly aggressive, and often bit on his pump fakes and attempts at misdirection. With the permission of Coach Schneider, Ernesto drew a new play on the locker room blackboard. With his lineman running to the left, he would sprint to the right, where he’d have the option to throw or run. The flummoxed Coach admitted it was worth a try, even if its design made him “cross-eyed.” Coach Schneider announced the play would code-named “Mary, because we sure need her help.”
“That’s it!,” cried Ernesto,”Cross-Eye Mary, like Hetero Tool!”
The Comets received the kickoff to start the second half, and a decent return spotted the ball at their 40. In the huddle, Ernesto called for “Cross-Eye Mary” and the play worked beautifully, as he connected on a pass good for thirty yards. As the Comet receiver was driven out of bounds, a charging Hawks defender slammed him hard into the players’ bench. Penalty flags filled the air, and the Comets were awarded an additional 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. But the drive went no further and the Comets had to settle for a field goal, making the score 28-3.
After the Comets’ kickoff, the Gretna coach did a most peculiar thing. No doubt wanting to rest his starters for the big game next week, he sent his second string offense onto the field. Composed mostly of sophomores, what the group lacked in experience they made up in raw enthusiasm. They did manage a first down, but ultimately had to punt, setting up the Comets at midfield. After a couple of tough slogs, the Comets were faced with 3rd and 8. Ernesto called “Cross-eye Mary” again, and this time connected with his halfback on a crossing route who ran untouched into the end zone. As the third quarter expired, the score was 28-10.
Meanwhile, the party atmosphere at Gretna Stadium had not abated. The majority of Gretna's preppy moms and dads, obviously reaching into their secret hip flasks, continued to breezily circulate and loudly chuckle at each other’s witticisms. A lively debate erupted as to the best brunch in Richmond, prompting a wide diversity of opinion. Several patrons expressed an interest in the well-reviewed upstart The Tobacco Company, while the less adventurous clearly preferred the elegant and established La Petite France. One thing thing they could all agree on was the superior Italian cuisine of Anna’s in Carytown.
But if the game was over, no one had told the Comets who, true to their farm boy origins, continued to work hard. As the fourth quarter began, Gretna continued to play their young substitutes, but their earlier enthusiasm had been replaced by a sense of desperation. After a wobbly but time consuming drive, the Hawks decided they would go for the knock-out blow with a long touchdown pass. But the quarterback failed to grip the ball properly, and his pass sailed off in an oddly weak trajectory. It was snatched by a Comet linebacker who returned it 60 yards for a touchdown, and suddenly it was 28-17.
The Gretna coach returned his offensive stars to the field, determined to squelch the Comets‘ insolent uprising. Their return was greeted with loud cheers from the loopy Gretna fans, as surely proper order would now be restored to the universe. But the first team offense had been sitting on the bench a long time on a frosty cold night. They looked sluggish and lackadaisical, and the Comets‘ inspired defense forced a punt after three plays. With the game clock down to three minutes, Ernesto went to the well again, asking his pals to execute “Cross-eye Mary” one more time. But on this occasion, Ernesto elected to run left and follow his wall of blockers. It was a brilliant stratagem, as Gretna’s gasping defenders had learned to expect the opposite move. Soon, Ernesto found himself cruising to the goalpost, safely ensconced behind a battering ram of friendly teen-age beef. With a minute left, the score was now 28-24.
As the Comets lined up for an on-side kick all talk of fashionable Richmond eateries ceased, as the stunned --and quite tipsy-- Gretna partisans realized their beloved football team was facing imminent disaster. The high, careening kick traveled the requisite ten yards, where Ernesto wrestled the ball from the shaky grip of a panicked Hawks player. It was Comets' ball with 40 seconds to play. Ernesto tried a few long passes, but wisely threw the ball out of bounds each time when his receivers were well covered. It was fourth down with only seconds remaining. The Comets were down to their last play, with pay dirt 50 yards in the distance.
Ernesto instructed all his receivers to go long into the end zone. Ernesto dropped back, then tucked the ball under his arm and fled toward the goal line. He was nearly tackled at the line of scrimmage, but a last second spin move set him free. He ran laterally for the sidelines, where he side stepped one diving Hawk linebacker and leapt over another. Ernesto then cut across towards mid-field, where a phalanx of Comet blockers were waiting for him. His teammates toppled the approaching Gretna cornerbacks, leaving Ernesto a clear course to the goal line with only a lone defender in his path. Ernesto faked right, then scooted left, leaving the befuddled Hawk grasping at thin air. Ernesto somersaulted into the end zone as the clock showed 00:00. The Comets had won 30-28.
While the exhausted Comets piled on Ernesto in ecstasy, the stupefied residents of Gretna recoiled in disbelief. There would be no party bus to Richmond, no Eggs Benedict or Bloody Marys at trendy bistros. The mighty Gretna Hawks had been exposed as common, ordinary slugs, defeated by a bunch of grubby plowboys from that dreadful hick-town down the road. As the deflated supporters began to file out of the stadium, Reverend Hawley again assumed the microphone, requesting everyone to join him in a closing word of prayer. In response, a contingent of shattered Gretna fans yelled at the top of their lungs: “OH, SHUT UP!”
As the team bus headed towards home, Ernesto’s mind reeled from the evening’s excitement. He thought about his tenderly sweet mother, who’d been raped and killed by a gang of Panama City thugs when he was a child. He thought about his uncle, who had abandoned him at the gate of the American Army base when he decided that raising a small boy was too much for him. He thought about the kind and loving American couple who had adopted him and given him a chance for a decent life. But most of all, he thought about the gentle people of a little town in Virginia who had embraced him as a hero; people who six months ago didn’t even know he existed. The tall, muscle-bound Ernesto began to quietly weep. He had felt many emotions in the past few hours, but nothing could compare to tears of joy.
to be continued