Part One Here
Part Two Here
It took the Willis family a few weeks to settle their affairs --”get their ducks in a row,” as Reverend Willis described it-- but eventually their move to Virginia was complete. As planned, Ernesto arrived on the bus and lived at our house in the interim, fully complying with the strictures of the Virginia High School Athletics Board. My mother’s concerns about Ernesto being a picky eater proved to be unfounded, as the young man never left the dinner table until every morsel of her bountiful home cooking had been consumed. He was always very complimentary about her meals, and thanked her profusely after every one, which of course made my mother swoon like a schoolgirl.
My father made it clear to Ernesto that he was a guest and didn’t have to participate in farm work, but the young man was up at dawn every morning, raring to go. He enjoyed feeding the cows and hogs, often petting the shy beasts like puppies. It was haying season and Ernesto turned out to be quite an asset, hoisting the heavy bales onto the trailer two at a time. Even Eppie, who at first was suspicious and thought the young man might be after his job, had to admit that Ernesto was an excellent farmhand.
After dinner, Ernesto would teach me a few words of Spanish while I helped him with English. His knowledge of the language was quite good, but his pronunciation was heavily accented and a little rough around the edges. Ernesto also turned out be a big fan of rock music, and most evenings we would listen to a portable record player my mother had given me the previous Christmas. I was just starting my collection and didn’t have a lot of albums --mainly Ventures, Beatles and some Hendrix -- but no matter what I played, Ernesto would listen with rapt attention, his feet tapping in rhythm. One night after hearing “Rubber Soul” for the upteenth time, Ernesto turned to me and said:
“Daveed, do you have Hetaro Tool?”
“Hetaro Tool, they are very very good.”
“No Ernesto, I don’t think so.”
“I will get you some. They have a new record. Is very good.”
“Muy bien, gracias Amigo.” I replied, and Ernesto broke out in a big grin.
A few days later Reverend Willis, his family newly ensconced in their local digs, drove over to collect his son. As he took my father aside to offer his sincere gratitude, Ernesto hugged each of us goodbye, even Eppie, who I don’t think had been hugged by anyone in years. Eppie was surprised but touched; his eyes turning a misty shade of red rarely seen without the influence of homemade corn liquor.
Over the course of the summer, the WiIlises acclimated to life in our rural community. My father took Reverend Willis around to congregants' homes to help the new minister quickly learn faces and names. Mr. Willis proved that his well executed trial sermon was no fluke, as folks who had avoided Reverend Hawley’s lengthy meanders began to return to church, delighted to once again hear meaningful --and concise-- homilies. Mrs. Willis, who had made arrangements to continue her graduate work in the fall at nearby Longwood College, taught a Sunday School class and did volunteer work at the hospital. The lovely Vicky got a job at a restaurant in town, where she slung hash and rebuffed potential suitors with equal aplomb. She also sang in the choir, which prompted an increase in church attendance among the teenage male demographic.
Football practice began as scheduled on August 10th. A few days later, my father and I went into town to have some corn ground into feed. On our way home, we decided to stop by the stadium, where we found a sea of young men engaged in calisthenics. All except Ernesto, who was standing at midfield throwing footballs at an old tire swinging from a chain attached to the goalpost. When Coach Schneider saw us leaning on the cyclone fence, he huffed over to tell us practice was closed to the public and we’d have to leave immediately. Just then, the coach’s admonishment was drowned out by a loud “Daveed! Daveed!” It was Ernesto, who had seen us and was now jogging over to say hello, grinning from ear-to-ear.
“OK, just this once you can stay for awhile.” grumbled Coach Schneider. He was trying to maintain a veneer of discipline, but it was clear that as far as Coach Schneider was concerned, whatever Ernesto wanted, Ernesto got.
School started the Tuesday after Labor Day. Along with the usual excitement of new text books and new teachers, the hallways were abuzz with talk of our new star quarterback. The nature of rumors being what they are, by the end of the week the stories had grown to the point that now Ernesto was seven feet tall and scouts from the Baltimore Colts would be attending Friday’s game, contracts in hand. There was a pep rally Friday morning at the stadium with the entire student body in attendance. When Ernesto was introduced the cheering was so loud you’d have thought The Beatles had reunited and were about to perform. Several girls became so excited they began to feel faint and had to be escorted to the infirmary for aspirin and orange juice.
That afternoon, the football team boarded a school bus for the short trip to Roxboro to face the always tough Rockets in the season opener. A long string of Comet faithful tagged behind; their two dozen or so cars creating the closest thing to a traffic jam sleepy U.S. 501 had ever seen. The Comets looked tentative and disorganized, with frequent penalties and false starts. Ernesto was able to break a couple of nice runs -- it took a minimum of four guys to tackle him -- but his passes were wild of the mark. Obviously, Ernesto was a bit pumped on adrenaline, for when he did hit the target, he threw the ball with such force his receivers couldn’t hang on. Despite these issues, the game remained close until late in the fourth quarter, when the pressing Ernesto threw a foolish and costly interception that was returned for a touchdown.
The next week at home against Bethune-Jackson, the offense moved the ball a little better but Ernesto was still overthrowing his receivers. However, it looked like the Comets might pull it out. Trailing by three points with two minutes to go, Ernesto led the team on an exciting 80 yard drive that brought the capacity crowd to its feet. But with the winning touchdown in sight, hopes were dashed when Ernesto fumbled just short of the goal line as time expired. As the teams dashed off the field, Ernesto just sat on the ground, spiritually crushed. While some of the fans cheered to try to make the young man feel better, others began to wonder if maybe their star quarterback was actually a bust.
But if Ernesto’s star was fading, his sister’s was getting brighter everyday. In short order Vicky, who had somehow gotten more beautiful over the summer, made friends with all the cool kids, joined all the right clubs and committees, and became a teacher’s pet with her intelligence and work ethic. Somehow, Vicky accomplished all this while fending off requests for dates from the bulk of the school’s male enrollment. Reverend Willis had requested Vicky not to date until she’d turned 16, and she respectfully honored her father’s wishes. And when it came time to vote for Homecoming Queen, Vicky won in a landslide.
It was from her perch high atop a parade float that the sequin-gowned Vicky watched her brother find his sea legs one balmy night in late September. On the first play from scrimmage, Ernesto dropped back and hurled a forty yard pass to a sprinting receiver with nothing but green grass between him and the end zone. The play was open all night, as Brunswick County’s slow and chubby defenders were helpless against it. Ernesto also ran for a couple of scores, leading to a final tally of 52-7. And it would have been much worse, but in the fourth quarter Ernesto began to throw the ball intentionally out of bounds to spare the Bulldogs further embarrassment.
With a victory finally under their belts, the Comets headed north to Natural Bridge for a rare Saturday afternoon match up. Ernesto made short work of the Explorers, carving up their secondary in route to a 38-13 win. The next week brought Southwest Roanoke to town; a big, physical team team known for brutal defense, rough play and occasional bending of the rules. But Ernesto gave as good as he got, flattening several Ranger linebackers in a last second, 25 yard touchdown scamper that won the game 9-7.
There’s nothing like a winning streak to put the spring back in a community's step, and these were heady days in our little hamlet. As people began to make their Thanksgiving plans, the Willises were inundated with invitations, including a special party to be thrown in Ernesto’s honor at the Country Club. Reverend Willis politely declined all offers, as he had made arrangements for his family to spend the day delivering turkey dinners to the elderly and disabled. Church attendance swelled until folding chairs had to be brought in on a weekly basis to accommodate the overflow. Reverend Willis‘ inspiring oratory remained a draw, but in truth many of the recently converted simply wanted to get a glimpse of the heroic Ernesto and the gorgeous Vicky. Uncle Larry called a special meeting of the Building Committee to explore the feasibility of enlarging the sanctuary and suddenly it was cool and a source of pride to be from our bucolic burg.
Meanwhile, the Comets split their next two games, losing only to Lynchburg Dale when blatant pass interference against one of Ernesto’s receivers in the end zone was not flagged. The Comets’ record was 4-3, far from the championship season Uncle Larry had envisioned, but not bad for a team that had finished 1-7 the previous year. But there was one more game on the schedule: the annual blood-feud against the hated Hawks of Gretna, a team whose high skill was matched only be their arrogant swagger. The Hawks were not only undefeated, they hadn’t even trailed in a game since back in September. Most pundits considered them shoo-ins to repeat as state champs, with only the improved but inconsistent Comets standing in their way. Furthermore, the game would be played at Gretna Stadium, a deafening, hellish environment noted for its questionable timekeeping and rank hostility to visiting teams. Word was our former Reverend Hawley was already composing his pre-game prayer. It would be a doozy.
to be continued