Here is the first place winner for adult fiction, Sherri White.
by Sherri White
Dee Morrison hated sweaty palms.
“Sweaty palms means a person is nervous. I don’t want to look nervous,” thought Dee.
But the majority of the hiring board for the Poetry Independent School District would totally understand if Dee was sweating buckets all over her body. Not too many women would have the courage to apply for the head coaching job for varsity football.
Dee wouldn’t call what she was doing “courageous.” It felt more like destiny. A, “I may throw up, but if I don’t do this I’ll regret it for the rest of my life,” destiny.
She wanted to fulfill her destiny and part of that involved coaching football. And more specifically it involved coaching high school football. Dee liked to blame this football destiny on her father.
David Morrison, or Papa Morrison, as he was known to his family and students, had been the head football coach at the J. Frank Dobie High School, home of the “Fighting Vaqueros,” for 30 years. During those three decades, Papa Morrison had led the Vaqueros to 28 play-off seasons, which included 25 seasons of district championships and two state championships.
The only two years Papa M did not have a winning season were his first year as coach and his last as coach. Papa M would tell those that he mentored his first losing season was due to youth and inexperience. Later, he would say his last year as coach with a losing record of 2-6 was due to old age and hemorrhoids.
A week after that last season, Papa M handed in his resignation and left his office with only his highly coveted play-book. Left behind were his plaques, tributes and other honors, items he really could care less about. The most important item he would never leave behind, the one thing that held 30 years of memories and wins was his leather bound play-book.
“Matilda, the Messenger of Death,” was what the play-book was called amongst the coaching staff. For Papa Morrison it was his third love after his wife Jennie, and his children. “Matilda” contained years of defensive plays that insured direct hits to the opposing quarterback and offensive plays that secured domination in the end zone. Detailed drawings, notes written in every corner of every page along with newspapers clippings, anecdotes and just about anything related to football were in that book.
To say it was highly coveted by Papa M’s coaching staff upon his retirement was an understatement. The want of this book was so desperate between the six remaining members of staff, people half expected God to step in and add an 11th commandment, “Thou shalt not covet another’s play-book.”
However, Papa M was not the typical coach. He wasn’t going to keep the play-book for himself; he had no intention of going home and years later be buried with the play-book clutched in his cold dead hands. His intentions were slightly selfish but also honest. He knew who should replace him, who would be the perfect coach to use his ideas and plays to each one’s highest potential. He also knew this person would be the type of coach that would incorporate new ideas, and bring a new passion into the game.
There was one person and one person only that could bring the Vaqueros back from the bottom. And so the day he left his job with play-book in hand, instead of going home to the comfort of his recliner and his ever understanding wife, he made a beeline to Twain Street to the small blue house with a front-yard full of roses bushes.
It was the home of his daughter, Dee Morrison.
There was no such thing as jealousy in the Morrison home. Growing up the three Morrison kids were treated equally, whether they liked it or not.
Doug Morrison, the oldest, was a whiz on the computer, spent his spare time studying stats and was a pitching dynamo during his four years at J. Frank Dobie High. Doug got a scholarship to play four more years of baseball at Texas Christian University. Baseball was his first love and TCU became his second. He opted to not go professional and instead use his hard earned skills to mold young players into better players. He hasn’t regretted yet.
Luke Morrison, the middle kid, was the tallest child not only in his immediate family, but also in his class. Local folk lore in Novel, Texas is that when Jennie Morrison gave birth to her second son, before they left the hospital the newborn was bouncing a basketball. Luke Morrison loved playing basketball before he could even say the word. After smashing three backboards during the regular season of his junior year at J. Frank Dobie, Principal Frank Hart told Papa Morrison, “The next one will come out of your paycheck.” Papa decided it was time to get some help with Luke’s dunks. Private basketball lessons may have seemed ridiculous at the time, but it was cheaper than buying backboards. It was also the leg-up that Luke needed to get a full ride to The University of Texas. From there Luke was drafted into the NBA.
And finally there was the baby of the family, Dee. Jennie Morrison would always say that Dee was born two weeks early because she didn’t want to miss the first football game of the season. And for the next 32 years, Dee Morrison would spend her Friday nights from September to December either in the stands or on the sidelines, her eyes either on her dad or on the game.
It was always a joke at the Morrison house about who loved football more, Dee or Papa. As a teenager, Dee’s room was decorated in Dallas Cowboys blue and gray, but Papa Morrison actually had an authentic stadium seat from Cowboys’ Stadium.
All three Morrison kids knew the basics about football, it was mandatory. But it was Dee who took it to the next level. She was the child who begged to go to Monday night viewings of the Friday game film. There was never a need for a baby-sitter at the Morrison house, because Dee was never at home, by the age of five she was either with her dad at football practice or in his office at the high school going over notes.
You could ask anyone during that time in Novel, Texas what they thought about the Morrison family and most would have the finest comments about little Dee. In her oversized Vaquero jersey, on the sidelines next to her dad, the little girl that always carried a football in her backpack no matter what time of the year. Little Dee was the best player in the Poetry County Pee Wee Football League, male or female, from the age of five to 11.
Then junior high hit and things changed. Despite her father being the high school coach, district rules kept Dee off the football field. But it didn’t keep her off the soccer field. Soccer wasn’t football, but it was a close second. Especially when it came to kicking and for Dee that was fine.
You see for Dee, even at a young age, playing the game wasn’t the most crucial part of her obsession with football. Yes, it was a critical part, but not crucial. That is where Dee and her father were the most alike.
Coaching was crucial. Dee liked to play, but she loved to coach. She loved the feeling in the pit of her stomach that came from coming up with a play on paper, using it strategically in a game, and the final result equaled a win. So she kept playing soccer, she kept studying her dad’s game films. She watched, she read, and she listened. She would buy her time; she would go to college, get her degree and coach other things, soccer, and volleyball, whatever. One day, if she played her cards right she would get to do what she loved most of all.
And that’s how it came to be that fall day with Papa M on the doorstep of his daughter’s house. When Dee opened the door to see her father at her door, playbook in hand, she wasn’t surprised. A little stunned, but not surprised.
Luck, determination, hard work, and spunk, any of this could have contributed to Dee being a finalist for the head coaching job at J. Frank Dobie High. A final vote of 7-1 sealed her fate. Two of the school board members remembered Dee from her time as a soccer player in school, three members played for her father as students, and two more board members could have cared less about football, but were impressed with her skills as an English teacher, the one thing her and her mother had in common.
The one opposing vote for her employment came from Charles Whitman, who had been a board member for over 30 years and was totally against any women’s sports being played at J. Frank Dobie High. He was the only dissenting vote against bringing softball to the high school. And even when the varsity team won the state championship a few years later, he refused to acknowledge the team’s existence at the city wide pep rally.
“Sweaty palms, I hate sweaty palms,” thought Dee, as she shook the hand of every single board member, including Whitman’s, thanking each one for their confidence in her abilities.
In her mind, this was the end of the first half. Now it was time for the real fun. Now it was the half-time show.
The first day of summer football practice started with a one mile run around the track at 7 a.m. The run was something her dad always did on the first day of summer practice. The music blaring from the speakers of the press box above the stands was her idea.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my husband, every moment in life needs theme music,” Dee explained to her assistant coach, Kevin Grisham as she started the CD her husband had made for her the night before. The two were standing high in the stands arms crossed, frowns on their faces as they observed the athletes jogging around the track when the first song, Lunatic Fringe, by the ‘80s band Red Rider started blasting.
“A good tempo for running,” thought Dee. “Which none of them are doing.”
As the two coaches watched the players, some already puking after the first lap, others were jogging, some were walking, and a small handful were actually trying to run, the next song starts on the CD, another ‘80s song, Twilight Zone, by Golden Earring. A song with a good even rhythm, it was a song perfect for running.
Dee turned to Grisham and with a grin said, “Maybe we should show them how it’s done.”
The two bounded down the stands, jumped the fence to the track, and were soon embarrassing the teenagers by outrunning the group within a lap.
“You need something gritty, something edgy to get their attention and get them pumped for practice,” her husband had told her the night before as he handed over the CD. As she ran around the track, with a smile on her face, Dee remembered the gesture and couldn’t wait for the rest of the day to get started.
Dee’s husband, Robert Poe, was the music teacher at the school. He had a love of punk rock, the band KISS and classical music. As soon as Dee accepted the job for coach, the couple worked out a plan for the use of the practice field on the East side of the school as well as the field at the stadium. Episodes of Rock, Scissors, Paper made the plan easier.
Most people in Novel saw Dee and Robert as an interesting couple. Eight years earlier the two were both newly hired, single teachers at J. Frank Dobie High. In fact they were the only single teachers in the whole school district.
They started out as “movie buddies,” going to movies every Saturday. Next it turned into cooking classes together (Rob’s idea), then the two friends joined a book club, (Dee’s idea). By the end of the first year, Dee was wondering if maybe Rob didn’t like girls, or maybe he just didn’t like her, and that excited feeling in the pit of her stomach was a huge mistake.
But it was at the beginning of their second year of teaching that emotions changed. It started out as a typical Friday night football game. Dee had been on the sideline helping her father, she was the official soccer coach for the girls’ team, but she was the unofficial, which meant unpaid and unrecognized, punting coach of the football team. The first two quarters were over and with half-time starting, Rob’s students that comprised the marching band were approaching the field for their performance.
Rob never intended to be the typical band director, especially when it came to marching season. That season’s half-time show had a hard rock theme that included several Motley Crue songs. Dee loved it all, and after the game went to the school’s band hall to congratulate Rob. When Dee busted through the double doors of the band hall, her opportunity to say something never happened. Rob, who was forcing a snare drum into a case, looked up, saw Dee, and without a word walked over to Dee and planted the deepest kiss Dee had ever experienced. She knew then that things between the two would never be the same.
They married the following spring. Papa M was happy his daughter had found someone who would never be intimidated by Dee’s love of football. Jenny Morrison was just happy he was a Methodist. Rob and Dee had just one rule that had basically worked pretty well in their six years of marriage: He would never criticize the football team and she would never criticize the marching band.
Summer practice continued for Dee and her Vaqueros during the hot days of August. Mornings were spent running laps, practicing drills and watching game films. Afternoons were spent lifting weights, more drills and lots of pep talks. Always close by was the leather bound play-book. If it wasn’t in her hand during the afternoon drills, it was in her office, the same office that was once her father’s, in a locked drawer.
Some evenings after practice Coach Dee would spend the last rays of sunlight working with her kickers, a junior who would handle punts and a sophomore that would handle the kick-offs on special teams. Dee hand-picked these two for kicking, watching the two in action during a spring soccer game. Both could kick the length of a football field, but the junior, Ethan Miller, could catch the ball from the center and punt quicker than a blink. And in the next blink he could block an opposing player, putting them on the ground. The sophomore, Dennis Miller, Ethan’s brother, could kick long, but could switch easily and do an off sides kick that would could make the ten-yard minimum rule. Dennis could do both perfectly and also do it right on cue. Dee felt like she had died and gone to kicking heaven.
Nothing could go wrong if the team kept up this pace. Many nights at home, Rob would find Dee asleep on the couch, exhausted from the day play-book clutched tightly to her chest, a smile on her face.
The team’s first scrimmage a few weeks later was a disaster, the fragile nerves of a young team with a sophomore as quarterback was the Vaqueros undoing. Practiced plays, pep talks, everything was forgotten. By the end of the scrimmage, Dee was at a loss for words. Silently she left the field and boarded the bus for home. Grisham told the team that they would talk about it tomorrow.
The next day the players headed to the field for the daily run. That’s when they heard something different. The music was not the usual hard, edgy rock that played during the morning run.
“Is it Miley Cyrus,” a few of the players asked each other.
“YES IT IS,” yelled Coach Morrison through a bull horn at the top of the stands.
So as the team ran laps to the song, Everybody Makes Mistakes, Coach Morrison explained the change of the morning music line up.
“This is what you’ll hear, if you screw up as bad as you yesterday,” explained Morrison through her bullhorn. “I love this song; my six-year old daughter loves this song. I’m sure you hate this song. Let’s try not to make this a regular request.”
The team understood perfectly. Miley Cyrus was not heard on the speakers too many times after that day. From that day on there was an unspoken agreement, a realization of sorts between the team and Coach Dee: She may be a woman, but she was a coach first and she expected perfection.
And before she knew it was the first week of school. The first week is a busy time for teachers who also coach. Despite being the head coach, Dee kept her job as the sophomore English teacher. She was good at being a teacher, it was in her genes, and she was too selfish to give up teaching about Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Friday finally arrived which meant that night would be the first game of the season. It would be on the Vaqueros’ home turf, which meant the whole town would be there to see Dee win or fail. At least that was what her mom was thinking. Dee’s dad was curious to see if she had any tricks up her sleeve that she planned to use during the game.
Dee was just eager to hear the school’s fight song, watch her players on the field and just win. Rob was keeping his distance; he had his on pressures to deal for Friday night.
Secretly Rob didn’t care who won the game, just as long as the teams didn’t mess up the field for his band’s half-time tribute show to KISS. After three years of begging and pleading the school district for permission he finally got the green light to do a half-time show in honor of his all-time favorite band.
The new show would include the flag corp dressed in full makeup and sequins like the lead singer Paul Stanley and the drum major in full costume like Gene Simmons. The only part of the show the school district would not allow was the part where the drum major would shoot fire from his mouth.
Shock and awe was what Rob was hoping for, the principal was just hoping for a minimum of five angry phone calls from parents.
Dee and Rob’s daughter, Cynthia Poe, a wise and worldly six-year old kindergartner, could have cared less about the band or the football team. Her excitement centered around the fact her grandpa would no longer be standing on the sidelines of the game. He would be in the stands with her. Plans were for her, Papa M and Grandma Jennie to critique the chants, the flips and the jumps of the varsity cheerleaders.
Yes, much to Dee and Rob’s dismay, Cynthia could care less about football and even less about music. Cheerleading was her sport.
As game time was fast approaching, Coach Dee had one final talk with her Vaqueros. Gone were her sweaty palms, nervous stomach, her caring what others expected. Instead she was ready to be on the field, she was ready to coach.
“Win or lose, tonight is going to be one of the most important events of your young lives,” started Dee. “People are expecting miracles out there tonight on the field. They want a win. We want win. And we can do it.”
“But there are others out there tonight who don’t want us to win. Why; because you have a girl for a coach. They’re going to say, ‘Girls can’t be in football.’ Well, we’re going to prove that wrong tonight.”
“So tonight when we’re out there, remember I’m a coach first, and I’ll be out there backing you, and praying for you and expecting you to be the best.”
“We know what’s important tonight. Tonight we fight as Vaqueros.”
And that’s just what they did.