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Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 22

In the days and weeks after the initial practice my life fell into a rhythm – walks around the neighborhood in the morning to strengthen my legs, a stop at Skogstad’s garage after to lift weights, the post-lunch examination of the upcoming workout at the table, and then the bike ride to East High.

Though my leg was still withered, in time I gradually whittled the bike ride to twelve minutes, the innate need to improve my strength almost instinctive. Most days all it took to create a challenge was a bus that passed me or an old lady driving alongside, the motivation to beat them unquenchable. Even if I didn’t get by, I swore I’d get them next time. I refuse to stop trying.

Mr. Zelinski and I talked each day before practice, going over the workout plan, explaining the intricacies to him and how we could accomplish the goal. The dynamic between us was uncomfortable at first, like a son telling his father what to do, but in time we fell into our roles. Though he was officially in charge, the runners looked to me with questions or training suggestions, asking for reasoning behind Raff’s workout or looking for encouragement from me for their efforts.

I adjusted and improvised workouts on a moment’s notice despite all the planning Raff put into each one, exhibiting an instinct that amazed me at times. We had a group of blue collar athletes who busted their asses each day and it would have been easy to overwork them, so instead of running them into the ground, I responded with better options.

One day after the two mile warmup I choose “Sharks & Fish tag” on the baseball field instead of 220’s because the team was unusually quiet during team stretches - unlike their typical obnoxious selves. Mr. Zelinski played along with my ad-lib like it was our thought all along, showing a faith in my plans and strategies that I didn’t have in myself. I could tell the runners had the same faith.

It was weird to have Mike Wilkinson look to me for advice, a senior who was only ten months younger and one of the best runners in the state, absorbing my suggestions like they were from some bearded sage. It never ceased to amaze me that he took the words so seriously.

I rapidly discovered my new role as assistant coach was to confirm to the athletes that these facts, lead to this conclusion – a four-minute forty-second pace for a two-mile was reasonable after this workout, that the speed training we added would be a guaranteed game-changer at the big meets, or that sometimes you had to throw caution to the wind and trust in yourself. I knew when to berate them for laziness, praise them for the effort, point out the performance today was not the performance tomorrow, and that a good attitude could improve the chances for a great outcome.

By the end of September, the limp was mostly gone, but my inability to run with any speed continued to be a frustration. Many times I was so engrossed in coaching my mind thought I could sprint over to encourage runners, even though my body was unable to follow through with the action.

We rolled through both meets like a steamroller over pop bottles, winning the weekend races by huge margins, our team confidence growing like July corn. I challenged the varsity runners in practice using a variety of techniques and they responded with efforts that excited me. This is so amazing.

The third Monday, October 17th, Mr. Zelinski caught me before practice as I headed down to the locker room to take a leak, asking if we could talk. I was suddenly nervous. Did I do something wrong?

“Matt, my mother died this morning.” I mumbled condolences, knowing how it felt. “So I’m leaving tomorrow to drive to Nashville…to arrange for her funeral.” He paused. “You’re going to have to take over for me at the conference meet on Saturday. I’ve already talked with Mr. Ashenbrenner and he will ride with you on the bus to Cedar Rapids…but he doesn’t know a thing about coaching, so you’ll have to be the man in charge.”

My eyes opened like a camera shutter in low light.

“But I don’t know…”

Mr. Zelinski held up his hand.

“Matt don’t kid yourself. You can do it better than me. The team believes in you. I know they do. So, I’ll tell them today that you’ll be in charge tomorrow…and this weekend.”

I stood in front of the team on Tuesday, sweat rolling down my armpits, the hair on the back of my neck at attention. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I had thought many times this fall how cool it would be if I were the man in charge, but right now it didn’t seem like such an exciting idea. Thirty-two faces leaned forward, squinting into the sunlight over my shoulders. I took a deep breath and plunged forward, reciting the plan I put together.

“OK boys, here’s what we are going to do this weekend.” I paused. “No school has ever won the Frosh/Soph, JV, and Varsity titles at the MVC meet. I looked over the other Mississippi Valley teams last night and know it can be accomplished. And I want East High to be the first one to do it.” They all smiled, grinning at their buddies. “But it’s going to mean some sacrifice.” My head swung from one side of the group to the other, looking into their faces. “Are you willing to do it?”

Every head nodded. I grinned and rubbed my hands together, spending the next ten minutes going through the head to head battles with conference schools – and the permutations needed accomplish this feat. I could see by their expressions everyone was excited.

The headline in Press Citizen said it all, “Little Hawks Sweep MVC Titles.”

It was weird to have all the coaches congratulate me Saturday after the award ceremony, treating me as an equal, as though I had been a part of the coaching crowd for years. The Muscatine coach asked me how Raff was doing and a little about our weekly mileage, the assistant from Clinton looking for suggestions on how to structure his workouts, the CR Washington coach jokingly asking what they ate for lunch each day.

Mr. Ashenbrenner sat up front on the seat opposite me on the way home, chattering for thirty minutes about what a great job I had done, promising to drive out to watch us run at State – even though Mr. Zelinski would be back. This experience was as thrilling as any of my state title – maybe more. From that day on I knew I wanted to be a coach. Nothing gave more in return for the investment I made than helping others achieve their dreams.

The following Wednesday after dinner Liz called, inviting me to go for a walk. We met in the alley behind our garage. She kissed me but didn’t smile. Something was up. It was unlike her to be so quiet. We walked silently down Market Street holding hands, the chill of winter beginning to make its presence known. She sighed and then looked up at me as we slowed under a giant oak tree.

“I’m late…again.”

Her words hit me with an impact as powerful my father’s drunken blows. I stopped and turned towards her, at a loss for words. I rubbed my forehead with one hand as I stared at the sidewalk, the world around disappearing. What in the hell had I done?

I took a deep breath and reached over to hug her, tears running down her face as I wrapped her in my arms. Sobs racked her body, thoughts racing through my head in a steady stream. How are we ever going to deal with this? I started to speak and then stopped. As if Liz read my thoughts, she nodded.

“My periods are like clockwork.” She blew her nose. “I’ve never missed two in a row.”

The first time we slept together was unexpected. She was trying to console me after reality slapped me in the face. Trying to pull me out of the dumps. The Hawkeye cross country meet over the Labor Day weekend took me to depths she had never seen, my downward spiral making her look for solutions we shouldn’t have considered.

It took me a minute to get the next words out of my mouth.

“What should we do?” I was afraid to continue the thought. “Keep the baby or…” The words drifted to nothing. “Tell me what you want.”

She wiped tears away with her fingers as I kissed her forehead.

“I promise to be with you. I won’t let you go through this alone.”

Neither of us spoke, afraid to express thoughts. She finally looked up.

“I want to keep it. I can’t consider anything else.” I kissed her again.

“Then that’s what we’ll do.”

I only wished my bravado was as real as it sounded. Thoughts turned to mom. How ironic. She went through the same experience. I could only pray I was more supportive than my father had been. And that things turned out better.

The weekend after our State Championship win in Marshalltown, Liz and I were married at the Johnson County Court House by Judge Schwengel, Steve Skoglund my best man, Alice the Maid of Honor. I invited Mr. and Mrs. Wilkinson as guests, hoping they realized how much they meant to me. Mr. Wilkinson was touched seeing the diamond promise ring on Liz’s finger. I smiled for pictures on the steps of the courthouse with a hand around Liz’s waist, haunted by memories of mom’s wedding photo, hoping my smile looked real.

Our reception for sixteen was on the top floor of the Hotel Jefferson, the rental of the room Mr. Wilkinson’s gift to the newlyweds. After the party I borrowed Mr. Johnson’s car and we drove across the Mississippi River near Dubuque that evening, spending the rest of the weekend at the DeSoto House in Galena IL for our honeymoon, making great use of the wonderful bed.

We returned to reality Sunday night, feeling more like high school teenagers than newlyweds, the momentous occasion seeming like a dream. Liz had senior year classes at East High on Monday and I had to see about getting a job at Howard Johnson’s. Monday morning I biked to the restaurant to talk with the manager, thinking about how quickly life had changed as I rode up the long hill on Governor Street.

We moved into the home next door, all of us inheriting the house following dad’s death. It was the only good thing he had ever done for the family. I got the job and resumed working at Ho Jo’s, but it was clear the $67 weekly take-home pay wasn’t going to cut it. We had health insurance and house upkeep, mortgage payments and utilities, things that would stretch my meager check to the limit. And with a baby on the way I would soon need much more for items I could only guess at.

In early December Wilkinson asked me to stop by his office, offering me a part-time job as a teller at the bank, the $88 weekly pay significantly higher than anything I might make at Howard Johnson’s. I couldn’t thank him enough. I remembered dad’s paycheck was larger than this but there was no way I would follow in his footsteps. Not for a million dollars.

I showed up for each eight-hour shift in a button-downed collared shirt and clip-on tie, customers occasionally recognizing my name over the window as they completed transactions, making small-talk about our 4th State Title last month and asking about my sisters. It made me feel like an adult. Although I wasn’t enamored with the clothing requirement it was better than wearing the HoJo work shirt and hideous hat.

For Christmas Liz and I celebrated twice – once at the Skogstad’s and once with Alice and Tom. It was great to spend time with Steve Skogstad and hear about his first semester at Kansas State, but tough to watch him running by our house alone over break. I still couldn’t have completed a mile at his pace. Steve’s good fortune was a bitter pill for me to swallow, all the wishes in the world not capable of fulfilling my dreams.

I prayed that somehow my career would be resurrected from the dead – that I could resume training for a collegiate career and pursuit of All-American certificates. But my wishes were never answered, disappointment the only result.

The leg was getting stronger but I still avoided any stab at running, knowing that it would only end in frustration. The doctor was happy with my progress but I could tell something was wrong with my hip, the joint continually sore after a day of standing at practice. Dr. Botti said it would take time to get back to 100%, that I would be back running if I was patient, but I wasn’t so sure.

We prepared the house for our baby, predicted to arrive sometime around Memorial Day, repainting the bedrooms, and repairing the hole between Alice’s closet and mine. I wanted to erase every reminder of dad. To make it feel like our home. It took a while getting accustomed to the crib sitting in our bedroom when I awoke each morning, stacks of baby clothes and cloth diapers neatly folded on the mattress.

In January, I took Liz to the Winter Formal at East High for a last foray into high school social life before the baby arrived. She wasn’t showing yet but I could see the changes in the morning when she came out of the shower. I doted on her at the dance, making a point to hold hands and give hugs in front of her girlfriends, talking with the cross country runners standing along the wall while she shared news of the marriage ceremony with the girls. I could hear the squeals from across the gym floor after they found out she was pregnant, Liz rejoining me shortly after with a kiss on the check and a hug, walking hand in hand to get our winter coats.

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