Kevin McKinsey looked up at the bulletin board that hung just inside the main entrance of his high school. Posted on the board were this morning’s sports articles. The headline from the Birmingham paper read: Gunslinger Plays with Loaded Forty-five. As he read the accompanying article he was hit by a strange mixture of pride and humility.
To those people who weren’t football fans in the State of Alabama this headline would’ve been very misleading, but this was part of the hype preceding the state championship game scheduled to be played that night in Birmingham. The game featured a perennial powerhouse from Dothan and Kevin’s team from the normally mediocre Ft McClellan (Ft Mac) High School in Anniston.
The article itself covered the awesome passing statistics of Kevin, whose nickname was ‘Gunslinger’ and the exploits of his best friend, Jamar Pickney, whose jersey number forty-five was the other half of the headline. The two of them together had averaged over six hundred and fifty yards a game during this, their senior year.
Now, to many, Kevin’s reaction might seem strange, but his pride was in his team and in the exploits of his best friend. Kevin himself was very atypical of the traditional sports hero. First, he was extremely intelligent, scoring over fifteen hundred on his SAT. Second, he didn’t see himself as someone special, but was just someone doing his job. Of course he did enjoy winning, but primarily because it was a way of measuring his performance. Beyond that, he tried as much as possible to be a normal student, friendly and pleasant to everyone. While Kevin turned away from the bulletin board he heard his coach calling from down the hall.
“Kevin, I’ve some people in the teacher’s conference room who’d like to talk to you.”
“Coach, I’ve French this period.”
“I know. Missus LaRue is aware and has given you an excused absence. In fact, when I asked her if you’d miss anything she laughed and said you already spoke French better than she did.”
Kevin laughed, and said, “Well, it didn’t hurt that Dad was stationed there for almost four years.”
Coach Bryson led his star quarterback down the hall, asking, “Speaking of your Dad, is the Colonel going to be at the game tonight?”
“Yes, Sir. He’s flying in to B’ham this afternoon, and going directly to Legion Field. If I can, I’d like to ride home with him after the game.”
“Son, I don’t see a problem with that. You get to see him little enough, as it is.”
“I know, but staying with Sergeant Pickney and his family isn’t bad. I’ve Jamar, and the rest of the family treat me well.”
Just before they entered the room Coach asked, “Does it ever seem strange to have a black family be your guardians?”
“Coach, Sergeant Pickney worked with my Dad for more than twenty years, and Jamar and I even shared the same playpen. Since Mom died eight years ago, and all of Dad’s travel these past few years, they’ve been my family. I never think about the color of their skin, just about the love and respect they’ve shown me.”
In the conference room Kevin was introduced to two men and a woman, all of them stood when Kevin and Coach Bryson entered. The older of the two men looked to be around forty-five and was dressed in tan slacks, a white shirt with a maroon tie, and a camel hair blazer. The younger man was dressed in black slacks, and a LL Bean pullover sweater. The woman was in her early thirties, blond, and wore a Navy blue skirt and blazer, a white oxford blouse, and a burnt orange scarf around her neck for accent. It was obvious she’d done her homework wearing Auburn University’s colors. Kevin had already committed to accept their offer of a scholarship.
“Kevin,” as Coach introduced the people who waited to shake his hand, “this beautiful young lady is Alicia Clotfelter with ESPN. Next is Robert Armstrong of Sports Illustrated, and finally Geoff Palmer of Fox Sports. With your permission, they’d like to interview you.”
After giving his coach a look of frustration Kevin tried to be pleasant to the people who’d traveled a great distance to learn more about him.
Ms Clotfelter seemed to sense his discomfort and asked, “Kevin, do you have a problem with this, or are you just shy?”
“Honestly, I am uncomfortable with this, but probably not for the reasons you think. As far as I’m concerned it’s the rest of the team you should be interviewing. If they didn’t do their jobs I’d be just another high school quarterback hoping for a scholarship offer somewhere.”
Mr Armstrong replied, “Kevin, that’s really why we’d like to get to know you and to introduce you to our readers. You’re the antithesis of every stereotypical high school jock any of us have ever heard of. I think, for that reason alone, the interviews would be worthwhile. When you add to that your phenomenal statistics, it’ll make our readers and listeners want to learn about the real Kevin McKinsey.”
The young man from Fox added, “Kevin, I agree with Robert, but it’s more than that. You’re like the ‘kid next door’ to people. You’re accessible, humble, and genuinely care about more than just football. In addition, from what I’ve learned, you’re intelligent enough to go to school anywhere, even without football. This makes you ‘good news’ compared to so many out there who are bullies, trouble makers, and borderline gangsters.”
Kevin thought for a moment, and then slowly nodded while he asked, “Okay, but how will we work this. I’m missing one class this morning, but I don’t want to spend all day doing interviews.”
Alicia replied, “Your principal said the same thing. What we’ve proposed is a joint conference with only two camera people placed in the far corners of the room. We’ll just have a casual discussion, and then share the results between us. Would that be acceptable?”
“Yes, Ma’am. I don’t see a problem with that. Though I do have some limitations I’d like to impose.”
Robert Armstrong looked concerned and puzzled as he asked, “And they are?”
“First, if the subject comes up, no one says anything about my father other than that he was in the Army. Second, no pictures of our home, or anything about where I live while my father is away. Finally, I want nothing said about my social life. I’ve a very precious girlfriend, and she deserves her privacy.”
The reporter from Fox looked at the others, and then said, “Kevin, we’ve no problem with that, but why the restrictions about your father and your living arrangements?”
“My father is an investigator with CID, the criminal investigative division of the Army, and often times has to work undercover. I don’t want anything said by you that could put his life or career in jeopardy. As for the other, while my father is traveling I stay with his old sergeant and his family. Even though we’ve progressed a lot in this state, there would be some out there who might respond negatively to me staying with a black family.”
Geoff replied, “Kevin, your reasons are obvious and acceptable. We’ll do nothing to compromise any of the three relationships.”
With that agreement two camera crews were quickly brought in and microphones were placed in front of each of the four, and tested. Finally, a makeup person worked with each of them for a few moments.
When the interview began Alicia introduced everyone to the audience and gave some overall statistics of Kevin’s high school career.
Turning to the young quarterback she asked, “Kevin, are you nervous?”
“Yes, Ma’am. I still can’t figure out what all the fuss is about. It’s my teammates that enable me to do what I do. They’re the real stars of this team.”
Geoff responded, “Well, I talked to most of your teammates after practice yesterday, and their opinion is a little different. To a man, they said it’s an honor just to be on the field with you. In fact, I got the distinct impression they’d follow you into Hell. Their feeling is that without you and Jamar, they wouldn’t even have a winning season, much less be playing for the state championship. As for Jamar, he says you’re so good everyone keys on you. He just has to wait for you to put the ball in his hands.”
Kevin replied, “Well, if you believe all that, then I’d like to talk to you about some property in New Orleans.”
Everyone laughed at Kevin’s obvious joke.
“Kevin,” responded Mr Armstrong, “I spent yesterday reviewing the films of your season. I have to be honest, I’ve never seen anyone, even in the pros who seemed to sense where everyone was on the field. Have you even been sacked this year?”
“No, Sir, but I came close many times, and I have the bruises to prove it.”
“Also, I’ve never seen anyone with the throwing touch you have. Whether it’s across the middle, or long down the sidelines, the ball seems to have eyes. From what I could see, the only interceptions you had were tipped balls, and the only incompletes were dropped balls or obvious throwaways. What do you attribute this to?”
“I guess most of it’s practice. I’ve thrown to Jamar almost everyday since I was seven or eight years old. This past summer I worked-out with all our receivers for more than two hours everyday. Of course, that was unofficial and none of the coaches were there. Jamar and I also spent a week at one of Auburn’s camps for high-school athletes. They were able to help both of us immensely in fine-tuning our patterns and our play fakes.”
Alicia responded, “And clearly the effort has paid off. Now, tell us about Kevin McKinsey. We know your father is in the Army and your mother died several years ago of cancer. Has growing up like that been hard on you?”
Tears could be seen in the corner of Kevin’s eyes when he replied, “I have to be honest and say I miss my Mom, a lot. She was a beautiful and very loving woman who created in me a hunger for reading and learning that’s still there today. As for my Dad, I’ve a great relationship with him, and we’ve been together for most of the time since Mom’s death. I even went with him when he was stationed in Europe, so it’s only in the past twenty months when he has been gone more than normal. Fortunately, he only has another eleven months before retirement. He plans on being there for every game I play at Auburn.”
Robert Armstrong asked, “Kevin, if it’s not asking too much, why Auburn? With your grade point average and your SAT scores you could have gone anywhere in the country, football or no football.”
“I guess it’s mostly because of the unique spirit I found when I visited the school. My Dad, Mom, and I actually started going to their games when I was around five, and, except when we were overseas, we’ve missed very few of their home games. Other than West Point I don’t think I ever considered any other school.”
“Have you picked out a major?” Alicia asked.
“I plan on getting a double major in criminal justice and military science. I expect to make the Army my career, though I’d like to study law sometime in the future.”
Surprised at this revelation Geoff Palmer asked, “What about professional football? With your abilities surely you have to be thinking about that.”
“Mister Palmer, while I may change my mind in the future, it’s presently not in any of my plans.”
Looking at his watch Kevin announced, “I’m sorry, but we’ve about five minutes before the bell rings. I think we’ve time for one more question.”
Geoff replied, “Then I’m going to go after the question that’s bugged me since I first heard about you. How did you get the nickname ‘Gunslinger’?”
The other two reporters added, “Thanks, Geoff. I think that’s a question we’d all like to have answered.”
“Well, it actually goes back to before my mother died. My Dad was off somewhere and a friend of his found a pair of the old Mattel Shooting Shell cap pistols, along with a bunch of the bullets, plastic tips and stick on caps. They’d belonged to his son who’d been killed in Vietnam. After talking to Dad he passed them on to me to enjoy. I was fascinated with them and even learned to work with leather so I could make my own ‘fast draw’ holster. Of course, I got my Mom to help me. I’d play with them in my room for hours, drawing and shooting at cardboard targets.
“When I got older Dad gave me a twenty-two pistol that looked like the old Colt Peacemaker. About three years ago I moved up to a real Colt forty-five and even a ball and cap forty-four. It’s not really a big deal, but my playmates started calling me ‘Gunslinger’ when I was around nine, and the nickname stuck. I have to admit, though, I really do enjoy going to the range and shooting. In some ways, I was probably born a hundred years too late.”
Alicia asked, “What about any other hobbies?”
Kevin looked at her, and replied, “Miss Clotfelter, you’re cheating, but I will answer your question. I’m an amateur magician, I enjoy riding horses, and I’ve studied numerous forms of martial arts, though I’ve never been tested for a belt.
“Now, I need to wrap this up. I’ve an exam in AP Chemistry in less than ten minutes, and I’ll have to hurry to get to class on time.”
Kevin then shook everyone’s hand and hurried out the door.
When he reached his locker Jennifer was waiting. She looked so sexy in her maroon and gold cheer-leading outfit.
“Good morning, GS. Where were you during French?”
“Would you believe I was being interviewed by Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and Fox Sports?”
“Yep, they wanted to know all about our love life.”
Jennifer grinned, and said, “If that’s the case, I’ll bet it was the shortest interview they’ve ever had.”
“Actually, I embellished it so they wouldn’t think I was a virgin or something.”
Jennifer stopped dead in her tracks and looked hard at the only boy she’d ever dated. In fact, the only dates either of them had ever had were with each other. With her eyes looking deeply into his soul, he could no longer keep a straight face.
Realizing he’d been teasing her, she gently slapped him on his butt, and said, “If we win tonight I plan on changing that status.”
Kevin was still standing there with his mouth open when she hurried off to class. Suddenly he snapped out of his daze and was grinning from ear to ear while he headed for Chemistry. He passed through the doorway just as the tardy bell began to ring.
Mr Long looked up and said, “Mister McKinsey, I’m glad you’ve decided to grace us with your presence on this eventful day. Though with what you do to the curve I’m sure there are many here who would’ve been delighted if you’d missed this exam.”
“Sorry, Mister Long,” Kevin replied. “I was delayed getting out of the interview, even though I told them I had to get to an exam.”
“Interview, Mister McKinsey?”
“Yes, Coach got me out of French to meet with some people from Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and Fox Sports.”
The teacher grinned, as his feelings for Kevin were like so many of the other teachers. The young man was a great person and a delight to teach. This view was especially true for Mr Long, as he’d never had any use for athletics or athletes. This year, however, because of Kevin, he hadn’t missed a single game, and would scream himself hoarse over the exploits of his pupil. “Then I hope you’re prepared, as this will be an exceptionally tough test.”
With that remark the class groaned as the exams were handed out, face down on each desk. Mr Long was noted for his thorough tests, but he was also fair and graded on a curve. What most didn’t know was after Kevin had aced his first test the teacher had removed Kevin’s score so the others wouldn’t be penalized by their extraordinary classmate.
When he’d finished passing out the exams Mr Long stated, “You may begin. When you finish you can quietly gather your books and head to the gym for the Pep Rally.”
The exam was two pages long, and the first page dealt with the properties of selected elements. When Kevin finished that page he turned to the second page where he read:
The five questions on the first page count one point each. For the other ninety-five points, who is the number one high school quarterback in the nation?
Kevin immediately broke into laughter. Moments later the rest of the class joined him when they discovered their teacher’s joke.
Laughing with his students Mr Long said, “Now, get out of here and head to the gym, and Kevin, good luck tonight.”
For the next forty minutes the entire student body, teachers, and even the lunchroom workers met in the gym and cheered on these modern day gladiators who’d carry their school’s colors and honor into the coming game. It was a very moving experience, and the coaches even led the team in their own version of the ‘Tiger Walk’ on the way to the waiting buses. To say the players were pumped up would be putting it mildly.
For the next hour and a half the bus journeyed west on I-20 until it joined I-59. They exited at Arkadelphia Road and then turned onto Eighth Avenue. Two blocks later the buses pulled into their designated area outside the stadium. Then, while the coaches, trainers, and equipment managers unloaded the team’s gear Kevin led the rest of the team inside. It was the biggest place they’d ever played and many of the players were already becoming intimidated by the stadium’s size and by the reputation of their opponent.
Sensing what his teammates were feeling, Kevin sent one of the freshmen for the team’s practice balls. When he returned with one of the managers and a large canvas bag full of footballs Kevin retrieved one, and said, “Okay, Mustangs, listen up.”
When he had their attention he said, “I believe I know how most of you feel right now. This place is huge, and in a few hours it’ll be filled with more people than most of us have ever seen at one time. We can let this field and Dothan intimidate us, or we can focus on what got us here. What say you, my friends?”
Tom Witherspoon, their center, replied, “Run, Mustangs! Run!”
“Now, the first thing I want you to take note of is this is a football. It’s just like the football we’ve played with all year and is just like the one we will be using tonight. This football can not intimidate us, nor can it beat us. Am I right?”
Mike Thomas, their tight end, led them in the answer, “Run, Mustangs! Run!”
Kevin smiled, and said, “Mike, take off down the field for ten, and then slant across the middle.”
Without hesitating Mike did as instructed, even though they were wearing normal school clothes. Kevin seemed to ignore Mike until he made his cut, and then he threw the ball without hardly looking at Mike or where he was running. The ball landed perfectly in Mike’s hands. After catching it Mike ran back to the other players.
“Mike,” Kevin asked, “did that pass feel different to you?
“Nope. It was just like hundreds you’ve thrown to me.”
“How about the field? Does the grass seem to be different than what we’re used to?”
“It seems to have just a little more of a slope, but not enough to really affect us.”
“Jamar, is this field any bigger than we’re used to? What about the yard markers?”
Grinning, Kevin’s friend replied, “Nope. It’s just like what we’ve been playing on for most of the year. Ten yards are ten yards and the field is a hundred yards long.”
Buck Washington, one of the wide receivers said, “GS, all that’s good, but what about the crowds and the noise. What if you call an audible and we can’t hear you?”
“Buck, that’s a good point, but also remember Anniston is a lot closer to B’ham than Dothan. I expect this place will have a lot more of our fans here than Dothan will. Besides, when you play at Mississippi State next year the noise will be a lot louder than we’ll hear tonight.”
Buck grinned, and said, “Yeah, that’s true. Especially with all those cow bells ringing.”
Kevin turned serious a moment, and said, “Guys, Buck does have a good point, though. It’ll be hard for the wide receivers to hear my audibles. Any suggestions?”
Allen Smith, the strong side tackle, said, “Kevin, why don’t you give us three plays in the huddle. Then begin your snap count with the play number, as well as holding up one, two, or three fingers. A four would mean a new play.”
Kevin looked carefully at his teammates. He’d played with many of them since the seventh grade. They knew him, and he knew them. As a result the confidence that showed on their faces strengthened his own resolve. What’s more, it was their idea, not his or the coaches. They’d make it work.
“Okay, I think it’s a good plan, but I’ll have to talk to Coach Bryson about it. Now let’s head back to the locker room and get prepared.”
When they arrived Coach Bryson came over to Kevin, and asked, “What’s going on?”
“The fellows were getting a little intimidated by all this. I took them out on the field and helped them to get their focus back. They did come up with a suggestion as to how to handle much of the crowd noise.”
“Really, tell me about it.”
Kevin explained the idea Allen had presented, and how he thought it’d work. After going though some different scenarios the coach agreed with the plan.
Then in a surprise Coach added, “Kevin, for this to work you’re going to pretty much call your own plays out there. Are you ready for that?”
“I think so. After all, we probably audible more than thirty percent of our plays as it is. I do have one suggestion, though.”
“What’s that, son?”
“I’d like for Coach Brown to continue calling signals from the sideline, so Dothan doesn’t catch on to what we’re doing. Also, if the two of you want something special called you place your hands on your hips, and I’ll call what he signals, subject to audibles, of course.”
“Kevin, that sounds like a good plan. I’ll go over it with the other coaches while everyone gets dressed out. One last thing, though.”
“What’s that, Coach?”
“Kevin, win or lose tonight, coaching and working with you has been the pinnacle of my career. Not only are you a great passer and team leader, you’re one of the nicest young men I’ve ever been associated with. I’m proud of you ... very proud.”
With that said Coach Bryson gathered the other coaches into a side office while Kevin and his teammates continued to get dressed out.
Shortly before the Mustangs were to head to the field to get warmed up there was a knock at the door. One of the coaches answered, and then called for Kevin. His Dad was standing there when he arrived at the door. They immediately fell into a deep and loving hug.
“I’m glad you could make it, Dad. I’ve missed you a lot this season.”
“I’m sorry about that, but there’s something crucial going on. As it was, I had to threaten to resign my commission to get the General to agree to let me come home.”
“How long will you be home?”
“I’ve got to report back Monday morning, but I’ve got us three tickets for the Iron Bowl tomorrow.”
“That’s great. There’s nothing like being in Auburn when they play Alabama, but why three tickets?”
“I figured you’d want to take Jennifer, especially since she’ll be our house guest tonight.”
A stunned Kevin looked hard at his father, and asked, “And you’re alright with that?’
“Son, I won’t say I’m thrilled at the idea, but as Jennifer explained to her father, it’ll be far better and safer than if her first time was in the backseat of a car somewhere. Now, that’s for later. Right now get your head back into this game and give ‘em hell. At the same time, Son, remember it’s only a game and tomorrow you’ll be the same person, win or lose. Therefore, go have fun. The rest of your life is before you.”
“Kevin, one more thing. I’m proud of you, and your mother would be too.”
There were tears in Kevin’s eyes as he closed the door.