31: “Those Kids”

31: “Those Kids”

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

“Those Kids”

Things do not pass for what they are, but for what they seem. Most things are judged by their jackets.

~Baltasar Gracian

The switch from a small, private Christian school to a public eighth grade had been difficult for my son. Now he faced the challenge of a new high school, with his new friends zoned to attend another school.

“Can I please repeat junior high?” Jim begged. “Everyone thinks I’m in seventh grade anyway. I won’t know anyone at my new high school.”

“Best to push him through,” his junior high principal advised.

My heart ached, but my husband and I agreed to force our son to face his deepest fears—another new school and making new friends.

The first day I picked him up, he waved goodbye to a kid with short dark hair, baggy pants, an earring and tattoo.

“Who’s your new friend?” I asked, trying not to sound alarmed.

“Just some kid named Jerry.” I could tell his first day in a school with over two thousand kids hadn’t been easy.

“Still planning to go out for football?” I asked. It had always been his dream.

“Yeah.”

Then you’ll find better friends, I thought, and not hang around with these kids who probably get into trouble.

When football sign-ups came, I dropped him off at the school, and week after week I picked him up after freshman practice. One day while doing laundry, I noticed his football clothes looked brand-new. As did his football cleats.

A quick phone call to the coach confirmed what I had suspected: Jim was staying after school, but he wasn’t on the football team. He was hanging out with his new group of friends until practice was over, then timed it just right to meet me at the curb.

“I called your coach today,” I said after picking him up.

“Yeah?”

“I understand you’re not playing football.”

Silence. “What’s going on?”

“I tried to go out,” he said. “I just couldn’t. The other kids were better than me. And I didn’t know anyone. I just couldn’t do it.”

“So you hang out with your new friends during practice?”

“Yeah.”

“Doing what?” I could only imagine. Smoking? Shoplifting? Skipping classes? How could my son be hanging out with “those” kinds of kids?

“I’m sorry, Mom,” he said. “I’m sorry I lied.”

The decision not to hold him back in junior high ate at my heart. We should have listened to him. Another year and he would have had more confidence. Then he would have gone out for the football team. Then he wouldn’t be with “those” kids.

The following years were no different. I’d drop him off for spring football tryouts, but he’d come home defeated. “I’m not good enough,” he’d say. “I should have played my freshman year. It’s too late now.”

My heart ached.

By his senior year, his dream to play football seemed over. To our surprise, Jerry, one of “those” kids, knew his desire and understood the fears and insecurities that had held Jim back.

“You’re going to do it this time,” Jerry insisted on the day of tryouts, as he walked Jim to the locker room. “This time you’re going to stay!”

Jim worked out with the varsity team daily, coming home with his cleats and uniforms covered with grass stains and mud.

“I’ll never get to play in a game,” he said. But game after game, he suited up, ran onto the field with the other varsity players and cheered them in victory or defeat.

Near the end of the season, his school played the cross-town rival in their homecoming game. As floats were driven off the field and the band settled, my husband and I wedged in among the packed parents sitting in the visitors’ section. Blinding lights filled the night sky.

By the fourth quarter, our team held a twenty-point lead. Suddenly, a low chant rose from among the varsity players on the sidelines. Some picked up towels, turned to the stands, started waving to the crowd and shouting, “Jim, Jim, Jim, Jim...“

The crowd joined the chant, and other mothers turned to me, smiling with tears in their eyes.

With four minutes remaining on the clock, the coach signaled out the starting quarterback and motioned Number Sixteen, my son, into his first varsity game. The crowd went wild. I looked around and saw Jim’s friends, the kinds of kids who don’t normally attend football games, on their feet and crazy with excitement.

It was because of “those” friends that Jim was on the team.

The crowd jumped to its feet clapping and cheering as Jim threw his first pass. No, it didn’t end in a touchdown, but his determination and courage prevailed.

A few months later, the varsity players, coaches and parents met for the Annual Awards Banquet. After three hours of speeches and acknowledgments, the head coach stood.

“Finally, we come to the most important award of the evening, The Most Inspirational Player. This award is selected by the team, not the coaches, and goes to the player who has most influenced his teammates.”

The coach opened a piece of paper and read, “This year The Most Inspirational Player Award goes to Jim Pallos.”

Jim stumbled to the podium in a stupor, grinning from ear to ear.

After the ceremony, one of his coaches approached me. “When Jim first came out for the team,” he said, “I wanted to laugh. A senior who has never played football wanting to be a quarterback? He was so bad at catching the ball that we had to hand it to him during practice. But he taught me one thing: I’ll never again laugh or make fun of any kid who wants to play football.”

And I knew I’d never again judge a teenage boy by the clothes he wears, the rings in his ears or the tattoos on his arms. I smiled at my son, who was surrounded by his teammates.

Now I wished “those kids” were here.

~Jeanne Pallos
Chicken Soup for the Mother and Son Soul

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