Matt was in the midst of an explanation of how the team's performance apparently demonstrated that the players were not only pussy sons of bitches but also lacking in so much as a shred of respect for their fans, parents, state, and country when Kent rose from his chair. This was the signal, and this was where they'd had their greatest clashes. When Kent stood, Byers was to shut up and sit down. Immediately. He stopped in mid-tirade, which always distressed him, and said, "Listen to the head coach, now. Damn it, listen."
Kent stood and faced his team, let them all sit in silence, hoping they'd absorb two things from him: calmness and disappointment.
"Who thinks I'm upset with the numbers on that scoreboard?" he said eventually. His voice was low enough that those in the back leaned forward to hear.
Nobody raised a hand. They knew better; it was not a game of points to him, it was a game of execution. The points were a product of proper execution, and proper execution was a product of proper focus. He turned to Damon Ritter and said, "What am I upset with, Damon?"
"We're giving them their points."
"Correct. I want you boys to be generous, but not with the football." He swiveled to look at Colin Mears. "Colin, are you afraid of losing tonight?"
"You ought to be," Kent said. "Tell me why that's true, Colin. Tell me why."
His star receiver said, "Because we aren't getting beat, we're losing the game."
This difference was critical; this difference was the focus of their season.
"Do me a favor, Colin. Read that poster on the wall behind me. Read it out loud."
The poster said, THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ACCEPTING A LOSS AND EARNING ONE. The boys were sick of hearing that little slogan. Kent watched while they heard it one more time.
"You've earned ten wins this year," he said. "Haven't earned a loss yet. If we have to accept one, we will. But, boys? Let's not earn it. Let's not do that."
He was looking at Colin, who nodded emphatically. There was something off with him, though. Something wrong with his focus. Of all the players to have playoff jitters, Colin was the most surprising. Kent decided they'd feed him the ball early in the second half, see if they could settle him down through repetition and ritual.
"We're going to run a lot of thirty-one flood at them," he began, and from then on their focus was on the technical details. He hoped.
If you focused on your individual responsibilities, good things happened as a team. Early in the third quarter, the Chambers safeties no longer biting on that play-action fake, Spencer Heights threw an interception. Then the offense finally got going, with Lorell and Colin connecting up the seam for a quick touchdown. They also scored at the start of the fourth, and when they got the ball back, it was a tie game with six minutes left. Lorell marched them down the field patiently, taking what was offered, letting the defense chase frantically after Colin on the vertical routes and then throwing into the windows underneath. They had first and goal from the three, and Kent looked at the field and thought, What the heck, we practiced it, and called for the bootleg. Lorell jogged in without a hand on him.
That was how it finished: 2114. Kids and parents alike came streaming down out of the stands and onto the field and the band boomed away and Kent spoke to the opposing players, telling them all the reasons they might find victory in defeat. Through it all, he could already feel the squeeze in his chest. He knew the teams that awaited would be better, each week they would be better, and four teams and four weeks stood between Chambers and a trophy.
He was going to get it this year. He was going to get it.
Excerpted from The Prophet by Michael Koryta. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Koryta. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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