The practice officially over, Kent walked to midfield and most of the team followed. He offered no instruction for them to do so, and this was criticalthe school board had required this of him after a complaint from a parent four years earlier. Praying with a public school team, he'd been told, was a violation of the separation of church and state. He couldn't require it of his players. And so he did not. He prayed to end every practice, but participation was voluntary.
The players took a knee and Kent offered a short prayer. Football was not mentioned. Never was, never would be, never should be. The closest he came was when he prayed for their health, though he caught himself drifting too close to the game sometimes this season even as the words were leaving his lips. A swift, sharp desire to make it specific: Not Damon's knee, Lord, not his knee. God, please watch over Lorell's throwing shoulder Silly things, desires for which he would chastise himself privately, but still they arose.
Because this season
"Amen," he said, and they echoed, and then they were on their feet and headed for the locker room at a runno player walked onto or off of the field, ever. Kent watched while Colin Mears made a beeline to where his girlfriend, Rachel Bond, waited at the fence. One kiss, quick and amusingly chaste for hormonal teenagers, and then he rejoined the others. It was a deviation from the team-first routine that Kent ordinarily wouldn't have allowed, but you needed to understand your players as something beyond cogs in the gridiron machine. That girl had been through a great deal, and Colin was a light in the darkness for her. He was what Kent wanted them to be so badly: not only about more than football but also about more than the self.
Kent let the assistants follow the team to the locker room while he headed directly to the parking lot. This wasn't standard, but today he had places to be. A prison waited.
Standing behind the end zone, hands tucked in his pockets, was Dan Grissom, a local minister. Together, they would make the drive down to Mansfield, to one of the state's larger prisons, and there Kent would speak to a group of inmates. There would be some talk of football; there would be more talk of family. Truth be told, Kent had winced a little when he saw Grissom arrive, the reminder of his required task. He wanted to put it off until after the season, after playoffs. But responsibilities were responsibilities. You weren't allowed days off.
"They're looking good!" Dan said, gushing with his usual enthusiasm, and Kent smiled a little, because Dan didn't know the first thing about football. He knew plenty about encouragement, though.
"They should be," Kent told him. "It's that time of year."
"I can't believe you have a crowd in the stands just for a practice."
Kent turned and glanced into the bleachers, saw the faces, some familiar, some not. The watchers grew as the season went on, as the wins stacked up and the losses stayed at bay. Definitely more strangers on hand. Curious about what the Cardinals had. What they could do.
"It's a big deal in this town," he admitted.
"Alice and I would like to have you and Beth and the kids over for dinner," Dan said. "To celebrate the season."
"Let's wait until the season's done."
"I mean to celebrate how well it's gone so far," Dan said, and Kent wasn't sure if he imagined the uneasiness, the sense that Dan didn't expect it to close out as well as it had begun.
"I appreciate it. But dinner right now, it's tough. With practices, you know."
"We can eat late. Be fun to get the kids together. Sarah's the same age as Lisa, you know. I think they'd get along well."
"After practices, there's film," Kent said. And then, after catching a glance between disappointment and reproach from the minister, he said, "I'm sorry, Dan. But this time of year I get a little edgy. I'm not much of a dinner companion. So as soon as we're done, okay?"
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.
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