The fall of 1984 brought one inevitable thing to Grand Forks. On the first Saturday of October, the fourth football game of the year for the Fighting Sioux, the streak ended at 44. They hadn't set a record. They hadn't beaten Oklahoma's record. They hadn't made their 48. That was the conventional way of looking at it-completely negatively. Jumper's perspective was just the opposite. They had created a miracle. They had won 44 games in a row, more than almost any other major football team in history, beaten only by the greatest football dynasty of all: The University of Oklahoma under the great Bud Wilkinson. Jumper wouldn't even discuss whether the term major was appropriately applied to his team. No word but miraculous could describe their feat. And a measly little three point loss certainly wasn't going to bother him or his team. Or his university, would it? There was only one acceptable answer to that, and he made sure we knew what it was!
For the next game the number 48 disappeared from their uniforms, and nothing was said about the streak. They won. Then they won again. The next game the 48s reappeared on their uniforms, and they won game three of the new streak. 45 to go. They got ridiculed a little for that, but it made them play harder. They finished the season with only the one loss. And that meant that they repeated as national Division II champions for the fourth consecutive year. Their streak stood at 9. If they won the next three championships their seventh national championship game would be number 48 since their October loss. The mathematics was lost on no one. Some even accused Jumper of deliberately losing just to set this up. Nobody ever proved it!
And so 1984 ended. George Orwell's Big Brother did not rule. The second Olympics with a major boycott had passed (the Russians had been missed). Melanie and I had waltzed many nights away, and she was teaching me the tango! Tim and I had found even new ways of loving each other. Life was good-for all of the Gang.
One day very early in the New Year of 1985 Tim got a call from Jim, who was now head of the Physical Education Department of Central High School. Jim told Tim that he had a student, really an exceptional athlete, that was struggling with pressures to strive for an athletic scholarship, and ambitions to try to reach the NBA. Jim wondered if Tim would talk to the boy; his name was Jody Matthews. He was a ninth grader and being pushed to try out for varsity basketball-at 6'3" he was the tallest ninth grader and one of the tallest kids in the school.
Tim had, of course, told Jim that he'd be glad to talk to Jody. He thought it might be good if I were present, and Tim liked the idea of a relaxed conversation. He suggested that we invite Jody to dinner. He also invited Jim and Andy at the same time. Jim said that he really thought that Jody might open up more if he (Jim) wasn't there, so he declined for himself and Andy. Tim looked at his calendar and suggested a time about two weeks ahead. Jim said the kid was under pressure now, and the sooner the better. Tim said that that evening was the only open night. Jim said that Jody was about to leave for home, and he would tell him to expect a call from Tim, but not what the invitation would be-that should come from Tim.
Tim gave him time to get home and then rang his home. Jody's mother, Anna, answered the phone. "This is Tim from over at the University..."
"Oh my goodness, Franz isn't here, I don't expect him home from the University until about six."
"That's OK. I wondered if I could speak to Jody?"
"Jody? Why, yes, of course. He just came home from school." Tim could hear the puzzlement down the phone line. Then he realized that Jody's father Franz taught German at the University, and naturally Anna had thought the call was for him."
"Hello. This is Jody."
"Jody, this is Tim. Your Coach just called me and asked if I had time to talk with you a little. Seems you're a terrific basketball player who's trying to decide what he wants to do about that this year. Am I right?"
"I don't know about the terrific bit, but I am struggling with this year's plans."
"Would you like to talk a little?"
"Of course. Just meeting you would be a thrill."
"Well, that isn't the purpose of the meeting, but I would enjoy talking with you. I hate to make this such short notice, but my schedule for the next two weeks is horrible. How would you like to come over to Dakota House for a late dinner this evening?"
"Dinner? Tonight? Sure, I guess, of course. Let me ask my Mom." He was back on the line in about a minute. "She says, 'Yes', but is concerned that I'd be bothering you."
"I wouldn't invite you if you were going to be a bother. Please come. Eight o-clock. Obviously you can't drive, so could your mother or father bring you over? Either Charlie or I'll drive you home afterwards."
"Are you sure? That's a lot of trouble."
"See you at eight, Jody. Oh, yes, school clothes will be fine, preferred in fact..
Promptly at eight Jody arrived. I opened the door, and saw the car out in front, with both parents peering out the window. I waved to them, introduced myself to Jody and invited him inside. Tim arrived, and Jody was bug-eyed. When you live with Tim every day you forget that he's a hero to a lot of kids-even though his competitive years are behind him. He's a North Dakota legend, and for a kid to have a dinner invitation to Tim's house-alone-was roughly equivalent to an invitation to the White House for a lot of people. Tim was really good at putting people at ease, especially young people. For one thing, most kids 12 or over towered over him, which Tim used to his advantage in situations like this. Jody was a full 11 inches taller than Tim, and Tim kind of looked up shyly to Jody, and said, "Just how tall are you?"
"Six three. Maybe a fraction over."
"If I'd had that height I could've been a swimmer as well as a diver. That would've been fun. What're your sports?"
"I like to run. I swim a little. But my real love is basketball."
"How good a runner are you? What distances?"
"I ran cross-country before the basketball season. It builds my endurance."
"Ever run a marathon?"
"Charlie, what do you think? Should we let Hal have a go at him?"
"Hal? Who's that? Oh, you mean Hal as in Boston Marathon and Olympic marathon Hal?"
"Yeah. Have you ever met him?"
"No. He's way out of my league."
"There was a time when he wasn't even in your league. Charlie, call him up and see if he'd like to drop over for dessert in about a hour."
Tim continued, "OK, Jody. What's your problem? Or maybe you don't have a problem, but other people are making problems for you. By the way, modesty won't help you tonight. Coach Jim says you're good. You certainly have the height for basketball. When you talk about being on the team, be realistic about how you'd do."
I had to cut in, "Great advice, from a star that always sounds like he just barely placed in the tournament."
"I was never unrealistic about myself when I was planning the future. Social conversation is something else, but that isn't what we have here. Go on, Jody, don't mind Charlie."
"Everybody thinks I need to try out for the varsity-that really means that they want me to play on the varsity, because it's dead certain that I'll make the team if I try for it."
"Coach Jim's about the only person that listens to my doubts."
"That's why Jim is the head coach, and everybody else works for him. How did he get involved?"
"I don't know. He came by the locker room after practice and asked me to come by his office when I was dressed."
"You were at practice, but you haven't tried out yet? Am I missing something?"
"Basketball season hasn't started yet. There's a week of open practice before tryouts."
"And Jim figured out that you had some doubts about this year?"
"Will you share them?"
"Several things. First, I don't know if I have what it takes to make the grade on the varsity. There are some really good kids in the East Dakota League. On the JV I'd be a star. I could get really skunked on the varsity. Second, I'm having a hard time working out my priorities. Varsity ball takes a lot of time. Do I want to give it that time? What would I be missing?"
I came in and told them dinner was on the table. "Sorry, it isn't a big steak. We didn't have a lot of time to plan. I hope you like pork chops-they were quick and easy."
"That's great," Jody replied, as we all went into the huge Dakota House dining room. Had it been Hal, or some other friend, we would've gone to the table in the den to eat-the dining room was much too grand for three people. But Tim was giving Jody the full treatment. He would, if nothing else, have a great story to tell at home and in school tomorrow, and for a lot of tomorrows.
After some eating and some small talk, Tim opened the subject of sports again. "Jody, there are a lot of reasons to work hard at sports. I did because I loved it, and I'm just wired to be a fierce competitor. That's not necessarily good, but it's a fact."
I added, "I got into sports because I was in love with Tim and was determined to go to the Mexico City Olympics with him, and not just ride the plane down but march in the opening ceremonies holding hands with him. It was a terrific incentive, and I made it."
"For some kids, athletics is the only way to get to a good school-though I think that's a pretty poor reason, because the scholarship athletes get shortchanged on their education. But for a lot of kids athletics is just what everyone does. That's OK for most people, but when you get to the top levels, it means that players are really playing for someone else, not themselves. Parents, classmates, girlfriends or boyfriends, coaches, pressure comes from everywhere."
"Where's it coming from in your case?"
"Mainly kids at school. 'Jody, if you don't play the team hasn't got a chance this year.' 'You'll be letting the school down.' You know the lines."
"Parents and coaches?"
"My parents would love me to be a big name. But they aren't really pressuring me. Obviously the coach would love to have me, and we have talked. But he hasn't been bad. And it must've been him that mentioned me to Coach Jim. He didn't say much, just said that he thought I might like to talk to you. Thanks for inviting me. I couldn't believe it. Mom said, 'Are you sure this isn't a joke?' I wouldn't have been sure if Coach Jim hadn't said you'd probably call. You should've heard Dad at dinner. Naturally I wasn't there because I was coming here at eight. But I was in the living room and I could hear. Dad said, 'So where's Jody?' Mom answered, 'He's eating later. Tim, as in President of the University of North Dakota Tim, your boss's boss's boss Tim, has invited your son over for dinner.'
"Dad didn't know what to say. He called me in and asked what was going on. I told him all I knew. Mr...."
"Everyone calls me Tim. Just Tim. I like it, and I prefer it."
"I've been taught to call adults Mr."
"I know. But rank and stardom have their privileges. Sometimes I exercise them. I'm just Tim."
"Tim. That's difficult."
"You'll get used to it. I did. And this is Charlie. Dean of Law Charlie. Olympic medalist Charlie. My partner."
"Oh. I guess I'd heard that."
"Does it bother you?"
"No. I don't think so. I just haven't met a gay person before."
"Yes, you have. They just didn't tell you they were gay. Probably wasn't relevant to the conversation."
"You were talking about your father."
"Oh, yeah. It was kind of fun telling him where I was eating dinner. Kids don't get a chance to one-up their fathers very often."
"Do you get along well with your parents?"
"Yeah. They're nice folks. They mean well. Their rules are fair. But we don't communicate very well."
"If you were gay, would you feel comfortable telling them?"
"I see. That's helpful in understanding you. So if you play varsity basketball, why will you be doing it?"
"That's the problem. I really want to do well in sports, especially basketball. It's fun. But I can't separate the pressure from my own wishes."
I cut in then. "Jody, let me tell you something about Tim's high school practice schedule. Everyday for the last three years of high school. Up at 5:30. At the pool or the gymnastics club by six."
Tim interjected, "Sometimes six-thirty."
"Not very often. Practice till eight. Dress, eat breakfast on the run. School started at 8:45. He tried to relax at lunch with friends. But often homework, or something interfered. After school to the pool or the gym. Four hours steady. Dinner. Homework. Bed. Start over the next day. Weekends drop the school and add more practice. Dates on Friday and Saturday night only. He found time to read the comics in the newspaper about once a month. Never watched a minute of television."
"Shit. Oh, excuse me."
"We use the word," I said. "Now the key point of this is that nobody, absolutely nobody, pushed Tim into that schedule. In fact everybody urged him to slow down."
"You didn't, Charlie."
"Only because I knew you better than the rest, and I knew you weren't going to slow down. I also worried that I was the one person you might actually slow down for, and that you would eventually resent my asking."
"Pressure from your peers, parents, coaches, anybody but you, is very transitory. If you're going to practice to be a truly outstanding athlete, you're going to have to drive yourself. I can't make you. Your parents can't. Only you. The decision that you're making has to be your own. I think you knew that when you came over here. You didn't need me to tell you that. You're trying to sort out Jody's wishes from everyone else's. That can be tough."
"Any suggestions?" asked Jody.
Dinner was over, and we were ready for dessert. Hal walked in-the Gang seldom knocked. Jody clearly knew who Hal was as well as he knew Tim, and was in awe of what was happening to him that evening. Hal introduced himself, and said to Tim, "You promised dessert. What is it? Was it worth my coming over here for?"
Tim said, "No. But I think you'll enjoy meeting Jody, budding Central High basketball star."
Hal replied, "Good. They need a good one. And you look tall enough. What grade are you, junior, senior? Where've you been keeping yourself?"
Tim said, "In junior high school. He's in ninth grade."
"Ninth grade! You're kidding. How tall are you?"
Hal looked at all of us and said, "I take it that there's more than meets the eye here. I'm sure that you're going to tell me. But before we dissect the 'New Hal' again, feed me something sweet, fattening, and gooey. I'm not Ronnie, you know. I don't have to worry about a paunch. My problem is keeping up the needed calories per mile. Help me out."
Dessert was a homemade, but frozen, chocolate pie that we'd made and stored in the freezer for a time like this-last minute calls for dinner were almost the norm at Dakota House.
Hal took a huge piece, and gave one of similar size to Jody. "You guys need to diet, Jody and I are helping you out."
Hal read the situation immediately, and quite accurately. "I assume, Jody, that you're under a lot of pressure to be the basketball hero of Central High. For four years. Might be fun. Might be a colossal pain in the ass. How do you decide?"
"That's why he's here."
"Well, I had that choice once. My choice was sort of the opposite of yours. You're being asked to choose between stardom and an unknown lesser path. I was asked to choose between a very clearly marked lesser path, and just the possibility of success.
"When I first met these two guys, at a summer camp, I was a mess. A complete loser. One of the gang, Tom-not one of these two-simply said, 'Hal you're screwed up. Do you want to change?' I had about fifteen seconds to answer a question that would shape the rest of my life. And I didn't have a college president, dean of law, director of athletics, even parents, to help. I just had to answer for myself. Tom would've accepted 'No' and that would've been the end of it. Somewhere I found the courage to say 'Yes.' I couldn't run around the block, so I obviously didn't have any idea that I was choosing the path of the Boston Marathon. But I chose. And the rest is history. But, Jody, the key is that I, me, myself, chose. These guys weren't standing around saying, 'Please, Hal.' 'It'll be good for you.' 'Try it.' They just stood there and let me make the decision. You need to do that. Nobody else can, or should."
"Tim," Jody asked. "Your practice schedule. It didn't kill you?"
I put in, "He thrived on it. He was happier then than at any other time."
"Until you came into my life."
"The schedule didn't change."
"A little, Charlie, a little."
Hal said, "Look, Jody. I know what you're thinking. 'Do I really need to practice like that?' Well, no. Nobody practices like that. Tim is one in a million, if not one in a billion. But you have to think of yourself in that way. If you're going to go at it half-assed, forget it now. You have to be ready to practice twice as hard as anybody else on the team, because that's just a fact of life. If you're going to the top, and why shoot for anything else, you need to set your own goals and patterns, march to your own drummer, and the fact that other people are lazy, weak, drinkers, smokers, or too involved with girls, can't deter you. If watching other kids get involved with those things is going to tempt or upset you, then don't start."
Jody was quiet for a time, and then said, "When I came over here I was trying to sort out my wishes from everybody else's. But I didn't really understand the issue. What you're saying is that I need to decide whether I really want to be an athlete or not. And if the answer is 'Yes' then I have to be prepared to give it everything. And if the answer is 'No' then the fact that some of the kids in school don't like it doesn't make any difference."
"Right on, Jody," said Tim.
"Here I am sitting with three Olympic medalists, trying to decide whether I want to strive for the top as an athlete."
"Don't let our success influence you," Charlie said.
"No, no. But it inspires me."
"Yeah, but we aren't going to be there when you spend two hours every afternoon-after regular practice-throwing baskets."
"Before school too," Hal added. "Do you ever run? You need to for basketball. You can run with me, if you want."
"When do you run?"
"Five o'clock every morning, unless it's below zero. I used to go to the gym on below zero days, but I've gotten lazy in my old age."
"I need to think about this."
"Fifteen seconds," said Hal.
Jody slowly counted to fifteen, mouthing the numbers. "I'm in. Will you guys help me with a practice schedule?"
"No," said Tim. "Coach Jim is the one to do that. Talk to him first, your practice schedule needs to be aimed at more than just basketball, and Jim'll be better at that than your basketball coach."
"I thought you might make a bigger deal of my decision than you did."
"Are you disappointed?"
"Maybe a little. Pats on the back. Hand shakes. Something."
"No. You didn't make the decision for us. Pat yourself on the back. Shake your own hand. If you aren't doing it for you, it won't last. You know, our schedules are pretty busy. We aren't going to be like your parents and come to every game and cheer you on. We made it very clear that you have to make the decision for yourself. You put out the effort to be happy with yourself. Anything else won't work."
I added, "I want to tell one other little story about Tim. During ninth grade he decided that he needed to choose between gymnastics and diving. He made up his mind to make the decision in August before tenth grade. Well, August came and he decided that he would simply find the time for both sports; the rest is history. When he told his father, mother, and coaches, their response was first, 'You're crazy,' and 'It can't be done.' That eventually softened to, 'Well, try it and see how it goes. You can always drop one sport later if you need to.'
"Tim's reply to that was, 'No. I've made up my mind. I can do it. This isn't a trial, it's a decision.' He never looked back."
Tim added, "If I'd said, 'I think I'll try two sports this year and see how it goes,' then I wouldn't have made a commitment. Without commitment, nothing gets accomplished. I think what these guys are trying to say is, 'Make up your mind and don't look back. No second thoughts. Do it, or don't do it.'"
Jody seemed to understand what we were saying, and that this was really the time of decision. He stood up and walked over to Tim, shook his hand and said, "I'm going to do it." Then he came to me, shook my hand, and said, "I'm going to be the best damn high school basketball player North Dakota has seen." Then he walked to Hal, shook his hand, and said, "I would like to run with you. Where can we meet? And, may I start tomorrow?"
It was time for reinforcement, and we all gathered around Jody and patted him on the back. Hal gave him another piece of chocolate pie, huge again, and said, "Don't worry about the fat. You'll have those calories burned off by six tomorrow morning. Where do you live?"
Getting the address, Hal continued, "That's near my route. I'll see you at 5:10 in the morning. Sharp. Shorts and a tee shirt; I know it's in the twenties in the morning, but we're going to be running fast enough to keep warm. There are often two or three other kids running with me. We'll try to make twenty miles by 8:00 but we'll settle for fifteen the first day. Marathons before breakfast in six weeks. Ready?"
Jody's eye were as big as saucers. I wasn't sure whether it was the miles or the fact that he was going to be running with an Olympic marathoner that meant the most. His reply was simple, "Oh, my God, yes."
I said, "Take a sandwich to school so you can miss lunch in the cafeteria, and go visit Coach Jim during lunch. I'll call him and let him know you're coming. In fact, I'll call him right now.
I did, and Jim was utterly delighted. After hearing a little of my report, he exclaimed, "You mean I finally get a Tim to coach?"
"Jim, you know they broke that mold. But you're going to enjoy Jody. He and Hal start running in the morning."
"Hal? Is Hal there? You guys really did a number on poor Jody."
"No, he did it to himself. He has only himself to blame. Can he visit you at lunch tomorrow to talk about an overall practice schedule?"
"Sure. First lunch or second lunch?"
I asked Jody, and reported to Jim that it'd be second lunch. "Tell him I'll see him then."
Tim walked over to Jody, put his arms around him and said, "You know, you've chosen a tough road. Ask Hal about the Hell they put him through at camp that summer after he said, 'Yes.' You're going to need a hug from time to time. All three of us have offices with open doors at this university. Come by anytime. Tell my secretary that you're a friend of mine and I told you to drop by. Tell the secretaries of these other guys that Tim sent you over. It'll get you in every time. Come collect a hug whenever you need it. We love to give them as much as you're going to love to get them.
"Would you like a ride home?"
Hal said, "Hell, no, he wouldn't like a ride home. He only lives about two miles away, and it's on my way. I ran over and I'll run him back. It's never too soon to start."
Quick goodbyes and they were gone.
Tim looked at me and said, "I wonder what his parents are going to think about his arriving home with Hal, and setting out again with Hal at 5:10 in the morning? I wonder if they know who Hal is?"
I said, "They will before they go to sleep tonight. It's kind of late, he's not going to get much sleep tonight."
Tim said, "He'll get used to that. We need to have him over again in a little while and talk to him about grades and studying."
"I'm glad you let that pass for tonight."
We headed upstairs. I let my hand slip between his back and his belt, and moved down and massaged his butt crease. "I think he's got what it takes. And for sure you do."
We were spooned together within minutes.
Jim and Hal kept us posted on Jody's athletic progress. About midway through the season we no longer needed Jim and Hal as informants; we were able to read of the adventures of Central High Knights basketball team led by Jody their star center. With only one loss so far in the season, they were on the short list of teams considered likely to compete in the state championship. Jody had his picture in the paper after every game.
One afternoon Jody came by my office. My secretary let him in. He seemed a little uncomfortable. "What's the problem, Jody? It can't be basketball, that seems to be going pretty well this year."
"It's hard to talk about."
"However, you clearly want to talk about it, or you wouldn't have come by. I'm a good listener. Try me."
"A guy on the team asked me for a date."
"A date? Are you sure he wasn't just suggesting that you two do something together? Like go to a movie."
"He did suggest a movie. But he made it clear that the dark theater made other things possible."
"I see. This bothered you?"
"Yeah, I guess it did."
"How did you respond?"
"I'm not sure. I told him, 'No.' I tried to be nice about it, but I'm not sure that it came out that way. I was really taken by surprise."
"You know, Jody, the guy was really paying you a double compliment."
"Well, we have to assume he's gay. If you want to date a girl, you think highly of her. Asking her is a compliment, right?"
"Well, you just got asked for a date. That's a compliment."
"How is it a double compliment?"
"You know, Jody, in today's world gays don't have it easy. They get ridiculed. In some places they get shunned, beaten up, sometimes hurt badly. If this boy asked you for a date, he had to expose himself to you. To do that he had to be very confident that you were a nice guy, a guy who wouldn't hate him because he was gay. Who wouldn't taunt him, or expose him to others that would. He was right, wasn't he?"
"I guess so. I haven't said anything to anybody, except you."
"Good for you. So this guy was right about you."
"I guess so."
"But you're still uncomfortable about being asked for a date by a boy."
"Yeah. Gee, Charlie, I know you're gay. I guess I'm putting you down."
"No, Jody. You're dealing with a difficult situation very well. First, you were nice to the boy, or tried to be. That fact that you're worried that you might not have seemed so is another mark in your favor. You didn't expose him. And now you're talking to me. Those are all very responsible things to do."
"Thanks. I'm not so sure about the whole thing."
"Did this boy do or say anything to you that you might not have said to a girl you thought you liked?"
"So it's not what he said or asked, but the fact that he's a boy that's bothering you."
"I guess so."
"Now think about that boy. He sees all kinds of boys all day long. Some are very attractive to him. Just like you see girls and find some attractive. In your case, if you screw up your nerve, you can ask the girl for a date. Maybe she says, 'Yes'; maybe she says, 'No.' In either case you ran no risk. But this gay boy runs a big risk if he says to another boy what you might say to a girl. That's tough. Eventually he takes a risk. In your case, he didn't get a date, but he didn't face hate or exposure either."
"If I hadn't known you and Tim, that might not have been the case."
"That's honest, Jody. But you still get a pat on the back for how you responded. But now you need to go further."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you need to go back to the boy and tell him that you hope that your response was seen as friendly. Tell him you worried about that. And tell him that his secret, if it is a secret, is safe with you. And go one step more, if you can. Tell him you'd like to be his friend. You'd like to go to the movies with him. He just needs to understanding that it would be a friendly date, not a romantic date. I'll bet he'd appreciate hearing that. And then you wouldn't have to worry about whether your original negative response was seen as unfriendly."
"Thanks, Charlie. I really didn't know how to handle the situation."
"Jody, if you do that, you'll prove to me that you're the team leader that the newspapers claim you are. Come and tell me what happens. Oh, one more thing. If you can, be alone with the boy when you talk to him. I mean really alone, where you can't be heard or seen."
About two weeks later Jody and a tall, gangly tenth grader named Vic came by my office. At least he would've seemed very tall if he hadn't been standing next to Jody. I read instantly that Vic was the boy Jody'd been talking about. Their story came out in bits and pieces from both of them. Jody had talked to Vic, and Vic had broken down and cried on Jody's shoulder. Jody had been the first person on earth that he'd exposed himself to. And he'd been living in fear that Jody would tell the whole basketball team that they had a queer on the team. He'd risked it with Jody for exactly the reasons I'd guessed: he had a crush on the tall, handsome star, and he'd concluded that Jody was a good guy who wouldn't hurt him.
I could certainly see how he'd had a crush on Jody; if I'd been the right age I might have as well. They'd been to a movie together and were becoming friends. Jody brought him by my office because he thought that Vic really needed to know a gay man who was out of the closet.
As you probably guessed, my response to the visit of Jody and Vic was to invite them to come for dinner some time with Tim and me. We enjoyed dinners with young people, but as young high schoolers Vic and Jody were younger than the undergraduates and grad students who usually represented the younger generations at our table. The trouble was, both Vic and Jody were far more mature than the average ninth or tenth grader, probably more so than the average high school senior, so we weren't seeing anything like a representative sample. As we thought about it later, from what we heard from Jim and others that did deal with a representative sample of high schoolers we should've been glad that our two were distinctly unrepresentative!
They arrived dressed to the nines in ties, crisp white shirts, and sport coats. Shoes shined to a luster. We were in sport shirts and Jody immediately sensed that they'd overdressed. "Gee, last time you specifically said school clothes. When you didn't say anything this time, we just assumed...."
Tim cut him off. "You boys look great. Give us a minute or two and we'll match you." He was off in a wink, and soon reappeared in the business suit he'd worn in the office that day. On his return I did the same disappearing act. Our dinners, except with trustees, donors, and other such, were usually more informal. It was fun to be shown up by these high school kids!
They were good conversationalists, too. The talk started with basketball, ranged to other sports and certainly included a discussion of Jumper's streaks. Both boys were convinced that the team would make 48 this time, but they were divided on whether Jumper had contrived the lone defeat on the particular Saturday to set up the current run. Tim and I decided not to comment on that; we just listened and smiled knowingly. Hal became the next focus of conversation. Jody was running regularly with him, and Vic had joined them a couple of mornings. ("I've never been a morning person, so I don't know whether I can adjust to running that early in the morning. And they won't run at night with me.")
Jody asked us why Hal no longer had much interest in competitive marathons. "He only runs in one or two a year, maybe three, and always little regional ones, never the biggies like Boston or New York. I can't figure out why?"
Tim said, "When you have Olympic medals and can claim a first in Boston, where else is there to go? Now he just runs because he loves to run."
I put in, "And because he likes to gain new friends through running. You know, Jody, he's talked to us about you. He really likes you, and admires your efforts to be a two-sport athlete."
"I wish my basketball coach did. He's constantly worrying about my overdoing the running and compromising my basketball."
"Doesn't your running increase your endurance in basketball games?"
"Sure, but he argues that basketball requires sprints, not long distance running."
"That hasn't stopped your marathoning."
"It's nice to have Coach Jim on my side. I spoke to him once, and the comments on my running lessened a lot."
"Don't get on the wrong side of your coach."
Vic cut in at that point. "Coach is OK, but a little intense. But you can bet that he won't do anything to lose Jody. He knows Jody is the bottom line of our winning record. And he also knows that Jody could very easily decide to just be a marathoner."
Tim said, "Have you ever even hinted at that to the coach, Jody."
"Oh, no. Threats just create hostility. I get along with the coach."
Vic added, "But Coach Jim has more than hinted. I heard him once. He said, 'Look out, Austin, or Jody could very easily decide that he wants to devote all of his energy to winning the Boston Marathon. That's more prestigious than a state basketball championship.'"
"He really said that?"
"Almost exactly those words."
Jody said, "He's right, of course. But I'd never desert the team. And Coach Austin has never done anything to make me want to quit."
Vic said, "Well...."
I asked, "What's Vic referring to, Jody?"
Vic said, "He doesn't want to tell. But I will. Coach decided that the best strategy for the team was to constantly feed balls to Jody because his hit ratio is so high. That really upset Jody, who felt that the team needed to be a team, not a support group for a star."
Tim asked, "So you talked to Jim when you couldn't change your coach's mind."
Jody looked a little embarrassed. "Yeah, I did. Jim had a meeting with the three of us. He was great. He didn't put down Coach Austin, in fact he seemed to agree with him that we might score more points that way. But he said, 'Austin, having a happy team, and a happy star, will get you more wins in the long run.' Coach Austin took it well. You know, he's a good coach. And he's proud of our success. Things are going fine now."
"You're a gutsy kid, Jody," I said.
"I don't think so. I was so scared at the meeting with the two coaches that I almost threw up before it."
"But you obviously handled yourself well."
Vic cut in, "He always does."
Tim decided it was time to shift the conversation. "Vic, let's talk a little about you. I understand you're queer like Charlie and me."
Vic hadn't seen that one coming, and Tim hadn't wanted him to. Tim had found, over the years, that getting it out in the open right away was the best way to talk, privately of course, about being gay. Vic handled the comment pretty well, saying, "Yeah, I'm gay. But nobody knows but you three."
"Don't worry, we aren't going to change that."
"I wasn't worried. What worries me is that I haven't the slightest idea how to find other gays who might be interested in me but are in the closet as well."
"Some high schools have gay support groups," said Tim.
"Hey, this is North Dakota. They love their gay sports hero, but that doesn't mean that they like all gays."
"I know. But let me give you a suggestion. If you see a boy that you think, or just hope, might be gay, tell Jody. Jody can sound him out, at least about his attitude toward gays if not about his own gayness. It wouldn't take Jody long to know whether someone was safe to talk to. And Jody, being both straight and a star athlete, can have that conversation safely. You can follow up where it's safe. Jody, would you do that?"
"You would?" That was Vic.
"It could backfire and get you branded as gay."
"Such is life. I'll live. But I don't think it'll be a problem."
I might note that the scheme worked. After about five conversations that were failures, turning up a couple of really hostile gay-haters, but mostly just people that found gay sex disgusting, Jody ran into a young man in the closet. He had misinterpreted Jody's questions as a coming-out statement, and came out in return. Jody explained the situation, without exposing Vic. He got permission from the boy, a young man in Vic's class named Rob, to tell the unnamed Vic that Rob was gay. Rob and Vic were quickly in touch with each other, and becoming friends. The astute Jody had to warn them, very quickly, to be a little careful about their behavior, but they got the message and were being careful.
I asked Vic, "I don't like to be too personal, Vic, but I know you haven't got anybody else to talk to. Are you and Rob involved sexually?"
Vic was silent, but his red face certainly gave a hint to the answer.
Jody said, "Vic, you can talk to these guys. They can help."
"Yeah, just a little. Rob wants more, and I guess I do, too. But finding a safe place is tough."
"I take it you aren't ready to talk to your parents."
"No, and neither is Rob. He's really scared of how his father would react."
"So neither of your houses is a safe place, is that right?"
I knew that Tim was thinking exactly the same thing that I was: It'd be so simple to let these boys use our old house-the kids there wouldn't mind. But we knew the repercussions that would come from that becoming public, and we simply couldn't take the chance.
We moved to a different subject, and eventually the evening was coming to an end. Just before Tim was ready to stand up and send a clear "It's time to go," signal he started chuckling.
I said, "Tim, what are you laughing about?"
"I was thinking about sex in the snow. But that doesn't work very well. But I know how a couple of college kids solved the problem. Mr. T over in M&R got a real chuckle out of one of his maintenance calls recently. The guy who oversees the piano program called to say that they couldn't get into one of the practice rooms. When a student had gone there the night before the piano had somehow rolled in front of the door and you couldn't open the door. Of course, the next day the mysterious moving piano had somehow gotten back where it belonged and the door opened without the help of M&R."
I said, "It sounds like a couple of kids had found that behind the piano was more comfortable than behind the big pile of snow."
Jody, clearly understanding the point of the whole story, said, "Especially if you don't have you're pants on."
With that Tim stood up, and said, "Boys, it's really been fun talking to you this evening. Keep up your winning ways for the Central High Knights."
"We will, and we can't thank you enough for the wonderful dinner and evening. I can't believe that I just had dinner with Charlie and Tim, the two most famous people in North Dakota."
I said, "Don't leave out Jody. He's going to be a state champion basketball player and top level marathoner."
"I wish," said Jody.
Tim replied, "Wishing doesn't get you very far. Practice does."
After they were gone I asked Tim, "Who is this Mr. T?"
"Never heard of him. What did you think of my poltergeist with a piano?"
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