Updated: Apr 25, 2022
By Brendan Shea
When the position of Head Football Coach at Bishop Wilson High School opened for the first time in forty years, a number of qualified candidates wanted to replace Bill Sheridan. Thirteen of Sheridan’s players had gone on to play professionally, a hundred more in college. Dozens of his alumni had become coaches themselves, modeling Coach’s practice plans, his up-the-gut run scheme, and his general philosophy to life. To be coached by Coach Sheridan meant you’d been formed to be a gentleman in the chapel and a hellraiser on the field.
Coach Sheridan had retired from the classroom a decade ago, and he should have retired from the sidelines then, too. Bishop Wilson had only won two championships over those last ten years. That was not the standard of success at Bishop Wilson. But Bill Sheridan wasn’t just an institution, he was the institution. Nobody had the temerity to mention such eventualities to Coach Sheridan, but if they had, well, they certainly wouldn’t be working at Bishop Wilson after that.
So, following the heartbreak of an overtime playoff loss—not even a championship loss—the Bishop Wilson community was devastated to learn Sheridan had passed in his sleep. There was gossip. Years of heavy drinking, fried foods, sleeping pills, God needing an angel for the heavenly sidelines.
A week after Coach’s funeral, I asked the principal how many applications had come in.
“Feeling nervous?” His office was dim, just a green desk lamp as old as Coach Sheridan. He didn’t look up from his spreadsheet. I laughed a little awkwardly and gave his door a parting double-knock as I walked out.
But, honestly, I wasn’t nervous at all. Not about my chances, at least.
I had spent a year as the Quarterbacks Coach on JV. I had just finished my third year as Offensive Coordinator on Varsity. I had recruited the sophomore running back who had already committed to a Big Ten powerhouse. My relevant credentials were impeccable. People told me I reminded them of Coach, though I knew what they said behind my back. I didn’t have the same grit. I didn’t have enough experience. I had weaseled my way onto the staff. I was all flash with no thunder. I wasn’t tough like Bill Sheridan.
But there was the letter, signed by Coach, found on his desk, recommending me for the job when the time had come.
He just hadn’t realized how soon that would be.
The whole process was a formality, some argued rigged, but that didn’t change the outcome. Everyone knew about the letter. They couldn’t betray his last wish.
When I signed the contract, the principal handed over a whistle, just like the one Coach Sheridan had worn like a crucifix. I tried to blow it, but it made no sound.
The principal laughed, cleared his throat. “It’s hollow. Only ceremonial.”
On the day before Christmas, I cleaned out Coach’s office. The next night, about an hour after pie, I was bringing in my own boxes. I hung a picture of my wife and children. Candids of me with Hall-of-Famers I met as a child. College coaches with their hands on my shoulder and fat gold rings on their fingers. Me and a governor. Enough of Coach Sheridan and me that nobody would doubt he had anointed me as his successor. Some action shots from my playing—if not studying—days at Bishop Wilson.
Coach’s office was mine now. Spartan furnishings, other than the desk, the chair, and a football so old I wondered what poor animal had lost its skin only to be tossed around by boys. It was deflated, cracked, and smelled unholy. It rested on a high shelf above the doorframe—too high for me to reach without a ladder. Coach had liked it up there.
“Whoever is sitting in front of me, whatever they’re whining about, I can look to that ball and remember why I’m sitting on the other side.”
I made a note to borrow a ladder from the janitor when break was over.
I let myself sink into the same chair Coach had used since before I was born. It groaned as I leaned back and hissed when I came up.
In the desk there was a horrible mess. Hundreds of cocktail napkins with doodles of X or O in this line or that, plays I had watched him install, others I had never heard of. They didn’t matter anymore. Any success of recent years had just been a product of the athletes, generous officiating, or the fear our name inspired in opponents.
But I was going to change all that.
The run game was dead. I was going spit on its grave with shotguns, four receiver wides, cross patterns, three step drops. I had already assigned assistants with youth leagues to visit, those arrogant Pop Warner coaches to woo for their goods.
His napkins were labeled by down. Many of them bore the remains of wine. Drops of purple mottled like bruises. I set himself to ordering the napkins, but as I touched the first one, a sound, hushed but long, echoed in the hallway.
I stopped rocking. A silence swelled long enough I could convince myself there had been no sound at all. I returned to the napkins.
But I didn’t get to second down before I heard the sound again. This time louder, and leaving me no doubt. It was a whistle.
Sprints. Drills. Suicides.
“When you hear my whistle,” Coach would bellow, “you do what I say!”
I hadn’t realized I had stood up, nor that I had walked to the door. Something smelled foul, and I thought of that corpse of a football above my head.
The next whistle brought me into the dark hallway. When it blew again, I was standing in front of the trophy cases. Those trophies, tall as children, gold as nostalgia. Box scores cut out, taped to propped cardboard, yellowing. Decades of his profile across the shelves, those pictures showing the flat-topped drill sergeant turning into the mouse-haired gentleman in tweed we had recently buried.
It was where I was precisely standing that bothered me the most. In front of me, one trophy was shorter than the rest, and the photograph of Coach Sheridan hardly flattering. His eyes down, his hairline receding, his hand ungently rubbing his face. The trophy was for finishing fourth in the regular season. The school had it made just so that season wouldn’t look so lost compared to its counterparts. 1982, 6-4, and a quote about overcoming adversity on the plaque.
The whistle, shrill and abusive, was behind me now. At once it was next to my ear, then, just as suddenly, distant down the hallway. My hands were over my ears, my body tense, as a new sound emerged. Down the hall, Coach Sheridan’s chair—my chair—was squeaking.
I had begun to sweat, the salt stinging my eyes. I found myself walking back to my office. My steps echoing the corridor mingled with the squeaks, our rhythms out of time, refusing to merge. Then, it stopped.
I hadn’t remembered the chair facing away from the door. The light had been turned off, but certainly not by me. The haze of parking lot lights found the seams in the blinds, coloring my office in stripes of gold and black.
Understand when I say I felt unwell.
The room reeked of decay. I remembered when I was a player, those practices at the public field by the creek. September was always a dry month, and the parched creek bed was quick to give up its dead. That stench of desiccated muck, the corpses of castaway catfish poisoning the air, sending the players to gagging fits. Coach laughing at them, taking theatrically deep breaths like the funk was a luscious delight. Coach telling the boys to get up and breath with him, it would put hair on their chests. I protested, once. Coach turned rancorous, and, with his leathered forehead lowered inches from me, growled, “Grow a backbone. The stink gives us our edge.”
The reek was boldest behind my desk. As I approached, I became utterly conscious of how tense my shoulders were, how tight my calves. I was coiled energy, ready to pounce one moment, collapse the next. I could imagine the smell nearly visible then, like a spiral tightening from the chair to the floor.
The wall of my photos behind the desk had been wiped clear, all except one. My first snap behind center. I look intense in that picture, like I’m determined to score the winning touchdown. But we had been up by twenty points, and I was told to take a knee, to just run out the clock. When the camera snapped, I had been trying to ignore the Bishop Wilson student section chanting “Daddy’s Boy!”
Behind my desk, below the looming chair, the frames and broken glass lay in a heap. And atop it all was the old football, rocking like a see-saw.
I might have stayed that way a long time, paralyzed. But the whistle blew in my ear, blew again louder, its horrid pitch once more, and then.
“Ball! Ball! BALL!”
A wallop to my back left me sprawled on the floor next to that wretched football.
I covered my ears, my eyes, my head as his voice, just inches above me, bellowed “BALL!” I cried for help, for mercy, for it to just end.
End it did, though after how long I can’t say. But I knew the silence was no respite. It was a command.
I uncovered my head, opened my eyes, and looked up into the face of Coach Willie Sheridan. My father’s yellow eyes, full of disgust and condemnation, and his dead mouth slouched at the corner, gleaming with drool. Dad looked just as he did that last night, when I had watched him die in his bed.
Brendan Shea is an educator and writer from Hyattsville, Maryland. Brendan loves folklore, the idea of hiking, and sharing stories with his students. His stories have been published by Idle Ink, Parhelion Literary, Bandit Fiction and Longridge Review. He is represented by Jon Michael Darga of Aevitas Creative. Follow Brendan on Twitter @BeeShea.