by Rick Beck

Chapter 4

4th & Forever

Coach Winger was a fair man who played by the rules. It seemed to him that this was no minor infraction that he could overlook. If it was decided that he allowed an ineligible player to play on his team, all the games the ineligible player played would be forfeited. He, the coach, who allowed the ineligible player to play would be fired.

Ineligible players could have failed to meet academic standards and were therefore ineligible to play on an athletic team. Sometimes a player was ineligible because of being older than the rules allowed. If a player couldn't pass the physical to establish eligibility, he could not play athletics.

Bonner's grades were far above the minimum standard. He was seventeen years old and he met the age requirement. Bonner passed the required physical. Even if the note was true, Bonner met the requirements to play high school athletics.

Coach Winger examined these facts to be sure. Did the note represent a technical discrepancy. In a court of law, the coach wasn't sure the law wouldn't support Bonner's right to play. Coach Winger didn't want to go to court to explain why he didn't allow Bonner to play. This was a consideration.

The students at Grant all knew Bonner. They stopped the quarterback in the halls to offer well-wishes for the upcoming game. They mentioned their appreciation for the winning season.

Everyone wanted to know if Grant could seal the deal and beat Woodruff, a team that gave Grant fits. Coming off a 5-4 season, a good year for Grant, after a succession of losing seasons, Bonner is leading the Grant Lions to a respectability they've never before enjoyed.

What wasn't to like about that?

Bonner was the perfect athletic hero. He was smaller than most football players and he was frequently scrambling away from larger boys while passing or running the ball. Who doesn't root for the little guy. Except perfection is rarely perfect for long, and it rarely gets that way by ordinary means, which brings us to the coaches dilemma.

Bonner knew from the beginning that this day could come, but not after so much football had been played. With two weeks left Bonner couldn't throw in the towel now.

The season ended with the championship game. No matter what was decided after that, Grant would always have made it to the championship game no matter what technicalities were used to claim otherwise.

Once they were winning games, Bonner dreaded the idea that someone would figure out his secret. Breaking the rules was never a good idea if it could be avoided, but sometimes breaking the rules was the only way to force change that creates true fairness in athletics.

Nudging the rules to one side didn't give Bonner any guilt whatsoever. It wasn't breaking anything to let the game play out the way it was intended to be played. Bonner was good enough to play and Grant's record proved that. If it ended here it became a gigantic waste for a team coming off its eighth win in a row.

It shouldn't end here.

"How long did you think you could hide it? Did you think I wouldn't find out?" Coach Winger legitimately wanted to know.

He was completely calm. This wasn't about Grant's football team. He was face to face with Bonner and his intellectual side wanted all the information he could get. Coach Winger wanted to see the whole picture.

"What, Coach?" Bonner asked in a last ditch effort to avoid the conversation they were about to have.

Stupidity didn't look good on Bonner. Coach Winger let it slide. He needed the truth. He needed to know how Bonner pulled it off? He couldn't have done it alone.

"Bonner!" Coach Winger whispered. "I know. Do you understand the position I'm in here? Your team is in? Do you want to go out there and tell your team. I don't want to tell them."

"No, I don't. It isn't important. I'm a football player. I'm a quarterback. That's all that matters. Aren't I good enough to play for you, coach? Aren't we undefeated? Why quit before we get beat, if we get beat? Why do that? We haven't finished yet, Coach. We aren't done unless you throw in the towel on us, but why would you do that?" Bonner's raspy voice forced Coach Winger to listen closely to the words.

Coach Winger's glare would have wilted the luster off a rose. The coach was ruler, king, and dictator of his team. You piss off the dictator and your ass is grass. What Bonner said was economic, to the point, and factual. He didn't overstate his case. He used an intellectual argument.

Bonner made Coach Winger look like a genius, and now they both knew Bonner could ruin the coach's career, if it wasn't already ruined. Confession may have been good for the soul but it didn't win football games.

Coach Winger wasn't a man you could toy with or put something over on, but Bonner had put something over on him. Now the chickens had come home to roost. The Piper

had to be paid. Bonner was going to face the music, and Grant football was toast once he did, unless cooler heads prevailed and the rule in question was examined.

Coach Winger couldn't separate himself from the fallout no matter what happened. if the truth was out, he'd take the fall with Bonner. It was his team and his responsibility was to know everything about it.

The fingers drummed and Coach Winger's career flashed in front of him, especially the last seven games. He'd longed for a gifted quarterback like Bonner, but you had to be careful what you wished for.

If it was true, he was in violation of league rules, but he needed Bonner to finish what he'd started. As much as he wanted to dismiss it, his stomach was tied in knots by the words. He liked Bonner, but the rules were clear on this subject. Bonner had to go if it was true. The season had to go. Their shot at the championship would go with it. Why would someone write such a thing if it wasn't true?

Bonner didn't deny it. He was a quarterback. He was Grant's quarterback. He didn't mind saying so.

Coach Winger could help but envision Bonner outwitting defenses. His ability to change directions confounded defenses. His quick release and his ability to pass on the run accounted for a lot of Grant's offense. It was Bonnerball. He'd never seen anything like it, and Bonner and Tad Johnson were like the bobbsey twins. In games, in practice, in the locker room, where you saw one you saw the other one.

As soon as Bonner was on the run during a game, Johnson went to the left sideline five to ten yards down field. Within a couple of seconds, with Bonner on the run, he flicked a pass right to Johnson.

It was like they could read each other's mind.

He'd seen that before. He considered it instinct. Somehow two players were in sync and one knew where the other one was and what he'd be doing. When Bonner tossed his passes out of the backfield while being pursued, he never looked to see where Johnson was. Johnson knew where to be to catch the pass. It's not something you can practice.

The Bonner to Johnson connection worked and it won games. The Grant Lions were making a habit of winning games on what looked like broken plays. It was more complicated than it looked.

It's not the way Coach Winger played football. His game was run, run, run, and hold the other team to as few yards as you could. A strong running game and a tight defense was a better way to go. Once you let your quarterback start putting the ball in the air, bad things could happen. There were more mistakes made passing the ball.

Bonner was beating the defenses thrown against him. Defenses were forced to back off the line to keep Johnson in check. That's when Bonner dropped back, handing to Scott or Carlos, rolling left to confuse defenses. Just when they knew he was going to be passing the ball, he went to the running game and the defense had to adjust again.

The running backs were piling up the yards. Defenses had to turn their attention to the running game, and that's when Bonner dropped back, flicking a pass to Johnson. The Grant Lions were rolling. They had it all and even a team like Woodruff was going to find Grant hard to beat.

With the anxiety Coach Winger suffered on the sidelines, Bonner mixed up his plays that won the games. The coach continued to draw up running plays that ate up the clock and the yardage, but Bonner's passes won most of the games.

It's what was important and a season lost had been found on the arm of a too small quarterback. The pass was the only way Bonner could stay alive. Winger didn't like it but he accepted it.

You can afford to change your game when you're winning, but it seemed too good to be true.

Yeah, Coach Winger had cause to wonder where Bonner came from. He asked some of the players but no one knew anything. Bonner had transferred in as a senior. After he did, no one could have seen what was coming.

No one knew Bonner transferred in just to play football. Coach Winger wanted to know more and then again he didn't want to know too much. He accepted that fate sent Bonner to rescue Grant football. He wanted to believe, but it wasn't fate but fact that brought him down to earth. He hadn't looked too closely and now he was going to pay for it.

What was too good to be true might not be true at all.

He did check the authenticity of Bonner's physical and his transcripts were all in order. He didn't call Bonner's old school. He saw the information he needed to establish Bonner's age and good health.

As players went, Bonner was among the smartest. He didn't ask for more than the knowledge that Bonner met all the requirements to play.

Coach Winger knew a starting quarterback didn't just drop out of the sky. He knew there was something about Bonner that wasn't quite right, but he took it on faith that Bonner was what he said he was, a quarterback.

In his desire to win it's all that mattered. No matter how Bonner came to the Grant Lions, he was the answer to a lot of players, and obviously no one had looked at him too closely, especially when Grant was winning every game.

The idea no one knew Bonner and Coach Winger could find no record of Bonner playing football anywhere in the area did make him suspicious, but a lot of high school boys didn't come into their own until their senior year.

Athletes mature at different rates. Some were more like full grown men at sixteen and others were still boys at eighteen. You didn't know when a boy might blossom on the athletic field.

Bonner was a late bloomer. He was small, agile, and smarter than the average player. Bonner was a nice insurance policy to have in case your starting quarterback got hurt. No one could have seen Casterbrook's injury coming. There was no time to check Bonner's pedigree, once the coach was scrambling to salvage the season.

What choice did he have but to see if Bonner could play football, and he could. So Bonner became Grant's starting quarterback. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Lord knows Bonner's talent wasn't apparent until he was put into a game and he excelled. It was all done by the numbers. No one could say any different.

Someone knew otherwise and they wanted Coach Winger to know they knew. How could he ignore it? How could he write it off as anything but the threat it was?

Was coach Winger responsible to see that a student who had been admitted to school by the administration was everything he said he was? He didn't think so.

It wasn't up to a coach. There was a school administration responsible for being sure a student was legitimately enrolled. Some coaches yawned when it came to even looking at a players physical. If he walked on the field and had a desire to play, that was good enough. If their grades weren't good enough for a player to keep his eligibility, the administration sent a form saying so.

Playing Bonner would violate league rules now that he knew the truth. Playing his quarterback in another game was to knowingly violate league rules. His entire career was on the line. Up until he saw the he did nothing wrong. He still had done anything wrong.

He'd called Bonner into his office. Everyone heard him. Everyone would remember it if asked.

'How did your coach sound?'

'He was pissed. I've never heard him that pissed,' players would say. 'Especially not at Bonner.'

Coach Winger knew his ass was hanging out.

From this point forward, it was on him. Even if he said he never got the note, the players would remember him calling Bonner into his office and closing the door.

He still couldn't bring himself to tell Bonner to clean out his locker. locker, because that would end it in a way that sold out his quarterback and his team.

It wasn't the ending Coach Winger had written in his mind. This might be his one and only chance at a perfect season and a league championship to go with it.

Bonner may not have been what he appeared to be but pound for pound he was a hell of a football player.

There wasn't a member of the student body who didn't swooned over the All-American quarterback. He'd come out of the blue to rescue Grant football. The girls wanted to be with him and the boys wanted to be him.

Grant had never been in the hunt for a championship this late in the season before. A year that didn't come with a losing football team was a very good year. Having a team that plowed under every team it faced was beyond the student bodies' wildest dream, not to mention the teachers and the administration. Grant did not have a great deal of athletic tradition going for it.

What if Coach Winger ended it right there in his office?

How could it be fair to take away what might be Grant's only shot at the championship? It wasn't just the students. His players would earned the right to play for the championship if they beat Woodruff.

Without Bonner Grant would lose to Woodruff and the season would end. That wasn't in doubt.

If asked at the beginning of the season, 'What would you do if you were found to be using an ineligible player?'

He;d have told the player to clean out his locker.

Faced with sacking Bonner, he wasn't quite so sure. Grant was on a roll. Bonner met all the requirements according to league rules. He passed his physical and his grades were excellent. He'd done what every boy was required to do. The technicality that made Bonner ineligible never came to mind, until someone sent that note.

Coach Winger thought about gossip he heard linking Bonner to Johnson. A quarterback and his favorite receiver were always close. For boys to talk about their closeness wasn't unusual. It was Casterbrook's friends who started that one, and he gave it the same credibility he gave anything he heard in the locker room. It wasn't part of the game and listening to teenage boys carried its own risks.

Boys on athletic teams bonded in odd ways. Boys were odd period. It was best for a coach not to get involved in locker room gossip. He really didn't care what the boys did away from the football field as long as they didn't get arrested or harm themselves in ways that made them useless to the team. He was a coach not a babysitter.

There were things a coach didn't want to know.

There was a facet to Johnson's relationship with Bonner that Coach Winger had noticed. Johnson was overly protective of his quarterback, but he was Bonner's favorite receiver. There was protection and than there was protection. Johnson was a team co-captain, popular with everyone, and he'd grown into a dynamite receiver. It would be more suspicious if he wasn't close to his quarterback.

There just wasn't anything to see.

Bonner was more at risk than other players. Put a hundred and fifty pound quarterback against a couple of two hundred and fifty pound linebackers and the consequences could be stark.

Bonner had done everything he'd been asked to do. There was no question about talent and willingness to give a hundred percent. No matter the challenge, Bonner answered the bell in every game. He didn't come off the field until the game ended.

Few high school quarterbacks had the poise to stand in a collapsing pocket, with linebackers closing in, waiting until the last second before flicking out a perfect pass. Bonner could do that. Bonner had done all he'd been asked to do. He deserved the right to be allowed to finish the season. A technicality shouldn't be allowed to disqualify him.

Coach Winger looked up from the anonymous note. So what, he thought, quickly pushing that idea out of his head.

His dark eyes drilled into Bonner as he moved the note in his quarterback's direction. He wanted to gauge Bonner's reaction. This would help him to decide his next move.

Bonner shrugged, sliding the note back to the coach.

"Someone doesn't want me playing in the Woodruff game. If you bench me, they'll win," Bonner said. "I know you're smarter than that. You've waited for your entire career to have a team like this."

Bonner hit his marks. There was no shock or surprise. He stated the obvious in a way Coach Winger couldn't deny. It was the team of a lifetime. Lots of coaches spent an entire career never having a team as good as this one.

His mind refused to say the words he'd rehearsed. Maybe there was a way out. There had to be a way out.

"If this is true, you do understand this might very well cost me my job. You'll never play football again? We'll probably forfeit all our wins and the trip to the championship game. You need to tell the truth. It's between you and me."

"Coach Winger, if this was true you'd have had me clean out my locker before practice. You've had this note for some time. You were angry all afternoon. You decided to spring it on me to see my reaction. My reaction is simple. Let's get ready for Woodruff and kick their asses."

Winger smiled. Bonner was always cool under pressure.

What Coach Winger didn't know was that Bonner lay awake many nights playing this scenario through his mind.

Coach Winger wondered, what's wrong with me? This wasn't how he imagined this meeting going. Bonner was ready for him. If the note was true, it didn't seem to fluster Bonner, but if it was true, Bonner would have been ready for how to react, once he knew he was caught.

Not only that, Bonner thought it through before he enrolled at Grant, he'd consulted people who knew what he was doing and they told him how best to do it. Their goals may have been different, but the tactics were the same.

After several months with being the talk of the league, why did the author of the note wait until now to send it? With two games left, it was sent at a time the author of the note calculated it would do the most damage to Grant's football program. The idea of it made Coach Winger mad all over again. Such a cowardly act shouldn't be rewarded with capitulation no matter the consequences.

The season would end in two weeks. He didn't care what happened after that. They'd come this far and what was done was done. Coach Winger would get his boys ready for Woodruff. Once they beat Woodruff, they'd probably face Duval in the championship game. Grant could beat Duval with Bonner at quarterback. It was no more complicated then that.

"Do you expect me to ignore this note?" Coach Winger asked, hoping to get an answer he could accept.

"Think about it. I came here to make your football team. That's all I did. You made me the starting quarterback, because I could play the game. I want to finish what we started, Coach. This is nonsense and you know it. If it's true, what advantage does that give the Lions? If this is true, you're working at a handicap. If this is true, you're doing something no one else has ever done, and while you're doing it while winning a championship. I'd call that downright heroic."

"If it is true, it is against the rules," Winger said.

"And we know what rules are made for," Bonner said.

Coach Winger looked up from the note again, after carefully reading the words. He was listening. He shouldn't be listening to Bonner, but he was. He should tell Bonner to clean out his locker, but he had listened and he wasn't going to tell Bonner that.

"No, but that's not the issue. I can't ignore this. It was in my mailbox. I can't say I didn't know, and from this point forward, I'm complicit."

"Who sent it? Who could have had access to it?"

"What's it matter who sent it? Your secret is out, Bonner. I can't pretend not to know what I know. I've been accused of being dense, but I'm not that dense. I'm the responsible party here."

"Why didn't they send a note like that to the newspapers or the league offices? No name. No explanation. A note that could be made up to stop Grant in its tracks. Someone from Woodruff would be my guess. Why would you even read such a note? You couldn't believe it's true."

Coach Winger was still listening.

"I've got to act on it or I lose all credibility."

"If they were after you they'd have sent it to the league offices. Whoever sent it was privy to a piece of information they wanted you to have. Why you? Why now, a few days before the Woodruff game?"

"The Woodruff game !" Coach Winger said, getting his mind back to football.

"What harm has been done? I've been playing since the second game of the season. We're 8-0. Neither one of us knew if I could play quarterback in game conditions. I could. Do I give Grant an unfair advantage over the competition? Look at me, Coach. Physically there is no advantage in playing me. The only advantage I have is that I'm good, and if I wasn't good, you wouldn't have gotten that note, and we wouldn't be sitting here pondering what it means. Finish burning that note. You gave me a shot, just like any other boy gets an equal shot to play. Let's finish what we started."

Bonner spoke softly and without hesitation in that scratchy voice Coach Winger easily recognized as uniquely Bonner's. His quarterback came at the problem from a different direction, but his words made sense. They had started a journey months ago and they should be allowed to finish it. His team should play the final two games and after that, they could sort it out if Grant became league champions.

"How'd you pull it off? Who sent you to Grant? Why Grant?" Coach Winger asked.

"It doesn't matter who, Coach. I was told you were a man that loved the game and you'd give me a chance even if the truth came out. You are a fair coach. Let Grant have its season in the sun. I'll walk away once it's over. I made no promises to do anything different than that if I made the team."

The fingers began drumming again. Bonner couldn't read Coach Winger now. His team's dream season was in jeopardy and he was helpless, but he was thinking.

"Look, Coach, let me play. Like you said, they'll take the wins away anyway. Let's win them all and then let them say we didn't win them. They can erase them from the record but everyone will know we won the games. Playing me gave us no unfair advantage. We played the best ball. We played football the way it was intended to be played and we won."

"If they say I was ineligible and take away Grant's wins, it's on them. We aren't cheating and Grant has played the best football," Bonner said, while Coach Winger listened.

"Will they really want to pursue this or would they want to keep it quiet? I'm betting on the quiet. What would it say about football in our league if they rob us of our wins?

"I want to play. Admit it, you want me to play. How long will you have to wait for another season like this?"

"I need to give this more thought. Don't mention this to anyone. Especially don't talk to Johnson about it. What does Johnson know?"

"Johnson? He doesn't know anything."

"He's awful protective of you, Bonner."

"I'm small. He's big. He's taking care of a teammate. He's Grant's best receiver. He doesn't know anything else."

"Keep this between you and me. You aren't off the hook here, Bonner. I need time to think."

Bonner stood as he watched Coach Winger drumming his fingers and looking beyond the coaches office.

Bonner opened the door and he returned to his locker where a fully dressed Tad waited for him. He was leaning against Bonner's locker.

"What was that all about?"

"Woodruff," Bonner said. "The coach is anxious. He wanted me to tell him we are going to beat Woodruff. I told him and he feels better now."

"What did he really say?" Tad asked.

"I'll tell you about it one day," Bonner said, closing his locker.

The two boys left the gym together.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead