Southern Legitimacy Statement: People say football is religion in the South. To me, it’s the other way around. You’re born into your team (church), listen to the coach or the announcers (preachers), sing the fight songs (hymns), and chow down at the concession stand (suppers and picnics). The pilgrims on the field might fall from grace, but so do those in the stands. This story is for all the kickers, even the ones from Auburn and Ohio State.
Bobby Dean Goes Viral
When he heard the kid on the radio, Bobby Dean Glenn was already mad as hell, driving home in a foul mood instead of celebrating what should’ve been a great night. Down 23-21 with fourteen seconds left in the game, the Hamlin Mustangs had hit a long pass and just had to kick a 27-yard field goal to finally beat Consolidated, their biggest rival. Almost the whole town was in the stands and on their feet, Bobby and his buddies slapping backs and pumping fists, hardly believing what was about to happen.
Cole Daley, the tall, sandy-haired senior kicker, stepped in behind the line. Everyone knew he could make it: most of them were there a few weeks back when he nailed a 51-yarder. Bobby held his breath as the holder pulled down the snap, Cole’s foot made contact, the ball rose into the night and seemed to be, had to be, oh please let it be good – but it curled just left. The visitors’ bench and stands erupted while the home side deflated like a dollar-store beach ball.
Bobby was fuming behind the wheel of his pickup when Cole’s voice came out of the speakers in a clip from the postgame press conference, sounding dejected but firm: “It was completely my fault. I didn’t plant my other foot right and I missed the angle.” Though the reporter praised him for taking responsibility, Bobby just punched the “Off” button and spat out the window. As everyone knew, he was on the team that won the state championship in the small-school division in 1987. No Hamlin squad since had gotten anywhere near that far, and he was pretty sure he knew why.
“Kid’s got no mental toughness,” he groused to the gang at the Good Day Café the next morning. “None of ‘em do. They’re raised all soft and sensitive”– his face contorting like he’d swallowed a bad clam – “and if you try to make ‘em tough their parents come screamin’ bloody murder. Not like it used to be.”
“He’s a good kid, though,” Ray said. “Works weekends at my brother’s hardware store. Always on time, real polite to the customers. ‘Course his dad’s not around. That might have something to do with it.”
“He hit that big one against Garnerville, remember?” Doug chimed in. “Then he misses a chip shot.”
Bobby shook his head. “That’s what practice is for. We knew we’d better be good every time or we’d get our asses kicked.” He stood up to go, hitching his jeans up over the belly he’d acquired since his playing days, along with a scraggly, greying mustache and a balding head. “He was on the radio sayin’ he didn’t plant his foot right. Well, if you’re a kicker, what the hell else should you know how to do?”
Thirty-odd years later, Bobby remembered the victory like it was yesterday: the thrill of walking into the stadium, the wild celebration, and the way people pumped the players’ hands and gushed about the game. Still, when they lost their next home opener by two touchdowns, those same folks didn’t hesitate to call them out – from the stands, on the street, at the mall, and in the church parking lot. Bobby and the others didn’t think anything of it because they’d heard it all, back before they got good. Some things never changed.
On his way to the TapRoom one evening, Bobby spotted Cole up ahead on his bike, maybe heading home from Ray’s brother’s store. Driving right past the street that led to the bar, he pulled alongside Cole and called, “Careful on those pedals! Better plant your foot!” Cole looked surprised but kept riding as Bobby made a sloppy U-turn, jumping the curb and leaving tire tracks in somebody’s yard.
The next week, he and the boys were at their regular table at the Good Day when Cole came in for a cup to go before school. As he turned to leave, Bobby said, “Don’t forget to plant that foot now,” just loud enough so the whole room could hear.
Cole didn’t look at them or change his expression. “I understand he’s coming out for basketball again,” Doug said when he was gone.
Bobby snorted. “Probably can’t shoot any better’n he kicks. There goes that season too.”
“He shot pretty good last year,” Doug replied. “And we need him for experience. We only got one other senior.”
“We’ll see,” Bobby said, gulping the last of his coffee and waving irritably to Kristin, the waitress, for a refill. “Christ, it was only twenty-seven yards. Twenty-seven!” and the others nodded.
In the first game, Cole scored twelve points before missing a layup, and right away somebody in the gym hollered, “Plant that foot!” His minutes declined in the next few weeks as a couple of sophomores got hot, but he still played hard, battling for rebounds and hustling down the floor.
With spring came the end of the basketball season, the last few weeks of school, and graduation. Bobby went with his sister Ruth to see his niece get her diploma, sitting in the auditorium and applauding with all the proud parents. When it was Cole’s turn, he whispered, “Look, he made it up the steps. Guess he finally figured out how to plant that foot.”
Ruth looked disgusted. “My God, can’t you leave him alone?” she whispered back. “It’s over. Enough is enough.”
“He let us down in the big game,” Bobby said, with a tad more volume than necessary. “Let down the team and a lot of other folks.”
“Well, at least he was in that game,” Ruth said. “You didn’t even play in the championship, and I know because I was there. Now hush and don’t spoil this night for me.”
He sat quietly stewing until the last graduate walked off the stage. Of course, she was right: slow and a little small for a defensive end, Bobby had been second string, and his butt never left the pine in the big one, but if they’d put him in, he’d have done the damn job. He kept silent for once when he passed Cole in the hall, though he still couldn’t help thinking twenty-seven yards.
After that night, the kid didn’t seem to be around. Ray said he’d left the hardware store, but he wasn’t sure why. Late in June, Bobby looked up from his plate in the café and saw Cole’s mother Suzanne at the register chatting with Wanda, the owner. “How’s Cole?” she asked.
“He’s great,” Suzanne said, beaming. “He’s already off to college. The University of Illinois.”
“Illinois?” Bobby piped up. “Thought I heard he was going to U G A.”
“Well, he applied to different places and liked Illinois,” Suzanne said, still smiling but barely. “It’s really a fine school. He decided to take some summer classes and get settled in before fall.”
“That’s a long way,” said Wanda. “It must be hard.”
“Oh, it is,” Suzanne said. “I never thought a small house could feel so empty. But you have to let go sometime and he just loves it there. Thank goodness for Zoom.”
“Well, I guess Illinois’s all right,” Bobby mused. “Nothing wrong with Georgia, though. Seems like a kid’d want to stay close to home.”
Suzanne turned toward him, her mouth suddenly taut and fire in her eyes. A few tables away, Greg Burdick chuckled and took out his phone. He’d seen that look before, many times, in her fourth-grade class. This was going to be good.
“And why would a young man stay around here?” she demanded. “Where you do one thing wrong and hear about it for the rest of your life?” Startled, Bobby said, “I don’t know what you mean, I –” and she cut him off. “Don’t you lie to me, Bobby Dean Glenn. He told me what happened that night when he was riding his bike.”
Suzanne leaned over the table, glaring down at him. “I could have killed you dead, but he said he’d just have to live with it. But why did he have to live with it?” No one was eating anymore. “He’s eighteen years old. He made a mistake in a game. And he owned up to it like I taught him. But you and your good-for-nothing friends never gave that boy a chance!” She folded her arms. “How would you like it if everybody kept reminding you how your girlfriend ran off with that tractor salesman?”
People giggled as Bobby tried to say something, anything, and Suzanne held up her hand. “Not one word. Just listen to what I told Cole when we said goodbye,” and her expression softened. “Be good but be yourself and be happy. There’s a whole new world out there. Don’t fret about the old one.” Looking satisfied, she picked up her takeout and left.
Bobby realized the crowd was still staring at him. “What?” he barked, then muttered, “Guess it’s the wrong time of month for her,” and went back to his eggs. A few people frowned or shifted uncomfortably in their seats, but Kristin, who was about to give Marge Edmonds her order, marched up to Bobby’s table. She poured the little pitcher of milk she was holding in one hand into the bowl of cornflakes in the other, and she dumped the cornflakes right over Bobby’s head.
The room exploded in laughter. Everyone hooted and clapped as Bobby sat there looking stunned and Kristin emerged from the kitchen with another bowl and pitcher. “Sorry for the delay,” she said nonchalantly as she set them in front of Marge, who was about to split her sides.
Bobby had soggy flakes falling into his collar, milk running down behind his glasses, and the bowl riding atop his bald spot like a World War I Army helmet. With as much dignity as he could muster, he removed the bowl and stood up, mopping his face with a napkin. “Wanda, if you think I’m payin’ for this –” he began, but she stopped him. “The coffee’s on the house. But I’ll have to charge extra for the cereal,” and the place erupted again.
Bobby stalked out, shook himself like a dog, scowled at the two bemused teenagers watching him from the sidewalk, and got into his truck. He wasn’t halfway home before his phone chimed. “Bobby, you old goat, you’re supposed to eat those cornflakes, not wear ‘em!” Ray howled. “I tell you what, you ought to send that to America’s Funniest Videos.”
Video? Another call: “I’ve heard of breakfast to go but not all over your head!” The next one was from Doug: “We gotta find someplace else to eat. Cornflakes don’t look good on me!” Another: “You can’t talk like that in front of a lady, especially when she’s armed and dangerous!” And: “Hey Bobby, I’m buying a new tractor. Let me know if your girl comes back!”
By noon Greg’s footage was all over Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and everywhere else, and Bobby had thirty-eight calls. That evening, the network anchor said, “Tonight we have a lesson in civility from Hamlin, Georgia.” When the phone rang again, Bobby didn’t touch it, just walked out the back and sat in an old lawn chair. He was still there, gazing at nothing, when the katydids started singing and the moon came out.
Cole was reading in the lounge of his dorm when a girl he’d recently met sat down next to him. “Hey,” she said, “what was that town you said you were from?”
Later he checked his email. Dear Cole: When I saw the video, I laughed so hard I woke up the cat! I know you didn’t want me to make a fuss. I just couldn’t keep quiet. I’m sure this will blow over. But you might save that video so someday you can show your kids that Grandma was a firecracker – and she loved you very much. Be happy. Love, Mom.