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Now read the third part of the story. Do you find the ending moving ? Why ?
Leave it to Rake to have the final word. Leave it to Rake to manipulate his players one last time. Neely certainly couldn’t say anything bad about his Coach, not at this moment. From the grave, Rake had apologized. Now he wanted Neely to stand before the town, accept the apology, then add a few warm words of his own.
As he walked slowly among the players, his feet were heavy, his left knee aching more than usual. Without a limp, he stepped onto the small platform and situated himself behind the podium. Then he looked at the crowd, all staring down at him, and he almost fainted.
“I’m Neely Crenshaw,” he managed to say with some certainty. Hearing his voice over the public address calmed him a little. “And I played for Coach Rake from ‘84 to’87.” He looked at his notes again and remembered a lecture from Rake. Fear is inevitable, and it is not always bad. Harness your fear and use it to your advantage. Of course, to Rake that meant sprinting from the locker room onto the field and trying to cripple the first opposing player in sight. Hardly good advice when eloquent words were needed. Staring at the fence again, Neely shrugged and tried to smile and said, “Look, I’m not a judge and I’m not a minister, and I’m not accustomed to speaking before groups. Please be patient with me.”
The adoring crowd would allow him anything. Fumbling with his notes, he began to read. “The last time I saw Coach Rake was in 1989. I was in the hospital, a few days after surgery, and he sneaked into my room late one night. A nurse came in and told him he would have to leave. Visiting hours were over. He explained, very clearly, that he would leave when he got ready, and not one minute before. She left in a huff.”
Neely glanced up and looked at the players. Lots of smiles. His voice was solid, no cracks. He was surviving.
“I had not spoken to Coach Rake since the ‘87 championship game. Now, I guess everybody knows why. What happened then was a secret that we all buried. We didn’t forget it, because that would’ve been impossible. So we just kept it to ourselves. That night in the hospital I looked up and there was Coach Rake, standing beside my bed, wanting to talk. After a few awkward moments we began to gossip. He pulled a chair close and we talked for a long time. We talked as we had never talked before. Old games, old players, lots of memories of Messina football. We had a few laughs. He wanted to know about my injury. When I told him the doctors were almost certain that I would never play again, his eyes watered and he couldn’t speak for a long time. A promising career was suddenly over, and Rake asked me what I planned to do. I was nineteen years old. I had no idea. He made me promise that I would finish college, a promise that I failed to keep. He finally got around to the championship game, and he apologized for his actions. He made me promise that I would forgive him, another promise I failed to keep. Until now.”
At some point, without realizing it, Neely’s eyes had drifted away from his notes, and away from the chain-link fence. He was looking at the crowd.
“When I could walk again, I found that going to class took too much effort. I went to college to play football, and when that was suddenly over I lost interest in studying. After a couple of semesters, I dropped out and drifted for a few years, trying to forget about Messina and Eddie Rake and all the broken dreams. Football was a dirty word. I allowed the bitterness to fester and grow, and I was determined never to come back. With time, I tried my best to forget about Eddie Rake.”
“A couple of months ago I heard that he was very ill and probably would not survive. Fourteen years had passed since I last set foot on this field, the night Coach Rake retired my number. Like all the former players here today, I felt the irresistible call to come home. And to come-back to this field where we once owned the world. Regardless of my feelings about Coach Rake, I knew I had to be here when he died. I had to say farewell. And I had to finally, and sincerely, accept his apology.
“Once you’ve played for Eddie Rake, you carry him with you forever. You hear his voice, you see his face, you long for his smile of approval, you remember his tongue-lashings and lectures. With each success in life, you want Rake to know about it.”
You want to say, “Hey Coach, look at what I’ve done.” And you want to thank him for teaching you that success is not an accident. And with each failure, you want to apologize because he did not teach us to fail. He refused to accept failure. You want his advice on how to overcome it.
“At times you get tired of carrying Coach Rake around. You want to be able to screw up and not hear him bark. You want to slide and maybe cut a corner without hearing his whistle. Then the voice will tell you to pick yourself up, to set a goal, work harder than everybody else, stick to the basics, execute perfectly, be confident, be brave, and never, never quit. The voice is never far away.”
“We will leave here today without the physical presence of our Coach. But his spirit will live in the hearts and minds and souls of all the young boys he touched, all the kids who became men under Eddie Rake. His spirit will move us and motivate us and comfort us for the rest of our lives, I guess. Fifteen years later, I think about Coach Rake more than ever.”
“There is a question I’ve asked myself a thousand times, and I know that every player has struggled with it too. The question is, ‘Do I love Eddie Rake, or do I hate him?’”
The voice began to crack and fade. Neely closed his eyes, bit his tongue, and tried to summon the strength to finish. Then he wiped his face and said, slowly, “I’ve answered the question differently every day since the first time he blew his whistle and barked at me. Coach Rake was not easy to love, and while you’re playing here you really don’t like him. But after you leave, after you venture away from this place, after you’ve been kicked around a few times, faced some adversity, some failure, been knocked down by life, you soon realize how important Coach Rake is and was. You always hear his voice, urging you to pick yourself up, to do better, and never quit. You miss that voice. Once you’re away from Coach Rake, you miss him so much.”
He was straining now. Either sit down or embarrass yourself. He glanced at his friend, who clenched a fist as if to say, “Finish it, and fast.” “I’ve loved five people in my life,” he said, looking up bravely at the crowd. His voice was fading, so he gritted his teeth and pushed on.
“My parents, a certain girl who’s here today, my ex-wife, and Eddie Rake”.
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