The scoreboard had been designed in Japan, and our town had bought it a year ago to record Fremont's glorious football victories and track triumphs. From the bleachers where I stood with seven hundred screaming students and four thousand equally crazed townspeople, the giant live-feed LED display and the half dozen digital timers helped us follow all the action on the track far below. Twenty runners — all eighteen-year-old toned and ripped superathletes — had turned the final corner and were racing down the home stretch. And the twenty-first runner, a much older man but in terrific shape, was coasting along in the middle of the pack when he happened to glance up at the scoreboard.
That twenty-first runner was Arthur Gentry, the principal of Fremont High for more than forty years and the man most responsible for making our school into a sports powerhouse known throughout the state of New Jersey as "Muscles High." He was the kind of principal who liked to know everything that was going on in his school, so he was always poking his head into a classroom or chatting with a new student, but it would have been much better for all of us if he hadn't glanced up at that fancy scoreboard right then.
The race was the climax of Graduation Week, which at Fremont High meant as much sports crap as they could cram into five days. It started off with Team Appreciation Day — a pep rally for teams that had already been appreciated so much it was hard to imagine the star players hadn't gone deaf from all the applause. Then came the New Trophy Ceremony, when the sacred glass case at our school's front entrance was unlocked and gleaming gold cups for the past year's championships were carefully slipped onto shelves next to tarnishing plaques from seasons gone by. And there was Captain's Coronation, when the new team captains for next year were "crowned" by the old ones and showered with confetti while cheerleaders danced around them.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. There's not much at Fremont High during Graduation Week to honor the valedictorian or the president of the French club, but if you happen to be an elite athlete, it's like getting a Viking funeral and entering Valhalla, or being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
WARNING — this is not a typical story about the birth of a sports team dynasty, like when Babe Ruth joined the Yankees and belted out fifty-four home runs his first year, or when Vince Lombardi took over the Green Bay Packers and promised them: "You will never lose another championship." This sports story has little to do with blood, sweat, tears, and six-pack abs. But it has a lot to do with a dental disaster, fast legs, and bad hand-to-eye coordination, plus galloping on horseback at night with a pretty girl across a Mafia-owned golf course, and learning how to make the principal of your high school so mad at you that he puts his fist through his door.
I was not an elite athlete. I'd spent years searching for the sport I was best at and never quite found it. I was a chronic hitter of foul balls, a basketball player whose jump shots slalomed around the rim before deciding to hop down rather than slip through the hoop, and a wide receiver with plenty of speed but "iron hands" that repelled footballs with an almost audible clank.
I'm tall and slender — my dad says "scrawny," and he'd been encouraging me to lift weights since I was twelve. "Bulk up and it'll pay off across the board," he assured me. "Coaches will see it, girls will notice, and you'll be able to shovel our driveway faster." I told him thanks for the advice, and I know it worked for him and my two brothers, but I'd just as soon go my own way. And that was my attitude toward our sports-crazed school, too — live and let live — till that afternoon in June when Principal Gentry glanced up at the scoreboard and everything changed.
I may sound angry, but the truth is I had nothing against pep rallies and cheerleaders dancing around next year's captains. Did I think it was nutty? Sure. But I wasn't trying to fight back or rip anything down. I did my own thing, and my first three years at Fremont I joined the computer club and kept my distance from the superjocks. Except for the fact that, by virtue of my last name, I'm one of the cornerstones of that sports culture, and you can never get far away from your own name.
Which brings me back to the grand finale of Graduation Week — Champion's Day. The culmination of Champion's Day for fifty years has been the Senior Mile Run. The twenty fastest seniors race four laps around our track while the whole school and half the town cheers them on. The Fremont record for the mile is four minutes and seventeen seconds. I know that time because the record was set by my father, Tom Logan, twenty-seven years ago. Since fewer than a dozen high school runners in all of American track history have broken four minutes, it's a hell of an achievement to have been just seventeen seconds over, especially for a big football player like my father was. It's not likely to ever be broken in our town, but every year the top twenty athletes at Muscles High take their best shot.
That day in early June, twenty-one runners were sprinting through the sunshine for the finish line. Battling it out were four team captains, two hyperathletic girls in orange Lycra, five members of our track team, and a baseball star who had been drafted by the Yankees. But the runner drawing the most attention was old Principal Gentry, a schoolboy champion in his day, then a track letterman at Princeton, and now, at seventy, still a rail-thin specimen and a competitive runner.
"Look at the old geezer go," my friend Frank grunted. "If he's not careful, he's going to keel over."
"Have some respect," I told him. "Let's see you do that when you're seventy."
"I can't even do that at seventeen," Frank admitted. "And you know what? I'm fine with that. When I'm seventy I plan to be on my back in a hammock, eating SunChips." It's not hard to picture Frank with white hair, swinging in a hammock, staring up at the clouds and popping SunChips. He's a gentle giant who loves to pig out on junk food and take long naps, and he avoids all physical exercise with a laziness that a sloth would envy.
Principal Gentry was made of tougher stuff. He was clearly not going to win this race — Al Flynn, the centerfielder headed to the Yankees, was neck and neck with Ramon Hernandez, the captain of the track team, for that honor. They had opened up a twenty-yard lead over the rest of the field, and the crowd was roaring and stomping so that it felt like an earthquake was shaking the bleachers. Ramon put on a final spurt and crossed the finish line in four minutes and thirty-one seconds, with Al just an eyelash behind. The two gods of sport slapped five and everyone gave them a cheer, and then all eyes swung back to our principal.
These days serious older runners compete in their own track meets, and there are records for every age group. Principal Gentry's best time was twelve seconds off the state record for seventy-year-olds, and I don't think he intended to try to break the record that day.
But forty yards from the finish he glanced up at a digital display and saw that he was seven seconds from the record. This was a man who had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro at sixty, and scuba dived with hammerhead sharks when he turned seventy, and whose motto was "Just go for it!"
The crowd began roaring again as Principal Gentry dug into his last reserves and sped up. His stride was fierce and determined as he churned down the home stretch, passing runners fifty years younger. I can still see his bony elbows pumping like pistons and the sunlight flashing off his sweaty forehead that was half-lowered toward the finish line as if ready to break an invisible tape with the point of his nose.
"GENTRY, GENTRY, GENTRY," the crowd chanted.
He passed the captain of the basketball team, who broke stride to wave him on.
I spotted my father lower down on the bleachers, near the green turf, chanting, "GENTRY, GENTRY." Dad is six feet three inches tall and his thick head of black hair tossed in the spring breeze as he stood with his best friends — most of them old teammates from his high school days — and cheered and shook both fists. Dad watches lots of sports events, live and on TV, and he often gets so personally involved with them that my mom and I have to tell him to calm down.
Fifteen yards to go. Gentry was only two seconds off the record. He threw himself forward with guts and willpower, as if to set a shining example and say to each of us: "This is what you can achieve, if you just lower your head and go for it."
"GENTRY, GENTRY!" The bleachers felt like they were going to collapse at any second. I didn't shake a fist, but I did put my arms out to steady myself. On my left, my friend Dylan Sanders, who is usually far more critical of the jock culture at Fremont than I am, got caught up in the moment and started leaping up and down. It was impossible not to get excited. I found myself clapping and shouting.
Five yards to go. Principal Gentry hurled himself at the finish line with everything he had. He zipped across, nose first, right arm following as if throwing a punch at time itself, and then his trim torso, with his left arm trailing. He raised his arms and turned to the scoreboard, and saw that he had missed the record by half a second.
There was a loud, deflating sigh from the crowd, like the air hissing out of a hot air balloon. Principal Gentry put his hand dramatically on his heart, as if to say, "I gave it my all." The applause swelled. And then he went down on one knee, as if saying a brief prayer to the Olympic gods, and the cheering got even louder because he looked so noble kneeling there, and he had come so close and fought so well.
And then old Gentry toppled over onto the blue synthetic track that he had helped raise the money for, and the crowd went totally silent. "Oh my God," I whispered.
The ambulance crew was tending to him in moments.
"I didn't mean for it to really happen," Frank whispered to me, sounding scared. "I swear I didn't."
We were all scared, and I saw several people start to pray.
"He'll get back up in a second," I whispered back to Frank. "He's probably just winded."
But he didn't get back up. The sad fact is that he died right there in front of nearly five thousand people, and a week later they named the whole turf field and track after him — Gentry Field. There was even a proposal to bury him beneath it, but apparently that had to be abandoned for zoning reasons.
Now, you'd think that Gentry's dramatic death might have given Fremont pause to say, "Maybe we've pushed this sports thing a little too far. Maybe as a school, a town, a community, we owe it to our kids to take our foot off the gas and hit the brakes and emphasize reading and writing and algebra a little more and biceps curls a little less." But it didn't go down that way at all.CHAPTER 2
The surprise announcement was made at a school board meeting just three weeks after Gentry's death. It was very unexpected because there had been talk of a search for "an educator" from outside our community — a new principal with impressive scholarly credentials who would give our school a fresh look and feel.
I wasn't at the meeting — I was spending most of my summer vacation hanging out with Dylan and Frank, playing video games or swimming in Hidden Lake, and most of my evenings at my miserable summer job busing tables at Burger Central.
But I heard the news right away because Dylan's mother is on the board and forces him to come to meetings, and he had dragged Frank along. So my two friends were in the third row when the board president, Mr. Bryce, announced that they had not needed to search far. In fact, it seemed like they had just rolled over the nearest rock and scooped up the biggest and meanest critter that scampered out.
When the meeting ended Dylan and Frank texted me that they had a news flash, and they headed right over to Burger Central to try to score some free fries.
"Muhldinger?" I said, staring back at Dylan. "You're kidding me."
"There was applause when they announced his name," Dylan reported. "In fact there was a spontaneous standing ovation. Everyone seems to think he's a brilliant choice."
"Brilliant how? What qualifications does he have?" I asked.
"He's a proven leader," Frank pointed out with his usual sarcasm. "What about some fries, Jack? When I'm stressed out I need to eat."
Frank must be stressed out a lot, because his eating habits resemble those of a great white shark. He seeks out food twenty-four hours a day, or at least every minute when he's awake, and it wouldn't surprise me if he occasionally took bites out of his pillow in his sleep. He would be fat if his growth spurt hadn't matched his appetite — when you're six foot five you can carry fifty extra pounds like an overnight bag.
"Proven at what?" I demanded. "Just because he can win state championships in football doesn't mean he can run our school. And if you want fries, go order fries from Becca. I'm not in charge of handouts — I just wipe the tables, and I'm still trying to get over Muhldinger. What the hell were they thinking?"
"The word 'legacy' came up several times," Dylan informed me. "As in 'We have to stay true to Gentry's legacy.' And also the word 'tradition,' as in 'We have a long and glorious tradition to uphold here.' And the news only gets worse, Jack, so a little snack might brighten things up."
"If we had the money for fries, we wouldn't need a friend," Frank pointed out. "Just wander through the kitchen and slide some into a napkin when no one's looking. We're all doomed, so we might as well have a last meal."
I studied Dylan's face. "How could any news be worse than Muhldinger taking over our school?"
Becca was returning from a bathroom break and overheard my question as she walked past. She jolted to a stop and stared at us. "Muhldinger?" she asked in shock and outrage. "No freaking way. How is that possible? He's not even a teacher. He's just a big muscle-head. He doesn't even have a neck. They can't do that to us. He's the worst kind of sports Nazi."
It was true. Brian Muhldinger, coach of the Fremont football team, chief of the audiovisual department, which made him a nonteaching member of the faculty, and now apparently the new czar of our high school, had a broad chest that seemed to be welded directly to his fat, bald head. It was as if the millions of pounds of weights he had pumped had reconfigured his body to eliminate all thin and weak areas.
Becca's real last name was Knight, but everyone called her "Becca the Brain" because she was focused on school all the time and had never gotten less than an A on any test since third grade. I'd always admired her long legs and sharp sense of humor more than her GPA, but Becca didn't date or do anything that might waste precious time that she could spend studying. During the summer she worked the computerized register at Burger Central, punching orders at hyperspeed and using slow periods to study impossible vocabulary words that might appear on the SAT.
"Neck or not, it's Principal Muhldinger now," Frank explained. "And you guys don't want to hear the really bad news."
Becca looked back at him. "The football team is taking over the library as their new weight room?"
"I think that's actually quite possible," Frank told her, "but no, that's not the bold new policy Muhldinger announced in his speech at the board meeting — the one that got him the standing ovation."
Andy Shimsky, who waited tables, had heard enough to join our little group of social outcasts. He was a string bean of a kid, with long, greasy black hair and wrists like toothpicks, and had been mercilessly bullied by jocks since middle school. "What bold new policy?" Shimsky demanded warily.
There was a moment of ominous silence when Dylan and Frank exchanged looks and Becca, Shimsky, and I waited for the bombshell to explode.
"In honor of Arthur Gentry's legacy ..." Dylan began. "And to continue his unique vision of the Fremont High School scholar-athlete ..."
Frank finished in a mocking tone: "Starting in September all seniors will be required to join at least one school sports team and stay with it through an entire season. This will develop strong bodies along with keen minds, and create a unifying school spirit that will keep alive the legacy of Arthur Gentry."
"But that's three hours of practice a day," Becca pointed out.
"Not to mention weekends and traveling to away games," I added. "What if we're not good enough to make any of the teams?"
"They're adding B-team and even some C-team options, and expanding the rosters," Dylan said. "I believe Arthur Gentry would tell you to just go for it."