Kevin McKinsey looked up at the bulletin board hanging just inside the main entrance of his high school. Posted on the board was the sports headline from that morning's Birmingham paper. It read: GUNSLINGER PLAYS WITH LOADED FORTY-FIVE. As he read the accompanying article, he was hit by a strange mixture of pride and humility.
To those who were not football fans in the State of Alabama, this headline would have been very misleading, but this was part of the hype preceding the state championship game being played that night in Birmingham. The game featured a perennial powerhouse from Dothan, Alabama and Kevin's team from the normally mediocre Ft. McClellan (Ft. Mac) High School in Anniston.
The article itself covered the awesome passing statistics of Kevin, whose nickname was 'Gunslinger' and the exploits of his best friend, Jamar Pickney, whose jersey number 'forty-five' was the other half of the headline. The two of them together had averaged over six hundred and fifty yards a game during this, their senior year.
Now, to many, Kevin's reaction might seem strange, but his pride was in his team and in the exploits of his best friend. Kevin was very atypical of the traditional sports hero. First, he was extremely intelligent, scoring over fifteen hundred on his SAT's. Second, he did not see himself as someone special, but just someone doing his job. Of course, he did enjoy winning, but primarily because it was a way of measuring his performance. Beyond football, he tried as much as possible to be a normal student... friendly and pleasant to everyone.
As Kevin turned away from the bulletin board, he heard his coach calling from down the hall.
"Kevin, I have some people in the teacher's conference room who would like to talk to you."
"Coach, I have French this period."
"I know. Mrs. LaRee is aware of this meeting and has given you an excused absence. In fact, when I asked her if you would miss anything, she laughed and said you already spoke French better than she did."
Kevin laughed and replied, "Well, it didn't hurt that I lived in France for almost four years when Dad was stationed there."
Coach Bryson led his star quarterback down the hall, asking, "Speaking of your Dad, is the Colonel going to be at the game tonight?"
"Yes, Sir. He's flying in to B'ham this evening and is going directly to Legion Field. If I can, I would like to ride home with him after the game."
"Son, I don't see a problem with that. You get to see him little enough as it is."
"I know, but staying with Sergeant Pickney and his family is not bad. I have Jamar, and the rest of the family treats me well."
Just before they entered the room, Coach asked, "Does it ever seem strange to have a black family be your guardians?"
"Coach, Sergeant Pickney worked with my Dad for close to thirty years. When we were babies, and Jamar and I even shared the same playpen. With Mom dead, and my Dad having to travel so much the past couple of years, they have been my family. I never think about the color of their skin, just about the love and respect they've shown me."
In the conference room, Kevin was introduced to two men and a woman. The older of the two men looked to be around forty-five. He was dressed in tan slacks, a white shirt, maroon tie, and a camel hair blazer. The younger man was dressed in black slacks and a bulky pullover sweater. The woman was in her early thirties, blond and wore a Navy blue skirt and blazer, a white oxford blouse, and a burnt orange scarf around her neck as an accent. It was obvious she had done her homework, wearing Auburn University's colors. Kevin had already committed to accept their offer of a scholarship.
"Kevin," as Coach introduced the people who waited to shake his hand, "this beautiful young lady is Alicia Clotfelter with ESPN. The two gentlemen are Robert Armstrong of Sports Illustrated, and Geoff Palmer of Fox Sports. With your permission, they would like to interview you."
Kevin looked frustrated at his coach. He wasn't pleased with this, but he would try to be pleasant to the people who had traveled a great distance to learn more about him.
Ms. Clotfelter seemed to sense his discomfort and asked, "Kevin, do you have a problem with this, or are you just shy?"
"Honestly, I am uncomfortable with this, but probably not for the reasons you think. As far as I'm concerned, it is the rest of the team you should be interviewing. If they didn't do their jobs, I would be just another high school quarterback hoping for a scholarship offer somewhere."
Mr. Armstrong replied, "Kevin, that attitude is really why we would like to get to know you and introduce you to our audiences. You are the antithesis of the stereotypical high school 'jock' we've all heard about. I think for that reason alone, the interview would be worthwhile. When we add your phenomenal statistics, it will make our readers and listeners want to learn about the real Kevin McKinsey."
The young man from Fox added, "Kevin, I agree with Robert, but it's more than that. You're like the 'kid next door' to people. You're accessible, humble and genuinely care about more than just football. In addition, from what I have learned, you're intelligent enough to go to school anywhere, even without football. This makes you 'good news', compared to so many out there who are bullies, trouble makers and borderline gangsters."
Kevin thought for a moment and slowly nodded as he asked, "Okay, but how will we work this. I'm missing one class this morning, but I don't want to spend all day doing interviews."
Alicia replied, "Your Principal said the same thing. What we have proposed is a joint conference, with two camera people placed in the far corners of the room. We will just have a casual discussion, and share the results between us. Would that be acceptable?"
"Yes, Ma'am. I don't see a problem, though I do have some limitations I must impose."
Robert Armstrong looked concerned and puzzled as he asked, "And they are?"
"First, if the subject comes up, no one says anything about my father other than he is in the Army. Second, no pictures of our home, or anything about where I live while my father is away is to be shown, or discussed. Finally, I want nothing said about my social life. I have a very precious girlfriend, and she deserves her privacy."
The reporter from Fox looked at the others and said, "Kevin, we agree to those conditions, but why the restrictions about your father and your living arrangements?"
"My father is an investigator with CID, the criminal investigation division of the Army. He often has to work undercover, so I don't want anything said which could put his life, or career, in jeopardy. As for the other, while my father is traveling, I stay with his old sergeant's family. Even though we have progressed a lot in this state, there would be some out there who might respond negatively to me staying with a black family."
Geoff replied, "Kevin, your reasons are obvious and acceptable. We will do nothing to compromise any of the three relationships."
With everyone now in agreement, two camera crews were quickly brought in. Mikes were placed in front of each of the four, and tested. Finally, a makeup person worked with each of them for a few moments.
When the interview began, Alicia introduced everyone to the audience, and gave some overall statistics of Kevin's high school football career.
Turning to the young quarterback, she asked, "Kevin, are you nervous?"
"Yes, Ma'am. I still can't figure out what all the fuss is about. It's my teammates who enable me to do what I do. They're the real stars of this team."
Geoff responded, "Well, I talked to most of your teammates after practice yesterday, and their opinion is a little different. To a man, they said it was an honor just to be on the field with you. In fact, I got the distinct impression they would follow you into Hell. Their feeling is that without you and Jamar, they would not even have a winning season, much less be playing for the state championship. As for Jamar, he says everyone keys on you, and he just has to wait for you to put the ball into his hands."
Kevin replied, "Well, if you believe all that, then I would like to talk to you about some property in New Orleans."
Everyone laughed at Kevin's obvious joke.
"Kevin," responded Mr. Armstrong, "I spent yesterday reviewing the films of your season. I have to be honest. I have never seen anyone, even in the pros, who seems to sense where everyone was on the field. Have you even been sacked this year?"
"No, Sir. But I came close many times, and I have the bruises to prove it."
"Also, I've never seen anyone with the throwing touch you have. Whether it is across the middle, or long down the sidelines, the ball seems to have eyes. From what I could see, the only interceptions you had were tipped balls and the only incompletes were dropped balls or obvious throwaways. What do you attribute this to?"
"I guess most of it is just practice. I've thrown to Jamar almost every day since I was seven or eight years old. This past summer, I worked out with all our receivers for more than two hours a day. Of course, it was unofficial and none of the coaches were involved. Jamar and I also spent a week at one of Auburn's camps for high school athletes. They were able to help both of us immensely in fine-tuning our patterns and our play fakes."
Alicia responded, "And clearly the effort has paid off. Now, tell us about Kevin McKinsey. We know your father is in the Army and your mother died several years ago of cancer. Has growing up in that situation been hard on you?"
"I have to be honest and say it's been hard without Mom. She was a beautiful and very loving woman who created a hunger for reading and learning that is still in me today. As for my Dad, I have a great relationship with him, and we have been together for most of the time since Mom's death. I even went with him when he was stationed in Europe. It's been only in the past twenty months, when he has been gone more than normal. Fortunately, he only has another eleven months before retirement. He plans on being there for every game I play at Auburn."
Robert Armstrong asked, "Kevin, if it's not asking too much, why Auburn? With your grade point average and your SAT scores, you could have gone anywhere in the country, football or no football."
"I guess it's mostly because of the unique spirit I found when I visited the school. Dad, Mom and I actually started going to their games when I was around five. Except when we were overseas, we have missed very few of their home games. Other than West Point, I don't think I ever considered any other school."
"Have you picked out a major?" Alicia asked.
"I plan on getting a double major in criminal justice and military science. I expect to make the Army my career, though I would like to study law sometime in the future."
Surprised at this revelation, Geoff Palmer asked, "What about professional football? With your abilities, surely you have to be thinking about the possibility."
"Mr. Palmer, while I may change my mind in the future, it is presently not in any of my plans."
Looking at his watch, Kevin announced, "I'm sorry, but we have about five minutes before the bell rings. I think we have time for one more question."
Geoff replied, "Then I'm going to go after the question which has bugged me since I first heard about you. How did you get the nickname 'Gunslinger'?"
The other two reporters added, "Thanks, Geoff. I think it's a question we would all like to have answered."
"Well, it actually goes back to before my mother died. My dad was off on some assignment. While he was gone, he visited an old friend. Somewhere around that time, his friend found a pair of the old Mattel Shooting Shell cap pistols, along with a bunch of the bullets, plastic tips and stick on caps. They belonged to his son who had been killed in Viet Nam. After talking to Dad, he passed them on to me to enjoy.
"I was fascinated with them and even learned to work with leather in order to make my own 'fast draw' holster. Of course, I got Mom to help me. I would play with them in my room for hours, drawing and shooting at cardboard targets.
"When I got older, Dad gave me a twenty-two pistol modeled after the old Colt Peacemaker. Finally, about three years ago, I moved up to a real Colt forty-five and even a cap and ball forty-four. It's not really a big deal, but my playmates started calling me Gunslinger when I was around nine and the nickname stuck. Recently, a lot of my friends have shortened it to 'GS'.
In a follow-up question, Geoff asked, "Do you still go to the range and shoot?"
"Yes, I do. I really do enjoy going to the range and shooting. In some ways, I was probably born a hundred years too late."
Alicia asked, "What about any other hobbies?"
Kevin looked at her and replied, "Ms. Clotfelter, you're cheating, but I will answer your question. I'm an amateur magician, and I enjoy riding horses. I've also studied numerous martial arts forms, though I have never been tested for a belt. Now, I need to wrap this up. I have an exam in AP Chemistry in less than ten minutes, and I'll have to hurry to get to class on time."
Kevin shook everyone's hand and hurried out the door.
When he reached his locker, Jennifer was waiting. She looked so sexy in her maroon and gold cheerleading outfit.
"Good morning GS. Where were you during French?"
"Would you believe I was being interviewed by Sports Illustrated, ESPN and Fox Sports?"
"Yep, they wanted to know all about our love life."
Jennifer grinned and said, "If that's the case, I'll bet it was the shortest interview they've ever had."
"Actually, I embellished it so people wouldn't think I was a virgin or something."
Jennifer stopped dead in her tracks and looked hard at the only boy she had ever dated. In fact, the only dates either of them had ever had, were with each other. With her eyes looking deeply into his soul, he could no longer keep a straight face.
Realizing he had been teasing her, she gently slapped him on his butt and said, "If we win tonight, I plan on changing that status."
Kevin was still standing there with his mouth open, as she hurried off to class. Suddenly, he snapped out of his daze. He was grinning from ear to ear as he headed for Chemistry. He passed through the doorway just as the tardy bell began to ring.
Mr. Long looked up and said, "Mr. McKinsey, I'm glad you have decided to grace us with your presence on this eventful day. Though, with what you do to the curve, I'm sure there are many here who would have been delighted if you had missed this exam."
"Sorry, Mr. Long," Kevin replied. "I was delayed getting out of the interview, even though I told them I had to get to an exam."
"Interview, Mr. McKinsey?"
"Yes, Coach got me out of French to meet with some people from Sports Illustrated, ESPN and Fox Sports."
The teacher grinned, as his feelings for Kevin were like so many of the other teachers. The young man was a great person and a delight to teach. This view was especially true for Mr. Long, as he had never had any use for athletics or athletes. This year however, because of Kevin, he had not missed a single game, and would scream himself hoarse over the exploits of his pupil.
"Kevin, I hope you are prepared, as this will be an exceptionally tough test."
With that remark, the class groaned as the exams were placed face down on each desk. Mr. Long was noted for his thorough tests, but he was also fair and graded on a curve. What most did not know was once Kevin aced his first two tests, the teacher had removed Kevin's scores from the curve, as he did not want the rest of the class to be penalized by their extraordinary classmate.
When he had finished passing out the exams, Mr. Long stated, "You may begin. When you finish, you can quietly gather your books and head to the gym for the Pep Rally."
The exam was two pages long. The first page dealt with the properties of selected elements. When Kevin finished that page, he turned to the second page where he read:
The five questions on the first page count one point each. For the other ninety-five points, who is the number one high school quarterback in the nation?
Kevin immediately broke into laughter. Moments later, the rest of the class joined him in discovering their teacher's joke.
Laughing with his students, Mr. Long said, "Now, get out of here and head to the gym, and Kevin, good luck tonight."
For the next forty minutes, the entire student body, teachers and even the lunchroom workers met in the gym. They loudly cheered these modern day gladiators who would carry their school's colors and honor into the forthcoming game. It was a very moving experience, and the coaches even led the team in their own version of the 'Tiger Walk' on the way to the waiting buses. To say the players were pumped up, would be putting it mildly.
For the next hour and a half, the bus journeyed west on I-20 until it joined I-59. They exited at Arkadelphia Road and then turned onto Eighth Avenue. Two blocks later the buses pulled into the designated parking area outside the stadium.
Once the bus came to a stop, the coaches, trainers and equipment managers unloaded the team's gear, and Kevin led the rest of the team inside to look around. The arena was huge compared to the high school fields where they normally played. As a result, many of the players were becoming intimidated by it's size, as well as by the reputation of their opponent.
Sensing what his teammates were feeling, Kevin sent one of the freshmen for the team's practice balls. When he returned with one of the managers and a large canvas bag full of footballs, Kevin retrieved one.
"Okay Mustangs, listen up."
When he had their attention, he said, "I believe I know how most of you feel right now. This place is huge, and in a few hours, it will be filled with more people than most of us have ever seen at one time. We can let this field and Dothan intimidate us, or we can focus on what got us here. What say you, my friends?"
Tom Witherspoon, their center replied, "Run, Mustangs, Run!"
"Now, the first thing I want you to take note of is that this is a football. It is just like the football we have played with all year and is just like the one we will be using tonight. This football cannot intimidate us, nor can it beat us. Am I right?"
Mike Thomas, their tight end, led them in the answer, "Run, Mustangs!"
Kevin smiled and said, "Mike, take off down the field twenty yards and slant across the middle."
Even though they were wearing blazers and ties, without hesitating Mike did as instructed. Kevin seemed to ignore Mike until he made his cut. Suddenly, he cocked his arm and threw the ball while hardly looking at the receiver, or where he was running. The ball landed perfectly in Mike's hands. After catching it, Mike ran back to the other players.
"Mike," Kevin asked, "did that pass feel different to you?
"Nope. It was just like hundreds you've thrown to me."
"How about the field? Does the grass seem to be different than what we're used to?"
"It seems to have just a little more of a slope, but not enough to affect us."
"Jamar, is this field any bigger than what we're used to? What about the yard markers?"
Grinning, Kevin's friend replied, "Nope. It's just like what we've been playing on for most of the year. Ten yards are ten yards, and the field is a hundred yards long."
Buck Washington, one of the wide receivers said, "GS, all that is good, but what about the crowds and the noise. What if you call an audible, and we can't hear you?"
"Buck, you've brought up a good point, but also remember Aniston is a lot closer to B'ham than Dothan. I expect this place will have a lot more of our fans here than Dothan will. Besides, when you play at Mississippi State next year, the noise will be a lot louder than what we will hear tonight."
Buck grinned and said, "Yeah, that's true. Especially with all those cow bells ringing."
Kevin turned serious a moment and said, "Guys, Buck does have a good point though. It will be hard for the wide receivers to hear my audibles. Any suggestions?"
Allen Smith, the strong side tackle said, "Kevin, why don't you give us three plays in the huddle. Then, begin your snap count with the play number, as well as holding up one, two, or three fingers. Starting with a four and holding up four fingers would signify a new play."
Kevin looked carefully at his teammates. He had played with many of them since the seventh grade. They knew him, and he knew them. As a result, the confidence which showed on their faces strengthened his own resolve. What's more, it was their idea, not his or the coaches. They would make it work.
"Okay, I think it's a good plan, but I'll have to talk to Coach Bryson about it. Now let's head back to the locker room and get prepared."
When they arrived, Coach Bryson came over to Kevin and asked, "What's going on?"
"The fellows were getting a little intimidated by all this. I took them out on the field and helped them to get their focus back. They did come up with a suggestion as to how to handle much of the crowd noise."
"Really? Tell me about it."
Kevin explained the idea Allen had presented, and how he thought it would work. After going though some different scenarios, the coach agreed with the plan.
Coach Bryson asked, "Kevin, for this to work, you're going to pretty much call your own plays out there. Are you ready for that?"
"I think so. After all, we probably audible more than thirty percent of our plays as it is. I do have one suggestion though."
"What's that, son?"
"I would like for Coach Brown to continue calling signals from the sideline. This might help keep Dothan from catching on to what we're doing. Also, if the two of you want something special called, place your hands on your hips. For that play, I will call what he signals, subject to audibles, of course."
"Kevin, it sounds like a good plan. I'll go over it with the other coaches while everyone gets dressed out. One last thing, though."
"Kevin, win or lose tonight, coaching and working with you has been the pinnacle of my career. Not only are you a great passer and team leader, you are one of the finest young men I have ever been associated with. I'm proud of you... very proud."
With that said, Coach Bryson gathered the other coaches into a side office, while Kevin and his teammates continued to get dressed out.
Shortly before the Mustangs were to head onto the field to get warmed up, there was a knock at the door. One of the coaches answered and called for Kevin. When he arrived, there stood his dad. They immediately fell into a deep and loving hug.
"I'm glad you could make it, Dad. I've missed you a lot this season."
"I'm sorry, son, but there is something crucial going on. I had to threaten to resign my commission to get the General to agree to let me come home, as it was."
"How long will you be home?"
"I've got to report back Monday morning, but I've got us three tickets for the Iron Bowl tomorrow."
"That's great. There is nothing like being in Auburn when they play Alabama, but why three tickets?"
"I figured you would want to take Jennifer, especially since she will be our house guest tonight."
A stunned Kevin looked hard at his father and asked, "And you're alright with that?'
"Son, I won't say I'm thrilled at the idea, but as Jennifer explained to her father, it would be far better and safer than if her first time was in the backseat of a car somewhere. Now that's for later. Right now, get your head back into this game and give 'em hell. At the same time, Son, remember it's only a game and tomorrow you will be the same person, win or lose. Therefore, go have fun. The rest of your life is before you."
"Kevin, one more thing. I'm proud of you, and your mother would be too."
There were tears in Kevin's eyes as he closed the door.