Chapter one/ the invitation
Do not swallow bait offered by the enemy.
–Sun Tzu, the Art of War
The door to my coach’s office was closed. I knocked lightly on it before pushing it open enough to stick my head inside.
“Coach Feurch?” I asked as my eyes scanned the darkened room until they found him pressed against the far wall. I followed his gaze toward the desk and as I did the chair behind it scraped across the floor. I reached my hand inside and fumbled along the wall until I found the switch for the lights.
It’s one of those moments in my life that I wish I could have a do-over on; like that instead of going to my coach’s office between third and fourth period, I would’ve done something else; anything else. Even that wasn’t my last chance to escape what seemed to be a fixed course. If I’d just pulled my head back into the hall once I saw my coach’s blank stare, then maybe I wouldn’t be writing this now. But I didn’t do either of those things. I went to my coach’s office and I turned on the light and when I did, I didn’t walk away.
“You must be Joel,” the man standing behind my coach’s desk said confidently, like he already knew it was me. He held out his hand and I stepped into the room to shake it. “My name is Mike Arberdean. I’m here to represent Newstead, a private high school in Vermont, that -”
“Newstead - never heard of it,” came Coach’s cocky voice from somewhere behind Mike.
Mike’s smile stayed fixed on his face, at least the outline of it. There’s something freaky about a mouth that’s smiling and eyes that aren’t. After a second or so of that, I decided there needed to be some more space between us, so I took a step back and took my hand with me.
Surprise flashed across his fiery eyes before they dropped to my freed hand. I took another step back and angled myself toward the door. My breathing was the only sound in the room until Mike looked back up and cleared his throat, smiling brightly again, like nothing had happened.
“Like I was saying,” he continued, sitting back down. “We are a school that helps to develop the gifts of our students, and from what I saw of you playing last Friday night, you certainly are gifted.”
He’s a recruiter? I wondered, before following his lead, sitting in the chair that was always in front of Coach’s wooden desk.
“So, tell me about yourself, Joel. Your coach says this is the fourth season you’ve been playing on his team, and that they’ve done very well, mainly because of you.” He leaned back, like he was expecting me to talk for a while.
“There’s not really much to tell,” I answered, feeling my face flushing.
Mike looked at me quizzically. “But didn’t you guys win state last year?”
“And didn’t you score five touchdowns that game?”
I nodded again, my face getting hotter.
“And that’s not much to tell?” he asked, incredulously.
I shrugged. His eyes never left mine as he started to shake his head. That time it was my chair scraping across the floor; his face was getting that look again, but he burst out laughing instead.
“Joel, you need to come to Newstead. If ever anyone needs what we have to offer, you do.” He continued to laugh to himself, but I didn’t know what was so funny about that; I still don’t.
I looked over at my coach. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t busy spouting off all the reasons I needed to finish my high school career in St. Louis. But I guess whatever made him shut-up while Mike was glaring agnostically at me was still fresh in his mind, because self-preservation won out over professional achievement. He never said another word, at least not while Mike was there.
“What is it you’re offering?” I asked. There was no point dancing around it. If it was anything short of a free ride, we were just wasting each other’s time. There was no way my mom could afford some private school in Vermont, no matter how good it was.
“The world,” he answered.
I looked at him to see if he was mocking me, but he wasn’t laughing anymore. He looked like he was serious. I leaned towards him as he continued.
“I have been authorized to offer you a full scholarship to Newstead for the remainder of your education. The ones I represent would be very pleased to have you be a part of our program.”
I’d been expecting an offer like the one he’d made, only I expected it later, and from a college. Both my mom and my coach mentioned it almost every day. They said it was my chance, but even back then I knew that wasn’t entirely true. If it was anyone’s chance, maybe it was my coach’s chance for a letter from the governor or something. My mom wasn’t looking for a letter, but she had reasons of her own.
Each of them, and truth be told, me too, had been eagerly waiting for that day, but when the words were actually said for real, they felt off. I wasn’t excited about it like I’d always thought I would be. It probably would’ve helped if it was from Ole Miss, or some other school I’d at least heard of. It also would’ve helped if they’d sent someone else. Not that they had a choice; nine foot tall behemoths with anger issues were all they had to pick from.
But he’d made me a legitimate offer and tainted or not, he deserved an answer. I just didn’t know what that answer was yet.
“I’ll think about it,” I said. It was the best I could give him.
“You do that,” Mike said as he stood up and handed me a stack of information and forms to fill out.