At Friday morning’s breakfast he was sitting and joking at a round table with half a dozen other coaches, plates overflowing with scrambled eggs, sausages, fried potatoes, pancakes, and syrup from the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, when the fellow beside him, a garrulous gray-haired man with a name tag that said “Buck Piersall, Head Coach, Oregon State” happened to mention that in another lifetime he had been a coach out east at Clemson.
“Clemson?” Fred said. “When was that? Our head coach at McGill was at Clemson, back around the late ‘80’s, I think.”
“Bless these eggs! I prob’ly know the guy! What’s his name?”
“Well throw me in a pot o’ beans and ring the bell fer supper! Errny Viimets!” He pronounced the first name “Errny.” “Well, I shore do know the guy! Wee-hoo! I ‘member him well. I was the DC, he was the OC. Damn good coach, he was, damn good coach. Damn good coach. We had some spot-on teams, too, at Clemson. You know we were ranked eighth in the nation? I always wondered what happened to good old Errny. He was a class act, you know? A class act. You prob’ly know what happened to him, huh? at Clemson? Why he got fired? I mean ev’rybody gets fired, but he kind o’ got his ass handed to him, ya know?” He shoved a forkful of eggs into his mouth.
“More or less. He never wanted to talk about it very much.”
“Don’t blame ‘im. Unfair, it was. Unfair. Shame, the way he had to leave. We kinda lost touch after he left the game. I’m so glad ta hear he’s back into it. Errny Viimets.” More eggs went into his mouth. “He shore was one of a kind.”
Fred laughed. “Still is. He’s the only football coach I know who has a pet turtle in his office and listens to opera in the car.”
“Oh, he’s one smart dude. Only football coach I know who’s a doctor.”
“PhD. Didn’t ya know?”
Fred was shocked. It was kind of funny, now that he thought about it, that he’d never talked to Arne about his education. He knew he’d gotten his degree at Syracuse where he’d gone to play football, and he knew that he’d taken some “other courses” at the same time that he’d been coaching, but he’d never dreamed that Arne had earned a PhD. Since he’d worked in finance in Toronto, Fred figured he’d taken some business courses, perhaps even an MBA. He’d never considered the possibility that Arne would have a doctorate. Now that he thought about it, it made a whole lot of sense.
“No,” he admitted. “No, I didn’t know.”
“Guess in what.”
Fred thought for a moment. “Economics?”
“I ain’t gettin’ out! Bless my mother’s pie. He’s coachin’ kids, some of ‘em literally a good 40 time out of the ghetto, and he’s got a doctorate in philosophy. I’m damn sure ya won’t find another coach like that. Nope. He sure was different . . . Had some mighty peculiar pre-game rituals, too. He was pretty superstitious, ya know? Is he still like that?”
Fred snickered. “Oh, yeah. Popcorn two hours before every game, home or away. And he’s got this goalpost touching thing.”
“I’d forgotten that one!” Buck guffawed. “And did ya ever watch him put his socks on? It’s like a religious service. Gotta be a new pair. Lays ‘em out on a bench, flattens ‘em out with his hand, then examines them like he’s Sherlock Holmes tryin’ to decide which one is for his left foot and which is for his right. Ah, gosh. He was fun, though. He didn’t try to be fun; ‘n fact, he was always pretty serious. Not a jokester. But he was good with people, ya know? And so with his peculiarities and his outrageous opinions on just about everything he was just a good guy to be with. And a character guy, too. Ethical, ya’ know? Demanded it of his players. And they responded. “
“He’s still pretty demanding.”
Say, tell me: How are his boys doin’?”
“You mean kids? He doesn’t have any.”
“Well, I guess they’re not kids any more; they must be in their late teens, early twenties . . .”
“Nope. No children at all.”
“Whataya mean, ‘nope’? Course he’s got kids. Two of ‘em, cute as cucumbers. Man, Fred, you gotta get ta know your coach better! These were great kids, smart, polite, and real talented. Natural athletes, ya know? I always figured, whatever sport they set themselves to, they’d go places. Errny used to bring ’em to practice, and they’d play on the sidelines; the older one was always teaching the younger one how to throw or how to tackle or something . . . Sometimes they’d wallop the tackling dummies. During practice breaks they’d fag balls or bring water to the players or something. The players loved them. Good kids. Damn good kids.”
Were they talking about the same guy? It suddenly occurred to Fred that maybe they were talking about two different Coach Viimets’. Wouldn’t that be ironic, if here they were talking about two different people? But no, it must be the same guy. As far as the kids, most likely Coach Buck was mixing his coaches up. The two youngsters must have belonged to someone else. Anyway, it wasn’t worth pressing the point.
“Is he still married to that black woman? Can’t remember her name . . .”
“Yeah, that’s it. Belinda. They still married?”
“Now tie me to a burning log an’ throw me in a river. I never thought that marriage would last six weeks. And they’re still together?”
“Horse-whip my patooties. She was one wild-fire, that one. I’d rather get in a cage with a tiger than to get on her wrong side. My goodness, she could knock you down with a look. She had these burning eyes and she would give you a stare that made you want to look at the ground and apologize, even if you had nothing t’apologize for. Not that she’d ever stare for long; she had a tongue like a razor. Had an opinion on everything, and heaven help you if you disagreed. Now Errny, he had an opinion on everything too, so you can imagine what kind of fit that was. Unh-unh, I don’t think you could imagine two more opposites than her and Errny. Attractive lady, though. No denyin’ that. Bright smile. And she loved to laugh. Just loved to laugh.”
“I think she’s mellowed,” Fred said, thinking back to the time Arne had come to dinner and he’d met her for the first time. Perhaps a smoldering fire, rather than a wild-fire, but unmistakably someone with an edge. Not inconsistent with the woman ten or fifteen years older than the one Buck was describing, except for the laughing part. “But you’re right: I can’t imagine two more opposite personalities making a marriage. Maybe that’s what makes it work.”
“Maybe. Listen, Fred, it’s been real special talkin’ with ya. I gotta go; I’m giving a presentation first session this morning.” He pushed himself away from the table. “You be sure to tell Errny old Buckie says hi.”
“I sure will,” Fred said, shaking his hand. “Good meeting you, Buck.”
“Errny Viimets,” Buck said as he walked away, shaking his head. “Wee-hoo . . .”