Mr. Rodenburg, my sixth-period English teacher, paused, just like all my other teachers had, looked up from his roll book, and stared at me.
“Are you Jim Crandall’s little brother?”
“Yeah,” I said, trying to hide my embarrassment.
“He sure was a great football player. What’s he doing now?”
That was the fifth time that day I’d heard the exact same question.
“He’s at BYU.”
“You think he’ll play much this year?”
“I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
He eyed me curiously. “Do you play football?” Somebody in the back of the room snickered, and I felt my face redden as it always did when people asked me that.
“I, … ah, used to, but I don’t anymore.”
Mr. Rodenburg looked surprised. “Really? Jim Crandall’s little brother doesn’t play football? I guess he must have hogged up all the football genes in your family, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I muttered.
He finally left me alone and continued calling the roll.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love my big brother, Jim, but I hate being referred to as “Jim Crandall’s little brother.”
I can’t blame people, though, because Jim is pretty great. Before he graduated last year he broke every school football record a linebacker can break. He was all-state and all-America in football, lettered in basketball and track, and had football scholarship offers from everywhere in the universe. He was also in the National Honor Society, the Key Club, and was the senior class vice-president.
Jim was the kind of guy every teacher wants for a student, every coach wants for a player, every bishop wants in his priests quorum, every parent wants for a son, and every little brother doesn’t want for a big brother. Jim was Mr. Perfect, and as Mr. Perfect’s little brother, I was stuck trying to follow his act.
And Jim was a tough act to follow. Where he got A’s, I was lucky to get B’s and C’s. At 6 feet, 4 inches, and 220 pounds, Jim was built like a Greek statue; at 6 feet, 1 inch, and 160 pounds, I was built like a flimsy scarecrow. Before he went to BYU, Jim was the bishop’s Joseph (you know, the kid with the coat of many colors): priests quorum first assistant, seminary president, and Mr. Model Premissionary. He read the scriptures, lived the commandments, and earned his Eagle Scout Award when he was 16. I wanted to follow in his footsteps—who wouldn’t?—but I knew I could never measure up to my big brother.
Not that that bothered Jim.
“Hey look,” he told me after I got cut from the junior varsity football team, “it doesn’t make a bit of difference to me, or anybody else who matters, if you play football or not. You’ve got to be your own man, Alan. There are only two people you really need to worry about pleasing: Alan Crandall and,” he pointed upward, “Him.”
Sometimes, Jim reminded me of our bishop. Can you believe that—an 18-year-old kid who sounds like a bishop? I looked at Jim without smiling. “That’s easy for you to say. You’re not the one who got cut.”
“Maybe so, but believe me, Alan, football, basketball, all these high school sports are short-term stuff. You can’t play forever.”
“I still wish I had made the team.”
He stood up and slapped me on the back. “Well, it’s not the end of the world. There’s always next year, and there are other sports too, but life doesn’t revolve around sports. Remember that, Alan.”
I tried to remember that all football season as I watched Jim play the hero’s role in game after game.
I tried to remember that when I was cut from the JV basketball team two months later.
And I tried to remember that in the spring of my sophomore year, Jim’s senior year, when Coach Kerby talked to me after practice.
“Look, Crandall,” he said, “even though you’re Jim Crandall’s little brother, I don’t think you’re going to have much chance at running in any of our meets this season. You’re welcome to stick it out, but I wouldn’t blame you if you hung it up right now.”
He paused, looked at his watch, then at his clipboard, waiting for my answer.
I didn’t know what to say. “Let me think about it. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
He nodded and headed for the locker room.
“What’d Coach want?” Jim asked on our way home from practice.
“He said he wants to cut me.”
“No way. He’s never cut anybody from the track team.”
“Yeah, but he’s never had me try out either.”
“Knock it off, Alan. You know he won’t cut you if you want to stay on the team. What did he really say?”
I told him.
“So what are you going to tell him tomorrow?”
“I don’t know. I’ve got to think about it.”
I ended up deciding to stay on the track team, not so much for the competition, but for the exercise. I didn’t participate in a meet all season, but I enjoyed it anyway. I was on the team because I wanted to be on the team, not because I thought people expected me to be.
And that same spring, Jim managed to find time between track meets and awards banquets, to accept a football scholarship from BYU. His choice didn’t surprise anybody. Where else would Mr. Perfect want to go?
“Well, Alan,” he said late one August evening a few days before he left for BYU, “it’s going to be different going to school without my little brother. What’ll you do while I’m gone?”
“I don’t know.”
“You planning on trying out for football again?”
“No, I think Madison High’s football team can survive without me this season. Besides, I don’t want to tarnish your reputation.”
Jim frowned. “I’m not worried about that. You’re one little brother any guy would be proud to have.” He was quiet for a minute. Then he smiled and said, “At least you won’t have to worry about being Jim Crandall’s little brother anymore, will you?”
“It’s not easy being a legend’s brother, but I think I’ll live. It doesn’t bother me anymore, honest, Jim.”
He jumped up, wrapped me in a headlock and messed up my hair. “Well, the school may forget me, but you better not. And I don’t want you getting any ideas about moving into my room. That’s off limits, you know, until I leave for my mission.”
“I know, I know.”
I remember the phone call clearly. Jim had been at BYU for three months, and according to his letters, he had been doing quite well. The coaches told him that if he continued to improve, he’d see some action before the end of the season.
The call came during dinner. “Hello?” said my dad as he answered the kitchen phone. “Yes, this is Mr. Crandall. Yes, Jim’s my son. Oh hello, Coach. This is a surprise. How’s he doing?” Dad’s face grew serious as he listened.
“I see. You say it happened this afternoon? I understand. Thanks for calling.” He carefully hung up the phone and turned to face Mom and me.
“That was Jim’s coach,” he said quietly. “Jim hurt his knee in practice today, and it looks bad. He’s in surgery now, so they won’t know how bad it is until tomorrow morning.”
It was bad. The next morning, a coach from BYU called and said Jim’s knee was so badly damaged that the doctors doubted he would play football again. Jim planned to finish out the last few weeks of classes and come home to prepare for his mission.
When he arrived at home, Jim looked the same, except for the cast and the crutches, of course, but he didn’t act the same. He wasn’t the same old Jim I had known, admired, and envied before he left for BYU.
The injury had changed my brother—almost as if it had knocked his usual rock-hard confidence and steadiness right out of him. He spent most of his time on the family room couch watching TV, reading, or lying on his back staring blankly at the ceiling. He rarely spoke, and when he did, he limited his speech to sighs, moans, and one word sentences like, “Yeah,” “Uh-uh,” and “Maybe.”
For a while, Jim’s friends visited him regularly, but he was so distant, so depressed that their visits became less frequent.
“Alan,” he told me as we sat watching TV one night, “this is crazy. I was second string, on the traveling squad. Everything was going great, and wham—it all fell apart. I just can’t believe it.”
“I don’t even know about a mission anymore,” he said tiredly. “With a bum leg, I doubt if they’d take me anyway. Who wants a handicapped companion to drag around from door to door?”
That surprised me. “What do you mean? You’ve always planned on going on a mission, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, but I always planned on playing college football too. Now that this has happened, I don’t know what I’m going to do, even what I can do. Everything I’ve planned for, worked for, seems like it’s gone to pieces.” He looked at me in misery. “Alan, what should I do?”
I didn’t know how to answer him. Almost all my life, I had been looking up to him, following his example, and now he was lying there, asking me, his little brother, for advice.
Then I had an idea. “Hey look, Big Brother,” I said reaching over to mess up his hair, “it doesn’t make any difference to me, or anybody else who matters, if you play football or not. There are only two people you really need to worry about pleasing: Jim Crandall and,” I pointed upward, “Him.”
When he recognized his speech, Jim grinned, for the first time in a long time. “Why you little smart aleck. That’s my sermon you’re preaching. Haven’t you ever heard about copyrights?”
“Nope.” I tapped his cast lightly. “Jim, I’m really sorry about your knee and everything, but that doesn’t mean you’re any less of a brother to me. Your injury hasn’t changed you or the way I feel about you.”
Jim was quiet for a few minutes, looking at me, his leg, the TV. Finally, his smile faded and he sighed, “I know that, Alan, but still … it’s hard.”
“If it helps any, Jim, I know how you feel. I really do.”
He stared at the plaster cast for a few minutes without speaking. Then he looked back up at me, a faint glimmer of the old warmth in his eyes. “Thanks, Alan. It does help. It helps a lot.”
Jim’s in Ecuador now. In his last letter he wrote, “I give thanks every day for this bum knee. It’s made me a lot faster—at least when it comes to feeling other people’s hurts and seeing their needs.”
On my desk I have a snapshot of Jim in his cast. He’s smiling and pointing to the spot on the plaster where I wrote a little note and signed it in big, proud letters: JIM CRANDALL’S LITTLE BROTHER.