I was running the last quarter mile to the high school when a bit of gravel worked its way into my left shoe, bringing me limping to a halt at the curb. I yanked off my shoe and dumped the pea-size rock on the pavement. I glanced down the street and saw my cross-country teammates approaching a block away. We were finishing up the last leg of our afternoon workout.
“You run like the wind, man.” A slightly slurred voice startled me.
I turned to see a slovenly dressed man grinning at me from under the elm tree at the corner. I noticed immediately his missing front tooth, his vacant, bloodshot blue eyes and his long, straight blond hair hanging out from under a dirty, faded baseball cap. Catching the faint trace of alcohol in the air, I pushed myself to my feet to hurry on.
“Like the wind,” he repeated. His grin widened. “Or maybe,” he added, “you run more like a breeze.”
I brushed him off, figuring the guy was probably too wasted to walk the 200 yards to the track, much less try to run.
“For your information, man, I was the cross-country state champion here in Snowflake,” he said. “No one could beat me. I was a wind nobody messed with. I wasn’t just a little breeze.”
His comment rankled me even though I knew the alcohol was speaking more loudly than the man.
Several days later I saw the man on the same corner. He flashed a grin and pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. “Hey, man. You’re still at it,” he called out, waving at me as I passed. “I’ve had too much to drink or I’d pace you.”
The next Saturday morning Dad and I were in the yard raking the leaves out of the garden and trimming the bushes when a beat-up ‘74 Ford pickup rattled to the curb. A woman with stringy brown hair was driving. On the passenger side a man sat slumped with his baseball cap pulled down over his face. The woman climbed from the truck. “Are you interested in us hauling your clippings away?”
Dad set his rake down and considered the offer.
I returned to my work when someone called out, “Hey, if it ain’t the breeze!” I looked up. I recognized the man inside the truck as the guy by the school.
“The breeze is raking leaves today.” He smiled. “We’ll haul you and your old man’s trash to the dump for $25. My rock-bottom deal to a fellow runner.”
He turned to the woman and was about to speak when he saw Dad. For a moment he stared, his mouth hanging open. He looked from me to Dad and then back to Dad. “Sam Davidson!” he said in obvious amazement. “This kid’s your son?”
Taken back, I glanced toward Dad, who stood surprised and a bit embarrassed. “You remember me, Sam?” he asked Dad.
“Rex?” Dad questioned. “Rex Manning?”
He laughed, stepping to Dad and pumping his hand warmly. “Summer,” he announced, turning to his wife, “we’ll haul their stuff for $15. This is Sam Davidson, the skinny kid that chased me to the state championship. And this is his son. What’s your name, kid?”
“He looks like you, Sam.”
Dad agreed to Rex’s deal, and Rex and his wife drove off.
“You know him?” I asked Dad.
Dad stared after them. “I knew him. We ran cross-country together. Rex Manning.” He said his name with respect. “What a guy!” he whispered. “I hate to see him like that.”
“Could he really run?” I questioned, my doubt obvious.
Dad chuckled, remembering. “Twenty-three years ago he was cold sober, trim, and as gutsy as they come. He could run forever and hardly break a sweat. I would have had two gold medals had Rex not beaten me when I was a junior.”
“That’s the guy who beat you your junior year? What happened to him?”
Dad looked away and heaved a sigh. “What happens to a lot of guys?”
The following Wednesday I had a meet in Holbrook. My top challenger in the state was Dennis LaDuke, a kid from Holbrook. I led LaDuke over the entire course. Maybe that was my mistake. With the finish line less than 200 yards ahead of me, LaDuke made his move and beat me by three seconds.
“You’re barely at midseason, Joseph,” Dad said, trying to console me that evening. “All you have to do is shave three and a half seconds off your time.”
“You know how hard that can be, Dad?” I grumbled.
“You need a Rex Manning to push you,” Dad remarked.
“What do you mean I need a Rex Manning?”
Dad smiled and explained how he and Rex had worked out together on the same team, both shooting for the gold medal at state. Rex was a year older and had been running since he was a boy. He shared every running secret he had with Dad. He wanted Dad to be good too. Days before state, Dad spoke bluntly to Rex. “I appreciate your helping me, Rex, but aren’t you afraid you’ve made me too fast?”
Rex had laughed. “Sam, I want you fast—faster than anybody. The faster you are, the harder I run. When we race, you’ll push me and make me a champion.”
“You might figure wrong,” Dad pointed out.
“Sam, I know how fast you run.” He grinned. “I’ll run a little faster.”
Dad looked at me. “When I ran that last race, I broke the old state record. But Rex was two strides ahead of me.”
A couple of days later I was warming up when I spotted Rex leaning against the elm tree. All during my workout I had thought of LaDuke and those three-and-a-half seconds. I’m not sure I was actually serious when I first panted over to Rex.
“Hey, man, you still pounding the pavement?” he greeted me in his jovial way.
“Dad said you were the best runner he ever knew,” I said.
Rex’s smile faded. “That was a long time ago, kid. I’ve had a whole lot of booze since then.” There was genuine sadness and regret in his simple confession.
“Dad said you helped him run faster than everybody.”
“Sam was fast. He beat everybody—but me.”
“Help me run.” I didn’t smile. “Only one guy, Dennis LaDuke, is faster than me.”
A gray shadow dimmed Rex’s features. “I’m a loser, kid. I don’t run no more. I drink too much. Sometimes I can’t even walk.”
“Just help me cut a few seconds off my time.”
Rex didn’t answer. He just stood there solemnly, ignoring me as though I had never spoken. After a moment I jogged away from him, leaving him to his memories and his hurt.
The following Monday I trotted out to the track to warm up. Rex Manning was sitting in the bleachers. He stood and waved as I ambled over to him. The first thing I noticed was that he was sober. “You going to help me shave those three-and-a-half seconds from my time?”
Rex snorted. “We’re taking off ten seconds so you can beat everybody—including this LaDuke.”
At first Coach Spaulding was a bit hesitant having Rex around. But one day at the track changed that impression. Rex ceased being an old, out-of-shape drunk. He became an expert.
Rex worked at one of the mills outside of town and was usually off by 3:30. In the past it had been his practice to stop at the bar on the edge of town after work. But once he started coming to workouts, he postponed his stop at the bar and headed directly to the track. A week later, Rex took me to a wash that cut along the west side of town. Sinking into the soft sandy wash bottom up to my ankles, I waited for Rex to tell me what to do. He sat in the shade of a cedar and ordered me to do wind sprints in the sand. It didn’t take long before my tongue was hanging out and sweat was pouring down my face.
But seeing my exhaustion only increased Rex’s intensity. Soon he had me racing through the cedars toward a steep knoll a mile away. He gave me instructions: On the west side of the knoll I would find a narrow path that zig-zagged to the top of the knoll. I was to take that path and race up and down the knoll five times. From a distance it didn’t look very steep, but once I reached it and started challenging that knoll, I discovered that my efforts in the sandy wash bottom had been a mere warm-up for the rest of the afternoon.
By the end of that first day, exhaustion took on a whole new meaning. That night at dinner I whined to Dad about what had happened.
Dad looked across the table at me. “Sounds like Rex still has his old drive.” He smiled.
“I’ll bet he never worked like he made me work today.”
Dad set his fork down. “Who do you think made those trails you jogged on this afternoon, Joseph? Nobody worked out like Rex. I know. I tried to keep up with him.”
The next afternoon Rex was at the track. He became my personal coach. He was as regular as the three-thirty bell. He still stopped occasionally at the bars after practice, but he was always cold sober at three-thirty. I worked out with Rex every day right up to the state meet.
Several days before the meet, Dad knocked on my door and I invited him in. He studied me for a moment. “Joseph, I want you to know something before the race Friday.”
“I’ve always wanted you to win this race.” He took a deep breath. “But, Joseph, during these past few weeks I’ve come to see something that means more to me than your winning Friday.” He paused. There was a mist in his eyes. “I appreciate what you’ve done for Rex. I used to see him stumbling down the street. I tried to ignore him. I wanted to remember him another way. But yesterday I ran into Rex at the store. We talked.” Dad smiled. “He’s proud of you, Joseph. I could see some of the old Rex. I saw hope instead of despair. If you win Friday, that will be wonderful. But the real victory, the one that means the very most, is the one you’ve already won with Rex. I want you to know that.”
Rex showed up late for the next day’s practice, but when he arrived he came with his blond hair cut short, his face clean shaven, and wearing a fresh pair of jeans and white T-shirt. “I almost didn’t recognize you,” I joked when he strolled up.
“Well, kid, I figured you deserved to have somebody with a little class coach you.”
At the end of practice as I told Rex good-bye he shook my hand. “Good luck, kid.” There was excitement in his eyes. “The boss gave me the day off to see the race.”
“You’re going to Payson tomorrow to watch me run?” I asked, grinning.
He looked away. “If I can get there. My truck broke down this afternoon.”
“Davidson,” Coach Spaulding interrupted, “remember the van’s pulling out at six o’clock in the morning. We want to get to Payson early.”
An idea struck me. “Coach,” I spoke, stepping away from Rex, “hey do you think we could take Rex with us? There will be plenty of room in the van.”
Coach Spaulding looked at me, hesitating. “I don’t know, Davidson. I don’t know if I can count on Rex to be sober.”
“Coach, Rex has been cold sober for over a week. He was planning to go, but his truck broke down. I’d like to have him there, Coach. I promise he’ll be sober. I need him there.”
Coach Spaulding glanced in Rex’s direction. “All right,” he finally conceded. “He’s been helping you out. I suppose I can take him as a volunteer coach. But,” he added, “if I smell just the faintest trace of …”
“You won’t smell anything,” I cut him off. “Thanks, Coach.”
“Rex, you’re going with us in the van,” I announced excitedly. “You’ll be an assistant coach.”
For a moment my announcement didn’t register, and then suddenly his face crinkled into a grateful grin. “Thanks, kid. I’ll be here before six,” he committed. “And tomorrow LaDuke can have that silver medal all to himself,” he added with confidence. “Tomorrow nobody beats Sam Davidson’s kid. Not while I’m around.”
As I stood there witnessing Rex’s excitement and confidence, I knew that regardless of the outcome of the race the next day, Rex and I had already secured a gold medal victory.