Monday, September 5, 2011

The Hurdles

(Published May 2010)

Nasty night.

Fifty degrees, a north breeze, light rain. Lightning flashes in the southwest sky. Wednesdays in May don't come much worse.

William Peters-Vili sheds two pairs of sweats, a hoodie and a Benson High jacket. He finds lane 8 on the track.

District meet. 300-meter hurdles. He's seeded eighth. He hasn't placed in the top four all year.

If he doesn't tonight, he won't wear a Benson uniform again.

He is the prom king afraid to dance. The three-sport athlete without press clippings. Football coaches call him the “heartbeat.” Track coaches call him “the handyman.”

A year ago after the season, William sent his track coach an e-mail thanking him for his time.

Now Mark Meier, a Benson assistant, is standing by the starting line, too nervous to be still. He is 43. He has coached state champions.

Tomorrow, Meier will craft his own e-mail to his own high school coach. After 14 years holding a stopwatch, he'll write: I saw a race yesterday, and I think I finally understand why I do this.

That's for later. Right now, standing in the rain, Coach knows only the qualifying times.

“On paper, he has no chance.”

The starter's gun fires, and William takes off, gliding over the first three hurdles. Best start all year. Now the turn, and here's where he struggles. Stutter-step over hurdle 4. Shoot.

William is off stride. He bangs hurdle 5, opening that quarter-size scab on his left knee. He nearly tumbles to the track.

Coach watches from the backstretch. He figures it's over.

Beautiful night.

Seventy degrees, not a breath of wind, the sun sinks fast in the southwest sky. Tuesdays in September don't get much sweeter.

They are brothers, William and Wilson, separated by one year. They each have bronze skin and good grades and a love for sports.

Big brother William is 6-foot-1 with a thicker goatee.

Little brother Wilson is 6-4 with a quicker wit.

They had finished football practice and come home. The phone rang. It's mom. She needs a ride home from work.

“Wilson, do you want to go with me?”

First Wilson said no. He was cleaning his room. Then he changed his mind.

So they jumped in the Sebring and pulled onto Bedford Avenue.

It was spirit week at Benson High three nights before homecoming.

Wilson, a junior, had gone to school Tuesday in old-man glasses, no lenses, white tape wrapped around the black frames. Nerd Day.

William, a senior, didn't dress up. “I'm too smooth for that.”

They'd always been tight. They'd always been different.

Little brother danced without fear. He struck up conversations with strangers. He used cell phones so much, he broke them. He set up a Facebook account for big brother. “That sounds dumb,” William said.

Little brother bet classmates he'd catch a touchdown pass, then he paid his debt in Skittles.

Every practice, the team members huddled at midfield, raised their arms and chanted, “Here we go, Benson!” Wilson busted out of the huddle and ran circles around it, chanting, “Here we go, Wilson!”

“You couldn't be mad at that kid,” Benson assistant football coach Jamar Dorsey said. “You just couldn't.”

But how many times did a coach observe little brother's antics, look at William and shake his head?

Big brother would grin: “He didn't get it from me.”

William was one of Benson's best football players, a wide receiver. But in June at football camp, he moved quickly to block a defender and his right knee buckled. Ligaments ripped.

He had envisioned college coaches coming to Benson to see him. Suddenly, his senior season was over before it began.

Green light.

Onto 52nd Street. William looks at his little brother, coughing in the passenger seat.

Wilson? He wasn't breathing.

“Stop playin'.”


Past Benson High. William pulls into a restaurant parking lot. Wilson?

He calls 911. Reclines his little brother in the seat.

Ambulance shows up. Takes Wilson away.

William calls his aunt, his friend, his sister, his youth minister.

He picks up Mom. Hurries to the hospital.

Doctor comes out of the ER. Once. Twice. Heart rate not stable. Working on him.

Wait. Pray.

Then the doctor comes back. Sorry, we did everything we could.

Now William can't breathe. He punches a wall. How many people had showed up at the hospital? Fifty? A hundred? He tries to get away.

After midnight, he walks into the house and sees Wilson's kindergarten picture on the wall.

Into his room, where he sits on the bed. He looks across the hall into his brother's room.

It's dark.

It's light.

William hasn't slept, but the next morning he goes to school.

Lift your eyes, he tells himself. No one likes to look at a sad face.

But it's hard, especially when the football players are crying.

Two nights later, homecoming. He joins his team in the old gym.

He can't play because of the injury, but coaches named him captain anyway. And before each game, they leave the gym and give him the last motivational words before kickoff.

But this week ... are you sure, William?

Coaches hang at his side as 100 eyes focus on him.

We're young men. There's no time to waste. We have to go on. Be strong.

Benson recovers a fumble in the end zone in the final minutes and takes a 21-19 lead. The defense holds. They only have to run out the clock to win.

Time out.

William, wearing his green No. 12 jersey, limps onto the field. He steps behind center, takes the final snap and drops to his left knee.

His right knee still hurts.

He does not miss a practice. He does not miss a weight-room session. He tells coach he's healthy. He lies.

Football ends and basketball starts, then track. His knee still hurts.

At school, William walks the hallways and sees posters and T-shirts and buttons with his brother's name and face. Wilson's old locker is covered with cards.

At night, moods change fast. He walks into the house and hears Mom and sister Winona laughing. He changes clothes, comes back and they're crying, looking at photos.

Wilson's room is still Wilson's room. His TV, his clothes, his book bag, his shoes.

“It's hard to wake up and look across the hall.”

So he sleeps downstairs. First thing in the morning, he watches “SpongeBob.” Wake up happy, you'll have a good day, he says.

He disconnects his phone. Too many people asking the same questions: How are you doing?

I'm doing better, he says.

“That's the only answer I can come up with.”

He tries to open up. Tries to be goofy. Says random things to get a laugh. Fill a room with sound and it doesn't feel quite so dark. Still, he's not sure if friends laugh because he's funny or because he's lame. Wilson never had to wonder.

“I can't do what he does.”

Monday night, he'll dress in green cap and gown, walk across a stage and accept a diploma, becoming the first in his family to graduate from high school.

But first, something even bigger.

Running hurdles is an exercise in rhythm, like dancing. One bad step, you lose stride. Steady speed is the priority.

When William hits hurdle No. 5 and nearly falls, he squanders momentum.

“Recover!” a coach yells.

William swings his arms and chops his legs, his spikes splash against the track.

He clears hurdles 6 and 7. Coach perks up.

He's still building speed when he skims No. 8 and crosses the finish line. Coach has a feeling.

William has never qualified for state. He needs fourth place.

Ten minutes pass, maybe 15.

They wait through another race. Then the public-address voice talks about the weather the storm is rolling in.

William paces. I think you got fifth, his teammate says. More waiting. Finally, results on the loudspeaker:

Sixth place ... Tevin Dixon, Omaha Burke, 43.58 seconds.

Fifth place ... Trent Wagner, Norfolk, 42.99.

Fourth place ... William Peters, Omaha Benson, 42.88.

Eleven hundredths of a second. Less than the time it takes to complete a breath.

William lifts his head toward the dark clouds and whispers to a face he'd been talking to since the stoplight turned green on a beautiful September night.

“We made it.”

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