“Mr. Fulton, if you don’t get at least a ‘B’ on your next test, your grade will drop below the level that will allow you to continue to compete in athletics.”
Mr. Kovatski, Cap’s English teacher, had made this threat before, but Cap knew his dad, the principal and the Coach wouldn’t let that happen, especially not with the big game against the Eagles coming up. “But, Mr. K, with football practice, and the games, I don’t have time to read stuff.”
“You seem to find time to read your playbook.” They’d had this conversation more than once.
“But that’s important. Dead writers from England and Russia don’t have any value to me.” The class all snickered quietly.
“At least a ‘B’, Mr. Fulton.” Mr. Kovatski turned to the board and wrote down the reading assignment for the week.
As he left the class, Antwaan Davis, his favorite receiver, caught up to him.
“Can you believe that guy? I’m the starting quarterback and we are undefeated so far this year.” Cap spun his football into the air as he walked.
“I think he might be serious this time.” Antwaan grabbed the ball before Cap could get to it. “Maybe you should study. It’s not that hard.”
“I study what’s important, and right now that’s the Eagle’s defense. I’ll see you at practice.” Cap grabbed the ball from Antwaan and walked off.
When he got to the practice field after school, there was a group of younger boys standing around the team. Coach Simmons called the team together. “Men, this fine young crowd here is a group of athletes that are training to go to the Olympics.”
Cap looked at the group. They looked weak and afraid. He recognized at least two of them from the Special Education class that was next to his third period Science class. “What’s their event, Coach?”
“Track and field. The Special Olympics are coming up in a couple of weeks, and I volunteered you fine gentlemen to help show them what it means to be an athlete. And since you asked, Cap, this is Abner.”
A slightly pudgy boy standing next to the coach hesitantly stepped forward.
“Abner will be running the 100-yard dash, and you, Cap, are going to work with him, starting now. Take him over to the track and get started while I assign the other athletes.”
Athletes, thought Cap, they can hardly walk.
As they went over to the starting line, Abner said, “Thank you for working with me, Mr. Cap. You are my hero. You are the best athlete ever.”
Cap was a little surprised Abner even knew who he was. “Thanks, little guy.”
“I want to be a athlete, like you.”
“Ok, then, let’s see what you can do.” Cap pointed to a white line about twenty yards down the track. “When I say ‘Go’ you run as fast as you can until you get to that first line, and then stop. Ready?”
Cap pointed to the line, “Yes, now. Go. Run.”
Abner started a slow trot down the track, and after about five yards, fell down.
“Are you okay?” Cap ran over to him and started to help him up.
Abner waved him off. “I can get up. I won’t learn unless I do it myself.” Abner struggled to his feet and resumed his run. He fell again after about seven yards.
He fell one more time and Cap watched as he struggled up and resumed his movement toward the line. When he got to the line he turned to Cap with a big smile on his face. “I made it. How good was that?”
Cap walked slowly over to Abner. “You fell three times, and that was only twenty yards. How are you going to make it 100 yards?”
“I’m going to practice as hard as I can every day. I want to make you proud of me.”
Cap shook his head. He walked with Abner back to the starting line. “Okay, here’s what we are going to do.” I want you to walk as fast as you can, without falling, to that line. We’ll start slow and build you up. Start whenever you are ready.”
Abner took several deep breaths and then started walking slowly down the track.
Cap watched him creep forward without falling. “Good job, Abner, keep it up.”
Abner eventually reached the line and thrust his hands in the air in a victory salute.
Cap walked over to him. “Now you just have to do that four more times.”
To his surprise, Abner turned and started walking up the track.
Cap followed and fell in beside him. “What are you doing?”
Abner kept walking and picked up his pace slightly. “I’m doing the other four times.”
“Why? Why would you keep going after you fell down so many times?”
“Because,” Abner started slowing again and was having a harder time taking steps, “I want to run the 100-yard dash. And I have to practice if I am going to win. I want to be a winner, like you.”
Cap walked with him until they reached the 100-yard mark. Abner fell twice, but kept going until he reached the end. “You did it. You should be proud of yourself.”
“I can do better. I am not going to give up just because it is hard.” Abner sat on the ground. “Everything is hard for me. But if I try, I can get better.”
Cap looked at Abner, who looked tired, but happy. “When I was a freshman, I ran the 100-yard hurdles. I hit the second hurdle and fell, and never finished the race.”
“Did you get hurt?” Abner seemed concerned.
“Just my pride. But I couldn’t win, so I stopped.”
“My mom tells me I can always win if I keep going, just sometimes I win slower than other people.” He put his arm on Cap’s shoulder. “You just have to keep getting up.”
Cap looked at Abner and laughed. “You’re right, little guy. I’ll see you here tomorrow and we’ll work on it.”
When he got back to the practice field, everyone was talking about their athletes. Some were excited about helping, and some were complaining. A large lineman named Doug said, “They aren’t athletes, why are we wasting our time, coach.”
Before the coach could respond, Cap turned to Doug. “I just watched a kid fall down five times and get up each time until he finished because he wants to be an athlete like us. The least you can do is share a little of your time.”
Coach stepped forward. “Like it or not, we are going to help these kids for the next two weeks. Now let’s start practice.”
After practice, Antwaan sat next to Cap on the sideline. “That was nice what you said.”
Cap looked at Antwaan. “I would give
up if I was Abner. I’m not sure why he kept going. He’s never going to be a real athlete.”
“Because he doesn’t have a choice.” Antwaan sounded angry. “He has to fight for everything he does. He doesn’t have it as easy as you. He can’t skate on things because he does one thing well.”
“What’s gotten into you?”
Antwaan picked up his helmet and headed for the locker room. “I have a cousin that’s handicapped, and I’ve seen how hard he has to fight to do everything. There’s a reason they call it the Special Olympics.”
Cap sat on the bench and looked at the track, thinking about what it must be like to be Abner. Cap had always been a good athlete and took for granted that his body could do anything he told it to. He never had to fight just to run down the track like Abner did. He worked hard at sports but that was different. In other things, like English, he tended to give up when things got hard for him.
At the end the next day’s session, some of the players decided to have a sample race so the kids could see what it was like. There were six kids in Abner’s group, including Donegan, the one Doug was working with.
Cap yelled “Go” to start the race, and several of the boys moved into the lead. Abner and another runner were in the middle and Doug’s athlete, Donegan, was last. After about ten yards, Donegan fell down. Doug yelled, “Get up Donegan. Get up and run.”
Cap watched, amazed, as Abner and another boy stopped and came back to make sure Donegan was okay. They helped him to his feet, took his arms and walked with him down the track.
Doug yelled, “This is supposed to be a race. What are you guys doing!”
When the first boy finished, he raised his arms in victory and then turned around and came back to encourage Donegan to keep on going, staying with him until they had all crossed the finish line.
Cap clicked the stopwatch he was holding and didn’t even look at it.
Abner was smiling as he walked back toward Cap. “Donegan finished!”
“Why did you stop? It was supposed to be a race?”
The look on Abner’s face surprised Cap. “We all finished. We all won.”
Cap looked at his stopwatch. He thought for a second and suddenly understood what Abner was saying, “Yes, you did.”
That evening, Cap was sitting on the porch with his father talking about the upcoming game against Jackson. “Dad, why did you and Coach stop Mr. Kovatski from benching me last year when I got a ‘D’ on my English test? What was I supposed to learn from that?”
Cap’s dad slapped him on the back. “That you’re special, son. And you’re too valuable to have to worry about your grades during football season.”
“Football, is that what makes me special?” Cap got up and walked over to the railing.
“And basketball and track. You’re an amazing athlete and you have a bucket full of talent, son.” His dad got up and walked back into the house, leaving Cap on the porch.
Cap looked out over the porch railing and said quietly to himself, “And if I didn’t have that talent?”
Cap woke in the middle of the night. He was dreaming about Abner beating him in a race because he fell down, but Abner stopped and came back and picked him up and said, “You can do it, you are my hero.”
He sat up in bed and looked out his window, thinking about the test for his English class. What type of hero am I if I take the easy way out, and let others make my problems go away? He thought Abner would be disappointed in him if he knew.
The next morning, before his English class started, Cap walked over to Mr. Kovartski’s desk. “Mr. K., I want to pass my test, but I need help … and I understand if you need to cancel my eligibility.”
“Why the change of heart, Mr. Fulton?”
“I learned something from an amazing athlete named Abner.”
Mr. Kovatski smiled, “Well, meet me here at lunch and we will discuss it. I think we can work something out, but it won’t be easy, you’ll have to work for it.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Cap walked to his seat, opened his backpack, and took out his book.
At the Special Olympics meet, Cap was in the stands cheering – for Abner, and all the athletes. Abner fell once, but got up and finished in a personal record time. Cap went down to meet him after the race. He pinned a blue ribbon medal on Abner that he had won in the league track meet, and said, “You won.”
Abner was beaming. “Thank you for helping me, Cap.”
Cap gave him a hug and said, “You helped me a lot more than I helped you, little guy.” He grabbed Abner’s arm and raised it into the air. “You are my hero.”