“Icing the Kicker,” Chapter Two

I turn right onto Lexington from the Glasgow Road turnoff to our house several minutes later. In another 30 minutes or so — and barring any early morning traffic hiccups on the way — I’ll be pulling into Ruffian County High School.

A smoke and a coffee sure as hell would make this drive a lot more bearable, but I know good and well that both are no-nos for the baby. I’m no dummy. Not that I ever would do anything so idiotic to put our precious little bundle at risk. End of story.

So I suppress the cravings for my two favorite vices — well, other than my prized Krispy Kremes — as I think ahead to the interview with Scott Ericsson and the doors it might open for other youngsters who are thinking of coming out but are afraid to do so for fear of retribution.

Scott’s story certainly will put the state — and possibly national — spotlight on the quiet little town of Bourbon.

Ruffian County has a population of 12,690, but that’s over an expansive 431 square miles, which means no one lives right on top of each other. It’s a beautiful county, and its residents always are nice, hospitable and helpful — even to strangers. They look out for one another, the way good neighbors always do.

Scott sought me out, shockingly enough, not the other way around. I think maybe it’s because I’m a woman and he feels that it will be easier to open up to me rather than a man. I could be wrong, though. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time, but I highly doubt it in this case.

I had suspected that he might be gay for a couple of years now, having picked up vibes while conversing with him on numerous occasions during the football and soccer seasons — I have excellent gaydar, by the way — but I respect everyone’s right to privacy despite the bad rap reporters often get for being the exact opposite. And I wasn’t about to ask him point-blank or out him to anyone because it’s not my right or place to do so.

Teenagers in particular are an incredibly sensitive lot as they begin to explore their sexuality and as their hormones kick into high gear, which is a natural part of growing up even though I imagine the vast majority of parents generally dread having to have THE TALK with their kids.

Peer pressure especially is hard for teens to combat or outright ignore, which is why Scott’s parents understandably are afraid that he will be subjected to hate, intolerance, prejudice and bullying outside of his community and very possibly within it. But they hated watching him suffer for years, knowing how badly he just wanted to be himself, knowing how much he despised hiding, knowing how much he deserved to be as happy as them.

Teens often fall victim to the pressures of doing as everyone else does instead of rocking the boat and making their own unique paths, so to speak. Breaking the mold can easily cause one to be ostracized simply because they refuse to be anyone other than who they are, hence the reason why Scott’s moms worry so much. And who can blame them for wanting to protect their only child so fiercely?

There’s always a pecking order among kids, like it or not, and the ones who dare go against the majority often are cruelly treated as outcasts. We are all the same inside, but not everyone sees it that way because of the herd mentality of the masses not to take a step out of line. I’m not saying all kids are like that, mind you, but it happens far too frequently to ignore.

It’s more a case of monkey see, monkey do. And it’s wrong. Love is love, period. We are who we are and we should own it, but it’s not always easy when the people you’ve always counted on to have your back suddenly turn theirs on you during the times you most need them to support you.

We like to think of ourselves as a forward-thinking society that embraces all, but that’s only in an ideal world for dreamers like myself. And there are a lot of us, believe me.

It nearly shocked the shit right out of me when Scott approached me after football practice Tuesday afternoon and came out to me on the spot. I was only in Bourbon to do the story on the Thoroughbreds for the Daily Herald’s annual pullout football tabloid featuring the 13 high school teams in our seven-county coverage area that’s also going to run in tomorrow’s paper.

It humbles me that he trusts me enough to help tell HIS story to the world. His unwavering determination and courage have the potential to help others who might be struggling with their sexual orientation or identity, possibly even saving lives by sharing HIS with THEM.

Scott’s parents aren’t my biggest fans, but only because they want to protect their baby from any backlash that the telling of his story might generate. I have their son’s best interests at heart, though, so they have nothing to fear from my end. I can’t speak for anyone else, however. All I can do is cross my fingers and hope that everything works out for Scott in the end.

I don’t know if anyone knew about his two moms being lesbians prior to their marriage, but no one in Bourbon or the whole of Ruffian County ever has bothered them or treated them as pariahs, as far as I know. Smaller communities tend to be extremely protective of their own, and, despite the misconceptions that many people seem to have about the South in general, we’re not a bunch of small-minded, prejudiced rednecks who go around shooting people who are deemed “different” — for whatever reason — for sport.

I loathe being stereotyped because of my Southern roots, and fuck the people who do that shit. But, hey, that’s just me. I call ’em as I see ’em. They can kiss my Alabama-lovin’ ass if they don’t like it and take their narrow-minded views elsewhere. As in super far the hell away from this planet, ’cause ain’t nobody got time for that shit around these here parts.

On that note, I pull into the mostly empty school parking lot with 15 minutes to spare, directing my jalopy toward the fieldhouse adjacent to the stadium behind the main building that will be full of students and teachers in the next hour-plus. I park between an old beater pickup truck that’s a garish orange and a newer model black Volkswagen bug. Most people call them beetles, but we call them bugs in our neck of the woods, not that it matters either way.

Upon closer inspection of the pickup after exiting my own car, I notice the hideous orange and blue Auburn stickers on the bumper. I’ll hazard one guess as to whom it belongs, and it sure as hell ain’t Scott. All I can say is a heartfelt UGH!

There’s no accounting for taste.

But I guess I’ll have to behave when I see Coach Thomas per Richard’s, ahem, dictatorial request, so I try my best to conceal my natural revulsion for Auburn since I have no choice but to play nice.

It really sucks having Richard as my boss sometimes. He knows me way too damn well.

It also doesn’t help matters that he earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism — an emphasis in investigative journalism, to be exact — with a minor in communication from said hated school in just three years. He later returned to the scene of his previous crime to get his master’s degree in communication with an emphasis in digital technology journalism.

But I can overlook his criminal orange and blue past because he never actually rooted for the Tigers since he isn’t a fan of American football. Richard balks at the very idea of it. But he did learn just how much I love my Alabama Crimson Tide this past season because I always have to watch the games  — come hell or high water. I take my football very seriously — just about every self-respecting person in the South does — but I’ll have to dial it down a few notches this year being pregnant and all. I wouldn’t want my over-exuberance to result in complications of any kind for the baby or me, something I’m sure Richard will greatly appreciate. It ain’t all about Piccolo anymore, that’s for sure.

“Piccolo!”

I scan my surroundings in an attempt to locate the owner of the familiar-sounding drawl.

“Over here!”

I shield my eyes from the sun with my right hand, finally spotting Coach Thomas waving at me while sitting atop a riding mower of all things on the end zone farthest from me. Coaches seemingly never sleep, so I don’t know why I should be surprised to find him mowing his beloved football field himself so early in the morning. Baseball coaches do it all the time — doesn’t matter what time of day — even when the grass doesn’t look like it needs it. And if they’re not mowing the baseball fields, then they’re raking the damn dirt or dusting off the damn bases every time a few granules blow out of place. I swear, it must be a man thing because Richard is forever booting around on his riding mower at home from spring until everything starts dying off in the fall.

Boys and their toys.

Serious eye-roll here.

Whatever cranks their tractors, I guess. Or, in this case, riding mowers.

I catch a glimpse of Scott standing behind the riding mower and head toward the duo, careful not to walk onto the field itself so I don’t get freshly cut grass all over my flip-flops. Besides, the morning dew on the grass leading up to the track surrounding the field already is bad enough as my feet get wetter the more I walk to meet up with them. Makes me wish for a paved path leading straight to the track so I can forgo tromping through the grass, but no such luck.

“Wait there, Piccolo!” Coach Thomas shouts. “We’ll meet you at the fieldhouse!”

Fan-fucking-tabulous!

NOW he tells me.

Men! Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.

So I very carefully backtrack and impatiently wait for them at the fieldhouse that sits to the left of our parked cars near the home team’s bleachers.

They reach me within a couple of minutes with Scott easily keeping pace alongside Coach Thomas on the riding mower. Being a soccer player for probably as long as he’s been able to walk, he’s used to running up and down a football-sized field constantly for 80 minutes — 40 each half — and is well conditioned because of it. Trotting beside a riding mower likely is a piece of cake to him, come to think of it.

Scott Ericsson is about the same height as his coach, both of whom are roughly just under 6 feet tall. He always wears his long, sun-streaked blond hair in one of those increasingly popular man buns, a style that in no way detracts from his natural good looks or his masculinity even a smidgen. Not that either of my objective, asexual, non-sexist — just to be clear I have NO designs whatsoever on ANY youngster, period — observations matter much. It just means he’s comfortable in his own skin, and to hell with what anyone else thinks. He has the kind of face any self-respecting sculptor would love to have the opportunity to immortalize, his features are so damn near perfect right down to his sparkling azure eyes. He’s lean without being the least bit skinny, sporting muscular arms and legs he has come by quite honestly due to the endurance it requires to play — not to mention excel in — both sports.

Coach Thomas turns off the ignition, thus suspending my innocent reflections, before extricating the keys and handing them off to Scott so he can unlock the fieldhouse door.

Scott holds it open for me like the true Southern gentleman he is, so I oblige him and enter the sacred football domain, embracing a refreshing cold blast courtesy of the central air-conditioning system that is a staple of just about every inhabitable building in our hellaciously hot neck of the country.

He then leads the way through the weight and locker rooms until we get to Coach Thomas’ office tucked in the back corner of the building. I automatically cringe and wrinkle my nose in distaste at the gawd-awful Auburn paraphernalia strewn all about what I might otherwise consider cosy quarters. It looks as if someone spewed orange and blue shit all over the damn place, it’s so horrifcally ugly!

Coach Thomas catches the disdain clearly etched on my expressive face and gives me an all-too-familiar knowing grin. No, scratch that. Make that a smirk. An irritating smirk. Just like Richard’s.

Damn them both!

I suppose I should count my blessings that he’s blissfully unaware he and Richard share the same craptastic alma mater, else he’d never let me live THAT down. I can only hope it stays that way, too. I’ll have to make sure those two never get close enough to compare notes because they’ll have way too much ammunition to use against me if they ever team up to give me grief about my precious Crimson Tide. I can’t be having any of that. Uh uh. No siree. No fucking way.

“Something bothering you, Piccolo?” he slyly inquires in that rich, comforting drawl of his only a true fellow Alabamian can fully appreciate, already knowing good and damn well the answer to his very obviously unnecessary question.

“Nope,” I reply, resisting a most tempting urge to rise to the baited hook he’s purposefully dangling … for now. “Not a thing. Just excited and honored that Scott chose me to tell his story is all.”

Coach Thomas gives me a real smile then, silently approving my hard-fought diplomatic response over my compelling need to be petty about all things Auburn.

Truth be told, I genuinely like the guy. Even if he did willingly go to Auburn like Richard, bless their poor, wayward little hearts. I guess people are allowed to have bouts of insanity every now and again. Even me, seeing as how I married myself an Aub.

Hey, I never said I was perfect. But the Alabama fan in me balances out the insanity of it all. Sort of.

Scott, meanwhile, flushes at my earnest admission but recovers quickly enough to offer me a seat in one of the plastic, classroom-style chairs in front of Coach Thomas’ cluttered desk prior to claiming a second for himself beside it. Before I can ungracefully seat my pregnant ass in it, however, Coach Thomas shakes his head no and motions for me to sit in his oversized, cushioned office chair instead. He takes the seat next to Scott as I gratefully sit down on the huge, comfy chair, digging a reporter’s notebook and pen out of my bulging purse before placing the bag out of my way to the right on top of the messy desk that mirrors my own version of organized chaos back in the sports office at work.

A gal needs room to write, after all.

I usually produce my handheld tape recorder to back up my notes — particularly when it comes to centerpiece feature stories like this one is going to be — but I don’t want Scott to clam up on me the second he sees it. And he will, believe you me. Recording devices tend to have that effect on young athletes who aren’t used to being thrust into the limelight. In my experience, it freezes them up and virtually renders them unquotable.

It’s every reporter’s worst nightmare.

I shudder at the mere mention of that nightmarish thought before my straying mind refocuses its attention on Coach Thomas.

How can I possibly dislike someone who’s more concerned about my comfort than his? Plus, I’m sure his mama would smack him upside the head with a cast-iron skillet if he didn’t have any manners like most of the rest of the free world these days. We Southerners have good manners drilled into us from the moment we’re born, and we take shit to heart when somebody is downright rude to us for no reason at all other than to be an asshole. Like not holding a door open or saying a simple please and thank you.

Wayne Thomas also is easy on the eyes.

Sure, I’m married and madly in love with my handsome husband, but that doesn’t mean I’m dead inside. I can appreciate the, uh, scenery as long as I don’t touch or act on any impulses.

Yes, he’s a striking man who has piercing eyes the color of fine Kentucky bourbon — amber, in layman’s terms — with straight, dark brown hair that stops right above his ears and falls just below them in back. He’s not too terribly tall — probably around 5-foot-11, and I’m being generous at that — with the build of a linebacker, meaning there’s not an inch of excess fat anywhere to be found on him. His nose is crooked, denoting a break somewhere along the way, but it only serves to give his otherwise chiseled face even more character.

And I’m pretty damn sure most of the females in Ruffian County have been swooning over him since his arrival a year ago. Hell, he even gave me a jolt the first time I met him in person and shook his gentle, hulking hand. Helloooo?! Again, I still have a pulse, so don’t go getting all judgy and shit on me.

Anyway — and surprisingly enough — he walked on at Auburn as an offensive lineman, of all things. He was considered small for that position despite his impressive build, but he earned the respect of everyone who watched him in action because of his unwavering tenacity and work ethic. After his first year with the Tigers, all of his hard work paid off when the coaching staff unanimously decided to reward him with a full scholarship for his efforts on and off the field, much to the delight of his teammates, not to mention his family.

It just goes to show you that bigger doesn’t always necessarily mean better. Heart, well, that’s another trait altogether. And when it comes right down to it, I’ll choose heart over size any day of the week. I wish we had a million more like him waiting in the wings to play for Alabama, not that I’m complaining about our ever-expanding national championship trophy case of late.

Another thing he has going in his favor — at least for me — is that he always asks after Mandy Jo Oliphant, my closest friend at the paper. She took over as the Daily Herald’s cops and courts beat reporter last year after James Reliant went on what since has become a permanent sabbatical to write a book about Kentucky’s politicians with his own satirical take on them. Mandy Jo was the Bluegrass city and Derby County reporter until she began covering the entire Lester Smith soap opera, but she has excelled at her not-so-new position with the Daily Herald. She’s not as fast as the rest of us in the newsroom, but she’s thorough and she always gets the story — wherever it might take her — in the end.

She met Coach Thomas last year on the fateful day that one of his senior linebackers blindsided Bob Gallant when my former sports editor tried to make a grab for a Derby County sheriff’s deputy — who was recruited as a decoy to successfully dupe him into thinking she was me in order to lure him out of hiding — during one of the Thoroughbreds’ football practices. And in broad daylight, no less.

The all-state linebacker who put the hurt on Bob ended up being heavily recruited by several Division I schools, narrowing his choices down to Alabama and Auburn. The traitorous little shit picked Auburn, dammit, a choice that I’m absolutely convinced was heavily influenced by his coach, bless his blasted little heart.

Just between you and me, though, I do believe Coach Thomas has a soft spot for Mandy Jo, who, at 35, is a Christmas baby like my dearest Richard. I also think Mandy Jo has taken a shine to him, but at the snail’s pace they’re going, it’ll take forever for one of them to make the first move. That is, unless someone gives them a, ahem, gentle nudge to help move things along. Namely, me. Now that I’m disgustingly happy in love, I can’t help but want the same thing for the people who are closest to me, Mandy Jo included. A little help can’t hurt the situation, right?

“Are you comfortable enough, Piccolo?” the second-year head coach asks me, interrupting my wandering thoughts. “Can I get you something to drink? Some water, maybe?”

I shake my head in the negative, preferring to get on with the interview before the school day interferes.

“Good,” he says.

“Let’s get started, then.”

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