“Coach Johnson, when will you be leaving?” He stopped and looked at the reporter. He wanted to frown and say “No comment.” Instead he smiled, “Haven’t made any travel plans yet Ron.” Then he waived to the reporters and headed for his office.
Jason “Jace” Johnson had been a high school star, SEC, and National champ. He was awarded the Heisman trophy. He had three Super Bowl rings, two as quarterback, and one as Head Coach. That was three years ago.
For the last three seasons nothing had went right professionally. He had lost his star quarterback to a richer team, more players followed the next year. Today he had rookies that at times showed great promise. Then there was the majority of the games in the season. For months the rumors were flying farther than the passes.
It wasn’t “If he was leaving”, it was “When!?”
He had a grand baby on the way, with two sons in college, and a son in law starting as Offensive Coordinator in Tennessee. His daughter was going to name their son Jace William Wilkes after the Grandpas. Money and pride weren’t the issue, he just felt like this team and his staff had one more in them.
The owner, Hunter Carlisle had been out of the country when the rumors began. They were friends, but this was business. He decided that he had to make a choice. He felt he had two obligations to Hunter, and the team.
One was to lead them to the Super Bowl. The other was not to let himself stand in the way of a chance to get there. Jace believed in his team. He also believed that he could lead them to victory. One obstacle was the questions hanging over the team.
Whether it meant a new coach, or reassuring the team that they had at least another year, was up to him. He had to make sure that the question of next year was answered, even if he wasn’t a part of that answer. He was at Hunter’s office the next morning.
Hunter was a tall man, with blue eyes. He now had, as he put it, snow for hair, and kept it in the same buzz cut he had in the Army. They were both getting older, Jace’s green eagle eyes now needed glasses. They both moved a lot stiffer than they had playing against each other in college.
“Jace, how is my favorite Tennesseean?” Jace smiled, that was always how Hunter referred to his friend. Hunter was from Alabama, and a die hard Crimson Tide fan. Some of his relatives were still upset that he had hired a former Volunteer. “Still wearing orange on my day off, and rooting for them on Saturdays.”
They made small talk for a little while, each knowing why he was there. “So Hunter, I could sit here all day and pitch next year to you. Or I could spend a few hours telling you why you need someone else. Either one would put you into a tough position.”
“If you keep me, they’ll say it’s sentiment, or laziness on your part. If you fire me, you’ll be an owner with over the top expectations. Either way, the team loses. If I resign, they’ll say I was pushed out. If they don’t say that, they’ll say I’m running, or leaving for a better job.”
“The only real answer is for us to make an announcement together. If you think I’m finished here, I’ll retire, hang up my hat, and route from the sidelines. If you still have confidence in me, we’ll keep going until next season.”
“I feel like that I have one good year left. I think this group of players can be great, under the right circumstances. As long as we end the question, not in the press, but in their minds. What play are we going to make?”
“Do you remember the year we won the Super Bowl? That night, about midnight, I was rushed to the emergency room, open heart surgery. The next morning, you walked in the room. “I remember, I wanted to see my friend, not my boss.” Hunter nodded, “I know, but I found out later how you got there.
“The Denver airport was snowed in, you heard of the smaller airport in Montrose. You rented a car, and four hours later you boarded a small plane that took you to Chicago. From there, you came here, paying for the whole thing out of your pocket.”
Jace took off his hat, exposing his salt graying hair. “While I appreciate it, I don’t want personal feelings to factor in. If you fired me today and were sick tomorrow, Brittany and I would be there.” “I know, but I’m not viewing it just from a friendship point of view.”
“I saw a man who was committed to a task. One that he had every excuse, every reason, to give up, and didn’t. Jace, if you think you have even one more game, much less one more year in you, our team needs you. I sincerely think you’ll lead us to another Super Bowl. You’ve had to rebuild the team after Malcolm left us.”
“I want you here for the long haul. If you give up the whistle next year, if you’ll agree to it, I’ll hand you a coat and the title President. Compared to dealing with the media, the players, and the other teams, running the head office would be retirement for you. You’re not the only one who has a grandchild on the way.”
So, with that question answered, they held a press conference. Hunter spoke before the reporters had a chance to start. “Listen guys, thanks for coming. I’ll keep it short. Next year, Jace will coach our team to the Super Bowl. After that, unless he wants to go another year, he’ll take over my job. I’ve got grand babies, and a Governorship to prepare for. That’s right, I’m running for my home state of Alabama’s head job, so I’ll need him here. Let’s see who has the best score at the end of the day.”
With that, Hunter gave them a new story, and lifted the pressure off of his Coach, and his team. Everyone left there asking if Carlisle could win, not if Johnson would leave. It was exactly what the team needed. They didn’t win every game, but they won enough to find themselves trying to win some rings and a silver trophy one more time.
Jace was true to his word as always. That night he slipped a ring on his finger, and laid down his cap. The next day his only complaint was how tight this new tie was around his neck. Hunter would go on to win not only the Governor’s job twice, but a Senate seat as well.
Jace’s mind went back to that small airport, and a four hour car ride through the snow and ice. When he checked the rental car in, the man said, “You must have somewhere important to go to have traveled through this.” “Yes, I’ve got a sick friend in the hospital.” The man looked at him again. “You’re Coach Johnson! You just won the Super Bowl. You just finished that, and you’re concerned about a sick friend. He must be a good one.”
Jace smiled, “Yes, it’s more than that though. You see, if I were in that hospital, hurting, scared, and alone. It would give me the will to win to see my best friend walk through the door. That’s why I’m going, right now, he needs the will to win this battle.”
In the end, he gave not only Hunter, but his team, and himself the will to win. The team didn’t just win another Super Bowl, and Hunter didn’t just win a few elections. Jace had four coaches who went on to win Super Bowls for other franchises. Two quarterbacks and four more players ended up in the Hall Of Fame. One of Hunter’s protégé’s would go on to win the White House, all because of a commitment and a four hour drive to Montrose.