Book excerpt: 'Daddy's Little Goalie'
To call the Haddonfield Memorial High School gym venerable, or any other positive modifier, would be generous. It is not quite squalid, but perhaps it runs more toward dank and seedy. No matter how many bond issue upgrades the school district puts into the lighting, it always seems too dim. The bleachers are ill-spaced, making sitting through even one period a leg-wrenching experience. There are allegedly insulated windows right below the inefficient heat blowers. Spectators can be too hot on one side of their bodies and still have damp, frigid streaks running up their backs.
The scorer's table is installed so that the bare wood bleacher behind it is too far away for the clock operator to reach the buttons or for the scorer to even see over the railing down to the part of the floor where substitutes check in, which aggravates coaches, players, and referees because it causes them to miss crucial substitutions.
In the rafters and along the walls are banners indicating the array of championships Haddonfield High athletes have won. The banners are speckled with mold and dust, but they are real. For more than thirty years in a row, Haddonfield has won the Colonial Conference all-sports crown. It could be even more, but the banners reach back only to 1969-70, enough, presumably, being enough. In the mid-2000s, the Shop Rite supermarket chain started giving an annual award to the school with the best overall sports record in each of New Jersey's four school population size categories. Haddonfield has won in Group II by wide margins every year, and the space on the west wall is running out for those large banners.
To visitors, the effect is galling because Haddonfield is the richest town around and could easily afford all sorts of fanciness. To locals, though, it is a bit of endearing familiarity and coziness, as if "Hoosiers II" could be set right there and Gene Hackman could come trundling in to coach. Good numbers of Haddonfielders are second-, third-, and who-knows-howfar- back generation residents. The town allegedly dates to the buying of the land in the 1680s by Englishman John Haddon, who later sent his daughter, Elizabeth, to settle it. Lizzie, as she is affectionately known to every schoolkid in town, probably shot hoops in the ancient Haddonfield High gym.
On either side of the scoreboard are slats for letters or numbers to be pushed in. On the left side of the scoreboard are the names of that year's boys' basketball players, with their numbers from smallest to largest going down the column. On the right, it is a similar run of girls. Every day for a year, the kids lucky enough to make the varsity have their names on display for every gym class, every dance, every graduation, every game; the main school events taking place in the gym, bleak and endearing as it is to residents.
In December 2007, my wife and I shivered in anticipation of the first home girls' basketball game. Would our older daughter, Ella, be on the board? She had had a decent freshman year, starting most games as the 5-foot-zip shooting guard. Now, though, she was a sophomore, clearly secure on junior varsity. But how high on the varsity food chain? We tried to remember how many slats there were on the right side of the scoreboard. Were there 12? 14? 10? We were too embarrassed by our concern to ask anyone or even be caught sneaking into the gym to look. We would just have to wait until opening night.
The junior varsity games at Haddonfield start at 5:30 p.m., and no one is there but JV parents and a few teachers and close friends. Even with regular conference crowns, many South Jersey winners, and occasional state championships on the varsity, JV games are as much family affairs as a great aunt's birthday bash.
Still, we were pumped. We walked through the double glass doors of the faded and chipped brick building and on past the zillions of trophies dating back seemingly several millennia in smudged glass cases lining the hallway. We ducked into the gym and started up the stairs to the middle range of stands, not looking back over our shoulders at the scoreboard, fearing like Lot's wife, that we would turn into unlucky pillars of salt if we gazed too prematurely.
We got to a good place at the top row -- the stands go about fifteen rows up a steep ridge -- because we knew we would need seats with a straight back for a JV–varsity doubleheader. My wife and I breathed hard and turned ourselves to the scoreboard. Like a beacon on a hillside, like the big old smoking Camel cigarette billboard that defined mid-twentieth-century Times Square, like the biggest jackpot sign in the biggest casino in Vegas, there at the top of the right side of the scoreboard read, in capital letters, "3 STRAUSS."
We each maniacally took several photographs. Sylvia, our seventh grader, rolled her eyes almost violently.
"You are definitely nuts," she said more than once.
My wife, though, looked at me as she probably hadn't since our first date.
"You could die right now, couldn't you?" was all she had to say.
Excerpted from the Introduction, "Daddy's Little Goalie" copyright © 2011 by Robert Strauss (Andrews McMeel Publishing). Available from Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Borders, Powell's and Indie Bound. Click here to visit the book's webpage.