Writing honorable mention: 1968 through a different lens
A rebellious athlete and an unsympathetic coach learn to get along
by Steve Varalyat
The year offered no rest for the weary. It began with the Tet Offensive followed by a massive walkout by East Los Angeles high school students. Then a sitting president decided not to seek reelection and MLK’s assassination. And just two days earlier Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed just 20 miles away.
Torrance High School was not immune from these outside events. Egg yolk dripped from windows. Nasty, soggy tomatoes dotted its walkways and left their indelible marks on classroom doors. An unprecedented, campus-wide food fight had just concluded.
None of this was lost on Coach. When the team arrived at seventh period PE he had fire and brimstone ready and waiting. For a good half-hour he expounded on the evils of food fighting, rating it slightly above Communism. “I didn’t see any football players involved today” he said as he paced the weight room. “But there’ll be more of these things over the next few days. And if I do catch any of you guys participating, I’m gonna do more than call you a ‘turd’. I’m gonna wail the crap outa ya right in front of the whole student body!”
Just as he let the last words fly Dick Schellack smirked and Coach caught it. He approached the unsuspecting student from his blind side and made a kick-like motion that left his foot within two inches of Schellack’s face. “You think this is funny?” he asked sternly. Schellack stared at the huge shoe in front of him and mumbled something unintelligible. “I’ll be lookin’ for you” said Coach as he walked away.
Schellack had nothing to do with the food fight. His smirk was probably unconscious. This was all about their budding feud. Its cause? Politics. Schellack was becoming more active by the day in the anti-war movement. Even at 17 he did not view the world as “Jocks vs Turds.” Coach, on the other hand, did. He was a stone Cold Warrior.
Actually “becoming more politically active” was something of an understatement. Schellack brought Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice into his English class and read several pages aloud — including the many “MFs”. He’d been writing like a man possessed, having two letters published in the Daily Breeze and an essay in the LA Free Press, plus frequent contributions to the school newspaper.
Coach wanted to bust Schellack something fierce but he was finding It increasingly difficult. Schellack had a 3.63 GPA, second highest among athletes to a senior tennis player. He kept in great shape during the off-season, lifting weights and running 40s before school. He had acceptable length hair and no moustache or beard. While Schellack did drink an occasional beer, he didn’t broadcast where and when he’d do it like other players. This compounded Coach’s frustration.
A THS band, Destiny’s Children, would soon play at The Revelaire in Redondo Beach. Coach learned from students in his driver’s ed classes that Schellack had become friends with the band’s lead singer Dane Pek, and would likely attend. So he marked that Friday night on his calendar.
Schellack knew all about Coach’s “Little Stasis” and anticipated it. He had, indeed, become friends with Dane Pek. He also remembered that Coach deeply detested the tune “Society’s Child,” which was part of the band’s repertoire. Pek arranged to have the band play it as soon as Coach entered the building. He and the band’s lone female would trade places.
It worked to perfection. Suzanne belted out a rousing rendition of “Society’s Child” and received thunderous applause from all but one person. Coach listened sporting a semi-nauseous expression. Then he turned to the band, shook his head and exited The Revellaire. Schellack and Pek shared a beer for a job well done, then grooved to The Turtles until midnight.
Schellack casually mentioned in his history class that he would be attending the Democratic National Convention in Chicago over the summer. Word boomeranged back to Coach. There was a Little Stasi in there, though he had no idea who. As he walked between classes Coach intercepted him near an isolated spot.
“What’s this I hear you’re going to Chicago this summer?” asked Coach.
“Where’d you hear that?” said Schellack.
“I got my sources. You know that.”
“Yes, I am going.”
“What about football?”
“I’ll be back in time.”
“Will you? If you miss any of ‘hell week’ you’ll lose your position. You’ll really have to bust your tail on special teams to get it back. You know me. I don’t play favorites.”
“I understand” said Schellack.
“And besides, why the heck would you wanta hang around Hippies and Yippies for? Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin? Coupla true turds in my book. Shoot, play your cards right you could be in Soldier Field playing alongside Butkus in a few years” said Coach.
“Not really. Think about it.”
Schellack mused that Coach ought to be a politician as he walked to his next class. One minute Coach had him losing his starting spot at THS, the next playing for the Chicago Bears. Amazing feat!
He planned to call Coach’s bluff. There were only a handful of returning starters on this team and he was clearly the best of the group. He was going to the convention early. He’d be outside, probably in Lincoln Park. He couldn’t be a delegate since he couldn’t vote yet. And he’d be leaving early, back by Sunday at the latest.
School ended. He wouldn’t see Coach again until they began running “The Course” in a few weeks. Not that he’d escape Coach’s watchful eye in the meantime.
The LA Free Press chose Schellack’s essay as its best student writing for the first half of the year and planned to honor him at Alpine Village. Rumors abounded about who might show up; Tom Hayden, Mario Savio, Sal Castro…Angela Davis.
The American Nazi Party already had its dander up about the possible appearance of Country Joe and the Fish at The Bank, a club within easy walking distance of Alpine Village. The presence of Davis could really set off a firestorm. There were also still Klansmen in Torrance and they just might come out of the woodwork for something like this.
Schellack didn’t like the looks of this. Neither did the Torrance City Council or any of the local law enforcement agencies. They persuaded the editors of the LA Free Press to reschedule the event to the student union of El Camino College at a time to be announced. It would be a low-profile event with no luminaries in attendance.
On his second day in Chicago Schellack found himself marching around Soldier Field holding a sign welcoming Democrats to the city. For some reason during a break his mind shifted to football; he broke into a stutter step followed by 15 yards of carioca. Two stern-faced cops suddenly flashed ear-to-ear grins, curious about what made him do that. So he went over there and repeated Coach’s remark about playing here alongside Butkus.
The next day he was outside the stadium doing street theater, which he liked much better. Soldier Field stood out prominently in the background. A fellow attendee took several pictures of him pointing at it from a two-point stance. He got into some interesting exchanges with some union guys who were not part of the convention. He gave them his thoughts about ending the war and they gave him a primer on full-employment.
Later the union guys and some Yippies invited Schellack to join them for pizza and beer downtown. Nobody questioned him about his age as he helped polish off several pitchers. A fight broke out in the front of the place and cops in powder blue helmets assigned to the Convention quickly came in and broke it up. Schellack got in the middle of the group’s larger members with his head down and managed to escape.
Just like he predicted, he was home by Sunday. Coach called in the early afternoon, surprised that Schellack answered.
“Blue Moon?” he said, using Schellack’s nickname.
“It’s me, Coach” said Schellack.
“You made it out of all that madness OK?”
“I watched it all. I thought I saw some young guy that looked like you in a pizza place where the cops came in.”
“Did you really?” said Schellack, a bit amazed “Coincidence”.
“You gonna be ready tomorrow?” said Coach.
“Of course. No jet lag here. That’s for guys your age.”
(pause) “OK. Seeya tomorrow morning. Suited up and ready to go at nine sharp. Late means crab crawls after practice — a hundred yards for every minute.”
That fall Dick Schellack was named All-Sky League and played in the Lions All-Star Game the following summer. He attended UCLA on an academic scholarship. B