Coach Elm Disease


October 31st, 2005

I was reminded of another coach of the Minnesota Vikings while watching that dewdropper Mike Tice towering on the sideline in Carolina last Sunday. Tice looked like an elm tree with a big X spray painted on it, standing there with that idiotic pencil in his ear. It might as well be a stir stick because the man is in dire need of a drink.

Only once in my life have I seen a more downtrodden head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, it was at a pre-Thanksgiving cocktail party in 1984 and the man I saw was Les Steckel. It was the day after the Chicago Bears had completely mutilated his football team 30-3 and the Minnesota Vikings record stood at 3-10.

Some degrees of separation landed us at that cocktail party together and after I drank enough scotch a sentimental tendency kicked in. I had wandered into the kitchen to make another scotch. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement in the back den. I walked to the doorway and Steckel’s hand was gripping his forehead like he was preparing to offer himself up as a poorly thrown knuckleball. No one was in the room with him, the kitchen buffering him from a floor flushing cocktail party a couple of rooms away with lots of flowered skirts, peanuts and scotch. I was forced to feel pity for the man sitting by himself in the corner, his face tangled from being severely out coached for 13 consecutive weeks. An orange hue, projected from the raging fire blazing a foot from his chair, flickered on his deranged face. I feared he might take the easy way out by tumbling into the fire. I kept an eye on him because I thought he might botch that too, setting the whole dwelling ablaze with his flaming body hurtling itself around the house setting curtains and dresses on fire.

I asked him if he needed a drink. He didn’t even acknowledge my presence. I asked him again and this time he lifted his head up toward me, his mouth was slightly open and traces of snot lingered on his upper lip with sweat glistening on his orange face. A Chet Baker vinyl was playing on the record player positioned next to the desk. I was emotionally struck down by the combination of Chet Baker’s voice and the sight of the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings in an unhinged state. A more unique moment I cannot recall; the den was a dangerous cocktail at that moment and I figured I should try to add some ice. I told him, “Steckel, you need a drink, whatta you want?” Steckel looked up at me just as The Thrill is Gone started on the record player. Unbelievably, the hayburner started crooning, “I can see it in your eyes, I can hear it in your sighs, feel it in your touch and realize the thrill is gone, the nights are cold, for love is old . . . "
I was shaken to the core, my senses rattled and my glass already empty. I’m not sure who’s den Les Steckel was sitting in but at that moment that place on earth was morosely and solely his. I thanked Steckel for the song and left the doorway with a pang of sadness penetrating the leather like exterior of my face, a frown on my open mouth.

I looked in on him a couple of scotches later and he was gone but a door leading to the back yard was open. There was a chill in the air created by the football ghost who recently vacated the room. I walked to the screen door and saw a figure on the lawn. I shook my head in a state of disbelief while the rest of the party seemed to be ignoring the elephant in the backyard, flat on his back, staring at the stars, contemplating his life in the football universe.

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