The Bad News Bulldogs

A quest for (Special) Olympic gold, starring one burned-out journalist turned coach and a volleyball team that couldn't spike straight.

Do any of these superheroes play volleyball, I wonder?

For all the practices, our regular season will consist of just two matches, one month apart.

Eddie is mobbed by more fans at the opening ceremonies.
Eddie is mobbed by more fans at the opening ceremonies.
Jason (left) is the star on the court. Eddie (foreground) is the star off it.
Jason (left) is the star on the court. Eddie (foreground) is the star off it.

The first meet is in March, at Cypress Bay High School in Weston. It ranks as a disaster. Kerri insists on shouting instructions at Gustavo between points. A fine impulse, except that when the opposing team serves, Kerri is still yapping at Gustavo, and neither of them notices the ball sailing past.

Our star, Jason, who works two jobs, has overslept and never shows. Lisa misses a few shots early on, and her confidence is shot. Andrew is frustrated. As for Eddie, before the match even starts, he's greeted by junior high volunteers who shout out his ad-libbed lines from The Ringer, such as "Oh, Mylanta!" and "You scratched my CD!"

During the match, he's distracted by the notion that someone here has purloined his sports goggles, which he left in the bleachers. Eddie has an inimitable way of stressing the most important words of a sentence: "Coach Tom, I need my goggles or my mommy is going to kill me." I find that his words stick in my head for hours — perhaps because of the poetic rhythm, or maybe just because he tends to repeat the same thing about a dozen times.

Anthony, who is Eddie's best friend, also has an off-court distraction. He's batting his eyes and waving shyly at the cute girls in the stands. During points, he behaves more like a spectator who's mistakenly wandered onto the court; when the ball comes his way, he politely steps aside. The moment it lands, he realizes his mistake and slaps his forehead.

Our opponent is Victory Living, a Fort Lauderdale agency for adults with disabilities. The players are taller and more athletic than us, but the real menace is a short, balding player who looks a little like Al Roker and wields a cruelly consistent serve.

My Bulldogs aren't calling for the ball, and it falls at their feet. Half my team is yelling at the other half, which is sulking. No amount of sideline encouragement — I alternate between "Good try!" and "It's OK!" — can lift the team's spirits.

It occurs to me that my team looks poorly coached because, frankly, it is. In Special Olympics, competing alone is supposed to be heroic. One prefers to win but doesn't mind losing. It's the coach's responsibility to instill these noble principles in his athletes, even if he can't teach them a single thing about the sport. Judging by the shouting on the court and the dejected expressions of my players after the match, I've failed.

We get throttled.

I manage to greet them with babbled words of praise, but I'm not fooling anyone. This sucks. We suck. I suck.

It doesn't help that in the minutes after we shake hands with Victory Living players, Anthony and Eddie are orbiting me, asking hopefully, "Are we still going to State?"

I tell them, "Yes, but it will take lots of practice." In my mind, I don't really believe that will make a difference. To earn a berth in the Summer Games, we have to win next month's match in West Palm Beach, against the same Victory Living team that just routed us. Fat chance.

Due to a work conflict, I cancel the team's next practice, and when I tell Teddy, he says, "You're not quitting on me, are you?"

"Of course not," I tell him.

I don't mention that I'm awfully tempted.

My new objective is simply to salvage some pride. Forget about winning. It's time to recalibrate our expectations: If we're merely competitive in our next match, this will be progress. Just a few more weeks of practice, a match in West Palm Beach, and our season will come to a merciful end.

But fate has other plans. On April 21, the day of our rematch against Victory Living, the Bulldogs are doubly blessed. Jason wakes for his alarm clock and will play. A second miracle: Victory Living's best player is a no-show.

I fasten Jason's Velcro shoes and send him onto the court. Like most dominant athletes, Jason tries to do too much. He has a tendency, for instance, to bowl over teammates so he can hit the ball. At the same time, we're winning, and that eases the tension. The dreaded Roker doppelgänger seems suddenly mortal.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, appear focused. They're getting along. Gustavo's double-fisted overhand is wreaking havoc. Lisa's prayer technique is getting lucky bounces. We get unexpected points from Austin, then Anthony, and even Eddie. My praise from the sidelines now has something approaching conviction.

Yes, I'm proud of my players. I'm actually beaming.

During the third and decisive game, Andrew's serve is punishing Victory Living. Having rattled off ten points in a row and with our team staked to an insurmountable lead, we can afford to show some mercy. So I ask Andrew to serve the ball out.

"No!" he says in his high-pitched voice. "I'm sick of being ashamed." Fair enough.

The Bulldogs win in straight sets.

While the players hug and dance, the jubilation on the sidelines is more restrained. Another volunteer grabs my shoulder, a little too tightly, and with a wry, wincing smile says: "Great. Now we've got to take them to Tampa."

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