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.

In our first game, everything is clicking. Lisa's serve is racking up points. So is Kerri's. Andrew, still bothered by his back, also keeps the Bulldogs on serve. Jason is staying in position and actually cheering on his teammates. We're tied at 16 before, suddenly, we lose our composure. Austin foot-faults on his serve. The Brevard servers have discovered a weak spot in our return game — the middle, where either no one calls for the ball or everyone collides. We lose the first game 25-17.

At least we played them close, and the team's confidence is high. Midway through the second game, though, disaster strikes: Jason limps off the court with a skinned knee. By the time we get it cleaned and bandaged, the Bulldogs are down 18-4. Jason rallies with his serve, but the damage has been done. We lose 25-11.

In the third game, Brevard again serves straight at the Bulldogs' soft middle. Now Lisa is drifting that way, and her prayer technique sends the ball flying in every direction — except over the net. It takes a late rally even to get our score into double digits. The Tamarac Bulldogs again fall in three.

Still, as each player's name is called and each bows to receive his or her silver medal, I find myself scrambling for my cell phone and snapping pictures. This is something I never do. It suggests a sort of sentimentality — or maybe I really mean an untarnished sense of enthusiasm — I thought I'd left behind years ago.

After the medal ceremony, Anthony asks to talk to me, and as he leads me away from the court, he takes off his glasses and wipes his eyes. His lower lip is quivering and he chokes on his words as he asks, "Are you going to be our coach next year?"


It's a low-down dirty trick if ever I've seen one.

Then it gets worse, because over the course of the next few hours, nearly every other Bulldog asks the same question. A few threaten to boycott volleyball next year if I don't return as coach. I'm blindsided. And embarrassed. Surely, if they knew what a cynical schmuck I really am, they wouldn't be saying any of this.

Naturally, I give an equivocating answer. Having lived in four cities these past four years, I've learned not to make plans too far in advance. But the truth is, I've formed my attachment to this mercurial group. They haven't exactly caused my heart to triple in size, like the old Grinch. But they have shaken me out of the emotional detachment I'd lugged to those first few practices. Hell, the evidence is right on my cell phone — a gallery of Bulldogs bowing to receive their medals.

Oddly, our loss doesn't cause the team to sulk. Just the opposite. It relaxes all the competitive tensions. The Bulldogs retire cheerfully to the hotel, with most of us guys flocking to a television screen in observance of the hetero male holiday that is the NFL draft. After several hours of debating draft picks, Bob Cohen, Andrew's father, leads us on an expedition to that other sacred male institution: our local Hooters franchise.

The Bulldogs misbehave, of course. But they're no more obnoxious than the regular clientele. Jason, a fan of misogynist comic Andrew Dice Clay, makes naughty gestures at the waitresses. Anthony waves to each one as she passes, then blushes. Gustavo simply gawks unabashedly at their bulging white tank tops. Eddie's method is to stand in the heavily trafficked hallway, bellowing in his loudest stage voice, "Have you seen The Ringer?"

Before they leave, Eddie, Anthony, and Gustavo have their Special Olympics shirts signed by nearly every server in the joint, and their demands for pictures bring Hooters service to a virtual halt. In short: They need to be dragged from the premises. Anthony makes us all swear that we won't tell his mother he went to Hooters — though the fresh "Hoots & Kisses" graffiti on his shirt might be a tipoff.

At that night's closing ceremonies, Eddie is again besieged with autograph requests and cell-phone pictures. On the way back from closing ceremonies, he observes, "Next time, we should play spin-the-bottle."

Kerri admonishes him. "That's inappropriate, Eddie."

"Not for me — I'm a celebrity," he says. When that doesn't get a laugh, he adds, "And I would definitely bring protection."

On the long ride back to Fort Lauderdale, I realize that I'm actually going to miss our twice-weekly practices, which have become a kind of respite from the pressures of my day job. Most of all, I'm going to miss these Bulldogs.

These are the mawkish ruminations that occupy me during the drive back, which is going quite smoothly until I see the minivan ahead of me veering off Alligator Alley and onto the shoulder of the road. Yes, here, at what appears the most desolate spot in all of Florida, our other minivan has gotten a flat.

Our team's two vans are the last in the Broward-bound motorcade (of course), so the other 16 vans ahead of us continue homeward, oblivious to our dilemma. Out come the cell phones and tire jacks.

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