Meggie had this new picture book she kept asking me to read, and I hated it ’cause tucked away inside those pages was the worst sentence any writer person had ever written. The worst! It was the sentence-that-must-not-be-read. I kept trying to steer Meggie toward the other books Mom had bought for her at a yard sale, but she kept going back to the one about the big red dog. I didn’t mind Clifford or his girl owner, but if you asked me, there was more wrong with that one sentence than there was with us cheating on the Comprehensive Student Assessments last spring. This particular Clifford book was all about manners, saying things like “please” and “thank you.” I was good with that stuff, having been raised to know that holding the door for the old lady behind you was important. But the sentence I couldn’t read--especially out loud!--was the one that said He smiles when he loses.
I slammed that book shut after reading those words to Meggie the first time. “This is terrible!” I shouted. All the daydreaming and night dreaming I did about football never had me smiling after losing a game. I was gonna win, and if I didn’t, I sure as heck wasn’t gonna be happy about it.
“Gavvy, don’t,” Meggie whined. “Read it. Please.”
I huffed. “Fine,” I said. “As long as you know that what it says in there is wrong. You don’t need to smile after losing in order to be a good sport.”
“Okay,” she agreed. “Just read it.”
Meggie didn’t care, but that sentence bothered me every time she had me open the book. So I started changing the words to what they shoulda said, like Clifford shook hands with his opponent after losing the match, but he wasn’t smiling. Or Clifford hated losing, but he still shook hands after the contest. Meggie frowned when I made changes, so we finally agreed I would skip that part. The rest of the sentences about being a good sport--stuff like not boasting when you win--were good, so I was fine reading those pages.
When I told Dad about that terrible sentence and how wrong it was, he laughed. “I can tell you this,” I said. “In my book it’s gonna say, Gavin smiles when he wins. Gavin’s happy winning.”
“You know, it’s not just a seventh-grade football team you’re joinin’,” Dad reminded me. “It’s a seven-eight team, which means there might be an eighth grader already slotted for the quarterback position.”
“I know. But once the coach sees me outworking everybody else and gunslinging the ball, he’ll give me my shot, and that’s all I need.”
“You’ll get your chance as long as you don’t go and open your mouth or whine to the coach. You need to get his attention through--”
“Honest hard work, I know. Don’t worry, Dad. I’ve been listening. I won’t let you down. I’m gonna be the hardest-working kid.”
Dad nodded. “Good. That’s what I like to hear,” he said. “And since there’s no sense in you wastin’ the summer, I brought somethin’ home so you can get started outworkin’ everybody now. It’s in the back of my truck.”
I ran over to check it out. “Can we put it up now?” I yelled.
“Yup. Grab ahold of it and follow me.”
The tire was heavy, but I put my muscles into it and yanked it over the side of the truck. It bounced off the ground a few times and then fell down flat. I lifted it to my shoulder and marched out to the maple tree in our backyard. Dad met me there with his stepladder.
“Thanks,” I said.
“You can thank me by makin’ sure you use it.”
“Good,” he said. “Now I need you to lift it up while I tie it in place.”
“Is that a tire swing for me?” Meggie cried, leaping off the back porch steps.
“No, I’m afraid not, squirt,” Dad said. “This is your brother’s new target. He’s gonna practice throwin’ his football through the middle so he can become a more accurate passer.”
“Oh,” Meggie said. “So he can throw touchdowns?”
“That’s right,” Dad said. “So you can cheer for him.”
“Me too,” Mom said, stepping out onto the porch. The two of them started doing some crazy cheerleader dance.
I smiled and shook my head.
“That should do it,” Dad said, securing the last knot.
I stepped back and stood there, staring at my new wide receiver.
“Aren’tcha gonna show us how it works?” Meggie called.
“You’ve got about twenty minutes before supper’s ready,” Mom said.
That was all I needed to hear. I ran into the house and grabbed my football. Mom saw me fire a few passes through the tire and then went back inside to finish cooking. Dad and Meggie stayed for the next ten minutes, until Meggie finally got bored and they both headed into the house. But I threw pass after pass until Mom had everything on the table. Wherever the ball landed, that was where I picked it up and threw it from, which made some of the passes nearly impossible to get through the tire, but I knew that was what was gonna help me get better.
I was going to see Coach when Mrs. Magenta’s community service program started up again after the Fourth of July. I’d already been looking forward to it, but now I was even more excited. Coach was a football genius. Once I told him about my new tire target, I knew he’d give me a few tips and maybe even some drills to do.
Principal Allen had made mandatory enrollment in Mrs. Magenta’s program one of our consequences for cheating on the CSAs last spring, but it sure didn’t feel like any sort of punishment. We were all eager to return to the Senior Center to see our friends, especially after Scott’s birthday party, when we’d finally put the pieces together and figured out that Magenta was the daughter Coach had been talking about, and Woods was her mother and Coach’s wife. It was a doozy to wrap our heads around. We didn’t know why Woods and Magenta weren’t speaking to each other. But we wanted to do our best to help make things right between them again--for their sake and for Coach’s. Course, I also wondered what Coach would have to say about sportsmanship and smiling after losing. I knew he would agree with me. Randi had reluctantly agreed with me when I’d told her about it the day before.
“It’s just a children’s book, Gav. Let it go,” she said.
“It’s a children’s book sending the wrong message,” I argued. “You’re telling me you’ll smile if you don’t do well at States this weekend?”
Randi caught my pass and stood there. “No,” she finally admitted.
“Exactly. If Clifford the Big Red Dog put in half the amount of hours practicing gymnastics that you have, he wouldn’t smile after losing--trust me.”
Randi laughed. “You’re ridiculous,” she said.
Now, with the tire target in front of me, I grabbed my football and gripped the laces. I wasn’t ridiculous. I was right. I dropped back five steps and rolled to my left. Then I fired a bullet on the run. The ball sailed straight through the tire. Fist pump.
“Gavvy, time to eat!” Meggie called.
“Be right in!” I yelled. I jogged over and scooped up my ball.
After supper I would come back out. If I wanted to be the best, I had a lot of practicing to do. Before things finished up this year, I’d find out I had a lot left to learn about winning and losing and what was truly important.