Case #3.04: "Coach of the Year"

At a football game, the crowd is cheering wildly. The PA announcer informs us that we're at the steroid capital of the Metro area: Augustana High. Montage of a player hearing an echoing voice in his head, presumably the coach, saying, "Everybody wants a piece of the champ." Flip to a trainer holding a penlight and asking, "Are you okay, son?" More platitudes from Coach: "You run just a little faster and you concentrate just a little harder when you're up against the best" and "He's hurtin'. We're all hurtin'. Soldiers hurt." 

The scene now cuts between the player lying motionless on the field and home videos of him playing football in oversize pads as a little boy. In present day, the coach stands on the sidelines arguing with the trainer. A teammate kneels next to the player (Teddy), asks if he's okay, and screams, "Doc! Doc!"

Teddy is in a hospital bed, a halo holding his head, neck, and shoulders in place. His eyes open and he whispers, "Mom." Theme song. Teddy's mom jumps out of her chair and rushes to his side, reassuring him, "We're right here, Teddy." "We" being her, Teddy's dad, and the trainer. "Did we win?" asks Teddy. The trainer confirms it. 

Teddy has another question: Why is everything in his body numb? Both parents are silent for a moment; they're on the verge of tears. The trainer explains Teddy hurt his neck when he made the tackle. Teddy thinks that just means a neck brace for a few games. The trainer adds that there's damage to his spinal column; Teddy is paralyzed. Teddy's mom starts to cry, but tells him, "It's gonna be okay, honey."

Teddy's parents go for a walk around the hospital. Mom thinks this is Dad's fault. He tells her to leave it alone. Mom is disbelieving: "Is that all you can say? Teddy's life is over. It's over because of a silly game." Dad insists that Teddy loved football. "Ever since you put a ball in his hands," Mom's tone is accusing. She walks off. Dad looks at his feet and sighs.

Tom enters the Chapel and announces that there's a white Jeep in his parking spot; the owner has 10 seconds to move it. Jackie hands him the keys and says, "Be a sweetheart and move it for me." Judy and Harry tease Tom. Tom and Jackie's relationship is supposed to be a secret, but Harry points out there are no secrets in a precinct.

Jackie briefs Cap'n Rufus, Booker, and a now clean-shaven Doug on Teddy: "The blow broke his neck, leaving him quadriplegic. The DA wants to know if the coach's attitude or coaching style contributed to the injury." Doug doesn't think a successful coach should be charged for "being too good at his job." There's more to the situation, however. Teddy had been injured the previous week and didn't participate in contact practices, yet he was forced to play on Saturday. Forcing kids to play injured is criminal negligence. 

Doug reminds them of Coach Rickman's reputation. Parents move into Augustana's district just so their sons can play for him; a lot of guys from the team have gotten scholarships. Cap'n Rufus asks if Doug is ready to suit up. Doug grins and says, "I knew this day would come." Harry will do background checks and Booker is the foil. 

Doug doesn't like the idea of working with Booker and I don't blame him. Booker thinks beef and brains is the perfect combination. Doug forces a laugh. Cap'n Rufus tells Doug he's free to back out, but Doug is willing to deal with it. "Hello, sports fans!" he shouts, elbowing a file cabinet on his way out.

Cap'n Rufus calls the Augustana football office, posing as Booker and Doug's old coach, talking faster than Chris Tucker. "It's good to see our reputation stretches all the way back to New Jersey," says Rickman. The coaching staff must've changed since the steroid scandal because the coach isn't the same one featured in our last trip to Augustana.

Cap'n Rufus tells Rickman that Doug and Booker are brothers: "One's a halfback and DB. The other's a linebacker and tight end. They're the best players I ever coached, but these boys are a little...unique. Weird." Rickman asks if it's a drug problem. "No, no, no," Rufus assures him, "They're just a bit strange." As long as Booker and Doug can play, Rickman doesn't care if they spend their nights in drag. "Oh no, they never done that...uh, that we know of," Rufus says. They say goodbye and wish each other luck this season.

Coach Rickman hangs up and calls the office, asking to see Doug and Dennis Blackwood. Doug and Booker come in, wearing letterman jackets from their supposed former school. Rickman says, "I hear you boys wanna play some football."

After school, the football team splits up for offense vs. defense drills. Rickman calls Doug over. The coach calls him Dennis and Doug cuts him off: "No, I'm Doug. Don't make that mistake again 'cause I'm really sensitive about it." Rickman tells Doug to take the right inside. The defense coach calls out a play. 

Doug tackles Booker, who gets up and asks what his problem is. "Nothin'. I feel fine, Dennis," says Doug venomously. The defense coach is impressed: "That's the way he hits his brother?" "Yep," confirms Rickman, "and he likes his brother." Actually, he doesn't, Coach.

Booker says he wasn't put on the team to be a traffic hazard and he could've run right through Doug if he wanted to. Dream on, the guy has at least 50 pounds on you. Cap'n Rufus summons them to his office. Harry is waiting with a stack of VHS tapes of games that were shot by Augustana parents; most of them focus on Teddy. Fuller wants to see every angle of the accident.

The captain talks to Doug and Booker alone. He asks for their first impressions of Rickman. Doug thinks Rickman is a good coach: "He taught me more in one day than I learned in 2 years at my school." "They didn't teach you cheap shots?" asks Booker. Doug insists, "That was a clean hit." 

Cap'n Rufus partnered them up for a reason: "I don't need you injuring some high school kid or your partner in your quest for glory." Doug argues he has to go all out so he doesn't hurt himself. Booker is confident he can take anything Doug can dish out.

Doug repeats that Rickman is a great coach, "a winner who wins." As opposed to a winner who loses? Rufus asks, "But at what cost?" As much as I like Doug, I have to admit he's got serious blinders on to the fact that a teenager is paralyzed for life. 

Cap'n Rufus asks if there's a team doctor at practice and the boys say no. "Typical," says Rufus, "Nobody between the player and the coach to determine if a player should be on the field." That's the exact reason why my county started hiring part-time trainers for peewee football, all certified in first aid or as EMTs.

Doug shrugs that people know when they're hurt. Cap'n Rufus asks if Doug ever played with an injury; Doug did because he didn't want to miss out. Rufus sums it up, "The kid wants to play, the coach wants him to play, the doc is caught in the middle." Not where I worked; the parents and the trainer had final say. But still the volunteer coaches with no medical training would get in your face and argue that they knew better. It was not a job for the spineless.

Cap'n Rufus wants Doug to visit Teddy in the hospital, befriend him, and find out exactly how tough Rickman was on him. Doug looks uncomfortable with this idea and asks if Harry can do it. Rufus thinks it would do Doug some good to see what the coach may be responsible for.

The trainer visits Teddy with what looks like half the team, including Doug. Rickman introduces Doug, who asks to stop by some other time and talk strategy. Teddy's mom steps in, saying, "All right, that's enough about football. Thank you all for coming." Before leaving, a chubby guy gives Teddy a football that the whole team signed. 

Outside the room, Teddy's dad pulls Rickman aside to thank him for bringing the team by. Teddy's dad also wants Rickman to know that he doesn't blame Rickman for Teddy's accident. Rickman asks if it would be okay to create a team award in Teddy's name, "one that embodies courage and all-out effort." Teddy's dad chokes up and says it would be nice. 

Tom visits Jackie in her office and starts kissing her neck. She thought they were supposed to keep their relationship a secret, pointing out how distant Tom acted in the Chapel. She has to stop by there later and "you won't mind if I just throw you over Penhall's desk for a nice big hello." "Right now, we're in your office at your desk," Tom points out. Jackie purrs, "And you don't have the nerve." Um, wow. 

Tom tosses things off Jackie's desk and leans in to kiss her. Jackie's balding coworker walks in asking if he's interrupting something. His appearance turns out to be nothing more than an awkward plot contrivance. Hell, that's what their whole relationship is.

During football practice, Doug gets hit a bit too hard and starts angrily wrestling with his teammate. Rickman blows the whistle and breaks it up. Doug is hurt, so they send him to see Doc while the rest of the team runs laps. In the training room, Doc wraps Doug's knee with an Ace bandage. Doug asks if he'll be able to practice the next day. "You probably should stay off it a day or so," says Doc. Doug wants to know if he can play if he doesn't take any more hits this week. "We'll make that determination later," Doc answers vaguely.

Rickman tells Doug that linebackers are the heart and soul of a football team. As Bear Bryant once said, "Hostile, agile, mobile." Rickman guarantees Doug he won't get hurt if gives 110% effort. 

Rickman explains the difference between pain and injury: "Pain is a suffering in the mind that goes along with the discomfort...What makes us really tough, what makes us true soldiers is when we can overcome that feeling. An injury is damage. Real, physical damage. Only the body can overcome that through treatment and healing." Doug doesn't think he's injured. Rickman tells him that it's up to Doug whether to play or not, but Doug's 44 brothers on the team are counting on him.

Booker appears in a towel and asks, "How you doin', bro?" Doug growls, "Don't call me bro" and flips a football at him.

Doug tells Jackie that they probably can't make a case because Teddy "was a very aggressive player" who had a freak accident. Jackie asks, "Who do you think taught him to play that way?" Doug insists Jackie has it in for the game of football. Jackie argues that football is dangerous and "produces emotional as well as physical cripples." Harry has something to show them on one of the game tapes.

Jackie, Booker, Cap'n Rufus, and Doug go into Rufus's office to watch it. A player named Freddy's parents were filming him on the bench; they caught footage of Rickman and Doc arguing right before Teddy was sent back into the game that ended his career. There's no sound on the tape, but Rufus points out, "One person knows what they were saying." True, if he was even paying attention.

Booker reminds Doug that he's supposed to be investigating what happened to Teddy, not trying out for a scholarship. He thinks Doug is trying to live some fantasy. "I was a good ball player stuck on a bad team with a bad coach," Doug says, confirming Booker's suspicion. Booker reminds him that victory is fleeting and you have to prove yourself over and over. "Who really benefits here?" Booker asks. Doug has to face his ghosts. "I told you I didn't want any advice," Doug says quietly when Booker leaves.

At football practice, Rickman asks how Doug's leg is. He wants to make Doug captain of the special teams. He's looking for an animal. "I'm your animal, Coach," says Doug. He puts on his helmet and joins the rest of the team. 

Booker makes a catch and Doug misses the tackle. Booker taunts him and they start wrestling. The team cheers them on. It takes a really long time before the coaches break it up and send the team to the showers.

Freddy is getting ready to leave the locker room when Doug approaches him. Doug asks if Freddy wants to go visit Teddy, but Freddy declines. "You were playing when he got hurt, right?" Doug wants to know. Freddy looks embarrassed as he says, "No, I was on the bench." He leaves.

Doug goes to Teddy's hospital room and Teddy's dad gives them some privacy. Doug sits on the edge of Teddy's bed and asks how he's feeling. "Pretty good, considering I can't even go to the bathroom by myself," Teddy says bitterly, "Why the hell are you here?" 

Doug wants to pick his brain about Augustana's upcoming opponent. "You got the job, you figure it out," says Teddy, then he softens a little, "You're the first guy from the team to come see me by himself. People get spooked, ya know." Doug hesitantly asks if Teddy wanted to play even though he was hurt. Teddy always wanted to play. 

Doug confides in Teddy that he's hurt and doesn't know if he has the guts to tell Rickman that he can't play. "Well, if you can, you're a bigger man than I am," Teddy sighs. "Was," Teddy corrects himself, "I always pictured myself in a Chicago Bears uniform ever since I was 6 years old. How do I see myself now, man?"

Doug talks to Freddy on the football field alone. Freddy is puzzled: "You're a cop and you play high school football?" "It's for a good cause," Doug tells him. Freddy still doesn't want to tell him what he overheard the day Teddy got hurt because it'll disappoint his dad and Coach Rickman. 

"You don't understand what I go through," says Freddy, "I don't like football. I'm not good at football." Clearly he was good enough to make the team at an elite school, though of course, his size could've helped in that department. Freddy was pushed into football by his dad, who holds 6 NCAA records. 

"Maybe it's time for you to stand up to your father, but we're talking about a guy who's paralyzed here," says Doug. Freddy tells Doug, "If you wanna nail Rickman to the wall, you're gonna have to do it without me." Doug says Freddy can't tell anyone he's a cop. Freddy promises not to tell anyone anything.

Rickman gives a pep talk in the locker room: "As soldiers, you fight together. You sacrifice for your high school, your coach, and most of all, for your fellow soldiers. You have all heard me talk about the brotherhood of pain. It has never been more manifest than in the situation of Teddy Vukovitch." He claims that he visited Teddy and all Teddy could talk about were two things: "Stop Dexter Hector" and "beat Windsor." The team can give Teddy what he wants.

The players stand up and smack their fists on each other's shoulder pads. They race out to the field in their hideous purple and gold uniforms, led by the cheerleaders. 

The student announcer welcomes the Augustana Bulldogs back for the second half. Never mind that the players' jerseys clearly have IRISH printed on them. Up in the stands, Blowfish has a movie camera on his shoulder and is taping the game for evidence. Judy, Cap'n Rufus, Harry, and Jackie are there as well. Another odd continuity error is that the Augustana cheerleaders' uniforms don't seem to match: blue turtlenecks and purple skirts.

On the first play, Doug tackles Windsor High's powerhouse player Dexter Hector; the same thing happens on the second play. Under 2 minutes remain in the game now. The next play is shown in slow motion. A Windsor player rushes down the field, but Doug and Booker tackle him at the same time. The crowd cheers wildly. 

Booker helps Doug up. "Ow, ow, I really hurt my leg," Doug says. Referring to the play, Booker says, "We really did it, huh, man?" "We sure as hell did," Doug agrees, headbutting him. On the sidelines, Doug tells Doc that he can't play anymore and Doc has him take a seat.

Augustana tries to score a touchdown, but fumbles the ball and Windsor gets it back. After another two failed scoring drives, Rickman calls a timeout. He calls to the bench that he needs Doug. Doug protests that he's hurt. Rickman yells to the defense, "Blackwood here has decided to take himself out of the game. He's through for the day. You guys can carry on without him. How many of you guys are hurtin'? All of you are hurtin'. How many of you guys are takin' yourselves out of the game? Just Blackwood here. Your brother was right. You're a wimp."

The referee comes over to tell Rickman to get his team back on the field. Rickman grabs Doug's jersey and tells him that he's off the team if he won't play. Doug plays right into Rickman's hands by standing up and putting his helmet back on. The teams line up on the field, Doug wincing as he stands. He takes his helmet off again and Booker calls timeout. Doug limps toward the bench.

Up in the stands, Judy asks what Doug is doing? "He's retiring from the game," Cap'n Rufus says. Rickman screams that he gave Doug an order. Doug and Booker sit down on the bench anyway. Freddy joins them. Afterwards, Doug sits in the locker room icing his knee. Freddy has something to tell Doug.

Doug barges into Jackie's office, announcing, "We got him. We got him dead-bang. Freddy told me everything. The doc wanted Teddy out, period. Rickman insisted he goes back in. He just overruled the doc. You were right, I was wrong." Oh, don't give Miss Smug 1988 the satisfaction. Fuller and Jackie are silent. Doug asks, "Did somebody die?" "Yeah, our case," says Jackie. 

Cap'n Rufus introduces Doug to the other man in the room: Councilman Davis, the same one who tried to have Jump Street shut down. Davis is putting an end to what he calls "this farce." "Wait, you can't do that," says Doug. Councilman Davis is biased because he went to Augustana (though they never say, he probably played for Rickman too). He tells Doug that this operation set the school district up for a lawsuit. 

"So Coach Rickman just goes on doin' what he's doin' and you're not gonna do a thing to stop this guy?" asks Doug. Councilman Davis smiles and informs Doug that Coach Rickman is getting an award. Doug's jaw drops in disbelief. 

The Coach of the Year Banquet is being hosted in a high school gym. Doug, in decidedly informal attire, steps up to the microphone to give the following speech: "We all love a winner. Coach Rickman is a winner. He turned us into winners. He turned us into soldiers, into warriors. Coach Rickman encouraged me, no, he made me play at 110%. You play at 110% and you don't get hurt. If I do get hurt, it must be my fault."

The crowd begins to murmur disapprovingly. Doug goes on that humans were not meant to be battering rams: "Yesterday, I played. I was hurt. I didn't wanna admit that I was in pain. Teddy Vukovitch didn't wanna admit that he was in pain." The crowd boos, but Doug goes on, "Teddy Vukovitch is in a wheelchair for the rest of his life."

"Who are you?" yells a man. Doug responds he's a wake-up call; Coach Rickman only cares about winning. More boos. "We all love football, but these are kids and we're trainin' 'em to be killers." Not sure I would go that far. Doug finishes by saying that a win-at-all-costs coach is not what the players need.

A security guard comes up to the stage. Before leaving, Doug goes to Rickman's seat and mutters, "You may not get nailed for this, but you should." Councilman Davis tries to smooth things over by saying Doug is just a disgruntled friend of Teddy's. Davis announces the creation of the Teddy Vukovitch Award and introduces Rickman. Teddy's father stands up from his table and leaves the gym. The crowd applauds Rickman.

Doug visits Teddy in the hospital's physical therapy room. "You really said that? In front of all those people?" Teddy chuckles. Doug says doing that was scarier than leaving the game. Teddy watches a fellow patient learning to walk again and vows, "I'm gonna get outta this chair someday."

Like in the last episode that took place at Augustana, title cards come up on the screen as an epilogue: 

"The Augustana Fighting Irish Bulldogs went on to win the state championship by defeating Carrollton High 24-10. Coach Rickman was carried off the field on the shoulders of his team. Thanks to intense therapy, Teddy Vukovitch moved the index finger on his right hand 10 months later."