Updated: May 2, 2019
by Jerrad Hardin
When Coach Mackey’s phone rang a full two hours before his alarm was to wake him for the last day of the school year, he immediately felt agitated.
As he answered it, a familiar voice greeted Mackey, and so began the worst day of his coaching career.
Marvin Mackey was a hardened coach having faithfully served the Millersville School District for more than twenty years. During his time serving as the school’s first and only softball coach, he had experienced just about everything a coach could imagine.
Certainly, there had been losses, but there were many more victories. Few, if any, could rival the success that Mackey had achieved. Twenty-two seasons, never a losing one, and more championships than any other coach in the state.
Mackey always credited his no-nonsense style for his success. A former Marine, Mackey famously conditioned his teams with a firm hand and tireless work ethic. His large frame intimidated those in his presence – and if there was a soft-heart beating inside his barreled chest – nobody knew it.
He thought his tough-guy persona would always win the day, get his players to toe-the-line, and lead to success. So, he played the role, and over his career, he developed quite the hard-nosed reputation.
This alone scared away many girls in the school from joining the softball program. But not Mallory Jones.
Well, at least not after her freshman year. As a freshman, she was like those before her who had avoided Coach Mackey. Instead, she focused on other talents. Mallory was a beautiful and gifted singer. She used her voice to star in the school musical, the choir, and even won grand prize at a local talent show.
Mallory seemed more destined for American Idol than a place on the Millersville Softball Team.
That’s why all her friends were shocked when she declared she was going out for the team.
Millersville High School Softball was played in the fall of each year. The season would begin in August and end in October. Then, like clockwork, the off-season workouts would start in November.
That's around the time Marvin Mackey first met Mallory Jones.
It was the end of a cool fall day in late-October. A woodshop teacher, Coach Mackey had just made his final round in the shop, making sure all the machinery was properly shutdown when Mallory Jones peered around the corner, peeking her smiling face into the room.
“Need something?” Mackey grunted in an unwelcoming tone.
“…Coach Mackey?” Mallory’s voice came out more like a whimper.
“Can I speak with you, sir?”
Coach Mackey frowned and waved Mallory into the room.
For the next few minutes, Mallory, nervously, made a case for the reasons she wanted to play on the softball team.
Then, using but a few words, Coach Mackey told her why she shouldn’t.
Coach Mackey viewed his softball program with serious intensity and while he knew he couldn’t deny this girl or any other from going out for the team, he was none-too-excited about taking on a “project” at this stage in his career.
Mallory seemed unfazed and either didn’t get the hint or refused to accept it.
She left Mackey’s room, skipping away down the hallway singing a made-up melody about playing softball.
Mackey shook his head and grimaced, whispering something sour under his breath.
A week later, off-season workouts began, and Mallory, looking a little out of place, stood alone in the back of the group.
Coach Mackey didn’t allow his eyes to fall on her as he addressed the returning players. His message was clear. There was much work to do.
Coach Mackey stood back and watched as his team moved from station to station.
“Like a well-oiled machine, boss,” Tom Jackson pointed out.
Mackey nodded without comment.
Jackson had learned during his twenty-two years of coaching at the side of Mackey that the gesture communicated satisfaction.
Tom Jackson pointed at the skinny girl with the pink shoes, struggling to keep up. “Mallory Jones decided to play, huh?”
Mackey gave his assistant a side-eyed glance. “You know her?”
Tom Jackson responded, “I do. She was a feisty little player when she was little. Me being an EMT, I saw her dad at the fire station nearly every day. She was his pride and joy and he talked about her all the time.
Something connected in Mackey’s brain. “That firefighter - that was her dad? …The one that…”
Jackson filled in the blank. “Same guy.”
Mackey suddenly felt strange inside.
Tom Jackson’s head slowly shook with sympathy. “Poor kid.”
For six more weeks, Mackey observed his players go through a weekly practice routine. Never offering any praise – only barking instructions when needed.
After a workout in mid-December, Mallory Jones finally found the courage to approach Coach Mackey. Her eyes sparkled as she attempted to charm him with a smile.
“Yes?” Coach Mackey asked.
“Coach, I just wanted to say thank you for letting me go through these workouts…”
When Mackey held her stare, Mallory looked to her feet and continued, “I was hoping you might help me with my swing.”
Coach Mackey grimaced a little, considered it, and then grudgingly slumbered past her toward the batting cage, Mallory followed.
It was the start of what became a weekly routine. After every workout, Mallory, pink shoes and all, in a batting cage with the gruff coach.
Over the course of a few months, Mallory had improved, but not nearly enough to be an offensive contributor during the season. Though, her desire to learn, while undeterred by her own limitations, was something the hardened coach was starting to respect.
By the end of May, the off-season had concluded. Coach Mackey addressed his group one last time.
“Tomorrow is the last day of school,” Mackey said as a matter of fact. “You all have worked hard this off-season. You should see the benefits of that work as you play with your summer teams. But remember, come August 1, you’re mine…. You all are dismissed.”
As the team collected their belongings, Coach Mackey noticed Mallory preparing to leave as well.
He walked toward her and asked, “Hey kid, we gonna hit one more time?”
Mallory attempted a smile, refrained from looking at Coach Mackey, and mumbled something about not feeling well.
“You sure?” Mackey, asked.
Mallory looked up at the coach and faked a smile, but Mackey could tell something amiss.
“Mallory, you did a good job this off-season. I’m proud to have you. Hope you have a good summer.”
The young girl nodded, expressed a sad but thankful expression, picked up her things, and left.
The two coaches finished picking up the facility and prepared to leave as well.
Coach Mackey was unsettled and felt the need to ask Tom Jackson about the girl.
“Any idea what’s bothering, Mallory?”
“I noticed it too - she was off all day... Who knows with these kids? We’ve seen it before – maybe a fight with a boyfriend, parent, or friends – you just don’t know.”
Mackey agreed his assistant’s explanation made sense. They locked the doors and made plans to visit again before practice in August.
That’s why Marvin Mackey thought it strange to see Tom Jackson’s name flash across his phone before answering it so early the next morning.
“Coach, it’s Tom.” His voice sounded hollow.
Tom Jackson’s tone caused Mackey to pause.
“It’s Mallory Jones…” Tom Jackson’s voiced cracked as a rush of painful sounds interrupted his words. “… I just left the scene… Coach… Mallory took her life.”
Like her father before her, Mallory Jones had made a fateful decision to do the unthinkable.
The service had been beautiful with an overflowing crowd at the church and a high school choir singing heavenly songs, though it missed its most angelic voice.
After the service, Coach Mackey attended the reception. He chose an empty table far away from others where he drank black coffee from a throwaway cup.
It was a large reception hall filled with people. Some were still crying, while others appeared to be laughing as they shared their favorite stories about the skinny girl with the angelic voice who wore pink shoes to her softball practices.
Coach Mackey had emptied his coffee and prepared to leave when a neatly-dressed woman of his age approached and politely asked if she could sit with him.
She had dark circles and heavy bags beneath her eyes, but her eyes were unmistakable. He had seen an identical pair before, begging for help with a softball swing.
Marvin Mackey expressed condolences and shifted his body, uncomfortably, in his seat.
The mother looked at the table, stared blankly, and then smiled before her misty eyes moved back to his.
“Coach, I want to say thank you for taking an interest in my daughter… I can't remember her ever being as happy as she was over the last six months... You should know Mallory’s problems have been with her since her father’s passing a few years ago. I just never knew how badly she was hurting... I guess nobody did."
Mackey hearing the mother’s words, immediately felt a helpless guilt.
“I wished I could have done more,” Mackey confessed.
“No, please don’t think that. You couldn’t possibly be blamed. In fact, if anything, you’ve been the best thing in her life since her dad.”
Mackey could only shake his head in disbelief, as he had severely underestimated his impact on the young girl’s life.
The mother continued, “You see Coach, it’s not about how many games you win – but it’s how you treat those in your care. And, how you choose to do it from a point of decency and not because you want or expect a reward…
"Let’s be honest, you knew my daughter would likely never help you win a single game, but that didn’t stop you from trying to help her. That’s genuine – that’s what makes a difference…”
The mother’s emotions started to bubble to the surface, but she used her fist against her mouth to choke them back before continuing.
“All that extra time you spent helping my daughter… You have no idea what that did for her.”
Mackey shook his head once more – now, feeling like he should have done more.
“Coach, my little girl… because of you… she slept with her bat every night for the last three months of her life.”
With that, Coach Mackey melted in front of the grieving mother. His shoulders slumped as the tears began to roll from his eyes.
Mackey reached across the table and took the woman’s trembling hands in his and muttered, “I had no idea.”
The mother responded through her tears with a smile, “That’s the beauty in it all.”
On August 1, following a summer of reflection, Marvin Mackey addressed his team before their first practice.
The giant figure kicked at the dirt with arms folded across his chest – a half circle of teenage girls attentively anticipated his words. He tried to look at them, but for the first time, found it difficult. When he started, his voice quivered and for once, sounded soft.
“Ladies, I’ve seen a lot in my life… As a Marine serving in Afghanistan, I was conditioned to be a certain way. It’s the only thing that kept me alive…Regretfully, I thought it was the only way…”
“I’ve been cold. I’ve been hardened. I’ve been unapproachable… I thought I had to in order to be a good coach.”
“But that’s not true.”
“My mission is to make a positive difference in your lives. And, starting today, I’m going to do a better job of that.”
Mackey looked up at his group and fought his emotions for a smile.
“If you’ve got something, anything going in your life, please, please, please know - you can talk to me. Tell me about your problems. I may not be able to fully help, but I can dang sure listen.” Mackey’s voice trailed off before the last word and he began to lose the battle with his grieving emotions.
As he used a giant hand to wipe away the tears, each team member moved toward their suddenly vulnerable coach. They, too, cried and comforted him and with hugs and words of assurance.
When they all finished wiping away tears, Marvin Mackey, for the first time since before he was a baby-faced Marine serving on the front lines in a war in a dangerous, faraway land, felt like he could finally let his guard drop.
Coach Mackey pulled a list from his pocket, unfolded it and began to read.
“We take care of each other – every single one of us.”
“We ask questions – we beg for communication.”
“We are going to listen – and never judge.”
“If you think someone is struggling, we have to know and get them help.”
“Nobody in this family is going to suffer alone, ever again.”
Coach Mackey paused, smiling at a silent thought, and then, shared one last message with the group.
“And, from now on, when we play – coaches included – we'll be wearing pink shoes."
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Jerrad Hardin's new book, The Stepper, is available now (click the image below)