Within five minutes, though, Kris had called and told her that two men had come rushing through the door of their house, gone upstairs and come down with two empty pill bottles. "Where's your father?" Melissa asked.
"Oh, he told Anna he was gonna go on a walk," Kris said.
Melissa felt a pain in her stomach.
As the ambulance sped out of town, Gerdes started trying to save Kenny's life. Her 13-year-old, Nick, was on Kenny's eighth-grade team. Nick was kind of like Kenny, actually—the kid with All-Pro expectations for himself and All-Pine talent. Kenny could relate. He had spent so much time on the bench during his high school basketball career that when the bench broke and was going to be thrown out, he asked for a piece of it, used it to make a plaque and hung it in his office. "Every time Nick did anything good, Kenny would praise him," said Sharon. "He'd always take the extra time to pat Nick on the back. Nick loved Kenny."
As Kenny drifted near unconsciousness, Gerdes slapped him, slapped him hard, shook him and pleaded with him. She knew she was supposed to keep him talking, and for some reason she knew exactly what to say.
"All the boys need you," she said. "Nick needs you." She said, "Don't you know what you mean to this town? Don't you know how important you are to us? Kenny, we all love you. The kids all love you, Kenny."
Come to think of it, inside most every house and store and machine shop and farmhouse they drove by on their way out of Walnut, there was somebody who had been coached or taught or reffed or helped by Kenny Wilcoxen. They sped past Mark Willis's old house. Remember? The awkward kid the other kids laughed at two years ago—until Kenny named him manager of the basketball team. And then of the track team. Who could forget graduation night that year, after all the big awards had been handed out, when Kenny called Mark up to the podium and gave him a surprise award? It was just an old shot that the shot-putters didn't use anymore. Kenny had inscribed Mark's name on it. Mark beamed like he had just lettered. Then he cried, right in front of everybody.
It was an idea that had never sneaked inside Kenny's brain before: Don't you know what you mean to this town? He had seen himself as a ref, the 250-nights-a-year man, the son of the great ref. He had forgotten what else he was—a teacher, a coach, a father, a friend to nearly every kid in town. It's funny, he had spent his whole life marking his calendar in three different colors, but he had really seen only one.
"After that," Kenny says now, "I wanted to make it."
At the hospital he was treated to prevent his kidneys from giving out because of the combination of the ibuprofen and all the potassium in the penicillin. His heart rate was flying. Outside, in the hall, his father was trying to get up the nerve to go in and see him. When Larry finally walked in the room, Kenny looked up with his face full of tubes and tape.