ASHLAND — It’s 6 o’clock on an October evening. The sun is setting, and the air is cool.Football practice should be over at Southern Boone County High, but Chris Gares keeps working on his kicking technique. The quarterback and kicker is facing a losing season with one victory.
Chris bends down on his left knee and gently steadies the ball on the orange plastic tee resting on the earth. Brittle leaves and clover cover the browning grass of the practice field, an empty patch of land next to the school and stadium. You can hear the leaves snap apart as he walks away from the ball.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” Chris counts in his head, as he takes seven large, careful steps backward. He stops, his feet and legs together, and waits for the coach’s whistle. When he hears it, Chris raises his right arm, a signal to his teammates that he is about to make a move. Then, he hesitates.
Thoughtful and determined
Chris rarely hesitates in front of his coaches and friends. At school and football practice, he moves with an eager self-delight. During practice, he jokes with a friend, tossing the ball during conversations and twirling it in the air.
In these small moments, he feels free. He speaks plainly with a voice that is neither deep nor loud, with a tone that is honest and reassuring. His hazel eyes dance with excitement when he knows someone is listening, and when he thinks, he rubs the brown stubble on his chin that his girlfriend asks him not to shave.
Chris contains an overwhelming pressure to succeed. Few know of his inner struggle, and if they detect it, they misread it as overconfidence. Although Chris is not a perfectionist, a genuine fear of breaking the rules and letting people down, friends, coaches and especially his father troubles him. He lowers his arm and takes off in small, quick steps, seven of them, toward the ball, kicking it straight and flat toward another player who is acting as a member of the opposing team.
For Gares, fatherly approval is tantamount
Precision. Chris wants everything to be precise. He grew up afraid of getting into trouble.
“I was just afraid of not obeying,” he said. His father, Alan Gares, demanded respect, good manners and obedience, a tradition in parenting he inherited from his father. When Chris got scolded in second grade for joking around on the playground, he worried for days his father would find out.
“I don’t like not having his approval on something,” Chris said. “You can tell when he is disappointed just by the look on his face.”
At 5 feet 11, helmet in hand, Chris slouches slightly under the heavy padding that rests upon his shoulders beneath the red-and-white jersey. A bloody slash cuts into his left forearm, a recent football injury, he says, that will surely leave a scar.
Learning lessons on and off the field
At 18, Chris knows about scars, deep emotional ones that explain who you are and who you will become. His parents divorced a few years ago, and his mother, Iona Gares, moved away to a small town near the Lake of the Ozarks.
Chris tries to visit her on the weekends, and she sometimes comes to his games. It’s hard living in an all-male household. Cooking happens when convenient; they rarely sit down for a family meal except when they visit their paternal grandparents in Monroe City for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Before the divorce, they dined as a family, went to church as a family.
These days, Chris goes to Ashland Baptist Church with his girlfriend, Nia Tate, and her mother. He sits next to Nia, 16, usually not with the other kids from school.
They listen quietly to the pastor’s sermon and whisper sweet words into each other ears as she lays her hand, with pink-painted fingernails and a promise ring, on to his.
Chris’ father and brother, Mark, rarely come to church anymore. They all believe in God, and the Gares men pray together as a family. At holiday meals, they hold hands with other relatives to say a blessing. Chris takes everything in stride and turns to Christianity for reconciliation.
“Divorce helps you understand stuff,” Chris said. “God has scripted everything, and it’s already preordained the way I see it.”
Chris and his father have a special bond that grew out of a complicated family life. To disappoint Alan Gares is pure devastation.
“They have a very playful relationship,” Nia said. “I have never seen a father and son wrestle.”
As a boy, Chris would wake up early on Saturdays and Sundays to watch his father shave. Chris would lather the shaving cream on the backside of the razor, stand next to his father before the bathroom mirror and practice on his smooth skin. Alan Gares grew up in Monroe City where, as Chris said, “a lot of life is about football,” and he played defensive back on his high school team. He never missed one of Chris’ games.
Parents affect his conscience and fears
Chris’ parents have a controlling effect on his behavior. While Alan Gares affects Chris’ conscience, his mother plays to his fears.
“If I ever catch you smoking or drinking,” she once warned Chris years ago, “I am going to chase you down no matter where you are, when it is, how old you are, and make you stop.” Her voice rings in his head, and he takes her warnings to heart not only for himself but also for everyone he knows. Chris says he doesn’t judge other people, but he is quick to single out those who do not share his discipline.
With peers who drink underage or party in excess, he expresses his displeasure in a manner learned from his father; through a look of enormous disapproval.
“Chris never does anything wrong,” said Mark, 20. “When he got his first speeding ticket, I thought he was going to cry. He called me up and asked what Dad did when I got my first ticket.”
There is a hint of sibling rivalry between the brothers. Mark is content in his skin. He knows who he is, and he doesn’t feel pressured to live up to other people’s expectations, to be a star student or star athlete. He tried community college but didn’t feel it was the right fit, so he moved from job to job until State Farm Insurance in Columbia hired him to take claims calls and do paperwork.
Despite their differences, Chris and Mark have a relationship that is built on brotherly love and a deep respect for their father. As Chris led the Southern Boone Eagles as quarterback and then as tailback (a switch made in the last three games after Josh Hall suffered a concussion) to a season of resounding defeat, Mark confronted the cynics, those who thought the team was lackluster and lousy.
“Back off, because you guys have no idea what it’s like to be out there,” he would say. “Mark doesn’t usually do things like that,” Chris said.
Town proud of high school varsity team, no matter what
When a team struggles through a losing season that ended Nov. 5 with a 46-8 loss to Blair Oaks and a 1-9 record, in some towns, it might be difficult for fans to get excited. Ashland is different.
Fathers have waited for high school football in this town their entire lives, parents without student-athletes volunteer to flip hamburgers at the concession stand and nearly half the town of 2,000 comes out to the home games. In this town where people associate sports with American values and the banks praise the team in lights on electronic billboards, the quarterback could easily become the town’s hero and warrior.
Chris doesn’t want to be that kind of leader; he doesn’t like the attention. “Chris is determined, competitive and down-to-earth,” said his friend Brian Nichols. Brian, 18, has known Chris since kindergarten, but they became best friends in middle school. Over those years, Brian has witnessed a transformation in Chris from insecure to confident.
The school and community’s support has helped him become freer, less worried about the rules and family life. Football has helped him to relax; becoming quarterback helped him gain respect among his peers.
“Chris is one of the top in our class,” Brian said. “I see him staying involved in sports after high school, maybe coaching somewhere.”
Being immersed in football helps Chris cope with the fear of not always staying between the lines. When he’s angry, football allows him to take down another player; he can exhaust his frustrations by channeling them into a tackle.
“When you are out there, no one can bother you,” he said. “No one can touch you.”
It’s out there that he begins to forgive others and heal himself. Although he respects his father and wants to make him proud, Chris Gares is becoming his own person, too.