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There was this kid I went to high school with, named Kevin Trimble.

Kevin was the best athlete to come out of Mattoon in 20 years. He was the star in football, baseball and basketball, taller, faster, with an inherent agility that seemed trained but wasn't.

Kevin's big coming out party as an athlete was his freshman year, when, at a school assembly, the principal, desperately trying to be hip, dressed inexplicably like a Blues Brother, tossed him a pass from half court that Kevin through down with a ferocious dunk. We had never seen anyone like Kevin at our school; that wasn't just because he was black, swear.


Kevin and I didn't interact much. I usually tried to stay out of the way of guys like Kevin. He wasn't a jerk, really, he was just the most blessed, impressive student in school and tended to live his life that way. Whenever Kevin was in the room, he was in the room. He was perpetually the pink elephant; just by his presence he elevated everyone else into something bigger than they were. We're sitting here next to Kevin Trimble, we'd think. This will be something to tell our kids someday.

Kevin was the star center fielder for the Mattoon Green Wave, and I was the backup catcher/scorekeeper. I have told this story before, but it bears repeating, if just to sum up succinctly the legend of Kevin. It was my senior year, his junior, and Kevin had just been drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 57th round of the amateur draft. Before he went into the on-deck circle, he walked over to quiet kid with the scorebook.

"Hey, Will, how many hits has this pitcher given up today?"
"Um, six. You've got two."

He looked at me as if he were a paleontologist who had just come across the fossils of a specimen he'd long thought fictional.

"Will, if they ever have a draft for scorekeepers, you'll go in the first round." This proclamation was welcomed with grunts and chuckles. When I've told this story before, I've made myself into some sort of dugout Dorothy Parker. I cock an eyebrow, turn my head warily in his direction and proclaim, "Kevin, if they ever have a draft for people who blow their talent and end up working for the city, you'll go in the first round."

Problem is, that story is patently false. I said nothing at the time, and it is only through hindsight that the "witticism" makes any sense at all. No one would ever say that to Kevin, not because they were afraid of him (though I was), but because no one thought Kevin would turn out to be anything other than a 10-time All-Star and the guy with the "Mattoon: Home of Hall of Famer Kevin Trimble" sign welcoming visitors to town. I've made up the anecdote to pump up my own importance and make myself look like the high school outcast who always had his eye on the bigger picture; truthfully, I think that's the only time Kevin ever spoke to me.

Kevin graduated as I ended my freshman year at the University of Illinois, and, with much fanfare, announced he would be attending the school as well, under scholarship as a rare-two-sport star, playing for the Illini baseball team and coach Lou Tepper's beleaguered football program, which I was already covering for the student newspaper. I wrote an article for the Daily Illini about his impending arrival before the school year even started. He hadn't come to campus yet, so I spoke with coaches of both teams about where he fit in their plans. All were ecstatic about this special talent.

Kevin lasted a week. Classes hadn't even begun, and he had already begun to chafe under Tepper's workout regimen. At Illinois, he wasn't so important anymore; he was just another freshman grunt trying to catch the attention of his position coaches. Like any information about Kevin, all I gathered was through rumor and innuendo. I guess he missed his friends in Mattoon. He felt alone and without an anchor. He was never a student, not really, and he worried about the supposed advanced curriculum of a Big Ten school. He asked Coach Tepper for some time off, and next thing you knew, Kevin had dropped out and moved back home. He sat out a year, and then played for the Lake Land Community College baseball team. But a year without conditioning and the distractions and temptations that came with it were too much for him to overcome. He played two uninspired seasons, then left the school and, alas, ended up working for the city.

He had been handed a singular ability, and he frittered it away. I looked at him with a mixture of disgust and melancholy.

Whenever I go home these days, all the Mattoon ex-pats pick one night to head to The Alamo, which is the only bar that has beers made by companies other than Anheuser-Busch on tap. That is to say, it's the classiest place you can find in the county; it even attempts to keep the Toby Keith jukebox quotient to a minimum, a small measure dearly appreciated. When I was home last Christmas, I filed in with some old high school pals, and, sure enough, over in the corner, was Kevin, like me, with the same six people he was hanging out with 10 years ago.

He hadn't gotten fat, disappointingly, or at least not any fatter than I've gotten. I walked over to him, said hi, and after an agonizing pause, his face registered a faint trace of recognition. "Hey, Will Leitch. My man. How you doing? I didn't know you smoked." We made about 30 seconds of small talk, and he went back to his conversation - likely the a variation on the same conversation he's been having for 15 years -- with a "uh, good to see you. Merry Christmas." He looked happy, actually; healthy and content.

I could make some belabored argument about how Kevin has never really moved on from high school, and that inability to move out of his own way has cost him countless opportunities of which most people can only dream. I could say that he is stuck in Mattoon, in the past, and this quiet obsession with what is gone and can be nevermore is sad, almost tragic. But, then again, he's not the one writing this column. I am.


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