118. Championship

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Hester Pioneers versus Rabid City Wolverines

Henry sat by himself at the end of the last bench in the team locker room.

He'd made the right decision, returning to the Pioneers. He welcomed the routine of getting ready for a game – the soothing chorus of clinks and clanks, the rhythm of players donning their uniforms, the ebb and flow of chatter, and all the ridiculous banter that came with being part of a locker room

Henry turned his gaze to the ceiling and whispered, "If you're up there Sarah, I'm going to play this game for you too."

Fighting back his emotions, Henry unzipped the long, gray bag in front of him and pulled out the black Louisville Slugger that Albert had given him. This bat had been Albert's back when he played ball, and Henry felt honored that Albert wanted him to have it for the Championship game.

Henry held the bat in both hands, feeling the smoothness of the wood under his fingertips. He could hear the rest of the team finishing up, slamming their lockers shut.

The players started to circle around Coach Taylor, who was on the other side of the locker room.

Dale gave Henry a nod, and the two of them joined the other players.

Coach Taylor said, "Listen, this isn't going to be a picnic in the park. Giant Steel spared no expense putting together an impressive roster. Four of their nine starters came from professional teams. The other five played on elite leagues down south. This team was built to win championships, and they're not going to give you any respect out there. But we have something that no amount of money can buy. And I think you know what that is."

Henry knew.

And so did the other players, as they looked around at one another, pride gleaming in their eyes. They'd been through so much together, and those tough times had brought them closer. They were family.

Coach continued. "This team has been through a lot this year, and it's all been about color. Well, we proved that color doesn't matter in this locker room. Because a person's true color comes from inside." He clapped his palm against his chest over his heart, his expression overflowing with pride. "And because of that, we're stronger for it."

Henry nodded his understanding. They weren't just family. They were brothers.

Coach shouted, "We play for each other!"

Henry and the other players cheered in unison, a forest of fists shooting upward.

Coach gave a stoic look. "Now let's get out there and show those boys what it means to play against the Pioneers!"

Henry waited as the players began to file outside, their energized shadows flickering against the white walls as they exited the locker room.

Big Willy was about to duck under the door frame, when he turned around. "Henry, you heading out?"

Henry replied, "Yeah, I just need a minute."

"See you out there," Willy said, before passing through the door.

Henry walked over to his locker and opened the wire door. He reached inside and pulled out a slip of paper. It was Sarah's poem, "Fly, Robin, Fly." Henry read it over, and a warmth filled his heart. He was going to carry those words from Sarah into the game.

Henry returned the paper to his locker and swung the door until it clanked shut. He grabbed his bat, hustled out of the locker room, and marched down the long tunnel towards the daylight at the other end.

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