When I set out to write First & Goal, I knew Harper Duquaine needed a pretty special love interest. With a cast of potential suitors to choose from in her fantasy football league, there had to be one man who stood out from the rest.
But who would he be? After mulling over the possibility of having him be a car salesman (this was when I still planned on having Harper work in an actuary’s office) or financial planner, I quickly realized I need someone dedicated and compassionate for this feisty girl who seriously needed some stability in her life. Enter the former college football star turned high school teacher and assistant coach. A man who, aside from being buff and energetic, would ooze humility, patience and understanding.
He needed a name. And, I wanted it to mean something.
I realized early on it would be Brook -- either as a first or last name. I come from a long line of Husker football fans. I grew up watching Nebraska win conference championships, three National titles and a legendary place in football history.
Amidst the glory of these victories, one man stood out, not only for his command on the field, but for his actions off. Brook Berringer was Nebraska’s back-up quarterback who led the team through a season when its star quarterback was injured. In the locker room and practice field, he was seen as a leader and team player by his peers. In the community, he was the young man who visited patients in the hospital, read to children at schools and offered motivation and inspiration as a role model. He stole my 9-year-old heart and became my first football player crush. Not because he was a great player -- though that helped -- or because he was super cute -- and he was -- but because I saw what a great person he was.
In April 1996, weeks before the NFL draft, Brook and his girlfriend’s brother were killed when the single-engine plane he was piloting crashed in a field southwest of Lincoln. As a community we mourned him. It’s been almost 20 years, and I’m a grown woman, but I still tear up whenever I think about him. (I'm not someone who cries while she writes, but there are a few tears in my eyes right now. You can watch the following video, but if you're like me, you might dry sob your way through it.)
So when I needed a name for a young man filled with so much goodness his was the one that came to mind and never left. I think I always knew I’d name a character for him one day to honor his memory.
I struggled with what the rest of his name should be. Would he be Blake Brook(s) or Brook Rodgers as a nod to my beloved Green Bay Packers? I discussed the dilemma with my mom after a football game last fall. She agreed his first name should be Brook and that the last name should mean something. That’s when she suggested McLaughlin. Of course. It was perfect. Not only did Brook McLaughlin sound good, as my dad pointed out, but it honored another person with football ties. My high school football coach.
You wouldn’t think a band geek would’ve given much thought to her high school’s football coach, but Mr. McLaughlin was my homeroom teacher my first three years of high school. He was a nice man who helped me plan out my class schedule. He was the guy who joked with us about silly pop culture trends. He was the person who helped a group of confused students deal with the confusion and pain that came from watching the September 11th attacks unfold on our TV screens. Though I didn’t know him that well, I always respected Mr. McLaughlin, and I’ve never forgotten him.
But… I have to admit, there was something a little weird to me about having the love interest in the book be known as the same name as my homeroom teacher from high school. So I added an extra “a” to the name, and I had a name: Brook MacLaughlin. It sounded nice. It fit a former football player and a current coach. And it meant something to me.
For you visual people, I did have a model in mind while I wrote:
That's Garrett Hedlund. He has previous experience in the football world after starring in the 2004 movie Friday Night Lights, so it seemed like reasonable casting on my part. Plus he has previous experience growing facial hair, which may or may not play a part in this story. (But you're totally free to imagine him however you like when you read the book.)
So we had a name, we had looks, now Brook needed an amazing personality. When preparing to write Hard Hats and Doormats and The Marrying Type, I spent most of my time building the leading ladies. Oh, I gave plenty of thought and consideration to creating Jason Beaumont and Eric Warner, but Lexi Burke and Elliot Lynch required the most attention.
It’s strange that when planning First & Goal, I ended up spending substantially more time developing Brook than I did on Harper . Actually, I did more research in general on this book than I ever had before, but that’s because I had a seemingly endless list of questions I wanted to get right.
I had a fairly good idea of what Harper’s life and world would be like from the get-go. Imagining it was what inspired me to write the story. As previously mentioned I knew her name the second I started jotting down notes, but deciding Brook’s took additional effort.
Even after I had his name down, I realized I was making too many assumptions about him. Sure, I could guess what life for a high school teacher and coach would be like based on years of watching Boy Meets World and Friday Night Lights. But I would be guessing, when a little extra effort could solidify the character more.
On a whim, I texted one of my best friends from high school, who does an amazing job balancing careers as a teacher and mom. I asked if she had any leads on a teacher who would be willing to answer some questions, and preferably they would be male, work in a high school and coach. Football if it wasn’t too much trouble. Within hours, I had emails for two men who fit each of my requests.
I sent each of my interviewees the same list of questions:
- What does your typical day look like schedule-wise?
- How about on a game day?
- Did you play this sport yourself? At what level? How did that experience shape your coaching?
- How does coaching factor into your regularly scheduled activities as a teacher?
- What sort of things do you have to do in the off-season?
- When do you do most of your homework/grading? Do you have to take it home with you? Weeknights? Weekends?
- What is the biggest challenge of being a high school teacher today?
- What is your favorite part?
- What’s the biggest difference you see in high school now compared to when you were a student?
- What is the dynamic like between newer teachers/coaches like compared to ones with more experience?
- What’s something that might surprise people about what high school is like today?
While I had a fairly good idea what some of their responses might be, I was surprised by others. Namely how much time and commitment it takes to be a coach and how much work it takes to balance the rest of the job and a life at home. I knew it had to be pretty time-consuming, but both men described days that began at 5:30 a.m. and ended well after I usually eat dinner. It involved lost weekends and extra hours even after the whistle blows at the end of the last game of the season.
Naturally, this shifted my story quite a bit. I couldn’t realistically have Harper and Brook developing a friendship or romance over candlelit dinners or Saturday mornings in bed. Brook’s time would be committed elsewhere throughout most of the season, and he wouldn’t be able to drop everything. While this created some challenges in plotting the story, it also presented new opportunities I hadn’t considered. It also meant the scenes when Harper and Brook were together had to be special, because each second together would be tough to come by.
Their answers made me think more about what kind of a man Brook MacLaughlin would truly be. The more I thought about him, the more I considered how his presence would shape Harper’s life. At this point, he became more than a love interest. I realized he was an inspiration and a catalyst for change.
About the Book
Embroiled in a world of lineups, stats, and trades, Harper’s quest to make nice topples when her competitive streak emerges. And her promise to herself that she’ll be a strong, independent woman and leave the drama and heartache behind is seriously tested when she catches the attention of her two biggest competitors: J.J., a local celebrity determined to win a fantasy championship, and Brook, the mild-mannered coach who seems too good to be true. Both threaten her resolve to remain single… and, more importantly, her chances at winning the prize pool.
With a slew of conflicting advice in her real and fantasy worlds, Harper must figure out how to play the game and come out a winner.
Coming Soon to paperback!
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