This story appears as the prologue in Gary Lloyd’s book, Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South. Get it here.
When he was in the sixth grade, the future coach wrote a paper for his teacher. He wrote that he wanted to be a coach. A classmate wrote that he wanted to be a fullback for the Los Angeles Rams.
“I thought he was going to make it,” he says. “I just wanted to be a coach.”
The coach grew up in Trussville, Ala., in a time when Paul “Bear” Bryant and Ralph “Shug” Jordan were larger than life. He played baseball, basketball and football in high school. After playing basketball in college at Jefferson State Community College and the University of Montevallo, he made good on that paper he wrote in the sixth grade. He became a coach.
He spent the 1980s and early 1990s as an assistant at several Birmingham-area high schools. In 1993, he became a head football coach. He served in that position at that school through the 1997 season, after which he spent one season somewhere else. In 1999, he was named the head coach at his hometown’s rival school. That season, he led his new team to its first state championship. After the 2001 season, he took the head coaching job at his alma mater, and served in that role through the 2013 season. After that, he became a director of student services, and his office is in the town’s former junior high building, what was once two classrooms converted into a large office. His desk is on one side, a conference table and couch on the other. On the top of a tall curio cabinet behind his desk rest every hat he donned on the sidelines as a football coach.
I have known him since I was in junior high school, when he was my driver’s education instructor. I remember adjusting the old mirror in a baby blue Chevrolet Lumina, and it falling off. Coach just looked at me, puzzled. I remember him changing the left rear tire in the freezing cold on the side of Interstate 59 one winter morning when it blew out. I was not driving at the time. He later served as my high school golf coach, though he more or less just formed our practice and match schedules against other area teams. Every now and then, he would swing at some golf balls with a set of golf clubs that were definitely older than me.
After I finished college and moved back home to take a local newspaper job, I routinely interviewed him during the week in his office and after games on the field. He was always patient with me, even if my questions stung after a tough loss. I suppose Coach was always patient with everyone. Even when I called him after finding out that his tenure as the head football coach was over, he was patient with my questions that I know ate him up inside. But he and I have always seemed to be able to talk, even if it is for newspaper stories. Maybe he looks at it as catching up with a former student-athlete. He always asks me if I have played golf recently, and about a couple of my best friends who also played on the team. Maybe I look at it as a coach who has become a friend. In early September 2016, we sat down to talk about his career and memories.
We talked about how the football game announcer when he was at his first head coaching stop was also a local church’s music minister, and how he was murdered by a burglar who he had walked up on breaking into a Coke machine. The team played that night, and Coach cannot recall how that game turned out. I looked it up for him. His team won, 41-21. Coach keeps the man’s name written in a devotional book at home.
We talked about how just a few years later, a boy on his team died in a car accident. Coach made it to 6 a.m. workouts one summer morning not knowing what had happened the night before. When he was told, he immediately drove to the boy’s home, to comfort the family in any way that he could. The boy’s jersey was included in the team photo, and the team took that jersey to every game that season. At the team banquet after the season, the jersey was presented to the family.
We talked about how in 2013, a member of his team drowned in the river that cuts through the city. It was addressed in similar ways to the tragedy his previous team had experienced thirteen years prior. The boy’s locker was not touched all season, and at every game, home or away, the boy was honored. Against the team’s arch rival, Coach’s team was beaten by six touchdowns. However, the winning and losing scores added together equaled the boy’s jersey number. I have never seen such an amazing atmosphere for a 56-14 thumping.
“I hope we helped those guys, to realize what a blessing it is to take a breath every day,” Coach told me.
At this point in our conversation, Coach seemed to trail off. He seemed to question himself and the way he handled different situations. He said things such as, “I hope that we helped some youngsters, but I don’t know.” He told me he did not seem to have what I was seeking for a story. I reassured him that he was doing just fine. We then talked generally about the coaching profession, about the duties outside of the Xs and Os. We discussed how a three-sport athlete these days is as rare as an ice cube in the Sahara. He told me that coaches are their own worst enemies, himself included. They see a student-athlete doing something well on the field or in the weight room, and they wonder how much better could he be, and they push that kid to do more.
“We keep doing more,” he said, referring to things such as AAU basketball and seven-on-seven summer football competitions.
“Coaches want to win,” he told me. “So they do what it takes to win. There’s a happy medium in it. You can do it right and a kid can still be a kid. He could have a job, but we’re about past that point today. That’s where we are.”
Coach found his groove talking about this subject. I pushed him to speak more about coaches focusing on the development of a kid as a person as opposed to an athlete. He said that he has never known a coach who does not find that important. But, he cautioned about today’s culture, about the pressures of winning. He referenced his time on a college baseball team, noting that he might have played one inning out of forty games.
“I was a part of the team,” he said. “I wasn’t the focus of things. I was one of the guys on the team, and dang glad to be there. It was fun.”
He began to “sing,” as journalists like to say when their interview subject is rolling. He mentioned that he knew several former players who didn’t get to do what they would have liked to have done on the football field in high school. He told me that he wanted the guy who never caught a pass to stay in the game for a few plays, maybe even have the ball tossed his way. Many players will practice their hardest every day and never earn much playing time.
“For me, it was important for all of them to feel like they were important,” he said.
Sometimes, an assistant coach would tell him that a certain player would never run the route just right or get where he needed to be quick enough.
“He might not, but let him try one time,” Coach told me.
I asked him why he coached this way, in a time when winning at all costs seems paramount. I said that if coaches were to do that routinely, even at the high school level, their careers may not last very long.
“I guess that’s because that (kid) was me,” Coach answered.
He said that being a part of a team is an incredible thing. It provides teenagers with a sense of belonging. He said that at church a few weeks ago, someone referenced the old “Cheers” moniker, that it’s good to go somewhere where everybody knows your name. You walk in the door and you’re known. You belong. He was not just talking about football. He used me on the golf team as an example. When I stepped onto the No. 1 tee box at our home course, the people at the golf course knew who I was, as well as my teammates.
“It’s a good feeling for a kid to feel like they’re a part of something,” Coach declared. “Everybody wants to belong to something. Everybody does.”
Coach firmly believes that high school athletics is an incredible opportunity for a teenager. They can find something they enjoy and do it the rest of their lives. I still play golf with my buddies from my high school team. We play at the same courses, compete in the same games.
“There are just so many positives to it,” he continued. “I just hope we don’t foul it up.”
I sensed that uneasiness in his voice again with that last sentence, and I could not kick the feeling that he still seemed to be questioning himself. He seemed to either feel bad that he could not recall specific stories of helping kids, or that he helped very few. I tried to put it out of my mind and tell him that he did a very good job in the interview. He replied, “I still don’t have what you’re looking for.” I told him that was not true at all, that I was positive many former football players would sing his praises, that they would play for him again if they had the opportunity. I told him that I have interviewed quite a few of them, and know it to be true.
It was five o’clock. We had been talking for close to two hours. We left his office to head to our homes. I knew I had gotten good information from Coach for a story, but I felt bad that so many of my questions led him down a path of questioning. I had tried to reassure him, but I no longer knew what to say. I think deep down Coach knows he has helped many teenagers, not only on the field, but in life. Some days, memories can flit in and out of our minds like a summer breeze through a screen door. Coach turned to close his office door, and I looked up on the tan brick wall just to the right, above where Coach was standing. I smiled when I read the words of Gandhi in red text.
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”