Above and beyond

My first job as a college graduate was in Magee, Mississippi, four hours away from home. I rented a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home for five hundred bucks a month, and it felt like grand theft real estate. That house was huge. In fact, the previous renter used a a large picnic table as his kitchen table. I could have rollerbladed around that kitchen, there was so much room.

Magee is situated along a main highway that takes you to the blackjack tables and slot machines in Biloxi and Gulfport, or to the Mardi Gras beads in New Orleans. Magee is a stopping-off town along that highway, to fill up with gas or to grab fast food. Without Highway 49, I am not certain many people would ever know about Magee, a small town situated about halfway between Jackson and Hattiesburg. But I found it, and I am glad that I did, even if it was for a short six months in 2010.

On my first day as a reporter there, I was told to grab a camera and snap some photos of what was believed to be the largest catfish ever caught in Simpson County. In my first week, I was told to drive down to Highway 49 and interview the man with a human-sized cross who was preaching — shouting, really — the gospel to passersby. When I interviewed him, his ramblings made little sense. I covered so many things and not much at all in Magee. I wrote about a water culvert being replaced. I previewed an elementary school book fair and also attended it to take pictures. I spent a few hours with an amateur radio operator in his tiny control room behind his house. News in Magee was never earth-shattering. I do not recall a time when a reporter from the statewide newspaper attended some event or meeting. I remember just once seeing television cameras, at a brick house an eighteen-wheeler had crashed into as a result of the driver falling asleep. The elderly man living at the house was taking a nap when it happened, and the eighteen-wheeler came to rest against the bed where he was sleeping. People talked about it for weeks.

One of the things that stood out the most to me in my short time in Magee was the football team. The team’s head coach made covering the Trojans a piece of cake. He spent time with me during weekdays in his office and the team’s stuffy locker room recapping and previewing games. My God, that locker room was a sauna. He gave me great quotes immediately after games on Friday nights, whether they were big wins or disappointing losses. I never saw him in a bad mood. I lived not even a half mile from the football stadium, and the practice field was a thirty-yard flag route from my front yard. The coach knew that. Often on the weekends, he would call me and let me know that he left the official stats from the last game in my mailbox, so that I had the most accurate numbers for my game story. It sounds like a small thing, but I remember him doing that. 

Six years after covering his team, I spoke to him about moments in his thirty-year career that transcended pancake blocks, A gaps and all-out blitzes. One memory stuck out the most. He was coaching in Raleigh, Mississippi, in the late 1990s and the week before spring training began, he received a phone call. One of his players had been in an argument with his stepdad and was shot at point-blank range, he says. Coach rushed to the hospital. When the boy woke up in the hospital, he asked for one person — his coach. I asked him why he believed the boy asked for him and not a relative or a best friend.

“I think it’s just that I developed that relationship with him,” he told me. “A lot of times as a coach you’ll go above and beyond. I think it’s important to build those relationships with them, and let them know you’re there for them.”

Coach says that boy went on to become a pastor and has done well in life. The boy tells his former coach when they talk now how thankful he is that he was there for him.

“We got to be pretty good friends,” Coach says.

This impact is why he, like so many others, got into coaching. He felt like he had something to give back. 

“Sports teaches you a lot more than just winning and losing and about football,” he tells me. “It teaches you that sometimes things don’t go the way you think they should go. It’s how you deal with that. If things don’t go well, they can tuck tail and run or stand and fight and battle through it.”

He realizes that coaches need to win to earn their time at a particular program. Winning keeps coaches in their positions, and that consistency allows them to have long-lasting impacts. But, he cautions, coaches who want to focus on Xs and Os and only win are “missing a tremendous opportunity.” 

“I feel like being a true coach is a calling,” he says. “You’re more than coaching a sport. You’re saving some people’s lives. I think coaches have that influence over guys. Sports have influence over them. You can kind of hold something over their head to make them act right, do right.”

He was at a coaching clinic not long ago, and some words caught his attention. A speaker stated that coaches were in one of the last professions in which someone can be tough on someone else and hold that person accountable. 

“We can offer them discipline, character, things that help them be successful,” he says. 

He says he has always tried to do that. He has always tried to treat other people’s kids the way he treats his own. He’s old school, so he is tough on them, but he is fair. He always lets them know that he loves them, even when he is being tough on them.

“You hear something enough, you start believing in it,” he says.

He can’t imagine doing anything but coaching. He believes it is the greatest profession in the world. It is a calling, as he tells me several times. 

“If you’re doing what you’re passionate about, you never work a day in your life,” he says. “That’s how I feel about coaching.”

So much focus on coaching and sports is on the result, not the process. It is on wins and losses. There needs to be more room in the win column for lives positively impacted, lives saved. 

“Any coach worth his salt will tell you that between the white lines is a very small part to what the overall picture is,” he says.