This story appears as the prologue in Gary Lloyd’s book, Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South. Get it here.
He remembers that the 6-foot-5, 220-pound lineman always looked sad. He was always so quiet. Once he found out the lanky lineman’s story, he knew why.
The lineman’s mother was killed in a murder-suicide by his stepfather when he was fifteen years old. He had a younger brother with Down syndrome. The offensive line coach of the high school near Montgomery became his coach a year or so later. The two had something in common. The coach’s father was killed by a drunk driver when he was just six years old. There was a connection, a bond.
After some games, the lineman would break down and cry. He was thinking about his mom, wishing she could be there to see him play. The coach was someone who consoled him during those times. He would tell him that she was proud of him, and that she would want him to graduate and follow a good path in life.
The coach sometimes gave him money to buy food, and often invited him out to eat and over to his house for cookouts. He did this then, and he still does it today.
“He has such a loving heart,” the lineman says today. “He really showed me he really cared.”
By the time the lineman was a senior, he was earning scholarship offers to play football at the next level. The eventual Mr. Football award winner was his team’s quarterback. The lineman was somewhat overshadowed by nearby powerhouse schools. In the seventh game of his senior season, the lineman tore his ACL. The offers vanished. He was living with his aunt, and for some reason, the surgery was not an option. His coach still does not know why, but at the time he contacted various people, and the lineman got the surgery. For free. After that, he came to live with his coach, and his family.
The lineman ended up at a New Mexico junior college for two years. The coach says he grew a lot while he was there. He earned offers from every university in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, and chose one in Alabama. He went on to start for two years at left tackle, and earned a degree in criminal justice. While he was in college, he spent time living with his coach and his family. The coach says he helped the lineman because the father figures he had were coaches, since his own father was killed in that drunk driving wreck.
“For me, it was paying it forward,” he says.
The lineman says his mentor took him under his wing and showed him how to be a man and father. The coach came to his former lineman’s collegiate games when he could.
“He just treated me like I was one of his own, his own blood,” he says. “I appreciate everything he’s done for me.”
The coach knows the impact coaches can have. He is married with children now, but he still calls his coaches and asks their advice on certain subjects. He does the same now as the offensive line coach at a prominent high school football program near Birmingham. He says that his hope is that if something happened to him and his wife, someone would step in and take care of his kids.
“That’s the reason why I did it,” he says.
The coach says this lineman was not the first. He has given other kids a place to stay for a night, a weekend, a month. But this boy fit in. There is discipline in the coach’s household. They have fun, but things are done in a certain way, just like in any home.
The lineman is still living with his high school position coach and his family. He has used his criminal justice degree to become a Birmingham police officer. The lineman-turned-cop appreciates the inspiration and the tough love.
“His saying is, ‘I’m going to love you like you’re one of mine, but I’m going to let you know when you’re wrong,’” he says. “He always says that.”
It has worked out great for him, who will likely move out as his career blossoms. He knows that day is coming, and it will be sad, but also promising.
“It’ll be 50-50,” he says, laughing.
The coach points out that fans see coaches get onto players, and that’s it. They, most of the time, do not see the players at his house for a cookout or those times he gave players rides home. They do not see how many outgoing phone calls there are on his phone, just checking on them.
“They’re like your children,” he says. “You become a teacher or coach because you have that service mentality.”
He says that it has never really been a question whether or not to help a kid. It is something he has to do. His wife, a teacher, understands this as well.
“I don’t know if I have a gift coaching football, but I think God gave me and my wife gifts and put us in opportunities to do (things like this),” he says.
He has experienced his greatest coaching success at the school near Birmingham. His team won a state title in 2014 and finished runner-up a year later. His offensive lines have been a staple. So has the consistency in the coaching staff. The head coach has been there since 2009, and the offensive and defensive coordinators have not changed in years. The kids know them all. They know they will be there. They could all coach at the collegiate level. They are that talented.
“But that’s not where God has put us,” he says.