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This story appears 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 … Continue reading Paying it forward
By Gary Lloyd
Educators in Jefferson County, Alabama, have more than sixty-two million reasons to smile.
The graduating seniors from the Class of 2018 from the fourteen Jefferson County Schools high schools earned a total of $62,257,917.50 in scholarships.
That’s enough money to buy sixty-two Manhattan apartments. Or pay LeBron James’ salary for two NBA seasons. But most importantly, it’s enough to impact dozens of lifetimes for these students.
The Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School accounted for more than $13 million in scholarships. Minor High School’s seniors earned more than $8 million, while McAdory earned more than $6 million. Gardendale High finished with a touch more than $4 million in scholarships. Finishing with more than $3 million in scholarship money each were Center Point, Clay-Chalkville, Fultondale, Pinson Valley, and Shades Valley high schools. Corner, Hueytown, Mortimer Jordan, Oak Grove, and Pleasant Grove high schools all earned more than $2 million each in scholarships.
A video tribute to these schools and students is posted on the district’s website, and it ends with writer Henry David Thoreau’s quote: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”
Those words are right on the money.
The sophomore pitcher circled the mound before the first batter stepped into the box, and then he bent over behind the rubber. He extended his left hand and began to use his index finger as a pencil for the cool dirt. It was winter, and the high school baseball season was just underway. He was set to face his high school’s arch rival, one of the best teams in the state of Alabama. The sophomore had already won his first three starts as a varsity pitcher, including a five-inning no-hitter, striking out nine batters in a shortened game due to the mercy rule. He was an ace. But against his team’s rival, he should have been nervous. He was a sixteen-year-old pitching against a great team, after all. But he was as cool as he could be. He was pitching with purpose.
Not long before the game, he stood in his coach’s office in the stadium’s press box, and talked about his purpose with a reporter. His mother died the previous October after battling breast cancer for nearly two years. The family found out about her diagnosis on Valentine’s Day when the sophomore was an eighth-grader, in the drive-thru at a Wendy’s. When she died, his mother was fifty years old. Just before she died, her son promised her two things — that he would marry a woman who reflected her and that he would pitch his way to college baseball.
“When people lose family members, some rarely get the opportunity to talk with them and say goodbye,” he says. “Barring the situation, I feel really thankful I was able to do that. When my mom was on hospice care, I got to be around her a lot. While she wasn’t very responsive, you could tell when she was hearing and listening to you. I got the chance to tell my mom how thankful I was to have her as my mom, and she taught me more (about) life than she would ever know. Getting to tell the person who gave you everything in life how thankful you are for it and how much you love them for the sacrifices they gave to benefit your life is something that will give you peace to any situation. I also promised her things in life that I would accomplish for her – in memory of her.”
He left the press box after a fifteen-minute interview and warmed up for the game. Just prior to the first pitch, he bent down to etch his mother’s initials and the breast cancer symbol on the backside of the pitcher’s mound. He proceeded to hurl a complete-game five-hitter, allowing his only two earned runs in the top of the seventh, the final inning. His team won 3-2. He struck out six batters. He finished his first varsity season with nine wins and one loss for a team that won the area championship.
“The support I had from my baseball team that season was something that was beyond special,” he says. “I felt so close to all those guys and I knew they were behind me supporting me through that time.”
His head coach that season was supportive. After the win over the team’s biggest rival, the coach talked about how his pitcher’s tough situation ministered to his team, how instead of the team ministering to him, his family ministered to the team. He called it amazing.
Over his final two seasons of high school baseball, the pitcher compiled twelve wins against just four losses and a 1.88 earned-run average. He struck out more than one hundred batters.
For his efforts, he earned scholarship offers from several college programs around the Southeast. He chose the one closest to home, to be near his longtime girlfriend and son, who was born when he was a high school junior. His plan was to propose to his girlfriend during one of his college baseball seasons. He did so on the first weekend of the 2017 college baseball season. She said yes.
“I feel like it is a promise kept, and I am blessed to be in the situation I am in,” he says. “I will always look back to my coaches and teammates during the hardest time in my life and see the positive impact they had on my life, and where I am now is because of all they did for me during this time in my life.”
As far as his mound ritual, the pitcher no longer etches his mother’s initials in the mound, but they are written across his glove, so that she will always be there for him every time he steps on a mound. He looks back to that sophomore season as a blessed time.
“Going through things like that will always be hard, but when you have people surrounding you and providing love and encouragement, it gives you a peace about it,” he says.
PINSON — I’ve waited seven years to write this story, and I hope I get it just right.
I have wanted this game for so long, an intra-ZIP-code tilt between the team with the terrorizing defense anchored by the future SEC defensive tackle against the clicking-on-all-cylinders offense led by the future — most likely — SEC quarterback.
I wanted to write about so much more than just the game. I wanted to write about these communities, their people, and what they went through when I covered their tense city council meetings, spoke to their creative writing and journalism classes, and cringed through the words I typed about school lockdowns and teachers arrested for inappropriate relationships with students.
So, here goes.
I became a local news editor here in November 2010, covering Trussville and Clay. Not long after, Pinson was added to that coverage area.
I covered a lot in Pinson, good and bad.
I sat for a couple hours on an uncomfortable couch with an old man in a house on Main Street, talking about the weather records he kept for more than six decades. I wrote about crashes on Highway 75 and Highway 79 that took young lives.
I wrote about an upstart public library that won a grant for a 3-D printer and asked people to come fill out Valentine’s Day cards to be delivered to kids at Children’s Hospital. I covered robberies, burglaries, stolen utility trailers and methamphetamine trafficking.
I watched as a middle school principal was duct-taped, literally, to a hallway column by giddy students who paid one-dollar bills for twelve-inch strips of tape to raise money for office operating expenses. I was yelled at over the phone by the wife of a man I had written about. He had been charged by the sheriff’s office with a horrible, unspeakable crime against children.
I wrote about Pinson Valley High School’s unique art class, which put on a special effects performance one night that both thrilled and horrified me. It was great. I also typed words about a coyote attacking a Dachshund, and a hit-and-run involving a car and a three-hundred-pound pig. Seriously.
I put words in newsprint about a silver pot that cooked a Guinness World Record number of butterbeans. I also had the unfortunate task of reporting on a Pinson church, among others, vandalized with red spray paint scrawled across its front doors.
You’ve had it all, Pinson. Good and bad.
And now your Indians, 14-0 for the first time ever, will play for the Class 6A state championship at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa against Wetumpka. Another first, and potentially the best story to ever come out of your town.
I spoke to a former Pinson City Council member just hours before kickoff. He was ready.
“We are fortunate to have the buzz in our community,” he said. “We’ve never played in December, never won more than nine games in a season. To be able to play your No. 1 rival in this situation is what lifetime memories will be made of for the players, the fans and community. Sometimes just believing in yourself can lift your town, and today Pinson believes.”
Pinson had reason to believe, despite a slow start.
The Clay-Chalkville defense had a lot to do with that. The Indians led 10-7 at halftime, and scored 27 second-half points to win 37-7. Junior quarterback Bo Nix completed 24-of-34 passes for 256 yards. He threw three touchdowns and was intercepted once. Senior Khymel Chaverst rushed 16 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
I asked Pinson Valley head coach Patrick Nix if this game was what high school football was all about — two great teams, separated by just a few miles, playing in the December cold.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The kind of atmosphere it was, you can hardly hear what’s going on on the field with everything going on. It is absolutely what it’s all about. Overall a very clean game against two passionate rivals, teams that on paper and proximity don’t like each other a whole lot but respect each other greatly. I think you saw that in the play and how it was handled tonight.”
I asked Clay-Chalkville head coach Drew Gilmer, a Pinson Valley High School graduate, the same question. It was as if the two head coaches consulted each other on the answer.
“This is what it’s all about,” Gilmer said. “This is what makes it fun. You need two teams like us, so close together, to get to play in an environment like this. It’s good competition. We get after each other a little bit but we have a lot of respect for one another. They do a great job, and we wish them all the luck.”
But before Pinson Valley plays Wetumpka for the blue map Dec. 8 at 7 p.m., we must cover the dynamic between Pinson and neighboring Clay, at least in terms of what I covered for a few years.
I was mostly drawn to both schools’ athletic teams, particularly football. There has been a lot of crossover. Gilmer spent one year as a volunteer coach at Pinson Valley, his alma mater. Cougars offensive coordinator Jon Clements had the same position at Pinson Valley for three seasons. Gene Richardson, on the Clay-Chalkville staff, was the wrestling head coach and an assistant football coach at Pinson Valley for years. Chris Mills, a Clay-Chalkville High School assistant principal, previously served as the offensive coordinator and soccer coach at Pinson Valley.
Pinson has its own ZIP code — 35126. It shares that with Clay, which, due to not having completely set city boundaries, does not have its own. The Clay Post Office came close to shutting down in 2013. When purchases are made from online retailers that require a ZIP code to be entered, some of that revenue goes to the cities with the ZIP code listed — Pinson, and in some cases, Trussville. Clay misses out.
In 2014, Clay-Chalkville High School debuted a swanky new artificial turf football field, which came to be from a partnership between the city and Jefferson County Schools. The city ponied up a couple hundred thousand dollars for the project. Meanwhile, the field at Pinson Valley High School’s campus was overgrown with weeds in some places, just spots of dirt in others. Pinson missed out.
That same year, 2014, Clay-Chalkville went on to complete an undefeated season and won the Class 6A state championship. It didn’t come without struggle. Prior to the season, a promising linebacker died suddenly. A running back’s mother died in the middle of the season. The Winn-Dixie on Old Springville Road closed, an enormous tax revenue hit for the city. The Cougars’ team captain and stellar running back tore his ACL in the playoffs.
That was a lot to overcome. As a city, as a school, as a team. But Clay-Chalkville did it.
Now it’s Pinson Valley’s turn. The Indians have defeated their rivals from Clay three times in a row now, after the Cougars reeled off wins in the first ten matchups. A state championship, especially in football, brings so much positivity to a school, a community.
Just ask Clay-Chalkville High School Principal Michael Lee.
“The significance of a successful athletic program in a school and community is a vital factor in a healthy school environment,” Lee said. “Athletics, along with strong academics and the arts continue to be the backbone of a school and the thing that brings us together in our communities.
“Friday night football is powerful and means so much to so many people. Often times it brings people with nothing in common together. An AHSAA state championship brings pride and a sense of belonging to your school and citizens in the community. It also brings state and national notoriety to your school and the other great programs such as band, cheerleading, and school news groups that other students participate in. The relationships, opportunities and benefits are profound.”
These communities and schools are the real winners from Friday’s Class 6A semifinal game at Willie Adams Stadium, as Lee stated. A packed facility, a tremendous sense of pride, neighboring cities pitted against each other — this is what high school football is all about. And you carried yourselves well, Pinson and Clay.
“The memories run deep with Pinson,” said a former Clay-Chalkville player who was at Friday’s game. “Also, it was fun because everyone always knew everyone. It’s basically the same town. Same ZIP. Same type families. Now that Trussville doesn’t play Clay this has become the team kids look forward to.”
Bring it home, Indians. Regardless of this heated rivalry, I’m willing to bet those you share a ZIP code with will be pulling for you.
I will be, too.
MOODY, Ala. — Gary Lloyd has released his fourth book, Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South.
The book is broken down into three parts: People, Places and Play.
In the People section, Lloyd tells stories of inspirational people, from a BMX stunt team motivating a school of elementary students to a man with severe Alzheimer’s miraculously remembering how to play a specific song on the piano.
In the Places section, Lloyd takes readers on a heartening and descriptive ride through the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, to the concrete jungle of New York City, to the Green Monster at Fenway Park, to the azaleas at Augusta National Golf Club, and many places in between.
In the Play section, high school coaches from around the Southeast tell their favorite stories, words that have never made the Sports section of their local newspapers. In exclusive interviews with Lloyd, they talk about why they became coaches, about basketball saving lives, about baseball players gathering for Bible studies, about a serve-others-first mentality.
“This has been a book I wanted to put together for a long time,” Lloyd said. “So much focus these days is on the 24-hour news networks, the horrible things that people say and do. I believe this is a book that many people need to read these days. They need to know that life in the 21st century is about much more than political debates, riots and negativity. This book is a collection of stories about the good in the world, about undisturbed land in Ellijay, Georgia, about ‘Stop For Prayer’ signs in the Wal-Mart parking lot, about a man retiring after more than fifty years in city service pleading for his wife to be thanked publicly for her support.”
Former University of Alabama quarterback Jay Barker, who led the Crimson Tide to the 1992 national championship, praised Valley Road.
“Gary shows in this book how coaches, youth pastors and community leaders truly impact the people around them and in turn impact communities in such a positive way. Each chapter demonstrates the positive impact of such people and reminds me of how such people have impacted my life, and encourages me and others to do the same. This book is a must read and one that hopefully encourages us all to realize the impact we can have on the people around us.”
Sean Dietrich, the author of seven books about life in the American South, also commented on the book.
“Gary Lloyd writes with fervor that leaves the reader feeling something akin to a plate of blackberry cobbler—with vanilla ice cream, of course. This book, and Gary himself, are gems in this world.”
Valley Road was published through CreateSpace Independent Publishing. The book is available on www.Amazon.com for $10 and on Kindle as an e-book for $7.99.
Lloyd is also the author of Trussville, Alabama: A Brief History, published by The History Press in 2014. He has also written two novels, Deep Green and Heart of the Plate, also available on Amazon.com.
Lloyd has been a journalist in Mississippi and Alabama. He grew up in Trussville, Ala., and earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from The University of Alabama in 2009. He lives in Moody, Ala., with his wife, Jessica, and their two dogs, Abby and Sonny.
Their dreams were so big, but their budgets weren’t quite enough.
There was the woman pursuing a master’s degree, dreaming of one day opening her own daycare center. There was the other mother, hoping to go back to school to earn her own degree. There was the kindergartner who was on her church’s praise team, who needed a stable place to live. There was the woman who wanted to show her young daughter that you can beat the odds, that anything is possible with God.
Habitat for Humanity is a wonderful organization, and it chose a neighborhood in my coverage area to build dozens of homes. I got to cover those builds, in which ten homes were constructed in two weeks. It was called a building blitz. Those events were tons of fun. The neighborhood was cut into a steep hill, almost a small mountain. I’d park my truck at the top in a cul-de-sac, where there were no homes. From there, I’d walk past the new homes, their roofs littered with nail gun-wielding volunteers, others carrying furniture inside. The families that qualified to move into those homes would be working, too. They had requirements: to contribute three hundred hours of “sweat equity” and attend workshops on financing and budgeting. The mortgages came with zero interest.
There was always a key ceremony when the work was done. Each house was dedicated and blessed with a Bible, and the new occupants would speak to the crowd, if they weren’t too nervous, or could push past the tears. Those moments were always chilling. Imagine a single mother with a six-year-old girl, working full time while studying for college tests, and still managing to cook breakfast, give rides to and from school, and help with homework. Adding a stable home to all those tasks lifted a huge burden on these people I saw weep in front of their new homes.
After I moved on from the daily journalism grind, I decided to drive through that neighborhood, where I had heard that another building blitz had taken place. In that spot I once parked, there was a home. It had four blue columns, tan brick and a rocking chair on the concrete porch. It was nice, and I liked that this neighborhood seemed almost at capacity. I saw a boy outside in his pajamas playing basketball, because during the summer, there are no wardrobe rules.
I left thinking about those struggles that most of those people surely experienced before Habitat for Humanity selected them for a new home. It couldn’t have been easy. Their tears proved that. I pulled out of the neighborhood and turned right. About a mile down the road, there was a church, its marquee board showing Isaiah 43:19. I looked it up on my iPhone.
“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
Under that verse, there were these words: “A new day coming soon.”
It could not have been more applicable.
I sent him everywhere, to softball games in Clay and Pinson, to football games in Trussville and Gardendale. There’s no telling how many sets of bleachers I sent him to sit in, but he was always willing and eager, even when he was forced to tote his oxygen tank.
He loved sports as much as anyone I knew. He had been an offensive lineman in high school, and maintained a close relationship with his coach more than two decades later. He was an avid Auburn fan, and I forgave him for that. After all, he was my most dependable stringer.
His byline appeared often in the local newspaper, above paragraphs about winter basketball, playoff baseball in April, region football in October. Everything. His stories were rough. Run-on sentences were rampant. Ledes were buried. Names were misspelled. Apparent quotes from coaches made little sense. It often required close to an hour to edit one of his game stories. But, every time, everything I asked for was included, and it was on time. That’s how he did it.
He fought respiratory issues for a while, but that never stopped him from calling me during the week to chat about Alabama and Auburn, the Atlanta Braves, football recruiting and more. Those phone conversations often lasted an hour. Sometimes, I didn’t have time to talk long, and I’d tell him I had to go. I hate that thought now.
This friend of mine, a diehard Chicago Cubs fan, died shortly after the 2016 Major League Baseball season started. Those coming to his service were encouraged to wear their favorite team’s attire. A lot of blue jerseys filled the room, I’m sure.
A year after his death, a Facebook post caught my attention. My friend was tagged in it. I went to his profile to reminisce a bit, to see the nice messages people had left him. What I saw instead was a game-by-game update on the Cubs’ run to the World Series, their first in more than a hundred years.
Do you remember Game 7? The game was tied after nine innings, the Cleveland Indians with all the momentum. Then came a seventeen-minute rain delay, after which the Cubs took the lead for good. Some say those rain drops were the joyful tears of long-tormented Cubs fans in Heaven, all of whom never experienced a World Series victory. I like to believe that.
As I scrolled his Facebook page, someone had posted a photo three days after the Cubs won it all. It was an envelope, one my friend had mailed off to Chicago before he got sick. It was a request to have a baseball card signed. By which player, I’m not sure. Anyway, that envelope had been returned to my friend’s mother, with a signed card, the Monday before Game 7.
The person who posted the photo said he believed it was a message, that my friend was letting everyone know that his Cubs were finally going to kick the curses of billy goats, Bartman and more.
I like to believe that, too.
He used to be obsessed with winning, at least early on in his career as a cross country and track and field coach. But he has been at the same Alabama high school since George H.W. Bush was in the White House, and now that he is on the backside of a successful career, he coaches differently than he did back then.
As a coach of runners, his job is more about inspiration than technique.
“I have to play more psychologist than I do coach,” he says.
He has had his fair share of runners win state championships and break records. An overflowing trophy case proves that. But he knows that is not all being a coach is about. He points to structure and consistency as key traits in his profession. He has worn the same uniform for twenty-seven years. He says that will never change. Every Monday in cross country his runners take on the hills that peak throughout the city. Every Tuesday they run the track. Every Wednesday is a run through the “wilderness.” Every Thursday is catchup day, and every Friday is pre-race day, followed by the race on Saturday. Every first Monday after July Fourth is time trials on the same course it has been on since 1993.
“Everything is structured,” he says. “Nothing has changed.”
During the summer of 2016, the coach was following his runners around in a golf cart, since he no longer runs with them. He circled around and found his wife standing with a man. She asked her husband if he remembered the man. It turned out to be someone who ran for him in the early 1990s. The man had heard that his former coach was still coaching and decided to come see him. He knew exactly where to find him.
“It’s funny because he was like, ‘You’ve been here so long,’” he says.
The reunion triggers in the coach’s memory when he was first hired, by the school’s head football coach, in 1990. The coach promised his boss that he would retire from the school, that he would not jump ship.
“I think it shocks a lot of people,” he says. “That is consistency.”
That was his goal all along, to build up a program and retire from that program. He has kept his promise, and it has helped to forge strong relationships that have lasted much longer than just four years of high school. His house, the same one he moved to in 1987, remains open for student-athletes both still in high school and long since graduated, to come by to just chat or share real concerns. His house phone number, which is still printed in those ancient phone books, remains the same as it was in 1987. The stadium at which his teams practiced was open from the late 1940s until 2015, when due to its old age was demolished to make way for a new stadium a few miles away. Kids would often drive by that stadium, reach their arms out their car windows and call out to the coach. They knew he would be there.
“I think that has something to be said for kids today in society because people change jobs, people change houses, people change careers, people change where they go to school, but there is something to be said about consistency,” he says.
He says he is sure people gripe about consistency equating to boredom, but he believes that deep down, most people like consistency, like knowing that mom will be home at 5:30 to cook dinner.
“And I think when it comes down to that, there needs to be more of this,” he says.
The coach missed four days in 2015 after his mom died. That week, people remarked at how weird it was for him not to be in his office and at practice.
“If I’m not here, something big has happened,” he says. “I think that structure means a lot. I think that consistency means a lot.”
He is also consistent in the manner in which he advises his runners. They come to him and tell him they want to run fast. Coach, in return, asks them how fast they want to go. They reveal their goal, and he then preaches. He asks them to listen to him, to trust him, to do what he says. He tells them they will have to work hard.
“There is no day off in success,” he says.
He has examples of this. One former runner who graduated in 1997 recently mentioned the coach in a Facebook comment. The point was about how an incredibly successful college football coach demands that his players work toward their goals, even on tough days. The coach had pushed that runner, and he remembered it.
Another runner came to him his freshman year and said he wanted to be great. Coach advised him to run everywhere he went. The runner suffered and made small changes along the way, and Coach kept pushing him. By the end of his senior year, he had broken the indoor state record by seventeen seconds in the two-mile run and by eighteen seconds in the outdoor two-mile run. The runner earned a full-ride scholarship to a four-year university. Once that success came, the runner began reading about certain workouts and formulas to get better. Coach had to rein him back in.
“Don’t change what got you here,” he told him. “This is what got you here. Don’t change it.”
Another former runner once told Coach that he could read ten books with ten different philosophies on how to run fast. That runner told his former coach that there is no secret formula, that he had learned that when the gun goes off, only one person will win the race. Coach remembers that, and advises his student-athletes that if they want to run fast, they must train fast. They get out of it what they put into it, he tells them.
Most recently, a young runner approached him with the statement he seems to hear all the time: “I want to go fast.” Coach again asked the runner for his goal, how fast he wanted to go. He then counseled the runner on what it would take to get him there.
More often than not, the runner buys in to Coach’s reasons. It is a large explanation for why the high school has a successful cross country and track and field program. But the reason behind that buying in starts with Coach’s approachability, something he has worked toward through structure and consistency since promising his first boss that he would retire from the high school. Something his grandmother used to say seems to apply perfectly to his philosophy.
“You catch more flies with sugar than you do with salt.”