Tag: Gary Lloyd

Eyesight vs. Mind-sight

At one of Alabama’s best high schools, a new coach took over for the 1998-1999 basketball season. He talked to players and parents, stating that the program would develop into one of the best in the state, and would eventually win a state championship. A freshman on that team remembers people in the room laughing. The school was not exactly a basketball powerhouse. But it would soon become one.

In 2001, the basketball team made the state final four. It made return trips to the state elite eight in 2003 and 2005. But the program never quite got over the hump. That freshman, the one who remembers the laughter, took over in 2009. Under him, the boys won eighteen games, then twenty-five, then twenty-three, then twenty-four. They were repeatedly knocking on the door of excellence.

In 2013, that door was knocked down. The team steamrolled through the season, finishing with a 30-6 record and a state championship that it won by twenty-one points over its opponent. The baby-faced coach describes that team as one of the least likely to win a state championship. They didn’t win much as a junior high team. But the group loved the game, worked hard and loved each other. It was a fearless team. The boys returned to the state championship game a year later, and did the previous season’s team one better. The boys posted a 34-3 record and became a nationally ranked team. They also won another state championship. 

You may believe that the team was made up of superstars who were taller than the rest of their competition. You may believe the team had one player on its roster who was a standout, who was going on to play at Duke or North Carolina or Kansas. You may believe competition in Alabama high school basketball was not up to par. You would be wrong.

That team was made up of seniors who never quit. There was a senior guard who had come to his coach as a sophomore and told him he wanted to quit, that he didn’t believe he was good enough, that he let everybody down. The coach asked him if he were to play basketball on an island, would he enjoy it more. Of course, the boy said, because no one else was there. The boy was so unselfish that he feared he would let people down around him. His coach encouraged him to play and live fearless. He became the winningest player in school history. 

One senior was cut during tryouts for his seventh and eighth grade basketball teams. He made the varsity team as “a project” as a freshman and played sparingly as a sophomore. The same happened during his junior year. But as a senior, he blossomed into one of the best big men in the state and earned a basketball scholarship. Another senior had not made the team until his sophomore year, and as a junior was put on the junior varsity team. He became a deadly three-point shooter and went on to play college basketball. 

Another boy didn’t make the varsity team as a junior but came back and made it as a senior. Early in his prep basketball career, he had been one of the first twenty boys cut during tryouts. Another senior was the ninth-best player on his team up until his sophomore year, and during the run to the 2014 state title, his three-point percentage was the highest in the state.

Those seniors struggled before they finally made it. They were humble. There was no ego. Their team will go down as one of the best ever in Alabama high school basketball.

“They were hungry to make it,” the coach says.

Many people would not have thought back-to-back state championships were possible for this basketball program. The coach sees it as inspiration for other people in their own lives.

“They see things that have been accomplished and they say, ‘Well, this was accomplished. No one thought this was possible. This is an inspiration to me that I can achieve things in my own life that I didn’t think were possible,’” the coach says.

He attributes the success of those two teams not to high three-point percentages or a suffocating man-to-man defense. He credits mind-sight over eyesight. He provides a hypothetical example: Two players trying out for the basketball team don’t see their names on the list of boys who made the cut. One player rants about how hard he has worked since second grade, how he can’t believe he didn’t make it and will never make it. That’s eyesight. The second player, also hurting inside, doesn’t see his name on the list but can see himself getting better and coming back the next year because he knows he can do it. That’s mind-sight. That’s what his teams had.

“They didn’t fear adversity,” he says.

There is not much adversity in this town, at least socially. It is one of the most affluent cities in Alabama. The coach, having grown up there, knows this. Stories you hear about coaches providing players with places to live, food to eat and more are not often heard from this city. So he creates adversity. He creates it with times players must make running the track in the offseason. If they don’t make the time, they try again. He creates it in practice with how fast they go. The boys will reach a point of not believing they can make it, but when they finally do, their beliefs change.

“That’s where I think we help the most,” the coach says. “Everything is serious adversity. Everything is a mental game that day in and day out they harden themselves to be like, ‘Well, I can overcome anything.’”

For this young coach, it has always been a process-driven philosophy. It is not about wins and losses. Most seasons, he doesn’t know what his team’s record is. Most times when the boys practice after a game due to a poor performance, it’s actually after a victory. The goal isn’t to win. The goal is to be the hardest-working team around, to be unselfish and to be fearless.

“If you do that, you’re going to have incredible results,” says the coach, who I believe could coach at the collegiate level any time he pleases. “It’s the way it should be.”

It has certainly worked for this program. In 2015, the team had the opportunity to go for the three-peat, to win its third consecutive state championship in basketball. It came up short, losing by seven points. 

The coach remembers someone not long after that loss saying that it was a down year for the program, to have lost the state championship. He thinks back to when those parents and his own teammates laughed at his high school coach, and now he laughs.

The magic school fuss

If this is my one true superhero power, then I want a mulligan.

I could have the power of flight, and avoid all that I-459 traffic in the morning. I could be telepathic, and know what you are thinking. I could teleport to Australia for vacation, to Phoenix for this year’s Final Four, to my favorite Chinese restaurant for Mongolian chicken. I could be invisible, and sneak into games at TD Garden in Boston and Madison Square Garden in New York City. I could travel in time, and go back to that glorious time the Braves won the World Series, and hopefully go forward to when they win it again.

But no, these are not my superhero powers. Not a one. My one power, apparently, is the captivating ability to make school systems close down due to snow and ice. Hooray. 

When I was a newspaper reporter and editor, I often Tweeted about school closings. More often than not, I was the first media member in our coverage area to know. Having solid relationships with administrations helps you to be the first call or email. 

I suppose high school students discovered this trend. I was dubbed the “school whisperer” by a colleague. During snow and ice threats, I gained more Twitter followers than Spann, it seemed, and they all ranged in ages fifteen to eighteen. 

The phenomenon began in 2013, but 2014 was crazy. In January of that year, one school’s students told me that I had the ability to make snow fall from the sky. It snowed, and school was canceled for a day. When I reported the news, one student told me that she was currently jumping up and down screaming. 

The next month, as Spann predicted more white flakes and ice, my number of followers dramatically increased. On February 11, when school was canceled, I was told that I was on a roll. A high school football player nominated me for the Heisman Trophy, an honor I would have gladly taken from the previous year’s winner, Jameis Winston. 

One boy called me a hero. One girl told me that she loved me. So did a boy.

On February 12, 2014, one high school student told me that the snow would never stop, as long as I was around. It snowed again, and school was canceled. When I posted that news, another student Tweeted that it was Gary-official, and “That’s all that matters.”

I received more emojis that had red hearts for eyes and praying hands than I could count. Some students tried to get the hashtag #CountOnGareBear trending on Twitter. I hope that hashtag melts with the snow.

My power continued to one day in March 2015, and a baseball player gave me a social media shout-out for “coming through in the clutch.” 

I received pictures of my Twitter handle scraped into the snow on porches and car windshields. Some students, after finding out a nearby rival school would close but theirs had not yet decided, deadpanned that they would transfer. When closing for a day seemed unlikely, I was instructed to please, please, please convince the administration to cancel school. “Gary has that kind of authority to get it done,” I was told.

In January of this year, after nearly two years away from daily news reporting, snow and ice were in the forecast. I Tweeted a question to my followers, asking them if they thought I had any magic left.

Schools were closed the next day.


‘The Good Lord was next to him’

You hear some odd things, when you sit ten feet from a police scanner.

When I worked in Mississippi, the police scanner was constantly abuzz, sitting atop the long desk where we spread that week’s newspaper pages for editing. 

There were conversations about suspicious people walking through neighborhoods. There were notifications of warrants being served. There were calls for assistance at house fires. 

But I never thought I would hear a call about an eighteen-wheeler ramming through someone’s house. In August 2010, in Magee, it happened. 

The call came over the police scanner shortly after three o’clock, and I looked at a co-worker, befuddled. I grabbed a camera and a notebook and headed out. 

I drove over somewhat skeptically, wondering why an eighteen-wheeler would even be on Laurel Drive Southeast. And even if a vehicle did slam into someone’s home, I was sure that it just scraped a corner. 

When I arrived, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Power lines flickered with orange in the street. Debris floated in the air. Up a steep, grassy bank, there was an eighteen-wheeler jammed into the side of a brick house. It had gone so far inside that just its back half was visible. The sight was rather unbelievable.

I stood with police officers, first responders and curious neighbors. I wondered if anyone was home, shortly after three o’clock on a Monday. Turns out, someone was. The man was elderly, and he was taking a nap when the crash happened. 

The driver of the eighteen-wheeler had apparently had some sort of heart-related episode, and lost control. He barreled over light poles, causing some homes to lose power. 

The man living in the home was in his bed, near the back corner of the house, opposite of where the big truck crashed. But an eighteen-wheeler with momentum doesn’t just stop instantly. It tore through the man’s house, reaching his bedroom. The homeowner suffered a laceration on the back of his head, as well as other cuts and bruises. He was airlifted to an area hospital.

While I milled around the truck, curious what it was transporting, what had happened to the driver, the police department’s chief investigator emerged from the rubble. He knew I was there to get the story. He told me that when first responders got inside, the homeowner was in his bed, the truck’s front fender resting against him. It had stopped just in time.

“The Good Lord was next to him in that bed,” the investigator told me.

It was the only quote I used in the story.

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.

In the bleachers

We have lived in this town for more than two years, and we had never set foot in the high school.

That isn’t unusual, considering we are a handful of months past our ten-year reunion from a school in a different county. None of us has a kid that age, yet. 

But earlier this month, we decided to go with a couple friends to a Monday night game against our town’s neighbor, separated by a bridge over the interstate. The Blue Devils versus the Green Wave. Where do they come up with these nicknames?

We pulled into a pickup-truck-filled parking lot about a half hour before tipoff. Walking into the gymnasium was like stepping into the past. The smell of cheap popcorn. Black Nikes squealing on a shiny floor. Cheerleaders forming a pyramid. 

As a reporter, I grew accustomed to pretty much ignoring all this, and waltzing past the ticket counter, a badge emblazoned with “MEDIA” my key through any door. On Monday, I had to pay. 

We sat with our friends in the top corner of the visitor bleachers, above the rickety black handrails, and I got to really take it all in. I did not have to scribble down statistics and Tweet about three-pointers. I just sat and watched. 

It was a struggle of a game. The Blue Devils wore the Green Wave down late, winning 39-23 in a 32-minute game. The teams combined for fewer than two points per minute. The motion offense lacked motion at times. The two-three zone had holes. Wide-open shots grazed the side of the backboard. Passes went astray. One team dribbled the ball around for forty-plus seconds without shooting. There really should be a shot clock in high school hoops.

But it was all so beautiful. I was not buried in a notebook or scanning team rosters or shrinking some game information to 140 characters. I got to look up and take note of other things. 

I saw the support of other Blue Devils, the students sitting in a circle ten rows up, talking with each other, face to face, instead of through Snapchat or whatever teenagers talk through these days. 

I saw navy- and green-clad parents leaned against the wall on the back row, fixated on the flow of the game, some clapping, some with hands clenched tight when the game was close. 

I saw tall banners covering the walls behind both basketball goals, each showing posed seniors. There were basketball players, wrestlers, others. How cool, to have your own life-size banner. 

I saw a toddler obsessed with Mickey Mouse episodes on an iPhone during timeouts and at halftime, only to look up, hardly blinking, when the ball was being dribbled up and down the court. I saw another toddler, after the game, on a man’s shoulders, trying to throw a basketball through one hoop.

Being in the moment, instead of reaching in your pocket or purse to filter it on Instagram, is far underrated. 

So look up.

A trip to Clay-Chalkville High School’s journalism class

I have spent a lot of time at Clay-Chalkville High School. 

I spent one morning reminiscing with a theater teacher about his nearly twenty years at the school. I spent a frigid morning when school was canceled due to icy roads snapping photos and a video of a vandalized front lawn. I spent National Signing Days in the auditorium, trying to keep up with all the student-athletes who were moving on to the next level of their respective sports.

I spent afternoons writing in my truck just outside the school, my white laptop resting against the steering wheel. I wrote about criminals who forced the school into lockdown, about a career technical center to be constructed in the back parking lot, about artificial turf for the football field. Every time, I wondered why this school was turquoise and tan, a beachy-colored building near the mountains.

I spent evenings after football practice shooting the breeze with the coaches in the athletic facility, watching the sun set over the green field. I spent fall Friday evenings in my truck in the parking lot before I entered Cougar Stadium to see another victory, eating a snack from Dairy Queen while listening to Paul Finebuam preview the weekend’s games. 

I wrote a lot of positive things about this school, its city. I wrote a lot of things people did not like.

Today, I got to talk about it all with a dozen students in the broadcast journalism class there, students who have likely never read my stories, students who were born after the Major League Baseball home run record chase of 1998, students who do not know a world without unlimited text messages. 

Today, I did not spend time at Clay-Chalkville High School. I invested it. There is a difference.

I talked about my background and experiences as a journalist, about the six basic questions every journalist aims to answer. I ran off a list of eight news values that are important at any journalistic entity, print or broadcast. I discussed the development of story ideas and how important relationships are in creating a successful future. I talked about “Show me, don’t tell me,” writing books and setting yourself apart by going the extra mile. I talked about the prisoner in Mississippi who identified me through a jail cell my first week in town, and the path to trust with the people I covered. 

The students in class were attentive the entire hour I spent in their mint-green room, stumbling my way through my notes. They asked me when I knew I would choose journalism as my career path, about my favorite school subjects, about my process for recording interviews. They also asked me to come with them to explore Old Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, to which I frighteningly replied, “No, thanks.” 

When my spiel was over, and the students’ questions were exhausted, I thanked them for having me. One student said that I was cool, and informational. They said that I should come back in the future. 

On Thursday, Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh was at Clay-Chalkville High School, making his final recruiting pitch to one of the top wide receiver prospects around. I was the school’s visitor the next day, an impossible act to follow. I have always thought of Harbaugh as a rather zany person. Some of the things he says and does are just bizarre, like that rap video he appeared in last year.

But the catchphrase from that video stood out to me after speaking to this class. I could see their curiosity, their eagerness to go record something, anything. I have often wondered lately about the future of journalism, what with “fake news” and copy editors being let go left and right. I have thought, at times, that all hope is now lost. This class’ ambition was apparent, and it was refreshing, energizing. It reminded me about the thrill of a new story idea, of my name in black ink just below a headline. 

Then Harbaugh’s famous catchphrase hit me: “Who’s got it better than us?”