Tag: Mississippi

‘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.

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?”