Tag: South

Catching more flies with sugar than salt

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.”

A peaceful getaway

It is easy to navigate your way to the height of the Smoky Mountains, in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

But the foothills, maybe the best place for a getaway, lie in Ellijay, Georgia. Ellijay is an hour and a half north of Atlanta, about the same distance to the south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. If you blink, you could miss it.

My wife and I made a quick three-day getaway to Ellijay in the fall of 2016. I had never heard of the place, and I sort of liked that. Sometimes the best places to visit are the ones where you have to search, and search hard, for the place you’re staying in.

That’s what we had to do. It was the sort of trip that a GPS was good for getting you halfway there. It got us to Atlanta and through Canton. Then, the directions we had received from the cabin rental staff took over. The directions advised to continue through Jasper to Ellijay, proceed to the third traffic light at the Hardee’s intersection, and turn left. I love directions that utilize landmarks.

We then made turns on Industrial Boulevard and Main Street and a couple Georgia highways before reaching the gatehouse that acted as the check-in area. From the gate, we were to stay on the paved road for two and a half miles, and were instructed to clock our mileage. We crossed two bridges and veered right at a “Canoe Park” sign. Again, perfect directions.

Our cabin was a dream. There was a wraparound porch that included cushioned chairs and a fireplace with a teal “Relax” sign pinned to it. There was a hot tub and a fenced-in yard for our dog, Sonny, to roam in. There was a gas grill, and an American flag hanging over the front porch. 

We did a whole lot of nothing on this trip, and it was bliss. We walked to a nearby river several times a day, casting purple Zoom worms into shallow water that never seemed to flow. We didn’t catch a thing in three days, but many times fishing is not about the end result. We took Sonny hiking, and at night he snored in front of the fireplace. We peered through the living room and kitchen windows to see deer bounding through the pines, and strutting up the paved road. Near our cabin, we saw more deer in three days than humans.

At night, we played card games and tested our knowledge with a trivia game about the television series “Friends.” We watched Christmas movies, as is tradition in November and December, and I introduced Jessica to the awesomeness that is the Indiana Jones trilogy from the 1980s.

We heard just about nothing. The notable sounds I remember from this trip are the occasional rumble of a vacationer passing over a rusty iron bridge, Sonny’s collar tag jingling as he shook off river water, and the fishing line peeling out of the reel of a Zebco 33.

We took photos that should be featured on postcards, from deer crossing the street to green-headed mallards easing down the river. I snapped a shot of Jessica and Sonny standing on the muddy bank of that river. Jessica is in her boots and a blue long-sleeve Florida Gators shirt, and Sonny is actually looking at the camera. You can see trees leaning over the river, and the multicolored leaves swept along the ridge. I can’t believe I was so lucky to get that photo. It’s my favorite. 

We had to come home from Ellijay just when we had decided that cabin should be our forever home, away from car payments, career disappointments and an ugly world that I fear has lost much of its beauty.

For now, at least, when I’m having a bad day, all I have to do to smile is pull out my iPhone and look at my new background photo.

Typical disturbances not in store

I wrote about this shopping center quite a few times. It was never about a new store opening, or a door-buster sale.

It was always about crimes and disturbances. 

There was the possible flash mob in the summer of 2011. There was the alleged shoplifter in 2013 who fled from loss prevention authorities and struck an elderly man with his vehicle. 

The last quarter of 2014 was full. In October, I wrote about two alleged purse-snatchers at this shopping center. Their M.O. was simple: One suspect would approach the women, loading purchased items into their vehicles, and he would say “Hello.” He would then snatch the purse and jump into a SUV that fled. 

The next month, I wrote about shoplifters who crashed into two police cars during their attempt to flee the scene. The driver was caught after the wreck, while the passenger ran but was later apprehended. A responding police officer broke a finger in that ordeal. Luckily, I had the opportunity to also write about the suspects’ arrests.

After I left the daily journalism world, I often read about this shopping center. There was a weekday bomb threat at its anchor store in 2015. The store was evacuated. A year later, there was another bomb threat. 

In December 2015, I read again about a shoplifter who fled, made it not even a mile, and wrecked into another vehicle. I read about police having to respond to a large group of loiterers on Christmas night in 2016. This January, I read about two people being arrested for disorderly conduct, and another person with a gun.

These stories make me uneasy. My mom shops there, as does my mother-in-law. Friends shop there. I’m thankful for police presence, but my Lord, it shouldn’t be that much of a necessity. 

Today I went to this shopping center to eat lunch with my brother. I have become accustomed to seeing the red and blue lights here, the suspicious people strutting between the cars in the dark. Not today. Today was different. As I made the right turn into the shopping center, I saw a handful of people holding large white signs. 

Great, I thought. I have seen photos and videos from the political protests across the nation. I was in Atlanta recently and observed about a hundred people marching in support of Obamacare. I assumed this would be something similar. We are conditioned to believe it is always a protest, these days.

I was dead wrong.

I’m not sure who they were, a family or members of some church group. But printed on their signs in red were “Stop For Prayer” and “Jesus Cares.”

I just hope those past stories, of fleeing thieves and hoax bomb threats, didn’t scare people away and keep them from seeing this today. 

Departing with my longtime truck

For the first few weeks I lived in Mississippi, I drove a Honda Accord. It was a great car, a crimson-magenta exterior and black leather inside. I was often surprised at how fast it could go. 

But it was a car. And being a man with a car in Mississippi must be a lot like being a woman in New York without Louis Vuitton. You just don’t feel like you fit in.

At some point in the summer of 2010, my dad got a new truck, which, to me, meant one thing — I’m getting the Tacoma. It was sleek silver, had four doors, a hardcover top and a couple of those Toyota Racing Development Off Road stickers. It had running boards, a V-6 engine and a six-disc changer.

And now it was mine. 

The first morning I drove it to work in Mississippi, my co-workers, all women, complimented it. They asked if it was mine, and called it beautiful. I probably goofily grinned.

In Mississippi, I drove it to football games on Friday nights, to Wal-Mart for groceries, and even tailed fire trucks and ambulances to house fires and car crashes.

When I moved back to Alabama, I did the same, steering it to wherever there was news. I navigated a residential area of south Trussville, where cops were searching for an attempted murderer, a career criminal who had beaten a police officer and stolen his car. I conducted phone interviews from the truck’s front seat, recording many people who laughed, and some who cried. I waited in the truck for city council meetings, school board retreats, football games and Habitat for Humanity key ceremonies. 

In March 2012, I nervously waited in the truck for a girl to show up at a spring carnival for our first date. We had fun, popping balloons with darts and riding a stomach-churner called Moby Dick. We saw a movie after the carnival, and she even rode to the theater with me in the truck.

Later that year, just before Christmas, that girl, who had become my fiance, and I were in a wreck in downtown Birmingham. Some knucklehead from California without insurance, driving his brother-in-law’s vehicle, turned left across a busy intersection. I tried to veer hard to the right, to avoid hitting the man, but we collided. It spun him all the way around. No people were injured, thank goodness, but my truck’s front apron had to be re-weld, among other repairs to the front fender. I drove my granddad’s Army-green Nissan truck for a week, and I missed the Tacoma every day.

Other than the one accident, the Tacoma has never been in a crash. It has never been stopped for rolling through a stop sign, or going too fast on the interstate. For the longest time, the interior smelled of Bobs Sweet Stripes Soft Peppermints, which I kept a stash of in the console’s cup holders. 

It has inched its way down icy roads, pulled onto the shoulder during rainstorms and had the fuel door cover protecting the gas cap filled with shaving cream by mischievous groomsmen. 

The Tacoma has seen many places in its more than 120,000 miles. It has seen the green mountains of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Ellijay, Georgia. It has seen Escambia Bay in Florida and a lakefront home in Andalusia, Alabama. It has carried friends through the drive-thru at Krispy Kreme late on a Friday night, a shotgun-riding dog to the baseball park, furniture from one house to another to another, boxes of new books to signing events, and an old chest freezer full of okra up Interstate 65.

The Tacoma has also heard many different things. Its speakers have blared an assortment of musical genres. There has been a rock band shouting about all the small things, a rapper hilariously rhyming about how the FCC won’t let him be, and a country star singing about how a girl leans the seat back, steals his ball cap and pulls it down over her blue eyes.

I have had this truck for almost seven years of its eleven-year life, and it is starting to show its age. It seems to need more and more TLC. It has needed more brake repairs, new struts and an air conditioner compressor. We have put hundreds and hundreds of dollars into this truck, and now has come the time to sell it and move on to something new. We got a pretty good deal through a used-car retailer, and we will be moving on to a mid-size SUV. 

Recently, I was driving the truck for one of the last times. I was listening to Kip Moore’s debut album when the third track on the CD began to play. The final line of the song seemed appropriate.

“Ain’t nothin’ ‘bout it luck, there’s somethin’ ‘bout a truck.”


I’ve seen more flowers today than when I visit the Birmingham Botanical Gardens in April.

I’ve seen red roses resting atop security desks in Hoover, and being toted to various offices. I’ve seen pink carnations riding shotgun in a delivery van in Moody. I’ve seen the gravel parking lot of a flower shop near our home overrun with vehicles, all driven by men. I imagine that, by now, they have run out at Publix and Wal-Mart.

I’ve had to walk past a box of Shari’s Berries the size of a baseball field’s base. I’ve heard the rustle of Ghirardelli packages being opened.

Flowers and chocolate seem to be the crown jewels of love stories, but I want to tell you one about letters.

This short story has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day. In fact, this story, every bit of it true, occurred in May. 

There was this young couple, dating for just a few months. On May 31, the man in the relationship decided that he loved the woman, and he penned her a page-long note in bright red ink. That man struggled to verbalize his feelings, so he chose to write them down and hand it to her. For the first time, he told her that he loved her. She said the same.

The following year, the couple was married. He wrote her another letter, and she read it just prior to the wedding ceremony. She had penned one for him, too, and he read it under a tree not far from the chapel. The woman eloquently wrote about trust, protecting each other’s hearts, encouragement and unconditional love.

There are a couple hundred words included in this letter, but eight of them stand out: “By the way, did you notice the date?”

In the top right corner was the date the woman had written the note. It was May 31. 

The man and woman had written each other letters May 31, announcing their feelings, making predictions about their future. They were completely unaware that the other was doing the same. 

I suppose you call that fate.

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.