That Tug of Football

“The thing about football – the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football.”
 Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals

It is the time of year that I feel like I should be doing something else. High School football practice begins today. I haven’t set foot on a practice field in twenty-two years, but I still feel the tug.

I was involved with football for over half my life, first as a player and then as a coach. Now I’m just a spectator…and not a particularly good one at that. I can’t remember the last time I physically went to a game at any level. I choose to watch the game from the comfort of my recliner. I like the game still, but I don’t know the kids and I’ve found that while the game is important, it is more important because of the kids and coaches that I knew.

So many memories flood me.  There are too many memories to try to enumerate and pick even on that stands out more than others.

Thousands of want to be football players will brave the late July heat and humidity, the bruised and aching muscles to experience the highs of victory and the lows of defeat. Some will win it all, some less than all, a few won’t win at all, but I believe most will be better because they made the effort.

Kids in helmets, shorts, and tee shirts lined up today on fields wet with dew. Next week they will add pads, amplifying their discomfort and the sounds coming from the field. Waves of heat will shimmer above the grass, the sun turning the field into a sauna as the practice goes on. Despite the dew and humidity, the insides of mouths become desert-like no matter how much water is consumed.

The greenest grass you were likely to see, the painted lines blinding with glare in the morning sun. Sleds, dummies, ropes, and chutes sitting about waiting to be utilized. There is never anticipation like the first day of practice…unless it is the first game. There is anxiety and fear, but they are overcome by the joy of competing…and the first collision.

During my days as a player and a coach, we tended to use the word war metaphorically when describing football. I’m sure coaches and fans still do but we’ve romanticized both too much. Football is not life or death, war is. Quoting Bill Shankly, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” I know he was talking about what we call soccer, but it fits with my line of thinking.

Football during my early days as a player and a young coach wasn’t war…but it was close. It wasn’t a game of finesse, more like World War One than the present-day battlefield. Football was a “line it up” and “ram it down their throats”, anything goes kind of game with the forward pass thought of as a trick play. The game was about imposing your will, not trickery. To quote George Orwell, “[Football] has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words, it is war minus the shooting.”

Orwell might have been a bit harsh, but I can’t deny coaching football right up to the line of committing a felony while preaching fair play. I coached the way I was coached, and all my peers coached the same way. Some of our players might say we stepped across the line on occasion. I can’t count the number of times I yelled, “Put a facemask on him” (now illegal) or felt an adrenaline rush when someone put a hit on the opposition that clapped like thunder and echoed through the stadium.

The game has become more dignified since I hung up my whistle. In some ways it doesn’t resemble the game I played but then the game I coached didn’t resemble the game I played, either. All things change and I am not saying the rules changes are bad. They are not. They are simply different, and, in many cases, they were necessary because of coaches like me.

There are things that haven’t changed. Moving that odd, shaped ball is not as much about the plays being called or stopping the opposition with the perfect defensive call. It is about execution. It is about digging deep inside when you are tired, bruised, and bloodied, and still finding a way to get it done.

Football relies on teamwork and always has. Eleven people operating as one. It relies on you trusting the guy next to you and him, trusting you. The game is about being a part of something bigger than yourself. It is about being willing to metaphorically sacrifice yourself for the good of the team.

The game teaches lessons and can be a cruel instructor when it does. One lesson, the most important and cruelest is the one we should all learn: Sometimes, you can do everything right, but you still lose…and the opposite is true too. Sometimes you muck it all up and it turns out fine. It doesn’t seem to be fair…kind of like life sometimes.

I miss the interaction, the comradery, the coaches, and the players. The good-natured banter that we, as a society, seem to have lost the ability to tolerate. It seems we are all offended about something.

If you want to know how to have a good relationship with people, how to get along, visit a good team’s locker room. People work out their differences for the good of the team. The important stuff is what goes on between the chalk lines. Everything else is just a distraction. Good teams aren’t distracted.

I’ve never been more alive than when I was laughing and crying with the team. I miss the Friday night lights. I just don’t miss July and August practices.

I wrote my first book at the urging of a student who thought my stories were humorous or uplifting. “Winning Was Never the Only Thing…” The book was about my career as a teacher and a coach and the people I was fortunate to have run across. I should have quit while I was behind.

Don Miller’s authors page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2USUuECtVZ30kyPLYDROKXQctOe6UaAbOiLHQ-IBV5nLr78HJ56V18iGs

Memories Revisited…

“One minute, you’re young and fun. And the next, you’re turning down the stereo in your car to see better” –Unknown

Who were these guys? I arrived late to the table and questioned, “How did you guys get so old?” I had made the hour drive to the restaurant thinking of those thrilling days of yesteryear, seeing them as the young men from forty years ago. Young men, full of piss and vinegar, with all their hair in my mind’s eye. Except Stan, Stan never had hair. Obviously, my mind’s eye needs some corrective lenses.

There were nine of us, eight retired coaches and one of our former players.  It had been the player’s idea. An impromptu reunion. I don’t know how many great ideas John has had during his life, but this was assuredly one of the better ones.

We had lived life like dysfunctional brothers for most of a decade and stayed connected for the three decades since. Clay, the head coach and athletic director. Carroll, the secondary coach, and basketball coach. Stan, the offensive line coach, wrestling coach, and later head coach and athletic director after my time. Max, a former player who could coach anything and helped me with the defense when he wasn’t calling plays for the offense. Cooper, the defensive line coach, resident comedian, and Precious Pup. Larry, our JV coach who would become a successful head coach in his own right. Mike, the trainer, and highly successful wrestling coach. John the wide receiver, punter, and wrestler we coached so long ago who went on to a college career before a continuing career as a successful human. Oh, I forgot. There was Don, the linebacker and defensive end coach.

Around the table there were jokes and laughter, stories that had been told before, with embellishment, I’m sure. There was catching up and a bit of talk about those we have lost over the years. Most of our conversations wound from our own craziness to the kids we coached or taught and their craziness. “Do you remember” began many of our conversations.

We were young coaches and teachers in the middle Seventies, in our mid-twenties to early thirties. Some of us fresh out of college were closer in age to our kids than our peers. We became seasoned quickly and somehow never quite gave up our youthful exuberance even as our hair fell out and turned gray. Testosterone ruled the day and sometimes youth is wasted on the young. Many mistakes, many humorous, were made but somehow, we survived and grew into responsible human beings.

There was nothing more important than Friday nights…or preparing for Friday nights and the parties afterward. It was war and losing was an affront to our manhood. One coach described winning as “better than sex.” Sex lasts minutes, winning lasts all week long.

We were a brash, egotistical about our abilities, hardworking, hard partying group. We were the Ivanhoe, King Arthur, and Knights of the Round Table of the football fields. We were Sirs Percival and Galahad seeking our own version of the Holy Grail and fighting opposing knights from the opposite sidelines. Like Percival and Galahad, we never found our Holy Grail, but it didn’t stop us from competing.

There might have been a bit of the wooing of the lovely Rowena or Rebecca but most of us ended up like Brian de Bois-Guilbert, dead on a sword…usually our own sword. It didn’t stop us from trying until marriage and family responsibilities reared their head. I promised not to tell those stories until we were all dead.

As I have become seasoned, or just old, I have come to realize there was much more to those years than the rush of winning football games. There is the rush, but eventually I learned it is about the people. The memories of wins and losses have dimmed over the years but the people…the people in those memories are crystal clear.

It has been almost twenty years since I stood girded for battle on the sidelines of a football field, a whistle or play sheet instead of a sword. I coached the game for thirty years. One might think I would have more ties but in all honestly, I haven’t watched a high school football game live in a decade or more. I’m not motivated. I don’t know the people. I don’t know the players, the coaches, the teachers, and the fans. There are no ties. There is nothing to bind me to the game except my memories.

I am often asked, “What did you do before you retired?” My answer is usually followed by another question, “A teacher and coach?  What did you teach and coach?” Once, I went into a litany of sports and subjects, now I simply say, “Kids, I coached kids.”

It is the memories that bind me to people…to my former students and players like John. It is the memories that bind me to seven balding coaches telling jokes and reminiscing. It is the memories that made it seem like just yesterday I walked off the football field and out of the locker room we once shared.

“The past beats inside me like a second heart.” ― John Banville, The Sea

“Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” —Jim Henson

From left to right, from the floor and around the table: Hank the wonder dog, John Black, Stan Hopkins, Clay Bradburn, Larry Frost, Dennis “Max” Massingille, Don Miller, Cooper Gunby, Mike Frye, Carroll Long

Blog image of Mauldin Football from Gwinn Davis.

Don Miller’s author’s page https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2n75Gfrb8wkA0AlIhcygC4VnZMTaNWVqzVDEqEKQRuMGy9oc8kN4B5l8I

Small Town Rivalries

There’s nothing to do here on a Friday night but go to a football game. This town really revolves around football. – John Williams

There was a time….before the small towns were overrun by the Godzilla monster of urban sprawl.  Before cell phones, computers, and social media hypnotized us all.  Before there were so many choices at our fingertips.  Friday night football was king.

I guess there are still small towns that close up lock, stock, and barrel and migrate to the local football stadium on a Friday night.  Bright stadium lights and green grass with sharply painted or chalked white lines.  Marching bands and cheerleaders dressed in their finest, strutting to this year’s marching songs.  Drumlines rocking, pompoms shaking, rabid fans cheering at a fever pitch.  Yeah, there was a time.

This coming Friday the annual bloodletting known as the “Golden Strip Derby.”  I was a part of the rivalry for nine years early in my teaching and coaching career.  During those days I fancied myself as a football coach and felt there could be no higher calling.  No greater high than those heady moments after a win…especially against your “down the road” rival.  “Better than sex,” one coaching chum tried to convince me, “sex lasts but a few minutes, winning a football game last all week long.  Beating your rival last all year long.”

I know it has changed, but during those days, Mauldin, SC, was at one end of the Golden Strip, Simpsonville at the other, maybe five miles separating them by road, closer as the crow flies. 

Mauldin High School was created in the early Nineteen Seventies mostly from the student body of Hillcrest High School, just outside Simpsonville.  In the Seventies, Mauldin proper was a wide-place on a crossroads, Simpsonville, not much larger but they did have a main street.  That is one thing that has changed as Greenville has come calling.

Hillcrest looked down their noses at the farmers and “sh!tkickers” down the road, at least that’s what we told the kids. They probably had as many “rednecks” as we did. It was inevitable a small town, Southern football rivalry would manifest itself.  Rednecks versus the townies. Mavericks versus Rams.

I don’t rightly remember who came up with the idea of playing a game for a cheap sporting goods trophy, calling it the Golden Strip Derby. That would be cheap in monetary value. I’m sure it was as valuable as the Lombardi Trophy to those kids. 

I think I remember but don’t want to put someone’s nose out of joint if I’m wrong.  I know we had a couple of rabid fans I’d put blame on.  They bled their school colors. I remember some pretty outlandish bets being wagered…free gasoline for a year?  A lot of bottles of Daniel’s or Walker’s finest or five-hundred-dollar bets were the norm.

I read Hillcrest is on an eight-game winning streak. I know hope springs eternal for the Mauldin fans. I was a part of nine straight wins by Mauldin in the Seventies and early Eighties. Never lost to them and winning never got old. Our orange, white, and brown-clad Mavericks never fell to the red, white, and black-clad Rams…although there were some close ones.  I’m sure there was always hope by those fans on the opposite side of the field.  Hope that we stomped flat.

Many were close, hard-fought games…” slobber knockers.”  I remember one was 6-0 on a dreary wet night and not decided until Ray Ritchy secured it with a late interception.  He nearly broke my nose when he jumped into my arms and then got tangled in my head set cord. We both went down in a jubilant, muddy heap.

I also remember mocking the Radio City Rockettes as we coaches danced to “Rock and Roll Part Two” watching the final seconds tick off of the clock.  I don’t think the opposing school appreciated the lightness of our feet and the Rockettes weren’t in danger of replacement.

In another game we were down by double digits at halftime when a short, stocky running back named Timmy May and our offensive line decided we weren’t going to lose and we didn’t.  Stuffed it down their throats we did.  Did I mention our defense shut them out in the second half?

The stands will be filled on Friday night and periodically I’ll check the score.  I won’t be one of those fans in attendance.  When I retired I found out it was about the kids and the coaches, the parents of those kids, the students, teachers, and administrators who supported us.

It was about the people who played the game, not the game itself.  The games are not as important when you don’t know anyone.  They are not as important when you haven’t invested a part of yourself.  The win is no longer better than sex…but the memories might be.

My favorite memory of one of those rival games was a pre-game speech.  We had heard how great the Rams were that year, a bunch of college recruits, top to bottom. This was going to be their year. Remember, hope springs eternal.

Our head coach lamented to the team while asking the question, “What can we do to fire you up? We’ll do it. What do we have to do to win the game?”  An offensive lineman no longer with us in this life, Preston Trotter, raised his hand and in his best country voice asked, “You reckon Coach Long could do that Johnny B. Good song?”  Not at all what was expected.

Coach Long was our Elvis impersonator and on the baseball field next to the stadium he did Elvis doing “Johnny B. Good.”  We kicked their butts.

Football is about being a part of something bigger than yourself, even if it is a small town rivalry. It is not about stadiums holding eighty thousand. Its about lifelong friendships forged in the heat of August. About lessons learned form exhilarating victories or excruciating defeats. It is about people, not pigskin.

Good times, good memories.  Good luck to the Mauldin Mavericks.

Don Miller wrote a book, “Winning Was Never the Only Thing….” about his teaching and coaching career. It may be purchased or downloaded on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00OM8ONRM/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i4

Image from Greenvilleonline.com

My BBQ Hash Ought Not Be Lookin’ At Me

“Like the blind man said as he wandered into a cannibal village . . .“Alright! The country fair must be right up ahead. I smell barbecue!”― John Rachel

This morning I fell into a rabbit hole that involved football and BBQ.  If you have ever been to a football tailgate, you know how they are related. Southern football tailgates for sure. 

Here, in my part of the world, worshipers of the religion that is football filed back into various high school cathedrals erected to their pigskin gods this past week, and college football worshipers will begin their own pigskin revival this weekend. Many worshipers will bring with them their religious trappings in the form of grills and smokers, filled ice chests, and lawn chairs. 

It is time to sacrifice the fatted hog to whichever football deity you worship. Hardwood charcoal smoke and the aroma of Boston butts slow cooking will waft through the stadium parking lots and are the sacred incense of the religion of football.

No photo description available.
Picture from The Tailgate BBQ-Facebook

I have worshipped football for most of my life and spent twenty-nine years coaching it. As a young, first-year football coach I was a clean slate.  I knew not what I was getting into when I accepted the offer to coach junior high football at Gallman Junior High School and scout for the Newberry High School Bulldog varsity squad in the fall of 1974. 

I was the junior high offensive and defensive line coach, positions I had played in high school…positions I found I was sorely lacking the knowledge necessary to coach. As my first varsity head coach, a big, hairy, square bodied man with the moniker, Bear, pointed out to me, “The first thing you need to understand is that you don’t know sh!t from Shinola and learn which one you need to shine your shoes with and which one you better not step in.”  An old phrase that meant I was ignorant.  Yes, I was ignorant, and some might claim, “You remained that way and to this very day, step in the wrong one…every day.”

Not only was I “on the field” ignorant, but I also had no idea what off-field responsibilities coaching entailed. Cutting fields, lining fields, taping ankles, doing laundry…all fell on the heads of the younger coaches.  I was twenty-three and a first-year coach, my duties weighed heavily upon my shoulders. Did I mention I was a fulltime teacher too?

Friday game nights I never saw us play live and in living color until the last game of the season. I was responsible for scouting. It was my duty to drive to the next week’s opponent’s game for reconnoitering duties and film exchange. Sundays, I assisted with film breakdown because I was the only coach who had seen our next opponent live.  All the while facing five classes of seventh graders daily, five days a week, and no real clue how to teach history, either.  I didn’t know sh!t from Shinola and I was learning which was which while on the job.

What does this have to do with BBQ hash? Nothing but I’m getting there.

Another duty I didn’t realize I had was the twice-annual fundraisers we ran to support our programs.  Athletic programs run off gate receipts and only a few sports make money.  Consequently, athletic programs run their “Sell Your Soul to the Devil for Athletic Equipment” fundraisers or allow the Booster Club to bend you over a desk.  “Was it good for you? Here is the chin strap you needed. See you next week and maybe I’ll give you a second one.”

In my part of the world at the time, the midlands of South Carolina, the easiest way to raise a lot of money was selling tickets for BBQ plates with all the fixings…said fixins. A local farmer gave us a deal on hogs, a local grocery a deal on chicken and the fixins, a local game meat processor did his part and viola, fund raiser.

The kids were handed a number of tickets to sell entitling the buyer to a plate of BBQ…with all the fixins. It also gave us an idea of how much to prepare. That’s right, coaches, their wives, their teams, and any fool stupid enough to volunteer were responsible for preparing and serving the food.

Family and friends who allowed their arms to be twisted into purchasing a ticket would show up on the blessed day and pick up their Styrofoam containers and consume them where ever. This was held in conjunction with meet the Bulldogs and picture day. Everyone wins, athletics get their needed equipment and supporters get a meal. A right good meal I might add.

Unfortunately, it also requires a sleepless night of slow cooking porkers and cluckers for the coaches and then filling plates with pulled pork, or roasted chicken, slaw, pickles, fried hushpuppies, baked beans and my duty, BBQ hash smothering white rice…all without the benefit of any sleep for over thirty-six hours and a hangover from drinking too many brown likker drinks brought by one of the other assistants to help while away the hours. I truly didn’t know the difference between “sh!t and Shinola.” Ah, the stupidity of youth.

BBQ hash is a dish served over white rice, an accompaniment to BBQ served mainly in the Dutch Fork of South Carolina.  Unrecognizable pig parts are cooked until they attain the consistency of mush.  Unrecognizable pig parts means “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Head meat including snouts, tongue, liver, and other organ meat were primary and I guess I just told.

Sautéed onions and potatoes are added and are further cooked to death.  Near the end, mustard BBQ sauce, vinegar, pepper, and hot sauce are added and simmered just long enough to give the flavors a chance to blend. That could be ten minutes or forever plus one day. Finally, you’ll stir in butter.  The dish is much better than it sounds and not a dish you need to eat if counting calories or if you have an arterial blockage.

My duty? Stir the hash in a huge black, cast-iron kettle over an open fire with a wooden boat oar.  Stir, stir, stir, sweat, sweat, sweat, drink, drink, drink.  Repeat until the correct consistency is achieved, or you are too inebriated, tired, or dehydrated to stand.  Couldn’t be dehydrated. Don’t worry, the hash will all come together on its own.

At some point during the early, still dark hours of the morning, I watched as a white object was stirred to the top of the hash. No I wasn’t drunk or dreaming. In the flickering light of the wood fire under the kettle, I watched an eyeball roll over and fix me with its gaze.  This was not an unrecognizable pork part but I decided not to tell. As it sank, it seemed to wink at me as it disappeared into the ooze. 

Suddenly wide eyed, fully awake, and fighting the urge to scream, I dipped the oar where the eyeball had disappeared but never found it.  Later as I ladled hash on top of white rice, I worried which lucky diner would receive the prize he or she didn’t want.  I also admit it was years before I ate BBQ hash again and to this day, when I do eat it, I’m careful to search each forkful before opening my mouth.  Hash ought not to be lookin’ at you while you are eating it. 

In my best Bugs Bunny voice, “Bon Appetit!” For a recipe for genuine SC BBQ hash that doesn’t use “don’t ask, don’t tell” pig parts try https://spicysouthernkitchen.com/south-carolina-barbecue-hash/

In case you are unsure, Shinola is a now defunct type of shoe polish.

The image of the football grilling over coals came from Canva.

Don Miller’s Amazon site can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR1Kd0edLWxmy4Zt24SHvYnwe7QBAyx47b-LwntLo5wOhrAjT838vBaFKL0

Football and the Fairer Sex

This is an odd day for me to make a blog post but after reading some of the posts concerning the Vandy kicker I felt a call to arms.  I felt a call to turn myself into a transgender female.  After reading some of the comments I was ashamed to be a male.  But then I saw some of the negative posts were from women…okay I did not want an operation anyway and I doubt I have the legs for a skirt.

You know the story.  Sarah Fuller, Vanderbilt’s star goalkeeper goes from helping the Lady Commodores soccer team win an SEC Championship to winning an audition as a kicker for the Vanderbilt football team.  The Vanderbilt kickers have a problem with Covid-19.

The Vanderbilt football squad has a problem with offense…and defense. She only had one chance to kick, a squib kick-off to open the second half and people went overboard with comments in both directions. Too much praise, too much criticism.  It was just a well-executed squib kick. No runback and the primitives among us didn’t get to see her crushed.

Do we call male soccer players for Vanderbilt Gentlemen Commodores?  No, there is no Gentlemen Commodore soccer team and I know of no program that refers to their football…or futbol team as “Gentlemen.”

Why can’t we praise people for their efforts?  Maybe it was a publicity stunt, at 0 and forever, Vandy needs good pub or to find a good pub. 

Maybe it was to stir up interest for a Gentlemen’s Commodore soccer team. 

Maybe it was what it was.  She was the best option at the time. She is still the best option but they are playing Georgia so we may again only see her once.

Nah, more than likely George Soros, the liberal boogie man, agreed to pay off the head coach’s buy out so they could fire him if the school agreed to make a spectacle of Miss Fuller.  Could happen.  The head coach did get fired. I’ve read crazier conspiracy theories.

I don’t understand why my male compadres…and their female counterparts were anxious for a person they don’t know to be turned into a pretzel by three hundred pound monster linemen. 

Fact is, she’s most likely tougher than you think, and women have been outperforming men’s expectations…and outcomes since…since…since cave dwellers went out to hunt wooly mammoths. 

She is a goalkeeper you know?  Goalkeepers are tough.  They don’t flop, grab an ankle and wallow like a limb has been torn from their bodies when being breathed on by an opposing player.  Goalkeepers cause strikers to flop, grab an ankle and wallow because a limb has been torn from their body. 

My daughter was a goalkeeper and part of me cringed when she came out on a breakaway, throwing her body at the ball while body blocking the attacking player.  Part of me cheered too, but usually not until after the play was over and Ashley was back on her feet.  “Got all your teeth, Boo?” No, I would never call her Boo.  “Got all your teeth, Spike?”

During my football coaching days, we had a kicker who happened to be a girl…and we were a first.  Said in a kind of mealy-mouthed way, “First high school football team to play a girl.  Play a girrrrrrrl.”  Said as if we might have bit down on a dog turd,Why does she get all the publicity?”  BECAUSE WE WERE TERRIBLE, NUMB NUTS!

None of the italics are true…except the terrible part.  We had “logistic” issues as in where she dressed but she was accepted as a “team member”, just like every other kid who came out. 

That’s also not to say there wasn’t some gnashing of teeth.  We’re already bad and some felt having a girl on the team made us look even worse.  “You’ve got a girrrrrrrl on your team.”

We were probably as bad as Vandy in a high school way, and she wasn’t the strongest kicker, but she did get the opportunity to kick a few extra points and succeeded.  Let me rephrase, she earned the opportunity to kick a few extra points. She was like any other reserve, we played her when we could.  She was also a soccer player and a tough nut to boot.  Bet Miss Fuller is too.

 I still don’t understand why a person would hope someone would break both her legs. Did this somehow make a mockery of football? 

Wait.  Did this somehow make a mockery of your manhood?  I think some men are afraid.  Afraid of being replaced maybe.  Afraid they will somehow be less important.  I keep reading, “Men should have roles, women should have roles.”  Usually with a Biblical reference followed by barefoot and pregnant. 

It was the same reaction when women went out and proved they could be firefighters, or law enforcement officers, soldiers, pilots, etc.  Not so secretly, men expressed their displeasure…as did some women.  Not because women weren’t capable, they have more than proven they are, but because somehow it has upset the belief people should be limited by the antiquated roles we perceive they should have. There should be no limits.

Has she proven herself an American football player? No, and she probably won’t.  She is a kicker and kickers aren’t noticed until they miss.  My hope is she proves herself to be a kicker.  She’s already proven herself to be an athlete.  A lot of other people have proven to be knuckle-dragging cretins.

Don Miller has just released the second of his Drunken Irishman Saloon series, Long Ride to Paradise. The link is https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08P81W6LZ.

His author’s page is https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3CBHKrwrcnRx38KnvopTelH0W56XFsG7wnRRL5lUD1JpiZ4TfUy2YcxfE

When Football Comes Back Again…

 

…and it will…someday.

It is the middle of the second week in August and there should be sounds, sights, and smells associated with the religion that is football.

There should be the scent of freshly cut grass, the visions of early morning mists rising off the practice fields and sharp white lines gridded on dark green.  There should be the “thump” heard ‘round the world when leather shoe meets the leather ball.

There should be aromas of Cramergesic ointment or Atomic Bomb…and ammonia from sweat-drenched athletic wear left to dry overnight and smelly athletic socks.  There should be grunts and pops, and a groan or two as large bodies running fast make contact with each other.

From a parking lot or distant practice field, the shouts of band directors, trumpet blasts, and drumbeats should be piercing the heavy, humid air.  They should be the clarions of the upcoming season.  There should be a rattle of equipment as they rush to their spots before the silence of parade rest.

Somewhere a chunky kid with a sousaphone wrapped around his chubby body should trip and fall on his way to his spot.  Laughter should reign before the silence of concern.

Spinning flags should be cutting through the air as flag lines practice their half-time routines.  Twisting school colors flying toward the morning sun.  Instead, there is the silence of the Covid-19 Twilight Zone.

Cheerleaders would be joining the band’s spinning flags with flips, cartwheels, and tumbles of their own as they practice their cheers and their routines.  “Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar, all for ‘so and so’ stand up and holler!”  Unfortunately, like London Bridge, their human pyramids have all fallen, the little girl at the top has crashed and burned.

There are no sounds, sights, or scents…at least near my little piece of heaven.  Football season is on hold for a bit longer, maybe the beginning of next month…maybe not.  “All activities shut down until further notice,” due to corona concerns.  The powers that be may make another decision this week.

At Hardee’s, the weekly meeting of old men wearing high crowned baseball caps should be discussing the chances of the local high school having a winning season in between bites of sausage biscuits and sips of coffee.  If it weren’t banned, Marlboros and Salems would send smoke from their fine Virginia tobacco skyward.

Instead, they are discussing the chances of having a season at all along with pontifications of, “They just ain’t as tough as we’s used to be.  We’d uh played through the Bubonic Plague if in we had to.  You remember when ole Roger played an entire season with two broke lags and his helmet knocked bass-ackwards.  Yeah, these coaches and players ain’t nothing but a bunch of wussies”.  Says the equipment manager from 1968.

The local universities have begun “teeing” it up, giving us hope, as smaller colleges await word as to whether their seasons will even take place.  Entire conferences have canceled seasons or pushed them back to the spring.  Telling a player to check his facemask takes on a new meaning in the anything but normal environment of Covid-19.

I miss football.  Not just the “I played it and coached it for so long, there seems to be something missing” missing football.  This year is different.  Every year since my retirement I’ve battled myself, attempting to silence the little football voice in my head that whispers this time of year.

“Go on up to the local high school.  I’m sure they could use your expertise and experience.”  As I’ve gotten older and creakier, the voice has been easier to silence but the little worm is still there.  There still seems to be something missing.

The voice I hear today is a different voice.  This is the low bass rattle of James Earle Jones telling me football will be canceled for this year.  It is as bad as the Beatles telling me “God is dead”.

Bordering upon sacrilege, Southern football is akin to a religion with its sacraments and cathedrals.  We have our revered gods, Bear, Pat, Vince, Bobby, and Danny.  Yes, I know Danny is still among the living and Bobby is Bobby Dodd, never Bobby Bowden.

One hundred thousand seat sanctuaries sitting empty.  The choirs of bands and cheerleaders silent.  Tailgating prayer meetings canceled, stadium parking lots noiseless and unoccupied.  Sacramental beer and pulled pork barbeque abandoned for another year…maybe.  “My Dabo, my Nick! Why have thou forsaken me?”  Will “Go Tigers” or “Roll Tide” be heard at all this year?

I have hope but my hope is tempered with concern.  If football is played someone will come down with the disease…maybe entire teams.  Even with a fatality rate of less than one percent, are we willing to sacrifice less than one percent of our athletes for a football season?  Are we willing to sacrifice our children to football gods?  Was that blasphemous?

Football is a dangerous sport.  It is something that I lived with when I played and when I coached.  You are one wrong step from a career-ending knee injury or an illegal hit away from permanent brain damage.  Some would say you are brain damaged just playing the game.

My greatest fear as a coach was losing someone to a bad hit or heat issues.  We have done much to reduce the possibility of injury or death, but it is still there.  Football is a sport that requires contact in close quarters.  I don’t know how you reduce the contact and contact is what transmits the disease.

1968 equipment managers and ‘wannabes’ are chastising those who opt-out of this season.  I don’t chastise.  I understand the fear.  If I had a son, I don’t know if I would push him toward football even in the best-case scenario.

Football teaches lessons I don’t believe can be taught in other sports.  I just don’t know if those lessons are worth ‘acceptable losses’ and I don’t believe my desires have to be those of my son or daughter.  Except for the desire for them to be safe.

Despite what I once thought, football is not life or even a reasonable facsimile. It is a distraction for most of us, a diversion, and I don’t believe our distractions should cost even one person his life.

***

Don Miller was primarily a high school teacher for forty-one years and a coach for forty-five years.  Twenty-nine of those seasons were spent coaching football in what is a football Mecca…the Deep South.  His author’s page is at  https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3H6APy6s1iIg6N1Cz5-RgcsnXmdrL3L47f2X_zzO1dKChLRG-NShnjbsk

The image is from Pinterest.  Clemson QB Jimmy Addison handing the ball off in the late Sixties.

 

Super Bowl Sunday

 

I watched the first Super Bowl.  I’ve watched all the Super Bowls.  I guess, unless I go blind, I will watch them all until the “sands in the hourglass” run out.

The first one wasn’t called the Super Bowl.  It was the AFL-NFL World Championship Game back then.  Not only has the name changed, but the game itself doesn’t resemble the first one.  More cameras than there are angles, scantily clad cheerleaders instead of pleated skirts, Bobbi socks and saddle shoes, commercials that were sometimes more interesting than the game itself, half-time extravaganzas instead of marching bands and different rules that the officials continue to blow.  Pretty much the only thing that hasn’t changed is me…laughing, are you?

My love for the game of football hasn’t changed…even though I don’t recognize it as the game I coached and played for three and a half decades.  It seems to be more fun-loving, a less brutal game than the original “three yards and a cloud of dust”version.  Much more fan friendly I guess.  Blame the old fun-loving, more offensive minded, pass-happy AFL, I guess.

As a young child, fall Sundays were reserved for church and a single football game on CBS.  That’s correct…one football game and nine times out of ten it was a Redskin contest.  We did have a thirty-minute highlight show of the previous Colts game.  I’m sure my father prayed at church that no one would decide to visit during the thirty-minute highlight show before the Washington Redskin’s weekly beating at the hands of anyone they might be playing.

Still, I became a fan…of Sonny Jurgenson’s lasers and Billy Kilmer’s wobblers.  It didn’t matter who was under center in the early sixties, victories were far and in between.  At least I had those replays of Johnny U and the Colts…but they weren’t very good either, except in ’59 and ’64.

Every Sunday, late in the game, my father would make the same observation about the Redskins, “I think they have shot their wad.”  For clarification, shooting one’s wad related to old muzzle-loading muskets and not…your dirty mind.

In 1960 a new kid dared to approach the NFL block…an always snowy new kid.  We would attempt to adjust our Sears rotary antenna to distant Ashville hoping the ABC affiliate and  AFL game of the week would come into view.  Click, click, click, “Whoa! That’s too far, go back!” It didn’t matter, early September or late November, the games always looked like it was snowing in black and white on the old RCA.  Later they would move to NBC, a channel we could pick up without snow.

These were the days of the New York Titans, Dallas Texans, Houston Oilers and a few names that would still be recognized today.  No, the Dallas Texans were not the forerunners of the Dallas Cowboys, but the Kansas City Chiefs.  The Cowboys were the first NFL expansion team and while briefly known as the Steers, they opened their first season in 1960 as the Cowboys.

The two leagues would eventually merge but not before the 1967 AFL-NFL World Championship played between the Bart Starr led juggernaut Green Bay Packers and the upstart Kansas City Chiefs with Len Dawson under center.  The score was close at half-time but a runaway by the end of the game.  Green Bay’s smash-mouth brand of football won 35-10 and began fifty-three years of futility as I repeatedly pull for the wrong team.

I’ve quit pulling for anyone…well, maybe I’ll pull against someone…like Brady.  It won’t matter.  If he were a religious figure, he’d walk on water.  Is that blasphemy or heresy?  I can never remember.

I’ll watch to the bloody end, maybe the commercials will be good.  I’ll watch and heft a beer and toast my father.  I’ll even use his favorite phrase when watching a fourth-quarter pass fall harmlessly to the ground…”Well, looks like they’ve shot their wad again.”

The only thing to be decided is who shoots their wad and how many of those beers I heft.  Go Budweiser Commercial!!!!

Further musings and a book or six can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

 

Championship Emotions

As I watched last night’s National Championship game, I seemed to drift to days of yesteryear.  Not that the game wasn’t interesting…well…anytime you pop the bully in the mouth it is interesting.  My memories were of young men competing on fields marked with white lines that seemed to glow with their own light.  Days when I still coached football, at a different level, in a different time.  But it was football.  I thought of an early spring evening at a coaching clinic held at Clemson University in 1981.

Danny Ford was my guy in 1981…still is my guy.  I miss his visage and demeanor on the sidelines at Death Valley.  A personable, country come to town, baseball cap pushed back on his head, a piece of grass stuck between his lip’s kind of guy.

Danny spoke two languages, football, and Alabama redneck.  He had a look that could freeze your heart or melt it.  He is still my guy.  Danny had recruited our school as an assistant, and our staff had developed a closeness with him during those days that carried over after he was named head coach.  Not that the present head coach isn’t my guy, Dabo is…its just different…despite being an Alabama boy too.

During those days I had dreams and aspirations.  Dreams and aspirations that never quite came to fruition.  I am now a spectator instead of a participant.  Sounds like I might be bitter.  Hmm.  Thoughts for another day.

Being young and foolish, our high school staff “closed” the clinic in the spring of 1981.  Late in the evening, sitting around a table were maybe a dozen of us “hardcore partiers”.  Ford knew how to throw a clinic.  After the football X’s and O’s were done, he served us beer in sixteen-ounce Hardee’s cups, pulled pork sandwiches with fixings and entertained us with a tree climbing hound dog while a bluegrass band played in the background.  The festivities had ended, the band packed up, with just a few of us sitting around a knockdown table.

In my world of coaching, I sat in the rarified air of coaching elite.  Successful high school head coaches sat close by while I thought it was smart for children and young coaches to be seen and not heard.  I admit to feeling somewhat invisible but listened intently hoping for a coaching nugget to stick in my brain.  Funny, Danny Ford was just two years older.

Normally jovial and full of country colloquialisms, this version was depressed and subdued.  Hat pulled down over his eyes, crying in his beer depressed.  Inside of a coffin subdued.  Clemson had just come off a terrible six and five season and he was feeling pressure from the administration and alumni.  A well-known, South Carolina High School Hall of Fame coach gradually drew him out before pushing a Hardee’s cup toward him saying, “Son, all you can do is coach ‘em up and love ‘em.  Other than that, what’s gonna happen is gonna happen.”

Something happened.  Clemson’s first National Championship was won ten months later as the Tigers beat Nebraska to cap the first storybook season.  The first of three storybook seasons…so far.

I ran into Danny recently…literally not figuratively.  I’m smiling.  At a small mercantile in the middle of nowhere, I walked into him as I exited the door with a package of cigars.  He was entering to get a pouch of Red Man and a hotdog.  Some things never change.  We both paused waiting as neurons slowly crackled in recognition.

Pointing a sausage sized finger at me, he drawled, “I know you.  You were with Lunceford and Bradburn at Mauldin.”  It was nice to be remembered.  I shivered a bit.

We stood outside, leaning on truck tailgates, reminiscing about times gone by and people we’ve lost, highs and lows, hemp farming, raising cows, grandchildren, and retirement.  “Whatever happened to….”  He seems quite happy to be out of the spotlight butI don’t think Danny Ford will ever retire.  Our meeting left me both proud and a bit melancholy, like what I am feeling this early, early morning as the talking heads analyze Clemson’s throttling of the Crimson Tide.

It seems we’re a lot alike…except I’m not a National Championship coach from a major university.  Neither of us misses the long hours but miss the people.  We miss the competition and prowling the sidelines on game night.  We don’t miss the practices held in hot and humid August and September.  I guess he is still competing in a way, now from astride a tractor, trying to resurrect a hemp industry while raising cattle.  At least the cab is airconditioned.

The memories we shared were warm, but I think we both fear there will come a time when memories are all we will have left…or maybe it is only my fear.  I guess I do miss “coaching them up and loving them.”  I also realize my time has passed.  Another reason to be melancholy.  The game has passed me by…but I’m not sorry.  I still have the memories and the attending emotions of young men competing on brightly lit green fields striped in white.

For those of you, not football fans, Dabo is Dabo Swinney, head football coach of the 2018 National Champion Clemson Tigers.

For further musings, https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

The image is of Danny Ford being carried off of the field after Clemson’s 22-15 victory over Nebraska in 1981 National Championship.

A TURN OF A KEY

 

Woolgathering doesn’t quite define it.  I wasn’t pleasantly lost in my thoughts…well…the triggering mechanism wasn’t pleasant.  Word came that a former player has died and then Aretha left us the next day.  Their deaths sent me down the metaphorical pig trails my wife often talks about.  I never met Aretha but Pat…Pat played for me and deserved better from his former coach.

I see him with his arms crossed over an ample belly, chin on his chest, his helmet cocked back on his head during a break in practice.  His head is cocked to the side as he listens to our diminutive offensive line coach pontificate.  They share a joke, both belly laughing and after a bit of back slapping went on about their business.  Seeing them in my mind is a prized memory.

He was a big youngster, playing offensive tackle, gregarious and fun-loving…except when he was trying to get in on the defensive side of the ball.  A pest with a huge grin enveloping his whole face, “Come on Coach Miller, I can do this.  I can make a play.”

He wasn’t the quickest kid, built for comfort not speed.  I tended to put runners on the defensive side, nasty folk who could fly to the ball…he wasn’t a runner…nor was he a bird.  He could be football nasty on occasion…and was.

Maybe I should have rethought my philosophy.  In a goal-line situation, we sent him in to add a bit of beef on the line of scrimmage and he came up with a fumble recovery.  I clearly see him running on to the field, chin and face mask jutting forward in determination, arms windmilling.  Smiling, I see him fist pumping in celebration as he took his place in what had become the offensive huddle.

His junior year we caught lightning in a bottle six times and had our hearts broken four.  The four losses were all heartbreakingly close and as their coach, I should have figured out a way to win a couple of them.  The last one cost us a trip to the playoffs.

Six and four was the best we could muster during my four-year tenure…back when I thought I was a football coach. There is much guilt, regret and now sorrow associated with those years.

He is gone, stolen from us in the middle of the night.  I’m still regretful…regretful I haven’t kept in contact. I forgot I coached kids, not football.  He and the rest of them deserved better because winning was never the only thing.

My pride was hurt and according to the Bible, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  I don’t know about the haughty spirit, but pride made me push the memories aside.  My “embarrassments” were placed in a mental “lockbox” and stored in a far corner of my mind.  I turned a key and walked away thinking it would hurt less.   “Out of sight, out of mind” meant the good recollections and warm feelings were locked away too.

There are too many good memories to hide them away…and too many good friends…the coaches and players.  People I should still be in touch with.  There is too little time to allow bad memories to overshadow the good.

Pat, I’m sorry it is too late for us.  I’m sorry about your beautiful family and their pain.  I know they are hurting.  I know too, they will have wonderful memories to fall back on when they are ready.

The key has turned and the lid has opened flooding me with memories.  The bad ones are still there but overshadowed by the good ones.  Bad memories can be handled when you have so many warm ones.

Rest in peace Pat knowing you will be missed…and adored.

The image was stolen from https://www.escapeyourfateup.com/store/p3/Multi-Room_Experience.html

For more of Don Miller’s musings https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

A Memory

My junior year in high school, Paul Neal’s retirement as principal caused a domino effect as my football and baseball coach, Bennett Gunter was named principal and his assistant coach, Randolph Potts, became head football and baseball coach.  Two more hats to add to an already crowded resume.  He was already the basketball coach, as in girl’s and boys’ basketball coach.  Oh, he taught science and physical education too.

This was fifty years ago when coaching staffs were just a bit smaller than they are now.  We had two football coaches…total.  I coached high school football for twenty-nine years and even our junior varsity staffs had more coaches by then.

Coach Potts passed away this weekend which is causing me to reflect on the strange and wonderful relationships between coaches and their players.  I feel honored to have been on both sides of the equation and honored to have been coached by Coach Potts.

Coaching and the game of football have changed drastically since the late summers of 1966 and 1967. For thirty-three years, through many of those changes, football was an integral part of my life either playing or coaching it.  I had many coaches and mentors who helped teach me a philosophy of coaching.  As I think back, Randy Potts gave me my first building block.

I was not totally unfamiliar with the new head coach.  He had been a fixture since my first season as an aspiring player and my position coach those previous years.  I remember a tall man with a blond flat top, a prominent nose, and a cheek stretched wide with a “chaw” of tobacco.  A blue wool baseball cap with a gold IL on the front.  A gray tee shirt over khaki pants, rolled up to show white socks and black coach’s shoes…oh, my god, he was my coaching fashion icon too.

I was a terrible athlete, an even worse football player, and fortunate to play on a team with a small number of players.  It gave me a chance to play and I had the opportunity to display my ineptness on many occasions.  One example stands out more than others and drew the deserved wrath of Coach Potts.  At home against Pageland, I met soon to be South Carolina standout Al Usher on the five-yard line with time running out in the first half.  I brought him down ten yards later in the middle of the end zone.  I’m glad halftime was just seconds away, had Coach Potts had any more time to percolate over my effort he might have killed me.  Instead, I got my ears pinned back, shoulder pads pounded, a spray of tobacco juice and a face full tobacco breath to go with it.  No, he was not happy.  Years later, as I began my own coaching career, I would understand.

The following year, also against Pageland, we played in a miserable, torrential, game long downpour.  We moved the ball up and down the field but managed to only put a touchdown on the scoreboard.  We missed the extra point.  Backed up, late in the game I snapped the ball over my punter’s head for a safety.  Pageland scored after the ensuing free kick and despite missing their extra point try, I was lower than whale poop.  We lost eight to six.  It is the only game score I can recall.

I have clear remembrances of sitting in the visiting dressing room, uniform running in water, afraid to look at any teammate eyeball to eyeball.  I wanted to cry but back then real men never cried.  No one said they blamed me which wasn’t the problem, I blamed me.

Coach Potts ambled over and sat down, creating one of those defining moments in a young man’s life.  He said, “Son, don’t blame yourself.  If we had done the things we were supposed to do, that snap wouldn’t have mattered.  Tomorrow the sun will shine…if it quits raining.”  This time he patted me on the shoulder pads.  It did quit raining.

I referred to the moment as defining because as I began my teaching and coaching career, his statement helped guide me.  A game may hinge on one play but if everyone does their job, no one play should matter.  If it does, it’s everyone’s fault, a team sport.  I had a couple of occasions to pass his statement on to needy players.

Some twenty-five years later I got to tell him what his warmhearted and compassionate comment meant to me.  For some forgotten reason, he was in Greenville and asked if he could stop by my office at Greenville High.  I was in the middle of finding out I was not football head coaching material and he was trying to sell life insurance, but we were able to spend some quality time together.  I didn’t buy any insurance, but I do remember telling him what the effect of his words was and how they helped shape who I was.  Today I am thankful I had that opportunity.

Rest in Peace Coach Potts and thanks. The former player whose error kept us out of the state championship thanks you too.  He just didn’t know it was you.

Don Miller’s author’s site may be found at https://www.amazon.com/default/e/B018IT38GM?redirectedFromKindleDbs=true