“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
Blog image of Mauldin Football from Gwinn Davis.