Forty years ago, on a Monday much like this one, I stood on a practice field awaiting the start of football practice. There would have been great anticipation and nervous excitement this particular morning as there always was great enthusiasm on the first day of practice. By Wednesday’s afternoon practice, bumps, bruises, muscle soreness and “dead” legs would strip the some forty or fifty players of their enthusiasm…but this was still Monday morning.
The practice field, freshly cut low was adorned with sharp white lines. The grass would be moist with the early morning dew, as it always was for twenty-nine years. Before the end of practice, the air would become uncomfortably hot and humid. For twenty-nine seasons hot and humid was always this way. Football in the South begins the last week of “hot” or the first week of “hotter still” and no matter where you are in the deep South you cannot escape the late summer heat and humidity.
This would be the first of two practices, the second would begin with even more heat and the humidity would continue to rise higher as practice went on until it finally concluded with ten perfect plays and ten perfect forty yard sprints. Blow an assignment or a snap count, we started over at one. Forty or fifty young men dressed in orange helmets and shorts, with short, light gray tee-shirts, now dark gray with perspiration. This is the fortieth anniversary of Mauldin High School’s one and only region championship in football. Maybe being the only one is why it is so special.
For those not familiar with the city of Mauldin, located in the upstate of South Carolina…or too young to remember, it was more rural than city forty years ago. The town was a strip of businesses and industry laid out along a crossroads navigated by people on the road between distant Columbia and nearby Greenville. There was no “named” main street and only a couple of signal lights on US 276 to impede their travels. The population was scattered from the outskirts of the small town of Simpsonville to the south and north to Interstate 85. It is part of an area now known as the “Golden Strip.” A couple of years would have to pass before it attained the moniker. Little was golden about the strip in those days, just a few business and a citizenry primarily located in suburban developments separated by large tracts of land farmed by families who had been in the area for decades. We were so rural it was easy to be viewed by our rivals as the “Southern Rednecks” of the county. I would say, at the time, we took this to be a compliment.
The community had embraced this “newer” school, beginning its fourth year of existence. Because of its youth, athletic success had been fleeting, especially in the area of men’s sports. Everyone…community, student body, faculty and administration seemed to be holding their collective breath as the season began. It did not take long for them to exhale and our team’s enthusiasm seemed to be a transmittable disease. As the victories piled up so did the fever pitch of our fan base.
Forty years ago we played old school football; “butt blocking, put a hat on ‘em, slobber knocking, knock his d!@# in the dirt” old school football. We didn’t know it was old school, we thought we were on the “cutting edge” of football innovation with our “acid soaked” tear away jerseys. Like most schools we were a run first, pass “when all else fails” or as my wife, Linda Gail, continued to point out throughout my career, “The forward pass is not a trick play.” For us it might have been. We weren’t a “three yards in a cloud of dust” kind of team, we were a finesse, run the “veer option and get the ball on the corner” kind of team and we did it well.
There was nothing finesse about our defense. We did our best to intimidate on defense…which we did quite well…and yes maybe we were a little dirty. We taught “eyes to the throat” and “run through the ball carrier till you hear glass break” tackling. We used the face mask as a weapon. It wasn’t we wanted to intentionally hurt people…well, maybe we didn’t want to hurt people. We did give a “skull and crossbones” helmet decal for the “Hit of the Week”.
The ’76 Mavericks were ten gallons of fun poured into a five-gallon bucket. It was inevitable some of the fun would spill out and it seemed much of the fun was agitated by one particular member of the team, Bucky Trotter. Any time I talk to a former team member, Bucky Trotter’s name comes up. Who else would deliver a Halloween gift to the opposing team’s captains? A dead squirrel hanging from twine fashioned into a hangman’s noose. I recently spoke with the Greenville High coach from those days and he remembers it well…and not happily I might add. An intimidating HELTER SKELTER chant after quick cals dissolving into something resembling a bar fight, a Wednesday night meal followed by a “fake fight” held in different areas around the community, one so realistic the police were called out. Thursday practice “war games” were followed by the coaches meeting at Jay’s for steak…for eleven straight weeks. Every Friday the coaches had to go to the principal’s office to rub a good luck charm we called “the little man with the big d!@#”, a small brass figurine with a big d!@#. These were a few of the rituals we employed to feed our superstitions and to keep ourselves amused.
Yep, more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Friends and former peers always ask if I miss coaching football. I miss the game night competition, I miss the bonds formed with players and coaches but I have not missed many practices. This group might be the exception because they made it fun. Everything was a competition, a chance to prove themselves. It didn’t matter if it was a game or practice, every play was a chance to excel or grow. I remember the daily linebackers versus offensive linemen board drills, three on three drills and the now banned Oklahoma drills. There was no going through the motions. Fun but also special AND NOT JUST TEN WINS SPECIAL.
I hope we have a reunion. I have put a few bugs in a few ears. A chance to rekindle old friendships and a chance to relive old memories. 1976 was a special year, in a special place with a special group. It would be fitting to have a special celebration.
Don Miller has also written three books, including “Winning Was Never the Only Thing…”, stories from forty years of teaching and coaching. They may be purchased or downloaded at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM