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 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