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.