Part One of Three Parts
(Author’s Note: I played football for Coach Jimmy Smith for four years. He was one of those unforgettable characters who fought his own demons, in time prevailing. To know him was to love him.)
I suppose time does heal all wounds. I am now able to view Daddy’s issue for what it was, a real illness. I do focus on the good he has done rather than on the life I remember as a child. —Randy Smith
Before I settled for I-20 as the quickest way to drive home from Columbia, I took Highway 378 for many years. I drove that backroad so many times, I could describe every tree and rock along its shoulders. Finally, I quit driving it altogether because it took longer and longer. Then after many a year, I took 378 home again for a lark and I suppose for old time’s sake. My journey this time did not end in Lincolnton. No, it ended back in my high school days. There it was, a sign, “The Coach Jimmy Smith Highway.”
Suddenly, a rush of memories overtook me and I was time traveling back to memorable days and an unforgettable man. Coach Jimmy Smith. How great, I thought, that the good folks back home honored my old coach. And then I thought a bit more about that sign and I knew there had to be more to it than that.
That old Louis Armstrong tune, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen,” came to mind. “Sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m down. Yes lord, you know sometimes I’m almost to the ground.”
I am a sentimental man. Sometimes when I call up the past, a rush of memories overwhelms me and I feel things. I thought the world of Jimmy Smith; I admired the man deeply, and to be honest I never knew he had his own demons to wrestle until I had long put high school behind me. Thank God for innocence, one of youth’s saving graces. We walk through the world like pets, eager to get a favorable word or a pat on the head from those we admire, no matter their flaws.
Childhood is a small world filled with big people; we become their pets. When I was a kid playing football, a lot of my effort in practice and games was for Coach Jimmy. If I hit the tackling dummy hard and low, I knew he’d shout some praise my way. And he did. If I went up high in tip drills to snag the ball, I knew a shout would come my way. And it did.
Memories of Coach Jimmy play in my head like some old family movie, a bit grainy, but there in all their glory. Coach Smith standing before the blackboard in the old Green Building. Coach Smith on the practice field. Coach on the bus to and from football games.
And Coach Smith grabbing me by the shoulder pads, shouting into my facemask after a big play. It was, I believe, the third game of my senior year. A back from Hephzibah had broken loose down the far sideline for a sure touchdown. He had the entire field in front of him, an 80-yard TD … unless I could catch him. I took the correct angle of pursuit as I’d been coached and tackled him on the 10-yard line. I don’t think I ever ran harder in my life; I knew Coach Smith was counting on me.
When I got to the sideline Coach Jimmy grabbed me by the shoulder pads. “I knew you’d run him down.” When I tell you winning a gold medal in the Olympics wouldn’t have compared to that moment, I tell the truth. From that day on he nicknamed me “Speedy Gonzalez,” after that mouse of cartoon fame, the fastest mouse in Mexico.
You don’t forget some people. Oh you can go long stretches without thinking of them, but then some little thing will trigger a flood of memories. For me, it was that road sign. Among my elite club of the unforgettable walks one Coach Smith.
He was my teacher and my coach and he was, though I was too young to realize it, a troubled man. Looking back on some of the stories he told us, I see now that he had long struggled. I learned late in life that it only took one beer, his first beer, and he was an instant alcoholic. And so, for me, a lot of things now fall into place.
In class he once told us how he used to make money while at the University of Georgia. He’d bet other students he could down an entire bottle of liquor without stopping and not get drunk.
His secret was eating butter. He said he’d eat a stick of butter and then down the whiskey. As a kid I thought, “Wow, how do you do that? Don’t you throw up?”
On another classroom occasion he told us how he bet a fellow in Athens he could walk right into Sears Roebuck and steal a shotgun.
“I walked right in there, took it off a rack, laid it across my shoulder and walked out like it was mine.” I remember those words but all along I knew he was joking. He won the bet and won it easily. That was a different era altogether. No drug-addled crack heads, no security alarms, no video surveillance. I have no doubt that he just walked out with that shotgun, all gunmetal blue and shiny in the Athens sunlight. I have always known, though, that he took it back. In my heart, heroes don’t steal.
He had a prickly side or he pretended he did. We’d refer to him now and then as “Snuffy Smith,” alluding, of course, to the comic strip character who was a North Carolina moonshiner. That Snuffy was an ornery, irritable, sawed-off, no-count fellow. I don’t think that was what bothered Coach Jimmy nor do I think the moonshine connection prickled him, though he must have been sensitive to it. I just don’t think he liked being called Snuffy.” I wouldn’t either. And so, if he heard someone say “Snuffy” he’d pop that lariat in his hand and it was time to lie low. We fellows respected his lariat for it was more potent than Thor’s hammer.
Many of you don’t know me except through my columns, and that means you really don’t know me, but you can ask my sisters or Mom about me. They’ll tell you I’m the kind of fellow who has a penchant for getting into trouble. And I almost got into big trouble with Coach Jimmy in the eighth grade. My classmates and I were in the old Green Building changing clothes to get ready for a P.E. class. The boys dressed out in one room and the girls dressed out in a room across the hall.
Coach Smith left the building for a few minutes, and that’s all I needed. Across the hall girls were changing into their P.E. clothes. We all knew the door to their room had a big hole in it, but I was the one who snuck over there to get a look at the girls. Funny thing about that day, looking back I can’t recall a detail about the girls. A voice behind me shocked the memory right out of me.
“What do you think you’re doing?” It was Coach Jimmy.
He had walked up on me while I leaned over, my right eye glued to the hole in the door. He had that lariat around his neck with the whistle on it. Coaches wore those lariats all the time and sometimes they were used as a belt on kids like me. Generally, we deserved the justice they dispensed. I deserved it now and was in the perfect position to receive a few blows. I was scared to death.
“Gone, get back in that room,” said Coach Smith. He spared me and I ran back into the boys’ dressing room. I suspect he got a kick out of my and other students’ shenanigans. Maybe he even shared that little story with Joan (Jo-Ann) that evening, saying something like “Boys will be boys.”
Yes, all it took was a road sign to dredge up these old memories. Shaking the dust off childhood, images clear and distinct emerge. But it’s wrong to share all you know without using some good manners. Before writing this column, I ran the idea by Jeanie. I was a bit afraid it would be a bad idea. In no time, Randy emailed me.
“Jeanie said you were thinking of writing a column about Daddy, and I wanted you to know no one here has a problem with that–the good, the bad, and the ugly. When they named the highway to McCormick after him, I was the one who represented the family in thanking those responsible for it. I made sure that I told them that he wasn’t a good father, but he became a great man.”
He became a great man. Yes he did. Isn’t that what we all aspire to be?
Coach Jimmy was a great man. He was one of those figures from childhood that loom large no matter where you go or what you do. If I had known back then how he struggled, I would have pulled hard for him. I never knew though. I never knew to pull for Coach Jimmy, so in retrospect I hope my column serves as an apology to the man I so admired as a boy. It’s my tribute to him.
Jeanie sent me two CDs, interviews with Coach Jimmy on his drinking and his speeches to other AA members. For the first time in 45 years I heard the gravelly voice of my old coach. The moment I heard his voice, he lived again. Suddenly, I was a 16-year-old-kid wearing the Number 13 jersey. Coach Jimmy with his military crew cut, Wayfarer-like shades, and lariat-whistle around his neck is striding onto the football field, a big smile on his face. That’s the Coach Jimmy I remember.
Of those CDs, Randy wrote me. “We actually have some of Daddy’s AA speeches on CD now. I have never heard them, but we have them. I was asked one time why I never listened to the talks. I told that person that I didn’t have to hear the tapes. I was there.”
A special thanks to Jeanie Smith and Garnett Wallace for photography.