I have a co-worker, a Booneville alum, who routinely spouts off – as is their nature – insincere tidbits of Blue Devil “wisdom” for the sole purpose of riling me into a fit of anger and retribution. While I, being the bigger man, discard most of his biased ramblings, generally derogatory towards our beloved Baldwyn Bearcats, out of hand, he does occasionally stumble upon an acorn of truth.
“The winners in football are the ones who can endure the most pain. That’s what it’s all about,” he professed this week. And on this point, I felt compelled to pause and agree with him.
I played organized football for 13 years – from the spring of 6th grade through a 5-year collegiate career that included 3 seasons in Division I. Nowadays, I may be getting old and overly opinionated, but the way I see it, kids are simply not as tough as they once were.
They are pampered and petted and told how good they are based on how fast they run a 40 yard dash or how much they can power clean, but on a good night, about 50% of them, maybe, get through an entire game without having to come out due to “injury,” or cramps or – I choke as I say this – fatigue.
I looked up at the starry sky, as I lay on my back in a grassy Tippah County field in 1981, unable to breath. One time, in one game, playing left defensive end for the Bearcats against Walnut’s Wildcats, I had to come out – hurt.
I had herded and trapped one of their tailbacks against the Walnut sideline. In front of the home crowd, I maneuvered and prepped myself to force him out of bounds – or I’d clean his plow if he stayed in – when all of the sudden he cut back towards the field … and me. What he saw, that I didn’t, was Walnut Wildcat fullback Willie Poole sprinting at my right side, my blind side.
Poole buried himself under my ribs and ejected all the air from my right lung. When I hit the ground and slid under the feet of the Walnut scrubs, most of the air from my left lung also made its way to parts unknown. I have no idea what happened on that play after that moment. I remember blinking my eyes and seeing strobing images of smiling Wildcat B-teamers.
“Way to hit, Willie Poole!” I distinctly remember hearing, with laughter.
I did not immediately get up. I just closed my eyes and waited for air and Coach Willie Bender.
Coach Bender showed up and used the time-tested method of grabbing my belt and lifting my butt off the ground several times to somehow pump air back into my lungs. It must have worked, because after about 20 seconds, I got to my feet and wobbled to the sideline. My pain had just started, however. By the time I reached mid-field, I saw defensive coordinator Bud Reynolds, glaring at me, arms folded, and I seriously considered returning to the Walnut sideline, where people were smiling and happy.
Coach Reynolds only said one word to me. I can’t put it in print. And I jogged back on the field the very next play. I did not come out of that game or any other ever again due to pain.
There’s a difference in pain and injury. I’ve had two knee surgeries, both caused by football, and I certainly realize that players break bones and can’t go. I understand, too, that kids tear ligaments and cartilage and get concussions, and when those things happen, they must come out. But I also know that my dad, whose teams won over 900 high school basketball games, said, “Don’t let fatigue make a coward of you.” He could have coached football on that line alone.
My opinion on this subject doesn’t really matter in any substantial way. These days, I only coach a pee wee park league team in Saltillo. But when I’m working with those kids, including my 10 year-old son Maddux, I want them to realize that to go forward, when you feel like you can’t, is itself a true and great measure of success.
I hate it when a Blue Devil is right about anything, even accidentally.
Willie Poole, the Walnut Wildcat, who knocked me out of a game in north Tippah County in 1981, played his high school career, and at Northeast Mississippi Community College, with one arm.
Don’t let fatigue make a coward of you.