My father lost his father in a car accident when dad was 10 years old. He ran and hid under a bed in my grandmother’s house when he heard the news. He stayed there crying, wouldn’t come out.
Something like that put a child to work in those days, on a family farm, in a way that our kids today and even my own generation might describe as cruel. My dad had to work very, very hard. There were no choices.
Only a few years later, he lost his only brother, to a freak lightning accident at their home near Frankstown. Life wasn’t very kind to my grandmother, my dad and his sister, but my Granny’s faith was strong. What a survivor she was. My dad, however, for the most part, flailed around in life back then. A little basketball at Northeast Junior College, service in the army in Cold War Germany, even worked for the Mississippi highway department for a short while. Finally, he got a degree from Mississippi State University, pretty much to avoid working for the highway department. He got it, nonetheless.
My dad never intended to be a basketball coach. He got a teaching job at Jumpertown HS in 1967, with my mother, and was assigned assistant basketball coach. In 1968 he was head coach, in ’69 state runner up, and in 1971 he and his Jumpertown Cardinals won his first state championship. He had found his calling. He fell backwards into it. 41 years of bouncing balls later, before his stroke, he stacked up over 900 wins and 6 championships, and other honors, like cord wood (a phrase the source meaning of which he can tell you the from first hand experience).
He can look back and say he was one of the best ever.
I say he was the best.
Whatever gets ingrained in a person who suffers the losses my dad did early in life, I don’t know. I thank God that I don’t. But whatever he got that made him at first a survivor and later a ferocious achiever and competitor, he passed on the best parts of all that to me. I thank God for that too.
My dad not so much taught, but instilled in me, imbedded in me, many things, the first of which was “be the best.” Not “be the best you can be,” but be the best — period. Just being the “best you can be” leaves too much wiggle room. You are either the best, or you are not.
I would sometimes make 10 or 12 tackles in a high school football game, and when I got home he would point out the 2 series I was not going full speed, how he had seen it, how it was clear to him. I ran 6 miles in training one summer afternoon, and I came in and reported what I had done. He asked, “Did you time it?” Obviously, I wasn’t pushing hard enough if I did not time it. He made me so mad. He was so right.
I still think of how dad was once a man so obsessed with winning. He filled 10,000 notebooks with basketball diagrams – offenses, inbound plays, press defenses – every morning over breakfast for my entire lifetime. He finally reached the point that losing was the most painful thing, and no joy of winning could compensate for it. I’ve seen him win the state championship and immediately – not the next day or week – but immediately start working on the next season at the hotel with the gold ball sitting right there on the table in his room.
It’s clear to me now that dad was how he was because he wasn’t going to let life keep him a scared 10 year-old boy, under a bed, crying forever. He wasn’t going to let life beat him. Or anything or anyone else, if it was in his power to prevent it. That’s why he’s still alive – 8 years after a stroke that would have killed most men. And damned if he’s not still improving. He’s the toughest man I’ve ever known.
Most of my compassion probably comes from my mother, and her influence tempers the obsessive things I do. But my drive, my fight, my stubborn persistence to achieve, and to not quit even under crushing adversity – that comes from Sam Richey. I am so proud that he’s my father.
I love you, Dad.
Happy Father’s Day.