No, I was never a professional player and I have not been on the A Football Life show on ESPN. Let me get that out of the way upfront so there are no delusions or bad assumptions based on this post's title.
For me, my football life has had a lasting effect on my views and perceptions that can be found in my writing. The details of those events are among some of my best and worst memories of my teenage years. The camaraderie of teammates, the sting of being an outsider, and the betrayal of those in positions of authority were all things I personally experienced and are often echoed in my writing. When I started writing, I applied these characteristics to specific individuals because I thought it was adding to the story's background and drama but later realized that some of my past experiences may have held a greater influence over which characters which given the positive or negative traits based on their role in story's hierarchy.
Like many authors, my writing reflects my personal experiences either directly or indirectly and even though my aim was to create purely fictional worlds, I seemed to have populated them, at least partially, with characters influenced by my own past.
To that end, I would like, for the first time ever, to put into writing some of the events from my younger years that seem to have had a lasting effect, not only on me but also on my writing. Now, these events are essentially 30 years behind me and some details may be lacking thanks to the passage of time and the events endured but their effects are far from gone. If anyone reading this knows the individuals involved, keep in mind that these are my memories, my opinions, and my events. Your experiences with these individuals may have varied greatly in comparison. Or maybe not. My point being that this is a recollection of my past and is not up for debate or comparison with your experiences that may or may not be similar to mine.
I grew up in a very small Texas town and went to a very small school. And when I say small, I mean that when I graduated in the mid-90's (yes, I'm that old) that my graduating class of roughly 2 dozen kids was the largest single graduating class the school had seen since its beginning. The school has since grown significantly but at the time I attended it was still very small. The entire population from kindergarten to twelfth grade was housed under one roof that spanned two hallways. That was it.
Being that it was a Texas school, there were two things you could count on our school focusing on; baseball and football. Luckily, there were many dedicated teachers there that also worked diligently on a daily basis to ensure that we all got a quality education too. I felt, and still feel, incredibly fortunate to have attended that school when I did and to have been educated by such wonderful and dedicated teachers, even if I didn't always show them the proper respect they deserved at the time.
Regardless of my educational background and the wonderful men and women who put up with our antics while trying to teach us, this article is about football. Specifically me, my time playing football, and the experiences I had during that time that still influence me today.
Many of my classmates, like me, were familiar with football from watching it on the television with our families but our first real introduction to playing real football came in the seventh grade, our first year of Junior High School and the first time football was offered as a school sponsored sport. In elementary school, we could play in pee wee leagues like summer baseball and things but Junior High meant that we could actually play for a school team for the first time.
Sure, the area I grew up in did have a pee wee football league but it was run through the Y.M.C.A. in town which meant that to play we had to be members of the YMCA, pay registration fees for pee wee football, and then travel regularly from our house in the country outside of town into town for games and practices. Growing up, my family did not have a wealth of income. We weren't broke but there wasn't such an excess of money that my parents were willing to spend it frivolously or without consideration. My mother stayed home to look after me and my older brother while our dad worked to pay the bills. A single income family with 2 small kids meant that some things were just not economically feasible. Pee wee football and the cost in both time and money associated with it were just not in the cards for me, or many of my friends as it turned out.
My seventh grade year brought me under the coaching supervision of one Randy Hutchins. He was something of a no-nonsense coach but he seemed to have a good report with many of the older students. Under his and the other coaches' tutelage, we learned the basics of football. I spent the next 2 years playing and enjoying football in Junior High despite our losing record each season.
The only thing that occurred during those years that stood out and continues to stand out in my mind is an event that happened after practice one day involving a snake. Our locker room was attached to the back our school's gym surrounded by grass, remember this was all in the country. We were not unfamiliar with "visitors" in the locker room but on that particular day our guest was a snake and that snake apparently did not like my pants.
It was only a grass snake so it was basically harmless but it struck at my pants and ended up with its fangs snagged in the bottom hem of my jeans. The snake was only a baby and its fangs weren't long enough to pierce the thick denim that covered me but that didn't stop me from flailing around trying to kick and shake my attacker loose from my clothing.
Eventually, the snake popped free through my frantic motions. It sailed through the air before hitting the ground, sending the curious onlookers scrambling for cover in the process. The snake slithered away into the shadows never to be seen again but not another day passed where I walked into that locker room and didn't immediately start scanning the ground for another snake. To this day, I hate snakes and have vowed to never let another snake get that close to me and live.
The point of this mild digression though is that for 2 years I practiced under Coach Hutchins and the other coaches with nothing significant happening aside from a brief encounter with a snake. We played 2 years and I suffered no major injuries, had no major altercations with the coaches, and just played football. We lost a lot of games, which didn't make us happy, but I was having fun playing and that was equally important. As someone who grew up watching football but never having really played it before, those 2 years of Junior High football were fun. It was everything I could have hoped for, except for maybe a winning record.
The next year I was a Freshman and officially in High School. The '91-'92 school year for me was something different though than for many of my friends and teammates. Unlike most of them, my older brother was a Senior that year. That also meant that many of his friends, many of whom played football while my brother did not, were on the Varsity football team that I had to practice with.
This was both a boon and a bust for me. The seniors did not let me get away with anything but at the same time they did not let anyone else mess with me. It was like having my own bodyguards who also hazed me (but not in a bad or traumatic way). In fact, it was through their protection that I met my friend Josh who would later become one of my closest friends through high school and beyond. Josh, being new to the school that year, reacted negatively towards me when our jump ropes collided during a workout session that had been moved indoors due to weather conditions. When Josh angrily approached me, a band of seniors intervened and made it clear to him, and anyone else in earshot, that I was not to be messed with unless they wanted to mess with the seniors too.
Josh decided in that moment that it was better to be my friend than my enemy and we wound up having many years of fun and adventure as friends before life took us in different directions, as it often does.
And like many Freshman, I entered that season expecting to be on the JV team. Varsity was reserved for the best and most experienced players and I was just a lowly Freshman that spent 2 years losing in Junior High. Oddly though, through a series of unfortunate accidents in the early part of the season, a few key members of the Varsity squad were injured and the coaches called up a few Freshman from the JV squad to help fill the holes in the line-up those injuries created. Among those Freshman was me.
Our starting Varsity Fullback had broken his jaw and would be out for a number of weeks. With only 2 Fullbacks in the line-up and the starter hurt, I was promoted to Varsity as a second stringer. I didn't see much playtime that season, almost none honestly, but it felt good to be on the sidelines. It meant that my coach felt I could be of use at the Varsity level if needed. It may have really just been a case of I sucked less than some of his other considerations but to me, I felt honored to wear the colors of a Varsity player, even if only for a few weeks that saw me sitting mostly on the sidelines.
And that was how I spent my Freshman year. I was an observer and a tackling dummy for my brother's friends who were on the team. Being so young, I didn't socialize with anyone from the Varsity team outside of practice. I didn't hang out with them on the weekends or go to parties after the games. I went home. I was 14 and they were my brother's friends, not mine. But at the end of the season, I still wore the same jersey as they did and that was significant to me.
That year ended and with it my brother and his friends graduated. The following fall found me returning this time as a Sophomore still under Coach Hutchins' supervision. And it was during this, my Sophomore year of High School, that I had my first real experience with injury that would go on to be a very important moment for me, though I would not realize just how important until the following year.
Like many schools today, school started in mid-August which meant that football started in late July and by mid-August when school started, our football schedule started too. Well, after just a few weeks in school we were given a day off in the middle of the week to celebrate Labor Day in early September. It was a national holiday so the school was closed and students everywhere rejoiced.
By this time I was 15 and both of my parents now worked. My father worked in food sales and my mother worked in retail sales. Both were industries that did not close down for the holiday but rather looked to capitalize from it. This meant that I was left at home alone to enjoy my day away from school and football. I played video games. I watched TV. I snacked. I spent the day being lazy like most teenagers.
But at some point in the afternoon I decided to go outside. We lived on 10 acres of land that I always enjoyed exploring and that day was no different. I walked towards the back of our property with my loyal, shaggy-haired companion dog named Bear at my side and without a care in the world. About midway in the center of our land there was a small pond. As we approached the pond, Bear decided to go for a swim. His swim didn't last long and when he emerged soaking wet it was plainly obvious that he was in a playful mood.
Bear sprinted in my direction. His tongue wagging from his mouth as his hair and ears flopped wildly sending gobs of water flying in all directions. I knew he was coming to jump on me but I was not interested in being as wet as he was. I turned to run from my bedraggled dog but only managed to cover a few yards in distance before I was struck by a new and odd sensation.
I had grown up running. My mother often joked that I started running and not walking and never slowed down since. I spent years in my youth playing baseball and basketball, both sports that require running. I cycled everywhere I wanted to go. And most recently I had spent the last 3 years playing football and running track with no issues but on this particular day I was struck absolutely breathless by no other means than my own efforts to run away from my dog.
I collapsed to the ground in the middle our overgrown pasture as I both struggled to breathe and to keep my sopping wet dog off of me. My lungs burned with the absence of oxygen but no amount of gasping seemed to fill them. I was absolutely terrified by what was happening to me and it took what seemed like several minutes before I was able to stand up again. From there, I painfully hobbled back to the house. My lungs were still empty which meant my muscles were equally yearning for oxygen which left them weak and pained.
Once inside the house all I could manage was to sit down. I struggled to breathe. I struggled to move. I had no energy but was steadily gasping for air. Relentlessly trying to catch my breath but to no avail so there I remained for the rest of the day.
A few hours later when my mom returned home, she instantly recognized the distress I was in but was equally confused by it. We decided to wait it out and see how I felt the next day, hoping that it was just temporary. I awoke the next morning still barely able to breathe and completely exhausted because even the slightest bit of effort required oxygen that I didn't have.
My mother decided it was time to seek medical help and took me to our family doctor. After a lengthy visit that almost resulted in me being admitted to the hospital, it was determined that I had developed a severe case of asthma and that what I was experiencing was an acute asthma attack. The doctor gave me several medications, including multiple inhalers, and instructed me to not participate in any athletics for the next 2 weeks to help my body recover and adjust to the medicines and steroids he had given me to reopen my airways.
The next day at school, I informed Coach Hutchins of the issue and my doctor's suspension of my activities for the next couple of weeks. Coach Hutchins didn't complain or seem angry about it but seemed understanding. He explained what his expectations of me were to be for the next two weeks and how I was still to participate as a member of the team even though I could not participate physically.
"We are a team and you are still a member of that team. You will come to practice and you will sit on the side and watch."
He wanted me to be ready to return, not taking the next 2 weeks to slack off. Nothing extraordinary about that but it was what happened next that had an ever-lasting impact on me and it is something that I doubt Coach Hutchins would remember today. For him, I don't think it was anything but just another day coaching but for me it was a lesson on respect and responsibility that I will never forget.
As soon as the doctor cleared me to return to sports 2 weeks later, I was champing at the bit to return. I had made the Varsity squad in what little time I had been able to play leading up that event and I was eager to return and show Coach Hutchins that was I still deserving of my spot on the team.
Coach Hutchins had other plans though.
The day I gave him the doctor's slip that cleared me to return, Coach Hutchins pulled me aside. He advised me that he was bumping me back down to JV. In that instant I was shocked, angry, and crushed all at the same time but Coach Hutchins didn't stop with that statement. He went on to explain that he had made that decision because he wanted to make sure that I had fully recovered and was truly capable of returning to the Varsity level without risking serious injury.
"I want to make sure that you are 100% ready to go again before I put you back out on the field with the big boys. I don't want to see you get hurt because I put you back out there before you were ready."
Those words gave me some solace at the time but have gone on to represent something much more significant to me over the years and I doubt he even remembers saying while it is something I will never forget.
That next week I practiced with the JV squad and on Thursday I played in the JV game. Coach Hutchins took caution in only letting me play every other play, something that was very uncommon given our school's small size and the small roster our teams carried as a result. Most players were either starters who played the whole game or who were second string who filled in if somebody was hurt or sick. We didn't have enough players to rotate through or have players that only played on one side of the ball. This was Texas iron-man football where everyone played every down, but not me on that night.
In fact, when we were on offense, we ran the same play every time I was on the field. 32 Trap. That was it. I played Fullback and that was my play. They handed me the ball and I crashed into the line at the #2 gap. So consistent was it that eventually the other team figured it out and would shout "he's coming right here!" every time I stepped on the field.
We went on to win that game, one of the only wins the JV team had that season. I don't think I contributed much to the team but they all seemed to think that me being there helped to secure the win. I remember other guys on the defense making big tackles and even an interception by our exchange student while all I did was hit a few people and run a few yards each play on offense. I guess to each of us we had a different perception of what each other accomplished. I was just happy that I made it through the game with no issues. And apparently so was Coach Hutchins because that was the only JV game I participated in. The next week I was back with the Varsity squad and playing my normal positions.
That season ended with no other issues or concerns about my health or safety and a few months later so did our school year. But with the end of that school year also came the end of our time under Coach Hutchins. He wanted to start a family and expand his credentials that required him to leave our school. He went on to coach at other schools before becoming a principal and I never saw him after that year (though we do follow each other on social media which is nice).
All of us had grown close to Coach Hutchins and the other coaches that were part of his team. We were all sad to see him go and wondered what the next year would bring for us in terms of new coaching. Little did I know then that my Junior year of High School would be my last as an athlete.
During the summer break between my Sophomore and Junior years it was announced that our school board, of which my father was a member, had hired a new head coach who would also be bringing in his own crew of coaches. This meant that not only were we losing Coach Hutchins but also all of the other coaches that we had played under for the last several years.
The new coach was some ex-NFL player but one that I was not familiar with despite growing up watching the NFL games every day they were on TV. He was an offensive lineman who played primarily with the Bengals for a few years, if memory serves correct, which might explain why nobody knew who he was. Lineman rarely got much recognition by the general viewing public but the fact that he had been a pro player, even if only for a few years, meant that he had accomplished something that many players never do and because of that we were hopeful for what his tenure could bring.
Sadly, that tenure lasted only for a few weeks and was not without issue.
One day, while on the field for two-a-days, so called because in the Texas summer heat we would practice for a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening to avoid the blistering heat of the day, our new head coach, Coach Keith I think was his name but honestly I don't remember because that was how little of an impact he made on me, took umbrage with my stance on the field. We weren't allowed to wear full pads, have full contact practices, or even go at full speed under UIL rules at this point in our season but coaches would have us stand around in our helmets and walk through different motions as we worked to learn our plays, our blocking assignments, our zones of responsibility, etc. Well, on this particular occasion, I was standing on the field with my arms folded across my chest listening and following along but that seemed to upset our new coach, like really upset him.
Our new coach, the former professional player, charged over to me, grabbed my helmet's face mask and violently shook and jerked my head from side to side as he cussed me out and berated me for standing on his field with my arms crossed. Now, keep in mind that I was not talking, laughing, or causing a disruption of any kind. Nor was I looking off into the distance not paying attention. I was watching and listening to his instructions and his issue was solely with how my arms were positioned across my body.
"I don't give a good goddamn who your daddy is. If I catch you standing on my field like that one more time, I will have you over there doing fucking belly flops in that goddamn mud puddle until you can't stand up. Do I make myself clear?"
Much like Coach Hutchins' words the previous season about making sure I was safe before putting me back on the Varsity squad, this man's words will forever echo in my ears, even thought I have long since forgotten his name.
I wanted nothing more than to rip my helmet from my head and beat the man senseless with it. His words, attitude, and actions infuriated me to no end but I was taught better. Instead, what respect I had for that man during his brief time as my coach was lost in that instant. I felt nothing but disdain for that washed up excuse of an athlete and coach.
I never told my parents about that day until years later but thankfully only a few short weeks after that incident the bastard left our school. It seems that he had applied for coaching positions at multiple schools and despite having signed a contract to coach and teach at our school another school came to the table with a more attractive offer. Rather than own up to his obligations under the agreement he signed with our school, the greedy prick up and quit right before the start of the school year to go somewhere else because they offered him more money.
Good riddance is what I thought then and what I still think today. He was undeserving of our school and our player's loyalties. We were a small and close-knit community and he seemed uninterested in being a part of it.
That coach's sudden and unexpected disappearance though left a problem for our school board and virtually no time to address it. They had hired this putz of a man to be our head coach and athletic director but now he was gone and they needed someone to fill that role. With the start of school looming and with it the start of our season, the board voted to promote newly hired assistance coach Bill Howard to the position of head coach and athletic director.
And while I hated his predecessor, I would come to loathe this man with every fiber of my being.
Coach Howard stepped up into his new role without batting an eye and said all the things you would expect someone to say in the circumstances we found ourselves. As players, we were concerned about the new coaches but optimistic for a good season. Coach Howard was a former collegiate player at OU with many years of coaching already under his belt. On the surface it seemed like a logical decision to promote this man to be our head coach.
At first, things started off well between us. He coached. I played. We both seemed to do the jobs we were asked to do. He would rely on me and some others on the team during practice to do things because he felt our skills lent themselves to the situations. I was not a team captain but I felt our new coach still respected my abilities as a player.
When the season started, I was officially listed as our Varsity's starting Left Guard, which is an offensive lineman position for those who aren't familiar with football. This seemed both odd and inspiring at the same time because I was only 6 foot tall and barely weighed 150 pounds. I was a lightweight compared to the average lineman from any team, even among those on the team I was significantly smaller than the rest.
But coach had other plans for me. I carried with me 2 extra jerseys to every game. I had a jersey for playing as a lineman. I had a jersey for playing as a running back. And I had a jersey for playing as a receiver. Coach Howard could literally put me anywhere on the field to play any position where I was needed but the OL was my main role. With my history as a running back in the previous years, I was familiar with the blocking duties of a lead back so our playbook that year very heavily featured running plays that called for me to pull around the end of the line as an extra blocker. My speed meant that I could keep pace with the running backs and my power meant that I could hit like a lineman. I didn't have the mass of most lineman but I had more speed which meant that I could deliver as much, if not more, force as any other lineman in our lineup.
The first couple of weeks in our schedule came and went with a few small hiccups for me. In our last scrimmage game someone fell across my leg and tweaked my knee. The coaches pulled me off the field a few plays later when they realized I couldn't bend my knee to get down into my proper stance and I sat out the rest of the game icing my knee. The next week at our first regular season game, on the last play of the first half, we were kicking a field goal and someone rolled up on my ankle. I hobbled my way to the locker room, told our coaches what happened, and they taped up my ankle with what seemed like 5 pounds of tape and I later returned to the game.
While those two injuries represented a significant difference by comparison to the number of injuries I sustained in previous seasons, which was 0, they still all seemed like normal injuries one should expect when playing a physical contact sport like football and I thought little of them. Even today, looking back at them they are just your run-of-the-mill type experiences that players every day across the country deal with. Minor incidents with no lasting impacts to anyone.
My absolute disgust for Coach Howard was not bred from these injuries. They were minor and treated as such accordingly. But it was what happened the very next week after my ankle injury that signaled the end of my respect and the beginning of my hatred for this man.
It was an away game, in Coolidge I think. It was early in the first quarter of the game and we were on offense. The play called was a running play. The Fullback would lead, hopefully blasting open a hole in the Defense, and our Tailback would run behind carrying the ball, looking for an opening to gain some yards on the play. The play called for the running backs to come through the line near my spot on the left side.
The ball was snapped, I engaged my opponent, and in the span of a few brief seconds I went from blocking my man to experiencing one of the sharpest and most excruciating pains that I have still ever experienced.
My left arm was radiating intense pain throughout its entire length. I couldn't bend my arm at the elbow. I wasn't sure what was wrong but I was positive that it was serious. As soon as the referees blew their whistles to signal the play as over I made a bee-line to the sideline and directly towards Coach Howard.
He was surprised to see me headed in his direction. I did not normally come off the field and he certainly hadn't called for my exit so for him to see me headed to the sideline unprompted caused some confusion.
"Coach, something's wrong. I can't move my arm," I immediately told him as I arrived at his location.
I held out my arm the best I could for his inspection but rather than look at my arm or make any effort to figure out what had happened he yelled at me.
"What are you doing over here? You don't come off this field unless I tell you to. Get back in there and don't come off this field again."
At the next whistle I returned to the huddle on the field with my teammates having my injury go totally unacknowledged by our head coach. I missed a total of 1 play during that exchange and that was the only play that I missed for the duration of the entire game. I played every down aside from that one on offense, defense, and even special teams.
Not once during that game, during a timeout, during halftime, or even on the bus ride home did Coach Howard ever ask me about arm or make any attempt to assess the situation. My teammates, on the other hand, spent the rest of the game trying to find every pad they could find to jam on my arm to help offer me what little protection they could. I was bawling in the huddle from the pain and there was nothing they could do to help but try to protect me the best they could.
I knew what it meant to be a team player but that night I learned the true value of both friendship and what being a teammate really was about. The running back that hit me, causing the injury, was beside himself with guilt but it was an accident and I wasn't mad at him then or since. The rest of the team did their best to help me but Coach Howard refused to take me out of the game. I mustered what strength i could and performed my job as a player to the best of my abilities with the use of only one arm. Nobody in the stands had any idea what was wrong and my position on the field often meant that I was among a crowd of players making it difficult for anyone to notice that I was only using one arm throughout the entire game.
Finally, after the bus had returned to our school and we had all unpacked, I approached Coach Howard and asked him about my arm. His was response was to go home, get some rest, and that we'd look at it in the morning during our normal Saturday post-game film review/practice.
I was tired. I was hurting. I didn't have it in me to force the issue and frankly, at 16 I didn't know that the issue needed forcing. I went home and it was then for the first time that my mom and dad became aware of the issue. I told them how Coach Howard said he would look at it in the morning and we were all satisfied with that decision at the time.
We didn't really discuss the whole fact that I tried to tell Coach Howard about the issue in the 1st quarter only for him to chastise me before putting back into the game before making sure I was okay. It was late. We were tired. The details of the game were inconsequential at the time.
A few minutes later when we were all getting ready for bed, destiny decided to intervene.
My dad took medication for his blood pressure and had recently been given a change to that medication. Apparently his body did not respond well to that change and he collapsed in my parents' bathroom floor. A few calls were made and my dad was rushed to our local hospital and admitted into the ER. My mom and I stayed there while the doctors worked to understand the cause of his collapse and stabilize his blood pressure.
The next morning rolled around and I told my mom that I needed to leave. Not only did I want to go have Coach Howard look at my arm like he promised the night before but I also was suppose to give my friend Josh a ride to practice. His car was in the shop and in the mid-90's we didn't have cellphones so that I could easily call or text him to let him know what was going on.
I jumped in my dad's old brown Ford farm truck that I had driven up to the hospital with its 4-speed manual transmission that I still managed to somehow drive despite not having much use of my left arm and made my way to Josh's house. While waiting on Josh to finish getting ready, I talked with Josh's dad who looked at my arm and immediately suspected something was wrong. He suggested getting x-rays done because he felt very strongly that I had at least one broken bone though he suspected more. He even explained how the swelling in certain areas and discoloration that could be seen would suggest that to be the case to any trained professional.
I should have just listened to Fred and gone to the hospital right then and there but I didn't. I drove Josh up to the school so he could be at practice and I explained my dad's situation to Coach Howard with the understanding that I would not be staying for practice. I made it clear that I was returning to the hospital to be with my family but that I came so he could look at my arm as he mentioned the night before.
Coach Howard casually looked at my arm from a distance before calling another of the coaches over. This coach, Coach Hutchinson, who was also our Health class teacher so I guess that gave him authority over player health or something. He came over, stood next to Coach Howard, and inspected my arm from a distance too. Neither man made any effort to assess anything beyond a casual visual inspection from a distance before Coach Hutchinson declared it all as nothing more than "a broken blood vessel."
"Go home, put your elbow in some warm water and just work it out. It'll be alright."
Those were his words and his instructions to me on how to treat my arm after only a few seconds of visual inspection. This was in stark contrast to what Josh's dad had suggested only a few minutes earlier at Josh's house and Fred's opinion came backed by a detailed description of what clues led him to that conclusion whereas Coach Hutchinson's conclusion included no additional details to warrant why he had come to such a simple answer.
Either way, I had fulfilled my objective there and returned to the hospital. My dad was doing fine but the doctors wanted to keep him a while longer for observation. The expectation was that he would get to go home later that day. While we waited, my mom asked me what coach had to say about my arm and she was equally skeptical of their assessment, especially after I told her what Josh's dad had said.
"We're already here at the hospital and won't be going anywhere for a while. Would you rather go ahead and get x-rays now just to be safe?" my mother suggested to me.
I quickly and eagerly took her up on the idea. My arm was still in incredible pain and nobody so far had offered me any relief.
A few moments later my mother and I had moved from my dad's room in the ER to the ER waiting room for an actual medical professional to come look at my arm. I don't remember how long we waited but eventually I was in a room with a nurse who had to jerk on my arm to straighten it out enough to get x-rays done. It caused immense pain for me but she assured me it was necessary to get the images needed to finally discover the extent of the damage I had been dealt.
After the images were done, a doctor came in a few minutes later with some devastating news. I had shattered my elbow and the growth plate in my wrist was broken in 3 places. I was looking at no less than 4 weeks of recovery and maybe more. I would have to have my arm from my hand to up past my elbow wrapped and placed into a partial cast with a sling for the duration.
This of course meant no football for that same duration too.
As the nurses worked on showing me how to wrap my arm and care for my injury for the next few weeks I turned to my mother and said, "Coach won't be happy when I show up in this."
Up to this point Coach Howard hadn't really said anything about doctors, hospitals, or anything of the kind. My comment was based solely on his reaction from the night before when I tried to tell him I was hurt. If he was that angry at me for missing one play, he was bound to be furious at me for missing several games.
Monday rolled around a couple of days later and I strolled through the front doors of our school with my arm covered in bandages, encased in a half-cast, and supported in a sling. In a small school like ours when someone walks in like that everyone notices, especially when that someone is starting varsity football player like I was.
Over the course of the day, I found myself in a 1-on-1 meeting with Coach Howard. I explained the nature of my injury and what the doctors told me about my recovery time.
He was less than understanding or sympathetic.
I had half expected for him to apologize to me for not taking me more serious when I attempted to bring this to his attention during the game. At a minimum, I hoped that he would offer some kind of response regarding his coach's grave error in diagnosing it as nothing more than broken blood vessel.
But neither were to be received.
Instead, much like when I took myself off the field immediately following the injury, Coach Howard set about berating me for a second time. He was angry that I went to a doctor without his permission and threatened that if I did something like that again that he would make sure that I never played another down of football for him.
I was aghast by his outburst as I stood there listening to him threaten me as an athlete for seeking medical attention that he failed to provide as my coach, especially considering the severe nature of the injury sustained.
When the school day ended, I hopped on the bus and let the school drive me home since I really wasn't in much of a condition to drive for a while.
I walked through the front door of our house, half expecting to find my mother sitting in her recliner watching Oprah as she so often would. On this day though I found her in the laundry room bent over between the washer and dryer swapping clothes from the washer into the dryer.
She asked about my day and then about Coach Howard's reaction to my medical suspension. Remember, I had warned her at the hospital that he would not be happy about it. Only then neither of us knew just how unhappy he would be and how unprofessional his response would also be.
I described for her in detail the extent of our conversation. How he was enraged that I went to a doctor without his permission and how he threatened me if I were to ever do it again.
To say that his words did not sit well with my mother would be a gross understatement. People talk about "Momma Bear" coming to fight/defend her kid, well this brought out the "Momma Great White Shark with frickin' laser beams attached to her frickin' head." This woman wanted blood. Not just any blood but Coach Howard's blood.
She was fuming!
The next morning she called up to the school and setup a private meeting with Coach Howard to take place Wednesday afternoon. I was not allowed to attend the meeting but upon her return my mother promptly recounted the details of her encounter with him.
I was practically in tears from the laughter as she told the story of how my 5'2" mother confronted this 6'6" mountain of a man and brought him back down to size using nothing but her words and her attitude.
Now, my mother was not stranger to dealing with school administrators. My brother was something of a nuisance to them because while he possesses great intelligence, he had no desire to express it at school. This prompted my brother to be called into the office on numerous occasions and for my mother to be there too.
But on this particular day she was not there to butt heads with her normal adversary, the principal, but with Coach Howard. She described how after exchanging introductions he led her into his office where he plopped down in his chair and hoisted his feet up onto the desk "like he thought he was hot shit or something." From there he went on to explain to my mother that as my coach he had certain rights over me and that given his authority over my person that I was not to seek out medical consultation without letting him know first because he didn't want to be caught off-guard like he was when I arrived Monday morning with my arm in a cast.
My mother continued to let him speak but by this time she and I had already discussed the events during the game and Coach Howard's complete and total lack of interest in my well being. My mother is an expert in letting people talk themselves into a corner before she pounces, leaving them nowhere to go but to choke on their own words. Something I try to emulate but fear I will never achieve the same level of skill as her.
Eventually, she was satisfied that all of Coach Howard's blow-hardness had sufficiently painted him into a corner and she pounced like a predator on wounded prey. She called him out on what happened during the game on Friday, suggesting that it was ample enough notice of a problem that he chose to ignore. She continued but was interrupted by the coach's bellowing. She felt he was trying to intimidate her with his size and loud voice but that only succeeded in making my mother more angry.
By the end of the meeting she reminded Coach Howard that while he was my coach and responsible for me while I was on his field that she was mother and responsible for me no matter where I was. She went on to remind him that she didn't need his permission for a damn thing and that if she wanted to take me to a doctor that she would regardless of his knowledge or consent.
"I don't care if he's in the middle of a game. If I want to take my child to a doctor then I will come down there, pull him off the field, take him to a doctor, and there isn't a damn thing you can do to stop me."
For all of his posturing, bellowing, and chest puffing in an effort to dominate my mother, by the end of that meeting he was sitting in his desk slunk down like a scared child only able to say "yes, ma'am."
In the course of those 5 days from the Friday I got hurt to the Wednesday that my mom broke my coach's will, I had lost all respect for Coach Bill Howard and had learned a new level of respect for my mother.
And to most, that might seem like the end of the story but sadly it isn't. My nightmare did not end with my mother's verbal beat down of Coach Howard.
Four weeks passed and the doctors cleared me to return to sports. My elbow was still sore but they said that was to be expected. It had healed mostly and I could use it again. Only later would I discover that I couldn't use it as fully as I could before but that's beside the point of this story.
The next game after my return to active status was in Frost. I remember that because my friend John-Mark had recently moved to Waco but had family that lived in Frost. He had told me earlier that week that he would drive out to watch us play and maybe visit with me at the field.
And that's it. That's all I remember about that night, that John-Mark had told me earlier that he would be at the game. I actually called him the next day to ask him why he didn't make it. He sounded surprised that I asked.
"I was there. I talked to you at halftime," he told me.
By this time I was aware that I had suffered a serious concussion during the game and had absolutely no recollection of the entire night but nobody had mentioned John-Mark's presence so that was the first I was hearing of it.
To this day there is still some debate on exactly when in the game I was knocked silly. The only thing I remember from that Friday night was being in our team doctor's office, a local chiropractor who offered to help out after my arm incident, having x-rays of my head done and being told that I had suffered a concussion. I had no idea how I had suffered a concussion or even where I had been to receive such an injury.
I arrived at our normal Saturday practice to watch the film of the game with the team and hopefully find some answers. Coach Howard said that he was convinced it happened on the opening kick-off of the second half. My teammates disagreed.
Watching the film, the opening kick-off of the second half does show me running at high speed and colliding with another player, something that likely could have caused a concussion. However, some of my teammates told me later that my behavior on the field had started being abnormal well before halftime. This would later be confirmed by John-Mark when he talked about my behavior during halftime when he tried to talk to me. He said it was like I recognized him but didn't know him. I didn't really respond to his attempts to talk to me and instead just walked off with a glassy look in my eyes.
My teammates described how as the game progressed I began to have less and less memory of where I was suppose to be. They said that at first I would line up for the play that was called and play my position like nothing was wrong but as soon as the whistle blew I would stop where I was and just stand there. They would have to come corral me back into the huddle. Eventually things got worse and they would have to help line me up in position but that I would still play my position like normal. It was like I could remember what I was suppose to do but not where I was suppose to be.
But here's the real kicker. Regardless of whether or not I was concussed in the first half of the game or the opening kick-off of the second quarter, it wasn't until nearly the end of the third quarter that I was removed from the game. And even then I was removed by the refs, not my coaches, because things had deteriorated to the point that I was trying to get into the other team's huddle and could not tell the refs where I was or what team I was on when they stopped the game to assess me on the field.
It took me being so messed up that I tried to invade the other team's huddle and the referees making Coach Howard take me off the field before anyone gave any consideration to my odd behavior. The coaches didn't care that I didn't know where to line up or that I wouldn't return to the huddle on my own. They only cared that I executed my position as the play required, which I did. They were content to leave me out on the field so long as I continued to run the plays they expected regardless of anything else. Had the referees not stopped the game and made them remove me from the field, I have no doubt in my mind still to this day that Coach Howard and his cronies would have left me out there playing without any regard to the lasting effects to my health.
Interestingly, even after I was removed from the field, in my dazed state, I continued to try and play. They had removed my helmet and stuffed an ice pack into my shoulder pads at the base of neck but I continued to stand on the sidelines. When coach would shout for "Starting O" or "Starting D" I knew that included me and I would attempt to run out on the field even without a helmet. The coaches would grab me and pull me back to the sidelines only for me to do it again a few minutes later when the same call was made anew.
After a few of those attempts, they removed my shoulder pads. I guess the hope or idea was that the lack of shoulder pads would remind me that I wasn't an active player since the lack of a helmet didn't dissuade me. Well, if that was their thinking, they were wrong. Calls for Starting O and Starting D still sent me sprinting out onto the field, forcing the coaches to drag me back each time.
Eventually the coaches grew weary of trying to contain and corral me and looked for a more persistent solution so they could focus on the game and not my whereabouts. They grabbed one of the cheerleaders and had her sit me down on a bench at the back of the sideline. They told her to talk to me and keep me distracted from the game. They didn't want me seeing or hearing what was going on around me and thought a cheerleader might be able to keep my attention elsewhere.
Well, it worked. I don't what Christi and I talked about, how long we sat there, or how difficult I was for her to manage given that I have no actual memory of this outside of what was later told to me but I spent the remainder of the game sitting there with her. After the game I was packed on the bus and taken back to the school. Once there, my parents were asked to accompany Dr Bryder to his office so he could check me out. And that's where my memory finally kicks in and I know what happened versus only knowing what others told me about the night and what I observed in the game film the next day.
I missed another week of play while in concussion protocol but by this point Coach Howard knew better than to make a stink surrounding my injury or absence from the team. And most thankfully, that concussion was the last injury I sustained as a student athlete.
But to really and truly understand what cemented this man's place atop my shit list, it was what transpired between my Junior and Senior year of school where he finally revealed his true nature for all the world to see.
After the football season ended in my Junior year I continued to have issues with my arm. My elbow would give out unexpectedly while lifting weights, making it dangerous for me to attempt lifting anything heavy. And it hurt too. There would be, and still are, days where it burns like a fire and moving it is painful.
It prompted a visit to my doctor who examined my arm before telling me that while it had healed that it had not healed correctly. There was a hole in the bone in my elbow where there wasn't suppose to be one. Things weren't fitting together properly which was causing some of my issues and the area was likely full of scar tissue and arthritis. But moreover, the doctor described how the failure for my arm to heal properly had left it weak and prone to new injury. He said that it left me open to the prospect of losing the use of my arm from the elbow down if I suffered a second similar injury to the one I had.
It was a shot to the heart. I had spent the last five years loving football. I hated Coach Howard but was giving consideration to playing again so that I could play one last time as a Senior, something that was considered a big deal back then for every Senior to have their last game. I wanted to have that last game but I sat in that doctor's office knowing and having to come to term with the fact that I had already played my last game.
The doctor told me that if I really wanted that he would clear me to play but that he seriously recommended that I not. He said the odds of injury to that arm were high and that he was fearful of a worse outcome if it were to happen again.
Those were not the words a 17 year old wanted to hear.
I had a choice. I could play one more season of football and risk life-changing injury for one last game under a coach that I had come to despise or I could walk away to look for a brighter future that didn't include Coach Howard.
I chose to walk away.
But still, it did not end with that decision.
It was a small school. Everybody and their parents knew who I was. Half of the parents had coached me at some point in other sports when we were younger. They all knew I played football and word spread like wildfire after I told my friends that I wasn't going to play in our Senior year.
I was even verbally accosted by a parent at a baseball game over the decision. This grown man, a former little league coach, accused me of quitting the team because I didn't get to play the position I wanted. I had 3 jerseys and literally played every position on the field at one point. How was I going to quit for not getting the position I wanted when I had them all????
I was the only player on the team that carried that distinction. No other player had that option. I'm not saying that nobody else could have done it but nobody else was given the opportunity. Besides, I loved playing the positions I had. Sure offensive line was not my first choice of positions but our playbook called for me to do so much at that position that I enjoyed it. Defensively, I was a Defensive End who played Linebacker and every now and then would be Nose Guard. I was everywhere on that field and I thought it was amazing that the coaches felt I was versatile enough to do that.
My decision had nothing to do with where I played but everything to do with how I didn't feel safe playing under Coach Howard and his crew but nobody else could understand that. Nobody else dealt with my injuries. Nobody else got yelled and screamed at for being hurt or for going to the doctors. Nobody else's parents had to go remind Coach Howard that they didn't need his permission to care for their child.
No, that was an experience that I alone had. I shared that distinction with nobody else also. I was the only one who missed half the season due to injuries who also got in trouble with the coaches for getting injured during games. But I am also thankful that I did not share that experience with anyone else. It was traumatic enough for me to endure and I would not now or then have wished that upon anyone else who I called teammate or friend.
And over the course of the summer Coach Howard would make multiple attempts to persuade me to play. He came to my house one day while my parents were at work and I rejected him. He came to where I worked during the summer once but was again rejected. He went to my mother's place of business during her working hours. He told my friends to talk to me. All of his efforts fell on deaf ears though. My mother was not a fan of his either and his efforts to convince her were more pointless than his efforts to convince me directly.
But beyond his efforts to convince me to play, it was my friend Josh's experience that rattled me the most.
Towards the end of that summer, Josh's girlfriend announced that she was pregnant. It was not the sort of thing that a teenage boy wants to hear as much as it was not what his teenage girlfriend wanted to say but it was the truth.
Upon hearing the news, Josh decided that he would not participate in athletics during our Senior year but rather would get a job to help support his girlfriend and their child the best he could while they each worked to graduate high school.
It was a noble and responsible decision that I fully supported and respected. Had I been in his shoes that would have been the exact thing I would have done.
But I guess nobility and responsibility were not high on Coach Howard's list of priorities.
Upon hearing of Josh's circumstances and his decision to leave athletics to support his new family, Coach Howard stopped by Josh's house to visit with Josh and his dad. Coach Howard promised Josh and his father that if Josh returned to play for his last year of High School that he could guarantee Josh a scholarship to play ball in college which would give Josh a better chance and more opportunities to create a better life for his child in the future.
And they bought it hook, line, and sinker. I told Josh he was nuts but he was convinced that Coach Howard could get him a scholarship.
I love Josh to death but he was not a stellar student. His grades were not those that many colleges considered good enough to earn a scholarship. But more than that, when it came to football, Josh wasn't a stand out player among those in our district, much less the state. As a receiver he had only a few catches to his name with barely any yards to go with them. College coaches would not be lining up to offer Josh money as a receiver when there were others in that position that held better totals. His other skill on the team was as our punter and he carried with him the distinction of a having an unreturned punt that traveled a distance of 1 yard. It was windy and he punted high into the wind which let the wind blow the ball back and it came to rest 1 yard from the line of scrimmage without the other team ever touching it. Again, not a skill or feat that will have college coaches beating down your door to give you money to join their team.
Of course Josh disagreed with my feedback and reversed his decision on playing and returned for his Senior year of football. The season came and went. Josh played but the team did not have a great season. At graduation Josh had no scholarships, no opportunities to better himself to provide for a greater tomorrow. He had only a newborn son and no job or money to help bear the burden that came with his arrival.
And all of this was because Coach Howard wanted Josh to play football for 1 more season instead of being a responsible parent to his child. Coach Howard lied to a teenage boy and his father with empty promises of college scholarships to dissuade him from getting a job that would take away from his ability to play football. Coach Howard was more concerned with his own needs as a coach and less concerned with the future of the students under his care. He already more than demonstrated his lack of regard of student safety in how he dealt with my injuries but this was narcissism and a lack of any humanity on a whole new level.
That one man, Coach Bill Howard, took the last two years of my high school experience and turned them into a nightmare for me. I left after playing just 1 season for him a completely changed person who had lost the love for the sport of football. I refused to attend high school games for years and barely could bring myself to watch games on TV. Just seeing the game of football flooded me with emotions, most of them bad, so I avoided it. Only through the passage of time and being able to play ball with my own children have I been able to rediscover my love for the sport. These days I manage to separate my hatred for the coach who ruined my high school experience and my love for a great game.
Much of my Senior year was tainted by the constant harassment from coaches, teachers, and other school staff who were concerned about why I had refused to play. Much of the first few weeks of school were dominated by me being pulled out of class or to the side in the hallway to answer questions about that decision or to be reminded that it wasn't too late to rejoin the team. People I had considered friends and teammates in the years past attempted to tease and chide me, often to their regret as I was still stronger than most of them. That was the only year that Coach Howard also served as a teacher in a class I was in and it was his first experience with me as a student. He tried in vain to call me out in class or to embarrass me when he thought I wasn't paying attention only to learn that I was chapters of ahead of what he was teaching and that I was far more capable as a student than I was an athlete.
At no point during either year did Coach Howard ever publicly accept responsibility for his actions or lack thereof that directly contributed to my injuries as they related to him. I don't blame him for getting me hurt but I do blame him for not taking the appropriate actions to prevent me from being more hurt and his extremely unprofessional conduct that followed. He knew in the 1st quarter that my arm was injured but rather than address it to make sure that it was not serious he chewed me out and put me back in the game with no stops for the rest of the night. Only then after it was revealed how extensive my injuries were did he get mad at me for going to the doctors instead of hiding the injury and attempting to continue playing with one arm. Its things like that that make me despise him as a coach and then how he manipulated Josh into playing football instead of taking responsibility for his unborn child that make me despise him as a man.
In the years since, Coach Bill Howard left our school and went on to coach in other schools, achieving some level of acclaim as I understand it. It would seem that there are those out there who hold him in some esteem and mark his accomplishments as a coach as some sort of legacy that is to be admired and emulated. Clearly those people never experienced him the way I did. I saw an article written about him one day not too long ago and the mere mention of his name made me seethe with anger. I was compelled to comment on the story with my experience that stood in direct defiance against the picture of a coach they painted but I opted not to. Too many years had passed since he had treated me so cruelly and inhumanely. The details of those events were likely long forgotten to everyone but me (and perhaps my mother). There was no value in commenting other than to look like a bitter old man. Instead, I chose to hope against sound reasoning and take the article as some sign that he had changed his ways and became the type of coach that Randy Hutchins had been. Coach Hutchins set the bar that all other coaches should hope to achieve whereas Coach Bill Howard had shown me just how low a coach could go during our brief time together at my pokey little school in the sticks.
Few people know these stories. I have until now only shared them verbally with a select few. This is the first time, and likely the last, that these details will ever be put into print as they are not fond memories nor do I enjoy dwelling on them. But as a writer, I think it is imperative to understand how my life influences my writing and as a reader, it might interest you as well.