Quite often when I go to a local restaurant I will see Larry Toms, a long-since retired basketball coach at Bossier High and a man who knows how to tell a good story. It was early summer and I had been thinking about upcoming stories for the Shreveport- Bossier Journal when I realized there was a potential feature two tables over.
So I sat down, turned on my voice recorder and told Larry “go.”
That’s how the summer series called “Coaches Corner” began. I knew there were plenty more out there like Larry Toms who had great memories of their coaching days.
As anybody can tell you who ever played a sport, you don’t forget your coach. So I knew this would be a fun weekly adventure and that readers would enjoying hearing from people who had influenced their lives.
There was no well-organized roadmap – the only loosely defined requirement was that they were all at least 70 years old – and in some way or another, I had a relationship with them.
Almost all I had covered in my first incarnation as a sportswriter. One had been my high school football coach. Another I would see at a local fitness facility. I’ve played golf with a couple of others.
In typically unplanned fashion, I just went from one to the next. Almost all were easy to track down – if I didn’t, I figured somebody knew how to get in touch with them – and after Toms, it was Clay Bohanan, Anthony Catanese, Alden Reeves, Doug Robinson, Gerald Kimble, Billy Don McHalffey, Will Marston and Ron Worthen.
This was among the easiest and most satisfying series of stories I’ve ever done. Easy, because it wasn’t like I had to come up with a long list of questions. These were just conversations that we had. All I had to do was throw in some adjectives and verbs when it was over and piece it all together.
Satisfying, because the reaction these stories got was far more than I expected.
Most of them were football coaches, but they had a wide range of backgrounds. Some stayed at one school, others moved around. Some were head coaches in multiple sports.
Amazingly, four of them are still working (though none as a coach).
It wasn’t a surprise to hear some universal answers. “The relationship with the kids” was the basic automatic response I got whenever I’d ask about the best part of coaching.
But the best part was how excited they would get when I’d get them into “coach” mode, as if they were still on the sideline or in the dugout and trying to find a way to win one more game. There were games from 40 years that they still haven’t forgotten. Not coincidentally, most of those were losses that still sting.
Some missed coaching, some didn’t, but I got the feeling that all of them would relish a crack at winning one more game.
But not all of the nostalgia was pleasant. The final story in the series was with Worthen, who was a long-time coach at Southwood. When I asked him what he remembered about coaching, he didn’t waste any time.
“I remember how horrible the conditions were as far as the practice area and facilities were,” he said. “We had to go out every day and pick up rocks and broken glass off the field. We’d go out with buckets and walk down and pick up everything that had come up from the ground.”
When Southwood was built in 1970, the topsoil that made the school grounds was sold, so when the Cowboys’ practice field was subsequently built “they brought stuff in but it wasn’t good soil. It was rubbish,” he said.
And then he paused for a moment before bringing up a subject that I knew about but, shame on me, never actually thought about.
There were three linebackers in succession at Southwood in the 1970s — Ken Serpas, Danny Huffstickler and David Adams — who were all outstanding players.
Adams died in 2007.
Huffstickler died in 2013.
Serpas died in 2015.
All three had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
There are many suspected causes of ALS. One of them is environmental toxin exposure.
So yes, these coaches still have great stories to tell. But some of those stories have a lot more impact than just who won or lost.
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