Tag Archives: football

Tennessee Vols Ramblings – 9/21/2019

I feel a little “I told you so” is in order. Back in November 2012, I wrote a piece about what a mistake it would be to fire Derek Dooley at that point. The program was still reeling from the Lane Kiffin betrayal, and my point was that for the sake of stability and recruiting, not to mention the opportunity to search for a top-notch coaching candidate, the university should have given Dooley one more season. Of course, at the time, I was shouted down, ridiculed, and lambasted for saying such a thing. I wish I still had some of the screen grabs of the comments I got on social media.

You rabid fans, full of pipe dreams of Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher, wanted Dooley gone. Everything wrong with the program was HIS FAULT. You were the same fans who had said the exact same things about Randy Sanders a few years before, but I digress. In your irrational fervor, you were absolutely certain that a big name celebrity coach was going to waltz in, wave a magic wand, and return the program to glory.

Today, nearly seven years later, your football team is a joke, and I told you so.

Butch Jones was a terrible hire, but he was the best you were going to get amidst all of that chaos. To put it in perspective of how bad of a football coach Butch Jones actually was, he had Jalen Hurd starting in front of Alvin Kamara. That should tell you everything you need to know. To be fair, under Jones, the Vols played fairly well against the mediocre opponents, but your record against ranked SEC teams was 4-18.

Once again, you rabid fans are calling for the coach’s head. This time, Jeremy Pruitt has only been given a season and a quarter to rebuild the program. Barely two full recruiting classes. Still, you have been inundating talk radio with more venom and bile, flooding social media with negativity, and burning jerseys. After a season and a quarter. You idiots have no idea how much you are hindering recruiting and miring the university in less than mediocrity.

Until you accept that a coach, ANY COACH, needs time to bring talent into the program, you will remain a joke. Until you accept that the vast majority of the players currently in the starting lineup couldn’t make the roster of the elite SEC teams, you will remain a joke. Until you accept that it has been 20 years since you have been relevant as a national powerhouse and none of current recruits coming out of high school have seen this school compete for anything that matters, you will remain a joke.

And I told you so.

Sunday Afternoon Ramblings – 9/8/2019

It’s opening weekend in the NFL. I’ve been a football fan my entire life, and my love for the game is still strong even though it has evolved away from running and defense. No other sport compares to the level of teamwork required to be successful. All 11 guys have to be in sync each play, and every play is an orchestra of strategy.

For the first time in my life, I am entering the season not as a Steelers fan. I just can’t continue to cheer for Mediocre Mike Tomlin. Once the team wises up and parts ways with him, I might return to the flock. Until then, I’ll just cheer for the players I like.

That’s all for now.

Is Your Brain a Time Bomb?

In 1989, when I was a junior in high school, I was struck in the head by an eight pound ball of iron. I suffered a Grade III concussion, a brain contusion, and brain swelling. I survived the incident but to this day suffer symptoms. This post is intended to raise awareness of the long-term effects of brain trauma and Post-Concussion Syndrome for the millions of people who endure living with a wounded brain.

Sensitivity to Light

If you’ve ever had a migraine, you understand how sensitive you are to bright lights. Imagine that times forever, and you’ll get an idea of what photophobia is like. Prolonged exposure to bright light gives me a skull-splitting headache, and it’s a relatively common symptom of severe concussions.  I can’t spend more than five minutes outside without sunglasses, and sometimes, even indoor lighting can be an issue, especially fluorescents. You know, the kind used in virtually every public building ever. So sometimes, I have to wear my sunglasses indoors, as well. No, I’m not trying to emulate the Blues Brothers. I just want to pick up some chips and salsa without feeling like a marching band is practicing inside my skull.

Years ago, some friends took me to an outdoor art exhibit. Naturally, I wore my prescription sunglasses so I could enjoy the day and not end up curled in a corner whimpering. We got invited to an after-party, and because my regular glasses were at home, I was stuck in shades long after dark. Some hipster quipped about the Terminator terrorizing the party, and it drew quite a laugh from the crowd. There’s no explaining photophobia in that moment. There’s only skulking away alienated and humiliated, having just been owned by a hipster.

Headaches Become a Fact of Life

You know those people who refer to every little headache as a migraine? Not the people who suffer from real migraines; a real one will put the strongest person in bed. I’m referring to the people who call the slightest tension headache a migraine. Yeah, I dislike those people. For a full year after the accident, I lived with a constant headache. Some days, it was a dull ache, others a sharp, piercing ice- pick. On bad days, it pounded my skull so violently I questioned benevolence in the universe. After that first year, the headaches became less and less frequent, but I came to know them the way an aficionado knows cigars. To this day, I also get occasional sharp, blinding pains near my scar.

After that first year, once the constant one faded, I learned to ignore most headaches and accept them as my reality. Today, I still rarely acknowledge anything less than a skull-pounder and even those barely slow me down, so whenever a co-worker rubs their temples and whines, “I have such a migraine” I have to squelch the desire to laugh at them. A real headache debilitates you. A real headache puts you in bed and makes every sound and light a test of your will. People who have suffered brain trauma know that any headache that doesn’t land you in bed is merely a nuisance, hardly worth announcing to the world.

Swiss Cheese Memory

Amnesia is a common Hollywood trope for head injuries, but what they never show is the inconsistency of cognitive dysfunction. Since the accident, some days, my memory works flawlessly and I’ll remember the stat line of the punter for the 85 Bucs. Other days, I’ll forget your name as I’m telling you mine. Others, I lose my car keys twelve times. On really bad days, I stare at my keys trying to remember which one goes to what.

Once, I met John Rhys-Davies at a Sci-Fi convention and got to have a real conversation with him. We talked LOTR and Sliders and the back injury he suffered on the set of La Femme Musketeer. The encounter was nearly perfect until, as we were about say farewell, he quoted a line of Shakespeare. As an English major, I scoured the splotchy patches of my memory for the play’s title and noticed the flicker of disappointment on his face. I wanted to explain about my injury, wanted him to know I wasn’t just a dumb bumpkin, but once more the moment was lost.

Sleep Disruption

Insomnia is a frequent condition after a brain injury. Some nights, I merely have difficulty falling asleep, but once I do, I rest through the night. Some nights I sleep for twelve hours. Some nights, nothing works. On those nights, especially when a few string together, I crave rest so badly, I contemplate hitting myself in the head to see if that will allow me to sleep. Of all the side effects I endure, I feel this one has the most stigma. Go-getters are early risers, but my internal clock has shifted so obtusely noon is now the crack of dawn. None of my friends or family understand why I don’t just sleep like a normal person, and no matter how many times I try to explain that I can’t because of the injury, I still feel like they’re judging me. I look fine. That injury happened years ago. Surely I’m over it by now.

When I got my assistantship teaching assignment in grad school, the department had assigned classes alphabetically, so guess who got two 8:00 AM classes?  Guess how many of my “friends” jumped at the opportunity to trade with me?  For my final year of grad school, I ran on three hours sleep a night, at most. If there can be any positive spin, at least I had time to grade all those papers.

 Nobody Can See the Mark

One of the most difficult aspects of head trauma is that no one can “see” what’s wrong. Even standard imaging techniques like MRIs and CT scans can only detect the subtle changes to the brain while it’s in a resting state. If neurologists can’t detect it, how can the average person? If I come to work on an hour’s sleep because my insomnia kicked in, I sometimes hear whispers through the grapevine that I stayed out all night drinking. If only. When I wear my shades in my office with the lights off, those whispers escalate. If I turn down 8:00 AM assignments, I’m simply lazy. After explaining the accident for the zillionth time, I watch their eyes travel up and down my body, searching for some physical sign of impairment, and even after I show them my scar or let them touch the dent in my skull, the doubts still linger in their eyes.

A few years ago, a colleague slipped and fell on a patch of ice in the parking lot. She had no visible injuries but suffered a concussion from the whiplash of the abrupt fall. Because she “looked” fine, our superiors couldn’t grasp why she couldn’t handle her usual workload. But I understood. All those tiny blood vessels and axons and synapses, as fragile as snowflakes, were violently shaken in a way nature never intended. I reassured her that in time she would find herself again and adjust to her new reality because I had managed to do so, and I spoke up for her with our superiors. Still, because we show few if any external signs of damage, they have a hard time grasping that our impairments are just as real as someone who has lopped off a finger. 

It Forces You to Change Your Life

When you’re in a crowd, your brain is able to process almost all the information subconsciously while you consciously focus on whatever you’re doing. For me, however, crowds are a nightmare. When too many people are moving in too many directions and having too many conversations, my brain becomes overloaded and within a few minutes, I can become completely disoriented. You can try to avoid crowds, but just like light, you’ll soon realize crowds are everywhere. So I take back roads with less traffic, shop during off hours, and work jobs that offer solitude. I don’t often go to live sporting events or concerts or even restaurants because the cacophony of noise and motion still completely overwhelms my brain a quarter of a century removed from the accident.

The worst example of this sensory overload occurred at another convention where I was attending as a guest author. I arrived a night early to get my badge, find my panel rooms, and have a plan, hoping to avoid the crowds as much as possible. Unfortunately, everyone else had the same plan because as the escalator deposited me into the lobby, I found myself in the middle of at least two thousand people, elbow to elbow. Within seconds, my senses were overwhelmed, and I struggled through the throng to find an exit sign.  The disorientation was so bad I had to withdraw from the convention and spent three days at home to recover. Isn’t there a line somewhere about the best laid plans?

It Also Changes Your Personality

Many people know about Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who underwent a major personality change after suffering a brain injury. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t take a tamping iron fired through the skull to make a difference. After the injury, I became much more introverted and quiet. Like many who’ve suffer severe concussions, I’ve battled depression. Mood swings are common as well.

Not long after the accident (I think I still had my stitches – all 36 of them) my pickup truck stalled and wouldn’t refire. I tried and tried and tried to start it, and with each unsuccessful attempt, my frustration escalated. In a fit of rage, I hopped out of the truck, grabbed a shovel from the bed, and proceeded to beat on the hood until I couldn’t lift the shovel again. Before the accident, I rarely lost my cool, but in that first year after, I was a walking rage machine. Today, it takes quite a bit to push me to that point because I’ve learned to check the cauldron of emotions as they course through me, but if I do reach it, something will probably get broken.

Also before the accident, I was highly analytical and serious-minded with a nearly photographic memory. Afterwards, while much of my analytical ability remained intact, in addition to the memory issues, I became much more creative and free-spirited. While neuroscience still can’t fully explain why this happens, one plausible theory is that it’s akin to Frontotemporal Dementia. Because of the rewiring that occurs, the interactivity within different regions of the brain changes, resulting in a fundamental shift in cognition. More than likely some mechanism that inhibited creativity was damaged by the accident, which “turned on” my latent creative skills. In extreme situations, this can lead to Acquired Savant Syndrome, such as the case of Alonzo Clemons, who suffered a brain injury at three and developed a profound mastery of sculpting despite not being able to tie his own shoes.

Your Brain Becomes a Time Bomb

The weird thing about concussions is once you’ve had one, you’re more likely to get one again; after your first concussion, your chances of getting a second go up 400 freaking percent. And subsequent concussions can be catastrophically bad, even if you don’t have apparent permanent damage from the first. This is because if you only damage a small number of neurons, your brain figures out a way to work around it. The damage is still there, but you don’t notice it, which may falsely lead you to believe that your brain is as healthy as it ever was. Since those connections never heal, another concussion can destroy enough of them your brain can’t work around it any more, leading to more serious problems. Another complication that can arise is called Second Impact Syndrome, where after a concussion, even the slightest bump on the head before the brain has sufficiently healed causes it to rapidly swell inside the skull. Though rare, the mortality rate for SIS is about 50%, and the permanent disability rate from it is nearly 100%.

I cannot stress this point enough. People who have suffered severe brain trauma have to accept that their brain should not be exposed to additional risks. I struggled with this fact for years because I had been a competitive athlete, and after the accident, I felt compelled to continue to prove my toughness. Today, a quarter of a century removed, I recognize the folly of that thinking. Just surviving the incident is tough enough. Your body may still be strong and virile. Your muscles and bones may not have suffered permanent damage from the head trauma, so you sometimes may believe yourself still capable of competing in the sports you love. But your brain is permanently injured. You have to accept that fact and not expose yourself to further damage.

In college, I drove a delivery truck on the weekends. It was a refurbished moving truck with one of the rear doors that slides up like a garage door. One night, the door didn’t open fully, and in the darkness I couldn’t see it as I stepped up into the cargo bay. My forehead slammed into the aluminum guard full force. As I crumpled to the wooden bed (luckily falling into the truck and not three feet down to the concrete parking lot) my final thought before I lost consciousness was that I had just killed myself. Later that night, when I finally made it home, I couldn’t figure out how to make a tub hold water. Fortunately, I recovered with no further permanent damage, but from that moment forward I became much more protective of my head.

Your Health Becomes an Uncertainty Forever

Since brain damage can manifest symptoms in countless ways (or not at all), I constantly find myself wondering every time my eyelid twitches if it’s just normal body behavior, or if it’s my nervous system starting to break down. Having a concussion puts you at much higher risk for diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The Mayo Clinic found that even a mild concussion made you four times more likely to develop Parkinson’s, and another study found that three or more concussions made you five times more likely to suffer early-onset Alzheimer’s. Additionally, multiple concussions can cause Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is the degenerative brain disorder that has prompted the NFL to address the concussion issue. And until neuroscience progresses further, there’s no real way to predict if you’ll get it until you start exhibiting symptoms.

Ever since the accident, if I hold my arm a certain way, my left index finger pulses involuntarily. For twenty-two years, I thought little of it, other than slight embarrassment when it occurred while I taught. Three years ago, my left hand began trembling more frequently and would occasionally cramp in a way that drew my fingers together in a twisted knot. I began experiencing other symptoms that mirrored MS and Parkinson’s. For six or seven months, while doctors ran test after test with no answers, I lived in absolute terror that the accident had slowly degenerated my brain to a lethal point. It turned out to be an unrelated issue concerning gluten sensitivity, and today, I won’t say I’m back to normal, but as long as I completely avoid gluten, I do fairly well with it. But the lingering effects of that scare are that I can no longer tell if I’m aging normally or degenerating more rapidly than my peers. I now fear every sharp pain near my scar, pains I ignored for twenty-two years because they were simply my reality. And where I once shrugged off the memory lapses, I now question if my recall is worsening or if I’m just imagining it. Those fears are real, as real as any of the other side effects, and living with those constant concerns for my brain’s health can become rather tedious.

You Slowly Gain Acceptance and Adapt

Despite all these limitations and discomforts, over time, I’ve learned to accept my reality. The process wasn’t easy, and for the first five or six years after the accident, I wallowed in self-pity over everything it had taken from me. Then, one day, the epiphany struck me that I was lucky just to be alive. I’ve since learned, through years of trial and error, to find pleasure in the things I can still do and let go of the things I can’t. I’ve learned to appreciate the little things because I know firsthand the fragility of life.

I’ve learned to stop trying to conform to society’s expectations of who it thinks I should be and embrace the reality of who I am.  I’m one who has survived a trauma that should have killed me, and that fact alone is pretty special. I’ve carved out my niche based on the skills the accident unlocked, and I’ve learned to be grateful for each and every day regardless of how many times I lose my keys or misplace my sunglasses because I’m simply still here.

If you’re living with the effects of Post-Concussion Syndrome, please know you’re not alone. Please know that you can carve out a fulfilling life if you learn to work within and around your limitations. You’ll never again be the person you were before your trauma, but in time, you can find the new you, one who is a survivor, one who discovers new talents you never knew you had, and one who finds pleasure in the little things. In time, you too can learn to operate within the boundaries of your wounded brain.

D.A. Adams is bestselling author of The Brotherhood of Dwarves series and a survivor of severe brain trauma. You can follow him on Twitter @authordaadams

A special thank you to Chris Radomile, who assisted with the development of this article. You can follow him on Twitter @raddystuition

Tennessee Volunteer Ramblings

Breaking News: Vols Fans Anxiously Await Naming of Next Coach They’ll Hate

The excitement around Knoxville is palpable as football fans await Athletic Director Dave Hart’s scheduled press conference to announce UT’s next head football coach. Talk radio is abuzz with rumors and speculation on who the next scapegoat will be, and some fans have already created signs for the home opener calling for the coach’s resignation.

“It’s just great to have so much anticipation,” says Slosh D. Frat III, a third year freshman and lifelong fan. “Since Dooley got fired, I haven’t gotten to hate a coach for a whole week. Knowing that there’s a new guy just days away. Well, I just almost can’t stand it.”

Asked if there’s any chance he’ll like the new coach, Slosh was contemplative.

“If it’s Gruden, I’ll give him until spring ball before I turn on him. Other than that, I’ll pretty much start screaming for him to be fired that afternoon.”

Other Vol fans echo the sentiment.

“We have a tradition to uphold,” says Iggy Norant, long-time talk radio enthusiast. “Around the nation, we are known as some of the loudest, most uninformed sports fans in college athletics. ESPN has long heralded us as the dumbest, and we have to keep up that tradition. I’ve been a part of running off two head coaches and one coordinator already, and I can’t wait to run off the next guy!”

When asked how the fans’ rabid and rampant intolerance for rebuilding a program mired in mediocrity might impact future recruiting, Norant was incredulous.

“Recruits don’t care who the coach is!” he bellowed. “They come here because of the school’s tolerance of criminal behavior.”

Officials at the university were unavailable for comment, as they were conducting a seminar warning the student body of the perils of butt-chugging. However, in a prepared statement, the school states that it is ready to fire the next coach as soon as boosters give them the approval and the funds to pay off the buyout clause.

Amid the speculation, two names have surfaced as leading candidates for the position.  Jon Gruden, Super Bowl winning coach and current Monday Night Football color guy, is considered the fan favorite because of his deep ties to the university, including his marriage to a former UT cheerleader and his cousin’s best friend’s neighbor’s plumber helping institute butt-chugging on fraternity row.

“Jon’s practically an alum,” beams Norant.

However, one name has both sports fans and scientists excited.  According to an unnamed source with close ties to important people associated with big-time boosters, geneticists at the university have cloned General Robert Neyland from hair fibers and plan to have his growth accelerated in order to have him ready for recruiting season.

“I’m not sure who this Bob guy is, but he doesn’t have much experience at the SEC level,” Norant said.  “We fans will have him on a very short leash.  It would be kind of cool to have a coach with the same name as the stadium, though.”

With that, Iggy Norant excused himself, stating that it was time for him to call into the first of the five talk radio shows to which he’s a regular contributor.

Derek Dooley Ramblings

Tennessee fans, you don’t deserve a winning team.  You simply don’t.  The bile and venom spewed at Coach Dooley over the last three years is shameful and disgusting.  The vast majority of you are classless, short-sighted jerks who disgrace the legacy of the program with your behavior.  If UT fires Coach Dooley Monday, which likely they will, you will get what you’ve asked for, and more than likely, you’ve condemned the program to at least another five years or more of mediocrity.  Virtually no reputable coach with any sense would want to come to the university given your win-now-or-else absurdity.

First, a little history lesson for you.  After the National Championship season in 98, the program slowly began to erode.  The first major warning sign of this erosion for me was the Peach Bowl after the 2003 season.  At the end of a disappointing 14-27 performance against a mediocre Clemson team, many players were seen on the sidelines joking, laughing, and talking on cell phones.  For me, this raised alarm bells about the team’s character and commitment.  Coach Fulmer seemed oblivious to his players’ lack of passion for competition.  I wasn’t in the locker room and don’t know if he addressed it, but if memory serves, no one was released from the team.

Then, in 2005, the erosion of talent and dedication bottomed out.  The team went 5-7 overall and 3-5 in SEC play, missing its first bowl game under Coach Fulmer.  The team was slow at the skill positions and weak along the lines, and the players simply couldn’t execute.  Of course, you refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong with the talent.  Instead, you blamed Randy Sanders and ran him from the program in one of the most tasteless and ridiculous smear campaigns I’ve ever witnessed.  Coach Sanders bled orange and loved the university.  Today, because of you, he refers to it as “that place.”

In 2006, the team went 9-4 overall and 5-3 in the SEC, which on the surface was respectable.  However, the team was 2-4 against ranked opponents.  In 2007, Coach Fulmer seemed to have it back, going 10-4 and 6-2, winning the SEC East and taking LSU to the final gun in the SEC Championship.  However, the losses included Cal 31-45, Florida  20-59, Alabama 17-41. More alarmingly, the wins included beating South Carolina by 3, Vandy by 1, and Kentucky by 2.  Very easily, that team could have been 3-5 in SEC play.  In 2008, the team did go 5-7 and 3-5, and Coach Fulmer lost his job.

Enter Lane Kiffin.  Remember him?  He came in full of bravado and promises.  He landed some incredible talent and had the team looking competitive against ranked opponents for the first time in several seasons.  There was optimism and momentum surrounding the university.  Do you remember how that ended?  January 12, 2010, Kiffin called a press conference late in the evening to announce he was leaving the school to take the USC job.  In the middle of recruiting.  After one season.  Can your short-sighted-ness fathom what that did to a program already on the decline?  Much of his first recruiting class left the university.  Most of his second recruiting class followed him to USC or bolted to other SEC schools.

So in the midst of turmoil, UT began looking for a new coach.  Will Muschamp turned the job down, flat out.  So did Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher.  Do you remember that?  I wonder if the treatment of Coaches Sanders and Fulmer had anything to with their decisions.  Maybe it’s just me, but if I were a coach looking at potential jobs, the last place I would want to land is a school with a loud, obnoxious, ignorant fan base with a history of running off coaches.  But I digress.

During this turmoil, Tennessee hired virtually unknown Derek Dooley, and some of you started asking for his head the next day.  Coach Dooley immediately went to work and salvaged what he could from the recruiting class, including keeping Tyler Bray.  He also started rebuilding Tennessee’s image.  For most of Coach Fulmer’s tenure, the team was notorious for the sheer volume of arrests.  It seemed like every weekend, often after games, 2-3 players would get busted for disorderly conduct or worse.  Then, it turned out some of Kiffin’s recruits were felons-in-training, so the program was not only sub-par on the field, but rife with off field issues.

Coach Dooley vowed to clean this up and implemented measures to hold players accountable.  He began to build the character of these young men as much as their football skills.  He also recruited some fine talent.  Given the mess he walked into, he did a commendable job righting the ship.  He brought pride and passion back to the program.  The young men on his teams play for the Tennessee Volunteers, and they compete hard in every game.  Yes, they are not quite up to SEC standards yet, but it’s not from lack of effort or lack of hard work.

I can’t defend Coach Dooley’s win-loss record.  It’s awful.  I can’t defend some of his coaching blunders.  They are glaring.  What I can do is remember a young Bill Cowher making his fair share of blunders with the Steelers.  I can also look up the records of some of the greatest coaches in history and see early poor records.  I’m not saying Dooley will ever be the next Bear Bryant.  What I am saying is that Tennessee fans will never have a Bear Bryant as long as you continue with your hot-headed, crude behavior because you’ll never attract the right coach and then you’ll never give him time to build.  Win now or else.

To Coach Dooley, I’d like to say thank you.  Thank you for doing things the right way.  Thank you for soldiering through an absurd situation.  Thank you for being classy and dignified in the face of adversity.  I’d also like to apologize for the behavior of the ignorant buffoons who will probably run you out of town.  Please know, some of us saw the positive and appreciate the job you’ve done.  Some of us understand that college athletics is supposed to be about more than money and wins.  Some of us would love to give you one more year before judging you.  Good luck, Coach Dooley, whatever the future holds for you.

Wednesday Afternoon Ramblings

The most amazing thing happened to me last night.  Back in graduate school, I wrote the following piece for a class and then edited it a few years later.  When I began this blog, I decided to publish it on here, and to date, it is the single most viewed post in my blog’s history:

A Memory of Rex Dockery

I was sixteen the first time I heard the name Rex Dockery.  It was during football practice my junior year of high school, one of those perfect October days I’ve only been able to find in East Tennessee.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the wind carried the scent of impending winter, and the mountains loomed on the horizon like folds of purple velvet.  Buddy Saulsbury, our defensive coach, was flying somewhere for an award or a banquet or something.  The other coaches were teasing him about the flight because he had never flown before.

“That’s why Rex Dockery is no longer with us,” Coach Chrisman had said.  “He died in a plane crash, you know.”

I don’t remember Coach’s reaction, other than that he was a little nervous about the flight, and I’m not sure why Rex Dockery’s name stuck with me that day.  It might have been the crush I had on Kim Dockery, a neighbor who was a few years older than me, but that’s the only logical connection I can come up with.  For whatever reason, I remember Chrisman saying his name on that fall afternoon at football practice in East Tennessee.

Walt Bragg was our offensive coach, and if my memory is correct, he was the first black, high school coach in our county, but I cannot quote that as fact.  I do know that when he became the head coach of the other high school, he was the first black head coach.  Coach Bragg was known for his explosive personality.  If you made a stupid blunder or went through a drill half-assed, he would grab you by the facemask, shake you around, and let everyone within a half-mile know that you messed up.  On the other hand, if you made a big hit or a great play, he would grab you by the facemask, shake you around, and let everyone know that he liked what you did.

When I received my Bachelor’s, I went to his office at the other high school and thanked him for bringing out in me the drive to put myself through college.  He taught me not only to show up and do a job but also to show up with the attitude that whatever came before me was conquerable and that I should take pride in myself and my endeavors. He taught me to do any job with the willingness to invest my soul into it.

The next time I can remember hearing Rex Dockery’s name is when I received the Rex Dockery Memorial Scholarship to Walters State Community College in 1990.  I was seventeen and at the point of having given up on going to college at all.  My parents didn’t have the money to send me, and playing ball in college was no longer an option because of an accident.  That scholarship came at one of the lowest points of my life, and without it, who knows where I would be today.

My mother made me write a letter of thanks to Coach Dockery’s widow.  Other than Mrs. and Dockery, I can’t remember her name, but I wrote the letter, and to a teenage punk it seemed corny and silly and sentimental and all of the things I abhorred.  Now, I wish I had adequate words to thank Rex Dockery and his widow for that scholarship fund that definitely kept me from a life of menial labor and probably saved me from total self-destruction.  The more mature me doesn’t give a damn if it’s corny or not.  The fund that she set aside for that scholarship has had one of the most profound positive impacts on my life, and I wish there were a proper way to thank her.

When I finished at Walters State, I received a transfer scholarship to the then named Memphis State University.  At the time, I had grand visions of being an artist of some sort and foolishly held myself “above” the sentimental, but I still loved the game of football and took the free opportunities to attend Tiger home games as a student.  The transition from a small town in the Appalachian Mountains to a large city in the Mississippi River Delta was difficult, to say the least.  Early on, I was miserable for many tangible reasons: the ugly and flat terrain, the absurd density of people, the brutal heat.  I hated the urban environment and disliked the general education courses.

In short, I was homesick.

Then, at a game one Saturday evening, I noticed something on the program: Rex Dockery Field.  It wasn’t much, but recognizing that name so far from home lifted my spirits just a bit.  Somehow, it made Memphis more familiar, even though I knew nothing more about him than that he had died in a plane crash and that I had received a scholarship with his name on it.  From that point on, Memphis became more of a home to me.

A fewf years ago, while back home during spring break in graduate school, I went to see Coach Bragg.  I was surprised by how well he had aged: very little gray, no real wrinkles, the same friendly smile.  I have seen other teachers from my high school who show the years.  At that point Coach Bragg seemed to have hidden them somewhere.

At the time, I was thinking about coaching and asked him for advice.

“The best thing you can do is ask lots of questions the first couple of years,” he told me.  “That’s what I did.  Of course, I was a little different.  I was at Texas Tech, and we ate, drank, and slept football at the college.  We would have a staff meeting for a couple of hours in the morning, then break into specialties for meetings until lunch.  Then, we would meet with the players for an hour or so before going on the field.  Then, of course, we spent two to three hours on the field trying to teach the players everything we had talked about all day.  It was a lot of work, but Rex Dockery was a good coach to work for.”

“Who is Rex Dockery, Coach? You know, I won that scholarship and have been trying to find out for years.”

Coach Bragg turned and pointed to the wall.  There was a clipping of the Morristown East High School football team from 1969, the year they won the state championship, Coach Bragg’s senior year.

“He was our coach when we won the title.  He left a few years later to coach in college.  I can’t remember everywhere he worked, but he gave me my first job at Texas Tech, then he went to Memphis State for a while.  You want to talk about intense? If you think I get mad, you should’ve seen Rex Dockery.  That’s where I get my style.”

Those who have not played football or grew up believing that discipline is a bad word probably think that intensity and yelling and getting worked up over a children’s game is all very silly, but I disagree.  There was a method behind the madness.  Once upon a time, many coaches, especially on the high school level, coached because they wanted to help kids become good people.  We live in a mixed up world, a place where it’s too easy to become lost and involved with bad things.  In my experience, the bad things are usually the easy way out, and we humans are always practicing the Principle of Least Effort Theory.  Before the win-at-all-costs mentality took over, coaches were mentors who taught that going through life half-assed produces half-assed results.  Success comes from giving effort.

I wanted to learn more about this man, to put an image and more of a background with the name that had followed me for half my life.  I started at the University of Memphis library, fully expecting to find at least a few magazine articles on him, but my search produced nothing.  Then, I went to the Internet.  At first, I couldn’t find anything other than his name on the Liberty Bowl playing field.  I searched the University of Memphis site, expecting to find something in an archive, at the very least a little tribute.  Again, I found nothing.  I went to the Texas Tech web page, but it contained nothing, as well.

Finally, after an hour or so of trying various searches on various search engines, I found an old Texas Tech page that was still on a server but not connected to the new page.  It contained a list of all of the people who had been head coach at the school, and his name was there: Rex Dockery, Assistant Coach 1975-1977, Head Coach 1978-1980.  While at Texas Tech he compiled a 15-16-2 win-loss record, a paltry .484 winning percentage.  From all the positive things Coach Bragg had said about Rex Dockery, I was disappointed to see such mediocrity.  I had expected to find a hero, someone who had led his team to success.

Not too long after I visited him, Coach Bragg was asked to resign from his head coaching position.  His first few years had been successful, the last two average at best.  Rumors have circulated that he had sacrificed the team’s integrity in order to promote his son’s talent, but I have a hard time swallowing that.  As long as I have known him, over half my life, he has held winning to same degree of importance as breathing.  But you never know.  Parents do strange things for their kids.

Personally, I’ve had my share of losing, too.  I was unable to find a way into coaching.  Ten years away from the game was too much in a market that produces an abundance of prospects far more knowledgeable and well-known than I am.  From fiction rejection letters to the inability to find a career that both paid well and satisfied me, I’ve spent several years of my life feeling as if all of my hard work in college has been for nothing.  Success, it seems, is not meant for me.

Determined to learn more about my coach’s coach and my benefactor, I kept digging and began to find more information.  In 1980, Dockery was hired by Memphis State.   He inherited a program that had gone 2-9 the previous year, and somehow he managed to do even worse, putting up back-to-back 1-10 seasons that included a seventeen game losing streak.  During this pathetic period, attendance at the Liberty Bowl dropped to an all-time low, averaging 17,000 fans a game.  But according to every news article and editorial and interview I read about him, Dockery remained positive throughout the struggles.  He was said to be an excellent recruiter and talent scout, finding gems among local athletes.  And he had a mantra to keep everyone focused on the positive: “We’re just going to keep working hard; we will get it done.”

His third season saw the fruit of his philosophy and an amazing turn around.  The Tigers began 1983 with a 37-17 victory over archrival Ole Miss, and after the game, fans pulled down the goal posts.  That season, Dockery went 6-4-1, and enthusiasm for the program began to grow.  For the most part, fans and the local media began to embrace this man and the team.  Everything was turning around.

In 1999, I was hired by Tusculum College as a business communications instructor.  I taught in an accelerated program designed for working adults.  Tusculum is the oldest college in Tennessee, established in 1794.  My students in that program were some of the most dedicated and motivated people I have known.  Many of them had been out of school in excess of fifteen years, and almost every one stated setting an example for their children as a major factor for being in school.  I considered myself fortunate to be associated with them and the program.  They taught me that being a winner does not mean always winning.  Sometimes, the darkest days lead our greatest moments, and success comes from a resolve to never give up on the goal.

We’re just going to keep working hard; we will get it done.

Shortly after the 83 season, Rex Dockery, assistant coach Chris Farros, defensive back Charles Greenhill, and booster Glenn Jones were killed when their small plane crashed.  The football program has yet to truly recover and has been mired in hapless season after hapless season.  The University of Memphis still misses him.  Coach Bragg told me that he misses his old coach terribly.  Despite the fact that I never knew him, I find myself missing him, too.  His life has touched mine enormously, albeit only indirectly, and I am a better person because of this football coach who led my hometown’s team to the state championship, who gave my coach his first job, who almost turned around the Memphis program, and who gave me a foothold on an education.

The Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame inducted Dockery posthumously in 1989.  Much of his life had been spent in Tennessee.  First, he played football for the University of Tennessee, moved on to his coaching success at Morristown East High School, and ended his career on a positive note at Memphis.  Who knows how far he could’ve gone if he had survived?

In my research, I came across The Memphis Flyer website and found a page that contained his name.  In the 500th issue, the Flyer ran an article that listed the 500 best things about Memphis.  I scrolled through the article, chuckling at some of the entries and remembering my first experiences with some of Memphis’s best attractions.  Then, almost at the bottom, I saw the result of my search: #434 – Memories of Rex Dockery.  And sitting here today, I must concur.  Without Rex Dockery, I have no education.  Without Rex Dockery, I have no memories of Memphis.

Then, last night at 10:26 PM, I received this comment on the post:

Hello. I am Wallene (Dockery)Leek, Rex’s widow, and stumbled by accident on your amazing story. I can’t tell you how how much your story meant to me. Thank you so much for sharing…and I wish you God Speed in your life. 🙂

Quite literally, I was moved to tears.  While I can’t verify the authenticity of this comment, I have no reason to doubt that it’s her, and there are not words for my emotions at reading those words.  For many years, I have wanted to express my gratitude to her because without her generosity, I can say for certain I would not be the man I am today.  I will cherish this comment until my last breath because it provides a level of closure I cannot adequately describe.

Thursday Afternoon Ramblings

Dear sons, I wish I could describe for you just how much I loved playing sports as a kid.  I didn’t really blossom as an athlete until about 14 or 15, but I loved sports, even when I was a chubby, uncoordinated kid without much skill.  My sport was football, and my position was nose tackle/defensive tackle.  I know I didn’t have the size or talent to ever play pro ball, but if not for my accident, I think I could’ve at least made the roster for a small college.  One of the only things that nags and gnaws at me is the fact I’ll never know the answer to that question.  Was I talented enough to play college football?  I don’t dwell on it often, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it from time to time.

I want to share with you one of my fondest memories from the eight years I played.  It was my junior year of high school, and I was 15.  From a couple of years of intense weight-lifting, I was strong beyond my years and had earned a starting spot as the right defensive tackle.  We were playing Cocke County, at the time one of our biggest rivals because our head coach was originally from there and couldn’t stand losing to them.  The left guard who blocked me that night was 5-6 inches taller than me and was pretty athletic.  Play after play, we battled like we were in a street fight.  One play he would beat me, the next I him, and the next, we’d stalemate.  It was without a doubt the most intense one-on-one matchup of my football life.  I left everything I had on the field and played an extremely sound game, giving up hardly any rushing yards to my side.

In the end, we lost the game, but as the teams were shaking hands, he pulled me out of line and hugged me like an old friend.  “That was the most fun I ever had,” he said.  “You’re a warrior, man.”  I thanked him and told him he had played a great game, but in the moment, the sting of the loss hurt too much.  I walked back to our dressing room and sat down outside against the brick wall.  Then, I just started crying.  And I cried pretty hard, too.  I couldn’t believe we had lost that game, and losing hurt, especially after I had played one of the best games of my life.  Several of the Cocke County fans had gathered outside our dressing room to taunt us, and when they saw me crying, they really let me have it.  Some of my own teammates gave me a hard time, too, yelling at me to stop, but I didn’t care.  To this day, I’m not ashamed of crying after that loss because when I really care about something, I give it my all, and when you give your all and still come up short, it’s painful.

I sometimes think about that left guard and wonder if he remembers that game as well as I do.  I wonder if he remembers how hard we battled play after play after play, neither one willing to quit, neither one willing to back down.  I wonder if he ever looks back on that game and feels the way I felt out there on the field, like I’d never been so alive.  I hope he does, and I hope that you both one day will get to experience something like that, even if you have to suffer the same sting of defeat, because that memory is one of the most fulfilling of my life.  As old age takes me and my brain begins to fade, I hope the memory of that game on that night against that guy will stay with me until the end because the memory of feeling that alive and that present in the moment isn’t experienced very often, and it’s a pretty amazing feeling.