Last Friday night was our open date and I took Coach Marc Edge and Coach Mikel Riggs with me to Central Coosa High School near Rockford to watch Central Coosa play Montgomery Academy. There is a chance that we might play Montgomery Academy in the playoffs. The rest of our staff spilt up to go watch other games. It was not my first trip to Central Coosa High School, and when we drove up, I remembered our first trip there.
It was November 2000 and we played Coosa in the second round of the state playoffs. I was tickled to be in the second round of the playoffs, as this team was short on linemen and experienced backs when the season started. Three weeks later we would win the state championship game to end an incredible playoff run. But this night I had no thoughts about championships. We were just trying to play one more week.
This school is several miles out of Rockford, which is a fairly small town. In Alabama we would say that it is out in the woods. It was a long way from Brewton. The other thing I always remember is that it turned cold that night when the sun went down. The field was kind of in a bottom below the school. About lunch that day Randy Bell came by and got our heaters and generator and loaded them on a trailer. He said he was going by his hunting camp and then to the game. When we went out to warm up Randy had not arrived and I had a bad feeling because he was usually there early. I got to talking to the officials during warm ups and suddenly realized that we were about to be late leaving the field. It was a long way back to where we were dressing and all uphill. I told one of our managers who was near to go and tell Coach Whigham to get off the field and go back to the dressing room. He started walking, and yelled at him, “Run!” He took off and told Coach that I said for everybody to run back to the dressing room. I was on the other end of the field and I looked up and saw our whole team running up this big hill to the locker room. We were tired out before the game started.
We go out to start the game and you could feel the cold setting in. No heaters and no Randy Bell. About the time the game starts, I see Randy walking up the sideline. “Where have you been?’ I said. “Man,” he hollered at me. “I got lost. This place is really out in the woods.” I had watched the film on Coosa and I knew they had a good defense. Apparently I was a good judge of talent in those days because I told our coaches that they had a good LB who also played TE. That guy turned out to be Justin Tuck, who went to Notre Dame and is still playing in the NFL today. He won 2 Super Bowls with the Giants and has been All Pro. Sometime in the second half, Coosa throws this quick pass to Tuck and he splits our safeties and runs for a touchdown. I was coaching the defensive backs and I was not happy. Brian Beckham was one of our safeties and he comes right toward me on the sideline. “I know you are mad,” he said. “But I have two things to tell you. First, that guy is really, really fast. And second, he laughed at us while we were chasing him.”
Also in the second half, Gary Freeman got hurt. He had some kind of leg injury. I was coaching my heart out when some body came to me and said, “Coach, they are loading Gary Freeman in the ambulance and taking him to the hospital.” I look across the field and sure enough they are loading him in the ambulance. My first thought was where in the world is the nearest hospital. My second thought was if he leaves in that ambulance I may never see him again. I took off across the field (the game was still going on) and ran to the ambulance. “No sir,” I said. “He’s not leaving in that ambulance.” The paramedic guy said, “But he needs an X ray.” I looked at him and said, “We have an X ray machine in Brewton. He’s not leaving here.” And he didn’t.
We won the game. I was so happy because it was our tenth win and I thought that it was quite an accomplishment for our team. I remember that I had asked Becky to bring a camera, and if we won we were going to take a picture after the game. And we did. I have to hunt through our pictures and find it. I can still see it in my head now.
Last Friday night I went back to Central Coosa High School. It is still out in the middle of no where and it was cold. I don’t know where Brian Beckham was Friday night, or Randy Bell. Justin Tuck now plays for the Oakland Raiders, and he was a long way from Coosa County last Friday. I haven’t seen Gary Freeman since he left T.R. Miller and I would be willing to bet he hasn’t been back to the stadium in the bottom. But for one brief moment 14 years ago, we were all there at the same time, in the middle of an incredible playoff run. Chasing All Pros, taking pictures, winning playoff games.
We were having the time of our life and didn’t even know it.
I celebrated my 59th birthday this week although when you are in your late 50’s I’m not sure that you celebrate birthdays. My parents gave me a framed T.R. Miller Tiger car tag. They said that the tag originally belonged to Leo Mills. He and his wife Ann and their son Jim lived over on Lovelace Avenue to the best of my memory when we were all growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. Jim was a year older than me so we played everything together, from little league baseball to varsity football. Jim was big – 6’5 – and was a really good athlete. He was good enough to punt for Jacksonville State University and also play junior college baseball.
The tag looks great and is from the late 1960’s. It is a nice piece of memorabilia and is not the only thing I have gathered for myself and for the field house in the past few years. Earlier this fall I looked out near the dumpster and saw a red seat cushion. Upon closer inspection I immediately recognized it as one of the seat cushions we sold in 1972 when Larry Rampey was our head coach. It was in amazing condition and I snagged it up quickly. Down through the years we have found football tickets for 50 cents and an athletic certificate from the early 60’s with Sammie Franklin’s name on it. Occasionally someone will come by the field house and say they found this when they were cleaning up and ask me if I want it. Of course I always do.
I got one of our most prized possessions when we opened the field house in 2001. Charles Ray McLellan came by and spent about an hour looking around the field house at everything on the walls. On his way out he came by to tell me how great it all looked. He then asked me, “Would you be interested in a 1948 T.R. Miller football jersey?” No doubt I would. The jerseys in those days were not red but more of a wine color. Coach Ben McCleod had changed the colors from black and gold to crimson when he arrived from the University of Alabama in 1938. “I would love to have one!” I said. “Well, “ Charles Ray replied, “ I stole 3 of them when I graduated from high school! I’ll let you have one of them.” I told him, “You know, I don’t think the statue of limitations has run out on that. Technically, those are still my jerseys!” He laughed and said, “Maybe so, but you can only have one of them. “ A few days later he brought by #48 and I got it framed. I have a team picture from that year with Donald Ogletree wearing that very same jersey.
If you have some T.R. Miller memorabilia, please bring it by and we would be happy to take it and put it on the walls somewhere. It is hard to know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been.
In the summer of 1972 I got a job working for Jack Wellborn at the Medical Center Pharmacy. My job was to deliver medicine, mop the floor, fill up the Coke machine and put stuff on the shelves. A few days after I started I noticed this guy that came in on a regular basis just to see Jack and talk about sports. That was my first introduction to my lifelong friend, Andrew “Zeke” Johnson.
Having spent a good part of 40 years around someone, you get to know a lot about that person. Even though I am the head coach and primary teacher of football and the football players at Miller, I have come to realize that I have learned much more from Zeke than I am sure he has learned from me.
WHAT I HAVE LEARNED FROM ZEKE
1) TO BE LOYAL- Zeke loves T.R. Miller. He is loyal to us, and when I say us I mean the players, the coaches, the school, the fans. Even on a player’s worse day, that player knows Zeke is still behind him. He doesn’t criticize you, doesn’t complain. If Zeke hears something in confidence, he will never tell anyone else. He has always understood his role, and has been willing to help me with anything I ask him to do. Zeke knows that I am busy as game day approaches and he always comes to help me put out the pants and jerseys for the players. He always bleeds T.R. Miller red.
2) TO CARE FOR AND RESPECT OTHER PEOPLE- Zeke loves people. I have heard him invite many people to his church. He has always told me who in our community might be sick or have some other problem. If something appeared to be bothering one of our players, Zeke could always tell me so we might be able to do something to help. He and my son Wil had birthdays that were right together and we have always tried to have one birthday for both. He always had a long list of people that he wanted to invite to the party. One of the reasons that all the players have loved Zeke is that he doesn’t care who you are, how much money you have or how good a player you are. He has time for every player, and treats them all with respect. Zeke refuses to say an unkind word about anyone. It just does not come out of his mouth. And if you ever do something for him out of kindness, you will have a friend for life.
3) TO HAVE A GOOD TIME- Zeke loves to kid and tease people. He has a sharp tongue and you don’t want to get in a verbal war with him. Nobody enjoys a good practical joke more than Zeke. He has loved going on road trips with all of our teams and the players love for him to go. His pep rally speeches are legendary. No one can fire up a gym like Zeke. He is never in a bad mood. He truly enjoys each day he has been given. We should all have an attitude as positive as Zeke Johnson. I have many, many stories that I and many other people could tell about Zeke. Some cannot be told for we are sworn to secrecy. Plus Zeke knows more on us than we could possible know on him. I will just have to save that for my book one day.
Thank you Zeke for 40 years of greatness at T.R. Miller.