Coach Larry Davis came all the way from Auburn, Alabama, to attend a May reunion of Unadilla High School. He taught and coached in Unadilla, Georgia for three school terms, beginning in 1964, ending in 1967. It was his first job out of college. His wife Carol worked in the principal’s office part of that time. They lived within walking distance of the school.
I was standing outside on the sidewalk when Coach Davis walked up. I hadn’t seen him since school days, yet he called my name. That surprised me greatly. I was glad he didn’t ask me to call his.
We had a good time visiting. He and Carol enjoyed catching up with a lot of old friends, some of them star players on the basketball teams he coached. I understood how he remembered them. They had spent hours together in the gym. Some were exceptional athletes. I couldn’t figure out, however, why he would remember me.
The reunion lasted several hours. People would come and go. I was about to leave and saw Coach Davis and Carol sitting at a table. I walked over to say goodbye, to thank them for coming. Somewhere during those few steps, it came to me why he remembered. It was a story I had told on other occasions, but had almost forgotten.
When I was in the seventh grade, Coach Davis was our homeroom teacher. He was also the coach for the junior high boys’ basketball team, among other coaching and teaching duties.
Pinehurst Elementary School is where I had attended the first, second, and third grades. It was even smaller than Unadilla. I was the biggest, strongest, and fastest kid in my grade. I had a lot of muscle and speed, but not much coordination. I was great playing Red Rover, a game where the other players linked hands and tried to keep the runner from breaking through. There was nothing sweeter than the sound of, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Neil right over.” I was unstoppable.
In the fourth grade, our parents transferred my brother Jimmy and me to Unadilla. They didn’t play Red Rover in Unadilla, at least not in the fourth grade. I started a growth spurt that year, all of it upward. My bones outgrew my muscles. If I said that I was shaped like a pencil, that would be bragging.
My coordination had never been very good. With every inch I grew, it got worse. When we played baseball in the country on Sunday afternoons, I went to right field. If there was a long fly ball, I prayed that my good friend William Cross could get there in time from center. It was a long shot that I would catch it. I mostly used my glove to protect my head. I needed a helmet a lot more than a glove.
Coach Davis didn’t know that background. All he saw was a really tall seventh grade boy. He was a great teacher, smart, personable, and well-liked by the students. He said, “Joiner, if you don’t play basketball, I’m going to flunk you in homeroom.” That wasn’t a threat. It was pure flattery! Here was a cool young coach who thought I had potential. I walked around school a little taller that day.
I joined the team. The only thing that kept me from greatness was a lack of speed, strength, and coordination. Otherwise, I was an excellent recruit. My jump shot looked exactly like my set shot. The occasional rebound that I claimed was always due to a ball bouncing exactly where I was standing. Sometimes, if I held my hands up, the ball would happen to land between them.
The next year, Coach Davis moved to eighth grade homeroom. He never mentioned the basketball team. I didn’t either.
Coach Davis didn’t remember that seventh grade episode. He laughed and said it sounded like something he might have done. He told me if I had stayed with it, I might have made a pretty decent player. Here he was, over 50 years later, still looking through the eyes of a coach, still offering encouragement.
There’s no doubt in my mind that I would have always been on second string, maybe third if enough people went out for the team. But I always appreciated that Coach Davis saw more potential in me than I saw in myself. That’s what the best coaches do. That’s what the best teachers do. Put me in, Coach. I think I’m ready now.