Forty five years ago, in late August of 1970, a rag tag bunch of scrawny or muscled, slow or fast, fit or fat sophomore and junior boys from Belton, Texas reported to two-a-days to a mean, ornery, old cuss who was our B Team head coach. His name was Hugh Sullivan. He was also known as “Sonny”, but we would never call him that. Except behind his back. We feared him. We ran a lot. He dreamed up tortuous drills. Most involved tackling or some other way to get the snot knocked out of you. I remember taking the school bus out to the baseball field at Mary Hardin-Baylor to practice. We called it “Goathead” because of the thorny stickers. When we ran sprints at Goathead we would do it in two lines. The line in back would take their helmets off and try to hit whoever was in front of them with it. If you were in the back line and caught up with someone, you were instructed to “whale the tar” out of them. If he was unhappy, we did “monkey crawls.” Or we’d roll on our sides for 50 yards and back. Or, maybe, we might run a mile around the track in our pads, just for fun. He liked to see us run.
This was back in the days when practice provided one water break. Cramps were treated with salt tablets. We were taught to tackle with our heads, head on. Arm tackling or pushing would get you a good chewing out.
Players also handed the ball to the referee after a touchdown. There was no celebration in the end zone and we didn’t take our helmets off. Ever. Unless it was to hit somebody during sprints. Helmets were our friends.
Coach worked us hard. He didn’t accept excuses. He would get in your face at the drop of a hat. He knew how to swing a paddle if you got too far out of line. And he didn’t like to lose.
Unfortunately, we lost our first game that year to Waco Richfield, 22-18. Coach was livid. He didn’t even want to talk to us after the game. It was a home game on a Thursday night at Tiger Field. Usually we would have had a light practice in shorts on Friday. Not this time. We suited up and practiced. Then we ran and ran. And ran some more.
We also didn’t lose another game.
We had five shutouts after that. No one scored more than two touchdowns against us while we averaged a little over 36 points per game.
Coach Sullivan brought out the best in us and we came to love him.
Oh, he was intense. Oh, he was competitive. But there was another side to him. A softer side. The side you got to know when he was taping your ankles. The side you got to know when he was applying ultrasound to your aches. The side you knew was sincere when he prayed before each game. (Oh, how he could pray.) The side that never hesitated to praise you when you did good.
How we wanted to please him.
I made the long drive back to Belton this week for Coach’s funeral. He was 80 years young and had fought cancer for several years. He’d had a stroke earlier this year, but he never quit. He still went to all the ball games, church, Sunday School, Bible Study and old Tiger get-to-gathers at Miller’s Bar-B-Que.
My drive gave me plenty of windshield time to reflect on the impact he had on me. I never realized it, but he was only 35 years old when I was on the B Team. We thought he was old. At least fifty. He was just getting started. He went on to become head coach and athletic director for Belton.
After that season many of the more talented players on that team moved on. They either quit football or moved out of town. Thank goodness for me. Otherwise, my shadow would have never darkened the varsity field on Friday nights.
Sure, Coach had many accomplishments during his career other than that little B Team. He coached many District champions. He developed many programs in the Belton school system that benefitted boys and girls alike. He touched many, many lives, whether it was in sports or teaching drivers ed. He was a stallion. Still, I like to think that B Team had a special place in his heart.
As I reflected, I remembered his smile, his laugh and those Paul Newman eyes. I remembered how much it meant when he would put his arm around me and tell me I had done something well. Sometimes, I think I only played football after that year because I didn’t want to disappoint him. Well, that, and I didn’t want to have to march in the band at half time.
If you’re wondering where I am in the team picture and you have a magnifying glass, just look for the handsome number 30 right in the middle. He has a full head of hair. Remember, that was forty five years ago.
The last time I saw Coach was 10 years ago. It was my mother’s 80th birthday and it was celebrated at half time of a UMHB game. Coach was there and he came down to tell me hi and give me a big hug. I got to introduce him to my wife and all of my children. To me, he looked the same as he did in August of 1970. We had a good visit and promised to see each other again. We never did and I regret that. Maybe this blog is that visit.
All I can say now is thank you, Coach, thank you for everything. Rest in Peace.