Phillip Thompson

Crime Fiction writer

Somebody read yesterday’s post and asked about high school football. Never ask a writer to tell a story …

I mentioned in that post that Coach Butch Jones taught us — whether we wanted to be taught or not — about quitting. Or not quitting.  He was pretty effective.  Yeah, I say “effective” now — that’s not what we called him back then. Coach Jones, who left for a job with North Texas State before I graduated, had a habit of almost daring us to quit his football team, and then making the quitter regret it. One of his more infamous tactics was to take the team picture on the first couple of days of fall (which in Mississippi means August, which means Africa Hot Afternoons) practice. This of course was before practice got really difficult and nobody had quit. This was a full-on photo — home uniforms, helmets, everything. And that was the picture that was submitted to the yearbook staff months later.

And if you quit between the time the picture was taken and when it was submitted to the staff, Jones would include one simple word beside your name: QUIT.

See? Effective. It had the intended effect — those likely to quit the Spanish Inquisition torture sessions he called practice didn’t bother to go out for the team, thus sparing themselves the humiliation.

But such tactics didn’t always work. So he had to result to another method to weed out the undesirables. Call it The Irresistible Force Meeting The Immovable Object.

My sophomore year, we practiced on a patch of dirt across the road from the high school, and that summer had been especially dry and typically Mississippi hot. In other words, damn hot in August. During one afternoon practice in our first week of two-a-days, we lined up for sprints at the end of practice. Now, Jones had a few rules about running sprints. Rule No. 1 was we ran until he got tired, not until we got tired. Rule No. 2 was Never Ask Coach Jones How Many Sprints We’re Running Today. To break Rule No. 2 was add a minimum of 5 more sprints to whatever impossible number he’d already dreamed up in his head. Rule No. 3 was refer to Rules 1 and 2.

On this particular afternoon, under a blazing sun, we ran. And ran. And ran. Most of us stopped trying to keep count — it was pointless and we really didn’t want to know. We just ran past the line where he stood, whistle clamped in his teeth, arms folded, while the assistant coaches smiled and grabassed off to the side. He would remove the whistle only to cajole, chastise and mock us. Daring us to quit. Telling us that Hamilton (or whoever our first opponent was) was running sprints and could outrun ever single last one of us. And we just kept lining up, hunched over, waiting for the whistle blast that would launch us, careening across the dirt.

Coach Jones had a peculiar habit of keeping count of how many sprints we ran (see, he wasn’t totally impervious to our plight) by writing the number in the dust with the toe of his shoe. I know this because I gasped past him on one of those sprints, looked down and saw him writing a number:   37

I nearly passed out. Had we really run 37 40-yard sprints? My lungs and legs thought so. I was ready to quit. I’d half made up my mind I was going to quit if I so much as had to run one more sprint. Hell, yeah, I was quitting. I didn’t have to put up with this.

I lined up and waited for the whistle.

After a few more, the incredible happened. A player (I have no recollection of who) did it. He … QUIT. He said “Enough” and Walked. Off. The. Field. The whole team stopped and stared, then our heads, as one, swiveled back toward Coach Jones.

Had I been lucid at the time, I would have been in shock, fearing for that unfortunate player’s life. You don’t QUIT a Coach Jones football team! You just ran God Knows How Many sprints! For the love of God, man, if you’re going to quit, you quit before you run!

Then, something equally incredible happened. Coach Jones watched the quitter (sorry, that’s what he was and would forever be in my dazed, exhausted mind) leave the field, then looked at the rest of us, ragged and drooping, breathing likes dogs at the end of the Iditarod. He blew the whistle and said, “Field House.” He didn’t have to say it twice. We bolted like quail and didn’t look back until we were in the shower.

It took me a long time, years in fact, to understand what Coach Jones had done that day, which was more than prove a point.  He’d found a weak link and took it out — and proved that he knew where the weak link was and how to remove it.

Nobody quit that team for the rest of the year.

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