I recently had the opportunity to reconnect with some old high school football teammates. And when I say old, I mean it.
This was the 50th reunion of the 1969 state champion Loudon Redskins. We were invited back to be a part of the induction of the first Loudon High Sports Hall of Fame. The game was the season opener against hated rival Lenoir City (I still don’t like the orange and black of Halloween). The game was on Thursday and my game was on Friday so I had the chance to go.
We were asked to arrive early and have the pre-game meal with the current team. The ’69 bunch sat and reminisced while the players wondered how this bunch of old guys could ever have played football. We joined them as Coach Harig delivered his pre-game speech, calling on his team to stand on the shoulders of those players that had gone before.
I really enjoyed catching up with old teammates like Dickie Blankenship, Wayne Poole, Ronnie Watkins, Fred Chaney, Scotty Akins, Yancy Hampton, Hank Evans. I’ve stayed in touch a bit with others, like Gordo Watson, J.L. Millsaps, and Lonnie Hawkins. I was overjoyed to get to spend time with Mike Bivens. I had not seen him in 25 years.
“Big Mike” and I spent a lot of years together. He and I went all through school together and were always among the better students, were good kids, and went to American Legion Boys’ State together. We even bagged groceries at the White Store together for a while. And when it came to football, we were side by side. He was the tackle and I was the guard on the right side. He was the defensive tackle and I was the linebacker behind him. Always together.
As his nickname implied, he was the biggest of all of us. I think he was class president all four of our high school years. He was our protector, our brother, our teammate. Smarter than most, gentler than all, I honestly recall only once seeing him angry. He made it a very special night for me.
It was also an opportunity to spend some quality time with one of our coaches, Dr. Gary Dutton. Coach Dutton and I have crossed paths numerous times through the years but our conversations were always brief.
You may have heard my story about how legendary Loudon football Coach Bert “Chig” Ratledge changed my life’s direction forever when I overhead him tell someone “he can be a good one if he works at it.” He was talking about me, this underachieving high school sophomore with zero self-confidence. Coach Dutton was just as important an influence on me in those oh-so-important teenage years.
My senior season was 1970, the year that Maryville High won the high school state football championship. In my many years in Maryville, I’ve come to know a lot of those Maryville players. Tommy Beaver. John and Joe Emert. Buzz Thomas. Jeff Mills.
When we played them, I knew a lot of Maryville’s seniors by name. Coach Dutton, who played at Maryville College, had coached those players as ninth graders at Maryville Junior High before returning to his alma mater to begin a long and storied career in coaching and academics. He made sure we knew them as individuals.
I was trash talking from the opening kickoff (yeah … I know … hard to believe), surprising the Maryville players by calling them by their names. We knew that team well. Jim Allison, all-state tackle that went to UT. Troy Bowman, a bruising fullback as big as our linemen.
Oh did we want to win that game for Coach Dutton. Those were his boys once, but we were his team now. It was a great game. We led most of the game, up 21-7 at one time. It was tied 28-28 late in the game when Maryville scored the winning touchdown.
As I walked off the field, totally exhausted and brokenhearted, I went up to Coach Dutton and said “I’m sorry Coach.” He replied “It’s OK Joe. You gave it everything you could.”
And that’s something that has stuck with me my entire life — that there is honor in losing if you give it everything you’ve got.
We can never be successful at everything that we do. We will inevitably fail at something. But it’s what you do when you get knocked down that matters most — that is what determines who you really are.