Book excerpt: 'What else might I have become?'
In his latest book, "It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium," John Ed Bradley chronicles his rediscovery of the LSU team that he had long forsaken but never forgotten.
You should've seen my father's arms. He didn't lift weights or do pushups or exercise them in any way, and yet they were packed tight with muscle. When I was a boy and he lifted his highball in the evening for a sip, a round knot the size of a softball came up under the skin and slowly flattened out when he lowered the glass back down. I loved his arms so much that I memorized every vein, sinew, and golden hair. I knew the wrinkles of his elbows.
In the summer, when he worked for the city's recreation department, supervising the baseball program at the park, Daddy liked to come home for lunch and a nap. He had lemonade and a BLT, then he had me lie close to him on the sofa and he draped an arm around me. "One two three " he'd count in a whisper, and then he was out, sleeping that easily.
I lay there wondering if I'd ever have arms like his. I needed both hands to travel the distance around his wrist, the tips of my thumbs and fingers barely touching. I felt the hardness of his forearm. I saw how his wedding band fit him like a strand of barbed wire on a tree whose bark had grown around it. He smelled of the grass and the sun, of green and gold days that started early and ended late.
"Were you a good player?" I asked him once, as he was coming awake.
"Was I what?"
"A good player?"
"You want to know if I was a good player?"
"What kind of question is that?"
"I don't know. Did they run your name in the paper a lot?"
He looked at me in a way that let me know he wanted my attention. "None of it matters, John Ed. Was I a good teammate? Did I do my best and give everything I had to help the team? These are the questions you need to be asking."
I wondered how to answer them, these questions he found of such importance. Many years would have to pass before I was old enough to join a team. He pulled me close again, as if he'd just remembered something. "John Ed?"
"Always be humble."
The rest of the year he worked as a civics teacher and coach at the high school in town. The town was Opelousas, on the road between Alexandria and Lafayette, and it was just small enough, at about twenty thousand, to be excluded from Louisiana state maps when TV weathermen gave their forecasts in the evening. In the morning, my father left home wearing coach's slacks with sharp creases and a polo shirt with a Tiger emblem and the words OHS Football printed in Halloween orange on the left breast, the lettering melted from too much time in the dryer. A whistle hung from a nylon cord around his neck. It was still hanging there when he returned at night and sat down to a cold supper -- the same meal Mama had served her children hours earlier. "You don't want me to warm it for you, Johnny?"
"No, baby. That's okay."
Sometimes in the afternoon, Mama drove me out to the school. She parked under the oak tree by the gymnasium, pointed to where she wanted me to go, and I walked out past a gate in a hurricane fence to the field where my father and the other coaches were holding practice. Four years old, I wore the same crew cut that my father wore. I stumbled through tall grass and out past the red clay track that encircled the field. At home, my father didn't raise his voice, but here he seemed to shout with every breath. A team manager took me by the hand and led me to a long pine bench on the sideline. I sat among Igloo coolers, spare shoulder pads and toolboxes crammed with First Aid supplies. I waited until the last drill had ended and the players came one after another to the coolers for water the same temperature as the day, drunk in single gulps from paper cups shaped like cones. The players took turns giving the top of my head a mussing. "You gonna play football when you grow up?"
"I don't know."
"You gonna be a coach like your daddy?"
"I want to."
Already I was certain that no one mattered more than a coach. I would trade any day to come for a chance to be that boy again, understanding for the first time who his father was. Give me August and two-a-days and a group of teenagers who are now old men, their uniforms stained green from the grass and black with Louisiana loam. Give me my father's voice as he shouts to them, pushing them harder than they believe they can go, willing them to be better. Give me my father when practice is over and he walks to where I'm sitting and reaches his arms out to hold me.
I was doomed from the start. If not an LSU football player, what else might I have become? Daddy was so devoted to the team that in the fall he would weigh the merits of each week based on whether the Tigers won or lost on Saturday night. He could be as thoughtful and philosophical as any other high school coach when his own team lost, but he was so devoted to LSU that he was far less understanding when the Tigers from Baton Rouge did. How many times did he leave the house late in a televised game, unable to watch another play? If it looked like the Tigers were going to lose a close one, he was especially long in returning. "Where have you been?" we'd yell at him, when he finally came back inside.
"Nowhere," he'd say. "What happened?"
In those days, LSU games rarely appeared on television more than a couple of times a year. And so we were dedicated listeners to the radio broadcasts and play-by-play announcer John Ferguson. We listened while my mother made potato salad in the kitchen and Daddy barbecued outside on the patio. He'd sit there in a lawn chair, lost in concentration as his chicken burned, a purple-and-gold cap tipped back on his head. His arms, legs, and neck glistened with mosquito repellant, and he sipped from a can of beer wrapped in a foam hugger advertising a local insurance agency. Not far away from his smoldering pit, on a narrow piece of finely manicured St. Augustine, I acted the game out with neighborhood friends, some of us dressed in Little Tiger uniforms. We played until somebody ran into a ligustrum hedge or got clotheslined by a real clothesline, and my father called for an end to the rough-and-tumble and sat me down next to him. "Settle down now," he'd say. "LSU's on."
In his mind, the football team represented the entire state of Louisiana, and the way the team performed gave the rest of the nation a snapshot of what kind of people we were. Notre Dame's boys might be bigger and stronger than ours, but we weren't afraid to line up against them and see who wanted it more. USC might have better talent -- okay, he'd concede that -- but you needed more than talent to beat LSU. The Tigers often were underdogs, just like the state of Louisiana. Our players scrapped and hustled and always showed good sportsmanship, never more so than when they lost. On defense, they fought off larger opponents, swarmed to the ball, and made spirited gang tackles, and on offense, everyone gave a second effort, including the quarterback, who wasn't afraid to lower his shoulder and block a player twice his size if that was what it took to win.
Daddy had no use for showboats and loudmouths. He believed that humility was equivalent to class in a man, and nothing pleased him more than to hear a player deflect the praise he'd earned and credit his teammates instead. Players who danced in the end zone after scoring were buffoons. Those who calmly handed the ball to an official were to be admired.Opelousas produced few athletes who went on to play in Baton Rouge. Those who did carried a large part of my father's identity with them. I remember when John Weinstein and Skip Cormier played on LSU's defensive line in the early 1970s. Both made big hits in important TV games that we watched as a family. Every time the announcers mentioned either Weinstein's or Cormier's name, Daddy turned in his seat and faced his children. "He's from here," he said.
When Jeff Sandoz, a football and track star at Opelousas High, signed a scholarship with LSU, my father drove me to his house one day after school and parked by the curb in front. We sat there a minute looking at the place, even though we'd seen it a thousand times before. I didn't have to ask him why we had stopped there. When we returned home, he had me go inside and get a football. We spent the rest of the afternoon throwing passes in the yard.
"It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium" is published by ESPN Books. This excerpt is run with permission of the publisher.
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