The State of Alabama has been consumed with football over the past couple of weeks. Last Friday we had the annual clash between Alabama and Auburn. The last couple of days we’ve had the high school championships. Today the University of Alabama and Florida play for the SEC Championship. All of this football made me think back to my high school days and to one of the best football players I have ever known. His name was Alvin, but we all called him “Joe Blue”.
Joe Blue came from the government housing project on the east side of town. Among the kids this neighborhood was known as “The Bricks”, because the little houses and apartments were all cookie-cutter variety brick structures. When Sylacauga schools were integrated, the two all-black schools in the Bricks (an elementary school and a high school) became a sixth grade school and a junior high for the entire town. It was a rough place in the 1970’s. Assaults, stabbings and robberies were commonplace among the residents. My mom was the director of the government run preschool there for a while, so I got to see a little more of life in The Bricks than the average white kid. It was a tough place for any kid to grow up.
Joe Blue was a quiet kid off the football field. He was always dressed in the kind of clothes you’d expect to see at a “Thrift Store” today. I had no classes with him, as I was in the college prep group and he was in the “special ed” group. I never saw one of his parents attend a game or pick him up at school. He walked everywhere he went. I don’t remember him ever being involved in anything at school other than football: no clubs, no activities, no girl friends. He was the kind of kid you hardly notice, really. But on the field he was a different story.
He was a kid that God might have built for football: about 5’11’, 200 pounds; no neck; all muscle stretched over big bones. He played two positions: full back and nose guard. These two positions require reckless abandon and and the ability to deliver punishing hits. He played the game like it was meant to be played: all out, every play, until the whistle blew or the clock ran out. Some of my team-mates said he was so good because he was “too stupid to feel pain”. And truthfully he was a little “slow” mentally. If at fullback, when the play called for him to get the ball, the quarterback would often have to tell him, “go right, between the tackle and tight end”, or “roll to the left flat and look for a pass”. But on defense, where he truly excelled, he simply went to the ball. And God help whoever happened to be holding it when he arrived.
Joe Blue played best when worked up into a frenzy. Our sophomore and junior years, we had a coach who knew how to bring that out. He was the kind of man you’d follow into battle. A coach who yelled, screamed, hugged, jumped up and down, and otherwise did whatever he felt necessary to motivate. Like all great coaches, he could determine the right motivational button to push with each individual player. With Joe Blue, it was the “he’s going to beat you speech”. It went something like this:
Coach: “You can’t stop him, Alvin.”
Joe Blue: “I got him.”
Coach:(Louder) “He’s whippin’ you, Alvin.”
Joe Blue: “He ain’t gonna whip me.”
Coach: (Now Yelling) “You’re getting whipped, Alvin; you’re beat; you can’t do it.”
Joe Blue: (Also Yelling)”Ain’t gonna whip me. Ain’t gonna whip me. Can’t whip me.”
This scenario was repeated as necessary. And after this kind of coach induced self-hypnotism, whoever had the misfortune to be lined up in front of Joe Blue got creamed.
Our senior season was a different matter. We had a new coach. He was a preppy little guy who had played some college ball at Auburn. His only coaching experience had been serving as an assistant coach at one of the big Birmingham suburb schools. This was a school known for academics. A school that was wealthy and lily white. This guy liked to make quiet little speeches and tell stories with a moral. He was about as inspiring and motivating as an accountant. And he had no patience for Joe’s mental slowness. Joe was quickly relegated to one position–defense. But the frenzy was no longer there. He was still good, but not as good as he had been with the “working up”. I think something in his spirit had been broken by the new coach. In some ways, I guess he finally got whipped on the football field for the first time.
I’ve seen Joe Blue once since those high school days. I stopped to get some gas at a convenience store in Sylacauga, when I heard someone call my name. He still looked like a football player–solid and muscular–but a little gray-haired around the edges. I got a big bear hug and that old smile I’d only see after a victory when we were kids. When I asked him about his life, he simply said “I’m preaching the gospel now!”
I haven’t seen Joe Blue since. I hope he is still doing well. I do know this: if he preaches anything like he played football, Satan better buckle his chin strap, because he’s about to get his bell rung.