June 24, 2009
“To live for the moment is the prevailing passion—to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity. We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future.”
—Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism
When he was 16, Bill McCain told his mother, “You won”t ever have to worry about me again.” He left the family farm in rural Randolph County, Alabama, and moved 40 miles away to West Point, Georgia, where he went to work on the night shift in a cotton mill.
You”ve heard of people who worked their way through college? My father worked his way through high school. Most of his cotton-mill pay went for room and board and books—in those days, public-school students in Georgia had to buy their own textbooks—at the school where he became a football star.
Football was the cause of my father’s decision to relocate to Georgia. His gridiron ability already had gained him notice in Randolph County, but he was sufficiently shrewd to recognize that West Point had a better coach and that he would stand a better chance of attracting the notice of college scouts if he played on a championship squad.
Five-foot-eight and lean, Bill McCain was not a big man, but he was smart, fast and tough. In 1940, the era of football behemoths—pumped up by weightlifting regimens, protein supplements and steroids—was still at least three decades in the future. Back in the day, plenty of college football teams had “watch-pocket guards,” wiry linemen under six feet tall who made up in quick, hard-hitting tenacity what they lacked in sheer bulk.
Dad played end, on both offense and defense. Naturally, his boyhood hero was Don Hutson, the All-America end who led the University of Alabama to a national championship still recalled in the Crimson Tide fight song with the lyrics, “remember the Rose Bowl we”ll win.” Bill McCain had listened to the 1935 New Year’s Day radio broadcast as Hutson—destined to become a Hall of Famer for the Green Bay Packers—caught six passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns in Pasadena to lead the Tide to a 29-13 victory over Stanford. Yet it was the fellow who described himself as “the other end” on that championship squad—a tough farm boy from Fordyce, Arkansas, named Paul “Bear” Bryant—who ultimately became synonymous with Alabama football legend.
The Gridiron Gospel
Fundamentalist Christianity is widely considered the dominant religion of the South, but certainly football ranks at least a close second. On autumn Saturdays in the Bible Belt, true believers gather at temples like Tuscaloosa’s Bryant-Denny Stadium in numbers that far exceed the congregation of even the largest mega-church.
It was during the Great Depression that the gridiron gospel gained its hold on Southern souls. Once I asked my Aunt Lera Mae—Dad’s older sister—about the impact of the Depression. “Well, we never really noticed,” she replied. “Times was always hard on the farm.” Lera Mae hastened to add that they”d never gone hungry, as more than 100 acres of red clay upland provided plenty of vegetables and feed for their livestock. Yet the Southern economy had never fully recovered from the devastation of the Civil War, and cash was always hard to come by. My grandfather made some money trading mules and horses, but when the bottom fell out of the cotton market after World War I, my ancestors could not escape the financial ruin that became nearly universal in the rural South.
Widespread poverty in the Cotton States preceded the Great Depression by a decade and had a profound impact on my father’s generation. The culture in which Dad grew up was chronicled in a 1989 book by University of Alabama historian Wayne Flynt, Poor but Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites
Of course, “poor white” has always had pejorative connotations. My folks were not as poor as some others, but in the ubiquitous poverty of early 20th-century Alabama, there was a sort of democracy of hardship in which no sin was as egregious as “putting on airs” of superiority. Arrogance and ostentation were scorned, a cordial down-to-earth style of courtesy was esteemed, and yet a stubborn, stoic pride was the unshakeable rock upon which this culture was founded.
“Boy, hold your head up high,” my parents and grandparents repeatedly told me. “There ain”t nobody better than you.” For decades, every Southern boy was drilled in that catechism. We were raised on such incitements to determined persistence as “You can do anything if you set your mind to it,” and “Can”t never could.”
Shadows of the Past
We needed no Horatio Alger novels, for our own parents personified the ethos of hard work and persistence they preached. After moving to Georgia at age 16, my Dad not only earned his own keep and made the football team at West Point High, he was named to the “All-Valley” team, accumulating a fine academic record as well, and was recruited by several colleges.
History intervened, however. In 1942, Uncle Sam decided Bill McCain’s abilities could be best put to use in the Army, where he served in a forward reconnaissance unit in France. He was wounded by German shrapnel in 1944—”A million-dollar wound, Mac,” the medic at the field hospital told him—and finished the war as the personal driver for a colonel in occupied France. Discharged with the rank of staff sergeant, the G.I. Bill put him through the University of Alabama, where he married my mother, another Randolph County girl.
After Dad graduated, they moved to Atlanta. Mom worked as a secretary and bookkeeper, first for Merganthaler Linotype and later for RCA Records, while Dad worked a year on the railroad before hiring on at the Lockheed Aircraft plant in Marietta, where he stayed for the next 37 years. The hard-working spirit of their Alabama youth kept both my parents busy in various small entrepreneurial ventures over the years. They sold Watkins Products door-to-door—poor folks in Austell, Georgia, always knew me as the son of “The Watkins Man”—and dabbled in real estate development and other enterprises. The summer I was 12, I recall going door to door in Cobb County, handing out fliers for a garbage-hauling business my father had started, having purchased a big truck and hired two fellows to run the route.
My two brothers and I grew up in a handsome brick home on a large tree-shaded lot in Lithia Springs—now a booming Atlanta suburb, but then still a relatively sleepy small town—where our middle-class status was always haunted by the shadow of our parents” childhood poverty. We were constantly reminded of how fortunate we were, a message reinforced by frequent visits “down home” to Randolph County, where my father’s mother still lived in a four-room farmhouse, hoed her own garden, and drew her water from a well. By the early 1970s, with her health beginning to decline, Maw McCain consented to let her children pay to install plumbing at the home place. For most of my childhood, however, there was not even an outhouse at Maw McCain’s, where one attended to calls of nature at a designated area behind the dilapidated old barn.
Catechism in Cleats
Nearly all the teachers, ministers, Scout leaders, and other adults who influenced my youth came from similar backgrounds, if not indeed from poverty so dire as to make Maw McCain seem an aristocrat by comparison. The catechism of our parents’ rural roots was constantly reinforced in school and church. So while we grew up in the radical Sixties and the swinging Seventies, we could not escape a full-immersion baptism in the folkways of Depression-era rural life.
Nowhere, however, were the lessons of that poor-but-proud culture taught more rigorously than on the football field. I never played football in high school—as a trombonist of some skill, I proudly performed in the Douglas County High Marching Tiger Band—but from ages nine to 14, I was a first-team lineman for the Sweetwater Valley Red Raiders, competing in the Cobb County youth league.
Go ahead and laugh at “midget” football, but 40 years ago, it was taken quite seriously by our coaches. Most of these coaches were veterans of World War II or the Korean War who saw nothing wrong with drilling youth football players as if they were Marine recruits at Parris Island en route to combat assignments in Vietnam.
That attitude was shared by our parents. My father offered me some advice from his own career. The key to winning as a lineman, Dad said, was the first play from scrimmage. Come to the line with the determination to fire off as soon as the ball was snapped and hit the other guy as hard as you can. “Line up and look him in the eye and say, “I”m going to beat you today,” and then knock him on his butt. Hit him as hard as you can, then come back on the next play and do it again. Just keep at it until you”ve got him beat.”
My most memorable season was in 1970, when Sweetwater Valley’s 75-pound team was coached by a guy named Chuck Starnes. We placed second in our league that year and the Red Raiders were invited to compete in a post-season tournament in Panama City, Florida. It was during that late-November trip, at age 11, that I first kissed a girl, a cheerleader named Darlene Goza with the most adorably dimpled chin you ever saw.
We won our first tournament game in Florida with ease, advancing to the championship game against a team from Bessemer, Alabama. Those Bessemer boys were huge and, though I managed to hold my own at right guard, our opponents fielded an aggressive 5-4-2 defensive formation that stymied our offense, while our defense could not contain their running backs.
Tears in the Huddle
Our quarterback was Tim Crunk, who eventually went on to be starting quarterback for South Cobb High. He played college ball and eventually became a coach and school administrator in Cobb County. Tim had a blond crew-cut and a foghorn voice, and anything he lacked in native athleticism was more than compensated by his devotion to winning.
Tim Crunk could not stand to lose and I will never forget the November day in 1970 when Bessemer was beating us in the championship game in that Panama City tournament. We fell behind by two touchdowns early, then got a stern chewing-out by our coaches at halftime, and returned for the second half determined to make up the deficit. Alas, victory was not to be ours that day and, as the clock ticked down in the fourth quarter, the inevitability of defeat was apparent.
After another Bessemer touchdown and the ensuing kickoff, the Red Raiders huddled up, waiting for Crunk to come in and call the first play of what looked to be our final series on offense. Tim ran in from the sidelines and when I looked up, tears were streaming down his face from eyes reddened by shame and rage. He managed to choke out the call, and we went to the line rattled by what we had seen.
Tim Crunk was a tough kid and no crybaby, but the experience of being beaten in this game—the pinnacle of his football career to date “ had stirred in him emotions too powerful for an 11-year-old to restrain. When we returned to the huddle for the second play of the series, Tim’s tears were still flowing and now others were crying, too, including halfback Mike Stone.
Our center, Royce McAllister, was probably the toughest player I ever knew. McAllister tried to console Tim and Mike but, as he did so, I noticed that Royce’s eyes were also beginning to brim with tears. And so it went, as we played out the clock that day in Florida.
Did I cry? I honestly don”t remember if I did, but I will never forget the mortification I felt at seeing Tim Crunk reduced to tears by the shame of defeat.
The Same Game
Nearly four decades later, that scene is etched in my mind, emblematic of the fierce desire for victory that is the spirit of champions. What distinguishes the champion—not merely in football or other athletic endeavors, but in every walk of life—is the reckless commitment to expend every possible effort to attain victory.
My own twin sons are now 16, and work various jobs to earn their own tuition at the small private school they attend. On Father’s Day, I found myself thinking of my late father, who left the family farm and worked his way through at West Point High.
Whatever the future may hold for my sons, I hope they never forget what I learned from the old man, No. 27. Success in any endeavor starts with the resolute determination to succeed. No matter how formidable the competition, hold your head up high. They”re no better than you, and victory begins with the decision to rule out the possibility of defeat. “Can”t never could.”
That attitude took my father from a farm in Alabama to a brick home in the suburbs of Atlanta. It took me from Georgia to Washington, where now I find myself in daily competition no less formidable than those big boys from Bessemer, even if the sport is a bit more refined. Really, though, it’s still the same game, and the formula for winning has never changed.
I”m going to beat you today.
Count on it, buddy. I didn”t come this far to start losing now.