Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Gone, but still they’ll be the last to leave: Of Love and Lights and Life at Garrett Stadium

From Sunday's TIMES and NEWS-STAR

His favorite phrase of encouragement was “Attababy!, Attaboy!”

Like the man, the phrase was quick and uncomplicated. What you heard was what he meant and what you saw was what you got. And what you got was a guy in school colors, tackling the challenges of the day as they came up – just like in a game – one ear listening for any gossip of bass biting, one eye zeroing in on duck season and the other on his grandkids’ schedule.

He preached being at your best when the lights were brightest, hanging out with the right people, doing the next right thing and doing “your!” job now, on this play, this moment, with a jersey on or not.

He preached the forward pass too, but not many disciples could twirl it like he could, back when Woodlawn High in Shreveport was new and so was he, back before a conference title in college, back before they started calling him “Dr. Offense,” back when it was just him and Brenda and the prom and all those games to play, back when he was just a teen, a young Billy Laird.

The month of May caught Ruston unprepared when the stroke put him in the hospital, and June 15 was hard to accept when the church emptied and the funeral was over and it became real, when all that was left was the sound of a recording of Vince Gill singing to the congregation, not encouraging a young Billy to throw it long but honoring a 71-year-old still-too-young Coach Laird on his way to “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”

Ruston High lost its present-day athletic director and its head football coach from 2004-2012. Brad Laird, the Bearcats’ coach today, had lost something else. He’d lost his dad.

Chick Childress had a sermon too, and it was defense and a four-man front and play like leaders, and a 7-0 victory was about the most beautiful thing he could imagine. He won four state titles at Ruston; his son, Dan, was his father’s first state champion quarterback at Ruston, in 1982. Brad Laird was his last, on the final team Chick coached, the 15-0 state and national champs in 1990.

Meanwhile Dan married and moved to Arkansas with his young family, Billy coached in Arkansas and ended up coaching at Ruston High, Brad left to play and coach and then came back to Ruston and took over for his dad, and Chick retired in Ruston. 

But then another surprise. A month to the day after Coach Laird's funeral -- July 15 in Sibley Cemetery -- Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Chick Childress was laid to rest, dead at 83 after a short illness.

So Friday night, Sept. 4, for the first time in a long, long time – for the first time in decades -- Ruston will play at Neville without Billy or Chick either in the stadium, on the sidelines, or trying to get close to a radio.

Dan and Brad, like many other sons this fall, will head into their first football seasons ever without the men who taught them the game. Dads who threw ball with sons in the back yard. Took them to games. Watched them play. Enjoyed the games together as fans. It’s a different kind of season this year for a lot of people, including at Ruston High and especially around Jimmy “Chick” Childress Field House.

No mid-morning Chick visits to visit and talk, and rarely about football. No coaching caps flying in the air. No glance from a young coach’s eyes to an older coach’s eyes, looks anchored in meaning because of history, because of knowing. We might be a bit shy on “attababys,” too, and I hate that.

Ballgames end and seasons end and even teams come to an end. For me and maybe for some others, some of those endings are the most difficult part of being human. But the spirit of things, something that hangs in the air – even if you can only feel it, or him, or them – something seems eternal, even around a field house, or a ballpark, or any other kind of home.

Life’s a circle sometimes. Maybe all the time. Back on July 12, 1997, legendary Ruston football coach “Hoss” Garrett, whose name is on the Bearcats’ stadium today, was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, posthumously. His son Pat, who navigated his way around James Field pretty well in the mid-1950s, accepted on behalf of his father. This is part of what he’d written, and then read that night in Natchitoches:

“…When late dew sweetens James Field bermuda
And pads are hung and all have left
I see you there, always the last to leave,
Walking out to flip the switch and let starlight in.
And as I wait in darkness, I hear your step
Timeless and indefatigable
And I know that love is life, and that it never ends.”