With the world, especially this country, going batshit crazy, I try to think about when life was simpler, cancel culture didn't exist, and tough people who didn't need a safe place still roamed the country.
I had finished my senior year of football at Gardner Webb University in North Carolina in 1988 and , although on scholarship, bagged all of my classes for my last semester and then went back home to Maryland in late Spring. Failed every class. Why go to class if there was no more football? So I lost a bunch of weight (245 to 189) and got a job at a golf course in Maryland with my junior college buddy, Chris. I really liked the golf course job. We would get our assignments in the morning and then we would be off, cutting the rough, weed whacking around the greens. We worked hard, because that was what we were supposed to do. We would get a hoagie at lunch and then hit it some more. Chris got in an argument with the supervisor, who was a miserable son of a bitch, and then Chris was like, SCREW THIS JOB! and he was like, C'MON JIM! WE ARE OUT OF HERE! So we left that job. It turned out to be a good thing. I'd probably still be there if Chris hadn't lost his shit that day. I never would have coached if he hadn't and now, Chris is a big wig computer virus guy. The older guys at the golf course used to tell us to not work so hard, that we were making them look bad. They would hide back in the woods to get out of work. Can you imagine? Anyway, I was out of a job, at a dead end.
The end of summer was coming. I had a girlfriend at Gardner Webb, and I was missing her. Plus, what the hell else was I gonna do? I needed to graduate and I had an idea to try some coaching. So I went back to Gardner Webb and put on a jacket and tie and met with my old professor, who was now the Dean. She never did like me very much, the old bat. I met with her and said that I was sorry and all that, just faked the hell out of an apology and looked real pitiful. I remember she had this huge mole on her cheek like the teacher from Uncle Buck.
So I got back into school and had to repeat all my classes that I had failed. That sucked. One class, New Testament, I signed up for and then found out that I had already taken the class before, but it was almost at the end of the semester when I figured it out. That's how engaged I was in class. Then I went down to the football field house and sat with the head coach and asked if I could help out coaching. He said yes, after telling me how disappointed he was that I didn't show up for the football banquet the year before. I understood. The team captain missing the banquet. I was just DONE, didn't care one bit anymore. So done.
He told me that he couldn't pay me, but I didn't care, I was back in school and was helping coach the defensive line as basically an intern. I did odd jobs to pay rent and snuck into he cafeteria for meals. I was broke and hungry. The cafeteria girls were locals who were extra cool and maybe they could see that I was desperate. I remember one time I asked the guy changing the coffee if it was decaf or regular, and he said, "Don't matter, I just put regular in both." Nice. I had very little money. I lived in the basement of an old lady's house. She was very cool. I can't for the life of me remember her name.
Even though money was tight, I have to admit, we had a good time, myself and the graduate assistant coaches. I wasn't a grad assistant because I wasn't getting paid and was still an undergrad. Anyway, we had a blast. My buddy, Johnny lived in the football locker room in a storage closet. Bob was another graduate assistant who was married and had a daughter. He was just as wild as Johnny and I. We would load up the truck and go down to the one lane bridge and shoot guns and sometimes we would get out of practice and get a fifth of Jack Daniels or Evan Williams and sit in the back of Bob's Chevy S-10 back on the dirt roads and drink and bitch about what a prick the head coach was all the time. We ended up at the Pantry (like a 7-11 without the Slurpee's), buying Skoal and Doritos and whatever else we could afford. Johnny and I trained together and hung out a whole bunch and we are still friends to this day. We knew the local cops and they were cool with all of our shenanigans.
After my first season of coaching, we had a party for the defensive line at my basement abode. I was pretty fired up and had a wee bit too much to drink. Everyone left me, because I was off my rocker. Anyway, I wanted to see my girlfriend who was in the dorms about a mile away. No way could I drive, so I started walking. In my inebriated state, my thinking was off. I decided that I shouldn't walk (stagger) on the main road or the cops may see me, so I decided to walk through peoples back yards to get there. I was hopping fences and dogs were barking, but I was determined. Meanwhile, My girlfriend was walking to meet me. Remember, no cell phones back then, no communication. So she is walking to meet me, and the a cop pulls over and says to her, "I better give you a ride, we are getting calls that some drunk guy is running through people's back yards." Immediately, she knew it was me. She said, " That son of a bitch," and asked the officer to take her back to her friend's house, which was close by. The friend happened to be the wife of Bob, who was nowhere to be found, either. So the wife and my girlfriend got in her car and went looking for me. I was just about to the dorm when a truck pulled in front of me and the Bob's wife said, "Jim Steel, you son of a bitch, get in the damn truck!" And I did, sheepishly. I got a good lecture on that one. The words are a little fuzzy, looking back, but I do remember feeling like I was gonna be in the doghouse for a long time.
There were many times like that, when I didn't exactly use great judgment, but there were also times of great camaraderie and friendship and relative sanity.
I knew, after that season, that I would always be a coach. I couldn't see myself working in an office and not being on the sidelines. We paid our dues, and we were young and wild and a little stupid. But that was long ago. We all have families and careers and kids now. But, I tell you what, I wouldn't trade those lean times for anything in the world. I still think about those days all the time. Life seemed a whole lot simpler back then.