This is from the eighteenth chapter from my best-selling book, Bryson City Tales. I hope that you’ll enjoy going back to Bryson City with me each week, and that if you do, you’ll be sure to invite your friends and family to join us.
MONUMENTS (PART 1)
Friday couldn’t come soon enough. After the Monday football practice, the week slowed to a snail’s crawl. I felt like a kid during the week before Christmas. Game day couldn’t come soon enough.
I returned to the practice field every day after work. It quickly became my habit to be as close to the team as possible. Most days the team didn’t practice in the stadium. It was reserved for the games. The practice field was across town—on School House Hill. I had stopped by the practice field the night of the murder. It was located right next to the Bryson City cemetery.
During the practice I’d quietly walk around, observing and learning. Watching how the coaches and kids interacted. Looking for limps that might disclose an old injury—or maybe one that was being covered up. It was the closest I could come to being part of the team. It felt good. Real good.
I also began to get to know Boyce Dietz. My experience as a team physician while at Duke had taught me that head coaches are in an unusual position. Often they don’t have anyone to share with, to be vulnerable with. To share with assistant coaches or with players risks appearing weak or indecisive. Most have wives who tolerate their profession and its sacrifice of family time—at least during the season. Nevertheless, most of these women don’t want to hear anything about football in the brief amount of time they have with their husbands. That leaves the team doctor— who often becomes the coach’s sounding board, confidant, adviser, physician, and friend. It was a relationship I enjoyed at Duke and hoped to enjoy with Coach Dietz.
During those first days I could sense him testing me. He’d come to the sideline after going on the field to fix a problem he’d seen, and he’d ask me a question or two. Partially probing my knowledge of football, football players, and sports medicine, par- tially probing my ability to communicate. Would I be an uppity know-it-all doctor? He’d seen far too many of those. Would I be a coach wanna-be—deluded into thinking I knew more football than he did? He heard from far too many of them every week, especially at practices.
“Doc,” he said, “Tony Plemmons, my quarterback, likes to ice his ankles after practice. You think he ought to use some heat?”
Careful, I thought. Coaches without team physicians on the sideline had to learn a lot of practical day-to-day sports medicine. They had their ways. And they certainly didn’t want some newcomer upsetting their ways or challenging their authority. I knew I’d have to tread lightly.
“Well, Coach, the college and pro trainers really debate this. Some like to use ice, some prefer heat. One of the newer approaches is called contrast therapy, where you alternate icing and heating, but you start and stop with ice. If you want, I can tell you what I think.”
He looked interested—or perhaps amused—as he lobbed the ball back into my court. “Well, I think I am interested in what you think.”
Careful, I thought again. “Well, Coach, I think you’ve kinda gotta go with what works best out here, not just with what worked best at Duke. What have you found to be the best treatment?”
He smiled. I was guessing I had gone the right direction by giving him some options and then deferring to his experience and expertise—which he was glad to share. “I’ve found that the ice packs work best. I think if it’s OK with you, I’ll stick with that.”
A little later he came back to where I was standing and continued the test. “Thinking about adding a triple wham. Sylva’s got a huge defensive end on the right side. Hard to double-team him. What do you think?”
Now he was testing my football knowledge. When you wham blocked, you used two guys, usually running backs, to block a single defensive player. A triple wham was almost never tried, because it left too many other players unblocked. “What’s their tackle and linebacker on that side like?” I asked.
He nodded his head. “They’re big, but slow. And the cor- nerback can be taken away pretty easily.”
“Can your tight end set it up OK?”
“Coach, I haven’t seen a triple wham since my sophomore year in high school.”
“I don’t think Babe Howell [the Sylva coach] has ever seen one either. Might like to have it ready.”
Having passed question two, I watched him run out on the field and teach his team a new trick. Boyce loved new tricks and always had a few in every game plan. He was an intensely driven man, and his drive resulted in both significant football success and consequential acid reflux. I noticed him almost constantly chewing on Tums tablets, and over time I learned to read his pained facial expressions. I could sense when he was angry, disappointed, or simply experiencing heartburn.
During Wednesday’s practice I was standing on the sideline watching the scrimmage. Coach Dietz had become livid about a poorly run play and had gone into the offensive huddle to fix the problem himself. After things were running smoothly again, he came back to the sideline and walked over to me. But instead of turning toward the field, he kept his back to the action. After a moment I turned to see what he was looking at. He was staring up the hill at the cemetery.
“Doc, you ever think about death?”
I nodded. “Coach, in my profession we think about it more than we want.”
His next question took me by surprise. “Doc, you ready?” He paused. Then he looked me straight in the eye. “I mean, if you knew you were going to die today, would you be ready?”
Now it was my turn to pause. I looked down at my feet for a moment and then up at the hill of headstones. I thought about having just started my new profession and about my young fam- ily. I thought of Kate—a whole life in front of her as a disabled adult. I thought about Barb, now pregnant with Erin Elizabeth— and we didn’t even have life insurance. I thought about my per- sonal relationship with God, a relationship that had begun in my college days. I enjoyed my times of Bible reading and my quiet times, and our worship at church too. I felt spiritually ready for death but not financially or psychologically ready. It was my turn to choose. Would I be vulnerable? Would I be transparent?
“Coach, I don’t think so. I feel like the Lord’s got a lot of things for me to do just yet. So . . . I don’t think I’m ready. At least not today.”
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Me neither, Doc. Me neither. But one day I’m gonna take some time and go walking up on that thar hill. Suspect them stones got some stories to tell.” He turned back to the field. “Speaking of dead, Doc, this team’s a lookin’ a bit dead to me. They’re lookin’ a bit beat. Whatcha think?”
I paused for a moment. For a coach to ask a question like this was not surprising. But to ask so early in our relationship was surprising. Was it a test? Or did he really want my opinion? I wondered. Yet, if he could discuss eternity with me, why not the physical and psychological condition of his kids? But they were his kids, not mine—at least not yet.
“Coach,” I replied, carefully, “I don’t know your players very well yet. I don’t know their spirits or their limits. But they do look a bit whipped. They’ve got a big game Friday night. Might be encouraging to them to hear a good word from you, get a little reward. And a rest might not hurt them. Tomorrow you can polish up the game plan with them. But I’m just guessing. It’s your call.”
The diplomatic dilemma of a confidant: How do you offer advice without being pushy or bossy? How do you inform or correct without hurting or offending? How do you support and befriend without intruding or repelling? When do you draw close, and when do you stay away? I knew all of this had to be learned over time and with experience.
“Doc, I think you’re probably right. Let’s shut things down a bit early today.”
He blew his whistle and called the surprised kids and coaches around him. When they were quiet, he explained, “Men, you’re tired and you’re trying too hard. I appreciate your effort. You know how bad I want to beat Sylva. I know how bad you want to beat Sylva. But right now you’re beating yourselves. We’re gonna call it off early. Captains, after showers I want you to have a team meeting. Seniors, this is your last chance at those Sylva boys. The rest of your life you’re gonna have to live with the results of this game. You’re probably gonna be working with these boys the rest of your lives. I want you all to talk about it a bit. Then I want you to spend some time tonight thinking. Really thinking. What can you do—what must you do to do your part to beat those Sylva boys this week? Friday’s game will be the most important game of your life.”
He was quiet. You could hear the crickets in the grass and the deep breathing of the exhausted players. Then I saw the first of a hundred examples of great coaching.
“Men, whether we win or lose, I want you to know something.” He paused to look at each one of them, eye to eye. “I want you to know just how much I admire you as a team and as individuals. I’d be proud to have any one of you as my own son. I want you to wake up Saturday morning knowing that, no matter the final score, you gave your all, you done your very best. You do that, you’ll have kept my admiration and you’ll have earned my respect.” He nodded his head, and they silently turned and began to walk toward the locker room.
(TO BE CONTINUED NEXT FRIDAY)
- The Murder (Part 1); (Part 2); (Part 3)
- The Arrival (Part 1); (Part 2)
- The Hemlock Inn (Part 1); (Part 2)
- The Grand Tour (Part 1); (Part 2)
- The Interview (Part 1); (Part 2); (Part 3)
- Settling In (Part 1); (Part 2)
- First-Day Jitters (Part 1); (Part 2)
- Emergency (Part 1); (Part 2)
- The Delivery (Part 1); (Part 2)
- The “Expert” (Part 1); (Part 2)
- The Trial (Part 1); (Part 2)
- Shiitake Sam (Part 1); (Part 2)
- Wet Behind the Ears (Part 1); (Part 2); (Part 3)
- Lessons in Daily Practice (Part 1) — Anal Angina; (Part 2); (Part 3); (Part 4)
- White Lies
- The Epiphany (Part 1); (Part 2)
- Becoming Part of the Team (Part 1); (Part 2)
- Monuments (Part 1)
© Copyright Walter L. Larimore, M.D. 2017. This blog provides a wide variety of general health information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from your regular physician. If you are concerned about your health, take what you learn from this blog and meet with your personal doctor to discuss your concerns.