Before the boy passed 10 his parents left the Mississippi Delta for the pine woods farther south, where his mother found a teaching job in the county. They were a young family, renting near the school, when his father left.
Everyone called him, "Coach." He was humorless and had a dry voice.
The boy felt lost in that new place. To better hide the hurt he whittled away his footprints through the years, turning his back on basketball, the drum line, a job bagging groceries and a place on the school honor roll. When he handed in his football jersey during his junior year there was nothing else to quit. He did it in spring, a few months after the '96 season. A slow-footed receiver four notches down the depth chart, he thought he would not be missed. He was surprised when the coach sent a note to his English teacher asking to see him. Everyone called him, "Coach." He was humorless and had a dry voice. He growled through one-sided conversations on the football field but off it he could be inarticulate.
The boy remembers walking the hallway toward his office, telling himself not to give in. He sat face-to-face with Coach, Bear Bryant's picture hanging nearby on the office wall. Are you sure you want to spend your senior year in the bleachers? Coach said. Full of teenage arrogance, the boy said he wouldn't be attending any games. He said he had watched from the sideline for two seasons and had his fill.
Coach, always slow to speak, leaned back in his chair and warned him. He warned him that not that season, but in a decade or so, he would come to regret his decision and that once made, it could not be undone.
The boy laughed. A grown man, said the boy, has no business thinking of games he did or did not play in high school. Coach said all right and the boy left. He never called him "Coach" again. Not because he walked away from football, but because that summer the coach married his mother.
And the boy hated him for that.
To this day the word "legend" precedes his name in the local daily newspaper.
He was a good lineman until he shredded a knee during a kickoff return in practice. He then set his eyes on coaching.
His name was Alton Waltman. He coached at North Forrest High School in Eatonville, outside of Hattiesburg, Miss., for two decades. The mascot was an eagle, the colors were white and blue and the size of graduating classes rarely broke 100. Anyone who passed through the school during Coach's time has a memory of him on a Friday night in a blue polo shirt stretched by his belly, the letters "N" and "F" stacked over his heart, a white cap on his head and a grimace across his face. He had one losing season.
Years before he retired he became an institution. When a field house was built on the school's campus in 1999, it was named after him even though he was still coaching. To this day the word "legend" precedes his name in the local daily newspaper.
In Mississippi it is dangerous to talk of gridiron legends, where those ghosts are so many. It is where the names Payton, McNair, Rice and Manning were first stitched across jerseys backs, where Bull Sullivan, who Sports Illustrated called "the toughest coach who ever lived," sent the boys into the alligator pond, where photographs of Ole Miss coach Johnny Vaught sit on mantels beside portraits of families he was not officially part of. But there are also dozens of men like Coach, whose stories are told in places like Eatonville, with only a service station and small school to mark their spots on a map.
He came from Hurley, a Gulf Coast town near the Alabama line. The rabbit ears on Saturdays only picked up Crimson Tide games and he became a Bear Bryant fan. He had two brothers and two sisters.
Their father worked at Ingalls Shipyard, owned a dairy farm and read the Bible. He took his sons fishing in the slow waters of the nearby creeks and swamps, but mainly he worked them around the farm. To avoid those tougher hours, Coach began playing football at East Central High. He was a good lineman until he shredded a knee during a kickoff return in practice. He then set his eyes on coaching. After graduating high school he earned a teaching degree from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1967. Only one course focused on football's Xs and Os. His first contract paid him $4,800 to coach junior high sports and teach a science class and drivers ed. He worked the shipyard during summers.
Over the next few years he moved around to several schools -- young assistants often do -- but was always soaking up football: memorizing playbooks, diagramming other coaches' plays and emulating his idol, Bear Bryant, whose book, "Building a Championship Football Team," he found and studied. Eventually, he became head coach at Vancleave High, a school not far from his hometown. He won some games and sometimes faced Hancock North Central, a team coached by his friend Irvin Favre, father to Brett. Vancleave's success over seven seasons led North Forrest High to offer Coach a job in 1980. He wasn't interested in making the move, but a young assistant on his staff talked him into taking over the losing program.
The school had gone through five coaches in four years. School board members half-joked that the kids just couldn't win. Coach told his new assistants -- a retired Vietnam vet volunteer and the shop class teacher -- that they were not going to talk about winning or losing with the players. He didn't want that on their minds. He only wanted them thinking about surviving practices, which Coach scripted into hell. He strung three weeks of two-a-days together. He put the lineman through metal chutes and up against sleds he stood on. At the end of practices he made them run eight sprints, which he said meant two for each quarter, and when they finished he would scream, "Overtime!" and make them run two more.
Some left. The ones that stayed suffered. Coach had a pickup truck the staff used to haul spent players to the old field house, a cinderblock hut where players lifted weights and where the coaching staff had offices. They cooled the players off, then hauled them back to the field.
He instilled the idea of "team" -- each person was a cog in the wheel and it took everyone to make it roll. The first season wasn't pretty but the team won five games and surprised Eatonville. It did not surprise Coach, who felt he could have won more. He did the same thing to the team the following year, building around the nucleus of players who survived the first season. Again, the team won five games but the following season they won eight games and kept winning. His reputation grew.
Coach was like most men and women who choose to coach -- eccentric, set in his ways, self-assured -- nothing grand to his approach. He was heavy on inspirational quotes and believed hard work could be a person's saving grace. He walked the sidelines urging boys with last names like Keene, Lott, Gaddis, Stewart, Hill and Harrelson to be better than they were and to trust one another. He instilled the idea of "team" -- each person was a cog in the wheel and it took everyone to make it roll. Rules were laid down to be followed.
A decade in, his wife left and he ended up living alone in a single-wide trailer on North Forrest's campus. His front door was 20 yards from the field house. Football, always huge in his life, became one of the only things in his life. He would go home and eat alone and at dusk walk back to the field house, maybe wash jerseys, maybe cut the field's grass, maybe watch game film in the dark.
A shy man, he came across awkward in social situations. Physically, he was unremarkable. If a teacher at North Forrest interested teenage girls, it was not Coach, a stocky, bow-legged middle-aged man with pasty skin and a comb over. Behind his back at practices, players mocked the wide-brimmed straw hat he wore to protect himself from the sun. The standard-issue, cotton coaching shorts that stopped four inches above his kneecaps did him no favors either.
On the field beneath the lights, he was intense. He cursed under his breath. He held a laminated piece of paper in his hands listing formations and hypothetical situations. He rotated wide receivers in and out with plays. He leaned in close to helmets, close to players' ears, his hand gripping the inside edge of a shoulder pad hard, barking out the call like a wartime declaration.
This was his life. He was dedicated. He put together a career record of 227-77. The community revered him, not just for his wins, but also for his losses. No defeat was simple. With every re-telling each became more mythic.
The community revered him, not just for his wins, but also for his losses. There was the playoff game against undefeated Stone County that North Forrest lost in overtime when the kicker missed an extra-point and the playoff game against rival Bassfield, the year Coach believed his team had state championship talent. Late in the game, on the road with a little lead, he called for a "Set-Pass Double-Pass," a trick play he had saved all season and had his team practice again and again: the quarterback threw the ball to a wide receiver, who then threw it down the field. But the receiver who threw the ball missed his man, open in the endzone, and Bassfield came from behind to win.
Then there was the game against Raleigh that could have sent North Forrest to the championship game. North Forrest lost 28-27 because the kicker missed three extra-points and a 30-yard field goal at the end of regulation. Coach never won a state championship.
It was around that time, during the boy's eighth grade year, that the news began being whispered between students: his mother and Coach were an item. Someone saw them at a barbecue restaurant, someone saw them riding in Coach's Toyota. The boy questioned his mother. She denied it. With each denial, the boy grew to dislike Coach. He spent time alone in his room brooding about the ridiculous, pudgy man with no personality who lived in a trailer beside the field house.
The following summer the boy saw signs that the rumors were true -- his mother called Coach to kill a snake in their front yard -- but he learned it for certain when he discovered that the video tapes the coaching staff was using were the same tapes his parents had taken of him as a boy. No teenager should have to sit in a football film room with his teammates watching game footage on VHS while images of his eight-year-old self playing with his pet goose flash in scratchy splices across the screen.
A bitter chip landed on his shoulder. He became defiant and made his mother's life difficult. Finally, exhausted, she sent him across the county to live with his father.
That's when he quit football, trying to become invisible.He had worshipped his father. Now his father had a new wife, a new home, a new job. It was a life he didn't recognize. Instead of finding himself again under his father's roof, the boy became untethered from his family, a fractured unit that argued about divvying up his holiday time.
That's when he quit football, trying to become invisible. Then his mother became engaged to Coach and people's eyes, when looking at him, saw a Coach's son. He didn't want that. At a house party one weekend a cheerleader called him "Little Waltman" in a crowded room. Without saying a word, he walked out.
He made a decision: he would not call the man "Coach," like everyone in Eatonville did. He would call him "Alton." He despised the man and in every way felt unlike the football coach who was now his stepfather. He had never pointed a gun at a deer. He was discovering Kerouac. He read stories about Ginsberg touring with Dylan. He toyed with being a vegetarian and listened to obscure music. His Mercury had a "Free Tibet" sticker on the back glass.
The wedding was on a Saturday afternoon inside Trinity Episcopal Church in Hattiesburg. The boy, now a young man, gave his mother away to "Alton" at her request. He walked the aisle, her arm in his, smiling in a tuxedo. Inside, he seethed.
During his senior year he left his father's house during a loud, petty argument. His mother and "Alton" let him into their home. Their yellow house in the country with pecan trees and azaleas in the yard was their first purchase as a married couple. By then the young man's efforts to become invisible had brought in anorexia and his six-foot, one-inch frame weighed a frail 140 pounds and the hair on his head thinned out.
He graduated high school and bounced around, not ready. He kept quitting colleges and jobs. He saw his former football teammates at the rare social functions he attended, heard their stories of flourishing careers and new relationships and felt envious. With each of his own failures, he went back to his mother and Alton's home angrier than the last time he left. Alton, who retired from coaching, tried to reach the young man by inviting him on fishing trips, trying to discuss football games with him, even gently siding with him in the numb moments that came after the young man had screaming matches with his mother.
The young man searched for five years and couldn't find anything, blaming everyone but himself. The young man's animosity only deepened. He held the tiniest things against Alton. He was talking about Faulkner once when Alton jokingly questioned the Nobel Prize winner's sexual preference -- the young man didn't speak to him for a week. During a conversation with his brother-in-law, Alton referred to the young man as a hippie -- the young man overheard him and made an uncomfortable scene, denying it and accusing Alton of being out of touch. Watching a game show one evening, Alton said if he was ever a contestant on the show and needed help with an opera question, he would call the young man for advice -- he took the comment as an insult, and sulked for a month.
The young man searched for five years and couldn't find anything, blaming everyone but himself. While his more successful peers were buying homes in Eatonville and starting families, his mother had to cosign on his apartment lease and his father kept his health insured. Alton suggested he marry and move into a double-wide trailer of his own.
When he was 22 the young man felt he had one more chance to salvage the wreckage of his own life. He moved alone to Mississippi's opposite end and enrolled in college a last time. The struggle broke him a little but scraping toward a degree, he got his footing and stood on his own for the first time since his father had left.
In introspective moments he found himself seeing Alton differently. He recognized that each time he walked away Alton, again and again, had let him back into the new life he had begun with the young man's mother, a life the couple had earned, when the young man had earned nothing. He had always mocked Alton's profession, belittling coaching high school football as a way to spend a life. But now, alone at 24, the young man realized that Alton at the same age was married and two years into the career that would define him. He suddenly admired the man for pinning himself to a place and a profession and, through hard work, succeeding.
"You were right, Coach, you were always right."
The young man found something that stirred his heart and set out to make a career of it. When he came home, he stood on the back porch with Alton and they grilled meals side by side. They sometimes rode to high school football games together. Instead of icy silence, there was quiet talk between friends. By the time the young man left Mississippi to work in Wyoming, Alton drove two days across the country with his stepson to help move him in. The next year they vacationed together at Yellowstone National Park. Alton brought fly-fishing rods, taught the young man to cast, and they stood side-by-side casting while their wives watched.
Alton still lives with his wife in that yellow house with pecan trees in the yard outside of Hattiesburg. At nearby Oak Grove High, Brett Favre, whose father Alton coached against on the Gulf Coast for so many years, is an assistant. The Oak Grove coach who hired Brett, Nevil Barr, is Alton's former assistant, still coaching 32 seasons after talking Alton into taking the North Forrest job. Alton is approaching 70, more than a decade removed from the sideline. He has mainly left the game behind. North Forrest has had five coaches since he left.
The young man recently passed 30 and has a life near the Atlantic Ocean. He feels pride in having been one of the boys Alton coached, if only for two seasons. Sometimes in fall, watching a football game, he remembers the end of his playing days. He sees himself at 16 sitting in Alton's office laughing at that warning about quitting. He shudders at the memory and his pride is leveled by regret.
When that happens he wants to call Alton and say he is sorry, and call him "Coach" again, and clear his throat, and say, "You were right, Coach, you were always right."
But he's never made the call. Instead, he wrote this story.