“McGee!” he yelled, digging his fingers into my girdle pads, jerking me backwards. “I said, line up off the right shoulder of the tackle. Can’t you hear?”
My heart pounded. My mouth dried up. From behind me there were nervous chuckles from my fellow players. It was afternoon, late August, humidity 90 percent in mid Missouri. Across the field in the new swimming pool, Donovan’s Mellow Yellow blasted from a speaker.
It was sophomore football and in these times in my town, high school was 10th, 11th and 12th grades. The Varsity squad was made up of 11th and 12th graders. This day the sophomore squad was preparing to scrimmage the varsity the next day. I breathed deeply.
“What’s my name?” he screamed.
“Uh, Coach Mc uh Mc.” I couldn’t get his full name out. He wailed again. “McDuffy. And what’s yours?”
“Uh, Mc, Mc, McGee.” My knees wobbled.
Digging his fingers deeper into the back of my pant girdle pad he scooted me to where the offensive lineman was. He lined me up off the right tackle, Stan Dall. “Four point stance,” he yelled. “You are on defense!”
More nervous chuckles from my brethren. “Do you know what a four point stance is?”
I tried to crouch down the best I could remember.
“No, no, no,” he screamed. He pulled me up again by my back girdle, and twirled me to his eye level. Shaking his right index finger at me, he whacked my helmet with his left palm, then grabbed my face guard and shook it up and down. “I said a four point stance!”
He shoved me back down. I stumbled but regained composure. Across from me Stan whispered, trying to coax me into the proper stance.
With his foot on my rear he positioned me, but as quickly yanked me back up and slammed his palm into my helmet again.
“Take off! Two laps around the track!” He blew his whistle. “Go!” he screamed, the veins in his neck popping out.
I stumbled, then took off. The Beatles song I Am a Walrus now played on the swimming pool PA. The track was empty. I teared up, hyperventilating.
I came from a quiet family. I’d never heard my dad yell at my mom or me. And I’d never been hit or even seen anyone being hit. I realized being whacked on the helmet by the football coach didn’t qualify as being hit, although the shock was probably the same.
I tried not to lollygag the two laps. When I returned I stood with my teammates. Some gave me sympathetic nods, most looked at me disparagingly, then quickly away.
Coach McDuffy was consumed in showing all the art of the four point stance. His mood now seemed almost congenial.
The son of the university's football coach, a swift footed running back sidled up next to me. He whispered, “When you were running, Coach said you were the dumbest player he’d ever coached.” He smirked and moved away. Two other players nearby nodded that it was so.
Practice ended. The next day we scrimmaged the varsity. Surprisingly, I started at offensive tackle, not defensive. Across from me was varsity all state lineman Phil Joman. For the entire scrimmage I kept him from tackling our running backs. Perhaps divine intervention had allowed me to remember our plays. Not having to remember the defensive four point stance helped.
Possibly Coach McDuffy had instilled fear in me to perform better.
Coach McDuffy never said anything to me after the scrimmage. But the varsity coach came up to me in the locker room and said, “McGee, you keep playing like you did today, I am going to move you up to varsity. Good game.”
The varsity all-stater came over right away hearing that and smirked.
“You know you were only able to keep me out of your back field because I was sick today.”
I just smiled and nodded.
In 24 hours I went from complete despair, humiliated with a helmet pounding, but more hurtful, Coach McDuffy calling me the dumbest player he’d ever coached, to the varsity coach telling me I'd played a good game.
I received several other helmet bangings by Coach McDuffy that year. But, I finished the season starting a few games.
Lou Holtz, one of America’s winningest college coaches, said one motivates another individually, not in a group, or through humiliation.
All these years later, the memory of that August afternoon still burns. As a counselor I have listened to many young men, high school and college athletes alike, tell their tales about their coaches. There are many good coaches. And some who might have good intentions but are lacking in the art of motivation.
I am sure Coach McDuffy has passed on. The last time I saw him was after a university game which I attended some five years after high school. We looked at each other. I guessed he recognized me. I wondered if he’d remembered our August day. And if my claim to fame with him was still being the dumbest player he’d ever coached.