by Bud Finlayson
Paying Respects and Continuing the Madness
The next day no one balked at suiting up. Like well brainwashed clones, we dutifully marched out to the field house at the sound of the seventh period bell. With guilty tension hanging silently in the air, we donned our pads out of instinct and arrived at the practice field with as much spirit as a lobotomy patient. The coaches were whooping it up though, trying to break us out of our lethargy.
We followed their instructions, as obedient children but again the practice was lifeless and dull despite the coaches' constant threats. "We would get our dicks knocked into the dirt by El Campo if we didn't get our heads out of our asses.", they explained. But it was impossible to sweep Warren's tragedy under the rug of our sixteen year old consciences and be undaunted by it, as if it hadn't happened, like the coaches instructed. Finally, they called it to a close, and gathered us around for what we thought to be another useless pep talk about the denial of death, but it was to tell us that Warren's body had been prepared and was at the Goodwin Funeral Parlor and that we should go pay our respects.
I wasn't too sure what to do. I'd never paid my respects to a dead body before. I once attended the funeral of my great-grandfather when I was eight or so, but strict precaution was taken to shield me from the sight of his dead body. I just remember everybody being real serious and praying a lot. I was held in tight reins; sit up straight, no talking, and quit wiggling. But since the funeral parlor was right on my way home, I felt drawn to stop even though I knew not what I would do.
It was a mortuary exclusively for blacks and in what most referred to as "nigger town", just across the tracks, on the north side of Rosenberg. I lived about five miles north of town, across the Brazos river. Farm Road 723, one of my two routes home passed within a block of the funeral parlor, so I was familiar with the location. That particular day I made a stop, something that I rarely did north of the tracks.
Under the shade of a gigantic pecan tree was the wooden framed parlor that appeared to be more of a converted house. As I pulled into the dirt parking lot, I was relieved to see cars belonging to some teammates, although mostly black and Hispanic, and a few of us undesirable type whites. Any respectable white boy wouldn't be caught dead in nigger town , especially stopping to show respect for a dead nigger. I didn't see any of the coach's cars, which didn't surprise me.
The hollow core door stuck a little as I opened it to go in and the refrigerated air chilled my hair, wet from my post practice shower, and my skin covered with the perspiration of a humid gulf coast afternoon. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkened parlor, for the windows were draped by heavy red velvet curtains and they let in no light. The walls looked newly paneled with cheap wood-grain paper veneer masonite and my footsteps were muffled by a two-tone yellow-green carpet. It was like entering the cool darkness of a cave. A silence was accompanied by the drone of a window unit air-conditioner and was only broken by occasional sobs and moans of grief.
The majority of the light shone on Warren's coffin positioned in front of the long rectangular room filled with folding chairs. Five or six comrades stood in line to see Warren as the rest sat in the chairs. They'd already seen him and reacted accordingly. Some sat stone faced staring into nowhere, some slouched bleary eyed from uncontrollable tears, and some cried out in agonized confusion at what they'd viewed. I tensed up with nervous apprehension at that scene. It was strange and new to me. What was I to do? Instinct led me to step into line to see Warren. I felt I had been cast into a swift flowing river, where the current carried me forcibly along, willing or not. I progressed through the line, scared of what I would witness, but nevertheless pulled along by dutiful respect.
The line moved erratically, some moving quickly by hardly glancing into the coffin, while others stopped longer, but apparently they all came away a little different after observing the effects of death. I could not see Warren until I got right up to him. All time and motion seemed to cease as I peered into that satin lined coffin and beheld, under a print of "The Last Supper", a body that only slightly resembled Warren. I felt that body was an impostor, solemn faced and clad in a black Sunday suit. The real Warren always wore a happy grin and faded blue jeans, an old army field jacket, and Converse "Chucks" hightop basketball shoes. I felt flashes of fear and anger. This powdered, waxen complexioned figure with his eye lids and lips crudely sewn shut was not Warren. This undertaker had stripped him of his identity, but then it hit me.
It was not Warren lying there, for Warren was dead and had passed on. The spirit which made him who he was was gone. For the first time in my life I could see that the body and spirit are separate entities, and how the two combine to make us who we are. I felt cheated for I didn't get to pay my respects to Warren but merely to a lifeless, empty shell that once housed him. The absence of Warren's soul prompted me to move on. I'd seen enough to know that duty or no duty, it was a false pretense; this paying your respects business and the real Warren would have still been with us if it weren't for the extreme negligence induced by the ignorance of the football coaches.
I took a seat amongst the others, just pondering all that grief. As a football player one is taught to be callous, merciless, and tough; to not display hurt or pain, but that afternoon in that little funeral parlor across the tracks, everyone of us football players were agonizing outwardly and showing compassion at the loss of a fellow human being, even though we weren't supposed to.
Wednesday wasn't as upbeat as it usually was. Spirits would always be high for the abbreviated, non contact workout that proceeded the day of a game, but it was also the day before Warren's funeral and our hearts weren't into it. We tried to mimic previous Wednesday practices by shouting encouragement's in unity and swearing the morrow's victory for Warren, but inside my football conscience, I knew things weren't clicking the way they should. It is always a handicap, that close to game time, when one's thoughts aren't trained on football 100%. It was impossible to keep Warren out of our thoughts. Some team mates suggested going to see Warren again, but I declined. Glancing toward the parlor as I bounced over the railroad tracks on my way home, I saw him anyway; the sight of his cadaver etched indelibly in my mind.
My waking thoughts on that game day were not of football as they should have been, but were on attending Warren's funeral. My priorities had always been football. Eat, sleep, and drink football. Could the importance of that game be threatened by Warren's untimely death? The necktie I would wear that day to signify me as a football player, would also serve me as funeral attire. The ceremony would be at 2:00 p.m. and the game at 7:30, so the official closing to Warren's ordeal would be taken care of and we'd start the massacre all over again. But, surely he'd want us to play.
That would be only the second funeral of my young lifetime, and after my newfound wisdom of body and soul, I wondered about the point of it all. Coaches encouraged us to attend out of respect, but I think they just wanted to get him buried and forgotten. To me, the finality of the ceremony represented justice never coming to Warren. The killers were going to cover the evidence and go on about their business. It is human nature to deal with death by making a to-do about the disposal of the flesh and bones and we figure we've done that person right proud.
I never thought twice about going, but was angered by the decision of some alumni to attend whom hardly knew Warren, nor would have given him the time of day when he was alive because he was black. The school officials saw fit to let anyone who wished, be excused from school early to go to the funeral. Those so-called mourners got a day of legal hookey at the expense of a human life. They filed by the coffin and were out the door and gone.
Due to the large attendance expected and a small budget, the funeral was held at the old black high school, A.W. Jackson, in the gymnasium. It, too, was north of the tracks in the black man's world, and like the black junior high school in Tyler, the exterior of the gym was littered with spray-paint graffiti. A black hand held up in a militant fist, a peace sign, "Black Power," and the like. The day was hot and still and both upper banks of broken and cracked windows were open in the small gym to ventilate what little air there was. Two metal bladed fans hummed atop tall poles, straining to move the thick, heavy air. Whispering voices, scuffling chairs, and feet on the hardwood floor echoed ten-fold against the high girded ceiling and the stirring was like the murmur of a crowd anticipating a command performance play, not the deathly silence of a carpeted chapel where most white people are bid adieu.
The low bleachers along both walls were filled with black faces fanned methodically by white programs. They looked down upon the basketball court filled with folding chairs occupied mostly by white faces, including mine. I was seated up front with the JV team and felt somewhat more rightful to be there than other casual white observers, as I deemed them. But regardless of my changing attitudes about race, it was an uneasy and unfamiliar feeling being surrounded by that sea of black humanity in their own back yard. It was a scene from pre-Rosa Parks. The black man was still allocated to the back of the bus, even though we were invaders in their territory.
As everyone was settling in, Coach Lucky and his entourage of puppet coaches entered very upright and somber and found an empty row of seats around center court. It was strange to see them in dark suits and ties, for I'd only seen them heretofore outfitted in double-knit shorts and Ban-lon T-shirts. Their entrance didn't go unnoticed for a slight hush came over the auditorium as hundreds of black eyes followed them to their chairs. A nervous tension hung thick in the air amongst them, not from their authoritative dominance, but from all the black psyches oozing forth with accusations of guilt. They'd been tried and found guilty of murder, Sentencing would be only to sit though that funeral and endure the constant bombardment of stares to remind them of their crime. How queer it was to see Lucky intimidated by a situation instead of being the intimidator.
The line viewing the body wound down to its end and the Shilo Baptist ladies' choir, robed in maroon gowns, began an opening hymn, "Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross." Their singing was clear and methodical, sweet voices filled with feeling, not morbid grief, and the music brought a refreshing interlude to the humid stagnant atmosphere. Upon the stage at one end of the gym, were seated the dignitaries that would speak behind a lone podium at center stage.
The crowd was respectful as a white Episcopal priest read some uninspired scripture. There were a few more songs by the choir and they seemed to stir the black crowd as I sat uneasy not knowing how to react. Coach Gorka got up to speak and with much emotion struggled to say how good a kid Warren was and what a sad loss he would be; what a shame his death was. Our class president, who was both black and a fellow Shilo church Brother, said a few words as well. Next, Sister Almeria Thomas, a quite large choir member, rose to sing a solo and something began to happen in that little gym across the tracks.
As her rich, resonant voice flowed forth from within her huge bosom, the black folks began to transform. They woke up and seemed to become energized with the music, as if they were getting primed for something special to come. After the song, everyone turned their attention to the stage, for the eulogy to be given by the Shilo preacher, Reverend Jones. A few of the young Shilo Brothers helped him up from his seat to the podium. He indeed needed help for he was an elderly man, in his seventies, frail and hunched by an arthritic stoop. His gray suit hung loosely on his narrow frame.
Everyone waited patiently as he painfully shuffled across the stage at a snail's pace with the aid of his cane and the two ushers. He finally reached the lectern and the ushers made sure he was braced securely to it as they left him gripping tightly to the substitute pulpit. He was barely visible nor audible as he began to speak from behind the podium, but then something almost supernatural began to occur. A magical feeling engulfed that oven-like gymnasium and time stood still.
Reverend Jones' feeble speech that mumbled from his small mouth began to ring out strong and clear. His hunched body straightened to become the nimble body of a gymnast as he sprang forth from behind the podium. He spoke not of gloom nor of a loss. His voice flowed like a joyful song proclaiming Warren's fortune to be headed to his divine resting place, a perfect domain free of suffering and strife that existed in the world he'd left. He guided him on his journey to immortality across the River Jordan to meet up with Gabriel and St. Peter and they took him on home to eternal peace, with his heavenly Father. He spoke of life not of death. And the black crowd rose up in unison with affirmations of clapping and shouts. They ignored our presence and did their thing. A couple of ladies in the choir got so caught up in the spirit that they let out great wails that could have wakened the dead and then fainted strait out, sprawled flat on the floor. Nobody missed a beat though, Reverend Jones, nor the black crowd, as they were seen to by the ushers.
For me, it was like being strapped into a roller coaster car that had already started slowly up that first incline. You know you can't avoid what's coming, that you will be swept along at the mercy of that little car. That day, I went whisked along through the twists, curves, accelerations, and rises of that funeral and when it coasted to a stop, I was no longer afraid. Like one conquers the fear of a roller-coaster by riding it, Reverend Jones had taken me through the Pearly Gates to the promised land and all of a sudden death didn't seem like such a scary finality any more.
As if the mainspring inside of the Reverend had wound down, he grew limp and reached to grab the lectern for support. The young ushers helped him back to his seat and the funeral was over. The graveside service was announced but I felt unmoved to go. For all I know a couple of angels had snuck in and taken Warren's body during the height of the frenzied eulogy and there was no need to bury an empty coffin. But truthfully, I felt that I'd intruded enough into Warren's black world where I didn't belong and I would not interrupt the intimacy of his family and people as they lay him under ground to his final rest. I also had a football game to play a few hours later and I would go straight to school and start trying to psyche myself to want to kill and hurt again.
As folks filed out of the gym, a black girl in hysterics was being consoled by a few of the Shilo ushers just inside the main exit. As Coach Lucky marched out, head high, the girl, who was Warren's older sister from Galveston, attacked Lucky with shrieks of horror and madly swinging arms. She pounded her fists repeatedly into his implacable chest and shouted, "YOU KILLED HIM!, YOU KILLED HIM!, YOU MURDERER!!!" He barely batted an eye nor lowered his head to speak to her, but kept moving out the doors as she was pulled away from him sobbing and crying in terrific pain. I perhaps had learned that day that death was just another stage of life, but the indiscretion that killed Warren, was brutally criminal.
Normal pre-game procedure found me stretched out on a tumbling mat in the field house, clad in socks, jock, and T-shirt with the sole intent of being quiet and psyching myself into a heightened aggression towards my opponent so I'd be ready to kill from the very first play. This is known as "Getting ready to play," or "Putting on your game face." You know somebody is ready when their expression grows blank and their eyes kinda glass over and the pupils dilate so you can see into the depths of their mind and there is nothing but black intensity lurking to kill. My game face didn't want to go on so easily that day, nor did those of my teammates.
By game time we had all mustered up our best imitations of "game-faces" as we swore to avenge Warren's death and memorialize him that day by coming away with a victory but our performance was mediocre. Like rubber masks, our game faces were stripped away revealing confused young men trying to deal with a situation that shouldn't have happened. As in war when soldiers bury their dead comrades and then pick up their guns to kill again, we'd buried Warren and now found ourselves back at the front lines unable to pull the trigger. We didn't appear that inept by just standing around. We still hit, still blocked, tackled and ran but our minds weren't wholly into the game and we lost to El Campo 16-22. Football is a game of emotion but our emotions were dead. Contests can be won or lost merely by one's mental state and that day ours was one of negative confusion, leaving a void for victory. It was the first football game in my life that I didn't enjoy playing.
What was happening to my dream? There I was, a junior on JV, nowhere near my desired 6'3" 250lbs, seeing football as death, and now not even enjoying it. But football hadn't killed Warren, per se; an attitude had. An attitude of ignorance, bias, prejudice, and closed minds, all of which the coaches possessed. Dreams die hard though and I decided to stick with it, never forgetting Warren in his hospital bed, tears streaming down his face, not wanting to continue a life without playing football. I owed it to Warren to play but things would never be the same. His assassination had made me become indifferent. I lost faith and respect for my coaches, both as men and coaches. Their judgment was no longer sound. I would not follow them blindly with unquestioned dedication; rather, with reserved suspicion. The next week we traveled to Freeport to do battle with the Exporters.
Our practices were more spirited that week for we'd let Warren down by not getting him a victory against El Campo and we had a new determination. Each day that passed was a little easier, and due to a lifetime of conditioning, I began to be able to hit again. A good thing, for the defensive man in front of me was a big round black kid, a good 80 pounds heavier than I. His size did not intimidate because most of him was flabby baby fat but my best shot wouldn't budge him. Like the proverbial brick wall, he was unaffected by the blows of my driving shoulder and forearm into the leaden ballast of his sand-bag mid-section.
So I went for his ankles and still did little damage but I stayed with my blocks and began to pester him. He apparently grew tired of my persistence and began to kick and step on me. Well, my attitude was such that the threat of being expelled from a game for fighting didn't worry me so the next play we got into it. Like most football players that fight, we didn't hurt each other much; there was just a lot of pushing and shoving, enough to get the ref's attention but neither one of us was kicked out of the game.
Coach Gorka called me to the sidelines and by the scruff of my collar instructed me not to fight back if we got into another scuffle. I swore to defend myself, but on the ensuing play the enormous body pinned me down before I could retaliate, and I couldn't move a muscle. Sitting atop of me he immobilized my head by holding my face mask and with his free hand he jabbed punches at my neck. I couldn't fight back and as a result got him thrown out of the game. The Exporters were livid and most of their wrath was directed toward me with quite uncomplimentary jeers. I returned their insults and the ref threatened to give me the hook too. I calmed momentarily and by half time we held a 17-8 advantage.
Exiting the field both teams merged to the same field house but with separate entrances to locker rooms. The enemy was still ribbing me and as the teams drew abreast just past the end zone, I received a cursing in Spanish, "Chinga tu madre! Pinche Gringo! #65!" Well, thanks to my Spanish tutoring from Robert and Rick, I knew that my mother was being blasted. My adrenaline was pumped so I answered him, "Tu puta madre! Buey!", and shot him the finger. I received great shouts of approval from my Spanish speaking teammates, by damning his mother right back.
Coach William's must have understood too for, as if in a drunken rage, he threw me up against a wall of lockers when we got inside and pinned me there with my feet dangling a foot off the floor. With a beet red face he nearly choked on his wad of tobacco telling me that I'd better cut my shit out before he cut it out for me. He stated also that I was walking on mighty thin ice and if I couldn't watch my mouth in the second half that I'd be on the bench. The ease in which he threw me around surprised me, for he was only a medium-built man and he hoisted me like a rag doll. I kept my mouth shut, but steamed under my breath in the sticky, humid salt air of that gulf coast night.
The second half I avoided any controversy, but was still involved in extracting a foe from the game. I threw a routine down-field block on a skinny cornerback and he didn't get up. He had planted his feet to take on my block, but I struck low and drove my shoulder pad straight into his knee. I felt a crunch as the joint gave and hyper-extended backwards. He lay clutching his knee and crying out in pain. A stretcher had to be brought out and they carried him directly to the locker room and later an ambulance arrived for him.
I was congratulated for my crippling block when the stretcher had to be used, for that was the most gratifying thing taught to us; to lay an opponent out so bad and render him unable to arise under his own power. A real ego booster, a show of prowess. And I was eating it up, a great accomplishment. How quickly had I forgotten Warren's pain, but we boasted the 24-15 triumph in his honor.
Does a man residing in Freeport TX, that played JV ball for Brazosport High in '72, live with a painful gait from an old football injury? Forgive me.
The second half of the season dragged on with the tragedy of Warren ever-present in our minds, even if at times the savagery of the game surfaced, and we again wanted to do harm to our opponents. A pattern formed in our won-lost record. We let down after procuring Warren's victory and fell short to Bay City at home 14-15. The following week we rallied back behind Warren's cause and defeated Victoria, 24-14, then were handled easily by the rich boys from Brazoswood 29-14, and finished the season in a laugher against a weak Sandcrab team from Port Lavaca 31-zip. The "on" one week, "off" another week pattern, proved our inconsistencies as a team to continuously psyche ourselves to the mental intensity level of a winner. Warren's ordeal had confused us and made us look at ourselves and question the validity of winning a game at the cost of human life.
About mid-season, Lucky called everyone together for a meeting in the central coach's office, to lecture us on the importance of keeping up our grades "over at the schoolhouse," as he put it. He said that we had to pass all classes with at least a mark of 60, in order to play, and no one would be exempt. No one. I had nothing to worry about, but to impress his point, he announced that Blue Chipper Johnny Phillips had flunked English with a 59, and despite his greatness and value to the team, he would not be suiting up till report cards were issued again in six weeks, and he showed a passing grade. He warned us that Johnny would be an example under his authority, showing that nobody would be "given" anything regardless of their status on the team.
That news was quite startling because Johnny was the team; without him the district crown would be doubtful. Also, nobody could believe that Lucky wouldn't intervene and "fix it" so he'd be back playing; before hope was lost. But it looked like, for once, Lucky was sticking to his convictions, because that news was delivered on a Monday and Johnny didn't work out all week long. Come Friday night though, he was racing up and down the gridiron, as if nothing had happened. Turns out, Lucky went to talk with the English teacher that had handed out the low mark, and after re-averaging the grades, Johnny miraculously passed with a 60, and never failed the class again. Lucky announced, encouragingly, that the teacher was "big enough" to admit making an "honest" mistake. Again, Lucky's attempt at being moral and fair, was hopelessly futile.
The season of my junior year terminated with me not awaiting the appointment of all district honors, or the awarding of a varsity letter, or advancing into post season play with hopes of reaching state in Austin. I was left with only a bad taste in my mouth and some piddling injuries that would heal quickly, once free from contact. The bad taste of negligent homicide and watching the guilty parties running scot free would stick in my craw forever.
I'd escaped the season with no serious injury. Next to Warren's fatal blow, nothing seemed worthy of complaint, but a few things hindered me and tested my integrity; if not my common sense. There was my eternal stiff neck as result of strained muscles, that had bothered me every season. Doc Montoya treated me with chiropractic adjustments and whirlpool baths. He would mark each protrusion of my neck vertebrae on the skin with a dot of marks-a-lot, as I bent over. Upon straitening myself he would whistle in amazement as if witnessing some freak of nature and tell me my spine was "off" considerably. He would tell me to relax, and cradling my head in his hands, he'd throw it around violently like a kid driving a four speed stick shift for the first time. After grinding the gears of my neck bones, the dots would be re-checked and Montoya would announce me vastly improved. Despite all the treatments it pained me steadily, but it was just part of the game.
I also had a slightly separated shoulder that kept popping out of place on me. When using my left shoulder to hit, the joint would dislocate and send a sharp burning numbness down my side and leave my arm to dangle useless. The first time it occurred we were scrimmaging varsity and it scared me that I'd hurt it bad, but Coach Johnson immediately grabbed my arm and spun it around like a windmill. The joint popped loudly into place and instantly it was cured, with no pain whatsoever. It continued to happen despite wearing a brace to keep my arm strapped to my side, but my teammates learned the windmill procedure so I missed not one game.
The only other injury worth mentioning was a broken collar bone suffered by Robert during a Sunday sand-lot game. He threw a block on Terry Hummel, a varsity tackle and was given a lecture by Coach Lucky about his lack of prudence in playing without pads during the season and risking injury. He would not play another game of high school football.
The varsity again fell snort of the district crown with a 7-3 record. People in town were starting to ask questions. After all, our blue-chip running back Johnny Phillips had played his final year and we still couldn't win the big one. Lucky, who was the Godsend to bring back winning glory to Lamar Consolidated was starting to be doubted, for all the experts claimed we overflowed with talent and potential in our players.
He did have a respectable 28-12 record over his four years at Lamar but he'd never led the Mustangs to the playoffs and that was exactly what he was being paid, bribed, and ass-kissed for; to take us to state, but he couldn't even win district yet. Indeed time was running short for Lucky. A high school football coach in Texas that can't produce a champion is dealt with swiftly and with little mercy. If he didn't do it the next year in '73-'74, my senior year, he would probably have to start looking for a new job.
End of Chapter 14
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