by Bud Finlayson
From the Piney Woods to the Gulf Coast
I anticipated the next football season anxiously, for I was optimistic that I would continue my success. The chances were excellent for me to retain my starting positions on the eighth grade squad, being that we were the same team, just one year older. But that coming summer, there was going to be a major change in my life that I had not planned on, and I would not be back at Hogg Jr. High for my eighth grade year. My parents had been divorced for the last couple of years, but my mom decided to remarry. A man from Houston began courting her that year and the wedding was planned for the approaching July. That also meant packing up and moving near to where his work was, though he'd never work a day after the wedding, and the move.
I wasn't too excited about having to move, especially if it meant Houston. Besides that, I didn't much like the guy that was to become my step-father. The thought of leaving Tyler, my hometown; was hard to imagine. My thirteen year old roots were imbedded into that East Texas red clay, like those of a strong pine sapling, too old for transplanting. I didn't want to go anywhere with a fat guy from Houston that drove a white Cadillac and wore red Hush Puppy loafers.
One evening that spring, after returning from a weekend in Houston with "Mr. Miller", as I called him then, my Mom announced to me that they'd found a possible place to live. It was a lovely little town called Richmond, thirty miles south-west and within commuting distance of Houston. "It's the birthplace of Jane Long, the Mother of Texas," Mr. Miller informed me. I couldn't have cared less about hearing that. It didn't do a bit to change my mind. My Mom continued to carry on about the place and it seemed like her mind was pretty well made up. But she wanted me to see it first, before any definite decisions were made. I halfheartedly agreed to accompany her on one of her weekend jaunts to see Mr. Miller, just to take a look at Richmond.
We joined her beau at his house, in an ugly tree barren subdivision of Houston, and began our drive out of town. The three of us then zipped around on some confusing freeway routes, passed by the Astrodome, and headed out South Main. Mr. Miller drove and also served as our tour-guide, making comments about this and that, as we passed through that strange flat countryside. After going through Missouri City, Stafford and Sugarland, our guide announced that Richmond was the next stop, just across the Brazos River. When we got off the bridge that crossed the Brazos, we were there.
My Mom busily began pointing out old houses, a grand courthouse, mighty pecan trees, and other such highlights, but I saw them with a blinded eye. Admittedly, it appeared to be a peaceful little haven, settled down in the lush river bottom of the Brazos; but at that time my attitude was so negative, I couldn't recognize the beauty. I slouched low in the back seat, bitterly imagining how cruel it would be if I was forced into moving there. My Mom suggested driving by the school I would have to go to. So Mr. Miller smiled and pointed the car west on the main east-west highway through town; 90 Alternate. He said that the Jr. & Sr. high schools were in the neighboring town of Rosenberg. We got there before I even realized that we had left Richmond, for their limits actually met each other, making them twin cities.
We turned south and made our way through 4-5 blocks of a wooded residential area. Then the woods opened, exposing the sprawling school complex, just beyond a green field of waist high sorghum stalks. It was an expansive sight. Both Jr. & Sr. high sat in the middle of a level, almost treeless lot, which measured approximately 2/3 mi. long by over a quarter of a mile wide.
The buildings looked modern, all constructed with the same, sand colored brick; long flat rectangles for classrooms, with taller square blocks for gymnasiums, vocational shops, auditoriums, and band halls. Neatly mowed athletic fields bracketed the two schools with green turf. There were six football practice fields and a fenced in baseball park. Each school had excellent tennis facilities, also. Behind the Jr. high were the bus ports. One large enclosed garage building, made of green, corrugated tin, and the long tin-roofed ports with uniform rows of the "school-bus" yellow, loaf shaped, vehicles parked underneath. Their wooden bleached football stadium rose up behind the high school on its iron framework with its lights perched atop tall creosote telephone-poles. The administration building separated the two schools and the remaining majority of the compound was black top parking lots, big enough to encircle 2 and 1/2 gridirons.
The overall view gave you a cut and dry feeling of all business. We motored slowly around the perimeter of the then abandoned grounds, inspecting the scene under clear skies. The shadeless buildings and surroundings lay exposed to the oppressive rays of a burning sun, their tan and green colors contrasting brightly. Inside the cool of the air-conditioned car, I viewed the sight, but remained negative about the whole matter, unimpressed by the schoolyard. My mom and Mr. Miller up in the front seat, were busy commenting on how nice of a school it appeared to be. Then Mr. Miller said something that caught my ear. I curiously sat up and leaned forward to hear more.
He told us that the school had a pretty good football team. "Yep, last couple of years they've won district and gone to the play-offs. Everybody knows about Lamar Consolidated around these parts. This is "MUSTANG COUNTRY" and they've always got a tough squad," he claimed. Immediately my attitude changed. Suddenly the idea of moving there seemed not too bad. "Really!?" I questioned enthusiastically, "They won district!?" "Heck yeah, They win it every year. They went to state a few years ago," he reassured me.
The chance to play for a school that was district champion delighted me. The high school in Tyler, Robert E. Lee, that I would attend hadn't won a district title in the entire history of its being. They could rarely even boast of having a winning record, above the .500 mark. Occasionally they would manage to defeat our cross-town rivals, John Tyler High, which would constitute a winning season. Overall, they were losers, and now I'd found a winner. No longer did I grieve about leaving Tyler. Football was the most important thing to me, no sacrifice was too great.
Now I looked out the window and saw the "nice" school my mom spoke of. It looked like the kind of school that would have a strong football program. I pictured myself practicing on those football fields, and going to that school. It had changed right before my eyes. I couldn't wait to move after what I learned that day.
When I returned home, I checked out Mr. Miller's information by referring to my past issues of TEXAS FOOTBALL magazines. It turned out that he hadn't been totally precise about what he told me. It was true about their winning ways. They had won several district titles, but it was earlier in that decade. Since then, they went through some lean years, not dominating the district as they once had. They made some changes though, and spent a few years rebuilding. Now, it being 1969, it was reported by the current Texas Football Magazine that in the coming year they should be strong contenders once again under a new head coach named Bill Lucky. So I continued to excitingly anticipate a move to Richmond, and be part of a likely district powerhouse.
I made the decision to spend the second half of that summer at Kanakuk Camp. That first day of seventh grade practice with those treacherous leg-lifters had become stuck vividly in my memory and made me well aware of the importance of my physical condition. I had skipped attending the camp the previous summer, after five strait years, but now figured it to be to my advantage to go and get into shape, so that I'd be one up on my new competitors. The regimented living, fresh air, a balanced diet, rigorous activity, and no soda waters would be good for me. Otherwise I'd just loaf around the house and get soft.
So I watched my Mom marry Mr. Miller in July and said my good-byes to all my Tyler friends and then left for camp in Missouri. I would be there six weeks, while in the meantime, the rest of the family would make the move down to Richmond. They planned to be all settled into the new house, by the time I returned to meet them just before school was to start.
I entered the camp session that year with only one thing in mind, and that was football. Unlike the first 5 years, I approached every activity, performed every task, with that thought in mind. It pushed me to excel. Whether it was making my bunk, or early morning calisthenics before breakfast at the crack of dawn, 2 daily chores I despised, I now wanted to do them diligently.
During free periods, granted to us in the afternoons, I dedicated my time to football. Instead of doing a fun activity like shooting a bow and arrow, paddling a canoe, sailing a boat, or swimming in the icy lake; I would hang-around the weight shed and lift weights, do sit-ups, or run laps around the track. A group of high school and college level football players organized a special voluntary work-out period for that time and I attended with honor. We worked on basic fundamentals, did agility drills, ran pass routes, and practiced some line play. As each day went by I felt stronger. My anticipation of going to that new school and using what I was developing, rose steadily. I was confident that I'd be ready.
Another aspect of the camp that provided help for me was their Christian teachings in line with sports. It had bothered me during the football season that God had let me down a couple of times in my requests for Him to make us win. I just reckoned that I'd sinned too much those weeks or done something wrong, cause I know the Bible says, to ask and it shall be granted. Also, I wondered what if a player from the other team had prayed just like I had, and asked God to let them win? God would be stuck between a rock and a hard place. But God can't get stuck anywhere, he's all powerful and a spirit to boot. Well you can see my confusion and I felt a trace guilty, too.
I learned though, quite simply, that a person isn't supposed to pray to win, and that gets God off the hook. The proper way to pray is to thank God for the strength and abilities He's given you, and then humbly ask Him to help you play to the best of them. Then if the prayer is duplicated by both teams in a contest, God can fairly grant each of their requests. I was greatly relieved that I wasn't being punished for my sins, and the revised prayer made clear sense to me how it worked. Therefore I accepted its validity and from then on, I used it prior to all sporting events I was involved in.
Camp ended and Miller, as I now called him, and my Mom picked me up in his white Cadillac. We traveled from those Ozark Mountains, on down through Arkansas, past Tyler, and then to Richmond, on the Gulf coast plain. I found myself in a totally different world than I had ever known in Tyler.
The terrain had no rises in it that you could call hills, like I had always known. It was so flat, I could peddle my bike all day long without growing tired. The woods stood primarily with trees of pecan instead of the long needled pines of my east Texas home. Most of the land was cleared, to take advantage of the fertile, black gumbo soil of the Brazos river bottoms. This accounted for the miles of fields that grew plenty with rice, cotton, hay, and sorghum, not the familiar roses and oil derricks of my former world.
The inhabitants of that new world differed also. The men in my new neighborhood drove pick-ups or second hand cars to work and dressed in uniforms of khaki. There were no Buicks or Cadillacs driven by 3-piece suited gentlemen on their way to their employment as doctors, lawyers, and business executives, as my prior neighbors did. Why, folks cleaned their own houses, mowed their own lawns, repaired their own cars. They spent a lot more time outside, in plain sight, not barricaded inside their private domains. It was basically an economic difference, but nevertheless a whole new scene to me.
On a trip downtown, I was as likely to see a black man as I was a white man. Of course, I saw black men in downtown Tyler also, shining shoes, tending elevators, sweeping floors, and hauling garbage, but the ones in this new world didn't have to be working to be there. They walked in and out of stores, doing their shopping, just like they were white. It didn't seem to turn any heads, either, except mine. I soon got used to seeing them though, and didn't think a thing of it. Rubbing elbows with black people was odd enough, but in this strange land, lived brown colored people, too.
I had never seen that race before, other than in history books or as banditos in cowboy movies. Mexican blooded Americans, they were, living with their foreign heritage highly prevalent. From the food, flour tortillas and chili; to the language, Spanish; to their way of thinking, living primarily in the here and now, they seemed to be a separate peoples. At the same time though, they could step over the invisible border into Americanism: hamburgers, English, and retirement plans.
I couldn't believe it when one of those brown skinned people told me he was an American, like me. No, not a Mexican. An American. He was born here, his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather too. I couldn't even claim that, on my Dad's side of the family. But I felt that I was the true American, and that they were foreign. Without a doubt though, his argument proved to be solid. To my disbelief, his claim to of American heritage was every bit as valid as mine.
So, the first look at my new surroundings showed a strange world, but despite its stark differences, I held no resentment in being there. I felt good about becoming a part of it, enticed by an atmosphere and soil that nurtured winning football teams. The sorrow of leaving my hometown was a small sacrifice to pay in order to be part of top-notch football program, that would benefit my football career. At that point in my life, being a football player was all that mattered to me and my pursuit of that goal had brought me to this new place. I knew not then how that move, on account of a game, was to change my life.
My first encounter with an inhabitant of that foreign territory was out in the road, in front of my house. It was the kid across the street. The day after I arrived, he appeared on his bicycle, coming in my direction. He was a 'fat boy', soft and puffy like a marshmallow, but unlike a marshmallow, he was heavy. So heavy, the pedals of his bike were bent downward from the pressure of his weight. His little head barely poked out of his round body, but his freckled face beheld a welcoming smile. His high voice told me that his name was James Flake, and that he'd been waiting anxiously to meet me. I accepted him cordially, and from that day on he became one of the closest friends I've known. But in the beginning his acquaintance troubled me.
I immediately questioned him about his knowledge of football, and to my dismay, I discovered that he was totally inept when it came to the game. His touch with a pigskin was shamefully poor. Nine out of ten passes I aimed towards him would drop to the ground after a frustrating attempt, on his part, to catch them. His chubby hands were more like the paws of an animal, unable to clutch the oblong sphere, flying his direction.
When he returned the ball to me, it would tumble end over end in hapless flight, usually short of my reach. A spiral pass was beyond his ability. Besides that, he didn't even plan to try out for the team at school. I could hardly understand such things. It worried me to think there could be more like him. Did he represent typical eighth graders that I'd be peers with? Early assumptions such as these flashed through my mind, and I felt not so positive about my new move.
In time I began to understand more about James Flake, and I knew he was exceptional, unique from the normal kid. Being a 'fat boy' often left him outside of the main activities at school, including sports. It's a plight experienced by most fat kids, as obese as he was. Nobody wanted 'Fat boy Flake', when it came time to choose up sides for a athletic event during recess. As a result he accepted his unpopular role and ended up an observer, instead of an active participant. It was easier that way. Keeping quiet protected him from some of the ridicule and heartache, that went with being the odd ball, the 'Fat boy'.
So it wasn't that he held any opposition to playing football, he just never had much opportunity to experience the thrill and glory obtained by being a part of it. I began to hound him daily, though, to become involved. I had to have somebody to play pass with and he was the only body available in close proximity. Plus, he was becoming a good friend, and I wanted to share the fun of the game with him. When I could tear him away from his daily gallon of ice-cream, in front of the TV, I would coach him in the fundamentals of handling the ball. His natural coordination was slight, so the simplest maneuvers that I'd mastered as a child, came to him with difficulty. The determination he showed to learn was his greatest asset as he slowly improved. It was spurred on not from a liking of the sport, so much as it was his wanting to be accepted by me as his companion.
In due time his hands grew more familiar with a football and his catching percentage rose above the fifty mark and he could throw a legitimate spiral. In no way could you compare his spirals, to one of "Johnny U's"; except maybe in the delight he achieved from it. As he became more accomplished, he helped me recruit the neighborhood kids I didn't know, into forming some "sand-lot" games. Soon James became a feared runner in those games, for at 5'2" 250+ pounds, he was hard to bring down. Like the great Marion Motley, once he built up a head of steam, it was highly dangerous to get caught in his path.
End of Chapter 6
CHAPTERS 1 2 3 4
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