There I was, 16 years old, on the McKinley High School football practice field. It was a warm summer morning heading toward a paint-peeling afternoon.
This was the start of the dog days leading up to the 1970-71 football season. I was 5’7” and 135 pounds and trying to make the team as a defensive back.
The coach, Carl Ford, had managed some pretty good football teams and knew talent when he saw it. I was so small he really didn’t see me, initially.
My first real look at him was when he addressed the team after practice. He would get a few sentences out, then spit some tobacco juice on the field. What? What did he just do?
He talked about passion for football and how we needed to work as a team and what we would need to do to make it through the tough summer practices.
For the next couple of weeks, it didn’t seem like I was making any headway toward making the first team. But Coach Ford had made an impression on me, literally. I had rolled over a couple of times on some wet clumps of tobacco on the practice field.
Little did I know that my suicidal efforts to take on huge blockers and tackle larger players was impressing him but not enough to make it to the first team.
After one practice, he asked if I was giving up basketball, a sport I played the year before. I was kind of concerned that the question meant I should give up football, too.
Our first game was against the Broadmoor High Buccaneers. Their team was so large that it looked like it was composed of college players. In quick fashion, they were up 28 to nothing, headed toward 70.
With the score out of hand, I was summoned to go on the field. I made a couple of tackles and I got steamrolled once, but the runner fell down because his cleat got stuck in my shoulder pads.
Coach Ford gave me an “Atta boy” for the effort. That really lifted me up.
I became a starter after that game, and my relationship with Coach Ford changed, too. He would talk to me sometimes when I saw him on campus. “How’s it going, Pratt?” he would ask. That really meant a lot to me.
Sometimes, he would stop me before practice, and we would discuss what we were doing on the field and how he needed me to help change things.
In a game at East Ascension High School, he moved me to cornerback because we were missing tackles at that position.
On about the fourth play at that position, I came up to make a tackle when a large blocker wearing the number 77 plowed over me. But as I was falling with my arms spread out to break my fall, I accidentally tripped the runner. It looked like a great play. Coach praised me immediately. I think it was for my foolish bravery more than anything else.
Over the next year, we would have conversations on campus about how I was doing in my classes, football and baseball. But I could see that the losing was bothering him. We lost all 11 games my junior year and won only two games in my senior season.
In the last game of my high school career and the last game he would coach, something happened that created a lifetime bond with him. The game was out of reach when I made an awesome head-on tackle of a 195-pound running back.
Woozy from the collision, I could hear Coach Ford screaming, “Way to go Pratt!’’ I saw him looking at me and making a slight fist pump. In the scheme of things, the tackle didn’t do much toward the outcome of the game, but to him, it showed that I had not given up and neither had he.
I still draw on that moment when I am down, and it lifts me up.
Coach Carl Ford died this week. I wonder if he will be spitting tobacco in heaven.
Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.