Friday, August 23, 2013

Reading 'Tides,' football and coaches

                It is mid to late August, and football season is coming -- I don't count the NFL preseason -- but my life has changed, and I'm not obsessed about it.
photo from

          In a previous life, for about 45 years, I would have been writing and/or editing stories on football, visiting high school (and some college) campuses and talking to coaches, and otherwise to to them on the phone.
            I love and admire most coaches. I've written that previously on this blog many times, and coaches have been my subject matter repeatedly. They were a huge part of my life.
            However, one of my obsessions these days is reading -- especially reading books. Part of that is our little book club here, another is that for 1-3 years, I had eight books sitting here by my desk that I had intended to read.
            And I have done it, thank you. In fact, thanks to a lot of time at the nearby Barnes & Noble (yes, free reading), I have done 16 books in four months (several provided by Celeste Williams at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram).
            One needs an asterisk: We listened to the audio discs of Rob Lowe's autobiography, sent to us by our reading-obsessed daughter.
             Of course, most of those books are sports books -- four on the New York Yankees. There was one on the Connecticut Yankee (by Mark Twain).
             I have to credit Rachel -- perhaps the most avid reader I know -- for spurring my interest, and also my wife, who is an eclectic reader, too. They encourage me and support the effort. Plus, my sister a couple of weeks ago suggested I read The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy; she was listening to the audio discs for the eighth time.
             Elsa thought I would like it because the narrator/protagonist is a high school football coach, Tom Wingo, who once was a very good high school and college player.
             Rachel, of course, has read it; she thinks the prologue is one of the finest pieces ever written. Bea had read it three times, but she was ready to read it again.
             Two weeks later, we are finished -- 664 pages of the paperback version. It is a powerful, dramatic, and often sad, book. At times, it was so riveting, and so deflating, I couldn't go on that day.
             It's mostly about a shrimper family's fractured relationships, life in a rural South Carolina lowlands setting and then in New York City, about love and hate and therapy, psychologically complex, about  murder, rape and mayhem, infidelity, manipulation and deceit, politics and much more. First published in 1986, this novel is beautifully written by Conroy and he also helped with the screen play for the 1991 movie directed and starring Barbra Streisand (with Nick Nolte).
             But if you're more of a novel reader than I am, you probably knew all that.
             Really, the book has little to do with football, but it's obvious that Conroy had played the game and studied it, and studied coaches. I want to stress that a lot more of the book stuck with me in the family dynamics realm, but he wrote one section about coaching that I loved.
             A coach occupies a high place in a boy's life. It is the one grand component of my arguably useless vocation. If they are lucky, good coaches can become the perfect unobtainable fathers that young boys dream about and rarely find in their own homes. Good coaches shape and exhort and urge. There is something beautiful about watching the process of sport. I have spent almost all the autumns of my life moving crowds of young boys across acres of divided grass. Beneath the sun of late August, I have listened to the chants of calisthenics, watched the initial clumsiness of overgrown boys and the eyes of small boys conquering their fear, and I have monitored the violence of blocking sleds and gang tackling. I can measure my life by the teams I have fielded and I remember by name every player I ever coached. Patiently, I have waited each year for that moment when I had merged all the skills and weaknesses of the boys placed in my care. I have watched for that miraculous synthesis. When it comes I look around my field, I look at my boys, and in a rush of creative omnipotence, I want to shout to the sun: "By God, I have created a team." 
            The boy is precious because he stands on the threshold of his generation and he is always afraid. The coach knows that innocence is always sacred, but fear is not. Through sports a coach can offer a boy a secret way to sneak up on the mystery that is manhood.
           Now Pat Conroy has made a helluva lot more money writing books than I have (millions for him, zero for me) and he -- and many others -- can write this a lot better than I can.
           What he says here is so, so true. I think about the coaches I knew, those who were part of my life and affected it -- as a team manager and then a sportswriter -- and I am so thankful for those people and their roles, and the path that I traveled.
           And now I'm thankful for my reading time, too.


  1. From Tim Looney: Pat Conroy is my favorite! I love all his books!

  2. From Rachel Smith (daughter): My favorite book of all time.

  3. From Warren Gould: I read Prince of Tides probably when it came out, and also couldn't put it down. I listened to Rob Lowe's book, and I thought it was great, too.
    Bill Bryson is one of the most eclectic writers out there. I have read most of his stuff, because I can't figure out how he does it. One that you will love, I promise, is "the Adventures of the Thunderbolt Kid. It is about his growing up in the 1950s and you will recognize everyone in the book as someone you knew, and the exploits are those we all did, and still lived.

  4. From Teddy Allen: Bingo.
    The spine finally cracked on the handback I’d ‘borrowed’ from the library in college. So a half dozen years ago I got the big trade paperback. It’s in my pile to read again. My spousal unit read it, at my urging, a couple of years ago. She hated me for it and loved me for it. So it goes with Conroy. When you finish a book of his, you just have to sit or lean against something for a while. 12 rounds with Tyson. And then you can’t wait to read another one. ...