Tuesday, August 30, 2016

In Natchitoches, a macho man with a soft heart

       The calls still come in, not quite as frequently and not quite as boisterously, but once in about six weeks, I hear the familiar voice.
    "Chinaman, [blank] [blank] you," he says. "You little [blank]. Why don't you ever answer your phone? I can't ever get you. ... When are you going to come down here and see me?
Bettye and Jim Bruning, in good times
    Few have ever said Jim Bruning was subtle, or politically correct. And, yeah, you can fill in the blank-blanks.
    It has been almost three decades since he was Coach Bruning -- the head football coach at first Natchitoches, La., High School and then, after integration, Natchitoches-Central High.
    And he was a darned good football coach. He coached at those schools for 20 years -- the last 12 (1966-77) as head coach. He spent practically his whole life in Natchitoches, and those were his only coaching jobs.
    Most years, he was a big part of winning teams. But one year was special -- 1969. Natchitoches High, in its last year, won the only state championship (Class AA) in the program's history. 
    The people in that mid-sized North Louisiana city remember that. Bruning's players that year still relish it, still get together to celebrate the good times.
    Bruning was a big man in Natchitoches, and still is. More than football, what people know, what his players and ex-students know, is he was a true friend, an endearing personality.
    He was gruff and tough, an old-school disciplinarian ... and he was funny, and fun, and full of mischief.
The young couple, with baby Janyce
    He is 83 now, and his health has been -- is -- a concern. Walking is difficult and even breathing is a problem. I'll spare further details, but being in an assisted-care facility and in a hospital isn't his choice.
    It's been a lonely existence of sorts since 2009 when Bettye, the attractive dark-haired girl he married in 1956, died of breast cancer, eight years after the first diagnosis. They spent a lot of their last two decades traveling together.
    The three children -- Janyce, 59; Harryette, 55, and Jim Jr. ("Bubba" to everyone), 52 -- are long gone from Natchitoches. Two live in Texas, one relatively closeby in North Louisiana, but they check on Dad often. So do his many friends. 
    And he'll call those friends, anytime he feels like it. One of those is a retired sportswriter -- also in Texas -- who he entertains with, well, a practically one-way conversation -- Coach's hearing is almost nonexistent -- but so what?
    I'm expecting analysis of LSU football and the Northwestern State Demons in the coming weeks. Because Bruning is not shy of [blank-blank] opinions.
    Covering high school athletics for The Shreveport Times or Shreveport Journal in the '60s, '70s and '80s meant lots of visits to schools -- particularly in the immediate area -- and phone calls to coaches, particularly those farther from Shreveport-Bossier. 
    So I covered games involving Bruning's teams only a few times, but the first was memorable -- the 27-7 Class AA state-title victory against Tallulah at old Demon Stadium in Natchitoches in December 1969. That was at the end of my first football season as a fulltime employee at The Times. 
    I'd see Bruning and his assistant coaches scouting games, and he'd always have some clever things to say (OK, some BS), and we'd laugh. 
    But our friendship became more than writer-coach because of a story I did before the 1973 season opener. Because Jim Bruning was bold and brash in a hilarious way.
    His 1972 team had been 10-2 and shared a district championship, but the 1973 opener was a real challenge -- at Neville (Monroe).
    That was never an easy game for any visitors (and still isn't). But Neville then was the defending Class AAAA state champion and, as always, a formidable opponent.
    So I called Bruning early that week and asked how he felt about his team going to play at Neville.
    "We're going to beat their butts," he said (don't think he used "butts"). Of course, I laughed and said, "You want me to print that?"            
    "Yeah, I don't care," he replied, and then went on to say that his guys wouldn't be scared, wouldn't be intimidated, that they had a game plan to win, that Neville was just a good opponent but could be had, etc., etc.
    Disbelieving -- and laughing -- I asked again if he was sure that I could use these quotes. Sure, he said.
    Neville's coaches always loved using the "us against the world" hype to pump up their players, so this bulletin-board stuff was perfect for them.
    "Hey, next time you're down here, stop by and I'll buy you a steak," Bruning said.
    The story ran -- on a Wednesday, I think -- with the quotes, a little toned down. 
    On Friday night, Neville beat Natchitoches-Central 42-0.
    On a trip back from South Louisiana to cover a playoff game late that season, I called Bruning ... and he (and Bettye) bought me a steak dinner.
    "If you ever need a place to stay when you're coming this way, you can stay with us," Jim said. (Their new home was big enough to house his starting lineup.)
    Took him up on that -- several times. I was single and hungry, and so Bubba -- then about 10 or 11, but already bigger than me (there's a laugh) -- was my roommate.
    It was during one visit that he said, "What kind of name is that you have? Are you from China?" And, from that point, I was "Chinaman." (Who knows why? I think Dutchman would have been more accurate. But not for Jim.)
    Let's see, I think the steak or catfish dinner count is up to about a dozen. I have been reminded of this, oh, about 150 times over the years. But there is no way that Bruning would ever let me pay, even if I offered.
    Of course, I reminded of Neville, and 42-0, and butt-beating a few times.     
    And the phone calls -- when I was living in Florida, Tennessee or Texas -- always came. Coach Bruning liked talking about sports, and life.
The coach and his kids: Janyce, Jim Jr. ("Bubba")
and, at her wedding, Harryette
    His children will tell you that the coach was much the same at home as in football.
    "He was pretty demanding," said Janyce Bruning Kinley, a social studies/world languages coordinator in the Bryan (Texas) school district. "He was very loving and crazy, doing stuff that drove mother crazy, like when it was snowing and the roads were icy, and he's doing donuts in the street.
    "He was the disciplinarian of the house, but also the fun one."
    On Janyce's Facebook page, a friend -- Danelle Moon -- posted this: "Your Dad wore a football helmet on the day I started driver's ed and he made a statement in front of other students, 'Well, Lusby" is driving today, looks like I'm gonna be eating my knees!' He was the best instructor ever ... and a hoot!"
    "A great daddy," said Harryette Tinsley, who lives near Arcadia, La., and teaches computer classes at Ruston High School. "He was there to support us, no matter what I did or screwed up. He was very stern, believed in right or wrong.
    "He loved my mother with all his heart. He might act rough and tough, but he had such a big heart."
    And, as Harryette noted, one of Jim's fondest wishes is that all four of the Bruning grandchildren earn their college educations.
    "Caring," said big Bubba Bruning, a tax accountant for an oil company in Humble, Texas. "He'd do anything for you, but he wanted you to learn to do things for yourself. He was a disciplinarian; he wanted you to do things right.
    "I learned to iron because of him," he added. "He wouldn't let me out of the house (for school) unless I was neatly dressed."
    Bettye and Jim loved to travel, always, so they hitched the trusty camper to Jim's truck and "they showed us much of the country," Bubba said. "Mom being a librarian (research librarian at Northwestern State, then school librarian for a dozen at Natchitoches-Central), we had to learn all that [history]."
     Son-in-law Allen Kinley, who played and coached at Woodlawn High in Shreveport, played at Northwestern and for a couple of decades has been a weight-training coach for Texas A&M athletics, said Bruning "has been like another Dad."
      When Allen met Janyce in his first week at NSU and they began dating, Coach Bruning soon pulled out the game film from a Natchitoches-Woodlawn game and checked out Woodlawn's No. 84 at linebacker, "and then he called [Woodlawn principal] Bubba Cook" for a scouting report.
      He received approval. "If I had not gotten along with him," Kinley said, "I don't think his daughter would have stayed.
      "He's been very accepting of me. He gave me a hard time about being from Woodlawn, but we've always had mutual respect from the beginning."
      Kinley said that he "amazed that every time we visit, there are a lot of his ex-players there to visit with him."
      And even in the assisted-living facility and the hospital, Janyce said, "He's very social. The more people around, the more he likes it.
      "He cares about people. He'll tease them, get on them about their bad habits, and so on, but he has a bigger-than-life personality.
       "At the hospital, a nurse asked him, 'Is there anyone in town who doesn't know you?' "
    James Lindwind Bruning grew up in Clarence, a village seven miles east of Natchitoches. He was known there as "Sonny" and he grew tall and slim, and was a talented athlete -- especially in baseball, and good enough in football at Natchitoches High in about 1950 to earn a scholarship to LSU.
    But when LSU wanted him to redshirt as a freshman, after about a week he went home to Natchitoches -- and to Northwestern State. He lettered as an end in 1952, but messed around in school and ended up in the U.S. Army and a stint mostly served in Germany.
    He came home, back to Northwestern, and Bettye -- engaged to someone else -- soon was his wife. He lettered for the Demons in 1955-56-57, and his field goal to beat McNeese State 23-20 in 1957 helped coach Jack Clayton's first NSC team share a conference championship.
    The next year, with the Bruning family growing, Jim joined the coaching staff of his own coach, Trent Melder, at Natchitoches High. He was there to stay.
    In 1958 and '59, the Red Devils were district champs, with a 10-0 regular season in '59 but a state semifinals loss. In 1960, a 9-1 record wasn't enough to make the playoffs (only the district champ qualified then).
    Then came a decline, and Melder stepped out of coaching after the 1965 season. Bruning took over the program, and the first year was rough -- a 2-8 record.
    But he was building discipline, and a stable, loyal coaching staff, and what followed was six playoff years in succession -- records of 9-2, 9-3-1, 14-0, 9-3, 8-3, 10-2.
    After four district titles (or shares) in six years, Bruning's last five seasons of coaching were so-so. Still, he got out -- into a decade of work for an oil distributor in town -- with an 80-50-3 record over a dozen seasons ... and a lot of respect.
    The 1969 Natchitoches High team produced a magical, once-in-a-lifetime season.
    Led by a talented backfield -- All-State quarterback Gene Knecht Jr., tailback Rand Dennis and junior fullback Jim Knecht -- that was as big as the Red Devils' linemen, the team survived a close call in the season opener (7-6 vs. Mansfield), routed its next seven opponents (scoring 28 to 42 points each time), then survived five close games in a row (its first three playoff games) before dominating the state-title game.
    Gene Knecht made All-State; so did center Steve McCain (also the next season), linebacker Ricky Whittington and defensive back Joe Beck Payne. 
    Dennis and Jim Knecht went on to play at LSU; Gene Knecht also signed with LSU, but after a year there, transferred to NSU, which Gene Knecht Sr. was the longtime defensive backs coach.
    Bruning was selected Class AA "Coach of the Year."
    "He was an exceptional coach," said Jim Knecht. "A good motivator. He motivated you to go beyond what you thought you could do.
    "He expected you to do your best. If you didn't, he'd let you know. He got the best out of his players."
    Dennis said Bruning was "a figurehead type head coach" who let his assistants handle the details, such as Levi Thompson devising different offensive schemes each week.
    "We had kids who had brains," said Jim Knecht, "... who were smart, fast and strong. We lined up in slots and trips (formations); no other teams had seen those then."
    "We had good players across the board," said Dennis.
    "Smartest group of kids I ever coached," said Dan Poole, for a decade the school's defensive backs and track/field coach until -- in his words -- he was "demoted" to school principal. "It was the whole team, and they were also very competitive, adjusted to changes very quickly."
    And he credits Bruning for this: "I don't know how he could read the kids so well. We had kids who didn't look very good in practice, but Jim would play them. He knew which ones would come through in critical situations; he would pick the right ones. He was just great at picking personnel.
    "He grew up here, so he knew the families and the kids."
    The connection started early. Stuart Wright, Natchitoches-Central's starting quarterback for three seasons (1970-72) and as a freshman the backup to Gene Knecht in 1969, remembers that "what made a difference in our program (in high school) was that he was at every one of our junior high games. He knew us better than we knew him."
   His kids, and his players, will tell you: Coach Bruning kept up with everyone.
   "The main thing I remember," said Wright, "is he'd get on your case in a heartbreak; he got on everyone. But he was a really genuine great guy. His bark was a lot worse than his bite. He really loved the kids through the years. He's been like a second father to all of us."
   Same from Jim Knecht: "He's a guy who was almost like a father. He's kept up with all of us; showed true interest in our lives. He really cares, and that makes a difference."
   Wright is an attorney in Natchitoches and was first assistant district attorney in Natchitoches Parish. Knecht has been a family medicine doctor for 30-plus years in Natchitoches, and a team physician for Northwestern State and Natchitoches-Central's football teams for decades.
   "He really cared about his players; he would do anything to help them in their lives," added daughter Harryette.
   "What we remember is he always had such a gruff exterior," said Rand Dennis, for 35 years a litigation attorney in Baton Rouge and now living in San Antonio. "He would bark at you, but you know there'd be a smile right behind that."
    Knecht and Dennis played together at LSU in the early 1970s, giving Natchitoches half of the Tigers' starting defensive backs -- a proud Coach Bruning watching them often.
    What the players also knew was that their coach's concern covered more than football.
    "If we were playing hooky from school," recalled Dennis, "he'd come out in town and find us. He'd watch out for us."
    "I remember him many nights calling parents to check on the players, make sure they were home," recalled daughter Janyce. "Same on the weekends. And if they weren't home, he went into town to find them."
    Wright, who often has treated the coach to meals in recent years said Jim's memory " is better than mine. He remembers games, and people. You go in and he recognizes you immediately."
    He credits Bruning's influence for helping pave a smooth transition in a rough period when court-ordered integration forced the merger of practically all-white Natchitoches High and all-black Central High in 1970.
    The new school emerged on the west side of town on the Highway 1 bypass. The old Natchitoches High, located on the Northwestern State campus along University Parkway, became the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts.
    With that in mind, Bruning felt as if the 1969 state championship trophy belonged to old Natchitoches High and the team players. For years, that trophy sat in the Bruning home, in the large recreation room/den; I kidded him about it often. Later, it began being rotated among the players. Word is that John Williams, in Tyler, has it now.
    That '69 team, with some from preceding and succeeding classes, reunites every June for an outing at nearby Toledo Bend.
    "It's been a wonderful thing," said Dennis, saying that while he was able Bruning brought crawfish to the Friday night gathering. "He thinks of us as his boys, and we like that he does. It's been rewarding."
    The 1978 Natchitoches-Central yearbook includes a copy of a letter written on behalf of Bruning's players in his final season of coaching. Harryette provided it, it is entitled "Coach" and it reads:
    "In the past years the senior football players have given our head coach an award. This year's award, which represents our love, respect and admiration, has been, and is, much more meaningful because we are coach's last group of seniors.
    "Coach Bruning's overall record speaks for itself; however, no won or loss record can ever reveal the success that this man has had in the growth and development of young men. Records are for statisticians or spectators and never can be used to judge the value of a man. No won or loss record can ever picture the father image of Coach Bruning. Prints are just numbers on a scoreboard and are short-lived, whereas Coach Bruning's image of a man will live with us forever.
    " 'Macho' is a Spanish word meaning 'all man.' Until eternity, we seniors will remember you as our coach who was, and is, 'macho.' "
    My friend, macho.
    I am waiting for the next call, the next blank-blank politically incorrect opinion ... and the next steak dinner.   

Monday, August 22, 2016

"That Bolt guy" and other Olympics stories

       My Olympics observations ...
     I have always been an Olympics fan -- as I wrote in a blog piece before the 2012 Summer Games in London began -- so I again reveled in Rio and Brazil these past two weeks. 
    Didn't spend as much time watching on TV as others did, but I watched enough. Could not turn away from track and field -- still love it after all these years -- and the best part was this was a wonderful diversion from the gawd-awful, never-ending political and social media discussions (and I use "discussions" loosely).
Matt Centrowitz's golden 1,500-meter run finish
(The Washington Post photo)

    Before I go any further, here is my favorite story of these Olympics: Matthew Centrowitz Jr.'s gold-medal glory in the men's 1,500-meter run. 
    Oh, hallelujah. What a story. Son of an Olympic-runner father, son of a track/cross country coach. The first United States winner of this event in 108 years.
     Jim Ryun, somewhere in Kansas, had to be overjoyed. Those of us who loved Jim Ryun -- our favorite runner in 1964 through 1972 -- had to love it. 
     This one was long, long overdue -- at least 48 years overdue. (More on this below.)  
      We were on Facetime last week and asked our 8-year-old granddaughter, Josie -- who has been taking gymnastics lessons for a few years -- if she was watching the Olympics.
    "Yes, the gymnastics," she answered, "and that Bolt guy."
    Yes, even our precocious children know of Mr. Bolt, the fastest runner in history, a forever legend, a charismatic (and kind of crazy) character.
    I think Josie liked his lightning-bolt victory pose. We all got to see it nine times in nine races ... over three Summer Olympics. He is awesome.
     But so were Michael Phelps (again and again -- dang, 28 Olympic medals, 23 gold), Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles, and so many others ... and the beautiful, joyful country of Brazil.
    Despite all the pre-Olympics concerns, and some tacky Olympic stories (unfortunately, American-made), Rio did it right.
    Those of us who love the pageantry and the traditions of the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies had to be satisfied. Maybe other cities/countries have spent many more dollars, but they did not put on any better, more colorful shows, than Rio de Janeiro and Brazil.
      There is, for me, a lot of pride in seeing the United States athletes dominate the competition, especially in track/field and swimming and basketball. But, gosh, shouldn't we expect that -- as much money and time as we invest in pro, college and even at the high school/amateur levels?
       It's good to be an American.
       It is also good -- and I think you'll understand this -- to be a native Dutchman.
       I still feel emotional when I see The Netherlands flag being carried in or -- better yet -- on the gold-medal flag pole. And in the closing ceremony Sunday night, it was great to see the athletes at one moment dressed in a sea of orange; no question what country that represented.
       Had a friend send me a text early in the Olympics -- when the U.S. faced Holland in, I think, women's volleyball -- asking me who I rooted for in U.S.-Holland games.
       My answer: It depends. If it's men's soccer, no question -- the Dutch team was/is my first love. If it's speed skating or bicycling, probably Holland, but not always. Anything else, let the best team win ... I'm rooting for both. (Think Louisiana Tech vs. LSU.)
       But, honestly, I do think there is a bit too much nationality involved in the Olympics, too much flag-waving. Just my view. I enjoy seeing any superior performance by any athlete from any country.
       Some of the great moments, for instance, were Mo Farah's double golds-- repeated from four years ago -- in the men's 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs, and the amazing 400-meter world record by the runner from South Africa.
       It is also nice, U.S./Dutch partisanship aside, to see the host country take some significant gold medals. Brazil deserved that, just for its Olympic host efforts. So good for its men's volleyball team, and its men's beach volleyball pair ... and, yes, men's soccer.
       For Brazil, that final men's soccer victory-- on the hallowed turf of Maracana Stadium -- was the one it wanted. Brazil thinks of itself as the king of soccer.
        But, but, but ...
        Look, it was all the drama you wanted -- a tie game with Germany, a penalty-kick shootout after extra time (have I told you lately how much I detest PK shootouts to settle world-level soccer games?), and superstar Neymar's final golden PK.
        Let me remind you, these are basically under-23 national teams. These are not THE national teams.
        Make what you want that this was an equalizer for what happened in the Brazil-Germany semifinal of the World Cup -- in Brazil -- two years ago. No, it wasn't. That 7-1 Germany victory, a Brazil embarrassment, was achieved by the best players in the world, not under-23 teams. So there.
      Now about women's soccer. Those are the national teams, and so it was tough for the U.S. world champions to lose a PK shootout to Sweden after a 0-0 tie. It was tougher to hear U.S. goalie Hope Solo -- who made her team spokesman? -- carp about Sweden's team being "cowards."
      Shut up, Hope, and tell you teammates to score and keep you from being the victim in the PK shootout.
      Speaking of shutting up. Ryan Lochte, what the hell? This was the most overblown, overrated story of these Olympics. I guess NBC -- carrying the games on TV here -- felt that it had to be the news lead/interview subject, repeatedly. Too much, just a punked-out story.
       And then there was the overblown public reaction to gymnast Gabby Douglas not showing what many felt was the lack of respect during the U.S. national anthem. C'mon, people, give her a break; she's represented this country well for two Olympics.
       Now, Matt Centrowitz Jr. -- "like father, like son," as the tattoo on his chest says, and he proudly showed it off.
       Like Dad, who ran in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, he also followed him to run at the University of Oregon. He wanted the Olympic medal Dad didn't get, and four years ago in London he missed out by a split second of a podium finish in the 1,500.
       Watching Matt Jr., I could not help but think of Jim Ryun in the prelims and then the final Saturday night. 
Jim Ryun: 1972 Summer Olympics
(Getty Images)
       Because for three Olympics (1964, 1968, 1972), I rooted for no athlete more than Jim Ryun. He was 1 1/2 months older than me, and he was the first high school athlete to break 4 minutes in the mile run (in our junior-year spring, 1964). The next year, he set a national high school mile-run record (3:55.3) that stood for 36 years. He was in the Olympics at age 17.
        A year later, running for Kansas University (his hometown was Wichita), he set world records in the mile (3:51.3) and 880 yards (1:44.9). He was one of America's greatest athletes then.
         We thought he'd win the 1,500-meter gold for sure in the 1968 Olympics. But running in the mile-high altitude of Mexico City, even though he ran a career-best 3:37.8, he finished almost three seconds behind Kip Keino of Kenya, who was accustomed to running at heights. 
         Ryun had beaten Keino several times on flat land, and I am convinced he would have done so if the Olympics had been on flat land.
         But what we also didn't know then was that Keino was the first of what would become decades-long distance-running domination by Kenyans.                     
        And that only the first of two Olympics heartbreaks for Ryun (and us). Even worse was four years later in Munich's Summer Games when Jim was tripped up and fell during a qualifying heat. He was out; the U.S. protest was denied by Olympic officials.
        Ryun always remained one of our heroes. I wasn't a political fan (he was a very conservative 10-year House of Representatives member from Kansas), but some things can be forgiven.
        Matt Centrowitz, on Saturday, led almost the entire race, and set a very slow pace, much to his liking. When it came time for the sprint -- and the field included the past two Olympic champions in the event -- he held them all off in a gutsy, determined, golden effort.
        So what if it was the slowest men's 1,500-meter final (3:50) in 84 years? It was pure gold.
        Made my Olympics. For Josie, it was "that Bolt guy."


Friday, August 19, 2016

Football press boxes I have known and loved (or not)

     (Disclaimer: I am writing about football press boxes here, at Louisiana Tech. It is, in regard to the severe flooding in South Louisiana, a frivolous topic. Our hearts and prayers are with the people of this storm-stricken state. I live in Texas, but Louisiana is my home state, so I care.)
      Those of us who have occupied football press boxes, and even did a little work in them, and those of us with Louisiana Tech University ties took note of last week's announcement with interest.
    Tech people are planning a new $16.7 million press box/guest suite facility atop Joe Aillet Stadium. It is going to be an impressive sight.
    Good. Wow.  
    It's about time.
    Not that we didn't appreciate the press box that opened when the stadium did in 1968. Those of us who worked in the old -- really old -- press box at what was Tech Stadium about a half-mile away really appreciated it.
    (There aren't many of us left that remember that old Tech Stadium press box. That one had only about 18 seats, and usually was really crowded. More on that in a moment.)
    We were excited when the new stadium -- a dream of coach-athletic director Joe Aillet for years -- was being built (while I was a student at Tech, starting in fall 1965).
    The press box, as it was being built, looked appealing. We looked forward to working there; in my case, as the Tech statistician during games, and then later covering games as a sportswriter.
    But, dang, that box was cramped and crowded and a bit dysfunctional from the start. It was -- and if I'm offending the construction company, sorry -- poorly designed.
    It was outdated from the start. It needed a redesign -- in 1968. (I'll return to this, too, in a few paragraphs.)
    Don't get the wrong idea. We were happy to be there, in an enclosed press box, especially if it rained. (Not so fortunate at some of the big-school, no-window press boxes -- LSU and Florida, to name two -- during rain games.)
    And at Joe Aillet Stadium, for the first couple of decades, the (free) meals were a real treat ... prime roast beef, fried chicken, good sides, good desserts, and eventually a popcorn machine. That's not the primary reason we were there -- to eat -- but it was a side benefit.
    Keith Prince, the sports information director at Tech for 25 years starting in 1969 and a good friend, helped me recall those times, and said the meal money wasn't in his department's budget but was provided by then-Tech President F. Jay Taylor, who also was treating the school's top benefactors, some of whom were visitors to his private press-box booth.
    I have covered games in a three-person press box, and some high school press boxes a little bigger, and some here in north central Texas that were new and roomy and college-level. I covered games at major university and NFL stadiums.
    The first press box I was in, at old State Fair Stadium in Shreveport, was mediocre, and that's being kind. The replacement at what became Independence Stadium had its issues.
    I was not exactly enamored with the old Tiger Stadium press box; the one now is very nice, as are those at Florida and Tennessee. But the problem with them -- for me, I'm not speaking for anyone else -- is they're too high up; it's better to watch the action on the nearby TVs (and, thankfully, most press boxes at colleges and in the NFL have those).
    Best press-box seat I've had for a college game was at Kentucky -- at the top of the lower level of seats. I think the new stadium here at TCU, about a mile from our apartments, has a fabulous press box/luxury suits level (and view). 
    But the best press-box seat ever was at Texas Stadium when the Cowboys moved there in 1971. Again, top of the lower level of seats, and the service -- stats provided, food, room to work, a small TV between every two seats -- was tops. And it was two press boxes -- one for print media, stats, etc.; one across the way for TV/radio people.
       (Then Jerry Jones took over the Cowboys and decided that great view was much better suited for big-money donors and the media was moved to the very top of Texas Stadium near what little roof there was. At the new Spaceship Stadium in Arlington, it's upper-level near the end zone on one side ... and closer to Fort Worth than the playing field.)
        So old Tech Stadium was, I think, a 1930s facility much too small and dated by the early 1960s. But when I first saw games from the press box there, as a high school junior and senior, I thought it was big-time. Absolutely thrilled to be there.
        But crowded, yes. By the time you put in the Tech sports information director (Pete Dosher then), the statistician (Frank "Spike" Bright and Mike Powell in the years before me), sportswriters from Shreveport and Monroe and the visiting team's media, the Tech radio crew (Bill Carter and Bill Darland then), the visiting radio (not all the schools had one), the public-address announcer (the venerable  "Major" Lawrence Fox), a spotter for him, a pro scout or two and opposing teams' scouts, it was a full and cramped place.
     And ... a Western Union man -- who took the stories from the various sportswriters and sent them in telegram-form to the respective papers. That's how it was done then, or by dictation with the one or two telephones there. The good old days.
     The friends I asked didn't remember the details about the old press box. What they remembered mostly was the hospitality shown by the wonderful Pete Dosher, a fine and crafty journalist and SID. 
      Paul Manasseh was the Tech SID in 1968 when the new stadium and press box opened, and Keith Prince took over the next football season; each of them were pros who were good to and provided well for the media. 
      What was special about the first two years at Joe Aillet Stadium, remembers O.K. "Buddy" Davis, my old friend, fellow Tech journalist and sports editor of the Ruston Daily Leader for 50-plus years, is that those were Terry Bradshaw's great two seasons as the Tech quarterback.
        But that press box was built with, as a friend put it, "a flaw in spacing." The front-row seats at first were too close to the working counter in front, so guys with, well, big bellies, couldn't sit there. That was quickly adjusted. But, always, the upper back-row seats were built too close to the front row; you had to squeeze down the front-row alley; even (then) skinny guys like me.
       It is, as that friend said, "difficult to walk the length of the press box. It's impossible without touching someone, or with having to scooch into a wall or a chair. There is little room to serve food. Very difficult for student workers to get info passed out."
        In the first couple of years, there was no elevator, so equipment had to be carried up. Not a big problem, but still ... Then when they installed the elevator, it was s-l-o-w. It's been s-l-o-w for 45 years.
       The working booths upstairs, for radio-TV, scouts and team coaches, and the President's box, were all too small, too tight, and one level. No elevated seats, which is common now in most press boxes to accommodate -- in particular -- the four or five coaches each team sends upstairs. 
       At some point, Tech added a level for TV cameras, and in 1988, a Sky Box "luxury" level -- for major Tech donors -- above the main press. Still everything was crowded.                  
       There has been -- forever -- one bathroom per level ... one tiny bathroom. Go figure. (Or go outside.)
        Same friend's observation on this press box: "... workable, but way outdated. A very uncomfortable press box."
        So, yes, the new Tech press-box plans ...
        It is going to stretch from 10-yard line to 10-yard line, so 80 yards wide. That should be plenty for the media level and the luxury-box level.
        (To be honest, I've been to two Tech home games in some 35 years. The press box media level was maybe half occupied. But, hopefully, this will attract more attention and more people.)
         The best part of all of this is: All of the construction money, $18.6 million in all (with $1.9 million in other stadium improvements), is to be privately donated. No state money involved.
          The cynical part of me asks: Is this illusions (delusions) of grandeur for a school Tech's size? Is this not too much? Why 80 yards wide? Why not 45 or 60? A friend suggests that the word "overbuilding" applies here.
          The press-box fan in me says: This is necessary, long overdue. A redesign/renovation would have been good years ago.
          Certainly, the luxury-level boxes will bring a significant chunk of revenue to the university.
          The Tech fan in me reads that it is part of the overall
 vision Tech President Dr. Les Guice has for the university (the enrollment goal of 15,000 students by 2020) and new facilities and other improvements/updates all over the campus. And that's great.
          I would hope that this type money will put be into classrooms, dorms, cafeterias, the Student Union, the library, etc., and I trust that it is.
          Certainly, a new football press box will be great for the media, for Malcolm Butler (the current SID, in his 18th year) and staff, and it will be an impressive sight on the Tech campus. If it helps make Tech a more elite mid-major athletic program, I'm for it. If it helps attracts new students and new Tech supporters, even better.
         If you're going to do it, do it big and do it right. Go first-class, and serve the hungry media. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Three sweet women ... our treasures

       We count our blessings daily, especially for our family and so many great friends, but there is a special love for three "old" women in Shreveport.
    Because they were so special to my parents, our love is never-ending for Pauline Murov, her younger sister Ruth  Nierman, and Lou Gwin.
    We lost Pauline a week ago today, not unexpectedly because she was 96 and her life extended nine months past when we thought it might end. She was, as her niece Helaine Nierman Braunig posted on Facebook in announcing her death, "sweet and hilariously funny."
    We were in Shreveport, at B'nai Zion Temple, for her memorial service last Thursday -- a beautiful and touching service, sad as all memorial services are, but also, befitting Pauline's personality, containing funny moments.
    Saying goodbye was the hard part of the day. The good part: seeing Ruthie, at 92 recovered from a recent broken hip. And then, an hour later, a visit with Lou, who at 89 is at a rehabilitation center recovering from pneumonia.
Pauline Murov and Ruth Nierman: the beloved Gilbert sisters,
three years ago on a visit to Colorado Springs
    As with Pauline, the wonderful aspect is that even after all these years, Ruthie and Lou are as sharp-minded as ever, no signs of aging mentally, still daily looking ahead.
    We have known them all for six decades.
    Pauline and Ruth are the daughters of Abe A. Gilbert, who had a job (at the Pipe & Supply company that carried his name) waiting for Dad when we arrived in the United States. We met them the first week we were in Shreveport (early January 1956).
    They would be the biggest benefactors we had -- the best of our support system. The only one who would match them was Janice Cahn, who became like the mother my mother no longer had after 1943.
     If Mrs. Cahn was mother-like, Lou Gwin was like my mother's sister -- her best friend almost from the day we moved to Sunset Acres (July 4, 1957), a next-door neighbor for a decade, a neighborhood neighbor the next 40 years.
     These women were our treasures.
     We think of them, and we think: kind, generous, upbeat, positive, lovely. 
      I wrote about Pauline and Ruthie four years ago, and our connection to the Gilbert family: http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2012/04/shreveports-first-family.html
      The connection carries on because we now live within walking distance of where the Gilbert girls grew up in the 1930s and early 1940s, in Fort Worth, in the TCU neighborhood. I walk or drive past their old home a couple of times a week.
      During the memorial service Thursday, I remembered that Pauline outlived her father -- my Dad's first boss here -- by 50 years, and outlived her husband Lazar -- my Dad's second boss at the pipeyard -- by 20 years.
      To open the service, our favorite rabbi -- Jana De Benedetti, of B'nai Zion -- said: "Beautiful full room of people who don't want to be here. We are sad to be saying good-bye, but she -- Pauline, Aunt Sissy, Aunt Peshy -- lived an incredibly wonderful life filled with amazing experiences, lots of wonderful family ... "
      Rabbi Jana added how that most of us "wish we could have the kind of blessed end that she had. Peaceful. She thought she was going to die many months ago, and didn't.
      "... She had this extra time to talk to people, and the things that she said to people, and the things that people got to say to her were really wonderful, important things."
      A little later, she had us lift up our imaginary cups in a symbolic toast -- "l'chaim." Wine, someone suggested -- Mogem David wine. Rabbi Jana laughed and said, "I wasn't thinking wine." Pauline did like her occasional drinks.
      And then our co-favorite rabbi, Jordan Braunig, gave the eulogy. He is one of the six grandsons of Ruth Nierman, and  Pauline, he noted, transitioned over the years from beloved great aunt to surrogate grandmother to them. 
      "My grandmother (Ruth) has instructed me to speak into the microphone," Rabbi Jordan began. "I can think of no better way of honoring Aunt Sissy than to speak very loudly."
      He then told of her last birthday gathering, a surprise planned by the family and her caretakers. 
      "For those of us who spoke to her that day, there was something bittersweet in her voice," he recalled. "She absolutely loved the party they made for her, and at the same time, it would most certainly be her last. Pauline had months of knowing this day was coming and she lived them bravely, reflecting on the arc of her life. She lived them with pleasure, continuing to have dinner with her sister and accepting the many visitors who called on her.
      "She lived these days maintaining her one-of-a-kind sense of humor. In one of my last visits with her, we were joking about her healthy appetite, and she waved her hand at us and said, 'Make fun of me all you want, I can't hear you anyway.' "
      He spoke of her sister connection to so many old friends and groups, the love for so much family -- immediate and extended -- and the strong connection she and Lazar had for 49 years of marriage.
      It wasn't all perfect -- whose life is, after all?  There were family problems and disconnection.  
      As Jordan said, though, "In easy times and hard, she remained devoted, hopeful, loving."
      And he added, "There were many ways in which Pauline also grew funnier and more honest and more reflective as she got older" and, in many cases, delivered "the God-honest truth.
      "She was delightfully honest and funny, and had a self-deprecating side to her humor that was endearing," he said. "She was the least bit self-conscious, and she knew who she was.
      "Arriving at a restaurant, she would reach into her purse and pull out a bib that said, 'Miss Clean Pauline.' Unless, of course, it was a fancy restaurant, in which case she would reach for the sequined bib."
      "She always claimed she wasn't trying to be funny. She was just saying what she thought, speaking her mind. And whether it was intended or not, she brought out joy and laughter in those around her. She increased happiness in the world she encountered."
      What sticks with us most is the connection with Ruthie. The Murovs and the Niermans were part of our lives from 1956 on, so influential in my Mom and Dad's lives.
      For years, after Mr. Murov's death, Pauline dined with Ruth and Neal almost nightly and that continued after Neal's death in 2008 (just a month after my Dad's death). The girls, remarkably healthy for most of their 90-plus years, were traveling, shopping, Temple-going and -- mostly -- emotional companions.
      "To witness the lifelong friendship between these two sisters is to know what you can aspire to in your familial relationships," Rabbi Jordan said, pointing out the daily -- hourly, maybe -- phone calls.
      "At some point in their lives, they made the decision that they were in this together, and they would do all the work that it takes to be sisters, and to be friends.
      "Pauline would joke that when their parents were old that they asked her to take care of Ruthie, and that she agreed." Then, a laugh, "But she didn't expert her to live so long."
      When they last visited three weeks ago, with Pauline talking about memorial service plans, she told Jordan "not to go on too long. If she were here, I'm sure Pauline would wave her hand at me and 'say whatever you want about me, I can't hear you anyway.'
      "What I want to say, loudly and into the microphone, but what I believe she already knew, is that she was loved by a wide community of friends and family, that she was worthy of that love, and that her memory will continue to be cherished."
      Yes, it will.
      In my mother's final days, as she was in a rehab center after a broken hip and surgery, Pauline and Ruthie were almost daily visitors, bringing gifts and treats -- and conversation with Mom and her main caretaker, Beatrice Van Thyn.
      Another everyday visitor: Lou Gwin.

      I also wrote four years ago about Lou, recalling all the friends we made in our growing-up neighborhood: http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2012/10/in-sunset-acres-friends-for-lifetime.html
Our dear friend Miss Lou,
with great granddaughter Brooklynn
         Here is what I said then: :" ... And Miss Lou remains in South Broadmoor; we saw her a week ago. She's the wonderful, simple country girl who understood how much of a friend my mother -- an often-fragile Holocaust survivor from a faraway place but also a dynamic, forceful Holocaust educator -- needed her to be."
      One other sentence from that blog: "When my mother's health declined, Lou Gwin was about the only person she really trusted (other than my wife Bea) to do anything she needed."
       She has been, since her husband Howard's death 27 years ago, living by herself -- an independent force, until a few years ago still cutting her own grass, driving (carefully) to the store and faithfully attending church, and best of all, spending lots of time with her beloved great granddaughter, Brooklynn.
        A pacemaker installed a year ago slowed her a little, but our visits with her nearly every time we were in Shreveport were much the same. 
        So we were concerned when we heard about the pneumonia and hospitalization a few weeks ago. She is bouncing back, taking well to the rehab (she acknowledged with a laugh and a shake of the head that it is a daily test), and there is a ways to go to get her back on her feet.
         We are, to say the least, rooting hard for her, hoping she can return to her own home, on her feet. Just as we continue to cherish the ongoing days of Ruth Nierman.
         Here is how the Van Thyn family -- mine and my sister Elsa's -- feels about Pauline, Ruthie and Lou: forever grateful, forever loved. They are our treasures.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A worthy cause: The "GameChanger"

        Two areas I usually avoid: (1) raising funds for a cause; (2) writing about Jesus Christ.
        Today is an exception.
        The cause is the ongoing fund-raising effort for a Christian documentary/film --  GameChanger: The Kenneth Harvey Story. We can use your help ... and your money.
         The part about Jesus? If you know me, and my family's religious heritage (Jewish), you know this is not our focus. So why today? Read on.
         If you have followed my blog and/or received my e-mails for the past three years, you will know that Kenneth Harvey -- a hero in his hometown, Logansport, La. -- is a person we greatly admire.
         Three years ago, I wrote a 12-part series on Kenneth and his life before and after the brain-stem injury he suffered during a Logansport High School football game late in his senior season (1964, also my senior year in high school).
          He had been a star athlete -- quarterback and safety in football, and an even better basketball player. He was a college basketball prospect -- a rangy (6-foot-3), skillful shooter.
          He never walked again; his legs paralyzed. But with only partial use of his hands and arms, he has lived on courageously and as an inspiration. Until two years ago, he lived in an apartment by himself and drove a customized van.
          He has since been in an assisted living facility in nearby Mansfield, but the hope is that he can return to live -- and live well -- in Logansport.
          Kenneth is a deeply religious man -- always has been -- and it is his faith, his Christian testimony in churches in Logansport and the area, that is the basis of this story.
          As the DVD and poster promoting the documentary/film idea proclaim: "I am quarterbacking for Jesus Christ now."
          His friends in town, and in DeSoto Parish, honored him on Oct. 30, 2009, with "Kenneth Harvey Day" and a statue/tribute next to the Logansport High football stadium. 
          The organizers of those special honors now are working on the documentary/film that will tell Kenneth's story. Ben Freeman, John G. Russell, Mary Mac Thompson and Sissy Morris are among the leaders of the effort and the "Kenneth Harvey Advisory Committee," which has been holding monthly meetings in Logansport over the past year.
           As you also might know, there is a Facebook page dedicated to the effort, a "Go Fund Me" page linked to it, and a web site (www.gamechangerthekennethharveystory.com).
           Through various endeavors, the committee has raised some $14,000 of the $30,000 needed for producer-director Troy LeBlanc of Elyon Media -- based in San Antonio, where Ben and Cynthia Freeman live -- to begin to do the actual filming they have planned.
           The committee currently is promoting a project with Logansport-area church pastors and deacons to help raise funds. They have a letter, plus the DVD and the poster, asking for help.
           In part, the letter reads: "The Advisory Team feels that Kenneth's life story is a powerful witness to the love of Jesus Christ and to those who hear Kenneth's story."
           So not only is the committee asking for contributions from churches and its members, the letter also says that "Kenneth is available to visit your church on a first-come basis."
           If you are reading this in Shreveport-Bossier or elsewhere in North Louisiana or East Texas, I hope that you will consider going to your church leaders and ask them to be part of this. And make a financial contribution.
          (And if anyone has a connection or input with the Duck Dynasty/Duck Commander organization, let them know about it. The Duck Commander leader, I hear, once was a 1960s quarterback in North Louisiana -- a year older than Kenneth.)             
          I'll say this with no reservation: Making a contribution to this is money spent a heckuva lot better than giving to one of the political parties. Not much Christian about the millions being spent there.
          Checks should be made to "Gamechanger: The Kenneth Harvey Story" LLC. Mailing address: P.O. Box 791, Logansport, LA 71049
          All monies collected should be deposited at Community Bank of Louisiana to the account of "Gamechanger: The Kenneth Harvey Story" LLC.
          Those interested in having Kenneth speak at their church, should phone John Russell at 318-697-4303.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Our ode to Coach Billy Joe

     When the news came that Billy Joe Adcox had died Tuesday night in Ruston, La., five days short of his 85th birthday, it was no surprise. Alzheimer's had robbed his mind several years ago.
      I would ask friends in Ruston about him over the years, and it was hard to hear. Because he was a man we respected. He was a mentor and a friend.
      He was, in my opinion, as good at what he coached -- offensive line in football -- as anyone at any level.
      The decline these final years was so difficult for Miss Shirley, his wife of almost 60 years, and the three children and six grandchildren, plus a considerable extended family.
      We're thinking of them today. The funeral is Friday in Ruston, with burial in Atlanta, Ark.
      Coach Adcox was an Arkansas boy. But the bulk of his life and career was in North Louisiana.   
      He was a quiet, genteel man, a man of few words, a nice guy who I never heard use bad language.
      But when I first encountered him -- as a team manager at Woodlawn High School in Shreveport in the early 1960s -- I wasn't sure that he was nice. Neither were the players he coached.

     When it came to football, he was a tough guy. Nice didn't apply. As a player, and then for years as an offensive line coach, he was uncompromising.
      My great friend for decades, Casey Baker, was a Woodlawn offensive lineman (1962-64) and I know this morning he's thinking about this, because we always joked about it. If it was cloudy before practice, Adcox would go outside, point at the sky and say "hut, hut," -- and soon the clouds would disappear. No rain at practice.
       And he's also thinking this: "Per, Casey, that was per. Let's do it again."
       That came to mind when I received a note from Sid Huff, a team manager at Fair Park High in 1969 when Adcox became head coach there.
       "I can still see Coach Adcox," Sid wrote, "walking around the practice field twirling his keys back and forth and saying, 'Per ... that's per,' which was his pronunciation of 'poor' during pass blocking drills."
       Yes, a lot of us remember that. Adcox didn't stand for "per."
       No question, Billy Joe Adcox was a winner, an achiever -- as an undersized offensive guard when he played, then with the teams he helped coach -- at Woodlawn (1960-68) and Fair Park (head coach 1969-72, assistant 1973-76). 
       As an offensive line coach, he was demanding, dedicated. As ruler of the equipment room, the dispenser of helmets, pads, socks, jocks and shoes, etc. he was -- well -- frugal and conservative.
       He might've been that way, too, in real life, I don't know for sure. But I can tell you -- and the Woodlawn coaches would laugh at this -- not much was ever wasted.
       Jerseys, shoes, equipment went from varsity level to practically worn out, but Adcox kept issuing this stuff to B-team and sophomore-team players. Kids would bring worn-out cleats to the equipment room, pleading for replacements. No deal.
       But he also took pride in the uniforms; once Woodlawn began winning and making money in football in the early 1960s, the staff kept purchasing equipment. At one time, there were three sets of helmets (red, white and blue) and five sets of jerseys, three sets of pants.
       Adcox liked a well-dressed team as much as he loved a well-drilled team.
      The players -- and, yes, the team managers -- were just a bit afraid of him. You did not want Coach Adcox griping at you. And, well, he did gripe -- often.
       He was conservative with words; a short phrase might be all you got. From my sportswriting perspective, he was no quote machine. But from a team manager's perspective, I know this: We kept that equipment room very orderly.

       Don't get the wrong idea, though. He was not an "ugly" person or coach.
       Even in football -- as I noted in an e-mail I sent to people late Wednesday night -- he wasn't an aggressive coach, not a yeller or cusser. He made his points to his players briefly and directly and sometimes sarcastically ("c,mon, fellas"). He wanted them to play aggressively, but clean. He would not let his players settle for anything but their best.
      Adcox was, in my opinion, an excellent teacher (football and, yes, driver's education, as many kids will remember).
      He was masterful at teaching blocking techniques, pass protection -- moving the feet, getting proper leverage on opponents ... and being more determined, more competitive than the other guy.
      There was a reason the well-known quarterbacks at Woodlawn -- Billy Laird, Trey Prather, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Ferguson -- were successful passers. Their offensive lines gave them plenty of chances.
      This was especially true in Ferguson's three years as a starter. When Woodlawn went to an all-out passing game -- unique for that era -- in the 1967 and 1968 seasons, the key to letting Joe's strong and accurate right arm cut up defenses was offensive-line protection that rarely broke down.
       He had some outstanding, nice-sized lines in the mid-1960s. But before that, he took kids in the 150- to 170-pound range who really had little business playing at the Class AAA level and guided them into productive, winning players. Even those of us who watched it up close were amazed at players' development.
        Maybe he enjoyed that most because they reminded him of himself -- the smaller guy who excelled enough at El Dorado (Ark.) High School to earn a scholarship to Louisiana Tech, the small-but-tough guard who became an all-conference lineman for Coach Joe Aillet, and then played football in the service (he was an Air Force lieutenant).
      One of his early mentors was the great Paul "Bear" Bryant; Adcox was a graduate assistant coach at Alabama as he earned his master's degree.
      He then went into coaching as an assistant as his alma mater (El Dorado) under his high school coach, the well-respected, successful Garland Gregory, who also had been a standout lineman once at Louisiana Tech and played in the NFL.
      At Woodlawn, Adcox was part of the original five-man coaching staff beginning in 1960. The program went from an 0-9 first season to the winningest big-class team in Louisiana in the 1960s.
      Adcox coached on 10 district championship teams, 12 playoff teams, and in five state championship games (El Dorado, 1958 and 1959; Woodlawn, 1965 and 1968; Fair Park, 1974).
       He was an integral part of the 1968 state champions. His obit says the state championship came at Fair Park, but that 1974 team -- a wonderful team to cover -- lost a 9-0 fourth-quarter lead and fell 10-9 (on a late field goal) to Tara (Baton Rouge).
      In 1969, he left Woodlawn to become head coach at rival Fair Park and his first team went 8-2 in the regular season and shared the district title with ... Woodlawn, which was the No. 1 seed because it beat Fair Park 13-6.
       (A quick aside: At The Shreveport Times postseason banquet that year, Adcox was being honored as our city  "Coach of the Year." He sat at the head table and the paper's editor, Raymond McDaniel, came to sit next to him.
       When they were introduced, Mr. McDaniel thought it was Joe Bill Adcock, the baseball star from Coushatta. He was quickly corrected: "I'm Bill Adcox." I don't think Coach Adcox was pleased, but he probably had been mistaken for Joe Bill before.)
       In four seasons as head coach, Adcox's teams went 23-17-1. But he didn't enjoy the time-consuming, off-the-field tasks in the role, so Jimmy Orton -- once a Fair Park great in three sports and for years the de facto offensive coordinator -- became head coach in 1973 and Adcox stayed on as -- first love -- offensive-line assistant coach.

     After his coaching days, he moved to Ruston for a job as the purchasing agent at Louisiana Tech. He was in that position for 22 years -- I visited with him in his office there a couple of times -- and I can just imagine that Tech did not make any wasteful purchases in that time.
      He retired at Tech and began working parttime at a cleaners business in Ruston. When his mind began fading, and he got up at about 3 a.m. and drove to work one night, Miss Shirley knew it was trouble. Sad; it's a horrible disease.
      He was a man who knew who he was, who was quietly confident and sure of what he was doing. We all knew that.
      He was a very good family man, religious -- a deacon in his Baptist church for years.
      The quietest of the Woodlawn coaches, he was the target of practical jokes, especially because he feared snakes. So a rubber snake often appeared in one of his desk drawers or his locker or his shoes. "Per" idea. 
      But those coaches knew his value, and values. He was well-liked and respected by them and by opposing coaches.
      All of us, too -- his players and, yes, the managers -- ended up loving him.