I’ll warn you upfront. I may not make it through this.
The last few weeks have been difficult. It started with the passing of Luther Craft.
Mr. Craft was one of my teachers at Paschal High School. He taught me the value of the phrase just because you can doesn’t mean you should. I didn’t always adhere to it, but I never forgot it – and maybe it’s finally started to take.
There was Clyde Prior, one of our biology teachers. A day doesn’t pass in which I don’t marvel over those days. I didn’t have Mr. Prior, but he was a terrific teacher. That was the thing, though. I don’t remember any poor ones. Part of that stemmed from our principal, Ralph Miller. Truth be told, some of used to snicker when Mr. Miller would smile in the hallways and give his patented reminder: pride and character.
If we’d only known how right he was.
Then, right after Mr. Miller left us, news came that Herb Stephens had died. Some people knew Coach Stephens as a feisty guard for TCU’s early 70s basketball teams. Others knew him as a teacher and administrator for the Fort Worth ISD for almost 40 years. Some of us had him for biology. Everyone knew he bled purple – but a privileged few also knew him as always up for a pick up game after camp in the Panther Boys Club – or the Rickles Center (when we could sneak in). I don’t think TCU calls it that now, but that’s where the gym was, and wherever the gym was is where Herb Stephens could usually be found. Ask anyone west of Six Flags. Coach Stephens made Fort Worth a better place, and better people of those who knew him even a little.
Then, Roger Emrich. Perhaps you’ve now read much of what’s been posted about Roger, a longtime radio fixture and the voice of Cowboys games at AT&T Stadium. I had the honor of working with Roger, and knew him for years. Though we weren’t close friends, it really didn’t matter. Roger treated everyone like a close friend. Others knew him better and shared more adventures with him, but Roger was a candy story of warmth. Despite intense suffering the last few years, he exuded optimism – not only for a job he completely loved, but for a life he considered blessed. Even after losing his beloved Cris, he carried himself with a humble assurance. At our best, most of us could only hope to hear a tenth of what’s been said about Roger Emrich said about ourselves, and it was all true. He was one of those people over whom you rejoice when you hear praise like that, and I believe my old friend Jack Heinritz said it best: if any man ever has, Roger wore the sandals of his master well.
We all go through this. Death is nothing new. I saw my first at age 6, in the ICU at Harris Hospital. They put kids and grownups together then, and the post-surgical drainage tubes in my side kept me from rolling away. He was young, maybe in his 20s. A gunshot victim. It took three nights. If we’ve never talked, I should tell you that I view death only as an end that leads to a beginning. Many friends and loved ones have gone ahead since, because that is life. But these last few weeks?
It wouldn’t bother me at all if the Creator would hit pause for a bit.
Because this week I heard about Brian Jones.
Did you have that first teenage friendship? Usually it happens somewhere around 6th or 7th grade, I think. At least it did in what we called “Middle School”, which was then 6th through 8th. You have to ‘splain that in an era of split campuses, and my daughter looks at me weird when I try. You’re coming out of 5th grade into a much bigger school with a whole bunch of kids you don’t know, from parts of town you’ve never seen. Wherever you “fit” before just went out with Tempra paints and nap time. If you’re in competitive sports, as I was with football, you look around and think “I am about to get myself killed out there. Those guys from Rosemont are monsters!”
Then just about the time you’re sure you’re never going to get picked for that big lunchtime football game they used to let kids play, a guy like Brian Jones points at you. You pray you won’t be skins, because you’re not far past that sick kid in the hospital from not many years ago. You’re puny compared to David Drew, or Kevin Snodgrass, or some of these other natural-born studs. But you’re tall, and Jones thinks you’re funny, and he picks you. Maybe at least you can fall down and get in somebody’s way. That’s why I loved football. I could fall down with the best of them. They even called it “blocking”, which sounds better than running around and falling down.
Brian, however, never went down. The worst decision you could make in your 14-year-old football brain was to get in his way if he had the ball. Jones wouldn’t just run over you. He would look like he was posing for the Heisman when he’d do it. He had a perpetual cut on the bridge of his nose where he chalked up kills like a fighter pilot. If he hit you, you immediately regretted taking up the game. Even touch games out behind Arthur Kirby’s house eventually devolved into muddy helmet-less tackling. Jones couldn’t play non-contact, so we didn’t – and we spent those idyllic autumn Saturdays re-enacting the great plays of our heroes.
Brian’s cool older brother Brad was headed off to UT, and Jones loved the Longhorns like no one else. Even picking up a ball, he wouldn’t just hold it. He would hold it and mimic the ways Steve Worster and Earl Campbell held it. Most of his clothes were burnt-orange. Whether the rest of us loved or loathed UT, our passion was first inspired by Brian Jones. UT was in Austin, and Austin was the ground-zero of everything – from 3.2 to Rusty Wier. I’d liked the Longhorns since they’d beaten Arkansas in ’69, and had Bevo on my wall the first time Brian came over. That impressed him so much he still let me pull for TCU first.
Brian and his buddy Bill Scott were buddies with Danny Zobal and Mark Deason, and they were all buddies with Billy Weimer and Jody Norman and about half our 8th Grade class at McLean. Lord, I just sounded like my mom. Anyway, this dorky kid’s acceptance by that group suddenly gave me confidence. I look back on that and can’t overstate what a difference it made in my life. I bet you can point to moments like that, too – wherever and whenever they occurred. That instant you felt…connected.
That’s the word, too. When we’d spend the night at Will Tucker’s house or over at David Vela’s, the kitchen would end up stripped liked locusts had descended. Mrs. Zobal and all the other moms would set out enough food to feed a football team, because that’s precisely what was coming over to someone different’s house, every Friday night until all us idiots turned 18. Imagine trying to have enough milk and donuts the next morning for seven or eight strapping teenage boys, strewn all about the landscape. One of our bunch could shove an entire loaf of Mrs. Baird’s bread in his mouth, at once. The entire fridge would be laid barren, and the pantry too.
Brian’s poor mom. Lord, was Joann a giant. You know she raised four kids, mostly by herself, after their father choked at the dinner table? We all loved her, and I hope we didn’t abuse her trust too badly. I won’t mention the times we may have cut a class or two to go across the street to their apartment and listen to Chicago or ZZ Top on Brian’s stereo. It’s possible Swisher Sweets may also have been smoked, or even Red Man chewed. I remember once someone dropped an aspirin in a Coke because, you know, they’d heard about that.
Oh, we were such junior high outlaws. Spending the night at Deason’s house, tromping around upstairs at all hours. Walking the streets at 1am to go eat all the food at someone else’s house. Occasionally, a few stunts that could have ended in real trouble – but, the parents we had. Mr. Scott was my dad. So were Mr. Kirby and Mr. Zobal. Dr. Tucker was your dad, too. So was Mr. Deason. Everyone’s mom was your mom, too – and we knew it even then. That’s ultimately what kept us on the rails. We answered to everyone. And if you asked any of the parents, they’d always mention how courteous and respectful Brian was.
On the rails outside the metal shop was where we’d sit afternoons after practice, messing with Coach Green while we waited for our ride home. Coaches Dick Bogusch and Sherman Perry. Sam Peterson, the intern from TCU. Same thing with high school. An embarrassment of riches. Teachers, coaches, friends, classmates. Diversity? We knew what it was before it was a word. Ours was a crossroads school, with kids from the country club to the neighborhood across the tracks. White, black, brown, actually from all over the world. We went to school with all different kinds of people, and it made us all better.
Back in those days a shredded ACL was all but impossible to come back from, particularly at the lower levels. Two years, at least. That’s what ended Brian’s football career our freshman year – which we who watched him play unanimously believe otherwise would have lasted a very long time. Danny Zobal’s, too. Still, the bonds were inseparable. We were the bunch. The group. We made that sound. Look, I don’t know where it came from. Tell me what of anything that teens do makes sense? Essentially, it was based on the words “Who me? I seem to remember it being part of an impersonation of Russell Canon’s step-dad, but it evolved into sort of a hooted tribal signal you could hear across alpine valleys. I can’t explain it any better than that, but we all did it, and it little sense to anyone but us.
There were so many stories, most just this side of disownment. I thought I’d gotten away clean until my kids got older and I started hearing their teenage stories for the first time. Once Brian bet me I wouldn’t head butt a tree. I took him up on it, which explains a lot. He lost, but got a story he laughed about for years. My children shake their heads when they hear those tales, but none of them seem surprised.
In the end, we all graduated and moved on with our lives. None of us ever stay in touch like we intend to, and I’m especially bad about it. Fifteen, twenty years on we’d all occasionally get together for the Colonial or a reunion, but not like we should have. As the saying goes, life is what happens while you make other plans. Brian became a beloved teacher and a respected coach, and doting uncle – which was no shock to anyone who knew his perpetual energy. He was about to retire soon, but came home from a walk last week complaining of heartburn. EMTs got there fast, but too late. And this one has hit hardest of all.
Approaching 60 comes with increased awareness. I’ve always said that if I’d known how much fun we were having I would have enjoyed it more. Brian always knew. I can still see that crooked tooth and that cocky smile. That flounce of hair flying in the breeze as he did his best Roosevelt Leaks down the sideline. Burger’s Lake at the end of 8th Grade. Foster Park at the team cookout. Our driveway playing basketball. Round Up Inn for the dance. He’s not the only one from my old photos who’s missing now, but his homegoing came with additional emphasis. These things accelerate.
You ask yourself hard questions. I think we all love to see the people we love or respect do well in life, and it’s intensely gratifying to hear others say wonderful things about those who earned that praise in its living. You consider what you owe them, and realize you were given a gift not everyone receives.
As people everywhere always do, our bunch has now observed that too often it seems to take things like this. We should get together. It’s been too long. But then the richness of the memories flood you like a great warm spring, along with the realization that no matter how long it’s been we have always been together.
And despite the miles and the years, we always will be.
Just like we knew we would be back then.