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A fast friendship

A box of Vidalia onions arrived at the office the other day ‘“ a gift from old friends. I smelled their distinct aroma and knew before I saw it that the annual treasure from Alston, Ga. had arrived. The smell took me back 40 years to spring football practice and a memory of an unlikely friendship formed. It was hot. The mown practice field smelled of wild onions, the stalks of which made up about half its turf. Tensions were high. It was the first spring football practice mixing the athletes from the black and white high schools which would merge that fall as integration took hold. Looking back, I’m not sure how the coaches managed it all but they did. They melded two teams into one. The coach ran the wishbone offense. The quarterback was white. He was the son of the principal of the white school but won the job on talent. The fullback was a big, strapping white kid, son of the town’s barber. One running back, Curtis, was the superstar from the black school. He set records as a sophomore and junior that Herschel Walker later broke but a knee injury his senior year derailed his shot at major college and pro football. The other back, Buddy, was a hardscrabble white farm boy. He toiled in the sun and had since he could walk. He pulled onions, picked and shucked corn and scrambled up into the beams of dark barns hanging tobacco. Scared of nothing, he caught and crushed the heads of rattlesnakes that crossed his path with his bare hands. He was tough as nails and could run like the wind. At 16, he already looked 35. Working to feed the family will do that to you. It was a hard lesson Buddy wore on his weathered face but one we would do well to teach our freeloaders today ‘“ but that is another column. Buddy wasn’t keen on integration. He glared at the black players just as his daddy, granddaddy and great-granddaddy had glared at the black players’ forefathers across the tracks for generations. Weepy was a huge black kid who settled at right tackle. Weepy had an ‘˜aw, shucks’ personna about him that made Buckwheat look like an intellectual. He came off as being really dumb but, behind the facade, was just the opposite. The offense ran counters and tripleoptions under the glaring sun until they were perfected. Since everyone was right-handed, most plays went right, putting Weepy at the point of attack. Buddy, meanwhile, continued to carry his racial hostility and glare into the huddle. That glare targeted Weepy in particular. When Curtis got the ball, Weepy opened huge holes for him to run through. When Buddy got the ball, Weepy would barely nudge the defenders and Buddy got pounded. The coaches, in their wisdom, knew what was going on and let it continue. Buddy was hardheaded ‘“ a good trait for a back. He took the pounding and continued to glare. Weepy just grinned. Then came the hit. Buddy ran wide right on the option and got the ball on a pitch. Weepy let a swift, strong defensive end go by him. He and Buddy collided helmet to helmet. The crack of contact split the air and turned the heads of two men working on a tractor in a field some 300 yards away. Buddy was out cold; his face mask torn away. When he finally came to, three coaches were kneeling around him. Weepy was kneeling there, too, and he was weeping. When he saw Buddy would likely live, he apologized and helped the dazed back to his feet. Buddy put his arm around Weepy and they both cried. Weepy went on to open huge holes for both Curtis and Buddy as each rushed for over 1000 yards that fall. The team won the region title. Fans from both sides of the tracks filled the modest stadium and stood shoulder to shoulder on Friday nights cheering them on. Buddy and Weepy became fast friends and, I’m betting, their kids and grandkids don’t glare at each other across the tracks as their forefathers did so very long ago. This column originally appeared in the 6.29.2010 print/e-edition of The Herald-Gazette.

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