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The coach squints and his eyes focus right through me, gazing at something I cannot see.
You’d think in a place this quiet there wouldn’t be naysayers, but the ghosts always come out.
“I hear what they say.” The coach says quietly.
Two words ease out of his mouth like a confession, a whisper kept quiet from anyone who might be listening in:
On any football team there are dozens of people who make the machine move. When a game is won, the praise is spread far and thin. When things go poorly, the circle shrinks until only a few are left holding blame. And then there is one person at whom the buck will always stop.
The head coach.
In the case of Brewer High School, he is a native son. Daniel Gullion played football here back when the school could threaten for the playoffs. That was in the nineties, and the Patriots haven’t come close to the postseason since. As Brewer sunk deeper into an abyss of losing, Gullion was just beginning his journey. The Brewer alum went to the University of North Alabama on a football scholarship. After one semester he transferred to Auburn and made the team. It was not to be, however, as an injury soon ended his career.
If anyone possessed the life arc to resurrect the Patriots, this would seem to be the man. After all, he came back. In this lonely landscape of forested hills and sprawling farms, some of the sons and daughters will claw hand and foot to escape. Some will never look back. Out of all that have left, the coach came back.
I am sitting in his office, sunk low into a couch that has been here since the seventies. The room is exactly the shape of a shoebox. A red and blue stripe is painted horizontally across the middle of the concrete walls. The stripe suddenly stops just before one corner and resumes again on the next wall, a gap where a cabinet must have stood long ago, and the painter was too lazy to move it out of the way. Loose papers cover the desk. An acronym sign hangs behind his chair, facing the door at eye level for any player who walks in. The word is PRIDE. The first line, the “P”, flows forth in an elegant font:
The PEACE of knowing yourself
Gullion has a round, boyish face that has so far resisted the lines and indents that this profession seems to inflict. He is settled into a swiveling chair on the other side of the desk. It is 7pm, and there is much left to do.
His day began when he arrived at school around 7am (“…a little late,” he confesses). He is first and foremost a teacher, and his responsibility at Brewer is instructing special needs students. After these classes are taught there is football practice. Today he had a meeting after practice and is just now returning to the field house, where his office sits like a war room in the center of things. His loyal assistant coaches are still here, orbiting in and out of the office on various assignments. One of the coaches bursts in, covered in grass clippings. The mower has overheated. The interview pauses as the two men debate how to coax a few more miles out of the machine. Satisfied, the assistant throws his boonie hat back on and heads outside, racing against the coming sunset.
Gullion rocks back in his chair, hands folded across his stomach. He turns back to me, ready to resume the interview.
“I try to get here sometimes at five or so to mow before the sun comes up.” He says factually.
It isn’t like this in other places. The Patriots don’t get to play in a baseball stadium like Hoover does. They don’t get a new field with artificial turf like Cullman did. They don’t even have city workers to mow their field like other schools do.
By any objective estimation, this year will be difficult for the Patriots. Graduation and defections have left the team thin on experience, especially on offense. There will be games this season that Brewer will essentially have to play perfect football to win.
This begs a difficult question, both to ask and to answer.
I ask the coach what goes through his mind on the sideline when the game is out of reach. What lessons can he teach his team when they are down by three or four touchdowns?
A silence settles into the office between the two of us. He doesn’t look angry, not exactly.
And then his eyes do that thing again, looking through me, out of the office and into the lives of his 50 players.
“That they won’t quit.” He says softly.
“They won’t quit on their families. They won’t cheat on their wives.”
The interview has to end now. The darkness is coming, and the field lines still need to be painted. I leave the office and walk through the field house, past a whiteboard covered with diagrammed plays. The coaches have filled the board with little groups of X’s and O’s, lined up in a state of perpetual conflict against each other. Arrows sprout out of each X, directing it where to go and which O to block. Perhaps on this board lies the solution, the key to break through and reverse the curse.
I drive off the Brewer campus, headed home. In these hills the Patriots sleep tonight. Their coaches are hard at work painting the field under the night sky. All the while the ghosts circle overhead, whispering that this year will be just like all the others.
Read the Mountain Boys series here: