In those days, I was too young to fully grasp the education I was receiving. That’s typical of most teenagers I suppose. At the age of 19, insight, wisdom and knowledge rolled off me like a well- cooked egg slides easily over Teflon but somewhere it deposited itself so that it bubbled up later.
It was a good 20 years before it began to dawn on me, before I begin to realize and appreciate how many men and women will touch the tender lives of growing kids. They will not only instruct but discipline them and, in return, they will polish the future of those kids.
This all comes to mind because a respected high school football coach I knew, passed away and I’ve been thinking of the difference he imparted on so many. I was a college freshman when I took up sports reporting, first for a weekly newspaper then a daily and, finally, a national daily. It was a job that schooled me better than the two bachelor degrees I earned in college.
I wasn’t a sports fan. That is the question asked most often. I just knew I wanted to write something other than obituaries and report on events more riveting than the opening of a Chinese restaurant. Once you’ve reported in glowing detail about one dumpling, what can you say about the other pot stickers that show up and demand a place in the limelight?
So, I chose sports, a radical idea at the time for female reporters. It would be years before the full impact of Title IX would be felt on athletic programs, so it was, undeniably, a man’s world.
Without question, those few years of sports reporting defined my understanding of life’s journeys in a way that is, well, hard to define and to express. I saw coaches, roaring like lions on the sidelines or in the locker rooms, become gentle lambs at the appropriate time when a player’s personal life called for compassion. I saw them take fatherless boys and rebellious ones and guide them onto the path of respectability. I watched them make a difference when the rest of the world turned a blind eye.
There were several of these coaches who I found admirable, albeit sometimes gruff and rough spoken. All refused to suffer fools or encourage them. I suppose it isn’t fair to single out one, but since Jim Lofton has scored the greatest play of all by exchanging earth for the heaven he long sought, I want to tell you about this hero and warrior to many young men and their families.
Coach Lofton had a lilting Southern drawl fit for the courtliest of gentlemen. This helped to soften tremendously the sting of his bellowing when a football player didn’t try hard enough on the field or in the class room. I don’t recall ever seeing him laugh and he rarely smiled. Probably because he was serious about winning both games and lives.
When Andrew Goudelock was diagnosed with cancer at 16 and suffered the amputation of a leg, Coach Lofton and his wife, Miss Ruby, stood firmly with him and his family. Coach Lofton let him play again and smiled, with tears glistening in his eyes, when Andrew hopped out on the field to be recognized as an All-State player. When Andrew died, the tough old coach cried.
When a freshman player named Dickie Hoard saw his father, a district attorney, die in a horrific car bombing, Lofton balanced toughness with compassion to guide Hoard through that first football season. Hoard, who had a toe on the wrong path, straightened up. He became a beloved, respected Methodist minister.
Unlike his Auburn University roommate, Vince Dooley, there most likely will never be a bronze statue sculpted in his likeness or a building named for him.
But in hearts of the many lives he touched, Jim Lofton will live forever.