• John Macon Gillespie

COLUMN: Tales From The Gridiron

*Originally published in the 2016 SES Mississippi Season Review Magazine.

Looking back at almost 40 years of coaching football all over this great state, I find it hard to pick a favorite place. However, there is one spot that comes really close.

I had been coaching at Canton Academy for four years and Mary Lynn and I really missed the Delta. We had both been born and raised there. I remember, we were in a basketball tournament in Yazoo City at Manchester Academy and a friend of mine was there with his team from Rolling Fork. My friend was the late James Branning, one of the finest men I have ever known. We were talking one night between games and I told him that we wanted to get back closer to home. Without hesitating he said that I should come to Sharkey-Issaquena and help him coach.

It wasn’t much longer after that talk that we decided to load up and move to Rolling Fork. I spent the next year working with James. Although I had been coaching for several years, I still learned a lot from him. After one year, James decided to go into the Insurance business and, all of the sudden, I became the head coach.

During the next five years I met and coached some the finest young men I have ever known. They proved to be champions both on and off the field.

Every Friday night was a special event. I don’t remember a single time the bleachers were not filled. I remember the pep-rallies in the gym and the stands being full of students and parents. I remember walking from the dressing room to the field and people would be lined up cheering us on with every step we took. I remember leaving for a playoff game one time and the road leading us out was lined with people. I remember that we had to do our off-season workouts at night because most of our kids worked in the fields all day long. They would literally come right out of the fields and do their workouts. This was a special place.

One of my fondest memories of coaching there came after we lost our first game in 1986. We had been undefeated and had won by large margins. Then it happened. We got beat and the kids took it hard. It was a very quiet ride back from North Sunflower Academy in Drew back home to Rolling Fork. It was sometime after one in the morning before I finally got into bed. A couple hours later I woke up to a noise in the carport. My son was a senior on that team so I figured it was him trying to sneak in past his curfew so I got up to jump him for coming in so late. That’s when I saw the carport was filled with my football players. They were angry, they were disappointed but most importantly they were determined. They promised me right then and there that they would not lose again and they kept that promise all the way to the South State Championship. They grew up that night and found out that nothing comes easy. I loved this team.

A few days ago I went back to the area. It wasn’t for a happy occasion. It was to say good-bye to a treasured friend.

Tommy Ewing was the father of two young men that I coached. Mary Lynn and I became very good friends with Tommy and his wife Mitzi. Some of our favorite memories were made on Saturday nights after a big Sharkey victory. I was still coaching and moving around some so we didn’t see much of one another over the next several years, but we still would talk from time to time. Tommy was a great friend and person. He will always be one of the best friend I have ever had.

While saying good-bye to Tommy, I ran into some of the guys that I coached. It’s not surprising that they have grown into fine young men.

In the long run, that’s what it is all about. Not wins, not losses but what you learn from them along the way. From what I saw, I think they all have learned well.

I started this by saying that it’s hard to pick a favorite place. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe it’s not that hard. SKA!!

#PeteLewis #SIA

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