High school football season begins in earnest this week. Young athletes will suit up from Bayou La Batre to Bridgeport and run onto the field while the band plays and cheerleaders wave pompons. It’s an experience they will cherish for a lifetime. It’s been 55 years since I tugged on jersey No. 83 for the Theodore Bobcats, but I never smell just-mowed grass without being reminded of those long ago Friday nights.
And while some teams will be cheered on by thousands of fans, far more will play in front of half-filled bleachers and on fields that are far from the immaculate turf found at large university stadiums.
I wrote about one of these teams two years ago. Here is the story I told. I think it worth repeating on this first week of the season.
It was 10:30 on Friday morning when I wheeled into the parking lot at Hubbertville School. Just down the hill a white-haired man was running a red riding mower across the football field, where later that day the school and community would celebrate homecoming.
I walked down and he came to a stop beside me.
“Coach, do you think Nick Saban is cutting the grass today at Bryant-Denney Stadium in Tuscaloosa? I asked. This brought a hardy laugh from Lamar Harris and a quick, “I doubt it.”
Probably as much as anything, this indicates the gulf between the world of coaching at small schools across Alabama in places like Florala, Spring Garden and Winterboro, where Lamar Harris and 65 other 1-A coaches mow grass, line fields, wash socks, scrape up funds and anything else necessary to coach a game and work with kids–and the football world we see on TV on Saturdays.
Harris came to this little 1-A school in 1977. Jimmy Carter was president. We’ve had five presidents since then, but only one head coach at Hubbertville. And for many of the folks in north Fayette County, Harris has had more impact on their lives than any of the last six presidents.
That’s certainly true of Tim Dunnavant, Hubbertville’s principal for nine years. A 1981 graduate of the school he now leads, Dunnavant says Harris was the main reason he got into education.
“I played basketball for him and when I went to junior college, he asked me to help him coach,” recalls Dunnavant. “I was going to be an engineer, but switched to education because of what I learned from him.” He continued to moonlight with Harris throughout undergrad and graduate school.
Today, ag teacher Trent Hill and special ed teacher Jeff Rutledge follow in Dunnavant’s footsteps. Both are Hubbertville graduates who serve as assistant football coaches, in addition to their classroom duties.
People tend to put down roots in this little community. “I didn’t think I would stay long,” laughs Harris. “But here it is 37 years later and I’m still here.” His wife taught at Hubbertville for many years and both of his daughters went to school there. The 28 teachers at the school have been there an average of 12 years
In many ways, Hubbertville school is a glimpse of how life once was across much of Alabama. Next door is a Church of Christ, a cemetery and a cotton patch. Just down the road is B & M grocery where you can choose between a can of Rooster or Garrett’s snuff.
“The school IS the community. This is all we have so life pretty much revolves around school and I like that,” says Harris.
It’s been that way since 1923 when four schools were consolidated. Today the bell from one (Hickory Rock) is displayed in the school library. The school had only two principals from 1930 to 1990.
The senior class has averaged 30 students for the last ten years. Some would contend students in such situations are shortchanged because of a lack of highly-specialized teachers or certain bells and whistles.
But the fact that Hubbertville is one of only four schools in the state with a 100 percent graduation rate offsets such contentions. So does the fact that 4th grade reading and math scores are considerably higher than the state average.
“We just wear a lot of hats around here,” says Dunnavant. “We believe in lots of extracurricular activities and our faculty is willing to do what is necessary to help our kids.” Rhetta Tucker has been at Hubbertville since 1976. She handles girls’ physical education and has been cheerleader sponsor for many of those years. She long ago got her CDL so she could haul cheerleaders and not have to pay for a bus driver.
Wearing different hats is nothing new to Harris. If Hubbertville fields a team, he is the head coach. Along the way he has won two state championships in girls’ basketball and three in girls’ softball. Football and boys’ basketball have won numerous area titles. Harris is in the Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame.
Coach Harris is the son of a Baptist minister. Many in north Fayette County believe he is no less a minister himself. Except his congregations wear shoulder pads, basketball shoes and softball gloves. And if you happen by and see a white-haired gentleman on a red lawnmower, you’ll know that church is about to begin.