The Thomson Bulldogs visit "the scene" tomorrow night to play "the team." Even the date is almost the same. Sixteen years ago, October 5, 1990, one of the most perplexing and discouraging moments in my 13-year coaching experience occurred. I was on the coaching staff at Bradwell Institute, and we were playing the Benedictine Cadets in Savannah's Memorial Stadium. The coincidence is eerie.
During the 1970s and 80s, Bradwell Institute and Benedictine had two of the best football traditions in the Savannah area. In fact, they were the strongest programs in the entire coastal empire.
Bradwell and Benedictine was always a big game. They both had big fan followings and were well coached. Regardless of the records coming into the game, it would always be tough. The Tigers were then coached by Ron Beaucham and BC by Jim Walsh, Sr. These gentlemen are now retired.
Like Thomson vs. Washington-Wilkes, you had to be ready to play. On this night, we had the Bradwell Institute Tigers ready to play. We had the better athletes and went out and proved it. We were leading 31-0 at the end of the third quarter. As a coaching staff, we were pleased with those 36 minutes of execution against a well-disciplined opponent.
As the fourth quarter started Coach Beaucham told the assistant coaches to start slowly working the substitutes into the game. At the time, Bradwell had 2,200 students so we had 75 or 80 varsity players. He wanted to give as many guys as possible a chance to play, and he did not want to embarrass Coach Walsh.
Our starters were not thrilled when we pulled them from the game, but they never are excited to leave a game with a big lead. We told them they were done and to sit on the bench out of the way. The assistants were busy scurrying about substituting players as the game continued.
Suddenly, what do I hear but a big fuss coming from the bench. Somebody grabbed me and said the principal wanted to see me "right now." I turned around, and sure enough there stood our principal right behind the fence ranting at our starting players and motioning for me.
Me? Why me? In the middle of the game? Did I forget to turn in my lesson plans?
Our principal was a nice lady in her second year in charge. She had been a longtime assistant principal at the school, and her heart was in the right place. She truly loved Bradwell Institute.
As I humbly approached her saying "yes mam" I observed she was not calming down. She was motioning with her hands pointing at me and the players on the bench. She was really animated.
"Tell these boys to put their shoulder pads back on," she yelled. "If you can't make them do it, I can."
Four or five guys had done just what they had seen their NFL heroes do on television when they have been pulled from a game. They had removed their shoulder pads and put their jerseys back on over their sweaty bodies.
"They'll do just that," I told the principal. I told the boys to put their pads back on, and they immediately did. Most Bradwell kids came from Fort Stewart military backgrounds and were not in the habit of arguing. A couple did say that we wouldn't let them back in the game, so they pulled off their shoulder pads.
I didn't come from a military background, so I wanted to ask the principal, "why now?" I then realized that by then everyone on the sidelines and in the stands was watching, including my wife. For once in my life, I kept my big mouth shut.
The rest of the fourth quarter was a real downer. Benedictine scored 12 points, and our second and third strings were in disarray. I don't know if the sideline episode contributed to it or not, but it was easy to think that it did.
After the game, I was besieged outside the locker room by the other coaches, their wives, my wife and even some players and fans. "Why did you get fussed at by the principal?"
"It was the luck of the draw I guess," was my answer. After all, I was the least tenured member of the coaching staff, having arrived there only the year before.
The principal was not fussing at me, but it sure did look like it. She considered it less than first-class for players to remove their shoulder pads before the game was over. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't, but she really took away the satisfaction of our team playing well.
I couldn't help but wish that she had addressed the issue with the head coach in private sometime after the game.
After the season the principal decided that she wanted a new head coach. That's when I decided to go elsewhere, which turned out to be Thomson. If you see me at Memorial Stadium in Savannah at a Benedictine game, I might be in a daze. I haven't been there in 16 years.
I had an unforgettable experience there once, and it wasn't funny.
It still ain't.