"Grady," the Gridiron Guru
This personal commentary is true, but the main character's name. The rest you can stuff into your memory banks and have a ball when boredom hits you at work, school, and sometimes in church. We've all been bored. God created boredom to slightly chastise us who (used to) think that working day and night was healthy, wealthy, and wise. Those old standards have long since been stored inside my attic collecting dust and what few friendly, non-poisonous spiders are nesting there.
The photo above is a sample of what I want to share: High school football in 1966 throughout 1972, the last year I spent in Hamilton High School as a student. I wasn't elected on any "favorites" in any class. Not even nominated. Rural-based students were secretly snubbed from these activities. This is not sour grapes. I have solid evidence from one of the elite students who won something in each class we had. If it wasn't Class President, he won Most Likely to Be a Jerk. I detest and resent this to this very day. NOTE: the photo at the top has an explanation in the caption area. I liked it for two reasons: one, I did not have any high school photos of my high school football years and two, I knew that if they did exist, Mr. Class President, Most Likely to be A Jerk would have been our quarterback.
High school football in my day was maddening. Hard-paced and highly-political. This has never changed. Even at my alma mater, the high school football coaching staff will allow guys and girls too, to "go out" (a coaching term meant to make guys into football heroes), but and if the students make it on the team, guess what? Only the kids from elite citizens of our hometown get to play on our team. None of the kids whose parents work for a living are ever told by coaches to "get in there," on any occasion. It's a low down system and deserves to be investigated by the AHSAA, Montgomery, Al., the letters mean: Alabama High School Athletic Association.
But with two-faced coaching notwithstanding, this narrative is about a friend of mine whom I met at a game between my high school and another rival school being played on our home field. "Grady" was his name. I was around 14 and knew what life was all about. Yeah, man. I would ask my dad for three bucks--two dollars and fifty-cents to get into the football game and fifty-cents to get a burger. Plus as a bonus, I got to spend the night (after the game) with my cousin Donnie who really hated high school-related football, activities, and just everything in high school in general. Donnie was a true rebel. I would have put him up against James Dean, the 1950s cigarette-smoking, foul mouthed, heartthrob who was killed in a tragic accident in his own sleek sportscar.
"Grady" was the absolute opposite of Dean. Quite innocuous to be honest. And to extend more honesty, in 1966, times were slowly changing. Even in my sixth-grade class, I would listen to classmates discuss how the Beatles' music was changing Life in Tendon, a safe topic for discussion, I thought. But some little, disturbed voice said to me, "Ken, my awkward pre-teen buddy. You are about to board a ship called "Turbulence" and man, you will either love it, dig it, or fall in a ditch." This little voice whomever he was was dead on. Do you remember the Turbulent 60s? Huh? The little voice didn't lie. And many did fall in a ditch. A few of my friends did. But I hung on when music, fads, and cliques ruled the day, I began to rue life itself.
But "Grady" was my first constant in my prepubescence that was beginning to show signs of life--especially when a hot girl, a classmate, "Nina" would stroll by. I liked Nina. She was set on wearing dresses. No slacks. Dresses. No problem. And she had eyes so brown that, well, we won't discuss that. From what "Grady" would say and his words were all chosen and polished, made sense to me. So why not? I said to myself. Talk more to "Grady." Can't hurt. This was my own inner-voice. Not my little voice.
"Grady," if were to look at society as a huge, full-length mirror, from where he and I sat on the concrete football stands (where my team played their home games), he would take on the image of being raw, uncultured, and living on a paycheck from, I always guessed, at a local factory, to have cash to get into our ballgames. And buy himself Winston cigarettes--that he smoked during any given football game. He wasn't a chain-smoker. Just one or two, maybe three with a cup of black coffee that cost fifty-cents at the concession stand. To me, "Grady" was some type of unsung, unheralded hero of some war that I always imagined. He never divulge any information about his war days which told me that the vast majority of soldiers who do tours of duty, never come home blabbing about kill's, tunnels, and Clamor mines. It's just not something soldiers do. "Grady" must have saw some action in Vietnam, but I didn't have the nerve that a 13-year-old should have, to ask him.
I'd pay my ticket money, grab a burger, and part ways with my cousin, Donnie, to head out and scout the available whores, as he said each time we attended a home game. Donnie, and I am not trying to be dark, but loved whores from talking about them to reading about them. He even told me and some friends that he was going to marry a whore and true to his word, he did. They produced a beautiful little girl, but she stayed with Donnie's "EX," who loved strange guys. The thing that puzzled me later was Donnie knew ahead of getting married to (this) whore that she loved men, but married her anyway. That was Donnie.
I would always find "Grady" at the very same place sitting at the very same way--with both eyes focused on the football field to watch the warm-up's as our football team ran out to get ready to meet another opponent. "Grady" was always super-presentable in public--clean shaved, hair oiled down, combed, parted, but not long. And holding that styrofoam cup of black coffee and smoking a Winston.
"Hey," that was all that "Grady" would say--never turning from the football field.
"Hey, man," I would say trying to be cool. And if you were a teenager in 1966, living in Hamilton, Ala., the "Mayberry of Northwest Alabama," where social change and tolerance were still looked upon as evil tools of Karl Marx, trying to be cool and just fit in, it was hard, my friend. Very hard. Bob Dylan, before fame kissed him, would have cried out of pity for my handful of friends and myself for looking at what kind of life was our environment we we faced each day that God granted. I promise you that Dylan, even in tears, would have been able to write a song about us on the spot.
"You work hard today?" I asked "Grady" taking a bite of my burger that was so delicious. Must have just coffee right off the grill.
"Nope. You?" "Grady" replied still keeping his eyes glued to the football field.
Then I laughed a little. "Me? Work? Nahhh. I am in sixth grade, Grady," I said very low for I was not one for making a scene. There's a paradox for you. Me, not wanting to make a scene, but that was the only way out of this "Poverty Pocket" of a town we called Hamilton was to make the scene and if that meant smoking weed, growing our hair very long, skipping school frequently and burning the flag, I guessed (at this time) was too much to pay for a ticket for that trip. So I just occupied myself with talking to "Grady" at Sargent Stadium, behind our high school, where the Hamilton Aggies played all of their home games.
"Grady," didn't respond that much to my snappy answer. I did see his chin shake just a bit. Then he took a sip of coffee and continued to scope-out the football players--and I began to worry about what? I don't know. Was this guy a spy from the opposing team? If he was he was the coolest guy in his late 20s that I had ever seen. He just sat. Looked at the quarterback and wide receivers practice. "Grady" was enamored by football. I just felt that in my heart. Maybe he didn't own a TV or radio. Maybe he was just a drifter staying in one of our two motels: Hamilton Econo-Lodge and Hamilton Holiday Motel--both of their signs made absolutely no sign.
Sometimes I would try to ask simple questions about his life and why he liked football so well, and all I would get would be a friendly, "something to do," and keep looking toward the football field. I didn't feel shunned by his non-verbal stance he always took on the next to the last cement bleacher on the left as you pass through the ticket gate and one thing was mysterious: "Grady" never left any empty Styrofoam coffee cups or cigarette butts left on the cement bleachers or ground. I watched him one Friday night when the game was over and watched him slowly and methodically, pick up the three cigarette butts and put them into his one Styrofoam coffee cup and then place them into a big trash can at the Exit gates.
"Next time," he'd say as he nodded toward the parking lot. That was all that I ever got from "Grady," who (right now) would pass for a young Alan Jackson, the Country Music singer, but without the hat and moustache. "Grady" never took a date with him to any of the football games that I would watch with him. I have to confess. As much as I would have loved to have "Nina" to sit by me and talk while the football game was going on, I felt that "Grady" was working as hard as to not want to have any female company. And another reason that "Nina" probably would not have liked to sit with me--not due to her not liking me, but because she would have been very self-conscious at her wearing a dress and having to keep herself from even sitting in a non-lady-like way. I respected her for that.
"Grady," is THE star of this narrative. Not me. Not my friends or the American Treasure: High School Football. Just "Grady." One of the millions in our country that fill high school stadiums on any given Friday night to watch their sons, nephews, sisters, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters and cousins to watch high school football. This is true. You know it's true. High school football fans are vicious, ferocious, and unable to back down from any adversity and cannot be compared to the fans who worship College and NFL football. These two groups, mostly, have a certain civil image that they love to keep clean. But you let one of the fans' blood kin not start in the high school game, and you have a growling, clawing, relative who is gnashing his or her teeth because of this gross negligence. You think I'm kidding? Visit one high school football game on any Friday night and let one of the home team's players get snubbed and you will see the truth is my statement.
Dressed in his usual blue jeans, short-sleeve shirt, (get this) white socks and black slippers. This was “Grady’s” wardrobe choices that he wore in the public. Compared to the few hippy-styled kids, he looked very out-of-place, but “Grady” did not care. He was just a high school football addict—more than just a fan. In our five Friday nights or so that we sat in his favorite place, drinking his same black coffee and that one delicious burger and my burger and no drink (no money to spare on frivolous items) we sat, barely talked, seldom laughed and many was the moments that I grew bored of our high school team that just ran the ball without using one forward pass and I wanted to walk away, but there was “that” indescribable trait or magnetism that kept me sitting with “Grady.”
Then in one of the last home games, I bought my ticket, said bye to Donnie who was set to score the whore of his choice of that week, bought a burger and walked to where I knew that I would see “Grady” sitting in his same place as he had sat in the previous five or six times we had sat when my team was on the field.
As I sat down I was mildly-shocked at not seeing my pal, “Grady.” But I was not about to panic. I knew that he must be buying that black cup of coffee in that styrofoam cup and getting that same delicious burger and the lines at the concession stand was longer than usual. That was it. It had to be it. “Grady” was a true, blue high school football guru—he would speak in volumes about percentages of times an average high school quarterback goes to the pass or the run; what teams are always doing the best toward play-off time and why. He knew high school football backward and forward. But now he was not anywhere to be seen.
Kick-off’s at all high school games in our area began at 7:30 p.m. on the dot. No exceptions. It was nearing that time when I started to be afraid that something must have happened to “Grady,” a guy whom I liked pretty much at once. I didn’t take to anyone all at once. But that’s just me. 7:35 p.m., and our team kicked-off against a school around Lamar County, that was south of Hamilton, Ala. The Sulligent Blue Devils versus the Hamilton Aggies. Always a slug-fest. The type of high school football game where the boys are made into men, their metal was tested with each tackle and hit. Sure, there was bloodshed. Not a lot and not in every game. But that hidden magnetism was what drew the fans out in all kinds of weather. Shoot! In the 1960s, I saw our team play during a raging thunderstorm. The coaches all wore slickers. The fans did not. Some went home, but the TRUE high school football fans stayed and bore Mother Nature’s onslaught.
Still . . . no “Grady.” I thought if I took my time in eating my burger, time would speed by giving him time to get into the game. I was wrong on that count also. At halftime, I gave up. I got up and walked behind our concession stands and tried to find cousin Donnie, but I soon viewed him arm-in-arm with the hottest brunette who looked every bit the part of a pin-up model walking and laughing as they went past me. I laughed to myself and just let them go. Donnie had wished for this type of girl to find and sure enough, he did it. I didn’t want to spoil his fun, so I just started to walk toward his house knowing that his parents and two sisters might be up when I arrived—for they loved to sit up late on Friday nights to watch Global Wrestling. It was a tradition with Donnie’s folks.
Donnie lived across town—a good walk from our football field. The more I walked the more I worried about “Grady,” and from what I had learned from him, he was not one to blow-off a good high school football game, but I didn’t blame myself too for I did all that I could do to make him feel comfortable while we watched our ballgames. Maybe “Grady” was an escaped convict, no. Maybe he was AWOL, no. But possible. No. Numerous thoughts were running through my mind as I neared Donnie’s home.
The sound of a pick-up truck roared to my back and I walked off of the street to give the driver room to pass. But as I watched the pick-up truck roar by, I saw him . . .”Grady,” not driving the truck, but sitting peacefully in the back of the truck by himself and I could have sworn that he was smoking a Winston not really focusing on anything or anyone.
“Grady!” I yelled almost to the top of my lungs.
He slowly looked back. I waved at him and I mean really hard and I knew that he must see me for carrying on so much. But he never bothered to confirm my yelling. He just looked at my direction as the truck went into the Friday night darkness.
Upon getting into Donnie’s house, I saw his mom, dad, and two sisters fully-engrossed watching their wrestling program—all spoke to me without taking their eyes off of some wrestler named, “Bully Bruiser,” and “Devil Dan,” and these two guys were giving the audience their money’s worth.
I sat down on their couch and asked Donnie’s dad, “I saw the most interesting man tonight—he was supposed to meet us at the ballgame, but didn’t show up. I had sit with him about five Friday nights in a row to watch the Aggies play ball and this guy’s name was “Grady” and wore pretty much what people wore in the 1950s—blue jeans, white socks, black Sunday slippers and was very quiet. But man, how he loved Winston cigarettes and black coffee,” I explained to Donnie’s dad.
Donnie’s dad, Nolan, didn’t speak, but only looked distantly as he went into deep thought.
“You say this guy’s name was ‘Grady’” Nolan asked.
“Yes, sir. ‘Grady,’ I didn’t get his last name,” I stated.
“Grady Belcher.’ That man you watched the games was ‘Grady Belcher,’ but he was known by another name,” Mr. Avery said.
“What was that, sir?” I asked very quickly. I really wanted to know this guy’s nick-name.
“Blind Grady,” he makes all kinds of brooms and mops all out of straw—without his vision. He lives way out of town by himself. But his goods are worth a pretty penny,” Mr. Avery explained.
“But on my way to your house, I saw him in the back of a pick-up truck going past me,” I said sternly.
“Yep. That was his uncle “Bo Belcher,” driving the truck. He goes by, ‘Deaf Bo Belcher,’ and these two make an interesting pair, I am telling you,” Mr. Avery said chuckling.
That was the last time that I saw “Grady” and while I tried to go to sleep that night—after I had listened to Donnie share his news about his whore-of-a-date, I drifted off to sleep with the memories of making brand-new friend: “Grady.”
Days from that night, I wondered what “Bo,” his uncle was like. I guess that sometimes in life, it’s better to not know certain things.
© 2017 Kenneth Avery