October 28, 2011At the beginning of this school year you couldn’t have told me that I would be the starting quarterback at my high school, Harris Creek, without me slapping you. But here I am in my blue and orange jersey with a capital H C on my helmet ready to run onto Gary Starks Field with around 30 guys around my age behind me and Coach Gary Starks in front of me. Coach Starks is a legend in my hometown. Thirty-five division championships, somewhere around one hundred fifty college football players coached, and twenty-one state championships speaks for itself. Of course, that was over twenty years ago. His prime has passed but he still tries; you have to give the man credit. At 64 years old, He has coached my father, my uncle, my brother, and now me. But we’ll get to that story in a minute.
Best of all, Coach Starks is a community man. I have seen him mowing grass at churches in town, stopped on the side of the road helping some man who had a flat tire in the pouring down rain, and climbing trees to retrieve lost kittens. (Okay that last one might not be all that true but you know what I mean.) The point is that people in this community love him. He is a great coach and an even better friend. My daddy always says that Coach Starks is the true definition of a man.
Coach Starks has been married to his wife Julie since they were both 22 years old. So that makes this November 5 their 42nd anniversary. Mrs. Julie is a wonderful woman, too. She let Coach Starks turn their guest room into his own trophy room. She raised three boys and two girls pretty much on her own while Coach Starks was at games and practices and school events. That is, until the boys were old enough to play football. The oldest, Greg, was a four-time all-middle Georgia and two time all-state linebacker. He went on to play college football at Clemson and professionally for Kansas City. Jake, the second Starks boy, was a three-time all-middle Georgia and one time all-state running back at Harris Creek. He played college football at Central Florida but did not play in the NFL. Both Jake’s and Greg’s jerseys are retired. The third boy, fourth child, Robert, was also a three-time all-middle Georgia and one-time all-state player, but at a different position. His jersey number 82 is the only retired number at his position, wide receiver, at Starks Field. He played college football at Georgia Southern and is currently a back-up receiver/punt returner in Miami.
Along with his own boys, Coach Starks has coached many nephews. He has four brothers and three sisters. All of them live within 15 miles of Starks field; including his parents who live just next to the field so they can watch every game without having to buy a ticket even though Coach Starks can get them in for free. But they are too old anyway. It’s probably best for an 82 year old man and an 80 year old woman to stay on their front porch on football Friday nights.
Now, as I run out onto the field, I look over at Mr. and Mrs. Starks’ front porch to see them clapping and waving at the team. I wave back and I see Mrs. Greta blow a kiss to her grandson, Coach Stark’s nephew, Brent. I don’t think he wanted anyone to see as he blew a kiss back to his grandma but I did and I traced it all the way back to her very fragile hand as she pretended to catch it. Mr. Joe was yelling, “GO CRUSADERS” at the top of his impaired lungs. They never missed a home game that I can remember.
It is a cool night, great “football weather” as my father said in the van on the way to the gym. He had to drop me off at 5:30 because my car is in the shop, finally, and if a player is any later than 5:54 (don’t ask) then they will not start in the game, so I always come at 5:30. I walked into the gym, met with the team, went into the girl’s locker room by myself, of course, and changed into my football gear.
We are playing the Stanton Hill Blue Devils and as I look across the field I see a few players in a circle, kneeling as they were praying. I scanned the sidelines, searching for Matt Garner, the middle linebacker I was supposed to keep an eye out for on the field. He wears number 54 and has two armbands on one arm, none on the other. He has a dinged up looking helmet- not good for me, I guess- and he is talking to the coach. I try to read his lips. He looks as if he were saying, “I’m not gonna hit her!” and as he finishes this sentence he looks over at me with a snarl on his face. I smile back at him. I’ve been hit before, obviously.
Coach Starks comes over and lines me, Brent, Ty Morrison, and Jermaine Clark up for the coin toss and he sends us to midfield. The entire time we are walking, I am looking right at Matt Garner, what I think is a blank stare on my face. He is just staring at the giant crusader that was now under the both of us. He finally looks at me and I look at the referee as he wishes us both great, clean games. He tosses the coin up in the air and I look at Matt. He is still looking at me, even as he said, “Tails.”
I follow the coin back down to the ground. The referee bends down and says, “Tails is the call.”
He picks up the coin and says, “It’s heads up.”
Then, he turns to me and says, “Will you kick or receive?”
Matt looks at me and rolls his eyes. I say to him, “I’m not scared of getting hit.”
“Good.” He says and turns back to his sideline.
As we are walking back, Brent says, “Don’t worry about it. He’s all bark and no bite.”
“Well, I hope so.”
Ty Morrison, the left guard and back-up nose tackle, comes up to me and says, “I’ve got him. You won’t get touched by him tonight as long as I can help it.”
Ever since I joined the team, it has been as if my family has adopted thirty boys. The entire team is very protective of me, not only on the field, but off it as well.
But for me to tell the entire story, we have to go back to September 12.