In a couple of hours, I’m going to get in my truck and drive to my hometown of Lockhart. This will not be a fun trip, although I will try to make it a positive one.
I’m driving to my friend and teammate Charlie Branch’s funeral.
Charlie was a year younger than I, and a school class behind mine. Our first encounter was in Little League baseball. Charlie was a pitcher, and kind of a ten-year-old version of Bob Gibson. Batters were terrified of Charlie, who would not hesitate to stick one in their ear-flaps, intentionally or otherwise. I was terrified of Charlie for different reasons. I was his catcher. Any time I considered coming out to the mound to talk to him, he’d shoot me that “Don’t you even think about it” look. It was an earnest warning that I heeded.
But the thing is, Charlie and I always got each other. Always. And when we became high school varsity football teammates, our relationship was beyond great. Charlie was a cornerback. I played that safety/linebacker position known at the time as “rover.” So we were in the same secondary, often eyeball to eyeball. Football is not always fun. Playing on the same side with Charlie was fun.
It was fun even when it got crazy. In all the time I played football, I got into only two fights in practice. One was with Charlie. We kept waiting for coaches to pull us off each other, but they never did. We had to punch ourselves out, followed by the inevitable, “I love you, man.”
I have a hundred Charlie stories, because Charlie was a story-generating machine.
But this one is my favorite.
My senior season, Charlie’s junior, we won our district. It remains Lockhart’s only district championship since 1962. You heard me.
Our bi-district playoff game was against Uvalde. They were 11-0, ranked second in the state, and had just wasted a Cuero team that had beaten us soundly in a non-district game early in the season. We had the pleasure of reading a newspaper prediction that said we didn’t “have a snowball’s chance in hell.”
Yeah. Things were a little tense.
It’s Tuesday’s practice. We are in a brief “live and in color” defensive session against the scout team offense.
On the first series, the offense ran a wide running play to Charlie’s side. Charlie lined the ballcarrier up, but then stepped away. There’s no other way to put this. He turned it down. Ole’.
We were all horrified. As a senior co-captain, I was contemplating calling him out, loudly.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to. Our head coach, Roy Dollar, got as angry as I ever saw him. Understand, Coach Dollar was a composed man. Coach Dollar was not crazy. I’ve been around crazy coaches, and later became a crazy coach myself.
Coach Dollar turned crimson, and threw his cap. Coach Dollar got in Charlie’s face. “Charlie Branch! What if this had been a game?!”
I’m standing six feet away from this.
Charlie, calmly and without insolence. “Coach Dollar, if this had been a game, I’da stuck him and he’da coughed it up.”
Oh, motherofgod. Why don’t we all just start running now, and keep running until Valentine’s Day?
I stopped breathing.
Coach Dollar looks at Charlie. Make that, stares through Charlie. This goes on for what felt like a half hour.
And then, he just couldn’t help it. Coach Dollar tried and failed to stifle a laugh. It actually improved the tone of our practice.
Three nights later, at what was then Northside Stadium in San Antonio, Uvalde ran that same play early in the first quarter.
Charlie stuck him. Actually, Charlie impaled him. And, yeah, he coughed it up.
Lockhart 21, Uvalde 6. The snowball in hell prevailed.
So long, my wonderful friend.
I did all my crying earlier this week. I’m going to try not to do it today. But I’m not making any promises.