Tail of the Weak 3.34
Updated: Jan 25, 2020
Tail of the Weak is a series of insights and musical memories from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin, singer/songwriter and founder of the Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival, from Waycross, Georgia.
On those long, lazy weekends of my childhood, we played outdoors on Doghill—in neighbor James Cocke's backyard pasture, once inhabited by a large bull that Big Granny, James's granddaddy, J. F. Lotz, had owned. We wore that pasture out, playing baseball, soccer, and football.
With high school football season upon us and college and professional games just ahead, I'm reminded of our hard-fought battles in James's backyard pasture. There was not a single thing pastoral about the pasture. We played hard, tackled with toughness, and blocked with intensity. Several Doghillers and a few challengers left that field with black eyes, barbwire lacerations, and broken bones.
We kept the teams pretty evenly matched. James and Greg Griffin were the heftier of our set and always opposed each other, unless we played host to some crosstown comers. Gary Griffin, Ray Herrin, and Johnny Bennett were a little older than me and average in build. I was the smallest and youngest—but, like I said—we all played hard.
We proudly wore the scars of weekend warriors; and despite the injuries, we always went back for more. The sidelines on one side of the pasture was a simple grade of ground where Mr. Lotz's garden used to grow. On the opposite side was a fence row, topped with barbwire, and interlaced with bushes and fence posts. God help you if you went out of bounds there.
On one afternoon, James was running the ball, skirting the sideline fence row. He deftly ducked to avoid Greg's patented barrel-roll tackle attempt, leaving Greg tangled in the fence with the broken branch of a myrtle bush sticking through his ear. There's an old 16 mm film—still undeveloped and resting inside a movie camera—a classic slice of Doghill football documenting Greg's gruesome gridiron casualty.
All the other wounds and bruises—never captured on film—are only distant but easily-recalled memories of the past. Ray had just taken the snap and was handing off the football with outstretched arm, leaving his collarbone exposed to a devastating blow from big Greg. The would-be Doghill doctors gathered around Ray, projecting their inexpert diagnoses as to the seriousness of his injury. Good thing he didn't listen to us. Memorial Hospital's final diagnosis—broken collarbone.
Gary was quite bony compared to the meatier James; but, his sharp elbow cold-Cocked James in the left eyebrow, bringing him to the ground—and on to the emergency room for stitches.
Wayne Price, Ray's fit and able-bodied step-brother and a celebrated high school footballer from Augusta, tackled James along the sideline fence, putting his lower back into a fence post. A trip to Dr. Bickerstaff—who came to know the athletes of Doghill on a first-name basis—led to a dismal diagnosis. The resulting muscle contusion put an end to James's high school football career—if the hit had been one inch closer to the spine, the doctor said he would have been paralyzed.
Gary's and my injuries were not near as gory; but, the stakes are always high when you're young and blissfully ignorant. James slammed Gary hard to the ground—it was business as usual—nothing out of the ordinary. After pissin' blood later that evening, an X-ray showed that Gary had a horseshoe kidney, a congenital disorder affecting about 1 out of 600 people.
Sports to avoid with a horseshoe kidney? Some doctors say skydiving, boxing, and tackle football. Horseshoes would have been the safer sport in the backyard pasture—but we kept spitting Fate in the eye.
James and I had Greg boxed in on the garden sideline. He cradled the ball tightly against his stomach, bracing for the imminent tackle. We hit him simultaneously from both sides—James's right thumb knuckle reaching around Greg to punch me in the left eye.
I staggered for a few steps like a zombie on The Walking Dead before passing out cold in the soft green grass of the pasture, contentedly comatose. As reality started seeping slowly back in, I saw black and heard someone distantly crying—it was me. There's no crying in football! Tell that to a skinny 13-year old who just went a round with Muhammad Cocke.
Johnny Bennett had crashed his Vespa scooter rounding a hard curve on the pavement of City Boulevard. The accident skinned most of the hide from his body, sidelining him from our weekend action—but he would not stay away. After a few weeks of idle spectating, he made the inauspicious decision to play. No sooner than the ball was in Johnny's hands, James bear-hugged him and they slid across ten feet of pasture grass, his skin peeling off one more time. Occasionally, we'd take on challengers from across town. The Burch brothers—Bob and Sam—body builders who would open a gym in Waycross, showed up to play wearing brogan boots. The brothers brought with them Johnny Mosely and Tom Freeman, who years later became James Cocke's brother-in-law.
It was a hard-fought battle between the Doghillers and Burch Brothers; but, the pasture was our home and we knew every inch of it well. The injury of the day came when Sam Burch tried to tackle James as he sprinted along the fence row sideline, nimbly avoiding the body builder's reach. Sam grabbed the barbwire instead, gashing his hand wide open as James scored the winning touchdown.
Friday night high school football games in Waycross, Georgia were no less exciting than those played on Saturdays in our backyard pasture on Doghill. The lopsided rivalry between the Waycross Bulldogs, winners of most contests, and Ware County's Gators provided classic memories of marching bands and pretty majorettes, tiny souvenir footballs—embossed with John King Ford's phone number and tossed into the stands by smiling cheerleaders—and the aromatic smell of popcorn, cigar smoke, and fresh-cut grass flooding the cool evening air in Memorial Stadium.
I spent my high school Friday nights playing snare drum in the Ware County Gator Gold and White Band, while my classmates—James Cocke, Coy Crews, Jerald Lee, Pence Evans, Robert Gibbs, Jimmy Grupposo, Gill Rowell, and Bruce Thames—wore the gold jerseys and white britches of head coach Phil Early's Gator football team.
One memory that stands out to me happened in the last few seconds before halftime as the marching band lined up just outside the visitors' end zone waiting for the buzzer to end the second quarter. The visiting team was threatening to score. I had a perfect view as the next play unfolded before me.
One of their wide receivers broke open across the middle of the end zone. The pass was spiraling toward him when Jerald Lee jumped four feet up in the air for the interception, the ball hitting him square in the number 28 with a loud thump. It was a feat of athletic artistry that awed me all the way down to my white band shoes. You go, Jerald.
Oddly enough, it was years after high school before I saw my first college football game. Living and working in Tallahassee, Florida in 1979, a young lady took me to a Florida State Seminole game in Doak Campbell Stadium. It was amazing.
I was totally blown away by the electricity in the crowd, the simultaneous roar of thousands, the buzz from the alcohol we smuggled in with us—and that was just the opening minutes, as I watched Osceola gallop down the field on an Appaloosa named Renegade, hurling his feathered spear into the Seminole logo on the 50-yard line.
Back in the mid-Nineties, my wife, Lynne, and I, along with Mike and Karen “Sunshine” Woodard, traveled to Gainesville, Florida for a lackluster Georgia-Florida game. Lackluster because our Bulldogs played miserably and got beat—one of seven straight Gator victories between 1990 and 1996. That was probably the closest that the legendary gravel-voiced Bulldog radio announcer, Larry Munson, came to dying before he actually died in 2011—God rest his soul.
No matter if you bleed red and black or orange and blue—whether you're a Falcon or an Eagle—a Cowboy or a Redskin. Regardless if you're a Memorial Stadium tail-Gator or a Valdosta Wildcat-lover in “Death Valley”—a teenage high school quarterback under the Friday night lights or a thumb-eyed 13-year-old in a backyard pasture. It's your time now.
21st Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival
Advance 3-Day Passes:
Relevant recollections of James Cocke and Billy Ray Herrin
Memories straight from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin
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