Brandon Meeks was a shitty cornerback. He was frail and slow. I hated his haircut, his squeaky voice, and his asthma-induced wheezing on days with a high pollen count. Brandon sucked against the run. He sucked on special teams. And he sucked in pass coverage, where his hip-turning skills rivaled those of a geriatric nursing home patient.
But during my first year as an assistant youth football coach, I had few other options. Brandon was merely one of the least offensive choices in a sea of losers. And yet, without Brandon, I’m not sure I’d be where I am today.
My first foray into youth football coaching came in 2013, when I was asked by a co-worker to serve as the defensive backs coach for his son’s youth football team. The team’s defensive coordinator was a local orthodondist named Steve Tomlin. Steve was a massive tool, and we hated each other from the start. Throughout August, I told Steve over and over that our defensive backs were a giant collection of turds and that if the front seven couldn’t pressure the quarterback, we were in trouble. Steve ran a 4-3 defense, but I’d been advocating a switch to a 3-4 defense with more blitzing.
All of this came to a head the week of our first game. We were set to play the Giants on the Thursday after Labor Day. But on Tuesday night, the coaches learned that Brandon Meeks’s grandfather had passed away. Visitation was scheduled for Wednesday evening and the funeral for Thursday afternoon. Over my strenuous objection, Wednesday’s final practice was cancelled so that the players and coaches could “be there to support Brandon and his family” at the visitation.
Let me be clear: I had no desire to attend Mr. Meeks’s visitation or the funeral itself. The man had been alive nearly eighty years and could have died at any time. And yet, he chose the most inconvenient time possible—two days before our first game—to succumb to heart disease. I have no tolerance for that kind of selfishness, and I certainly didn’t want to suggest I condoned that kind of behavior by “paying my respects.” But there was a bigger problem. With Wednesday’s practice cancelled, Mr. Meeks’s visitation was the last opportunity I’d have before Thursday’s game to lobby Steve to change to a 3-4 defense. I couldn’t pass up that chance.
The next evening, I drove to the funeral home for the visitation. This being Northeast Georgia in early September, it was blistering outside. I dressed in what I like to call “somber smart casual” attire—a black, button-up shirt tucked into a pair of black jeans, black LA Gears, black wraparound Oakley sunglasses, and several pumps of McGraw Southern Blend cologne. The visitation had started a half hour or so before I arrived, and the parking lot was already full. There was only one available space, and it was for “Immediate Family of the Deceased.” But if your grandson’s position coach isn’t “immediate family,” then who really is? So I pulled my T-Bird into the vacant spot and walked inside.
Somber, generic organ music piped through the musty, former Postbellum mansion. “It’s the first room on your right,” the usher said, handing me a paper bulletin. The bulletin said “Roger Meeks: 1934-2013” at the top and bore a picture of a large family dressed in identical clothing and standing on a beach. There must have been fifteen or twenty people, all wearing white button-up, short-sleeve shirts and white pants. At the center were a man and a woman in their early eighties who appeared to be Mr. Meeks and his wife. They were flanked on both sides by their children and grandchildren, including Brandon. It was the type of ridiculous family photo that you see on the front of Christmas cards that inevitably include a narrative update on what happened to the senders over the last year. Adults who prefer these cards are the same people who make bad parenting jokes on Facebook and are still “really into” Disney. No surprise that Brandon Meeks sprang from this gene pool.
I stuffed the bulletin in my pocket and walked inside.
The dim receiving room for Mr. Meeks was more crowded than I’d expected. A long line of mourners waiting to pay their respects to Mrs. Meeks had formed along the rear wall, and dozens of people were scattered about the room speaking in hushed tones. There were several ornate flower displays surrounding the casket. I surveyed the room and saw Steve midway through the receiving line. I politely elbowed my way through the crowd and approached him.
“Hey, Hey. Steve – Steve,” I whispered, tapping on his left shoulder to get his attention. “Can we talk?”
Steve looked dubious.
“It’s very important,” I mouthed.
Steve rolled his eyes and followed me to a large desk on the opposite wall.
When we got there, I placed the bulletin on the desk and turned on the lamp. “I’ve been thinking a lot about our defensive game plan for Thursday,” I said to Steve as I hunched over the desk and diagrammed a 3-4 defensive formation over the Meeks family’s white clothing. “I think we’re going to have a better chance of slowing down the Giants’ passing attack if we switch to a 3-4 like I’ve been saying. Now, I know you say the players are too young run a 3-4, but—”
“Seriously?!” Steve interrupted. “Are you kidding me with this?”
“No, I’m not. A 3-4 really is much better than a 4-3. That’s why Nick Saban runs it.”
“You just pulled me out of a receiving line for a funeral visitation to talk football strategy,” Steve said, the anger rising in his voice. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Well, excuse me, Steve, but this wouldn’t be necessary if I thought you were remotely prepared for the Giants. Our first game is tomorrow, so when the hell else am I supposed to bring it up?!”
“One of our players’ grandfathers is dead! His body’s right over there,” he said, pointing. “And this is what you care about?”
“Look,” I said, trying to restore dignity and common sense to the discussion. “Whether we discuss this now or later isn’t going to make Brandon’s granddad any less dead. It’s bad enough we had to cancel practice because of this.” Steve scoffed. “And I’ll be honest with you Steve,” I continued, “right now, I think you’re on the verge of adding insult to death. You’re going to make Brandon look like an idiot on the field tomorrow because you aren’t prepared.”
“The funeral is tomorrow! Brandon’s not going to play. I already told him to take as much time as he needs.”
“Well that’s unacceptable. The funeral’s at 2:00 and the game isn’t until 6:00. Last I checked Brandon isn’t the one who’s dead; his grandfather is. Brandon can just wear his pads to the funeral and come straight to the field after.”
“You know what Letterman? I’m done with this conversation. I really don’t want you around the players anymore, so please don’t come back. I’ll find someone else to coach the secondary.”
“Are you shitting me?!” I said, raising my voice, drawing the attention of several people standing nearby.
“No,” Steve responded. “You’re a really sick person.”
At that point, natural instinct kicked in, and Steve was destined the suffer the same fate as hundreds of high school defensive players who were unfortunate enough to cross my path between 1994 and 1996. I sprang forward and executed a devastating downfield block on Steve, sending him stumbling several feet back into a flower display, which he knocked onto the casket itself. Shouts and cries of mortified onlookers rang throughout the room, and two funeral home employees swept in—one to realign the casket and ensure all was in order, and another to attend to Steve, who was gasping for breath on the ground.
I walked over to Steve and stood triumphantly above him. “You never lettered in shit,” I said. I then flipped on my wrarpound Oakley sunglasses and strode out of the funeral home with a determined look on my face.
My path to becoming a youth football coaching legend had officially begun.