Coach Cecil Puckett
When I was about to enter the 8th grade, I decided to go out for football at Ross N. Robinson Junior High School in Kingsport, Tenn.
The problem with that was that I had never played football (nor had I been on any organized sports team), had only been to one live football game, and was nowhere close to being athletic.
In those days, not everybody who went out for the team was selected. There were about 35 uniforms and if a student wasn’t in the top 35, he got cut.
It was under these circumstances that I met Coach Cecil Puckett, the head coach for the Robinson Redskins. Even back then, Cecil Puckett was a bit of a legend in Kingsport. He had been a high school superstar and All-State recipient, had a world of opportunities before him, yet returned home after playing college ball at The University of Mississippi to coach the boys of his community.
Coach Puckett led by example and inspiration in an era when many coaches led by fear, force, and intimidation. If he ever raised his voice, I don’t remember it. He made you want to work harder than you thought you could.
At the end of the summer, Coach Puckett found three extra off-color blue jerseys with white numerals (that didn’t match the other jerseys) to give to three boys who really weren’t good enough to make the team but had worked very hard. I received one of those jerseys. I was an alternate third-string tackle on a team that won the city championship and went 5-0-0.
The next year, after a lot of work and coaching, I made the starting line-up after moving to offensive center and we posted a 4-1-1 season.
Ninth grade was the year my brain went dead and I simply quit studying. The only time I ever saw Coach angry was when he came to see me with my grades in one hand and my I.Q. scores in the other.
I did try to do better but it was too late and failed Spanish and almost failed Science. After a dose of summer school, I vowed not to do that again.
In 1966, we left junior high and moved to Dobyns-Bennett High School which, to this day, owns the most state football championships in the state of Tennessee and has the winningest football record in the state’s history. Coach Puckett also made the move to his alma mater, the maroon and gray clad Dobyns-Bennett Indians, as backfield coach.
Although he was no longer my coach, because I was a center he still worked with me when the quarterback and I practiced snaps.
In 1968, my senior year, I broke into the starting line-up and D-B hired a new head coach who was a disaster for the team. One of those “old school” guys who led by fear, force, and intimidation, his style of leadership slowly eroded the morale and confidence of what should have been a championship team. Behind the scenes, Coach Puckett continued to encourage and inspire players, some of whom seriously considered quitting the team.
In practice, several weeks into the season, when I missed a blocking assignment, the head coach railed and cursed me publicly, punctuating his disdain with a hard slap to the side of my head. I had had enough. After a moment, I took my helmet and walked toward the dressing room. Coach Puckett came after me and stood between me and the door, encouraging me to return to the huddle.
Feeling humiliated and fighting back hot tears, I poured out my anger and embarrassment. He listened and then simply and quietly said, “We need you. I need you.”
I returned to the huddle and played my heart out, not for the head coach, but for Coach Puckett, until two shoulder separations ended my career later in the season. We went 5-3-2 and the head coach was gone before the next season.
Later, I would be the offensive center on the Marine East All-Star Team that beat the West All Stars 31-30 at Quantico Marine Corps Base, Va.
A few years ago, I attended a graduate class on leadership and the instructor asked class members to write down the names of five people, other than our parents, who most influenced our lives as we were growing up. Coach Cecil Puckett easily made that list.
It’s hard to underestimate to influence that people like Cecil Puckett have had on the thousands of kids they have touched through the years. I heard recently that a newspaper approached Coach Puckett, who stills lives in Kingsport, and wanted to do a story about him. He declined.
For him, it was never about the glory, the championships, or the winning records. It was always about the boys — even the non-athletic kids that no one else would have given a chance. Which is why Cecil Puckett is still a revered legend in the hearts and minds of those who were privileged to call him “Coach.”
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, Ga., 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and is the mission pastor of Christ the King Fellowship in Champaign, Ill. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]