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A Coach's Journey
By Tommy Reamon, Ron Whitenack
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2003 Tommy Reamon
All rights reserved.
I was born in my grandmother's house in Halifax County, Virginia, in a country town on the Virginia/North Carolina border called Virgilinia. Virgilina is not known for much except its tobacco and corn fields. My grandmother's house was a happy place for me, and some of my earliest memories are of those days: the smell of tobacco, running in the woods, and playing with my cousins. I learned about how tobacco was grown and processed. I also learned that I hated snakes. It was a time of freedom. I reflect on those times today as my son has similar experiences when he visits with his mother in the country every other weekend. He is full of joy and fun as he plays in the woods and with the animals. Much as I did as a child, my son is able to experience both the city and country life.
I spent my early childhood years in the country, but my mother moved my family to New York City when I was five. My mother worked and went to cosmetology school. For most of my childhood, my summers would be split between New York and Halifax County as the 1960s rolled by. I have fond and sad memories of those times.
It was so crowded in New York that we played in the streets. I would see other kids hit by cars regularly. In the summertime we would play in the water that sprayed out of fire hydrants all over the streets; there wasn't a pool close to where we lived. My journeys to Yankee stadium and my dreams of playing there one day contrasted with watching the big country boys of Halifax play baseball on those country fields. Those players were so large in my eyes, and I wanted to be like them. A cousin of mine, Arthur Lee Pierce, played catcher on his baseball team.
I was so thrilled to watch Arthur throw out base runners who were attempting to steal from first to second base. He had such a strong arm, and he looked like he was having so much fun. Despite the obvious differences, the city and country athletes had one thing in common. They enjoyed life and loved what they were doing.
When I was seven, my mother, sister, brother, and I moved to Newport News, Virginia. We lived in the Newsome Park Housing Development, in the east end section of the city. It was an all-black community that consisted of low-income families. Like my mom, there were a lot of single mothers struggling to bring up fatherless children. Mom worked with a housecleaning service and had a second job as a self-employed beautician. She didn't have much of a formal education, but she had great communication skills and a personality that made everyone love her.
When I reached the age of nine, sports began to be my main focus and passion. I searched the neighborhood trying to find someone to play with. When I could, I would hang out at the playgrounds. There were not a lot of recreation facilities back in those days, and to get to the nearest school playground, I had a mile walk to the Newsome Park Elementary School. It often served as my home away from home because my mother worked long hours into the evening. My sister Willie was the baby-sitter, and watched my brother, Charles, known as C. W., and me until our mother came home from work. During these years, it seems like I was never in the house, but was always in the street.
The surprising thing was, I did not get into trouble. I was never a bored kid just seeking things to do. I was influenced by people who had the same interests that I had. My personality and behavior may have occasionally given the appearance of boredom, but I have always been a strong person who knows right from wrong. My sister Willie always said, "Tommy will kiss a ball before he'll kiss a girl." I would not totally agree with her; however, I did grow up as a very serious and focused person. I liked all sports. I played football, basketball, and baseball, and I ran track during the summers at the recreation centers.
I used to shoot hoops in a basketball goal made out of a fruit basket with a hole in the bottom nailed to the wall. Mama would get so angry with me because I was always dribbling or throwing a ball around the house. One day, she yelled at me for throwing a football through the window and breaking it. She whacked me several times with a paddle. As I stood there crying, I said to her, "But Mama, Danny told me with this ball I can go to college and one day buy us anything we want." Danny Grimes, who played football for Michigan State University in the early 1960s, was a great defensive lineman for Carver High School, and he married my cousin Edith. I always spent the weekends at their house. Danny and I would talk for hours about playing college football. After that whacking, Mama looked at me with amazement and responded by saying, "I know you will do well because you practice all the time, and Danny may be right, too. But don't you throw the ball in this house!"
I grew up without a father in the house until I was ten years old. My biological father, Paul Reamon, still lives in Newport News. He worked for the Newport News Public Schools as a custodian for many years, until he retired. I really don't know him very well as a person. I do remember he was a heavy drinker and appeared to be a loner. I was told he left my mother when she was pregnant with me. I have never questioned my mother about what happened between her and my father. She never said one bad thing about their marriage or him, nor did I ask. I have talked with my biological father a few times throughout my life, but there has never been an effort to establish a relationship. He played no role in my life at all, except the biological one. On the other hand, my mother has been my lifelong best friend and the most solid relationship in my life. The second most important relationship in my life came about with the birth of my son, Tommy Jr.
Today I feel obligated to be helpful to my players who ask for advice on personal issues. Because of my own experience in a fatherless household, I see myself in so many of these players, and while I can't help all of them, I can assure them I will be there to listen. If a player knows his father, I encourage him to communicate with his father and try to establish some kind of relationship. In my heart, I know that this advice is given in their best interests. I encouraged Michael Vick and Aaron Brooks to communicate better with their fathers. Even though Michael's father was present in the home, we talked often of the tension between them. Helping Michael see the need for harmony in his family was important to me, even though I have done a poor job in my own life of dealing with an absent father.
I say this because I could have been more aggressive in pursuing the relationship. Because the absence of my father affected my life, I sought out male role models and coaches to help me in my development as a person. These people influenced me greatly — I picked up critical lessons on morals and values from them. Of course, I was unaware at the time of how much these relationships were shaping my life.
My mother got remarried when I was ten. Edward Pierce joined our family, and we moved to a new home in the southeast end of Newport News. I was proud to move into a house. At the time, the neighborhood had a mixture of white and black families, and this move was a good experience. It was my chance to meet and be exposed to white families in the neighborhood. But that did not last long, because soon after we moved there, the white families immediately began to move out of the neighborhood.
So our family grew from three children to seven. My stepfather brought in his four children, Helen, Herman, Harriet, and Homer. The house was crowded, to say the least. Even as I began to learn to get along with my new stepbrothers and -sisters, I was still in the street running behind a ball. Building new family relationships was tough on all of us as we tried to find our way and come together as a family. My mother was wonderful. She tried to be a mother to all of us. However, it appeared to be much harder for Mr. Pierce, whom I began to call my Daddy Edward, to adjust to us.
Daddy Edward was a good man. He worked at the Newport News Shipyard for forty years. He was so talented with his hands that he could build a house by himself if he had to. In my high school years he reprimanded me for not doing more chores around the house and criticized me for playing in the streets. What he didn't understand about all this "playing" was that my brother and I were pure athletes, and we didn't mind putting in the time on whatever sport we played. He showed jealousy when we played sports and his children did not. Our healthy athletic interests didn't seem to matter to him.
I remember rough times in high school. We all needed to have lunch money, and he only gave it to his own children, and left it to our mother to give us ours. Many times she did not have it. I thought all this was cruel. Every morning before school, we would go into Mama and Daddy Edward's bedroom to get our lunch money, which was placed on the foot of each bedside. His children always had money on his side of the bed, and many mornings Mama's children didn't have any money on her side. So I would go without lunch money.
It got so bad that I went to one of my football coaches, Mr. Teddy Hicks, and asked him to help me with this problem. He suggested that I could be a school patrol monitor, a duty that would help keep the halls clear during lunch periods and earn me a free lunch.
The children in our family got along together because of the similarities in age. My sister Willie and Helen, Charles and Herman, and Harriet and I were all close to each other in age. Homer was the youngest. My mother and stepfather showed courage in bringing two separate families of children together as one. We all had to make the best of our situation
We all had our own dreams and goals. Throughout high school I thought I was unfairly compared with my stepsister Harriet. She was academically successful, and I was known as the jock. She was a brilliant student who studied all the time and was very disciplined. In our senior year she was class salutatorian. My teachers and classmates would tease me all the time about Harriet tutoring me or helping me with my work. She did assist me sometimes, but not often.
I remember one of my psychology teachers telling me of an incident in her class. "Harriet defended you today in class, on the topic of student athletes," she told me. A student had asked Harriet how much I studied. Harriet had replied, "Tommy simply works at whatever task lies in front of him for the moment, but perhaps not always working to his full potential. However, when he comes home at night there is little time for study. He is physically and emotionally drained, yet he manages to get assignments done as best he can." This kind of answer from a high school student showed her maturity and respect for me.
During these days and years, I was determined to make something of myself, and I knew my ticket would be playing sports. I knew that sports was my way of communicating. Sports gave me confidence in myself and attention from others. I liked feeling important, and it helped me mature as a person. I idolized many athletes that I read about and watched on television. I tried to do everything they said to do. They were my role models, representing what I wanted do with my future.
The question of whether athletes are role models is a complicated one that I am often forced to deal with when getting my players ready for college. College coaches not only want to see how my players perform on the field, they also want to know what players are like off the field. College programs do not want a player with an attitude problem or a reputation for getting into trouble. I stress to my players that what they do and say reflects on the school. Today sports and media go hand in hand. I start getting my players ready for the college and the professional level by teaching them that they must approach their sport like a business. If sports is business, then that makes today's athletes businessmen doing their jobs. They promote their product — themselves.
A few years ago "bad boy" Charles Barkley ruffled feathers by stating that he was not a role model, that it wasn't his job. Well, I say yes and no to that notion. He was right when he said that the job of role model belongs to parents. How many of us would want to give up that important job to sports stars? However, because the stars make a lot of money, children cannot help but be influenced by them. The media influences them to buy products the stars promote: shoes, sports drinks, and so on, and because of this influence, the stars do have a responsibility to be role models. They should see their role as being supportive of the parental influence, assuming that parents have done their jobs well. In short, sports stars cannot hide from the responsibility of setting the right example any more than a teacher or coach could.
My role models growing up were the men of my community, my family, my teachers, the doctor, the minister of my church, and local athletic heroes. They were conscious of how they lived their lives, what they said and did in front of kids in the neighborhood. They took responsibility not just for their own kids but for the neighbors' kids too. As a coach I know that part of my job is to set an example. In fact, it is the responsibility of every adult to be a role model to the children he or she comes into contact with. Because the sports star is an adult, he also shares in that responsibility. However, it is not his job alone. The African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" is as true today as ever. The mass media is now part of our village, but it is up to the parents to decide how much of that media is healthy. Children who don't have healthy role models at home must receive support from the community — and shouldn't the media be included in that community?
In my eighth-grade year, I went to see the Carver High School football team play a game. I idolized a player named John Bullock, who played after the great Leroy Keyes and then followed him to Purdue University. He played running back in that game and scored three touchdowns. After the game, the team was heading to the bus, with John surrounded by fans. I was one of those fans, and I was so excited to be around him because he'd played such a great game. He had so many people coming up to him with congratulations and saying, "John, great game!" I was in awe that he responded by thanking almost every one of them. I thought to myself, "This is how you respond to people who congratulate you for doing good in a game." It may sound strange, but I really had not known how I would respond in a situation like that until I heard John. At that moment, I learned what to say to people who praised me. I learned a lesson about politeness and appreciation from modeling John's behavior.
These athletes helped me set my goals and dreams. I would always get acquainted with the local star players in high school and beg to hang out with them and play ball. Most of them were older than I was. I had an older friend named Robert Dixon, whom I just called Dixon. He played running back for the Huntington High School football team. He would tease me all the time and say, "I'm going to teach you everything I know, and then you're going to be my archrival in high school."
He lived around the corner from me, and we would spend hours and days together as I tagged along behind him to play basketball at the World War II Recreation Center. I was too small and young to play with the guys he was playing with, so I would just watch and learn from them, champing at the bit to play against them. He showed me the attitude I must possess if I wanted to be the best, and he showed me how to carry myself.
He would always tell me to get my schoolwork done so when that day came, I would be ready to play ball in high school. I listened to Dixon, and tried to go home to study and do the homework assignments, but my study habits were weak. I would start reading, but I would get distracted. Anyone could see that my attention span was short. At an early age I had problems comprehending and retaining what I had read. I was also not very good in math.
Excerpted from Rough Diamonds by Tommy Reamon, Ron Whitenack. Copyright © 2003 Tommy Reamon. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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