Coach John Stephens was a gentle giant.
I can still see him in the hallway of the old Appling County High School that August morning I stepped in the door as a freshman.
I had the jitters, butterflies, anxiety – whatever you want to call it. I always did on the opening day of school.
I am sure it was evident in the frown or at least the furrows on my face.
I can still hear him say it: “Son, turn that frown upside down.” It was a staccato bark, the kind he used on the football field but oddly, it was reassuring that morning.
He followed it up with some details that made it stick.
“Do you know it takes more muscles to smile than it does to frown. Go on, give your face a workout this morning. Smile. It will get better.”
And, it did. Now, some days, I wish I could just go back there to the safety of Appling County High School. There are no taxes there, no coronavirus and I didn’t get any bills in my name back then that I recall.
Coach Stephens was a man of many talents and gifts, and it was my privilege to know him.
I didn’t have him for English, but I wish now that I had. He had a knack for teaching grammar, which would probably have helped me in my profession to know where to put commas and not to ever use ain’t. I put commas in places God never intended. I use ain’t in places God never intended, too.
Coach’s wife, Elaine Stephens, is a gem. It was her influence that led me to the profession I am in. Her guidance as my journalism teacher led me to write what you are reading now. For almost 25 years now, journalism has managed to keep me fed and to keep a roof over my head.
Coach influenced many of my classmates, too. He was a man of many talents. As a friend put it the other day, Coach was the kind of man who could quote the classics of literature, teach you about subject-verb agreement, diagram a game winning play and inspire young men to hunker down on the grid iron and achieve it, he could sing you a hymn, influence you by his Christian walk and example, and still have more to give.
I can still hear him whistling hymns down the hall. I can still remember that 7-6 win over arch-rival Wayne County on a fall night in 1989. It was not a winning season that year – his last at Appling – but beating the Yellow Jackets, was all that counted.
The annual staff I was a part of voted unanimously to dedicate the 1990 yearbook to him that year as he closed out his tenure.
I still remember the thank you note he sent us. “It is a good thing,” he said “that tears don’t show up on paper.”
It’s been a blessing to have reconnected with him and Mrs. Elaine since they have been back in Pierce County the past two decades.
I got to hangout with him one afternoon as he worked on one of his classic cars in his shop out back of the house.
I got to hear him sing in a concert at church. He still had the gift.
And, from time to time, I would run up with him at the post office, the store or at a restaurant here in town.
He was always a kind, gracious fellow. I always tried to remember to smile when I was in his presence.
Then, that hellish fiend cancer came along. He struggled with it long and valiantly.
As the battle wound down, circumstances found me at his bedside at Wayne Memorial Hospital. We knelt down beside the bed and prayed fervently for mercy.
I held his hand and told him how much I loved him and appreciated him. I hope he heard me.
He was right, it’s a good thing tears don’t show up on paper.
As a teacher and coach, his influence lives on.
I know he is healed now and is safely home.
I like to think there is a football analogy that sums it up.
Coach Stephens has reached the end zone.
The referees are at the goal line.
They give the signal with arms stretched toward heaven.
Yes, Coach John Stephens is up — and he is good.
• Jason Deal is a staff writer for The Blackshear Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.