This may be the last and most important and personal tale I'll be able to tell for awhile. But it's something I need to share. Please bear with me until the end.
In the fall of 1989, I met a man -- and eventually a family -- that would change my life forever.
I told a Facebook group this part of the story a few days ago.
When I first met "Coach P" -- James Elwood Pennington -- we were in middle school gym class. I weighed maybe 110-120 pounds soaking wet at the time, and here comes John Wayne.
I'm thinking, "Oh, no, this guy's going to be another former jock jerk." NOTHING could be further from the truth. He was a gentle giant.
I liked him immediately. Then I came to love him. So did every single human being who got to know him.
Coach Pennington died Tuesday, way too young, at age 67. He'd had major heart attack in 2006 and has suffered from heart-related problems for some time. Don't forget that heart business. We'll get back to it in a few minutes.
Forgive a couple of quick personal references, but our first instinct when someone dies is to internalize it, to remember the impact they had on our lives.
I'll never forget one gym class. We were in the middle of a wrestling unit. He was picking students to wrestle each other using moves he'd taught us while others sat in a circle and watched.
He pitted me against a kid I knew was going to beat me. "He's going to get killed," I heard somebody say.
I had the kid pinned in less than 10 seconds. I don't say that to brag, but to give Coach the credit. I learned a valuable life lesson that day. Never doubt yourself if you've prepared. Do your homework. Listen to your teacher. Always give everything 100 percent, an old cliche that happens to be true. I'll never forget Coach P's smile afterwards. He had sensed something, and was correct.
I learned later that Coach P created that curriculum himself, and had to sell it to the powers that be downtown.
In sixth grade, I watched Coach's son, Chad, play basketball. Little did I know where Chad's story would lead. We'll get to that in a minute, too.
One morning, in the summer between middle and high school, I got a call.
"Do you know who this is?"
"Well, the voice is familiar."
"Well, it isn't your dad."
I finally recognized the timbre and cadence in that voice.
He was calling to ask me to film his freshman football team's practices and some of the games that fall. There is no other man that the 14-year-old Jake would have gotten up at 6 a.m. to lug a camera (they were boxy 22 years ago) and go sit in 100-degree heat for than Coach P. I was just honored that he called.
Watching him with kids, I learned more Xs and Os than I ever would again, save conversations with my stepfather, who played college ball at UT-Martin. Although the national pastime was my first love, football was a close bridesmaid to the baseball bride. I'd played a short while and gave it up, recognizing that my talent lied in telling the story. And I'd gotten into music, and thus became that curious species called a fan.
But I learned something way more important from Coach P than what to do on third and long. I watched how he dealt with the kids. Tough, when he needed to be. Encouraging, when that would work. But fair, always fair.
And he had this truly unique sense of humor, one you'd miss until you got to know him or he got to know you. Finally, I learned that, sometimes, his grin would give him away. I don't know what to call it. Doug Bright, a former teacher of mine who is one of both my and Coach P's best friends, couldn't either. "It wasn't a dry wit," he said, his voice trailing off.
Coach was a Christian who believed in sharing his faith by example. He was that rare specimen, a human being who was exactly what you saw. He lent his car to people and didn't worry about getting home. He really did treat others the way he'd want to be treated.
He shared Bible verses, or something he'd read in Oswald Chambers, talked the talk and walked the walk, as they say. He never hit you over the head with it. He wasn't the type of "Christian" to throw around any of that holier-than-thou, "let me guilt you into something" junk. It made him a great witness for what he believed. Nothing sells like sincerity.
When I walked into the Halls High building for the very first day that summer -- to get something for Coach from his wife, Denise -- a girl saw me stumbling around and said, "Aren't you Jake Mabe?"
"Uh, yes," I said.
"I thought so. I'm Andrea, Coach and Mrs. P's daughter. I'm friends with your sister. Mom's classroom is over here."
Helpers, those Penningtons.
Moving into high school, Denise took over where Coach left off. She asked me to film her drama rehearsals, taking me away from filming football. Coach didn't care. And by sophomore year, she recruited me for her drama class. Back then I was skinny and shy, incredibly introverted. But I agreed. I'd already learned to listen and act when a Pennington asked you to do something. Hearing the first bit of laughter from the audience at my performance, I was hooked. My shell had been broken.
Coach and Mrs. P had helped pummel the pieces of that shell as I navigated through nervous adolescence. Next thing you know, I was no longer afraid to speak before an audience, stealing scenes in school plays, more comfortable on stage in front of hundreds than I was at an intimate party.
And they'd shown the world what makes a marriage. They were, on the surface anyway, about as opposite as couple as Ronald Reagan and Karl Marx. But they valued the same things, taught the same things (albeit in different ways), and loved each other more than any two people I've ever met, together for 40-some years.
After graduation, I didn't see the Penningtons again in person for two or three years. Chad went to Webb School of Knoxville to attend high school, playing football and basketball, then became a noted quarterback at Marshall University. He threw big-time bombs to Randy Moss, finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting, went to play for the New York Jets. I just marveled. And wondered if Denise still called him Chadwick. (She does.)
One day, we were eating at a restaurant near the house. I heard that familiar timbre and cadence again. Coach, Denise, Chad and a man I didn't recognize were eating at the table beside us. Chad was trying to stay unnoticed, dressed in an old sweatshirt with the hood up. He had either just signed his contract with the Jets or finished his first season.
He turned around, waved and grinned. I got a hug from Denise. But as they got up to leave, Coach came over to talk. It was so good to see that grin again. The others were ready to leave, but Coach lingered, talking, asking about my life, making me feel like the most important person in his world at the moment. He didn't brag about Chad, didn't mention New York or the Jets, no sir. That's how he was. He once was featured in The New York Times. I never heard about it. The only person Coach ever bragged about, if that's the right way to say it, was Jesus Christ.
I never saw him again.
Meanwhile, I watched Chad's NFL career unfold in the first decade of the 21st century. He battled back from injury, finished his career with the Miami Dolphins, started a charity. I saw Andrea when she came back to North Knoxville to work for awhile. I tried to call Coach once at his lake house, but didn't get him. I've always regretted that I didn't keep trying.
I also watched Chad and Andrea blossom into adults with families of their own. Social media eventually made that easier.
And it brought the news to me several months ago that Coach was at Emory University hospital, awaiting a heart transplant. We'd heard ominous news, then better news. He finally got a machine to help him. Things looked good at first, then his body began to shut down.
Forgive one rather personal note. I have been going through a trial of my own this year. I suffered nerve damage during a surgery and began to have headaches and other problems that became debilitating. By mid-April, I couldn't work. By early May, I couldn't get out of bed. By June, I was officially disabled. Two surgeries later, the doctors are still trying to help.
The only way I'm able to write this is by taking as much medicine as I safely can and taking my time. I just felt the need. Maybe somebody needs to hear about Coach P. I don't know.
I had to make a doctor's visit and take every medicine I could safely take, and Peggy Bright was kind enough to let me ride with her, but I made it to Coach's funeral last night. Something told me to go, if I could. It got interesting (I was a sleepy zombie by the end, starting to forget where I was, but I had made it.)
That celebration of life at Faith Promise Church was a sermon. That's what it was. Had the pastor given an alter call, I'd say all 700-plus people would have made their way up there for one reason or another.
I learned some things about Coach I didn't know. He displayed his sense of humor at a big seminar out of town a few years ago and got a standing ovation from his peers. He made sure his best friend, Tim George, and son Chad, stayed up to date on reading Oswald Chambers' daily devotional "My Utmost for His Highest." He tried to keep Webb football coach David Meske calm on Friday nights -- every head football coach I've ever met goes from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde to one degree or another on game day.
My favorite story was during Webb's 1996 state championship run. One team was trying to keep them off the field 30 minutes later than is allowed. Meske blew up, called the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, blew up some more. Finally, he got the OK. His players marching right behind him, Meske walked onto the field, probably a scene like something out of an old war movie.
He looked up and saw Coach Pennington and another coach buying hot dogs at the concession stand.
Chad and Andrea spoke last night. They were poised, their prose poignant and perfect. I was moved beyond measure, have never seen such grace under pressure. Andrea shared a verse. Chad said that he, too, never lived up to the standards set by his father.
Coach passed along words of wisdom, great, golden goodies like these:
"Respect is not earned; it's displayed."
"The greatest gift you can give your children is yourself."
"Treat others the way you'd want to be treated."
"Have character, don't be a character."
The last one was meant for me to hear: "Don't start having yourself a pity party. Next thing you know, you'll be an emotional wreck. Reach down and pull up your boot straps and GO!"
I've tried not to complain too much during my trial. As painful as it's been, day after day after day, alone in the dark, I keep telling myself to be grateful and thankful that this isn't terminal. I see so many on Facebook and in my own life who have it so much worse than I. I cherish the days I can watch an hour of TV or listen to Bing Crosby or Elvis Presley for a few minutes or scan my Facebook feed.
Sometimes I've leaned on friends, marveled at their kindness. Sometimes I've shed more than a few tears. I've missed a special, longtime friend's wedding, another good friend's retirement party, gotten so sick I just wanted to die, lost the ability to do what I love, lost nearly every cent I have.
After hearing Coach's last quote, I vowed that I might have to take baby steps at first, even if it gets darker before it gets lighter, but I'll keep putting one foot in front of the other, resting in the valley when I need to, but aiming for the mountaintop, maybe getting by with a little help from my friends (and family), but holding no pity parties. Even in death, Coach taught me one last lesson.
Driving me home, Doug Bright got philosophical. "There's no way -- no way -- we can ever live up to the way he lived his life." I agreed. Said the best we could do was try.
When we got to my driveway, Senor (as I'll forever call him; he taught Spanish) said, "We've learned tonight that life is short. Even if I have to pick you up, let's get together. Let's just put it on the calendar and get together over the holidays. I'll come over here if you're having a bad day or I'll come pick you up." I told him I loved him. He told me he loved me. That's something else we as human beings should do every day.
And we both vowed we were going to use Coach Pennington's life as an example by which to try to live. If I get one-third of the way up the yardstick that Coach set, I'll be a much better person than I am now.
Remember I told you earlier not to forget about that heart business? Here's why.
My thought was that Coach's figurative heart could never be replaced. You can't replace a one of one.
“If through a broken heart God can bring His purposes to pass in the world, then thank Him for breaking your heart.”
Guess who? Yep, that's from Oswald Chambers. I don't know for sure, but I suspect that if he read that, Coach Pennington would have eventually thought in literal terms and thanked God for breaking his heart.
My favorite movie is the 1969 original "True Grit." At its essence, the story is about determination, about righting wrong, about getting a job done no matter the difficulty, about making sure somebody takes responsibility for their own actions.
John Wayne has always been larger than life to me. Often, when I needed to relax or escape, I'd throw in "True Grit" or "The Shootist" or a hundred other of his films.
But Elwood Pennington had true grit, the real kind, the kind that gets tough on you because he loves you, the kind that gives you his last dollar and doesn't worry about getting it back, the kind that sends you into the stratosphere when you need a lift, the kind that doesn't boast, isn't proud, and rejoices with the truth.
I started to write that I hope you have a Coach P cross paths with you at some point in your life, but unless you knew him, that's not going to happen. There will never be another human being like him.
John Shephard, the son of former Halls High coach Gary, put it perfectly on his Facebook page, much better than anything I've said here today:
"Doctors say (Coach Pennington's) heart needed to be replaced, but I don't see it that way. He had gave each of us a piece of his heart to carry with us for the rest of our lives. He was a man of God, and this is what God had instructed him to do."
And that, my friends, is James Elwood Pennington, a man with true grit.