I loved and admired Coach Carl Madison

Published 10:56 am Thursday, January 25, 2024

By Lloyd Albritton

Columnist

We were a motley bunch of little boys gathered around football Coach Carl Madison that hot early September afternoon in 1959.  There were perhaps 50-60 of us, all seventh graders going out for football for the first time. The threadbare surplus uniforms we wore had been discarded long ago by high school teams now gone on into the world of adulthood.  Our faded helmets were mostly the old style such as Jim Thorpe might have worn.  They were lined inside with dried, crumbling foam rubber.  They had no chinstraps to hold them in place.  No nose guards. They were way too big for our bony little heads.  Our shoulder pads were big and heavy with no underarm straps, making them difficult to stabilize.  They were made long ago for much bigger players than us.  We teetered from side to side with the heavy load on our puny shoulders.  The cotton football pants we wore, designed to reach to the top of a player’s calves, drooped to our ankles.  Only a few of us were lucky enough to have real football shoes on our feet.  Most of us were barefoot.  I was one of the lucky ones.  I had managed to grab an unmatched pair from the pile in front of Coach Madison’s office, but when the cleat screws started poking holes in the bottoms of my feet, I wished I hadn’t been so quick to start grabbing.  Luckily, I had gone barefoot all summer and the soles of my feet were tough as rawhide.  A few cleat screws boring into the bottom of my feet was a small price to pay for an opportunity to play football on Coach Madison’s team.

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Coach Madison had walked out onto the dirt field and summoned us to gather around him by blowing his whistle.  He was a small, slender man of Creek Indian heritage.  His closely cropped hair was jet black and his white teeth glinted in the sun against his smooth olive skin.  He was an unusually handsome young man who had been a star running back during his high school years at a neighboring school, as well as during his college years at Troy State Teacher College.  Coach Madison had come to Walnut Hill for his first coaching job in 1956.  This would be his last school year with us.  In the ensuing years Coach Madison would amass a reputation as a formidable and legendary high school football coach throughout the southern region, taking several large schools to state championships.  At Walnut Hill in the early fall of 1959, after only three years of coaching, he was already formidable and legendary to this group of Seventh Graders.

“Football is about blocking and tackling,” Coach Madison told us.  “If you can block and tackle, you can play on my team.”  He paused to let that sink in.

“Can I be the one what runs with the football?” one boy blurted out.

“I want to be the quarterback,” another boy said eagerly.  “I can chunk a football clear over the top of our house.”

Coach Madison did not look up at either boy who spoke.  He neither smiled nor scowled, just stood there with his head and eyes lowered.  Then he looked up at us with piercing dark eyes.

“You boys won’t even touch a football this year,” he said.  “All you’re going to learn this year is blocking and tackling.  Now there’s just one more thing I want to tell you before we get started.  I don’t like quitters.  I won’t tolerate them.  If you want to quit right now, that’s okay.  I’ll understand. If you start on my team and quit, don’t ever look me in the eye or speak to me again.  If you meet me in the school hallway or walking on the school campus, don’t even try to talk to me because I don’t tolerate quitters.  So, after today, none of you better not come to my office and tell me you’re quitting.  If you quit, just leave your uniform outside my office door and don’t try to explain nothing to me.  I don’t want to hear it.”

Coach Madison then had us count-off and formed us into two equal groups.  He instructed the first group to form a small circle back-to-back and facing outward.  Then he told the other group to form a larger circle around the smaller one, facing inward.  “When I blow my whistle,” he said, “I want you boys in the outer circle to get inside the smaller circle.”  Turning to the first group, the inner circle, he pointed collectively and said, “And you, don’t let’em!  If you get knocked down, stay on the ground.  This drill is over when only one man is left standing.”

Coach Madison blew his whistle and a knock-down-drag out rumble ensued.  He gave us no rules except to knock somebody down any way we could.  We all quickly lost track of who was in which circle as we blocked, tackled, kicked and gouged until we were too exhausted to stand up any longer and mercifully a bigger, stronger boy knocked us to the ground.  It was every man for himself.  I hung in there as long as I could, but I was secretly so very happy to finally get knocked down, where I lay panting and gasping for breath in the dust.   When it was all finally over, Big Guy Dennis was the last man standing.  Guy had been my best pal in elementary school days.  He would go on to become an outstanding college football player at the University of Florida and would play professionally for the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Diego Chargers.  But on that day, he was the last seventh grader standing on the Walnut Hill Junior High School football team.

Instructing us to gather around him again, Coach Madison said.  “All right, that wasn’t too bad.  Now we’re going to do it again, but this time I’m going to allow you to get knocked down twice before you have to stay on the ground.”

I could not believe what I was hearing!  Two times?  We had to get knocked down two times before we could stay on the ground and rest?  He said this as if he was doing us a favor.  The next drill was even worse than the first.  Guy was the last man standing again.

We went through the exercise two more times.  In the last round Coach Madison allowed us the privilege of getting knocked down THREE TIMES before we had to stay on the ground.  He told us that this drill was called “The Bull Ring,” and that we would be doing a lot more of it this year.  The next day Coach Madison arrived at his office in the gym to find a huge pile of old uniforms and equipment piled at his door.  Only a dozen or so seventh graders showed up for practice that day.  I was one of them.  The only reason I did not quit was that I was more afraid of Coach Madison than I was of the bull ring and I could not bear the thought of such a great man not speaking to me.  That would be like getting excommunicated from God.  Further, I had pleaded with my father to let me go out for football that year and Coach Madison was not the only man I knew who did not tolerate quitters.

I toughened up during my first year as a football player and the drills seemed to get easier as I got tougher.  I was by no means an exceptional football player, but I was determined to go down in Coach Madison’s book as a non-quitter.  Throughout the school year, he occasionally spoke to me directly, which always warmed my heart.

“Hustle, Albritton!”

“Get the lead out, Albritton.”

“Hit him like you mean it, Albritton.”

“Yessir.”

“Thank you, Sir,” I always responded.

I adored and respected Coach Madison, but I was also terrified of him was greatly intimidated by his presence.  Later in the year, after the football season was over, I was assigned to Coach Madison’s study hall group.  One cold winter morning he burst into the study hall building and shouted, “WHO OPENED THAT NORTH GATE?”

A particularly brazen young fellow named Cecil Turberville quickly retorted, “I DID!”

I rolled my eyes toward Cecil with the greatest of admiration.  I didn’t even know where that North Gate was, but if I had been the one who left it open it, I certainly would have never confessed as quickly as Cecil did.  I thought surely that Coach Madison would send Cecil out to the football field for a hundred laps in the cold weather, but instead, he just smiled and never said a word.  Go figure!