ATHENS — I’m back. Apologies for the extended absence but I’ve been dealing with something that all of us must face eventually, the illness and/or death of a loved one.
My father passed away a week ago today. In overall life terms it happened fairly quickly, but from the standpoint of resolution and outcome it was a protracted and challenging affair. At the end, he was in hospice care for six days.
I was two miles from my exit to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and my flight for Memphis and the Georgia Bulldogs’ appointment in the Liberty Bowl when I got the call that it was thought my father had suffered a massive stroke. I never boarded that plane, turning around instead and heading north on I-75. I got back home only yesterday. We had a snow-and-ice marred memorial service this past Saturday at Calhoun First United Methodist Church. Ray Towers was 78.
Now everybody has parents and loved ones, so I don’t want to bore you too much with details about mine. But I do want to share at least one thing about my father.
I’m probably a sportswriter today because of my dad. He was a fairly big deal back in his day, playing quarterback and defensive back and punting for Calhoun High in the 1950s. He didn’t play college ball but remained deeply involved in football after school.
With the exception of a couple of years, my father coached every football team I played on until I got to Redan High School in the late 1970s. He was a youth football coach and he had the reputation of being a very good one at that. Nobody keeps very close tabs on win-loss records in such environments, and rightly so, but my father’s teams with the North Decatur Rebels and Central DeKalb Cardinals usually won more than they lost, always were competitive and occasionally would run down a title. One year we were undefeated!
Because he was always the head coach, Coach Towers would usually conduct “coaches’ meetings” at our houses. I can remember him and his “assistant coaches” gathering at the dining room table on Thursday nights and creating a smoky haze with their cigarettes as they game-planned for that Saturday morning’s opponent.
Though there were usually some Pabst Blue Ribbons present, my father and the fellow dads took their work serious. They actually would rotate scouting the next week’s opponent each weekend whenever possible, and they’d share those observations at those meetings. They’d have football strategy books by Vince Lombardi and Bear Bryant and Vince Dooley scattered on the table for reference. I still have most of them. And, of course, he had his own hand-drawn playbook.
Man, I wish I could find that playbook!
As a result, I had an exceptional understanding of basic football concepts at a very young age. I could recite the football hole numbering system before I knew my multiplication tables and I could describe in detail what every single player on the field was supposed to do on any given play.
So I was pretty good early on. Even though I was small, I would often be assigned to play guard and/or linebacker simply because I knew where I was supposed to be and who I was supposed to hit. I was quick and anticipated the snap count and would usually get to my spot first. I loved trap plays.
Of course, size matters in football, and it was just a matter of time before I simply wasn’t big enough to compete. Steve Shankweiler tried to make a flanker out of me at Redan High, but it was hard to get on the field with that bunch. I watched from the stands as my Raiders won the Class AAA state championship in the fall of 1979. But I bet you a third of that team played football for my father.
So thanks to the influence of my father, I’ve always watched the game from the perspective of a coach. I’ve always felt as though I understood the game and could write about it with authority. And I tend to err on the side of coaches when it comes to my criticisms, though some of you might not believe that.
I’d like to thank Cox Media Group for giving me the time I needed to be with my father during this difficult time and to attend to his affairs. And I’d like to thank the readers of DawgNation and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the many kind messages I’ve received via email and through social media.
I’m reminded that most of these great players and coaches who I have the privilege of writing about every day, and the ones you’ll watch compete for a national championship tonight, started just the way I did. They learned the game from youth-league coaches who understood the game, taught them the fundamentals and shared their passion for competition.
Thanks, Dad. You’ll be missed.