A broken mold

Posted on December 20, 2013. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

I barely knew Coach Bobby C. Watson of Hoxie.

I didn’t attend Hoxie schools, so I never played on a Coach Watson team or sat in a Coach Watson history class.

Since I didn’t go to his church, I never benefited from his Sunday School lessons.

In fact, over the course of his iconic life, which spanned 87 years and included a half-century coaching career, the bulk of my interaction with Coach Watson was limited to a summer Little League season when I was 12 years old.

My family had moved to Walnut Ridge just after school was out, so I was a new kid in a new town who knew nobody.

Coach Watson managed Little League baseball (as a volunteer), and had an innovative—and highly effective—approach that still makes sense today.

Although players were assigned to teams (I was put on the Cubs), each player practiced every morning in his own age group with Coach Watson.

There he taught fundamentals, using drills and practice routines to show us how the game was played: how to hit, how to throw, how to field a ground ball or catch a fly ball, how to run the bases.

The team coaches varied in terms of baseball knowledge and instructional capability, but the learning constant was Coach Watson’s well-prepared daily practices.

Coach Watson had never met me until I showed up for the first practice, but I only had to tell him my name once. The next day, and from then on that summer, he called me by name as naturally as if he had been coaching me for years (as he had most of the other kids).

Everybody wants to fit in, and what better way than to be nonchalantly assimilated into the ranks of the “twelves” at practice?

I didn’t know at that time anything else about Coach Watson. I loved watching McHale’s Navy TV reruns, but had no idea he had patrolled the Pacific during World War II as a radio operator on PT boats (after volunteering at age 17).

No notion of his phenomenal shooting skills and records as a high school basketball player, no clue he was a basketball letterman at then-Arkansas State College.

I sort of knew (in that foggy 12-yearold way) that he coached at the neighboring school, but was oblivious of the fact that just a few years earlier he had restarted football at Hoxie and would soon restart girls basketball.

The possibility that he had ever coached anywhere else (Western Grove, Harrison and Crawfordsville) completely eluded me.

My knowledge was satisfied with the fact that he was our Little League practice coach-and I wanted to please him.

I can still remember his expressions and his gestures as he demonstrated proper fielding technique and swatted grounders to us, or struck a balanced batting stance before tossing us pitches.

He used repetitive phrases and quips to keep us moving, to correct us, to encourage us.

Besides his daily workouts with all the kids from age 7 to 12, he also prepared the field for games, announced the contests, and compiled and posted the batting averages for every player on every team by the very next day, including pitching stats.

He also wrote the Little League stories for the local paper, relating with a sportswriter’s flair the developments and drama of the games, not just the scores and leading hitters.

Only after I had kids of my own and did a little coaching myself did I realize the monumental time requirements of such an achievement. Contemplating the marvel of it-in an age before computers and digital spreadsheets-leaves me weary.

As it turned out, Little League was the smallest piece of Coach Watson’s legacy. He coached half a dozen school sports, from football to basketball to golf to track, leaving a lifelong wake of players who universally acclaimed his positive and often singular influence on their lives.

He expected much and demanded much of his players, but he was a role model in far more than sports.

His marriage lasted 63 years, a true till-death-do-us-part union, and produced four admirable children. His faith led him to teach Sunday School for 50 years.

At his funeral this past Monday, one of his daughters read a letter from a player he coached 54 years ago in which she credited Coach Watson with teaching her more about life than sports.

Had his family organized the effort, they could have produced thousands of such letters, reminiscent of the climactic scene in the Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street.

The way Coach Watson made me feel special without treating me special left a lasting impression. I have always smiled fondly at any mention of his name, and my eyes watered Monday upon bidding farewell to a man for which the splendid character mold lies broken.

Amid the packed church pews, beyond where I could see, a baby babbled and cried alternatively. But it wasn’t a distraction to the occasion.

Those infant sounds heralded, especially at this Christmastide season, the truth that life and love are gifts to be lived, shared and remembered.

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