It’s been nearly 50 years now, but August 10 still marks a day of terror for me. As it may yet for all Virginia high school football players of a certain age – the beginning of two-a-day practices diabolically set smack in the most sweltering week of the summer. I was a Flying Fluco in the years 1971-73, when our team finished district competition undefeated only to bow to the mountain boys from Strasburg or Madison in the Regionals. Winning was a new thing for Fluvanna County back then. Just a few years earlier, my brother-in-law Butch had been a college-recruited lineman for a team that lost most of its games. But all that changed when Virginia realigned its football districts to better match high school populations, when full-blown desegregation finally kicked in (our county’s Black high school became the junior high school and everyone – Black or White – became a Fluco), and when a submarine engineer from Virginia Beach named Phil Browning decided to come home and take up football coaching at his old high school.
Coach Browning was first and last a man on a mission. His quite simple philosophy had three components, plainly derived from the playbook of the great Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi: (1) you win games with defense, (2) you win games in the fourth quarter, and (3) you win games as a team. This philosophy, taken to the extreme (Coach would have had it no other way) meant that in his first season the team occasionally punted on first down, just to get our fearsome defense back on the field; that two-a-days became brutally violent endurance sessions that left everyone bruised and spent, flat on our backs on the cool gym floor between practices; and that no one got off easy (one of the shameful moments of my life, one that still haunts me, was standing there agape among my equally dumbstruck teammates, while Coach whaled on his quarterback son Skip, who had shown the temerity to question him).
We were small (probably the heaviest among us my senior year weighed 180 pounds), slow (at least after our brilliant running back James Johnson fell to injury), and undermanned (by our senior year word of Coach’s horrifying practices had winnowed us down to 25 players, barely enough to scrimmage), but boy were we in shape! Just as he’d planned, game nights were cupcakes compared to our practices. We feared no one, easily played offense and defense without rest (that senior year, most of us on the first string stayed on the field the whole game, even for kick-offs), and we were relentless. We never bad-mouthed or resorted to dirty tricks in the scrum. We just ground down the opposing teams, big old farm boys left gasping in our dust. We won some games 42-0. As an example of Coach’s sometimes maniacal defense-first philosophy, after a few of those lop-sided victories, when the other team had somehow scored a touchdown, he kept us on the field after the game, or brought us back to practice on a Saturday morning, just to run ten wind sprints for every point the other team had scored.
Those of us who stuck it out across our three high school seasons were changed for life. I know that nothing I’ve been through since has ever pushed me quite as hard, and every hardship I’ve faced has been answered by this photograph, from a day that all but crushed us, down on the old softball field a mile from school, where we trudged to practice twice a day. We were all exhausted, dehydrated (back then it was considered “pussy” to drink too much water, and the water we did have was silted with salt pills), beaten by a relentless August sun, and stumbling about almost delirious. On the day in this photograph, my friend MacLean Zehler collapsed into convulsions after practice, a victim of heat stroke. He might have died.
One other key point in this jog down memory lane, our team was integrated successfully, whereas many of the teams we beat failed at that effort. For instance, Prince Edward County is notorious for having briefly shut down schools rather than integrate, all the White kids migrating to a private academy set up just for them, which cut the school population in half. Other teams clearly fought amongst themselves, were disorganized, and ripe for the taking. Coach wouldn’t have that. As an example, he loaded up his old blue bomber of a car with Black and White players alike, all tumbled in together after practice, and spent the next hour dropping everybody off at home. This was the Vietnam War era, and he worked hard to get as many of us as he could into college, because the alternative was a plane trip overseas.
A couple years ago, after a high school Homecoming game, a few of us gathered at the house of former player Roger and former cheerleader Karen’s house to talk about the old days. MacLean, now living out West, had come home to interview people about Coach Browning for a script he was writing. I told him the movie had already been made, the classic Remember the Titans, with Denzel Washington in Coach Browning’s role. But he turned on his video camera and watched in amazement as old Flucos recounted down to the play and how much time was left on the clock glory days of fifty years ago. I haven’t seen that script yet, but I hope to soon (so c’mon, MacLean!). Meanwhile, like all my fellow Flucos of a certain age, I bow to August 10th in remembrance of bruises and triumphs past.