No name for Radio's defect has ever been pronounced, as far as anyone knows. It is no doubt genetic, because he shares it with his father, whom he has rarely seen since his first few years of life, and with Cool Rock, the brother two years his junior who shares Radio's bedroom. Cool Rock still can't be understood when he tries to speak. But then, Cool Rock was never adopted by a team.
Even when James Robert Kennedy was a little boy, everywhere he went, his radio went too, until folks finally had no choice but to make Radio his name. From the radio came a human voice, the only one he could count on to speak to him when his mother, Janie Mae Greenlee, left for long hours to clean and cook at the local hospital or schools. Now and then the boy would even lift his radio to his lips and talk back to it.
He attended a school for the learning disabled for a few months one year, but it didn't take. Back then he couldn't use a fork or pedal a bike, and because cruelty runs downhill, it wasn't a good idea for a cat or a dog to annoy him. "What's my name?" Jones asked as he and his fellow jayvee coach, Dennis Patterson, began luring Radio closer and closer with bottles of soda that autumn of '64. "Do you remember what I told you yesterday?"
"Try again. You can have this whole bottle if you can say it. Coach...Jones."
What made Jones invite the wild boy with the missing teeth to come to a game, to help carry the watercoolers and then hop into Jones's pickup truck for a ride home? Why would a coach work so hard at discipline and deployment and then let loose a pinball on his chess board? After all, everyone knew coach Jones to be a strict and quiet man who virtually never showed emotion or affection. No one knew that when he was a kid growing up in Anderson, he was the one who would fight anyone who picked on the delicate boy who lived across the street, and he was the one who, when working at his grandfather's theater, would slip a retarded man in the door for free and put a box of popcorn in his hands.
And so, before you knew it, Radio was going everywhere coach Jones and his jayvee team went, and Radio's halftime show was gaining renown. Radio would charge onto the field and bend down like a center, screeching those preposterous signals, hike the ball to himself and dipsy-doodle all around. Finding no one open except himself, Radio would flip the ball to Radio and then, to the crowd's roar, boogie-woogie all the way to pay dirt.
In no time, coach Jones was inviting Radio to school on game days, handing him sneakers, a T-shirt and shorts so he could take gym class with the other kids. Soon Radio was following the kids into health class, history and social studies. Sure, it probably broke some law, and no doubt it exposed the school to all manner of liability. But one glare from coach Jones was all it took to keep Radio in line, one threat that he would be banished from the team if he misbehaved. The principal had little choice but to accept Radio as part of the school. "The kids would kill me if I ever got rid of him," says current principal Mike Sams. They loved the frantic hip-hop way he ran in phys-ed class until that sorry day four years ago when he tore a hamstring and scrabbled around the gym floor like a crab, sobbing, "I wan' my mama!" They loved the way he rubbed his furrowed face and sighed "Whoooo!" as he took history tests, as if in deep consternation over the complexity of the questions, and then painstakingly filled in each blank with the same set of loops.
Soon Radio was wolfing down breakfast and two lunches a day in the cafeteria, then cleaning up the tables in his long yellow rubber gloves and running errands for teachers all over the school. Soon he was jump-starting dull assemblies and sluggish pep rallies, erupting out of his seat to do one of those shimmy-shuffle-shakedowns that got the whole student body to bopping and bellowing. It only got better when Radio was inducted into Hanna's Naval Junior ROTC unit, and he began wearing a full military uniform each Wednesday. What a sight he was in crisp dress whites and blues and merit ribbons, racing into special-ed class and pulling out his Crayolas for 10 or 15 minutes of coloring, then bolting out the door and up a stairway, two steps at a time, to monitor the halls—"Where you goin', boy? Don' wun! No wunnin' in da hall! Hi, honey! I like you!" After a few minutes of that, he might, standing fully erect and with his eyes open, fall dead asleep. If his schedule simply didn't permit a snooze, he could always—in the midst of a violent six-on-six drill later that day at football practice—sprawl out on a tackling dummy and doze like a baby.
It was all too wonderful to confine to autumn, and soon Radio was the manager of the basketball and track teams as well. How could coach Jones resist when Radio put on that basset hound face at track meets and begged to run too? And so, even though coach Jones was in charge of a juggernaut, a team that would win 10 state titles between 1970 and '92, he would take the opposing coach aside and ask if Radio could enter the slow heats of the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes. Wearing spikes and shorts and a singlet just like everyone else. Radio would blast out of the starting blocks, blazing when he was in front of the stands and then slowing to a walk, or stopping altogether to pull up his socks, once he reached the curve and there was no attention to bask in. "What happened on that curve, Radio?" the coaches would kid him later. "Did the gorilla jump on your back?" It was at times such as those—when Radio's eyes might suddenly cloud with fear, and he would ask, "Where dat go-wi-wa hide? Behind dem trees?"—that everyone would be reminded of how frightening a place the world could be for Radio, and how close an eye they would have to keep on him.