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SOMEONE TO LEAN ON
Gary Smith
December 16, 1996
In upstate South Carolina, a man who was left out on the margins has found a family and a purpose in a high school football team
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December 16, 1996

Someone To Lean On

In upstate South Carolina, a man who was left out on the margins has found a family and a purpose in a high school football team

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Coach Jones took Radio to the doctor every year, monitored Radio's diet when his blood-pressure readings and cholesterol count went through the roof, and made sure his medical and dental bills were paid. "Radio," says assistant coach Honeycutt, "would be dead by now if not for coach Jones." The players who lived in Radio's neighborhood kept at bay the bullies who used to target him, and a half-dozen players might each deliver a hamburger and an order of fries to Radio on game day, each unaware that Radio was squirreling the food away in his backpack, each proudly believing that his offering was the only one. One day when Radio's invariably empty billfold was stolen at school, the players all but formed vigilante squads, and the coaches hastily bought Radio a new wallet for fear that a student might be found dangling from a ventilation duct. Even in the fourth quarter of a tense game, when a player was bent-in-half tired and cringing from a coach's screams for blowing a coverage, and Radio would get right in his face and reenact the entire tirade, or demand out of the clear blue to know his shoe size, the player's tolerance would hold. "O.K., Radio, O.K.," the Hanna kids would say, and a few seconds later, Radio would have them giggling.

Just once, 22 years ago, did Radio miss a game. It was not long after coach Jones and Radio had gotten their promotions to the varsity, but being only an assistant coach then, Jones could only swallow his Adam's apple when Fraser, the head coach, decided the bus was too crowded for Radio to make the road trip to Northwestern High. Fraser slipped Radio a five to ease his conscience, but the sight of that slump-shouldered man standing alone in the school parking lot, tears rolling down his cheeks, would haunt the coach forever, as would the 27-20 loss that followed. "He'll be the first one on the bus from here on out," Fraser vowed that night, and when the T.L. Hanna Yellow Jackets, with Radio leading them onto the field, rolled all the way to the state final that year, Radio's position was forever secure.

From then on rain was the only thing that Radio had to fear on game day. Each wet Friday he would scramble out the school's back door every few minutes, mournfully holding out his palm to feel the air, then rushing back to coach Jones to confirm, for the 28th time, "Gonna 'top wainin', wight, Co' Jone'?" And when God smiled, and the rain clouds ran away, Radio bloomed.

Imagine, just for a moment, that you could go to a football game one day and play every role, be everyone in the whole stadium. That's what Radio did every game. Gumming and gnawing another freshly mooched fried-chicken drumstick, he would start out as the official greeter, holding open the Hanna program to make sure all arriving fans saw his photograph and hoisting up his pants legs to make sure everyone got a gander at his new pair of shoes—"Wook at my Weeboks!"—along with his socks, one white and one black. Then, dropping one drumstick and seizing another, he would commandeer the bass drum as the Manna band made its knee-pumping entrance, quickly double back to wolf down a free hot dog and then scurry up to the press box to become the radio color commentator, barking over the WAIM airwaves, "We gon' beat dey butt!" All at once it would occur to Radio that he was also Hanna's coach, and he'd bolt down onto the field to yelp stretching instructions to the team during warmups—"You roll dat neck, boy!"—and then back to the bleachers to scarf some free popcorn and sign his autograph, loop-de-loop.

For the next two hours, to the ricochet of impulse, he would be the band director leading the touchdown celebration tune, the pom-pom-shaking cheerleader, the team trainer kneading cramps from players' calves, the 15-year-old flirt tossing popcorn at the cheerleaders' bare legs, the drum majorette in the halftime show, the fanatic racing up and down the sidelines with a giant Manna flag, the water boy rushing squeeze bottles—empty, as often as not—onto the field during timeouts, and the coach arm-waggling defensive signals at the offensive line...all to the steady background bleating, from white-haired alumni and kids alike, of "Raaaadiooooooo! Hey, Raaaadioooooooo, come over here!"

His legend radiated from the school throughout the town. At the annual Anderson Christmas parade, the local cable television crew could not get enough of Radio marching the loosey-goosiest goose step in martial history, wearing his Santa Claus hat and shaking a fistful of sleigh bells—especially that Yule when his beltless pants slid to his ankles. He no longer had to pay to eat anything or walk to go anywhere in Anderson—there was always a free meal or a free ride. In the history of long shots, was there ever one longer than the possibility that a man such as he would be known and loved wherever he went? And if there was room in the program for Radio, then who couldn't be included, who wasn't welcome to join the community at its largest weekly gatherings? That was the message that Radio's presence sent to all those who felt a little odd, a little different.

The fans from the surrounding towns also embraced him over the years, and one day when an assistant coach took him to a Clemson football game, it finally became clear what Hanna High had wrought. Honking and waving and cries of "Radio!" accompanied the two men the entire bumper-to-bumper trip, and no man has ever tailgated upon as many tails as Radio did that day.

But when darkness fell on Christmas Eve each year, just one car crunched onto the gravel in front of Radio's house. The curtain on the front window would rustle, for that's where Radio always awaited coach Jones. The coach would hand Radio the wrapped gifts he had bought or collected from donors: shoes, socks, shirts, belts and, of course, another radio, for each year Radio's curiosity about who spoke to him from inside the little black box was more than the little black box could bear.

Fierce was Radio's loyalty in return. Fists pummeling, he would leap on the back of an assistant coach who pretended to sneak cases of soda from coach Jones's truck, and he would materialize like a bad dream before the eyes of any referee who argued with coach Jones. The one time in his career coach Jones was ejected from a game, Radio screamed, "You ass!" at the ejecting referee so often, and with such precise diction, that he too got the heave-ho.

Coach Jones was wonderful at hiding his exasperation with Radio, which might have been why he had to sip buttermilk during games to soothe his burning stomach. Who knew how many times a poignant silence during one of his pregame orations had been blown to smithereens by a shriek from Radio, and yet all coach Jones would do was throw an arm around Radio's shoulder and roll his eyes toward heaven. Maybe that explained something. There was no one, outside of his five grandchildren or his wife, whom the coach would touch like that. He was the no-nonsense guy with bare gray cinder block office walls, but unlike most people, he hadn't completely done away with his other self, that loose and long-buried child. It was always right there at his elbow, rocking from foot to foot.

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