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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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We begin way over there, out on the margin. We begin with a dirty, disheveled 18-year-old boy roaring down a hill on a grocery cart, screaming like a banshee, holding a transistor radio to his ear. No one ever plays with him, for he can barely speak and never understands the rules. He can't read or write a word. He needs to be put away in some kind of institution, people keep telling his mother, because anything, anything at all, can happen out there on the margin. There's already a gully over his left eye from the time he stepped in front of a car as a five-year-old and nearly died from the impact. There are teeth missing from the day he swerved in front of a car while riding his grocery cart, and there's a scar on his thigh from the day he was playing with a packet of tiny sticks and suddenly everything around him was ablaze. There is something, as well, that you can't see, except sometimes in his eyes: fear. Fear of people. Once some kids told him to pull the lever on the fire-alarm box and then watched him being led away to jail. Another time he was seized by a group of boys who yanked down his pants and painted his buttocks with paint thinner, burning him nearly as badly as the blazing sticks had.

All of which might explain why his grocery cart keeps taking him to a football field at McCants Junior High in Anderson, S.C. It's autumn 1964. Everything on that grid is so different from life out on the margin. All the boys wear the same neat, clean clothing and move to assigned places at the bark of a one-word command. There are units and sub-units, and everyone knows precisely where he belongs. From a safe distance, the boy watches T.L. Hanna High School's junior varsity team practice on the McCants field and mutely absorbs it all.

One day the players hear noises and look over. The boy on the margin is commanding his own team, one that only he can see, through a series of calisthenics and drills, doing his best to mimic the coaches' body language, signals and commands. The players giggle; it's a distraction, to be sure. The young coach, whose future hinges on his ability to maintain discipline and precision on that grid, turns and looks too.

The choices that make or unmake a life are so small. "Come over here, boy," calls the coach.

When we speak of the power of sports today, it's always in terms of their grip on the national marketplace, their headlock on the American psyche. It's so easy to forget all about their other power....

Radio turned 50 two months ago, but you might not have read about it. He bounded through the corridors of T.L. Hanna High collecting his birthday gifts, waving and slapping fives and hugging kids and wiggling his rear end as the students chanted, "Go, Radio, you got it!" It took the whole bed of head football coach Harold Jones's pickup truck to get all the gifts home, just as it has on the other birthdays and the Christmases that Radio has celebrated at the school for the last 32 years.

No, he never made it to an institution. He became one instead. Just before his last birthday, folks in Anderson were remarking on all the speckles of white on his head and in his whiskers. "When Radio dies, it'll be the biggest funeral in the history of Anderson," said Herb Phillips, an assistant football coach at Hanna. "It'll be like a senator's or a governor's funeral."

"Gonna be sad sad, like losing a family member," said Terry Honeycutt, another football assistant.

"He's the best-known figure in high school football in upstate South Carolina," said former Hanna coach Jim Fraser.

"He is T.L. Hanna—it's that simple," said coach Jones, who for three decades has kept Radio under his wing.

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