Wednesday, November 12, 2008
HOW GROWING UP IN FOOTBALL MADE ME A WRITER
This is the beginning of a talk I gave at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville this past Tuesday night, November 11, 2008. And above are pictures from my life in football. This week in Tennessee brought me reunions with people from my life in football that I haven't seen in almost 30 years. In one picture I am with Nancy Dyar, former wife of the late coach Jim Dyar. She was a dear friend to our family and one of the "coacheswives" at Iowa State, Pittsburgh, and then Tennessee. The other picture is with Mary Elizabeth Majors, daughter of Johnny Majors, and her own beautiful daughter, Jocelyn Majors. I used to babysit for Mary Elizabeth, and she is now the mother of five children living in Oak Ridge. The black and white photograph is a picture of my father, Joe Madden, when he was coaching for the Pittsburgh Panthers.
HOW GROWING UP IN FOOTBALL MADE ME A WRITER
Thank you for having me here tonight. I recently told a friend that the last time I “performed” at the University of Tennessee was as the Kangaroo in PETER PAN at the Clarence Brown, so it’s lovely to be back here as a children’s author instead of hopping up and down the mountains of Never-Never Land in a giant kangaroo costume.
The title of my talk is how growing up in football made me a writer.
"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart…"
I learned to do that as I grew up the daughter of a college football coach, living in ten states, and moving constantly to various football towns. We claimed the mascots (Bulldogs, Demon Deacons, Cyclones, Wild Cats, Panthers, Volunteers, Lions, Falcons, Chargers) as our own, and dressed in the obligatory orange and white, blue and gold, purple and white, cardinal and gold. From the beginning team spirit mattered in the family. My father even designed he and my mother’s wedding napkins to make sure the football schedule was printed on each one. “Follow Jan & Joe and the Green Wave!” I wasn’t a jock or a cheerleader, so I had to figure out where I fit in that world. I grew up in stadiums. During the summers, Dad would seek out stadiums along the Corn Belt on yearly visit to my grandparents’ home in Leavenworth, Kansas.
"Hey folks," he'd say, "that's where the St. Louis Cardinals play!" or "Get your nose out of that book and look alive! This is the home of the Kansas City Chiefs!" We'd get out of the car to stand in an empty stadium parking lot in the June sun, squinting at some football monolith. My brothers threw a Nerf football and argued over speed, muscles, and agility before they’d tackle each other on the asphalt. Then we’d get back in the car, and I’d continue reading A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN aloud to my sister, but mostly I escaped the endless two day road trip by devouring a stack of books like DON'T LOOK AND IT WON'T HURT, BORN INNOCENT, RICH MAN POOR MAN, and usually something by Taylor Caldwell.
The only landmark I can recall, other than stadiums, is the St. Louis Arch, but we only saw that from Interstate 70. What was the point of stopping when we could see the arch perfectly from the back seat of our Rambler or Buick?
"Wake up and see the arch!" my mother would yell from the front seat, where she was making peanut butter or ham sandwiches on her knees. "Who wants mayonnaise? Grape or apple jelly? Don't put your feet on the ice chest! Give Clancy a sandwich!" Clancy was our sad-eyed black Lab, who drooled great pools of saliva on our bare legs during those endless trips.
In August, football season began in earnest, although it started for my father in July with two-a-day, and it really started in April for Picture Day when all the coaching families came to the stadium for a new family portrait. My brothers attended summer football camps. In the fall, there were often three games a weekend. My brother, Duffy, played for Knoxville Catholic on Friday nights his first two years of high school and for Troy High in Michigan his last two years.
My father's games were on Saturday afternoon, and my brother, Casey, played on Sunday afternoons. When my sister, Keely, was old enough, she began to cheer at Casey's games in her Cedar Bluff uniform. I was never a cheerleader though I did attend all the games, a novel in hand.
Duffy was a jock who loved girls, and most loved him right back. He liked the prettiest girls in my class too, but I was two years ahead of him, so mostly they were off-limits. Still, sometimes girls in my grade would whisper, "Your brother is soooo cute! He can stay and play!" He would flash an innocent grin at me, sensing my rage. Duffy is now a flamenco dancer, blues guitarist and English teacher in Spain.
Casey was always trying to keep up with Duffy, and also with Keely, the youngest, who was a year younger but a head taller. He was the one who counted the presents under the Christmas tree to make sure all gifts added up fair and square. He is now a financial planner in Chicago.
Keely became an actress in New York and is now a writer/actress living with her family is San Francisco. Keely grew up thinking "coacheswives" was one word. We would get to my dad’s games early on Saturdays and start tailgating. Tailgating in stadium parking lots meant eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with other coaches' kids and our mothers, "the coacheswives."
The "coacheswives" preferred Bloody Marys with limes and fancy swizzle sticks in plastic cups to peanut butter and jelly. I loved watching them in their white or black go-go boots, red and gold or purple and white miniskirts, depending on the football team's colors, high hair, perfectly red lipstick and thick eyelashes. The game hadn't started, so the pressure wasn't on yet, and they’d catch up and tell stories.
The greatest storytellers in the football world weren’t the coaches. The men had ballgames to win and constantly faced getting fired. The longest we ever lived anywhere when I was growing up was four football seasons. It was the "coacheswives" who were the funniest and told stories with arcs and punchlines. I loved listening to them in the kitchen, while they stirred cheese grits or made cornbread. There was laughter and camaraderie. They didn’t have put on their “game face” at home and could do hilarious impressions of a rabid fan or a severe PTA parent, and those women were so good to me and let me hang around and listen.
In a coach’s family, we moved regularly in search of "the opportunity to win." I was born in Daytona Beach, Fla., where my father coached at Father Lopez High School, but he had bigger dreams, so in the days before Kinkos, my mother typed him sixty job application letters on an old Royal typewriter that they sent every where. He got a job at Mississippi State as a graduate assistant, and my mother remembers pushing me down the blistering streets of Starkville and a woman peering into my carriage murmuring, "My, she looks as happy as a dead pig in the sunshine."
Next, we moved to Morehead, Kentucky, where we lived in faculty housing that went straight up a mountain - about thirty or forty steps with a toddler and a newborn. Mother used to iron looking out at the mountains. Then it was onto Wake Forest for Brian Piccolo's senior year, although my father didn't coach him.
We stayed at Wake Forest for four years, and it was the first house I remember saying good-bye to before leaving for the Iowa State Cyclones. In 1968, I remember standing outside this home thinking, "I'm moving to a place called Ames, Iowa, and I don't know when I'll ever see my North Carolina home again."
We picked blackberries and went exploring in the gully in Winston-Salem. Our mean next-door neighbor used to chase my brother with a flyswatter whenever he strayed into his yard at my encouragement. (“He’s nice now. You’ll see.”) This was the home where a man gave my mother advice on unwanted rats: "Get you a cat. Feed it gunpowder. Makes it mean." This was the house where my father, late to pick up a football recruit, was blocked in the driveway by a dead car, so he drove forward around through the backyard, down the side, and across the front yard to make his exit. Immediately afterward, Mother planted to trees to thwart him ever wrecking her new grass again, and now those trees are huge. I saw my old house a month ago for the first time since 1968.
When I was 6, we moved to Ames, Iowa, where my father was hired as the defensive secondary coach (under John Majors). He coached with Coach Majors off and on for the next 11 years, and gradually I learned that Coach Majors was "John" in the North and "Johnny" in the South.
At Iowa State, we lived at the Ames Holiday Inn for a month in the winter. Imagine three kids and our pregnant mother, who cooked beanie-wienies on a skillet in the motel room. I remember her trying to scrub the skillet under the tiny motel faucet. I don't remember my father ever being there, except once in a while when he would blow in late at night from the football office in his cleats. I remember Duffy playing Tarzan in the motel room by lobbing a belt over the shower curtain rod only to have it come crashing down on him. He needed 10 stitches and my mother needed a vacation.
We eventually moved into a house, and a few months after that, my mother went to the hospital to have my sister. When my father finally arrived, he found my mother in labor. Distracted, he said, "So, what did we have?' Her eyes narrowed, and she indicated her still very pregnant belly, "What does it look like we had?" Although she had no complications with my sister’s birth, she stayed in the hospital for 10 days. She said, "I was happy just to push the juice cart around the maternity ward rather than go home face three children and a newborn." When she called the football office to have my father take her home, the secretary said, "I'm sorry, but the defensive coaches are in a meeting. I can send one of the offensive coaches to take you and the baby home."
In our fourth year at Iowa State, the team won enough games to go to the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. Then my father got offered the job as assistant head coach at Kansas State. The head coach was Vince Gibson, whose philosophy was "We gonna weeen!" Coach Gibson had a coaching show on TV where fans sent in crocheted purple pigs, purple wine holders, purple baby blankets, purple tablecloths.
We lived in Manhattan, Kan., for a year and did not win, so in 1973 my dad reunited with Coach Majors to coach for the Pitt Panthers. At my new school in Pittsburgh in the sixth grade, we marched up the hill to the church on Wednesdays, led by our teacher, Sister Matilda, to sing at funerals, which we all enjoyed because it meant we got to miss math class. We never knew the deceased – it was a local “old” person, whose family had requested children sing at the funeral. Sister Matilda would tell the tone deaf kids in the choir, “You’re a wedge. Just pretend you’re singing, but don’t make a sound.” I was never a wedge, but the horror – to be a wedge - was ingrained in all of us.
I read everything as a kid, but I especially loved stories with tragedies. And because I babysat a lot, my brothers and sister played the parts of orphans, prairie children, boarding school students or very young nuns who had to chop carrots in heavy black wimples and robes. Clancy, the black lab, played the sympathetic grandmother in full costume or the Artful Dodger. My brothers never lasted long. They refused to taste the homemade gruel and tore off their orphan garments to escape outside, but my sister stuck it out until the grand finale, which either resulted in death or a miracle, or a bit of both.
As the new girl in grade school, I didn't fit in. I was taller than anyone in my class, and was often mistaken for a boy because a girl, unless she was a cheerleader or a coacheswife, earned no respect in the world of football, and I wanted respect. Hence, I dressed in letter jackets, jeans, high tops, Mexican vests from the Sun Bowl trip. I kept my hair short.
Kids would say, "Why don't you ever wear dresses?" "Are you a guy or a girl?" "Hey Moose! How's the weather up there?" But I always tell kids there is sweet justice because the bully in 6th grade became the bully in my novel, OFFSIDES. Later, this boy grew up and read OFFSIDES and wrote me a letter of apology that said, “Tall girls always win.” Then he wanted to know how to become a writer.
In 9th grade, I started high school at a mostly girls' school called Vincentian. They had started letting boys in the year before, but the boys who attended were so insignificant, we didn't even notice them except to avoid them. I played field hockey, made intense friendships, and then Pitt went to the Sugar Bowl and won the National Championship. Since we were winning, I felt assured of our place in Pittsburgh. Winning coaches didn't get fired. Which was true. But they did move on to teams that needed rebuilding which is what Coach Majors decided to do by returning to his alma mater, Tennessee. My father was glad to go with him as assistant head coach.
When I complained about football dominating our lives, my mother said: "Football is our bread and butter, missy, so no complaining. Whiners vacuum!" And moving day was hardest of all for me. I shot evil glances at the movers as they packed up my beloved room. My father would shout, "Do you want to stay in the same town your whole life? What kind of life is that? You want me clocking in at five doing your homework with you? Now get in the car!" But profanity came as naturally as breathing to him, so his orders were delivered in far more colorful language. He would also say, “You won’t even remember this place! You’ll forget all about it!” And he thought he was being helpful, I know this, but as we left a football town in search of the next opportunity to win, I vowed never to forget.
I was devastated to leave Pittsburgh for Knoxville. Although I looked more like a girl by this time, I certainly didn't know how I would fit in with the Southern girls. When my parents took me to my first day of school, the priest at Knoxville Catholic High School, Father Mankel, welcomed us and regaled us with jokes while I sat there stone-faced, fixating on what my friends in Pittsburgh were doing exactly at that moment. Now they’re in Algebra, next biology, then World Cultures…When Father Mankel got up to take a call, my father turned to me and said, "Holy heck, give the poor guy a break. He's told every joke he knows."
I went from hearing the Pittsburgh “yenz guys” to “y’all” and struggled to figure out where I belonged once again. In every town, I listened hard to accents and dialects, so I could speak the way the other kids spoke whether I was in Manhattan, Kansas or Knoxville, Tennessee.
But I never realized how that decade of high school, college, and postgraduate study in Knoxville, Tennessee would inform my writing and my entire life. I graduated from high in Knoxville and went to the University of Tennessee. I eventually met my husband, Kiffen, in Knoxville, whose father played the fiddle on the Grand Ole Opry and on the Cas Walker Radio Show. His uncle, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, was a songcatcher in the mountains of North Carolina. I grew up drawing pictures of huge families, and when I began dating my husband, the middle child of thirteen children, I thought if I marry this man, I will never run out of stories...
Kerry Madden is the author the Maggie Valley Trilogy: GENTLE'S HOLLER, LOUISIANA'S SONG, and JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN. She and her husband, Kiffen, live in Los Angeles with their three children, but come "home" to Tennessee when they can.