Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Day Jim Lafferty Took a Dive for Me

Jim Lafferty: RIP.
Just got a note from my friend Joyce Watson Langson in North Carolina that Jim Lafferty died this week from cancer. I didn't know Jim that well, but he marked a rite of passage for me in high school.

As a senior at Cranberry High in Avery County--far back in the mountains of North Carolina--in the late summer of 1963, I had just transferred to the school and was working with the football team, two or three weeks before the season began.

There were a few of us who had transferred--my best friend Jerry Turbyfill among them--and we were trying to make an impression. Jerry and I had absorbed some especially brutal punishment during practice on Thursday and I called him the next morning asking if we were going back for more. He assured me that not only were we going back, but that today we were getting our licks in.

We did well that day and as the practice was winding down somebody noted that I had some speed and suggested Jim Lafferty--the team's fastest player--and I run 100 yards head-to-head. "That'll show your ass who's boss," said the player. Jerry and I had practiced well and delivered consistent hard hits. This time it was about finesse and I reluctantly accepted the challenge.

This is me about the time of the race.
Jim was not eager for the competition, however, and said, "Aw, not today guys." He looked hung over and weary. He was. But he finally agreed. I slipped off my football shoes and socks, deciding I could pick up a step or two barefoot. We practiced in shorts and shoulder pads, so we took off the pads and were running, basically, in shorts and not much else. Jim retained a soaked T-shirt and his shoes, but I slipped off my T-shirt and was running in a tiny pair of white shorts and a jock.

Hop Heaton, my favorite coach, blew the whistle and we bolted toward the goal post on the other end of the field. At that time, the goal posts were on the goal line, so post-to-post was 100 yards. I shot out front from the whistle and stayed there the entire trip down, taking a breath every third step and blowing it out noisily. Jim collapsed at the goal line, breathing hard, sweating harder and soaking up what had to be a humiliation. He slowly got to his feet, walked over to me and extended his hand. "Good race, Smith," he said, "but don't take that as a permanent win. I'm faster'n you." And he was. But not on this day, a day the players remembered. I was suddenly one of them.

Thanks, Jim. I've always thought you probably took a dive that day and have never forgotten it.

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