It was early in my career in the newspaper business when I drove out to the Delta town of Drew to write a preview on the upcoming season for the football team of North Sunflower Academy.
I had never been to Drew before, but I knew it was the hometown of Archie Manning, who is one of my football heroes, so my expectations were unrealistically high.
There wasn’t much going on in Drew when I arrived on that summer day. Like many Delta towns, it looked like the town’s glory days were behind it. I admit that I even wondered why our newspaper, which was based in Bolivar County, was still bothering to cover this Sunflower County town.
Things changed when I arrived at the football field. Coach Ralph Vanlandingham pulled up in an old pickup truck and introduced himself. I had no idea at the time that our introductory handshake was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
Coach Van was helping turn around a struggling football program. He was appreciative of our coverage of his team, and it was immediately obvious how much he cared about every one of his players as he talked about them.
As time went by he told me that he liked me because I was a “straight shooter.” I thought that was funny because that was what I liked about him.
A few years later I moved back home to Yazoo to work for this newspaper. It was a great surprise to me when I heard that Coach Van had been hired at Benton Academy.
By this time I had children of my own, and this allowed me to see another side of Coach Van.
I knew the hard-nosed football coach who was always giving the officials a hard time when they made bad calls and demanding more of his players.
He was like a grizzly bear on those sidelines.
But he was more like a teddy bear when it came to the little kids, and my children were among that group when Coach Van arrived. They were always talking about how much fun they had with Coach Van.
He had a way of making every child feel like they were the most important person in the world to him. He was always so encouraging to my children, and anytime we saw him he would ask them questions about how they were doing and offer them some motivational words.
I remember when he showed up at school events right after having heart surgery because he wouldn’t dream of letting the kids down that he loved so much.
When he moved on to Manchester Academy, he had the same impact. You could see the love students and their parents had from him at every event.
And he was at every event. Whether he was on the sideline of a football game or watching a basketball game from a front row seat, Coach Van was always there. Even when he was retired and didn’t have to be, Coach Van was always there.
I remember one night when I was taking pictures of a ballgame after a long day of work. For a little while I was feeling uncharacteristically sorry for myself because I was tired and still working after most of my peers had gone home.
About that time I spotted Coach Van walking down the sidelines.
He had hip pain that was so severe that he couldn’t even walk straight. He was already at the school when I dropped my children off, and he was still here giving everything he had even though he was obviously hurting.
And yet he smiled at me and said he was glad I was there because he was expecting a win tonight.
I immediately stopped feeling sorry for myself, and I started thinking about what motivates a guy like Coach Van because there was obviously something I could learn from it.
Here is a guy who is clearly feeling the pain from health problems, but you would only know it because he couldn’t even walk straight.
Here’s a guy who actually has something to complain about, and instead he’s greeting the day with great enthusiasm.
I was thinking about trying to ask him how he did it as he limped off the field. It was clear that he was hurting worse as the night went on, and the last thing I wanted to do was ask a dumb question, but I really wanted to know. I saw his peace of mind and how happy and content he was despite real challenges, and I wanted to know the secret.
Before I could think of what to say I watched him hug his players. I watched as my little girl came running to hug him. Then I watched numerous other children come running to hug him.
Then I didn’t have to ask him. The answer was right in front of me.
Coach Van loved our kids like they were his own.
I hope he knew that they loved him just as much.