On Thursday evening after taking photos at the final Yazoo Dixie Youth regular season game at Manchester, I was informed by MA headmaster Bryan Dendy that Benny McLendon, former Mavericks head man, my own coach, would be inducted into the MAISCA Hall of Fame.
The following day, I was to have my wisdom teeth removed, two of which were done surgically, giving me days of “relaxation” and pondering with the help of pain killers.
During those days, I couldn’t help but go back and think of Coach Benny making the Hall of Fame and own playing days back at Humphreys Academy.
See, football was a major part of my life from the time I first played in the fifth grade, and it still remains that way to this day.
During much of that time, Coach Benny was there, making him a mainstay in my life.
I was always built like a football player, and my skillset matched that.
When I was in the 5th grade, I earned a starting position on the defensive line for Humphreys Academy’s pee-wee team, and that was a big moment for me. Puberty had just started taking its toll on me, and before that, I never really excelled in sports.
I was angry at times in my youth, and football gave me a proper outlet.
It gave me confidence because I was good at it. Even at that age, I had a penchant for splitting double-teams.
In the 6th grade, I was starting on both sides of the ball, never really coming off the field over the course of a game.
Life was good at that point, but what I was lacking was a good coach.
We had two different coaches in pee-wee, but any influence we received from them was minimal at best. We never really knew the nuances of the game.
We just played.
That changed when I hit the 7th grade.
Coach Benny was the head coach for both the jr. high and high school teams at HA, and everyone knew it.
We were all a bit intimidated when we walked into weight lifting that first summer we were able, and he knew it. He milked it for a bit, all in good fun, mind you, but he demanded our respect.
And it was given.
But he was more than an authoritarian.
He became everyone’s friend. I don’t mean that as an insult because he never let his kids get away with too much (I can’t tell you how many “licks” I got over the years).
I mean that he would joke around with you daily. I still vividly remember the barbs he threw at my Ole Miss fandom, though I threw them back at him just as quickly I received them.
As a coach, Benny McLendon would not hesitate to change up his defensive alignments to put his playmakers in better positions when things got tight.
One game in particular stands out to me against a familiar foe.
During my senior season, we faced Manchester Academy, and things weren’t going so well.
A couple of busted plays gave Manchester an big lead at the half.
After a verbal lashing in the locker room at the half, he shifted us to a 3-4 defense in which I would line up at the wide side of the field, allowing me to wreak havoc.
The result was probably the best single football game I ever played.
I had (I believe, pardon me if my memory fails me) eight tackles for loss and three sacks, and our defense virtually shut them down in the second half.
Although our offense wasn’t able to match the intensity to score the necessary points, it was a testament to his coaching acumen.
I hope that doesn’t sound too vain on my part because that surely wasn’t the intention. I was just using myself in this specific example. I can remember many other games where some of our running backs were switched around to run out of other specific holes and blitzes that highlighted a specific linebacker’s ability to exploit a mismatch as a pass-rusher.
More than those things, however, he cared about his players, no matter how long ago he coached them, and we all cared about him.
I always think back to my sophomore year. I had trouble breathing during a game in the middle of the season, so my parents and I went to a doctor the following day.
It was discovered that I had Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which is the medical term for having an extra electrical pathway in the heart that split the current and caused an irregular heartbeat.
Despite my protests to put the surgery off until the season was over, my parents weren’t having it. I had the surgery on the following Wednesday.
Now, I was a bit nervous about the whole thing. While it wasn’t open heart surgery or anything, going under the proverbial knife is always a bit frightening.
The hours following the surgery were a blur to me.
But the first thing I did after surgery was ask for my phone to call Coach Benny and tell him that I would be back for practice ASAP.
And then, in my drug-addled stupor, I called him twice more to tell him the same thing.
We all had a good laugh afterwards, but you see where my head was at that time.
Even as late as 2013 when I was hired on to this job, he was one of the first to call and congratulate me, excited at the prospect of us working together.
I was as happy to hear from him then as I was to hear of this news on Thursday.
And with that, I bid you congratulations, Coach. You earned it.