When the yellow Blue Bird left U.S. 301’s asphalt, I thought the windows were going to rattle off the school bus. The washboard-dirt road was taking us to a place I’d never been—Parker’s Paradise, a long way from Ludowici’s lone traffic light.
Eight months earlier, I had laid down my coronet. All 122 pounds of me walked into Clint Madray’s office and said, “Coach, I want to play football for the Yellow Jackets.”
And on that 1963 dog-days Sunday afternoon, the bus took me to the backside of nowhere. Staring at the compound of rustic cabins, not far from Hughes Old River, I was sure of one thing: “I haven’t arrived at marching-band camp.”
As a sophomore, I was assigned to a tiny cabin with three not-so-tiny freshmen: Ken Baker, Joe Warren and Bill Williams. Shuffling sideways, you could slip between the two double beds.
Each of my roommates weighed at least 250 pounds.I had to use one hand to hang onto the edge of the mattress to keep me from rolling downhill into a sweaty lineman. The other hand stayed busy swatting mosquitoes.
After breakfast, the Blue Birds rattled us to Jim Parker’s hay field. The cows were gone, but not the pasture patties. Big Clint, in shorts and a T-shirt, scanned the squad. Wiping a smudge of Beechnut tobacco juice off his chin, he growled, “Nobody will be in better shape than us.”
By the end of the first of 10 days, I was a believer. The two-a-day practices were brutal. Water breaks were taboo. And if you skidded through a cow pile, well, you got to “enjoy” the blended stench of sweat and manure at night. Our equipment lockers were nails in the wall over our beds.
Clint was a disciple of UGA’s Wally Butts. Wally believed in a “feed-’em-raw-meat-and-gunpowder” conditioning strategy. That was Clint’s mantra, too. A few Yellow Jacket wannabees escaped camp. And several daddies brought their sons right back.
Leaving wasn’t an option for me. I had to be a Yellow Jacket. I was no football star, but I was a proud three-time Parker’s survivor. When I got to Army boot camp, Sgt. Raymond Wells—just back from Vietnam—was tough but nothing compared to our Yellow Jacket taskmasters.
Today, those old-school coaching tactics would clog the courts with lawsuits. For years, I’ve wondered: “Where’d the Parker’s Paradise idea originate?” And then I read Keith Dunnavant’s Coach, followed by a companion book, The Junction Boys by Jim Dent. Paul “Bear” Bryant—in his early coaching days—was notorious for his hard-nosed, water-is-for-sissies and suck-it-up-and-play-with-pain philosophy.
In his first Texas A&M preseason, Bear hauled 115 players—on two buses—300 miles to Junction, Texas. In that godforsaken rocky, thorn-infested, grassless piece of drought-starved dirt, he aimed to see who really wanted to be an Aggie. Two weeks later, one bus delivered 35 banged-up survivors to College Station.
That year, 1954, A&M went 1-9.In 1956 the Aggies were Southwest Conference champions, with future NFL stars John David Crow and Jack Pardee. Junction-Boy Gene Stallings made a name for himself coaching in college and the NFL. In 1992 he directed his alma mater, Alabama, to a national title.
ESPN turned The Junction Boys into a movie. Watching it, I thought Parker’s Paradise was play school next to Junction. In 1957 the University of Alabama called Bear “home,” where he coached the Crimson Tide to six national championships.
And thanks to two books and a movie, I learned that the legend in a hound’s-tooth hat was a buddy of the Bulldogs’ Coach Wally Butts. John Donaldson, who coached Jesup’s two state-championship teams, played for Butts. From Butts’ friend Bear, John borrowed the idea to take his Yellow Jackets to a South Georgia “Junction.”
And when Clint, who also played for Butts, became Jesup’s head coach, yellow Blue Birds kept on rattling down the washboard road. The only “bear” we knew about at Parker’s Paradise was the fear of getting “bear-caught,” as in a heatstroke. I can still hear Clint barking, “Even a dead man has one more step.”
Fifty-seven years and 66 pounds later, I finally connected the dots from Junction to Parker’s Paradise.