COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – There wasn’t a lot of emotion or display of sadness as Wayne Turner watched the Union City football team collect its state championship hardware.
That’s not the Wayne Turner way.
To fully understand who Turner is one has to know the man in maroon-and-gold is defined every bit as much by the word loss as the word win.
His Tyner Rams lost Friday afternoon here at the Class 2A state championship in the BlueCross Bowl on Tennessee Tech’s campus. A miracle drive produced a tying TD with 14 seconds left that sent the game into one overtime which beget another overtime, before it ended with the Rams short-sided in the 27-21 verdict.
There were tears on the Tyner sideline as one would expect. But the man they simply call Coach T, tugged at the sweatband with the picture on it around his wrist as he talked, but his voice never quivered as he spoke about the love for this Tyner team.
Turner knows losses. He was part of the Kirkman streak that ended in 1989 after 51 consecutive losses; a long-time assistant on Hawk Hill in a time he will admit shaped the person he is today. Thirty miles down the road from this field, he celebrated that Kirkman win at Taft Youth Center and today counts it among his most treasured, right there alongside the state title he won in 1997.
Again, though, it is almost impossible to appreciate the 213 coaching wins in a coaching career that spans 29 years without understanding his losses.
Over the last few years he has lost a mother. And a father. This past summer he lost a little brother, David, who might be the greatest prep hitter to grace a Chattanooga diamond before making a name at the University of Tennessee in the mid-80s.
Earlier this week, he lost a former player he loved, former Tyner all-state quarterback Doc Craddock succumbing to a disease only days after watching the Rams secure this state title trip. The picture on that wristband he tugged at, carried Craddock’s picture on it, and will be as much a keepsake to him every bit as valued as the runner-up trophy he accepted in defeat.
Players come and go, wins are remembered and forgotten, but it is always the loses which will drive Turner and shape the man he is.
The group of 21 seniors who laid it on the line Friday were freshmen four years ago when Tyner missed the playoffs for the first – and only – time in the 27 years Turner has coached the Ram train. Those losses were a motivating factor in this journey to the state final.
“We have done so much and worked so hard to make sure that never happened again,” said Tracey Justice, a 6-1, 285-pound lineman who finished with 11 tackles.
Added quarterback Jaylen Bowens: “We worked hard to get here, and it hurts. We never give up on each other and we always have each other’s backs. We play for one another like nobody’s business, but more than that, we wanted to get here and win it for T. He means that much to us.”
In 1996 the Rams made it to their first state finals, and lost to a superior Memphis Melrose team littered with talent. That team walked off the field downtrodden and hurt, much like the one from Friday. The next year, they came back more determined than ever, and walked off with Hamilton County’s first-ever state title during the playoff era. Ironically, it came against this same Union City program.
“We will use this and it will make us better. We will make it our mission to get us back in everything we do in the offseason,” said Jeremiah Batiste, the sophomore receiver who dazzled time and again this year.
“I fully expect to come back from college next year and sit up there in the stands and watch the guys do it,” said Bowens, who has tutored Martavius Ryals, another sophomore who is next in line to quarterback the Rams.
Losing for Wayne Turner is simply a part of life, a lesson to be learned from, an inconvenient bump in the road that he always learns to navigate.
“I hate it for these kids, all of them, but especially the group of seniors who got us back here. Winning a state title is something you can’t describe, but its one game. One game will never define what this group has done or what they have been through,” Turner explained.
“The journey to get here is what they will always remember. It may take a few days to get over it, but eventually they will appreciate what they accomplished. And the men they become when they leave here will be a reflection of the tough times; the victories they’ve shared in, and the losses they have learned from. It’s a really special group of kids and I’m proud to have gotten to coach them,” said Turner, again tugging at the wristband.
Almost everything an outsider assumes when they see the Tyner head football coach is riddled with misconceptions.
On one side there is the intimidating Turner look; his signature beard and old-style coaching gear, his alpha walk and steely eyes. On the other is his easy and disarming grin and nod of approval. Picture an encounter with a pit bull only to have it lick your hand.
He has a commanding and attention-getting voice, often times bellowing a classic Coach T message on the heels of a missed block or tackle. But it’s not the one he uses when players tote their outside problems to him when there is nowhere else to turn. Make no mistake, Turner preaches discipline on the field, but none of it works without the love off it.
The coming days in the wake of this loss will be filled with love. The season is over, but the teaching will never end. And there is nary a doubt to anyone who knows the man well; this loss will bloom into so much more in the years ahead.
For now, the senior group will have to be content knowing they returned a Tyner program back to its rightful spot among Hamilton County’s most accomplished programs ever.
(Contact James Beach at firstname.lastname@example.org)