Roy Exum: Coach, Read This One

Thursday, October 15, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum
In August of 1968, the Honorable Buford Ellington – at the time the Democratic nominee to become the Governor of Tennessee once again after being tossed by term limits – came to 400 East Eleventh Street in Chattanooga to press the start button on a printing press that would inaugurate the first-ever editions of the Sunday version of the Chattanooga News-Free Press. The newspaper had just split from a snarly joint operating agreement with the Chattanooga Times.

My grandfather, Roy McDonald, put me to work at age 12 – for a dollar an hour – and for five years I had spent every day I wasn’t in school working construction on the old Davenport Hosiery Mill.
I could operate a jack-hammer, order concrete by the cubic yard, hammer nails like a craftsman, “measure twice and cut once,” the whole yard but on this particular day, I turned from one who built into one who wrote. That very next day I was assigned to any newspaper’s “toy department” – as the sports pages were universally known.

The News-Free Press had the worst sports pages in America. We had five good guys churning out copy but as an afternoon newspaper, everybody already knew the scores by reading the morning Times. You’ve got to give the reader what they don’t know. The Sunday newspaper leveled the playing field and, within a year, the “teenager punk,” in careful collusion with my grandfather, made it an obsession to cover every high school game in town.

The reasoning was absolutely elementary: there ain’t an athlete – or more particularly – an athlete’s grand momma who doesn’t want to see her star’s name in the newspaper. I started hiring high school kids – at minimum wage – to cover games. I would focus on the person not an ability to spell c-a-t, but to pour their soul into a story “where no one plays bad, but where some do better than most.”
 
The unsung blessing was that I gathered together the greatest collection of human beings ever assembled. My journalism class was “write what you actually see, get the score into the first or second paragraph and then names ... I want every name of the stars in a game – both on the winning and lost side. We took off like a rocket. We slayed the Times.

One of the kids I hired was from Tyner, a marvelous high school senior named Randy Winton. He was a great journeyman before he left after some 14 years, got his Doctorate in Divinity, and became a heralded youth minister in Brewton, Ala. More recently, Randy has joined the Cathey Evangelist Team in Rome, Ga., where his twin boys are on the verge of graduating from Shorter.

Very recently, Randy got word that his youth baseball coach, Doyle Camp, was struggling with some serious health issues. So, a “little birdie” whispered that Randy had just posted a ‘thank you’ of sorts to his Little League coach, a giant of a volunteer and, quite obviously, an angel who walks among us.

I completely am assured Randy’s tribute can be applied to every coach on virtually any volunteer level, and if ever you want to know the payback, think clearly of Doyle’s two boys, Rick and Jeff, and their baseball mastery in the years they glistened at McCallie.

Here is a veteran sports writer’s tribute to a man who changed a lot of children’s lives, one in particular:

* * *
HOW DOYLE CAMP CHANGED MY LIFE
By RANDY WINTON

‘A News-Free Press Sportswriter, Forever’

The glow of stadium lights hovered like a thick fog high above the treetops along Jenkins Road as the ol’ ball coach drove through the silence of the night. No telling the number of times he had driven by this din of lights hanging majestically over the baseball complex where he coached some 40 years before. After all these years, the pull of the baseball diamonds – once the crown jewel of parks in Chattanooga – still tugged at his heart, even if he had rarely given in and gone back there.
But on this night, oh on this night, the appeal was simply too strong to resist. This ol’ baseball coach, now deep in his 70s and in poor health, realized this may be one of the last times he would have a chance to drive down the historic Batter’s Place Road that leads to the sprawling East Brainerd Youth Athletic Association baseball fields.

As he came to the entrance of the park, there was a table set up and a young girl sitting behind it with a money box. Confused, the coach explained he was driving by the park and just wanted to swing by and see the fields again. It had been so long. She smiled and said these days the fields were mostly used for travel-ball tournaments. “They don’t play rec league ball here anymore?” he asked her. “Not much,” she replied. His sigh was deep and palpable.

The thought of such a tragic shift, where an average kid who may either not be skilled enough or financially able to play travel baseball at a place he once poured his heart into building, nearly broke him.

Even in her youth, the young lady recognized the longing in his eyes. “You go on in and look around … no charge …”

Back on a summer evening in 1973, this on a Monday, Doyle Camp coached the very first game that was played in this park. It was a dream come true for him, as he had volunteered hundreds of hours helping out as the East Brainerd Youth Association moved to its spacious, new location off of Jenkins Road. The plot of land to build one of Chattanooga’s biggest baseball/softball complexes was massive. The dreams were even bigger.

Fittingly, Doyle Camp’s 9-10-year-old won that first game, 6-1. I was the shortstop on his team that year. He coached me in T-ball at the old Pitner Field the previous summer, and when it came time to do tryouts for the eight teams that would make up the Dixie Youth Minor League, he told me “try to be real bad” so no one else would pick me and he could draft me on his team. Even though I did my best at the tryout. I still got on his team. I’m not sure how it happened. Either nobody else wanted me anyway, or whether he worked a deal to trade for me. I like to think the latter scenario is how it went down.

We started 1-4 that year, which means after that first game we lost four straight. Toward the end of the fourth game, I booted an easy ground ball and two runs scored that ended up being the deciding runs. I walked off the field, my shoulders slumped, my head down, tears welling up in my eyes. I had lost that game. Coach Doyle waited until our team was all huddled together, sitting on the grass, pulling up blades of grass and mindlessly tossing them aside. No one said much.

Coach Doyle came to the team, kneeled down right next to me and he put his arm around my shoulders. Before addressing the team, he looked me dead in the eye: “You are my shortstop. I picked you six weeks ago, and I’d pick you first today. No question about it.”

He did the same for every player on that team. From that point on, we played our best baseball, won nine straight games, and walked away with the league championship.

Hall of Fame college basketball coach John Wooden once said, “A good coach can change a game, a great coach can change a life.”

Doyle Camp will never know what that moment meant to me. That was 47 years ago, and it still stands out as one of those “life markers” that helped shape me. He changed my life.

Years can go by where you may not think about someone who meant so much to you at a pivotal point in life. Yet an episode or circumstance can immediately spark a memory of that person.

That day nearly five decades ago, when my youth baseball coach put his arm around me – in front of my teammates, my peers – that he believed in me and that he chose me … well, neither of us knew it then, but it altered my life.

There are few people in a young boy’s life who can affect him more than a coach. Or a teacher. Or a pastor. An adult who sees potential and makes every effort to pull him out of him is extraordinary. Even when the boy doesn’t see it in himself.

Life is hard. It is even harder when you go through seasons of struggle, where you feel your life doesn’t matter much. I guess lots of people feel that way at some point. I spent a lot of years trying to prove myself worthy of people’s expectations and often failed badly. Many were the days I hung on that moment when I thought I’d let everybody down, only to have someone important to me reassure me that my “place on the team” was secure.

The power of an influential coach who cared for me more as a person than as a player … whose words spoke life into me, lifted me through some tough days. In my lowest moments, those words kept me going. “I chose you.”

That’s why I coach today. That’s why a baseball field is a sanctuary for me. Few people understand that. Everything seems to be right at a baseball field. It is the truest of classrooms where you learn more about “real life” than just about anywhere else. It provides a study in commitment, and discipline, and what it means to work as a team. You learn how to win, and that no matter how hard you work, sometimes you lose … and you learn how to handle both maturely.

In the process, you learn a lot about yourself in all of that. You find out you can do hard things, that you can accomplish much with hard work. A coach who expects a lot, sets the bar high, and provides a pathway to reach those lofty expectations is one of the greatest gifts in a boy’s life.

Doyle Camp was that coach for me. And I want him to know how much he meant to me. I am sure I am not the only one of his many players who feel this way, either. But I know this: a good coach leaves a legacy of young men who grow up to make a difference in the world … simply because he made a difference in theirs.

Coach Doyle Camp was that man for me, and I will never be able to thank him enough for it.

Randy Winton

***

Randy Winton is today the Manager of the Partner Development office of the highly successful Win-Shape College Program at Shorter College. After 17 years on the sports staff at the Chattanooga News-Free Press, he entered the ministry for 24 years and can be reached at rwinton@winshape.org. Among his proudest accomplishments is during the years he headed the annual Roy Exum Christmas Poinsettia Delivery Service he never damaged a plant.
 
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