I want to tell you about my lifelong friends, Derek Haskins and Jerald Bryant. We’re all at the midlife mark now, and in the picture above we’re at a football game rooting for our alma mater, the Cookeville High Cavaliers, trying to figure out how so much life has passed by since our graduation in 1991. As I sat with them in the stands Friday night, I couldn’t help but notice that they haven’t changed one bit, and that the traits that made them my brothers thirty years ago have made them successful family men and professionals today.
Derek and I played defensive end and tackle together on the gridiron until 1988. We were fierce on the field and full of bravado. Weight training was a matter of life and death for us, and we were pretty sure that great things awaited us on the gridiron. As it turned out, injuries ended our “careers” after our sophomore season, but that was okay because we teamed up as equipment managers and ruled a small kingdom from the Eddie “Jelly” Watson Fieldhouse. We devised all sorts of mischief while our classmates sweat and bled under the sweltering sun. We came to see our banishment from the field as a kind of ascendancy. One thing that stands out for me from this time is that Derek and I lived to make running commentary on all the absurdities (real or imagined) we encountered. We just couldn’t shut it off. And in situations where we knew we had to keep it under control, the one thing we knew not to do was make eye contact. But for all our sarcasm and jabbing at ourselves or others, we were good at heart. This was always especially clear to me in Derek. He cared for people. As a teen, he used to read psychology textbooks in his spare time because he wanted to understand people. It was weird and we all mocked him for it, but people were his science and his ministry. That same trait has helped make him an icon in country music radio today. For 20+ years people around the country have known him as Big D (of Big D & Bubba). Listeners laugh at his antics but also cry at his acts of caring. For me, he may as well be right back there in the old Fieldhouse, for nothing has changed. Family, friends, and faith have always been big for him, and as a result the fame he has won is merely incidental. Ask his wife and sons to describe him sometime, and what they tell you won’t have anything to do with radio.
While Derek and I spun tales and invented inscrutable tape-ball games in the air-conditioning of Jelly Watson, our pal Jerald was out on the practice field becoming a force and a legend. Jerald was never the biggest or fastest, but he was dogged and played smart football. During our senior year he played every down on offense, defense, and special teams and won the inaugural Iron Man award under head coach Jake Libby. Today Jerald occupies a spot on the Hall of Fame wall at Cookeville High. Neither Derek nor I are on that wall, but maybe we played a small part of putting Jerald there by keeping him in good equipment and filming his exploits on game day. Give us that much at least, Jerald! And he will, because he has the truest heart I’ve ever known. He is open and honest and lives by a deep-rooted integrity. He really will give you the shirt off of his back. He probably even knows how to make it for you, because he is a craftsman and artisan. He values people and faith and good deeds and will remember everything about you and everything you’ve ever said to him in a conversation. Just give up arguing with him, because he remembers. And if you visit his dental office, be prepared for the fact that he will memorize everything about your teeth and hold it all in his mind forever. He will ask you about that bicuspid a decade later when he runs into you at Kroger, even if you’ve never been back to his office. And after discussing your bicuspid, he will tell you all about his wife and four kids, because he’s a family man above all things.
The Cavaliers won the game 47-0 on Friday night, but the biggest win I witnessed was in the lives of my lifelong friends, my brothers by choice.