He told his team he was sorry. Sorry about the boom mike hanging over his head like a dang halo everywhere he paced on the sideline. Sorry about the microphone wires poking out of his shirt, the photographers enclosing him at every turn, the reporters at practice all week and in the middle of the game's halftime pep talk. Sorry about the 406 thing. He wouldn't do it to them again, he promised. If they could just get it over with, he would go back to being what he had been for 42 years, a small-town South Carolina high school football coach.
The kids grinned into their face masks. They weren't going to get it over with. They were going to revel in it. They roared onto the field last Friday night, the Green Wave of Summerville High, and everything that 67-year-old John McKissick had dreamed of in each of the 504 games he coached, everything he had rehearsed during each of the 2,700 practices, everything he had whispered into the helmet ear holes of 1,100 players, happened. Sixty-one-yard touchdown run on the quarterback option. Sixty-one-yard TD on a punt return. Running back heaving a 20-yard TD pass. Fumble recoveries, gang tackles, an interception. Summerville crushed host Wando High 42-0 and then lifted onto its shoulder pads the man who had just eclipsed the alltime record of 405 victories by a football coach.
How big a number was 406? George Halas, the NFL's career leader, spent 40 years coaching the Chicago Bears to 324 wins, and Eddie Robinson, king of the colleges, now in his 51st season at Grambling, has won 384 games. Gordon Wood, who retired after setting the old record at Brownwood (Texas) High in 1985, coached for 43 years at seven schools. McKissick has coached at one.
It started for the McKissicks in 1952 in Summerville, a town 25 miles inland from Charleston and known as Flowertown for its azalea burst each spring. Joan, John's wife, would begin delivering the town's mail each day, John its football victory each week. Nine state titles, 23 conference championships, 20 seasons with 10 or more victories, a 41-game winning streak, only one losing season. Last week everyone wanted to know what made a man stay at one place for so long, and John, a man who didn't need to be on top of anyone's shoulder pads or in front of anyone's cameras, would just smile and shrug and dole out another big old friendly clichè. Sometimes he mentioned the chance to mold a kid before it was too late, sometimes the small-town smell of Summervilie, sometimes the fact that quitting would leave him without a clue as to what to do. Every now and then he brought up the shoe.
October 17, 1993
It was the shoe that his older brother Harry Jr. flung at him in the car one day back in 1930, when John was four, the one that missed his head and sailed out the window. The stock market had just crashed. The soda-bottling company their father owned had just gone bankrupt. The family's house had just burned down at Christmas, leaving nothing but a chimney framed against a sunset. All the fear and anger in his father seemed to fix itself to that shoe. The car screeched to a halt, the boys' backsides got beaten scarlet, and then they walked along the shoulder of that road until the shoe was found. John's dad went bankrupt again two years later running a corner grocery store, and the boys ended up shoeless in a two-bed-room shack with no electricity, running water or indoor bathroom. The old man ended up on another road shoulder, standing with a shotgun over prisoners in a chain gang.
You find a shoe that fits, after living through that, and you keep it on your foot. "It marks you," says McKissick. "I'm not the fella you'd have found in the gold rush. I'm the one back home plow in' with the mule."
Every now and then he would look over the edge of his newspaper and say to Joan, "Think I ought to retire?"
"You ready?" she would say.
"Naw," he'd grunt, returning to the paper.
He attracted a similar kind to him—four of his assistants have been with him for 17 or more years. He barked at his players when they lapsed, but he wasn't a big shouter or shover. His record (406-85-13) and reputation were so big, nobody could bear to let him down. His rules: "No girlie haircuts. No ear bobs [earrings]. Nobody out after 9 p.m. on a weeknight unless you call a coach with a good explanation. Nobody cut if you come to every practice." Next fall the first of McKissick's three grandsons will join his team.
The people of Summerville, who once postponed Halloween because it fell on a game night, scratched their heads trying to figure out how to recognize McKissick's feat. They couldn't give him a whole corner of the little county museum; they had already done that. They couldn't do anything showy; John would hate it. They couldn't make the azaleas bloom. So they decided to keep the lights of the town square ablaze all this week, night and day. One fixture burning for another.