Search

Someone to Lean On

Dec. 16, 1996
Dec. 16, 1996

Table of Contents
Dec. 16, 1996

Faces In The Crowd
Photo Credits: Lynn Johnson

Someone to Lean On

How an 18-year-old with mental disabilities changed a high school football program in South Carolina. The story that in spired the movie Radio.

We begin way over there, out on the margin. We begin with a dirty, disheveled 18-year-old boy roaring down a hill on a grocery cart, screaming like a banshee, holding a transistor radio to his ear. No one ever plays with him, for he can barely speak and never understands the rules. He can't read or write a word. He needs to be put away in some kind of institution, people keep telling his mother, because anything, anything at all, can happen out there on the margin. There's already a gully over his left eye from the time he stepped in front of a car as a five-year-old and nearly died from the impact. There are teeth missing from the day he swerved in front of a car while riding his grocery cart, and there's a scar on his thigh from the day he was playing with a packet of tiny sticks and suddenly everything around him was ablaze. There is something, as well, that you can't see, except sometimes in his eyes: fear. Fear of people. Once some kids told him to pull the lever on the fire-alarm box and then watched him being led away to jail. Another time he was seized by a group of boys who yanked down his pants and painted his buttocks with paint thinner, burning him nearly as badly as the blazing sticks had.

This is an article from the Dec. 16, 1996 issue Original Layout

All of which might explain why his grocery cart keeps taking him to a football field at McCants Junior High in Anderson, S.C. It's autumn 1964. Everything on that grid is so different from life out on the margin. All the boys wear the same neat, clean clothing and move to assigned places at the bark of a one-word command. There are units and subunits, and everyone knows precisely where he belongs. From a safe distance, the boy watches T.L. Hanna High School's junior varsity team practice on the McCants field and mutely absorbs it all.

One day the players hear noises and look over. The boy on the margin is commanding his own team, one that only he can see, through a series of calisthenics and drills, doing his best to mimic the coaches' body language, signals and commands. The players giggle; it's a distraction, to be sure. The young coach, whose future hinges on his ability to maintain discipline and precision on that grid, turns and looks too.

The choices that make or unmake a life are so small. "Come over here, boy," calls the coach.

When we speak of the power of sports today, it's always in terms of their grip on the national marketplace, their headlock on the American psyche. It's so easy to forget all about their other power. . . .

Radio turned 50 two months ago, but you might not have read about it. He bounded through the corridors of T.L. Hanna High collecting his birthday gifts, waving and slapping fives and hugging kids and wiggling his rear end as the students chanted, "Go, Radio, you got it!" It took the whole bed of head football coach Harold Jones's pickup truck to get all the gifts home, just as it has on the other birthdays and the Christmases that Radio has celebrated at the school for the last 32 years.

No, he never made it to an institution. He became one instead. Just before his last birthday, folks in Anderson were remarking on all the speckles of white on his head and in his whiskers. "When Radio dies, it'll be the biggest funeral in the history of Anderson," said Herb Phillips, an assistant football coach at Hanna. "It'll be like a senator's or a governor's funeral."

"Gonna be sad sad, like losing a family member," said Terry Honeycutt, another football assistant.

"He's the best-known figure in high school football in upstate South Carolina," said former Hanna coach Jim Fraser.

"He is T.L. Hanna—it's that simple," said coach Jones, who for three decades has kept Radio under his wing.

In many countries where towns have plazas and cafes and bars and butcher shops all within a few blocks of people's homes, there is no margin. There are places for those with defects, impediments and afflictions to mingle with their neighbors, to be taken care of and teased, to feel part of something larger. They become local characters, not freaks. Somehow in the U.S. those places have vanished or never existed, and people like Radio end up in homes behind walls, living with strangers who are just like them, or mumbling through the streets of large cities, ragged and gaunt.

But there remains one rarely noticed place where they can still belong, a niche no sociologist figured on—after all, isn't sports where people turn to watch the strong chew up and spit out the weak? But something about high school athletics is still human enough to accommodate people whose minds work at different speeds and angles from minds in the mainstream, and so you can find these people on the sidelines or in the bleachers all across the U.S., lighting up as they exchange greetings with the regulars. Why, in just the small circle of schools against which Hanna competes, there is one-eyed and slow-witted Lonnie McGee racing onto the field with the football team at Greer High each Friday night, and before him there was Housecat, whose mission in life, until he died not so long ago, was to chase down every foul ball and home run hit at Greer games, even if he had to barge into someone's home to do so, and hurry that ball right back to the umpire. There is Marlee Gambrell, born with heart and hearing and vision defects, hooting "Don't worry 'bout it!" in the darkest moments at Belton-Honea Path High. And up until recently, there was wild-eyed Doris, taking care of the water bottles and ringing that half-ton bell on the sidelines at Easley High. Thrilled, every one of them, to take on the title—team manager—that most teenagers smirk at.

But none of them has been more loved, or more legendary, than Radio. He holds more high school varsity letters than any other man in history, having received one each from the Hanna football, basketball and track teams every year for the past three decades and filed them all carefully between his box spring and his mattress. Who else can lay claim to having missed just one week of high school in the past 10 years? Only once, and long ago, did Radio make the mistake of saying he was in the 12th grade, and then he was consumed by terror when the coaches told him that meant he would be graduating soon. Ever since then he has nodded wisely and declaimed loudly to one and all, "I be in 'lebenf grade," always reaching out a hand to touch his listener when he speaks, always seeking assurance that he still belongs and that everything is O.K.

He awakens each morning before six and, being unable to tell time, has to be restrained by his older brother or by his brother's wife from making an immediate beeline for the bus stop. Radio is the first of the 15 kids at the stop to bound onto bus No. 9 and the first to bound off it in front of T.L. Hanna High. He bops in and out of classes all day, taking copious notes—an unrelenting series of loops—and glowing at the end of each marking period when he receives his report card just like everyone else. A mesh sack full of footballs slung over his shoulder, he bounds onto the practice field after school, and the players, like their fathers before them, rub his head as if he were a pet retriever and laugh as he commences his gibber-jabber commands, gobbledygook pep talks and flapdoodle defensive signals.

"Dat yo' man, boy! Don' you unnerstan' dat? Dat yo' man! Don' you worry 'bout yo' man! You got to git dat kwahback! Ain' dat right?"

"Right, Radio."

"Huh?"

"You're right, Radio."

"What? Huh?"

Oh, yes, sometimes Radio can drive them up a wall and across the ceiling. But it's all worth it, every maddening and bewildering moment of it, when practice ends and all the coaches sit in a circle around Radio in their office, competing to see who can recount the latest or most vintage Radio anecdote, knowing that he will bark out some four-word proclamation that will make the moment even richer. Each sentence Radio speaks is a victory for them, because they know it is the love and attention they have been showering on him for decades that has given the mute boy a voice. Maybe coach Jones will tell the story about the time back in the mid-'80s, when he was also T.L. Hanna's track coach, that he took Radio to the all-day Trojan Relays at Northwestern High in Rock Hill, S.C., and wondered for hours what had become of Radio . . . finally finding out upon returning to the team bus at the end of the meet. There lay Radio in the front seat, doubled in pain, sweating bullets . . . and there lay the cooler, bereft of all 30 roast-beef sandwiches, not to mention a dozen sodas, that Jones had packed for the kids. "Dem sammiches good!" Radio still yelps a decade later. Which no doubt leads into the tale of the time Radio lifted the entire canister of cheese at a school cafeteria salad bar and dumped a foot-high pile of grated cheddar on his lettuce ("Cheese go good wid salad!"). Which brings up the time Radio was so fixated on the hot dog he was carrying before a game at Greenwood High that when he slipped on the wet grass, rather than release his cargo and use his hand to break the fall, he salvaged the frankfurter and landed on his wrist, fracturing it. Radio sat in the mud and polished off his hot dog and then burst into tears.

No name for Radio's defect has ever been pronounced, as far as anyone knows. It is no doubt genetic, because he shares it with his father, whom he has rarely seen since his first few years of life, and with Cool Rock, the brother two years his junior who shares Radio's bedroom. Cool Rock still can't be understood when he tries to speak. But then, Cool Rock was never adopted by a team.

Even when James Robert Kennedy was a little boy, everywhere he went, his radio went too, until folks finally had no choice but to make Radio his name. From the radio came a human voice, the only one he could count on to speak to him when his mother, Janie Mae Greenlee, left for long hours to clean and cook at the local hospital or schools. Now and then the boy would even lift his radio to his lips and talk back to it.

He attended a school for the learning disabled for a few months one year, but it didn't take. Back then he couldn't use a fork or pedal a bike, and because cruelty runs downhill, it wasn't a good idea for a cat or a dog to annoy him. "What's my name?" Jones asked as he and his fellow jayvee coach, Dennis Patterson, began luring Radio closer and closer with bottles of soda that autumn of '64. "Do you remember what I told you yesterday?"

"Woomifflcojowu."

"Try again. You can have this whole bottle if you can say it. Coach . . . Jones."

What made Jones invite the wild boy with the missing teeth to come to a game, to help carry the watercoolers and then hop into Jones's pickup truck for a ride home? Why would a coach work so hard at discipline and deployment and then let loose a pinball on his chess board? After all, everyone knew coach Jones to be a strict and quiet man who virtually never showed emotion or affection. No one knew that when he was a kid growing up in Anderson, he was the one who would fight anyone who picked on the delicate boy who lived across the street, and he was the one who, when working at his grandfather's theater, would slip a retarded man in the door for free and put a box of popcorn in his hands.

And so, before you knew it, Radio was going everywhere coach Jones and his jayvee team went, and Radio's halftime show was gaining renown. Radio would charge onto the field and bend down like a center, screeching those preposterous signals, hike the ball to himself and dipsy-doodle all around. Finding no one open except himself, Radio would flip the ball to Radio and then, to the crowd's roar, boogie-woogie all the way to pay dirt.

In no time, coach Jones was inviting Radio to school on game days, handing him sneakers, a T-shirt and shorts so he could take gym class with the other kids. Soon Radio was following the kids into health class, history and social studies. Sure, it probably broke some law, and no doubt it exposed the school to all manner of liability. But one glare from coach Jones was all it took to keep Radio in line, one threat that he would be banished from the team if he misbehaved. The principal had little choice but to accept Radio as part of the school. "The kids would kill me if I ever got rid of him," says current principal Mike Sams. They loved the frantic hip-hop way he ran in phys-ed class until that sorry day four years ago when he tore a hamstring and scrabbled around the gym floor like a crab, sobbing, "I wan' my mama!" They loved the way he rubbed his furrowed face and sighed "Whoooo!" as he took history tests, as if in deep consternation over the complexity of the questions, and then painstakingly filled in each blank with the same set of loops.

Soon Radio was wolfing down breakfast and two lunches a day in the cafeteria, then cleaning up the tables in his long yellow rubber gloves and running errands for teachers all over the school. Soon he was jump-starting dull assemblies and sluggish pep rallies, erupting out of his seat to do one of those shimmy-shuffle-shakedowns that got the whole student body to bopping and bellowing. It only got better when Radio was inducted into Hanna's Naval Junior ROTC unit, and he began wearing a full military uniform each Wednesday. What a sight he was in crisp dress whites and blues and merit ribbons, racing into special-ed class and pulling out his Crayolas for 10 or 15 minutes of coloring, then bolting out the door and up a stairway, two steps at a time, to monitor the halls—"Where you goin', boy? Don' wun! No wunnin' in da hall! Hi, honey! I like you!" After a few minutes of that, he might, standing fully erect and with his eyes open, fall dead asleep. If his schedule simply didn't permit a snooze, he could always—in the midst of a violent six-on-six drill later that day at football practice—sprawl out on a tackling dummy and doze like a baby.

It was all too wonderful to confine to autumn, and soon Radio was the manager of the basketball and track teams as well. How could coach Jones resist when Radio put on that basset hound face at track meets and begged to run too? And so, even though coach Jones was in charge of a juggernaut, a team that would win 10 state titles between 1970 and '92, he would take the opposing coach aside and ask if Radio could enter the slow heats of the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes. Wearing spikes and shorts and a singlet just like everyone else, Radio would blast out of the starting blocks, blazing when he was in front of the stands and then slowing to a walk, or stopping altogether to pull up his socks, once he reached the curve and there was no attention to bask in. "What happened on that curve, Radio?" the coaches would kid him later. "Did the gorilla jump on your back?" It was at times such as those—when Radio's eyes might suddenly cloud with fear, and he would ask, "Where dat go-wi-wa hide? Behind dem trees?"—that everyone would be reminded of how frightening a place the world could be for Radio, and how close an eye they would have to keep on him.

Coach Jones took Radio to the doctor every year, monitored Radio's diet when his blood-pressure readings and cholesterol count went through the roof, and made sure his medical and dental bills were paid. "Radio," says assistant coach Honeycutt, "would be dead by now if not for coach Jones." The players who lived in Radio's neighborhood kept at bay the bullies who used to target him, and a half-dozen players might each deliver a hamburger and an order of fries to Radio on game day, each unaware that Radio was squirreling the food away in his backpack, each proudly believing that his offering was the only one. One day when Radio's invariably empty billfold was stolen at school, the players all but formed vigilante squads, and the coaches hastily bought Radio a new wallet for fear that a student might be found dangling from a ventilation duct. Even in the fourth quarter of a tense game, when a player was bent-in-half tired and cringing from a coach's screams for blowing a coverage, and Radio would get right in his face and reenact the entire tirade, or demand out of the clear blue to know his shoe size, the player's tolerance would hold. "O.K., Radio, O.K.," the Hanna kids would say, and a few seconds later, Radio would have them giggling.

Just once, 22 years ago, did Radio miss a game. It was not long after coach Jones and Radio had gotten their promotions to the varsity, but being only an assistant coach then, Jones could only swallow his Adam's apple when Fraser, the head coach, decided the bus was too crowded for Radio to make the road trip to Northwestern High. Fraser slipped Radio a five to ease his conscience, but the sight of that slump-shouldered man standing alone in the school parking lot, tears rolling down his cheeks, would haunt the coach forever, as would the 27-20 loss that followed. "He'll be the first one on the bus from here on out," Fraser vowed that night, and when the T.L. Hanna Yellow Jackets, with Radio leading them onto the field, rolled all the way to the state final that year, Radio's position was forever secure.

From then on rain was the only thing that Radio had to fear on game day. Each wet Friday he would scramble out the school's back door every few minutes, mournfully holding out his palm to feel the air, then rushing back to coach Jones to confirm, for the 28th time, "Gonna 'top wainin', wight, Co' Jone'?" And when God smiled, and the rain clouds ran away, Radio bloomed.

Imagine, just for a moment, that you could go to a football game one day and play every role, be everyone in the whole stadium. That's what Radio did every game. Gumming and gnawing another freshly mooched fried-chicken drumstick, he would start out as the official greeter, holding open the Hanna program to make sure all arriving fans saw his photograph and hoisting up his pants legs to make sure everyone got a gander at his new pair of shoes—"Wook at my Weeboks!"—along with his socks, one white and one black. Then, dropping one drumstick and seizing another, he would commandeer the bass drum as the Hanna band made its knee-pumping entrance, quickly double back to wolf down a free hot dog and then scurry up to the press box to become the radio color commentator, barking over the WAIM airwaves, "We gon' beat dey butt!" All at once it would occur to Radio that he was also Hanna's coach, and he'd bolt down onto the field to yelp stretching instructions to the team during warmups—"You roll dat neck, boy!"—and then back to the bleachers to scarf some free popcorn and sign his autograph, loop-de-loop.

For the next two hours, to the ricochet of impulse, he would be the band director leading the touchdown celebration tune, the pom-pom-shaking cheerleader, the team trainer kneading cramps from players' calves, the 15-year-old flirt tossing popcorn at the cheerleaders' bare legs, the drum majorette in the halftime show, the fanatic racing up and down the sidelines with a giant Hanna flag, the water boy rushing squeeze bottles—empty, as often as not—onto the field during timeouts, and the coach arm-waggling defensive signals at the offensive line . . . all to the steady background bleating, from white-haired alumni and kids alike, of "Raaaadiooooooo! Hey, Raaaadioooooooo, come over here!"

His legend radiated from the school throughout the town. At the annual Anderson Christmas parade, the local cable television crew could not get enough of Radio marching the loosey-goosiest goose step in martial history, wearing his Santa Claus hat and shaking a fistful of sleigh bells—especially that Yule when his beltless pants slid to his ankles. He no longer had to pay to eat anything or walk to go anywhere in Anderson—there was always a free meal or a free ride. In the history of long shots, was there ever one longer than the possibility that a man such as he would be known and loved wherever he went? And if there was room in the program for Radio, then who couldn't be included, who wasn't welcome to join the community at its largest weekly gatherings? That was the message that Radio's presence sent to all those who felt a little odd, a little different.

The fans from the surrounding towns also embraced him over the years, and one day when an assistant coach took him to a Clemson football game, it finally became clear what Hanna High had wrought. Honking and waving and cries of "Radio!" accompanied the two men the entire bumper-to-bumper trip, and no man has ever tailgated upon as many tails as Radio did that day.

But when darkness fell on Christmas Eve each year, just one car crunched onto the gravel in front of Radio's house. The curtain on the front window would rustle, for that's where Radio always awaited coach Jones. The coach would hand Radio the wrapped gifts he had bought or collected from donors: shoes, socks, shirts, belts and, of course, another radio, for each year Radio's curiosity about who spoke to him from inside the little black box was more than the little black box could bear.

Fierce was Radio's loyalty in return. Fists pummeling, he would leap on the back of an assistant coach who pretended to sneak cases of soda from coach Jones's truck, and he would materialize like a bad dream before the eyes of any referee who argued with coach Jones. The one time in his career coach Jones was ejected from a game, Radio screamed, "You ass!" at the ejecting referee so often, and with such precise diction, that he too got the heave-ho.

Coach Jones was wonderful at hiding his exasperation with Radio, which might have been why he had to sip buttermilk during games to soothe his burning stomach. Who knew how many times a poignant silence during one of his pregame orations had been blown to smithereens by a shriek from Radio, and yet all coach Jones would do was throw an arm around Radio's shoulder and roll his eyes toward heaven. Maybe that explained something. There was no one, outside of his five grandchildren or his wife, whom the coach would touch like that. He was the no-nonsense guy with bare gray cinder block office walls, but unlike most people, he hadn't completely done away with his other self, that loose and long-buried child. It was always right there at his elbow, rocking from foot to foot.

One August day two years ago, a few weeks before school opened, coach Jones got a phone call. Radio's mother had died of heart failure in the middle of the night, and Radio was out of his head with grief. He had smashed two holes in a wall of his house, and the police had been called to restrain him. Surely, now that his mama was gone, he would finally have to go into a home.

Coach Jones had always worried about what would happen to Radio the day he retired or the day Radio's mother died. He knew his assistants loved Radio as much as he did, but still. . . . He marshaled his staff and collected a big tray of food that day and headed to Radio's house. One by one the coaches hugged Radio and cried with him. If he could just hold on until football practice started again, and if Radio's older brother, Walter Turner—the only one of Janie Mae Greenlee's three sons who wasn't born with the defect—and Walter's wife, Pat, could take care of Radio in the evenings, when the school day was done, then Hanna and coach Jones and his staff would handle the rest. And that's just what has happened.

Summers, though, are still the most difficult time for Radio. Should a traveler ever get lost in upstate South Carolina some July or August day and find himself wandering near the railroad tracks in Anderson and happen to notice an old boarded-up school with a for sale sign planted in the weeds out front, he ought to take a little look at the abandoned McCants Junior High football field just behind it. He might just see a man with sprinkles of white hair gesturing wildly at thin air, screaming, "All wight, tomowwow's Thuhsday, dat's a light day! You wear yo' shorts an' T-shirts, no pads, an' be on da fiel' at four o'cwock on da nose, you got dat, boys?"

Just smile and wave. It's only Radio, living the dream.