His name was Ray Hopkins and we had heard that he was due to arrive in Perryton near the end of the 1961 track season. He was to be our new varsity football coach. We were all anxious to meet him, but also a little nervous.
What kind of man was he? We’d heard that his teams at Sundown, Texas, had done very well, and that his boys played good hard-nosed football. We pictured him as big, hairy, and mean--six-foot-four, arms that dragged the ground, a face like a gorilla, the disposition of vampire.
One day in March, our track team loaded into a big yellow bus and drove to Shamrock for the district track meet. The weather gave us everything you expect at a district track meet in the northern Panhandle: overcast skies, a biting north wind, cold rain, mud, and fog.
It was a horrible day! I was a junior that year and ran the 110 yard high hurdles. When I got into the starting blocks and looked down the track, I couldn’t even see the finish line. Everything beyond the fifth hurdle was swallowed in fog.
But the distance runners had it even worse. By the time the milers gathered at the starting line, it was raining snakes and weasels. They had to slog four times around a red clay track that had turned to muck, and by the time they crossed the finish line, their track shoes weighed five pounds apiece.
It was a lousy day for a track meet, but we won the district title over Childress, Quanah, Wellington, and Shamrock. When we started back to Perryton in Old Yeller, the atmosphere was festive. We were the conquering heroes. We had survived the worst conditions Mother Nature could throw at us, and now we were taking the district trophy home to Perryton.
We laughed and cheered and bellowed the usual repertoire of team songs, including the interminable “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer On The Wall.” Coach Beck was driving, and occasionally we saw him watching us in the rear view mirror, his eyes pinched against the noise and a tolerant smile on his lips. It said, “I can stand the pain. We won.”
By the time we reached Canadian, we had gone through all our songs and began looking for other mischief. Since we had all entered the bus with spiked shoes loaded with mud, some of us recognized a great opportunity. Mudballs began zipping through the air--small at first, and timidly thrown, but growing bigger and bolder.
Then one of them hit Coach Beck on the back of the head. Oops. Old Yeller pulled over to the side of the road. Coach rose and faced us with a crooked grin. “Boys, we won district and we’re happy, but that’s all the mud we need. No more mud balls.”
Subdued, we resumed our journey, aware of Coach Beck’s hawkish eyes in the mirror. Then, seven miles south of Perryton, one last mud ball flew out of nowhere, striking the windshield. Oops.
Coach Beck’s grin broadened. He pulled off the road and opened the door. “Erickson, Joe Thompson, Gary Brown, Byron Simpson--out!”
We couldn’t believe this. We had to jog seven miles in a cold drizzle? This punishment fell especially hard on poor Gary Brown, who had lived a near-sinless life for eighteen years, but had been sitting next to one of the miscreants—me, perhaps.
We jogged back to town against a cold north wind. When we reached the field house, the rest of the team had dressed and gone. The place was empty--except for one man. A stranger. Ray Hopkins, our new head coach.
With lowered eyes, we introduced ourselves and explained the...uh...situation. We figured we would be marked forever as hooligans. Brown and Thompson were graduating in May, but Byron and I had to go through two-a-day workouts with this man in August.
Well, Coach Hoppy, as we later called him, wasn’t huge, hairy, or mean. He had a kind face and listened to our tale with a strange smile. It was our good fortune, you see, that as a football player at Chillicothe High School, Coach Hoppy had once been kicked off the activities bus for causing mischief.