John McKissick isn’t the only one who feels old.
His “I know it’s time” retirement announcement at age 88 on Tuesday reminded me of how young McKissick was the first time I saw him coach a football game.
He was 36.
That was on Sept. 13, 1963 (Friday the Thirteenth!), when McKissick’s mighty Summerville High School Green Wave defeated my plucky, but outmanned, St. Andrews Rocks, 14-6.
Well, my Rocks in the sense of early allegiance to that now-defunct high school with not always the best teams but forever the best nickname.
It was a natural bond for me as a fifth-grader at St. Andrews Elementary. And the magical blend of sights, sounds and even smells made high school football so special to me that it induced a natural, youthful high. St. Andrews topped Charleston High (can’t remember the score) in my first attended game, at the tender age of 6, at College Park in 1959.
Back to the one-sided Green Wave-Rocks series. The 1964 game, again the season’s second for both teams, was played way up oak-moss-draped Highway 61 and way out in the country in Summerville. I can’t recall the score after the relatively even two quarters.
However, I do recall stern shouts, presumably by McKissick, aimed at the home team from behind closed doors at halftime. Final score:
Green Wave 45, Rocks 7.
Onward to Sept. 10, 1965. The News and Courier’s sports section that day included this big headline about big-league baseball: “Koufax Hurls Perfect Game For Fourth No-Hitter Of Career.”
But my sporting interest as a then-seventh-grader at St. Andrews Junior High hit much closer to that night’s game between two teams that had suffered narrow opening losses. Summerville had been edged by James Island, 19-14, while St. Andrews had given a strong Berkeley team a scare before falling, 19-13.
Maybe this was the year.
Maybe this was the night.
As News and Courier executive sports editor Warren Koon reported in the Sept. 11 paper from a game that drew “an overflow crowd of more than 5,500”: “A stray pitch [as in a football pitchout, not a Koufax fastball] with just over three minutes left opened the door for Summerville to earn a 13-13 tie with St. Andrews after what appeared to be a tightly controlled and impressive victory for the home-standing Rocks.”
Back then, high school and college football still hadn’t descended into today’s goofy overtime formats.
My fervor for Rocks glory dimmed over the next few years, a consequence of trying to be too cool for school spirit — at least in outwardly displayed form.
Yet my mix of fear, envy, shock and awe of McKissick and his irresistible Green Wave force persisted.
So imagine my relief when, as the Post-Courier’s rookie high school sports beat writer in 1979, I discovered that McKissick wasn’t just the hard-nosed coach of a perennial high school football powerhouse. He was friendly, funny and folksy.
At 52, he also was coming off a 14-0 season capped by a 13-7 state Class 4A championship-game victory over Irmo at S.C. State’s Bulldog Stadium in Orangeburg.
Then the 1979 Green Wave again went 14-0 with another state-title triumph over Irmo, this one a 35-13 romp at Johnson Hagood Stadium, in my first season at the paper.
Then in 1980, the winning streak rose to 41 entering a third straight state final against Irmo, this time at Irmo. Though nobody was using the word yet, a “three-peat” apparently loomed.
But sports, like life, is unpredictable.
Halftime and final score:
Irmo 23, Summerville 0.
That didn’t leave McKissick in a joking mood. His accurate assessment to me after the debacle: “We just got the tar beat out of us.”
Flash forward to Sept. 10, 2004, when a couple of promising ninth-graders caught my eyes at a football game coached by McKissick 15 days short of his 78th birthday.
The first fantastic freshman was my son Sam in his debut as a percussionist in Wando’s band, which soon started a state title streak of its own.
The other was A.J. Green in his first season as a terrific wide receiver for Summerville. Final score:
Green Wave 21, Warriors 14.
Green went on to become a college star at Georgia and is now one of the NFL’s top wide receivers with Cincinnati.
Sam’s doing fine, too.
So is John McKissick, who made another winning call Tuesday. He — and his wife Joan — recognized that coaching until age 88 is long enough.
And after 63 Summerville seasons, 621 victories and 10 state titles, his greatest triumph remains the widespread admiration and gratitude felt for him by his former players.
Still, that haunting twinge lots of us are feeling this week over time’s inexorable toll isn’t merely for a legendary coach finally stepping away from his remarkable life’s work.
It’s for ourselves over this latest reminder that nothing — not even John McKissick coaching the mighty Green Wave — lasts forever.
Frank Wooten is assistant editor of the Post and Courier. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.