Learning to Win | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Learning to Win


Near the end of August every year, I start getting jittery. Yes, I'm ready for cooler temperatures. I also like being a Libra and having an October birthday--the big 5-0 this time!--and I love the crispness and smell of Autumn air. Football weather, I call it, just like my daddy did.

My stepfather, Willie Hoyt Smith, never had a son, or any child of his own, so I was it. We shared a love of cats--"them rascals!" he would yell out about them as I chased one or another around the house in a raucous game of hide-and-seek. Later, when I moved up north, I would get envelopes filled with snapshots of his latest cat-rascal, often without even a note.

When I called him, though, we didn't usually talk about cats. We talked sports.

This surprised my city friends who never heard me talk about any athletic enterprise. I was in big-city mode by that point, and sports didn't fit my new life, I thought then.

But it's what daddy and I had connected on since I met him when I was in the fourth grade. He loved any sport and just about any team that could play. In homeroom at Neshoba Central, the guys at first were surprised that I knew "the scores" (especially if it involved football or basketball). And I was one of the loudest fans at all high-school games, screaming my head off even as I sat in the band section shivering in my flag-girl shorts and white go-go boots and bright lipstick. My life is nothing if not a dichotomy.

Daddy would be at every Neshoba Central game, home or away, watching me play in the band, and regardless of whether our team was worth anything (usually not).

Then Marcus Dupree emerged at our rival, Philadelphia High School, or Philly as we called it. (We also had uglier words for it.)

Then, Daddy would manage to go across town for a game now and then, especially if we were playing out of town. I understood.

"Marcus," as everyone called him, burst into our world when I was a junior and he was a freshman, as I was recently reminded watching the ESPN 30 for 30 "The Best That Never Was" documentary about him. He was so good that he simply rocked our realities.

The ESPN film contains footage of Marcus that was lost for years, but watching it, I felt like it was yesterday when my daddy would tell me about all the opposing players fighting over pieces of Marcus' tear-away jersey, then later of us and the world waiting to hear where he would end up playing in college (a bigger question than "who shot JR?" even).

I remember reading Willie Morris' outstanding "The Courting of Marcus Dupree" years later--a book that is really more about race relations in a town famous for the lack of it and that ends on a high note before Marcus went to the University of Oklahoma and, indeed, became "the best that never was."

Watching his former coach, Barry Switzer, in the film, my disdain for the cocky coach over the years bubbled back up. Daddy and I and so many others blamed Switzer for not knowing how to inspire Marcus to be all that he could be. Daddy used to say, "Kids from the South don't always know how to win." He often said something similar about the teams we both loved: the New Orleans Saints (which he always called "them-damned-Saints") or my alma mater Mississippi State, especially.

Thinking back, I realize how astute this observation was about the South, and not just about our sports teams. We're so often raised in the shame-soaked South to not be winners, to believe we're meant to be bottom of the barrel, to even think we don't deserve to be excellent or to be noticed. We're told to be ashamed of our state, our city or our region, or maybe our accents (I tried to get rid of mine for a while, along with my love of sports). We're told too often that we're not good enough.

And when we're capable of proving them wrong, maybe a Switzer comes into our lives: a coach or a boss or a teacher who is out of touch with the fact that we, especially if we come from poor backgrounds, might not be as up on the life-management skills; our people were too busy refighting the Civil War or ironing pants for a living to teach us well. We might not be good at networking, yet. We may not know how to manage our time. Maybe we grew up eating terribly unhealthy food or we're surrounded by people who don't have those skills to share with us.

Or all of the above.

In the ESPN film, Switzer--now older and hopefully wiser than when he tried to take a gun on a plane some years back--expressed regret that he didn't coach Marcus better. But even more poignant, the film showed how Switzer wasn't Marcus' only nemesis: He was surrounded by people greedy for a piece of his fame and folks, including his mother, who just didn't know how to teach him to stay great.

The film revealed a tragedy of bad timing and unfortunate circumstances, and a confused, ill-equipped young man surrounded by people who didn't know how to have his best interests at heart. The hardest part to watch is when Marcus says he regrets not going back to Oklahoma: what might have been.

In that way that sports metaphors have a way of taking hold of my psyche, I could feel the weight of missed opportunities of myself and other Mississippians who just don't always know how to, or believe they can, reach out and grab the, er, Super Bowl ring. I also thought about our city and our state and how we settle for much less than we can be. Like Marcus, our community can get caught up in petty whining about those who challenge us to be better, and we can get lazy about what it takes to go the distance. Or, we listen to corrupt "mentors" out for an easy buck (as Marcus did).

I've long thought that we need to teach ourselves to win, to be the best. First, of course, we need to believe we can. But, equally as important, we must give up the idea that anything worth doing well is supposed to be quick and easy. It was clear that Marcus didn't return to Oklahoma, in part, because Switzer didn't go easy enough on him or treat him like the superstar he hadn't earned the right to be just yet. No doubt, though, Switzer had no idea how to motivate him, and many of our most successful "leaders" don't know how, either.

That means we must motivate ourselves and those around us. We must work hard and well; learn to manage our lives and emotions, focus on the task at hard, think big, live large, and be loud and proud. Oh, and to leave our guns back at the house. We can't bully our way into success and safety. Ask Coach Switzer.

Previous Comments


Donna, Great article. I love it. Just wanted to say how good I think it is.

Bryan Flynn

Thanks so much, Bryan. ;-) I was bummed to see a typo in the first graf that I swear I remember fixing! Grrr. Fixed now, though.


Great column, Donna.

Dr. S

Fine writing, right to the point, as you do so well, Donna. Made me wonder just which high school football field I can get to and from on the bus up here in Portland. I need to find me a local team 'cause I really miss high school football.


I love how you explained and weaved Marcus Dupree's situation into the story. That 30 for 30 story almost made me cry, and I don't cry. It's a thoughtful and true diagnosis on all.



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