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Your Weekly Hoodoo Thread: Hilltopper edition

If you don’t think games like this one matter, then mess around and lose one.

Keep Loki smilin’ people.

Now that we’re past that kickoff game against USC, and the debacle that was the first few drives, maybe you folks who are new to this here Hoodoo freak show will understand the importance of the aforementioned. See, you can’t toy with the emotions of Football Loki…no! He is not to be trifled with, his wrath is swift and violent (just ask LSU or Notre Dame).

You see, these wins that pile up on our collective doorstep aren’t from the whim of fate, nor merely products of the hard work and talents of our beloved Crimson Tide. No, a string of dominance the likes of which Alabama has enjoyed over the last decade can only be attributed to the power of this here Hoodoo we lay down in the space, week in and week out. Hear me, oh Hoodoo believers and infidels alike, as Football Loki’s appetite for debauchery is ravenous, and his thirsts are rarely satiated.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Now Ole OWB must not realize we are just playin’ some buncha scrubs from the Pinetucky hills…we don’t need to offer much Hoodoo up on thi particular altar, do we?”

To those of like mind, I implore you…do not make the error of Hoodoo neglect which resulted in the ungodly acts of the Iron Bowl of 2010. Let not some future Johnny Manziel-ish quarterback slay our beloved Crimson Tide simply because you thought you could skimp this here Hoodoo collection plate. Let us not hunt you with torches after an inaugural CFB Playoffs loss just because “you were all out of embarrassing stories.” For shame!

Make no mistake, just because the opponent from the meth mills and whiskey stills of Western Kentucky doesn’t hail from a Power 5 conference doesn’t mean we can’t take them seriously. As Our Dark Lord himself often implores, nay, demands…the most important game is the next game.

That said, this week our Tide faces the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. While WKU may not sport the level of talent of our previous opponent, these hill people of questionable breeding are not to be trifled with. Whether due to methamphetamine usage or some elaborate genetic tinkering between men and quarterhorses, this offense is as fast as the day is long. Bama’s human barricade of a defense will have their hands full this weekend, that much is certain. Therefore, while I fully expect some of you are saving extreme Hoodoo for next week, let’s not forget to put down some prime-time material right in the here and now.

Now, as for me, I am referring back not to my youth for this particular tapestry I’m going to weave for you people, but to the more recent adultish time of my life. I say “adultish,” as I firmly believe that I am still a work in progress in that regard. I mean, does an adult adorn his walls with Star Wars “art” and read comic books for hours on end between breaks of Pokemon Go? Probably not. But this story I’m about to place at the feet of dear Loki is one of the most embarrassing things that has happened to me since I have been a responsible pillar of my community (stop giggling), and it is something that retracts my mortal soul in the deepest of cringes even when I think about it today.

As many of you, my friends and faithful followers, have observed in lo these many years that your narrator has been a’travelin’ this lonely Hoodoo Highway, I sometimes fail to use sound and proper judgment in the living of life itself. True, I am a man of many (read: many, many, many, many to hear Mrs. OWB tell it) faults, a tattered tapestry of Southern manhood frayed at the raggeding edges. Those flaws are not representative of my intentions, however, as I truly set forth in all that I do with a heart to do good, to bring light into the world, and to richly and positively impact the lives of my fellow man. (Y’all ain’t buyin’ that last part, are you? I didn’t think so. Worth a try though.)

True, most of the tales I’ve spun in this here Hoodoo ledger have been of the debaucherous kind, as they pre-date my current era of maturity (pronounced in the South as “mah-toor-ity”). They harken back to a far more raw and untamed time in my life, a time when I didn’t foresee the consequences of my actions (or at least I didn’t choose to recognize the ones I did see.)

But the evolution of your narrator began in earnest as I reached the age of 26. Though I had been somewhat responsible as a stellar student and the eldest child in my extended family, I was known in my immediate circle of confidants to engage in dirty deeds on the sly. Because of my highly developed level of intelligence (why are you snickerin’?), I was able to negotiate myself around trouble, to circumnavigate the consequences that befell my peers of lesser intellect. I avoided the discipline that may have otherwise forced me to change my ways, and I was an expert at gaming the various systems set in place to limit folks of my demeanor within the web of society’s ever-present net.

The pivotal event in the coming of age of good ole OWB was the birth of my son, Patches. An unexpected gift (and those are the best kind, no?), I remember the icy-water shock that ran through me when my girlfriend-cum-wife informed me of his coming. It was utter terror. I didn’t know what I would do…all of my plans (and they were extensive, many involved duct tape, suitcases of Miller High Life, copious amounts of marijuana, Doritos and a loaded .357) were immediately shattered….back-burnered…shuttered. I mean, I could barely take care of myself, especially within the midst of my nightly Southpaw binges (there was a time I’d kill an 18 pack by 9 p.m.). And a man full of Doritos and cheap beer (with or without a .357) is in no state to care for, change the diaper of, or attend the feeding needs of a young’un.

Not to mention, the financial ramifications were dire. Prior to this point, my bi-weekly budget broke down something like this: $40 gas to get back and forth to work, $55 for the half-ounce I burned like a dadgum chimney stack, $500 for my half of the rent and utilities, $40 for my cell phone bill, $100 for wining and dining honey-pies and $100 in weekly tithes to the Church of Miller (Latter Day Saints) and the Evan Williams Tabernacle of the High and Holy Ghost. At the time, I really wasn’t sure which part of that I’d be able to whittle down to accommodate a whole new passel of needs from a person I had yet to meet, but the numbers weren’t looking good.

I did my best to become the man I thought I needed to be in preparation for my child. I gave up smoking (cigarettes) cold-turkey before he was born. Just decided at the start of the seventh month of his gestation that the day had come to stop. I finished the pack of cloves I had, and that was it. Now, in the interest of full-disclosure, I will admit to having enjoyed a cigar infrequently with a special group of friends, but that has been the full spectrum of my tobacco use since the birth of my son some 15 years ago.

I also weaned off the 18-pack-a-day beer drinking schedule I had built up. I know that sounds ludicrous, but I’m a big ole boy, and I can sop up liquor the way a hush puppy soaks up gumbo gravy. Not to mention, being partially of Irish stock (with a little Viking blood and French lineage I am loathe to claim) improves my ability to imbibe large quantities of alcohol, oftentimes in excess of the daily (or in some cases, weekly) recommended dosage. But in the interest of my coming son (and wallet…and liver), I decided to prune back that portion of my life as well.

Patches was born, and I’d never been so happy. I held him fresh from his mama’s womb and walked him to the nursery on the day he was born, instantly bonding with him. I didn’t know at the time the challenges he would face in his life (my boy is touched by the ASD), but from the time I stared down at his little red face beneath a mantle of dark hair, I knew I was a changed man. He had done for me what church, counseling from my elders, and the fear of law and order were unable to do: just by being, he got me to change my ways, to walk a less rocky path. For that, and for the amplifying effect that dynamic received when his little sister was born five-and-a-half years later, I am truly thankful. Quite candidly, they saved my life, gave me something other than myself for which to live. Love those kids…I’d take a bullet, nay 10 bullets, for them without batting an eye, as any good father would.

As a newly made man and dedicated father, I sought out opportunities to further bond with my son as he began to awaken into his childhood. As residents of the Deep South, one of the primary vectors for father-son bonding comes in the form of youth sports. Our church (the church we would go to when we went to church, the church that hosted my kid’s pre-school and Bible school programs) had a fantastic developmental sports ministry. It’s a great, faith-based program where kids are allowed to be competitive, but only so much so. Sure, everyone gets a trophy, but there is also room to give added responsibility to the better athletes and help them develop along a sports-centric track as they grow to middle school age.

Because Patches is an insular, introverted kid, it took a little arm-twisting to get him interested in playing any kind of sport with other kids. That is, until somebody said the word “soccer.” For whatever reason (and God knows, it wasn’t anything I instilled in him), from the time he was a kid he really loved the idea of soccer. I mean, for a child, what’s not to like? Endless, mind-numbing running, kicking shit around the field at a goal…in essence, it’s a game made for kids. When I mentioned the church had a soccer program, he instantly showed interest. So, we signed him up.

Now personally, I’ve never been into soccer much. Always viewed it as foreign, too much cardio, not terribly interesting. Because of that, I had little foundational knowledge of the sport at the time, and so in light of that, I decided not to coach a team. But as I watched the kids practice and play that season, I got the itch to get involved. I saw how fun it looked for the kids and their coaches, and figured Patches and I could use a little of that type of interaction. So I made up my mind to coach in the next season, which just happened to be flag football.

I had a blast, in short. Patches was five at the time, but it was great. I had play-card wristbands for the players on the team with simple plays printed out on them, mini-Lane Kiffin-like Waffle House placemats, if you will. I could designate a play pre-snap by letter (Play A, Play B) and they could check their wrists and actually run the play. We had a pass-heavy, fun-and-gun offense that shredded opponents. We were undefeated until the final game of the season, when we were ordered to lose so the kids could learn to deal with the agony of defeat. Had a great time, and I coached flag football for several years…as long as Patches wanted to play.

This was my segue into coaching basketball as well, and his is where the crux of this particular Hoodoo tale will gain traction and pick up momentum. After a few years of coaching three sports (I ended up coaching soccer, too, after learning the game), I was paired up for basketball season with a rather rigid co-coach (like the Sith, there were always two per team) named Ruffin. He was an investment banker by trade, a somewhat inflexible fella who smiled infrequently and had the demeanor on the court of a Marine Corps drill instructor. He didn’t leave a lot of room for the kids to, you know, have fun, constantly haranguing them back into line on the routine occasions that they drifted from drills during practice.

And boy, we had a few live-wires on this team, I tell you what. After working with this particular group, I was halfway inclined to buy stock in pharmaceutical companies that made ADHD medication, as running an organized practice was something akin to wrangling a passel of flamin’ ferrets. These kids were all over the place, slingin’ balls at each other, breaking into impromptu wrasslin’ matches while waiting in line to run free throw drills. It was absolutely crazy.

I had one kid named Joe-Nathan, a good-hearted young’un who’s RPM meter was stuck somewhere around 8000 revolutions at all times. He was good as gold, a pudgy little freckle-faced half-ginger with a raspy voice, owlish spectacles, and a motor that ran wide open all…the…damn…time. Keeping him occupied was a full-time gig, and for whatever reason, that boy gravitated to me and stuck like dried grits on an unwashed pan. Everywhere I went, there he was, right up under me, bludgeoning me with a barrage of inane, unanswerable questions at a machine-gun pace.

“Coach OWB, Coach OWB, today at school we learned about zebras. You like zebras? I like zebras. Are zebras black with white stripes or white with black stripes? Why don’t giraffes have stripes?”

“Coach OWB, why is a basketball orange? I don’t like orange, mama says orange is the color of the devil. Don’t know why basketballs are orange, daddy said it’s cuz they’re made out of old cantaloupes. Are basketballs made out of old cantaloupes? I don’t eat cantaloupes.”

“Coach OWB, what’s your favorite food? My favorite food is pizza, and my other favorite food is hamburgers. Coach OWB, if they made pizza out of hamburgers, would it be your favorite food? How about a pizza hamburger? That’d be cool, wouldn’t it.”

I loved the boy, one of my favorite kids to coach not named Patches, but I seriously thought about investing in wireless ear buds just for practice. I couldn’t get a thought to process cleanly once Joe-Nathan showed up with his verbal barrage, but I couldn’t be mean to him because he was such a good kid. Coaching him taught me patience, as dealing with him after a long day at work tried every fiber of it I had spun in my life to that point.

One of my favorite and most rewarding moments that season (and of all seasons) was when Joe-Nathan’s mama approached me after practice and thanked me for my attention to her son’s constant needs.

“Coach OWB, you don’t know how much what you’re doing means to Joe-Nathan, he comes home after practice every week talking about you, he just loves you. His dad has to work a lot, and it’s hard for him to make time to do much with Joe-Nathan when he gets home. I just wanted you to know the time you spend with him means a lot, and we appreciate it.”

I was touched, nearly to the point of tears. I’d started coaching for my son, but in the process, I had unexpectedly done some good for someone else’s son. It made me feel wonderful to know I had helped make a contribution to someone else’s life. Neat feeling.

Now, back to the central story: specifically, the simmering feud between me and Gunny Ruffin, the Roundball DI without a Corps.

I liked Ruffin just fine, as I can get along with pretty much anyone in a public forum. Secretly, I found myself dissenting with many of his practices and methods, and though we’d have conversations that bordered upon kindly disagreements, we always seemed to talk around the matters rather than confronting them.

We got along for the sake of the team, but soon, there developed a certain level of competition between us. It was silly, really, for grown men to behave in such a way, but such is the competitive nature of grown men at times. When we were waiting for the kids to all show up for practice, we’d shoot free throws. Now I must tell you, your humble narrator is Shaq-ish when it comes to toeing the free throw line. I am not much a shooter, much more of a defender and rebounder. I can post up with the best of them, but when it comes to actual skill, I am far more Bill Lambier than Bill Walton.

Ruffin, on the other hand, had a natural shooting stroke. In our pre-practice shoot-outs, he’d quietly hit three free throws for every one I sank. This stat didn’t evade his notice, and he’d taken the opportunity to point out to me that I wasn’t extending my elbow correctly (while smirking, of course). Giving me instructions like I was one of the kids…the nerve. According to Bro Code, that’s something you simply do not do: you never offer athletic advice to a fellow man unless it is solicited. It stuck in my craw to be sure, as I perceived myself a better overall athlete and coach.

This dynamic perc’d throughout the season, though it never bubbled fully to the surface. We had a good year, a pretty solid team full of junior players who improved dramatically throughout the course of the season. As the year drew to a close, we could take comfort in the fact that we’d met our goal of developing players, nurturing their blossoming talent, and teaching them good sportsmanship. That last bit was especially important in this particular league…probably the most important lesson they were expected to learn.

As part of our year-end celebration, we decided to have a parents-players game in which kids and their parents would be paired up into two teams to make things even, one team led by Coach Ruffin and the other led by your narrator. What fun, right?

I also saw this as my chance to land one final passive-aggressive stab at Ruffin before we went our separate ways forever. After all, I’d never be able to out-shoot him, but I could damn sure out-scheme and out-lead him. The kids saw me as the “fun” coach anyway, and we announced our plans, pert near every kid wanted to be on Coach OWB’s roster.

We divvied up the teams and contacted the parents who would be playing in the game. Everyone was excited…good times! I was particularly excited about my chance to best Ruffin beneath the public eye, as all of the players’ parents would either be playing or present to watch. To make things even better, the director of the church sporting program, Dennis, had heard me talking about the plan to a parent and seemed interested.

“Whatchall doin” OWB, having a parents against players game?”

“Well, sort of. We’re pairing players with their parents and playing against each other, we have enough for two teams.”

“Oh man, that sounds awesome, never done that before. You mind if I come watch?”

“Sure Dennis, matter of fact if we end up with uneven teams, you can play if you want to,” I responded. I mean hell, if I was gonna be settlin’ public scores with Ruffin, may as well let everyone be party to the dawning of the OWB basketball dynasty.

Time came for the game. Parents came out, not in their usual work-day outfits, but in shorts and shirts, athletic clothes. We separated into teams, one led by Ruffin, the other by yours truly. Dennis had come out ready to play, so we put him on Ruffin’s team because one parent on his team had to call off due to unforeseen circumstances at work (we’ve all been there.)

The whistle blew, and we got after it. I had prepackaged a few schemes with the kids on my team during the previous few practices, so we were ready. Of course, I ended up squared off one-on-one with Ruffin a good bit of the time, and it was glorious. I had about five inches of height on him, and I was determined to play a physical game and big-boy him. After all, all the shooting ability in the world doesn’t mean a damn thing if there’s a man-wall blocking those shots.

My strategy worked well for a long time. Ruffin, easily his team’s best shooter, couldn’t get a shot off to save his life. He hated passing, but he had to do a lot of it. Despite my outstanding defensive performance, I couldn’t be everywhere at once, and the score was relatively close throughout much of the game. This frustrated me, as my competitive nature pushed me to want to win at all costs. I couldn’t stand the thought of Ruffin smirking at me over Little Caesar’s pizza at the party afterwards (a slight doubly-venomous due to the presence of that pizza), both of us knowing that he had bested me in what would likely be our final meeting.

With everything on the line, I felt my natural aggression begin to rise, and I became far more physical than was necessary for a church league basketball end-of-year-party. I was hip-checking, swinging ‘bows on rebounds (Rodman reincarnated…wait, he’s not dead, is he? Or is he?), and generally making an over-competitive ass of myself. I was becoming the guy I hated coaching against, and it happened so fast, I didn’t notice it until I was fully involved.

It wasn’t terrible, however…or at least I made it look less terrible by smiling and laughing while swinging my elbows as if to feign the intensity that was actually bubbling over inside of me. (In all honesty, I can be an utter psychopath…but that’s not my Hoodoo.)

I noticed that the spectator parents were beginning to give each other looks…you know, the “what the hell is wrong with him?” look. I’m sure I was putting on a show, hurling my 6’4”, 250 pound self around the court amongst a bunch of eight-year-olds and their parents. I should be ashamed for that reason alone (though I wasn’t at the time.)

The game was close…tied with a minute left to play. I simply couldn’t let this chance at a reckoning slip between my fingers, to do so would be disaster. I didn’t want to lose to Ruffin for sure, but I didn’t even want a tie…after all, that tie would last forever with no chance to ever break the stalemate. Wholly unacceptable, that was.

The clock ticked down, and we had what I figured would be the last possession of the game. I had called my players over to the side before we inbounded the ball, telling them what my plan was. We’d work the triangle offense until I could get open down low while burning the remainder of the clock. When I was open, someone would get me the ball and I’d use my height advantage to ensure that we scored. In other words, I wanted to score right over the top of Ruffin’s head to win the game and feed my ego.

One of my kids passed it in to me up high, and for whatever reason I saw Joe-Nathan was covering me defensively. I was proud of him, he broke down into a wide stance with his hands out just as I had taught him, grinning and challenging me. I saw Ruffin was just standing under to goal, waiting, as he had diagnosed my game plan and was ready for it. I kicked the ball out to the wing, who against my orders decided to immediately take a shot from the three-point-arc.

The ball clunked off the rim and bounced back towards the top of the key where I was standing, still guarded by Joe-Nathan. In an aggressive read, Joe-Nathan saw that the ball was going to bounce over us and roll into the backcourt, and he got the jump on me like a dang ole meercat. We both sprinted after the ball like velociraptors chasing dinner, though only I knew the true stakes that were riding on this one particular outcome.

I was a lumbering mastodon ambling along next to Joe-Nathan’s average housecat, so great was the frightening size disparity between your narrator and the poor kid. He was fearless in his pursuit, determined to beat his mentor to that cantaloupe-fashioned roundball. Watching it from the bleachers must have been terrifying, something akin to watching a beagle chase a speeding delivery truck, when one winces at the potential outcome if the seemingly oblivious pup happens into the path of the vehicle.

I’ll be honest, y’all. I’m not exactly sure what happened next. All I know is that the Chucks I had selected for the day’s activities were size 13s, and I usually wear size 12.5s. Maybe it was the extra toe room, maybe I just wasn’t as athletic as I thought I was. Maybe there was chewing gum stuck to the floor. Could just be that I’m old.

Joe-Nathan was just in front of me when I felt gravity pulling me forward. I tripped, and in my competitive haze, I had simultaneously lurched my arm out reaching for the ball as I launched forward.

Great effort, right? Except…Joe-Nathan was between me and the ball. Instead of grabbing the ball and cradling it against my forearm, I totally kagged the kid’s legs out from under him in an act of unsportsmanlike conduct and leg-sweeping the likes of which would have made the Cobra Kai dojo proud.

Everything happened in slow-motion from that point on. Seeing the trajectory of things to come, all I could do was scream out “NOOOOOOOOOO!” all John Rambo-style. Joe-Nathan, now airborne, sailed over the ball with a look of sheer terror on his face. Because this turn of events was so completely unexpected (I mean, how did he know his favorite coach was going to SWEEP THE LEG), he had a look of shocked, betrayed terror upon his face as he soared through the air. It all happened so fast, he couldn’t get his hands up before landing, and as a result he face-planted onto the hardwood court, glasses first.

The court was completely silent. The squeaking of rubber soles stopped, as did the fevered cheering of onlookers. Everyone was shocked. Though I knew I had not tripped the kid on purpose, the eyes of the bystanders had not deceived them. To someone who was not in my head, it looked for all the world like the coach just took out one of his players (in a very dirty fashion) to try to get to the ball. One could have heard a clipboard drop.

Then…after the silence, there was the screaming cries from poor Joe-Nathan that split the ear of all unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. Banshee-like in quality, with the tone and timbre of a dang ole tornado siren. Of course, Joe-Nathan was inconsolable. His mama ran onto the court and collected her sobbing son (along with the broken bits of what had previously been his glasses). She looked disapprovingly at me (stunned, hurt, shocked, angry) despite my profuse apologies and declarations that it had been wholly unintentional. Joe-Nathan cowered into her bosom, looking up at his former hero and tutor like a betrayed victim, the way a whupped dog looks at the person who just beat him. Other parents followed her onto the court, all staring at me like torch-bearing mob participants waiting to string me up. I heard the percolating murmurs: “…ought to be ashamed…,” “what kind of man does that to a kid…,” “it’s just a game…” I tried to make amends, but my apologies fell upon deaf ears.

And the coup-de-grace…I cast my eyes over towards Ruffin. He and Dennis stood there, arms crossed, speaking lowly to one another in tsk-tsk fashion with looks of condemnation stretched over their faces.

Well, f$%^ me runnin’. This was quite the revolting development, indeed.

I was so incredibly embarrassed, and I had busted the hell out of me old knee-joint in the process of hurting my pride (and the face of an eight-year-old.) I still had my son to think about too, as he had been excited about going to the post-game party. But I knew attending the party after this debacle was out of the question for me. The only thing I could think to do was complain about my knee and beg leave to go attend to it. After all, I felt like going to the party would only increase my chances of being hung from the highest rafter among this disapproving group.

I went to sit in the car, where the shame did nothing but bubble and boil. I had no idea how to make it right, since my apologies fell on deaf ears. And why wouldn’t they? People had watched with their own eyes as some deranged coach put a kid down hard on the floor in a friendly basketball game. In a church, at that.

The requiem: I never coached again at the church. As a matter of fact, we stopped going to that church altogether except on rare occasions, and I trace this absenteeism back to that faithful fall day when my competitive streak got the better of me. It is shameful, to be sure. Possibly even sinful, by some standards. My neck prickles just thinking about it. I’ve never seen Ruffin again, and I hope to keep it that way.

In this tale, pride goeth’d (is that a word, probably not but I’m using it anyway…what is the past tense of “goeth” though…wenteth? #OldEnglishProblems) before the fall. Literally.

Revel in my shame, O Football Loki. Feast upon my rich embarrassment. So long as you ensure us a victory over the God-forsaken people of the Kentucky hills, my sacrifice will be a willing one. Roll Tide.