When my family moved to Mississippi in 1975 a lot of things changed. Little did I know how much they were changing for the better.
We arrived in the heat of summer just prior to my sophomore year and my first contact with Jim Hill High School was when coach Dennis Awtrey knocked on our door. He was the head football and baseball coach and was quite a character.
Coach Awtrey was looking for a quarterback and, based on my transcript, he thought I should come out for the team. They already had almost two weeks of preseason practice under their belts. The 90 degree temperature was matched equally on the humidity scale and I lasted one day on the Tiger football team.
When baseball rolled around in the spring, I figured I would have a better shot. Coach Awtrey tried to make a shortstop out of me and he gave me a few innings here and there. But he also had an assistant coach by the name of Jerry Gibson.
Coach Gibson let coach Awtrey do most of the talking with the team, in part because coach Awtrey did most of the talking in whatever conversation he found himself. But coach Gibson had a way with his few words. They always seemed to hit home.
Jim Hill had a reasonably diverse student body if only because of the federally mandated desegregation laws. I drove to school each day into a neighborhood where the school had been placed. It was not a neighborhood to which I would have naturally driven, but I learned to love it.
I learned to love and appreciate my experience at Jim Hill, but not before trying out a “private Christian” school to the south of Jackson. I lasted two days. It was clear to me that students there were attending for reasons beyond a quality education. They didn’t want to be at a place like Jim Hill. I decided quickly that I did.
The first person I called after I told my folks I wanted to go back to Jim Hill was Jerry Gibson. Coach Gibson had been given the head coaching job for baseball and seemed glad to know I would be returning.
Coach Gibson got married right before the start of school in 1977 to Fredna Hudgens, the good looking art teacher, had an impressive wardrobe, including a dandy brown leather jacket, and drove a Porsche 911. I was in awe.
When it came to baseball, Coach was all business. He was really good with certain drills and would make us practice them over and over. It ended up really helping me in the field and I had a couple of scholarship offers for college after my senior year.
I ended up starting for most of my junior and senior years and we had a modicum of success. We played some great games against our archrival, Wingfield, but never could get past them for post-season play. Within just a couple of years after my graduation in 1978, Jim Hill and coach Gibson won a state championship. I was in awe again.
He had a couple of pet phrases that I remember well: 1) If we asked him what time it was during practice, he’d answer “Why? Are you taking medicine?” 2) If he ever heard anyone say “I can’t,” he’d always shoot back “Can’t never could!”
On Saturday, April 18, 2015, Terry High School will officially re-name their baseball field in honor of Coach Jerry Gibson. Judging by the number of responses from former players and their family members along with a host of students who never even played baseball, this will be a great celebration.
I really wish I could be there. I’d like to honor the “time” coach Gibson invested in me, and so many others, across the years. He coached high school boys from 1976-2014. He won championships along the way but he also won hearts.
Coach Gibson also demonstrated a “can-do” attitude that flew in the face of “can’t never could.”
He took things that didn’t previously exist and created success. He took high school age boys, full of angst and potential, and made men out of them. And he and Fredna took personal tragedy, as in the loss of their older son, Brad, and said, in essence, “I don’t know how, but we’re gonna make it.”
Lastly, another frequent saying for Coach was “Respect the Game.” He wanted the game of baseball to be a metaphor for life. He thought you ought to play the game by the rules, honor tradition, and respect your opponent.
I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I ended up coaching baseball, softball and golf at a couple of the colleges at which I’ve been employed. Many of those moments with coach Gibson came back to life as I worked with my student-athletes. His impact was both personal and professional.
Our society could use a lot more folks like Jerry Gibson. Terry High School recognized this reality and I’m grateful their field will carry coach Gibson’s name from here on out. For those of us who know him, that name will mean a lot more than just the location for a baseball game.