Vaya con Dios, Coach Neely

Mike Neely, longtime president of the Odessa YMCA, is retiring.

Maybe you saw the article in the paper or, like many, knew him personally. I didn’t, or at least I never knew anyone by that name.

There was a Mike Neely who seemed to practically rebuild the YMCA during the past 10 years, but I never met this Mike person. I only ever knew one guy named Neely, and I always call him “Coach.”

Before he took the job at the YMCA, he was a seventh-grade coach at Bonham Junior High, and his first and last year there was the first of my three.

I, along with about two dozen other young men, was lucky enough to be “one of his” on Bonham’s seventh-grade Blue football team. We were, I still suspect, intended to be the B team that year. It was denied at the time, but every other junior high had A and B teams and while we had several good players, the White team had more (including the phenomenal running back Bradley McDaniel). On sheer physical talent, I’ve always thought we were lacking.

All the same, our team went 5-3 that season, which matched the White team (Bradley had been sick and missed a couple games), and we got better as the year went on, including a 66-6 rout of Ector in the finale. The Eagles scored on their first offensive play then never again.

Coach was actually kind of frustrated that day. Our second- and third-string players were in almost all second half, and on the last game of the season, he couldn’t tell them not to get a touchdown on a dive up the middle or sack the quarterback if they had the chance. By the end, we really were a great team, top to bottom. He’d made us that way.

I remember him from that time easily, but not clearly. Specifics are lost to the haze of bygone days. I remember that husky voice, always genuinely, enthusiastically encouraging even when he got onto you, but I can’t communicate the affection in the helmet slaps or the tense eagerness of his body language on the sideline as he watched and couldn’t help us anymore. We wanted to win, true, but more I think we didn’t want to let him down.

In all, he was my coach for no more than three or four months, but he is Coach. The teetering of early adolescence is a pivotal time; a small push in any direction can have a monumental effect on later life. Coach Neely’s push was positive. Many of my virtues are due to him and all my failings in spite of him.

I looked through my old yearbook the other day, and although it was a mistake, it was a good one. If you check the faculty section, there’s no Mike Neely listed. In fact, he’s only identified in two pictures: group photos for seventh-grade football and basketball.

As “Coach Neely.”

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