The Lucky One – Part 2

Carlton was finishing up his medical school residency in Philadelphia, after graduating from the Temple University school of medicine, when he met Reggie White.

Reggie was in his second year as a defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles. After two years playing for Memphis in the defunct USFL, he moved to the NFL where he was on his way to the first of 13 Pro Bowl selections as one of the greatest football players of all time. Carlton was chosen to participate in a benefit for children on behalf of the  medical school. He was specializing in pediatrics and would soon begin his own practice after residency. Reggie was there as a volunteer – a young, dynamic personality that the kids would would look up to.

Reggie and Carlton got to talking during a break in the activities, and Carlton found out that they had the same hometown. Carlton had left Chattanooga before Reggie became known as a football player for Howard High School. Not being a big fan of college football, Carlton didn’t know that Reggie had played and starred at UT. Nevertheless, they hit it off right away – Reggie appreciated the fact that a member of the community wasn’t overly enamored with the star power of a local professional athlete.

Reggie and Carlton would periodically see each other over the next six years before Reggie left Philadelphia to play for Green Bay, and they created a friendship to the point that Carlton, his wife, and two young children were invited to the White’s about twice a year for dinner and friendly socializing.

Several years later, Carlton’s son James had become a very good high school football player in the Philadelphia area where Carlton had established a practice as a pediatric physician. James was good enough to get a peek from some local schools, including Temple and Penn. It was then that Carlton contacted Reggie who was in his next to last season with the Packers, on his way to his twelfth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance. Carlton wanted to see if his friend could help out getting James more looks. He asked for advice.

Reggie asked if James had thought of going to Tennessee, who was at that time getting ready to begin their national championship season. Carlton didn’t think his son was that good. Reggie said it didn’t matter – he would put a good word in with the coaching staff. One thing led to another, and James and his father were invited to Knoxville for a campus visit. They were on the sideline when Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner dropped the ball as the Number 10 Razorbacks were trying to run out the clock and kill the Number 1 Vols’ chance at a national championship. Both jumped for joy as Travis Henry made his touchdown run in the final seconds to save Tennessee’s season. They had never heard noise like that in their lives.

The vist to Knoxville was fun and full of optimism, but James eventually signed with Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. What struck Carlton the most about their visit was the experience of being back in Tennessee. Things had changed a great deal from his childhood and from the time he attended Tennessee State in Nashville for his undergraduate studies before moving on to Philadelphia. He noticed that society in general had changed a lot in the twenty years that he’d been away from his home state. Coincidentally, or not, Carlton was thinking about moving out of Philadelphia after James graduated college. He was now divorced, had moved into middle age, and was facing changes in his life. Everything had a strange, blurry vagueness to it. One thing he never saw was the possibility of moving back south.

*****

On Wednesday, Carlton and James were at Coltrane’s on M.L. King Boulevard, one of the main avenues of the north side of Chattanooga. It was hard to believe that this was the old Ninth Street, the former black business district in the days of segregation. Now, father and son were in an establishment that was chic, a large, half-way underground room that welcomed the natural daylight let in from windows looking east, the direction in which Boone Heights lay across the railroad tracks, where James’ father had witnessed a much different society as a young boy.

The two men were enjoying lunch – some smoked chicken with white barbecue sauce and a little creamy potato salad with some turnip greens thrown in for good measure. James was in town with his wife for the holidays to visit his father, who had moved back to his old hometown to be a pediatrician. James was now living in Oak Ridge, working as an engineer since graduating from Lafayette, College. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory was helping him get his masters in engineering at UT.

They were talking about Tennessee football.

“Hey Pop, Dooley really has the thing turned around.”

James and Carlton had gone to the Ole Miss game earlier in the year, where both became believers in the new regime.

“Yeah, son, I believe you’re right. If this was Fulmer’s team, they would have kept running the ball when they weren’t having any success. They would have run it until it was too late, and then gone to the passing game. It wouldn’t have worked. But Dooley, man, you’ve got to give him credit, the running game was going nowhere, and after only a series or two, he turned to Tyler Bray for some downtown football, I’m tellin’ ya.”

Carlton had never been a Tennessee football fan until he returned to Chattanooga and started to go to games three years ago after James had found work in Oak Ridge and graduate studies in Knoxville. Their first game together at Neyland Stadium was the narrow win over Northern Illinois in 2008, Phil Fulmer’s tumultuous last season as the Vol head coach. The atmosphere that day was a whole lot different than it was during that 1998 game against Arkansas.

“I like the way he goes about things in an organized way“, said James. “He’s broken it down into four phases. Phase One is running and lifting without practice. Phase Two is like a mini-training camp where they work on fundamentals. Phase Three is game week preparation. Phase Four is what happens before the game once they hit Nashville. It’s a good way to approach things going into such a long time gap between games. Of course, we never had that problem when I was playing for the Leopards!”

They had one of those good father-son laughs over that one. Lafayette plays Lehigh every season, the longest running rivalry in the nation, and James and Carlton always considered that annual affair as Lafayette’s bowl game. Lehigh had defeated James’ team his first three seasons, but they finally won his senior season in the 138th edition of The Rivalry, a game that decided the Patriot League champions.

The subject turned to Tennessee’s personnel matters leading up to the Music City Bowl. James said, “I don’t know what’s up with Janzen Jackson. He leaves town and says it’s just personal business. I just don’t get a good feeling about him.”

Carlton instantly remembered when he was at Tennessee State on a baseball scholarship, getting his undergraduate degree in engineering before changing his aspirations to medicine. One afternoon, he got a call from his mother, who told Carlton that his father had an altercation with a white co-worker and that he’d been injured. Carlton dropped everything and rushed to Chattanooga. He told his coach that it was personal business. He was too ashamed and scared to give away any details. His coach trusted Carlton, and that meant everything.

“Let Dooley handle it”, said Carlton, half-admonishing his son. “We don’t know what’s going on, and it’s not fair to the young man for people like us to speculate about his intentions. We don’t know what kind of family issues or other issues might be happening down in Louisiana. It might be nothing. It might be some seriously bad stuff. Sometimes, football just isn’t that important, James.”

James understood, of course, especially when his dad talked sense, which he always seemed to do when the two were together. Carlton knew that his son really couldn’t understand the things that his father had experienced as a youngster in Chattanooga. James grew up in the upper-middle class suburbs of Philadelphia. He had no way of knowing stuff like that.

He was the lucky one

*****

Go back to Part One for the beginning of this story.

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  1. The Lucky One – Part 1 « Vols in the Fall - 17 December 2010
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