My first encounter with O.L. Gilstrap -- "initiation" might be more like it-- came as a rookie in the sports department taking call-ins.
"I'm calling in the Columbus College tennis score," he said in the tone of a drill instructor. "You gonna put it in the paper?"
"Yes, sir. I'll write it up."
"Well, y'all left it out last time I called. That's weak."
Speedy Gilstrap, speaking at his father's funeral Saturday, offered this insight of the greatest competitor he ever knew:
"For someone who survived the Great Depression, served in World War II, was an author and a poet, and a lay preacher and a Sunday school teacher, it was amazing how he could make so many people mad. But he just expected people to do what they were supposed to do. If you were an official or a sports writer or a son or a wife and didn't do what he expected, you were going to hear about it."
Let's take a quick time out here. When you did do as he expected, you would hear about it. Just as he played both ends of the court with unwavering tenacity, Gilstrap had a compassionate heart. He was just as quick with a smile and kind word as he was with a glare and barb.
And even in anger, Gilstrap often made his point with humor -- such as the time he sent six players on the court while he coached at Dothan. The ref blew his whistle and called a technical foul.
"Coach, you have six men on the floor."
Gilstrap nodded. "Well, they've been camping out in the lane all night. I figured if you couldn't count to three, then you couldn't count to six."
Or the time he put in two seldom-used subs and told them to guard the officials. A bewildered ref asked Gilstrap why the players were guarding them. Gilstrap fired back, "Because I teach our players to guard the guys who are hurting us the most, and right now that's you two guys."
Oscar Lee Gilstrap's unquenchable thirst for winning can be traced back to his senior year in high school in 1942 in Ardmore, Okla. Ardmore didn't have enough athletes to send to the state meet in Norman. So Gilstrap cut school, hitchhiked 85 miles to the university, entered five events and won them all. "Ardmore" finished third in the state in team scoring. Gilstrap made such an impression that the Sooners gave him a track scholarship. He led the Big Six Conference in scoring as a freshman before getting drafted into the U.S. Army.
Gilstrap migrated this way after graduating from Oklahoma, earning his master's degree at Alabama. That started a trail of coaching jobs -- first in Dothan, then to the Florida panhandle with stops at Valparaiso and Pensacola in Florida, then to Mobile and back to Dothan before he finally settled in Columbus as the first boys basketball coach at newly opened Kendrick High School in 1967. Speedy was a sophomore guard, but Gilstrap sent him to Columbus to play for Joe Sparks because the program was more established.
Speedy found out his senior year just how competitive his father was. He was leading the Bi-Cities in scoring, and his dad employed a box-and-one defense on Columbus to contain Speedy. That tactic, followed by his decision to guard Jordan's Charles Wright man-to-man, allowed Wright to win the scoring title. Speedy checked the Kendrick book and saw that Wright had all but two of his team's points.
"But we won the game," said the elder Gilstrap.
Bubba Ball played tennis with him and against him.
"He was a different type of guy," Ball said. "Very competitive. He was a good coach. He had a lot of confidence in what he was doing. He was very sensitive about his family, about his team and about his job. He was very competitive, but he had a soft heart. There's nothing detrimental you can say about him."
Gilstrap remained competitive for about as long as he could walk. He competed in the Senior Olympics until he was 85, winning more than 30 gold medals in 10 events. On one trip, he found out he could enter one more event, so he called Speedy for his advice.
"I can enter the softball throw or the pole vault."
"Dad, do the softball throw."
But when Speedy picked him up at the airport, his dad was bandaged from his hip to his foot.
"You did the pole vault, didn't you?" Speedy said.
"Yeah," he said. "I was on my way to the softball throw but passed the pole vault area and saw four guys, and I knew I could beat three of them."
Alas, his pole missed the pit, and Gilstrap, pushing 80 years old, went sprawling to the ground.
Then there was the time he coached a church league basketball team of guys mostly in their 20s. He was about 75 at the time. His team had four players one game, so Gilstrap started -- and tried to take a charge. He was called for a foul.
Speedy said, "I think the blocking call was followed by a technical."
Gilstrap finally was recognized for his accomplishments when he was inducted into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame this year. His health was failing, which he didn't know then was due to cancer. He gave an eloquent acceptance speech and wasn't too modest to run down his list of medals, which brought laughter and a standing ovation from the audience.
If heaven has a tennis court or a pole vault pit or a softball field, you know where you will find O.L. Gilstrap.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.