Jimmy Hightower won football games but it wasn't victories that packed the pews this week at the First Methodist Church in Americus
Hightower spent his life coaching in small-town Georgia in an era when the local football coach had a platform that was taller than the steeple at First Baptist. He won championships and filled trophy cases at Americus High and LaGrange High.
But they don't hand out awards for the lives men like Hightower saved at a time when young people needed them most. They aren't installed in halls of fame for the pride they brought to a community or the successful adults they nurtured when they were wearing pads and cleats.
Hightower coached football at Americus High from 1954 to 1971, racking up an impressive 103-16-4 record and two state titles. Oh, and by the way, he also turned out three state championships in golf and one each in basketball and baseball. He moved to LaGrange in 1972 and was 47-34-1 in eight seasons.
Sumter County didn't forget him, and in 1982 he returned as the first head coach of Georgia Southwestern's fledgling football team. Using smoke and mirrors, he led the Hurricanes to five straight winning seasons. He retired in 1989.
Hightower died last Saturday at the age of 83. Former players -- "Jimmy's kids," they're called -- rallied around him during his final battle with throat cancer and were out in force when he was eulogized on Tuesday. Mourners included two of his old quarterbacks -- former Atlanta Falcon coach Dan Reaves and former Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey.
Those of us who grew up in bigger places can't fully grasp the influence football coaches had in rural Georgia. Boys dreamed of playing for them. Car dealers made sure they drove the automobile of their choice and the local Gulf station kept the vehicle full of gas. The coach's freezer was stocked with steaks and if his family went out to eat at the diner on the town square the waitress didn't bring them a check.
They were all over Georgia. Valdosta had Wright Bazemore. Warner Robins had Robert Davis. LaGrange had Oliver Hunnicutt. Thomaston had Jim Cavan. Athens had Weyman Sellers. Lincoln County had Larry Campbell. In their small domains, they were king.
But this week, when folks talked about Hightower, they did more than count victories and trophies. They remembered funny stories he loved to tell. They talked about his ability to lead, inspire and teach.
They talked about how hard he worked and how he cherished moments when people he coached did something special with their lives.
There was a time when Jimmy Hightower made Americus swoon on Friday nights but on Tuesday they didn't swoon. They just said goodbye.
-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at email@example.com.