L-R, Bob Brown, Harley "Skeeter" Swift, Jerry White and Charles "Sonny" Smith
Daniel Boone High School invested a few Bucs in its anti-bullying program on Wednesday, and they generated interest.
Boone service-learning teacher Bob Brown invited his former East Tennessee State basketball coach, Sonny Smith, and former ETSU player Skeeter Swift to speak to the entire freshman class as part of Brown’s EPIC (encourage, protect, invest, connect) program.
The accomplishments of the tall senior citizens were probably lost on nearly all of the freshmen spectators in the packed auditorium.
The 6-foot-8 Brown scored 1,022 points at ETSU and finished second in the nation in field goal percentage when he was a junior. Smith turned ETSU around in the late 1970s before going to Auburn, where he coached Charles Barkley and reached an Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. And Swift was the 1968 Ohio Valley Conference player of the year after helping the Bucs to the Sweet 16 before playing five years in the ABA with such players as Julius Erving and George Gervin.
But the Bucs bridged the generation gap. Brown began by talking about how he was averaging approximately 28 points per game at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga when he went scoreless and fouled out of a game. The reason, he said, was seeing the opposing cheerleaders and fans making fun of his large shoes, and then noticing some of his school’s people laughing, too.
“When I got out there one of their cheerleaders was doing a little dance in my size 18 tennis shoes, and she seemed to be enjoying herself,” Brown said. “I looked up in the stands and they were passing my shoes everywhere. Father Connor, our principal, was laughing. Our coach was laughing.”
Some 30 years, when Brown thought he was having a heart attack, he said his doctor told him it was a panic attack rooted in the teasing he’d endured as a tall, long-footed teen.
“So when they asked me to help with the EPIC program,” Brown said, “that’s special to my heart, because I don’t care how big you are or how little you are, when somebody belittles you, harasses you, bullies, it stays with you for the rest of your life.”
Many moving moments surfaced in Swift’s approximately 20 minutes with the microphone. It was as if the setting triggered teenage flashbacks.
Swift says he was ostracized for everything from being overweight and having big ears to attending a preppy school while being from the “other side of the tracks.” He told the Boone students that he usually opted to be angrily engaged with the torment.
“How many of you in here have already been teased in the halls by upperclassmen,” Swift said. “Let me tell you the hardest thing to do, and I didn’t do it — just smile and go on. But that’s hard. I can’t tell you I did it. I’d want to fight. … Whether I beat them or I didn’t beat them, still, they’d got the best of me.”
Swift was even bullied at home.
“My mother was an alcoholic,” he said. “My stepfather was an alcoholic. My father was an alcoholic. … Do I dislike my mother? No, she’s passed on. I don’t know her circumstances. But she used to physically beat the snot out of me — and I probably deserved it, because I was wild as a buck.
“There’s people in here that come from a rough home. ... I know there’s somebody in here hurting.”
Swift encouraged students to have faith in themselves, and said support and inspiration are sure to follow.
“It may come from an English teacher,” he said. “It may come from a basketball coach. It may come from someone you don’t even know, if you’ll just open up. Don’t think everybody’s mean.”
Swift talked about how he cheated his way through school until an ETSU professor caught him. He consequently made a C on his first test without cheating, and was so happy that he instantly realized he’d been cheating himself all those years.
Swift mentioned being bipolar, having cancer and being married five times. He chuckled about Brown’s PowerPoint presentation showing a picture of Smith and his wife, who’ve been married 55 years.
Preparation for marriage, Swift said, was actually the ETSU course in which he’d been caught cheating.
Particularly poignant, when he was about to conclude, Swift said he hated to leave. Inadvertently, it seemed to have multiple meanings, especially when considering how he’d talked about seeing flowers at makeshift memorials along the highways and how quickly life comes and goes.
It also appeared he’d momentarily escaped into the vision of having another shot at high school, and becoming friends with these appreciative students in the audience who, this time around, were laughing at him for the right reasons.
Smith’s folksy delivery also resonated, which didn’t surprise Brown.
“Coaching and teaching are about building relationships,” Brown said. “Coach Smith built relationships with his players. If I’d played for him more than one year, I think I probably could’ve made the NBA.”
Smith told the students about how he had rickets and rheumatic fever as a baby. But he must have also been born with a dream to be a pro basketball player.
“I was held up from that,” Smith said, “by a lack of talent.... But I kept driving myself and driving myself until … I became a pretty good college player.”
Smith encouraged students to think about three or four interests which they could sew in a career field.
“You say, ‘Well, I’m too young for that,’” he said. “But you’re not too young for that. ... Once you have accomplished a goal that you have established for yourself, you’re gonna have an amount of pride in yourself that’s gonna make everything worthwhile that you had to go through to get there. You have to work to get where you want to go.”
Those in attendance included former Daniel Boone/ETSU player Mark Larkey, former Lady Blazers coach Clarence Mabe and former Hampton state champion basketball player Jerry White, who Smith described with “greatness” for winning “more than 700 basketball games” as coach at Hampton.
Retired FBI agent Al Hamlett, a friend of Swift and Brown’s, also attended, and said he will speak to Brown’s students at some point this year.
Smith and Swift would be a tough act to follow. They clearly connected, as Brown constantly does, with the students. Brown mentioned several girls going up to hug Swift when the program concluded.
“Coach Smith was like a dad to me and Skeeter was like a tough big brother,” Brown said. “I knew the students would love them. ... I thought it was amazing.”