I don’t like to write this kind of column. But sometimes you must write because you know it’s the right thing to do, the person is deserving, so you write because you feel you must. There are also times when you write because you want to. This is one of those times.
A lot of us lost a dear friend this week, Eddie Sutphin. Why was he a good friend to so many? Because he really wanted to be your friend, and if you had a child, he wanted to help provide something good for your child. Eddie cared about people. Eddie valued friendship. Eddie cared about family. He cared about kids. So how do you not be friends with a man like that? Eddie was one of my “good, good” friends.
I first met Eddie when he was a junior at old Dublin High School in 1971. I was assigned to covering the Dukes during their final three years before consolidation. I was young, a rookie reporter for the most part. But I had an idea about how the job should be done, and I used some ideas I had learned growing up from my father. I wanted to keep play by play, chart every play of the game, from the first to the last snap. I figured only then would you absolutely know how the game was decided, the most crucial plays. I always hated to read in newspapers where they just said so and so scored and the final score was whatever. That didn’t really tell you why the outcome of the game was what it was.
But to avoid taking two hours to add up every play, penalty, first down, and on and on, I needed a stat man. That spring I started going to Dublin baseball games. I wanted to learn about Dublin High so I would show up and hopefully get to know some people. I quickly came to like the baseball coach Ray Dunavant who was also on the football coaching staff. I told him what I was looking for and he told me look no more, the guy I needed was in left field. Eddie Sutphin. Before Eddie went away to college, he kept statistics for me for two football seasons, and did an excellent job. I hated to lose him, but little did I know, a lasting friendship was born.
And now he is gone, no doubt to a better place, but it happened at age 65, and you feel like Eddie should have been with us longer, and you grow frustrated because his last few years on this earth were difficult. The process that comes with cancer made me mad. It was wrong in my mind. But in several conversations I had with my old friend, he never blamed anything or anybody, never had a harsh word, never said “why me,” still loved keeping up with baseball, still asked about how I was doing and my sons, was happy when he found out I was a grandfather, spoke little of himself, and still tried to help with kids rec programs as long as he could.
Eventually he got to retire, and he was presented a plaque. They should have given him a $50,000 SUV. It would have been justified. He would have earned it. But it was good. Eddie finally got official notification that his efforts were appreciated. It meant much to him, just like the loving moments he spent down the stretch with his family.
Many of us will miss Eddie Sutphin. I will never forget him. For years as far as I was concerned, Eddie was the recreation department in Pulaski. Any questions, I went to Eddie. Any needs, I went to Eddie. Any concerns, I went to Eddie. Any requests or ideas, I went to Eddie. He was the man as far as I was concerned.
As rules and regulations mounted, and emphasis on success was lessened, Eddie knew I was frustrated with most all that. Behind closed doors he was understanding. He didn’t like some of it either. But Eddie went by the rules and regulations of his job, yet he never lost sight of common sense during my time. Not often, but every now and then he would help me by doing what he felt was right at the moment, what made common sense. Eddie also knew that all kids weren’t the same. He would make an adjustment if he could if he thought it was the best thing to do for the child. Working with Eddie was always a pleasure, and even if you didn’t get what you wanted, you went away maybe frustrated a bit, but never upset with Eddie. You always knew Eddie’s heart was in the right place.
Back in the mid-70s, Eddie wanted me to coach, both football and baseball. I declined. I was on the road a lot. I didn’t think I would have the time to do it right. Then one day my oldest son Shane came home from old Claremont Elementary and said, “Dad, I want to play baseball.” That got me to thinking, but still I said “no,” and because of the job I gave almost all my attention to the Cougars and Hokies, and developed a great relationship with the airplane. Hope I never do again.
But Eddie stayed after me, and I remembered something my father had told me years before. “When your sons say they want to play ball, it’s time for you to stop playing ball.” My father was right. I told Billy Smith, the publisher at the old Southwest Times, I wanted off the road, and except for times that were absolutely necessary, he said, “Okay.” Then I called Eddie back and said I was ready to coach Dixie Youth Baseball.
But Eddie had pulled a fast one on me. He told me to meet him at the rec building the next day, we would go down in the basement and I could pick out my equipment. The first thing he handed me was a heavy rubber thing with a platform and a post that stuck up in the air. I asked him what it was. He said, “That’s your brand new batting tee.” I asked, “What are you talking about?” He said, “You’re coaching t-ball, no pitch.” I said, “No way.” Eddie said, “Yes, I have already contacted most of the parents of the players on your team, and your own son will not have a coach if I don’t.” He had me over a barrel and knew it.
Eddie told me I would love it. Later I called my Dad who was an Official Little League baseball coach for over 20 years. I was almost embarrassed. Then he reminded me. When you were 8 and 9 years old you didn’t get to play. The tee allows these kids to play, plus it is a great teaching tool if you use it correctly. He said that Sutphin fellow is correct. I never told Eddie that, but later on in his retirement years Dad did some officiating for Eddie and they became friends. That was good.
Over the years I had more than my fair share of success coaching. We won the county title a number of times in various age divisions, but I was most proud that I always felt my kids were better players in the end than they were in the beginning.
And then came the 11-12 year old division, a great time to coach kids in this opinion. Pulaski Rec had never had any success in region competition against Grayson or Carroll Counties. And this time we started out losing, 1-0 in the first game, dropping us to the losers’ bracket. It was a tough defeat. But we kept hanging in, and the kids kept playing, and we won three straight games. But then my kids had to defeat Carroll and then Grayson in the final to win the region title. We were not in a good spot, but still alive.
Then my kids played a great game and dominated Carroll, and then it was the big one against Grayson where we were basically given little or no chance. But my kids were determined, good competitors, and they wanted to win. Even at that age you can tell when your team is focused. Eddie was on pins and needles. He must have told me a hundred times, “You know, we have never beaten these people, and never won a region championship in Pulaski Rec history.” I would just tell him, “Eddie, I know, but my kids aren’t afraid. From a pure talent standpoint, it may not look good, but don’t count my kids out. We’re ready to play.”
We got only one hit … just one. But it was a good one. We had a batter get hit by a pitch with two outs in the 6th, then a walk, and then Matt Hull caught a fastball smack on the sweet spot and it went high and far to straight center. John Doyle scored from second, and Shane Callahan scored from first, and Pulaski Rec had its first ever region crown, 2-1. The late Jason Corvin pitched a masterful game.
Eddie contained himself until all the proper things were taken care of, but when nobody was around but us, he gave me a huge hug. I’ve never seen him more proud. His face looked like a light bulb. I was always fortunate in both baseball and football. I had good kids, some talented kids, youngsters who would focus and you could coach. I also had good parents and assistants. I was very fortunate. I also had Eddie. He did a good job of concealing his emotions publicly, but behind closed doors Eddie Sutphin wanted to win. The last time I stopped by his office, there were still three large framed pictures of my teams that won titles. Eddie was so proud. I was proud of everybody that had anything to do with it, and I was also proud for Eddie.
Then came football. I coached the young Red Raiders, and then the junior league Blue Raiders. Eddie gave me a completely new team. Most of my kids had never played before, but I hadn’t coached football before so I guess we were all in trouble at the same time. The first season we won two games, just two, but we got better. The next year we won five games, and got to the county playoff final. But we were still getting better. I had hope because our best games were our last one in both seasons.
Then came 1990 and 1991. It all came together, and all my kids just kept getting bigger, stronger and better. We easily won the county championship and Eddie called me, and asked if I would come by his office downtown a few days later. He said he wanted me to see something. It was an entry form and listed all the rec departments, towns and counties that were invited to play in what was called the “Sandlot Super Bowl Competition.” It was for teams from here all the way to Lynchburg. I remember it just like it was yesterday. Eddie asked, “Can we do this?” I said, “I don’t know, but give me the key, let’s get the equipment back out, I’ll call the kids, and we’ll dang sure try.”
We had lost only one game in 1990. It was, 12-6 at Salem. I was upset after the game. We hadn’t played well. I thought my kids had been a little hesitant in the big stadium down at Salem. Now we win three straight games, and we’re in the “Super Bowl Game” against that same team from Salem. I had told my kids if they ever got the opportunity to play that team again they would win, however, at the time I didn’t anticipate the opportunity. In one of the finest performances ever by any sandlot team in any sport I ever coached, the Pulaski Blue Raiders dropped the hammer on Salem, 26-6 and won the crown.
Eddie told me later on that evening as the team was enjoying dinner, “Dan, you’ve coached the greatest two wins in Pulaski Rec history.” I didn’t really think it was that big a deal at the time. The Cougars were trying to win a state championship, but it meant a lot to Eddie Sutphin, and it meant more to me than I realized at the moment. I have very fond memories of those kids and their families.
A couple months later I was talking with Eddie and he said do you think we can ever have that good a year again? I told him if he could get me enough games to play outside the county so that I could have a county team within the weight limit rules, but also as many games as possible so I could have a second lineup based entirely on where kids should play according to their ability so we could get prepared for the “Super Bowl” playoffs, I thought we might be able to win it again. I told Eddie I have good parents. We’ll go anywhere to play, and we did, Grayson County, Wythe County, Roanoke County, City of Salem, Bristol, Tenn., Bluefield, West Virginia, and Bedford.
Eddie went to work. He got me 38 games over a two-year period of time, not normal for sandlot football, but my kids wanted to get better, they wanted to go, so we went. The Blue Raiders finished 36-1-1. The loss and tie were avenged. Over the two seasons the Blue Raiders had a 21-game winning streak in 1991 and an overall 33-game winning streak from 1990-91. And we won a second straight “Sandlot Super Bowl” in Salem Stadium. They came to present the big plaque, but I said, “Eddie this is yours,” and he was presented the trophy by Salem High head coach Willis White. You cannot imagine the smile Eddie had on his face. I was pretty happy too. But an hour later Eddie said Salem Rec had already given him written notice. I said notice for what? He said we will not get an invitation to return to the “Sandlot Super Bowl” again. We both just laughed.
Through all the success, the enjoyment of the time, it all happened for three major reasons, and I wasn’t one of them. Our accomplishments and all the victories were because I was lucky. I had great kids, great parents, and I had Eddie Sutphin, the best support anybody could ever hope to have. He stayed in the background, but he was always up front with me. If there was anything I was ever able to do that brought him enjoyment, that makes me proud.
Eddie Sutphin was proud of his rec department, proud of Pulaski County, proud of our kids, and he took great pride in our accomplishments. And Eddie is a man that all of us should remember with a great deal of pride. He made thousands of our lives better. I don’t think there’s a nicer thing you can say about a man. He made our lives better. God’s Speed old friend.
By DAN CALLAHAN, The Patriot