In the game of football, everyone is concerned with creating a legacy: players, coaches and reporters. While most prefer cementing their legacy on the turf, others reach deeper.
Bill Sumlin knew his legacy. He was looking right at him. He walked, talked and coached from the sideline below. It was the 2015 Music City Bowl, Louisville vs. Texas A&M.
Bill Sumlin stuck to the corner of a skybox at Nissan Stadium with his wife of 52 years close by his side. The box was alive with chatter and embraces, but Bill Sumlin kept his eyes on one person: his son.
I noticed this focus when I walked into the room.
MEETING BILL SUMLIN
It was a rare night off for me during the college football season, and I was among people near and dear to my heart. I was engaged in a conversation when I noticed a woman lurking, literally craning her neck to listen to my unique voice.
Suddenly, Marion Sumlin burst into the conversation and exclaimed, "I knew it was you! I'd recognize that voice anywhere! Rachel Baribeau. Mr. Bill and I listen to you all of the time on SiriusXM. Come here; you have to meet Mr. Bill."
She took me by the elbow and led me to the man who had his eyes glued on the field.
Marion excitedly shared her new secret, literally clapping, "This is Rachel – Rachel Baribeau!"
His face lit up.
"Oh, my gosh, Rachel," Bill Sumlin said to me. "We listen to you. You are our favorite. We think you are a superstar."
He meant it. The compliment resonated deep down into my soul. Bill and Marion Sumlin had known me only for an instant in real life, but in reality our hearts knew one another much longer. Without ever knowing it, Bill Sumlin spoke to my need to matter, my need to affect, my need to leave a legacy.
This was nothing new for Bill Sumlin. He had been doing it his entire life.
ENTERING A NEW WORLD
Bill Sumlin was a football, baseball and basketball coach at segregated Booker T. Washington High in Brewton, Ala., for six years; he coached an undefeated football team in 1964. He preached to his only son that there was no limit to what he could achieve, even though there were limitations for Bill Sumlin at that time in the Deep South.
"I was raised that anything is possible," Kevin Sumlin said in a recent interview with me. "I think the frustration that my dad felt was because there was a ceiling at Booker T Washington. Instead of complaining and moaning – do something about it.
"That was his deal, and he did it by example."
The elder Sumlin lined the fields, opened the pools and was everything to everyone, even holding the title of equipment manager. He was a one-man band, truly. It wore on him, yet he kept pushing. This way of life, the oppression, was not familiar to Bill Sumlin, at least not at first.
"This was really hard on him because he had spent time in California growing up," Kevin Sumlin said. "Because of that, he had a different upbringing than that a lot of people in south Alabama at that time, in the late '50s, early '60s. So that was very frustrating to him, and it was even more frustrating because of how the attitude was in the Bay Area in California in the '40s as opposed to the Deep South in the late '50s or '60s."
Bill Sumlin's formative years were mostly spent in Oakland, where his father worked in the shipyards building boats for "the war," as Kevin Sumlin said. But when the war was won, there was no more need for those big ships and the jobs dried up.
"So off to Alabama they went," Sumlin told me. "At some point as they approached the Deep South, they had to get off and go to the back of the train.
"My father didn't understand what was going on, but his mom, my grandmother, started crying. Within two weeks living in Brewton, he had figured it out."
The discovery of his new way of life, that fateful journey and everything that happened in Alabama would serve to cement his legacy. Bill Sumlin recounted one particularly harrowing tale of racism, and redemption, to ESPN's Ivan Maisel in 2012.
The team drove home, back to Brewton. The only restaurant still open was in the Greyhound station. What happened next is according to Sumlin's recollection. Lovelace, his former player, has only vague memories of the restaurant. But it's a story that Kevin Sumlin said he has heard "all my life."
As the Washington team walked through the door marked "White Only," the music continued to play but the diners went quiet. The team sat down at the counter.
"What do you all want in here?" the person behind the counter asked.
"I want to see a menu," Sumlin replied.
"I want to order some food for my team," Sumlin said.
"You're in the wrong place."
Someone called the police. A few minutes later, police chief Glenn Holt walked in. He and Sumlin had been friends for some time.
"Everybody else thought they were going to arrest us or take us out to jail," Sumlin said. "He said, 'Coach, can I see you a minute?' " He had another guy with him. I went back there to him. And he started smiling.
"He said, 'They think I'm going to do something to you. I'll tell you what. I'm going to tell them to let you go ahead and eat, and I'm going to take care of this.' He says, 'I'll be outside watching in case they call anyone to do something else, to carry on.' "
Chief Holt walked up to the counter and began handing out menus to the players.
"On the way back," Sumlin said, "he said to me, 'Tell me something, Coach.'
"I said, 'What is that?' "
" 'What took you so long to get here?' "
Just like Mr. Bill (as I called him), there were people like Sheriff Holt who were willing to put their necks on the line. Countless other anonymous men and women were willing to take risks in order to promote racial equality. Kevin Sumlin said these good Samaritans provided food when no one else would, and medicine for the team.
Eventually, the burden of doing it all on his own wore down Sumlin. He moved his young family to Indiana, escaping the pressures of Brewton. There he earned a masters degree, coached on the side and eventually became a full-time administrator. All the while, his son was falling in love with the same game that had bewitched Bill his entire life. Kevin walked-on at Purdue, where he started for four years at linebacker.
KEVIN SUMLIN CARRIES THE TORCH
After graduation, Kevin Sumlin got a job as a group insurance underwriter. But after less than two years, he quit and followed his father into coaching.
"He didn't want me to be a coach," Kevin Sumlin remembers. "I went to be a (graduate assistant) in Pullman, Washington. Then I got a job at Wyoming as a wide receivers coach in Laramie, making $19K a year.
"(My father) came to a game in Pullman. After the game, we had some time where he told me, 'I don't understand this. You can be so far ahead in the business world. You aren't making any money.' But after another game in Laramie and full-time coaching in D-I, he said, 'You look happy. People will always work harder at something that they are happy about.' "
It turns out Kevin was Bill's legacy. The two would huddle over the game, scouting opponents.
"He hung out around practice throughout my career until he got sick the last couple of years," Kevin said. "I'm not saying he was a spy (Kevin said this with a full belly-laugh), but he would gather his own intel, information and what he thought was important. He would share that with me. If he had concerns, he would share that with me, too.
"It was never an 'I told you' situation. It was always more about overall chemistry. He would say, 'I can't get that from television; I have to look in people's eyes.' "
That's the thing about legacies. Without even knowing it, other people's lives touch ours. They do so profoundly and become embedded in the fabric of our being. Their struggles, their joy, their overcoming, end up making us who we really are.
It happened for me, instantaneously, unexpectedly, at a football game in Nashville. Bill Sumlin's story became my story. His legacy became one I want to carry out.
Kevin Sumlin lost his dad and the world lost a good man on Sunday, March 6. Bill Sumlin was 81. If you see Kevin Sumlin standing a little taller this year, there is good reason. He is standing on the shoulders of his father: a coach, a devoted grandfather, an adoring husband, a world-changer, a simple man who refused to accept the status quo.
We miss you, Mr. Bill.
(You can follow Rachel Baribeau on Twitter @RachelBaribeau)
© 2016, Rachel Baribeau. All rights reserved.
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