Sports

April 11, 2013

Loran Smith: Hightower deserved outpouring of love

AMERICUS — An agri-business community overflowed the First Methodist Church sanctuary here on April 2 to pour out its heart to a grieving family as residents remembered a high school football coach who, for decades, gave his life to teaching and offering sage advice to young kids.

Jimmy Hightower was an accomplished coach who claimed multiple state titles. He caused Americus to swoon on Friday nights. Whenever a game is played, victory is the objective of all who venture into sports. Championships are the ultimate goal, but those like Hightower see themselves doing more than building trophy cases to validate their careers.

He didn’t coach in the era of TV shows, shoe contracts and dealer cars. This is not to say that the highest paid coach in America doesn’t care about his kids or want the best for them, but the Jimmy Hightowers of our communities across America feel a need to help kids at a time in their lives when the help is most critical.

Even those college coaches with an altruistic bent often must be expedient. You have to find those who produce every year and your focus is for the next class around whom you hope to build a contender.

A high school coach sees his kids in the hallway in class and at church. There is often a bonding that is everlasting. At Jimmy’s service, his daughter Lara and his son David shared with the mourners a sampling of the hundreds of cards and letters from “Jimmy’s kids,” which poured into the Hightower home at Woodland Acres.

“Jimmy’s kids” knew he was dying of throat cancer and wanted to tell him what he had meant to their life. They knew his time was short. They wanted him to know that when his burden was at its highest, accompanied by unrelenting pain, that they — as he did for them — cared about him.

In times like these, you always have your own reflections as the funeral ceremony moves along. You think about a good life lived, a life in which someone reached out to others. A man of instruction, a man of discipline, a man of goodwill, a man whose influence enhanced the underpinnings of an entire community. They came, with deep reverence, to say goodbye.

When I first got to know Jimmy, he was a member of the board of directors of the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association. He worked for his professional organization to provide service to coaches through the high school all-star game and its annual clinic. He loved to interact with fellow coaches. He enjoyed a bit of penetrating humor and a walk on the light side.

Mention the name of a coach, and he remembered something that caused him to grin. Wry humor made him chuckle, but he was never mean-spirited. When the joke was on him, he laughed loudest.

Two of his players became head coaches in the NFL — Dan Reeves and Chan Gailey, both of whom were in attendance. He was proud of them, but he was just as proud of the kids who finished high school and went about settling in their respective communities and became productive and benevolent citizens.

Jimmy was a member of several halls of fame. He was elected to the State of Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1989. He enjoyed the hall’s annual dinner in Macon. When the roll call of the inductees took place, he walked proudly to his seat.

Honor came his way because he had underscored the work ethic and because he was an exceptional leader. However, what he enjoyed most was not the enduring tribute that this event brought, but the opportunity to be with his friends. To enjoy reminiscing and remembering yesteryear, those precious memories which remind us of the days of our treasured past.

High school coaches have more challenges than any in the coaching profession. They daily collide with the frustrations and emotions of immature kids in need of direction.

High school coaches give of themselves. That is why Americus responded in abundance to pay its respects to this exceptional man.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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