The Game of Life
A year into his retirement, Coach John McKissick reveals a glimpse of the man behind the winning scores, and the values that continue to make him a winner in the most important game of all.
There are a few days in the life of a small town that stand out above all others in history. On one such day in September of 1886, out of the clear blue sky, the Town of Summerville was shaken to its core. Chimneys toppled, and houses were moved from their foundations by the Great Earthquake. Experts insist no such tremors were officially recorded on the summer day in June of 2015, when Coach John McKissick stepped to the microphone to announce his retirement from Summerville High School, but there are those who vow that the ground shuddered beneath their feet. Though it was not entirely unexpected, the collective gasp of three generations could be heard across the gridirons of American football.
To those who have called him “Coach” for over 63 years, it is difficult to imagine him in any other role, and it seems as though he was born to it. Since the early 1950s, McKissick has been the standard by which many measured themselves; challenging, motivating, and inspiring an entire town to be its very best. He was ours, and the big man on the sidelines made us stand a little taller, and push our chests out with pride. Long before he was known to the nation, and made history by becoming the most winning coach of all time, he made winners of us all.
Today, at age 90, Coach McKissick retains the same bearing of a force to be reckoned with. Though he could easily intimidate, that has never been his way. He is a man that has long known he was blessed to have spent his life doing what he loved. There is a bit of wistfulness behind his smile, and one senses that the freedom brought about by his retirement is bittersweet.
We know the statistics by heart; 5 perfect seasons, 621 victories – more than any coach on any level, 10 State Championships, and a remarkable 8 NFL players led to success by his expert hand. But to fully appreciate them, it is important to realize that the road leading him to a career that would bring him national acclaim, shatter recorded history, and make him the stuff of legend, was neither straight nor smooth; it took many twists and turns. Each played a part in creating a man destined to build men – and in doing so, helped build a community.
A child of the Great Depression, born September 25, 1926, McKissick learned early that life could be unfair. He saw his father’s business fall victim to the crash of the American economy, and watched the ashes of his family’s home smolder on a cold Christmas Day. Despite their misfortune, his parents taught him that when you fall, you pick yourself up. Throughout his childhood, they instilled in him the value of faith, hard work, character, discipline and loyalty. He took those values with him when he was recruited to play football for Clemson Agricultural College, a military institution at the time. But football and college took a back seat to duty and country. With WWII demanding the best and the brightest to defend freedom, college, would have to wait.
“The war (WWII) was on, and I was drafted. There were no deferments back then. After Basic training down in Georgia, I volunteered for the Paratroopers,” he explains. “The war was hot, and our class was to report to California for assignment to the Army’s 17th Airborne Division.”
Had it not been for a 30-day delayed route, McKissick would have been among those who infamously jumped Germany’s Rhine River, but fate once again stepped in. When President Truman dropped the atomic bomb, McKissick was rerouted, and assigned to Fort Bragg, NC.
“I enjoyed jumping, and I had also completed Glider School, so I figured I’d be doing something like that, but when we got there, they took all us guys who were over six feet tall and in good physical shape, for what they called the ‘Gypsy Outfit.’ They paraded us all over the United States. That’s how I spent the last of my 2 years in the service.” Though he chuckles at the memory of representing his country in such a way, it is easy to envision the strong, handsome soldiers inspiring patriotism in the heart and mind of a nation at war.
His military duty done, McKissick was once again free to return to college and football, by way of a scholarship he received to Stetson University, in central Florida. His time there was short-lived. “The entire coaching staff had just been let go, and I knew after the first practice that this was not the place for me.”
Once again, college was put on the back burner. But when he returned home and applied for a job at a Kingstree tobacco warehouse, the manager looked at him and said, “No. You need to go to school. Let me make a call.” Though he did not know it, it was a watershed moment in his life. He went on to start that very season as a fullback and linebacker at Presbyterian College.
Shaking his head at life’s irony, he grins, “Wouldn’t you just know it – our very first game was against Stetson. That coach was not happy to see me on the PC bus.”
A degree in accounting and economics seemed the perfect preparation for the finance company adjustor job he accepted over the phone after graduation. What the company actually wanted, however, was a collector. Having been raised in a family where money was tight, McKissick knew immediately that he was not cut out for the position. When a family friend from North Carolina asked if he might be interested in a coaching job, he replied, “I’m not certified, but I’m qualified.” A phone call to the principle of the Clarkton, NC high school sealed the deal, and the former college football player packed his bags to head north.
But the school in North Carolina played six-man football, a version of the game he confided to his former PC coach, he knew nothing about. “John,” Coach McMillan teased, “You don’t know much about eleven-man football, either.”
Neither could have imagined that such an inauspicious beginning would lead to a career that would last over sixty years, and earn him the gratitude of thousands whose lives he touched. When a coaching job opened up in a small South Carolina town, he applied.
In July of 1952, when the newly married John McKissick accepted the coaching job at the 275-student high school in Summerville, SC, the average American worker earned $3,400 annually. The position’s $2,700 per year salary was considerably shy of that number, and in addition to coaching all sports, he would also be required to teach five classes. The school already boasted a winning team, having won two State Championship titles under Coach Harvey Kirkland before he departed to coach at Newberry, and the bar was set high for the incoming coach.
It was a lot to ask for the meager paycheck, but both he and Joan, his bride of one month, fell in love with the town. Their devotion to the school and to Summerville itself was immediate. It was a good thing, since when he approached the school superintendent about a raise, the superintendent offered his own brilliant solution: “Get your wife a job.” (It is worth noting, that at the time of his retirement, McKissick was the lowest paid 4-A coach in South Carolina.)
Theirs was a marriage made in heaven for many reasons, not the least being that Joan shared his love of the game. Over the span of his career, the 62 scrapbooks she created to commemorate each season are alone tangible proof of her love for her husband and his career, as were the 62 years of Friday nights she attended all but four of her husband’s beloved Green Wave’s games, and the many weekends she sent the coach off to mow and paint the team’s practice field.
There were other offers, for more money and higher profile positions, but McKissick stayed true to Summerville High School, and the athletic program continued to grow. No small measure of that decision was due to Joan’s attachment to the town, and desire to raise their family here. Hearing of a serious offer from a school in Sumter, Chick Miler, who had taken the young coach under his wing early on, came to the young coach.
“You don’t want that job,” he said. He offered the couple an interest-free loan to buy a home in Summerville. The offer was far too generous, and McKissick did not even consider it serious until Miler called him some time later.
“Bring me the plans,” Miler told him, “and tell me how much you think you’ll be able to pay each month. If it’s $50, that’s fine. If it’s $100, that’s fine, too. But don’t tell me $100 if you are only able to pay $50.” They settled on a number, and within eight years the loan was fully repaid on the home and one-acre lot.
More than a desire to keep the increasingly successful, hard-working coach in the community, Miler’s offer was an example of the many true friendships the McKissicks formed. Those friendships went both ways, and in later years, when Miler fell into ill health, it was his friend the coach that gently wheeled him to the shower and bathed him for over fifteen years. It was that kind of loyalty, along with faith, hard work, character, and discipline– the values taught by his parents, that drove McKissick’s life, and formed the basis for the philosophy he taught his players.
In 63 years, he never missed a game. All those who turned out willing to make the commitment, were given the opportunity to wear the jersey. He was honest, with players and parents alike. He was tough, but his tough love was doled out equally to anyone who played for him, regardless of the number of minutes they were in the game. He asked no more of his players than he himself was willing to give, nor did he ask them to do anything he was unwilling to do himself; a point he frequently made by pulling his shirt off and squaring off on the line with his team.
“All the old players tell me I wasn’t as tough on the players in the last couple of years as I was on them, back in the early days,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know I had long since stopped taking off my shirt.”
When Coach’s retirement announcement was made, a quote from a well-recognized college coach referred to him as, “the elderly McKissick.” It was a laughable description of the robust man inherently ill-equipped to stand still. Asked if he would retire to the family’s beach house, he quickly put that question to rest. “I’ll go walking on the beach, but yo won’t find me just sitting out there. When I’m ready to stop, I’ll retire to that plot of land I have in Parks’ Cemetery.”
The big man’s hands are momentarily at rest, and his eyes fall to the heavy gold and diamond ring commemorating his 600th win. He admits that he misses the routine of rising at 6 AM and heading for the office. Having lived and breathed football for over six decades left little time to pursue other hobbies. He never fished much, and a bum shoulder keeps him off the golf course, but three days a week he hits the treadmill and bicycle, and lifts some weights. It shows – rarely does age 90 look as good.
He’s still getting used to the slower pace of retirement. “I get up every morning, and shave and shower. Sometimes I go to Guerin’s even if I don’t need a prescription, and I get myself an ice cream cone.”
His passion for football is not even slightly diminished, and instant recall of the names and details of hundreds of players and games roll from his tongue with impressive accuracy. Though still a regular fixture in the Green Wave stands, he doesn’t dole out advice to the man who now walks the sidelines – his grandson, Joe Call.
He has trust in the new leadership of his legendary Green Wave, he says, and eschews the role of second-guesser or Monday morning quarterback. “You see things differently from the stands than you can on the field – I know that now. They know what they’re doing, and I let them do their job.”
McKissick refuses to think of himself as anything more than the representative of the estimated 5,500 players that donned the Green Wave jersey and ran onto the field for over half a century, and he is justifiably proud of each and every one. But, despite the accolades or the fact that Summerville’s stadium and the street around it bears his name, when asked what he is most proud of, the answer has nothing to do with the game, and everything to do with the man. “My family,” he says, without a moment’s hesitation. “My children and grandchildren are all successful in their fields. They never caused any trouble. They’ve all done so well. I’ve been awfully blessed.”
“I had a great run. The people of Summerville love football, and they love athletics. Even when we were small, we filled up the stands. There have been a lot of good people along the way who’ve supported me.”
The Town of Summerville and the life of the most winning coach of all time, are forever linked in history. Would either have been the same without the other? It’s an interesting question, but one that we happily will never have to answer. He’s been asked if he is interested in local politics, but says he wouldn’t be very good at it because, in his words, “I just tell it like it is – I say what’s on my mind.”
The dozens of doctors, lawyers, politicians and businessmen who played for him concur. It’s one of the very traits that have made him beloved in this community. He is, and always will be, many things to many people – mentor, husband, father, counselor, role model, hero, loyal friend. But for most of us, John McKissick is simply, “Coach,” the man that once taught us how to win at the game of football; but more importantly, continues to teach us us how to win the game of life.
By Susan Frampton