Friday, August 25, 2017

Weathering the Storm: A Story about Death and Redemption in Texas High School Football


The one thing that all football players have in common is that someday they will all become ex-football players.

This year marks 30 years since I played in my last football game. The milestone is cause for reflection. I have a lot of good memories from that time period … and a lot of aching joints too. Despite the lingering physical pain, overall it was a positive experience and I do think it helped me develop some of the tools necessary to be successful later in life, such as: self-discipline, goal setting, teamwork, resiliency, etc.

But instead of revisiting stories of my not-really-all-that-interesting football career, I want to take this opportunity to talk about a person from my football days who had a big influence on my life. This person is my former head coach, Mike Bailey.

**
Michael Quentin Bailey was born in 1944 in the West Texas town of Pampa. He was a celebrated football star at Rule High School and went on to play college ball at North Texas State University and West Texas State. At 6’ 3” and 205 lbs, he played tight end at North Texas, and both end and halfback at West Texas.  

Photo: Class photo of college sophomore Mike Bailey, 1965.[1]

Little did Bailey know at the time, but at West Texas he was lining up in the backfield next to football history. His teammates included Eugene Morris, a future-star running back with the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, and Hank Washington, who many say should have been the first African-American quarterback in the NFL. Despite being one of the top QB’s in the nation at the time (ranked in the Top 10 for all NCAA passing stats, including 4th in total yards, and 5th in completions), Washington was bypassed by every NFL team in the 1967 draft.

Image: Pre-game listing of offensive and defensive starters for the October 1, 1966, game between Arizona State University and West Texas State. WTS won 21-20. In addition to the notable players listed above, this game also included ASU’s Curley Culp, a future NFL star and Hall of Famer.

Bailey wasn’t drafted in 1967 either. He was, however, invited to training camp with the Philadelphia Eagles. Unfortunately, he didn’t make the cut.[2] Determined to give pro football one more try, he attended the Washington Redskins camp in 1968.
Otto Graham, the legendary quarterback who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame just three years earlier, was the Redskins head coach at the time. Graham released Bailey and six other hopefuls in late July.[3]

But when one door closes, another one opens. And in the fall of 1968, the 24-year old ex-football player joined the coaching staff at Plainview High School. After four years there he was invited to be an assistant coach with Bill Davis at Hurst Bell High School. Then in 1977 he landed his first head coaching job at Terrell High School. He was 33 years old.

Including his time as an assistant, Bailey coached football for 26 years. During his 17-years at the helm for Terrell High School and Plano East Senior High, he coached in 185 games, and finished with a 116-64-5 record (a .641 winning percentage). See table below for his career head coaching record.

During those 17 years, he coached an estimated 1,000 players (varsity and JV combined). I am proud to say that I was one of them. I played on his teams at Plano East in 1986 and 1987.

Photo: Coach Mike Bailey focused on the game, 1987 season.[4]

In my memory Bailey was a blend of legendary football coach Tom Landry and Clint Eastwood’s character Dirty Harry. He had a great football mind, and quite an intimidating presence. He could develop a great game plan, and he was not someone you wanted to upset.

More often than not he had a stern look on his face. Ask anyone who knew him, he was serious about winning. Yet at the same time he wasn’t afraid to show that he could have fun too. Occasionally a big West Texas grin would beam from his face.

As is the case with any demanding coach, there were some players who didn’t like him. And I suspect that he was OK with that, because the only thing he wanted was for his players to respect him, the other coaches, their teammates and themselves. He was focused on helping them develop and grow as students and athletes, and teaching them how to work together as a team to be as successful as possible.  He also wanted to win a state championship.

He was friendly to me, but I wouldn’t say that we were friends. And that’s OK too, because teenage boys don’t need to be friends with 40-year old men. Young men need positive role models they can respect. And on the field that was Coach Bailey. For those of us who did respect him, we found that if you worked hard and demonstrated that you weren’t a selfish teammate, he respected you in return.

**

Bailey had some unique character traits. He was the type of guy who would point at you with his long fingers when he was angry and trying to explain something important. And the madder he got, the more fingers he pointed with. I can recall several times when he was so angry that he was pointing at me with all four fingers and the thumb – karate-chopping the air as he tried to get his point across.

Anyone who played for Bailey will also remember that he was deathly afraid of lightning. Whenever storm clouds rolled in and the sky darkened, he’d blow his whistle and yell, “off the field, everyone inside!” or something to that effect.

In fact, I recall there were days when some teammates didn’t want to practice, so they would jokingly do “rain dances” with the hopes of making clouds appear so we could end early.

We didn’t know the full story behind this deep-seeded fear. There were rumors that years ago one of his players had died after being struck by lightning. But that’s all we knew. He never talked about it.


As immature teenagers, I don’t think we could have fully appreciated the gravity of what that story really meant, or the emotional impact it might have had on Coach. No matter how many teen suicides our community experienced in the 1980’s, death was still such an abstract concept to most of us (as it should be for kids that age).

When I got older and became a father, I thought more about Bailey – especially after I became a volunteer coach for my kids’ teams. When you’re a coach you feel a great responsibility for the safety and well-being of your players … I can’t even fathom what it must feel like to have a player die at one of your practices.

So, as a youth sports coach I followed Bailey’s lead and respected Mother Nature. I too would remove my players from the field if there was any signs of lightning.

As years passed, I also started to reflect on the unknown player who died.

It seemed wrong to me that I only knew him as “the kid who got struck by lightning.” He had a name. He had a family who loved him.

And now with a son and daughter of my own, I also thought about his parents who lost a child.  

Having lost a loved one early in my life (my mother died at age 51, I was 28), I’ve come to believe that no death is tragic as long as we can learn from it, and prevent similar deaths from occurring in the future. Parents who lose a child young seem to embrace this same perspective.  

With this wisdom in mind, I am now convinced that when Coach Bailey was evacuating our practice field during bad weather, he was not only looking out for our well-being, he was giving meaning and purpose to the tragic death that had occurred years earlier in his life.

And just like in Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the young football player’s death was the albatross that hung around Coach's neck for the remainder of his life. The burden he carried was his penance. He was determined that this type of tragedy would never occur again, and to prove that the young athlete’s death was not in vain. It was Bailey’s act of redemption.

**

I could be wrong, but I suspect that many of Bailey’s former players also think about him when there is a threat of lightning in the sky – especially during a sporting event.

If so, I’d like to recommend that when we do remember him during these stormy-weather situations that we also remember the young man who died under his care.

So I did some research and discovered that his name is Bernard Derrick.

Bernard died on the Terrell football practice field on Wednesday, September 7, 1977, at 5;45 pm.[5] He was age 17, a month shy of his 18th birthday. He had recently competed for, and earned the spot as, the starting quarterback for the Tigers’ varsity squad.

Dallas Morning News reporter Carlton Stowers (now an award-winning author) wrote about the tragic events of that day. Through interviews with friends and family, he also gives us a sense of who Bernard was as a human being. Below is Stowers’ full article from Friday, September 9, 1977:

**

Lightning bolt brings tragedy to Terrell High

By CARLTON STOWERS
Staff Writer of the News

TERRELL, Texas – Darrell (Skeeter) Derrick, a member of the Terrell High School junior varsity, did not play the game he had been looking forward to playing Thursday. It was canceled.

Tracy Derrick and his eighth-grade teammates had received word earlier in the day that their game had also been called off.

The cancellations were in memory of their older brother Bernard Derrick, starting quarterback for the Terrell Tigers varsity, who was killed during a practice session Wednesday afternoon when he was struck by lightning during a violent electrical storm.

The sudden tragedy blanketed this quiet East Texas city in a somber silence Thursday as word of the freak happening spread. Downtown coffee shop talk of the upcoming Friday night game with De Soto gave way to the question of why and how the 17-year-old black could be dead at the hand of nature.

Students at the high school filed quietly to their classes as the intermittent rain and gray sky outside assented the gloom.

A late afternoon announcement from principal Robert McCord that the decision had been made to play the Friday night game against De Soto as a regularly scheduled brought little in the way of an enthusiastic response.

In Barbara Willie's choir class there was no singing on this particular Thursday afternoon. Instead the students were taking up a collection for flowers to be sent to their ex-classmates’ home.

“Bernard was well liked,” said Miss Willie, “and he enjoyed his fun. He was our sergeant-at-arms in choir and really got a kick out of his job. The last time I saw him he was cutting up, acting like he was taking down names of everyone in the class to turn in to the principal.”

Michael Martin, a stocky halfback for the Tigers and member of the choir, spoke softly as he recalled the events which led to his friend's death. Martin, in fact, nearly missed being struck himself and was taken to the hospital.

“I was about five yards away from Bernard,” he said. “We were practicing returning punts. There was this crack and we all went down. I went down face first and when I got up and began looking around I could see everybody on the team was on the ground. But Bernard was the only one lying face up. I knew something bad was wrong.”

Martin said his right arm and shoulder were still somewhat numb from his close call with the lightning bolt.

In McCord’s office, head coach Mike Bailey, in his first year at the Terrell school, spoke quietly, his eyes focused on the floor painfully, he recounted the events of the previous afternoon. It had been raining and there had been some lightning off on the horizon. There had been no evidence of lightning in the immediate area, however. And he had sent young Derrick and Martin to the other end of the field to receive punts. When the lightning struck players and coaches hit the ground.

“Everyone got up but Bernard,” the coach recalled. “I knew something was wrong so I sent one of the assistants to call an ambulance and the other coaches and I went to check on Bernard.” Attempts at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and heart massage failed to revive the fallen youngster.

Bailey accompanied Derrick to the hospital in the ambulance and was on hand when the doctors informed Mrs. Vallie Derrick that her son was dead.

“We had a team meeting this morning before school,” Bailey said, “and we talked about the fact that things like this are not meant to be understood by us. It's something that's over our heads. We have to accept it.”

He paused, then continued. “But, there's no way you can forget it; no way it won't affect you. I feel a very personal loss and as a coach, I feel a responsibility for what happened.”


“… there's no way you can forget it; no way it won't affect you. I feel a very personal loss and as a coach, I feel a responsibility for what happened.”
– Mike Bailey


The students were still finding it hard to believe that their classmate and friend was dead.

“It just doesn't make sense,” said senior Adolphus Denson. “Just yesterday we were sitting in the lunch room, shooting the bull, talking about this big plan we had for after school was out. We were going to travel from one end of the state to the other this summer; you know, just look things over. I don't know if we would have ever done it, but it was fun to talk about.”

Even as the students at Terrell high were reflecting on their experiences with Derrick, the dead youngsters’ mother was seated in a small room at the Brooks and Thomas Mortuary, making the final arrangements for her son's funeral. Wearied from lack of sleep, she spoke in a gentle, controlled voice.

“You never know what's going to happen,” she said. “Life plays some pretty bad tricks. I was taking a nap yesterday afternoon and woke up to find it raining really hard. I knew it was about time for me to go to the practice field and pick the boys up and figured it would take me a little longer because of the rain.”

When she arrived, the nightmare had just begun to take form. “I got out of the car and heard someone yelling something about Bernard,” she recalled. An hour later she heard a doctor say her son, one of her six children, was dead.[6]

Coach Bailey spent much of the night in the Derrick home with family and friends. “There isn't much you can do or say,” he noted, “but I felt like I should be there if there was something that I could do.” After a decision made jointly by the school board, superintendent, principal and Bailey, the Terrell Tigers will play De Soto Friday night.

Then the team will serve as honorary pallbearers Saturday when the funeral for Derek is conducted at 11 AM at the Mount Hebron Baptist Church. Burial will be in the Terrell’s East Bachelor Cemetery.


**

In a similar article featured in the Victoria Advocate, Bailey elaborated on his "above our head" comment:[7]

"As a coach I feel responsible," Terrell's Mike Bailey said. "But whatever the Lord intends to be, will be for what happens is brought by the Lord."

The article also provided more details about the moments before the deadly lightning strike:

Bernard's teammates said the 17-year-old senior had been complaining about practicing in the rain.

"He kept saying he wasn't going to catch another kick because lightning was coming down. But they kept kicking and then it happened," George Hartfield, Bernard's half-brother and a team manager, said.

Rain had pelted the field for more than an hour when Bernard was killed and Bailey said he was about to end the practice session.

"Lightning was in the distance," Bailey said, but we didn't think that much about it. When it hit everyone got down fast. I looked around and I thought everybody got up okay, but Bernard was lying there.

The violent thunderstorm awoke Bernard's mother. She said she knew something was wrong.

"It was just a feeling a mother knows," Vallie Derrick said.

The mother of six dashed to her car and drove to the field.[8]  She found her son dead on the ground.

Mrs. Derrick said her son was "making a comeback from trouble" but chose not to elaborate. Bailey also said the youth seemed intent to "make a go at turning his life around.

"I guess the thing that bothers me most is that the young man made a commitment to football and he decided he was going to stay out of trouble," the Terrell coach said.

**
Photos: Coach Mike Bailey and Bernard Derrick.[9]

**

In a 2013 interview, Bernard’s sister Tonya Derrick said that the family lost more than a son and brother that day.[10] “As the oldest, Bernard was like a father-figure to the other five children. He was kind and loving, but he was also a disciplinarian,” she said.

With regards to “making a comeback,” Bernard had gotten into trouble by hanging out with the wrong crowd. “He was committed to do better,” said Tonya.  “Bernard had a girlfriend at the time and they were going to get married,” she added. 

Bernard’s mother Vallie sank into depression after her son’s death. Tonya recalls that their mother’s grief lasted so long that her brother Skeeter got frustrated and tried to snap her out of it by yelling, “Mamma, you’ve got five other kids to raise!”

Emotionally the family was never the same after the accident. As a result, their day-to-day lives changed too. Whenever a lightning storm occurred, mother Vallie made everyone unplug all the appliances inside the home, and no one was allowed to go outdoors.

Sadly, on November 15, 1991, Vallie Derrick lost her life to lung cancer. She was 51. Vallie is now buried next to her son at Mount Hebron Cemetery.

On her headstone are the words to the hymn, “O Love, that wilt not let me go”. The lyrics in the third verse of the hymn seem as though they were written to comfort those touched by Bernard’s passing:

O Joy, that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

**

As for Coach Bailey, I’m sure that not a day went by that he didn’t think about Bernard.



Photo: Mike Bailey (back row, center) with the Terrell High School
football coaching staff, 1979.[11]


Bailey served as head coach at Terrell High for six years and eventually left the program in 1983.

Incidentally, during Bailey’s last season at Terrell a young athlete named Eric Bishop joined the team.[12] He eventually went on to fill Bernard’s shoes as starting QB, and was the first to throw for over 1,000 yards in the school’s history. After graduation, Bishop received a scholarship and went on to study music. He eventually broke into the entertainment industry and assumed the stage name of Jamie Foxx.[13]

Bailey coached ten seasons at Plano East Senior High (1984-1993). 

Dave Letourneau, assistant coach at Plano East for eight of those seasons, said Bailey was "probably one the most intelligent men I have ever met."

"He had his faults, but he had a great heart and always had your back," he added.

Letourneau confided that during a difficult time in his life, Bailey shared the story about the tragic event that occurred back in Terrell in 1977. "It helped keep things in perspective," he said.[14]

Bailey retired from coaching in 1994, and afterwards he explored a career in real estate. Dissatisfied with that path, he then pursued his secret passion for the open road. He became a truck driver.

According to his father Robert Bailey, “driving a truck made him the happiest he’d been in a long time.” He added, “Mike told me that on his routes he saw some of the most beautiful scenery across America.”[15]

Mike Bailey passed away on Sunday, October 17, 1999, after a long battle with throat cancer. He was 54 years old. On his headstone are all his different titles throughout the stages of his life, which include: “Son, Pet (a nickname given to him by his sisters), Dad, Coach, Happy.”[16]

**

Coach never did win a Texas high school football state championship. But that’s OK. Long before I learned the details of Bernard Derrick’s death, my experiences with Bailey had already taught me this valuable lesson:

The true sign of a winner isn't how many trophies you have
on your shelf, but how well you handle adversity.

He never spoke those words, but his actions did. And knowing what I know now about Coach Bailey, this perspective seems even more poignant considering the heavy burden that he carried throughout his life.

Mike Bailey may not have ever won a state championship, but given the adversity he faced and the dignified manner in which he faced it, I think you would be hard pressed to find a bigger winner who coached high school football in the State of Texas.

And for those who knew and loved Bernard Derrick, while his death was indeed tragic, it wasn’t meaningless. My hope is that you find some comfort in knowing that thousands of people around the world who never met Bernard, or even knew his name, are connected to him through the actions of Coach Bailey.

The Dalai Lama once said, “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” Rest assured that the lessons learned on September 7, 1977, will not be lost.

On that note, the National Lightning Safety Institute developed a slogan for coaches, athletes, parents and fans to use if they are not sure if they should leave the field during bad weather. Their rule is simple:

“If you can see it, flee it; if you can hear it, clear it.”

A new football season is upon us. Let’s honor the memories of Bernard Derrick and Coach Mike Bailey by using good judgment in bad weather.

Use the catchy slogan above, or you can use that other one that says to “Be Like Mike” – and honor the memory of Bernard by moving your athletes to safety.

**


Figure 1. Mike Bailey’s Head Coaching Record, 1977-1993

AGE
YEAR
TEAM
WINS
LOSS
TIE
TOTAL
WIN%
33
1977
Terrell Tigers
1
9
0
10
         0.100
34
1978
Terrell Tigers
3
7
0
10
         0.300
35
1979
Terrell Tigers
6
4
0
10
         0.600
36
1980
Terrell Tigers
8
3
0
11
         0.727
37
1981
Terrell Tigers
8
2
0
10
         0.800
38
1982
Terrell Tigers
10
2
0
12
         0.833
39
1983
Terrell Tigers
10
2
2
14
         0.714
40
1984
Plano East Panthers
9
2
1
12
         0.750
41
1985
Plano East Panthers
11
2
0
13
         0.846
42
1986
Plano East Panthers
6
4
0
10
         0.600
43
1987
Plano East Panthers
8
3
0
11
         0.727
44
1988
Plano East Panthers
9
2
0
11
         0.818
45
1989
Plano East Panthers
8
2
0
10
         0.800
46
1990
Plano East Panthers
4
6
0
10
         0.400
47
1991
Plano East Panthers
5
5
0
10
         0.500
48
1992
Plano East Panthers
5
3
2
10
         0.500
49
1993
Plano East Panthers
5
6
0
11
         0.455

17 Seasons
116
64
5
185
        0.641


Figure 2. 1987 Plano East Panthers Football Team

Photo: 1987 Plano East Senior High Panthers.[17]

For those who have a connection to the 1987 Plano East football team and are interested, you can click here to view an article archive (PDF) of all of our games from that season. Enjoy, Bill Staples (#63)


About the author:
Bill Staples, Jr. has a passion for researching and telling the untold stories of the “international pastime”. His areas of expertise include Japanese American and Negro Leagues baseball history as a context for exploring the themes of civil rights, cross-cultural relations and globalization. He is a board member of the Nisei Baseball Research Project (NBRP) and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), and chairman of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Asian Baseball Committee. He is the author of Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer (McFarland, 2011), winner of the 2012 SABR Baseball Research Award. He holds an MBA from Arizona State University, a BA in advertising/journalism from the University of North Texas, and currently works as a marketing strategist, writer and editor in the health care industry. Bill lives in Chandler, Arizona, with his wife and two children and is an active community volunteer and youth coach. 

Special thanks to Jorge Iber, a history professor at Texas Tech and fellow baseball historian who once told me, "You know, there are other sports besides baseball to write about." Thanks for the reminder Dr. Iber. 


Sources:


[1] Ancestry.com. U.S., School Yearbooks, 1880-2012, North Texas State University, 1966 issue.
[2] Phone interview with Bailey’s ex-wife, Linda LeFevre, September 2013.
[3] Skins Trim Seven, Times-Mirror and Observer (Warren, PA), July 23, 1968. pg. 10.
[4] Plano East Senior High Yearbook, Vol. VII, 1988, pg. 252.
[5] Bernard Derrick’s death certificate, Ancestry.com. Texas, Death Certificates, 1903-1982.

[6] The original article incorrectly states “seven children.” It has been corrected for this blog post.
[7] Two Schoolboy Gridders Killed, The Victoria Advocate, Friday, September 9, 1977, pg 3c
[8] The original article incorrectly states “mother of seven.” It has been corrected for this blog post.

[9] Ancestry.com. U.S., School Yearbooks, 1880-2012, Terrell High School, 1976 and 1979 issues.
[10] Phone interview with Tonya Derrick, September 2013.
[11] Ancestry.com. U.S., School Yearbooks, 1880-2012, Terrell High School, 1979 issue.

[12] Phone interview with Bailey’s ex-wife, Linda LeFevre, September 2013.
[13] Michael Granberry, "Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, a Terrell native, loves Texas…", Dallas Morning News, November 11, 2011.
[14] Email correspondence with Dave Letourneau, January 2014.
[15] Phone interview with Bailey’s father, Robert Leo Bailey, 2011.

[16] Phone interview with Bailey’s sister, Pam Bailey Schonerstedt, September 2013.
[17]
Plano East Senior High Yearbook, Vol. VII, 1988, pg. 65.

1 comment:

  1. I was recently watching a program on ESPN, 30 for 30, it was about the Dallas Carter Cowboys. While I was watching this they were talking about how they played Plano East and then I saw him, Mike Bailey. It brought goosebumps to my skin, I know that man. I did know him.
    I was on the field that day, that tragic day when the lightning struck. Its funny how people remember it. It will always be pictured in my mind. I was the center for the Terrell Tigers that year and I had developed a special relationship with my Quarter Back Benard Derrick. Believe me the whole team felt good about our upcoming season and the possibility of a winning season with him at the helm. He ran our offense to perfection and he was the one to lead us as a team, you could just feel it was going to be a good season.
    On Mike Bailey, he was a very good coach. This was his first year as our coach and it was the last year for the seniors. It was tough as a player because I for one did not know how to take Coach Bailey, for us Seniors it was a feeling out process. When you come into a program for the first time you go through a process of getting to know everyone. I know he went through a lot that season, we all did. I learned something from him. He was a fair and reasonable man.
    I don't recall playing Desoto but I was one of the Pallbearers at the funeral, Benard was a good friend and he was turning his life around. A life to short. After that it was like the season was over, we only won one game that year, which was our Homecoming game against Lakeview Centennial I believe. It felt like the Super Bowl, but that game was for Bernard and Coach Bailey, we still had the fight even though we had lost our Field General. There is not a day that goes by that I don't think of Benard Derrick but seeing Coach Bailey on that program was great, I often wandered what happened with him.
    My perception of that day is pretty different than most people, to me it is what actually happened, there was one man standing that day when the lightning struck and he saw everything, it is etched in his mind.

    David Davila

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