The next time you are watching a Jacksonville Jaguars football game on television, pay attention when they take a “wide shot” from the north stands of Alltel Stadium. You will notice that the bleacher seats past the south end zone are much lower to provide the fans a clear view of the St. John’s River. If you look across the river you will notice a modest athletics complex consisting of a pair of baseball diamonds and what is obviously a high school football stadium. Did you ever wonder about that athletic complex?
Image, Courtesy of Google Maps.
I can tell you that complex is part of my old high school. Bishop Kenny. I would love to tell you about the happy hours spent on those fields playing ball but unfortunately they did not exist in my day. In fact I was probably one of about only 100 people to have seen that land up close and personal. During the 60s, that was a heavily wooded area that bordered on a stretch of river that was used to temporarily moor tankers and freighters as they were staged into and out of the port of Jacksonville.
OK! You ask, “How did I get to see that land?” As it turns out, the cross-country course circled that land and daily during practice or meets, the team would pace through the woods, jumping over roots of the big live oak trees and the palmetto bushes that covered the property, ducking under the low hanging branches covered with Spanish moss. Our cheerleaders were the sounds of the breathing of our teammates and competitors as we jockeyed around each other trying to get the best position for the upcoming left turn down the hundreds of yards from which we could see the river, smell the diesel from the ships and hear the small waves that lapped the shore from the wakes of the passing ships. The breath of competition was sometimes augmented by the low beating rhythm of the ships engines as they plied the waters. Sometimes, the speed of the engines matched the pace our feet were beating on the leafy path that lay beneath us.
It was there that I first experienced a “runner’s high” when the endorphins flood the body and a smile crosses the face as the pain of exertion fades beneath the surface of the water nearby. That section of the course was special. The light always seemed a little bit richer, the smell of the vegetation mixed with the port, a little bit sweeter. I knew that soon, however, I would be making another left hand turn away from the river and head back to the field house. Sure enough, there right at the start/finish line would be Coach Joe Parete who in addition to his other coaching and teaching responsibilities was the coach of the cross-country teams the years I ran. Much has been written about Joe's career as athletic director and football coach, but we bonded with Joe as only those members of a small team can with their coach.
Image, Courtesy of Jacksonville.com.
“C’mon Wrigley, get the lead out! You have one more mile to run.” His face was full of the passion of competition and the desire to win. But his eyes were full of love for the guys on his team who got out there and gave their heart for the school. It did not matter to him that I was a mediocre runner and would never be the star of the team. That moment was about the coach and the player, there was no one else in the world. Joe wanted me to excel and I was going to give it my level best.
Coach was right; we were only half way through the two-mile course. Soon, we were circling the athletic fields that were closer to the school buildings back in those days than they are now. That meant that I had one more shot at the river, one more shot at the sun, the waves and the river. I was 16 and my whole life was still in front of me. Soon I would be joining the Navy and entering the Naval ROTC at the University of South Carolina. When I was out at sea, late in the afternoon, after the watches were over and the daily work was done. I would lean against the railing on the fantail and gaze out to the sea and wonder if those days by the river near all those sea going craft were a factor in my joining the Navy and seeing where they were going. Oh MY!