The stories I know about my Father are only ones that have been told to me. I have no memory of him. I was 8 months old when he passed away. Even though I can’t remember our time together, over the years he has always been present in my life due to the many who do remember him.
My Father was among the first group of coaches to be hired when Gulf Breeze High School opened its doors. He was an assistant football and track coach. However, to many students he was more than just a coach teaching his players how to win the game; he gave these boys the encouragement to be brave on and off the field.
By the time I reached high school many of his colleagues were still working at Gulf Breeze High and many of his former students were now coaches with their own players to lead. Unfortunately I was not the best student who occasionally got into minor trouble, but being Mike Walker’s daughter, I was never severely punished. I remember Coach Henderson, who was present at my parent’s wedding, always being so kind to me and I felt that he was looking out for Mike’s little girl. I’m not sure he took the time to lecture the other girls about wearing shoes with arches or wrapped their feet in bandages after running laps in uncomfortable shoes.
Each time I walked into the front office at school, I would glance at a black and white picture tacked on the bulletin board of my Father sitting on the bleachers with his fellow coaches. Sometimes when I walked through the quiet halls I would envision him going through them maybe headed to the locker room. I went to a few football games, but eventually stopped going because I felt him the most there and it made me wish he was on those sidelines once again.
I had plenty of pictures of him while I was growing up, but never a video. This was the one thing I wanted more than anything. I finally got up the nerve to ask the school if they had one, but apparently they had been thrown away. I gave up hope of ever seeing my Father alive moving around instead of still in a picture. However, someone close to me did not give up hope.
My best friend Cheryl set out on a mission to find a video of my Father. She found the group page on Facebook of Gulf Breeze High School graduates from the seventies. Cheryl wrote that she was in search of any video of Coach Mike Walker. She told me what she had done and that I should look for myself at all the people who were on there sharing their memories of my Father. I was blown away. Tears rolled down my face as I scrolled down the screen reading these strangers’ comments about my Father. It was clear that this man I cannot remember had touched so many lives.
After all of my friend’s efforts, there still wasn’t any video of him to be found. Then just one comment was made by a woman who said that there was someone she graduated with who was one of my father’s former players who had film from the football games. I immediately sent a message to the man she mentioned and sure enough he did. To protect his privacy I will call him “T.K.”.
T.K. had made copies of these films before the school threw them away. Even though he had never met me before, he went through all of the film and found the games where my Father could be seen on the sidelines. He no longer lived in the area, but had already planned a trip to Pensacola in the next month. T.K. said he would bring me the DVD he had made for me when he came into town. The day arrived and as promised he came to my house with the DVD. I was very nervous. I had no idea what my reaction might be to seeing my Father on screen alive for the first time. I had accepted long ago that this was never going to be possible. When T.K. came into the house he set the DVD on the coffee table. I was scared to even look at it.
For the first part of our visit I listened as he told stories I had never heard about my Father. I’ve heard the same few stories from my family over and over, so hearing fresh ones shed new light on the history of my Father. After an hour or so of stalling it was time to see the DVD, but there was a problem. The disc was cracked. My heart sank in my chest. I thought it could be days or weeks until I would be given a new copy. However, T.K. told me he would return promptly with a new copy. He drove all the way back to the beach, which is a good 20 minutes away, and made another disc. He kept his word and came back with the DVD.
It was in black and white with the sound of the old reel clicking as it turned the film. It showed young boys playing football on a field as the coaches stood on the sidelines. T.K. pointed my Father out. He was this small figure with extremely long legs and white shoes. I had to squint to see him. So much had led up to this moment. I was sure seeing him alive on screen would be too much for me. I thought I would go into shock, unable to process what I saw.
Instead, my eyes were glued to the TV watching this figure run up and down the sidelines. After a few plays I had no problem knowing who was who. Right before a new play he had a certain stance that he took, his legs spaced far apart as if he were a player on the line. He was bracing himself for what was to come. When something went right his hands were violently clapping above his head. When something went wrong his arms would swoop down and he would walk it off down the sideline. Unlike the other coaches he was all over the place. There was no sound that could be heard on this film, but his enthusiasm was unmistakable. Each emotion he felt was expressed for all to see. Just like somebody else I know.
As I watched I was not crying uncontrollably as I had feared, but instead I was smiling bigger than I had ever before. The stories I heard about him through the years were true. He was a man filled with passion about the game and his players. I had found the source of why everything about me had always seemed so different from everyone else in my family. I was fascinated by the fact that I have no real memory of my Father and yet I am most definitely his daughter. When I’m happy you know it and when I’m unhappy you most certainly know it. My heart has always been on my shoulder – an open book I’ve been called. I had thought this was something I needed to work on, but on that day I realized it’s part of who I am.
Unfortunately I have no stories of my Father that are from my memory. However, there is one that was told to me by my brother Richard that has always been my favorite. When Richard was in school he was playing on two football teams during a season and one night he played two games in a row. After the second game he collapsed. Back then Gulf Breeze High School’s football field was on one side of highway 98 and the locker rooms were on the other side. Our Father picked him up, with his football gear still on, and carried him back to the locker rooms walking along the then blue crosswalk that went over the highway. His devotion to those he loved speaks for itself from this story. Whenever I’m driving through Gulf Breeze I look up at that crosswalk and see my Father carrying my brother.
I’ve been told that not getting to know my Father for myself is a tragedy. Once I had a woman burst into tears in my check-out line when I was a teenager working as a cashier at Winn Dixie. She said, “It’s such a shame you never knew him.” I cannot lie to you. There are days when I feel that I would give anything for just one memory of my own. Although, it has occurred to me recently that I already know him. When I saw my Father on those sidelines doing exactly what he loved most being completely alive, I understood him. It told me why people are constantly telling me it’s clear that I am passionate about what I do and why I can’t possibly live a life doing something I don’t enjoy or believe in. Even in his absence I have lived as he would have. I don’t have to look far to know more about my Father. He lives through me.