The new normal: This one’s for you, A.P.
The box was all but empty. He kept digging anyway. There had to be another large-sized shirt left. Just one more. The team trainer, Mandy, couldn’t be the only member of his staff not wearing purple.
Kickoff was a mere two hours away, a season-opening game against rival Ripley. There was so much left to do. Interview with a television station. Preview the pregame music. At least 25 copies of the game plan. If this game goes as scripted, his New Albany Bulldogs are going to run at least 74 plays and the score won’t be close.
Ron Price, in his fifth season as head coach of New Albany, couldn’t help but micromanage. He had to keep his mind busy, keep one foot in front of the other. It’s what he’d done for eight months leading up to this night, the first of many Friday nights to come.
“This is what we do,” he said, still rummaging through the box. “It’s exciting to actually get to start the season again and be excited about it. It’s just hard. It’s not normal.”
A picture hangs in his office, a picture unlike any other. A small picture, so it stands out, sandwiched between a framed poster dedicated to Vince Lombardi and a handful of team photos from years past.
It doesn’t belong, really. But there it hangs; brown construction paper, with a personal note from his late wife, Amanda, given to Ron in 2010 when the Bulldogs defeated Shannon to win the division.
“Congratulations Coaches! Division 1-4A Champs! We’re so proud of you! Love, Amanda and Molly Addison.”
Amanda was shot and killed by a home intruder Dec. 5, 2011. Ron was shot in the shoulder. Their now 4-year-old daughter, Molly Addison, avoided harm. “December the fifth is the only bad memory of New Albany,” he says, looking to the sign, purple t-shirt after purple t-shirt draped over his arms.
Amanda was known for those encouraging reminders. After each game, win or lose, she’d decorate the back door of their home with such notes. This after spending time postgame on the track surrounding Kitchens Field greeting players as they made their way to the field house.
“She was a true coach’s wife,” volunteer assistant coach James Stark said. “She knew every kid by name.”
“A year ago, I was walking off and she came up and gave me a big hug and told me how good I did,” quarterback Spencer Day said. “I didn’t even think I played that well. But it never mattered with her. She was such a genuine lady. She always had a big heart.”
Always the coach’s wife. Always supporting. Always the backbone for Ron, an introvert by nature. Day said there was something different about Ron Friday. He kept to himself. There was something missing.
Amanda brought out the best in him.
“She was just so much of who I am,” he said. “We were a package deal. You got one, you got the other.”
When the scoreboard strikes zero on this night, Ron and Molly Addison, her blonde hair streaked with purple, will arrive home to a blank door. No notes. No decorations. Just a door.
“That’s what scares me the most,” Ron said.
This was Amanda’s night.
“She’s got the best seat in the house,” Ron said.
New Albany fans filled the stands quickly, most wearing purple in her honor. Ron finally found a shirt for Mandy. “This one’s for you, AP,” it read. Ron put one on, too.
He passed out wristbands — purple, of course — to each of his coaches. Players wrapped their wrists and ankles with purple tape. Purple ribbons were painted on the 25-yard lines. Ripley fans showed their support, as well, many donning purple.
Purple was Amanda’s favorite color.
“We shouldn’t have to say nothing, guys,” senior defensive end Austin Howard said, the locker room quiet, his teammates gathering together for Ron’s pregame speech.
The team long ago decided to dedicate the season to Amanda. To hammer the point home, the front page of the game-day program featured a picture of Ron and his seniors, Ron in the middle, interlocking arms.
Each season has its first game, and Ron was as prepared as he could be. Not just for Ripley, but for the gravity of this game. The emotion. The significance.
He stepped to the center of the locker room, his players and assistant coaches surrounding him. He opened the floor to wide receivers coach Jay Cossey, Amanda’s brother.
“I know she meant a lot to you. For everything she was to you, she was that to me as a little sister,” Cossey said.
Ron stared at the floor, occasionally looking up at Cossey and nodding in approval. Cossey spoke of teaching Amanda to drive and taking her to football games, including a few games at Alcorn Central, where Ron played.
“It means a lot to me that you’re going to go out and play your butt off in her memory and her honor,” Cossey said. “I appreciate you. I love every one of you.”
Ron could have left New Albany, packed his and Molly Addison’s bags and headed somewhere, anywhere, else. No one would have blamed him.
“These kids experienced Amanda firsthand,” he said. “You can’t turn your back on that.”
Every aging brick of New Albany High School reminds him of Amanda. Same goes for his job. Amanda loved to travel with Ron to meet the next game’s opposing coach each Saturday. “That was the time that it was just me, her and Molly Addison,” he said. She had all of his attention. Those Saturday mornings were for them.
The morning of the day of her death, Ron, Amanda and Molly Addison were in Jackson, Miss. Ron received a phone call. There were rumors he was headed to his hometown, Corinth, to become head coach of its football team.
“Amanda looked me in the face and she said ‘We’re not through in New Albany. I feel like God’s going to keep us in New Albany.’ And she told me that the day of her death,” he said. “The key was she said we were going to be in New Albany. I didn’t know that I was going to be here by myself.”
But he isn’t by himself.
‘She knows what’s happening’
Thirteen minutes left, and the stadium’s full. Yes, he has time, but he has to hurry. Captains take the field before the rest of the team. There’s silence in the room. Ron looks forward.
“Guys, I love every one of you, and I know you love me,” he said. “If you didn’t, I wouldn’t be standing before you tonight, OK? We are a family. You’ve been there from day one.”
Boston Newsome, a senior running back, kneels down directly in front of Ron. Newsome loved Amanda. She helped him with his academics, and after the last game of last season, told Newsome to get ready for his senior year, because he was going to be one of the top running backs in Mississippi.
“I’ve been holding that to myself,” Newsome said, tears streaming down his face.
“Boston has been a kid that’s come so far the last four years,” Ron said. “He’s a kid that could have gone down the wrong path, but he’s chosen to stay on the straight road. He’s going to go on and be successful. That’s what Amanda Price would want, is for Boston Newsome to be successful and make something of himself.”
God, family, football. Ron lives his life in that order. He’s visibly emotional as he addresses his team, often citing Amanda and her love for his players and her nerves when watching games.
He pauses when he has to. He chokes up only when he’s talking about Amanda. Discussing formations and situations and strategy comes easy.
“She played every play, just like you do,” he said. “Her heart beat just like ours do. When it was crucial, hers was pounding. When something great happened, she was thrilled to death. She’s got a great seat tonight, OK? She knows what’s happening.”
This is his normal. Football is his element. As quickly as tears formed, they disappeared just as fast. Through it all, there’s always been football. As he finished, coaches and players joined together for the Lord’s Prayer.
Ron stepped back. Newsome, a first team All-Division selection last season, popped up. He hugged Ron before turning away to wipe tears from his face.
Two by two, they exited the field house, a purple shirt taped to the wall adjacent to the exit. “This one’s for you, AP,” as they headed to the field.
“Obviously, we’re going to play for Amanda Price,” senior safety Chandler Nail said. “We’re going to play for our coach. We love him. We’ll fight to the death for him.”
‘Isn’t it pretty?’
Friday nights in Mississippi are reserved for football. It’s no different in New Albany, where fireworks are shot off after touchdowns and those late-arriving fans line the fences of Kitchens Field to watch the Bulldogs, the smoke of cooked hamburgers looming overhead.
Ron is one of the last to leave the locker room.
“You ready?” I quip, and he cracks a smile.
“I hope so,” he answered. “Let’s play football.”
He exits the field house to rows of fans. They’ve left an opening for the team to walk through, to make their way to the tunnel, where they’ll run out. Molly Addison meets him on the track. He picks her up. The purple streak in her hair was her idea.
“Isn’t it pretty?” she asks.
“It is,” he said.
They make their way to the tunnel, his team already gathered inside. His players call for Ron to move to the front, Molly Addison in his arms. As the music blares, the breakaway tunnel opens. Day is slowly waving a purple flag: “This one’s for you, AP.” He leads the march, Ron following behind, his players to each side.
Slow and steady they march, headed to the home sideline. Walking, not running. Home and away fans join in applause. Yes, this is the season-opening game in New Albany, but the Bulldogs aren’t at center stage tonight. This night is for Amanda. It was always for Amanda.
“She knew how much I loved football,” Ron said. “She did everything she could to learn as much about it. She got to be really good. She was the glue that held the coaches’ wives together. She was always trying to organize them to try to be together. She was just one of those people that wanted everything to be perfect.”
On this night, everything was perfect.
Back to football:
Ron put on his headset. Ripley had won the toss and chose to receive.
“That tells me they have something up their sleeve,” he warned his team.
In three plays, the Tigers were forced to punt. New Albany took over and proceeded to score 21 first-half points. But it was the first touchdown that meant the most. Fittingly, the score came on a first-quarter run by Newsome.
Into the end zone, 6:39 showing on the scoreboard. The New Albany sideline, littered with players, looked to the sky and pointed upwards, to Amanda. Ron pointed, too. From there, it was all football. Only football.
Over the course of 48 minutes, Ron was back to doing what he does. He chided a ball boy for failing to dry off the footballs on this soggy night. He relayed assignments to Day, who jogged to the sideline play after play.
New Albany struggled with turnovers, finishing with six on the night. But the Bulldogs won anyway, 28-21. “Unfortunately, we didn’t play the way we coached our kids,” Ron said. “I’m just thankful that we got that win.”
At the end of a long day, I stood with Ron on the 50-yard line of Kitchens Field, just talking. This was the field I played on eight years ago, my hometown.
We talked about the game, sure, but more about life and his new normal. Out of nowhere, here comes Molly Addison, slamming into his leg with a hug. He pats her once, keeps on talking and she bounces away, off to do a few cartwheels for some cameras.
“I love talking about my wife,” he said. “The scary part is, people are going to stop talking about her. The more people talk about her, the more opportunity we have to tell how special she was and how different she was and what she meant. My fear is when that stops.”
– story written by Ben Garrett
About Chris Elkins
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