Authors: Steve Sullivan
It was a lifetime ago but I remember the conversation as if it took place yesterday.
I was watching an interview that showcased a weathered football coach recounting his
career. In the course of the conversation numerous questions were posed, covering
a variety of topics. Everything he said had an impact. I could picture his locker
room sermons. I could see his team hanging on every word. His energy jumped through
It was apparent why the coaching icon had a remarkable record of achievement. And
while I was impressed by his analysis of all that football stuff, the response he
gave to a query unrelated to football impacted me the most. The question had to do
with life. He answered:
I’ve always learned more from failure than success. For me, failure has been a teacher.
On occasions it has been a friend. And like a friend, it gave me the straight scoop.
It was failure that exposed my shortcomings. Failure that told me I wasn’t ready.
And because there was nothing I hated worse than a “know it all,” failure became the
catalyst to succeed. No I don’t fear failure; I embrace it because in the end, failure
will make me better
Intriguing thoughts coming from a man whose name
was synonymous with success. Was he kidding? At that stage in my coaching career I
didn’t have the answers. I wasn’t secure enough to want anything other than success.
I didn’t understand that defeat was the price of admission. Without defeat there would
be no victory.
As a thirty-five-year-old math teacher with a limited record of accomplishments, failure
was a punch in the nose. It was a kick in the butt. Failure sapped my energy and made
me feel diminished. Failure caused my shoulders to sag and my eyes to gaze south.
I walked a little unsteadily after failure.
Embrace failure? Who was he kidding? Maybe the coach wasn’t as smart as I thought.
I came to the conclusion that anyone who would befriend losing was a masochist and
probably a fool. Fifty years later I have a different opinion. It didn’t come overnight.
It’s come as a result of getting roughed up more times than I can count. But, as I
look back on it, I realize failure has never been fatal. And in virtually every situation
failure was a temporary event.
Here I am. The bruises are gone. The scrapes have healed and I’m on a roll. Did you
hear? They put me in a movie. And now someone has asked me to write a book. I’ve decided
I will. Well that’s not exactly correct. I’ve employed a surrogate to put the words
on paper. The thoughts will be mine.
I have a long history with the man that will help me crystallize what I want to say.
My association with him was interrupted for thirty-five years but, like all relationships
founded on substance, it remains intact. He came back into my life after seeing the
Remember the Titans
. His reappearance
occurred suddenly one morning after I returned from a walk on Bethany Beach. I heard
the phone ring but tried to ignore it. I then realized it probably was a call from
the long lost quarterback and captain of the Hammond High School football team. I
hadn’t seen or heard from him in thirty years. An image flashed. The pain returned.
I had to answer the phone because I wanted an explanation.
I put the receiver to my ear and the voice that posed the question sounded no differently.
“Hey Bill,” he said. “How come you never let me throw the bomb?” I couldn’t believe
it. In keeping with what I remembered, Steve Sullivan was still on the attack. Experience
had taught me how to deal with a guy like Steve. “How come you fumbled on the one
Since that call our friendship has grown. And so when I decided to accommodate a publisher’s
request, I turned to him. He wasn’t particularly gracious. It didn’t bother me because
I’ve come to recognize Steve is a straight-talking guy. He stated that everything
important has already been said. He told me a million books are written each year.
He warned me that writing is hard. He explained the frustration that comes with searching
for answers that may not exist. He told me that rejection was the name of the game.
He said that the peanut gallery was waiting to eat my lunch.
I asked him what I should do. He responded, “When do we start?”
I’m no different than anyone. I’d like to believe I came from “royal stock,” that
blue is the color of blood in my veins. I can picture the ship anchored at a London
dock. Paperboys shout the news. Carriages pull up. Women are carrying parasols and
men are looking dandy. The purser reads the manifest. “Yoast,” he calls. No reply.
“Yoast,” he hollers. No answer. “Yoast!” he bellows. Silence. Someone grabs his arm.
Poof. The fantasy is gone. There are no Yoasts that sailed with the
. As best as I can discern, the Yoasts embarked from somewhere else and I suspect
their accommodations were anything but accommodating. They probably slept on a hay
pile somewhere between the cow manure and goat droppings. They woke up every morning
with feathers in their ears.
My ancestors landed in America, and I showed up later in Florence, Alabama. Nineteen
twenty-four to be exact. They
called the place Tin Can Hollow. I don’t know if the name related to the architectural
design of the tenements or the debris lying in the street. I guess it didn’t matter.
It was my home.
At the time I was too young to reflect on the pedigree of my gene pool. As far as
I knew, the Yoasts were as good as anyone. A few years later, my impression began
to change when my dad invited me to accompany him to the train station. He was going
on a trip and wanted me to see him off. I said sure. I loved my dad.
An hour later as we approached the rail yard I could see a locomotive chugging down
the track spitting a spray of steam. Behind it was a line of cars that seemed to stretch
forever. I looked at my dad and could see the excitement in his eyes. He commanded
me to stay put. I always did what he told me so I froze in place. Momentarily, he
was sprinting toward the train. As it drew closer he threw his carpetbag through an
opening and dove into the boxcar. He didn’t look back. Tears filled my eyes as I realized
hobo Yoast was on his way.
A few months later I was playing in the street and when I turned around there was
my pop. A smile decorated his face. His arms opened and I ran into them. It was good
to have him home. A couple weeks went by and a circus came to town. My dad scrounged
a couple tickets and took me into a different world. I had the time of my life.
The next day we went back to meet some of the performers. As we walked around the
tents we stumbled into a group of tumblers practicing a pyramid. My dad asked if he
could play. They put him on the bottom and stepped all over
him. I remember him laughing and joking. He held his own. I could see he was having
the time of his life. Two days later when the circus left town my father did too.
It was a turning point for me. I realized then that my dad believed responsibility
was for others. Each time he departed I seemed to care less. So did my mom and my
sister. I guess Bobbie and I understood having a hobo for a role model could be detrimental.
I got to a point where I didn’t care that my dad was gone. Part of it had to do with
the fact that I had a surrogate on the other side of the county. Incidentally, she
was black. Mary was her name and cotton was her game. I met her in a field on a blistering
morning. I’ll never forget those southern summer days. There was no escape; even the
As you go through life it’s interesting what images remain fresh in your mind. For
me, meeting Mary has remained a vivid encounter. If you know anything about cotton
then you know you gotta get pickin’ before the sun slaps you silly. It’s an early
morning thing that means you rise a few hours after the moon showed its face. At least
I did because the cotton field where I was going lived in the boonies.
The only way to get there was walking. As I trudged along I wondered what I was going
to encounter. I stopped and looked around. I determined I was five miles from the
middle of nowhere. The blackness and sounds of animals scurrying about didn’t bother
me. The fact that I was about to meet a bunch of people I didn’t know made me a little
nervous. I knew my social skills had grown slower than my feet.
I wondered if I was lost. I continued to walk. I turned a corner and could see the
glow of small fire. I heard some laughing in the distance. It surprised me. Why would
anyone be laughing at that hour, in that place?
I figured I’d find out.
I was glad that my journey had ended in success. As the first rays of morning light
broke the horizon, the pinkish hue illuminated a group of pickers standing in a circle.
I walked up with a smile on my face and gave them my name. Given the look on the twenty-nine
faces that stared back I detected that they weren’t as happy to see me as I was to
see them. A second later a small woman erupted from the huddle. “Morning Bill, I’m
Mary. Some call me Aunt Mary,” she said and then extended her hand. As I grabbed it
she showed me a smile with four hundred teeth.
The conversation quickly got around to business. I told her I had never picked cotton
but I was a quick study. I’m not sure it was the truth but I was in desperate need
of a job. Circumstances had made me a breadwinner. She smiled again. “There isn’t
much to it Bill,” she said. Pointing to the puffs of white she explained the objective
was to get as many in the bag as fast as you could. It was all about speed she stated.
Speed made the difference between a full stomach or an empty cupboard. Handing me
my burlap sack she wished me luck. It didn’t come to me until a long time later: There
was only so much cotton in that field. My getting more might mean that she would get
less. I guess she didn’t care.
Day after day I worked those fields. Somewhere in the beginning I got a silver dollar.
That was a lot of cash for a nine year old. My heart almost jumped out of my chest.
was the first money I had ever made. I put it in my palm and gazed at it for a long
time. I placed it in my pocket. I pulled it out and peered at it again. I rubbed my
fingers across its shiny surface.
I thought. I’m a workingman. It felt good. Two hours later I handed that silver dollar
over to my mom. That felt even better.
That cotton field was a great learning experience. I learned about hard work, respect,
responsibility, generosity and kindness. I learned about things that mattered. Most
of it came from Mary. She toiled all day and yet there was always a song in her throat.
I guess that also meant there was one in her heart. The other workers were friendly
enough but there was a distance. I understood why. I was white and they were black.
In the south in 1936 that combination only worked on a piano. Then one day that changed.
In a rush to get out of the house and down to the field I’d forgotten my water. And
this day was no day to be without H2O. By daybreak it was hot. Torrid was in transit.
I had been in the field an hour and started to wilt. I was feeling mighty bad but
I’d gotten tough working those fields. I would suck it up. I prayed I’d make it.
At the morning break the pickers assembled under a big oak tree. Sitting in a circle
the bucket and dipper was brought out and passed around. When it came to me, all eyes
watched my move. They knew that I had been told if you drank water from a black man’s
cup your lips would fall off. I grabbed the dipper and took my turn.
Almost instantly you could detect a transformation had taken place. I was no longer
Bill Yoast: white man. I was just another human being trying to get through a lousy
the time I didn’t recognize the implication of my action; years later I did. The significance
of an act rests in the eyes of the beholder.
I survived that day and the miserable days that followed. I did notice that the harder
I worked the better I got. Each time out I picked a little more cotton. I set a goal
that I would pick a hundred pounds. I realized that was half of what Mary grabbed
but for me it would be a record.
When picking ended we took our bags to the scale. Every day I was disappointed. One
afternoon Mary came up and asked how I’d done. The look on my face told her everything.
“Here, Bill,” she said and then stuffed half her cotton into my bag. I hit the hundred
pounds and never looked back. I became a picking machine. That act of generosity has
never been forgotten.
Mary had her own family to feed and yet that was less important than doing something
nice for someone else.
When you’re young, time has a way of creeping pretty slow. It doesn’t help if every
day is punctuated with plight. If you’re poor, it seems you never get dealt a winning
hand and joy can turn to grief on a dime.
We had nothing so anything my sister and I got was a thrill. One day my mom had saved
2.00 for the down payment on a bike. She brought it home on a bus and for a moment
I felt as good as anyone. Between my sister and me we logged five hundred miles the
first hour. A month later two men showed up because my mom missed her payment. They
wanted it back. Bobbie and I held hands and watched them load it on the truck. We
couldn’t believe the only fun
in our lives had just been repossessed. I’ll never forget it. Standing there were
two kids with tears streaming down their faces and two guys who didn’t care.