My dear friend and high school football coach, Jim Lofton, passed away on New Year’s Day. He was 85. This picture was taken 2 years ago. Coach Lofton called me last week. It was our last conversation. Without words, he acknowledged that he knew his remaining days were few. He meant the world to me.
My relationship with Coach Jim Lofton goes back more than 50 years. I met him for the first time when I showed up for football practice in shorts and a helmet. I was 14 years old.
My first goal was to survive those two, long, daily practices in the sweltering August heat of 1961. To me he was a “god” and held all the answers to life. I lived for his approval and kudos every day.
It never occurred to me that he was launching his career, figuring out his role as a high school coach and teacher, an aspiring 32-year old man with a wife and young family. We grew up together. Three years later, I was a member of a team—his team—that won the Atlanta City Football Championship.
Whatever he may have lacked in experience, he made up for in his passion for the game, his love for the students and his focus on teaching the fundamentals. Those commitments remained core to his philosophy of coaching. In the decades that followed, his commitments deepened, along with his unique style of coaching and influencing young people. That’s where the legacy of Coach Jim Lofton was born. When I sat with him at breakfast in March of 2012, he was 83 years old and his enthusiasm for the game, his fondness for his players and coaches, his desire to touch and change people for good—all of that still poured out of him. As we shared our memories, I could close my eyes and hear again that familiar voice challenging, teaching, rebuking, encouraging, and inspiring me and my football buddies—running hard, exhausted, caked in sweat and dirt.
At that time, I didn’t think much about his wisdom, the direction and advice he gave or the experiences he opened up to me—like representing our school at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Conference, or serving as a Co-Captain of that 1964 championship football team. Nothing sticks in my mind and heart more, however, than when Coach Lofton announced in front of the team that I would be dressing out in the season’s opening game with the varsity football team. I was only in the 9th grade. He didn’t know that my mother was battling cancer at Piedmont Hospital.
After that Friday’s short practice and Coach’s public invitation to dress out, I couldn’t wait to ride with my father to the hospital and tell my mom about this incredible chance to play in my high school’s first-ever varsity football game. As usual, she was thrilled for me. When the team bus returned to our school after the game, I learned that my mother had died just as the game had started.
Coach Lofton’s personal validation and encouragement will be forever linked to that pivotal day in my life. Playing football for Coach Lofton and losing my mother in those formative years changed the trajectory of my life. I’ve been coaching, teaching and mentoring people most of my life. In some ways, we all do. Not always on an athletic field, but in offices, classrooms, hospitals and coffee shops—listening to men and women, talking through problems, setting goals, praying with them, unearthing the deepest desires of their hearts.
Thank you, Coach Lofton, for injecting yourself into my life, for the timely, quiet and steady ways you left your mark on me. I know that I speak for thousands of men and women. We are grateful for you, and we will never recover from the things you said to us and did for us when we were young and needed you the most.