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O'Brien was more than just a coach

By Dr. Billy Gaither

One of my high school coaches was legendary J.E. “Hot” O'Brien. When I think back to those earlier years I remember some great things I learned from Coach O'Brien.

He was a great man as well as an outstanding coach. His records in high school football, basketball and baseball were worth much admiration. In fact his winning profile warranted a place in the first Alabama High School Hall of Fame.

Coach O'Brien kept a sense of humor concerning the losses he encountered.

After his football team defeated a much larger high school team the townspeople collected enough money to buy him a brand new car. It was a prized gift and a rare one because the time was right after World War Ii when new cars were a novelty.

When someone asked him how he liked his gift he had a ready and amusing answer. “I drive it fast in case we lose a game and they will want to take it back!”

Another example of his humor was a story he told when his team lost the first football game after going 57 games without a loss. The team had one more game to play that season. According to the story he went up town for a purchase and saw a man who usually attended the high school games Coach O'Brien won. Coach O'Brien asked him if he was going to the game on Friday night. The fickle fan replied, “Naw, I don't go and see a losing team.” Mind you, Coach O'Brien's team had lost only one game in nearly seven years!

Another quote from the great coach and man was: “When the team wins, it is the town's team. When it loses, it is the coach's team.”

As one of Coach O' Brien's “boys” I could spin story after story. His genuine concern for each “boy” stand out.

In the summer he led a great program which involved young boys in a day before Little Leagues were created. He knew every boy by name. His keen eye spotted the best athletes and anticipated their place in the high school programs.

Our town's main employer was a cotton mill. Some boys who struggled to help their families would quit school and “go to the mill” after their 16th birthday. Coach O'Brien personally visited many boys at work in the mill. He told them that they needed to be back in school and...there was a place for them on the high school athletic teams.

To say that Coach's word swayed many a boy back to school would be an understatement. His word carried a ton of influence.

As one of “his boys” I can testify to his tremendous influence for good in my life.

Thanks Coach! You were a winner in more places than a football field.