Omega, Ga.--- Every morning you see a man wearing shorts, a hat and walking non-stop, with ski poles, always in a hurry, as if going to a fire. He’s Fred Tucker, a veteran coach with old beliefs about young people. Most people, even grownups, call him Coach Tucker.
“The world needs more old people to work and play with young people because of their experiences,” says Coach Tucker with several young people crowding around him as he walks.
“Sometimes, us old folks can plant some seeds of knowledge or wisdom, or a pat on the back, or an atta boy that sometimes these kids don’t get at home,” says Tucker.
Coach Tucker is 80 years young who walks eight miles a day during the summer, because it’s so hot, and just 10 miles a day during the rest of the year. He is a walking role model for the benefits of exercise. “I have some friends who were buried when they were 70 years old, but they really died when they were 60,” says Coach Tucker who believes exercise improves a person’s quality of life, regardless of age.
You will see him following a group of ten- and 11-year olds around a sandy track at Omega Elementary School in Tift County. He purposely walks behind them, frequently shouting, ”I’m taking a short cut. I’m taking a short cut.” He doesn’t.
They walk a mile, but he will do ten times that during the Fall. Coach Fred Tucker teaches physical education part-time in the Tift County School System, but they get him full time – a bargain for the students and the school system. “I started at 6:30 yesterday morning and got home at 6:30 that night,” says Coach Tucker with a smile.
Besides teaching PE, he still coaches football, the offensive coordinator for the seventh grade Blue Devil football team. He prefers the younger athletes. He talks to the offensive players before practice about their last game, where he demands their full attention.
“Son, you are not looking at me,” he says to one of the 20 or so players whose eyes drifted. He carries a small book with notes from their last game to remind him of what plays need extra work. “I'll buy that,” he shouts when the players run a play to his liking.
Soon, Coach Tucker brings out new plays he designed. “Drew these up today, fresh off the skillet,” he says holding several file folders with plays drawn on one side.
Fred Tucker has coached for 55 years, and hundreds of players. “I’ve beaten the best and have been beaten by the worst,” says Tucker with a smile. His seventh-grade Blue Devils have quite an opponent to deal with in the following week. “This is the toughest football game of the season,” says Coach Tucker.
His scouting report shows a big running back weighing 190 pounds needs extra attention. “They've got a full back over there who goes bear hunting with a switch,” says Coach Tucker. Only two teams can make the play-offs, but three teams want to go. One team won't make it, but Coach Tucker wants his Blue Devils in the play-offs, the first time in five years.
On game day, Coach Tucker, with his trademark shorts, hat and walking shoes, takes his place, kneeling down on the sidelines analyzing every play. His mind, much like a slow motion camera, records every move of the offensive and defensive players. He occasionally jumps up like a coach in his 20s and shouts, “Who’s the tackle on the other side? Come late,” asks Coach Tucker. “Wildman,”another coach answers.
“They are beating him to death,” says Coach Tucker. The Blue Devils have a devil of a time with Coffee County’s offense. At half time, his team is behind by six points. In the locker room, his eyes like lasers looking at every player, offers a ray of hope, telling them the big player for Coffee County has gotten tired.
“They pulled him out for five or six plays. He’s the one who is beating you,” he says. His team has two quarters to make a come back, but recent history repeats itself. Coffee County’s offense racks up more points as it did during the first half. The seventh grade team tries, but to no avail.
Coffee County wins by a score of 20 to 6. Immediately after they shake hands with the winning team, they meet under the northern goal post where Coach Tucker becomes a life coach. “A good man is a fellow who has the ability to get up after getting his butt kicked, like we got kicked today,” says Tucker.
He seems concerned about the players giving up, abandoning the team before the season officially ends, and before a possible playoff game. “Fellows, let me tell you something. I don’t want a-half dozen absentees tomorrow. You understand,” asks Coach Tucker.
“Yes, sir,” the hot, dirty, sweaty players say in unison. “I want you out there full speed and ready to go,” says Tucker about the next day’s practice.
But he has more to say, and puts the loss, the only one this season, into perspective. “The world is not coming to an end. The sun is going to rise tomorrow. You are going to grow up as big, strong men. I’m going to go home tonight and enjoy life,” he says. He will.
What makes an 80 year old man coach for 55 years and loves being around young people? “I never had a chance to be a kid. I was a grown man at six years old, trying to help my family make a living during the Depression,” says Coach Tucker.
Tomorrow, he will be with young people again trying to have a childhood he never had, walking with his ski poles behind dozens of children around a dirt track occasionally shouting, “I’m taking a short cut. I’m taking a short cut,” that he never takes.
Coach Tucker’s team won their last regular season game, making the playoffs and will tackle the Coffee County team one more time Wednesday October 29, for the championship.