LONGVIEW, Texas (AP) — On a good day, former Big Sandy High School football coach Jim Norman gets to visit with friends and talk a little football.
Norman, 75, suffers from Alzheimer’s and lives in an assisted living facility in Cedar Hill. His short-term memory, according to his daughter, isn’t what it used to be but the coach who led Big Sandy to three straight state championships nearly 40 years ago can and will talk about the “old days” with anyone who’ll listen.
One day earlier this month was a good day for Norman.
Former player Gary Chalk, who played for all three of those championship teams in 1973, 1974 and 1975, visited his old coach and delivered a present that brought back a flood of memories for both the player and the coach.
Chalk, who in 2011 decided to have a ring made for himself signifying all three of the Wildcats’ state championship teams, recently had a replica of that ring made for his old coach. On a recent Friday he surprised Norman with a visit and the ring.
“It’s been a good day, that’s for sure,” Norman said. “I’ll tell you what, that’s a fantastic kid right there. Of course he’s not a kid anymore, but he’ll always be a kid to me.”
Big Sandy won the 1973 state championship by outscoring Wortham, New Waverly, Runge and Rule in the playoffs by a combined total of 118-3 in the playoffs — defeating Rule 25-0 in the title game. In 1974, the Wildcats defeated Wortham (44-0), Axtell (42-6) and Moody (12-7) and then battled Celina to a 0-0 tie to share the championship.
The 1975 team is widely considered to be one of the greatest teams in Texas high school history. That Wildcat team, which included former Miami Dolphin David Overstreet and current Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith, outscored opponents 824-15, pitching 11 shutouts and winning playoff games by scores of 65-6 (Mildred), Axtell (55-0), Moody (38-0) and Groom (28-2).
When Chalk graduated, he married quickly and started a family and a career. Purchasing a ring to remember high school football state championships was not high on his list of priorities.
In 2005, however, he was picked to officiate a state championship football game and was given the opportunity to order a ring signifying that accomplishment. He began thinking about having a ring designed to denote all three Big Sandy state titles, and in 2011 he followed through with the idea.
But, that was only part of the plan.
“I wanted to have one just like mine made for coach Norman because he means so much to me,” Chalk said.
On Nov. 2, Chalk delivered the ring and said he isn’t sure who was more excited about the event.
“His reaction was like that of a child on Christmas morning,” Chalk said. “It worked out that we got there at lunch and about 20-30 people were in the hallway. Everyone knows him, and when I came in he started calling my name. Everyone sort of gathered around to see what was going on so I presented him with the ring. A tear fell down his cheek, he buried his head in my shoulder for a few seconds and then went around the room showing it to everyone. It was a great feeling. The money I spent on the ring doesn’t compare to what I feel inside. It’s just a blessing to see him again and do something for him and to talk about the old times.”
Norman said he was surprised by the ring, but not by Chalk’s generosity.
“Gary is just that kind of kid … always has been,” Norman said. “He was that way back when he played, but I’ll tell you what … we had several of them on those teams. They all seemed to care about each other and that was a major reason for our success. What happened to one of them happened to all of them as far as they were concerned.”
Norman’s daughter, Margie Oliver, has always been a fan of the Wildcats but is an even bigger fan of one particular player now.
“Gary is amazing for doing this,” she said. “It’s just a great story about not forgetting the people who touched your life and letting them know it. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease, and I’m just so happy for daddy to get a glimpse back of what he used to be.”
As for the ring itself? It won’t be put in a box for safe-keeping.
“I took daddy to lunch after Gary gave him the ring and daddy was showing the ring to everyone,” Oliver said. “I laughed and told him not to be obnoxious, and he just said ‘Why not?’ “
It is, after all, a memory almost 40 years in the making.