Coach Esau Lathon: Hall of Fame Memories

Courtesy of Bob Rush - reproduced with permission from The Memphis Flyer.

Last week, I received a call from my hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee. The call was from the aunt and uncle I lived with after my mother died in 1968. It always scares the hell out of me when I get calls from relatives I haven’t heard from, since it usually means someone is dead or dying. Happily, none of my few surviving kin were in grave condition. It seemed that my old high school, Clarksville Northwest, was dedicating their football stadium to my old coach, Esau Lathon, and my attendance was requested.

I don’t get back to Clarksville often; in fact, I have a tendency to avoid it because it holds some painful memories of growing up without parents. However, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see, for perhaps the last time, the man who laid the groundwork for my successful football career.

Lathon, now 67 years old, is retired and in poor health due to kidney failure and diabetes. I hadn’t seen him in over 20 years. Lathon had a profound impact on me, not to mention a countless number of other young men in Montgomery County. He began his coaching career in 1959 at Burt High in Clarksville. Burt was the “colored” high school and closed in 1969, completing the integration of the Clarksville schools. Lathon was named as the head football coach for the new Northwest High School.

To have a full appreciation for the new school, you need to understand the demographics of Clarksville in the ’60s and ’70s. Clarksville was, and still is, an Army town. For all intents and purposes, Clarksville, Tennessee, and Fort Campbell Kentucky (home of the 101st Airborne Division) are one and the same. The real significance of building Northwest was that the vast majority of the Northwest students were dependents of either active or retired military personnel. Clarksville residents living east of the Red River were generally non-military and thus relegated to the “original” Clarksville High. We had the “other side of the tracks” designation.

Needless to say, it caused quite a stir to have an African American coaching at a predominantly white high school in the early Seventies. To make matters more interesting, the coach was able to work out a deal with the school board to allow his seniors from Burt High to follow him to Northwest, regardless of their geographic school zones.

Lathon had some incredible athletes at Burt. In practice, they pummeled the rest of us daily, so we had two choices — get better or seek another sport. We got better. Happily, Coach was color-blind. He liked football players of all shapes, colors, and sizes.

We had difficulties scheduling other schools and were sometimes not particularly welcome when we did show up for games. I remember a trip to Glasgow, Kentucky, that resulted in a near riot after the game.

Coach Lathon however, was quite used to adversity. In fact, I think he welcomed it. He talked a lot about adversity and often said that overcoming it was the key to winning. And we did win. In fact, throughout my entire high school football career, no one ever saw Northwest defeated at a home game.
My first two years at Northwest I was a rather skinny, big-footed, tight end, used primarily as a blocker. By spring practice after my junior year, I was moved to left tackle, weighing a whopping 215 pounds (really it was closer to 190). After watching a smaller player get hammered in a scrimmage, Coach decided to try me at defensive right end. That was really unusual for Lathon, who rarely used a player on both offense and defense. Turns out, he had stumbled on to something.

His instructions were simple: Get to the quarterback. I discovered that defense was a lot simpler than offense and more fun, too. You just make a beeline for the quarterback and run over whatever gets in the way. Coach was convinced that as long as I continued to rain down on the quarterback as instructed, I could go to any college I wanted to.

As fate would have it, our crosstown rivals, the high school, had a true “Blue Chip” running back that all the college scouts came to see. It was his (and my) senior year, and the first meeting of the two schools. Coach Lathon taunted us all week about how the talented running back was going to run all over us. We even received a funeral wreath, allegedly from our rivals (motivation was Lathon’s specialty). We won that game 26-20. I recorded several sacks and a blocked punt as my contribution to the win. After the game I heard from the first, and only, major college interested in offering me a scholarship — someplace called Memphis State.

On November 30, 1999, between the Northwest High School varsity girls and varsity boys' basketball games, the ceremony to dedicate Esau Lathon Field was held in the gym. I was honored to be one of the former players to speak. What I had to say was simple: Over the past 30 years, I had been fortunate to work with nine men who were NFL head coaches at one time or another. That list included names like Tommy Protho, Don Coryell, Joe Gibbs, Ray Perkins, and Don Shula. I learned something from each. However, the foundation that I still rely on, each and every day, came from one man — Esau Lathon.

Bob Rush played in the NFL for nine years and worked as color commentary on University of Memphis football games for 21 years - retiring in 2009.