James Walden, Midlands Anchor Advisory Board Member and lead pastor at Riverside Community Church, spent some time catching up with former USC football quarterback, Erik Kimrey, for a special interview about life beyond “The Fade”. A mathematics major and teacher of philosophy, Erik shares some of the unique experiences that has shaped his world view on and off the field. Enjoy the full interview transcript below.
James Walden: I’m sitting here with my good friend Erik Kimrey, high school football coach at Hammond, and famously known around Columbia as “The Fade.” I want to talk about a few things you may not know about Erik. There’s a lot of stereotypes we have about football coaches, and Erik breaks all of them.
Erik Kimrey: Not all of them.
James: True. But I don’t know a lot of football coaches who majored in mathematics! I also don’t know that there are a lot of guys your age who could claim the amount of experience you have. But before we get to your story, tell us a bit now about your current role as the head coach at Hammond. How did you get the job at such a young age, and how have you evolved as coach over the last decade or so?
Erik: Herb Barks at Hammond hired me, and I remember him saying, “I’m betting on youth, I’m betting on you.” I’m thankful that he made that bet, but honestly getting into coaching at such a young age, being a head coach at 24, you learn a lot by failure. You think you know a little bit more about coaching than you do know. You learn a whole lot when you actually get into the games and face great coaches. I think John Day at Heathwood taught me a lot about coaching just by kicking my butt the first couple years. Our third year in, we went 13-0 and won the state championship. Your first two years, you’re trying to establish yourself professionally. You want to make your mark and you also just want to not get fired, which in the coaching profession is a very real prospect. So you have to be on your toes. As a young coach, I wanted to prove myself that I could do well.
After that third year, we won the championship six years in a row. And I think somewhere in the middle of that, my coaching philosophy changed. I feel like when you have external goals, benchmarks that you’ve set, those are motivators. But when you’ve done it a couple times, they cease to be the motivators they used to be. At that point, you begin to look within. It’s not so much the goals or the championships or the trophies or the scoreboard that are motivating you, it’s really the process in getting you there. That was a huge shift in my thinking.
James: What do you mean by that?
Erik: You put an emphasis on the here and now, with your team, and not just their performance – on their focus and their willingness to love their teammates on that day and at that time. It takes sacrifice to do your best on a hot August day. And that is a team endeavor because you have to remember, again, everything you do matters. When you don’t engage in practice or give your best effort, it affects everyone around you. That’s the beauty of team sports. You have immediate corporate responsibility, and it’s a powerful teaching tool for young people. When you can get a teenage kid to understand – and this sounds crazy, but important – that they’re going to die one day (and we actually talk about it), two, that their time here on earth is really short, that, three, they’ve got a little bit of time here today with me, and, four, they got to spend it here, so they might as well spend it well. I’m constantly telling my kids crazy things like, “Hey guys, this is the last Tuesday of August of 2017 that you’ll ever get to spend on football, and that’s it. You can’t reproduce this moment.” And they look at me like I’m crazy sometimes, but when you say it enough, and you put enough emphasis on the time that we are presently engaged in, they start to buy it. And your coaches start to buy into it. They start to understand that what we’re doing right now is really important. Even though you may think it doesn’t have a lot of consequence, it does. It’s a mindset and a culture you have to create. We’ve been fortunate enough through the years to begin to learn that, and to stumble through it. We know we’re not doing it perfectly, and we give each other grace, but at the same time we hold each other to that standard.
James: And as the head coach, it’s not all on your shoulders, but a lot of it is. How do you stay motivated to win every day, every hour? How do you stay in a place of that kind of focus?
Erik: First and foremost, it’s not all on my shoulders. I think good leaders put as little on their shoulders as they can, and they give it to other people. I’ve got a tremendous staff that does a great job, and I surround myself with people who are likeminded. I think that’s a big part of it, but ultimately, I have to believe what I’m preaching. One day really soon this is going to be over. I can’t believe I’ve been doing this for 13 seasons, and I’m getting ready to start on year 14. I have to ask myself what kind of impression I’m leaving on this program, on my players, and that’s going to be the story of my career. It’s important every single day, and that’s the legacy you leave. If you can’t get motivated by that, I’m not sure what can motivate you.
James: So are you saying the sport of football is framed by questions of life and death?
Erik: I think all of life is framed by those questions. I teach philosophy for a reason.
James: Yes. And I want to get to that. But first, back to your story. Jim Morrison said, “Is your life interesting enough that they’d make a movie about you when you die?” Well, Erik’s life is apparently so interesting that a short film is already being made about him, and he’s in his mid-30s! So I want to talk a little bit about his life and his history, and then talk about some of the philosophy behind how he lives. But before we do, part of Erik’s story is about his family, and his dad especially, who’s himself a football coaching legend in the Midlands. Tell us a little bit about how growing up in a football family, “on the sidelines” as you’ve put it, shape you as a player and as a coach?
Erik: I was born on the first day of two a days. My birthday’s on August 1st, and my father literally had to be pulled off the field by my grandmother to come to the hospital. So to say that football’s been instrumental in my life since day one isn’t an overstatement. All of my earliest memories are of my father’s football teams and the players he coached. They were my heroes growing up. To this day, I could still tell you the scores of games from the 80s, and I could tell you the jersey numbers of the players. I never thought about the fact that they were black and I was white. My father treated them all like his kids, and he loved all those players in his own way. Countless guys that he coached at Lower Richland went on to college because of my dad and him pushing them into being better football players and young men. That was what I was exposed to growing up, a culture where a lot was expected – you were on a team, your obligation was to the team, you had to give your best effort, and it didn’t matter who you were or where you came from or what the color of your skin was. We were in this endeavor together. That was the start of a lasting imprint on my thinking that has really never gone away.
James: So clearly it affected the way you view race, and it might not be the first thing you’d think of as resulting from growing up on the sidelines.
Erik: You need to look at the role that football and many other sports have played in race relations in the south. Many of your universities here in the south were integrated largely because of football. As I’ve studied history, and understand more of what happened throughout the 60s and 70s, you learn. But when you’re young, those are things you’re naïve to, and you just saw them as ball players and you saw them as brothers, and you cried when they cried because you lost the game, and you celebrated with them when you won a game, and it didn’t matter. That’s the beauty of sports that I love – it pulls all types of people together from different socio-economic classes, different races, different creeds into a common goal of trying to transcend the individual into this realm where we’re all dying to ourselves to a certain extent to achieve something that I like to think of as kind of magical. And it’s the place where you can see past yourself and your own selfish desires. You can achieve something so much greater with other people than you ever could by yourself. I saw that growing up. It was a really neat experience.
James: Not only did you grow up with a locally celebrated coach as your father, but you were also coached by Lou Holtz and even worked with him as a GA. Tell us a little bit about what that experience was like and what you took awy – things you wanted to emulate, and things you thought maybe you wanted to do differently.
Erik: Coach Holtz is a very dynamic figure. And you can’t help but sit up straight in your chair and pay attention when he walks into the room. He’s got a presence, and he’s got a lot of great knowledge and insight into how people work. I learned a lot from Coach Holtz – a lot of what I would do, and a lot of what I wouldn’t do to be honest. Coach Holtz was one of the old-school guys where it was his way or the highway, and he has some approaches of motivation that I wouldn’t employ myself. But you can’t argue with some of the success he’s had. I know in my early 20s, I thought I knew more than Lou Holtz. When I first started coaching, I thought, “You know, I’m going to do it this way and that’ll be better than Coach Holtz.” (laughs) But when you get a little older, and maybe time and losses humble you a bit, you begin to appreciate those people that you learn from regardless of their flaws. There’s a special place in my heart for Coach Holtz, and the knowledge I gathered from my time with him.
I had a great relationship with his son Skip, and I tend to think I’m probably a little more like Skip than I am Lou. Skip was one of those guys who had you over to his house for dinner, and I genuinely felt like he loved me and cared for me. I think Skip, other than my father, has been the number one influence on how I’ve coached.
James: You think part of that was that you both grew up with dads who were football coaches?
Erik: I think that’s a good insight. We both know the advantages – and also the disadvantages – of being a coach’s son. Sometimes you get pigeonholed a bit. You see some of the disengagement of players from your dad that you think you can somehow rectify, and that was something Skip really learned and addressed. I felt that personally. I’ve always had a lot of respect for him, and I still do to this day. He’s a great guy
James: Perhaps one the most tragic ironies of the Kimrey clan is that your family has both thrived remarkably and suffered incredibly through the game of football. Your brother was critically injured playing football, right? Tell us about what happened – what was that injury and how did your family respond to this?
Erik: So the day after we beat Alabama in 2001, a good friend of mine Rodney Trafford caught the game-winning touchdown pass. We had a great year that year. After that game, there was a church picnic in someone’s yard, and my younger brother Kevin went up for a pass and fell the wrong way and someone landed on top of him. He broke his neck and severed his spinal cord, and he’s been a quadriplegic ever since. That was close to 16 years ago now.
I remember my mom calling me and telling me they were on their way to the hospital, and I thought it was probably nothing. But when you’re in that emergency room and the doctor comes out and tells you that your brother’s broken his neck, it’s devastating. It was the day before Kevin’s 16th birthday. What you don’t know is what you’re in store for. I remember the doctor coming out and telling us to get ready for a marathon rather than a sprint. That was true.
Kevin spent some time at the Shepherd’s Center in Atlanta. He came back, and our world’s changed ever since.
It’s one of those things where you remember your life before that and your life after that, and really they’re kind of separated into those two categories. It was a tragic thing; it was an awful thing. But I’ve seen so I’ll start with my brother and his character. He’s just a model of courage – an inspiration for so many people. much good come from it as well.
My parents have been caregivers, and help Kevin out on a daily basis. Frankly, it’s hard. It’s hard on Kevin. There are weeks and months when things are okay, and there are weeks and months where things are tough. It’s okay to talk about it and say it’s hard. For anyone who’s ever had to endure something like that, it changes your family. It changes the dynamics of your family.
James: I was reminded of that, of how your family had to redesign itself around taking care of Kevin. Not only the refitting of their van (to make it handicap accessible), but his entire room. There’s a whole wing of the house…was that added?
Erik: Yeah, we added a whole wing to the house. They have a lake house and that wing is Kevin’s apartment. Kevin’s 32 years old now. He’s a grown man. He needs some privacy. It’s been trying, it’s been hard, but I’ve seen a lot of good come from it, too. I’ve seen Kevin’s devout faith, and he has a lot of courage. And when Kevin speaks, people listen because he’s endured so much.
James: It’s not like you guys are unfamiliar with the risks of football as a family. You’ve seen the successes, and the heights and the glory, but you’ve also seen literally the very worst. But at the end of that, you’re still convinced it’s worth pursuing?
Erik: Sports are a huge tool for young people to be able to have that dialogue with themselves. It’s a mirror into who you are, where your weaknesses are and where your strengths are. Where you need to have that difficult conversation with your own heart because there are some dark corners there that you need to address, and sports can shine a light on those sometimes. And if you don’t do that, what kind of person are you going to become? So I look at it more like: what are the risks of not doing it? What are the risks of us as a culture not engaging the inner dialogue with ourselves, the war with our own souls that we need to all be having all the time?
James: What I hear you saying is that if you never take risks, if you play it so safe, you never know who you are.
Erik: In today’s culture, too, we live in self-imposed echo chambers, and I think the most healthy thing a young person can do is remove himself from that chamber and really begin to dialogue with the world. It takes courage to do that, and we know courage is the enabling virtue. Courage is one of our core values at Hammond. You can’t do anything without courage. You can’t come in to any of the other virtues without courage.
James: That’s interesting. One of the primary virtues of Greek philosophy is courage.
Erik: Yeah, of course. I’ve studied that a bit. Again, when I look back at Kevin’s situation, it was tragic, it was awful, and I consider it an anomaly. But I look at the current climate of young people today – who live in echo chambers and aren’t willing to engage their own souls – as more tragic.
James: Yeah, there are many individuals who aren’t engaging their souls. Their souls are handicapped, so to speak.
Erik: And there’s risk involved. You’re going to have to die a bit. Just like my brother’s body doesn’t work, a lot of times our spirits don’t work, unless they’re traumatized. You have to be willing and have the courage to traumatize yourself and your belief structure in order to properly engage the truth and move on with your life, who you are, how you’re going to engage the world. There are consequences to that, and everything you do matters. Your actions affect more people than you think.
James: On that note, we’re souls with bodies, bodies with souls. So Kevin’s broken body is still a tragedy, and it’s still a loss; it still hurts. And what I love about the Kimrey clan, as I’ve experienced them, is their robust sense of humor. In fact, you’ve shared with me the bumper sticker that Kevin had on his wheelchair: “It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt, and then it’s hilarious.” So obviously you guys have used humor to some extent, but how have you seen your family process the grief that’s come with Kevin’s injury?
Erik: Laughing in the face of tragedy is about the best thing you can do. It’s this existential rebellion, in the most beautiful sense. Listen, we’ve had good times and we’ve had hard times. We’ve dealt with it well, and there’ve been times we’ve brushed it under the rug. I think when you’re dealing with tragedy, there’s no particular formula for dealing with it. What I’ve learned is that empathy goes a long way, trying to give each other a lot of grace, give my brother a lot of grace when he’s struggling, give my parents a lot of grace when they struggle. It’s easy to step into a situation that’s so intense and say “These are the things we need to be doing.” But when you’re not in it on a daily basis, it’s hard to throw a rock at someone’s window, so to speak. Ultimately, I’ve learned we really need to give each other grace, and there’s going to be really hard days and that’s okay. What happened was tragic and painful. We live in a world in which these things happen, and we can’t make them all right. But I have a hope and a prayer that one day it will be made right.
James: This leads us back to philosophy and even religion.
Erik: Listen, all of our actions have consequences, and all of our actions mean something. We live in a meaningful world. I think the easy way out is to be a nihilist and say that nothing matters and there is no meaning. If you do that, then you don’t have any accountability. But when you subscribe to the fact that the world’s meaningful and our actions do have consequences, man, that’s a responsibility to bear. I’m going to do it really poorly a lot, but I’m going to try to bear it well.
James: That’s good. At another time, we’re going to talk more about these questions of life and death and how they frame Coach Kimrey’s coaching. But real quick, tell us: how do your students respond to talks about their mortality?
Erik: I’ll tell you what my team did a few years ago. After I reminded them of the inevitability of their death during practice, they huddled up, and putting their hands in, said, “To death!” I appreciate their sense of humor.
James: “To death!” Thanks for your time, Erik.