(Editor’s note: For more than 50 years, Bill Curry has been a very significant part of the game of football. He was a player at College Park (Ga.) High School and then Georgia Tech, and eventually a two-time Super Bowl champion, playing for some of the greatest coaches in history: Bobby Dodd, Vince Lombardi and Don Shula. Those Super Bowl highs were met with testing lows, a catastrophic knee injury and a Super Bowl III loss that still ranks among the biggest upsets in sports history. As a college coach, he had equal measures of success and trauma, at Georgia Tech, Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia State. He’s learned a few things in that half century. And he agreed to share what he would tell the 20-year-old Bill Curry who was at Georgia Tech as a player in the 1960s).
I am writing with good news and bad news. I kind of like you and really wish I could come back to help you avoid some of the stupid things you are going to do. Alas, that is impossible. …
In the most important decision of your life you have asked Carolyn Newton to marry you. She will become your wife on Dec. 15, 1962. Obviously, you will both be 20 years of age. As wonderful as you think she may become, she will turn out to be even better, much better. Loving, cheerful, beautiful, brilliant, and caring, she will raise two incredible children, Kristin Hunter and Billy Curry, who will in turn raise seven beautiful grandchildren. She will stand by you through one gut-check after another and build an incomparable life for you two, often without much help from you. She will love you when you least deserve it. That is what soul mates do.
She will stand up for you, even risk her life for you. When her life is threatened, she will show you what real courage is. She will also tell you when you are a fool, eyeball to eyeball.
You are blessed beyond words. You sense that fact in a self-serving way, but fail to see your obligation to be emotionally present for your mate. You will struggle with that reality, maturing very slowly. Into your sixth decade together she will continue to surprise and delight you every day. Honor her and treasure her. Thank God you will learn to listen to her. It will have taken much longer than it should have.
More good news: You will be matched with a hall of fame array of friends, coaches, teammates and student-athletes. Not surprisingly, every one of them will be men of faith. You will be a part of wonderful teams. At every level you will take the field with teammates of superior integrity and talent. Bobby Dodd, Willie Davis, John Robert Bell, Johnny Gresham, Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr, John Mackey, Don Shula and John Unitas will step into your huddle, and into your heart. Ron Greer, Andrew Young, Herb Barks, Homer Rice and Pete Wellborn will shape your performance, and more important, inspire and inform your spiritual life, guiding you into your sacred role as mentor.
Always be grateful to them — share their wisdom. Each of them has been your mensch, your corner man.
Some of their thoughts on Life I wish you could understand at this tender age:
• When you are in your 70s, it will not be the wins and losses that matter — it will be your family, your friends, and players, who are living happy, productive lives. Hearing from them will make all the difference.
• For people who do harm to you, forgive them, all of them.
• Remember that humility and integrity are the hallmarks of a true leader.
• Talk’s cheap. Leaders act.
• When you have an impulse to hurt someone, by word or deed, step back, think … then don’t do it.
• Be a man of courage — when you see evil, confront it, take a stand — if you know who you are, you will know what to do.
• Love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.
Remarkably, you are already aware of the horrors of racism. You have asked since childhood why there are separate water fountains and restrooms. No one has answered. But thanks to your one African-American friend, you already know what is right and what is wrong. Your construction boss, James Harvey, changed your life at age 16 in powerful ways you will not understand for decades … but change it he did.
His example will enable you to move from a segregated society to the integrated world of the football huddle. It will be there, in the huddle, that you will learn for all time that all people are created equal, that all are needed to create a team. It will be a visceral education. The fact that our country is predicated on this very principle is not an accident.
We would do well to remember that fact at this moment … but back to young William at 20.
The worst news is that the culture around us remains deeply divided and that many of our would-be leaders fan the flames of discord. The biggest issue is that people like you have not done enough.
Your influence has not been what it might have been. Use whatever abilities you have to make a difference in the world. Break down the walls of divisiveness wherever you are and never accept the illogical hatred of the self-centered bigots.
You are a lucky young man, in every way — take the joy in your life and make a difference!
Never, ever give in to the purveyors of hatred and division … never. Have some fun. Maybe, when you are old and a little shaky, if you have given your very best you will understand peace of mind.
Be sure to leave the world a little better than you found it. You will not believe how fast it goes! God loves you and so do I.
Bill Curry, the Elder