Friday, June 26, 2020

Tribute To My Dad

Cannon Gary Mathews, 81 (Oct. 22, 1938- June 16, 2020), also known at the fire hall as “Slick”, went to be with his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ on June 16, 2020. Gary was a retired Birmingham Fireman and graduate of Woodlawn High School.

This is how the obituary starts....

And I am putting the final piece together in this post to somehow convey the nuances and intricacies of parenting and father/son dynamics.

My earliest memories of may dad are fun and good. Sure, there are times all fathers have- times he lost his temper with my mom or us, times he may have punished us in anger... but the good memories FAR outweigh the bad.

My dad was a fireman, a noble profession but not a glorious life. He worked 24 and was off 48. In his 'off' times, he worked various part time jobs over the years to make ends meet. My mom stayed home trying to hold down my brother and me (and another brother born when I turned 10)... and it was not easy for her. Over the years, we broke all of her china, knocked holes in the sheet rock walls and would have driven her insane if it wasn't for the fact that she had the love and patience of a saint.

I really feel bad..... my brother and I would be playing and then we would hear the car door shut... my dad was home and we just ran in the room and hid. He would walk in and my mom would point to the bedroom and say, "kill them" and then before he could even put his bag up, he would give us our well deserved spankings because we had just tortured our mom for the previous 24 hours.

At the memorial service, it was firemen who came up to me- men who had served with my dad and they didn't tell me their real names. "I'm 'Chubby'.... "I'm 'Fats' ".... and they called my dad, "Slick".- that is what firemen did back then...great nicknames... and maybe still do.

I would go to the firehall every now and then and spend the night there... we played ping pong and chess, I crawled up in the firetruck, I watched them constantly check equipment and fire hydrants... and yes, the alarm would sound and they were out the door in seconds.

These men were a team and their job was to rush in as others were rushing out. They played jokes on one another, they teased and harassed each other.... but there was a bond that few understand.

We got a call one night that a wall had fallen in on my dad, but he got out with just some smoke inhalation. My mom went to bed with tears that night and for the first time I understood that there was danger in what my dad did.

I knew dad more as 'coach' as he coached football and basketball for my teams from 2nd to 6th grade (Football) and up to 8th grade for basketball.  He trained me as well. He persuaded me at an early age to do push ups, sit ups, even wall pushups- upside down. He bought me a jump rope and said it was an important training aide.

We threw baseball in the backyard for hours. He taught me to chip golf balls in a plastic swimming pool, he taught me how to play poker, dominoes, and chess.

He was a master coach- especially in basketball. He was a quick study in football, but he didn't know it was well.

People don't really understand this- but he loved ALL his players. They were all his sons. And he was not ever going to be accused of playing favorites with his son... so I had to hustle twice as hard and play harder that everyone else to just get in the game!

My 5th grade year, I was a wingback and had about 10 carries the entire season and scored a touchdown about every two times I touched the ball. I had more touchdowns on defense than offense.

His longtime assistant, Coach Cockrell, said to him one day, "Slick, you need to give the ball to your boy more." My dad put his hand on my head and smiled, "Nah, he would just get the big head!"

My 7th grade year, he sat me down to tell me that he wasn't going to coach football that year. They had found a really good football coach named Bill Berry to coach us. I was ecstatic! On my first day in Coach Berry's practice I won every drill. Coach Berry stopped and yelled at the team... "Are you guys just going to sit back and let Mathews win everything today!" But I had a fire that had been building. He moved me to fullback and we won the Shug-Bear Bowl at Legion field. I scored a lot of touchdowns that year running just one play called 26 dive.

Basketball didn't go so well. Early on my dad looked at me and said, "Son, I love you... but you are NOT a basketball player." And that bothered me because it was my favorite! But he was right.

One quick basketball story- I have more of them than football stories with Dad. We played our games in the old Woodlawn high school gym and it was majestic! We had a really good basketball team... I started at forward, but was just a hustling rebounder...

We were set to host a team called "Our Lady of Sorrows" late in the season. We were undefeated and my dad knew we need to be humbled. He went to see them play and added them to the schedule.

Before the game, we were laughing at the name...'Our Lady of Sorrows" and by halftime... we weren't laughing. They were up by maybe 20 points! With our pride popped, dad did not even give a halftime speech. But he did call timeout in the 3rd quarter.

We walked over with our heads down and he told us to look up at him.

He said, "I could care less about whether you win or not, but your effort is a LOSING effort. You guys backed down when things got tough. That is what LOSERS do.".... then he said the one thing he probably should not have said... "I haven't even seen a hard foul."

Out of the timeout, their point guard crossed over and penetrated our zone... and I took him out.

It was such a hard foul that every parent in the gym... theirs and ours,  started booing me. The official threw me out of the game.

As I walked off the court to the opposite end of the bench from dad, he looked at me.

"That is NOT what I meant."

We recovered...learned another great lesson..We even played the Banks Jets freshman team that year under a very young David Cutcliffe. They both grew to love one another.

Coach Cutcliffe called me when he heard about my dad. I think he would be OK for me to share a piece of that conversation.

"Jay, your dad was one of the best quarterback dads I ever had in my whole career. In fact, I put him up there with Archie Manning. He was calm, supportive, positive....." as he kept on, the tears just poured out of me.

I have coached Qb's now for 30 years... and I immediately realized that my dad was as good or better than every Qb parent I have worked with. And I have worked with mostly great ones.

Can I mention one more thing about those teams? We were integrated... white and black... competing together. My dad never saw color in his players. And we were ALL a team.

Now that I know more about the times... that was a beautiful gift my dad gave us.

I also need to mention fishing: I still tie the same fishing knot my dad taught me. I still put the Texas Rig worm on just like he told me to. We have some amazing fishing memories- from banks, from inner tubes, a beat up John boat at Lake Mitchell for years!


I guess I need to mention a struggle now... and I blame myself for this more than dad.

In the summer of my junior year, I became a born again Christian... and it created issues almost immediately.

I started reading my Bible, going to church, and even changed over to Christian music.

My dad was so worried that I had joined a cult!

And sadly, I quickly began to judge him. After all, he was a smoker... he drank beer, he used profanity at times and now I was holy and he was still a sinner! As I write this, tears are flowing... I was so stupid ....

We got into HUGE arguments about sin and salvation. He threw a chair at me one night as I proclaimed in my self righteousness that he was going to hell.

Then my senior year, we had an even bigger falling apart! I had been given some small college scholarship offers. My mom and I went to Northeast Mississippi Junior College and I had been impressed by it.

On the night we got the papers, I was going to sign them. My dad and I were not getting along at all. I judged him a sinner and he judged me a crazy fanatic. And I was much worse than him......

Dad took the scholarship and ripped it up right in front of me... "My boy ain't going to a JUNIOR COLLEGE".

And I walked out... left home for two weeks, and stayed with friends. My mom knew where I was and she was torn up!

She called me one night and said, "You need to come home tonight. Coach Donahue from Alabama is calling you."

I came home and Coach Donahue called. He offered me a preferred walk-on and said I could report at the same time as the scholarship guys.

I committed to him that night... thinking dad would be happy. I also had a deep desire to play for Coach Bryant.

Dad wasn't happy, but there was nothing to tear up.

He said, "I'm not giving you a penny. All you are going to be is a tacking dummy."

Mom took me to First Alabama Bank the next day and we signed a school loan. Later I found out that dad did support me, he was just still aggravated about my stupid behavior.

I did well enough at Alabama, that we actually patched things up and he enjoyed coming to our JV games that fall of 1982.

I was growing in my faith as well... And the Scriptures were doing what they are intended to do.. properly humbling me and replacing self righteousness with a better understanding of my sin and God's grace. In full disclosure... I was no saint. Starting the spring of my senior year and throughout my time in college, I was a mess when it came to lifestyle. I have written on this... but I was not consistent at all... but God's grace is real and I was maturing.

In the spring of 1987, I was set to graduate from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and Physical Education. But instead of going into teaching and coaching... I took a job as a youth pastor.

When I told Dad about it, he was concerned. "Why do you want to do that? I thought you wanted to coach?"

Fortunately, I was more patient and loving and I had been praying for my dad... when you pray for someone in love... it helps you even more than them! I also knew that I was a much worse sinner than my dad was... and God's grace was good enough to trust and God was faithful.

I got married in 1988 and my dad LOVED Lisa and her family, especially her dad! My dad also loved my boss, the Rev. Tom Caradine. He was getting pretty happy with where I was.

My dad gave me GREAT advice on the night of our rehearsal dinner.... "Son, when you spoke tonight, you said a lot of "I's"... you better start replacing "I" with "We'... and instead of fighting his coaching, I hugged him and said, "Thanks Dad, you are right."

In 1991, I called Dad with some exciting news, I was going to teach English and coach football at Briarwood Christian School.

His response was classic! "Why would you want to do that! Christians can't win football games!"

And for a while... he was right! He patiently came out for every varsity and JV game from 1991 on... and we struggled!

One JV game, I got so mad I threw my clipboard into the fence and it exploded.

After the game he said, 'If you ever do that again, I won't come back. That was embarrassing and not appropriate for a Christian coach." Boy, was he right!

But some amazing things started happening.... One is we started getting pretty good in football and two, my children were loving on their Papa... and his heart was melting.

After a Grandparent's Day at Briarwood, the girls were singing songs about the love of Jesus and my dad had tears in his eyes.

My dad grew in love for my 3 girls and he loved Briarwood. He loved Coach Yancey and all of our coaches.

Beginning in 1996 through 2003 we won 100 games, lost 12, and won three state championships. No one appreciated that run more than my dad! And I often wonder if God did it to make sure my dad knew that Christians can win football games....

But the entire purpose of this post is to tell you what happened on June 2 of 1998.

My dad called me and asked to play golf. He picked me up and we played 18 holes. I shot and 80 and he shot a 78! He birdied the last hole and I made a bogey.

When went to the clubhouse for lunch afterward. As we sat there, he got some tears in his eyes.

"Jay, I wanted to tell you something. Last week when we went to that prayer breakfast where Coach (Jeremiah) Castille spoke... well... I gave my heart to Christ."

And he turned the scorecard over and wrote on it, 'I believe in Christ. I told Jay on this date."

HERE IS THE CARD.... I went to find it the day he passed away.

We both sat there and cried for a little bit.... I had been praying for him for 15 years... and to be honest, had given up on it.

Now, you would think that right after a man committed to Jesus, God would immediately make his life better.. but that is rarely how it works.

Over the next few years, my dad had to live through some hard times; including my youngest brother's battle with addiction, the death of my mom, my leaving Birmingham for Nashville, my being fired in Nashville after 7 seasons, and eventually the death of my brother, Lee, by an overdose to heroin and fentanyl.

But dad never wavered in his faith... he wasn't perfect by any means... but I could see he was better and improving.

The next falling out was that dad re-married 'too soon' for most of our family after my mom died. And we had some tough years of transition. Holidays were not pretty as I was now juggling 4 families... my family, my mom's family, my wife's family, and my dad, step-mom and her family.

I don't think I handled any of it very well.

But over time, things got better.... some things were patched up. But I was the typical 'too busy for my dad' son who was caught up in his own kids and a very busy job.

But we all got better... and especially my dad.

From his late 70's until his passing at 81, I saw my dad become a man very happy and at peace. He could laugh at himself and he ADORED his grandkids. He loved my step-mom, Delores, and she adored him. Her family was so good to Dad.... actually they loved him better than I did.

He was going to Sunday School, was in a small group Bible study, loved his garden, and loved life. He had given up, started back, and given up smoking again. And he took a lot of teasing from the over 21 grandkids and spouses about his constant supply of Natty Lights in his fridge.

But my dad wouldn't budge... it was free to them so they shouldn't complain.

My last conversation with my dad was on Monday, June 8- he passed away without me talking to him again on June 16.... I sure wish I had called him one more time.

But we did have a longer than usual conversation. Usually it was the same 3 questions- same three short answers, then hang up.

But that Monday, we talked for almost 30 minutes. He was so proud of my girls and he was so good at telling me that he was proud of me. We talked about my blog, he was reading it a lot. We talked about Covid-19 and football. We talked about his garden. We talked about Delores' grand kids. We even laughed that he had recently zoomed with us on a family zoom meeting.

We also talked in depth about his Bible study... he was really enjoying it.

On Monday, June 15, my dad worked in his garden. After he finished, he sat on the back porch with his little dog, Bruno. My step-mom opened up the back door and said, "Gary, you want to come in and watch some TV?"

He said, "No, I want to watch my garden grow."

Then around 3AM on that next morning, he woke up and told Delores he was having a hard time breathing.

He walked to the living room and she and her son called 911.

My dad closed his eyes and went to sleep. It was not a struggle at all!

When the paramedics found out he was a retired fireman, they worked themselves to exhaustion trying to bring him back!

Another son called us early that morning and things were a blur for an entire week.

Here is what I know- there is regret.. there always is...

The day he died, I took pictures of his garden and decided to make a photoshop picture for my step-mom. Right after I made this photoshop picture, I wished I had done it while dad was still alive.... 

Then I made the slideshow we used at his service.... same regret.

My girls were amazing all week AND at the service- they especially took care of me on Father's Day.

Thank you for letting me post all the links for posterity sake... again, this blog is a documented account mainly for my children and one day, maybe grandchildren.

But here is what I know.... my dad went to heaven because he trusted in the promise of salvation through faith in Jesus. He did not go because of good deeds, he went trusting a payment for his failures and his sin.

My dad is in glory, with my mom, my brother, and many other loved ones.

And we are left to grieve... but not as those without hope.

And without Jesus... I don't know how people do it.....

We continue our sojourning here... without him, but blessed to know him!

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