Farewell, and thanks, to a great coach
I played high school football under two head coaches: Frank Linduska in my freshman and sophomore years, and Ray Byrnes as a junior and senior.
I wrote a piece about Frank when he died in the late 1970s.
Today, it’s Ray’s turn.
Coach Byrnes died last week at the age of 91 at the care home in Johnston where he had lived for the past several years.
His memorial service was held Tuesday in West Des Moines, and a few Jeffersonians were present. Jack Lashier (Class of 1966) delivered recollections about Ray, and did his usual excellent speaking job.
Ray came to Jefferson in the fall of 1957 from Glidden, where he had been head football coach.
He had a reputation as a tough conditioner — a rumor that his Jefferson teams quickly came to verify. You didn’t want to eat anything before practice.
I was a 130-pound junior when Ray introduced himself to us at the first fall football practice in 1957.
I had started only one game the previous season as a sophomore, the final game of the year against Carroll, playing safety at 125 pounds. We lost 7 to 0 that game, and I got beat up pretty badly.
Carroll’s quarterback was Kenny Macke at 190 pounds, who went on to start at quarterback for Drake for two years. I think I can still make out cleat marks up my chest from Macke’s quarterback sneaks.
Coach Byrnes didn’t know any of us, of course, so we all started out at square one.
As things sorted themselves out, I ended up as a starting defensive back that year. It wasn’t a great season, but it was mercifully shortened by the flu epidemic of 1957, which truncated our schedule after five games. At that point, we were 0-4-1 (no wins, four losses, one tie — back then, high school football in Iowa still allowed ties).
But during the five-game season, I developed great respect for Coach Byrnes. He demanded a lot from us, and we gave him what we could.
Later, when I returned to the Bee and Herald, we traditionally ran the same headline every year in our preseason football preview: “Rams to be fast and light.”
That tradition started in the late 1950s. I contributed to the “light” part, not the “fast” part.
After the 1957 disaster, we went into the 1958 season without many expectations from Jefferson fans. Ray changed that.
He was an expert football tactician. The 1950s were when Forest Evashevski was head coach at the University of Iowa, with his wing-T offense. Coach Byrnes understood the potential of the wing-T, and employed it with great success at Jefferson.
As a result, we went 7-1-1 in 1958, losing to Harlan 7-0 and tying Ida Grove 7-7. The next year, Jefferson High went 9-0.
By the 1958 season, I had gained a few pounds and a couple of inches, up to 135 pounds and 5 feet 6 inches. It speaks volumes about the comparison of high school football players then and now that Ray moved me to starting left outside linebacker for my senior year.
It transformed my opinion of myself.
At Coach Byrnes’ memorial service on Tuesday, there was a display of memorabilia from his coaching days.
One of the items was the Jefferson High School yearbook from 1958-59, opened to the double-page spread featuring the team of the fall of 1958. In the team photo, I was on the end of the front row, as usual, as one of the smallest players on the squad.
Looking at the photo recalled all the memories, especially how I finally came to see myself as worthy of wearing the Ram uniform. I wasn’t big, I wasn’t strong and I wasn’t fast (see above about “fast”). But Coach Byrnes thought I could play linebacker, and so long as I produced, he kept me as a starter.
I had never considered myself a starter athlete in anything.
My brothers were all faster, stronger and bigger than I, even though I was the oldest. But Ray, with his encouragement and his skill, turned me into a fair country linebacker.
The boost to my self-confidence was the biggest thing that happened to me my senior year of high school, and it stayed with me when I left home for college the next year.
Ray did the same for lots of us at JHS, season after season. We coveted his praise and learned from his criticism.
My brothers and I still quote to each other Ray’s knee-lifting running-in-place mantra, “Way up, way up, way up.” It could just as easily apply to the improvement in my self-esteem my senior year.
It was a privilege to know Coach Byrnes and to play for him.
I fervently wish the same for student athletes and their coaches today.