All of the “Roo Tale” writing over the past few years has led me to some discussions with other writers and their process. I had a conversation recently with one of them (will tell you about him in person David Norman). He’s forged a career out of writing and journalism, and is the author of a book about football. But before all of that success, he was just a young sports reporter in East Texas. When I learned about his past not far from Big Sandy, TX, I did some name dropping.
“Marc,” he told me, “let me tell you something. When I was a 22-year old nobody at a tiny newspaper, I couldn’t get anyone to give me the time of day. But Coach Jim Norman, who was already legendary, always returned my calls. He made me feel important, and made me believe my work had value. His state titles meant he could ignore me, but he chose to reach out. And he didn’t have to do that.”
I never knew Coach Jim Norman. I know many of you reading this did. And believe it or not, this story is not even about Coach Jim Norman. It is a nice segueway, however, into a similar story.
Coach Mel Tjeerdsma is being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, an honor announced back in January of 2018. He’s going in alongside University of Texas Coach Mack Brown. It gave me immense pleasure to call my Longhorn brother to tell him that a Kangaroo was going in, “but don’t worry…..you got a guy too.” Tjeerdsma has decades of success in the coaching ranks.
At Austin College, he earned three conference titles and secured two NAIA D2 playoff appearances between 1984 and 1993. He’s also the coach with the most wins in AC football history. He came to Sherman from Northwestern (Iowa), where he led the Red Raiders to an NAIA D2 national championship in 1983 just two short years after his predecessor Larry Kramer had won the same title for Austin College. Before Northwestern, Tjeerdsma won a high school football state title in Iowa. How many little league championship teams did he coach before that? How many marbles championships did he win in his neighborhood as a kid? I dunno, but I’m guessing the answers are something other than zero.
Tjeerdsma departed AC for Northwest Missouri State, where he won three D2 national championships. After a winless 1994 campaign in his first year, the Bearcats won their first of three championships just four years later in 1998. That’s quite a turnaround. National titles followed in 1999 and 2009. One of his assistants during the Bearcat glory years was Bart Tatum, Austin College running back on his two Kangaroo playoff teams. If you go to Google Earth and find the stadium in Maryville, MO, you’ll notice a big “Mel Tjeerdsma” on it. They understandably named the field for him.
I did not play for “Coach T” when I was a student at AC. Heck, I didn’t play football at all. In fact, I don’t recall any significant conversation with him until after I had graduated. And I still don’t know him well like the guys who played for him know him. But I did write about his best team at Austin College last year. His 1988 squad went 9-2, won a TIAA conference championship, and lost to the eventual national champs in the NAIA D2 playoffs. That team, which still holds the record for most points scored by a Kangaroo squad, was my welcome to AC as a freshman. You can read that story in the comments.
Coach T. is not active online, and was therefore not a participant in the story at the time is was written and posted. But one of his former players forwarded the story to him to read after the fact. About a week after his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, I was at home on a weekend when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I picked up anyway.
“Helloooo, is this Marc Parrish?”
“Yes it is.”
“Marc! This is Mel Tjeerdsma. I just wanted to call and say thank you for the story about the 1988 team. It was sent to me by one of my players. 1988 was a special year, and I loved going back into the past. I really appreciate it.”
“You bet Coach! Thank you for that season.”
From there, we chatted. About that team, about AC, about NW Missouri State, and of course……….about Mack Brown and the Hall of Fame. It was a great call to get.
And here’s the thing. He didn’t have to do that. Soon, he’ll be standing shoulder to shoulder with the Longhorn coach who is in some respects on the same level as Darryl Royal. And yet, he still took time to reach out to an alum who simply enjoys writing in his spare time about the work Tjeerdsma did a long time ago. His call made me believe my writing had value. Sometimes the Hall of Fame coaches? They are Hall of Fame humans too.
This weekend, Austin College will be celebrating Mel Tjeerdsma Day. He’ll be honored both before and during the game with Hendrix. Many of his former players and colleagues will be there, congratulating him and chatting about the good old days. I’m sure they’ll have lots of stories. All former players do.
I’ll be there to congratulate him too. It’s not every day that an AC coach enters the College Football Hall of Fame, after all. Thanks Coach T for the call, and for making us all proud to be Roos. Also, thank you for making sure Mack Brown has his moment in the sun during Hall of Fame induction; Longhorns like my brother deserve a little glory too. 🙂