I was sixteen the first time I heard the name Rex Dockery. It was during football practice my junior year of high school, one of those perfect October days I’ve only been able to find in East Tennessee. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the wind carried the scent of impending winter, and the mountains loomed on the horizon like folds of purple velvet. Buddy Saulsbury, our defensive coach, was flying somewhere for an award or a banquet or something. The other coaches were teasing him about the flight because he had never flown before.
“That’s why Rex Dockery is no longer with us,” Coach Chrisman had said. “He died in a plane crash, you know.”
I don’t remember Coach’s reaction, other than that he was a little nervous about the flight, and I’m not sure why Rex Dockery’s name stuck with me that day. It might have been the crush I had on Kim Dockery, a neighbor who was a few years older than me, but that’s the only logical connection I can come up with. For whatever reason, I remember Chrisman saying his name on that fall afternoon at football practice in East Tennessee.
Walt Bragg was our offensive coach, and if my memory is correct, he was the first black, high school coach in our county, but I cannot quote that as fact. I do know that when he became the head coach of the other high school, he was the first black head coach. Coach Bragg was known for his explosive personality. If you made a stupid blunder or went through a drill half-assed, he would grab you by the facemask, shake you around, and let everyone within a half-mile know that you messed up. On the other hand, if you made a big hit or a great play, he would grab you by the facemask, shake you around, and let everyone know that he liked what you did.
When I received my Bachelor’s, I went to his office at the other high school and thanked him for bringing out in me the drive to put myself through college. He taught me not only to show up and do a job but also to show up with the attitude that whatever came before me was conquerable and that I should take pride in myself and my endeavors. He taught me to do any job with the willingness to invest my soul into it.
The next time I can remember hearing Rex Dockery’s name is when I received the Rex Dockery Memorial Scholarship to Walters State Community College in 1990. I was seventeen and at the point of having given up on going to college at all. My parents didn’t have the money to send me, and playing ball in college was no longer an option because of an accident. That scholarship came at one of the lowest points of my life, and without it, who knows where I would be today.
My mother made me write a letter of thanks to Coach Dockery’s widow. Other than Mrs. and Dockery, I can’t remember her name, but I wrote the letter, and to a teenage punk it seemed corny and silly and sentimental and all of the things I abhorred. Now, I wish I had adequate words to thank Rex Dockery and his widow for that scholarship fund that definitely kept me from a life of menial labor and probably saved me from total self-destruction. The more mature me doesn’t give a damn if it’s corny or not. The fund that she set aside for that scholarship has had one of the most profound positive impacts on my life, and I wish there were a proper way to thank her.
When I finished at Walters State, I received a transfer scholarship to the then named Memphis State University. At the time, I had grand visions of being an artist of some sort and foolishly held myself “above” the sentimental, but I still loved the game of football and took the free opportunities to attend Tiger home games as a student. The transition from a small town in the Appalachian Mountains to a large city in the Mississippi River Delta was difficult, to say the least. Early on, I was miserable for many tangible reasons: the ugly and flat terrain, the absurd density of people, the brutal heat. I hated the urban environment and disliked the general education courses.
In short, I was homesick.
Then, at a game one Saturday evening, I noticed something on the program: Rex Dockery Field. It wasn’t much, but recognizing that name so far from home lifted my spirits just a bit. Somehow, it made Memphis more familiar, even though I knew nothing more about him than that he had died in a plane crash and that I had received a scholarship with his name on it. From that point on, Memphis became more of a home to me.
A few years ago, while back home during spring break in graduate school, I went to see Coach Bragg. I was surprised by how well he had aged: very little gray, no real wrinkles, the same friendly smile. I have seen other teachers from my high school who show the years. At that point, Coach Bragg seemed to have hidden them somewhere.
At the time, I was thinking about coaching and asked him for advice.
“The best thing you can do is ask lots of questions the first couple of years,” he told me. “That’s what I did. Of course, I was a little different. I was at Texas Tech, and we ate, drank, and slept football at the college. We would have a staff meeting for a couple of hours in the morning, then break into specialties for meetings until lunch. Then, we would meet with the players for an hour or so before going on the field. Then, of course, we spent two to three hours on the field trying to teach the players everything we had talked about all day. It was a lot of work, but Rex Dockery was a good coach to work for.”
“Who is Rex Dockery, Coach? You know, I won that scholarship and have been trying to find out for years.”
Coach Bragg turned and pointed to the wall. There was a clipping of the Morristown East High School football team from 1969, the year they won the state championship, Coach Bragg’s senior year.
“He was our coach when we won the title. He left a few years later to coach in college. I can’t remember everywhere he worked, but he gave me my first job at Texas Tech, then he went to Memphis State for a while. You want to talk about intense? If you think I get mad, you should’ve seen Rex Dockery. That’s where I get my style.”
Those who have not played football or grew up believing that discipline is a bad word probably think that intensity and yelling and getting worked up over a children’s game is all very silly, but I disagree. There was a method behind the madness. Once upon a time, many coaches, especially on the high school level, coached because they wanted to help kids become good people. We live in a mixed up world, a place where it’s too easy to become lost and involved with bad things. In my experience, the bad things are usually the easy way out, and we humans are always practicing the Principle of Least Effort Theory. Before the win-at-all-costs mentality took over, coaches were mentors who taught that going through life half-assed produces half-assed results. Success comes from giving effort.
I wanted to learn more about this man, to put an image and more of a background with the name that had followed me for half my life. I started at the University of Memphis library, fully expecting to find at least a few magazine articles on him, but my search produced nothing. Then, I went to the Internet. At first, I couldn’t find anything other than his name on the Liberty Bowl playing field. I searched the University of Memphis site, expecting to find something in an archive, at the very least a little tribute. Again, I found nothing. I went to the Texas Tech web page, but it contained nothing, as well.
Finally, after an hour or so of trying various searches on various search engines, I found an old Texas Tech page that was still on a server but not connected to the new page. It contained a list of all of the people who had been head coach at the school, and his name was there: Rex Dockery, Assistant Coach 1975-1977, Head Coach 1978-1980. While at Texas Tech he compiled a 15-16-2 win-loss record, a paltry .484 winning percentage. From all the positive things Coach Bragg had said about Rex Dockery, I was disappointed to see such mediocrity. I had expected to find a hero, someone who had led his team to success.
Not too long after I visited him, Coach Bragg was asked to resign from his head coaching position. His first few years had been successful, the last two average at best. Rumors have circulated that he had sacrificed the team’s integrity in order to promote his son’s talent, but I have a hard time swallowing that. As long as I have known him, over half my life, he has held winning to same degree of importance as breathing. But you never know. Parents do strange things for their kids.
Personally, I’ve had my share of losing, too. I was unable to find a way into coaching. Ten years away from the game was too much in a market that produces an abundance of prospects far more knowledgeable and well-known than I am. From fiction rejection letters to the inability to find a career that both paid well and satisfied me, I’ve spent several years of my life feeling as if all of my hard work in college has been for nothing. Success, it seems, is not meant for me.
Determined to learn more about my coach’s coach and my benefactor, I kept digging and began to find more information. In 1980, Dockery was hired by Memphis State. He inherited a program that had gone 2-9 the previous year, and somehow he managed to do even worse, putting up back-to-back 1-10 seasons that included a seventeen game losing streak. During this pathetic period, attendance at the Liberty Bowl dropped to an all-time low, averaging 17,000 fans a game. But according to every news article and editorial and interview I read about him, Dockery remained positive throughout the struggles. He was said to be an excellent recruiter and talent scout, finding gems among local athletes. And he had a mantra to keep everyone focused on the positive: “We’re just going to keep working hard; we will get it done.”
His third season saw the fruit of his philosophy and an amazing turn around. The Tigers began 1983 with a 37-17 victory over archrival Ole Miss, and after the game, fans pulled down the goal posts. That season, Dockery went 6-4-1, and enthusiasm for the program began to grow. For the most part, fans and the local media began to embrace this man and the team. Everything was turning around.
In 1999, I was hired by Tusculum College as a business communications instructor. I taught in an accelerated program designed for working adults. Tusculum is the oldest college in Tennessee, established in 1794. My students in that program were some of the most dedicated and motivated people I have known. Many of them had been out of school in excess of fifteen years, and almost every one stated setting an example for their children as a major factor for being in school. I considered myself fortunate to be associated with them and the program. They taught me that being a winner does not mean always winning. Sometimes, the darkest days lead our greatest moments, and success comes from a resolve to never give up on the goal.
We’re just going to keep working hard; we will get it done.
Shortly after the 83 season, Rex Dockery, assistant coach Chris Farros, defensive back Charles Greenhill, and booster Glenn Jones were killed when their small plane crashed. The football program has yet to truly recover and has been mired in hapless season after hapless season. The University of Memphis still misses him. Coach Bragg told me that he misses his old coach terribly. Despite the fact that I never knew him, I find myself missing him, too. His life has touched mine enormously, albeit only indirectly, and I am a better person because of this football coach who led my hometown’s team to the state championship, who gave my coach his first job, who almost turned around the Memphis program, and who gave me a foothold on an education.
The Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame inducted Dockery posthumously in 1989. Much of his life had been spent in Tennessee. First, he played football for the University of Tennessee, moved on to his coaching success at Morristown East High School, and ended his career on a positive note at Memphis. Who knows how far he could’ve gone if he had survived?
In my research, I came across The Memphis Flyer website and found a page that contained his name. In the 500th issue, the Flyer ran an article that listed the 500 best things about Memphis. I scrolled through the article, chuckling at some of the entries and remembering my first experiences with some of Memphis’s best attractions. Then, almost at the bottom, I saw the result of my search: #434 – Memories of Rex Dockery. And sitting here today, I must concur. Without Rex Dockery, I have no education. Without Rex Dockery, I have no memories of Memphis.