Bill Pace with Gary and Nelda Risher

After working to give back to his former football coach, Dr. Bill Pace shakes the hand of Coach Gary Risher. Nelda Risher looks on. 

She answered the phone on the second ring, as she almost always does. (My mother is the only person I know who doesn’t screen her calls at all. If it rings, she answers it.) But last Tuesday, something just didn’t seem right.

“What’s going on, Mom?” I asked. “You sound funny.”

“Well, I feel funny,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed.”

Long pause.

“What is going on, Mom?” I asked as I prepared for the worst.

Another long pause. Finally, she began to speak haltingly.

“Well, I just hung up the phone with Bill Blossom. He told me he was bringing a crew of 10 people out here Saturday and that there are at least 10 other men coming, the Bearcats, to help get our yard and everything in shape. Right now, 21 grown men are planning to come to our house and work in our yard Saturday. It’s just too much. I don’t know what to say.”

Some background to help make all of that make sense.

  • My parents live in a log cabin on a small farm in Forest, Mississippi, the town where they grew up. They are good at growing things. Through the years, they have grown and given away countless tomatoes, blueberries, muscadines, cucumbers, butterbeans and more.
  • Bill Blossom is a local contractor. He builds and restores amazing things in and around the town where I grew up, including the old train depot that still has the "Forest" sign on it.
  • My dad was the football coach in Forest for years and years. (In fact, Blossom was on the first team my dad helped coach back in 1968.)
  • The team was, and still is, called the Bearcats.
  • Through the years, my parents have put out a lot of love in their town to the Bearcats and beyond.

This week, my friends and I have talked about the love my parents have been sowing all these years. We agree that a team of 21 people are unlikely to show up to take care of our overgrown yard when we are older and infirmed. But for my parents, all of that love is coming back to them. I would say it’s been there all along, but now that my dad is ill (he’s 81, has multiple myeloma and several other complicating factors), the love coming their way is overwhelming, just ask my mom.

Four days after the phone call (in which my mother sounded funny), Blossom, a Forest resident, and his crew, along with a strong representation of the Bearcats, as my mother referred to them, showed up. Some worked through the morning. Many of them stayed until late afternoon. They tended the flower beds. They fixed the plumbing problem my mom had been trying to get someone to come see about amid my father’s hospitalizations. They trimmed the trees. They cleaned up the muscadine arbor.

Keep in mind that the Bearcats who showed up on the Saturday of July 4 weekend under a Mississippi sun are no spring chickens themselves. Most of them are 70 years old now. They were seniors when I was in first grade. I’ve known their names since I was six years old, but I don’t know them — and they don’t know me.

Even still, I wanted to talk to some of them to thank them and ask why they did this overwhelming thing for my parents.

“Well, why did he do all the things for us that he’s done over the years?” Jimmy May, a Forest resident, said. “It’s a tightknit thing. It was like we were back on the team — pulling together. All of the ones who were there were seniors back in 1970 — the year we went undefeated and won the championship.”

May explained that it was Blossom who organized the whole thing.

“Now that we’re 70 years old, we’ve realized that there were certain men who have molded us into the people we are,” Blossom said, and his voice cracked.

He paused to compose himself.

“We did it because we love him. We appreciate what he did for us when he didn’t have to,” Blossom said. “It was the right time, and everybody agreed it was the right thing to do.”

Dr. Bill Pace, who drove up from Ocean Springs, agreed and shared the credit with the men who coached with my dad.

“Basically, your dad and (the other coaches) put their lives on hold for us. They didn’t have to do what they did,” Pace said. “It had a lifelong effect on me — that I needed to do better and give back to others”

Love is a boomerang.