In my line of work I get the pleasure of meeting all kinds of people. Between baseball and outdoor adventures, there aren’t too many types of people that I haven’t been around. The really cool thing is when you meet folks that can relate to both. I’ve known plenty of coaches that enjoy hunting and fishing when they aren’t in their particular seasons. But possibly my favorite people, out of everyone that we encounter, are our bus drivers. Jackson Browne once wrote a song titled “The Load Out” as a tribute to his roadies…here’s mine.
When you spend as much time on a bus as we do, you tend to get to know your drivers pretty well. There’s nothing worse than being on a road trip with a driver that you can’t hold a conversation with, or one you don’t completely trust. Fortunately, over the years, that hasn’t been a problem for us. Not only have our drivers been fantastic, they have also been pretty darn good people. Since being a bus driver is an often underappreciated job, I’d like to take the week to give thanks to a few of the one’s that we’ve had over the last 20 years.
I couldn’t do this list without beginning with Grover Cruise. Mr. Cruise drove for our team for well over 10 years. I’m not entirely sure about all of the jobs he’s had throughout the years, but I know he used to be our mailman when I was growing up in Laurel. I always enjoyed his gentle temperament when he drove for us. On late night trips he’d often hum while driving, and for whatever reason, it always felt comforting. We’d share stories of fishing, and he loved to talk about trips with his son to Bluegrass concerts around the Southeast. Mr. Cruise was the first driver that I ever felt like I had a friendship with. To this day, he and another of our former drivers, Ray Nelson, still come to home games at William Carey.
Speaking of Ray Nelson, he took over most of our driving after Mr. Cruise retired. Ray is also a Jones County native so I felt an immediate connection to him. One of my fondest memories of Mr. Ray is of him trotting through a line of players high fiving all of them after dinner one night in Georgia. It’s an easy one to remember because it was also on my birthday and we’d picked up a big win earlier in the day, followed by topping it off with a great catfish dinner! As a driver, you know you’re doing something right when the entire team loves you. Unfortunately, Mr. Ray was forced to stop driving shortly after this due to a bad back, if I remember correctly. It always brings a smile to my face to look up into the stadium at Milton Wheeler Field and see Mr. Ray and Mr. Cruise there together watching us play.
Next on my list is Foxworth native, Bobby Nichols. Mr. Bobby and I hit it off immediately, mostly due to our mutual love of fishing. On a recent trip to Alexandria, Louisiana it became evident pretty quick that Mr. Bobby has fished in dang near every hole of water between Hattiesburg and Alexandria. Story after story of catching bass in this lake, bream in that lake, and crappie in that river. It was truly almost unbelievable! Sitting directly behind him and listening, I wouldn’t have been more impressed if Bill Dance would have been driving the bus! He’d point to an area while going down the road and say, “Behind that levee over there, there’s a pretty good pond to fish in.” I’d look at the map on my phone and sure enough, there’d be a small lake right where he said it was. None of this was visible from the road. You know how some people give off that “know it all” vibe and you just roll your eyes and go along? That’s not Mr. Bobby…he actually does know it all!
We talked about fishing different areas, then he began asking all about our alligator hunting. We were so immersed in outdoor conversation that we missed our exit on the way home! Once he realized it, he laughed it off saying, “We were having too much fun catching fish and killing gators!” These types of conversations are what make being on the road for all of those hours bearable. And I’m sure it makes driving that much easier being able to connect with your passengers, as well. Mr. Bobby has driven less for us than the aforementioned, but I enjoy his company, and most certainly his stories of fishing all over South Mississippi and Louisiana.
Finally, Johnny Graham. Johnny might as well be family by now. His fun-loving disposition and wittiness is appreciated, and loved, by our entire team. Johnny does most of our driving these days, and I’ve got to say, our record is pretty dang good when he’s behind the wheel! He’s also not afraid to poke fun at Coach Halford, which makes it that much better! If you don’t know Johnny, you’re missing out. He should probably stop driving and run for Mayor of Magee. I don’t think I’ve met a single person from Simpson County that doesn’t know him, and think highly of him. Johnny is another driver that’s spent his fair share of time in the outdoors over the years, though not as much lately. The difference in Johnny and Bobby is that instead of telling the stories, he wants to hear your stories. He is a “put others first” kind of person, and I’m delighted each time I see him pull up in our parking lot to pick us up.
I know my column is usually more to do with the outdoors than anything else. However, without people like the men that I’ve mentioned, I’d never be able to do the things that I get to do. With the world getting crazier each day, now is a good time to reflect on the people that have made a difference in our lives. Each trip that we’ve gone on in the last almost 20 years, we’ve put our lives in these men’s hands…and we are better for it.