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A coach’s lesson

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Tatom’s high school coach, Winston Duke (left), addresses one of his athletes at practice. PHOTO COURTESY OF BUZZ TATOM

Local Buzz Tatom: Sports more than simply a game

By Brandon Walker EBS SPORTS EDITOR

BIG SKY – Athletics have played a large role in Buzz Tatom’s life. The Dallas, Texas native racked up numerous accolades—top 100 recruit, captain, and all-state honors among others—throughout his fantastic high school and collegiate football career. But all of his accomplishments aside, it is a lesson that his high school football coach taught him that has stuck with him to this day. 

“I by no means think I’m an expert on coaches, but I’ve been around a lot of good ones and I’ve been around a lot of bad ones,” Tatom said. “…Realistically, they can change a kids life, which is what my high school coach kind of did. They can be somebody that you say ‘hello’ to and you have memories about and then the third aspect is the guy that you try to forget. I don’t know [that] even coaches realize how much impact they have on kids.”

A resident of Big Sky for nearly a decade, Tatom’s story began at Richardson High School in Richardson, Texas. It was there that he met the man who would impact his life forever: Winston Duke. Duke was the coach of the Eagles high school football program when Tatom joined the team. 

Tatom, the youngest of three siblings growing up, was an undersized football player by his own account, struggling to gain and maintain weight during his adolescence. Tatom took to the weight room to reshape his lean stature, working out constantly to stem the tide, but to no avail. As a ninth-grade student—considered junior high in Tatom’s school district at the time—he was picked to join the high school team.

Tatom came to be an Eagle of Richardson high school; the rival school of his junior high school. Not knowing anyone, the tight end and outside linebacker had to grapple with being the youngest athlete on the team. He also remembers being late to practices as he was provided transportation by bus every day.

Tatom (red jersey) hauls in a reception in front of a defender for a touchdown during his playing days at Texas Tech. PHOTO COURTESY OF BUZZ TATOM

Tatom entered a talented, senior laden squad. He didn’t receive much playing time early in the season and recalls enduring punishing practices as the seniors roughed up the underclassmen. “The poor bus driver got to the point to where you know he’d give me a hug every day when I got off the bus because he knew I was fixing to take a beating,” Tatom said. “…I finally had to tell him you’ve got to stop giving me a hug because A, people see it, but B it doesn’t put me in the right frame of mind when I’m walking into this situation.”

In Tatom’s opinion, the team was underperforming as the season progressed. Lacking a sense of camaraderie and ‘team’ atmosphere, instead they were dealing with a clear divide between the upper classmen and lower classmen. 

The seventh game of the year sparked a moment that would result in a decision from his coach that would influence Tatom’s life forever. He had finally earned a larger role and was seeing an increase in playing time. He vividly recalls a play in which he made a key block to free up one of his senior teammates to run for an 80-yard touchdown. As all of his teammates were celebrating the score in the endzone, Tatom unenthusiastically walked to the sideline. “If I went down there to give a high five, I doubt anybody would’ve given me a high five,” he said.

Initially the action went unnoticed. It wasn’t until the Eagles’ film session the following day, when the play was replayed countless times, that his teammates and even coach Duke took notice. Tatom described his teammates finding enjoyment in his actions, even laughing at the replay as he strode off the field. After the film session ended, Duke approached the freshman.

“The coach walked over and sat down next to me and says, ‘Can I ask you a question?’ and I said ‘Sure’ and he said, ‘Why did you just walk off the field?’ I said ‘Well, I don’t really feel like…any of us young guys are really a part of the team,” Tatom said describing the interaction with his coach.

At the following practice Tatom learned the result of the brief conversation. “He benched those five guys. Which, if you can imagine, you’re benching five guys that end up playing Division I football…and so it was a big to do,” Tatom said. 

He recalls that Duke cited a lack of leadership as the reason for benching the five seniors. “We were playing our rival team that week and he said, ‘We may get beat, but you’re going to help your teammate up if he gets knocked down…we are going to support each other this week.” The Eagles, minus their five seniors, went on to defeat their rival high school handily. 

“From then on [Duke] was kind of known for having teams that very much, from the old guys to the young guys, had a team atmosphere that they support each other and were just all about doing whatever they need to do to make everybody on the team as successful as they could be,” Tatom said.

Tatom (85) celebrates a touchdown reception during one of his games as a Texas Tech University Red Raider. PHOTO COURTESY OF BUZZ TATOM

Tatom, a two-way player and three-year starter in high school, went on to play Division I collegiate football himself. He became a Red Raider of Texas Tech University from 1981 to 1984 starting three of his four years, but above all it was that lesson of leadership and the importance of valuing team members that he cherishes most. 

“It taught me how to be a leader and that it’s not about you, it’s about the team,” he said. “… I ran a pretty good-sized business in Dallas. I would’ve never been able to grow it, I would’ve never been able to lead a team, employee wise or sports wise, without that experience. It just had such a huge impact on my life.”

Tatom recalls that Duke always led by example and never used foul language in front of his athletes. Tatom remained in contact with his high school coach throughout the years, especially in his 20s and 30s, and Duke even attended some of Tatom’s collegiate games. Duke passed away recently and Tatom said over 400 of the coach’s former athletes attended his funeral.

Tatom, now a coach himself of the Ophir Miners seventh- and eighth-grade girls basketball team, encourages people to reach out to individuals who have impacted their life in a similar fashion. “The thing that I hope for all kids is that they get the experience of having somebody in their life like that guy,” he said. “[Duke] was a head football coach for a high school for close to 25 or 30 years and all he did was impact people’s lives and that’s pretty special.”

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