I was torn watching last year's showdown between Alabama and Tennessee. It was an odd, disconcerting feeling.
Tennessee is Alabama's most-hated opponent, especially since it was revealed that Tennessee's head coach, Phil Fulmer, was a secret witness for the NCAA's investigation of Alabama -- an investigation that resulted in Alabama being put on probation and came dangerously close to handing down college football's death penalty for the Crimson Tide program.
I know what you hardcore Bama fans are thinking: How could any fan of Alabama be torn when it comes to Tennessee?! If I haven't alienated you already, read on.
His name is Robert Peace.
Robert Peace played middle linebacker for Tennessee.
Robert Peace had 16 tackles in Tennessee's FIVE-overtime win against Alabama.
Robert Peace twice stopped Alabama from scoring in the final overtime.
Yes, I know. That's enough to make him Public Enemy #1 in Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer land, enough to get me run out of state on a rail .. and enough for a lot of Bama fans to close their browser window at this point, if they haven't already done so.
But for you Bama fans that are still with me . . .
Robert Peace is also the grandson* of the late Joe Raymond Peace, Sr. and Joe Raymond Peace, Sr. was one of the winningest head coaches in the history of Louisiana high school football.
He was also my high school football coach. And he was our Bear Bryant.
Each year around this time my thoughts always go back to those Autumn days. To the teams that won game after game after game. And to the coach who led those teams to victory.
In early August before the start of pre-season training, each player would get a postcard from Coach Peace: "Report for practice at 4 p.m." It was not an invitation.
Those practices were grueling in the high heat and humidity of central Louisiana. The grass was full of stickers and the clover full of honeybees. To add to the misery, cotton patches bordered two sides of the football field and at times the air was heavy with the sickeningly sweet smell of cotton poison.
If a player wasn't in shape by the start of training, he would be before the first full scrimmage or else he would be off the team. We were a small team that did not have the luxury of losing players, but Coach Peace had high standards. Still, we never lost many players -- owing mainly to pride. Nobody wanted to be known as a quitter -- especially one who quit on Coach Peace.
Because we were a small team, a lot of players did triple duty: offense, defense and special teams. We were not even the strongest or most-skilled team. But we were disciplined, mentally and physically tough, well-led and feared nothing save letting Coach Peace down.
1975 was Coach Peace's last year coaching football. He had coached for 28 years by that point and had amassed over 200 victories. I will never forget the 200th victory and neither will anyone who was affiliated with the football team that year.
The last time I saw Coach Peace was in the Spring of 1991. I was just back from Desert Storm and visiting my parents while on leave. In order to counter the effects of my mother's supreme southern cooking, I ran daily down the lake road and back, a mostly straight stretch of road that runs for about a mile and ends at the lake.
On this day, as I neared the cattle guard about a quarter of a mile down the road, I noticed his pickup truck parked on a nearby turnroad. And sure enough, in the distance, I saw Coach Peace returning from the lake, walking at a fast pace. He had recently suffered a heart attack and regularly walked as part of his rehabilitation.
When our paths crossed we both stopped and chatted for awhile. He told me how proud he was of me and my brothers, asked about Army life (he was a veteran) and wished me luck in the future.
I didn't know then that it would be the last time I'd see Coach Peace. He died on an Autumn day in 1992. At the time, I was back in Southwest Asia -- on an emergency deployment to Kuwait -- and was not able to attend his funeral.
I've often thought of our final meeting. Had I known, I would have had more to say.
I would have told him that I didn't personally know another person who had so positively influenced as many young people as he did.
I would have told him that any success I enjoyed in the Army was due in large measure to him.
I would have thanked him for what he instilled in us: discipline, perseverance, teamwork, tenacity, and confidence -- which built pride -- which shaped character -- which mastered fear -- which led to victory.
And yes, I would have told him that I loved him, that we all loved him.
I can see him now on the practice field barking commands of encouragement, walking the sidelines of the playing field, his lucky tie loosened, his eyes filled with fire, his heart filled with love of the game and love of his team.
To those who were fortunate enough to have played for him, Coach Peace is a natural part of our Autumn memories.
And we miss him still.
* Robert's dad, Joe Raymond Peace, Jr., was a standout in high school and college and was drafted by the Houston Oilers. He later coached at Northwestern State University, then Louisiana Tech University, where he successfully led that program from Div I-AA to Div I-A. Robert's mother is Carolyn Ferguson Peace, sister of Pro football legend, Joe Ferguson.