On a Monday night in Greenville, North Carolina, the fever of high school football archrivalry sweeps over a field in the country. Almost everyone will lose their minds at some point over the next few hours, all except one man. J.H. Rose High School’s football team, after a 30-minute trip from Marvin Jarman Drive in central Greenville here to D.H. Conley High School, steps out of their buses wearing emerald-green pants with bright blue piping and carrying their white jerseys, Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” playing over the loudspeakers, the grass turning muddy under the rain. “This place smells,” one Rose player says.
The sky is thick with clouds that keep growing darker, and the wind snaps the American flag on a pole beyond the far end zone. The teams warm up, and even in the rain, the stands fill.
The game opens conference play and puts a year’s worth of pride and shame on the line. When one of the Rose coaches recently went to the grocery store, his cashier, a Conley football mom, cussed him out. Another Rose coach, who lives on the Conley side of town, makes sure to run his errands elsewhere.
The schools in Greenville, a city of 90,000 in eastern North Carolina, integrated in the late 1960s, but on nights like tonight, the area’s lingering undercurrent of racial tension swells closer to the surface. Rose students come dressed as rednecks to mock Conley, wearing hunting fatigues and overalls and straw hats and, in the case of one unfortunate young man, Daisy Dukes. Many Conley students wear all white, though they have, in the past, dressed as gangsters, mocking Rose’s more urban student body.
One Rose fan screams, “I’ve waited my whole life for this!” and he’s not even playing, just a team manager in khaki shorts and a green polo. Rose head coach Dave Wojtecki, a big man you wouldn’t take for a runner, sprints 50 yards to midfield to lead drills. Later, moments before the game starts, he dry-heaves on the sidelines.
But one man on the Rose sideline moves with a certain different rhythm. Like the other coaches, he wears a black polo shirt with white piping, “JHR Football” stitched on the breast, and a black-and-white mesh JHR hat to match. He has white hair and a military crew cut, thin on top under the hat. He hates the rain and wears a big green raincoat most of the game, even when the rain slows down. He also wears white orthopedic nurse shoes, already so weathered and dirty they are almost brown. By the end of the night, they’ll be caked in grass and mud, but he will pay them no mind.
His tongue often pokes through his lips, and he cautiously looks out at the world from under thick eyebrows. He’s tall, and has a bit of a belly. He walks with a slow, steady plod, heels dragging, shoulders hunched forward, head down more than up, his neck a constant curve toward the earth.
He’s never not moving, always pacing, but he’s also never moving particularly fast. He ambles up to Wojtecki and, without a word, holds out a stick of Juicy Fruit gum. Wojtecki takes it without looking away from the field, and gives a quick little nod. “Thanks, Marv.” Marvin nods back and then he moves along, almost in slow motion. He gives out deliberate, quiet high-fives and pats on the back and hands out piece after piece of Juicy Fruit. On this night, he will go through seven packs.
As Marvin passes the sidelines and the fringes of the end zones, he hears his name again and again. Marvin! How you doin’, Marv! Hey, let’s go, Marv! Every single time, he turns and raises his head just enough to find the source of the voice, then lifts his hand in a slow purposeful wave. Sometimes a fan comes up and high-fives that wave.
This makes him smile, his eyes squinting, his head lifting a bit, his mouth opening in a way that looks like he’s about to laugh. This comes from people wearing Rose colors, sure, but also from many dressed in Conley’s navy and gold. However they feel about each other, no one cusses this coach out. Everyone on either side smiles when they see Marvin. He quietly offers everyone from either school a piece of gum, simply holding it out for them to take.
The game starts, and Rose scores on their first touch of the game: Star wide receiver Cornell Powell, who has a scholarship to Clemson, runs a punt back 98 yards for a touchdown. The guys on the sidelines and the fans in the stands behind them react as though Jesus Christ himself just appeared before them.
Not Marvin. He doesn’t change, even when everyone else is screaming themselves hoarse and going half-crazy. He carefully pumps his fist and he gives out high-fives, but they are the calmest fist pumps and high-fives ever. For each one, he raises his head just enough, lifts his hand just enough, hits the players’ hands just enough.
Same goes for when Rose flounders in the second half. As they fumble and stumble and people get mad at the quarterback, who struggles to hang onto the ball and make decent throws, at times Rose fans react as though, well, they would like to see a few players taken out and crucified.
Marvin? He just lifts his chin and scratches it, and every once in a while shakes his head slow and mumbles something so quiet that even he probably cannot hear it in all this noise. Players and coaches bump into him and scream across the field in his ear, and he barely reacts. Mostly he walks, back and forth, up and down the sidelines, never flinching, quietly patting players on the shoulders, only looking up when there is something to see.
Only once does he change. The quickest he moves all night is when a runner is headed his direction. He dances away from the sideline, calm as can be, shockingly spry.
Final score: 37-14 Conley. It’s a bad day for Rose. The Conley students storm the field. Marvin shakes his head. “Ahhhh,” he mutters. “Now they gon’ brag about it. That the way they are. Not the way to be.” It’s by far his biggest reaction of the night.
He plods around the crowd and to the end zone, where he meets a gray-haired, clean-shaven man about his age, wearing khaki shorts and white sneakers and a green T-shirt under a yellow poncho. It’s Ronald Vincent, Rose’s baseball coach, known to everyone around here as RV. “Time to go, Marv?”
“Yaauhp,” he says, speaking slow, drawing out the words, as if his tongue has to remember where to go and loses track along the way, sometimes making him a little hard to understand.
It takes 10 minutes to make the short walk to RV’s white Honda Pilot. People keep calling out to Marvin, and every time, he turns and raises his eyes and, when he finds them, gives his long, slow arc of a wave. “Like the dang pope,” RV says. The lot isn’t that big, but it’s crowded, and everyone, whether from Rose or Conley, wants to say “Hey” to Marvin Jarman.
“There’s a reason,” RV says, “we call him The Legend.”
I’m thrilled for obvious reasons, but especially so because this one was personal. For one, Marvin’s town is my town — I grew up in Greenville, and moved back a few years ago with my wife, and now we’re putting down roots.
Why? This small town? An hour and a half from a decent airport? While trying to make it as a writer? That’s another story.
But among other reasons, I’m grateful because it got me reacquainted with Marvin and RV. My dad played for RV and I grew up going to his baseball camps, and whether he knows this or not, he was one of the coaches who first made me feel like I could actually be something as a baseball player.
And like every other kid who grew up playing baseball in Pitt County, I grew up knowing Marv. My dad grew up knowing Marv. I still see Marvin and RV at least once or twice a week, it seems like, out at Cubbie’s or McAlister’s or one of their other favorite restaurants.
And when I posted on Facebook that I was writing about him, the post got shared hundreds of times and got thousands of likes and the stories poured in one after another.
Thanks again to everyone for your help with the story. By far one of my favorites in my career.
Oh, and go buy Best American Sports Writing here.