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Sunday, May 1, 2016

'A football-man, through and through'

Friday, July 22, 2011

Impromptu football games at lunchtime on the playgrounds at school can lead to a lot of things.

Skinned knees and elbows, along with spirited disagreements about whether the ball-carrier stepped out of bounds or not, are a couple of things such games can lead to.

But as David Meek found out, such games can also lead to a heck of a lot more things.

Coach Meek, in his first year back at Thayer, 1983.
Things like a six-decade career, along with a spot in the Hall of Fame.

"I was in ninth- or 10th-grade and I don't know how it came about, but at noon, we'd all be at lunch and a bunch of the little ole' kids (grade-schoolers) would be playing football," said Meek. "And so a couple of us (high school) football players asked the coach if he thought it would be alright if we put together some teams out of those kids. So, I had a team and a couple of other players had teams and we'd play at noon. And it (coaching) stuck with me -- I said, 'hey, I like this.'"

While those lunchtime games might have been a touch shy on numbers -- "a much, much lesser version of Mighty Mite football," according to Meek -- with just three linemen, one back and a quarterback, that was still more than enough to send the young man from Marvell, Arkansas down a path that would consume his adult life.

A path that wound through both the Natural and Show-Me states -- a path he still travels today.

Even though he recently celebrated his 80th birthday, come this fall, Coach David Meek can still be found the same place he's called home since 1953 -- the sidelines at a high school football game.

Meek will serve as a volunteer coach at Melbourne High School, helping his old buddy Clinton Gore turn the still brand-new Bearkatz football program from an idea on paper into the real deal on the gridiron.

Gore, too, has been around the block a time or two, and this fall will be his second as head coach at Melbourne, since leaving Osceola High School in 2009, where he had turned the Seminoles into one of the state's most-feared teams.

Gore and Meek, who first worked together almost 45 years ago, are like walking, talking bookends to the encyclopedia of football knowledge.

Meek spent the last 10 seasons as a volunteer assistant coach and attendance officer at Osceola High School, with Gore in place as head coach during nine of those years.

"I met him (Gore) after I left coaching in Willow Springs and went to Paragould in 1967," Meek said. "And I stayed there with him for four years. He left there and went to Arkansas State to be their secondary coach, but I stayed on two more years after he left."

A member of the Missouri High School Coaches' Hall of Fame, Meek got his start in coaching in 1953 at Thayer High School.

He coached the Bobcats until 1957, but that would not be the last time Meek donned the green-and-white of THS.

He returned in 1983 and directed the Cats for 16 years during his second tenure at the Oregon County school.

In 1990, Meek and his Bobcats fashioned a 10-0 campaign, beating the mighty West Plains Zizzers along the way. That was the second time that one of Meek's Thayer squads managed to knock off West Plains (the first coming in 1955).

Meek also coached at Flat River, Cabool and Willow Springs, where he helped the Bears earn a co-share of the South Central Association title in 1966.

But as the dawn of the new millennium drew near, Meek thought he was ready for retirement and left the Thayer School District in 1999.

Turns out, retirement and Meek didn't mix together too well.

"I laid out one year after I left Thayer," said Meek, who was named the Missouri Class 1 Coach of the Year in 1990. "But, I don't hunt, fish or golf ... just one of those that doesn't have many hobbies ... so I was wanting back in coaching pretty quickly."

Meek's son Brett, who was coaching in Greenbrier at the time, ran into Gore at a coaching clinic and told him that his dad was eager for another opportunity to patrol the sidelines on Friday nights in the fall.

And the next thing you know, Meek was volunteering his time with the Osceola Seminoles, helping coach the running backs, along with wherever else his wisdom was needed.

"We had some good years there," Meek said. "Good years."

Those "good years" included three seasons that ended with 11 victories, along with a handful of deep runs into the Class 4A state playoffs.

"He's just kinda crazy," laughed Gore. "No, really, I don't know anyone that doesn't like David. His number one strength is that he's a people person. He knows how to get along with, and relate to, all kinds of people. Parents, players, coaches ... he gets along with everybody. Plus, let's not forget that he's just a doggone good football coach. He's worked hard at it and has been good at it for a long time. He's just a football-man, through-and-through."

In 1975, Meek was chosen to start a football program at Salem High School and he ended up coaching the Greyhounds until 1981.

"One of the biggest challenges when starting a football program from nothing is just getting people indoctrinated to the sport," he said. "The players and the community. You have to spend time having meetings, explaining things and even watching a lot of film about the basics of the game."

And facilities are an important part of a start-up program, as well.

"One of the first things at Salem was, they bought us one of those universal weight machines and we put it up there in the old agri building, up by the school," said Meek. "And hey, that was a pretty big deal back then."

It also doesn't hurt if you can throw some experienced talent into the mix as well, said Meek.

"I was fortunate at Salem. We had some boys move in that had played some football before and that was a big boost to us," he said. "And the whole community was behind us right from the start."

After leaving the Hounds, Meek spent a year at Bald Knob High School before finding his way back to Thayer.

One of the biggest challenges about coaching a sport for so long is being able to adapt and adjust to the way the game naturally evolves over a long period of time.

And, while football in 2011 is a lot different than football in 1953, Meek has managed to keep up with the way the game is played.

"It's gone from a straight-ahead, run-up-the-middle game to more of a finesse game," he said. "Now, everyone wants to line up in the Spread and throw the football. When I started in 1953, we ran the T and it was power football. But so much has changed in how you can block and tackle these days. It's just gone from power and strength to finesse. Everybody has a quarterback that can throw and receivers that can catch, so everyone throws the football."

Another difference, too, is the absence of downtime in the summer for the players and coaches involved in high school football. Activities, not counting the traditional time spent in the weight room, fill the calendar from May until the start of school in August, these days.

"You have these 7-on-7 camps and games that go all summer long," said Meek. "There's a couple of weeks that they have to shut it down in the summer, but otherwise, it's almost a year-round thing these days."

However, some changes really are for the better.

"We went to a heatstroke clinic last week that the state puts on and, by golly, I didn't know it -- but that involved basketball and volleyball and baseball, the whole works," Meek said. "But they're really concerned with the safety of the players, which is good."

Meek sounds genuinely excited about rolling up his sleeves and helping out any way he can at Melbourne. And he thinks it won't be long before the Bearkatz establish an identity to their football program.

"From what I noticed, the younger people are really wanting to get into the sport," he said. "They've got some great facilities there and the fans will follow those kids anywhere. They've got great support in the community. But, the main thing is, it just takes time for kids to come up through the system and they've got a whole slew of eighth- and ninth-graders that are pretty good. I think things are looking up for Melbourne."

And when might he try the retirement route once again?

Sounds like no time soon.

"I just don't do anything else. And I feel like I can do this to the best of my abilities," he said. "And whoever I'm working with, if they think I'm worth being there, then I'm going to be there. This suits me just fine."

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