Tramel: Hailing the life of Oklahoma Hall of Fame football coach Joe Tunnell bonds Rush Springs, Lindsay
RUSH SPRINGS — Rush Springs High School band members crossed West Blakely Street and headed down the hill to the football stadium. The football lights were on.
Strange sight for a warm, windy, sunny Monday afternoon in March. But the musicians were needed. The Rush Springs fight song had to be played.
At midfield, on the Rush Springs sideline, sat the casket bearing the body of the namesake of Joe Tunnell Stadium. A Rush Springs letter jacket draped the coffin. An East Central University letter jacket was to the left of a wide podium. A Lindsay High School letter jacket was to the right.
The Lindsay band was there, too. This was a two-fight song funeral.
Tunnell, one of the greatest coaches in Oklahoma high school football history, was Rush Springs through and through. Raised in the Grady County town 15 miles south of Chickasha. Grew up in the white stucco house next to the town water tower. Still lived in that house when he died last week at age 83.
Tunnell left town only twice. To attend East Central, then to take the job at Lindsay, 25 miles east.
Tunnell coached Rush Springs to state championships in 1966 and 1998; 32 years apart. In between, Tunnell coached Lindsay to smashing success. In 27 years at Rush Springs and 14 at Lindsay, Tunnell posted a record of 322-137-7. In 1996, Tunnell set the since-broken state record for coaching victories.
The Rev. David Hale, pastor of Rush Springs’ First Baptist Church, grew up in Rush Springs but noted he didn’t get to play football for Tunnell. Hale came along during the Wonder Years.
“We wondered why Joe was allowed to leave for Lindsay,” Hale said.
Rush Springs shared Tunnell with Lindsay and also shared Tunnell’s funeral with Lindsay. The band, the letter jacket. Two of the six speakers played football for Tunnell at Lindsay.
It was a good day. Reminded you of the impact of a solitary life.
Jimmy Beckham, from the 1970s, noted Tunnell’s nicknames. The General and The Legend.
Beckham recalled a hot August practice, when the Leopards were lined up, waiting for calisthenics and the start of practice. Clouds had arrived, providing blessed relief.
Quarterback Danny Heatly said, “Just wait, Coach Tunnell will come out and part the clouds.”
A few minutes later, Tunnell and his coaches took the field, and the sun burst through the clouds.
“I know I’ll see Coach Tunnell soon,” Beckham said. “I just hope it’s not on the practice field.”
Heatly spoke, too, and remembered a long-ago game when Lindsay committed two first-half turnovers. Tunnell was not happy at halftime.
“THOU SHALT NOT FUMBLE!” he fumed. “It’s the 11th amendment.”
But Heatly also remembered what Tunnell meant to his life.
“Forty-eight years ago, he showed confidence and faith and trust in me,” said Heatly, the son of another iconic coach, Charles Heatly in girls basketball. “I was 135 pounds and ran a 5.2 40 with a tailwind. But because he believed in me, I believed in me. Being coached by Joe was one of the biggest blessings in my life.”
Drew Beard had a similar story. Beard quarterbacked Rush Springs to that 1998 state championship and went on to play at Southeastern State. He’s now a Fellowship of Christian Athletes field vice president for Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.
When Beard was a freshman, he heard Tunnell bark during practice, “Drew, get in and take the huddle.”
Beard entered the huddle and told the Rush Springs veterans, “Eyes up.”
Beard says the next 30 seconds helped make him a man of God and the husband, father and friend that he is.
“You guys want to know why this guy’s going to be good?” Tunnell told the Redskins.
Beard’s ears perked up, because he wanted to know, too.
“This young man knows who he is,” Tunnell said. “He believes in himself. When he speaks you listen.”
A quarter century later, Beard retains the confidence that Tunnell instilled.
Tunnell never married and had no children. Lindsay alums and the entire community of Rush Springs were his family.
Tunnell retired in 2000 and worked for the Oklahoma Coaches Association. He cheered on all the Rush Springs teams, led the Varsity Watermelon Slicing Team for the town’s venerable festival and sat on Hale’s church board. Hale produced Tunnell’s Bible; all these years, he wondered if Tunnell listened much to the sermons, but that Bible was flooded with Tunnell’s notes from every book.
And before he died, Tunnell penned a note. That note, in Tunnell’s own handwriting, was printed on the back of the funeral program.
“I want my players to know that I cherished every one of them. Why would any sane person coach high school football for 41 years? For me, it was easy. I loved my players. I wish I had been able to say so, but it was simply not my nature.”
Turns out the players knew.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.