TANNER — Two quick chirps from a whistle drew Jimmy McCrary’s attention.
No instruction was needed. Like clockwork, McCrary stood up from his seat on the sideline and gradually made his way across the field to provide assistance to Tanner High’s football coaching staff.
The stroll took a little longer than it once did. At 71, McCrary isn’t as spry as he once was, but that doesn’t keep the man simply known as Coach “Rat” from doing the one thing he loves: Helping Tanner’s football program.
These days, the job isn’t short of excitement. Top-ranked Tanner (11-0) travels Friday to play Fultondale in the Class 2A quarterfinals. McCrary has done his part to make sure the trip is successful.
McCrary, a 1960 Tanner graduate, has been a fixture with the school’s football program for decades, serving as a volunteer assistant. Everything from groundskeeping to maintaining equipment to playing chauffeur falls under his umbrella of expertise — thankless jobs McCrary handles with pride.
“I keep coming back out here every day because I love helping these kids,” McCrary said. “That’s what brings me satisfaction.”
Saying that McCrary loves Tanner football would be an understatement. He played for the Rattlers in the late 1950s and has missed only three games since 1958.
Impressive? Yes. But McCrary’s dedication goes beyond attendance.
Visit Tanner’s campus from spring to fall, and McCrary, a retired Delphi employee, usually can be found at Rip Swanner Stadium mowing grass or assisting with facility maintenance.
“Coach Rat, he does a lot of work around here,” Tanner football coach LaRon White said. “He does a lot more than he really has to. I think he does it because he loves the school. Having people around who are willing to sacrifice so much of their personal time, they can make a difference in a program. I know he’s a good one.”
A day in McCrary’s life typically isn’t dull. The nickname says it all.
McCrary said he was given the nickname Coach “Rat” in 1973 by former Tanner star Gary Redus, who played professional baseball from 1982-1994 with the Reds, Phillies, White Sox, Pirates and Rangers.
“It was all because of a prank where Jimmy Swanner put a mouse in somebody’s shoe,” McCrary said. “When they wanted to know who did it, Gary said ‘Jimmy.’ Well, I was the only Jimmy standing there. I’ve been ‘Rat’ ever since.”
McCrary still keeps things light and interesting — while staying deceptively busy.
Take Tuesday’s practice for example:
McCrary spent most of the afternoon on the sideline chatting about the greatest Tanner teams and players, making comparisons to the current Rattlers. But the afternoon wasn’t all leisure and history lessons.
About 20 minutes into practice, a wide receiver on Tanner’s scout-team offense yelled out, “Hey, Coach Rat” when a snap popped off his helmet. McCrary immediately walked onto the field, with screwdriver in hand, and took care of the issue.
A few minutes later, two whistles chirped from across the field: McCrary’s cue to hit “start” on his stopwatch. Keeping time for practice groups is one of the many jobs on his itinerary.
And then there was the fun factor. With McCrary, jokes are a two-way street where traffic flows freely.
While standing near a group of offensive lineman, a few players began ribbing McCrary about his weight. As usual, Tanner’s longtime volunteer assistant answered with a quick retort.
“It took me 71 years to get this big. You guys are just jealous,” McCrary said. “But hey, look at how big you boys are now. Good grief, y’all are going to be huge after 71 years.”
The players often say “Coach Rat has been around Tanner since the Middle Ages,” but spend a few hours around the program, and it doesn’t take long to realize McCrary has their respect. During games, players often celebrate with the longtime volunteer assistant after making a big play. Same goes for practice.
McCrary earned that right.
If someone needs a ride home, McCrary is the first to offer assistance.
“Man, the cab of that truck over there has been loaded up with kids, with me running them home,” McCrary said. “If that’s what they need, then I’ll help them out.”
During his time at Tanner, McCrary has seen plenty good football.
Thursday afternoon, McCrary spent a few moments chatting about the 1994 Tanner team that just missed the Class 2A state championship game after losing to 9-7 in the semifinals at Gordo. Many believe that might have been the best collection of players in Tanner history.
“I like this team, the one we have right now,” he said. “This is a good group of kids, and you can tell they’re really focused on winning it all this year. Our coaches have done a great job, and our defense, man, this might be the best defense we’ve ever had here at Tanner. I think this team has what it takes.”
Now for the important question:
How many more years does McCrary plan to volunteer?
“I don’t know. It’s hard to say,” he said. “I’ve thought about giving it up after next year, but I’ve known a lot of people who, when they retire, if they don’t have a hobby or anything to do, it’s not long until they die.
“I like what I do. I love being out here helping the kids and the coaches. If it wasn’t for this, I don’t know what I would be doing. Who knows? I may keep doing this as long as I’m able, and hopefully that won’t change anytime soon.”