By JIMMY WIGFIELD
Jeanie Curtis has been married to Terry Curtis for 50 years and been with him for all 34 seasons of his head-coaching career but she hasn’t seen a complete four quarters yet.
She is always there, of course. She just can’t bear to watch.
“He knows how nervous I get for games and I’ve gotten worse and worse and worse over the years,” she said. “I guess it’s because we win so much, it gets harder and harder to lose.”
Jeanie Curtis has her favored spots to endure games at Ladd-Peebles Stadium and UMS-Wright’s Cooper Stadium and it’s not in the bleachers.
“When Terry was at Murphy and we’d play at Ladd, I’d go down on the one end of the field, near Virginia Street, and I’d be down there with those mounted police and I could see the scoreboard and the ball going back and forth but I couldn’t see what was happening on the field,” she said.
“At UMS, I’ll go out by the fence during a game. I just have a hard time watching it. My nerves overtake me. I can’t watch. I’ve missed a lot of good stuff.”
She may have missed a lot of football but not growing up with the man who became the sport’s winningest high school coach in state history.
They met when Curtis’ father, Rev. Q.T. Curtis, moved to Mobile to become the minister at Sage Avenue Baptist Church.
“Terry was maybe 10 and I was a couple of years older,” Jeanie Curtis said. “I don’t know what it was about him but I was outdoorsy and sporting and I was just impressed with him. I felt it from the first day. We grew up in the church together.”
She even claims to have beaten her future husband in some footraces in their youth, which apparently did little to dissuade Curtis, who became an excellent all-around athlete at Murphy.
“He was the star athlete and he had all those cheerleaders around him, so I had a lot to put up with,” she said. “I loved acrobatics and physical things like that. Terry won’t admit it but when we first met, maybe in the first couple of years, we had some outdoor activities at church. We had some races and the choir director loved that I could outrun him.”
Try as he might, he also could not outrun the long arm of his father’s law.
“One Sunday, he was in church with some friends of his — they might have been in their early teens — and his dad was preaching,” Jeanie Curtis said. “Terry was whispering something to them and his dad heard it and stopped. Terry knew he’d had it. After church, Terry ran home to the parsonage and went to his mom and dad’s room. After a while, they came home and his dad went looking for him.”
Curtis took to praying and when Q.T. Curtis walked into the room, he found his son coming off his knees.
“I’ve made it right with God,” Curtis said.
His dad replied: “Son, I’m glad you made it right with God but now you’re going to make it right with me.”
At that point, the old Baptist hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” may have floated through Curtis’ mind as he longed for the intercession of merciful angels. But it was not to be.
“He whipped the fire out of him,” Jeanie Curtis said.
‘What a difference he made’
The Curtises were married after his sophomore year at Auburn, where he played baseball, but the influence of his father remained the preeminent guiding force in Curtis’ life.
Jeanie Curtis said her husband’s strict upbringing shaped how he handled his football players and was astounded when she saw their admiration of him grow even after Curtis assailed them for making mistakes in practice. Then she remembered how much Curtis loved his father for the same demanding treatment, the same lessons of right and wrong, and how he taught his own players to turn the vicissitudes of one moment into the triumphs of the next.
“I wanted to tell those guys, ‘I’m so sorry but he has two sons he loves more than anything and he’s just as tough on them,’” Jeanie Curtis said. “He can be so hard and so tough and those kids will still run through a brick wall for him. I don’t understand it sometimes. You wouldn’t believe the guys who come back years later and say what a difference he made in their lives and he made them get to where they needed to be.”
In fact, at the annual UMS-Wright football banquet, the seniors give Curtis sealed letters which he insists on reading in private.
“He’ll wait a few days or a week and he’ll start reading them, maybe two a day,” Jeanie Curtis said. “He gets emotional and he won’t read them in front of me. But they’ll say he is like a second dad to them. It blows me away.”
Jeanie Curtis said she didn’t expect her husband to coach 34 seasons and amass 348 victories but understands football continues to infuse Curtis with a desire to teach his players how to be winners.
“I think he’s doing it to stay away from me,” she wisecracked. “I don’t know how we got here. I never dreamed Terry would be going this long. I still feel like I want to go outside and do cartwheels but the time has flown by. I was a teacher and counselor but I didn’t want to keep doing it after I got my time in. He loves it more every year he goes.”
Didn’t like the buildup
The years change and so do the players but Curtis remains non-negotiable on total effort, total commitment to the team, the quest for excellence and being punctual.
“Terry says if you’re early, you’re on time, if you’re on time, you’re late, and if you’re late, you’re fired,” his wife said.
Curtis, as is his wont, was early to reach the all-time wins record and has 348 victories in 34 years. That’s far quicker than the man he passed, Vestavia Hills’ Buddy Anderson (346 wins in 43 years) and other top-10 greats such as Fayette County’s Walden Tucker (322 wins in 40 years) and Luverne’s Glenn Daniel (302 wins in 46 years).
But Jeanie Curtis said her husband was not comfortable with the constant attention he got as he approached the record.
“He doesn’t care for it — he didn’t like the notoriety and the buildup before the season ended,” she said. “He was too worried about those football players and how it might take away from them or that they would feel responsible or feel that they let him down if they were to lose. He wouldn’t even let me talk about it.”