By KEITH SPARKS
Following the 2016 football season, seemingly in the blink of an eye, the Panthers’ Head Football Coach of 16 years was out of the picture. Jerry Vance announced his retirement in February of 2017, opting to spend more time with family and friends after football had dominated his life for so long. Last Friday, during the Panthers’ game against Brownwood, football dominated his time for a few more hours.
As I walked into the Panther Stadium press box a few minutes before game time, I walked right past a man in a fishing shirt, blue jeans, and a beard, who I didn’t think twice about until he made a familiar remark directed toward me as I passed. To my surprise, the man who welcomed me, a rookie sports writer, into the Panther football culture was sitting in the press box with his wife, preparing to watch a Liberty Hill game from a brand new perspective.
As he watched from behind the press box’s Plexiglas window, Vance predicted each play, getting most of his predictions correct to the amusement of those that surrounded him in the press box. He took notes after each of them, making tally marks on the Liberty Hill roster sheet that represented the type of play they had run.
When Vance finally did get a prediction wrong, he responded by saying, “Maybe that’s why I retired.”
At times, Vance seemed like a coach again, predicting plays, giving rhetorical advice to those on the field, and evaluating the performances of each team out loud. At other times, however, his retirement was clear.
“Well, this is a new experience for me,” Vance said with a laugh during halftime, as the band and dance team approached the field to perform their halftime show. His comment elicited laughter throughout the room as each of us realized he had spent every halftime performance over the years in the locker room with his football team.
Throughout the game, he reminisced with faculty and former colleagues about previous Liberty Hill football games and players, while his wife cheered on current players, exclaiming, “That’s our neighbor,” about a few and bragging on the character of others.
With only a few minutes to play and the result seemingly settled, the Vances began to gather their things in preparation to leave.
“You know what else I never got to do?” Vance asked us with a smile. “Leave early.”
While he tried to make an early exit to avoid the postgame traffic rush, each play seemed to draw him back in, as Brownwood continued to keep the game within reach. As hard as he tried to leave, his football instincts wouldn’t let him leave before the game had been decided.
That night, I was one of many to shake Vance’s hand and ask him about his retirement, and each of us was greeted with a warm “Hello” and a quick presentation of photos from his most recent fishing trip to Alaska. He described other trips he had taken and trips he had planned in the near future, seemingly enjoying his newfound free time to the fullest.
While Vance may no longer be officially associated with the Panther football team, don’t think for a second that he’s forgotten about them completely. In fact, he may be lurking behind the windows of the press box above during any given home game, looking over the stadium that he had a hand in building.