Friendship: Football, band, church and a major talk

Special to the Star-Telegram

Jim was my best friend in high school. He and I did everything that best friends do: We hung out, talked, double-dated and “made the drag” around town. We played together on the football field, in the band hall and at church.

During my sophomore year, I played quarterback; Jim, a junior, started at center. We didn’t become close until after the season ended.

That December in 1969—the weekend of the “Big Shootout” football game between Texas and Arkansas—our Methodist church sponsored a Lay Witness Mission. About 30 kids and adults from out of town spent the weekend witnessing to our congregation.

We both got a sincere dose of born-againism that weekend. Jim got his from the testimonies of the visiting witnesses. I got mine as the result of surviving a one-car flip-over on a slick country road. As I was walking away from nearly getting crushed, my sophomore intuition told me that this was no “accident.”

From then on, Jim and I were at church any time the doors were open, and sometimes when they weren’t. We hid a bread knife in the shrubs next to the fellowship hall so we could jimmy the door and get in whenever the spirit moved us. We made all the prayer breakfasts, Bible studies, youth groups and Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings. We went to all the revivals in town—even the ones at the Church of Christ.

Jim was the kind of kid whom all the mothers loved, mine included. He was nice and polite and made good grades. But he was a holy terror on the football field. He made All-District his senior year and started both ways as center and defensive tackle.

We played in the band, too. With our friend Kenny, we got to spend a January weekend at the old Villa Inn in Lubbock for All-Region Band. To those girls from Dimmitt: I promise you, Jim did not know your door was open when he knocked and you were still … uh, getting dressed.

His blush lasted a week. Then he summoned the courage to ask one of them out.

Jim and I double-dated on the first date I had with the girl who later would marry me. Jim was the first of our group to get married and the first to have kids. He and his family moved to Austin in the mid-’80s.

For some reason, we didn’t stay in touch as closely as I would’ve liked. I was surprised when I heard that he and his wife had divorced. But mired in my own midlife crisis, I didn’t have time for anybody else’s.

In early 1993, as I prepared for my own impending divorce, I drove to Austin to visit Jim. We spent most of the day driving around town, Jim listening to all my woes. That evening at a downtown coffee shop, my pity party finally pooped out.

Stirring his coffee, Jim asked hesitantly, “Do you want to hear my story?

Sure,” I replied. Whatever, I thought.

Well, I’m gay.”

I dropped my spoon. I felt stunned, awkward silence echoing in my head.

I blurted out, “I’m so glad.”

Damn it! What I meant to say was: I’m so glad you told me.

I gathered myself and asked, “How long have you known?

Jim’s quiet reply still haunts me: “I can remember crying myself to sleep at night in junior high because I knew something was wrong. But I didn’t want it to be wrong. I wanted to be normal.”

How could I not have known? What didn’t I see? He might have been an All-District center and an All-Region trombone player, but he was All-World at playing “normal.”

Of course, I couldn’t have seen that my best friend was gay because, until that moment, I had no map of what “gay” looked like. Now I did. “Gay” was sitting across the table from me, drinking coffee, telling me his story as I had told him mine.

In 1969, our generation recognized that marriage was “just a piece of paper.” Now—thanks to petty politicians, activist preachers and self-righteous church-goers—it’s just another useful cause to turn out the vote, bring in the bucks and divide “them” from “us.”

Their deity has grown too small for me because that god isn’t big enough to include normal people like my friend Jim.

Maybe one day we’ll have a chance to vote all the gays out of the closet, and all those who need to be born-again again, in.

Steve Stockdale is a Star-Telegram community columnist.

© 2005 Star-Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Jim, Steve and Ken in New York City (2005)

Jim, Steve, Ken