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Darrell Huckaby - E-mail delivers a blast from the past

You've heard the expression, I presume: "a blast from the past." Well, I got one Wednesday morning - and we're talking the distant past here. Twenty-eight years distant.

I had just finished perusing the morning paper and was already late for work. I decided to check my e-mail anyway, and am I ever glad I did. What I found made my day. There was the usual spam; offers of almost free cruises in the Caribbean. Chances to check my credit for free and e-mails from people who could fix whatever dysfunctions I might have.

And there among all the junk e-mail was what I perceived to be a real message from a real person, Jenni Smith - a name I did not recognize.

"Let's see who I've teed off now," I thought to myself as I clicked the message open. To my delight it was a letter from Jenni Collins - now Smith - a player on the first high school basketball team anybody ever let me coach by myself. I had not seen nor heard from her since she graduated from high school - in 1980 if my memory serves me correctly.

Let me tell y'all about Jenni Collins.

She was a forward - an all-state player - and a true free spirit. She had a sharp wit and always seemed to have a good time. She never let anybody get anything on her - including me. She was as smart and talented - and pretty - as she was athletic, and could have been anything she wanted to be or done anything she wanted to do. She chose to coach basketball, which says something about her dedication to the sport, if not her sanity.

Even though I had not seen Jenni in years, her message transcended three decades and the years melted away as I read her words. She began, in true Jenni Collins style, by making fun of me. Her mama had shown her a picture of me from this newspaper. In the picture I was wearing cowboy boots and khaki pants and she chastised me for wearing fancy boots with "dress pants." Called me a big-city Yankee-type who didn't know any better.

Jenni is from Cotton, understand, in deep south Georgia - way below the gnat line. Anybody who lives north of Macon is a Yankee to Jenni, and Cotton is so small that, to her, my hometown of Porterdale is a thriving metropolis.

She took time to tell me about her mama and them, too - which I truly appreciated. Jenni's father is Marcus Collins, former Georgia Revenue Commissioner and a long-time giant in Georgia politics, and when I say giant, I am not exaggerating. He and Mr. Tom Murphy used to come to see our teams play, and if we won - which we usually did, thanks in large part to his daughter's scoring ability - he would treat me to an expensive cigar. "Careful," he would always warn me. "This is a good one. It might make you a little green around the gills."

Lord, they usually did, too.

I was saddened to learn that Mr. Marcus had had a stroke four years ago - but Jenni assured me that he was being well taken care of - and he should be.

Amazingly, she also commented on my own mother and confessed that she made the "best sweet tea" she had ever tasted.

And then came the paragraph that made my day. You see, I was young and dumb when I coached Jenni Collins and her teammates. It was my first head coaching job and I thought I was Adolph Rupp and Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi and Casey Stengel rolled into one. I was opinionated and tough and stubborn and generally hard to get along with - basically, I guess, I was about like I am now, only more so. I have never been convinced that playing on my first varsity team provided many long-term benefits for the girls who endured that season - 26 wins notwithstanding.

But Jenni Collins Smith claimed that it did. She talked about having to learn to play man-to-man defense, which she said stood her well in her college career, and she talked about mental toughness - a trait she says she is trying to pass on to the players in her charge.

And she said "thank you," which is always nice to hear but especially so when it comes out of the blue from the distant past.

And it's funny, but the whole time I was reading Jenni's letter, I was seeing the beautiful young lady with the dark tan and a freckle on her nose. Later Wednesday morning, I started doing the math and realized that she has to be almost as old as I am now - 45, at least. And that made the thank-you and the other kind words even more significant.

I answered Jenni right away and told her that I hoped our paths crossed - and sooner rather than later. And I hope they do. I really do hope they do.

Darrell Huckaby is a local author and educator. He can be reached at dHuck08@bellsouth.net.