Which are you for, Auburn or Alabama?
Sorry to disappoint, but Gary Lett has an unabashedly different answer.
“Well, actually, it’s Jacksonville State.”
Would you expect anything different from a guy who grew up between brothers who were star quarterbacks for the Gamecocks and himself was invited to walk onto the football team and circuitously wound up playing two years of golf there?
That devotion is abundantly clear in the themes of his new novel, “Sideline”, which is now available on the internet and soon in a brick-and-mortar bookstore near you.
And for that he offers no apologies.
“I think the people with ties to Jacksonville State will enjoy it,” he said. “They’ll get a good flashback.”
From playing in the backyard to being the quarterback on Glencoe’s singular undefeated Class 2A state championship team to his days at JSU, the whole novel is an amalgam of his experiences and associations.
The main character, Bob Hayes, grew up in a small Alabama town and wasn’t a star on his team but he becomes the youngest head coach in the country at a famed Southeastern Conference school. It’s a tribute to Charley Pell, the original youngest head coach in the country when he was at JSU who will be inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame May 12. Even the name of the fictional school Hayes coaches was suggested by Ward Pell, Charley’s wife.
“When you’re 14 and you see his demeanor, his intensity and you’re a sports guy like we were growing up … it was truly special,” said Lett, a ball boy for Pell’s Jax State teams for which brother Doc played quarterback.
Additionally, the quarterback in the book who transfers in from LSU is derived from Dieter Brock, the future NFL and CFL quarterback who came to JSU from Auburn and was responsible for changing the author’s athletics path. The story of a young receiver nearly drowning in a muddy puddle playing in a backyard pickup game and deciding he isn’t going to be a receiver any more is actually taken from the time the brothers were playing in the backyard, Ed got tackled and bit his tongue.
“I’m not trying to steal people’s stories, but the truth is the best place for fiction to start,” he said. “It was fun taking those true stories and adding to it.”
Lett, now a chiropractor in Hattiesburg, was invited to walk-on at JSU after his state championship season and was a scout-teamer that first year. At the end of the season then-offensive coordinator Clarkie Mayfield called him into the office to tell him a quarterback was transferring in and, knowing he didn’t want to go through another year of scout team quarterback, offered Lett the chance to be a coach’s assistant on scholarship.
He did that job in the spring, but transferred to North Alabama where he punted for one season. Then he learned the JSU golf team was adding three scholarships to its program and, timed with younger brother Ed’s enrollment in JSU, his athletic pursuits changed.
“Did I want to kick footballs or hit golf balls all summer?” he said.
The JSU golf coach at the time, Steve Bailey, staged a four-round qualifying tournament for the eight candidates and the top three earned the scholarships. Lett was one of them.
He finished his college career as a Gamecock golfer — and with plenty of stories for novelist to pursue.
Sideline is Lett’s first novel, but not his first attempt at professional writing. He has penned a regular feature in Southern Golf Journal and several health and sports-related articles for a variety of other publications.
He is currently working on a second novel that follows a young golfer. He hopes it will be released next year.
A local book signing for Sideline scheduled for Gadsden May 4.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.