It’s a sunny day. Coach Don Jacobs kneels by two headstones. Both bear his last name. On the left: his late daughter, Sarah Jacobs—she died too young. He cries.
Men like Don Jacobs do not cry.
Don played for Bear Bryant. Starting quarterback. Late ‘70’s dream-team. He helped Alabama take the ‘79 national championship.
He was a young man when Bryant first said to him—in a trademarked Biblical voice: “Ain’t what happens to you in life, son, but how you deal with it.”
Don’s life was a good one. After college, he had a promising career in coaching. A talented leader. A good family. Then, one of his daughters died. She was fourteen. Beautiful. Smart.
Her car was found twisted around a telephone pole. Everything changed.
Life went on. Don bounced the small-town high-school football circuit like a pinball. Luverne, Robertsdale, Coosa County, Elkmont. A faceless local hero, teaching basic drills to boys barely old enough to shave.
He taught patience, morality, and fight slogans favored by coaches across rural America. Such as: “When you win, nothing hurts.”
Or: “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.”
Or: “‘Ain’t what happens to you in life, but how you deal with it.”
Don became head coach for the underdog team at Oneonta High. He was overqualified, it was a gutsy career move. They were a group who hadn’t made it far in the playoffs. Nobody expected much from Oneonta.
Then, his wife got pregnant.
It was bliss. Euphoria, even. But his excitement was short-lived. Their son, Joe, was born with a hole in his heart.
I don’t know whether Don was angry at God, but he had every right to be.
He spent most of his days in a Birmingham hospital, the rest on the turf. His team should have started to fall apart. It didn’t.
“It was the opposite,” says his wife. “The players pulled for our baby, prayed for him. They even dedicated the season to him.”
Say what you will about small towns.
Don’s baby died. It should have been the end of the world. But Don’s boys weren’t about to let that happen.
His flock of Blount County fighters started playing like their helmets were on fire. They had new spirit. They hollered a little harder during pep-talks.
And so did Don.
Players wore decals on helmets to honor baby Joe. They pointed toward heaven when they scored. They made state finals. Today, Oneonta has four titles. Four.
But this isn’t about football at all. It’s about something else.
“I guess I needed them, more than they needed me,” says Don. “They loved me… They helped me through this. So much love.”
Today, in Green Hills Memorial Cemetery, baby Joe and Sarah Jacobs rest. Children of an Alabama quarterback. Heir to the small-town legend who still grieves them—a man you might never hear about.
I guess it’s not what happens to you in life, but…
Well, you know the rest.