By Eli Cranor
The first time I squared off against Old Bull, I was 23 years old and in my first year of coaching. We were running “Inside Drill,” a stripped-down version of football, focusing only on the run game, the linemen — Old Bull’s bread and butter.
The first time I squared off against Old Bull, I was 23 years old and in my first year of coaching. We were running “Inside Drill,” a stripped-down version of football, focusing only on the run game and the linemen — Old Bull’s bread and butter.
After the first few plays, I realized my offense would not gain an inch on Bull’s defense. His boys were playing too hard, too fast, playing for Bull.
After practice, all the coaches were sitting in the office, still sweating, already preparing for the week ahead. Old Bull was quieter than usual.
“Not feeling too good,” he said, eventually. Next thing we knew, he was up, trying to “walk it off.”
Problem was, there was no walking off cancer.
Old Bull’s real name is Eric Hart. We coached together in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, during the 2012 and 2013 football seasons. He called me “Hollywood” because I wore Ray-Ban shades. Everybody called him “Old Bull” because, well, the name fit.
Multiple myeloma was the diagnosis. Physicians found a tumor in his neck, already chewing away at his vertebrae. The next day at practice, the linebackers ran their group drills, alone. In the coaches’ office, an empty chair marked his absence like a tombstone.
Weeks went by, and the empty chair remained. Then it was the first week of school and time for our preseason scrimmage against the Prescott Curley Wolves.
When I saw him the first time, his hair was already gone. He’d lost weight and walked different after the neck surgery. But even cancer couldn't take Bull's swagger.
The kids saw it too. Despite his cancer and the chemo, he’d made it to their first scrimmage. I like to believe Bull’s presence was the reason we trounced the Curley Wolves that night.
After it was over, Bull stayed in the press box. With his immune system depleted, he couldn’t risk exposure. The boys were instructed to turn and wave to him, a simple, but powerful gesture. I’ll never forget the look on Bull’s face: a teary-eyed smile, true emotion — life’s pain revealing life’s joy.
Old Bull’s magic carried us through that season and into the next. By the fall of 2013 Bull had scheduled his chemo for Friday mornings, saying, “That way I don’t have to miss any practices.”
This is how he described chemo: “It’s either gonna kill me or the cancer. And listen, Hollywood, I don’t plan on going nowhere.” Old Bull walked the walk. He backed up the years of preaching toughness and perseverance. He took his chemo Friday mornings and coached ball every Friday night. Bull didn’t miss a single game during the 2013 season.
Those two years were special. We went 21-3. Old Bull never stepped foot on the field during a game, but I know he was the secret to our success.
If you ask Old Bull, though, he’ll tell you it was the boys that saved him. “When I showed up to that first scrimmage,” Bull said, “and saw the boys, saw that it was all still going on without me, that was comforting.”
Bull didn’t show up looking for pity, or even motivation; Bull showed up to make sure the team was still in good shape. That is leadership. That’s sacrifice. Our country — our country’s leaders — could learn a lot from Old Bull.
Headlines regarding concussions scream at us daily. The persistent narrative is football is a dangerous, violent game. And it is. Ask Bull; he’ll tell you. But it’s also dangerous to ride in a car, or drink too many soft drinks.
The deal with football, though, is that the benefits outweigh the costs. The lessons young men learn on a football field — Old Bull’s School of Hard Knocks — is a curriculum not taught in any classroom. The practice field teaches you to go to work every day, even when it’s hot, even when nobody is watching, or in Bull’s case, even when given a terminal cancer diagnosis.
Old Bull hung up the whistle a few years back. I called him the other day to check in. When we talked, it was clear he and retirement weren’t getting along. “Well, Hollywood, I raked the yard three times today. Don’t really know what else to do.”
“What about coaching again?” I said. “You ever think about it?”
“I think about it,” he said, and I could almost hear his bittersweet smile coming through the phone. “Figure if I’m gonna die, I might as well do it on the field.”