Out of Darkness

After more than a decade in exile, Charley Pell returns to the sidelines to confront the demons that nearly destroyed him
By Keith Dunnavant
Dunnavant's Paydirt Illustrated
1995

For the first 52 years of his life, Charley Pell was driven by an inner rage. This powerful force became the unseen hand in his life, motivating and strengthening him in his rise from modest roots in the small Alabama mountain town of Albertville to national prominence as a hard-nosed, successful football coach. He never glimpsed the dark side of this rage until it overwhelmed him. On the afternoon of Feb. 2, 1994, it led him to a secluded area a few miles from his Jacksonville, Fla. home, where he was determined to take his own life.

After a decade of business failures hastened by his dismissal as the University of Florida's head coach - which made him a pariah in the only world that mattered to him - Pell had withdrawn into himself. The most driven man in the history of Sand Mountain had started abusing alcohol and spending most of his leisure hours staring into the distance from a living room chair. Carrick, his 24-year-old son, saw the light fading from his father's eyes. "He acted like he was waiting to be killed in a car wreck," Carrick said.

In April 1993, Pell started planning his own death, unaware that he soon would lose both his father and long-time friend James Haywood, which deepened his emotional tumult.

"I felt like I was at the bottom of a hole," Pell would say in the spring of 1995. "And it felt comfortable. I decided there was no reason to climb out of that hole."

Without the knowledge of his wife, Ward, or any of their family or friends, he became obsessed with his death, which he planned with the same meticulous detail as a game for the conference championship. He spent hours in the library learning about the various methods of suicide and decided, after exhaustive study, on carbon monoxide poisoning. He arranged for his funeral - including the transportation of his body back to Alabama - and made a list of pallbearers and substitute pallbearers in what resembled, his wife would later remark, a depth chart. He arranged for his Jacksonville home to be appraised and calculated two household budgets for Ward - one if she sold the house, one if she kept it. He wrote heart-wrenching letters to Ward and his three children. During this period, he found it difficult to pass a cemetery without taking time to wander among the dead, perusing the names on the tombstones and imagining how his epitaph would read.

Late on the afternoon of Feb. 2, the day of his 25th wedding anniversary, Pell stuffed the items into a cardboard box, along with a will, a suicide note, and various financial documents. He left the box with Linda Jowers at her office and asked her to take it home to her husband Malcom, one of his closest friends. "There was nothing unusual about Charley that day, so I didn't think anything about him stopping by," Linda said. The box included directions to the wooded area near the St. John River where Jowers, a Florida highway patrolman, could find his body.

As soon as he pulled his 1990 Buick sedan to a stop in the wooded area off New Berlin Road, Pell downed a fistful of sleeping pills with several shots from a fifth of vodka. Putting his months of research to work, he connected a garden hose to the car's tailpipe and slipped it through a tiny crack in a rear window, carefully sealing the window with towels to prevent the noxious fumes from escaping. But then he panicked. Too impatient to wait for the fumes to permeate the car, he stuck the hose in his mouth, biting down hard enough to leave impressions of his teeth.

About the time Pell became unconscious from the combination of pills, booze, and carbon monoxide, Malcom Jowers arrived home and opened the box his wife had brought from work. Undressing in their bedroom as he sifted through the box's neatly filed contents, Jowers at first thought Charley had made a mistake. The box was loaded with all sorts of papers bearing Charley's name, which puzzled him. Then he found the note - which read, in part, "Malcom, I have lost my will to live" - and the directions to the body.

"We were prepared for the worst," said W.T. "Doc" Coppedge, a local anesthesiologist who joined Jowers on the search for their mutual friend. "We were hoping against hope but we were prepared to find him dead."

Ironically, Pell's impatience and determination to die saved his life. Ingesting the carbon monoxide directly made him nauseated, and at some point after dozing off, he woke up and stumbled out of the car to vomit. When Jowers, Coppedge and a paramedic team arrived, he was on the ground trailing in and out of consciousness. The next morning, after having his stomach pumped, Pell awoke in a bed in Baptist Hospital's psychiatric ward.

"I had never felt like such a complete failure," Pell said. "I couldn't even succeed at killing myself."

"YOU'VE GOT TO EXPLODE OFF THE BALL! YOU'VE GOT TO GET COCKY!"

Fifteen months after the attempt, Charley Pell walks around a neatly mowed lawn in Winter Haven, Fla. For the first time since being fired by Florida at the height of his career, he wears a whistle with a purpose. On a hot and humid May afternoon, the neatly mowed lawn in front of the Cleveland Indians' spring training facility serves as a football practice field for the soon-to-open Lake Regions High School. As the 65 young men dressed in shorts and helmets run drills, Pell, their head coach, walks and observes. Occasionally, seeing something he doesn't like, he stops the action with a bark straight out of 1984.

"Remember the snap count! The snap count's important!"

Except for the gray hair and a few pounds around the middle, the cocksure Pell looks much like the man who built winners at Jacksonville (Ala.) State, Clemson and Florida during the 1970s and '80s, a walking and talking dose of hubris who seemed destined to be a coaching legend. The voice, deepened by too many unfiltered cigarettes, still rumbles like slow-rolling thunder. The eyes still bore through inquisitors like the noonday sun. But he is not the same man. This much he knows.

Two days after the suicide attempt, Pell grudgingly checked himself into the New Visions Clinic on Georgia's St. Simons Island. At first, he tried to isolate himself, to put up the same kind of walls which he had used to protect himself from his feelings for all those years. But then, on the fourth day, something began to happen which he could not explain. He discovered a spiritual side he had never known. And the walls came tumbling down.

Diagnosed with clinical depression, Pell learned the meaning of his rage. He walked out of New Visions on the 17th day having confronted the demons hidden deep within. "For the first time in his life, Charley is at peace with himself," said his wife, Ward. Every day now begins with a prayer and includes a carefully monitored dose of an anti-depression drug. Pell, who openly shares his unlikely odyssey, acts like a poster boy for depression survival.

"I survived my suicide attempt for a reason," he said. "I've learned that to win, sometimes you have to give in."

By returning to the sidelines, Pell is tempting the very demons that almost destroyed him.

Charley Pell never cared much for dogs. Like so many aspects of life outside football, they existed pretty much without his notice. But even before he was discharged from the hospital, he decided he wanted one. "I think that was his way of saying he wanted to stop and smell the roses," said Ward, the straight-talking blonde-haired Southern belle whom he met during his days as an assistant coach at Kentucky.

As Charley relaxed in the living room of his spacious three-bedroom home overlooking a Jacksonville golf course one bright spring afternoon, two tiny puff balls named Ragamuffin and Doc sauntered around the room like they owned the place. Their presence offered a subtle reminder of their master's new perspective on life.

"It's funny, because I probably have more reasons to be anxious now than ever before," said Pell, who has lost much of the money he had socked away from his coaching days, in bad business deals over the last decade. "But I don't have that overwhelming anxiety anymore. I've decided not to beat myself up about things I can't control."

Depression is an incurable illness with strong genetic ties. Scientific evidence supports the presence of a chemical imbalance in the brain of many depression victims, which often can be moderated by antidepressants. No one knows for sure how much Americans suffer from various forms of the illness, but estimates run as high as three to five percent of the population.

"The stigma of mental illness is so severe that we can never know how many people might be suffering but are afraid to seek help," said Dr. Bill Shivers, the director of New Visions.

Then there are those like Pell who endure for years until something pushes them over the edge.

"People with my illness are prone to addiction," noted Pell, who now spends much of his free time counseling fellow depression sufferers. "We use all kinds of things to mask our problems. For some people it's drugs. For others it's alcohol. Or gambling. Or sex. My addiction was football. It dominated my life."

Pell and his doctors are convinced he was born with a pre-disposition for the illness. Three of his siblings suffer from depression, and his workaholic father, though never diagnosed, displayed many of the classic signs, Pell believes in retrospect. "Of course we didn't know what it was then, but his would manifest itself in silence...withdrawal," he said. Though he grew up in a Christian home with plenty to eat and two loving parents and six loving brothers and sisters, Charley suffered from poor self-esteem from an early age. Football became his identity. "Charley used his accomplishments in football as a way to measure his worth as a man," Shivers said.

Because he invested so much of his self worth in his athletic accomplishments, Pell was determined to excel as both a player and a coach. The game was a perfect outlet for his inner rage. Blocking and tackling was a therapy in itself.

After only one year of high school ball - his parents had forbidden him to play, relenting only in his senior year - he attracted the attention of the University of Alabama, where he became a starting lineman for Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's powerhouse, helping the Crimson Tide win the 1961 national championship. During spring practice the following year, he fell victim to one of Bryant's legendary motivational ploys. When Pell was suddenly demoted to the second team for no apparent reason, he was crushed. In his own mind, he was being devalued as a man, and the rage surged inside him, so he became a terror on the practice field, facing off against the player who had taken his place and grinding him into the dirt, time and again. By the end of the day, he had recaptured his first-team jersey.

"He had taken my identity," Pell said. "I had to get my identity back."

Like many coaches, Pell worked long hours and cared about little besides winning. As he had been taught, he kept raising the bar on himself and others around him. This zeal made him a fast-rising star as an assistant coach at Alabama, Kentucky, Virginia Tech and Clemson and then as a head coach. "Charley was driven to be a great coach," said Jimmy Fuller, an aide to him at Jax State in the early 1970s who now coaches offensive linemen at Alabama. "He was as demanding of himself as he was of everybody around him." Like so many others who suffer without knowing, he struggled and succeeded without ever attaining any sense of happiness or contentment. Or knowing why.

With an intense knowledge of the game and what associates describe as a brilliant strategic mind, he swaggered around the practice field like a cross between Douglas MacArthur and Paul Bryant, his mentor and hero. Players and assistants usually decribe him as tough but fair. They also use words like tyrannical and charismatic.

Before he arrived, men in his profession avoided the head coaching jobs at Clemson and Florida. But the driven workaholic accomplished what few thought possible, leading Clemson to 18 wins in two years before accepting a lucrative offer to pull the perennial underachieving Gator out of the muck. After an 0-10-1 debut in 1979 that was little more than sorrow-as-usual, Pell directed the Gators to four straight bowl bids, capped by a No. 6 national ranking in 1983.

But then the NCAA uncovered a long list of violations by Pell and his coaching staff. Four games into an '84 season that would see the Gators capture their first Southeastern Conference championship, Pell was summarily dumped by the university, a victim of his own zeal and the anti-corruption mood of the year in which the NCAA Presidents Commission asserted itself.

After emerging as such a powerful, highly publicized symbol of corruption, Pell was unable to find work in football. His ventures into shopping mall construction, insurance, and employee leasing squandered much of his savings and failed to provide him with the kind of outlet football had offered. By the early '90s, he was ravaging himself with feelings of guilt and despair that exacerbated his deeply hidden depression.

"Being away from football didn't cause Charley to attempt suicide," Shivers said. "Not everybody who gets investigated by the NCAA and loses his job wants to kill himself. But when he began to realize he was never going to have the chance to accomplish some of the things he'd built his life around, it compounded the feelings of desperation."

The deeper his depression pulled him into that big black hole, the more Pell drank and the more he seemed to withdraw. "I had seen him go downhill for two years," Ward said. "We bought this house on the golf course so he could play golf and then he didn't play golf anymore." But Ward didn't appreciate the depth of his problem. No one did.

Four days before the attempt, Charley and Ward ate dinner at the house of long-time friend Bill Bostick. "After I heard the news, I felt like I should have seen a sign," Bostick said. "But I didn't."

"I was beating myself up with feelings of guilt," Pell said. "I felt like a failure. I felt bad because of the things that were said about me and how that must have made Ward and the children feel."

Pell believes the suicide attempt saved his life because it forced him to seek treatment for a disorder he didn't know he had. Like a diabetic or a heart patient, he probably will require medication for the rest of his life, but now that the problem has been identified and treated, he should be able to live a normal life, doctors say. He no longer feels the urge to drink alcohol. He said another suicide attempt is unthinkable to him now. "He's a much healthier person than he ever was before," said his son Carrick.

As a result of his stay at New Visions and the spiritual awakening that prompted him to become a Christian, Pell was forced to re-think many of his core beliefs. "I used to think you could control your own destiny, no matter what," he said. "That's what I coached. That's what my whole philosophy was about. Not anymore. Now I believe that some things happen for a reason. I believe there's a reason I survived."

The man began starring at us as soon as we sat down. An hour or so after devouring the cholesterol orgy otherwise known as the Shoney's breakfast bar, Charley Pell and I had moved to a booth in the smoking section so he could indulge his one remaining vice. Well past the breakfast rush on a sunny spring morning in Jacksonville, the restaurant was empty except for a few coffee drinkers like us and the man and his pretty blonde companion. Every few moments, this shaggy-haired man who wore a Florida Gators baseball cap and looked like an auto mechanic or a truck driver stole a glance in our direction.

By the time the man summoned the courage to walk over to our booth, Pell was discussing his painful departure from the University of Florida.

"Coach Pell?..." the man said as he came up behind Charley, leaving him momentarily startled. "I thought that was you!"

Then he thrust a ball-point pen and a crumpled paper napkin onto the table and asked for Pell's autograph. "I knew that was you. Sure appreciate what you did for our Gators. See!" he said, motioning toward the pretty blonde who had stayed at their table, "I told you it was him."

Pell thanked the man for his interest and his kind words and gladly signed the autograph.

"I just want you to know," the man said, "that I've only got one other autograph and that's of my favorite coach, Vince Lombardi. I'm gonna put yours right next to his. My two favorite coaches!"

"Well, that is a compliment," Pell said as the man walked away. "Don't know if I deserve that, but I appreciate it."

Nearly 11 years after he left Gainesville in disgrace, Pell remains a source of ambivalence for Florida supporters. Some prefer to remember how he took a program languishing at the bottom of the SEC and built it into a powerhouse on the verge of competing for the conference championship. But he cannot escape the list of more than 100 violations the NCAA charged were committed on his watch, which resulted in a harsh probation and the stripping of the Gators' first SEC championship. Combined with the widely held belief that he was responsible for Clemson's probation in the early 80s - which he flatly denies - Florida's showdown with the NCAA left Pell's reputation tarnished.

"We made some mistakes. I made some mistakes," Pell said. "It wasn't anything that was organized but...I'll carry the scars of those mistakes to my grave."

While he is careful not to make excuses for the violation of NCAA rules at Florida, Pell and his doctors believe his illness played a role in the way he handled the problem. When school officials, eager to look contrite in the eyes on the NCAA, told Pell that his assistants who had participated in the illicit acts would be spared if he took all the blame, he agreed to take the fall. "It's common for people with depression to want to take all the blame when something goes wrong," Shivers said. "Taking responsibility plays to their need to feel guilty."

Now, Pell says, he would have handled the situation differently. "I would make each person be accountable for his own actions," he said. "If I'd done that, the perceptions of me would be a lot different."

In an odd twist, Doug Johnson, the NCAA investigator who spent nearly 30 months zealously building the case against Pell and his program - the man most responsible for Pell's exile from college football - has been diagnosed with depression. The two men became friendly after the Florida ordeal and now correspond regularly.

"Charley deserved what he got," said Johnson, who left the NCAA in 1987 and now lives in Portland, Oregon. "But he paid his price. How long should he have to suffer? For the rest of his life? There are an awful lot of hypocritical coaches who've done far worse and haven't paid half the price that Charley Pell has paid."

Stephen White decided Pell deserved a second chance. Soon after he was appointed the principal of Winter Haven's new Lake Regions High in January, White started looking for a football coach. A friend of a friend gave him Pell's telephone number and, after several visits and telephone calls, Pell agreed to take the dual job of head football coach and peer facilitator. At mid-summer, Charley and Ward were still attempting to sell their Jacksonville home and finalize the move. Construction of the new school was scheduled for completion in July.

If high school football feels like a letdown for the man who played and coached in bowl games and on national television at the collegiate level, Pell does not show it. After all those years away from the game, he seems genuinely excited by the interaction with the players, even if many of them have yet to start shaving on a daily basis. Even if most of them cannot remember his controversial tenure in Gainesville, when he needed a bodyguard instead of a nametag.

Now his days are cluttered with the mundane chores of life at the bottom of the football food chain: bus drivers who complain about players who won't stop making chirping sounds; not having enough helmets and shoulder pads to go around; players who ask meekly, "What's a snap count?"

"I doubt if I would have taken this job if it had been an established program," Pell said. "But the whole idea of starting from scratch interested me."

But can he keep the demons at bay?

Until he recognized and sought treatment for his depression, the rage inside him had been, in many ways, an ally. It made football the most important thing in his life. It made him work harder, demand more, settle for nothing less than twice as much as he had accomplished the day before. While unhealthy and destructive, the rage also was inexorably linked to his success.

For the first time in his life, as he leads the Lake Regions Thunder through its premier season, he will be wary of allowing his self-esteem to become defined by his career. "I could not have attempted this within six months after I got treatment," he said. "But I think I'm strong enough now. I know the demons are there...but I don't worry about them."

The man who coached for all those years through a fog of anger believes he can be an even better coach and teacher. Working with at-risk, disconnected young people in his role as the school's peer facilitator will, he believes, give him a broader context for his daily life.

As Pell returns to the sidelines, his wife, children and friends will be keeping a close eye on his progress as a man as well as a coach. They will be watching for the signs they failed to recognize in the past. And if he should fail? If the new Pell somehow cannot measure up? "If for some reason he doesn't win, Charley will be fine," said his friend Linda Jowers. "It won't kill him like it might have before. He's already beaten himself so there's no one left to beat."

If he discovers it is impossible to be a good football coach without returning to his old, tunnel-visioned ways, Pell vows to make a difficult decision in favor of his health. He will walk away forever.

The bond between father and son can become strained for many reasons, but never so easily as when the father turns out to be a fraud.

When Ward called Carrick to tell him that his father had attempted suicide, the son's first reaction was to roll on the floor of his Miami kitchen and cry hysterically. Then he became angry. Suicide was so contrary to the way Charley had taught his son to live. Suddenly Carrick began to wonder if he had built his life on a lie. "He could have been gone....and what would that have made my whole life? A joke?"

The youngest of the Pell's three children, Carrick gravitated to athletics as a young man for all the usual reasons. None tugged more powerfully, however, than the need to please his father, the coach. "Everything I did," Carrick said, "was an effort to make him say, 'I'm proud of you, son.'"

But the coach held his son to the same high standards he forced his players to meet. Compliments came rarely, because the father felt the need to motivate his son to strive in his own mold. To this day, Carrick remains haunted by the telephone conversation he had with his father on the night after he had played the game of his life as a freshman linebacker at Davidson. In only his fourth college game, the young Pell had recorded 13 solo tackles, blocked two field goals and returned an interception for a touchdown.

His father's reaction: "That's pretty good, son."

"Pretty good?" the son thought to himself. "Pretty good? What does he want from me? What will it take to make him proud of me?"

But the brush with death eventually cemented the bond between the father and the son. Charley took from his new Christian faith a better understanding of unconditional love and learned to differentiate between love and approval. From the study of his own depression, he acquired a greater appreciation for how both he and his son had become co-dependent, or significantly reliant on the approval of others for their self-esteem. They both now realize that the depression is hereditary and how Carrick suffers from many of the same demons as his father. Seemingly closer to his father than ever before, Carrick spent his break between college semesters in Winter Haven helping his father coach his new high school team.

"It's nice to see my dad happy again," he said after a grueling session.

In one sense, Carrick says, he is grateful for the way his father pushed him. Now a distance runner at Jacksonville State, he believes the high standards Charley enforced have been largely responsible for his success as an athlete. "But there were times when I hated him," he said. "There were times when I wished Charley Pell wasn't my dad."

In Carrick's mind, the relationship came full circle a few months ago when he called home from the World Duathalon Championships. Bitterly disappointed, he had experienced mechanical problems with his bike and had finished dead last in a competition of more than 1,000 athletes. But he had finished.

Upon hearing the news of his son's failure, Charley said simply, "I'm proud of you, son. You're a true champion for finishing the race."

As he heard the words over the long distance line, tears streamed down the son's cheeks.

The exile never bore an NCAA seal. The governing body didn't bar Pell from returning to college football or threaten to sanction a school for hiring him. But the effect was the same as having his passport seized at the border. School presidents weren't exactly lining up to hire the most powerful symbol of corruption in college football. (Later, this dubious honor was passed to Bobby Collins, the only coach ever to preside over a program shuttered by the NCAA's "death penalty.")

"In those days, giving Pell a job would have been like taking out an ad saying you wanted to win no matter what the cost," said one prominent athletic director.

Of course, for the first two or three years after leaving Florida, Pell was so consumed by resentment that he displayed little interest in returning to the sidelines.

Time has mellowed his bitterness and the resistance to his return. A slight crack opened last season when ESPN commentator Mike Gottfried, the former Pittsburgh and Kansas coach, invited Pell to join his staff for the Hula Bowl all-star game. A few weeks later, he was a finalist in the search to replace Howard Schnellenberger at the University of Louisville. He also interviewed for the post at Alabama-Birmingham, which is moving up to Division 1-A in 1996. In fact, Pell believed the Louisville job was his until a member of the Board of Trustees balked at the last minute.

If that close call was disappointing, it also made the idea of him as a head football coach more palatable in the eyes of many. "Somewhere out there is the right program willing to take a chance on him," Gottfried said. Doug Johnson, the man who put him away, wrote a letter last year supporting his bid for a coaching job. "Charley has gifts that should be shared as a college coach," he wrote.

Candid about the mistakes he made in the past, Pell makes no secret of his desire for another college coaching job. He has trouble reconciling his sins against those of other coaches who have survived battles with the NCAA and surfaced at other schools, including Mississippi State's Jackie Sherrill and Arkansas' Danny Ford. But he no longer waits for the phone to ring.

Pell insists he sees the world differently now. He will always be a coach but he will never again be defined by being a coach. "I will never be a slave to football again," he said. Whether this is simply hubris in a new set of clothes or a genuine attitude change may not be apparent until he has experienced another season on the brink.

One evening well past dinner time, as the shadows cut a progressive swath across his living room carpet, he was asked, "What do you have left to prove?"

Surely, in a different time, the old Charley would not have hesitated. The old Charley knew the answer to this question by heart, for it was how he measured his life. Ten yards means you get a first down, scoring a touchdown means you get six points, and accomplishing one goal means you raise the bar and jump a little higher. There was always something else to prove. Like Brando, he might have answered a question with a question: "Whadda ya got?"

But the introspective new man seemed puzzled, as if he had been asked a question in a foreign language. After a long pause, he finally said, "That phrase is awful strange to me now. It used to control my life. Always having to prove you're good enough. Always raising the bar. But that phrase doesn't make much sense to me anymore."

Copyright 1995 by Keith Dunnavant

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