The transition from a high school youngster with aspirations of playing in the NFL to 40-year-old, small-time football coach has not been an easy one for Mike Plaisance.
During the long journey he has been part of a team whose practice field was a median strip dividing a busy New Orleans roadway. He has learned that being a black athlete in the South during the 1960s meant never having to say you're enrolled in very white Louisiana State University. And in his first game of his senior season at Grambling State, he learned in a flash of pain what a spinal injury is all about.
Plaisance never fulfilled his childhood dreams, which revolved around playing someday in the NFL. But he is fulfilling new dreams, dreams that began as a young adult, dreams of staying involved in football while getting involved with religion. He is the football coach at Village Christian High in Sun Valley and, in his mind, he's sitting on top of the world.
"I think this is where I was destined to be," said Plaisance, who also serves as the school's athletic director. "I've found my little niche in the world. As crazy as it might sound, I see myself staying here for the duration. I see myself right here in this office in the year 2020. Maybe still as a coach, maybe just as the athletic director or maybe just as somebody the kids can turn to, a counselor. Who knows? But I think this is where I want to spend my life."
Plaisance was a bruising player, a 6-1, 210-pound high school quarterback who knocked down tacklers like bowling pins. In 1965 he was named the Louisiana State Athletic Assn.'s Player of the Year, most valuable player of his St. Augustine High team and of the Coast League in which it played, and a Parade Magazine second-team All-American. His team routinely practiced on the center strip of a major road because the school was too poor to have a real field.
"It was about 20 yards wide and lots of cars zipping by," Plaisance said. "It was pretty dangerous. Let's just say we didn't practice any end sweeps."
When his senior year began to wind down, he didn't want much, just a shot at making the football team at his favorite college, nearby LSU.
"I started getting letters from all the schools, but nothing from LSU," Plaisance said. "I couldn't understand why. I guess I was pretty naive then. My coach, Eddie Flint, saw the disappointment I guess and told me about LSU. He told me I had the athletic ability and the grades to go to any school, anywhere. But he told me, 'It's not going to happen at LSU, so look somewhere else.' He never actually told me why and I was too young and naive to figure it out. But I wasn't going to LSU because I was black. In 1965, no Southeastern Conference schools were recruiting black players.
"None. It didn't change until late in the '60s, when Bear Bryant was at Alabama and he got beat bad by USC and Clarence Davis. When he found out Davis was from Tuscaloosa, he vowed to never let a good black athlete out of the state again. That's when the other SEC schools opened up for us."
But it was too late for Plaisance. He went to all-black Grambling, where he became a power-running fullback for Eddie Robinson, the winningest coach in college football history. Plaisance had a decent junior year but said he didn't feel that he was ready to become a good player until his senior season. He weighed 226 pounds, could bench-press 460 pounds and squat 600 pounds. But that season ended in a big hurry.
"It was our first game, and I got popped," he said. "I went down and was numb for 20 minutes."
A neurologist in New Orleans told him he wasn't sure how much damage he had sustained in his spine, but he was sure about one thing: If Plaisance ever attempted to play football again, there was a tremendous risk of suffering permanent paralysis. Fifteen years later, after calcium had built up and began pinching the nerves, Plaisance woke up one morning and the entire right side of his body was paralyzed. He underwent a 6 1/2-hour operation in which several vertebrae were removed and the spinal cord was fused back together. He has lost about 15% of the mobility in one hip and walks with a noticeable limp, a scar from a very tough sport.
But nothing like the emotional scar he carries from the day he was told his football career was over.
"I had to hang 'em up, and then I went home," he said.
Home to the most trying time of his life, a period he calls "traumatic" and a period that Plaisance isn't very fond of discussing. He hooked up again with his high school buddies, guys who had never left the neighborhood, and he was heading quickly down a dangerous road.
"My best friend is right now doing a life stretch in state prison in Louisiana," Plaisance said, his voice dropping to a whisper. "He was involved in a liquor-store holdup and a police officer and a lady were killed. That was my crowd."