By Al Jones/The Sun Herald
GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) — Mike Justice has built a reputation for being a hard-nosed football coach who believes success is earned.
The Gulfport football coach has produced four state championships and 19 region/district titles in his stops in Alabama and Mississippi.
But his life took a sudden turn on Sept. 14 after the Admirals lost 25-20 to Oak Grove at Milner Stadium.
Thirty minutes after returning to the Gulfport field house with his team, Justice began to experience chest pains. Those pains forced a man considered tough as nails, to call his wife, Barbara, for a ride to the emergency room where he suffered a heart attack that ultimately changed his outlook on life.
“It did change me,” Justice said. “I look at things a lot differently now. It (life) flashed before me. That makes you think about a lot of things.
“While lying in the emergency room, I felt like I let my players down. No doubt about it. In this business, you have to care about your players and hope they care about you. Letting the players down is the biggest nightmare of all. Even if I couldn’t control it or not.”
After three stents were inserted into his heart, Justice is appreciative to be alive and ready to get back to work. First, he will work his way back into a limited role as athletic director.
Then, health permitting, Justice plans to be back on the sideline, perhaps as early as this season, depending on his next scheduled doctor’s visit.
“I feel good,” he said. “I am in waiting to see where I am. The good thing is it looks like my body is healing. I know I will be back coaching again.
“I thought it (heart attack) was stress from the game. I really knew it was nothing until the emergency room doctor came running in and said you are having a heart attack. Had I not went, I probably would be dead,”
Instead of an immediate return to coaching, the 61-year-old opts to visit with the team before or after practices. He also joins coaches for meetings on Saturday and Sunday.
But Justice will not attend a practice or game.
“I am not a watcher,” he said. “I am not going on the field until I am ready. I am an all hands-on coach.
“I will not go to a game. Barbara goes and I wait to hear from her on the outcome. When I do come back, I will not change anything. Actually, that’s the reason why I am coming back. I am not going to come back and tip toe around and not holler. I will come back, when the time is right, and do it wide open.”
“They have not missed a beat, which was me,” Justice said. “I know they are probably playing for me and that’s OK. That’s why I will not come back until the time is right,
“This is not about me. This is about these young men who are playing the game of football for all the right reasons. Me being on the field as the coach would be the best thing for this team when it’s the right time.”
The return date to the sideline will be a decision made by Justice. However, he could return as early as next week on a limited basis as the athletic director.
To help with the recovery, Justice walks one mile a day while pointing at return to the sidelines.
“I feel like I could walk in and sign papers now as the AD,” he said. “Maybe that happens in a week or so. But I am looking forward to getting back because I love football and sports in general.”