Coach’s dream of playing professional football refocused on helping children
Feature story for The Commercial Appeal
Oct. 27, 2013
Legacy outlives fate
When Montel Starnes passed away at Baptist Memorial Hospital-East on June 13, Leonard Elion lost his “go-to guy.” The East Memphis Vikings youth football team lost a favored coach. And Lynice Trotter lost her only child.
Starnes, 38, seemed born to play football: It was all he talked about since he learned to speak. He had been a star player at Fairley High School and had spent two years on the Lambuth University football team when illness struck, ending his dream of playing professionally.
But his love for football continued and grew after he began focusing his passion for the sport on helping young players learn the character-building lessons of the game and life.
And even death has not stopped the giving.
In his mother’s small Hickory Hill apartment, the wound is still fresh. There is evidence of her son everywhere, and as Elion and Trotter talk about Starnes,
they gesture toward a makeshift memorial with framed photos and the program from his funeral.
Trotter was only 16 when Starnes was born. He weighed more than 10 pounds. “He came out almost like a football player, a child that came out just ready to play,” she said.
She recalls the days of his boyhood as busy ones, neighborhood children knowing they were safe and welcome at the “house on the hill” at the corner of Shelby Drive and Horn Lake Road, where she lived with her parents, Tommy and Virginia Harris, for 33 years.
“Anybody from Geeter (Junior High School) could come across there,” Trotter said. “You could leave your child at the Harris house, and that child was going to get fed, taken care of, protected until you got off work. We had a yard full of children every day.”
A village helped raise Starnes. There were the firefighters at nearby Fire Station No. 38, the Vietnamese owners of the neighborhood store where he was allowed to run a tab for milk and snacks, and his uncle, local lawyer Ricky Wilkins. “My son loved his uncle Rick,” Trotter said.
Starnes began playing football at age 6, a passion nurtured by his uncle Robert Harris and later at Geeter before he moved on to Fairley as an inside linebacker under the watchful eye of coach Isaac White. “He was a great player, good leader,” said White, now principal at Westwood High School.
From Fairley, Starnes went on scholarship to Lambuth with dreams of playing professionally. When Trotter suffered a subdural hematoma, her son came home to be with her. It was on that trip that Starnes himself fell ill, complaining of severe headaches. Trotter persuaded him to go to the emergency room. He was 21 years old and diagnosed with kidney failure, a diagnosis that would end his football career . . . (read more)
PHOTO BY KYLE KURLICK
Lynice Trotter assembles a memorial to her son, Montel Starnes, at the football field behind McFarland Community Center where Starnes coached the youth league football team, the East Memphis Vikings. Starnes passed away in June from kidney and renal failure. He was Trotter’s only child. She decorates the tree with memorabilia of the Steelers and Grizzles, Starnes’ favorite sports teams, as well as photos of Starnes with his family, friends and kids he coached.