By Madoline Markham
Photos Contributed

No one ever forgot the first time they met LJ Rouse—especially if they saw him pull up in his canary yellow Corvette with its “LUSHUS J” license plate. Out stepped a 6-foot-4-inch man, with a mullet, mustache and a gold chain, in the era that many of his now-friends met him.

“Who is this guy?” several recall thinking at first.

“But right after you met him you loved him,” John Burdeshaw says. “There is not a soul that knows him that doesn’t love him.”

Other times LJ made a memorable first impression talking smack with colorful language at the youth sports games he coached. But time and time again he proved that you best not judge a book by its cover. LJ certainly didn’t.

“Once you got to know him, you figured out he was a big teddy bear,” Rick Baguley says. “He came off rough around the edges, and then you figured out he simply has a love and passion for helping and loving kids.”

And there’s good reason kids of all ages around Homewood and in other areas of Birmingham would run up and say “Hey Coach LJ!” whenever they saw him. LJ, who grew up in Dora, Alabama, had played pool competitively and, ever the daredevil, was known to pop a wheelie going 80 mph on the interstate on his Yamaha motorcycle. But by his friend Brian Davis’s estimate, LJ spent about 90 percent of his free time coaching and otherwise investing in kids in the community, driving them to Boaz, Jemison, Calera and even Cooperstown, New York, for baseball games, and from Mountain Brook to Woodlawn to Tuscaloosa during basketball season.

LJ had a unique ability to read kids well and know where they could need to improve, and then he pushed them to get there both in sports and in life. “Anyone can coach (athletically gifted) kids, but he coached the lesser talented kids really well and got more out of them than anyone else would,” Scott Dorough says. “He created this culture our boys thrived in. No one could do it like LJ could.”

LJ made each and every athlete he coached feel like a champion. “He’d realize a kid couldn’t dribble or shoot but he was a great defender,” Tyler Vail says. “He would get them to do the best. He was all about potential.”

Tyler recalls one particular baseball game where a kid on the other team was struggling to hit the ball and was in tears. After the game ended, LJ walked up to that player’s parents and asked if he could spend a few minutes with him. So LJ took him to the batting cage for 30 more minutes to coach him, and by the end, he had the player crushing the ball. “He would give anything to any kid he coached,” Tyler says—and that applied to kids who weren’t on his team too.

Younger siblings of players on his teams were always drawn to LJ too because he made them feel special and a part of the team. ”He was always good about loving on my girls and always give them a hug and find out what they were doing at the time and how things were going,” Drew Binkley says.

And LJ wasn’t the only one wearing the bright colors that were as loud as his personality either—always with shorts, never pants, even in the dead of winter. His teams were often clad in bright neon yellow or pink uniforms. “He wouldn’t break the rules, but he would push him,” John says. “Any time Homewood Parks and Rec would come out with a new rule like keeping up with playing time or jersey regulations or any clarification rule—it was dubbed the LJ Rule by the coaches (since it probably came from something LJ pushed).”

Even after LJ’s younger son Kaman finished his last year of youth sports leagues, LJ came out of “retirement” to coach a fourth-grade OTM basketball team of younger siblings he knew this past season and had plans to coach them through sixth grade.

Wherever LJ and his wife, Ginger, went, be it to youth league games or Samford or Homewood High School games, they always had “a herd of kids from different backgrounds” with them, Tyler says. Each Halloween LJ took out a group of kids to trick or treat and then hosted a party at his house afterward, and he always made sure kids knew they could come over and watch football if they wanted to. “You always knew the door was open at LJ’s house,” Brian says. “It didn’t have to be a special event, and he’d play pick-up basketball or throw the ball with the kids.”

Ginger, team mom extraordinaire, was by LJ’s side through all of it, always with a carload of kids in tow and keeping the books and setting out snacks at games. She is laid back and easy going and, like her husband, was always building up kids and doing anything she could for them. In John’s words, she is “the glue that held it all together.” No matter how big or small a game was, the other son and both parents were always there to support whichever son was playing. They did things as a family, always.

LJ’s influence didn’t end with kids though. UFC fighter Walt Harris says LJ showed him how to be a better coach, a better leader and a better father. After his first UFC fight years ago, Walt was discouraged when LJ reached out to him. “He gave me a swift kick in the butt when I needed it,” Walt said at LJ’s memorial service. “He told me to put on your big boy pants—you gotta do what you gotta do. For years LJ gave me insight after wins and losses and gave me something I could go back and work on. He watched it and paid attention to things that helped me.”

The same went for the Homewood High School golf team once LJ’s oldest son Trey started playing on it. When he was at his sons’ tournaments, LJ was watching for other younger Homewood players to recommend to the coaches for the high school team, and he kept up with all players’ scores, not just his sons’. “Being a coach, you are around a lot of parents who are all about their son or daughter, but LJ was concerned with all kids and wanted all kids to have an awesome experience,” HHS Golf Coach Jason Haithcock says.

In fact that’s just what LJ was doing on the evening of Monday, March 29, texting Jason scores from the middle school tournament. He’d coached Kaman’s basketball team in a tournament in Hoover that weekend before and had plans to drive out to the Bradley Johnson Memorial Tournament with Kaman on Tuesday to watch the HHS golf team play.

Tragically, LJ passed away that Tuesday morning from a heart attack at age 47. John remembers being in disbelief when he heard the news. “I said, ‘There’s no way a heart attack can beat LJ,’” he says. “He is the guy who would reach inside his own chest for his heart and put it back. You felt like he was superman.”

In the hours that followed the heavy news, the HHS golf coaches questioned whether the team should play that day. But “If LJ thought our kids lost an opportunity for us to play because of him, he wouldn’t be happy,” Jason reasoned. “He would want those kids to play.”

So all the boys except Kaman—who was one of the top five players on the varsity team as an eighth grader this spring season—played on what was a tough day for everyone. Both the boys and girls golf teams cut ribbons in signature LJ colors—neon yellow with pink lettering—that they wore on their hats and golf bags for the rest of the season. At the first girls tournament after LJ’s passing, both the Homewood and Hewitt-Trussville teams wore pink shirts in his memory.

Kaman went on to play in the state championship tournament this spring as his older brother Trey finished in the junior college national championship as a freshman at Jeff State. “Both of those boys feel their dad is with them on the golf course because he was always with them,” Jason says.

LJ’s legacy lives on in those yellow ribbons, the pink so many people wore in place of black at his memorial service, and in his sons and their golf games. But that’s only part of the impact he left on his community and what those who knew him learned from him. “The beauty of LJ is he didn’t care what other people thought,” Rick says. “He did things his way and he was very comfortable loving his kids and his family in his own ways. He didn’t worry about the trivial things in life that many of the rest of us worry about.”

Scott echoes how knowing LJ made you a better person than you were before: “He taught me it was okay and actually healthy to disagree and be friends. Just as iron sharpens iron, two people who see things differently only offer more perspective to each other and make each other a better person as well… And this city would be a lot better off if we had more LJs in it.”

Now any time anyone who knew LJ sees a canary yellow Camaro—which two trucks later, more equitably replaced his Corvette—they now do a double take, thinking for a split second that LJ might be driving up in his pink polo and old khaki cargo shorts.

Note from the Rouse Family: Ginger, Trey and Kaman would like to say “thank you” to everyone for all the support during this time. So many people did so much in this time that they wanted to say thank you this way in order to include everyone in the Homewood community as well as all the OTM families and Hooligan families especially.

 LJ Rouse Scholarships

To keep LJ’s legacy of helping kids in sports and life alive, the LJ Rouse Foundation will provide scholarships to student athletes. If you would like to donate, you can mail a check made out to the Homewood Athletic Foundation addressed to The LJ Rouse Foundation, PO Box 190371, Birmingham, AL 35219. All donations will be tax-deductible.