A Friday Night Light Went Out.

Old 09-02-2009, 04:50 PM
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Default A Friday Night Light Went Out.

Small Town Coach, Big-Time Hero

Posted Aug 31, 2009 10:45PM By David Whitley

The story wasn't much of blip on the sports radar. A football coach in Alabama suffered chest pains during a game and died on the way to the hospital.

It wasn't Nick Saban or anybody you'd know. It was Keith Howard, whose name you'll probably forget as soon as you click off this screen.

There are more pressing stories to get to, like Rich Rodriguez's tears or Joba Chamberlain's pitch count or whether T.O.'s ailing toe will make an appearance in this week's reality episode.

So if you're looking for a story that registers in our 24-7 news cycle, skip this. But if you want to read about a guy who really mattered, it would be my privilege to introduce you to Howard.

If you're lucky you already know him, or somebody like him.

"High school kids don't do what you tell them," he used to say. "They do what you live and do."

That makes people like Howard infinitely more consequential, if far less rich and famous than T.O.'s toe. Howard was more influential than most. He was the head coach in a small Southern town, where so much of life revolves around what happens on Friday nights.

"He was probably the most powerful man in the county," said Chad Martin, Lincoln High's defensive coordinator. "He was a legend, and not just in the sports sense."

Howard was born in Lincoln, Ala., pop. 5,486. He spent most of his 48 years there and seemed to know everybody in Talladega County.

"Black or white, rich or poor, he treated you like a brother," Martin said.

He knew football. The Golden Bears went 11-2 last season. But when he hired an assistant coach, he didn't ask what offense or defense they liked.

"He wanted to know if you were a family man and if you loved kids," Martin said.

Do that and they'd take a lot more than Xs and Os out into the real world. Nobody suspected last Friday night would be his final lesson.
Lincoln got on the bus and traveled 35 miles down state road 77 to Attalla, home of the Etowah Blue Devils.

As the teams ran off the field for halftime, Howard told Martin he wasn't feeling right and the team doctor was going to check him out.

Martin wasn't overly concerned. Howard would get so worked up at games he'd literally chew right through his game plan. Once or twice a year he'd let Martin handle the halftime duties.

"Take 'em in and talk to them," he'd say.

Last Friday night was slightly different.

"Take 'em in," he told Martin. "They're yours."

Before walking away, he told Martin one last thing.

"I love you."

"I love you too, coach," Martin said.

As the team came out of the locker room, the chaplain handed Martin two teeth-marked folders full of game plan notes. Howard had handed them off right before getting into an ambulance.

Martin put on his headset and did what Howard had taught him. The Golden Bears had just forced Attalla to punt when the news crackled into Martins' ear.

"He coded."

A minute later, it was official.

"He's gone."

Martin took a few steps back and crouched down.

"I felt nothing. My whole sense of being just left me," he said. "My mentor, my boss, my best friend, the guy I leaned on for everything. He was gone."

Martin couldn't let that show. He remembered one of Howard's lessons.

"Lincoln football was here before me, and it will be here after me," he would say. "We're not the program. We're just a small piece of it."

Nobody in Talladega County would completely agree with that. The per-capita income is only $22,357, but Howard had begged, cajoled and fund-raised Lincoln High into a 21st century showcase.

He did not stop until the Golden Bears had an indoor practice facility. There were new baseball and softball parks. The past three years he'd rebuilt Lincoln Memorial Stadium.

Some nights Howard would turn on the lights and go to the top of the bleachers, just to gaze at the project. The finishing touch was field turf installed over the summer.

"He could get people to do stuff you couldn't imagine," Martin said.

In five years as head coach, Howard never had an assistant leave Lincoln. And they sure didn't stay for the money.

"He was your best friend, a role model, a counselor," Martin said. "Every school has those people, but he was all that wrapped into one."

By the middle of the second half, the news was spreading through the crowd. The team had not been told its coach had gone to the hospital, but with four minutes left in the game the players knew.

Martin didn't have to tell them to do anything. They simply remembered how Howard lived.

"They finished the game," Martin said.

They won 26-7, then everyone cried.

Howard is survived by his wife, Lisa, his 12-year-old daughter, Lindsey, 27-year-old stepson Matt Geier and who knows how many people he influenced along the way.

"There is a hole in the Lincoln community," said Terry Roller, the school's principal.

He's asked coaches and players from all over the county to attend Tuesday's memorial. They'll show up in their jerseys at Lincoln Memorial Field.

Make that Keith Howard Field.

They've already decided to rename it. The first game will be Thursday night.

"The thing that breaks my heart most is this was his vision," Martin said. "All the work he put in, and he didn't get to see it."

He paused, and I could tell he was trying not to let me hear him cry on the other end of the phone. All I knew was to say the obvious.

"I'm sure he'll still be there."

"I'm sure he will," Martin said.

Outside of Lincoln, Ala., nobody may notice. College football starts Thursday night, and there's always Matt Cassel's knee to worry about and Roger Federer's winning streak.

Those are the big stories, but they really just come and go.

It's the small ones like Keith Howard that really live on
Menzies is offline  
Old 09-02-2009, 05:00 PM
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Ain't that the truth, nice read
TimW Texas is offline  

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