Alabama High School Pays Fitting Tribute to Fallen Coach
LINCOLN, Ala. -- The stadium lights dimmed and the 36-foot projection screen beyond the south end zone brightened. Keith Howard, a special combination of coach, Christian, mentor and fundraiser, was poised to address the community he so dearly cherished. Soft music played, the video started, and a voice surely from heaven was heard.
Howard had the crowd at hello.
Even in death.
The dedication ceremony to rename Talladega Memorial Stadium to Keith Howard Memorial Stadium during Lincoln High's home opener Thursday night was an illustration of one man's incredible impact in Talladega County. A standing-room only crowd of more than 4,000 -- many of whom arrived at least 90 minutes before kickoff -- and a state television audience watched the resilient Bears beat Clebourne County High 34-21.
Interim head coach Chad Martin is 1 1/2-0. A T-bone steak with lightly whipped eggs, heavy on the Worcestershire sauce, maybe even a side order of crispy hash browns and toast, awaited Martin at the nearby Waffle House. Howard would have insisted on the late night, post-game feast with staff. It's tradition.
Howard, 48, head football coach and athletic director at the tiny school on Highway 77, a half-hour drive east of Birmingham on Interstate-20, died last Friday night from a massive heart attack after leaving the Lincoln-Etowah season opener at halftime complaining of chest pains. Howard handed his playbook to Martin before he was taken away in an ambulance and told his assistant to hold the lead and win the game.
The past six days have been a lesson to young and old about how to win in life.
"Facing adversity that we never knew existed ... tonight our word was to be stronger for your teammates," a red-eyed Martin said, the game ball firmly tucked under his right arm, a white visor pulled low on his forehead. "I told them to let it go, let it go. If you are tired on the first play, play for the guy on your right. Tired on the second play, play to the guy on your left. Tired on the last play, play for the guy behind you. Turn and look him in the eye. When you do something for somebody else, that's when you truly become someone that people want to be like.
"That's when you become successful."
Successful, just like the stocky, robust Howard, who was much larger than life in these rural parts where he was born and raised. The decision to rename the newly renovated stadium was made quickly over the weekend by school officials with a faint hope it could be kept secret until Thursday's home opener.
Not a chance in ... heaven.
Seventeen folding chairs were lined up on the home sidelines. A few yards behind the chairs, the Bears, 44 strong, stood at attention in a single-file line, stretching from the 30-yard lines, their coaching staff kneeling in front of them. The visiting Tigers remained in their locker room. It was 40 minutes before the 7 PM kickoff and the home aluminum stands were filled to capacity.
It was a festive, respectful crowd. Adults chatted, students mingled, and children shouted and played on the hills that surround the home side of the stadium. A small table near the concession stand sold shirts, towels, decals and wrist bands that honored Howard with all proceeds earmarked for the family. Three hundred programs that featured a kneeling Howard on the cover with "In Loving Memory Coach Keith Howard" printed across it quickly sold out.
"The first day, Monday, was bad -- everyone cried," said junior Sidney Hinton, wearing a black T-shirt that read "RIP Coach Howard" on the back. "The second day was better, everyone was apologizing to each other for anything that we had done (bad) to each other. It seems we are all so much closer now. I still feel like I am going to turn and see Coach Howard."
That came following the game as a video tribute to Howard opened with a previously scheduled interview last Thursday with the head coach that was tied into the game's broadcast. As was Howard's big-picture approach, in his closing remarks he thanked the community for rallying around a school that he pointed out has made vast improvements academically and athletically since it was built five years ago. The old school, a deteriorating 97-year-old structure with pillars, a long walkway and surrounded by trees, still proudly stands five miles away. That was then, this is now.
Howard's gone, too, but his vision remains clear and bright.
"He was just a loving person," said Jimmy Lou Fomby, a retired Talladega County School employee who had hope to take a break this season after handling gate receipts for Lincoln High athletics the past 20 years but was talked into continuing this season by guess who. "Young, old, black, or white, it didn't matter. Coach was there for everybody. He loved people and he didn't care who you were. It's going to be a little tough starting off with coach gone, but in time people will do what needs to be done."
As Howard's family slowly made its way across the bright green field turf, fans on both sides of the stadium rose in unison, clapping and cheering. Howard's wife Lisa, their daughter Linzy and stepson Mike were joined by Howard's mother Jackie, his twin sister Kim and brother Michael, also a prep coach in Alabama, and their families, 11 persons total, nearly all arm-in-arm.
School Principal Terry Roller, who credited Howard for "always thinking of something next he could to do to make this a better place,' welcomed the family and told the fans how Howard's death had impacted folks nationally. He said the school had received more than 400 e-mails that offered words of condolence and inspiration from around the country.
Mike Turner, 60, is the school's booster president and one of Howard's closest friends who had flanked the coach nearly every step in the school's renovation and building of its athletic facilities. He gathered himself emotionally as he talked and announced the stadium's name change, which was spelled across the front of the press box. Applause erupted and more tears fell as coaches and others leaned over and embraced the family at the conclusion of the 10-minute ceremony.
"This has been probably worse on me than when my momma and daddy died, honestly, and I hate to say that," said Turner, who organizes and operates the concession stand but had so much on his mind under the circumstances (he also installed a pair of air conditioners in the press box earlier Thursday) that he ordered the 200 hamburgers and 65 chicken sandwiches -- and forgot to pick them up prior to the game.
"There's no telling how many times Keith drew this field on a napkin in the Waffle House. It's tough not seeing him out here after all we went through to get it where it is. But I know he was looking down on us."
The good-hearted Howard had a bad heart. He suffered chest pains during a game a few years ago and underwent a stent procedure. But he also had recently dropped 10 pounds and proudly told his staff, as he pulled up his britches, that he weighed 218. While notoriously fidgety -- he would pull at his shirt, rock back and forth and chew on any available scrap of paper -- Howard also was quick with a bear hug and either a quick peck on the cheek or a pop on the arm. Also known to nearly correctly guess the game's gate and concession receipts by a quick gander at the size of the crowd, Howard had to be pleased with Thursday's results, all the way around.
The Bears, as expected, were fueled early by emotion and adrenaline, jumping to a 14-0 lead despite a power outage that briefly stopped play three minutes into the game. Athletic sophomore quarterback Sharrod Cochran played with poise; senior running back D.J. Howard, an Auburn commitment, was steady; and safety Branton Hall helped anchor the defense. Clebourne County, however, a perennial playoff team coached by Howard's friend, Mike Short, rallied within 14-7 and 20-14 late in the third quarter. But the home team finished with a flurry and added a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
"You have to accept the fact that Coach Howard is gone; we've accepted that fact and we talked about being a man and taking that next step in life," said Howard (no relation to coach Howard). "I thought we did pretty well as a team. For 48 minutes, we played hard and we tried to make every play count. It was emotional but we were focused."
Following the game, both teams knelt together at the 50-yard line. Martin applauded the teams' efforts, thanked the visitors for their sportsmanship and their part in such an emotional night. Then, with his voice cracking, he told his players he loved them. Short followed and also stressed to the players to "always make a difference" in their daily decisions. As players, coaches, cheerleaders and fans near the mass huddle held hands, Lincoln High team chaplain Jason Grissom prayed aloud, Short began to sob.
"People asked me how we were going to honor Keith," a composed Short said a few minutes later. "Keith, me and him go way, way back. What Keith would expect us to do was play hard, do what we are supposed to do, like we did tonight. I coached as hard as I could and our players played as hard as they could, and that's what Keith would have expected."
Nobody knew what to expect from the Bears. Not really.
They had a film session on Sunday, attended Howard's viewing on Monday and held a light practice on Tuesday following the funeral. Wednesday was the team's walk-through, and the school held a spirited, 30-minute pep rally Thursday afternoon. Reminders of Howard were everywhere, especially when extension 5301 -- Howard's office -- was displayed on a ringing telephone. A bright yellow poster with signatures and colored photographs, including one of the scoreboard of last Friday's game, was on a stand in the main office from rival Winterboro High.
"He didn't have a mean bone in his body," said Stacey Garrison, 40, a school volunteer and next-door neighbor to Howard's family -- her son often mowed Howard's lawn. "Even though he had so much going on, if you were out and he drove by he always made a point to stop and say hello."
Howard's stepson Matt, a policeman in Montgomery, had stopped by the coaches' office early in the afternoon to chat with Martin and offer his family's support. He didn't stay long, however, shaking hands and saying, "I need to go check on momma." Blonde and boyish, Martin, meanwhile, was uncertain of what he wanted to say during his first pregame speech to his team. He eventually decided to read an e-mail he received from a local woman who explained that she had recently lost a loved one and understood what the team was experiencing. Players' emotions intensified as Martin explained that they needed to lean and rely on each other if tired.
"It's a relief to finish up a long, hard week for everybody that you saw out here tonight," Martin said as players and fans made their way to the south end zone for the video tribute. (Howard's wife, daughter and stepson left immediately following the dedication). "Our community is still so deeply hurt, but this gives us an outlet, help in the healing process. The time here was an escape of reality and the finality of all that's occurred. To call him as a friend, I am only so lucky to have that chance.
"I knew our kids were going to hit the wall at some point. They were emotionally spent, exhausted in the second quarter but they answered. There's no pain, but I know Coach was as nervous today for me as probably as he ever was as a coach because he wanted to see me succeed so bad. I look forward to honoring him by taking and guiding these young men who have been handed to me in the direction they need to be in."
Howard is buried a few miles from school, near the center of town. Stories of a higher calling have been shared since his death. Like how good buddy Turner, who doesn't have children, discovered that Howard's grave is next to Turner's young nephew. Or how Coach Short, dialing a telephone number to secure help for one of his games, twice inadvertently dialed what he thought was a wrong number. When he inquired to whom he was speaking, the number was to a local hospital room, where Howard's wife answered as she sat with her sick daughter. Short and Lisa talked for nearly an hour.
Keith Howard Memorial Stadium and the school's surrounding athletic facilities remain a work in progress. Seed was thrown, hay was tossed, a new fence was installed and a gravel base on the parking lot was put down this week, some on that list just hours before the game. The second phase on the softball field will begin this winter. The land for the baseball field has been purchased and plans are being finalized for that facility. Honestly, the football team's indoor practice facility and field house are second to none for a school of Lincoln's size -- 510 students, 9-12, 1,700 total combining elementary, middle school and high school, all three on the same grounds.
"Tonight we leaned on each other and we won the game," said Hall, as he and his teammates shed their football pads and peered towards the projection screen. "But all this, it's more about being a family than just about being a football team."
The video tribute began.
And Howard said his peace.