Coaching Life

BY Keith T. Barber

On September 7 2007 Coach Gordon Walters received his first Gatorade bath in three years.

Walters the head football coach at South Brunswick High School had just led his Cougars to a monumental 28-7 victory over the arch-rival West Brunswick Trojans. The victory snapped a 19-game winning streak for the Trojans and nearly two decades of futility for South. The Cougars set a benchmark for the program’s future success that night and most of the credit could be given to their fiery charismatic head coach.

Drenched in Gatorade Walters let out a war cry. It was as if the pain and heartache of the previous two seasons evaporated into the humid September air of Jack Campbell Stadium. And Walters’ extended family – the scores of former players he coached at E.A. Laney and Southern Durham High schools – also celebrated that night as if they were still wearing their old high school uniforms.

Tony Hicks was one of those players. A two-time Division III All-America linebacker at Fayetteville State University Hicks describes himself as a “Souljah.” A term invented by Walters’ Laney squads “Souljah” is a reference to Walters’ leadership style that more closely resembles that of Gen. George S. Patton. “Souljah” is a title that is earned not given. And only those select few who have made it through Walters’ grueling summer camps and two-a-day practices understand the inner transformation that must take place before they can earn the coveted title.

“You would rather die than lose. That’s how I feel about being a ‘Souljah ’” Hicks says.

For five seasons Hicks kept a photo of Walters in his locker at Fayetteville State and wrote the initials “GW” on his wristbands during practices and games. He broke down in tears once after seeing Walters on television. “I’ll never be able to explain to you what he brings out in me ” Hicks says. “He’s definitely an inspiration to me in my life. He’s always going to be there. I feel like I take him with me whatever I do.”

On September 7 Walters reaped the rewards of working closely with South Brunswick’s players for more than two seasons and instilling his coaching philosophy.

“This was a stepping stone for this program ” Walters said to a reporter after the game. “I told everybody that if we didn’t beat West by my third year I need to resign. I’ve said that publicly. It was either going to be turned around this year or it wasn’t going to be turned around.”

A former resident of Wrightsville Beach Walters took the job at South Brunswick prior to the 2005 season after achieving great success at Laney and Southern Durham. During Walters’ tenure the Buccaneers and Spartans both developed reputations as hard-hitting smash mouth football squads that perennially ventured deep into the state playoffs. During the 2004 season The Sporting News ranked Southern Durham as the 30th best high school football team in the nation regardless of classification. Walters’ greatest achievements however have come off the gridiron.

Scores of former Walters players have parlayed their success in high school into full athletic scholarships to four-year institutions such as Hicks. A handful of them have gone on to play football at the professional level. Former Laney standout Kitwana Jones is one of those players.

After graduating from Hampton University in 2005 Jones signed a deal with the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders. Jones a ferocious linebacker enjoyed his best professional season this past fall. On Nov. 25 Jones a starting linebacker helped lead his team to a 23-19 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL’s Grey Cup (Canada’s Super Bowl).

Jones who went by the nickname “Chubby ” in high school says Walters taught him more about life than he did about football during his prep career. That’s why “Coach Walt” will always hold a special place in his heart. Discipline sacrifice faith vision perseverance honor integrity — all these attributes are vital to building a team and success beyond the gridiron Jones says.

Jones says Walters was the first person to ask him about his goals and dreams and didn’t hesitate to motivate him when necessary. Not much has changed over the years with Walters’ philosophy. He’s still in the business of transforming boys into young men.

On August 1 2005 Walters put South Brunswick’s players through their paces on the first day of fall practice and two years later South Brunswick had achieved the first benchmark in its turnaround — a victory over West Brunswick.

Players from Laney Southern Durham and South Brunswick have a plenitude of colorful stories about Walters’ legendary intensity. South Brunswick senior quarterback Jarvis Williams says “He does whatever he has to do to bring out the best in his players.”

Charles Gamble a junior linebacker at Grambling State University knows all about the level of intense discipline Walters brings to the table. “He changed a whole lot of people that I thought couldn’t be changed. I was on a team with gang members. I came across a couple of gang members who stopped gang banging because they said ‘He’s a real man. He’s coming at us with real life stuff stuff that will carry on for the rest of our life.’”

Hand-in-hand with Walters’ intensity and burning desire to win is a side only his players and assistant coaches get to see.

During his senior season Walters learned that Jones’ father didn’t have a way to get to the Buccaneers contest against Eastern Wayne. Walters’ actions forged a bond with Jones that would last a lifetime.

“He went into my neighborhood and picked my daddy up ” Jones says. “My dad rode on the bus with us all the way to Eastern Wayne. That was one of the happiest moments of my life and I love Coach Walters so much for that.”

Living together bonding as a team and becoming a family have been the cornerstones of Walters’ coaching philosophy from day one says assistant coach Fred Freeman. “My mother and father mean a lot to me and I love my sisters to death but I’ve got my brothers who I shed blood sweat and tears with for years on numerous teams — Laney Hargrave [North Carolina] A&T. They’ll always be my brothers. Wherever they are no matter what they do no matter how long it’s been since I’ve seen them they’ll always be my family.”

Freeman is one of three South Brunswick assistant coaches who played under Walters. He played on a Laney squad that went 0-10 before Walters joined the coaching staff. After helping build the foundation Freeman passed the torch to players like Jones and Hicks who went 13-1 during Walters’ last season in Wilmington. Freeman says ultimately Laney’s transformation could be summed in a single word — faith. “Coach Walters always said if you didn’t have faith in yourself faith in him as a coach faith in your teammates you weren’t going to be successful. If you weren’t willing to die for the man next to you you weren’t going to be successful.”

On September 7 Walters’ wrote the words “Ordinary People ” on the chalk board in the South Brunswick locker room and instructed his players to learn the words to the classic Sly and the Family Stone song about tolerance and embracing one another’s differences. South’s players then shouted “86!” in unison in honor of the Cougars’ last conference championship 21 years ago. The Cougars rode the wave of that victory for the next four weeks going 6-0 and enjoying the finest start of any South Brunswick football team in school history. Athletic director Chris Roehner says for the first time in nearly 20 years South football became the big buzz in Brunswick County. “There were times I had to pinch myself to realize this was actually happening and it wasn’t a dream ” Roehner says.

South’s dream season started fading during the Cougars’ 36-35 loss to North Brunswick on October 12. The dream soon ended and the Cougars went on to drop four of their last five contests falling to Richlands 28-27 in the first round of the state 2-AA playoffs on November 9.

An emotional Walters led his players back to the locker room at Wildcats Stadium in Richlands that cold November night and took a moment to compose himself before speaking. “Seniors we came in here together. It has been an absolute privilege. I’m very proud to be your coach ” he said tears welling in his eyes. “I would just like to thank you. You gave me a lot of memories. I love every one of you. Get up and let’s break it down one more time.”

The players quietly rose to their feet hoisted their black and blue helmets with the Superman insignias emblazoned on the side and shouted with pride and honor: “1-2-3 86!”

Any Given Friday

For the past three seasons Lumina News and WBM staff writer Keith Barber has chronicled — with a camera — Coach Gordon Walters’ quest to transform South Brunswick’s football program. Barber’s documentary feature film Any Given Friday slated for release next fall portrays the emotional rollercoaster Walters — and his players — experienced as he endeavored to turn around a losing team and a losing football culture. Walters who reconstructed and reformed football programs at E.A. Laney and Southern Durham High schools takes on his greatest challenge to date and the emotional story unfolds on film. Any Given Friday is a visual tale of high school football’s mystique and how human competition both builds and reveals character.