Note: See update at end of the story.
NAHUNTA — Mark Walker remembers the moment he realized coaching was … more than coaching.
It happened during football practice at Brantley County High School near Nahunta, where Walker has been the head coach since 2010. One day during a break, one of his players started talking about his weekend. The terms included what many teenage boys wanting to look big in front of the guys would say. Walker was not enthused with what he heard.
“I had to stop him,” Walker remembers. “Then, I shared some things with him, and that’s when it hit me. I can have an impact on these kids. His weekends could be more than just what he was talking about.”
Talk to someone in New York or Chicago, and they’ll say football doesn’t start until the first of September. Many in South Bend, IN or Lincoln, NE might say it begins at the end of August.
But football fans who love the game at its roots, where the sport takes the stage in small towns across the country on Friday nights, know better. It’s not just the sights, but the sounds of marching bands and smells of burgers grilled and by the quarterback club. Communities come alive, and the possibility of seeing something special becomes tangible.
Walker, a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, began his journey to the coaching sideline as a 165-pound noseguard at Pierce County High. “I loved the game, and my parents said I should coach it,” he says.
That moment didn’t come until later.
It happened sitting on a couch in Gainesville on a Sunday afternoon at two o’clock. Walker was 27 years old and working a manufacturing job he hated. A supervisor for a company that built car-carrying units on semi trucks, it wasn’t a bad job. It just wasn’t what he wanted to do. It wasn’t what he was meant to do.
E.D. Walker, a Georgia Baptist pastor, modeled the difference of “being called” to something as opposed to “having a job.” His son wanted the same thing.
After getting his education degree through Georgia Southern University, Walker soon found a position helping coach at McIntosh County Academy in Darien, in between Brunswick and Savannah on I-95.
A change unexpected
Walker’s own testimony starts with him praying to be a Christian at seven years old. However, he doesn’t think he truly understood what it was to be saved until in the eighth grade after praying with his mother. He admits that during his teen years and early adulthood as a paratrooper in the Army he lost sight of his relationship with Christ.
That changed in 2001 when he got married. In early 2002, he went to a revival service at Emmanuel “to support a buddy” who had decided to go down front and pray to be a Christian. Walker ended up following him to the altar.
A change in perspective followed.
“The happiest people are those who serve others. They realize it’s not about them, and they work to help others succeed,” attests Walker.
That effort to help others comes even when your world appears shaky. Walker knows that personally, having dealt with some health issues over his daughter and himself working through a Stage II colon cancer scare.
The power of self-discipline
2 Timothy 1:7 hangs outside the coaches office in the Brantley County High field house. Walker loves its call (as worded in the NIV) to fight against timidity and embrace what God offers in love, power, and self-discipline.
“God gives us love for the game of football, love for our mamas and our daddies and our families. He gives us what we need to be disciplined in our walk with Him, in the game of football, in the classroom, as husbands, as fathers, whatever,” he declares. “He gives us the tools we need.”
It’s no coincidence those are concepts a football coach would bring to his team before a game, especially one where the challenge looms large. In their first matchup tonight, Brantley County faces Walker’s previous coaching stop, McIntosh County Academy.BCHS fell hard to the Buccaneers last year, 48-6, on the way to a 6-4 season. And, the Herons are young, having graduated a lot of three-year starters from then. In its scrimmage last week Bradley County started three freshmen who played both offense and defense most of the night.
Nevertheless, Walker is optimistic. “We’ve come a long way since spring,” he says.
Power in relationships, being pushed
Walker understands football and athletics are about more than winning. But never equate that with an acceptance of losing. Coaches hate that, Christian coaches especially.
He loves football, but there’s a by-product of working with teenagers often looking for a positive influence.
“Relationships,” he states. “It’s a cliche, but football teaches lessons on life. We push a lot of these young men more than their parents. My daughter swims and her coach pushes her harder than I do.
“Football makes us face our fear. It pushes our confidence. The sport pulls that out of you. Hard work equals success, but it can be different levels of success. I learned that about myself.
“I learned to face that even as a head coach. You can’t be afraid of failure.”
NOTE: On Friday, Aug. 18 Brantley County faced 10th-ranked and 2016 Class A state finalist McIntosh County Academy, who beat the Herons 48-6 last year. BCHS battled and held a 6-6 tie with the Buccaneers at halftime before MCA scored a third-quarter touchdown and two-point conversion for the 14-6 win.