LINCOLNTON, Ga. — Larry Campbell first found out about Friday’s “surprise” from an innocent source.
“What are they doing at the field?” asked his 9-year-old grandson, Campbell.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the retired football coach said.
“They’ve got a ‘Larry Campbell Stadium’ across it,” the boy said.
So it wasn’t the grand unveiling in front of Georgia’s governor, other dignitaries and a packed bleacher that the officials of Lincoln County planned as a surprise honor for the winningest football coach in state history. But it was perfect nonetheless.
“His grandmother could’ve killed him,” Campbell said of his grandson who sweetly spoiled a surprise that was never going to happen anyway. Keeping a secret in a small town like Lincolnton is harder than it was beating Campbell’s Red Devils for most of the past 44 years.
But it’s not the surprise that matters. It’s the effort, thought and heart that was behind the honor that Lincoln County bestowed upon a man who has meant so much to their community for several generations. Football is the most uniting element in this small town and been a part of so many of their lives.
“I just thought there’d be maybe a hundred people here,” Campbell admitted. “It blew my mind, it really did. Whoever put it together did a fantastic job.”
The most touching part of a ceremony that included speeches from Gov. Nathan Deal, former Georgia coach Ray Goff, Red Devils legend Garrison Hearst and others was when all of the coaches and players who have ever worked with or played for Campbell filed from the stands onto the field to stand behind their “Coach.”
The stadium bears Campbell’s name now, but it’s all those other people who share the legacy that’s remembered. That’s why putting that named who linked so many people together atop the home stands is so important.
“I know this may sound like I don’t appreciate it, but naming the stadium for me was not my top priority,” Campbell said. “Working with kids and getting them to college and trying to make them better people was my goal.”
Mission accomplished. Lincoln County should be commended for remembering the people who helped raise their kids. The field where Friday night’s ceremony took place is named for Buddy Bufford, the coach who brought Lincolnton its first state championship in 1960. The fieldhouse where the players dress and hear devotional and listen to coaches is named after Thomas Bunch, who won two more state titles. These were the men who preceded Campbell and led generations of Red Devils going back to 1957.
Lincoln County wasted no time in doing the right thing barely more than three months after Campbell announced his retirement. We’re still waiting for neighboring Thomson to do right by one of its own.
Luther Welsh won 323 games in a coaching career that spanned 55 years – a figure that ranked fifth all-time when he retired. Of those wins, 183 of them came in 19 seasons during two stints at Thomson – more than 30 percent of the schools’ 606 documented victories. In sickness and in health – including cancer treatments – Welsh never missed a day of work devoting his life to those Bulldogs, who collected three of the schools five state championships and 11 region titles under his watch.
Welsh died just seven months after coaching his final game for the Bulldogs in the 2010 playoffs. Four years later, Thomson is past due honoring the man who mentored generations of Bulldogs.
“Amen,” said Campbell of one of his dearest coaching friends. “I think it will come. I think this will put the pressure on them, I hope. Because Luther Welsh was every bit the football coach I was – 10 times better. He did a lot for Thomson two different times. What would it hurt?”
Most of the right folks in Thomson agree. Longtime Bulldogs assistant coach John Barnett has been lobbying for years to get officials in McDuffie County to name it Luther Welsh Field at the Brickyard. Barnett says Welsh’s successor, Milan Turner, was all for it and that the newest Bulldogs head coach, Rob Ridings, endorses it as well.
“To me it’s a no-brainer,” Barnett said. “I know there are a lot people for it. It’s past time for that to have been done.”
In a way, Welsh’s death – as well as his wife’s just days before his passing – so soon after retiring complicated the process. There was no living legend there to honor with a ceremony like the one for Campbell. Officials perhaps didn’t want it to seem like an emotional decision.
But as the events in Lincolnton showed, the honor is for more than just one man. It’s a legacy that’s being remembered – a legacy shared by every player who ever wore the uniform and learned valuable life lessons from being part of a team under a skillful coach.
Thomson is supposedly considering a wall of honor at the Brickyard, which is a terrific idea.
Local legend Ray Guy’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame illustrates the value of a shared history.
Barnett, who just completed a 340-page book on the history of Thomson football entitled Ghosts of the Brickyard, knows how much it means to the community and how Welsh needs to be more than just another bust on a brick wall. His name on the field will be a permanent connection for future generations to share with the past.
“How many schools have named a field or stadium after a coach who can’t come close to what Luther Welsh did here at Thomson?” Barnett asked. “Anything less than naming the field after coach Welsh is inadequate.”
Thomson should name it’s field for Welsh and it’s fieldhouse in the multi-million dollar renovation for L.C. “Flash” Gordon, who won 100 games at Thomson coach from 1941-56. As Lincoln County proves, there is room to share honor for those who deserve it.
Barnett is certain Welsh would be like Campbell and never lobby for his name to be on a stadium.
That’s not why he devoted all those years raising other people’s kids as a coach and director of athletics.
“He was the last person in the world who thought the field should have been named after him,” Barnett said.
But that’s what makes the recognition so worthy. It’s not too late for Thomson to do the right thing even if Welsh isn’t there to share the celebration.
“It won’t mean as much to him because he’s dead,” Campbell said. “I’m really happy they did it while I was still kicking and able to enjoy it.”
Naming a piece of the Brickyard won’t bring Welsh back, but it will keep his legacy alive. In communities like Thomson and Lincolnton, the importance of those legacies can’t be overstated.