Stress takes toll on health of coaches

Ex-Thomson assistant coach John Barnett says his blood pressure has returned to normal and he's dropped 50 pounds since retiring.



Three years after Thomson won its fifth state championship, defensive coordinator John Barnett felt the heat.

Through the first 10 quarters of the 2005 season, the offense had put up 14 points. With the Bulldogs tied at zero at Liberty County, Barnett passed out briefly at halftime. His blood pressure skied to 180 over 120. Barnett resumed coaching in the second half, and Thomson ended up winning on a last-second field goal.

“We weren’t very good offensively that year,” he said. “I felt like we couldn’t give up a point if we were going to win.”

When Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak collapsed while walking off the field at halftime of Sunday’s game, Barnett could relate.

According to the Associated Press, Kubiak was diagnosed with a mini-stroke, while Denver Broncos coach John Fox underwent aortic valve replacement surgery Monday, two days after feeling dizzy while playing golf.

“Stress is different on many levels,” Barnett said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like in the NFL.”

High school and college football coaches still feel their fair share. Barnett, now retired, said he felt stress worrying about players on and off the field. Hephzibah coach John Bowen said he feels stress because of the long days during the season. North Augusta coach Dan Pippin said he feels stress from the pressure he puts on himself.

“In high school, it’s the extended hours, it’s the emotional ups and downs, you’re eating worse and you don’t have as much time to exercise,” said Bowen, who’s been on blood-pressure medicine for three years. “It’s a stress-induced business. ... In chasing that bouncing ball, coaches neglect their health.”

At Evans, coach Marty Jackson almost cracked during the summer. With a heat-index policy and concussion rules piling onto his list of responsibilities, Jackson lost his enthusiasm for the sport for a brief spell.

“I told (wife) Penny, this isn’t fun,” he said. “The stress of preparation can get to you.”

Coaches feel stress in myriad ways.

At places like Burke County, Laney, Lincoln County, North Augusta, Silver Bluff, Strom Thurmond, Thomson, Washington County and Washington-Wilkes, winning adds an extra layer of pressure for coaches.

Barnett, who served as a lead assistant coach under Luther Welsh from 1982-92 and 1999-2010, said state titles sometimes bring out the worst in people when things aren’t going well.

“The rudest thing I had people say to me about losing I heard at church,” Barnett said. “I couldn’t say what I wanted to say, because I didn’t want to lose my job.

“It’s hard to even go to Walmart during the season.”

Coaches can’t avoid overzealous fans during football games. Sometimes, a fan will scream from the stands his or her opinion about a coach’s plan of attack.

“It’s weird to me how intense some people get. They seem like they’re the ones who are going to have a heart attack,” Jackson said. “Don’t talk about my players. You can talk about me. I can handle it.”

Expectations are one facet, eligibility is another. Coaches are responsible for player physicals. Also, they have to make sure the players are in good standing academically. If a player transfers to the school, coaches have to fill out all the proper paperwork. And that’s just the start.

Once a player is cleared to play, coaches have plenty more to be concerned with. How are players going to behave during school hours and afterward? Will they show up on time for class? Are they doing their homework?

“You’re already worried about the X’s and O’s,” Bowen said. “Then you’re worried about how a young man’s supposed to act.”

Pippin added: “You worry about the kids more than just how they play. You care about their grades, their home life, you’re like a parent. We’re fortunate to have good kids and a good support system here.”

Barnett stepped down after the 2010 season, retiring in his early 50s after working 31 years as a history teacher. He’s had a handful of coaching offers, but he said he enjoys helping the Thomson football team on a consultant-like basis these days.

“People would tell me I was too young to retire,” Barnett said. “But the off the field stuff was incessant.”

At Paine College, coach Greg Ruffin is under a different kind of stress.

With the school restarting its football program after a 51-year absence, Ruffin had to begin from scratch. He added players, assistant coaches, offices, and a weight room from the time he was hired in March until the start of school in August. He worked long hours, ate bad food and was diagnosed with diabetes during the summer.

“I was working, working, working, working, working,” Ruffin said. “I was eating just about anything. I was working and not exercising. I go into the doctor’s office and my sugar is 300, 400.

“You’ve got to make time for yourself. A lot of coaches don’t have that ‘me’ time. They press and press.”

Bowen said he tries to have that “me” time for 30-40 minutes on an exercise bike each morning. Jackson said he tries to get rid of his nervous energy by playing tennis for 20-25 minutes every day. He’ll also mow the football field or line the field by himself as a personal Calgon moment.

“I try to do something and stay active every day,” Jackson said.

Barnett stays active with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. Since retiring, he’s seen his health improve. Barnett has dropped 50 pounds, his blood pressure levels are back to normal and he’s no longer on cholesterol medication.

“I’m not worrying all the time and eating on the run,” he said. “It makes all the difference.”

Staff writer David Lee contributed to this article.


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