Luther and Anne Welsh gave their lives to boys who played football for the coach. And just months after finally deciding to take a little time for themselves, they're gone.
Halfway around the world covering a golf tournament, the news of the deaths of Anne last Thursday and then Luther a week later stings. Understanding that both had been fighting against cancer since the Thomson football coach retired after last season makes the pain that much more difficult to bear.
Good people deserve good things, and few deserved better than the Welshes. After 56 years of giving everything for the kids at Thomson and 11 other schools, they deserved to get to enjoy each other for a little while. They spent years refurbishing the two-bedroom home rooted on eight acres back in Bishopville, S.C., where the coach grew up. He wanted to be nearer his two brothers, sister and one of his two daughters. He especially wanted the chance to see his two grandsons play football.
"I hope I live long enough to have some time to be with my family and enjoy being with them," he said last fall before coaching Thomson one last time in the playoffs before retiring.
It's heartbreaking that he didn't get that one wish.
Cancer is perhaps the cruelest dream-wrecker on earth. It is a scourge that touches everyone's lives in one way or another.
The Welshes suffered from a double-barrel dose and it robbed them of the opportunity to finally get to know each other after almost 50 years of marriage. On Sept. 13, Anne Welsh had half of her right lung removed because of cancer. Then in December, Coach Welsh was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Both required exhaustive treatment to stay alive.
Anne's fight ended last week. Luther's heart didn't last a week without her.
They are a grave loss to the Thomson community whose lives they touched so deeply. Anne Welsh was as much a part of the football program as her husband who carried the whistle. The gift every coach's wife gives a program is the time they never get to spend as a family.
Welsh always credited his wife with "an A-plus" for raising their two daughters without him while he raised more than 1,000 "other people's children."
They both did their duties exceptionally well. Football might seem like a trivial pursuit, but at that level of a young man's development it can be a valuable life lesson. Coach Welsh always took that obligation to administer it seriously.
"What makes me feel good is seeing those kids who I have coached progress and go on to be successful people," he said in November. "Because I know football helps them. It's got nothing to do with the wins and losses. If you want to do it you'll work at it hard enough that you will accomplish it. Football teaches them this."
I remember very vividly the first time I ever met coach Welsh. It was my first year at this newspaper in 2000 and my first visit to The Brickyard.
I caught up with him in the end zone where the Bulldogs exit for the locker room and he filled up my note pad with quotes and a splattering of the chewing tobacco in his mouth.
He was exactly what I believed a Georgia prep football coach should be -- grizzled, old-school and the epitome of a bulldog in body and spirit. Among all the impressive statistics he compiled as a coach, it was his work ethic that inspired the most. He never -- NEVER -- missed a practice in 56 years.
I have mostly covered the schools on the fringes of our region and they have consistently produced the best programs -- Lincoln County, Washington County and Thomson foremost among them. Welsh's Bulldogs team that went undefeated in 2002 to win his third state title might have been the best of the lot, running over opponents the way Welsh coached them up to do without any flash or arrogance.
Winning more than 300 games was never about him. It was always about the kids.
He and Anne warranted a better reward for that. But in the end, the Welshes spent their lives doing what they loved most -- helping raise theirs and other people's children. That's really all that can be asked of anybody.
Welsh retired after last season hoping to live in peace with his wife and family. As sad as it is that they didn't get that chance, they will certainly get to rest in peace together.