Beloved football coach loses cancer battle
Central Gwinnett's Roland dies Tuesday morning

Dennis Roland was on the bus, in transit to his football team's Oct. 19 game at Grayson, when he got the disturbing phone call about his health.

His non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer he had fought since May 2005, had returned. He still coached Central Gwinnett the final three games of the regular season, but last month he developed pneumonia as he attempted to battle the cancer again.

The veteran football coach, who also was North Gwinnett's head coach in 2004, succumbed to the illness early Tuesday morning at Northside Hospital-Forsyth in Cumming. Funeral services for Roland, who was 51, are planned for his hometown of Cochran.

Central Gwinnett principal Valerie Clark said Diane Roland, the coach's wife, wanted to have a memorial service in Lawrenceville on Thursday evening, a visitation in Cochran on Friday, followed by a Saturday funeral. But no official plans had been finalized as of press time on Tuesday.

"(Diane Roland) told me this morning that he died peacefully and I'm glad about that," said Tony McIntyre, who had befriended Roland in recent years after the two met through business. "He was a fighter and he had battled this thing for a long time. He was a great man. If you were around that man for any period of time, you'd be a better person for it."

That was evident on Tuesday afternoon.

Roughly 100 players, parents and friends of Roland gathered at Central to remember the veteran coach, who coached the Black Knights for just one season but touched plenty of lives. He also had a number of friends at North and had kept a residence in Sugar Hill since 2004.

Those gathered called it a time to mourn a huge loss, but also to celebrate an exceptional man.

"Everybody's real torn up because he was a great person," Central Gwinnett senior Michael Longo said. "Us as players, we all talked about it and if we had to describe him, we'd say he was an angel with a whistle. It's unbelievable how a person could come into our lives and impact so many people in such a short time.

"He was more of a father figure to us than a coach. No matter what we were going through, he would listen to us and not judge us, and he'd give us the best advice. More than football players, he wanted us to grow up and be respectable men.

"He was a great guy and he always pushed us. He always believed in us, even when we didn't believe in ourselves."

Roland had his share of medical fights in recent years, losing almost 100 pounds and his hair during rounds of chemotherapy. He underwent a complicated stem-cell transplant.

Through it all, his focus was on fighting the cancer for himself and for his family. He is survived by his wife Diane and two adult children, son Dennis Jr. and daughter Dana.

"As a Christian, I'm prepared for what comes next, but that doesn't mean I'm going to lay down at the bus stop and wait to get on," Roland told the Daily Post in June.

His health background didn't scare away Clark, who said she knew quickly that she wanted to hire Roland as a coach.

"I met the man and I thought, 'This is someone I would want my children to play for,'" the Central principal said. "His values are so strong. There's no way he wouldn't spread that kind of excitement about life to the students.

"We lost such a great person, a special, special person. He was so super with his football and his great offense, but most of all his values were so special. They became a part of the team's values and he never wavered from them."

Roland was already a veteran coach when he took over at North in 2004, leading the Bulldogs to a 9-3 record, what was then the best record in school history. It also came on the heels of a 2-8 season in 2003.

He left North for his dream job, a head college football coaching position. He coached two seasons at Division I-AA Southeastern Louisiana, fighting through health issues since May 2005, when he was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Doctors declared him cancer-free, but in the early fall of 2006 the cancer came back. It appeared he had the disease beat once again when he accepted the Central head coaching job last February. He stayed healthy up until he got the bad news before this year's Grayson game.

Although he only got to spend one year at Central, going 4-6, he went out a winner with a 35-27 victory over Shiloh on Nov. 9.

But for all his career success on the football field, those close to Roland said he meant as much to his players off the field.

"You could talk to him, that's what I loved about him the most," Central senior Dewayne Cherrington said. "You could talk to him about anything and he would listen. He really wanted to know what was going on in your life.

"I'm going to miss him as a role model. He was such a good person. Somebody's gone from my life that I could talk to and it feels like something's missing. No matter what time of the day it was, I knew I could call him and talk about anything."

Roland was a successful football player himself, starting on the offensive line at Boston University and earning 1977 Churchmen's All-American Team honors. He started coaching college in 1983 at Texas-El Paso before coaching at Olivet Nazarene (Ill.) from '86-'90.

From there, he coached at Bleckley County High School for two seasons and started the football program at Middle Georgia College, where he worked from '93-'97. He was the head coach at two other colleges, Southwest Baptist (Mo.) and Belhaven College (Miss.), before coming to North.

He didn't have as long as he wanted at his most recent coaching stop, but it's evident he made quite an impact at Central.

"(Roland) was just a good person, a good man," said Central athletic director Tally Johnson, who has known Roland through recruiting since the early 1980s. "I really enjoyed working with him. He brought a lot of character with him and put it into the program. In the short time he was with us, he touched a lot of those kids. It was more than just coaching, it was the character of the man."

As news of Roland's passing spread on Tuesday, the impromptu gathering at Central was put together. Many Black Knight coaches and players were still out of town and not everyone had heard the news of his passing by 2 p.m., but a large crowd still made it out to share stories.

"It was good sitting there, listening to the kids," Central assistant coach Bryan Allen said of Tuesday's emotional scene at the school. "He used football to touch so many lives on the field and off the field. It was a time to grieve and also a time to lift him up. We only had him a short time, but he touched so many people.

"Central Gwinnett's got a big void. We're going to be grieving. It's going to take us some time."