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Roland remembered fondly by all he touched

A college football coach's life is migratory by nature - it's tough to stay in one place too long.

Sometimes a better job opens up for you and your family. At other times, the school you're at chases you out of town. Either way, that lifestyle typically means uprooting everything and moving to a new place on multiple occasions.

Life was like that for late Central Gwinnett football coach Dennis Roland, who passed away at age 51 on Tuesday morning after a battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

His list of coaching stops goes something like this - Texas El-Paso, Olivet Nazarene (Ill.), Bleckley County, Middle Georgia College, Southwest Baptist (Mo.), Kentucky, Belhaven College (Miss.), North Gwinnett, Southeastern Louisiana and most recently, Central for one season.

With so many moves, it would seem like friends would be hard to make. It would be tough to get close to too many people before leaving for the next coaching gig.

That wasn't the case with Roland.

At every stop, he made great friends. He made an impact in people's lives, both adults and children, in a positive way. Whether it was his football knowledge, his strong morals or his Christian beliefs, he touched countless people's lives through some avenue.

He made his mark each place, no matter how long or short his stay. Talk to those who crossed paths with Roland and most will tell you this - they were better people because he came into their life.

In just one season at Central, that was the case.

"Coach Roland was a father figure for the players and a father figure who really cared about his children," Central principal Valerie Clark said. "Obviously he was dedicated to helping them to the next step, to get to where they wanted to go, because that's what they wanted."

That usually meant staying on top of players' lives, not just what they did when they were wearing a football helmet. He stressed academics to his players because he knew they couldn't move on to the college level, or succeed in life, without education.

But he also took an interest in his players' personal lives. He sat down for talks with them, not for show, but to genuinely get to know them. If they had problems, he wanted to help get them resolved.

Central senior Michael Longo, speaking for many of his teammates, decided that the best description for Roland was "an angel with a whistle."

"He told us every day that he would go to war for us no matter what happened," Longo said.

Roland did that in just about every way. He had many recruiting contacts at the college level and did his best to find spots for kids who wanted to play after high school.

"(Roland) was a quality guy who cared for the kids," Central assistant football coach Bryan Allen said. "He cared about them on and off the field. If you went into his office, he always had a folder out. He was constantly evaluating their grades, their scores, their offensive and defensive output. Whatever he could do to make them better, he did."

Like many in Gwinnett, I didn't spend as much time with Roland as I would have liked.

I first met him when he coached North in 2004 and talked to him on several occasions. We spoke even more during the past year when he coached Central.

In one of our conversations in August, we talked about my injury woes (I tore my Achilles tendon twice this year) and I told him how much I appreciated everything my wife had done while I was on crutches. He shared stories about his wife, and how amazed he was at her courage and strength during his fight with cancer, which began in May 2005.

As difficult as it was on my wife this year, Diane Roland had it much worse. A torn Achilles will heal. Cancer is another matter.

That's why Roland was so grateful for Diane's efforts.

"I can't imagine how tough it's been for (my wife)," Roland told the Daily Post in June. "It was tough on me, but I can't imagine how tough it was on her. I saw it on her face. I saw it every day. Not only did she have to worry about me and if I was going to make it, but she had to assume the role of everything - she was my chauffeur, my nurse, my cook - and she fought for me with the doctors to make sure I was getting the right treatment.

"I hope God gives her 10 times what he gives me. She's incredible."

Her husband was pretty incredible, too.

Folks will find that out this week when they read about how many people gathered to celebrate Roland's life at today's memorial service in Lawrenceville and Friday and Saturday ceremonies in his hometown of Cochran.

There is sure to be big crowds at both locations, which is what happens when you go so many places - and touch so many lives a long the way.

Will Hammock can be reached via e-mail at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays.