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Highest praise
Memorial service honors respected local football coach

LAWRENCEVILLE - One by one they stepped up to the podium at Central Baptist Church on Thursday evening, each with their own anecdotes and memories of Dennis Roland.

Eleven speakers in all paid respect to the late Central Gwinnett and North Gwinnett coach, who passed away on Tuesday morning after a long battle with cancer, as a crowd of more than 500 friends and family packed the church's Family Life Center.

The orators' stories might have been different, but they all shared a common theme - wherever Roland went he impacted people's lives, both on and off the football field. Each one also praised his Christian beliefs and high moral values, traits that were the focus of the night, more so than his skill as a football coach.

The crowd included a good mix of North Gwinnett, where he coached in 2004, and Central Gwinnett, his team last season, as well as neutral parties who wanted to honor the coach in front of his family, including his wife, Diane, and his two children, Dana and Dennis Jr. Several of Dennis Jr.'s former Georgia teammates were there, including South Gwinnett grad David Greene.

Central Touchdown Club president Darryl Crawford sang "Give Me Jesus," part of several song tributes to the coach, including the entire crowd singing "Amazing Grace."

"We were overwhelmed by all they've done," Roland's wife, Diane, said of the memorial. "It was a beautiful service. It was like (Dennis) was right here with us."

Several speakers mentioned Roland's storytelling ability, a talent he used habitually. Yet it was his ability to listen that struck a chord with most, like Fox 5 television host Marcus Hayes, who played for Roland in the early 1980s at Texas-El Paso.

Hayes discussed how Roland believed in his players' abilities, even when they might not see that potential in themselves.

"In my career, one man stood out from all the rest when it came to building character and becoming the person I am today, and that's the person we're honoring today," Hayes said.

Two of Roland's Central players who spoke, Javis Williams and Cedric Mance, also were touched by the coach in a short time. Mance read a poem titled "After Awhile" dedicated to his coach and Williams was the most emotional speaker, fighting through tears for most of his podium time.

"Right now my heart is broken," said Williams, a senior linebacker. "In the short period of time Coach Roland was with us, he touched the Black Knight community. He personally instilled values in my life and taught me how to carry myself in a first-class manner. He helped me reach my potential on the field and in the classroom.

"I was blessed to have him in my life. Coaches like Coach Roland don't come around too often. Because of that, we call him an angel with a whistle."

In the past few days several players have used that term to describe Roland. They talked about how the coach took interest in their personal lives, not out of necessity, but because they could tell he cared.

That wasn't limited to students. Central principal Valerie Clark said Roland spread that feeling around her high school, noting that every person who knew him felt like they were Roland's favorite person.

"It was genuine, it was never an affront," Clark said. "With Coach Roland, it was genuine. He always asked how you were doing and he meant it.

"He loved his wife, he loved his family and he loved his football family. He loved all of us."

Thursday's event was designed so those who loved Roland in the Gwinnett area had a chance to honor the man. The crowd was large, and it's sure to get larger in the next few days.

The family will host visitation tonight in Roland's hometown of Cochran, followed by funeral services on Saturday afternoon. He will be buried there in middle Georgia, although he won't soon be forgotten in Gwinnett, a place he only called home since 2004.

"His presence will always be felt in the Black Knight community and he'll have a place in our hearts forever," Central athletic director Tally Johnson said.

Johnson's comments were echoed by another speaker, Clyde Strickland, a Central booster since 1979.

"No person that has ever come through Central has changed as many lives as Dennis Roland changed in one year," Strickland said.