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HUCKABY: Random encounters can sometimes change lives

Fate is a fickle dance partner and if you believe you can predict what life will bring your way when you wake up each morning, you just haven't been paying attention. The nuances of everyday life seem so random at times. We never know when a chance encounter will develop into a long and lasting friendship, and since the world is so interconnected these days, we can seldom imagine how wide a network a relationship with a solitary person might eventually create.

Twelve or 13 years ago, I was in Athens for an education workshop to try to learn how to be a better history teacher. Our group broke for lunch on the first day of the weeklong seminar and I walked over to Snelling Hall to take my noon nourishment.

Four or five of us sat down together at one of the big round tables and began to play the "Where-are-you-from-and-do-you-know-so-and-so?" game. You know that activity. You are in a group of strangers, searching for common ground upon which to build a conversation that will at least carry you through the time it takes to ingest a meal.

John Barnett sat down beside me that day, and it turned out to be one of the most fortuitous happenstances of my life.

John Barnett is from Thomson and is a football coach and history teacher. Never mind the fact that he is officially retired from teaching and coaching. John Barnett is and will forevermore be a coach and teacher. If it is not in his genes, it is, at the very least, in his bloodstream. John and I found a lot of common ground during that first meal we ate together in Snelling Hall.

We learned, for instance, that we both appreciate our heritage as proud sons of the American South. We both love teaching and we both love to tell -- and listen to -- a good story. We both understand how important fundamentals, discipline, desire and dedication are to success on the athletic field, and we both appreciate how far the right lessons learned in high school athletics can carry a young person in life.

We hit it off, in other words, and by the end of the week had become fast friends. John was gracious enough to invite me into his world in Thomson and, through him, I made a lot of other wonderful friends -- friends like Ralph Starling, an old school banker to whom character is still more important than a credit score, and Gene Walker, with whom I share a love for Georgia football that is surpassed by few.

And through my relationship with John Barnett, I also got to know the legendary Luther Welsh, one of the finest football coaches to ever grace a sideline on a humid Friday night in Georgia. The numbers Luther put up are astounding. He coached for 54 years, beginning in 1955. He did take two years away from coaching to serve in the United States Army, but with the exception of those two years, Luther Welsh has coached high school football since Eisenhower's first term.

He was head coach at Dougherty High in Albany for 15 years, locking horns every week with the likes of Valdosta, Colquitt County, and Thomasville. He served two stints at Thomson, where my friend, John, played and coached under him. His time in that town totaled 19 years and he became an institution there. As a head coach, Luther Welsh won 333 games. His teams brought home 13 region titles and won three state championships -- in a state where football rules and Friday nights are almost sacred.

But the accomplishments of Luther Welsh cannot be measured in wins, losses and trophies in the case. Luther's legacy lies in the lives he helped to mold. His contributions to the communities in which he coached will last for generations, and his influence will be felt long after the trophies his teams accepted are tarnished and the details of the Friday night struggles have faded in the minds of all but the most ardent fans.

Luther Welsh hung up his whistle last fall, choosing to retire at the age of 78 -- after posting a 9-3 record in his final campaign. He and Anne, his wife of 49 years, had fixed up a small home near his birthplace of Bishopville, S.C., and planned to enjoy retirement there. It was not to be. Anne passed away the first week of July, and on July 14, Coach Luther Welsh joined his wife in eternity.

He will never be forgotten and his influence, especially in Thomson, will be felt long after those who knew him are gone. He touched thousands of lives, including mine -- thanks to a "random" encounter in Snelling Hall.

Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. Email him at dhuck08@bellsouth.net. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/darrellhuckaby.