At a moment in his life where he was struggling, where doubt was creeping in, Tommy Walburn needed some encouragement.
He needed someone he trusted to be there for him.
Walburn was in his first year as the head football coach at Crisp County High School eight years ago, and things weren’t going well.
“I went down to south Georgia to coach, and things weren’t really working out for me down there in my first year. I was about ready to throw in the towel,” Walburn said.
Gary Ward had been such an important person in Walburn’s life, someone he relied upon in good times and bad.
So one fall evening when Walburn saw Ward standing on the sideline at a football game, it was a blessing.
“My first home game down there, I look on the sidelines, and it’s Gary Ward, unannounced,” Walburn said. “That meant the world to me. We played a good game, and Gary was just really bragging on my football team, telling me what a good job we did. Gary was like a security blanket for me.”
Ward, who graduated from Troup and then came back and spent most of his teaching and coaching career there, died last week.
Ward touched so many lives during his more than 30 years in the coaching business, and some of those who knew him best were on hand Monday evening at Troup High for a memorial service.
Among the speakers were a handful of coaches who knew Ward not just a coach, but as a close and trusted friend.
When Walburn became the head football coach at Troup in 2001, one of his first items of business was bringing Ward on board.
“At that time, Gary was not coaching football. One of the first things I did was talk Gary into coming back and coach football with us,” said Walburn, now the head coach at Northgate High School. “I knew that he would help me through.”
Walburn always knew his friend would be there for him, no matter where he was.
“Gary became like an older brother to me,” Walburn said. “We drifted apart, but we always stayed in touch.”
Walburn said one of his primary motivators during his career has been “to make coach Ward proud of me.”
Like Ward, Bubba Jeter was a Troup High graduate, and he spent most of his coaching career at the school as well.
Jeter, who now coaches with Walburn at Northgate, said everyone who knew Ward knew “what kind of husband he was, what kind of father he was, what kind of brother he was. And I knew what kind of coach he was.”
Jeter said Ward had the ability to get the absolute best out of the players he coached, whether it was on a basketball court, a baseball diamond, or a football field.
“He had the quality of being able to get the most out of his players,” Jeter said. “You young guys getting into coaching, that’s a true gift. That’s a gift that as a coach is hard to come by. Gary had the special ability to do that.”
While Ward could be as serious and demanding as any coach, Jeter said he also had the ability to make you smile.
“Two words come to mind when I think about coach Gary Ward. Number one, is toughness, number two is laughter,” Jeter said. “That’s about as far away from two ends of the spectrum as you can get. Those two words sum Gary Wary up.”
Maurice Raines played basketball for Ward, and he never for a moment doubted how much his coach cared for him.
“What I loved about Gary Ward was, he loved people so much that he would cry to see their success,” Raines said. “I’m successful, because you cried about me.”
Ward wasn’t easy on Raines, and for that he is filled with overwhelming gratitude.
“He told me he was hard on me because he realized that I could take it,” Raines said. “And I’m glad he got onto me because he made me the man I am today. I am grateful this man did enough to make sure I did the right thing.”
Charles Flowers, who graduated from Troup and was a coaching peer of Ward’s, said his friend “molded young men.”
“He believed in character and integrity and honesty,” added Flowers, who spent much of his coaching career at Shaw, but served as the head football coach at Troup for two years. “It was about what is right, and what is wrong. What is the right thing to do.”
Terry Hayes, who has spent his coaching career at Hogansville High and Callaway High, said Ward was “my friend, was my coach, but more than that, he was my family.”
Phil Williamson was coaching at Troup High in the 1968-69 school year when Ward was in the eighth grade.
“He had as much respect as an eighth grader as anybody at Troup High School, because of his personality,” Williamson said.
Williamson said he and Ward remained close over the years, and they often reminisced about an incident that took place 45 years ago.
Paddling students was allowed then, and the last time Williamson had to pull the paddle out was for Ward.
It was the first and only time Williamson paddled Ward, and he said “I didn’t get him just once that day. I got him twice to make up for lost time.”
“He was the last person I paddled at Troup High School before I left to go to LaGrange College,” Williamson added. “We laughed about that, we laughed about other things. I said Gary, you’re probably the one that stole my paddle. I always loved seeing Gary. We always had a good time talking.”
Those who spoke about Ward remembered him as a caring friend, an exceptional coach, someone who could be counted on in good times and bad, a loving and caring husband and father and a loyal supporter of Troup High.
“No one could make you laugh like Gary Ward,” Jeter said. “He was a tough man, he was a Christian, and I know he’s going to be missed by everybody.”