Think of the millions of young people who participate in competitive high school activities each year in the United States and beyond. Millions, right? Now, what percentage have the opportunity to compete for a state title, or its equivalent? A tiny number, I'm guessing.
That's where the Manchester High School Blue Devils football team found themselves a week ago. They were scheduled to play the Bowdon High Red Devils, the defending State Champs, on Monday evening, December 11 at 7 pm in Mercedes Benz Stadium, the home field of the Atlanta Falcons. Win that game and they would hoist a trophy forever proclaiming them as Georgia Class 1A, Division 2 State Football Champions for 2023.
Stephen Holmes is the head coach of Manchester, in his third season with the team. In just three short years under his leadership, the team had reached the pinnacle of achievement. Even more amazing, this is Coach Holmes's first stint leading a football program. Previously, he has served as an assistant on a high school staff. Three years, and his team is playing for the championship. Not too shabby, right?
Sunday morning, just a day before the big game, dawned in Middle Georgia. Coach Stephen Holmes got a phone call. He drove into Manchester and made his way to the home of Brandon Smith, one of his players. Nobody wants to do what Coach Holmes had to do when that front door opened.
Coach Holmes came to tell Maxine Smith that Brandon, her 17 year old grandson, had been found earlier that morning in some woods, fatally shot. Just like that, a high school sophomore's life was over and a family, a community, a team, staggered into unspeakable, unfathomable mourning.
Kids aren't supposed to die. They surely aren't supposed to be the victims of senseless evil and violence. How does an adult help young people process such horror? How does an adult help them deal with their own grief? How does a coach like Stephen Holmes love his players through such tragedy?
A great big, burly defensive lineman - but still a kid - was gone, and yet, a State Championship was still to be played. Brandon's family insisted he'd want the team to take the field. The Manchester players had earned this opportunity, as had their opponents from Bowdon. Somehow or another, the coaches and players from Manchester would have to summon the will and courage to trot out there and have at it.
Play they did. 28-27 was the final score, Bowdon on top.
That means the Bowdon Red Devils are again the Class A, Division 2 Georgia High School State Football Champions. Hats off to them!
Though his team came up short, if Stephen Holmes isn't the Coach of the Year, then they should quit presenting that award. I mean, he's only been a head coach three years and under awful circumstances he came within a point of the state title. What's more, his team had beaten Bowdon 21-20 in the first game of the season. From a strictly football standpoint, there are a lot of reasons to make Stephen Holmes the Coach of the Year.
But coaching is about more than the sport itself. It's about more than wins and losses, about more than championships and trophies. At least it's supposed to be, especially in high school athletics. And there's something in this awful story that shows why Stephen Holmes is the Coach of the Year.
Did you notice where he was and what he did that dreadful Sunday morning? He was the one who brought that tragic news to Brandon's grandmother. That tells you everything you need to know about Stephen Holmes and the kind of coach, and man, that he is. Somebody knew that he was the right person to bear that news. Somebody knew what he meant to Brandon, and what Brandon meant to him. So they asked him to be the person who rang that doorbell.
I'm actually not the least bit surprised. For close to four years, I had the honor of being Stephen's pastor. He and his wife, Laurie, and their daughter, Anna Grace - all pictured above hugging each other after the State Championship game - are the epitome of Christ followers. Stephen Holmes loves football, but he loves Jesus and his family and every kid he meets even more.
Stephen Holmes, Coach of the Year? You bet. But that's not enough.
I'm nominating him for Man of the Year.