For 'Coach Les'
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 16, 2011 1:46 PM
Members of the Rosewood Little Eagles recite one of the cheers their fallen coach, Les Williams, created. The team has dedicated its upcoming season to him.
News-Argus file photo
Les Williams instructs one of his players during a football practice several years ago.
They didn't need to put black stickers on their helmets to remember all the values their fallen coach instilled in them.
The banner featuring his likeness isn't the only place they see his face.
They don't have to recite his many mantras to remind themselves that giving up -- on or off the field -- just isn't an option.
The truth is, Les Williams will always be on their sideline.
So in the days after the Rosewood Little Eagles formally dedicated their season to a mentor -- a hero -- lost far too soon, a group of 9- and 10-year-old boys shifted their focus to the game he loved.
But every time the sound of helmets cracking against shoulder pads rang out across an eastern North Carolina football field, they couldn't help but think about those moments when they extended their hands into the middle of a circle and answered, in one voice, the questions "Coach Les" posed.
"What's the first rule of tackling?" he would yell, looking down into the huddle.
"Hit," the boys would scream.
"What's the second rule?" Williams would continue.
"Grab," they would reply.
"What's the third rule?" the coach then said, in the stern tone he was known for.
"Lift," his players belted back.
"That's right," Williams affirmed. "Now, Eagles on three. One. Two. Three. Eagles."
It's been more than six months since Williams, an Air Force technical sergeant, died during what military officials characterized as a "shooting incident" in Afghanistan.
And for many of those players he never made it home to, the grieving process didn't really start until after the initial shock subsided.
For some, attending the airman's funeral marked the beginning of the healing process.
Others let their guard down during a celebration of Williams' life held at Rosewood High School.
Like Hinton Cox who, in a moment that evoked tears from many who attended that February service, read a poem from the team to their fallen leader.
"We know you are soaring like an eagle with the angels right now," the boy said. "But in our hearts is where you'll always be found."
Or Sloan Stafford, who told his fellow teammates that Williams would "always be the greatest coach to me."
Some, though, including Little Eagles organizer Stuart Kornegay, said the fact that his friend was gone didn't really sink in until the team showed up for the first day of practice earlier this month.
"It really didn't hit me until right here at football," he said.
But watching the group of 9- and 10-year-old boys his comrade took so much pride in mentoring reflect his teachings gives Kornegay peace.
"He's made a difference and I know what he has told you, you will carry on," he said to the team. "He's here with us."
The smell of freshly cut grass was just as potent as it had been at the beginning of seasons past.
The heat was just as draining.
A splash of cold water on flushed faces felt as refreshing as it ever had.
But as members of the Rosewood Little Eagles worked through their first few practices last week, they did so knowing that something was missing -- a man known, to them, as much more than just a coach.
So even though they had already vowed to keep him in their hearts forever, a group of boys put black stickers on their helmets.
They gazed upon a banner featuring Williams' likeness.
And after their new coach, Kevin Getchell -- an airman who served alongside his fallen comrade both at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and on the team's sideline -- told them to huddle up, they, in one voice, belted out the answers to the questions "Coach Les" used to pose.
"What's the first rule of tackling?" Getchell yelled, looking down into the huddle.
"Hit," the boys screamed.
"What's the second rule?" Getchell continued.
"Grab," they replied.
"What's the third rule?" the coach then said, in the stern tone his predecessor was known for.
"Lift," his players belted back.
"That's right," Getchell affirmed. "Now, Coach Les on three. One. Two. Three. Coach Les."
And even though the Little Eagles know that their beloved coach will never again, in body, grace their sideline, you could sense, when they lifted their hands to the sky, that he would live in their hearts -- always.