Greatness Beyond the Gridiron
By Brad McEwen
Down here in South Georgia, long before the tapestry of reds, yellows, and oranges herald the coming of another season, the end of summer is not marked by the date on the calendar or the reading on a thermometer.
With the sun still blazing on the horizon, and sweltering September temps still pushing into the 90s, you know something’s changed as soon as the community starts gathering under the warm glow of the Friday night lights.
Officially it might still be summer, but for folks in these parts, it’s a Football Season.
Across Albany, scores of parents and fans have pulled their well-worn jerseys out of the closet, grabbed their pompoms and plastic seat cushions and begun the weekly ritual of cheering their favorite team to victory.
And for a great many in the Albany area that means rallying around the Deerfield-Windsor Knights, who for the past several years have been led by long-time head coach Allen Lowe, an iconic figure whose roots at the school run deep.
“My dad was the first headmaster here in the mid-60s when we opened the doors,” Coach Lowe told me during a recent interview to discuss his passion for football, his love of Albany and his appreciation for the school he’s been connected to most of his life. “My ties to Deerfield go way back. I was in the first kindergarten class on this campus (on Stuart Avenue). I cut the ribbon to open the door of this facility. I went from kindergarten through 10th grade here.
“My dad was the Headmaster and football coach, he coached me, and my mom was a guidance counselor and science teacher. So I guess you could say it’s in my blood.”
Of course it’s not just the love of the school that courses through the coach’s veins.
By his own admission, he truly cherishes coaching high school football—something he has done at DWS for 26 years in-all, including the last 18 straight after leaving the school for six years to be the football coach and Athletic Director at Calvary Day School in Savannah.
“There’s nothing like it for me,” he said. “It brings out my competitive nature. There’s nothing like Friday night. It’s hard to explain to somebody how you feel when you get in that tunnel and when you start focusing in on coaching the football game.
“I played all sports, but I enjoy coaching football more than I do coaching other sports, and I’ve coached a bunch. I will say that I had a couple of rough years early on that made me start thinking, ‘Is this what I really wanna do?’ But I’m still doing it and I still enjoy being around the young people.”
Although he said his early teams only winning two games in consecutive years had a lot to do with that assessment, the now-seasoned coach said what really made those years “rough” was his own lack of experience.
“It’s tough coming back each week when you’re losing, because for a football game you put a whole week into it,” he said. “It’s one of those things; so many people say they would love to coach, well they don’t know all the downsides. But for me, there’s been many more upsides than down.
“But those first eight years at Deerfield I probably had a couple of good teams that I wish I could have back now, just looking back. But like anything, there’s no replacement for experience. My last few years at Deerfield (before leaving for Calvary), I really kind of settled into who I was as a coach. Then when I moved to Savannah to go to Calvary Baptist, those six years really helped me develop. So when I came back, I was a different coach.
“And that’s just experience. That’s just learning what works for you and then also just how to handle situations and handle different personalities within a team.”
From a purely X’s and O's standpoint, Albany’s longest-tenured high school head football coach said the wins finally started coming consistently once he figured out what he believes is the key to being a successful high school coach.
“What draws you to high school football is that every year is a different challenge, because your players have different skillsets,” he explained. “As a coach you’ve gotta learn how to tap into that particular skillset if you want to be successful.
“We’ve had some tremendous players here, but we’ve had some tremendous teams that I can say didn’t necessarily have the best players. Sometimes you get the most out of them, sometimes you don’t. But we strive to get the most out of them every year.
“Unfortunately there are things that are trending from the NFL to the college ranks and down to high school, which I can tell you I’m not a big fan of,” he continued.
“Everything’s always about winning. Look, I love to win. I’m competitive. But I love to see these kids develop and I love to build a quality team. I love college football, I love pro, but as a high school coach I really love to be able to adapt to my players as opposed to trying to make my players adapt to me.”
It would be impossible to talk about football trends of any kind without also discussing one of the big changes impacting the game on all levels—safety. And Coach Lowe was more than willing to share some insight.
Across the country football players, coaches and fans have been confronted in recent years by medical reports linking football and brain injuries. While there is certainly some debate about how this occurs and to what extent, there’s no denying the revelations have changed people’s perceptions of the game.
In his case, Coach Lowe said he doesn’t mind the changes that have placed safety first, and he’s pleased to report that at Deerfield interest in the game is as strong as ever despite news of a decline in participation in other areas country.
“Well there’s no doubt our culture is changing and there’s no doubt that the perception of football has changed,” he said. “And I understand the concussion testing and stuff we have to do now. Football is going through changes and some it is very good. And the children change.
“Our numbers have been fairly stable on the high school level. As a first year coach in 1987 I only had 21 football players. Anything can fluctuate in terms of going up or down, but since I returned, I guess in the last 15 years, we’ve been all the way up to 45 and 60 players.
“That just depends on your cycle of kids as they come through. We still have a fairly high participation rate of boys playing football though and that’s always good.”
One could argue, and I certainly would, (based on what I’ve witnessed as a resident of the community who used to cover DWS varsity games for the Albany Herald and now has a son taking part in the school’s Junior Knights football program for elementary school kids) that part of the reason for the high participation rate at Deerfield is that fact that the entire student body, along with their families and school alums, all rally around the football program and make it a point to show their support for the team and the current players.
Quite simply, school spirit among the greater DWS family is very strong.
And that family atmosphere around the school during football season is one the things that makes Deerfield so attractive to so many people.
“If somebody wanted to get a good feel for Deerfield, they ought to come here on a Thursday night when we’ve got Junior Knights going on over here on one field [points to soccer field], we’ve got 5th and 6th and 7th and 8th grade teams playing on another and the parking lots are just packed,” Coach said with a wide smile. “You’ve got parents, you’ve got grandparents, you’ve got children, and to me there’s no better environment. If you want to witness Deerfield, then come to one of those nights. The Junior Knight program has been a blessing to us.
“With football here, the kids I think want to play for their school and the more you generate that feeling and not just playing for themselves, it builds the program. That’s one of the reasons why I think we’ve been able to keep the numbers up pretty consistently over the last 15 years.”
Of course the number of kids playing, not just football, but all sports at DWS, is predicated on the overall student enrollment, which based on his history with school, Coach Lowe feels has been pretty steady as well.
“There’s changes in education,” he said. “It’s no different than any other business. So there’s changes that are reflected throughout the years. You go back and there’s just changes through administrations and changes in policies. I’ve seen the school grow and I’ve seen the school downsize and then grow again.
“Deerfield has some very common constants, which is our faculty and staff and highly motivated kids. Those have always been there. The policies and all that goes on, that’s not where the strength of Deerfield really is. That stuff is always going to change. But the constants are the great faculty and staff and the highly motivated children.
“It’s just a great place to be.”
While Coach Lowe clearly has an unbridled love for Deerfield-Windsor School, he’s also not shy about his affection for the surrounding community, which he thinks plays an important role in places like DWS thriving.
And never was that more apparent to him than when he and his wife made the decision years ago to leave Albany so he could take the job at Calvary.
“My dad actually became the headmaster over there and after about two years he actually talked my wife Piper and I into moving over there to take the AD job and the football job,” he said. “We had six fun years there, but with our children being the ages they were, we knew that Albany was a great environment to raise children in. We knew what Deerfield brought to the table educationally. It was a great fit.
“Deerfield’s unique. We’re a high academic place in a small town, rural environment. And the people in this town still yearn for just good, old-fashioned values.
“It takes longer for the west coast environment to infiltrate southwest Georgia than it does in other parts of the state,” Allen continued. “I don’t like to use the words slower pace, because slower pace sometimes indicates less, like we’re behind the times. We’re not. We just have our values and we have our priorities in a little bit different stance.
“And not just Albany; I’ll say the surrounding communities. When you’ve got the small towns, when you go from Camila to Dawson, to Cuthbert to Damascus and you’ve got a rural environment, you’ve got down home values. Family values seem to be reflected more in this area of the state and Albany is the hub.”
Of course Albany is also the hub of some great area football as well. And during Coach Lowe’s tenure DWS has been very much a part of that.
While at Deerfield, Lowe has fielded some impressive teams, several of which captured region and state glory. In fact, he’s coach six teams all the way to Georgia Independent School Association (GISA) championship games, with four of those teams bringing home the crown.
“Well, we won, 2002 was the first, then we got 2008, 2010 and 2012,” he said. “Then we’ve gotten beat in the finals twice. So we’ve had some good teams.”
Despite that obvious success however, Coach Lowe is quick to point out that success isn’t always measured in championships. Throughout his career, Allen said he has coached teams that didn’t sniff a championship, but were, in his mind, incredible successes.
“I can probably talk about so many,” he said. “I’ll go to my very first team. We were only 5-4-1, but it was a team of 21 kids and they were a bunch that just overachieved. That was a great group to get my career stated, because they enjoyed playing.
“We had the team of 92, with (Lawson) Swan, (Richman) Margeson and (Alex) Kaplan and a bunch of guys that played great. They were the first team to ever go undefeated for me through the regular season and then we lost a tough one.
“When I returned, the 2002 team was the first to win the state championship, led by Wayne Riles who went on to play college football at Louisville; that was a great group of guys that just loved football.
“We’ve gone through so many and there’s been some great games,” he continued. “In 2008, the next time we won the state title, the state semi-final was the highlight of the year. Tattnall (Square Academy in Macon) was the team to beat and we knocked them off and they had DeAndre Smelter playing for them who ended up playing in the NFL. It was just a great night of football.
“I could go through so many memories and that’s why it’s so much fun.”
Despite all that success, Coach Lowe said he has no plans to give up his clipboard any time soon.
“I am still as hungry about wanting to win and wanting to prepare kids,” Coach Lowe told me. “The job of a head football coach, there’s so many differences now. I’ve got to deal with so much paperwork that I didn’t have to deal with in the past. What I hate is that it’s taking my time and energy away from developing relationships in the hall. I want to get back to where I can spend more time with the students and enjoy being around them and teaching them.”
And there are plenty of things that the coach and father of three is still striving to teach them. For one, he wants his kids to learn how to handle adversity and how to work hard to achieve their goals.
He also wants the students at DWS to find their passions, something he believes the school is very good at facilitating.
“We want the kids to participate and want to play for their school and enjoy their high school years,” he said. “This is the only chance you get to do more than one thing. We hope every child finds a niche, whether it’s the arts, spring musical, or athletics. High school’s a chance to cultivate desires to participate. Hopefully our kids have taken advantage of that in one aspect or another.”
And for those students who decide to get involved in athletics, he wants them to know that playing sports can develop them as people.
“I just love athletics,” Coach Lowe said. “I think it teaches life lessons. And I think different sports teach different things. I love tennis and golf for the aspect that it teaches you how to put something behind you quickly because if you’re still dwelling on that last tennis short that you hit in the net, or the last golf swing where you hit it in the woods and don’t focus on the next point, or the next shot, you’re in trouble. It’s a great lesson to learn, to put it behind you and move on.
“If for no other reason, sports teach you to be a part of something bigger than yourself and to get away from the ‘me’ mentality. That’s why you need to participate.”
The notion of being focus on something bigger than one’s self and look toward helping others is something Coach Lowe said is firmly rooted in his belief system and he’s not at all shy about discussing those beliefs with others and giving credit to his higher power.
“I’m a firm believer in Jesus Christ,” he said. “When I talk about sports, and what you get out of sports, it’s the same way I should be living my life as a Christian. There’s something bigger than me. I’m part of a group that believes that none of us are perfect and we need somebody else to take our place.
“Those foundational things for me are very important in my life. I don’t wanna ever brow beat anybody to think they have to believe like I do, but I’m hoping the way I live my life reflects my beliefs and my values.
“If you had to sum me up, I’ve got faith, family and football. Those three things are priorities for me.”
There’s no doubt keeping the focus on those important priorities has brought Coach Lowe, and by extension Deerfield-Windsor tremendous success both on the field and off.
vI can think of no better person to serve as a representative of what’s good about the school and about this community in general than Coach Allen Lowe.
Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - firstname.lastname@example.org - @BradGMcEwen