Homecoming for a great coach and his fans
By Kenneth L. Hardin
For the Salisbury Post
For the last several months, the Facebook pages were lit up with threads of excitement and anticipation of a special event held Saturday night, Aug. 29, at George’s Italian Grill & Bar. The comments on the social networking site spanned the map from Rowan County out to the Midwest, down to Georgia and up to New York as people made plans to return to Salisbury for this special occasion.
It was billed as a roast, but it was more of a homecoming celebration as Salisbury High alumni from the early1970s and ’80s and local coaching legends assembled to praise, poke fun and fondly share their appreciation for former teacher and coach Aaron Neely, who coached at SHS from 1972-1990 and later at East High. As 1983 SHS raduate Mikael Jones summed up the event, “This is a tribute to one of the greatest human beings and best motivators we’ve known during our lifetime. He was there when a lot of us didn’t have anybody to turn to.”
It was evident Coach Neely meant different things to many different people, but the consistent sentiment was he belonged to everyone, and was always there for each person individually. From the emotions displayed by the more than 100 attendees who filled every seat and lined the walls, it was obvious that as a coach, teacher and mentor, he touched many lives.
Coaching legends Pete Stout and W.A. Cline joined in with other colleagues from Neely’s past to share both humorous and heartfelt stories behind the dynasties. Coach Neely enthusiastically greeted both former All-American and mediocre athletes alike with a wide smile, hearty handshake and a gracious bear hug as he slowly worked the room. One former student, who asked to remain anonymous for fear that Dr. Windsor Eagle’s statute of limitations had not yet expired, defined the reach and impact Coach Neely had over students. Although this student did not have him for a class, he admitted he and other students would often ask their teacher to be excused to use the restroom, only to sneak into the back door of Coach Neely’s class to listen to his lectures.
On the field of dreams, Coach Neely took his leadership role seriously, as evidenced by an impressive résumé littered with numerous football and track & field championships, and just as many Coach of the Year Awards. If he recognized you were not performing up to your potential or his expectations, he would let you know with an immediate verbal dressdown. It was normally delivered with the bite of a lion, the sing-song cadence of a drill instructor, the wit of a comedian, but always with the genuine love of a parent. It became somewhat of a badge of honor to be called out by him on the field or in the film room.
I can recall being on the receiving end of one of those verbal lashings 27 years ago as a football player on his defensive unit. During a practice, my mind drifted and I missed a crucial play that resulted in a touchdown. I vividly remember his exasperated look, him throwing his arms up in overly exaggerated frustration and his rushing words: “Son, what are you doing? You’re standing there not paying attention and look, they scored! Son, get your head in the game!”
It was the sharing of such memories that led a small contingent of former students to organize this event. When the planning group found out Coach Neely had never received a retirement party or a proper send-off considering all the lives he touched, they sprang into action and put together a celebration that rivaled those of the Inauguration party planning folks. They contacted his wife and children, and they were tasked with ensuring he had no clue the event was in the works. After entering the door to thunderous applause, a stunned Neely said, “I thought I was here to roast Coach Bob Pharr. All the way over in the car I was thinking about what I was going to say.”
One of the organizers, Kevin Bostic, said the event initially began as a small affair with a few students planning to meet with Coach Neely and his family to share memories and their appreciation; but once word got out, it exploded.
“We knew we couldn’t do a retirement party, and we had all these good stories and memories,” Bostic said, “so we thought, why not put together a roast and honor him? We thought this concept would also allow other folks to take part in the event in an organized fashion.”
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Kenneth Hardin lives in Salisbury.