‘Gentle giant’ leaves lasting memories

Published 9:55 am Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Stunned – that’s about the only word I can use to describe the feeling I had upon learning of the untimely death of Dan Surface.

I was at home on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 3, enjoying a hot cup of coffee while watching ESPN “Game Day” on the tube. My cell phone rang….on the other end was my neighbor and “cuz”, Kevin Joyner. Kevin said he had just read a post on Facebook that asked for “prayers for the Surface family.”

After checking it out, I discovered what Kevin read was true….Coach Surface had passed away that same morning at Pitt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville.

My mind immediately wandered back to those carefree days at what was then Chowan College. There, Dan was the defensive genius behind the success of legendary head coach Jim Garrison’s football program. Coach Surface mentored numerous defensive standouts while at Chowan, including NFL greats George Koonce, Robert Brown and Jody Schultz.

Dan also taught Health & PE. I was one of his students in Health class….he couldn’t have been no more than eight to 10 years older than me at that time.

My favorite Dan Surface story, which I shared with him long after I graduated, involved my presence, or lack thereof, in his Health class. I was one of only three non-jocks in that particular class. I noticed the overall class absence of many of those athletes, so I figured I could skip class as well.

There was a rule back then that if you had an “x” number of unexcused absences, you were automatically downgraded a letter grade. Coach Surface warned me of this impending situation and instead of seeing me flunk his otherwise fairly easy class he assigned me a short theme paper to research and write on the dangers of drinking alcohol. I turned in my paper and ended that semester with a “B” in Health.

I became a big Dan Surface fan after that. I got to know him and his family better when I served this newspaper as Sports Editor for 11 years. It was during that time where I developed even more respect for Coach Surface.

It was in the early 90’s when Chowan entered the woman’s basketball season without a coach. Dan was having none of that, opting to take on that role for one season in order for the program to survive.

I don’t recall how the Lady Braves faired that particular season, but it really doesn’t matter. The fact that this true Southern gentleman stepped up and filled a need was all you need to know.

But that’s how Dan Surface lived his life….totally devoted to the betterment of young people. One of his former players said it best, “He was just the kind of man you would want as a coach, teacher, and father figure.”

The “Chowan Nation” lost a gentle giant on the morning of Dec. 3. My condolences to his wife, Sallie, his children, Eric, Julianne and Brian, and the entire Surface family. Thanks for sharing your loved one and allowing him to help shape my life as well as that of others.


Cal Bryant is Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be reached at cal.bryant@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7207.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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