Life’s mentor leaves lifetime of memories

Published 9:03 am Tuesday, April 7, 2015

I never played a snap for Jim Garrison, but yet he was still my coach.

I was never a member of his golf team, but yet he still taught me how to “hit ‘em far and putt ‘em straight.”

He wasn’t my father, but so often acted as if I were his flesh and blood.

The world was a better place with Coach Garrison in it. Even though he left this world on Friday, those souls he left behind – those of us fortunate enough to be touched by this gentle giant of a man – are left with so many memories, so many stories to share.

I could write a book on my memories of Coach Garrison. However, due to the lack of space here I’ll condense it down to the Reader’s Digest version.

As a student at Chowan (1971-73), Coach Garrison was my P.E. teacher. It was then I realized he was much more than just a man watching over a bunch of hard-headed teens and putting them through calisthenics. But the lessons were not all about conditioning of the body. On a daily basis, he would teach life lessons…how we needed to act like men; how we should treat the opposite sex; and how we needed to honor our mother and father.

“Find a job you’re good at and that you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life,” Garrison shared with my class one particular day.

I guess I heeded those words….with the exception of one year spent working in Raleigh with a commercial photographer and two years with the NC Forest Service, the newspaper business has been my life since graduating from Chowan in 1973. And Coach Garrison was with me every step of the way by often offering words of encouragement during countless phone conversations or face-to-face meetings.

After leaving Ahoskie in 1979 to work with newspapers in Tarboro and Garner, Deborah and I returned to our native Roanoke-Chowan area in 1983. It was there I began to write sports on a part-time basis for this newspaper (while working full-time in production). Part of that coverage was Chowan athletics.

It was there where I really got to know Coach Garrison. We formed a fast friendship, which was made even better on my part because of the easy access the Coach gave me to his players.

One of my personal favorites was George Koonce, an All-American linebacker for Chowan in 1988 who went on to earn a Super Bowl ring as a starter with the Green Bay Packers in 1996. In 2003 when Koonce was inducted into Chowan’s Sports Hall of Fame, his agent, Ralph Vitalo, said, “Over the years, George has played under 27 coaches, from high school, through college, and on to the pros. But of all those coaches, the only two that George ever talks about are Jim Garrison and (former Green Bay head coach) Mike Holmgren.”

As players like Koonce came home to Chowan for one reason or the other, they all had the same thing to say about Coach Garrison….how he not only made them better on the field, but more importantly in life. You could see, you could feel the love these grown men had for their coach, their mentor, their second father.

The majority of those who played football under Garrison never advanced to the professional ranks. However, they succeeded in life in other ways….bankers, lawyers, businessmen and, yes, as coaches. And they all loved him dearly for the guidance and support he provided in their lives.

In 2002, Coach Garrison paid me the highest honor I’ve ever received….inducted into the Chowan Sports Hall of Fame (for sports writing). When he told me of his intentions to have me inducted, I humbly said there were others far more deserving. But he insisted.

That ceremony was one among the last times my father, Ray Bryant, was able to get out in public. His health was declining and he died less than two years later. Coach Garrison called me, saying that things in life happen for a reason. When I mentioned the part about dad being able to attend that Hall of Fame ceremony, Coach Garrison never said a word….you could sense his smile on the other end of the phone.

I could go on, and on, and on. Perhaps one day I will write a book on his life… will be full of stories just like mine; personal recollections of a man who made such an impact on those who crossed his path.

Rest in Peace, my friend.

Cal Bryant is Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at 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.

email author More by Cal