How seriously do people take high school football here? Enough that grudges are kept against Halls coach Gary Shephard no matter how well his teams play.

by Betty Bean

Maybe it was the way the January moon lit the icy hills, or maybe it was the giddy luxury of a long stretch of snow days that enticed two pairs of fathers and sons down to the sloping Halls High practice field to go sledding under the indigo sky.

Whatever it was that caused the school's workaholic head football coach Gary Shephard to cut loose and play in the snow with his son John and his assistant coach Elwood Pennington and Pennington's son Chad, the memory of that night in 1995 still makes him smile.

It was pure joy; a commodity that would soon be in short supply for the Shephard family. By November, 11th-grader John Shephard would be the starting quarterback for the Halls Red Devils. Elwood Pennington would have taken a job at Webb, where Chad had been the star quarterback. Chad would be off at Marshall University. Gary Shephard would be struggling to keep his job.

"I think [my wife] Linda and John and I kind of circled our wagons and came closer as a family," Shephard says, easing down onto a folding chair and tipping it against the wall in the field house office. "I never told my parents; Linda never told her mother. We didn't think they needed to be concerned, because we felt we'd be able to survive."

He pulls his red Halls baseball cap over his graying brown hair and jams it low on his forehead. "I think that year caused John to mature and be aware of how life could be."

Linda Shephard concurs: "We were the only three whom we knew we could talk to and it wasn't going anywhere else. I spent every evening reassuring John that everything was going to be all right. He'd come home from school saying, 'I don't even know who my friends are...' And that's hard on a child."

The Shephards did survive, and the Red Devils went 8-3. The coach beat back a move to fire him, but there are still ominous rumblings. Shephard's philosophical description of "that year," and specifically that football season, is an attempt to put the best face on a furor that left a family and a community with scars that still ache today.

"Inevitably, Shephard won't last," says one supporter. "The question becomes will Shephard leave on his own terms, or will the people trying to run him off, run him off? That's the question before us. It's not gonna work. Shephard is not gonna retire here a happy old man."

When it's football time in Tennessee, nobody gets the fever worse than the residents of Halls—a brawny, booming, semi-rural community in north Knox County that has seen a phenomenal growth in population and commerce over the last couple of decades. Halls takes pride in its youth sports facilities and programs, and most every family with children is involved in some kind of organized competitive activity: baseball, soccer, basketball, volleyball, track, golf, tennis.

But football is in a category of its own. State Representative Jim Boyer buys a billboard every year wishing the Red Devils luck on the gridiron. Jim McManus, owner of McManus-Wilson Motors on Maynardville Highway and proud father of Halls #30 Brad McManus, decks out the arm-waving mechanical gorilla in front of his car lot in a red hat and flag every ballgame day. There are T-shirts and sweatshirts and windsuits and sweaters and windbreakers and jackets and earrings and corsages and pins and shoes and barrettes and light-up devil horns. The day after games, Devil fans gather at the Amber to drink Bobbie Padgett's coffee and analyze the big plays. And often, the talk isn't pretty.

"Halls fans are incredibly critical," says local sports broadcaster Mike Keith.

Winning teams are expected in Halls, and Gary Shephard, by any objective measure, is a winner. He came here from Jenkins High School in Savannah, Georgia, with 25 years coaching experience, including stints at Vanderbilt and Rice Universities. In his fifth season at the helm of the Red Devils football program, his aggregate record is 38-15 and climbing. His teams have outscored their opponents 452-90 and came within 4 points of winning a state championship last year.

A gruff, straightforward man with a dry wit, Shephard enjoys the respect of his peers, his players, and members of the media. Life should be good.

The Shephards arrived in 1993 after the resignation of the charismatic and controversial Larry Kerr, who had won a championship in 1986 and later took the Devils to the state playoffs. Kerr, known for years by the nickname "Lyin' Larry," defected to Anderson County High, leaving the Hallsites as bitter as jilted lovers in the lurch.

A 1996 story in the Halls Shopper tells the tale:

"Like first wives, Halls fans had not recovered from the exciting '80s and the charming Kerr. We were shocked when he left us and a part of us kept wanting him to come back, even while we knew he never would. We missed our fast-talking, eye-twinkling, body-building, hard-selling, drug-fighting, hymn-singing, charismatic coach. Who was this slow-talking, dadgum-mumbling, complex-offense sketching new guy?"

The Halls job sounded like a waking dream to the Shephards, who are Clarksville natives and wanted to be closer to home, where Gary's parents and their older son, Gary Jr., live. They heard about the opening from UT offensive line coach Mark Bradley, who urged Gary to fax his résumé to principal David Sexton.

Shephard did, and remembers finding one rather curious fact during his interview—the extreme homogeneity of the Halls community.

"I asked what percentage of the students were black. They said two. I said 'Two percent?'

"They said 'No, two students.'

"I asked if any played football. They said no."

But Shephard also heard about plenty of things he liked. Like the tradition of winning.

"The people here are used to winning. David Sexton made that point to me," Shephard says. "I'd much rather be in a place where the expectations are high."

So he took the job, and the Shephards bought a home in Bona Vista subdivision right behind the school.

The Shephards have known each other forever—both went to Clarksville High, where he played football and she was head cheerleader. They didn't get together until they were both students at Austin Peay, and she "swept me off my feet," Gary says.

"She was a campus beauty and a cheerleader. Her roommate called me and told me she wanted to go out with me. I'd go to the library to do some infrequent studying, and I'd see her. I'd go to practice, and I'd see her. So I called her."

They talked for hours and agreed to go out after the next ballgame. He remembers being knocked out of bounds and getting sand in his eye.

"I grabbed a water bottle, and it turned out to be Gator Aide...

"She's really been through the wringer with me—always moving, always traveling. She's a very special person."

Mike Keith says Gary Shephard is pretty special, too. He calls him "a fabulous coach," remembers an early interview with the new guy: "It was that first year, and they were playing Powell, which was the better team. We went to talk about the game plan, and I asked him, 'What are you going to do to stop the Powell attack?' He got on the chalkboard and showed me this game plan. I was so impressed that I went on the air and said 'This will be a very close game...' Halls lost, but they played a fabulous game. They performed with less talent, but they made it close."

The Red Devils finished the '93 season with a 5-5 record and a loss to Kerr's Anderson County Mavericks.

In 1994, the Red Devils upped their record to 6-4, still losing to Anderson County. In 1995, his team bettered its record to 8-3, including a loss to Anderson County, with John Shephard taking over as quarterback.

This is the move that angered a group of parents who preferred the senior quarterback the coach's kid had replaced. The night Halls dropped a playoff game to Tennessee High in Bristol, the dispute broke wide open.

Linda, who sees her role as "being Gary's rock," will never forget it.

"They were hollering for Gary to take John out. They were yelling at my husband and my son. They had the petition out in the parking lot, signing it on the back of a parked car. They didn't know I saw them, but I did."

The petition, which was carried door-to-door, was taken seriously by the school administration, and, as News-Sentinel sportswriter Mark Burgess reported that Thanksgiving Day, Shephard survived an "evaluation" by principal Dinzel "Dink" Adams and athletic director Jewell Brock.

"Why the evaluation was necessary is still up to conjecture," Burgess wrote.

The root of the issue seemed to be the quarterback position. The senior quarterback was the son of an established Halls family. He had come up through the ranks of the feeder program of youth football teams. John Shephard, a junior, had not.

Bob Polston, Knox County Schools' supervisor of athletics, had an up-close look at what he calls "a parent controversy over who should be quarterback." He is also the father of Halls assistant coach Doug Polston. He remembers the situation well and fears that Shephard isn't out of the woods yet.

"The other kid was a senior, and he was a super kid. The senior got hurt at the beginning of the season, and John Shephard started playing. The parents got upset because they felt their son would have done better than John. And the whole thing just snowballed. People in Halls have been a little bit spoiled. They don't like to lose. A lot of people'd love to have an 8-3 record. If Halls starts losing, the whole thing could surface again."

School board member Sam Anderson, who won two state championships and two second-place finishes in his years as head coach at Austin-East, says he doesn't know Shephard personally but likes his style.

"Shephard understands the things he needs to know to win—discipline, conditioning, character, enthusiasm. Those are the things he has control over. He tries to block out the things he has no control over...the politics of it..."

Being second-guessed is part of the job, says Anderson, whose son Anthony, 8, is playing quarterback on a little league team. He says the father coach-quarterback son situation is always tricky.

"Most coaches feel like their quarterback is their son anyway. My son would not suffer if I was coach. Coaches' sons generally play quarterback because they know the game plan. It's awfully easy for a coach to have access to that kid when he's thinking about a game plan. It works as long as a coach says, 'This is my son. I'm not gonna be 100 percent objective.'"

Pennington knows something about father-son issues. He did not coach his own son, who graduated from Webb before Pennington transferred there. He says Shephard never made Chad an issue, never pressured him to make Chad come to Halls, even though he was one of the top quarterbacks in the state.

"Gary understood that I wanted to be a parent and not be directly related to him as a coach. As a coach, you're looking through the big a parent, you have tunnel vision..."

He describes Shephard as "a straightforward guy—what you see is what you get. From the first time you talk to him, his word is as good as a legal contract...If you come to Coach Shephard with a question, he's gonna answer, and he's gonna answer from his heart. Sometimes those answers are not what people are looking for. You have to live with whatever he says..."

In addition to their dissatisfaction with Shephard's quarterback decision, those who were disgruntled with Shephard accused him of refusing to allow players to play the positions to which they believed they were suited. They second-guessed his play selection and accused him of being less than helpful at hooking up players with scholarship opportunities.

Some of this is because of the comparison to Kerr, says one Halls fan. "He'd butter everybody up—parents, kids, recruiters—tell everybody what they wanted to hear. Shephard won't do that."

Pennington knows the hard times probably aren't over.

"Gary's a fighter. If you've been where he's been and worked as hard as he has, you'd know wherever you go, there'll be those issues...Maybe here in Halls it's a little more extreme...He takes the blows, but it eats at him. When he does leave Halls, the day will come when they'll know they were lucky to have Gary Shephard. The truth will stand when everything else falls away..."

"We were shocked," says Keith, speaking for other members of the local sports media. "Everybody that I talked with in the media couldn't believe they would be on Coach Shephard that way...The thing I admire so much about him is he teaches discipline; his players have wonderful fundamentals; he teaches work ethic. As with most great coaches—he teaches...

"We're wondering where the good teachers are going... If I had a son, I'd be proud for Gary Shephard to coach him."

Anderson says he isn't shocked by Shephard's troubles.

"It's tough being a high school coach. And Halls would be a tough place for an outsider. There's an inbred mentality there—he's not born and raised in Halls."

A Halls insider agrees:

"It's not really about winning. It's about our unwillingness to embrace outsiders. If you ain't from here, we don't want to know you."

There was a Kodak moment last year after the 4-A championship game in the Clinic Bowl. Pearl-Cohn coach Maurice Fitzgerald engulfed his quarterback son Buck in a huge, tearful hug at midfield at the end of the game after the Firebirds beat the Red Devils 18-14.

But there was another father-son story on the field.

"John and I were hugging too," Shephard says. "We just weren't smiling. I can only imagine how Maurice and Buck felt after that game."

Coach Shephard came off the field and a Nashville sportswriter said "I guess the pressure's off. John has finished out his career and there won't be any more controversy...

"I walked off thinking of all our family went through. It wore on John more than anybody. Losing the state championship sure isn't the way he wanted it to end."

The team spent the night in Nashville, and Shephard got up at 4 a.m. and sat on the bus, thinking about his kids, who'd just lost the most important game of their lives. And for months he'd sit and watch the game film, blaming himself for the loss.

"There's one play in that game that still haunts me. I changed the play. Had I not changed the play, I think we would have scored a touchdown and won the game. We had everything to lose. They were the underdogs. Santonio Beard ran through us like crap through a goose."

In Tennessee high school football, the Clinic Bowl is the Superbowl. Of 296 football-playing high schools, only 10 make it to the Big Show. In 1996, John Shephard started every game and didn't throw a single interception. The Devils went 14-1, losing only the heartbreaker to Pearl-Cohn in the Clinic Bowl and finishing second in the state. For many, beating Anderson County twice—once in the regular season, once in the playoffs—was the best part. Shephard's supporters hoped 1996 would shut up the doubters.

A few days after the game, Shephard got a job offer from a large mid-state high school. Ironically, some of those who care most about him wanted him to take it. They wanted to see him go out on a triumphant note.

But Shephard surprised them.

"I told the principal I wasn't interested. I think this year's team has a great deal of potential. The future is bright and I want to be a part of it. I don't want to be one that, when tough times come, takes shelter." He also said he thought most of his criticism came from a vocal minority.

Linda says she encouraged Gary not to take the new job.

"I told him 'Gary, its not time for you to leave yet...' They expected us to walk out the door. But why should we?"

It is Homecoming '97, and the Devils are slugging it out with Central High. By the end of the game, this year's team, which lost 19 seniors from the 1996 squad, will exceed expectations with a 6-2 record that may improve to 7-1, if TSSAA-imposed sanctions against hated Anderson County hold up and wipe a loss to the Mavericks away.

Linda is standing (she rarely sits during a game) in her customary spot on the very top row of the home side bleachers, right under the press box. Her auburn hair is perfect and she is wearing a fancy red sweatshirt decorated with ribbons and "Halls" written in glitter up the right sleeve. She clutches a beribboned cow bell and she hollers like the former cheerleader she is. She's back there, among friends, for a reason: So she won't have to hear what the crowd says about her husband.

"What happened is a part of our life that we'll try to forget, but we'll never forget," she says. "And I miss having friends, doing things with people in the community. But I know if we start losing, it'll happen again. I know who my true friends are."

She sits with Halls teacher Linda Peek, whose husband, Phil, is an assistant coach. To their left is Bobbie Padgett and her husband Don. They are owners of the Amber, Halls' gathering place restaurant. Their grandson is #1, Ben Padgett, a speedy running back. To Linda's right are Gary's parents, Edward and Laura, who will stay and celebrate Gary's 47th birthday Saturday. Laura suffers from Alzheimer's disease, and Edward cares for her tenderly, tucking her hand into the pocket of her jacket when she starts to shiver in the wind.

Next to the Shephards are school bus drivers Paul and Vickie Clark, who have taken an ad in the 1997 program proclaiming themselves "Number One Halls Red Devils Fans." Paul, a burly guy with a beard, periodically cuts loose with an air horn, which he is convinced the boys listen for. He is sitting on a blanket that he placed there at 3:20. At 3:30, he went to find Coach Shephard to tell him what he tells him before every single game:

"If you make the right calls and the boys make the right blocks, we'll be all right."

Just to the right of the Clarks sit Patsy and Brian Sandefur, whose son Travis—a good-natured hoss of a 10th-grade offensive tackle—can squat lift 589 pounds. Patsy, who lost an older son in a traffic accident, watches Travis closely. On this night, he suffers a lick to the head and lies frighteningly still on the field. Shephard walks out to him.

"I praise him [Shephard] for his ethics," she says. "For being a role model. We've got a strong community, and I'm proud to be a part of it, but sometimes..." She shakes her head. "Some of them blame him for everything. They blame him for calling a bad play and losing the Clinic Bowl."

In front of her is Halls graduate Chris Ford, whose little brother J.R. is another 10th-grade standout.

"I know he cares about his players," Ford says. "J.R. has a convertible, and Coach Shephard stopped him in the middle of Maynardville Highway and made him put on his seatbelt."

Across the field, down along the fence near the visitors' bench, are the fans Linda would walk a mile to avoid. They are the disgruntled. Several are players' fathers, and there's even an administrator or two, despite the fact that standing there is considered a statement of hostility toward the coach. The fence-hangers are a men-only club, and the group seethes with attitude. The prime complaint this year seems to be that Shephard doesn't let quarterback Russ Rutherford throw enough. They also note that gate receipts are down (perhaps overlooking the large number of fans who are admitted free).

"At most schools, you have the home stands and the visitors' stands—at Halls we have the home stands, the visitors' stands, and the people that don't like the coach," says one Halls fan.

The game ends, and Halls has won 16-8. Jim McManus is at the gate with a video camera to record the boys coming off the field.

He seems startled when asked why a community would want to run off a winning coach.

"That was in the past," he says. "It got worked out two years ago. I tell Coach Shephard he won—take your victory and go on with it."

Not true, says a Halls source who spoke on the condition of anonymity: "There's still so much hostility in the community. It's a no-win situation. When it comes down to telling Gary, everybody takes backwater. Nobody has the guts to tell him how it really is."

McManus, who signed the petition to remove Shephard, says the trouble "...was something uncontrollable when a father coaches a son," and believes that the Shephards need to reach out to the community.

"He needs to walk out there among those kids. He is greatly respected—much more than he gives himself credit for being. But that doesn't mean he doesn't make mistakes."

Inside the field house, Shephard is checking on his injured players, including Travis Sandefur, who probably suffered a concussion. Shephard's moving slowly himself, favoring a couple of broken ribs he suffered the week before when he fell in the morning dew. Pretty soon he'll wheel a cart full of dirty red jerseys and a jumbo box of Tide out to the gym, where he'll do the team's wash before he goes home.

(Head coaches with masters' degrees, like Shephard, earn a $6,574 annual supplement on top of their teacher's pay. Shephard, who teaches health, now also makes an additional $2,000 a year for taking care of the field.)

He is looking forward to a good weekend. John is coming in from Austin Peay, where he is a freshman starter at defensive back.

He is proud that John wants to be a coach, like his old man. There's one thing he worries about, though:

"I told him not to let his sons be quarterbacks."