When Gary Downs looked back at his time at Spencer High School, he remembered seeing NFL players return to the school and speak to encourage the students. On Saturday, Downs gets his chance to follow in the footsteps of those men.
Downs will address the Spencer football team during the squad’s football banquet. Now the running backs coach at East Tennessee State, Downs is hopeful he can use his appearance to inspire the young men to seek success in whatever field they pursue.
“Spencer gave me a platform and good preparation in high school,” Downs said. “I think the opportunity to go back and share with these current players about the opportunities they have under their high school coaches and what their school has done for them is invaluable.”
Downs followed his time with the Green Wave as a running back at North Carolina State. After finishing as the Wolfpack’s third-leading rusher in school history, he spent seven seasons in the NFL and appeared in Super Bowl XXXIII with the Atlanta Falcons.
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His appearance is something Spencer head coach Pierre Coffey said can mean a lot to those in the crowd.
“It gives our kids hope and that belief that no matter what the circumstances are and no matter where they may be in their current life, they can make it,” Coffey said. “Gary being a special alumnus, our kids will relate to him more. Seeing the success he’s had and how he’s used football as a platform, it’s just awesome for our kids.”
When Downs was asked about his alma mater, his immediate reaction wasn’t about sports.
He didn’t bring up victories or stats from late 1980s. Instead, he brought up the names of teachers and coaches, all of whom were mentors who influenced him outside of athletics.
Health teacher Ann Banaszak told Downs as a freshman he was on track to be a college-bound athlete. Percy Griffin, then Spencer’s principal, gave the then-senior Downs responsibility to prevent shenanigans between the seniors and juniors during Senior Week. Football coach Frank Matthews saw ability in his young men and did what he could to help them launch their post-high school lives. Track coach Greg Hart personally gave his players rides home and went “above and beyond” to help those around him.
Downs said he wants the current Spencer players to realize how important Coffey as well as other coaches and teachers can be in their lives.
“The influence coaches and teachers have in high school, to plant the seed in a kid’s mind of what he can be in life, it means something,” Downs said. “I’ve been mentored by people, and I get to become a mentor in sharing some of those examples of what’s happened in my life with those young men and help them, inspire them or correct them.”
Downs recalled a recent coaching luncheon he attended in Macon. He introduced himself as being part of the Buccaneers coaching staff, which led someone later to say he sure was a long way from home. Downs politely corrected the person, saying since he was in Georgia, he was home.
Downs’ role with East Tennessee State limits how often he can return home, but he said he’s excited to make the most of his visit on Saturday.
“As a coach, you always hope that your life and example will inspire somebody,” Downs said. “You also want to encourage them to go on to the next stage of life. You want them to recognize and reflect on their achievements as a football team and give thanks to coach Coffey and the administration for what they’ve done to help.”
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @JordanDavisHill