After beloved football coach’s sudden death, his legacy lives on in Harris County

Each Christmas night, starting at about 4 or 5 p.m., Danny Durham’s side of the family gathers at a given member’s house. The families all gather in a circle and share what God has done in their lives throughout the year. Then, they sing (Danny loved singing, according to his wife Julie Durham) and unwrap gifts.

This was always a happy time for the households. It was an annual gathering that family members, including his children Graham Durham, Anna Durham and Jordan Durham, rarely missed.

Christmas 2018 was the first that Danny could not attend.

He died a few months earlier at age 54, and the loss of the beloved football coach rocked the Harris County community and beyond. He was a man who loved jokes (“old person jokes,” Anna called them), saw football as a ministry and impacted thousands of lives. But beneath all the laughter was a man who wanted the best for his family, and who, even in death, continues to live on in the hearts of the residents of Hamilton.

‘He’d talk your head off’

Football was at its height in Statesboro in the late 80’s and 90’s, and Danny found himself at the center of it all. He was a four-year letterman for the Georgia Southern Eagles, and a starting linebacker on the 1985 and 1986 national championship teams. He also served as the program’s defensive line coach in 1990 and 1991.

Danny and Julie met through a mutual friend at small group Bible study, on November 7, 1992. Danny was 29 years old, and Julie was 27.

Danny had just entered his first football season as defensive coordinator at Rabun County, while Julie worked in Atlanta as a credit manager at Trust Company of Georgia.

Danny and Julie married June 19, 1993, around seven months after they first met.

“I just knew,” Julie said. “And he did too.”

Danny proposed at the Chattahoochee River Park in Atlanta with a solitaire ring from Belk, since they had Julie’s actual ring specially made.

“He pulls this snowball out of his pocket, and I’m like, ‘what in the world?’” Julie said. “He’s saying all this stuff and I’m nervous and picking at the snowball, and he takes it from me and goes, ‘Stop! Stop!’ Then I realized there was a ring inside.”

Danny had actually kept the snowball, with the ring still inside, in the back of the freezer inside Julie’s Atlanta apartment. She didn’t think anything of it, until the day he proposed.

The family, which by then had added three members, eventually found their way to Harris County where Danny took on the role of defensive coordinator for the football team in 2012. He was promoted to athletics director and assistant principal in 2014. His previous 12 years were spent as head football coach at three Georgia high schools: Gordon Central, Franklin County and Rabun County.

But football was never truly about football to Danny.

He loved the game of football, for sure. But Danny used football to “coach young men and boys to be men,” Graham, said.

“He would tear into somebody on the field with some passion, but he would do it in a way that was not demeaning,” Graham said. “It was constructive criticism, and he’d do it in a loving and passionate way, and show grace.

“He’d rip somebody a new one, and just tear into them, but make the kid, whether it was a student in the halls, or a player, he did it in a way that the player knew, or the student knew, that dad cared.”

Former Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who played quarterback at Harris County, described Danny as “down to earth, with a lot of energy.”

Marshall said the two talked about football, obviously, but also talked about life. Marshall said a lot of his friends, who didn’t even play football, were “cool with Coach Durham,” and that everybody saw how genuine of a person he was.

The two talked many times while Marshall was preparing to commit to Georgia Tech. Danny would share stories of former Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson, who served on Georgia Southern’s coaching staff during Danny’s playing days, and the two would discuss the ins-and-outs of the triple-option offense.

“He’d talk your head off,” Marshall said. “He’d sit there and talk to you all dadgum day if you let him.”

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Danny Durham (second from left) with daughters Anna Durham (far left) and Jordan Durham (center), wife Julie Durham (second from right) and son Graham Durham (far right). Courtesy of Julie Durham

‘He’s going to be fine’

August 16, 2018 was supposed to be an exciting day for Graham. Then a student at the University of North Georgia, he’d driven back to Dahlonega from Hamilton that morning, arriving around 3 p.m. School was starting back soon, and Graham hadn’t seen many of his friends since the end of the previous semester.

So, he got together with a group of friends — Walt Chapeau, Payne McDonald, Ryan McCain, Haleigh Easterling and a few others — for a barbecue cookout gathering after unpacking his belongings. That’s when Graham received a call from Julie.

Something was a bit off.

“She calls me, and she says, ‘Graham, your dad collapsed while he was running today,’” Graham said. “She said, ‘I don’t know much right now, but I wanted to call you and tell you to pray.’”

The next few hours were frantic. Danny rode to St. Francis Hospital in Columbus in an ambulance, while Julie rode separately with Harris County School District superintendent Roger Couch. She didn’t know what the situation was, and nobody could tell her.

Graham’s initial thought was that the incident was heat-related, as it was mid-August. Danny had never collapsed while running, he said, and his father was in good health.

“(My mind) went to just that he was in the hospital, and he was going to get some IV’s, and he’s going to be fine,” Graham said.

All Graham could do was wait, and did so for “hours.” He didn’t plan on returning home — Dahlonega sits 151 miles northeast of Hamilton, a two and a half hour drive. But a family friend called him and told him to return home. That’s when Graham realized the situation was much more serious than he’d led himself to believe.

After leaving his home, which is directly behind Harris County High School, Danny jogged through his subdivision and was approximately 30 minutes into his run when he collapsed, Harris County coroner Joe Weldon said in a previous interview with the L-E. A student found Durham lying face down on the track and called 911 at 5:42 p.m. that afternoon, Weldon said. Emergency responders arrived within 5 minutes.

Around 7:30 p.m., Graham received another call from his mother.

“She said, ‘buddy, your dad’s with Jesus,’” Graham said. “I let out some words in anger. It was the first time I’d ever said anything bad talking to my mother.”

Danny had “some type of cardiac event” but no history of heart trouble, Weldon said.

Graham returned to Harris County alone that night. Several friends offered to drive him, but he needed time by himself. Time to reflect. Time to let it all sink in. He barely remembers the drive, which was full of thinking, questioning, trying to talk to God and thinking he wasn’t hearing back.

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Danny Durham (left) with son Graham Durham. Courtesy of Julie Durham

‘What’s the point?’

Graham did not return to school at UNG, but stayed busy. He returned home, then spent time traveling, attending college football games and taking in some October Atlanta Braves games at SunTrust Park. The family went on a beach trip around two months after Danny’s passing.

He stayed the following winter at the family’s Toccoa, Georgia, cabin, where he took some time for himself. Graham spent the time working on the cabin, then returned to Hamilton in the springtime for a few months.

He did “a little bit of everything and a lot of nothing,” he said. Staying busy was Graham’s way of coping, as he found himself at his lowest points when isolated. He had to stay busy and keep his mind moving, and realize that he had to keep his life moving.

“His life here on earth may have stopped, but I couldn’t let my life stop,” Graham said. “That’s where it was hard, because sometimes I’d get super depressed and sad. I didn’t want my life to keep going, but I had to. I had no other choice.”

“What’s the point?” Graham would ask himself. If a man like Danny had his life cut short, why put forth the effort to be an “unbelievable human?”

“That’s when I realized that, to God, it wasn’t short,” Graham said. “It was a full life. He lived a full life. He did what he was here to do. He accomplished all the goals he was meant to accomplish. He impacted a whole heckuva lot of people.”

To say the least. The family received thousands of notes and letters of support, each telling a unique story about Danny.

Around 2,400 people attended Danny’s funeral at Evangel Temple Assemblies of God on Veterans Parkway. The church had four overflow rooms with television monitors streaming the service, and the Facebook Live stream surpassed 15,000 views. Members from his first teams at Franklin County attended the service.

“He always said, ‘there’s never a bad kid, just bad situations.’ Everybody needs somebody there,” Anna said. “And that was him, most of the time.”

Harris County’s football field was dedicated in Danny’s honor at halftime of the team’s game against Thomas County Central in October 2018.

The school’s softball team sold bracelets with Danny’s initials, “D.D.,” to students at the school. Danny used to spend hours cleaning pine cones from his family’s front lawn, so when the team won the region, players showed up to the Durhams’ house and did the same.

Danny Durham (pictured in back) and family celebrating daughter Jordan’s (pictured far left) 23rd birthday on May 30, 2018. Courtesy of Julie Durham

“If you walk down the halls, I’ll see people I don’t even know wearing (the bracelets),” Anna said.

When Danny died, Graham said players from Georgia Southern’s national championship teams reached out to him to share stories and send old photos. Georgia linebacker Tae Crowder, who played running back and receiver for Durham at Harris County, sent the family a signed football for Christmas. New York Jets linebacker Jordan Jenkins, a former Harris County and UGA athlete, provided Graham and Julie with sideline passes to the Jets’ game against the Atlanta Falcons on August 15, one day before the anniversary of Danny’s passing.

Jim Vanatsky, who coached with Danny at Georgia Southern, named his son after Danny. Danny Vanatsky now plays quarterback at Ohio State.

“He’s a special person to me,” Crowder said. “He served as a father figure to me and was a great coach. He was so positive and I respected everything about him. I loved that guy to death.”

Two benches atop a cement pad were recently installed under “Danny’s Tree,” a pine tree located behind Harris County’s football field, where Danny jogged into heaven.

Benches, for the man who never sat down.

‘An answer to prayer’

August 16, 2018, was supposed to be an exciting day for Danny. Couch had approached his wife that day about the possibility of Graham taking the GACE exam, Georgia’s education certification test. Couch also thought Harris County could possibly use his son in a coaching role.

As Danny searched for his earbuds and prepared for his daily run on that August afternoon, Julie approached him with the news. She remembers looking into her husband’s eyes — the last time she’d do so — as they were filled with tears.

“Danny said, ‘That is an answer to prayer,’” Julie said. “He was so moved. He was humbled. He just couldn’t believe that Graham understood, and wanted to be like his dad.”

That prayer was fully answered this past August.

Stephens County principal Michael Keown reached out to Graham about the prospect of joining the Indians’ coaching staff. Keown coached Graham in basketball for three years, and knew Danny closely. It was early August, and Graham would need approval from the county’s education board before he could step onto campus, let alone help coach the football team.

When Graham graduated from Harris County, he never saw himself becoming a coach. He honestly never desired it. But it stayed in the back of his mind, and Graham told himself all along that education would be his fallback.

“I didn’t want to be just like dad,” Graham said. “I wanted to do my own thing and find my own thing. Then I realized that this was my thing.”

The board approved Graham, and he began coaching the week following the team’s opening scrimmage. His job is to coach the team’s JV linebackers, and help coach the varsity linebackers. His official title is defensive assistant.

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Graham Durham (pictured in jersey) hugs father Danny Durham after a Harris County High School football game. Courtesy of Julie Durham

While there are certainly necessary times to yell at a player or coach an individual in a harsher way, Graham, like his father once did, much prefers to put his arm around a player and explain what’s going on. That it’s important for a linebacker to key in on a running back’s hips, rather than his eyes, or to always keep one’s head on a swivel, because a receiver could be darting in for a crack block.

“I love, not just the coaching aspect, but coaching kids,” Graham said. “The term coaching as in, not just football, but life.”

Graham spends most evenings helping the team in practice, including Thursday nights coaching the JV squad and his Friday nights traveling with the varsity team. Julie’s voice cracks when she looks at photos of Graham on the Stephens County sideline, dressed in a school polo, shorts and cap, and stroking his chin like his father used to.

Graham still keeps his father’s phone number saved in his contacts and calls it often. Sometimes he just wants to hear his voicemail, other times he’ll leave messages. It’s one of the many ways the family keeps Danny’s memory alive.

A sign reading “Danny Durham Field” sits below the Tiger Stadium scoreboard today, and the stadium’s press box was recently painted to read “Durham Field.” The Harris County Chick-fil-A Leader Academy hosted the Do it for Danny 5k in April, with proceeds going toward the Coach Danny Durham Scholarship Fund. The first scholarship was awarded last year to Tiera Brooks, who now plays softball at Point University.

The family keeps a tub of photos. In it, Julie recently found a 90-minute cassette tape of songs that Danny recorded for her for their first Valentine’s Day together. She had the cassette restored and copied onto a CD.

The track ends with Danny’s voice saying “Happy Valentines Day, and I love you, Julie.” It was the first time he’d told his wife to-be that he loved her.

Anna recently picked up a copy of Erk Russell’s book “Erk: Football, Fans and Friends.” She read the famous rattlesnake story: During Danny’s Georgia Southern days, the NBA-bound Len Bias and an NFL player died of a cocaine overdose within a span of weeks. Russell was the coach at Georgia Southern and saw a teaching moment, so he dumped a rattlesnake onto a table in a small classroom where players were gathered. The sight of a venomous snake sent the players running.

Anna loved it. She couldn’t believe her father’s name was in the book.

“She asked, ‘was dad in the locker room when Erk pulled out that rattlesnake?’” Julie said.

“She said, ‘oh, mom, I want to hear my dad tell that story.’”

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Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.