Every year the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association adds a handful of names to its Hall of Fame. Just to be eligible is a feat of longevity: Inductees must have coached high school sports for at least 25 years, 20 of them in Georgia. It doesn’t hurt to have won a few games.
Buck Godfrey, who will be honored at this weekend’s GACA banquet in Dalton, is in all respects a shoo-in. As head football coach at Southwest DeKalb High for 30 seasons, his record of 273-89-1—including a state championship, state runner-up title, and 13 regional titles—makes him the winningest football coach in DeKalb County history and the winningest African American coach in the state.
Like the great high school football patriarchs of TV and film, Godfrey prides himself on being, above all, a molder of men. “We taught kids how to tie a tie. We taught them eye contact, strong body language, how to present themselves,” says the former English teacher, who retired last year and lives in Decatur with his wife, Joyce. Under his tenure 267 Southwest players received college scholarships, 27 masters degrees, and seven doctorates.
But it’s hard to envision Eric Taylor of Friday Night Lights reciting the prologue to the Canterbury Tales in perfect Middle English dialect. Did Remember the Titans’ Herman Boone nurture an abiding affection for Shakespeare’s Falstaff? “We have a lot of great coaches in the state,” says Terry Rogers, executive director of the GACA. “But you don’t see many writing poetry.”
Godfrey, a native South Carolinian who has authored three books, including a memoir about playing little league in the Jim Crow South, grew up wanting to be a center fielder for the New York Giants. After captaining the football and baseball teams at Delaware State University, he got as far as a tryout with the Mets. “That’s when everything came to bear that I needed to be a school teacher,” he says with a chuckle.
He studied at Columbia University and NYU before obtaining his MA in English from Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta). “You talk about some great professors, boy—most of them were taught by W.E.B. DuBois. The late Dr. Richard Long—he was something when he talked Chaucer,” Godfrey says of his time at Atlanta University.
But outside of that enclave, he found the city a far cry from Manhattan. At Gordon High (now McNair Middle), where he accepted his first DeKalb teaching post in 1974, “it was almost like ‘See Jack Run,’” he recalls. “There was no critical thinking.” He took it upon himself to purchase books for his students: Native Son, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Moby Dick. Meanwhile, on the lily-white baseball fields around the county, umpires squeezed his black pitchers’ strike zones. “When you got to certain fields, you really had to groove the ball,” he says.
Godfrey can pull from an endless trove of stories collected over thirty-nine years coaching football, baseball, and swimming while also being a father and grandfather. He recounts when swimming was assigned to him at Towers High in the late 70s, then majority white: “I never coached swimming, I never coached white kids, and I never coached girls.” He treated as gospel a book by famed Indiana swimming coach Doc Counsilman, and in 1978, his team took second in the county. “The funny part about that was, the only people of color at that meet were my wife, my two children, and myself,” he says.
Godfrey’s daughter, Rashan Ali, went on to swim at Florida A&M. His son, Colin, was a three-time All-American punter at Tennessee State. “It’s nonstop, the comments I get every day whether on Facebook or Twitter—don’t let me post an Instagram picture—saying ‘Your dad changed my life,’” says Ali, a local TV and radio personality. “You do have those people who say, ‘Oh, he was mean.’ But he is who he is. I know whenever God calls him home, ‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra is going to be playing at his service.”
“You just do it year in and year out, and all of a sudden it’s like, dang, 25 years—then 26 and all of a sudden 30,” says Godfrey. “Eddie Robinson, that great coach at Grambling, said you got to love ’em to coach ’em. And that’s what we did. We loved ’em.”