The Garner Athletics Hall of Fame induction night continues to highly entertain every year. As an alum, I’m sure that makes it a little more special. Three things happen every year at the banquet: you laugh, you get your heart strings tugged on and you learn a lot about Trojan athletics that you didn’t know before the night began.
Among the highlights this year:
The pride beaming through family of the late Raymond Miller, a basketball legend in Garner and graduate in 1973. He averaged 30 points and 15 rebounds for Brevard Junior College then almost equaled that with 28 and 14 averages at Furman. He was drafted by the Lakers and eventually became a noted basketball official and was one of the top wheelchair basketball officials in the U.S.
The back and forth banter between student/teacher turned fellow coach/teachers Eddie Gray and James Farris.
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Farris was a key figure in the formation of both the athletic and academic arenas during the opening of Garner Senior High School in 1968. He coached basketball, golf and cross country after making the move over from Garner Consolidated School, which he twice led to the state finals in basketball.
He briefly coached in college, and then returned to Garner to teach history and coach from 1976 until his retirement in 1992, which completed a run of 40 years in public education.
After colorfully describing Farris’ coaching style, Gray got down to the most important lesson he learned from Farris.
“Worth more than any trophies are the countless numbers of lives he has touched,” Gray said of Farris. “The real part of public school teaching is something you don’t see until people grow up and are leading their lives.”
Farris was glowing in his praise for Garner and its community, saying he jumped at the chance to come back to Garner after coaching at Shaw. “Garner Senior High School was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he concluded.
The third Hall inductee was a fellow classmate and friend of mine, standout running back John Leach. He went on to lead the ACC in rushing at Wake Forest, set ACC records and averaged 8.9 yards per carry at Garner during a prep career that included him starting at linebacker on the Trojans’ 1987 state championship team.
After revealing that he quit football his first season out as an eighth grader because he didn’t like the contact, Leach told how a summer in the tobacco fields turned him back to football as a ninth grader. But he came out as a wide receiver (figuring there would be less hitting there), then moved to running back and linebacker as a sophomore. He worked extensively with assistant coaches Joe Wolfe and Randy Stephens to take the speed and agility he’d developed as a standout runner in track into football ability.
The man known by his classmates as “John John” in high school had effusive praise for his mother, whose voice he could pick out of any big crowd: “I could hear her from a mile away. ‘Go Jonathan go; run Jonathan run!’ I could hear her from a mile away.” She was a woman who successfully navigated an ice storm and frozen sidewalks while wearing high heels — without one fall mind you — to see her son play and earn Defensive MVP honors in the Shrine Bowl.
He spoke of how Gray, then the Trojans’ defensive coordinator, trusted a second-year player and sophomore to make the defensive calls on the field. “Coach Gray trusted me to be the quarterback on defense,” Leach said. “He taught me to play the game in the mental aspect which was so important in college.”
But once the calendar changed to winter, Gray cut him from the basketball team. “He told me I didn’t have no left hand,” Leach joked. “Then added a ‘go wrestle’.”
But just as with the other two inductees and fellow Hall of Famer and guest speaker Stacey Betts who gave an inspired speech about the importance of community involvement, Leach went back to the most important lessons he learned from going to school and playing at Garner: “Coach (Hal) Stewart told me there were five things that will get you ahead in life: ‘Yes, ma’am;’ ‘No, ma’am;’ ‘Yes, sir;’ ‘No, sir’ and ‘thank you.’”
He praised the community as well. “The Garner community is amazing,” Leach said. “From my first day in ninth grade I was welcomed with open arms wherever I went. And I got so much encouragement from everybody. Garner’s impact on my life is immeasurable.”