High school football stadium lights point down to the turf, but something seemed reversed last week about Southern Nash High’s illuminated field.
You first sensed it driving East on N.C. Highway 97, a dark two-lane road. You’re in the middle of a desolate area on a moonless November Friday night – close to feeling lost – until reaching a crest in the road. Suddenly, the sky lit up.
A bubble of incandescence in the distance seemed to rise from the campus. The reversed lighting is similar to the effect of “Foster Strong,” support to a giving family that has embraced the Southern Nash campus since head coach Brian Foster’s wife, Kim, and son, Zack, survived a near-fatal car crash on Interstate 40 on Oct. 14 near Wilmington.
They noticed something wrong just before the car went left, went across the median and into oncoming traffic. Kim suffered two shattered tibulas and fibulas, a broken elbow and four broken ribs, among other injuries. Zack had three compound fractures in the same leg and lost a lot of blood as an artery burst.
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Both Kim and Zack are still months away from walking under their own power and will continue to rehab.
Brian Foster, a Southern Nash coach for 27 years and head coach for the last 19, has dedicated his life to guiding young men on and off the field, but he and his family suddenly find themselves on the unexpected receiving end of community generosity.
“I’ve always tried to make a difference in kids’ lives, and my wife is the same way,” Foster said. “She’s an art teacher at the school and the rock of our family. She cooks for our team and talks with the kids. The kids love her a lot more than me. We’re so used to doing things for other people and now it’s the opposite.”
Kim, a long-time Southern Nash teacher, and Zack, the Firebirds’ quarterback as a senior in the 2015 season, were both in the hospital for nearly three weeks with Brian by their sides.
Players and assistant coaches visited with Kim and Zack. Teammates and assistant coach Brian Rice shared caring for their younger son, Matt, a JV quarterback, while Brian was with his wife and older son. Friends prepared meals. Others helped tend to the family home’s damage from Hurricane Matthew.
“It’s been humbling,” said Kim, who came home just in time for Thanksgiving. “We’ve had former students come by to visit and help. They said you did this or that for me – things we might not even remember. Brian has always talked to his players about being good men, husbands and fathers. He told his team that’s what he was doing when he’s away.”
Southern Nash had a bye the week of the accident. The Firebirds won the next two games with offensive coordinator Brian Batchelor – one of eight assistant coaches that played for Foster – serving as acting head coach. Foster hasn’t been around full-time since he returned, but he was back on the sidelines when Southern Nash won the final two regular-season games and the playoff first-rounder last week over Northern Nash, 30-15.
The Southern Nash stadium lights will be on again Friday night when the Firebirds (12-0) play host to rival Rocky Mount (10-2) in the second round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A playoffs.
The varsity players, including senior middle linebacker Alex Puente, said their hearts have been heavy, but it’s business as usual under the lights. Many of them have known Foster since they were 8 years old and played in Nash County Parks and Recreation football league.
“I think anybody that has come across Coach Foster knows he is a great man whether you’ve talked to him five minutes or known him your whole life,” said Puente, a third-year starter. “Coach Batchelor has known him since he was 8 years old and played for him. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, I don’t know what else will.”
Many teenagers may not have been able to perform to such a high level under the circumstances, but Puente explained they have merely practiced what Foster has taught them for years about responsibility on and off the field.
“I told my players and coaches how special they are to me,” Foster said. “They have made this year special for me and my family and not because of the winning. It’s because of how they have handled themselves. There are a lot of good people that have helped us, and not just at our school. The local schools and different people in the community have done so much. It’s been a blessing for us.”
Southern Nash wants to win a state title this year, but Foster adds: “It feels like I’ve already won one.”
J. Mike Blake contributed.