High School Sports

They ruled small-town football in Wake County for years. Now they will be honored.

Former Fuquay-Varina High School football coach Graham Myrick, left, and former Garner High School football coach Hal Stewart.
Former Fuquay-Varina High School football coach Graham Myrick, left, and former Garner High School football coach Hal Stewart.

As high school football coaches, Graham Myrick and Hal Stewart had different styles.

Myrick, who coached 28 years at Fuquay-Varina High School, strictly enforced the team rules. He was ultra-organized and believed there was a right way to do things on the field and during practice.

Stewart, who coached at Garner High School for 16 seasons, flew by the seat of his pants. If a player unexpectedly missed practice, his first question was often, “What’s going on at your house?”

Both approaches clearly worked, as Myrick and Stewart became two of the most successful Wake County high school football coaches. They will be named honorary coaches this weekend by the N.C. Football Coaches Association in Greensboro. It’s the highest honor given by the group to high school and college coaches.

“They each did it their own way, the way that worked best for their personalities,” said Thurman Leach, Garner’s current head football coach who nominated both men. “But they taught me that the biggest thing in high school coaching is loving kids and always keeping their best interests at heart.”

Myrick arrived in Wake County in 1964 from Bertie Central High School in Eastern North Carolina. Many young boys in Fuquay-Varina grew up dreaming of playing football for Myrick, who retired in 1992 with more than 200 victories.

When he started, Fuquay-Varina was still a rural community where farming was big business. Myrick held most preseason practices at night during his first years because many players worked in the fields during the day.

“They were kids that would get up at daybreak to empty a barn of tobacco, prime tobacco all day in the fields, hang a barn of tobacco and come to football practice with tobacco gum on their hands because they didn’t have time to take a bath,” Myrick said.

“They were tough kids who loved to play football. There was never any question about character. Late in a game with the ball at the three and the game on the line, I knew they were going to give me all that they had.”

Stewart arrived in Garner in 1983, after coaching stints at schools in Durham, Richmond County and St. Pauls in Robeson County. His Richmond team won the state 4A title in 1978.

The Goldsboro native immediately felt at home in Garner.

“I had never been to a place like Garner,” Stewart said. “It became my home. It still is.”

Leach, the current Garner head coach, played for Myrick at Fuquay-Varina. He coached there for one season after college, but joined Stewart’s staff in Garner in 1988 when Fuquay-Varina couldn’t offer him a teaching position.

“I called Hal (Stewart) and I told him I was doing him the best favor he had received in a long time and that he needed to hire (Leach)” Myrick said.

Stewart remembers that call, too. “He said (Leach) was one of the best people he had ever known. Graham calling me sure was one of the biggest favors that I’ve ever received.”

Leach said both men had a bigger impact on him than anyone except his parents. That impact extended beyond the football field.

“I remember we had players through the years at Garner that missed a lot of practices,” he said. “But they had to work. They might have to lay brick or wash dishes. Their families needed the income. Hal (Stewart) understood that. Hal always said there were some players who could play for him that probably couldn’t play for a lot of other coaches.”

Stewart said when he found out about the honorary coach designation, he immediately thought of his long-time assistant coaches and of his players.

“I learned when I started coaching at Greenwood Junior High in Goldsboro in 1968 that the key to coaching was surrounding yourself with great people,” said Stewart, who followed an 8-0 football season that year with an 0-24 basketball campaign. “I’ve been surrounded by great people for many years.”

When Leach first told Stewart about the award, Stewart suggested that Myrick should be honored too. When Myrick found out he was nominated, he told Leach to nominate Stewart instead.

Neither had realized that Leach had nominated them both at the same time.

“There is no way to put into words how much this means to me,” said Myrick, who now lives in Morehead City. “To have my peers recognize me this way is a great honor and is overwhelming.”

A third coach will also be honored by the N.C. Football Coaches Association this weekend: 100-year-old Charles Kernodle Jr., who became the Burlington Williams High School team physician in 1949 and still rides the team bus to all away games.

Email Tim Stevens at timstevens710@gmail.com.