7 ‘hero’ coaches, teachers and administrators recognized by AHSAA for making a difference

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Hewitt-Trussville Coach David Dobbs (center) with players. Photo courtesy of AHSAA

Every year since 2011, the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) recognizes community high school heroes that are among us.

At its Summer Conference, AHSAA presents a Making a Difference Award to individuals who go beyond their normal duties as a coach, teacher or administrator.

They make a positive impact in their schools and communities.

Seven individuals, one in each of the AHSAA’s seven classifications, are selected for this prestigious award. 

AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese has called the award “the most important honor a professional educator in our state can receive.”

With the return of high school sports only days away, let’s take a look at the recipients of this year’s AHSAA Making a Difference awards. The stories of each winner were spotlighted recently by the group, which we share here. 

Heroes Build 

Hewitt-Trussville Coach David Dobbs with players. Photo courtesy of AHSAA

In 1990, when Hewitt-Trussville High School’s David Dobbs began his track and field coaching career at the school, the future was not too bright. Back then, the six-lane asphalt track he inherited was described as a “bad, bad country road.”

Despite minimal support, Dobbs rapidly built up the program. Within nine years, Hewitt- Trussville’s girls won the state indoor state title. The boys followed up a decade later, finishing runner-up to state titles in 2011 and 2017.

“He did such a tremendous job of building that program that really had never had any kind of history and making it so competitive,” legendary Hewitt-Trussville athletic director Jack Wood said. “It’s remarkable, really.”

 Today, he has earned a reputation as a track and cross country ambassador. The program’s old track has been replaced by a state-of-the-art surface. After 40 years of coaching (he coached at Banks High School in Birmingham before Trussville), in some cases, he has coached parents and even grandparents of former track and cross country student-athletes.

Dobbs summed it up best in the recent  AHSAA featured story about his coaching career, “It is very satisfying.”

Heroes Lead 

Pelham High School Principal Kim Kiel with Clemson Head Coach and Pelham alum Dabo Sweeney. Photo courtesy of ASHAA

The best description of Pelham High School’s Kim Kiel is “servant leader.”

Entering her third decade at the school, Kiel has coached basketball, volleyball and softball. A talented administrator, she has served as an assistant athletic director and the community’s system-wide athletic director. In June, she was named principal for Pelham High School. 

You almost have to ask, what does she not do for the betterment of her student-athletes, families and communities? For example, in addition to coaching, Kiel was a basketball official—the ref in games at some of the highest levels in college.

Pelham High School Principal Kim Kiel, ref’ing a game. Photo courtesy of ASHAA

And last, she is a member of AHSAA’s Central Board of Control.

In an interview about the Making a Difference award, Kiel’s comments show how she leads.

“I don’t want that spotlight. If there’s anything great that happens at Pelham, I want it to shine on Pelham, and I don’t care if it shines on Kim Kiel. It’s not about me. It’s about our student-athletes. It’s about our teachers. It’s about our city.  It’s about our community. That’s what’s so important to me.”

That unselfishness and unconditional love is why she is making a difference.

Heroes Listen

Francis Marion High School Principal Dr. Cathy Trimble. Photo courtesy of AHSAA

One common theme with a number of this year’s Making Difference recipients is the fact that many of the honorees were once student-athletes at the high school they are now a coach, teacher or administrator. Francis Marion High School’s Dr. Cathy Trimble returned to her alma mater, became a coach, teacher and school’s principal.

Building on her experience Dr. Trimble started an initiative called “Blast Off Mondays” where she met students in the gymnasium and discussed whatever the students had on their mind.

“The students and I built a bond that was worth more than I can ever describe,” Trimble said. “They taught me what they really needed most was someone who would listen to them. I mean, really listen to them.”

Through listening, the 1A school has reduced discipline problems and success in the classroom has soared. 

In 2019, Trimble’s efforts were recognized when the school was one of 30 selected as a CLAS School of Distinction, a statewide school leadership award. She is also supporting athletics statewide and representing small schools by currently serving on the AHSAA Central Board of Control from District 3. 

Heroes Volunteer

Chilton County High School’s Barry Baker. Photo courtesy of AHSAA

How many people do you know have served twenty-five years as an athletic trainer at their alma mater as a volunteer? That is what Barry Baker, Chilton County High School’s Athletic Trainer has been doing. It is why he was chosen for the 5A Making a Difference award winner.

Volunteering is second nature to Baker. Along with the high school team, in total, he looks after student-athletes in 25 junior varsity and varsity boys’ and girls’ sports teams at Chilton County, Clanton Middle School and five additional schools in the county. 

“Barry is a vital member of our community who serves the students/children of our community with a servant’s heart displaying love and passion,” said Chilton County High School athletic director and head football coach Tal Morrison. “His love for his alma mater and passion to help and treat those student-athletes that represent his school, town and county is immeasurable.”

Along with his volunteer activities, Baker is an entrepreneur and co-owner of a local company called Cornerstone Wellness and Fitness. 

In addition to his tireless dedication to his community, Baker inspires all of us. 

He gives back, unconditionally, despite being legally blind—having lost his sight while in junior high school.

“You don’t make excuses. If you want to do something enough, you will find a way,” he has said.

Heroes Inspire

West Blocton’s Joe Clements. Photo courtesy of AHSAA

West Blocton High School’s Assistant Football Coach Joe Clements has a story that could be made into a Hollywood blockbuster movie.

Here is how AHSAA described Clements’ journey. 

After returning home to attend a local junior college and coach football, Clements’ life turned upside down on April 7, 2012. On that date, he was severely injured after his truck blew a tire and flipped several times just 10 minutes from the school. He had a broken back, damaged spinal cord, broken femur, broken ribs, and multiple internal and head injuries. 

Once out of surgery, he remained in a coma for more than three months and was in ICU for six months. He was told he would never walk again…and that his life would never be the same. Long-term plans for his life as a paraplegic were being made by his doctors and family. 

He refused to accept that fact, however, and promised that he would walk again.

Almost a year later, confined to a wheelchair, he was reunited with the West Blocton football staff and team on the practice field – and began coaching again. He was fitted with special braces and learned to stand. He also enrolled in the University of Alabama.

West Blocton’s Joe Clements. Photo courtesy of AHSAA

His dedication, persistence and faith in the face of such pain and suffering inspired everyone who knew him. Then, in 2014 during a pre-game pep talk, Joe addressed the team just minutes before a big game about working hard, believing in what you do and never giving up. 

Then he stood up. And with the assistance of a walker, he said, “I told you I would walk again.”

West Blocton head coach Eric Hiott said, “It was one of the most inspirational moments I’ve ever witnessed.”

And the rest of the story? Clements is scheduled to receive a master’s degree at the University of Alabama in 2020. He continues to coach the West Blocton football team, in fact, he is the offensive coordinator. More importantly, he mentors students and inspires.

West Blocton Principal Terry Lawley adds, “He makes all of us better for knowing him. We should all strive to be like Joe.”

Heroes Teach

Walter Welborn High School ‘s Jeff Smith. Photo courtesy of AHSAA

Family is important to Walter Wellborn High School head football coach and athletic director Jeff Smith. He grew up in Anniston without a father—so he understands the importance of stepping forward and filling that void.

“For some kids, it may be the only family they might have,” he said about football and mentoring student-athletes. That is why Smith says he has modeled his entire coaching career after those two important mentors—his own high school football coach at Wellborn Mike Battles and his uncle Lloyd Dear.

An alum of Walter Welborn along with his wife Lisa, Smith has coached the 3A school for 11 years, reaching the state semifinals last year with a 12-2 record.

“He has faced adversity but has never wavered in his dedication to our students and community. He has been a voice for athletics and education at WWHS,” said principal and former high school teammate Christopher Hayes.

Walter Welborn High School Football team. Photo courtesy of AHSAA

Smith is the fourth high school educator from Calhoun County to win the award since 2011.

Heroes Love

Coach Robin Tyra. Photo courtesy of AHSAA

Abbeville High School’s head coach in 2019, Robin Tyra has coached all four sports—football, basketball, baseball and track at one time or another during his two-decade-long successful coaching career. He left Abbeville earlier this summer to become head football coach and athletic director at Ashford High School.

The key to his success? The “open door” policy he learned from his own high school football coach at Guin High School, Doug Goodwin and his wife Donna.

“Our house is just like their house was. Players are welcome,” said Tyra. “We try to provide a home-away-from-home kind of atmosphere. My wife Laura is very involved, and the players love everything she does for them. She insists they be fed, and we want them to feel welcome anytime. Unconditional love!”

Photo courtesy of AHSAA

On and off the field, Tyra is making a difference. At Abbeville, for the first time since 2006, they made the second round of the 2A football playoffs in two consecutive years during his tenure. More importantly, through his open-door policy, he has found a way to mentor student-athletes to also ‘win’ in the classroom and life.

More Than a Game

Perhaps AHSAA’s Savarese said it best when he described how this special award exemplifies what makes education-based sports so important.

“This is one way we can honor our teachers, coaches and administrators for the example they set and the life lessons they teach on a daily basis,” he said.

When football, volleyball, swimming and diving, and cross country begin their fall 2020 schedules in the coming days, it is more than games and competitions. It’s about making a difference in young people’s lives and our community.

Visit AHSAA to learn more.

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Pat Byington
Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.
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