Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

Some say success is best measured by how far you've come with the talents you've been given.

And if that's the case, then Luther Welsh has long since broken the barometer.

Widely regarded as one of the greatest high school football coaches to ever walk the sidelines in Georgia, Welsh -- who retired in December after 55 years and countless stops along the way, including 15 years in Southwest Georgia between Albany High and Dougherty -- is now ready to turn the spotlight off himself and put it on someone else.

He' says he's ready to let someone else make a name for themselves the way Welsh unknowingly has for himself for the last half-century.

Welsh, of course, understands better than anyone the time and dedication he's given to high school football since his first job out of college in 1955, but he admits he may not realize the true impact he's had on so many lives over the years until today, when he's honored during a retirement ceremony in Thomson -- his final, and most successful, coaching stop, where he won three state championships over the span of 19 years.

"I was shocked when they told me they wanted to do this for me. I've been doing this a long time and no one's ever wanted to do something like this for me," a choked-up Welsh told The Herald in a telephone interview from his home Friday afternoon. "So I told them, 'Go ahead and do it -- and just tell me what time to show up.' "

The celebration for Welsh will last from 1-to-5 p.m. at the Thomson Depot, but four hours is hardly enough time to spend on a man beloved by so many. There will be hundreds, maybe even thousands, of former players, assistant coaches, family, friends and fans who will turn out to exchange handshakes and hugs with Welsh, who said Friday he wouldn't miss this party for anything. Not even due to his current cancer battle that he's fighting for the second time in 10 years.

After all, the first time he beat it -- in fact, he never missed a game during his bout with lymphoma in 2000 -- and this time around Welsh says he thinks he'll beat it again.

Pushing through adversity is what he's tried to teach his players for the last 55 years. And this is no different.

When asked how he'd been doing lately while taking on esophageal cancer -- the battle this time around -- Welsh just laughed.

"Well, for my age, I guess I'm doing all right. I'll be 79 on June 25 and I'm getting along just fine," said Welsh, who's had the support of the entire community of Thomson in his latest fight. "I've been going to chemo every week, and I've got friends and folks around here who help carry me to my appointments when I go.

"They've been good to me over here. Real, real good to me."

Welsh will be joined today by -- among so many others -- his wife of 50 years, Anne, their youngest daughter Andrea and oldest daughter Lucia.

And one of the first items on the agenda? A proclamation by the city of Thomson that Feb. 5 will forever be known as "Luther Welsh Day."

"I'm so excited," Lucia said Friday. "I'm just glad to see him get recognized after all the years."

And Welsh, admittedly, can't wait to see what the day holds.

"There's going to be so many people there I haven't seen in so many years, and we all have changed so much. I'll probably recognize half of them and the other half I won't," Welsh said, before adding with a chuckle, "Some of them will be slimmer, some will be thicker. And I'm sure a lot of them will have lost their hair -- just like me."

But while the follicles on top of his head may have dissipated, Welsh's sense of humor has not.

And neither have the memories.

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'I HAD A GREAT TIME'

Long before Welsh ever walked the sidelines at Albany High, or Dougherty, or Crisp County, or Warner Robins, or Camden County, or Greensboro, or Sylvania or Thomson -- all coaching stops along the way -- with that fire-and-brimstone look in his eyes that became legend around the Peach State, he grew up as a "simple country boy," as he described it, in a small town in South Carolina called Mayesville -- population, these days, of just around 2,000.

He was a star athlete at Maywood High School in baseball and football, so much so he earned scholarships to play both sports at Presbyterian College after graduating from Maywood in 1948. Once he arrived at Presbyterian, Welsh said he knew right away what career path he wanted to take.

"I was gonna get my degree in health and physical education and then serve my country in the U.S. Army," he recalled. "When I graduated, the Korean War was going on, and I was ready to go. I got the call to go serve, and they sent me to Anchorage, Alaska, -- and I enjoyed my time there, it was better than most think -- as I waited to go over."

Luckily for Welsh, and the thousands of lives he would one day go on to impact on and off the football field, that call never came, and the only time he ended up being in harm's way was braving the sub-zero temperatures of Alaska that were certainly foreign to this South Carolinian.

"They called a truce to the war (in 1953) and I never went; ended up serving just a year," said Welsh, who met Anne while in college and the duo were married right before he left for the service. "Then I came home to South Carolina (to Anne) and my family and tried to figure out what was next."

What came next, Welsh said, was a call by his college to nearby Warrenton High School in South Carolina as administrators from Presbyterian sought a candidate to take over the vacant head coaching job.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

"I was still so young that I'd get out there and strap on the helmet and scrimmage with those boys after they made me the coach. They enjoyed it and I enjoyed it. I had a great time," Welsh said, before pausing and adding, "well, I had a great time until one day at practice I got hit in the back of the head. That's when I said to myself, 'OK. I think your playing days are done. Let's just stick to coaching football.' "

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'THE CALLED US THE RIVER RATS'

In 1965, a job came open in Cordele at Crisp County, and Welsh got the call. He would never return to South Carolina to live after that. Georgia became his new home.

Welsh coached the Cougars for one year before an even better opportunity came available: Becoming an assistant under coaching legend Harold Dean Cook at Albany High, which was the "it" school in Southwest Georgia at the time. Ferrell Henry, another legendary Georgia coach who will be on hand today for Welsh's retirement ceremony, remembers the move well.

"It was so ironic how we became friends and coaching rivals. When Luther came to Albany in 1966, he took my job and I went to Crisp County, and when I came back in 1969, he went to Dougherty and I took his old job," Henry said Friday. "Boy ... we had some memorable battles over the years."

Welsh became the second head coach in Dougherty's history, taking over for John Duke, who helped start the program in 1963. Welsh said he ultimately chose to leave a bigger, more respected Albany program for Dougherty because he liked a challenge -- and the Trojans were just that.

"They were not a good football program when I first got there. Albany was the big school down here, and Dougherty was just these little rascals across the river," Welsh said. "In fact, they called us the 'River Rats.'

"But over the years, we got better and better."

Welsh, who has compiled a career record of 333-181-6, never won a state crown while at Dougherty, but Henry remembers Welsh's crowning achievement as well as anybody.

"(In 1971), I was the coach at Albany when Dougherty beat us for the very first time (21-14). And I give all the credit to Luther Welsh and his kids. He was as innovative as any coach you'll ever meet -- especially for the time," Henry recalled. "He didn't always have the best players, but he taught toughness. He taught quickness. He taught discipline. And that's why he's won everywhere he's ever been.

"I can remember the slant defense he got from watching (college coaching legend) Bear Bryant. He taught his kids that defense, and it just gave teams fits. He'd line these skinny little kids up on the line of scrimmage against another teams' big offensive linemen -- the biggest kid (for him) probably weighed 135 pounds -- and when the ball was snapped, they'd just start looping in all kinds of directions, left and right, and you just couldn't stop it."

Dougherty County Director of Athletics Johnny Seabrooks was a coach at Monroe in 1979 and said he'll never forget watching Welsh stalk the sideline during their games.

"He sure was a fiery guy," Seabrooks said. "I just remember him as a guy who had a lot of energy, and (that carried over) to his kids. His teams were tough."

Welsh said there was no secret to what he was doing. Only determination.

"When you have talent, it's easy to coach. And when you find kids who just want to do well, it's even easier," said Welsh, who sent several players from Dougherty -- like Lionel James, Eddie Johnson and Mike Reid -- on to major college programs and eventually the NFL. "We had a number of guys like that and we had all of east Albany to choose from. They called us the River Rats, and they were a scrappy bunch."

Dougherty's best season under Welsh was 1976 when the Trojans went 10-2, won the city title and reached the quarterfinals of the state playoffs before losing a heartbreaker to Wayne County, 7-6. They went 8-2 the next season, but that would be Welsh's last winning campaign in his final five seasons in Albany.

And Anne Welsh knows why.

"We loved Albany. We've still got great friends in Albany. And we might not have ever left if it hadn't been for Judge Wilbur Owens," Anne said Friday. "He started this bussing deal where kids from all over Albany were being bussed to different schools, and you no longer knew where your kids were coming from each year like you did when you knew the kids from east Albany and (had a chance to develop them at the middle school level) before they came to Dougherty. I mean, we lived in Radium Springs, and this bussing deal had our own daughter being taken to Monroe and Luther just said, 'That's it. I've had enough.'

"He wanted (Lucia) to go to Dougherty, and so we leased our house and moved into these apartments right behind the school (for the final year we lived in Albany) so there was no way she could go to any school but the one her daddy coached at."

After the 1982 season, Welsh -- who was starting to earn a reputation for being the kind of coach that could come in and turn a program around -- got a new offer in 1983 to be an assistant at a bigger classification program at Warner Robins.

But not being the head honcho in charge clearly didn't sit well with him. Welsh stayed just a year before seeking out a new job, which came about in Thomson after the 1984 offseason.

Welsh jumped at the chance -- and boy, did he ever make the most of it.

The Bulldogs won the state championship in his first season in 1984, then repeated the feat a year later.

So how'd he do it?

" 'Cause he's a hell of a coach," said Henry, who admittedly continued to follow Welsh's coaching career long after he left Southwest Georgia. "That's how."

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'COMPLETELY IN THE CLEAR'

As Welsh tried to recall all the many stops during his coaching career Friday, several times he had trouble remembering the years each job spanned.

His wife, however, did not.

After all, of the 520 total games he's coached, she's only missed a dozen.

"I know them all. Let me tell him," Anne could be heard calling out to Luther in the background. "I've been to every one but 12 (in 50 years)."

Type in "Luther Welsh" on Google on the Internet, and you can tell she's not stretching the truth. In many of the pictures that come up of Welsh during his days at Thomson -- winning region or state titles -- there's Anne right by his side, decked out in the Bulldogs' blue and gold colors.

In fact, she was with him -- and supported him -- when he left Thomson in 1991 after seven seasons to take over the program at Camden County. And she was right there again three years later when he left Camden to coach Greensboro. And again in 1995 when he left Greensboro to go to Sylvania, before eventually returning to Thomson in 1999 for his second stint with the Bulldogs.

"We've been all over, and sometimes it's hard to keep track," Anne said with a laugh. "But I remember each and every one."

In 2002, Welsh once again led Thomson back to the promised land as the Bulldogs won the state crown, but not before Welsh beat another opponent two years earlier in 2000: large-cell lymphoma.

"We caught it (just in time) because he had a kidney stone and after the stone passed, he still didn't feel well. He was still hurting. So I called the doctor and I said, 'Something's still not right,' " Anne said. "So we went back to the hospital and the (hospital) ran a CT Scan and called his doctor and told the doctor that they saw something that needed to have a biopsy done on it. And when they found it early enough, he went through chemo for the next six months and eventually beat it."

The amazing thing, however? The ol' ball coach never missed a single game. He missed a practice or two, but never a game.

"There would be days he would be in chemo for four hours, and he was just too tired after that for practice," Anne said.

No one would blame him a bit.

"Everyone just wanted him to get better," Anne said. "And eventually he was completely in the clear."

Now, Anne says, the family is praying for the same result. And so far, so good.

"We actually go to the doctor next Thursday, where they'll do a CT Scan and tell us how (the latest round) of chemo's been going and whether or not (the cancer) is now small enough for him to go in and operate (and remove it)," Anne said. "But I can tell you right now, it's shrunk. I know it's shrunk. He couldn't even eat or swallow when he first got sick, and now he eats everything. So we're pretty sure it's mainly gone."

The Welsh's youngest daughter, Andrea -- who lives near her parents in Thomson -- has come by each day during her father's illness to help hook him up to a feeding machine, then unhooks it after he's done.

"I've had a great life and I've coached some great kids and (been a part) of some great ball games, but I wouldn't be where I am today without my family," Luther said. "That's for sure."

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'THE TIME HAD COME'

Welsh's final season of his stellar career ended at 9-3 last year with the Bulldogs, who tried their best to send their coach out with one last state title, only to fall short in second the round of the playoffs against Peach County.

Welsh said he knew going into the season that this year would be his last. And not because of his illness or fatigue or desire to do anything else.

"The time had come," Welsh said without hesitation when asked how he knew when to step down. "I think (after 55 years) I just knew (in my heart) that I'd done this long enough. I would talk to a few former coaches who had retired and then they'd take a job being a referee Friday nights, and I would just ask them at games, 'When do you know? When do you know when it's time to hang it up?'

"And each one would just say, 'Nobody has to tell you not to do it anymore. You just know.' And so when this season ended, I just knew. It was that simple, really."

Welsh has known the gridiron -- and little else -- for the last half-century, and then some. He said he doesn't have any grandiose plans to buy a Winnebago and travel the country or get a boat and spend his days sharpening his angling skills. Instead, he just wants to spend his later years watching games from the sidelines, and cheering on his two grandsons -- who are in the 11th and 7th grades -- play the game he's loved since he was a "simple country boy" in South Carolina ages ago.

"For once in my life, I'm going to not be involved and just enjoy the games as a fan," Welsh said. "It's time to turn the (reins) over to a young guy -- just I was years and years ago -- and let him build his own team, his own foundation. His career. Just like I did."

There will be no Michael Jordan-esque comeback, Welsh says. He won't pop up on the prep football gridiron a few years from now with another team. He plans to retire in Thomson and simply be a Bulldog supporter -- from afar.

But when asked whether it will be hard saying goodbye today -- once and for all -- during his retirement party, Welsh officially dropped the tough, head-coaching exterior that's defined him for so many years.

And the emotions -- after a brief pause to collect his thoughts -- flowed all at once.

"Well," Welsh began, his voice shakier than it'd been during the entire interview, "it's sure going to make me think a bit sitting up there with all my friends and family around me. I may smile, but I may also shed a few tears. But I just have to remember one thing: It's someone else's time now -- and it's time for me to sit back, relax and just enjoy life."