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Hundreds turn out to honor Ga. coaching legend Welsh

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

THOMSON -- For a long time, Luther Welsh thought he was just a football coach.

But Saturday, the legend -- who has given so much to his players and the Thomson community through the years -- got to see what he truly meant to others.

"I'm so overwhelmed," Welsh said. "I never thought ... as a football coach, you don't think of this."

Saturday was proclaimed "Luther Welsh Day" as hundreds of people, including family, friends, players and coaches, came to the Thomson Depot to celebrate the career of the retired Welsh, whose career started in 1955 in South Carolina and ended in 2010 in Georgia. The drop-by event, sponsored by the Thomson-McDuffie Chamber of Commerce, provided visitors a chance to make donations for a gift for Welsh, who is in his second battle in the last decade with cancer.

Welsh, 78, and his wife, Anne, arrived Saturday afternoon in a limousine led by a police escort, with Welsh wearing his gold Thomson jacket. Anne first met Welsh in Sumter (S.C.) and then the pair began dating in March 1961. By September, they were married, and this upcoming September will mark their 50th anniversary. Lincoln County coach Larry Campbell called the two the perfect example of what it means to be a part of high school football.

When the couple walked inside the Depot, they were greeted by people from all over who came to say thanks.

Inside, a projector played pictures of Welsh and his Bulldogs through the years, a television had on the 2002 state championship game tape, black and gold balloons were spread throughout and on a table sat the three state title trophies Welsh won at Thomson (1984, '85 and 2002).

For more than half a century, Welsh has patrolled the sidelines. He led the Bulldogs in two different stints for a total of 19 seasons and ended his coaching career with a record of 333-181-6. He led Thomson for one final season in 2010, and the Bulldogs went 9-3.

He is battling cancer for the second time, and long-time assistant John Barnett, who dropped off Welsh to chemo treatment just this past Thursday, said it's going as well as it can. Welsh's youngest daughter, Andrea, said her father has regained 13 pounds. Welsh said he's feeling better.

Welsh, who was also given a golf cart with a "Top Dog" plate. Through the years, Welsh has coached more than a fair share of players, and some returned to honor him.

The Minnesota Vikings' Jasper Brinkley stopped by, and Leroy Cummings, a player on the 2010 squad, smiled when he thought about the time Welsh turned his hat, got in the three-point stance and ran at Cummings.

"And I felt it," Cummings said.

Deon Palmer, quarterback of the 2002 state championship team, said Welsh is the toughest man he knows, and he fondly recalls Welsh making the offense run a play 30 times until it was done right.

Barnett said Welsh wouldn't ask an assistant to do something he wouldn't do, even if it meant cleaning bathrooms or sweeping floors.

But behind all the hard work, Barnett said there is a caring man with a huge heart.

"He'll have a few years to take it easy, even though that's not his style," Barnett said. "He's quite a man."