When William “Buck” Godfrey was growing up in Charleston, S.C., he was chosen to join a select group of African-American boys for a Little League Baseball All-Stars team. This team traveled hundreds of miles in a bus, eager to test their skills against other Little Leaguers. But this was the Jim Crow South of the 1950’s, and these young players were routinely shunned and kept off segregated fields.
But rather than getting beaten down, the players learned more than they could have imagined about teamwork and solidarity.
The experience not only inspired Godfrey’s book, “The Team Nobody Would Play,” it laid the groundwork for his career as a teacher and coach to generations of DeKalb County students. Godfrey has coached baseball and swimming since 1974, but he is best known as the varsity football coach at Southwest DeKalb High School — a position he has held since 1983.
“He probably sent more kids to college than anyone I know of,” says Richard Adams, Jr., who played football on Godfrey’s team in 1976. Adams is one of many former students who regularly show up at Godfrey’s football games and swim meets to cheer on his teams.
“I didn’t have a lot of direction as far as a father figure goes,” said Adams. “He taught so many of us to be responsible. To do whatever we wanted to do, but to be the best at it. He taught me how to be a man.”
Now 69, Godfrey is a tall, portly man with a disarmingly direct but kind gaze and a grip like the Jaws of Life. He has two children, the Streetz 94.5 radio host Rashan Ali, and Colin Godfrey, a systems analyst. They have each given him two granddaughters, a cellphone picture of whom he whips out with a warm laugh. “They’re tomboys, so we’re good to go.”
He has retired from teaching Shakespeare and Chaucer but he continues to coach football as well as boys’ and girls’ swimming. “I’ll never get away from chlorine,” he jokes.
Godfrey came to Georgia to finish his graduate studies in English and Linguistics at Atlanta University, a precursor to Clark Atlanta University. Though he had hoped to work as a college professor, he discovered that high schools paid better. With two young children, the choice was clear.
It didn’t take long for him to discover his gift for teaching life skills to young athletes.
“There are five things I teach them,” Godfrey says. “One, I like to work on kids feeling good about themselves and develop self esteem. Two, they learn that everything is centered around a team. Three, you’ve got to develop a competitive spirit that lasts you throughout your life. Four, you get a determination to finish a job. Five, you always do it the right way.”
Godfrey can recall scores, lineups and highlights from 30 seasons past with computer-like speed.
He just as easily accesses another database — that of what happened to his players after graduation. “I’ve got four doctors, five preachers, three lawyers, six policemen, four principals,” he says.
For some students, football gets them into college and providence gets them through.
“One guy took seven years at Morehouse,” he laughs, “But then after the graduation ceremony he came straight to my house with the diploma and said, ‘Coach! I got it!’ I have the picture right here in my phone.”
Godfrey regrets the way early recruiting has changed the game. “Kids are learning selfishness in the little leagues, and they bring it to middle school and high school,” he sighs. “People need to believe in loyalty, integrity, respect, things of substance. That’s where I want to be.”
Such is the spirit that has stayed with his former student, Richard Adams, Jr., for life.
“A couple of years ago I was at one of coach Godfrey’s championship games,” recalls Adams, “and I asked him, ‘This ain’t all about football, is it?’ I’ll never forget: he just looked me up and down and said, ‘You get it.’”
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