Football and family shape Napiers’ New Year

Football is to New Year’s what fireworks is to the Fourth of July, what the hollow chocolate bunny is to Easter. It is the hooray part of the holiday. A mere trinket, an accessory to the essential meaning of the day.

To most, football is the perfect diversion, the excuse to welcome in another year without ever rising from the couch.

However, one family — the Napiers of Dalton, Hogansville and Tuscaloosa, Ala. — demonstrate just how absolutely vital one game can be.

The Napiers, you see, put out football coaches like the Kennedys make Democrats. If they had a family crest, it would be crossed whistles over a painted end zone.

One member will work on New Year’s Eve for our entertainment. Billy Napier is a receivers coach for Alabama, which faces Michigan State in the day’s second national semifinal.

His two brothers were done with their coaching assignments when Callaway High in Hogansville lost its late November state playoff game to Westminster 49-28. Hey, don’t blame the offensive coordinator — Matt Napier — or his running backs coach, Kurt Napier.

Kurt was the one who had come closest to breaking the coaching chains that bind. He went away to a small school in Missouri with the initial idea of becoming an architect. But blood was thicker than drafting ink.

“It didn’t take long for me to figure out I wanted to coach football,” he said. “I made it part way through my first semester in college and decided I wanted to go into teaching math and coaching ball.”

To really understand the hold football has on one family you had to be at Dalton High School on the night of Nov. 20. As the Catamounts were preparing to play Glynn Academy in a home playoff game, Bill Napier, the 58-year-old pater familias of this clan of coaches, was being pushed into position to call the plays.

He was wheeled up the rear ramp of the stadium, to a special aerie constructed just for him atop the stands. Since being diagnosed with ALS, the degenerative condition more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, in 2013, Bill has become locked into a continual cycle of fresh challenges and adaptation.

This past season, wheelchair bound, with limited use of his arms, Dalton’s offensive coordinator called the plays from on high, relaying them to a coach on the field, who then relayed it to the huddle.

Before each home game, fellow deacons at Bill’s church helped him dress and delivered him to the field while his wife worked her job as a school bookkeeper.

Days before each away game, someone on the Dalton staff would scout ahead to determine a workable arrangement for their OC. Bill called plays from a golf cart on a hill, from a seat among the fans, from the press box if a couple burly assistants could carry him there.

Practice is difficult because he is unable to physically demonstrate techniques. Dalton’s head coach turned that into a perceived advantage. “It forced him to communicate more rather than just jumping in and showing (the quarterback). And as a staff, we learned to be more specific when explaining things,” Matt Land said.

“He’s found a way, he’s adapted,” son Billy said. “We’re fortunate to have been in that community for a long time, and there are a lot of quality people who have helped him. As long as he can communicate and be effective and get out there on the grass, I think he’s going to continue to do it.”

That’s the only thing that seems non-negotiable: No one in the family would even think about telling Bill to reserve his remaining strength and quit coaching.

“They know better. He’s not going to quit like that,” his wife, Pam, said.

“I wouldn’t want to deal with the obstacles without football,” Bill said. “That gives me something to look forward to — the camaraderie with the staff, the relationship with the kids, the competition.”

The sons all have spun off into their own orbits. Billy spent seven seasons at Clemson, where at the age of 29 he became the program’s offensive coordinator. He has been at Alabama since 2013. Matt inherited the love of play-calling, borrowing freely from dad’s playbook in building the Callaway offense. Kurt celebrates the fact that he gets to work with his brother while indulging his football jones at the high school.

Inevitably they all rotate around the example of their father, the man who was a head coach at Murray County for the bulk of their childhoods, who once he left there took coordinator gigs at Southeast Whitfield, Adairsville and Dalton (these past five years). Such an institutional figure is he in that part of North Georgia that Bill served as grand marshal this year at a community Christmas parade.

The sons may have their unique styles, but sooner or later a little Bill Napier is bound to creep into their coaching.

“Every time he gets off the phone to us he tells us to represent,” Kurt said, “and I find myself telling my players when they go out to think about their family, their school and who they represent. And play in a way that will represent themselves well. Represent — that’s a Bill Napier term that we use a lot.”

For Billy, currently in the high-stakes realm of Alabama football and the chase for a national championship, he always can count on his father’s lessons to lend perspective to the pressure.

“His faith is important to him and our entire family. With that foundation, it gives you hope and really helps you prioritize,” he said. “It’s takes you back to what life’s about, really what the game of football is about, what it’s been for him. That’s the people you come in contact with along the way.”

Land declares that Napier will remain on the Dalton staff “as long as he or his family wants him to be or as long as I’m here.”

Unable to get a semblance of a running game going, Dalton lost to Glynn County, abruptly ending the Catamounts season. It is a long time between November and the next season, especially given the cruel caprices of ALS.

Before that game, speaking to the team, Bill was certain to impart one more message, because, well, you never know.

And football to a Napier is far too important to waste any opportunity it presents.

Don’t be afraid to dream big, whether it’s on the field or out in the big wide world, he told the room.

Then he shared with them his dream. Sounded simple. It was anything but: To coach another day.

In Other News