New Stephenson coach Jelks achieves 25-year dream at alma mater

Former Lithonia football coach Marcus Jelks took over at Stephenson this week, replacing Ron Gartrell, who retired after 25 seasons with the Jaguars. Jelks is a former Stephenson player under Gartrell, whom he calls a father figure.
Former Lithonia football coach Marcus Jelks took over at Stephenson this week, replacing Ron Gartrell, who retired after 25 seasons with the Jaguars. Jelks is a former Stephenson player under Gartrell, whom he calls a father figure.

Marcus Jelks was a member of Stephenson High’s first freshman class in 1996, and he set his career goal before graduation. He wanted to become Stephenson’s next football coach.

Jelks got his wish this week — 25 years later — when he was named the successor to mentor Ron Gartrell, who retired from the DeKalb County school last month after 203 victories and 10 region titles.

’'Coach Gartrell was a father figure to me, and I just saw myself in Coach Gartrell’s shoes someday,’' Jelks said Wednesday evening. “I wanted to be just like him. Upon leaving high school, I did things to make sure I could be in position to have the job when it became available.’'

Jelks played four years as a lineman at South Carolina State, joined Stephenson’s staff after graduation and worked three years under Gartrell before going to Lithonia. Jelks became Lithonia’s head coach in 2010. He was Lithonia’s athletic director the past three seasons.

Jelks said there was rebuilding to be done, particularly with numbers in the program. Though Stephenson won region titles in 2018 and 2019, the past decade hasn’t been as prosperous as the previous one. Playing in the highest classification, the Jaguars averaged 10 wins from 2000 to 2009.

Now a Class 4A school, Stephenson was 4-3 last season in a region that included Class 4A champion Marist.

’'I feel like we could be on the verge [of reaching the heights of past teams], but we’re young,’' Jelks said. “When these freshmen and sophomores and even eighth graders become juniors and seniors, we should be back in good shape. Starting out, we’re going to play a lot of young kids because that’s what’s in the program.’'

Jelks met with Stephenson’s players Monday, his coaching staff Tuesday and his booster club Wednesday.

Jelks has hires to make, but the current eight-man coaching staff is entirely Stephenson graduates, including co-defensive coordinators Demario Minter and DeJuan Payne. They’ll replace Donald Sellers, who had been with Gartrell from the start. Sellers will remain as the school’s track and field coach.

Spring practice begins April 27.

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