THE IDLE AMERICAN: More than a champion

Published 1:15 pm Monday, August 20, 2018

Commentary by Dr. Don Newbury


Come Friday, August 31, tens of thousands of high school football fans who’ve been in countdown mode since championship games last December will fill stadiums across Texas, cheering for their favorite teams.

At one venue, however, there’ll be a victorious atmosphere before the initial kick-off of the game between the Waxahachie Indians and the Ennis Lions.

Back as head coach of the visiting Lions will be legendary leader Sam Harrell, whose Ennis teams won state titles in 2000, 2001 and 2004 during a 16-year stint cut short by multiple sclerosis.

Sam was diagnosed with the dread disease in 2005, but it was shared only with Kathy, his wife of 39 years, and their parents. Even their three sons—all of them now offensive coordinators–didn’t know of their dad’s illness until years later. (Graham is at University of North Texas; Clark, Sealy HS and Zac, Waxahachie HS.)

Upon diagnosis, there were no visible symptoms. Friends, fans and followers assumed all was well, until inevitable symptoms appeared.

His running onto the field slowed to jogging. Soon, walking became difficult, then impossible. Four years after diagnosis, he coached from a golf cart, and he left coaching after the 2009 season, presumed by many to be his last.

Though running on empty in many ways, Harrell was buoyed by his trust in God, encouraged by a family that loved him and supported by a community that believed in him.

Resolved to go at “full throttle” for as long as he could, he was prepared for the probable while praying for the unlikely. He clung to scriptures like James 5:16, “The effectual prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

And pray he did, this man whose Christian walk has always been evident.

Doctors offered little optimism, but two multiple sclerosis victims in Fort Worth urged him to consider stem cell treatment in Panama. They had both entered remission after repeated treatment there.

Sam was willing, but costs were staggering. The first trip cost $40,000, and citizens of Ennis–along with a host of fellow coaches from throughout Texas–raised the funds. Several months later, he returned to Panama for additional treatment, and again, there was no discernible change.

Urged to make one last trip, he did so despite costs mounting to more than $100,000 that again were covered by friends and fans. This time, the treatment worked. He was on a slow track back to good health.

By 2012, he felt well enough to coach again on a limited basis. He served one season as quarterback coach at Brownwood High School, where he had been valedictorian of his graduating class and star quarterback for legendary Coach Gordon Wood.

Then, he was assistant coach for three seasons at Fort Worth Christian School. Last year, he was offensive coordinator at Southwestern Assembly of God University in Waxahachie.

Sam and Kathy have maintained their home in Ennis since 1994. She has been an elementary school teacher there for 25 years.

The door to return to head coaching opened in Ennis last spring when Coach Jack Alvarez became Copperas Cove HS head coach. Fans contacted Harrell, hoping he’d consider rejoining the Lions.

He signed his contract on June 7, and he’s rejuvenated at the prospect of guiding the Lions again.

On the cusp of age 63, he remembers short years ago when friends asked him if he thought he’d ever coach again. “At the time, I just hoped I’d ever walk again,” he said.

Neurologists say he still has multiple sclerosis, even though he’s symptom free.

He understands that, settling for the key words, “symptom free.”

Harrell, a summa cum laude graduate of Abilene Christian University, has enriched many lives, on and off the field. Sam’s life is well-ordered, stretching far beyond “X’s and O’s.” He’s as good as it gets. All who know him are blessed by this never-give-up kind of guy.


Dr. Newbury is a former educator who “commits speeches” round about. Comments/inquiries to: Phone: 817-447-3872. Web site: Twitter: @donnewbury. Facebook: don newbury.