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Leroy coach Chan Lowe just won another Blue Map for the Bears and one has to wonder if the time for him to become a head coach in his own right is at hand. (Helen Joyce/Call News)
TUSCALOOSA — People often say, “It’ll take the National Guard to stop me.” But not even the National Guard could prevent Leroy from winning its seventh state football championship.
Now that’s saying something. That is also a tribute to Chan Lowe, the defensive coordinator who was called up to take charge after head coach Jason Massey was called up to Guard duty four games into the season.
Lowe then did something not even Massey has done — he went 10-0. In fact, the Bears have gone undefeated only one other time, when Danny Powell did it in 2008.
Technically speaking, Lowe is probably the only known substitute teacher to win a state football championship. But practically speaking, Lowe has proven he is much more than a placeholder or a caretaker, the person tending to Leroy’s legacy while Massey is away.
Mention that and Lowe’s voice clutches and his eyes sting as he fights to keep the tears locked in.
But he couldn’t keep the water out of his eyes while standing in the middle of Bryant-Denny Stadium Thursday evening after Leroy had defeated Coosa Christian 28-21 for its second straight Class 1A championship.
The phone rang just before Lowe claimed the Blue Map. Massey’s daughter Sophie had reached her father at his classified location through Face Time, so Lowe could see the smiling face of his mentor and best friend at the ultimate moment of triumph.
“I was freakin’ emotional,” said Lowe, a new Super 7 championship cap clamped to his head. “Coach Massey was saying, ‘Great job and way to finish it.’ Neither one of us cries but I think both of us shed tears a little bit.”
Massey said he watched the game online and grew anxious when the Bears fell behind 14-0.
“I felt more nervous and had more butterflies watching it on the computer than being there in person,” he said. “I’m not going to lie, it was extremely tough watching it. But the true character of what it means to be a Leroy Bear came through.”
Lowe got his chance to be part of it through what seemed like misfortune eight years ago while living in Thomasville. Lowe thought he had a job on Powell’s staff at Jackson but the teacher decided to stay.
Lowe, dejected because he wanted to learn from a legend, got a call from Powell.
“Is Leroy too far for you to drive?” Powell asked. “They’ve got a history teacher’s position opening and Jason needs a coach.”
Lowe then got a chance to make history with Massey.
“I drove down and met with coach Massey for three hours, just talkin’ ball,” Lowe said. “I thought I knew stuff but he opened my eyes to so much more.”
They’ve had disagreements but never yelled at each other.
“There is a level of respect amongst us that doesn’t allow that to happen,” Lowe said, and such respect leads them to publicly refer to each other as coach Massey or coach Lowe. There is no higher calling in Leroy than to be called “coach” — except for being a preacher, and they can bleed into each other.
Once hired, Lowe began to learn how many different ways the same four plays could be run, how to prepare, how to handle and lead people, how to trust in the players who seem to always come from the same mold.
“Before I left, we had a long talk about stepping up and continuing what we started,” Massey said. “We’re always in it, we’re always grinding, and you never say quit. You’re going to find a way to win. It’s engrained in Leroy.”
Lowe is also engrained in the community of 1,019, which used to swell when the Creekbank Restaurant in nearby Wagarville was open. It’s now closed but the Bears’ menu remained the same even as they fell behind 14-0 on Thursday.
“The kids thrive in this culture,” Lowe said. “We’re down 14-0, there was no fear, there was never any panic. It’s amazing there are these 15- to 18-year-old boys where life throws a curve at them and their mindset is to not quit.”
There was no quitting, even as Lowe had early trouble sorting out plays with his trusty red and green markers, which kept falling out of the collar of his black Leroy pullover during the game.
“The plays that aren’t worth a crap, I draw a whole line through it in red and don’t call it again,” he said. “The plays I like, I put a star by them in green. Like we hit them on this, so let’s come back to it. Except last night, they wouldn’t stay in my shirt. They must have come out five times on the sideline.”
He knew he could rely on his players more than plays.
“I’ve got a bunch of fighters,” Lowe said. “I’ve got some talented players too but I’ve just got hard-nosed high school football players who know not to quit. One of the worst things you can tell them is they can’t do anything and they’ll do their best to prove you wrong.”
That is why Lowe awoke Thursday morning in his Tuscaloosa motel feeling unusually refreshed.
“That was the first good night’s sleep I’d gotten all week,” he said. “I felt confident in our kids. I slept in until 7:15.”
Lowe slept so long he could have been mistaken for the bearded Rip Van Winkle, something he knew he had to take care of after arising from some blissful slumber Saturday morning.
“I found a barber in Tuscaloosa,” Lowe said. “I got my beard trimmed up. It got a little rowdy. It’s a little superstition. I kept it trimmed a little during the season but when the playoffs hit, I wouldn’t touch it.”
Superstition may have helped the Bears come from behind against Coosa Christian and Elba in the semifinals but the system the players and Lowe embrace is the answer to why Leroy has accomplished everything a team can do.
Massey made Lowe think about the whys of success years ago and he leans on them to this day.
“Early on, when I would be putting together a defensive plan, he would ask me why,” Lowe said. “In my mind, I thought I must be wrong. But in his mind, he’s saying, ‘If you can explain the why to me, then you can teach the kids.’ I realized I didn’t know a whole lot of nothin.’ Then he’d say, ‘OK, you’re good there but what if they do this?’ I hadn’t thought about it. Today, I ask my coaches ‘why?’”
Now the question is why not?
Lowe will be in demand, possibly sooner than later, as a head coach in his own right but Lowe is not sure he wants to go. He likes being part of the Leroy lineage which traces back through not only Massey but Powell, Scott Phelps and John Blackmon, whom Massey played for.
“The toughness and tenacity have always been there,” Lowe said. “It’s trickled down through the generations.”
Lowe said he knows opportunities to be a head coach will be more plentiful after leading the Bears to a state championship but only a perfect opportunity at the right time will lure him away.
“I’m going to hold the rope until coach Massey comes back, then we’ll revisit it,” he said. “It would be very hard to leave Leroy no matter the circumstances. I’d be fine being an assistant coach.”
Massey knows it’s becoming increasingly likely he’ll lose Lowe, whose personal character will be attractive for any school.
“I’m proud of the man he is and the Christian example he sets for our kids,” Massey said. “He’s grown a lot. He’s prepared himself for that opportunity. He’s definitely going to get a shot. He’s proven he can do it.”
Would Lowe like to coach against Massey some day?
“He’d beat the dog mess out of me,” Lowe said. “If it ever happens, all the credit to him because he’s the reason I’d have an opportunity to be a head coach.”
But Leroy football’s reputation in the state has never been higher thanks to a man named Lowe.