T. McFerrin walked into the crowded cafeteria followed by the expectant eyes of the boys seated around the room.
The year was 1968 and the boys were members of a Lithonia High School football team that had won just a handful of games in the past few seasons. Joe Gheesling, now the principal at North Hall High, was a member of that football team.
“Hi, I’m Coach McFerrin,” Gheesling recalls the young McFerrin announcing to the team as he grabbed a piece of chalk and began to draw up a play on the blackboard.
He then began to explain the play to his team.
“You block here, you block here. The tailback will cut through here and he’ll run for a touchdown,” he said as if explaining that one and one made two. “Any questions?”
The boys looked at each other. Surely, nothing could be that easy, least of all for a team that hadn’t seen a winning season in 13 years and a man who had not yet taken the sidelines as a head coach.
Yet when the boys took the field, everything was different. In McFerrin’s first year at the school, Lithonia won eight games, losing only to Roswell High — the eventual state champ — in the second week.
“Oddly enough,” Gheesling said with a laugh, “the first time I carried the ball was the play Coach drew up on the board, and I scored an 80-yard touchdown.
“That’s T. McFerrin. That’s the type of confidence and performance he instills in people just by his mere presence and force of his personality.”
Gheesling spent just one season as a member of McFerrin’s football team. But for him, it was that personality which, in such a short time, inspired him and drove him throughout his life.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for T. McFerrin,” he said. “I always felt that he believed in me, maybe, when I didn’t really believe in myself. He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
Since that lone season under McFerrin at Lithonia High, Gheesling has gone on to play football in college, pilot in the Navy and has, for the past 10 years, been a high school principal. He was also an English teacher and, of course, a football coach.
And throughout that time, he always remembered the lessons he learned from McFerrin.
Self-sacrifice. Goal attainment. Teamwork.
“And when I say self-sacrifice,” Gheesling explained, “I mean putting the team first ahead of yourself.”
To many, those lessons often sound like coachspeak, guidelines meant to decrease disobedience and increase a team’s win total. But for Gheesling, it became a way of life.
“That was just something I had never felt before,” he said. “And it was something that I carried with me for the rest of my life.”
McFerrin said he appreciated Gheesling’s comments.
“Joe’s always been so gracious and given a lot of credit to us,” McFerrin said. “I think a lot of that happened at home, too, though. He had a great attitude when I got there.”
McFerrin, who has 296 career wins according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association, attributed a lot of his success to a few rules he has always followed as a head coach.
“I think a lot of it is just being positive and convincing some of the players they’re better than they are,” he said. “We don’t cuss them, berate them or belittle them. But we discipline them. There’s a difference, and I think that’s important.”
And it’s lessons like these, Gheesling said, that have helped make him the person he is today.
“Coach McFerrin has an innate ability to get young men to go beyond where they think they can go with themselves,” he said. “I would have never thought that I could accomplish or achieve the things in my life that I did. And it all came from Coach McFerrin.
“The bottom line is that he made me believe that I could accomplish whatever I wanted to accomplish.”
Tonight, the two will be on opposite sides of the football field. Gheesling will be supporting his North Hall Trojans; McFerrin will be coaching Jefferson.
They’ve talked occasionally — last year after North Hall defeated Jefferson, and a few times at coaching clinics before Gheesling became a principal.
But for both, the biggest impact their short time together had was on the positive personalities they inspired.
“It means and awful lot to hear stuff like that,” McFerrin said. “You don’t make a lot of money in this profession, and you get criticized by a lot of people.
“One of the great rewards is to see young men grow up and make something positive of their lives and go on to successful careers like Joe Gheesling.”