Gainesville High football coach Heath Webb never forgets the memory of Zachary Williamson when it’s time for his program to play.
Each game, since his former player at North Paulding High died in a 2010 automobile accident, Webb digs into his ‘travel bag’ and puts the same No. 53 pin on his shirt collar.
The routine, for Webb, started that season for the entire program, at the prompting of one of the program’s parents.
Even though Webb’s career has taken him away from Dallas, the fourth-year coach of the Red Elephants (4-2, 1-1 Region 6-7A) chooses to keep that token as a steady reminder of a 15-year-old player who had a big personality for such a young person.
“Zach was always so full of life,” Webb said, still feeling the emotion of losing a player 11 years later. “Everyone who met him, loved him. I remember he was always laughing and joking.”
Webb said Williamson’s death was the result of the driver of the other vehicle being under the influence of drugs.
Since then, Webb has maintained a close relationship with Zachary’s parents, Mark and Rene Williamson.
The Red Elephants coach said he never has to give a big talk or point out the circular pin.
Without fail, he said, every game either an opposing coach, game official, fan or player asks about the No. 53 on his shirt collar.
Webb will answer the inquiry with a reply about a bubbly young man, whose life was ended prematurely.
“I use it as an opportunity to keep Zach’s memory alive, remind people of the dangers of driving impaired, so his life wasn’t lost in vain,” Webb said.
Now, the 13th-year head coach can look back at that awful experience of losing a player, as one of the defining moments of his career.
No longer did the Habersham Central High graduate see players as ‘chess pieces’ and strictly the way to attain success on the field.
Webb now sees his players as part of one big family.
Gainesville’s football program now has a mentoring program, pairing players with men in the community.
Even though the pandemic impacted the meeting capabilities of the program, players have stayed in contact with mentors, thanks to the hard work of community volunteer Phil Brown, who is also a confidant of the Red Elephants coach.
“Phil and I meet every week and he’s my sounding board,” Webb said.
When Webb got into coaching, after a short stint working in banking after college, he didn’t necessarily know the career move would entail forging such close personal relationships.
At the time, the former quarterback yearned for the camaraderie that comes with football.
“I missed being part of a team,” Webb said.
As fate would have it, when Webb went back to school at Piedmont College for his teaching certification, he also met his wife, Jesi.
The couple now has three children: Josie (12), Abbie Kate (10) and Thomas (5).
Quickly, after getting back into football, Webb found out that coaching was just as much about being a role model as teaching Xs and Os.
In Year 4 as a head coach at North Paulding, Webb was married with one daughter.
Everything was going to be new and exciting, playing a region schedule for the first time in the school’s history.
Then, the tragedy struck right after the preseason game and before the 2010 regular season was to start.
Gainesville’s coach still remembers in vivid detail getting a call that one of his players, which turned out to be Williamson, had been in a bad car accident.
Webb rushed to the scene, which was already flooded with emergency personnel and law enforcement.
Webb arrived before Williamson’s parents made it.
Then, a moment he will never forget happened.
“I remember, his mother gave me a big hug and fell on my shoulders, and said, ‘What do I do now?” Webb said. “I just remember saying, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s a moment that weighed on me.” Webb said.
Following the loss of a beloved team member, Webb said the entire community was fully supporting the Williamson family, after it experienced an unimaginable tragedy.
Since Webb quickly learned that proper coaching is not a transactional relationship, he also has a team of support outside of his own home.
Gainesville’s coach said he receives constant support from his coaching staff.
He’s also a faithful member of Riverbend Church, in Gainesville, where Webb maintains a close relationship with its lead pastor Joe Payton.
Webb has seen his work as a football coach come full circle.
Recently, he was travelling to a junior varsity game at Lambert High, and stopped at a QuikTrip in Gainesville to grab a snack, while headed out of town.
The slender young man with a beard behind the counter quickly remembered his former coach and asked for a minute of his time to talk.
“I saw a face I knew I should recognize, but at the time, I couldn’t remember who he was,” Webb said.
Even though Webb didn’t have much time, he could sense it was a moment that was important.
The employee, who played for Webb at Winder-Barrow, told of his horrific car accident on Georgia 400, near Exit 17.
Webb said all those lessons learned on the football field helped him through rehabilitation, after being rear ended at a red light by a driver travelling approximately 70 mph.
Webb’s former player has since made a full recovery from all injuries.
“He told me, ‘all that stuff you taught me got me through this,’” Webb said.
Now four years into his tenure at Gainesville, Webb is looking toward the future with anticipation for a sprawling new Student Athletic Center, which is in the process of being built.
For one year, the Red Elephants’ football staff is working out of a row of trailers, adjacent to the Bruce Miller Field.
The focus now, for Webb, is stability at Gainesville High.
“We’re constantly building, we still haven’t hit the point of being stable yet,” Webb said.
Despite all the changes, one thing will remain constant for Webb.
Every Friday night, he’ll attach the ‘53’ pin to his shirt to remember the player, Zachary Williamson, who made such an impact on his life.