Catalyst for change
By Jake Keator
The Daily Reflector
Sunday, June 23, 2019
BETHEL — North Pitt head football coach Greg Watford became the fourth coach of the Panthers in as many years prior to the start of the 2018 season, as the program looked for continuity and stability to begin a top-to-bottom rebuild.
Watford also has a personal history with the school, which only motivates him further to help not only his players, but also all students in the school to succeed.
"My aunt worked here in the 1970s and 80s," he said. "It was the biggest school to me back then, so it means a lot for me to be back here and coaching this team. We want to be the entertainment for Pitt County north of the (Tar) River every Friday night. We want to be the place to be. Back in the day, when they were winning a lot of games, people came from all over to watch. We want to get back to that, we want to become a football powerhouse in the county."
NP had a 1-10 record last season, edging North Johnston, 26-25, in overtime to secure its lone win.
During his first season, Watford became more than just a coach to members of the Panthers' football team, but he took on the role of a valuable mentor and sometimes a father figure.
"We want to win games, but we also want to mold young men," Watford said. "We're teaching them life skills, like how to talk to people, how to show up on time, no profanity. We're going to start the first practice of the year by showing them how to tie neckties. Some of those guys already know how to do that, but we want to show them so when they go out and apply for jobs or in other cases they know how to dress appropriately."
Watford's day begins long before team stretching and weightlifting. He and other members of his coaching staff are more than happy to pick up and drop off players at the field.
"We tell parents and want to show them that we'll take care of your child, and we're going to work hard for you," Watford said. "We're going to bring them to practice, work hard, and bring them back to you fed. For some of them, that will be the last thing they eat for the day."
Watford understands that circumstances can change once you drive north of the Tar River.
"This is a big part of the county," he said. "There's a lot of land and a lot of farms. Sometimes you drive home and you have people doing or using drugs close to where you live, and when my guys take the high road, that's tough. They are continuing to improve, our team GPA went up last year. It's not exactly where I want it, but it's an improvement, and I'm sure it will continue to grow. Coaches don't like to guarantee anything, but what I will say is people will see an improvement in our team from last year for sure."
Watford's commitment to his players extends beyond the confines of campus at North Pitt. He is ready for anything his players might need.
"I am at, for lack of a better word, at their disposal," he said. "I have guys come to my house to relax and talk. I did the same thing at Southeast Halifax when I worked there, and it worked really well. My wife is the daughter of a football coach, so she understands how we're helping these kids and enjoys when they come over to our house."
Watford intends to show others the challenges and obstacles some may face with a documentary via a National Endowment for Humanities grant. The grant, which totals $75,000, will be a season-long project for the team, chronicling its achievements and the lives of North Pitt football players while at school.
"I don't want it to be just about football," Watford said. "I want it to show what life is like north of the river, the things these kids overcome and the dedication they have for the sport. For some of these guys, football is an escape from reality. We're out there laughing and having fun, and that's something I think people will find out next year is they'll see us out there having fun while we're playing. There will be more energy on our sideline."
The Panthers return a large amount of players form last season's roster, including the young dynamic offensive duo of Alex Espinosa-Johnson and rising sophomore running back Raheem Jones. The team will stick with last year's formula of a triple option-based offense, which reaped rewards at moments throughout the 2018 season.
"We're going to primarily be a sophomore- and junior-based team," Watford said. "They're stronger, faster and smarter this year. I told them it takes about three years to master this offense, and having this many guys coming back will make us a lot more dangerous. We have a tough nonconference schedule this year -- teams like Kinston, which was a one-loss team, Greene Central and Ayden-Grifton, who challenged Kinston -- but it comes down to (Eastern Plains) Conference play. When we get to that point, we'll be fully prepared."
NP's season begins Aug. 23 in Bethel against Washington.
No matter the results of the season, Watford has one main goal in mind for his players.
"We want to be the catalyst for change in their lives," he said. "We want to help show these guys that they can get out and overcome what they've been through, earn scholarships, if they perform on the field and in the classroom."
Contact Jake Keator at firstname.lastname@example.org, 252-329-9594 and follow @JakeKeatorDR on Twitter.