Former football player and coach Edsel Hiatt is part of the Class of 2014 for the Mount Airy Sports Hall of Fame.
Each year Mount Airy Parks and Recreation has the tough job of narrowing down the list of nominees and selecting a handful of athletes and coaches for the Hall.
This year, no nominee had as much community support as Edsel Hiatt.
Not only was he a beloved coach at several high schools, but his nomination took on urgency when supporters informed the hall committee that Hiatt was very ill with ALS, the same Lou Gehrig’s disease that took well-loved commissioner Craig Hunter three months ago.
Bear football coach Kelly Holder was among those pushing for Hiatt’s induction.
In his letter to the committee, Holder wrote, “One of my grandpa’s favorite songs was an old spiritual hymn entitled ‘Flowers While I’m Living.’
“Won’t you give me my flowers while I’m living
“And let me enjoy them while I can
“Please don’t wait ‘til I’m ready to be buried
“And then slip some lilies in my hand.”
The hall committee did select Hiatt for the honor this year, but Hiatt succumbed to the disease a week ago.
Catrina Alexander, Mount Airy Parks and Recreation, said that is is very sad that Mr. Hiatt passed, but she is thankful that she had a chance to inform him that he’d been selected and that he was very pleased with the honor.
Several former players and students took to the Moody Funeral Services website to write to the Hiatt family.
“Coach Hiatt was my head coach at Lenoir High School. He was a very good coach, a wonderful mentor and friend to his players. I was very sad to hear of his passing and wish I had found one moment to reconnect with him over the many years since I played for him. Tim Triplett.”
“I was extremely fortunate and blessed to be a part of Coach Hiatt’s Lenoir High School football teams in the early 70s. He truly cared about us not only as athletes but endeavored to enrich our lives with lessons to become men,” wrote Wayne McNeely, Lenoir Class of 1973.
Andrea Bodary wrote, “I worked with Ed during his short stay at GLF and he honestly was a breath of fresh air. No matter what kind of day I was having, he was always able to bring me to tears from laughing so hard. He was such a kind-hearted man and I will always remember his ‘dancing Thursdays’ where he would just bust out in a dance every Thursday. Truly an amazing man that will be missed dearly.”
“I hired Edsel to be our football coach at Richmond Senior High School in 1983,” George Whitfield wrote in a letter to the nomination committee.
“He did a fantastic job of getting our program where it needed to be, said Whitfield. “He has served at a number of schools; Ed has made a difference at every stop.”
Whitfield, himself a member of the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, said, “His coaching record in football of 186-111-2 is outstanding by any standards, plus the fact he took over a lot of these programs when they were down.”
Hiatt coached at several high schools over the decades and even spent a season as the offensive coordinator at N.C. A&T University. He seemed to enjoy the challenge of taking over a new program and turning it around.
Perhaps the most challenging stop on the journey was as football coach and athletic director at Harnett Central from 1995-98.
“Harnett Central was notoriously called the worst high school football team in America,” wrote friend Dwight Seal. Sports Illustrated even wrote an article about the 47-game losing streak the team had up until Hiatt took over.
The team lost four straight to open the 1995 season, but showed improvement. Suddenly the school went on a seven-game winning streak and qualified for the state playoffs.
Before Harnett Central, Hiatt had spent eight years at West Carteret. Not only did he serve as football coach and athletic director, Hiatt coached golf and track, too.
Back in his own playing days, the Sheltontown native made the varsity squad all four years at Mount Airy for football and baseball.
He earned a spot on the pitching staff as a freshman and became known for his fastball and a pretty good curve under coach Sam Moir.
“During my 10-year tenure as head basketball coach and head baseball coach, Edsel was one of the top three best baseball pitchers that I coached,” said Moir.
In football, he played on the defensive line his freshman year. He became a two-way player the next season.
For his junior and senior years, Hiatt added kicking and kickoff duties to his roles under coach Wallace Shelton.
After graduation, Hiatt played football at Lees-McRae Junior College for two years, then moved on to play for Presbyterian for two seasons.
“Simply put, Edsel was a consummate athlete, leader and loyal friend to all,” wrote Ken Sullivan, a retired U.S. Navy captain who met Hiatt at Lees-McRae.
“His keen sense of team effort, individual commitment to work and constant improvement all together drove him to be one of the most selfless, but fierce, competitors to take the field in each and every contest.”
After graduating college, he spent three years at Valdese High, then seven at Lenoir before it was closed due to consolidation.
In 1976, he was in his second year at Lexington High when he was named the top high school football coach in the state.
In 1978 he coached a team in the East-West All-Star Game, then again in 1989 in the Shrine Bowl.
He won conference coach of the year six times in a 20-year span.
Between various schools and sports, Hiatt spent 47 years as a teacher/coach/mentor before being pushed into retirement by the onset of ALS.
Holder said he didn’t know Hiatt until that retirement five years ago. The longtime coach couldn’t stay away from the game and would come out to see the Bears play and even just to practice.
“I guess you could say he’s a mentor of sorts,” said Holder. “I’ve realized that through many conversations over breakfast at the Dairy Center or at the practice field what this man meant to the coaching community.”
“He has said many times that if we ever need anything, he’ll do his best to help,” Holder wrote to the hall committee.
In fact, last week the Hiatt family said that Edsel didn’t want people to buy him flowers. Instead, he had suggested people make memorial contributions to Mount Airy’s athletic department.
The Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be Sunday at 3 p.m. in the Andy Griffith Playhouse.