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Barnes' Boys gather in Atmore once more

By By Walter E. Welch
Special to the Advance
Atmore was an entirely different little town when my generation grew up. We were born in the late twenties and the early thirties. Just about everyone in south Alabama was dirt poor but in our town none of the kids knew it.
We were just happy little kids that had to work at home and anywhere else just to make a few dollars a week.
We didn't have TV, autos, or computers and there were less than 150 phones in the whole town, but we lived a much better and more carefree life than today's school children. The Atmore police department consisted of Chief Brown and one officer in the day and two other officers at night. That was all that was needed.
On Saturdays, it was difficult to walk on the sidewalks downtown as that was the day that all of the farmers and surrounding citizens came to town to shop and everybody visited with everybody as all of the kids were being baby sat by the Strand Theatre most of the day watching two movies, all for 10 cents if under the age of 12 or two bits over 12.
Up until 1949 football was the only sport played at the school. During the war years, the number of players varied from 25-30 in "42 &"43 to 40-45 in
1944-49. Most 11th and 12th grade boys were either drafted or had enlisted. But this all changed for the 1944 season. The '43 coach entered the Navy and the Man, Mr. Herbert Barnes, arrived at our school.
Mr. Barnes was originally from north Alabama. He attended Furman University on a football scholarship and later graduated from Auburn with a degree in Agriculture. He did some post graduate work at Troy State as well as Auburn. He married Josephine after college.
Prior to coming to Atmore in 1943, he and Mrs. Barnes taught in Coffeeville where he coached both football and baseball in addition to his teaching duties.
He recruited many of us in Atmore during the summer of '44. The total male population of our school, grades seventh through 12 was roughly 110 boys. Forty-five to 50 of these were on the football team. The name of the team was the Atmore Blue Devils not the Escambia County Blue Devils. From the beginning, Mr. Barnes charged every player with the responsibility of representing every student in our school, as well as the townspeople of Atmore. In return, the students and the townsfolk spoiled us rotten with free movies, free ice cream after winning a game, and free pre-game meals.
We lost the last game of the season in 1944. Perhaps we were fortunate that the humiliation of the 14 to 7 lose surely would not compare to what would have been in store for us during another week of practice. That was the last game that a Herbert Barnes team would lose. Mr. Barnes, no one ever called him coach, except the referees, never had more than two assistants – a line coach and a back and receiver coach.
There were no offensive or defensive coaches, as due to the limited substitution rule of two players at a time, everyone had to play both ways. The defensive team was just as good as the offensive team as they were the same players.
The 1947 team was considered by many as Mr. Barnes' best team. We had three returning war veterans and most of us had played three or four years together. We had only lost through graduation three players in 1945 and one player in 1946. The offense averaged a point a minute, 48 points a game and the defense only allowed 3.5 points a game and we did not run up the score.
Mr. Barnes truly formed us into a band of brothers instilled a burning desire in each of us to achieve and we all have in our own way. We all learned the true meaning of the words, honor, dignity, honesty, respect and team effort. We all have played "by the rules" ever since those days.
Mr. Barnes was hired by the school district as an agriculture teacher. In addition to his classroom duties, he was required to visit farmers and students on farms concerning any problems that may be having. It was becoming obvious that no other school was going to beat his team very often. Lawsuits were started to have him dismissed, claiming that, as the Ag instructor, he was not devoting enough time to the farm assistance part of his job. The complaints were from other schools, not his students or their family, but they were enough that he was forced to stop coaching.
He was paid nothing for his coaching work. In early 1948, the local merchants contributed a sizeable amount of money to an appreciation fund for his outstanding coaching that resulted in our town becoming well known through out the state.
As a coach Mr. Barnes lost one game out of 44. The '48 and '49 teams both consisted mostly of Mr. Barnes' boys. So in the six seasons that his boys played, 44 through 49, there were only 2 games lost. When the Korean War started, many of Mr. Barnes' boys were already in uniform and the others soon followed. Sixty-four out of 71 Barnes' boys wore the uniform of our country.
He and his wife did not have any children with the exception of his "Boys" and hundreds of other students he guided over the years. He was more than just a father figure to some. Of the 40 plus players on the '46 team there were 10 players whose fathers were either dead or absent. Mr. Barnes was their father.
He was a strict disciplinarian but scrupulously fair and honest. He expected maximum effort at all times. He expected us to play by the rules, never play dirty or make a smart remark to an official. In today's vernacular he was an "Equal Opportunity Butt Kicker."
Many of us moved away from our little town but came back whenever possible. A trip home was never complete with out visiting with Mr. Barnes who always exhibited a great interest in what you were doing and he never failed in making your life the most important thing in the world to him. He knew what we really wanted was his approval.
He continued to teach shop and Agriculture and other young men became his students and friends but we remained Mr. Barnes' boys.
In 1986, 42 years after he first blew his coach's whistle to get our attention at the first practice we all "gathered" again to express out admiration and respect. His health was failing and he was a little bent but once he stood to acknowledge us you immediately recognized the leadership sense of presence that he projected so well.
He retired from teaching after 40 plus years and he and Josephine continued to fish and talk and visit. He was probably the most surprised person when the stadium was named in his honor. But perhaps it was the most fitting thing that our little town ever did.
One of our fellow students once remarked that she viewed our childhood playmates and friends as parts of a tree. As small children, as adolescence's, as young adults, as mature persons, we all contribute a little something in making our tree great.
Now a leaf falls, and another and another until all of the leaves will have fallen and our tree will be no more. That is the reason that we, the remaining leaves, "gather" once a year in early April to remember the ever growing list of fallen leaves that are no long with us and to honor the individual that brought us all together, Mr. Herbert Barnes.
Amazingly, only one Barnes Boy became a coach but what a coach he became. He had an outstanding record in Georgia. Then in Florida he became the second all-time winningist coach in history. He won three state championships plus being voted the best high school in America in the USA Today poll and was named the best coach in the U.S.
Last year he accepted a coaching job at Jackson Academy in Jackson at age 71 after sitting out three seasons as a retired guy. With 26 players, he changed a zero and 10 team to a state champion and was named coach of the year in Alabama. All of the rest of Mr. Barnes' boys are real proud of our teammate Carl Madison.
We truly have a great time for a few hours and enjoy every minute of our gathering in Atmore. We have averaged better than 110 plus attendees for the past eight years, which is not bad considering there were less than 250 students in grades nine through 12 during Mr. Barnes' coaching career.
The Barnes Boys will meet this weekend for a reunion in Atmore.