For the Home Team

The big man on Garner Magnet High’s campus is switching positions.

Coach Nelson Smith, now in his 13th season as head coach of the school’s beloved Trojans football team, is making the transition to GMHS athletic director, succeeding retiring AD Dwight “Doc” Harrell. He took a time out for a fieldhouse chat about football, family and the meaning of success.

“Friday night football in Garner is a special time,” Smith said. “Garner still has that hometown feel to it, and I’m blessed to have been here for 30 years. I’ve seen the football program really grow.”

Smith arrived on the Garner football scene in 1983, as offensive coordinator for then-Head Coach Hal Stewart. He recalls the team’s record as 2-8 that year. But by 1987, the Trojans won the state championship and never looked back.

Smith succeeded Stewart as head coach in 2000 and has continued the winning tradition with 10 conference championships and a Trojans trip to the state playoffs every year.  
He credits his college coaches, East Carolina University’s renowned Pat Dye and Dick Kupec, for “lighting the spark under me” to become a coach.

Smith earned a scholarship to ECU, where he lettered in football as an offensive lineman and guard for four years, spent a fifth year running an offensive scout team as a student coach, and earned a degree in physical education.

“Football is the greatest sport there is, and great preparation for the future,” Smith said. “Players have got to depend on each other to be successful, and Coach Dye taught me it’s the same in life; you have to be able to work with other people to be successful.

“You get close to the players,” he added, “but at the same time you realize you have to be a disciplinarian, and teach them to be respectful and courteous.”  

Many talented young men have run the Garner field during Smith’s decades at GMHS, including Anthony Barbour, today a coach at nearby Clayton High, Chris Culliver of the San Francisco 49ers, Brandon Banks of the Washington Redskins and Richard Medlin, most recently with the Atlanta Falcons.

But Smith cites a study showing that just one in 1,200 players are offered athletic scholarships, let alone make it to the NFL. That’s why he plays offense for academics as well as athletics.

“We tell our kids every year that we want to see them successful, especially in the classroom. We want them to get that diploma and go to college or get a well-paying job, or into the service. We’re trying to help prepare them for life.  

“We teach our kids that there are four priorities: One, the good Lord comes first. Two is your family. Three is school, and four is football. I learned that from Coach Dye, too.”

Smith praises the efforts of the Trojans’ assistant coaches, many of whom also have long tenures here. And he’s grateful for Garner’s support of his players, including pre-game meals and devotions provided by First Baptist Church.

“It’s a real special time for the kids on game day,” said Smith. “Then we go play in front of the greatest fans in North Carolina.”

Each year’s Trojans team has four goals, set by Smith in unusual order: Win the state championship; have an undefeated season; win the conference championship; and have a winning season.

“We can’t do number one without doing four,” he explained. When the Trojans win, “I say congratulations, and thanks for the effort. We address any glaring mistakes, but the biggest thing I tell them is to ‘go love on your mamas and daddies, and get ready for next week.”

On the rare occasion they lose, Smith tells players, “Keep your head up, and show some class. Think about the game and what you could have done to make a difference. Don’t ever forget this feeling of losing, how different it is from winning. Then do your homework, and be ready for class on Monday.”

Smith also serves as president of the High School Football Coaches Association of North Carolina, umpires college baseball, and is the North Carolina head coach for the Shrine Bowl Game of the Carolinas this December.

Along with teaching and AD duties Smith will stay busy, but looks forward to post-season weekends with his family: wife Cindy, son Jacob, and daughter Sarah, who will enter GMHS next fall.   

He’ll follow his favorite football alma maters, Southern Wayne High and ECU, a little more closely, play golf and go saltwater fishing. And while he hopes to wrap up this season with another state title run, the big man on campus with kind eyes and a heart for kids feels he’s already a winner.

“I’ve been blessed to be able to spend 33 years in coaching, 30 of them here in Garner,” he said. “Garner is home.”


Many players have come through Garner High’s football program under the leadership of Coach Nelson Smith. As Smith coaches his final season, we reached out to a few of these former Trojans, now professionals within the sport, for an inside perspective on “Coach.”

Chris Culliver, San Francisco 49ers cornerback
“Coach Smith told me to be a center of gravity person. He kept telling me, there’s opportunity there, I just need to take advantage of it. I did. … He definitely taught me a lot, whether it was on the field, off the field, whether it was in class; he kept me on the right line.

“He told me not to give up on myself, or my teammates as well. Just being a young boy growing up, on a personal level, it was real good having Coach Smith as a coach.”

Photo Courtesy San Francisco 49ers

Anthony Barbour, Clayton High Comets
offensive coordinator

“Coach Smith taught me to study film and to KISS, which means keep it simple, stupid; make sure your kids are able to execute a few things before you overload them with great coaching ideas.

“I remember Coach taking his time to go over the game plan with us, and telling us to perform. I remember him telling me I made play calling easy.”

Brandon Banks, Washington Redskins wide receiver
“When I first got into high school I was sort of a bad little kid, getting into a lot of trouble. Coach Nelson definitely taught me a lot as in growing up and being a man, taking care of responsibilities … being on time to class, and taking my work more seriously. And on the field, he definitely taught me a lot about the game because he gave me a lot of flexibility. I played quarterback, running back, wide receiver, played both sides of the ball.

“I remember one game-day tradition. We used to knock on the door, like we would beat on it twice and slap it twice. That’s a tradition that goes way back before my time that Coach Smith thought of.

“He had us go out there and put everything there on the line. It’s a winning tradition. … He taught us how to win. He was real strict about how he wanted to run things and how he wanted to do things, and everybody bought into it. That’s what made us a good high school football team in my era.”

Photo Courtesy Washington Redskins

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