Roy Walton, a championship high school football coach whose outsized personality helped make him a legendary figure, died early Monday morning from complications following emergency surgery. He was 80.
"It's a sad day, not only for the football community around the state, but the whole community of Lexington," said Tates Creek Athletics Director Joe Ruddell. "He was a great man."
Mr. Walton began his coaching career at Lafayette, but he accumulated most of his 219 victories in 26 years at Tates Creek. He led the Commodores to an undefeated season and state championship in 1972 and an at-large state title in 1978. He retired after the 1992 season.
Mr. Walton was an old-school, tough-as-nails coach and a master motivator.
Wayne Doller, who played for Tates Creek in the late 1960s, once said his coach's tough love helped him later get through Marine boot camp at Parris Island.
John Atchison, who played on the Commodores' 1972 title team, said to this day whenever he hears the word "coach," the first person he thinks of is Mr. Walton "because of his ability to communicate, motivate and teach."
Harry Johnson, a fellow coach and Mr. Walton's close friend since the 1950s, said "Roy was a hard man, but what a coach and what a communicator. He had a deep love of working with young men. He never forgot those who played for him and would do anything to help them.
"He was an absolute icon."
Dave Bunnell, who was on Mr. Walton's coaching staff at Tates Creek in its glory days, said, "Whether it was on the football field or in the classroom, Roy taught young people what it meant to be a good citizen and how to live the game of life."
Phil Greer, a Tates Creek assistant for 17 years, described Mr. Walton as "bigger than life. I don't think I've ever seen a coach who had as big an influence on kids. What he brought to the world was an immeasurable amount of character and generosity.
"All of us are heartbroken that he's gone."
Jerry Pickrell, another former Commodores assistant, said he and former Tates Creek basketball coach Nolan Barger and their wives went out to eat with Mr. Walton and his wife, Norma, two weeks ago.
"We sat there for more than two hours and talked non-stop, just like old times," Pickrell said.
"He was a tough coach. He'd get on a kid in practice, but afterward you'd see him walking back to the locker room with his arm around the kid.
"I've never known anybody who affected more kids than he did."
Mr. Walton always had a story or joke to share, and was more than willing to poke fun at himself.
He liked to tell about the time he was teaching gym class at Tates Creek when another group of students walked in and stared at him.
The white-haired coach asked what they were looking at. A girl spoke up and told him they were studying the Neanderthal man in history class, and that their teacher (Barger) had sent them down to see what one looked like.
Mr. Walton's coaching career included controversy.
In 1962, his fifth season at Lafayette, the Generals were playing Danville when an opposing player, Brent Arnold, intercepted a pass and returned it down the sideline in front of the Lafayette bench.
What happened next has been the subject of debate for four decades. Mr. Walton either went onto the field and tackled Arnold, or, as the coach contended, he tripped over a cable and fell into Arnold.
The incident ended up costing Mr. Walton his job.
After a few seasons as an assistant at Bryan Station, Mr. Walton became head coach at Tates Creek.
Mr. Walton coached girls' basketball for a couple of seasons at Tates Creek — he even guided the Lady Commodores to the Sweet Sixteen — but he didn't coach basketball for an extended time because he had to cut players to limit the roster size.
He didn't have to do that coaching football and girls' tennis at Tates Creek.
"I never wanted to tell some kid he (or she) couldn't make it," Mr. Walton said.
Earlier this year, Mr. Walton's family and friends held a roast and dinner to celebrate his 80th birthday. After being skewered by a host of former players and coaches, Mr. Walton took the microphone and spoke for more than an hour.
He closed by telling the large gathering that the evening wasn't to honor him.
"It's to honor you," he said. "I'm a lucky man. You made me what I am."
Mr. Walton's survivors include his wife, Norma, and daughters, Debbie and Kathy.
Visitation will be Wednesday at Tates Creek Christian Church from 3 to 5 and 6 to 9 p.m.
Services will be Thursday at 11 a.m. at the church, followed by burial in Lexington Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers the family requests any contributions be sent to the Roy G. Walton Scholarship Fund for Continuing Education. Contributions can be made at any BB&T bank location.