Nevil Barr coached through hell on earth

Writer’s note: If you had told me 15 to 20 years ago that Oak Grove would one day become a Class 6A powerhouse in Mississippi football, I would have said you were nuts. Nevil Barr, the coach who made that happen, retired yesterday at 63. He is one of the smartest coaches I have covered at any level. When I run into Nevil, it’s usually at a bookstore. He reads. A lot. Twelve years ago, I did a column on him for The Clarion-Ledger when he had coached the Warriors into the state championship game 15 months after losing a son. It follows…

HATTIESBURG – Tears well in the corners of Nevil Barr’s dark eyes when he is asked about Aug. 21, 2002, the most hellish day of his life.

Barr, who coaches football at Oak Grove, was at practice that afternoon when his oldest son, 19-year-old Michael, showed up unexpectedly. The son pulled the father away from the practice field. He didn’t mince words.

“Matt died today,” Michael Barr said.

“And it didn’t even register at first,” Nevil Barr says. “I mean, it was so unthinkable, it didn’t even register.”

Matthew Barr, Nevil’s 16-year-old son, had been killed in an automobile accident on a hilly, two-lane highway near Elkins, W.Va., where Matt lived with his mother, Nevil Barr’s ex-wife.

“Matt was the sweetest kid, the most loving child,” Barr says. “He was so careful and caring in anything he did. He wasn’t even driving fast that day.”

Matt’s pickup truck apparently skidded on some loose gravel. He momentarily lost control, just as a huge dumptruck was coming over a hill from the opposite direction.

Matt Barr died instantly.

Part of Nevil Barr died, too.

“I’ll be honest with you, it ripped out a big part of my heart,” Nevil Barr says. “I honestly didn’t think I could ever be happy again. I didn’t know if I could go on living, much less coaching.

“I played football and then I’ve coached it all my life,” he continues. “I thought I knew something about pain. I found out I didn’t know anything about pain. I didn’t know how much pain, how much suffering, a person can endure.

“I do now.”

Tonight, Nevil Barr’s Oak Grove Warriors, 14-0, play likewise undefeated South Panola for the State 5A Championship at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

If you’ve followed Mississippi high school football through the years, you know how strange that sounds.

South Panola?

Well, yeah, South Panola has become a given. South Panola is like Oklahoma or Ohio State or Texas. South Panola’s going to be there.

Oak Grove?

You’ve got to be kidding.

Oak Grove, in the past, was like Vanderbilt or Duke or Rice or Prairie View. Oak Grove was everybody’s homecoming game.

In the four years before Barr took over as head coach in 2001, Oak Grove won five games and lost 38. In 1998, the Warriors lost all 11 games and were outscored 441-80.

What’s more, Oak Grove had a long history of losing, dating back to its days in the old Apache Conference. Tim Heldt, now Oak Grove’s offensive coordinator and athletic director and Nevil Barr’s best friend, remembers those days. Heldt, like Barr, played wide receiver at nearby Purvis.

“We didn’t even consider losing to Oak Grove,” Heldt says with a chuckle. “We got mad if Oak Grove even scored on us.”

That was part of why Heldt was so surprised that day back in 2000 when Barr called him up with a wild proposal.

Barr was the head coach at Petal. Heldt was the head coach at Lumberton. Barr had been offered the job at Oak Grove and he not only wanted to take it, he wanted Heldt to come with him, not only to run his offense but to be the athletic director.

Such a situation could only work with best friends. Barr, the head coach, works for Heldt, the athletic director. Heldt, the offensive coordinator, works for Barr, the head football coach.

And here’s the kicker: Oak Grove, which couldn’t win games in Class 4A, was moving up to Class 5A.

Heldt’s first words were something like, “Are you nuts?”

And then – in a decision that surely falls under the category of “what are friends for” – Heldt agreed to do it.

Barr and Heldt came up with a plan. They knew Oak Grove had for years been a baseball powerhouse. As poor as the Warriors had been in football, they had been every bit that successful in baseball. Harry Breland’s baseball teams had been winning state championships for years.

“So we knew there had to be a lot of athletes with hand-eye coordination,” Barr says. “We knew they ought to be able to throw and catch.”

So Oak Grove coaches borrowed from here and there and came up with a no-huddle, spread-the-field, fast-break style of offense that takes full advantage of athletes who can pitch and catch.

Oak Grove, which didn’t lose a game this season, also didn’t take a single snap from under center. Every play is run from the shotgun. Every play is called without a huddle.

“We can speed it up or slow it down,” Barr says. “It’s an offense in which we can control the tempo.”

Defensively, the Warriors are small but quick. They make up for a lack of size by stunting and moving – and by tenacity.

“They’ll get after you,” Barr says.

Barr’s first Warriors, in 2001, won 6 and lost 6, making the playoffs for the first time. They were 12 and 2 last year, when they made it to the South State finals.

But that was the most difficult season of Barr’s life, one he might not have made it through if not for his family, his deep Christian faith, his players and his best friend.

Seven years ago, Tim Heldt lost a son. John Tyler Heldt was 12 when he died after his body rejected a kidney transplant from his mother.

John Tyler Heldt had been a fine little athlete. He was a home run hitter in little league baseball, a sharpshooter in basketball. His daddy coached him.

“John Tyler always had a smile on his face,” Tim Heldt says. “I’ve said this so many times. John Tyler touched more people in his 12 years than most people will ever touch. It’s been seven years, and I still miss him so much. I think about him all the time. It never goes away.”

And that’s what Heldt told Nevil Barr that cruel day 15 months ago.

“There’s just not much you can say,” Tim Heldt says. “I told him this. I told him, `I’ve been through this, but nobody can tell you how you feel. You’re going to go through some really hard times. Sometimes you’ll think you just can’t make it, and it’s not going to go away. Just know I love you. If you need me, I’ll be here.’ ”

Barr needed Heldt, and he needed a lot more.

Matt Barr’s death happened nine days before Oak Grove’s first game. Nevil Barr didn’t return to the practice field until a day before the game.

“I was so nervous that first day back,” he says. “I didn’t know if I could talk to the players. I didn’t know if I could be around that many boys Matt’s age. But those kids helped me a lot.”

Kyle Sellers, the Warriors quarterback, remembers those first few days.

“Coach Barr’s a strong guy, but it took him a while,” Sellers says. “We all knew Matt and we all knew how close they had been. We’d be in the middle of the game and you’d see him staring off into space. You knew who he was thinking about. Heck, who wouldn’t be?”

Says Garry Pack, Oak Grove’s Dandy Dozen linebacker and running back, “I can’t even imagine coaching through what he did. Yeah, he’d zone out like he was looking at the stars, but we all understood what he was thinking about.

“The thing about Coach Barr, he treats us all like we are his kids. The last thing he tells us every day is to wear our seat belts and drive careful.”

Nevil and Matt Barr were together only during summer vacations, Christmas and Thanksgiving. From all accounts, they made every minute count.

Says Heldt, “Those two were always together. You didn’t see one without the other.”

Nevil Barr remembers the last in-depth conversation he had with his youngest son before he left to go back to West Virginia a couple weeks before his death.

“I told him we had been cheated on our time together, but that we were going to make up for it one day,” Nevil Barr says. “I told him that when I retired I was going to come live with him, even if he was married.

“Matt grinned at me and said that was fine with him and if his wife didn’t like it, he’d kick her out.”

When Nevil Barr thinks of Matt these days, which is to say mostly all the time, he tries to focus on that conversation and all the good times they had together.

Barr says it was his oldest son, Michael, who finally helped him cope the most and brought him at least partly out of the deepest of depressions.

“Michael told me, `Dad, I can’t stand to see you like this, and you know Matt wouldn’t want you to be like this either,’ ” Barr says.

That helped, and so does this:

“The one thing that keeps me going is that I know – I know – I’m going to see Matt again one day in heaven,” Barr says. “I think all the time about what that’s going to be like, how we’re going to hug each other, what we’re going to say.

“We’re going to have a lot to talk about.”

This remarkable transformation of Oak Grove football, win or lose tonight, will surely be part of that conversation.

•••

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