“Walk East” is the inspirational story of the resurrection of a coaching career, peppered with a little bit of redemption.
At one time, John East was the most sought after High School Athletic Director in the Southeast. John was known for building athletic programs into powerhouses and putting them on the map. He proved this in his home state of Louisiana and carried it over into Georgia at The Lovett School in Vinings and Whitefield Academy in Mableton. John East represented thirty six years of teaching, coaching and administrative experience at its best all wrapped up within one charismatic, god-fearing, community driven leader.
In 2010, the opportunity of a lifetime was presented before John East. He was offered the AD job at one of the most prestigious schools in the nation, Pinecrest in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Hand-picked by new Headmaster Hank Battle, an old associate of John’s from his days at Lovett, John planned on relocating his family as well as some of his chief faculty members/coaches from Whitefield. This new team included his wife Jeanne, a teacher at Whitefield. His two sons, one a graduate of Whitefield, the other a rising senior, were to follow him south as well. He had reached the pinnacle of his career. Things couldn’t have been dreamier. Dream job, dream school, dream location. That was, of course, until “the dissension.”
Immediately, the new regime at Pinecrest was roiled in controversy. Hank Battle’s swift force out of numerous longtime faculty members alienated many parents and alumni. In online forums and in campus gatherings, the close-knit school community voiced its unhappiness. They filed petitions first. Law suits followed. The strife was soon to be heard and settled in the courtroom.
Finally, after 99 days of weathering this Florida storm, it was announced that “Hurricane Hank” was out. Not only was he out, but all the long term contracts of his new employees would not be honored. His entire new regime would relinquish their duties immediately. John East, who had not been out of work for 36 years, suddenly found himself unemployed at the age of 58.
It was June of 2010. All administrative, coaching and teaching jobs were filled for the upcoming school year. It was impossible for John to find a job. He tried to get his old Whitefield AD job back but that position had already been filled. Even his wife couldn’t regain her teaching job. Not only that, coaches John had encouraged to leave Whitefield were out of work as well. It was his worst nightmare.
A man of faith, John prayed. He turned to his devotional and decided to take it one day at a time.
His youngest son was going to be a senior at Whitefield and the school was nice enough to let his boy graduate from there. John East would stay in Georgia.
During this off year, an opportunity came up to do some consulting at The Walker School in Marietta, Georgia. Walker was just 10 miles to the East of Whitefield, his old school. It was built in the same mode sans the religious affiliation. It was a very small private K-to-12 school that had just built their athletic program 12 years earlier. They wanted to start a lacrosse team and asked John if he could help them in the process. After all, John started the lacrosse programs at both Lovett and Whitefield and built them up into state championship contenders. Maybe he’d coach their first team?
John always had aspirations to go back to coaching, but it was football that was his sport of choice. He always stated that before he retires he would like to take one more crack at a head football coaching job. His won-loss record in football was 52-52 over nine years. He never went undefeated nor won a state championship coaching football. John just loved teaching the game, and turning young boys into men. His players loved his rah-rah style of coaching, his open-door policy and strict confidentiality. Most importantly, football was all about having fun. If you couldn’t have fun while winning, what was the sense?
When John found out that the Varsity Head Football Coach at Walker wouldn’t be back for 2012, he decided to throw his name into the hat one last time. This might be his last shot, he thought. The Walker School was surprised that a man with John’s credentials would want to take two steps backwards. They made him an interesting offer- if he was going to take the head coaching job, why not take on an Asst. AD position as well? John accepted.
The 2011 Walker football team was 3-7. They hadn’t made the playoffs since 2005 and attendance at the games was scarce. The team roster was only 33 deep that year. Certainly the now 59 year old coach didn’t need to take on this bear of a project. That didn’t deter John East. He loved a challenge.
John was on a mission to turn the team around. He recruited the stduents already enrolled in the school who never played football or who had stopped playing football. If a young man had athletic ability he knew how to turn him into a football player. He also realized that 2012 would have a strong senior laden class. He planned on using that foundation by encouraging them to all take a leadership role. His singular goal was to “take one game at a time” and “Win the next game.” And most importantly, they would have fun.
The players started to buy into the program. More and more athletes tried out for football. When the season began there were 58 young men who believed in Coach East’s philosophy of having fun and outworking the other team. This philosophy became contagious. And with that, came winning.
And win they did. 1-0, 2-0, 3-0….suddenly they were 7-0, a record Coach East had never achieved in his entire coaching career in football. They were within striking distance of the school’s first playoff berth since 2005 and a sub-region championship. Never before had the school football program received this much attention state-wise. To reach 8-0 and win the sub region would be a remarkable feat in his first year. What was even more remarkable was doing it at Walker, a school struggling for success in the sport of football. Ironically, there was one team standing in the way of that goal…
That’s right. The irony of all ironies. Whitefield Academy was also undefeated in the sub-region. The same program Coach East helped build now stood in their way. In fact, the same Head Football Coach he hired at Whitefield, Jimmy Fields, was planning to put an end to John’s streak. It would be brother against brother. Two faith-based Christians battling each other on the gridiron. Not two Lions in the den, but two wolves ready to tear at each others carcasses– The Wolfpack of Whitefield vs the Wolverines of Walker. A true Hollywood script in the making.
Fortunately for all involved, the game would live up to the hype and prove to result in a Hollywood ending…